Berthier, Philippe, ed. Barbey d'Aurevilly et la modernite. Colloque du Bicentenaire (1808-2008).
Philippe Berthier commemorated the centennial of Barbey d'Aurevilly's death with Barbey d'Aurevilly cent ans apres (1889-1989), a collection of scholarly articles he edited and had published by Droz in 1990. Now, twenty years later, Berthier marks the bicentennial of Barbey's birth with a new collection, Barbey d'Aurevilly et la modernite. Unlike the earlier volume, this recent publication has a common, unifying theme--Barbey's relationship with modernity--and assembles the proceedings of a conference held December 1-3, 2008, at the Universite Paris III Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Berthier does not provide the reader with a preface or introduction to the overarching theme of his new collection. Instead, a humorous and witty quotation by Michel Leiris serves as an epigraph that alerts us both to the complex nature of the concept of "modernite" and to the ambivalent relationship the writer and intellectual often maintains with it. "Moderne en vient a designer ce qui vous mord et non ce a quoi on souhaite mordre," writes Leiris.
The nineteen articles that make up Berthier's volume eloquently attest to the relevance of Leiris's remarks quoted in the epigraph. Indeed, more than one contributor to Barbey d'Aurevilly et la modernite grapples with the term "modern" or "modernite," feeling the need first to analyze and define it. Meke Meite, for example, describes the term as "nebuleux, difficile a cerner" (31), even as haunting, since every historical period may be perceived as mo&rn in opposition to the one that preceded it. Laurence Claude-Phalippou, citing Hans Robert Jauss, underlines the subjectivity and "irreductible relativite" (10) of the concept. "Moderne" according to her describes not the nature of what is labeled as such but more precisely the relationship one maintains with it or the perception one has of it. What is modern turns out to be different for every writer, "une donnee [...] que l'ecriture investit et faconne a son gre" (11). This brings us to the central topic of the collection, Barbey's complex and personal relationship with modernity, the main and in some respects quite provocative question the volume poses: in which way does Barbey, this staunch monarchist and Catholic, this uncompromising "homme du passe," representa figure of modernity? The answers the volume puts forth are multifaceted, nuanced, and often paradoxical. They paint the fascinating picture of a writer and critic who used narration in a modern (i.e. innovative) way to oppose the modern (i.e. mediocre and uninspiring) times he lived in and abhorred. Myriam Watthee-Delmotte underlines the performative quality of Barbey's narrative act in this context. She shows that Barbey, unable to make a direct impact on his century, sets out to revive a "heroic" past and renew a "declining" literature with discursive practices that are ahead of his time. Like Meke Meite, Watthee-Delmotte anchors Barbey's modernity in his innovative understanding of history as an unverifiable and subjective construct and in the narrative strategies that help translate this understanding: an aesthetic of opacity and doubt brought about by an unusual multiplication of points of view. It is precisely this aesthetic of uncertainty that attracts the modern reader and generates pleasure, desire, and "jouissance." "Tant qu'il se verra desire, le recit [de Barbey] sera moderne" (19), writes also Laurence Claude-Phalippou. Marie-Christine Natta discusses the figure of the dandy--highly pertinent for Barbey's relationship with modernity--when she compares Barbey's and Baudelaire's sartorial preferences. In addition to Natta's excellent article, Berthier's collection would have profited from a detailed analysis of the important role dandyism played in shaping Barbey's discursive practices and narrative techniques.
Barbey's morality and the moral ambiguity that characterizes his works are the focus of several articles in the volume. Whereas Christophe Chaguinian reads Les Diaboliques as the work of a Christian moralist affirming Catholic dogma and faults the evolution of Catholicism for modern misreadings of the text, Mathilde Bertrand points out the ambivalence of Barbey's moral stance in nuanced detail. Didier Philippot's article--at eighty pages by far the longest of the collection--ties the originality of Barbey's Diaboliques to a literary genre of the seventeenth century, the histoires tragiques. Philippot shows how the Catholic author effectively uses this genre to denounce the moral weakness of modern times and modern literature.
The French Revolution is seen by several contributors to Berthier's volume as the main factor that defines Barbey's relationship with modernity. According to Hugues Laroche, this great crisis irremediably separated pre- and post-revolutionary times, causing a "traumatisme du sevrage" that deeply affected Barbey's historical and critical conscience. Both Celine Bricault and Alice de Georges-Metral assess the importance of the revolution in Le Pretre marie. Their articles describe the post-revolutionary period that is the setting of the novel as "un inquietant entre-deux" (Bricault) where, due to Barbey's "esthetique du fil brise," rivaling systems of belief clash and eventually are deconstructed (de Georges-Metral).
Barbey's legacy and influence are also addressed. While Michel Brix underlines that not Barbey's discursive practices but instead "le modele flaubertien" shaped the twentieth century novel, making observation (Flaubert) and not imagination (Barbey) the main inspiration in modern prose writing, Hermann Hofer shows that Barbey's influence ort later generations--and especially on the decadent generation--was nonetheless significant. Gael Prigent traces Barbey's reception in contemporary criticism, and Pascale Auraix-Jonchiere analyzes Jacqueline Harpman's 1993 novel Le Bonheur dans le crime, a rewriting of Barbey's short story of the same name.
The last article in the collection is authored by Philippe Berthier himself. In place of a conclusion, Berthier invites us to reflect on our century's own "modernite." Is it very different from the one Barbey waged war against? Should we accept it or fight it? Berthier does not answer these questions but instead showcases the contemporary writer Philippe Muray (1945-2006) who took like Barbey an uncompromising and belligerent stance against everything modern.
Barbey d'Aurevilly et la modernite is a well-researched collection that asks pertinent questions and gives nuanced answers. It will be of interest to a wide range of scholars of nineteenth-century French literature and culture and make a valuable addition to every graduate research library.
Susanne Rossbach, Saint Anselm College
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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