Literature and the death of folklore: in and around Nerval's Sylvie.
In this light, Walter Benjamin's famous essay "The Storyteller" (1936) might be considered a prolongation of the stories of loss propagated by some of the very writers or literary forms Benjamin references. Benjamin considers the death of the storyteller and the disappearance of direct communication as unavoidable consequences of nineteenth-century industrialization and its attendant lifestyle changes. In generic terms, the novel replaces the story. But in personal terms, people lose their very ability to share experiences. In contrast to Benjamin's retrospective view, however, nineteenth-century writers themselves repeatedly cast their time as both the eyewitness to and the cause of the storyteller's death. This does not reduce the critical value of Benjamin's many powerful remarks about the changing genre of the story or shifts in what it means to read, listen, communicate, live, or die. But it does point to a chapter of literary history that remains to be written about how authors, in the face of the very changes Benjamin highlights, imagine the end of storytelling to generate new ways of positioning the written text vis-a-vis orality and tradition.
Nerval was not alone among nineteenth-century writers in his fascination with the songs, stories, or customs--traditions populaires--that we might today group under the terra "folklore." (2) However, Nerval's oeuvre is unique in that his pervasive interest in folklore takes so many forms, from a plea for environmental conservation cast as a folktale to reflections on professional storytellers in the Orient. Sylvie--the tale of a Parisian narrator's love for three different women who sometimes overlap in his mind--is no exception. In Sylvie, the narrator returns to his native Valois expecting his childhood sweetheart Sylvie to be a faithful keeper of traditions. But reality disappoints: reading has replaced singing and storytelling; industrialized labor has supplanted sewing and lace making.
Sylvie has given rise to voluminous scholarship and great critical acclaim, including Marcel Proust's admiration for a blurred temporality that borders on the dreamlike. (3) But many of the stories that Sylvie tells find their significance not in their originality but in their echoes of pervasive cultural narratives. Sylvie's progression from peasant roots to a literate urban life is emblematic of the fact that more people were reading, a major cultural preoccupation that, as Jacques Ranciere shows, prompts fears about the decline of literary standards (La Parole muette 71-79). (4) And Sylvie lends a fictional face to the same narrative of the death of tradition that prompts folklore study--and the folklore collection that Nerval eventually appends to the text. Yet, while folklore in Nerval's work does not go unstudied, it does go largely uncontextualized. Gabrielle Chamarat's study of Nerval's use of ironic distancing and realist aesthetics does gesture to broader contexts, citing the influence of realist trends on literary interest in folklore in the 1850s (603-4). On the other hand, Paul Benichou's nearly encyclopedic index of folksong in Nerval's work, Nerval et la chanson folklorique, offers useful references and impressive annotations, but seldom looks beyond Nerval's oeuvre to underlying discourses on tradition. Even treatments of Nerval's folklore collection tend to situate it only in relationship to the themes of Sylvie: folksong as a space of temporal instability that harkens back to the past, in one example, and folksong as part of Nerval's search for a poetry capable of translating a lost maternal "voix vive," in another. (5) For the editors of the Pleiade, the personal tone of the folklore collection's commentary links it to Nerval's voice and to the "souvenirs" advertised in Sylvie's subtitle, thereby heightening the autobiographical quality of the main text's first-person narration (3: 1228). Yet, folklore's interest for literary history cannot be confined to folksongs and tales. It also lies in the stories told about tradition.
The pull of what folklore theory calls the "devolutionary premise"--the recurrent belief that traditions will not survive the present age--is not specific to Nerval's day (Dundes 5-19). In the early nineteenth century, the short-lived Academie celtique, now hailed as France's first folklore society, operated with a similar urgency. (6) And the rush to collect fading traditions had been under way for long before in other countries. But mid-nineteenth-century France revitalized this old story about the loss of tradition with new notions of modernity, memory, and cultural transmission. On September 13, 1852, for example, Napoleon III, acting at the urging of Hippolyte Fortoul, the ministre de l'instruction publique, issued a decree calling for the publication of a "recueil general des poesies populaires de la France." Fortoul introduced this project in true devolutionary spirit: "Malheureusement ces richesses, que le temps emporte chaque jour, disparaitront bientot, si l'on ne s'empresse de recueillir tant de temoignages touchants de la gloire et des malheurs de notre patrie. (7) Jean-Jacques Ampere headed a committee charged with publishing a set of Instructions relatives aux poesies populaires de la France, which appeared in 1853. (8)
Though the responses sent to Ampere were never published, Napoleon III's project nonetheless found significance in the debates it fostered about how to collect folklore and what to do with it. A case in point is the realist critic Champfleury's 1853 letter, chiding Ampere's committee members for losing sight of folklore's aesthetic value, acting "plutot en archeologues qu'en artistes" (193). Champfleury's view of folklore study as intrinsically linked to artistic creation was hardly the future of the discipline's evolution but represented a real possibility for many writers. (9) Nerval expressed similar fears that folklore collecting in France would be executed "purement au point de vue historique et scientifique" (3. 284). Tellingly, it is Nerval's work that Champfleury offered as an example of how survivals of the past might fuel new artistic production: "Des hommes tels que Gerard de Nerval, qui a donne des echantillons de poesies populaires dans ses livres [...] rendraient certainement des services reels dans l'entreprise actuelle" (193). Indeed, Nerval not only collected folklore or used it in his writing; be used folklore to think about literature, its function, and its future.
Storytelling, Silence, and Sylvie
Nerval, like many writers of his day, maintained a distance from current events, especially Napoleon III's coup d'etat on December 2, 1852. Sylvie first appeared in the Revue des deux mondes in August of 1853, but the opening pages are set in the 1830s, in the aftermath of an earlier regime change: "Nous vivions alors dans une epoque etrange, comme celles qui d'ordinaire succedent aux revolutions ou aux abaissements des grands regnes" (3: 538). (10) While the narrator seeks refuge in the timeless ivory tower of poets, distractions--in the form of anything from women to financial news to childhood memories--constantly pull him back into the nineteenth century. But the revolutions in Sylvie, though profound, are not political ones. Instead, they play out in Sylvie's lifestyle changes and in how the narrator, a writer assimilated into the urban elite, is forced into a different understanding of love, time, tradition, and even literature.
In the first chapter, it is, ironically, a newspaper--a glaring symbol of nineteenth-century print culture that Benjamin considers a death knell for the storyteller--that sparks the narrator's memories of Sylvie and his impromptu trip to the Valois. The narrator scans stock market reports and discovers that he is suddenly a rich man with the means to seduce the actress whom he has gone to the theater to admire. A headline unrelated to commerce catches his eye:
--Mon regard parcourait vaguement le journal que je tenais encore, et j'y lus ces deux lignes: "Fete du Bouquet provincial.--Demain, les archers de Senlis doivent rendre le bouquet a ceux de Loisy." Ces mots, fort simples, reveillerent en moi toute une nouvelle serie d'impressions: c'etait un souvenir de la province depuis longtemps oubliee, un echo lointain des fetes naives de la jeunesse. (3: 540)
This fragment of traditional provincial life that might have been an oddity or a curiosity for some readers strikes a personal chord with the narrator, who once participated in the same festival. In a move typical of the fluid temporality of Sylvie, the headline "Demain" points toward the future but orients the narrator's thoughts to the past:
--Un lourd chariot, traine par des boeufs, recevait ces presents sur son passage, et nous, enfants de ces contrees, nous formions cortege avec nos arcs et nos fleches, nous decorant du titre de chevaliers,--sans savoir alors que nous ne faisions que repeter d'age en ege une fete druidique survivant aux monarchies et aux religions nouvelles. (3: 540)
The imperfect verbs in this passage underline the repetitive, ritual quality of these time-honored customs. Folklore, for the narrator, still exists in what Benjamin would call the "auratic mode"--the state of a work of art which is not divorced from its "ritual function" or transposed from its traditional sphere by technological reproduction ("Work of Art" 256). Furthermore, the narrator sees tradition as a force resistant to political shifts ("monarchies") and sociocultural ones (the advent of Christianity). In his mind, the present--like the stock quotes--generates unreliable information and fluctuating wealth, while the past provides stable and unchanging traditions.
The narrator's confidence in the permanence of tradition stands in stark counterpoint to the race against the devolutionary clock that characterizes the history of nineteenth-century French folklore studies. When he embarks on a spontaneous journey to Loisy, it is for a profoundly personal quest to relive a childhood festival, not a folklore-collecting mission for national or regional good. He is not only ignorant of time--he has no watch--but ignorant of the effects of time. He hopes only to arrive before the end of the all-night festival; the end of cherished traditions never figures into his rush. During his four-hour carriage ride, the narrator imagines Sylvie untouched by passing years:
Et Sylvie que j'aimais tant, pourquoi l'ai-je oubliee depuis trois ans? ... C'etait une bien jolie fille, et la plus bebe de Loisy! Elle existe, elte, bonne et pure de coeur sans doute. Je revois sa fenetre ou le pampre s'enlace au rosier, la cage de fauvettes suspendue a gauche; j'entends le bruit de ses fuseaux sonores et sa chanson favorite: La belle etait assise Pres du ruisseau coulant ... Elle m'attend encore.... Qui l'aurait epousee? elk est si pauvre! (3: 543)
Sylvie, in his imagination, is the teller of tales and the singer of folksongs who performs the domestic work long associated with the female storyteller. In an image reminiscent of Perrault's frontispieces, Sylvie's "fuseaux sonores," the lace bobbins that click together in her skillful hands, replace Mother Goose's spinning wheel, and she sits by her vine-covered window, frozen in her poverty and peasant purity. (11)
Sylvie would seem, then, to be a member of a centuries-old sewing circle of storytellers. However, she breaks this thread, literally and figuratively: when the book ends, she is a literate city dweller and a baker's wife, selling goods for immediate consumption in the most literal terms. The narrator begins to notice these changes in chapter 10, when he enters the room where he remembered Sylvie singing and sewing. Suddenly, he realizes that nothing is as he had imagined it the day before. The modern furnishings, hardly conducive to quaint sewing scenes, surprise him. "Vous ne travaillerez point a votre dentelle aujourd'hui?" the narrator asks Sylvie. "Oh! Je ne fais plus de dentelle, on n'en demande plus dans le pays," she says dismissively. "Que faites-vous donc?" asks the puzzled Parisian (3: 559). Sylvie presents him with a metal tool that be cannot identify--a "mecanique" used to stretch the fabric of the gloves she now sews. In Benjaminian terms, Sylvie, with her new tools, has joined the age of mechanical reproduction. A work product that is not marked by a sense of place replaces unique handmade lace.
The journey the narrator envisioned as a return to unchanged people and places becomes a painful process of discovering how things have changed and why. As the narrator and Sylvie take a stroll, Sylvie surprises him with her nonchalant literary references:
C'est un paysage de Walter Scott, n'est-ce pas? disait Sytvie.--Et qui vous a parle de Walter Scott? lui dis-je. Vous avez dom bien lu depuis trois ans! ... Moi, je tache d'oublier les livres, et ce qui me charme, c'est de revoir avec vous cette vieille abbaye, ou, tout petits enfants, nous nous cachions dans les ruines. Vous souvenez-vous, Sylvie, de la peur que vous aviez quand le gardien nous racontait l'histoire des moines rouges?--Oh! ne m'en parlez pas.--Alors chantez-moi la chanson de la belle fille enlevee au jardin de son pere, sous le rosier blanc.--On ne chante plus cela.--Seriez-vous devenue musicienne?--Un peu.--Sylvie, Sylvie, je suis sur que vous chantez des airs d'opera!--Pourquoi vous plaindre?--Parce que j'aimais les vieux airs, et que vous ne saurez plus les chanter. Sylvie modula quelques sons d'un grand air d'opera moderne. ... Elle phrasait! (3: 560)
In this swift dialogue, Sylvie counters each request with a refusal, systematically crushing the narrator's remaining hopes. When an indirect hint for a story fails, be requests a song. "On ne chante plus cela," curtly replies Sylvie, who launches instead into an operatic melody--a stark contrast to the "vieux airs" the narrator desires. Earlier, in chapter 5, the narrator had recited passages from La Nouvelle Heloise to Sylvie while she picked strawberries (3: 548). Each of them respected his or her established social role, with him adapting literature for Sylvie's passive consumption. But now, Sylvie reads the very books that the narrator tries to forget.
Books have lost their distant mystique for Sylvie, and she has lost her simple charm for the narrator. This transformation exemplifies the widespread notion of the perversion of the lower classes through the introduction of books, something that Ranciere studies in the case of urban ouvriers. The once-happy peasant Sylvie joins the ranks of those from a nonlettered milieu whose encounters with books, or even part of a book, introduce them to a world irreconcilable with theirs. The narrator, a writer, is unable to express himself before Sylvie precisely because she is no longer the same person: "La route etait deserte; j'essayai de parler de choses que j'avais dans te coeur, mais je ne sais pourquoi, je ne trouvais que des expressions vulgaires, ou bien tout a coup quelque phrase pompeuse de roman,--que Sylvie pouvait avoir lue" (3: 561). Sylvie is now in a position to recognize literary allusions or borrowings. She cites Rousseau's warning about the incompatibility of novels and chaste women: "Toute jeune fille qui lira ce livre est perdue" (3: 555). (12) But the corruption here is of a different order: Sylvie has been stripped of her purity not as a woman but as an idealized peasant storyteller.
Print culture and industrialization, however, do not cause Sylvie to involuntarily forget folksongs, but instead to deliberately withhold them. This often overlooked nuance illustrates the extent of her transformation: she is not an unwitting victim of modernity but an accessory to the loss of tradition. In fact, her final foray into folksong is intended only to taunt the narrator, distracted by thoughts of the actress Aurelie:
Vous etes dans vos reflexions? dit Sylvie, et elle se mit a chanter: A Dammartin l'y a trois belles filies: L'y en a z'une plus belle que le jour ... --Ah! mechante! m'ecriai-je, vous voyez bien que vous en savez encore des vieilles chansons. --Si vous veniez plus souvent ici, j'en retrouverais, dit-elle, mais il faut songer au solide. Vous avez vos affaires de Paris, j'ai mon travail; ne rentrons pas trop tard: il faut que demain je sois levee avec le soleil. (3: 562)
Ultimately, Sylvie never contradicts the narrator's assertion that these songs still linger in her memory--only his assertion that she, with her work and real-world concerns, should sing them. She shuns even the role of audience member as incompatible with her new life: "Le pere Dodu se mit a entonner un air a boire; on voulut en vain l'arreter a un certain couplet scabreux que tout le monde savait par coeur. Sylvie ne voulut pas chanter, malgre nos prieres, disant qu'on ne chantait plus a table" (3: 563). Once an active bearer of regional oral traditions, Sylvie is now a passive consumer of mass, urban entertainment.
In spite of Sylvie's own silences, models of storytelling abound in Sylvie. In Story and Situation, Ross Chambers shows how two models--one of novelistic "seduction" into the narrative world and one of cautionary tales with morals or confessions--shape the narrator's recounting of his personal story to women in his life (100-101). Chambers's goal, however, is to examine how nineteenth-century texts construct their own brand of narrative authority after the storyteller's downfall, not to situate literature historically within ongoing narratives of storytelling's devolution. In this context, another narrative model emerges: the stories and songs whose only presence is in their glaring absence. The narrator cannot enjoy them as a listener, nor can he attempt to replicate them in his own writing. But ultimately, they are important forces in shaping the story he tells. The traditions that he once imagined as pillars of human existence disappear, disproving his original hypothesis that the past and present are identical. But the immediate result in Sylvie is not a rush to collect the last remnants of an oral past. Instead, it is the narrator's self-conscious awareness of his own moment and of his own literary work's status as inauthentic in light of the values and the narrative modes he mourns.
While print culture is present in chapter 1 when the narrator picks up a newspaper after a night at a Parisian theater, he never imagines that he will one day take Sylvie to see a play. With his quiet resignation to Sylvie's new lifestyle and literary tastes, however, come more vocal affirmations of his own place in the world of writing. He pens a play and accompanies the theater troop as their "seigneur poete" (3: 566). His aside in chapter 13, "si j'ecrivais un roman, jamais je ne pourrais faire accepter l'histoire d'un cceur epris de deux amours simultanees" (3: 564), is not just a statement of what generic models be accepts or refuses. It is a reminder that he is writing--that Sylvie, like the script he wrote or the books he had tried to forget, is a literary object. Even the title of the last chapter, the famous "Dernier Feuillet," underscores that Sylvie is a written text, a book that must have a last page. And the chapter's opening lines shift to the narrative present, making the events already described more distant and the moment of narration--indeed the moment of writing--more immediate:
Telles sont les chimeres qui charment et egarent au matin de la vie. J'ai essaye de les fixer sans beaucoup d'ordre, mais bien des coeurs me comprendront. Les illusions tombent l'une apres l'autre, comme les ecorces d'un fruit, et le fruit c'est l'experience. Sa saveur est amere; elle a pourtant quelque chose d'acre qui fortifie,--qu'on me pardonne ce style vieilli. Je cherche parfois a retrouver mes bosquets de Clarens perdus au nord de Paris, dans les brumes. Tout cela est bien change! (3: 567)
The exclamation "Tout cela est bien change!" proves applicable to all of the narrator's expectations, not just the changed landscape. And the "illusions" dispelled in the course of the previous chapters concern not only his amorous expectations but also the future of cultural expression: orality is no longer a viable narrative option.
"Dernier Feuillet" ends with Sylvie, now married to a baker, sharing a book with the narrator during one of his visits: "Nous lisons quelques poesies ou quelques pages de ces livres si courts qu'on ne fait plus guere" (3: 569). The vague reference "ces livres" has fueled much speculation. (13) However, the fact that Nerval names no specific book only spotlights the circumstances of its consumption, making it representative not of one book but of reading in general. The image of the narrator reading with Sylvie as her children play nearby stands in stark counterpoint to the traditional storytelling scene, immortalized in the frontispieces of folklore collections, in which narrative is oral and children listen attentively at the feet of a peasant storyteller. Even the narrator of Sylvie had earlier underscored the seeming inviolability of oral transmission in describing a dream of childhood scenes: "Des jeunes filles dansaient en rond sur la pelouse en chantant de vieux airs transmis par leurs meres, et d'un francais si naturetlement pur, que l'on se sentait bien exister dans ce vieux pays du Valois, ou pendant plus de mille ans, a battu le coeur de la France" (3: 541). But at the end of Sylvie, there are children and mothers, but there are no stories or songs--only books. The chain of oral transmission is broken, not just for one generation but for generations to come.
When Literary Creation Meets Folklore Collecting
"Chansons et legendes du Valois," which Nerval appends to Sylvie in 1854, begins on the same note of irreparable loss:
Chaque fois que ma pensee se reporte aux souvenirs de cette province du Valois, je me rappelle avec ravissement les chants et les recits qui ont berce mon enfance. [...] J'en ai donne plus haut quelques fragments. Aujourd'hui, je ne puis arriver a les completer, car tout cela est profondement oublie; le secret en est demeure dans la tombe des aieules. (3: 569)
A reference to "souvenirs de cette province du Valois," reminiscent of the title Sylvie, souvenirs du Valois, replaces the opening line from the 1842 version of "Les Vieilles Ballades francaises": "Avant d'ecrire, chaque peuple a chante." But nowhere is more pronounced the question of what happens to written artistic expression after songs and stories cease: this sixth and final reincarnation of the folklore collection appears now in historical proximity to renewed interest in folklore under the Second Empire and in physical proximity to Sylvie. (14)
If Nerval's folklore collection evokes concern about the disappearance of folklore, his commentaries also show a profound concern for literature--whose survival was ensured but whose quality was not. Historically speaking, French verse was widely seen as beholden to dated conventions and rules inherited from neoclassicism. But along with frustrations about the old came anxiety about the new. The same forces of modernity that supposedly kill the storyteller--like industrialization, urbanization, and newspapers--resulted in an ever-growing number of readers, new genres like the roman feuilleton, and a market-driven approach to literary production. The first installments of Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris, in fact, appeared only one month before the initial 1842 version of Nerval's folklore collection. And starting in the 1830s, poetes ouvriers claimed literary creation for the working class as well, furthering, as Ranciere shows, ongoing debates about what constitutes literature. (15) Though Ranciere does not mention poesies populaires, they became an important reference point for writers thinking about the dangers of the new--and the artifices of the old.
What the case of poesies ouvrieres makes visible in Nerval's treatment of poesies populaires is not so much anxieties about literacy and urbanization--whose purported effects are quite clear in Nerval's work. In "Chansons et legendes," Nerval describes washerwomen or bargemen who go about their tasks, not singing snippets of near-forgotten songs but "les romances a la mode, platement spirituelles, ou meme franchement incolores, variees sur trois a quatre themes eternels" (3: 579). And Sylvie may not write poems, but she goes from being a storyteller to a silent reader. Instead, poesies ouvrieres show an encounter between literature--as a product of high culture--and something of very different origins that nonetheless carries the label of poetry. In this lies many of the nuances that make poesies populaires so productive for writers grappling with the evolving literary landscape.
Indeed, Nerval pens his folklore collection knowing that writers who do not share his active involvement in folklore study nevertheless bring awareness of discourses on folklore to literary problems. In 1841, the year before the publication of "Les Vieilles Ballades francaises," Theophile Gautier referenced poesies populaires in his critique of a volume of poesies ouvrieres:
Les vieilles chansons populaires pleines de fautes, de rimes inexactes et d'assonances hasardees improvisees par des compagnons en voyage, des bergers en contemplation, renferment mille fois plus de poesies que le gros volume collige par M.O. Rodrigue. [...] Le litterateur est absent, et quand les plus grands poetes peuvent faire une strophe valant un de ces couplets-la, ils s'estiment les plus heureux de monde. (915) (16)
The folkloric genesis and oral transmission of "vieilles chansons" contrast with the literary imitations--and attendant class transgressions--of this "gros volume." Gautier, a master of carefully wrought verse and a seemingly unlikely ally for folklore, does not speak for all writers. (17) Yet, he shows how opponents of poesies ouvrieres perceive them as a forceful incursion on literary turf while poesies populaires, on the other hand, allow writers to imagine encounters with the popular on their own terms. Unlike poetes ouvriers, these "compagnons en voyage" and "bergers en contemplation" make no claims to literary status, which distances them from writers.
As Gautier shows, this purported distance between modern writing and poesies populaires allows writers to advance their own notions of literature--or, as Nerval does in "Chansons et Legendes du Valois," to challenge the notions of others. Here, Nerval asserts that poesies populaires in those patois farthest from French enjoy the best documentation and reception:
On publie aujourd'hui les chansons patoises de Bretagne ou d'Aquitaine, mais aucun chant des vieilles provinces oh s'est toujours parlee la vraie langue francaise ne nous sera conserve. C'est qu'on n'a jamais voulu admettre dans les livres des vers composes sans souci de la rime, de la prosodie et de la syntaxe; la langue du berger, du marinier, du charretier qui passe, est bien la notre, a quelques elisions pres, avec des tournures douteuses, des mots hasardes, des terminaisons et des liaisons de fantaisie, mais elle porte un cachet d'ignorance qui revolte l'homme du monde, bien plus que ne fait le patois. (3: 569)
By pointing out this trend in folklore collecting, Nerval does not merely justify the new regional emphasis of his folklore collection, which had started as "Les Vieilles Ballades francaises." He also raises the much broader question of what belongs in books, who decides, and how. In this case, "chansons patoises" bear linguistic markers of class and region. They are less of an affront to "l'homme du monde" and his notion of literature because they confine folklore to that which is most visibly "other" or exotic, even on French soil. Nerval, on the other hand, argues for the inherent cultural and literary value of France's poesies populaires. In his vision, folklore is not just to be documented in books as an oddity or distant remnant of the past; it is to live on in its influence on writers. The folksongs of his native Valois are, therefore, ali the more worthy of documentation precisely because of their linguistic proximity to nineteenth-century poetry.
Nerval's concern about what will be "conserve" also shows that devolutionary narratives do more than justify the urgency of folklore collecting. They imbue folklore with a temporal distance from the present. This reinforces folklore's status as a source of literary inspiration and as a poetic archive that circumvents recent literary models and aesthetics. Fortoul, Napoleon III's minister responsible for his folklore-collecting enterprise, hails its literary utility for these very reasons:
Dans ces chants, qui offrent non seulement la trace des evenements de l'histoire nationale, mais encore les modeles de beautes trop longtemps meconnues, nous aimerons a retrouver une fraicheur de genie qui n'appartient qu'a quelques epoques heureuses; au contact de l'expression naive du vieil esprit francais, notre litterature se surprendra peut-etre a rougir des fausses delicatesses ou s'egare parfois sa subtilite. (qtd. in Agulhon 64)
In La Boheme galante (1852), Nerval also references the project's literary benefit:
On parle en ce moment d'une collection de chants nationaux recueillis et publies a grands frais. La, sans doute, nous pourrons etudier les rythmes anciens conformes au genie primitif de la langue, et peut-etre en sortira-t-il quelque moyen d'assouptir et de varier ces coupes belles mais monotones que nous devons a la reforme classique. (3: 278)
Like classical literary models, poesies populaires have a history on French soil. But they evolve without regard to literary quarrels or fixed forms--they are old, but not stagnated or artificial. And folklore collecting makes at least some of these examples accessible, bridging the distance between writers and storytellers and folk singers for now and for years to come.
However, the mere existence of a folklore collection, especially appended to Sylvie, raises a less historically specific problem of loss and distance: namely, the question of what happens when writing, unable to fully capture the artful contours of speech or sound, seeks to render the oral. Even before the nineteenth century, frame narratives often make at least a cursory nod to the irreproducibility of the storyteller's performance that the narrator claims to have witnessed. In his Essai sur l'origine des langues, Rousseau highlights a similar divide: "L'ecriture, qui semble devoir fixer la langue, est precisement ce qui l'altere; elle n'en change pas les mots, mais le genie; elle substitue l'exactitude a l'expression. L'on rend ses sentiments quand on parle, et ses idees quand on ecrit" (89). Nerval, too, acknowledges the inherent shortcomings of the written, but he goes one step further, ascribing the initial moment of loss to the realm of the oral: "Nous nous arretons dans ces citations si incompletes, si difficiles a faire comprendre sans la musique et sans la poesie des lieux et des hasards, qui font que tel ou tel de ces chants populaires se grave ineffacablement dans l'esprit" (3: 579). It is precisely "la musique" and "la poesie des lieux et des hasards" that grant folksong a powerful sense of place--and make it impossible to re-create even orally, much less in writing. But for Nerval, the self-perpetuating loss inherent in oral performance is not a practical ethnographic problem or something merely to be accounted for by a generic disclaimer within existing literary models. Instead, it is an impetus for a vision of artistic renewal. Just as Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarme later would, Nerval finds inspiration in the German composer Richard Wagner's concept of "total artwork." (18) He constantly seeks "music" in an ancient sense--resonances across the spectrum of artistic expression--in poetry and seeks poetry in the broadest sense in any literary endeavor. While duplicating folksong remains impossible, an awareness of the ephemeral and unpredictable elements of its performance helps writers to expand their own concepts of poetry.
That folklore study and collection could be a boon to literary production was not empty rhetoric, as Katie Trumpener's study of the British Empire shows. (19) However, France's European neighbors were far ahead in folklore collecting, something the French had deplored since the early nineteenth century and the Academie celtique. (20) When the narrator in Nerval's Les Faux Saulniers collects a French folksong, he tellingly adds: "On voit encore, par ces quatre vers, qu'il est possible de ne pas rimer en poesie;--c'est ce que savent les Allemands [...]" (2: 63). Indeed, what writers most vocally lamented is that these other countries also had a head start in doing something with their folklore--weaving a narrative of a glorious national past anal integrating the traces of this proud heritage into their artistic production. And as Nerval shows in "Chansons et legendes," in nineteenth-century France, inspiration from poesies populaires was more than a question of enriching literature; it was also a claim that a certain kind of literature could be a bearer of cultural memory. For, at the same time that Nerval and his contemporaries imagined their age as incompatible with the past, they also saw themselves as uniquely equipped to appreciate its beauty or preserve its traces. That the untarnished oral culture writers imagined may have never existed in their day does nothing to change the significance of their belief that it did. (21) Though an untarnished oral culture may have never existed in these writers' day, their belief that it did becomes a driving force in literary history. For, in the nineteenth-century French imagination, endangered monuments that held the memory of earlier generations were found not only in crumbling cathedrals but also in songs and stories, closer in form to literature. (22)
Unlike linguistics, archeology, or other disciplines represented in the study of poesies populaires, literature could reintegrate folklore, albeit not unchanged, back into France's artistic output--as evidenced, Nerval reminds us, by the example of neighboring nations:
Il serait a desirer que de bons poetes modernes missent a profit l'inspiration naive de nos peres, et nous rendissent, comme l'ont fait les poetes d'autres pays, une foule de petits chefs-d'ceuvre qui se perdent de jour en jour avec la memoire et la vie des bonnes gens du temps passe. (3: 579)
This juxtaposition of "bons poetes modernes" and "bonnes gens du temps passe" and the active verb "rendre" brings to the surface questions of cultural transmission that have been implicit throughout the folklore collection. Nerval does not call for literary reproductions of poesies populaires nor for literature to reverse the course of events and make the storyteller whole. Nevertheless, poets are not unconditional heirs of storytellers and singers, free to squander their inheritance or mock their ancestors. They are the ward of what little remains of popular traditions, charged with a duty to seek inspiration from and foster appreciation for these national treasures.
Monuments, Modernity, and Folklore's Literary Afterlife
In purporting to memorialize folklore, however, literature implicitly affirms its own staying power. In short, the underlying narrative is one of literary modernity. David Harvey's concept of "myths of modernity" provides a useful parallel: purported ruptures with the past may not fully reflect historical reality, Harvey argues, but these supposed turning points fuel "founding myths" whose promise of newness marks the nineteenth-century French imagination (8-10). In a similar way, predictions of the unprecedented perils for oral traditions leave no path but the written. Even former storytellers like Sylvie now read books. And "Chansons et legendes du Valois," like most folklore collections of its day, presents itself as a last-resort cultural salvage operation. But Nerval never treats the documentation of these folkloric fragments as an end in itself. His seeks not to erase the old but to embrace it--or at least a literary reimagining of it. Positing literature as a site of cultural transmission and as successor to the storyteller does not, however, fly in the face of modernity's imperative to break with the past. Instead, it is a constant reminder of this break, a reassertion of modernity, and an implicit reproach to brands of literature that lack this mission or memory.
Unlike his fellow folklorist Charles Nodier (1780-1844), a member of the Academie celtique who envisioned literature's future as a more direct recuperation of the past future, Nerval reinforces his narrative of modernity by inscribing the distance between the written and the oral in the form and content of his work. (23) The prominence of print culture at the end of Sylvie is a case in point. As the editors of the Pleiade edition of Nerval's work rightly note, within the universe of Sylvie, writing is the breath that bestows life:
Rien de ce qui a ete et de ce qu'a aime le narrateur n'existe plus, l'ecriture seule peut redonner vie a tout ce qui, reel ou imaginaire, constitue son passe et amorcer un temps cyclique qui ferait disparaitre tout ce qui semble irremediablement lineaire, irreversible, a jamais divise entre passe impossible a retrouver et avenir inconnu. (3: 1217)
Indeed, there is a long list of things in Sylvie that are described only after their disappearance or that can only find life in writing: Sylvie's room, the idyllic view of Ermenonville, even Adrienne, whose very existence is only confirmed when Sylvie announces her death years before in the last sentence. "Chansons et legendes," however, stands to be read as a prolongation of this list. Folklore has become dependent on print for its documentation and writers for its memorialization.
Commonplaces about the death of tradition, therefore, become spaces for literary innovation. In folklore, Nerval finds both models and motivation for formal experimentation. His decision to append a folklore collection to Sylvie is a prime example. As Jacques Bony shows in Le Recit nervalien: une recherche des formes, Nerval's patchwork-like recombination of extant works is artistic, not accidental: it is a defiance of generic categories symptomatic of a constant search for outlets for his own literary expression. Yet, appendices with various degrees of ethnographic pretension were not without precedent in Nerval's day. In 1846, George Sand ended La Mare au diable with an account of the vanishing wedding customs in which the novel's characters, advertised as fictional, figure as examples. In 1847, Merimee added a fourth chapter to his 1846 novella Carmen in which the pedantic narrator, unreliable from the start, advances contrived etymologies and gives some suspect accounts of gypsy customs. "Chansons et legendes," on the other hand, originates not in a fictional context but from discourses on the death of tradition that had developed over decades. And it appears in its final incarnation in the context not only of Sylvie but also of a short story collection, Les Filles du feu, in which it stands out as a generic anomaly.
Therefore, the union of "Chansons et legendes" and Sylvie begs a broader question: If storytelling is dying, are literary models based on its existence to be another casualty of modernity? Or will literature require new forms to accomplish its mission vis-a-vis vanishing traditions? In this light, the generic dissonances between Sylvie and the folklore collection actually reinforce their thematic resonances, translating into formal terms the story of loss that both texts explicitly echo in their content. Sylvie shows that when the demise of oral tradition is at stake, silences can sometimes speak the loudest. Instead of being neatly introduced by a flame narrative, Sylvie is dotted with disorienting flashbacks. Songs are always fragmented. Requests for stories go unheeded. Only in the written, impersonal realm of the folklore collection are these gaps partially filled in: the song identified as Sylvie's favorite when two lines of it surface in the narrator's memory appears in full in the appendix, for example. Nerval marks the evolution of storytelling topoi by imposing on Sylvie the same silences that contemporary devolutionary discourses prescribe to storytelling. And "Chansons et legendes," once an isolated folklore collection, now stands as a repository for elements that the diffuse structure of Sylvie does not accommodate.
This is not to say that storytelling frames without folklore collections or silent storytellers cannot translate cultural narratives into formal terms. Barbey d'Aurevilly's fragmented frames in Les Diaboliques, for example, call into question where the actual story lies and it storytelling, as direct communication, exists at all. (24) Indeed, like the narrator in Sylvie, whose realizations correspond to increasing references to the written nature of his story, writers self-consciously rethink their own craft in light of discourses on tradition and orality. Not surprisingly, however, scholarly considerations of the influence of folklore on literary production are usually limited to questions of explicit borrowing or poetic form. For example, in his conclusion to Nerval et la chanson folklorique, Benichou briefly traces a few potential stylistic influences of poesies populaires in the works of writers after Nerval, but suggests that next step would be an extensive study of subtle ways that Symbolist poets draw on the themes or forms of folksong. Yet, in a sense, Benichou already goes a step further when he lists later poets like Stephane Mallarme or Paul Vatery, far removed from the popular, who reference Nerval's folklore studies or join the chorus of earlier writers who point to the inspiration that foreign writers have already found in their own folklore. (25)
Indeed, the influence and documentary value of Nerval's folklore collection does not lie exclusively in the cherished songs and stories he records. It also lies in the juxtaposition of this folklore collection--so concerned with the future of literature--with a literary masterpiece profoundly marked by the loss of folklore. Together, Sylvie and "Chansons et legendes" show how literature becomes a bearer of stories about folklore that are, more often than not, stories about literature itself. They are a reminder that, in the nineteenth century, this forward-looking age that keeps one eye on the past, folklore becomes a reference point for thinking about the very categories of literature or modernity that supposedly spell its demise. For Benjamin, the novel replaces the story and the storyteller dies. But for those who live--and write--at the same time as they imagine tradition making its last stand, the future is still being decided. In their hands, the pervasive narrative of loss of tradition that echoes in folklore studies, government decrees, or literature can itself be the first page of an origin story of literary modernity and the impetus for literary innovation.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
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(1.) Gerard de Nerval, (Euvres completes, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1984) vol. 1, v-xii. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Nerval are from the Pleiade edition and will be cited parenthetically by volume and page number.
(2.) The word "folklore" was introduced in English in 1846 in the hyphenated form "folk-tore," but had not been adopted in France in Nerval's day. On the French usage, see Elisee Legros. For clarity, I use the contemporary English "folklore" as well as general nineteenth-century terms like "poesies populaires" to refer to traditional materials and "folklore studies" to refer to the scholarly examination of such materials.
(3.) "On est oblige a tout moment de tourner les pages qui precedent pour voir ou on se trouve, si c'est present ou rappel du passe" (166).
(4.) Ranciere has also traced the supposedly harmful effects of reading--and writing--on France's growing working class in the nineteenth century (La Nuit des protetaires).
(5.) See, respectively, Philippe Destruel 282-83 and Dagrnar Wieser, esp. 295.
(6.) The Academie celtique was dissolved in 1814 in favor of the Societe royale des Antiquaires de France. Selections from the Memoires de l'Academie celtique (published from 1807 to 1812) are reprinted in Nicole Belmont (Aux sources). On the history of folklore studies in France, see Harry Senn; Nicole Belmont (Paroles paiennes).
(7.) Napoleon III's decree and Fortoul's response appeared on the front page of Le Moniteur universel on September 16, 1852. Fortoul's response is reprinted in Agulhon 64.
(8.) For a modern edition, see Cheyronnaud.
(9.) Champfleury champions poesies populaires as they exist outside of the artificial literary conventions be so deplores. He is said to have considered his own substantial folklore collection (Chansons populaires des provinces de France) as part of his realist project: "Je me dis que ces etudes sur l'art et la litterature populaire ne me sortent pas de ma route" (qtd. in Troubat 152).
(10.) On the publication history of Sylvie, see Bowman 205-11.
(11.) For a reading of the metaphorical association between the narrative act of tale telling and the artisan act of weaving or spinning, see Rowe. Critics of Sylvie have seen her intricate lace making as a model for textual creation (Gordon). Chambers analyzes clocks and watches as models for the narrative ("figurative embedding") and sees the same precise yet intricate movement in Sylvie's handwork (102-4).
(12.) Sylvie's quote is an approximation of a passage at the end of Rousseau's preface: "Jamais fille chaste n'a lu de romans, et j'ai mis a celui-ci un titre assez decide pour qu'en l'ouvrant on sut a quoi s'en tenir. Celle qui, malgre ce titre, en osera lire une seule page est une fille perdue [...]" (La Nouvelle Heloise 4).
(13.) Ross Chambers suggests that "ces livres" could be the ultimate self-reflexive gesture--Sylvie fits the description of a short, fragmented text whose moments of "style vieilli" the narrator has just confessed--or a reminder of other literary texts cited in the chapter, especially Werther (118-20). Cellier, on the other hand, assumes that these books are "keepsakes," the short personalized volumes like those mentioned in Madame Bovary (34).
(14.) For a comparison of all versions, see Benichou's chart (184).
(15.) Writers and critics dismissed the quality of these poems, but took their existence seriously. Stories abound of personal ruin, even suicide, caused by literary aspirations of the lower classes. In 1841, the critic and philosopher Lerminier points to broader consequences for the social order: "Cette entree en ecriture n'est pas seutement la perdition de quelques malheureux, elle est la perturbation de l'ordre meme qui destine les hommes de l'outil aux oeuvres reglees de l'outil et les hommes de la pensee aux veilles de la pensee" (qtd. in Ranciere, Parole muette 77).
(16.) Gautier's later praises of folklore may, Benichou suggests, be influenced by Nerval's notion of poesies populaires and the publication of his folklore collection in 1842 (349-50).
(17.) Most notably, perhaps, George Sand, herself a champion of folklore, sees nothing harmful in poesies ouvrieres and even wrote a preface to a volume by a weaver turned poet (Magu v-xii). Nodier, a folklorist of an earlier generation, had a different concept of literature and considered literacy a destructive force for lower classes--and the pure poetry of their folklore ("De l'utilite" 267-97).
(18.) Nerval also admired Wagner for achieving innovative artistic forms inspired by a return to origins and sources, as notably illustrated in the section "Musique" in La Boheme galante (3: 272). Veen deems Nerval one of the first in France to realize the importance of Wagner's music (94).
(19.) Katie Trumpener shows how the figure of the bard comes to encapsulate questions of history, memory, and cultural preservation in the late eighteenth century. These debates about tradition--fueled by the controversy over the Scottish poet James Macpherson's famed literary mystification The Poems of Ossian--shape novelistic production, giving rise to new historical or nationalistic genres (67-127).
(20.) On nineteenth-century French folklorists comparing their efforts to those of folklorists in other countries, see Rearick (18-19). Nerval echoes similar sentiments on more than one occasion. For example, in an 1850 article about a perceived lack of children's books and legends in France, he writes: "Est-ce a dire que nous manquions de legendes nationales ou fabuleuses? Nous possedons a peu pres toutes celles dont se vantent les peuples du nord; seulement, il faut les aller recueillir dans les recits de la campagne, aux veillees, ou dans ces vieilles chansons de grand-meres qui se perdent de plus en plus" (2: 1252).
(21.) It should be noted that "authenticity," though not the subject of this study, is hardly a clear-cut category. In reality, livres de colportage had long circulated in rural areas, and reading aloud had even infiltrated some fireside veillees, which could introduce written stories to oral circulation (Agulhon 53-57; de Certeau 45-72). Furthermore, because writers published folklore in newspapers, items could reenter oral circulation in Parisian cafes after they fell out of the rural repertoires they supposedly represented (Veen 102-3). Of course, the possibility also exists that writers present original material as folklore. Prosper Merimee's La Guzla (1827), a fabrication of lllyrian poetry, was wildly successful. Nerval's supposed folktale "La Reine des poissons," published both independently and as part of "Chansons et legends," is likely not of traditional provenance but reflective of the author's own concerns about deforestation.
(22.) "Monumentum est en latin tout ce qui rappelle quelqu'un ou quelque chose, tout ce qui en perpetue le souvenir. [...] Le monument est la trace, non pas seulement materielle ou architecturale, mais aussi verbale, mentale ou gestuelle, de ce qui est passe, de ce qui n'existe plus" (Belmont, Aux sources 14).
(23.) Nodier revered poesies populaires as the repository of true poetic expression, dependent on the mutual confidence of a poet or storyteller and his audience. His recuperation of this confidence figures, for example, into his concept of the conte fantastique ("Du fantastique").
(24.) See, for example, Peter Brooks. In a study in progress, I took at how manipulations of frame narratives, especially interrupted or fragmented stories, allow authors like Merimee, Balzac, or Barbey to reflect on questions about orality, the death of the storyteller, and the generic evolution of the short story.
(25.) In an undated letter to the Belgian poet Gregoire Le Roy, Maltarme writes, "J'avais souci souvent, a part moi, qu'il y aurait lieu, notre vers richement perverti, de de tremper a une source de chansons, comine font les Anglais: pour qu'il soit merveilleux et natif." Valery references Nerval's folklore collection in his preface to Nerval's poetry collection Les Chimeres (Paris: Les Amis de Poesie, 1944): "Sait-on que ces quelques pages, dediees aux vieilles ballades francaises, n'ont pas ete sans influence sur certains poetes qui avaient vingt ans quand j'en avais douze?" (qtd. in Benichou 359-60).
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|Title Annotation:||Gerard de Nerval|
|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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