Saint-Amand, Denis. La Litterature a l'ombre: Sociologie du zutisme.
La Litterature a l'ombre is a splendid study by Denis Saint-Amand that sheds light on the extremely diverse group of twenty-one poets and artists who contributed to creating--in two distinct moments in 1871 and 1872--the infamous collection of parodies, pastiches, and experiments in literary collaboration known as the Album zutique (for the philological background and mysteries surrounding the original manuscript of this veritable counter-cultural treasure trove, see 15-16).
Split into two movements, an important number of preliminary pages are devoted to sketching out a "sociology of zutisme." Here, Saint-Amand rescues a number of figures from the obscure oblivion of literary history, accounting biographically for the members of the Cercle zutique in terms of their socio-economic background and access to cultural capital, their lack of economic stability, their relationship to the city of Paris (natives or recent "immigrants" to the capital), and their relation to the literary field. This book is an impressive, synthetic study of a pivotal juncture between the crises of the annee terrible and the esprit fumiste of the fin de siecle period for which Saint-Amand perspicuously locates an important precursor in the Cercle zutique of 1871 (Hydropaths, Decadents, etc.). Saint-Amand brings to life the contextual--and co-textual--spaces and social relations of the late Second Empire, ultimately arguing that the ephemeral zutique adventure constituted a counter-discursive space of anarchic catharsis and subversive subtraction for those on the radical fringe of Parnassus (Rimbaud, Verlaine, Cros) after the Paris Commune. Investigating how the Cercle zutique came together, Saint-Amand explores the forces, relations, and sociabilities that made possible its counter-cultural attacks on literary, social, and political norms and hierarchies. Why, he asks, did it necessarily fall apart almost just as swiftly? To this last question, Saint-Amand suggests that dissolution of the Cercle zutique was overdetermined, stemming from sociological and aesthetic phenomena or structures such as the group's wild-card status within the literary field, the "contexte sociopolitique" of post-Commune Paris (11), and indeed the occasional anti-social behavior of one Arthur Rimbaud (85).
Yet the Cercle zutique didn't spring forth ex-nihilo from the field of Second Empire literature. It has a coherent literary genealogy, one that Saint-Amand situates in a number of practical, cultural, and literary ties, practices, and "sociabilities" ranging from friendship (cf., the morbid, if deliriously hilarious, anecdote concerning Jean Keck, Ernest Cabaner, a shared pair of clothes and an apartment fire, 51-52); salons such as those of Nina de Callias and Antoine Cros; and, last but not least, what the author refers to perspicaciously as the "nebuleuse Parnassienne i.e., a complex, loosely affiliated movement whose poetic and socio-political diversity resists simple reduction to what is by now a surely familiar heuristic Procrustean bed of, among other things, "impassibility" and "social disengagement" (54-61).
In the later third of his study, Saint-Amand turns to the Album zutique itself, and devotes a number of insightful passages to the motivations, context, and stakes underpinning parodies that run the gamut between the potachique, the self-deprecating, the stylistically and ideologically devastating, and the devastatingly funny. No one is spared: political friend and foe, model, member, and enemy of the Cercle zutique, Francois Coppee and Alphonse Daudet (both of whom wrote works condemning the Paris Commune), Napoleon III, and even Verlaine and Baudelaire. Readers will find here alert and fluent readings of the zutiste's resolutely antagonistic stance towards the auratic authority of Parnassian patriarchs; thoughtful comments on the appropriation of the (rather bourgeois) micro-cultural formation of the "cercle" (72-73) and the "album"; some fine contributions to readings of texts such as "Le Sonnet du trou du cul," and an especially suggestive account of a dizain parodying Coppee entitled "Le sous-chef est absent du bureau."
Saint-Amand's La Litterature a l'ombre is a welcome study situated at the crossroads of cultural history and literary sociology rather than the more Marxian inflected sociocritical tradition. At times, and for methodological reasons (i.e., the internal sociology of a group), Saint-Amand appears to posit a restrictive, and occasionally under-interrogated, take on the Cercle zutique--one relegating it to the zone of a largely withdrawn private affair, a sort of poiesis without praxis. It could be interesting to give this motif of withdrawal and separation a theoretical quarter turn. We might ask, in other words, how such ruptures are inscribed in a kind of continuity with the post-1848 "divorce" of art from the social? What might such interruptions of the circuit of cultural capital imply for literary production or value? Indeed, playful though the Cercle zutique was, we might follow the insights of, inter alia, Michel de Certeau, Michel Serres, or Ross Chambers, and consider the potential for micro-practices of resistance to wear down dominant or oppressive systems and discourses precisely through creative, playful, ironic appropriation, detournement, and parasitism. Perhaps, in other words, there are larger theoretical stakes (enjeux) in the Cercle zutique's apparently anti-social withdrawal into the shadows of literature. In the right light, one might even catch a glimpse of something like a utopian desire in the Album zutique--a dramatic or desperate (according to one's perspective) attempt to keep open a space for community in the terrible aftermath of the Commune. (One might even follow Adorno's insights into the element of radical negativity that keeps the work of art--be it aestheticist or zutique--from figuring as a kind of mere commodity, an a-telic, if cathartic, form of individualizing escapism.) Such quibbles aside, though, this study is a deeply astute account of the texts, authors, and relations that flourished--and, for some, indeed withered--in the shadows and dreary intervals of the established, if trembling, literary hierarchies of the early fin-de-siecle conjuncture. It can claim a well-merited place on library shelves and bibliographies alongside other indispensable archaeologies of literary collaboration and counter-discursive/cultural "sociabilities" that have helped to map out a rich and tumultuous literary terrain for this period.
Robert St. Clair, College of William and Mary
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|Author:||Clair, Robert St.|
|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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