Below is a translation of reviews of a new edition of Paul Bénichou's four volumes on French romanticism, by Patrice Bollon in Le Figaro (Paris)[1] and by Anne Garreta in Libération (Paris).[2]  --  I had the privilege to know Paul Bénichou in the last fourteen years of his life, and am the translator of an American edition of the first of these volumes, Le Sacre de l'écrivain, entitled The Consecration of the Writer.  -- I'm currently working on a translation of the second of these four volumes, Le Temps des prophètes ['The Time of the Prophets']....


[Translated from Le Figaro (Paris)]

By Patrice Bollon

Le Figaro (Paris)
October 21, 2004

Review of Romantismes français, vol. I (Le Sacre de l'écrivain, Le Temps des prophètes) and vol. II (Les Mages romantiques, L'Ecole du désenchantement) by Paul Bénichou (Paris: Gallimard-Quarto, 2004). 1,008pp. and 1,120pp. respectively. 24 euros each.

Literary critic, great scholar, indeed true "savant of Letters"; historian of worldviews and ideas; sociologist, thinker, and perhaps even philosopher: Paul Bénichou (1908-2001) was all that. To which must be added a precise, limpid prose -- he felt a holy horror for the jargon that dominated the neostructuralist "new criticism" of the 1960s and 1970s --, without superfluous grace notes, marked, in addition, by such strict standards of clarity that his work acquires a sort of "atemporality": in short, he was also, equally, a writer who was an essayist, representing what is called the classical French grand style.

Such qualities make it hard to see to whom one is to compare him in the twentieth century, if not to his two peers, Jean Starobinski, of whom it seems strange that he speaks so little (see the Aug.-Sept. number of Critique, dedicated to Starobinski), and the Italian man of letters -- the greatest of his time, no doubt -- Mario Praz (1896-1962), which an absurd legend (he was said to be linked to the devil, to cast spells, be a bearar of bad tidings...) has, alas! -- but only for the moment, let us hope --, more or less consigned to the margins.

Bringing together in two hefty volumes four works, Le Sacre de l'écrivain ['The Consecration the Writer'], Le Temps des prophètes ['The Time of the Prophets'], Les Mages romantiques ['The Romantic Magi'], and L'École du désenchantement ['The School of Disenchantment'], which Paul Bénichou devoted, from 1973 to 1992, to the study of romanticism, allows us take the measure of one of the most wide-ranging and deepest meditations on the intellectual and moral foundations of the 19th century, which remain, still, in large part, on many points, the foundations of our new and interesting so-called "third millennium."

For we must state at once: far from being limited to a literary or artistic school, as most high school and even university manuals do today, romanticism far exceeded, for Bénichou, the status of a purely aesthetic revolution, whose lyrical fecundity and rich imagery it is common to praise. He saw, on the contrary, a parallel undertaking, but in a different field and with different means -- above all, with those of poetry --, to that of the liberal, neo-Christian, and later utopian, postivist, and socialist ideologues, to answer the same question that French society, and more generally European society, were asking after the Revolution of 1789: With what were we going to replace spiritual authority, formerly provided, in the Old Régime, by religion and its priests, in order to ensure the permanence (in the sense of viability) of our societies?

In other words, Romanticism with a capital "R," as a global movement of worldviews, summed up for Bénichou, more or less all of 19th-century thinking. It was the hidden thought of that endless, delicate transition from the classical world of the monarchy to the modern universe of democracy -- a thought all the more precious in his eyes in that, contrary to that of the ideological systems of thought, it was capable of welcoming, without necessarily resolving them, the infinite mental and spiritual contradictions that this process of transition engendered. And, be it said in passing, Bénichou was not shy about indicating his own inclination toward such poetic or metaphysical solutions, in preference to more systematic, and thus necessarily simplistic, systems of thought. He mistrusted supposedly "scientific" utopias, preferring to these a spiritual accompaniment to social mechanics.

It is in this light, and perhaps only in this way, that we can address ourselves once more to his great body of work on romanticism without fearing to be drowned in his enormous erudition and his detailed analyses of the great romantic authors, first those linked with the counterrevolution, Chateaubriand and the early Lamartine, then the great "magi," especially Hugo, to whom he is indisputably partial. For Bénichou, the enigma is to understand how this great "humanitarian" romanticism -- for so he calls it -- could, after 1848, turn to a negative, even nihilistic position, illustrated by the figure, still alive in our time, of the artiste maudit ['accursed artist'], who, in self-declared opposition to society, falls back upon more and more self-centered and formal experiments.

To summarize the content of these two thousand pages in which Bénichou traces this long journey, extending from the criticism of values inaugurated by the Revolution of 1789 to the Symbolist turn, passing through that "more and more open combination of the sacred with the modern," which was the high romanticism of the years 1830-1848, opens paths of reflection and gives rise to illuminating parallels with our own era. Here, we can only point out the main lines and outstanding points.

In Le Sacre de l'écrivain [translated by Mark K. Jensen as The Consecration of the Writer: The Advent of a Secular Spiritual Power in Modern France and published in 1999 by the Univ. of Nebraska Press], which treats of the period from 1750 to 1830, Bénichou shows first of all how romanticism can be considered -- and this is where his reading is truly original -- as a synthesis of, on the one hand, the counterrevolutionary will to link up again with the living spiritual forces of poetry, in contradistinction to the pretensions of reason, and, on the other, the spirit of liberalism, which is heir to the philosophes of the 18th century. It is from this fusion of these two contradictory elements, corresponding to a "spiritualization of the ideals" of 1789, that, according to him, the figure of the "thinker-poet" will be born, incarnated later by Lamartine, Vigny, and Hugo.

Before getting there, the volume Le Temps des prophètes reviews the doctrines that appeared in the 19th century, as part of an effort to bring solutions to the question of the content of new society's foundations: Constant's and Guizot's liberal thought, the neo-Catholicism of Ballanche, Chateaubriand, and the astonishing Lamennais, who turned progressively from a radically ultramontane Catholic priest into a humanitarian political writer, adept of a "pure" religion in which the people seem to replace God -- a "symbolic abridgment of the course of his century," Bénichou remarks. In addition, the various figures of utopianism -- Saint-Simon, Comte, Fourier --, and finally the vaguer current of what he calls the "humanitarian credo," or the faith in the future that will leave its impress upon the entire 19th century, before amalgamating itself into the great stream of French socialism.

And it is here that surges up in all its power -- this is the subject of Les Mages romantiques -- the messianic figure of the seer-poet, presenting to the world a higher knowledge, of which Hugo was, of course, the greatest example: "When peoples lack faith," Hugo said in 1836, "they need art. For lack of a prophet, the poet." Exiled after the coup d'état of the prince-president Napoleon, Hugo incarnates, for Bénichou, the progressivism of the 19th century, that vast synthesis, he writes, "of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and a para-religious spiritualism, under the aegis of poetry."

Although in the aftermath of 1830 a pessimistic breeze takes hold of some romantics -- the "Jeune-France" of Pétrus Borel and O'Neddy --, disappointed that the revolutionary enthusiasm of the Revolution of July 1830 produced only Louis-Philippe's government of the "juste milieu," Bénichou nevertheless dates true romantic disappointment from 1848. Then appeared a "second romanticism," represented by Nodier, Musset, Nerval, and above all Gautier, much more pessimist and suffering than the first, which will influence the generation of Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Leconte de Lisle, then the Parnassians -- which Mario Praz will call, appropriately, the "romantic agony" (The Romantic Agony is the English title of Praz's famous work, La Chair, la mort et le diable dans la littérature du XIXe siècle ['The Flesh, Death, and the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature'], available in a Tel-Gallimard edition).

What might be only a fascinating literary history -- the splendid pages devoted by Bénichou to Nerval, in L'École du désenchantement ['The School of Disenchantment'], form almost a book within a book --, or a lucid but dispassionate analysis of the 19th century's Zeitgeist, turns then into a vibrant reflection on the destiny of our own societies. For Bénichou shows that at bottom there is scarcely any alternative: the coexistence of the idea of liberty and that of progress realized under the sign of a meaningful History being necessarily unstable, only a poetical priesthood, content to offer moral direction while leaving each individual free to interpret its meaning, can claim to be a solution.

This is the fundamental question at the center of the two volumes of Romantismes français ['French Romanticisms']: what must (or may), in our societies, be the nature of the spiritual power capable of relacing the religion of old? This also explains why, although he refrains from condemning it, Bénichou can only deplore the formalist turn to which poetry has, since 1850, confined itself. Indeed, against the seductions of art for art's sake, this great humanist can only regret the failure of the romantic attempt to substitute a secular power for that of priests, leaving us in a vacuum pregnant with future disillusionments -- like those of which he himself was both witness and victim under the Occupation, when the egoism of writers and artists opened the way to degrading collaboration.

It is then that this genuine cathedral erected by Bénichou to romanticism becomes a political, even moral, treatise, enjoining us to reflect upon the still contemporary because unresolved question of the nature of the intellectual and spiritual magisterium likely to replace that which was once exercised by religion.


Also by the same author: Morales du Grand Siècle ['Moralities of the Century of Classicism,' translated by Elizabeth Hughes as Man and Ethics: Studies in French Classicism (Doubleday Anchor, 1971)], Gallimard, 1948, available in "Folio-Essais"; L'Écrivain et ses travaux ['Writers and Their Works'], José Corti, 1967; Selon Mallarmé ['According to Mallarmé'], Gallimard, 1995, reprinted in "Folio-Essais," 1999.

2. [Translated from Libération (Paris)]

Literary history

By Anne F. Garreta

** Anne F. Garreta has read the masterwork to which Paul Bénichou devoted his life **

January 20, 2005

[Review of Paul Bénichou, Romantismes français, vols. 1 & 2 [Quarto, Gallimard, 2004] (1,008 & 1,120pp., respectively; 24 euros each)]

French romanticisms: or 2,000 admirable pages of lucid prose, entire libraries sifted through, the first drafts, backgrounds, and even hidden connections of the period analyzed and reordered in a masterfully subtle and full tableau... What passion, what question could have inspired Paul Bénichou through half a century on such a quest?

Thinking, in 1950, when his Morales du grand siècle had just been published, of "a study of the poetic pessimism of the post-romantic generation" (Baudelaire, Banville, Leconte de Lisle, Flaubert), he soon came to see that "the poète maudit was a negative, traumatized version of the poet as missionary and generational guide," and the poète maudit's pessimism "the reversal of that figure's enthusiasm and faith."

Romantic poetry has sustained itself on a religious fable: the figure of the Romantic Poet is, in France, the peculiar result of the crisis of modernity, understood as the challenge of secularization, the historic catastrophe of religious transcendence.

Literary history will therefore be, necessarily, cultural history, the history of ideas and political doctrines. This is what engages Paul Bénichou, in whose hands it reveals something quite different from what our own modernity has chosen to retain from literature and its history. Our period and our critical tradition have radicalized the postulates and taboos of post-romanticism: autonomization to the point of reducing the literary to fiction, the exacerbation of the imagination's intransivity, subjectivity, and privileges, the denial of speech and representation. Of this, too, Paul Bénichou's work is the critical genealogy. For (and here is the aporia) those who would attempt to read the genealogy of post-romanticism by means of the optic provided by its heirs in the realm of theory succumb to amnesia and occult their object.

Le Sacre de l'écrivain, the first section of the project, appeared in 1973. [I translated this volume as The Consecration of the Writer, published in 1999 by the University of Nebraska Press. --M.K.J.] The moment was all "Theory," "Writing," "Textuality." The work was untimely: literary history was not the order of the day, literature was only speaking about itself, and, curiously, intellectuals were dreaming only of power.

In response to the disenchantment of the world and the threat of melancholy, the romantic era responds by inventing the figure of secular priesthood, of a modern spiritual authority assumed by the Poet. To the disenchantment of the priestly figure and of the humanitarian ideal of which the latter was the exponent, corresponds in its turn the figure of the Poet disinherited. The nostalgia of the old ambition finds resolution in a sacrificial aesthetic of Art, and in a divorce of poetic language from common language.

Faced with the symptomatic amnesia of the theoretical and aesthetic avant-gardes (the result, no doubt, of the indefinitely repeated trauma of disenchantment), Paul Bénichou's inquiry was, then, genealogical: marriages, descendants, generations, heirs, and orphans.

The most well-intentioned review would be incapable of doing justice to the richness of this monumental work's richness. Let us deal with what is most urgent.

The figure of the Romantic Poet arises under the Restoration from the unexpected marriage of two hostile lineages.

The 18th century had undermined the religious foundation of the Old Régime; the French Revolution overthrew it. The liberals (Mme de Staël, Constant), heirs of the Philosophes, work to lift the lien that Revolutionary Terror placed on the inheritance of the Enlightenment and restore the credit and autonomy of the man of letters. The freedom of speech and prominent, responsible action, the public practice of thought will be a rampart against tyranny. The counterrevolutionary lineage, for its part, opposing impious philosophy and the coldness of deistic rationalism or atheistic materialism, reactivates the primitive figure of the Sacred Poet, both Orphic and biblical: an inspired prophet and legislator, an interpreter of the infinite.

The consecration of the writer takes place in the first romantic generation, when the "the poet combines his ministry with that of the thinker," furthering a double development. The royalist poets (Hugo, Vigny, Lamartine) free themselves of their allegiance to the Counterrevolution, just as, under the influence of German aesthetics, Madame de Staël works out the conditions of a secular spiritualism in which enthusiasm and the moral virtue of the feeling of Beauty participate in the revalorization of poetry.

From this historic compromise is born the figure of the poetic priesthood: "The writer assumes the role left vacant by the priest," and Vigny can believe that "Art is the modern religion, the modern spiritualism."

The period is looking for a dogmatic foundation. The neo-Catholics see in the multiplicity of beliefs a ferment dissolving the social bond; against political atheism, and "from one end of his career to the other, [Lamennais] seeks the formula for a supremacy of the spiritual outside of and above human society." Scientistic utopias (Saint-Simonianism, positvism) aim to "assign to science the role that religious dogma formerly played as the guarantor of moral and social values."

The spiritual power attributed to the writer adopts a progressive and humanitarian credo: "The humanitarianism that prospered abundantly until the February Revolution [1848] derives at least as much from liberalism as from dogmatic utopia, and not without also being infected with Christian theology and eschatology, in addition to this double affiliation. Liberty, a theory of the future, and a profession of religious faith all come together in it." As witnesses: Pierre Leroux, George Sand, Quinet, Michelet...

But even before 1848 the children of the age are showing the first signs of the turn to a blacker romanticism, flaunting their "mourning and scorn for the spiritual ambitions that they once considered legitimate." Musset, Nerval, Gautier inaugurate "the great solitude of the priesthood of the ideal." The ideal remains, but as torment; its disenchantment effects "the conversion, as a symbol of distance and enmity, of the image of the Feminine, as of the Ideal that is represented by it." Baudelaire's misogyny will be as proverbial as will be pathetic his late conversion to the theo-anthropological themes of the Counterrevolution.

In politics, this disenchantment will appear as the "scorn for common humanity," and in poetry, as the Fall, as accursedness. The Pelican, the Albatross replace the totemic figures of the Swan and the Eagle. The forms of the myth, the tale, and the dream are substituted for those of the ode, the epic, or even the Lamartinian meditation. And Nerval's sonnets usher in "a revolution in French poetics: in an obvious way, they defy -- and their author formally renounces for them -- the law of intelligibility that in principle governs all literature." From this to Mallarmé, the distance is not far.

But us, where are we, and who are we? The heirs or the orphans of this geneaology?

Victor Hugo irritates us, and let's not even speak of Lamartine (besides, no one does speak of him anymore). We have nothing against artificial paradises, and we find that we are still interested by the secret poisons of the flowers of evil. The knife and the wound are our daily fare. Mallarmé would disturb our syntax, if we still believed we needed one. As adolescents, we committed, by delivering ourselves over to Writing and to manustupration, sonnets whose flat rhymes and metrical dilapidation were only equaled by the frenetic lyricism and unstated aspiration to sacrilege. That was before we resigned ourselves to free verse. The desperate Satanic pose tempted us, at least as much as the lachrymose accommodation to the spectacle of exquisite, distant suffering. Humanity is an indisutable value, and society is full of riffraff. Women? Always as ideal as they are abject. We are bourgeois and we are bohemians, excessively authentic in our tastes and prudent in our investments. Every rule, every code seems to us an obscene infringement on our liberty to create, and censorship seems a hypocrisy. But it is imperative that we make of our lives a work of art, that's why we've invented ready-made clothes. The time of avant-gardes is over, but for all that, are we haunted by a nostalgia for the past?

Paul Bénichou is perhaps as untimely today, three years after his death [Bénichou died on May 14, 2001. --M.K.J.], as he was thirty years ago. And still more needed for the understanding of our contradictory positions and our interminable disenchantments.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
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