Words as Weapons: Romantic Literature and the Revolution
Jean Bloch expounds the new thinking which sees the Revolution as a catalytic period for literature, fusing Enlightenment philosophies with the fervour engendered by a tumultuous time.
For far too long the literature of the French Revolution was written off as mediocre and of little interest. Seen as continuing already established literary traditions and degenerating ultimately into propaganda, it seemed to halt rather than aid what was presented as the gradual transition from the Enlightenment to romanticism. Such an approach was linked to the long-standing tendency to place emphasis on imaginative and creative writing, discounting areas like journalism and oratory, which had prospered during the Revolution. The significant movement was held to be the gradual waning of classicism and the emergence of Romanticism.
The account was based on a handful of key figures, sometimes reduced to only three: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing entirely in the pre-revolutionary period, his disciple Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, who produced the greater part of his pioneering work in the area of picturesque description before 1789 and Chateaubriand (an emigre), who started to write in 1793 during his exile in England and whose literary significance only began with the publication of the short tale, Atala, in 1801. These writers were commonly grouped together as 'pre-romantic': a term which sought to identify the emerging features of a new sensibility and aesthetic which, in the case of France, was seen to reach its fullest expression in the conscious rejection of the formal constraints of classicism in the late 1820s and 1830s. In the context of this development the late eighteenth century was seen to place a growing emphasis on feeling and the emotions, on nature, freedom and the individual, which finally culminated in the liberation of literary forms and a lyrically expansive communication of moods and sensations.
Rousseau was singled out as the pre-eminent precursor for his fierce individualism revealed in the first part of the Confessions (published 1782) and the extreme importance he had paid to the emotions both in his theoretical works and, more significantly as far as the general reading public was concerned, in the fictional form of La Nouvelle Heloise (1762) which had not only moved its readers to tears over the fate of its heroine, but had clearly highlighted feeling and affection as a source of moral value. This emphasis had been reinforced in the following year by the educational work Emile which, though it had aroused controversy over its rejection of both formal education and established religion, had been perceived by many as an inspiring revaluation of humanitarian beliefs and an expression of freedom and dignity to which one could aspire. It was following the publication of these two major works that Rousseau became for many a source of inspiration and a moral guide. Moreover, Rousseau was a lover of nature who found in it a source of strength and consolation and whose final work, the Reveries du promeneur solitaire (unfinished at the time of his death in 1778 and first published in 1782) suggested already the later dreamings and melancholy of the romantic age.
The success and popularity of Rousseau was seen to coincide with a rise in similar tastes in much of Europe. Rousseau had been influenced by Samuel Richardson, and both had moved their readers with touching deathbed scenes. Goethe, who admired Rousseau, himself took France by storm with his novel of romantic love, Werther, which in turn inspired Chateaubriand's introspective, personal, and melancholic novel Rene. In poetry, Young, Gray, Ossian, Thomson and Haller had all combined in their various ways to en- courage a sombreness or a rhapsodic evocation of natural surroundings (and particularly mountain scenery) that Rousseau had exploited in melodious prose.
Rousseau thus became a vital catalyst whose influence extended to his disciple Bernardin de Saint-Pierre; both eager to retire to a lonely spot, both seeking social renewal, both seeming to look for it in the glorification of a more primitive state. But if Rousseau's state of nature remained largely theoretical, Bernardin evoked the exotic places he had visited, situating his successful novel Paul et Virginie (1787) in Mauritius, far from the corruption of European society, or planning his city, Arcadie, in the Amazon forests as a haven for the oppressed of every nation. It is a short step from this to Chateaubriand's Atala, set in Louisiana and featuring a noble Amerindian pair, or Rene, driven by the revelation of his sister's incestuous passion to the wilds of America.
In such an account, however, the Revolution seemed little more than a hiccup; a conservative period in literature, the product of a largely national movement, which rejected foreign influences, and by its conscious evocation of the heroism and civic virtues of Ancient Greece and Rome and its promotion of an official art that was neo-classical in form actually retarded the 'progression' towards romanticism. Moreover, much of the literary production of the Revolution took the restricted forms of oratory and journalism, though the theatres were active, circumstantial poetry was produced and moral and political tales were not infrequent. It was generally agreed, however, that the literature of this period tended to be imitative and mediocre, revealing the survival of the older classical styles in tragedy, the epic, lyric verse or didactic poetry.
If the Revolution did offer a lead to later writers, it was held to be in its declamatory and sentimental language (exploited later by Hugo) and through its theatre, which, intent on awakening national consciousness, moved in the direction of historical drama with Marie-Joseph Chenier's Charles IX (1789), Henri VIII, and Jean Huss (both of 1791). In this way, therefore, the previously fertile avenues of descriptive prose fiction and the poetic evocation of nature and mood, which had been opening up, seemed to take a back seat until they revived again after the Revolution, largely it was claimed as a result of the cosmopolitan tastes of the returning emigres.
At the theoretical level this renewal received its most effective impulse from Madame de Stael's critical distinction between the classical literary tradition of the south, which she saw as having been imported into France, and the 'romantic' literature of northern Europe, which embodied nature, sentiment and religion. In this context Rousseau, Bernardin and Chateaubriand were able to retain their affinities and, despite their marked differences, paradoxically strengthen them through the association of Rousseau's 'natural' religion, Bernardin's sentimental providential order and Chateaubriand's revalorisation of Christianity.
ln an article published in 1980, however, Samuel S.B. Taylor looked again at the whole question of Rousseau's supposed 'Romanticism'. He argued that it is not for his exploitation of themes later to be developed by the romantics (nature, love, melancholy, mal du siecle, revolt, le moi, landscape, reverie, religious feeling, etc) that Rousseau may be termed 'romantic' since many of these are clearly eighteenth-century themes and derive directly from the sensibilite and anglomania of the period. In addition, Rousseau made no conscious attempt to break with classical forms, but admired and drew on antiquity, and in all except the spiritual area developed a philosophy that was consistent with the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and empiricism. For Taylor, if Rousseau can be linked to the romantics it is indeed through his commonly stressed individualism, but in the little explored sense of the search for an authentic self and the exploitation of art, no longer in the classical manner of adornment of the truth, but as the means by which we discover the truth.
Such an approach clearly limits the extent of Rousseau's Romanticism and re-situates him within the Enlightenment, while still allowing him the distinction of having broken significantly with his age. Other recent work has also tended to stress the eighteenth-century character of what were earlier presented as 'pre-romantic' tendencies and this with reference to the period in general, not just to Rousseau. This refocusing has fused with a new willingness to place greater value on the literary production of the late eighteenth century for its own sake, which has come about as a result of general changes in literary studies. The 'pre-romantic' view quite clearly looked at the world in a kind of literary vacuum. The historical moment might be discerned as having had a decisive effect (in the case of the French Revolution largely a hampering one) but the great literary movements were deemed to hold pride of place.
Over the past few decades, however, major changes have taken place. On the one hand there has been a marked tendency to move away from literary history towards the multiple facets of literary theory: areas such as hermeneutics, reception theory, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism and psycho-analytic, feminist or political criticism. On the other hand, literary history has retained an essential place, sometimes learning from the new criticism, but mainly adapting to a changing and generally wider intellectual horizon, which will often combine sociology, politics and history with literature, aesthetics or philosophy, sometimes opening its doors to popular literature, cultural studies or women's writing.
This more interdisciplinary approach is particularly appropriate for eighteenth-century France where philosophy, history, essays and letters were important areas of literary production and where it is still difficult to separate scientific and philosophical works in prose from what we might more normally term 'literature'. This was a period of cross-fertilisation in which biological and geographical descriptions of nature were presented in literary language and poets evoked scientific discoveries in verse. After all, it was the romantics themselves who later narrowed down the definition of 'literature' confining it to notions of creativity and imagination which the term simply did not have in the eighteenth century.
This is not to say that more inter- disciplinary work has not been done. In appropriate areas interest in the history of ideas has produced a great deal of valuable work which often combines the study of philosophy and science with that of art or literature and this is certainly true of the study of the Enlightenment. In some cases, however, the split between literature and thought long remained acute and this was perhaps particularly true of Rousseau studies where examination of the author's literary sensibility tended to be isolated from his political philosophy. This may well have compounded the problem of a lack of interest in the literature of the Revolution by failing to follow through the study of Rousseauism in all its facets during a critical period of political change, An important study of Rousseauism in France by Jean Roussel, published in 1972, which in fact takes a comprehensive approach to the author's work, interestingly picks up the story precisely at the end of the revolutionary cult of Rousseau and carries the study through from 1795 to 1830. Thanks, however, to a large amount of important work on Rousseau over the past thirty years or so, as well as to the generally widening approach to literary history, the study of both Rousseauism and late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writing in France has seen some interesting changes, particularly over the last ten to fifteen years.
One illustration of a changed evaluation of the literature of the period can be seen in Beatrice Didier's volume, Le XVIIIe siecle III, 1778-7820 published in 1976 in the series Literature francaise (ed, Claude Pichois). Setting herself firmly against the label 'pre-romantic' and all notion of a 'transitional' period between the waning glories of classicism and the victorious rise of the romantic movement in 1830, she presents the Revolution as the core and focus of the period, a catalyst which stabilises already developing strands, synthesises them and ultimately makes possible a new aesthetic and a new form of art. In short, she argues that the forty years from 1778 to 1820 produce a first form of romanticism, which fuses a philosophy derived from the Enlightenment with a new vivacity and passionate enthusiasm. This first romanticism is distinguishable from the later movement by a greater interest in philosophical and metaphysical speculation.
For Didier, the Revolution produces an immense national explosion which brings about a break with the old ways, but at the same time unites even the most disparate of writers in the common experience of revolution. This generation will be distinct from those born under Napoleon. Though contemporaries are split in their reactions: some seeing the Revolution as a nightmare which is finally erased, others as a dream eventually destroyed, they express above all a new sense of joy and a faith which makes happiness and freedom the most intense of feelings. Rousseau remains the key figure of the early period, but instead of the Revolution forming a hiatus, this time he leads through it to Chateaubriand, the two linked through the combination of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the forward impetus of passionate feeling, which will join the eighteenth century in an unbroken line to the romantic era.
Although it might seem tempting to break the period into three distinct divisions – the end of the monarchy, the Revolution, and the aftermath of revolution – Didier believes that the Revolution must remain the focus: it is already prepared in 1778 and, later, Napoleon does not simply destroy the Revolution, but carries it on in so far as he becomes the organiser of the revolutionary impulse. It is the Revolution that brings to the fore new ideas of education and secularisation which will never again entirely disappear and which will lead to a new form of society. It is on this that one needs to concentrate not on the 'twilight' of the Enlightenment and the 'triumphant dawn' of romanticism.
Though Beatrice Didier casts her net wide, discussing the philosophical and religious debates of the period as well as examining the interaction of science, art and literature and including many little-known writers, she nevertheless still organises a significant proportion of her study in 'generations' around the already well researched figures of Beaumarchais, Laclos and Chateaubriand, highlights other major figures like Restif de la Bretonne, Sade and Benjamin Constant, and spends a great deal of time on the notion of romanticism.
Other recent work has had some- what different or more restricted aims. One rather different approach acknowledges the world of difference that can exist between the importance a writer has for posterity and the importance he or she was accorded at the time. In his Culture and Society in France, 1789-1848 (1987), F.W. Hemmings argues that cultural values are 'independent of contemporary fashions, but that temporary fashions may be all-important for the understanding of the cultural climate of a particular historical epoch'. As a result, he is prepared to give equal attention to both the 'low-rated' playwright Marie-Joseph Chenier for his success during the Revolution and his brother Andre Chenier, deemed to be a poet of merit in the eyes of posterity. This is an approach which, if applied on a larger scale, could well revitalise our understanding of the literature of the Revolution. Hemmings' interest in the Revolution as a cultural epoch succeeds in highlighting especially the tremendous amount of activity that was going on in the theatre, largely as a result of deregulation in 1791, but also because it was perceived that the theatre could be used for educational and propaganda purposes. Despite clashes between conservative actors at the Comedie-Francaise and the authorities, or riots caused by predominantly royalist audiences and republican minorities, considerable freedom seems to have existed up to April 1794 with the Committee of Public Safety obliged to lift its ban on an 'aristocratic' version of Richardson's Pamela as late as September 1793. In its lighter forms the theatre also clearly provided much needed relaxation in times of stress. In recent years a huge computerised inventory of revolutionary plays and theatrical performances has been drawn up which highlights the importance of comedy during the period as well as the prominence of political plays in 1794. Work like this, together with new editions of long neglected writers such as Olympe de Gouges, which are in the process of appearing as part of the bicentennial renewal of interest in the literature of the Revolution, promises fertile areas for reassessment over the next few years. It goes without saying that the important areas of revolutionary eloquence and the emergence of modern journalism also merit considerable attention.
In the meantime, some recent work has already shown that even though the Revolution did little to encourage great literary masterpieces, its literature may still deserve careful examination. On this side of the Channel some particularly interesting work has been done by Malcolm Cook. Studying the use of fictional forms for propaganda purposes during the Revolution, he has produced a valuable study of the political content of French prose fiction for the years 1789 to 1794. He highlights the way in which many writers chose fictional forms as a means of persuasion, sometimes using characters from real life to create a balance between the real and fictional worlds, which could then be exploited to promote a particular view. Sometimes the impact of the Revolution can be seen merely as passing references in what are primarily works of fiction: e.g. criticism of widespread poverty and corruption within the state may well be combined with admiration for the reformer-king (as in Francois Marchant's Les Bienfaits de l’Assemblee nationale of 1792) or a writer will argue that monarchy is right for France, but the best model is Henri IV (as in Pochet's La Boussole nationale of 1790).
Other works have a political intention as the basis of their fiction: of these, many are critical of the monarchy, but, equally, many are critical of the republic. Some offer a 'realistic' picture that is recognisably contemporary France; others opt for a utopia, often suggesting that this is fast becoming a reality. Pornography too combines political propaganda and fiction, mainly in the form of short pamphlets, many of which Cook found to be critical of the ancien regime in general and of the queen in particular. Other prose fiction of the period often reveals an identification with specific political claims: oriental or mock-oriental allegories with the constitutional monarchy, the pastoral with the republic. Although these tales build on already established literary techniques, they offer a fascinating picture of a particular adaptation to the contemporary moment and in this respect it is perhaps the exploitation of the past- oral that is the most revealing. These tales endeavour to present an idyllic world based on virtue, which was presented as the very basis of the First Republic.
Cook claims that in prose fiction the notion of virtue that is depicted has more to do with the sexual abstinence and charity of the sentimental novels and moral tales of the previous fifty to one hundred years than with the more complex civic virtue of the political philosophers. It is presented to the reader, however, as if its meaning were absolutely clear and generally accepted. While some republican tales present an inflexible image of self-discipline and sacrifice, many are tempered with a gentler Golden Age imagery which is often linked to the pastoral. These tales popularise and simplify ideas found elsewhere: defence of the land and agriculture, belief in natural laws which antedate society, which in fiction resolves itself into a willing- ness to believe in the virtue of the peasantry. Somehow, it is felt, all will be well if the town-dweller (himself the epitome of vice) can emulate the (undisputedly) simpler and more virtuous example of those who work the land. Where deputies and educationists sought the desired moral regeneration that would uphold the new constitution through a reformed state education, republican authors seek it through effective moral and fictional propaganda. 'Nature' becomes an idyllic world of lush countryside and happy peasants, who demonstrate the desired virtues associated with the republic: purity, courage and generosity.
Cook argues that these revolutionary pastoral tales transform the Golden Age imagery, which had normally described an ideal which no longer existed, into something which is tangible and attainable. Many tales are set in the Alps or the Jura (presumably linked to the inspiring memory of Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise which had been set in the Alps). Pollin's Hameau de I'Agnielas of 1792, for example, set in Savoy, seeks to present the ideal home of republican virtues, characterised by openness, goodness, equality and affectionate hearts. Basically, the characters demonstrate both virtue and sensibility, a lack of artifice, a spirit of beneficence and sometimes a relentless willingness to fight for liberty. This literature, whether implicitly or explicitly propagandist, offers valuable material for study, both in terms of the transformations brought to bear on earlier forms of the pastoral by the revolutionary situation, and also for the way in which literature can be seen to parallel the elaboration of similar ideals and images of the republic commonly evoked in the treatises and speeches of the time.
It is in fact the political and ideological content of the varied forms of revolutionary literary expression that may well prove the most fruitful area of exploration in the literature brought to light by bicentennial enthusiasm. But though interest in the literature of the Revolution in all its forms and for its own sake is a worthwhile pursuit, we should nevertheless not allow it to become entirely divorced from wider considerations. Much of this literature shares a common identity with the forms, ideas and values of the pre-revolutionary period, especially in the area of edifying domestic virtues and sensibility. The Revolution itself was very keen to look back as well as forward to the new utopia. The way in which it seized on symbolic precursors like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Mably and, in particular, Rousseau, together with the prestige of key concepts and values (not simply freedom or justice, but nationwide education, benificence, nature, feeling and virtue) all of which had been gradually elaborated before the Revolution, gives us insight not just into propaganda, but into the particular mentality of the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary period.
It is here that recent work in areas such as the study of Rousseauism can also play an important part. Already in 1974 Gita May endeavoured to unite the two main branches of Rousseau studies which, as we saw earlier, had for long separated the literary and moral repercussions of Rousseauan sensibility from the influence and reverberations of the political works. Her detailed study of one of Rousseau's disciples, Madame Roland, is subtitled Essai sur la sensibilite preromantique et revolutionnaire and attempts to define the interrelationship between intellectual activity, emotional responses and social behaviour, in the mentality of the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods.
Roger Barny too, in his study of Rousseauism during the early Revolution (Rousseau dans la Revolution, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 246, 1986), though he restricts his study mainly to Rousseau's political writings, has combined his analysis with a study of the image of Rousseau as personality and writer, without which he claims the multi- faceted impact of Rousseau's political ideas during the Revolution become incomprehensible. Barny in fact spends a considerable amount of time dispelling the old argument that the emotional pre-revolutionary cult of Rousseau, characterised by pilgrimages to his tomb at Ermenonville or visits to Switzerland, was, in its personal, individual expression of affection and gratitude, basically different from the supposedly coldly rhetorical, stereotyped, 'collective' fervour of the revolutionary cult. Barny argues that both display very similar characteristics: intense feeling, moral reflection and spiritual uplift can be found equally well in Robespierre's and Saint-Just's comments or the pages of Marat, while the emotional responses of group hommage to Rousseau during the Revolution come over no less authentically than the individual testimonies often committed to private correspondence of the pre-revolutionaries.
There is therefore continuity not discontinuity in the essential components of Rousseauism in both periods. The extent of Rousseau's prestige during the Revolution and its literary, social and political reverberations is also being brought to light by the vast amount of documentation published in the final volumes of Ralph Leigh's edition of the Rousseau correspondence. If we can combine the results of these and other researches stemming from a renewed interest in the Revolution and its literature, how much more satisfactorily will we be able to assess the impact and fortunes of both the work and Rousseau's image than in the days when we siphoned off his so-called 'romantic' traits.
And if we widen the horizon even further, current research in progress into not simply the phenomenon of sensibilite, but also its possible radical implications and the promotion of feeling as a source of moral value, together with renewed interest in the significance of the growing importance and new images of 'nature' in the second half of the eighteenth century, all promise to throw fresh light on the vital ideological changes and new values already taking place before the Revolution and which were consolidated and transformed at the moment of political and social change. It is this key period of trans- formation in the European social formation which needs to hold our attention and with it the intertwining of ideas, ideology and literature. After all, by appropriating an author like Rousseau as a founding father of the Revolution the revolutionaries added as much to Rousseau as they found in him and by 1830 he can, rightly or wrongly, be as much associated with the emergence of socialism as with the individualism and solitariness of the romantic hero. It is only by crossing the boundaries between disciplines such as history and literature that we can properly understand such multi-faceted phenomena.
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