Lerner on Denker-Bercoff and Poirier, eds. (2016)


Denker-Bercoff, Brigitte, and Jacques Poirier, editors. Le Gai Savoir de Gabriel Peignot (1767–1849): érudition et fantaisie. PU de Dijon, 2016, pp.176, ISBN 978-2-36441-177-7

Bettina Lerner, City College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.

The amateur scholar, bibliophile, and founder of bibliology at the center of Le Gai Savoir de Gabriel Peignot (17671849): érudition et fantaisie was one of the nineteenth century’s most prolific and forgotten writers, producing an unwieldy body of work whose internal contradictions evoke the turbulent threshold of modernity through which he lived. For Brigitte Denker-Bercoff and Jacques Poirier, the coeditors of this lively collection of essays, Peignot was above all an “homme-livre,” one of the last of the encyclopedic thinkers for whom enumerating and classifying could confer unshakeable meaning upon the world (well before Gustave Flaubert’s parodic characters Bouvard and Pécuchet turned list-making into the hallmark of mediocrity). Like other conservative thinkers of his generation, Peignot believed in the continuity of history made manifest in a monarchic line of succession that not even the Revolution could sever. A royalist who nonetheless prospered during the Empire, Peignot was both a product and critic of the Enlightenment; he rejected cosmopolitan universalism in favor of a regionalist outlook and an abiding interest in all things particular, singular, and incidental as suggested by works such as: Amusements philologiques, variétés en tous genres, Bagatelles poétiques et humoristiques and Livre des singularités. He professed a love of wisdom that refused a coherent doctrine, theory, or single body of knowledge, thus partly justifying the Nietzschean ring to the title Denker-Bercoff and Poirier chose for this volume even if there seems to be little in Peignot’s gay science that prefigures the German philosopher’s irony and disillusionment.

Peignot, who was born in 1767 and spent most of his life in and around Burgundy, is undoubtedly a fitting subject for a volume published by Éditions Universitaires de Dijon. A lawyer by training, he began his career during the Directory as a librarian in Haute-Saône, becoming director of a collège in Vesoul and then the inspector of Dijon’s library, before his election to that city’s very active academy for which he served as secretary from 1827 until his death in 1849. Peignot thus embodied a certain kind of bourgeois intellectual from the provinces. As Alain Rauwel’s “Minimités et vieux garçons: Peignot académicien” reveals, Peignot was an academician’s academician, a man as deeply invested in the production of knowledge as he was in the homosocial rituals and clubby backroom politicking of these male-dominated spaces. The time he spent in the company of Dijon’s wisest was nothing if not productive: Peignot published over one hundred and forty books, most of which were short essays printed in limited editions. Best known for transforming his love of books and book collecting into the basis for the discipline known as bibliology, whose goals and methods he described in works such as Dictionnaire raisonné de bibliologie, his name briefly reemerged from obscurity in the twentieth century thanks in part to Georges Perec who credits him with having included an epistolary example of a lipogramme in his Amusements philologiques, and more recently, a reference to his interest in plagiarism from controversial novelist Marie Darrieussecq. It is nonetheless worth asking what, if anything, this Peignotiana can tell us about the French nineteenth century.

The “Avant-Propos” and thirteen essays that follow it in this volume argue that Peignot’s life and works do indeed reveal much about the production of knowledge and the personal relationships that inhere in that process during the first half of the nineteenth century. Grouped into four sections, the essays detail Peignot’s personal and epistolary relationships with contemporaries like Charles Nodier, his investment in the institutions that developed around the expansion of print culture including libraries and academies, his own relationship to authorship and writing and, finally, his influence on emergent disciplines including philology, history, and bibliography. This collection thus offers a range of perspectives, some of which succeed in making the case that this corpus can be interesting to scholars of all kinds, not just to the occasional archive rat who might feel a strange kinship with Peignot, himself a lover of dusty tomes with forgotten secrets to reveal.

At its best, this volume provides valuable insight into the first decades of the nineteenth century when the book still maintained its status as a privileged object of consumption and before this status was challenged by new reading practices that emerged with the rise of the mass press. A few of the essays stand out in this regard, lending depth and nuance to our understanding of the production and dissemination of knowledge beyond the world of Parisian elites. Caroline Raulet-Marcel’s “Gabriel Peignot et la bibliothèque: du savoir à la sociabilité,” is an especially compelling contribution that reveals a side to Peignot’s bibliophilia characterized less by the drive to accumulate than by the particular kinds of sociability that arise around the sharing and circulation of knowledge. In examining Peignot’s curatorial approach to building his personal library (and advising others on how to build theirs), she ably outlines the relational role he ascribed to books as markers of taste and discernment. Jacques-Remi Dahan’s and Marc Décimo’s contributions both focus on Charles Nodier, whom they both describe as an alter ego of sorts to the more financially secure Peignot. Nodier profited from Peignot’s willingness to share his archival finds: Nodier’s fantasticHistoire d’Hélène Gillet” owes much to Peignot’s digging through historical records, as does his notion of the fou littéraire. Finally, Martine Jacques’s “Gabriel Peignot et le XVIIIe siècle ou l’esprit de vertige,” aptly names the vertiginous impulse behind Peignot’s habit of list-making and classifying, showing the unlikely modernity that stems from the dissolution of the authorial voice in his writing.

The volume could have used a final round of proofreading to catch remaining typos and a heavier editorial hand might have eliminated the unnecessary reiterations of Peignot’s biography that clutter some of the otherwise efficient writing. These issues aside, the collection provides a thorough and at times thought-provoking perspective on Romanticism’s overlooked ways of reading and writing.