Smoke and Mirrors: Secret Societies and Self-Reflexivity in the mystères urbains
This article reflects on the literary-theoretical and literary-historical significance of secret societies in the mystères urbains, a large corpus of popular novels produced in the latter half of the nineteenth century in response to the unprecedented success of Eugène Sue’s Mystères de Paris (1842–43). In these novels, representations of secret societies challenge and transform our understanding of l’envers and, by extension, our approach to the (rewritten) text. Distorted reflections, by pointing to the shared preoccupations of readers of “popular” and “serious” literatures, hint at the arbitrary nature of groupings both within and outside the text. A protean system of initiates and outsiders echoes the engagements of both an exclusive “Happy Few” and an indiscriminate “masse idiote” with the text itself. The fusion of heterogeneous characters into fictional secret societies echoes the efforts made to demystify and defuse the threat of a new and alarmingly disparate reading public.