Charrière on Saminadayar-Perrin, ed. (2012)


Saminadayar-Perrin, Corinne, ed. L’Invention littéraire de la Méditerranée dans la France du XIXe siècle. Paris: Éditions Geuthner, 2012. Pp. 258. ISBN: 978-2-7053-3856-5          

Étienne Charrière, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Less than a decade ago, the official endorsement by the French State of a (partially realized) “Union for the Mediterranean” invested scholarship on the gradual elaboration of the French idea of the Mediterranean with a new urgency. A companion to an earlier collective endeavor, L’Invention scientifique de la Méditerranée (1998), the present work extends to literary studies rather than politics, the scholarly conversations on the cultural construction of the Mediterranean taking place in the social sciences at large.

The introduction stresses that the Mediterranean as a geographical and cultural given has a long conceptual history originating in the nineteenth-century articulation of scientific practices, cultural representations, and ideological formations with direct or indirect geopolitical applications. The editor’s deft use of the notion of bricolage demonstrates how the Mediterranean, heterogeneous in its very formulation, is permanently subjected to various rearticulations and distortions imposed by the constant mutations of the French historical and political context.

Unsurprisingly, several of the individual contributions focus on travel writing and on nineteenth-century French Orientalist literature. In particular, the literary engagement of François-René de Chateaubriand with the Mediterranean is explored in two different articles. Jean-Marie Roulin underlines that the discovery of the Mediterranean space takes place relatively late in the trajectory of Brittany-born Chateaubriand and roughly coincides with his return to the Catholic Church. Although it serves as the backdrop of both fictional and autobiographical works, the Mediterranean remains, in its physical materiality, relatively absent from Chateaubriand’s work, yet functions as a liminal space able to highlight the contrasts between France and its Others in the period that immediately precedes the onset of French colonial expansion in North Africa. Focusing on the Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, Alain Guyot also notices the very limited textual presence of the term “Méditerranée” in Chateaubriand’s account of his travels around the region. However, the constant emphasis on the palimpsestic nature of the Mediterranean space announces the progressive emergence of a more comprehensive, unified vision of the region achieved through literary representation.

While the mare nostrum is, overall, less present in Alphonse de Lamartine’s works than in Chateaubriand's, the former makes a more frequent use of the term “Méditerranée” in his travel writing. Studying the Voyage en Orient (1835), Sarga Moussa shows that, in Lamartine’s text, a poetic interest in the Mediterranean and its landscapes coexists with (and partially depends on) a political agenda sympathetic to France’s colonial ambitions.

The context of colonial expansion, in particular after 1830, evidently constitutes a particularly important aspect of the presence of the Mediterranean in French letters and nearly all the articles in the volume justly position their inquiry within that framework. In her own article on the work of Jules Michelet, editor Corinne Saminadayar-Perrin underlines that the historian’s depiction of the Mediterranean as a paradoxical space symbolizing both the realization of and the limit to universalist ideals seems to be a reflection of the new functions assumed by the region in the wake of the colonization of Algeria.

Perhaps because they focus on relatively lesser-known figures, two articles in the volume offer particularly engrossing case studies of the evolution of the Mediterranean idea in nineteenth-century French letters. Examining a short text published in 1832 and rediscovered in the late twentieth century, Michel Chevalier’s Système de la Méditerranée, Philippe Régnier sheds new light on the marked Saint-Simonian interest in the Mediterranean basin by emphasizing the specifically literary character of Chevalier’s utopia of a “connected” sea which conceptualizes the area in both esthetic and political terms, laying the ground for the later emergence of a form of “Mediterranean consciousness.” This belief in the specificity and the unity of a “Mediterranean genius” is at the core of the novels published at the turn of the century by Paul Adam and examined here by Sarah Al-Matary, who shows how this ideology echoes the geopolitical agenda of the Third Republic and envisions the Mediterranean as a space for the reformulation and rejuvenation of a discourse on the nation after the trauma of the Franco-Prussian War.

Far from being a mere addendum to the seminal 1998 similarly titled volume on the scientific invention of the Mediterranean, the present work constitutes, in its own right, a very noteworthy collection of articles. Intelligently organized around three well-defined axes of inquiry and carefully selected so that they function both individually and as parts of a coherent whole, all the articles shed new light on some fascinating aspects of France’s cultural engagement with the Mediterranean space during the crucial period of the nineteenth century.