Duarte Caetano on Decot and Siviter, eds (2021)
Decot, Jérémy, and Clare Siviter, editors. Un engagement en vers et contre tous: Servir les révolutions, rejouer leurs mémoires (1789–1848). PU Blaise-Pascal, 2021, pp. 9 + 282, ISBN 978-2-84516-997-5
The twenty-ninth volume in the now twenty-two-year old collection “Révolutions et Romantismes,” this book brings together ten essays originally written for a journée d’études at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme de Clermont-Ferrand in 2018. The chapters are ordered chronologically and grouped thematically into three sections. Authored by a diverse pool of European scholars, they follow an introduction from Jérémy Decot and Clare Siviter presenting the volume’s main stakes and situating it in relation to Pierre Nora’s legacy, and to the field of memory studies. The editors make the case for the French revolutionary periods’ significance to literary history, countering the longstanding consensus on the mediocrity, if not absence, of “proper” literature written during the upheavals between 1789 and 1848. As the essays show, there was in fact abundant poetic production in France during those political events; moreover, the memorialization of French revolutionary history through poetry participated in the creation of the forms of literature and engagement that peaked in the twentieth century and still echo today.
While the dichotomy between history and memory is particularly emphasized in Siviter’s chapter on the poetry written for Napoleon’s wedding to Marie-Louise d’Autriche, this topos ties together the arguments of all ten essays. Whether in the sanctioned propaganda for the Empire or the clandestine verses of the opposition, Siviter demonstrates how the more recent revolutionary past, as well as classical antiquity, were mobilized so that memory—i.e. how the past is recalled and commemorated—outweighs “l’histoire vraie” (158). The primacy of memory is also central to Erica Mannucci’s study on the translation and reuse of French revolutionary poetry (particularly Sylvain Maréchal’s) by the Italian writer Giovanni Fantoni. His “active reception” and appropriation of the memory circulated through French literature suggest neither a temporal hierarchy of subordination nor a notion of passivity in the Italian response to 1789–93, but rather, Mannucci claims, a “centralité diffuse” (110) in the transnational dissemination of revolution across Europe. Sophie-Anne Leterrier’s chapter underscores the similarity between Béranger’s and Michelet’s projects of building a legendary memory of 1789 to spark popular enthusiasm decades later. Béranger’s special place in literary history, Leterrier argues, lies precisely in the historical distance that allows him to treat the memories of the event and of the literary forms of 1789 as materials to be reinvented for serving revolutionary aims more broadly, and across time—hence his effort to elevate the chanson from a minor popular genre into a “high” form, making the expression of the people’s sentiments worthy of the canon.
Another common thread in many of the essays is the redefinition of literary genres through the historical changes that they simultaneously represent and address. Laetitia Saintes writes about Auguste Barbier’s attempt to democratize poetry in his Iambes through the crude, albeit more “authentic,” and therefore truthful, language of the people. Ultimately, however, the poet was disenchanted by the aftermath of 1830, warning against making an idol of the proletariat. Pierre Blanchard, in his essay, shows how the political satire drawn from Ronsard was turned inside out by reactionary poets between Thermidor and the First Empire. As these poets articulated their monarchist goals through a critique of the Terror and the Directory, buttressed by praise of Napoleon, they made satire into an optimistic celebration. Ironically, Blanchard argues, their work thus lost its critical edge and became an easy target for state co-optation.
The first part of the book is dedicated to the Chénier brothers. Gauthier Ambrus’s chapter explores the repurposing of religious hymns for the civic religion of the Revolution. On the other hand, Thibaut Julian’s side-by-side comparison of André and Jean-Marie Chénier’s poems reveal a fraternal dialogue that continues after the former’s execution to lend political resistance to the latter’s odes: an antidote to the propagandistic use of Jean-Marie’s hymns, which often mimic the voice of the people only to reproduce the official discourse.
Articulating collective harmony in the newly formed nation is also the goal of the forty-five chansons composed for the inauguration of Marat’s and Lepelletier’s busts, analyzed here by Geneviève Boucher. The national community is then bound by the expression of personal, almost familial affective ties to the revolution’s martyrs. But actual personal tragedy too is present alongside, not to say in the very midst of, “le grand mouvement” of history (150). This is shown by Louis Hincker’s essay on the poet and military man Lacombe Saint-Michel, an ancestor of the novelist and French Nobel Laureate Claude Simon whose oeuvre remained private until the latter’s death in 2005. The works gathered in this collection thus illustrate a blurring of distinctions enacted by the French Revolution and expressed in Romanticism. Despite many revolutionary authors’ intention to efface their subjectivity to better serve their political aims, their works nevertheless blend private individuals and public citizens in the historical subjects that they depict and, finally, produce, through their very representation.
The book closes with Paul Adico’s essay on German poet Georg Herwegh’s redefinition of the function of the poet as an enlightened guide who uses his work as a weapon for raising consciousness. Here, as before, we cannot speak of autonomy or engaged literature in the Sartrean sense, as the editors argue. Nonetheless, all authors studied in this volume do engage with politics by mobilizing history to communicate a message, in Siviter’s words, whether for or against the regime. Furthermore, the speed and unprecedented nature of revolutionary historical change challenge representation, forcing literature to redefine itself to fulfill the writer’s aspirations. Ultimately, the book shows compellingly that the verses it studies are worthy of attention not only because they are indeed “proper literature,” but also for their part in the inception of our current understanding of literature and political engagement. The collection offers an appreciation of the literature produced during the revolutionary period in its beauty and academic interest, while also encouraging the reader to reflect on the relationship between history and literature, and on how the past is still memorialized through literature to serve various agendas in the present and for the future.