Nineteenth-Century French Studies 12.4/13.1 (1984):178-180.
Crouzet, Michel. La Poétique de Stendhal. Paris: Flammarion, "Nouvelle Bibliothèque Scientifique," 1983. 329 pp.
[Reprinted with the editorial permission of Nineteenth-Century French Studies]
The last few years have been both the period of the bicentenary celebration of Henri Beyle's birth and a period of rejuvenation of Stendhal scholarship, largely thanks to the contributions of Michel Crouzet. Since the beginning of this decade, Crouzet's works of literary analysis and documentation have included Stendhal et le langage (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), Stendhal et l'italianité (Paris: Corti, 1982), La Vie de Henry Brulard ou l'enfance de la révolte (Paris: Corti, 1982), a two-volume edition of Lucien Leuwen with copious annotations by Crouzet (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1982), a major essay on Lucien Leuwen in the proceedings of the February 1983 colloquium on Le Plus Meconnu des Romans de Stendhal, "Lucien Leuwen" (Paris: CDU-SEDES, 1983), and an annotated edition, Quatre études sur Lucien Leuwen. Crouzet's recent addition to this rapidly expanding critical library, La Poétique de Stendhal, is but the first volume of a clearly ambitious project entitled Essai sur la genèse du romantisme.
In La Poétique de Stendhal, Crouzet continues a study undertaken in Stendhal et le langage, the examination of Stendhal's "crise du langage" and his passage from a phased of mistrust of language to an eventual reconciliation with it through the conception of a unique "poétique." Crouzet now views the period of Stendhal's early career from the perspective of the growth of modernism in the post-revolutionary period: the only way in which the writer could respond to his mistrust of linguistic self-consciousness was with "la 'terreur'," and Crouzet proposes to demonstrate that "Stendhal se trouve, mais partiellement, à l'origine, et comme la première victime visible ou conscient de cette inquiétiude de la mauvaise foi littéraire" (p.12). To do this, Crouzet divides his study in two sections: the title of the first, "L'Ere du Soupçon," suggests Crouzet's strategy of linking his analysis to Stendhal et le langage through an examination of the elements that inspire Stendhal's mistrust and revolt against language; then, in the second section, "Le Sublime," Crouzet uncovers the elements which constitute Stendhal's compromise with language through a "poétique du sublime."
The title of this study's first section also reveals Crouzet's belief that an age of mistrust existed well before "l'ère du soupçon" heralded by Nathalie Sarraute, and that Stendhal's writings express both the refusal of a "parole institutionalisée, socialisée" and the demand for an aesthetic based on "la vérité d'une `passion', dans la cruauté d'une nature ébranlée par l'art" (pp. 16-18), in other words, the "sublime." Since, as Crouzet maintains, "le beyliste va . . . se diriger vers une possible union des contraires où nous découvrirons la restauration au moins
d'une `poétique'" (p. 20), the process of this "discovery" lies at the heart of Crouzet's approach: he first considers the "situation de l'écrivain révolté," of which Stendhal offers a prime example of both writer and "révolté" in his formative stages. From his unsuccessful attempts at writing Molièresque comedies, Stendhal understood that the roles of writer and "mondain" were formed simultaneously, art in complicity with society and vice versa. But Stendhal's very attempt to found a new relationship with language in order to avoid this complicity inspired a profound distrust and lack of certainty as to the relations of the writer with language. The result was a revolt against the writer's self-consciousness as being all too literary, rhetorical, with Racine et Shakespeare offering a "terrorist" attack on the sterility and connivance of classicism (Racine) and a call for literature "à l'état sauvage" (Shakespeare).
Crouzet then explains the reasons for Stendhal's profound suspicion of writing:: in three chapters, he examines, from the Romanticist's perspective, the decline of literature in the eighteenth century, the hypocrisy of "la littérature au piège des rapports sociaux," and in particular, the contamination of classicism due to its collaboration with the political power of the "Ancien Régime" which implied "la contrainte sociale sur la littérature et la contrainte politique sur les hommes" (p. 89). But Stendhal wavered between a reform of writing and a revolt against it: "Ou bien il s'agit de rétablir le mouvement naturel de l'invention qui d'âge en âge a fait succéder des `romantiques', ou bien le `romantique' est tout de même d'une autre nature que ses prédecesseurs classiques. . . . Trouver en somme le point, le point où le conflit disparaît, où les deux côtés n'en font qu'un" (p. 103). Crouzet completes the first section by examining the various facets of this "être romantique", portraying Stendhal-Romanticist as a man of limitless authenticity, of a "stylistique de l'égotisme." Stendhal's paradoxical situation of admitting the possibility of constructing an ideal nature, "et non sur une nature d'emprunt ou de tradition", but also the possibility "que l'on puisse recevoir la nature elle est un donné extérieur à la fonction poétique" (p. 117) leads to "la `Terreur'" of the modernist age of suspicion: "La parole qui se veut authentique n'est plus dans la littérature, au contraire, il faut la conquérir contre la littérature, par une subversion qui la détruit pour la fonder" (p. 120). And Crouzet closes this section by showing how Stendhal's "terrorist" activity has been used by a contemporary "terrorist," Paul Valéry, against the "beyliste" himself.
But what framework allows Stendhal to overcome his suspicion-laden trap? An aesthetic of the "sublime", whose components Crouzet examines throughout the second section. He defines "le sublime" as "la prise de conscience de soi par l'anéantissement de soi, devant les puissances inexpiables, devant une Vérité qui . . . est en fait impensable et indicible" (p. 133). This aesthetic current, whose adherents include Longin, Burke, Fénélon, Helvétius, Alfieri, Schiller, Diderot and Shakespeare, inspired Stendhal to seek a form of expression which was both "parole" and "action", a cult of energy which Crouzet calls "la version esthétique ou rhétorique de l'attitude révoltée" (p. 140). Thus, in the second section, Crouzet considers the relationship of this aesthetic of extremes with its origins ("Le Sublime: L'Enjeu"), with "la `Terreur'" ("Le Sublime: la Beauté Terrible", whose principle is "l'oxymoron beyliste" from De l'amour, "l'amour malheureux est
180 Nineteenth-Century French Studies
bonheur"), with the duos "Beauté et Laideur" and "Beauté et Sympathie", and with another emotion, "Sens de la `Douleur Regrettante'." Finally, Crouzet examines the relationship between art and politics in a chapter entitled "'Le coup de pistolet dans un concert'" , and affirms that, for Stendhal, "l'essentiel, c'est que littéraire soit presque antagoniste de politique; . . . Littéraire s'oppose à un type d'intérêt personnel, virulent et réel, et surtout désagréable . . . l'odieux" (pp. 282-283). In other words, Stendhal's aesthetic oscillated between a literature which "se confond avec le but avoué, avec une finalité immédiate qui est celle de la tentation politique, celle de la vulgarité ordinaire" and a literature that "fuit cette bassesse égoïste, vers les hauteurs d'un déintéressement sublime" (p. 283). Thus, for Stendhal, "le coup de pistolet" is the fundamental problem "de la force et de l'idéal, du sublime et du beau, du moi esthétique aussi bien, des rapports de I'art et de la réalité vécue" (p. 284), and it is precisely this conjunction of opposites which Stendhal conceives as the very function of the novel.
For readers of the earlier Stendhal et le langage, Crouzet's new study may appear to cover material already well examined, and to a certain extent, this is correct since, in each work, Crouzet considers Stendhal's passage from suspicion and hesitation to compromise and action. But a main difference between these two studies is that in La Poétique de Stendhal, Crouzet no longer focuses his analysis primarily on the manner in which the eighteenth-century theorists influenced the crisis of language reflected in Stendhal's works. Rather, Crouzet now considers the same problematic from the perspective of how this crisis emerged both in Stendhal's conception of writing and in the general context of romanticism and of the progress of modemity. One suggestion for readers new to Crouzet's work is to start with La Poétique de Stendhal, which provides an accessible foundation for understanding Stendhal's suspicion of and reconciliation with language, and then proceed to the broader analysis in Stendhal et le langage. However one approaches the work of this foremost of "stendhaliens", the task is frequently arduous, given Crouzet's complex style, often with three or four major ideas woven together in a single sentence. But despite the effort that one must expend, the reward is a progressive sequence of insights which constantly engage the reader's attention and challenge his/her understanding of a literary corpus whose fine points are only beginning to emerge two centuries after the author's birth.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University