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Friday, November 16, 2012

Reading #7: Boileau, Gautier, and Hugo

We’re 85% finished installing the exhibition on Romanticism and the Avant-Garde, so it seems like an appropriate time to move on and begin the first reading from Vol. II of the anthology, “Classicism and Romanticism,” pp. 15-37. We’ll move on to Reading #8 whenever it seems right. 

(I’ve put a link to the free PDF in the right-hand sidebar)  =>
or just download it HERE

The passage from Boileau probably ought to have been in Vol. I; as I was putting this volume together I realised that I should have had more classicist stuff in there (my Romantic partisanship runs deep, apparently). Our discussions in the CHS class have corrected this somewhat; but I’ve actually read very little—Racine’s Phaedra and a couple scenes of Moliére. Boileau seems to have utterly dominated the whole conception of what literature is for well over a century, and the utter obscurity into which he and most of the writers who followed his precepts have since fallen is an indication of just how successful Romanticism was. When it comes down to it, we’re still Romantics in our basic outlook; but Romanticism grew so pervasive and complex that we can’t see its edges any more, so we just call it ‘culture’.. 

Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell is sprawling, and these passages scarcely skim the surface. This was the foundational text for the militant form of Romanticism that had been bubbling up for the last few years; Gautier relates that in the apartment shared by the Jeunes-France, 
On a modest set of shelves of wild-cherry wood, hung by cords, shone, among a few choice volumes, a copy of Cromwell, with a friendly dedication, signed V. H. The veneration of Protestants for the Bible, or that of Mohammedans for the Koran did not surpass mine for that volume, which was indeed to me the book of books, the work that contained the true doctrine.” 
He anticipates and paraphrases all the Classicist objections he expects to get, which is nice for reconstructing the orthodoxy that he and the otherRomantics were trying to overturn.

The passages from Gautier get at what is almost always left out of non-specialist overviews and discussions of French Romanticism (and most specialist ones too): The large, underground Romanticist subculture that was the flesh and bone of the movement. Five or ten ‘big name’ intellectuals publishing a few manifestos, some novels and poems, making some paintings and symphonies does not make a cultural revolution. What makes it is a seething underground of hundreds of young men and women questioning every aspect of received culture. We’ll get into this further in later readings, but Gautier introduces us here to that subculture. I particularly enjoy Daniel Jovard going back to his room and destroying all his classicist books, throwing away his Classicist clothes, etc. It reminds me of a 20th Century teenager going home and breaking all his disco records after he hears Slayer for the first time. Some things never change…The best historical memoirs of the avant-garde convey not only the excitement and passion of the movements they deal with, but the reality of them: the fact that they were not grandiose, abstract explosions of genius, but rather groups of close friends doing what they love, and doing it with such passion that they collectively urge each other into deeper and more extreme challenges. Hans Richter’s Dada: Art & Anti-Art was such a book, which utterly transformed my own life; Gautier is the only person I know who does so with equal exhuberence, humour, and generosity.

A few prompts, for what it’s worth:
  • Dig up some more Classicist texts (especially since we'll need some poems and maybe a few scenes from a play for the Classicism vs. Romanticism Rematch event here next month). 
  • Take a look at the rest of Hugo's Preface to Cromwell--or at the play itself. What else is in there? What in the play corresponds to the point Hugo's making in the Preface?
  • Some other important Romantic texts that I couldn't fit in are Stendhal's Racine and Shakespeare, Mme. de Staël's On Germany, Lamartine's Meditations, and Chateaubriand's Genius of Christianity
  • We could go more into painting at this time--there will be a reading on Romanticist painting and another on avant-garde Romantic prints later on, but 1820-30 is a weird no-man's land where Géricault's dead with no real successors, Classicism is still everywhere, but some artists are slowly taking on Romantic tendencies. The only hard-core, self-declared Romantics I know of during most of the 1820s are the Devéria brothers, Delacroix, and Louis Boulanger.
  • Music, too: We're right before Berlioz, Liszt, Chopin, Paganini, Musard, Monpou, etc. launch their 'assault' on music; Beethoven can be played, but it's controversial and often needs to have sections re-written and toned-down for French audiences. What are the links between the generation of Mozart and Vivaldi, and that of the full-on Romantics? I know they liked Weber a lot... (Gautier's articles on Berlioz would be a good starting point, and no doubt Berlioz' own writing)...
  • Gautier's stories and poems are always written for researchers, with cultural references right and left. This is very intentional--knowing that they'd be forgotten within a generation or two, all of the avant-garde Romantics deployed tons of narrative details, epigraphs, descriptions, quotations, character names, dedications etc. so that future generations could fully reconstruct the subculture by following them all up. So there are about 50 possible research routes in his passages.

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