More on Enid Starkie vs. Petrus Borel

(A further development of the previous post. At some point I will join the two posts into one.)

Starkie’s disapproval of Borel reveals itself in sharp passing comments scattered through the book.  Borel’s grandiose attitudes, irregular way of life, and lack of shrewdness and worldly wisdom are all blamed for his ultimate defeat, which she interprets as weakness. As far as I know Starkie gets the facts right, with one possible and rather large exception, but  she treats Borel’s misfortunes as, in effect,  judgments — things that wouldn’t have happened to a better man.

Starkie’s attitude toward her subject does not have to be teased out with the help of sophisticated hermeneutics:

Indeed nothing sound could be expected from the collaboration of two such madmen as Gerard de Nerval and Petrus Borel (p.148)

Neither he nor Nerval had been able to acclimatise themselves to ordinary everyday life (p. 191)

Champfleury describes him as a shabby middle-aged man…. talking solemnly and grandiloquently in archaic language. He still thought of himself as a leader, still tried to assert his ascendancy over others …. only Baudelaire, with his sympathy and understanding for failures, recognized something noble and fine in this tragic wreck….Life however broke Borel as it was never to break Baudelaire (p. 149)

[This is a repeated theme; Gautier was also "a survivor". Baudelaire, the greatest poet of the age unless it was Hugo, in fact admired Borel and learned from him, which suggests that Borel was, in fact, a leader.]

Petrus Borel was the kind of meteoric personality who is thrown up by violent revolution, whose light burns brightly for a short space, as long as the fashion for destruction prevails, and finally, because he cannot adapt himself to the conditions of a stable society, splutters out into obscurity.  (p. 193)

Borel was, as Starkie says, an impractical, tactless, and arrogant man whose works have been mostly forgotten, and  in the end he was defeated by life. There is one episode in Borel’s life, however, about which Starkie might very well have been flatly wrong. In 1846, after he had given up on literature, Borel accepted a government post in newly-conquered Algeria. During his time in Algeria there were two changes of regime in France, and his administrative superior also changed several times; furthermore, it was never quite certain whether he should be answering to the civilian administration or to the military. His tenure was rocky, and after a number of reprimands, in 1855 he brought an action against his superior de Gantès, accusing him of corruption. He lost, and in 1855 he was finally dismissed;  four years later he died in poverty.

Here’s what Starkie has to say about the episode:

Later, at the inquiry into Borel’s accusations, it transpired that he had tramped around the country collecting gossip and slander to build up his indictment, all of which he believed implicitly without verification, just as he had elicited it from idle wastrels who were ready to slander others provided that they were not obliged to substantiate their statements on oath in a court of law, ready to say anything for the sake of a free drink. (p. 181)

Whatever may be the truth concerning Borel’s allegations against de Gantès, there is little doubt that his action was, from his own point of view, extremely foolish….It is impossible to unravel the truth …whether true or false is not clear….[de Gantès'] supporters may well have been lying…. (p. 184)

De Gantès said that the trouble had started through Borel’s vanity. He said that under his predecessors the inspectors had been assuming more and more power, so that, when he was appointed, he had decide to keep them within their rightful functions. This, he said, seemed to have annoyed Borel, whose pride was wounded…. (p. 185)

A cleverer man than Borel would have left that particular hornet’s nest severely alone …. Audin says that a few months later the culprits were unmasked and that Quesnel, who was the scapegoat of the lot, was condemned to prison for two years. (p. 187)

Several things strike me about these passages. First, apparently Starkie finds Borel’s evident lack of worldly wisdom more important than whether he was right or wrong, or a good man hounded to his grave, or just unlucky loser in a bureaucratic struggle. Second, in several cases she clearly is repeating  Borel’s accuser’s allegations (or the conclusions of the packed court which supported his accuser) as fact.  And finally, here as elsewhere Starkie takes success in “ordinary everyday life” as a decisive standard.

There’s no “there but for the grace of God go I” in Starkie’s book, because Starkie would never have gone that way. For all her reported eccentricity, Starkie, unlike Borel and Nerval, was a worldly-wise survivor who knew which hornets’ nests to avoid and  how to flourish in the academic snakepit. Like any good bourgeois, she also knows that there’s no arguing with success, and the corollary of that is that there’s no excuse  for failure. And whatever Borel was, he was a failure.

Another author than Starkie (for example, me) might wonder whether Borel’s books might have been wrongly neglected , or whether Borel himself had been wronged in Algeria,  or whether Borel’s life might have gone differently if his books had sold better or if he had found a niche in journalism. Paris in the 1830s and 1840s was a creative place, but it was a harsh place too, virtually Third World, and Borel was not the only author of the time to have a difficult life. Starving artists of that era actually starved (or died of tuberculosis), and bourgeois parents quite reasonably tried to keep their sons and daughters from becoming writers. It makes more sense to think of Borel as a soldier who fell in battle than as a man born to fail or as someone brought down by his flaws. Literature in those days was a bloody business, and it also destroyed authors (Gerard de Nerval, Aloysius Bertrand) who are read and admired today.

The University (a prosperous, well-established institution which  provides its minions with a routinized path to success) has made itself the final judge of literary worth . But academic critics of literature and biographers of authors live in an entirely different world than do their pitiful subjects. The potential problems with this should be evident.***


* L’Âne mort et la Femme Guillotinée, Janin’s parody of les frénétiques, was so well done that some suspected that he had become one of them.

**Starkie’s documentation is in her very-hard-to-find Petrus Borel en Algérie (Blackwell, 1950). (Here’s a  brief review.) It’s possible that some of  my questions would be answered there.

***This reminds me of the Ultimate Failure Series of my youth. Apparently one of the things about American writers is that they ultimately fail. Twain, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Neill, Faulkner, and God knows who else — all failures. To me this seemed like a dangerous judgment for faceless academic bureaucrats to be making.

Published in: on April 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve liked the recent writing on Haquelbac, but of course I’m one of those annoying people who zeroes in on the one thing they didn’t like.

    So I was a bit doubtful about this:
    “To me it makes more sense to think of Borel as a sad case of someone who really deserved better and almost made it [...]”

    Isn’t that re-introducing a certain kind of sentimentality just after you’d gone to some trouble to fan it away? Starkie writes about her subject through a lens of classic bourgeois judgement. Doesn’t this “sad case”, “deserved better” bit also involve an implicit looking down?

    There is a sense in which anyone who almost starves to death is a sad case who deserves better, of course. But this seems to be more particularly about Borel. If you can say that anyone in the same situation might have ended up the same way, doesn’t that become social critique — and in that case how can an individual deserve better?

    • I’ll probably rewrite the last para with that and other things in mind. Sometimes I publish prematurely just to ahve something up. Thx.

      I also forgot the colloqiual meaning of “sad case”, which is like “loser”, whereas I intended the direct meaning, one case among others, distinguished by sadness.

  2. Why are all the “è”s set in Times New Roman?

    • I usually cut and paste accented and haceked letters, but this time I forgot to change font.

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