You can’t tell the players without a program

France around 1830 was rich in factions and tendencies, and you can’t read about the French literature of the first half of the 19th century without running into a large number of competing groups — political, literary, or simply social. So I have compiled a list.

France changed its form of government four times between 1787 and 1830 (plus another couple of changes during the revolutionary period), and in 1830 partisans of most of the past regimes were still around. The main political factions were the ultra-royalists, the Girondin republicans, the Jacobin republicans, the American-style republicans, the Bonapartists, and the moderate semi-liberal royalists who took power with the July Revolution. Besides these there were utopian socialist followers of Fourier or Saint-Simon, but while they got their ideas out, they didn’t really have a political role, and whatever groups the bottom 70% of the population had were regarded with fear and disdain.

The only faction that was probably lacking was one supporting the overthrown Restoration government. The Bourbons had been imposed on France by England and Germany after Napoleon’s defeat, and while they weren’t royalist enough for the ultras, they were too royalist for everyone else. This set a pattern for France — the moderate royalist regime established in 1830 didn’t make anyone happy either, and examples could be multiplied.

In the literary world, the big split was between the romantics just coming onstage, and everyone else:  the classicists, philosophes, and republicans. To begin with, the romantics were led by Charles Nodier of l’Arsenal (a library), but around 1830 Victor Hugo seized power for his Cénacle, and a little after 1830 Théophile Gautier and Petrus Borel established the Petit Cénacle, which included younger writers. (Nodier, Hugo, and Gautier became famous for praising the writing of anyone who ever brought them a manuscript.) The first two groups were just salons, but many of the members of the Petit Cénacle were housemates, and they threw rowdy parties of a type which should be familiar to many readers.

Most of the factional activity took place among the romantics. The romantic factions were Les Meditateurs, Les Frénétiques, Les Larmoyants, Les Illuminés, Le Petit Cénacle, Les Jeunes-France, Les Buveurs d’Eau, the literary Bousingots, the political Bousingots, Les Badouillards, Les  Muscardins (dormice), Les Dandys and Les Bohème.*  Dividing lines between the groups were fluid, with a lot of overlap and switching.  The heaviest action took place between 1831 (by which time the new government had succeeded in disappointing everyone)   and 1834, when violent uprisings took place and most writers became apolitical. The polemical fervor of these groups belies the fact that most of them, if they had any politics at all, were vaguely republican or liberal and never much more than that. The battles were cultural.

Most of the countercultural forms and rituals now in effect anywhere in the world can be traced to this period, so the reader who has mastered the categories listed above will be well-equipped to pigeonhole writers and counterculturalists of almost any era.

Of the French political factions, only the moderate royalists really had a chance, since France or Germany would have intervened if an assertive Napoleonic or republican government had been established. Political moderation (le juste milieu) was invented during the July Monarchy at the same time as counterculturalism, and it really couldn’t have been any other way. Le juste milieu produces minimally tolerable government which doesn’t make anyone happy, and that seems to be the best that we can hope for.

*Les éclectiques les doctrinaires, and les muscadins  were not romantics and belonged to an earlier period.

Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 1:42 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s le juste milieu, milieu being a masculine noun. Amusing ballad here.

  2. Corrected. But I got it right one time out of two, which is almost perfect. The -e in juste threw me off.

  3. I was just re-reading God and the State and I remember that Bakunin said something about Hugo. Ah, Google found it:

    “After this great triumph, the idealistic reaction sought and found servants less fanatical, less terrible nearer to the diminished stature of the actual bourgeoisie. In France, Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and – shall I say it? Why not? All must be said if it is truth – Victor Hugo himself, the democrat, the republican, the quasi-socialist of today! and after them the whole melancholy and sentimental company of poor and pallid minds who, under the leadership of these masters, established the modern romantic school in Germany, the Schlegels, the Tiecks, the Novalis, the Werners, the Schellings, and so many others besides, whose names do not even deserve to be recalled.”

    Bakunin is therefore a sort of forefather of the holier-than-thou radical, I suppose.

  4. That’s sort of odd because Romanticism came to France rather late, from Germany and England, and I wouldn’t have thought those Frenchmen to have been leaders outside France (except Hugo much later). But B. is more or less ^right^ about sentimental quasi-socialist humanism.

    Hugo was a mammoth figure who’s totally out of fashion now in the university even though his fiction still is popular. Thirty to fifty movies have been made from his novels. He’s one of the greatest of the French poets, and he had a hand into developing popular Catholicism and Christian Democracy (for a long time the Church had been rigidly tied to the aristocracy, as it still sometimes is in Latin America.) He also had a knack for finding a viable political position at any giving time and asserting whatever it was vigorously, even though his positions changed more than once.

  5. John is correct. Bakunin’s statement is really strange, because the German examples he cites are much earlier than the French. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1774, and Lamartine’s productive period was the 1830’s and 1840’s – fifty to sixty years afterwards. Lamartine stands in relationship to Goethe as somebody from our day stands in relationship to the writers of the early 1950s. It’s like saying Dave Eggers was Flannery O’Connor’s intellectual mentor.

  6. Well, I wasn’t really quoting the statement for purported accuracy.

    Actually, one of the reasons that I like Bakunin is that he writes almost exactly like a comment box troll.

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