Senancour's 'Oberman': Experiments in the Ascetic Sublime

Article excerpt

In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists--and if it did, it would have no value.

If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental.(1)

Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus

Senancour (1770-1846) occupies an uncomfortable place in French literary history. Little read, seldom taught,(2) he has intimidated audiences by a prose style that combines the intensely private and the intemperately descriptive. A consummate adversary of plot, an undaunted detractor of gothic frills, Senancour is one of those writers whose stature has depended a great deal on the acknowledgments of a few towering figures--Proust's famous exclamation "Senancour c'est moi," Sainte-Beuve's and Sand's elegiac prefaces of Oberman-but whose actual reputation is based on hearsay, rather than on first-hand knowledge. It is undeniable that Oberman (1804) is a long and difficult work(3), one that also had the bad luck of spearheading with some of the more obviously pivotal Romantic novels (Rene, Adolphe, Delphine). Readers who sought in Oberman the confessions of a lesser-known enfant du siecle hardly knew how to respond to this anachronistic stoic, looking for redemption in a self-styled retreat from the world.

This essay argues that Senancour's epistolary novel is antithetical to most of his contemporaries' writings about the self. It is a series of letters that rethinks aggressively the relationship between landscape and subjectivity, between writing and empathy. For a semi-autobiographical work, with its share of melancholic etats-d'ame, Senancour manages to thwart any reading that could fulfil the public's need for solace and identification. With the severity of a Pascal and the indifference of a Lautreamont, Senancour's Oberman is one of the staunchest manifestations of what would constitute a poetics of renunciation. As with any type of writing that depends on a radical expulsion of the self, while operating from the vantage point of the first-person, it treads exciting new grounds in the history of reader-response.

Had Senancour known Rene at the time he wrote Oberman, then it would be tempting to say that his aesthetics were a reaction against Chateaubriand's self-absorbed, anthropomorphic prose. But it would be more accurate to portray Senancour, this steadfast disciple of Rousseau, as a philosophe manque, who would use the rhetoric of the Reveries to conceptualize a self-absorption of a very different kind. Senancour's idiosyncratic readings of Jean-Jacques are rooted in a contradictory impulse: to rewrite a history of consciousness based on neglected, peripheral areas of experience--sleep, daydreaming, tea-drinking--areas that humble, rather than elevate the self. Senancour's project was to salvage Nature from the burdensome pathetic fallacies of its viewers. He achieves this by using the first-person to erect a private, narcissistic edifice, at the same time that this first-person subtly exposes the vanity of such an approach.(4) The brilliant and paradoxical demonstration of Oberman is that the self can only be known once it has grasped its own irrelevance. Senancour's journey is one of ascetic self-distancing; its originality is that it begins by drawing the reader in (the way a journal intime would), but makes its message more and more abstract and impersonal. Senancour writes about a self that is to be emptied of its purely subjective content, raising questions of artistic autonomy that were disseminated by Kant's Critique of Judgement and that have dominated aesthetic theory until today.

Oberman is one of those rare literary experiments that demands from the reader a genuine rethinking of what reading is all about. Senancour clearly felt that literature was becoming synonymous with hedonism, self-indulgence, and a general desire to epater le bourgeois:

[l']avidite des extremes . …