Victor Hugo's European Utopia

By Ousselin, Edward | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Victor Hugo's European Utopia

Ousselin, Edward, Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Throughout most of his work, Hugo identified himself with his century, and with the progressive, indeed historically providential mission he saw being accomplished by the people of France--or, more specifically, of Paris--through the continuation, in its various forms, of the 1789 Revolution. The prophetic function of Hugo, the people's visionary poet, found a logical outlet in his political role, which allowed him to exalt the splendors of the future as he saw it with the same level of energy and rhetorical skill he devoted to denouncing the injustices of his own era. As Digeon put it, Hugo elaborated "un ideal d'avenir qui se presente comme un au-dela de l'histoire, fonde sur la recusation du passe" (17). Hugo was not, as Nash pointed out, the only major French writer of his century seeking to interpret the course of universal history and to influence it through his literary and political activities: "Hugo, Lamartine, and Vigny were all dedicated to the belief in the redemptive power of language as a means of altering the course of history. [...] For them politics was very much a part of the poet's domain" (17). What large segments of his writings indicate is that Hugo came to identify historical progress and accomplishment with the utopian goal of a peaceful, united Europe. This goal constitutes the intersecting point of several Hugolian themes and polemical stances. It is the point at which his literary and his political roles, or self-appointed missions, connect: "Je voudrais signer ma vie par un grand acte, et mourir. Ainsi, la fondation des Etats-Unis d'Europe" (Ocean 15: 294). With the telling phrase, "signer ma vie," Hugo likened his own existence to one of his works, and linked his life-work to a goal which he endowed with almost eschatological import. His faith in future universal redemption was largely unaffected by the numerous setbacks inflicted to his ideals during his own lifetime. While Marcel Proust, in a famous passage, would later nostalgically seek to reconstruct "l'edifice immense du souvenir" (47), Hugo never stopped looking ahead, towards the European utopia he referred to in an 1851 speech at the National Assembly as "cet edifice immense de l'avenir" (Acres et Paroles 110: 275). (1)

In Hugo's passionate vision--"Car Dieu le veut, ce but sublime!" (10: 302) --which he first delivered, fittingly enough, at a peace conference in Paris in August 1849, the diverse peoples inhabiting the European states will peacefully coalesce into a multinational unit, just as the provinces had earlier combined in order to form French unity. Combining practicality with fervent prophecy, he pointed out that European unity would provide the means to end a long series of wars, and thus at last allow its inhabitants to enjoy the fruits of peace: "c'est la pour ma part le but auquel je tendrai toujours, extinction de la misere au dedans, extinction de la guerre au dehors" ("Discours d'ouverture. Congres de la paix a Paris," Actes et paroles 110: 304). During his speech at the conference, of which he was the president, Hugo called for, among other things, the transfer of military budgets to civilian purposes, the development of education, technology, and commerce--and the continuation of colonial expansion as a means of alleviating "la misere" within Europe. He figuratively placed France at the political center of a Europe-wide federal structure that would be as vast, geographically and demographically, as the United States of America, an implicit example, if not a model, for the future European federation. Hugo's conception of a united Europe, built along the lines of the French political and cultural model--with Paris as a common capital--was based on the French people's historical role since the Revolution.

Although he lived through several revolutions, and directly participated in crushing one in 1848, (2) Hugo, as both a pacifistic idealist and a practical-minded property-owner, did not advocate the accomplishment of societal transformation through violent means: "Ni despotisme, ni terrorisme. …

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