Literature and the Death of Folklore: In and around Nerval's Sylvie

By Gipson, Jennifer | The Romanic Review, January-March 2011 | Go to article overview

Literature and the Death of Folklore: In and around Nerval's Sylvie


Gipson, Jennifer, The Romanic Review


"A vant d'ecrire, chaque peuple a chante." (1) With this seeming truism, A Gerard de Nerval (1808-55) opens "Les Vieilles Ballades francaises" in La Sylphide in July 1842. Nerval, a member of the Petit Cenacle where young Romantics like Theophile Gautier gathered in the 1830s, published many an article in French periodicals, as did other writers who lived by the market demands of the mid-nineteenth century. But Nerval's folklore collection was more than a curiosity to be forgotten with the next newspaper. He reworked it a total of six times--a career record by Frank Paul Bowman's count (177)--and finally appended it as "Chansons et legendes du Valois" to an 1854 republication of Sylvie, souvenirs du Valois, "un petit roman qui n'est pas tout a fait un conte" in the author's own words (3: 821). Furthermore, Nerval's opening observation about orality and writing actually reflects a widespread concern in his time for the future of tradition. In the nineteenth-century French imagination, modernity not only introduces a proliferation of cheap print, newspapers, and new literary forms; it also stifles age-old oral traditions, sparking debates about cultural transmission and preservation. In fact, Nerval's seemingly simple statement about literature's lineage in "Les Vieilles Ballades francaises" implicitly asks a complex question about its future: Will nineteenth-century literature be its oral forebears' faithful keeper, rightful heir, or indifferent replacement?

In this light, Walter Benjamin's famous essay "The Storyteller" (1936) might be considered a prolongation of the stories of loss propagated by some of the very writers or literary forms Benjamin references. Benjamin considers the death of the storyteller and the disappearance of direct communication as unavoidable consequences of nineteenth-century industrialization and its attendant lifestyle changes. In generic terms, the novel replaces the story. But in personal terms, people lose their very ability to share experiences. In contrast to Benjamin's retrospective view, however, nineteenth-century writers themselves repeatedly cast their time as both the eyewitness to and the cause of the storyteller's death. This does not reduce the critical value of Benjamin's many powerful remarks about the changing genre of the story or shifts in what it means to read, listen, communicate, live, or die. But it does point to a chapter of literary history that remains to be written about how authors, in the face of the very changes Benjamin highlights, imagine the end of storytelling to generate new ways of positioning the written text vis-a-vis orality and tradition.

Nerval was not alone among nineteenth-century writers in his fascination with the songs, stories, or customs--traditions populaires--that we might today group under the terra "folklore." (2) However, Nerval's oeuvre is unique in that his pervasive interest in folklore takes so many forms, from a plea for environmental conservation cast as a folktale to reflections on professional storytellers in the Orient. Sylvie--the tale of a Parisian narrator's love for three different women who sometimes overlap in his mind--is no exception. In Sylvie, the narrator returns to his native Valois expecting his childhood sweetheart Sylvie to be a faithful keeper of traditions. But reality disappoints: reading has replaced singing and storytelling; industrialized labor has supplanted sewing and lace making.

Sylvie has given rise to voluminous scholarship and great critical acclaim, including Marcel Proust's admiration for a blurred temporality that borders on the dreamlike. (3) But many of the stories that Sylvie tells find their significance not in their originality but in their echoes of pervasive cultural narratives. Sylvie's progression from peasant roots to a literate urban life is emblematic of the fact that more people were reading, a major cultural preoccupation that, as Jacques Ranciere shows, prompts fears about the decline of literary standards (La Parole muette 71-79). …

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