Academic journal article French Forum

Literature of Ideas and Paul Bourget's Republican Pedagogy

Academic journal article French Forum

Literature of Ideas and Paul Bourget's Republican Pedagogy

Article excerpt

On a oublie sur Bourget le quatrain de Becque:
'Pour obtenir enfin la vogue
J'ai pris des airs de pedagogue
Je pontifie et j'epilogue
C'est moi qui suis le psychologue.'

Paul Leautaud.

Edgar Allan Poe would have accused Paul Bourget of heresy. He would have vilified him for committing the most egregious literary crime of all: the subordination of aesthetics to moral instruction. The literary work must strive to be Beautiful, wrote Poe, and, accordingly, one must judge it by its ability to satisfy the artistic standards of taste, harmony and formal decorum. Writers concerned first with the inculcation of a sense of moral duty commit an act of heresy--what Poe called the "heresy of The Didactic." (1)

Critics and scholars since the late nineteenth century have treated Bourget as a literary "heretic," an enemy of l'art pour l'art, a practitioner of that moralizing and oppressively artless genre: literature a these or thesis literature. As such, Bourget often falls victim to the kind of ridicule typified in the few lines of doggerel above. He is remembered as a pedagogue in the worst sense of the term: an insufferable dogmatist, a "pontificating" pedant. In addition to Robert's Dictionnaire de citations sur les personnages celebres, from which the epigraph is taken, numerous critics and literary authorities have helped memorialize this unfavorable view. Lagarde and Michard, for instance, lament the "ton didactique et oratoire" of his novels. (2) Ramon Fernandez has described Bourget's work as "une oeuvre legislatrice." (3) Summarizing the critical consensus circa 1951, Jacques Laurent calls him "le type meme du romancier a these." (4) More recent scholarship corroborates this assessment of Bourget. In her 1983 study of the roman a these, Susan Suleiman presents Bourget as an exemplar of the "authoritarian," didactic novelist, and Jacqueline Lalouette, writing in 1998, refers to his most famous novel, Le Disciple, as "son plus celebre roman a these." (5) The verdict among critics is (almost) unanimous: Bourget is a didactic ideologue, a literary pulpiteer.

But Bourget, himself, vehemently condemned the very genre with which his name was synonymous. He maintained that his novels were not romans a these but rather romans a idees. "La difference est radicale," he said. (6) In numerous essays written between 1886 and 1922, Bourget commented time and again on what he considered a fundamental distinction. He accused thesis literature of privileging the author's subjective opinion over the representation of objective reality. "La litterature a these subordonne ... la verite de la peinture a une demonstration posee a priori dans l'esprit de l'auteur." (7) It "demonstrates" the author's pre-established convictions, mere beliefs unsupported by empirical observation; it thereby distorts reality. Litterature a idees, on the other hand, has nothing to prove or demonstrate: "Son premier caractere est le realisme de la peinture." It is first and foremost a literature of observation. "Elle constate, puis elle conclut." (8) The writer's impartial study of positive facts precedes any assessment of them. Whereas thesis literature sermonizes, literature of ideas, according to Bourget, scrutinizes.

Conceived of in these terms, Bourget's literature of ideas remains faithful to the main intellectual currents of the scientific nineteenth century. Like so many writers of the time, Bourget believed he was applying the principles of the new sciences to the literary enterprise. Though a periodic friend and admirer of Zola, Bourget by and large disapproved of the excessive sensualism and supposed debauchery of the naturalist school. He turned his scientific gaze from the material world to the intellect and states of mind. (9) And his preferred science was psychology. In his Essais de psychologic contemporaine as well as in numerous novels, the "psychologist" Bourget tried to analyze meticulously the subtle workings of the human mind, which he described as a clockworks with gears, springs and flywheels. …

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