Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Barbey D'aurevilly's Une Page D'histoire: A Poetics of Incest

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Barbey D'aurevilly's Une Page D'histoire: A Poetics of Incest

Article excerpt

In every way, repetition is transgression. It questions law, denouncing its nominal or general characteristics, to the benefit of a more profound and artistic reality.

Gilles Deleuze(1)

The ourobouros, the serpent biting its tail that remains iconographically intact so as to signify unity, the end in the beginning, the Omega in the Alpha, will not do as a symbol for Barbey d'Aurevilly's short story, Une Page d'histoire (1882). But the witticism about the two snakes seen devouring each other that concludes with the punch line, "and when I looked again, they were both gone," will do. One might even say that it is an appropriate emblem for one of Barbey's most intriguing short stories, a narrative about transgression in which the real author elaborates what might be termed a "poetics of incest."

The narrator of Une Page d'histoire asserts that very few facts about Julien and Marguerite de Ravalet can be uncovered in the chronicle of their fate. What is known, the reader is told, is that at the end of the 16th century, during the reign of Henri IV, the beautiful Marguerite and Julien were brother and sister in a family made infamous for its crimes ever since it had come from Brittany to the chateau of Tourlaville in Normandy around 1400. After the brother and sister fell in love, their imperious father exiled his son and married off his daughter to an old man, Jean Le Fauconnier. Julien returned from exile, abducted Marguerite, and their traces were lost for more than a year. They were found in Paris, on a sad day in December, on their way to the scaffold. The most vivid historical detail available is that of Marguerite's being so beautiful that as she climbed the steps of the platform where she was going to die, she caused the executioner to become distraught. She slapped him smartly to bring him to his senses.(2)

Barbey's short story is symbolically "undone" in the tale of the Ravalets. As a decadent writer, Barbey was extremely fond of ambiguity and duplicity. This penchant was translated, semiologically, into a fondness for double entendres. The seme Ravalet recalls the verb ravaler, "to swallow again," and, as such, it emphasizes the termination of the family's race:

   La famille qui vivait la [in the chateau of Tourlaville] portait sans le
   savoir un nom fatidique. C'etait la famille de Ravalet ... Et de fait, elle
   devait un jour le ravaler, ce nom sinistre! Apres le crime de ses deux
   derniers descendants, elle s'excommunia elle-meme de son nom.

   [The family who lived there bore, without knowing it, a fateful name. They
   were called the Ravalets ... And in fact, one day the family would swallow
   down again that sinister name! Following the crime of its last two
   descendants, it excommunicated itself from its own name] Underlining in
   text. (369)(3)

The incestuous crime of Julien and Marguerite led to their deaths, to the end of the Ravalet family, and to the conclusion of the narrator's story. It also happens that Une Page d'histoire was the last narrative written by Barbey d'Aurevilly (1882).(4)

Ravalet--Ravaler: Barbey clearly plays with the polysemy of the words. Ravaler means not only "to swallow again," but also "to lower, throw down, cause to fall." Its first meaning relates to masonry, the "completion of a house's exterior walls," a work that goes from top to bottom, signifying "descent." Its figurative meanings are "to lower, depreciate, vilify, deprave, denigrate, disparage." In the 16th century the word acquired the meaning of avaler de nouveau, "to swallow again," or simply "to swallow," as in ravaler sa salive, "to swallow one's saliva," or metaphorically, je lui ferai ravaler ses paroles, "I will make him swallow his words." (In English people are made to eat their words--in French, to swallow them). Barbey has the last descendants of the Ravalets "swallowing their own name,"--gone, gone--as well as depreciating, denigrating, depraving it. …

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