Nerval's "Le Christ Aux Oliviers": The Subject Writes after Its Own Death

By Strauss, Jonathan | The Romanic Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Nerval's "Le Christ Aux Oliviers": The Subject Writes after Its Own Death


Strauss, Jonathan, The Romanic Review


On the one hand, saying `I die' is the condition of possibility of any `I'

whatsoever; on the other hand, `I die' is not anything that can be said

by an `I' since death can have no, is no, subject.

--Andrzej Warminski(1)

God is dead!

--Jean Paul(2)

It seems to me that I am dead and that I am accomplishing that second

life of God.

--Nerval(3)

In discussing the sublimation of the self in writing, Paul de Man conceived

of modern literary theory as caught between opposing tendencies, one towards an

effort to read in works the plenitude of a lived personal experience, the other

towards reading in them the barrenness and asceticism of a transcendental,

impersonally exemplary self that would lead to insights about the nature of

being itself.(4) Michel Foucault described the madness of the French Romantic

poet Gerard de Nerval as the untenable attempt to express the immediacy of

sensuous experience in the mediacy of discourse.(5) De Man was writing

of the difference between two ways of reading a text, while Foucault was

concerned with the opposition between discourse and something irreducibly

alien to it, but both critics nonetheless offered models of a subjectivity

caught between the fullness of its own experiences and the loss of that

fullness in language. By emphasizing the impersonality a subject can acquire

in writing, de Man advanced a kind of textual interpretation that closely

parallels Nerval's conception of the effect that authorship had on his

perception of himself and his world, for the poet was aware of a potential

inherent in writing to reduce the immediacy of lived experience into the

lifelessness of abstract individuality and he was conscious that the price

of lending a literary coherence to the painfully disjunctive experiences of

his own life was possibly the transformation of that life into a mere textual

impersonation of particular subjectivity. What makes Nerval especially

interesting in this respect, is that despite this awareness he attempted

nonetheless to evoke the fullness and particularity of himself in certain of

his works, to entrust himself living to the anonymity and death that writing

came to signify for him. It is this attempt to evoke the living individual

with the plenitude of his particularity in the abstract coherence of a text

that became the subject, in a variety of senses, of Nerval's poetic output; it

also situates Nerval at the center of what Foucault described as an epochal

shift in the literary experience of madness and what de Man identified as the

crucial difficulty of interpreting subjectivity in twentieth-century literary

theory.

The relation between concrete individual and abstract absolute lay at the

heart of German Romanticism and from there made its way into France. It

appeared with its annihilating horror in theories of the sublime. It is

figured in the recurrent scenario of Isis's unveiling and the subsequent

destruction of the adorator who had dared to view face to face that divine

instantiation of the principle of universality itself.(6) It was the

irritating seed from which Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit was born. The

various conceptual premises, tendencies, and, to a certain degree, anxieties

which govern Nerval's construction of a literary subjectivity derive largely

from the theoretical parameters of Romantic individuality as determined by

thinkers such as Kant, Schiller, and Novalis, and in fact, the central issues

of his elaboration of such a written subjectivity constitute a relocation of

the sublime relation between individual and absolute from the realms of nature,

spirituality, and death--where it had presided for the Germans--into a purely

linguistic realm. …

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