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In a Sick Society


ISSUE:  Winter 1999

Sick Heroes: French Society and Literature in the Romantic Age, 1750-1850. By Alan H. Pasco, Northwestern University Press. $24.95.

Alan Pasco does an injustice to his interesting and original book by giving it a rather unprepossessing main title, Sick Heroes. Readers’ attention should be directed more to the subtitle, for Pasco’s achievement stems from his ability to perceive social history in literature and conversely to read literature as social history. These two facets of French civilization in the Romantic age are closely intertwined throughout to give new insight into both literary works and social circumstances.

In light of the doubling of the number of novels between the 1750’s and the 1790’s, Pasco chooses to cast them “as an important lens that brings the individual reality of the period into focus.” His methodology rests on the fundamental premise of the special suitability of novels as vehicles of social history. Since this popular form is designed for a mass audience and written for the general public, and also is expansive in its length, density, and flexibility, the genre can best serve as in investigative tool and a fertile source for an understanding of the period’s mindset and cultural reality. So Pasco aims to reveal, possibly even, he claims tentatively, to “‘psychoanalyze’” an entire age, suggesting causes for some of the salient characteristics of its literature through dissection of its social fabric. Instead of regarding details of period or place as merely serving to endow literary works with a flavor of what is usually known as “local color,” Pasco moves them into a central, indeed pivotal position as testimony of the ways in which people actually experienced events and especially changes. Because “literature reflects the society that gives it birth,” the literary Romantic hero is taken to flesh out what history tells us about French life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Or, in Pasco’s terminology, the sick heroes in the arts provide a means for diagnosing the ills that troubled and disrupted this transitional society.

Pasco is extraordinarily shrewd and skillful in documenting his hypothesis. He commands vast knowledge, having scrutinized more than 200 works written between 1750 and 1850. He includes many obscure texts because he is not concerned with their aesthetic value but primarily with the glimpses they afford into the psychological life of the period. Yet despite the strength of its scholarship, Sick Heroes is no mere piece of erudition. Vividly presented, generally well written in a straightforward manner without rebarbative jargon, and furnished with illuminating illustrations, it is eminently readable.

The most distinctive feature of Sick Heroes is Pasco’s exploration of important factors in French social history whose impact on literature has so far been overlooked by most text-immanent critics. In a series of chapters with striking titles, very diverse elements are invoked that exerted significant pressure on the individual, particularly in combination. So, for instance, “Moving” deals with the widespread migrations that reconfigured the entire distribution of the French population, undermining established patterns of kinship alliances traditional in rural areas. “The Unrocked Cradle” points to the effects of the ubiquitous practice of wet-nursing on the mother/ child relationship, while “Doddering Paternities” is devoted to the parallel problem of absent fathers. Already unbonded and insecure as a result of their deprivation in early nurturing, young people were turned loose to fend for themselves without support systems as they plunged into the turmoil, loneliness, and dirt of the cities. Pasco’s description of the Parisian boue, literally mud or sludge but actually “a fetid, black, sticky substance that would occasionally tear through clothing” has an almost lyrical force.

In the context of the social conditions that Pasco uncovers, the ambition of a Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s The Black and the Red or of Rastingac in Balzac’s Human Comedy take on a whole new dimension of meaning. And these personal dramas were played out against the backdrop of the 1789 Revolution and its sequels which both stemmed from and enacted the radical questioning of the entire monolothic hierarchy of patriarchal institutions, notably the monarchy and the church, on which French society had uneasily depended. This macroscopic breakdown is, of course, well known. Far less heeded is the concomitant pattern of disintegration in family and personal life to which Pasco draws attention.

Although on the whole highly revealing, Pasco’s methodology is not devoid of problems, as he himself readily concedes. To extrapolate directly from literature to life and vice versa is inherently dangerous, for literature may represent a fantasy substitute for or at least a corrective to an unsatisfying reality. This must obviously hold particularly true for Romantic writing with its predilection for subjective imaginativeness. The most troubling case in point in Sick Heroes is the issue of incest which Pasco posits as fairly pervasive. Yet on this, as also on the extent of the incidence of suicide and of orphans, there is no reliable statistical evidence. Pasco maintains that the popularity of certain themes, such as incest, in itself points to a substratum of shared trauma. But he admits “how difficult it is to know precisely what was going on.” In a book whose mainspring is the presumption of a direct affinity between life and literature, this unavoidable informational gap is the major weakness. Purists among sociologists or literary critics may object strenuously. On the other hand, such objections are disarmed by Pasco’s open admission of the problem as well as by his cautious, judicious phraseology: “we can conclude that the Romantics were obsessed with incest and that we are probably justified in believing that it constituted a serious, widespread, and destructive problem with significant impact on the whole social organism”; “it seems possible, perhaps even probable that the model of incest that appears in many Romantic works reflects reality.” I find these statements persuasive, and would add that it is precisely Pasco’s willingness to engage in a certain amount of controlled speculation that makes his book suggestive and stimulating.

My own hesitations are in another area, and here I return to the message emitted by the title. Sick Heroes projects a very negative perception of Romanticism: “Romanticism, then, should be defined as a dominant, society-wide sense of helplessness and depression, accompanied by extreme individualism, marked by turmoil in the personal, public, and natural world, and characterized by excessive self-awareness, acute recognition of an alienating world, and desire to find escape.” All the characteristics of the Romantic hero that Pasco adduces, the insecurity, the decline of belief in ideals, the depression, are indeed pronounced in the French Romantic hero, whose profile is undoubtedly “discouraging.” But, as Pasco’s book makes clear, circumstances in France were quite special because of the deep disruption created by the Revolution, the collapse of institutions, and particularly the subsequent disillusionment with the disappointing outcome of this lengthy phase of profound upheaval. These factors, together with the lateness of French Romanticism, its innate epigone quality, go a long way toward accounting for its somberness. In other European literatures, above all those of Germany and England, where Romanticism blossomed earlier and was not initially overshadowed by the cataclysm of the Revolution, the picture is somewhat different. While there are sick heroes (one thinks of Goethe’s Werther, Lenz’s hermit, and Foscolo’s Jacopo Ortis), they are balanced by manic, lofty rebels who cherish Messianic hopes (Goethe’s Faust and Gotz von Berlichingen are the exemplary prototypes). If the Romantic hero is “sick,” mostly he is bipolar (as are many Byronic antiheroes) rather than just depressive. Nevertheless, Sick Heroes is a substantial book that enriches our knowledge of French Romanticism by showing us a rewarding way of contextualizing literature in the society in which it was embedded.

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