La Malédiction littéraire: du poète crotté au génie malheureux
In this study, Pascal Brissette proposes both a prehistory and a case-based analysis of what he identifies as a cardinal myth of the autonomous literary field in France: that linking artistic virtue with personal suffering. 'Malheureux, donc légitime' (p. 39) is, for Brissette, the shared governing logic of the discourses to which this association gives rise. His articulation of the myth in terms of legitimacy announces the sociologically influenced perspective prevalent throughout a book that is not, however, as the Introduction makes clear, a primarily sociological study. After having argued for a general view of myth as an enabling hermeneutic device (providing an explicative schema that is both a compensatory mechanism and an impetus to action), Brissette proposes a history of the 'acceptability' of the myth he has identified through the study, as an evolving discursive system, of the abundant discourses of literary misfortune. The chronological and cultural boundaries of this complex object are necessarily problematic. In his first part, which sets out a prehistory of the myth proper where legitimizing discourses on melancholy, on poverty and on persecution are argued to converge on the subsequent topos of 'malheur'/'malédiction', Brissette draws on both classical and medieval sources before discussing representative cases (most but not all in French) from across the early modern period. Each of the three chapters devoted to these tributary discourses functions quite well as an autonomous outline of its particular affliction. Each cohere in their readings of representations of these evils as (unequally successful) attempts to establish symbolic capital, in which varieties of melancholy, poverty or persecution succeed one another as so many permutations of an already apparently implacable logic.
The critical moment in Brissette's construction of the myth is that of Rousseau's Confessions, and Rousseau becomes, both in his [End Page 398] own right and in his reception, the central figure in the consolidation within a single general principle of the topoi already explored. Drawing upon the pre-existing discursive possibilities, that author becomes 'un exemplum de premier ordre' of the unified myth. He also inaugurates the period (1770–1840) that Brissette had identified as the historical focal point of his study, but which is largely confined to the second part thereof. Following Rousseau, there are discussions of Julie de Lespinasse, of émigré literature (Chateaubriand, Sénac de Meilhan) and of Romantic avatars of the myth (including Vigny's Chatterton and the poète-assassin Lacenaire), which all emphasize its recuperative properties across the literary field. The work concludes on a largely self-contained iconographic study of Hugo in exile in Jersey. A further illustration of the ability of the myth to assimilate contradictory positions to itself, this chapter ultimately highlights as unresolved both the question of the chronological parameters of Brissette's study and the ongoing terminological drift therein between malheur and malédiction. However, neither these issues, nor an occasionally over-ebullient demystificatory tone, which emerges as the writing progresses (in contrast to more nuanced understandings established at the outset), seriously undermine this invigoratingly written and wide-ranging discussion of one of literary modernity's key ideologies.