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Introduction Literature, Language, Revolution Sandy Petrey V ICTOR HUGO PREFERRED not to leave things out. When he wrote of the Revolution in French literature, he drew up an exhaustive list of genres leaving no doubt of his conviction that the French literature he knew came from the Revolution, spoke of the Revolution, communicated through the Revolution. “ La Révolution, toute la Révolution, voilà la source de la littérature du dix-neuvième siècle. [. . .] Les penseurs de ce temps, les poètes, les écrivains, les his­ toriens, les orateurs, les philosophes, tous, tous, tous, dérivent de la Révolution française. Ils viennent d’elle, et d’elle seule.” ' The tripled “ tous” and the “ elle seule” deserve particular notice. In Hugo’s view, the literary works that followed the Revolution were without exception its products as well as its successors. So momentous was the end of the Old Regime that everything written in the new regimes had that end as its beginning. Hugo’s vision of the French Revolution as informing all constituents of French literature can stand as one extreme in a range of assessments running all the way to vigorous and resounding denials that the French Revolution and French literature have anything whatever to do with one another. In the chapter devoted to “ Les Ecrivains et la Révolution” by the Pléiade history of French literature, for instance, Etiemble posits a Revolution so hostile to writers that it reduced writing to a crass mockery of literature: “ la Révolution stérilisa chez nous les lettres, et ne laissa aux écrivains que le choix entre l’échafaud, le suicide, Immigration ou la servilité.” 2Gustave Lanson concurred. He characterized the Revolution as a time when, while writers were hyperactive, their writings were con­ temptible. “ La production littéraire fut alors abondante. A parler en général, elle n’a jamais été plus insignifiante, de forme plus vulgaire ou plus factice, plus médiocre ou plus fausse de pensée.” 3 For Hugo, the Revolution was the burning source from which French literature took the spark of life. For Etiemble and Lanson, it was a deadly scourge that made French literature a lifeless hulk. All-or-nothing is a satisfactory pair of terms for labeling the end points of opinions about the Revolution’s literary impact, and it is an VOL. XXIX, N o. 2 5 L ’E s pr it C r éa te u r easy matter to find precedents for an assessment situated at any given point in between. What is most striking about this variety of opinions, however, is not that they are so contradictory but that they so often con­ cur on one particular point. They tend to define the Revolution as a time when language lost the appearance of standing above or outside his­ torical struggle, and their assessment of the Revolution’s effect on litera­ ture is correlated with their attitude toward the character of literary lan­ guage. For those who believe literature must transcend its historical moment to express eternal truths in their perfect form, there can obvi­ ously be no question of constructing a viable literature from a his­ torically malleable vocabulary. Conversely, for those who see words in history and words in literature as productively compatible, the semantic disruption produced by the Revolution is not a handicap but an advan­ tage for literary creation. The range of opinions on the influence of the Revolution in literature is often a range of opinions on the status of language in literature. Hugo gave much-quoted expression to his assessment of the revolu­ tionary status of language in literature in “ Réponse à un acte d’accusa­ tion,” the great poem in which he presents himself as successfully rebel­ ling against a French language that was the perfect analogue to the French monarchy. Because “ la langue était l’état avant quatrevingtneuf ,” reforming the state and reshaping the language constituted a single revolutionary thrust. “ L’unité, des efforts de l’homme est l’attri­ but./Tout est la même flèche et frappe au même but.” To the masses of sans-culottes marching against the oppressor, Hugo added masses...


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