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Revolution and Aesthetics in Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize Timothy Raser S INCE ARISTOTLE, if not before, history has been distinguished from poetry, and while the field of poetics has grown to encompass various manifestations of history, one cannot help but feel that the venerable dichotomy is still at work. In the famous paragraph of the Poetics, Aristotle attributed to history a circumscribed truth, a truth that fails to imply general laws, while to poetry on the other hand he reserved the notions of probability and verisimilitude.1While never perhaps uni­ versally accepted, this distinction met with what was probably its greatest trial in the nineteenth century with the advent of the historical novel. However one wishes to define it, one must acknowledge that the his­ torical novel’s fictitious characters and actions exist in a state of tension with its references to real persons, places and events, and that not the least stimulating of problems confronting the reader of such works is the possibility of confusing elements from one register with those of the other. This dichotomy has not gone unchallenged, and accordingly a certain number of theories have been put forward to account for the presence of historical details within fictitious frames. Of equal importance are two quite different questions: 1) Is poetic truth indebted to history? 2) What does historical truth contribute to poetry? The first of these questions has received extensive discussion, no doubt because a negative answer would enable one to consider fictions closed works, registers of specifi­ cally literary effects, and explicable by referring to a certain, limited encyclopedia. By contrast, the second question implies the dependence of poetry (and literature generally) on a discourse of history, and while in some respects such an assertion is undeniable, it has not received the dis­ cussion that the first question has. The concentration of recent interest on the first question would be satisfactory if one did not occasionally hear insistent calls that works of fiction transmit historical truth. If so, history has a specific function within fiction, and cannot be dismissed as an effect like irony or pathos. Among those writers who make such calls, one cannot ignore Victor Hugo, who used history, taken both as the great movements of civiliza­ 50 S u m m e r 1989 R aser tion and as personal biography, as an essential device in his narrative constructions. A look at Quatrevingt-treize, the work in which the questions of the theory of history are most explicitly put, should go far to assess the status of historical assertions within Hugo’s thought. The novel, of course, recounts episodes of the Vendée rebellion during the year 1793; like any other example of the historical novel, it includes references to actual peo­ ple, places and events, but does so with an insistence that has aroused critical attention. Guy Rosa, for example, has shown how complete Hugo’s research for this work was: . . le roman dispose un matériel historique très volumineux et qui touche à tous les aspects de l’histoire de 1793, de la guerre aux frontières à la vie quotidienne en passant par les institutions et la vie politique.” 2In addition to its historical aspect, the work’s allegorical dimension has also been analyzed (Rosa, Brombert, Petrey), but this dimension actually reinforces the novel’s historical claim, for Hugo compares the events he describes to another moment: the Commune.3Such use of allegory is characteristic of Hugo’s novels, and it is often the Revolution that echoes there.4But however character­ istic such allegories might be, and however accurate the historical ref­ erences may be found to be, Quatrevingt-treize elicits discomfort in its critics, and, precisely, on the subject of its historical content. In his mas­ terly and elegant Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel, Victor Brombert puts the question thus: It is as though Hugo could not come to terms with the mystery of a historical event that was to usher in a redemptive era of indefinite progress, but that instead, by some inexplic­ able irony, led to the farcical relapses of Louis Bonaparte’s tyranny, then to the horrors of the Commune and its repression. . . . This disturbing...


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