- Memory and Desire: Rétif de la Bretonne, Autobiography and Utopia
Peter Wagstaff’s excellent book belongs to the renewal of critical attention spurred by reeditions of Rétif’s voluminous work in the last few decades. Its originality lies in establishing the close link and interaction of two genres generally considered antithetical (and themselves challengingly open to divergent interpretations): autobiography, concerned with the real events shaping an individual’s personal past, and utopianism, as the imaging of alternative societal models.
As examined in the introduction (4–20), both Rétif’s personal experience and his novels intersect with history because they were marked by profound societal changes caused in the second part of the eighteenth century by the nascent exodus from country to city—a disorientation that was heightened by the waning belief in Reason or an orderly universe, and by the move away from a religion-based morality to a secular one, grounded on materialism and self-interest. Yet, as Wagstaff shows, Rétif’s works do not simply record this loss of social cohesiveness and a shift in moral values; they reflect upon history in a utopian quest for means to deal with a changing world. Autobiography and utopia intersect when self-questioning leads to a reflection on the relationship between the individual and society, and they overlap all the more so here since, as is convincingly analyzed by Wagstaff, Rétif’s utopian dream is essentially “the adult, secular but nostalgic counterpart to the religious security of childhood belief” (17).
Concentrating on autobiographical fiction, chapter 1 (21–37) brings to light a defining moment in the Burgundian childhood of one of Rétif’s many personae, the discovery of an enchanted natural retreat that becomes the child’s dominion before permeating Rétif’s works as the recurrent topos of the magical (and proto-utopian) “isolated kingdom.” Chapter 2 (39–49) focuses on the “restivian leitmotif” of the peasants’ uprooting from a haven of controlled felicity, and their confrontation with a turbulent urban culture equated with evil. Both geographical and moral, exile is the manner in which impassioned individuals (such as Rétif) learn to cope with their instincts once the protective shell of their rural communities, paternal dominance, and traditional wisdom no longer obtain. The link between the personal and the social in Rétif’s thought is already present in the (utopian) belief in the educability of people or the establishment of ethics of reciprocity to curb individual interest for the good of the whole, as well as in the (dystopian) conviction that unchecked passions will lead to destruction.
To situate Rétif’s participation in the “Golden age of utopia” (Trousson), chapter 3’s deft survey (50–66) of theories of utopianism stresses the inclusiveness of the concept of utopia (Levitas; Benrekassa; Baczko) before recalling Ruyer’s proposal that the flourishing of utopias in a given period indicates a lack of social polarization through myth, or Marcuse’s idea of utopia as resistance to societal pressures. Since Rétif has been frequently classified as a precursor to socialism, the fact that Marx had characterized utopian socialism as an essentially conservative phenomenon could have received more emphasis. But Wagstaff’s analysis of “Les Statuts du bourg d’Oudun” (among other texts) makes it quite clear that Rétif’s utopianism, although innovative in some ways, is in fact profoundly retrogressive and repressive. This is evidenced in the unabashedly subservient role of women within marriage, or in the nostalgic return to a patriarchal past and the paternalist figures of authority that are found both in Rétif’s plans of general reform and in his more partial reform projects. Rétif’s move from the first genre to the second, together with his reworking (67–80) of similarly coercive ideas in more fanciful and later works such as La Découverte australe, are read compellingly as a flight into fantasy indicative of a waning belief in the power of reason, and a growing sense of alienation. As illustrated in the patriarchal, Golden...