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Reviewed by:
  • Barbey d’Aurevilly 17: Sur le sacré
  • Karen Humphreys
Berthier, Philippe, éd. Barbey d’Aurevilly 17: Sur le sacré. Paris: Revue des Lettres Modernes, 2002. Pp. 229. ISBN2256910393.

This collection features eight insightful and in-depth essays on the function of the sacred in the fiction of Barbey d'Aurevilly. Each essay highlights a different conceptualization of the sacred in Barbey's work such as the role of the scapegoat as sacred and integral element to the community, and the textualization (and transformation) of religious rites and traditions and the sacred and sacrificial elements of the French Revolution in nineteenth-century texts. The broad range of works by Barbey includes the lesser known Ce qui ne meurt pas and Une Histoire sans nom, the widely read Les Diaboliques, as well as Barbey's lengthy collection of criticism, Les Œuvres et les hommes offering readers a complete exploration of his prose according to different hermeneutics of the sacred.

The volume reflects the scholarly dedication of Philippe Berthier who has edited the series on Barbey for the Revue des lettres modernes since 1982. Sur le sacré, like other recent studies in this series, presents various perspectives on a specific facet of Barbey's work that historically has received little critical attention. This collection, however, features a significantly larger quantity of contributing articles compared to earlier reviews which generally include fewer pieces on the proposed subject and more contributions in the general section entitled Mélange. The result is a more cohesive investigation of the sacred in Barbey's fiction. Although the collection is especially useful to specialists on Barbey, scholars interested in theories of the sacred and in 19th and 20th century literary criticism will also find it of value.

Barbey's novels are largely inspired by his early experiences in Normandy, and reveal a tension between his rigid Catholic world view and the transgressive impulses of human nature. Berthier substantiates the merits of analyzing the sacred in the Aurevillian œuvre by placing Barbey's ambiguous figuration of spirituality and transcendence in the context of our own ambivalent "civilization post-chrétienne"(3). [End Page 181]

In the first essay of Part I, "Sur le sacré" Marie Miguet-Ollagnier asserts that the sacred in Barbey's 1854 novel L'Ensorcelée refers not only to holy ritual but evokes the untouchable, the accursed, or taboo. She argues that this broader definition introduces three areas of the sacred in the text – "[il s'agit] d'une terre, d'une race, d'une religion" (22). Traditions of regional folklore parallel Catholic rites and customs and suggest that in Barbey's text, the moors and the ancient lineages of the region, with their own taboos and rituals, are as sacred as the Catholic cult.

Hélène Celdran's insightful Girardian analysis of Barbey's novels, Une Vieille Maîtresse, L'Ensorcelée, and Un Prêtre marié demonstrates that mimetic crisis and violence form the "clef de voûte" (47) of Barbey's fictional universe. After a brief outline of Girard's theory, Celdran shows in each of the novels how the mimetic crisis functions to single out a scapegoat or "victime émissaire" (23) such as la Clotte or la Malgaigne as a means to deliver the community from unrest. Although she cautions the reader against a restrictive reading of the texts within Girard's model (or any model for that matter); she clearly emphasizes the value of a Girardian interpretation in order to better understand the prominent themes of violence and sacrifice in Barbey's novels. Because of its theoretical framework, Celdran's essay might be of interest to both specialists and generalists.

In the subsequent article, Gisèle Séginger claims that Barbey's figuration of the sacred in his fiction is primarily a reaction to a century heavily influenced by positivism and progressivism. Séginger's assertion that Le Prêtre marié resists the rationalism associated with post-revolutionary thought reinforces her claim that Barbey restores the sacred by transfiguring myth and sin (la faute[61] )in his narrative. (The priest, Sombreval reenacts original sin – by fathering Calixte and Néel's hubris leads him to...


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