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  • Je suis la Révolution. Histoire d'une métaphore (1830–1975)
  • Cory Browning
Laurent Jenny , Je suis la Révolution. Histoire d'une métaphore (1830–1975). Paris: Belin, 2008. 222 pp.

The revolution has passed, vive la révolution! Such is the delicate and paradoxical gesture that Laurent Jenny's Je suis la révolution performs. Announcing itself as an "Histoire d'une métaphore" and as an "archéologie" with chapters dedicated to Hugo, surrealism, Blanchot, Paulhan, Barthes and Tel Quel, it exhumes and excavates a hundred and fifty years of a metaphor most succinctly captured by Blanchot, who observed that every writer inevitably comes to think: "je suis la révolution."

Jenny deftly analyzes the "entente multiple" and various deployments of this metaphor and attempts to construct its overarching "logique" across numerous authors and epochs. Working at macro and micro levels, he carefully frames the chapters and engages each author or authors on their own terms before situating them in la longue durée . He continues to blend close reading with theory, expanding and enriching his dialogue with Rancière's La Parole muette. From readings of individual texts he builds a critique of thinkers whom he sees as making the "event" the latest incarnation of the absolute. The study concludes with the declaration, "Le temps de la métaphore révolutionnaire est passé," and it may be read as literary history's response to François Furet's proclamation, "la révolution est terminée." It is, however, as performance that Jenny's study is most rewardingly read. Reworking the central metaphor, it suggests a qualified attempt to alter or even revolutionize our understanding of literature and revolution. It is in this manner that Jenny's book can thus announce of itself: "Je suis la révolution."

Drawing on linguistic history, the study begins genealogically, tracing the metaphor up to the French Revolution when the evolving political understanding of revolution grafted with the aesthetic notion of a Republic of Letters (understood as a Répubique des Lettrés). The resulting "révolution dans la République des Lettres," Jenny argues, [End Page 137] came into its full politico-aesthetic maturity in the 1830 conjunction of Romanticism and Revolution, when authors such as Hugo explicitly equated literary innovation with political emancipation.

The second chapter sets up much of the stakes of Jenny's critique of revolutionary literature, a critique which derives largely from a third term: "La Terreur." Observing that Hugo's "revolution" relies largely on analogies between lexical registers and social classes, Jenny argues that these analogies allow Hugo to claim to emancipate the linguistic outcasts or "misérables" just as vociferously as he sings the heroic epic of the social "misérables." Under Hugo, the Republic of Lettrés becomes a Republic of Letters (literally, of Letters) in which words and letters are called to "Soyez république." They are thus freed from any authoritative speaker or system (notably Classicism). However, following Hugo's own identification as a terrorist and what Jenny terms "une logique de terreur," the initial emancipatory promise evolves from purification to purge and eventually threatens to consume itself and the very possibilities of meaning and order.

In short, literature as revolution is constantly feeling for solid ground but also actively negating the possibility of any ground. Over the next few chapters Jenny follows its oscillations between two major poles: "la positivité de l'émancipation politique" and "la négativité de la terreur." Thus, revisiting the question, "Is there a surrealist theory of revolution?" he reads Les Vases tournants as "un troisième manifeste" that attempts to disentangle surrealism from the Terror and Communism. He unearths a genuine attempt to "surréaliser la révolution," which responds to the problem of Terror in Hugo and sets up a problem that Tel Quel will be at pains not to repeat but eventually will (this time as farce).

With the stakes set up, Jenny's reading of the exchange between Blanchot and Paulhan does much of the theoretical work. For Jenny, Blanchot takes the identification of literature and revolution to its most terrorist extremes. Although Paulhan keenly perceived the terrorist tendencies...


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pp. 137-139
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