- Secularity and the Church in the Novel of the Third Republic1
The Third Republic of France spanned, remarkably, seventy years, from 1870 to 1940. It survived the catastrophe of the First World War, the stresses of increasing urbanization, slippage in colonial hold especially in Africa, the financial collapse of the industrialized world and, finally, the disastrous run-up to the Second World War. Yet—and it is difficult to know whether it is despite this or because of this—one of the iconic moments of the long-lived Third Republic is the last decade of the nineteenth century, rather specifically in Paris, known sometimes as the Belle Epoch, hectic and sybaritic, orchestrated by Offenbach and illustrated by Lautrec, and other times as its ailing sister condition, the fin-de-siècle, with a text by Huysmans and illuminated by art nouveau.
The hectic and the ailing are closely allied, rather like the symptoms of tuberculosis, and manifested throughout the entire organism. Huysmans, for example, found the road to Rome—he would ultimately become an oblate in the Church—while the energy of Offenbach would coalesce in his masterwork, The Tales of Hoffmann, returning his audiences to the Middle Ages. This retrograde nostalgia was anti-modern, anti-urban, anti-industrial but primarily anti-bourgeois; yet, the consumers of both Huysmans’ popular novels and Offenbach’s popular theater, were, of course, the book buying, theater going bourgeoisie. Baudelaire’s hypocrit lecteur had evolved and consumed apparently with gusto those images of its dissolution, for the nostalgic return to the medieval world struck at the heart of nineteenth century bourgeois wealth and power. It was also the aesthetic manifestation of a profound, growing and dangerous political reactionism.
The political and cultural nostalgia that underlay this aesthetics was an old story. The soft underbelly of post-revolutionary France was, for many throughout the century, a yearning for the ancien regime. Nor was it an unfamiliar story, by the by, elsewhere, most notably in those two young nations, [End Page 337] Italy and Germany. France, however, to put it in the shorthand required in a piece like this, had been at it much longer, had a highly evolved—to a fault—political culture.
The political reactionism of the Belle Epoch and its sister condition, the fin-de-siècle, has long since been ably diagnosed as the first hothouse of the roots of fascism by such master historians as Ernst Nolte, Eugen Weber and Hans Rogger. Although the word reactionism usually refers to the retrograde nature of these protean, hybridized political movements on the right, it also describes their particularly responsive nature to the equally many and equally protean movements on the left, which moved from minimalist socialism through various Marxisms to anarco-syndicalism (which often turned rightward—to complete this dizzying journey). But the membranes separating these movements, both left and right, were permeable, and people moved with ease often from position to position: Georges Sorel, for example, occupied official positions in three political parties with contentious relations within a single year without, it appears, having missed a beat.
But all these movements, right and left, were in perfect agreement about who the enemy was, that most usual of all suspects in the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie. Setting assumptions and ends momentarily aside, the critiques (and the critiques only) of capitalism and the bourgeoisie from both right and left were sufficiently similar that a reader might be hard pressed to identify the source. But in the battleground of Realpolitik assumptions and ends are exactly what cannot be put aside.
Gilbert D. Chaitin’s The Enemy Within: Culture Wars and Political Identity in Novels of the French Third Republic takes an unusual tack in handling that fissionable political and cultural material of the iconic last decade of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Dreyfus Affair, by examining specific works of four prominent novelist/activists, Paul Bourget, Maurice Barres, Anatole France and Emile Zola. A richer brew one could not hope for. The four novelists occupy positions along the political spectrum from the extreme right with Bourget and Barres through Zola’s consistent—if not always constant—embraces of the left...