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  • La Poétique du Seuil dans l'œuvre romanesque de Barbey d'Aurevilly
  • Alain Toumayan
Bricault, Céline . La Poétique du Seuil dans l'œuvre romanesque de Barbey d'Aurevilly. Collection "Romantisme et Modernité," No. 120. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2009. Pp. 546. ISBN: 978-2-7453-1881-7

While several volumes have been occasioned by the bicentennial of Barbey d'Aurevilly's birth, it has been many years since a monograph has been devoted to Barbey d'Aurevilly's entire narrative corpus. With this hefty volume, Bricault will add her name to a list of distinguished scholars who have published comprehensive studies of Barbey's stories: Jacques Petit, Herman Hofer, Brian Rogers, Philip John Yarrow, Pierre Colla, and Pierre Tranouez.

I need to begin by lauding Bricault's canny choice of the thematic and structural figure of the threshold ("le seuil") to consider Barbey's complex and vexed thematic universe. Indeed, in few other writers of the nineteenth century do we find so prominently articulated those "exacerbated polarities" characteristic of French Romanticism, to borrow Frank Bowman's apt formula. The foregrounding of various polarities and their "exacerbation" would seem to suggest that those border regions of proximity and opposition where these polarities exert their maximum tension would compose a thematic field of particular human drama and intensity. The notion of the threshold can also account nicely for Barbey's general predilection for limits, prohibitions, slippages, and transgressions, for moral and intellectual ambiguity, as well as for the examination of characters' behaviors in extreme situations when pushed to the outer limits of their moral, psychological, and physical capabilities.

Epistemological ambiguity is also a fundamental feature of Barbey's æsthetics and one that would logically seem accommodated by the concept of the threshold. The ambiguous and tortuous logic of secrecy and disclosure, perhaps best illustrated in Les Diaboliques, composes a basic axis of Barbey's narrative universe. Indeed Barbey consistently examines the notion that revealing can be a form of dissimulation, and vice versa; that silence can be a form of expression and speech a mode of dissimulation, that anything revealed can, and as such, be concealing something else, just as concealing can show itself as such and thus indicate something as hidden. The notion that things may be unsaid or unknown because they are being actively or inadvertently hidden or are such because they are, indeed, unsayable and unknowable follows. Long before the distinction of "known unknowns and unknown unknowns" became associated with Donald Rumsfeld, it composed an operative thematic notion in Barbey's fictional universe and one that Bricault's emphasis on the figures of limits, limens, and tipping points might hold much potential to elucidate. And, indeed, some of the strongest pages of this monograph deal with Barbey's "esthétique de la dissimulation."

Most scholars of Barbey's narratives will generally foreground discussions of Barbey's [End Page 174] aesthetics by reference to his voluminous critical œuvre (in which his aesthetic tastes and distastes are made quite clear), his other writings (for example, his treatise on Dandysme), his voluminous correspondence with his friend and confident Trebutien (again the source of many insights about his fiction), or, finally, the intertextual connections established in his narratives to the works of both his contemporaries: Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo, Flaubert, (which, again, evince his literary preferences), and the broad range of other European writers on which Barbey typically draws: Dante, Shakespeare, Tasso, Ariosto, and others. Relatively little space is accorded to these sectors in Bricault's monograph, perhaps because they have been thoroughly explored by other readers. Instead, she relies upon an extended arsenal of eclectic sources, the most obvious common denominators of which would be formalism and phenomenology including, interestingly, the phenomenology of religion represented by various writings of Mircea Eliade (more on that below). Thus we find applied to the general problem of the threshold, for example: Bachelard's phenomenological analyses, Genette's structures of narrative, Todorov's model of the fantastic, Starobinski, Bakhtin's "chronotope," Barthes's "effet de réel" and Dallenbach's "mise en abyme" (too loosely adapted to have much purchase here).

From Eliade, Bricault appropriates notions relative to the theme of initiation and...


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