Mérimée’s Feasts and the Undermining of Cultural Superiority
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Mérimée’s Feasts and the Undermining of Cultural Superiority

Given that Prosper Mérimée worked for many years as France’s inspector of historical monuments, it is not surprising that his fictional narrators manifest what may be considered an unhealthy obsession with ancient practices and beliefs, particularly with their unknowable origins. Antonia Fonyi calls this obsession Mérimée’s “passion pour l’archè” – the archè being the inscrutable primordial beginnings of life and culture. Mérimée’s quest to uncover distant origins is most obviously discernible in events or characters that are clearly linked with the past: the search for the battlefield where Caesar defeated the champions of the Republic in Carmen; the ancient statue of Venus from La Vénus d’Ille; Mateo Falcone, whose primitive values lead him to kill his son; a number of historical figures – from Julius Caesar, to Don Pèdre I, to Demetrius – that tend toward monstrous behavior reflecting primitive violence. Fonyi remarks, “l’archè se révèleêtre objet d’épouvante: quiconquel’approche de trop près, en meurt” (204). I hope to nuance Fonyi’s assessment of Mérimée and the archè by suggesting that inscrutable and even violent origins are not only associated with obvious symbols of the past but are subversively present in practices that are completely ordinary – practices that remain acceptable and that are considered ubiquitous in French society of the nineteenth century. In other words, Mérimée shockingly suggests that modern quotidiana hearken back to primitive disorder, that the mundane is built on forgotten violence.

Of all the practices that embody French cultural refinement and superiority, none may be more significant than eating and its highest (or at times lowest) expression: the feast. Over the course of the nineteenth-century, France’s growing consciousness of regional traditions certainly [End Page 299] accelerated the tendency to associate French culture with feasting. Food and feasting appear in a large number of Mérimée’s fictional texts: Federigo, Le Vase étrusque, La Double méprise, Carmen, Djoûmane, and others. In this article I will look primarily at two works, Lokis (1869) and La Vénus d’Ille (1837), and suggest that Mérimée routinely undermines the prevailing attitudes regarding feasting and cultural capital by showing that dining, a ritualized practice of restraint and refinement, frequently reveals the primitive disorder it seeks to regulate.

The narrator of Lokis, Professor Wittembach, an accomplished linguist and a Protestant minister, travels to Lithuania in order to work on a translation of the Bible into Jmoude, a popular dialect spoken in the region. He is so committed to his work that he leaves his fiancée, Mademoiselle Gertrude, and travels to the chateau of Médintiltas, home of the wealthy young Count Szémioth, where he stays while working on his translation. The count, like the professor, is soon engaged to a young woman who lives nearby named, alternatively, Mademoiselle Ioulka and Mademoiselle Iwinska. To be of service to his host, the minister-narrator performs the wedding for the young couple. However, on his wedding night the count disappears, leaving his bride dead, her throat chewed open. One other notable detail: the text states that many years before, the count’s mother was carried off by a bear while she was in the woods, and it implies that the count was the offspring of this shocking union.

For the purpose of this article, the significant theme of Lokis is that the characters are constantly eating or discussing food. When Wittem-bach arrives at the chateau of Médintiltas, the first recorded words addressed to him are by the butler: “M. le comte … est désolé de ne pouvoir dîner aujourd’hui avec monsieur le professeur. … Il dînera avec M. le docteur Frœber. … On dîne dans une heure” (447). Chapter 3 begins, “Après le déjeuner …” (461). Chapter 4 starts with the phrase, “Le dîner fut fort gai” (473). Chapter 6 begins exactly like chapter 3: “Après le déjeuner” (479). The first paragraph of chapter 8 includes the description of a buffet, “garni de gâteaux...