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  • Victor Hugo et la vaste ouverture du possible: essai sur l'ontologie romantique by Didier Philippot
  • Bradley Stephens
Victor Hugo et la vaste ouverture du possible: essai sur l'ontologie romantique. Par Didier Philippot. (Études romantiques et dix-neuviémistes, 71.) Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2017. 254 pp.

The title of Didier Philippot's study is taken from Hugo's Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866), a novel in which the hero Gilliatt's struggles with the elements as he battles to salvage a shipwrecked steamer allow Hugo to contemplate the enigmatic design of nature. The ocean's unfathomable depths and changeable movements, combined with the endless expanse of the sky as it brightens and darkens each day, heightens Gilliatt's appreciation of an infinite process of creation. For Hugo, this vastness reveals a boundless cosmos that could draw the poetic imagination beyond any limits. Philippot takes this universal dilation as his starting point in order to illustrate the intimate correspondence between Hugo's work and that of a universe in motion. Such affinity is integral to the poet's artistry, whereby 'le possible est une notion dynamique, inséparable de l'immense travail (comme celui, énigmatique, de la mer) d'une Nature en perpétuelle métamorphose' (p. 231). The frontiers of material being are forever pushed back so as to release the act of writing into the immeasurable flux of creation itself, as composed by what Hugo calls, in Quatrevingt-treize (1874), the 'rédacteur énorme et sinistre de ces grandes pages' that is the divine. Philippot extends a line of thinking that runs through much of the most astute scholarship on Hugo's Romantic world view and that has emphasized how this outlook sees the relationship between the immanent and the transcendent as one of continuity rather than distinction. His argument carefully underscores the significance of works such as Les Travailleurs and Hugo's essay on Shakespeare (1864) to such perspectives, but its scope is noticeably restricted by its methodology. The attention given to Hugo's late exile period in the analysis needed a clearer rationale, especially since concepts from his earlier work could have been used to develop a more ambitious understanding of how he decentres the notion of being (for example, the mélange des genres in the preface to Cromwell and the ruinous reality dramatized in Notre-Dame de Paris). In particular, the 'ontologie de la démesure' or 'ontologie douce' in which Philippot situates Hugo's poetics might have been more substantially theorized through further critical engagement, both with key sources, such as Bachelard's discussion of reverie, and with a wider and less francocentric body of research. Insightful work on Hugo's Romantic sublime by Suzanne Guerlac (The Impersonal Sublime (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990)) and Kathryn [End Page 611] Grossman (The Later Novels of Victor Hugo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)), to name but two references, is tellingly absent from the bibliography. Also missing is the breadth of interdisciplinary interest in European Romanticism as a challenge to positivism, as pursued by Richard Eldridge (The Persistence of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)) and Paul Hamilton (Metaromanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)), among others. Notwithstanding these limitations, Philippot brings an intriguing and original parallel into focus by exploring Hugo's desire to figure the human condition in fluid terms. The surge of publications on Leibniz in the 1850s and the interest in his criticism of Spinoza prompt Philippot to speculate as to whether Hugo was keeping abreast of these contemporary debates, given the similarities between the Leibnizian conception of the possible and Hugo's slippage between actuality and possibility. It is a resemblance that importantly reiterates the need to track Hugo's œuvre — as the work of a self-styled poet-philosopher — more readily within the currents of nineteenth-century philosophy.

Bradley Stephens
University of Bristol


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pp. 611-612
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