- Le Bien: édification, exemple et scandale dans le roman du XIXe siècle. ed. by Mathilde Bertrand, Paolo Tortonese.
This engaging and elegantly written edited volume tackles the problem of goodness in the nineteenth-century novel — a problem derived from the idée reçue that the genre concerns itself with anything and everything other than goodness. The collection focuses on Balzac, especially L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine, and Flaubert, especially Un coeur simple, these two authors both having had famous things to say about the topic at hand. More surprisingly, it also focuses on Barbey d’Aurevilly, especially Un prêtre marié. Hugo and Zola are discussed more sketchily, as are various non-canonical works of edifying literature. The collection has no index and no bibliography and seems mostly unaware of English-language criticism beyond Peter Brooks. It has four chapters that each function as a kind of introduction, the last of which finally discusses the eighteenth-century background, especially Rousseau: goodness in the nineteenth-century novel makes most sense if one starts with Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse or, failing that, Richardson. The collection is at its most interesting when it thinks about what goodness comes to mean in nineteenthcentury fiction. The old good of inflexibly upholding moral imperatives becomes bad and is replaced by the new good of demonstrating pity, compassion, empathy, generosity, and benevolence. Yet, nineteenth-century authors increasingly exhibit a post-Romantic disenchantment (what Stendhal, oddly absent from this collection, refers to as suspicion), according to which all empathy is delusional and narcissistic. Could it be that goodness is only to be found in intelligent self-awareness (Baudelaire) or blind stupidity (Flaubert)? For unless goodness is either intelligent or stupid, it is false (bourgeois). Much is made of the opposition between Flaubert and Sand, who famously corresponded on the problem goodness poses. Flaubert’s tales of sanctity suggest, however, that he was straining to find a goodness that Sand felt more confidently able to locate within herself and others. Baudelaire makes only fleeting appearances as a point of reference, but alongside the (self-)mocking disenchantment evident in his prose poems, we might do well to consider the extent to which he too pursued the ideal represented by la conscience dans le bien. As Balzac famously puts it, true Catholic charity must be ‘aussi savante que le vice’ (p. 110). However, the goodness analysed by Balzac, and more generally by this excellent collection, finally owes more to Rousseau than to Catholicism: it takes the form not of virtue but rather of pity, or benevolence. Thomas Pavel has pertinent things to say about three forms of love: amor concupiscentiae, amor amicitiae, and amor benevolentiae. Goodness, in both Romanticism and the crabbed post-Romanticism that so struggles to believe in goodness, is always finally the last of these. Benevolence allows us both not to recoil before distress and to give of ourselves. It also causes us patiently to accept the help of others: to understand that gifts are not in fact a form of violence. Benevolence might indeed imply a form of possession, but ‘cette possession [. . .] n’évoque ni la maîtrise sur une personne ni le droit d’en disposer, mais la dévotion et les soins’ (p. 30).