- Laforgue, Philosophy, and Ideas of Otherness by Sam Bootle
This is the first full-length study of Laforgue to be published in English since Anne Holmes’s Jules Laforgue and Poetic Innovation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). For all that anglophone scholarship has contributed in the intervening twenty-five years to the critical picture of a poet best known for his pioneering vers libre, it has lacked the sustained depth and breadth of attention that Sam Bootle’s excellent monograph offers. Its focus is Laforgue’s critical engagement with German philosophy, notably that of Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, whose thought and idiom colour almost all aspects of the poet’s work: from the ‘vers philo.’ (p. 51) of his first, unpublished collection of verse Le Sanglot de la Terre (ultimately abandoned in 1882), to the novellas of Moralités légendaires, published a year before his untimely death in 1887, via his aesthetic writing, essays, and correspondence. Reading Laforgue inevitably means grappling, to some degree, with the idiosyncrasies of Schopenhauerian and Hartmannian metaphysics (especially the latter’s principle of the Unconscious); and this difficulty may go some way towards explaining why the poet is only occasionally drawn into undergraduate syllabi. Bootle shows just what can be gained, however, from tracking this particular crossing between philosophy and poetry: not only does he elucidate the concepts that Laforgue appropriates and transfigures, he also reveals the poet to be ‘a subtle and, at times, critical philosophical interlocutor’ (p. 2). What distinguishes Bootle’s approach most clearly from existing studies is his close attention to the rarely discussed contextual and ideological concerns that frame Laforgue’s harnessing of German pessimism (Chapter 1) — frequently likened by French commentators, especially in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, to a pernicious disease or epidemic fostering demographic decline. Against the back-drop of nationalist anxieties about health and virility, Bootle argues convincingly that Laforgue’s redeployment of the discourse of pathology, abstinence, and bodily suffering (Chapter 2), inherent to pessimist thought and its reception, constitutes ‘a form of political oppositionality’ (p. 13). More broadly, Bootle traces Laforgue’s fascination with what he terms the ‘otherness’ associated with Schopenhauer and Hartmann’s philosophy, which, first, is mapped onto Germany (in Chapter 3), where the poet spent most of his adult life (1881–86), and second, is extended to the Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, on which both German philosophers drew (Chapters 4 and 5). ‘Laforgue’s vision of a non-unitary self ’, indeed, of the ‘illusion of selfhood’, is shown to be rooted in his engagement with Buddhist ideas (pp. 108, 102). There emerges from Bootle’s fine commentary a poet in search of an open and ‘dehierarchized relationship between [End Page 471] cultures’ (p. 148), yet ever conscious of the exoticism his Eastward gaze might imply. Through its own openness to Laforgue’s intellectual eclecticism, this book offers a necessary and compelling account of a poet far more widely recognized for his formal experimentation than for his very particular brand of culture critique.