Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Musset, Alfred, Novel, Romanticism > Le mal du siècle, by Alfred de Musset

Le mal du siècle, by Alfred de Musset

This post is the second part of the one named I had a friend but my pain had no friend about The Confession of a Child of the Century and is dedicated to “le mal du siècle”. Indeed, before introducing Octave, Musset explains what he calls “Le Mal du siècle”, literally “Malady of the Century”. But “Mal” has a wide range of meanings in French: trouble, disease, evil, pain. For me, “Le Mal du siècle” covers all these senses and that’s why I’ll use the French expression.

According to Musset, it is typical from his generation and comes from the combination of political uncertainties and the spread of Romantic ideas, developed by Goethe and Lord Byron. It is both the malady of the society and a personal disease.

To better understand of which political uncertainties we are talking here, a little knowledge of the history of France is necessary. The dates speak by themselves:
1789 – 1799: French Revolution. 1793: Terror and end of monarchy.
1800 – 1814: First Empire (Napoleon).
1814 – 1815: King Louis XVIII.
1815:  Napoleon comes back. Period of the “Hundred Days”
1815 – 1824: King Louis XVIII again
1834 – 1830: King Charles X
1830: Popular Uprising (Les Trois Glorieuses)
1830 – 1848: King Louis-Philippe Ier d’Orléans
1848: Revolution.
1848 – 1852: Second Republic
1852 – 1870: Second Empire (Napoleon the Third)

So, Musset was born during the First Empire, died during the Second Empire and in the meantime had known three kings, two revolutions (1830 and 1848) and one Republic. And he was only 47 years old when he died. This long period of different political regimes was the path leading to the parliamentary Republic we have had since 1870.
In 1836, Musset had already understood that and wrote:

“The illness of the present century entirely originates from two causes; the people who went through 1793 and 1814 have two wounds in their heart. All that was is not any more; all that will be is not there yet. Do not look for the secret of our troubles elsewhere.”

This generation was raised by parents who fought for the ideas of the French Revolution and had faith in Napoleon. They woke up from the fall of the First Empire with a huge hangover, all the ideas they believed in failed and France was a monarchy again. Their children grew up during Napoleonian wars and have no faith in political commitment any more. This was already clear in Musset’s Lorenzaccio. Everything seems vain. Nothing is worth fighting for.

Musset explains that, to top it off, German and British Romanticism imprinted on these already troubled minds and transformed this generation in the one of general ennui. A totally disenchanted generation. (Why he forgets Rousseau, Chateaubriand and Constant to focus on Goethe and Byron is unknown to me)

Musset then starts telling how he caught le mal du siècle through Octave’s story, from the loss of his first love, through his father’s death and to a passionate and destructive new love. Octave does not believe in any commitment of any kind, has no employment. He acknowledges that he would probably have not been touched so severely by le mal du siècle, if he had had an occupation.

I was born in the 1970s and I found similarities between Musset’s generation and mine. The main common points are the loss of illusions and faith in political commitment, a general feeling of insecurity and a turning in on private life and materialism.

Our generation comes after a decade of massive political commitments in Maoism, communism, feminism, civil rights in the US and after 30 years of uninterrupted wars sending young men far from their home, – WWII, colonial wars, Vietnam war.
Our generation also comes after 30 years of continuous economical growth. But, we are the children of an everlasting economic crisis and of the destruction of many toughly acquired social rights. Our parents lost the world they were born in and began to think their children would not live in better conditions than them. We grew up seeing fired and unemployed adults around us ; uncertainty and fear for the future became the rule in life. We are not a generation that could say like Rimbaud “You’re not serious, when you’re seventeen”, as getting a good diploma was a mandatory step to hope to find a job later.

To cope with this, Octave relies on love relationships just as our society withdrew on the private sphere. Happiness is to be found in couple life and family life. In France, family life and parenthood are the new nirvana. The only-child generation has at least two or three children, sometimes more with recomposed families.

The other path Octave explores is that of debauchery and materialism. His friend Degesnais is the advocate for this kind of life. Only immediate pleasure and materialism are reliable, as everything else is pointless. Doesn’t it sound familiar?

For me, what is also new in this novel is that Musset somehow considers that the society he grew up in is responsible for his present depression. This is quite modern, I think. He has an amazing lucidity about being a transitory generation before a stable political model is found.

Everything I described here is in the first chapter and is presented as the explanation, if not an excuse, of Octave’s questionable conduct. If anyone is interested in reading that particular chapter, it can be found in English on internet in a PDF file. It is very interesting.

  1. July 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    What an interesting post. Your comparison of the time you were brought up in with Musset’s is very insightlful. I have never heard of this book and it was interesting to follow your links

    Like

  2. July 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I liked the two first parts best, because of the questions they raised.

    I typed many quotes from this book, even if I was bored. It’s wonderfully written and full of intelligent remarks about love and life.

    Maybe if Musset had taken more time to write it, he would have cut some passages and his work would have been more powerful.

    Like

  3. November 30, 2010 at 6:33 am

    Just checking the French history dates. Got a dose of it with Zola but I’m starting the Chouans soon.

    Like

    • November 30, 2010 at 9:26 am

      I’ve read Les Chouans a long time ago and I remember I liked it. Good luck with the French Revolution. I put the full memoirs of Mme Roland on my Christmas list, if no one buys them I will. I want to read something about that period.

      Like

  4. December 5, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    I can really see how Zola was influenced by Balzac in this novel (the Chouans). I keep having to check names and terms which is a bit distracting….
    Sounds as though you like memoirs as much as I do.

    Like

    • December 5, 2010 at 10:41 pm

      The French Revolution is not an easy period to follow. So many events took place in such a short time.

      I think you read a lot more memoirs than I do. But I’m interested in Mme Roland, because it’s been a while since the last time I’ve read about the French Revolution and because she was a woman. There aren’t so many feminine voices in French literature at the time.

      I’m struggling with Frankenstein. Now the author is using “thou, art, thy” and so on. It’s difficult for me. But I don’t know how a translation could have shown the use of ancient forms like this.

      Like

  5. sunday kingsley
    April 13, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    please, i need this book to read in other to understand the ills of this century.

    Like

  6. sunday kingsley
    April 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    please, i need this book to read in other to understand the ills of this century. the confession fo a child of the century

    Like

  1. September 18, 2010 at 9:18 pm
  2. March 20, 2012 at 12:37 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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