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Le mal du siècle, by Alfred de Musset

July 14, 2010 12 comments

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.

I have a friend, but my pain has no friend. (Alfred de Musset)

July 11, 2010 3 comments

I have much to say about The Confession of a Child of the Century by Alfred de Musset. I chose to read it after seeing Lorenzaccio in a theatre and loved the play. I knew it was a masterpiece and I hadn’t read it yet, so I bought it.

Musset was born in 1810 and died in 1857. The Confession of a Child of the Century was written in 1836. The main protagonist Octave is the fictional alter ego of Musset himself. He wrote this book as a therapy to recover from his break up with George Sand.

The story is a first-person narrative. Octave tells us about three years of his life during which he suffered from le mal du siècle, a sort of spleen. It starts with the end of a love relationship, after he witnessed his mistress’s betrayal. The book is split in five parts. In the first one, Octave mopes. In the second part, he tries to heal his heart by throwing himself in debauchery with his friend Desgenais. After his father’s death and a mourning period, he meets Brigitte Pierson and falls passionately in love with her. The last three parts of the book describe this new love.

This novel is in the tradition of romantic literature but does not entirely belong to it. Some chapters sound like romantic prose, with many “O!”, lamentations, self-pity, exclamation marks, weeping, fainting, references to Ancient Greece and Rome.

“Ah! faithless one! wretch!” I cried between my sobs, “you knew that it would kill me. Did the prospect please you? What have I done to you?”

But Musset sometimes puts in irony, which gave me fresh air from moping and pulling out hair by the roots. For example,

Is she your first mistress’? He asked – ‘No, said I’, she’s the last one

In Musset’s case, the chapters alternate between romantic style and more simple style. Some chapters of the second part, when Desgenais tries to convince Octave to live according to his physical needs without too much thinking, reminded me of The philosophy in the Bedroom, by Sade, not the pornographic chapters, the philosophical ones.   

Musset has also a gift for describing people with few words, like Mercanson, the priest:

He was large and at the same time pale, a thing which always displeases me and which is, in fact, unpleasant; it impresses me as a sort of diseased healthfulness. Moreover, he had the slow yet jerky way of speaking that characterizes the pedant. Even his manner of walking, which was not that of youth and health, repelled me; as for his glance, it might be said that he had none. I do not know what to think of a man whose eyes have nothing to say. These are the signs which led me to an unfavorable opinion of Mercanson, an opinion which was unfortunately correct.”

The Confession of a Child of the Century is definitely a masterpiece; there is no arguing upon that. It is wonderfully written, clever and full of an exceptional lucidity for a man of only 26. It is through this novel that Musset popularized the notion of “Mal du siècle” already described by Chateaubriand. I will write another post about that because that’s probably the only thing that rang a bell in me in this book.

Honestly, it was hard for me to finish reading it, I was constantly checking how many pages left I had to read, which is never a good sign. I wish Musset had said in 200 pages what he wrote in 350. I have to admit I was bored and I skipped some dramatic passages that were too much lyric for my taste.

Being myself more of a “shrug-it-off” and “suffer-in-silence” type, I’m not really fond of lyricism, it doesn’t reach my heart.  When I read The Suffering of the Young Werther, I don’t know who suffered most: Werther or me reading the book. These characters take things too seriously and lack a healthy dose of self-irony, which helps overcoming difficulties. Maybe it is also easy for me to say so because most of the acute pain we all have to take in life is ahead of me.

I truly regret I can’t like romantic authors because they have much to say and their language is like a thick smoke screen between their thoughts and me. They can’t touch me. I am a lot more moved by love scenes in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall than I am reading Octave’s outbursts of joy, tears or sentiments. It sounds fake to me and in life, too much intimate details in confidences make me ill at ease. In addition, too many elements about an event or a state of mind don’t leave enough room for my imagination. And my imagination needs room when I read.

I can’t say I didn’t like The Confession of a Child of the Century, because there were really interesting chapters but I couldn’t sympathize with Octave. His relationship with Brigitte is of a toxic kind. It is spoiled by his uncontrolable and poisonous jalousy and I have little patience with that kind of tortuous passion. 

To conclude, I didn’t enjoy myself reading it but I guess that Goethe and Byron’s fans will like it better than me.

And now I want to read crime fiction to have fun.

Lorenzaccio under a big top

June 6, 2010 3 comments

 Lorenzaccio is a play Alfred de Musset wrote in 1834. The plot takes place in Florence, ruled by the Medicis at the time when Charles Quint was emperor. (Early 16th century). Alexandre de Médicis, Duke of Florence, governs the city and is loathed by his people as he is despotic and libertine. He is manipulated by the Catholic Church and sold to Charles Quint. Three plots are lead at the same time:

  • Lorenzo (nicknamed Lorenzaccio) is a Médicis who wants to murder Alexandre for personal reasons. He swore to kill a tyrant one day and chose Alexandre. He decides to befriend with Alexandre to achieve his goal and becomes Alexandre’s favourite and confident. He follows him in all his partying, makes sure he thinks him harmless in order to approach him unguarded.
  • The Strozzi family intend to fight Alexandre to free the city from its tyrant and increase their power over the city. They want Florence to become a Republic and are thus supported by Republicans.
  • The Cardinal Cibo also wants to get rid of Alexandre, by ambition, as he hopes that serving the Pope and Charles Quint’s interests will be rewarded by being elected Pope one day.

 In a way, the reader doesn’t know who will first succeed in murdering Alexandre. Though the motives are different, the result would be the same, as it would only replace a tyrant by another one.

Musset excels in mixing the intimate quest of Lorenzo with political issues. The scene when Lorenzo explains why there is no coming back for him, why he needs to follow through his idea of murdering Alexandre is moving. He says he was pure and innocent and learnt to live a dissolute life to be faithful to the promise he made to himself. But he also discovered that he no longer needs a mask to live this libertine life. He likes drinking, seeing women and all kinds of pleasures. What was first done as a duty to get closer to Alexandre, has become a pleasure and he resents his corruption. He now needs to assassinate Alexandre to ensure he didn’t lose his innocence, his purity and the respect from his family for nothing.

Moreover, in sharing the dark side of humanity through his partying, he loses faith in men and realizes that murdering Alexandre will not change the political situation or improve the people’s living. He sees men as coward or at best as indifferent. They claim they want a revolution but aren’t brave enough to fight for it. He points out to Philippe Strozzi in Act 3, scene 3 : 

If you’re about to do something for humanity, I advise you to cut your arms right away, because it won’t be long before you realize you alone have arms” (1)

 He wants Philippe to face the cowardice and pettiness of men but disclaims to be a misanthropist. 

If you only see in me someone who despises humanity, you insult me, for I perfectly know there are decent men. But are they useful ? What do they do ? How do they act ? What’s the point of having a living conscience, if the arm is dead?” (1)

 So he is lucid enough not to expect any public gratitude or any popular uprising after his deed is done. He will murder Alexandre for himself, to save what is left from the idealistic boy he once was.

It is strange that Musset was so pessimistic on human nature, as he was only 24 when he wrote this play. The reader is also face to face with their own everyday little defeats and weaknesses.

The questions raised are timeless, about political engagement and tyranny. It reminds us how political power is concentrated in the hands of a few minority who protect their own interests.

Aside to the political issues and identity quest, what also surprised me is the lack of religious feelings. There are no references to god in this play, no people praying as it could be expected in a text written in 1834. Even when people die, their relatives don’t try to find comfort in prayer. No big words as “soul”, “redemption” or “divine intention” are to be heard. The Church is more interested in earthly matters than in heavenly ones. Priests use confessions as an intelligence mean. When the Marquise confesses to the Cardinal Cibo, he sees it more as an opportunity to dig out information than as a moment to comfort and guide a lost soul. That probably gives away Musset’s atheism.  

I saw Lorenzaccio live this week-end. The director chose to have the actors play outside the theatre, under a big top. So, they were on a circular stage, in the middle of spectators. It allowed very cinematographic effects and it was lively. The round stage created the illusion of a piazza for outdoor scenes. When the Florence crowd were involved, the actors sit among the spectators and acted from there. Voices came from different places and the public had the impression to be in Florence too. A sort of 3D effect. The production was very modern and yet appropriate. (Well, to my taste, at least. Not like last year’s naked Hamlet with a Rage Against the Machine soundtrack)

 The text itself is beautiful and incredibly contemporary. Sometimes, 19th century literature has a pompous wording and requires concentration to follow through. Not here. The director wrote in a comment on the play that for the actors, acting with Musset’s language is like playing on a Stradivarius. I think she’s right.

Musset never saw Lorenzaccio played. He meant to write a play that could be read at home in an armchair. He succeeded. Lorenzaccio is worth reading, for the beauty of the text and the interest of the subject.

 (1) My own highly perfectible translation

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