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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.

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