- 1 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 2, p. 101.
- 2 Ibid., 409.
1When Maurice Barrès wanted to think, he set out to climb a mountain (or at least imagined himself to be doing so, writing at his desk in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly). So he would declare, for example : “ Ma pensée française a trois sommets, trois refuges : la montagne de Sion-Vaudémont, Sainte-Odile, et le Puy-de Dôme ”1. Standing in a high place, an observer gains not only a good view, but also a good overview. It literally puts things into perspective and allows one to see the big, the whole picture, in which all the details fall into place. Where this is not possible, confusion reigns, as Barrès states : “ Où que je sois, je suis mal à l’aise si je n’ai pas un point de vue d’où les détails se subordonnent les uns aux autres et d’où l’ensemble se raccorde à mes acquisitions précédentes ”2. This philosophical sort of vertical movement is not at all uncommon in European literary history; think of Petrarch and Mont Ventoux. In Barrès’s more immediate literary neighbourhood, one would certainly cite Victor Hugo as an example. In many of his poems, Hugo cultivates the position of a prophet standing on high ground, addressing the crowd that dwells in the plains of everyday life. In Hugo, such a localisation generally remains an abstract enunciatory position, a grammatical rather than a geographical function. In Barrès, however, this position is conceived in full geographical concreteness, for Barrès is a geographical thinker: His texts are built around places and spaces, and they are structured by movements in space and by the changing of places. The names of cities, rivers and regions carry a semantic weight and are bestowed with an evocative power equalled only by certain toponyms in Proust. This becomes obvious, already, in reading the titles of Barrès’s texts : La Mort de Venise, Dans le Nord, Le Voyage de Sparte, Les Bastions de l’Est, La Colline inspirée, Les Beaux Contrastes de Sienne or Un Jardin sur l’Oronte, and this list could easily be extended.
- 3 The picture of Barrès, dating from 1896, can be found on the cover of the first volume of the cited (...)
2If, today, Proust is much more popular than his contemporary – Barrès, nine years his senior, died in 1923, a year after Proust –, this may be not only for artistic reasons, but also because Barrès has a dark side, politically, in particular. You may get a sense of the differences between the two, in an emblematic way, by looking at two pictures. The first one is the most famous image of Proust, painted by Jacques-Émile Blanche: the young man in evening attire, a flower at the lapel. The second one is much less known, a lithographic print by the same Jacques-Émile Blanche, and also depicting a young man dressed for success in society, none other than Maurice Barrès, then, unlike Proust, an already famous author, famous for his trilogy Le Culte du Moi (1888-1891)3. Their posture and their clothes are nearly identical; they both wear a stiff collar that forms two white triangles under their chin. Even the flower is mirrored in the second image, it has only changed its place from left to right. Yet the faces are very different: Whereas Proust’s portrait displays benevolently interrogative eyes and even a smile, the gaze of Blanche’s Barrès coldly measures the observer, his mouth forming the graphic equivalent of cruel contempt. Comparing the two images, Barrès’s seems to assume something of a picture of Dorian Gray.
- 4 Zeev Sternhell has made the strongest case to range Barrès among the precursors of Fascism (cf. amo (...)
- 5 Cf. Bendrath, Ich, Region, Nation, p. 109-110.
3Outside France, and often enough inside France, too, Barrès is primarily remembered as the author and propagator of a xenophobic nationalism, whose central formula, “ la terre et les morts ”, sounds, especially to German ears, excruciatingly close to the “Blut und Boden” of Nazi ideology4. During the Dreyfus affair, Barrès helped to coin the noun “intellectuel”. It may be his most lasting contribution to the French language. However, he conceived of the word in a pejorative sense, in order to attack Dreyfus’s defenders5. He accused them of thinking in absolute and therefore misleading abstractions, neglecting their “roots”, the concrete, identity-creating traditions and habitus – social, mental and spiritual – symbolized by their ancestors, buried in their home region.
- 6 I have analysed in another essay the complex way in which Barrès aims at authenticating this “conve (...)
4The geographical notion of the home region as the determining factor of human identity is at the heart of Barrès’s conception of nationalism. Yet the geographical thinking grounding this conception is a constant in Barrès’s work. It already informs the texts written before what Barrès himself might have dubbed his “nationalistic turn”, following a phase of sophisticated, decadent and cosmopolitan aestheticism6. His geographical thinking takes on many functions: It serves equally to depict individualistic self-fashioning, to justify his nationalism, and to promote the idea of revanche against Germany.
- 7 Famously, André Gide asked Barrès: « Né à Paris d’un père Uzétien et d’une mère Normande, où voulez (...)
5For us, Barrès’s anti-Semitic stance against Dreyfus paints a despicable image of the author, and the obvious weaknesses in his theory of ‘rootedness’ were just that, obvious weaknesses, already to some of his contemporaries7. Yet, in his day, he was a most influential figure, fascinating all kinds of readers – in Germany, Ernst Robert Curtius and Walter Benjamin are among his early interpreters –, and drawing admirers from left and right alike, from Henry de Montherlant and François Mauriac to Léon Blum and Louis Aragon: Barrès’s work has many facets, and it is riddled with more ambivalences than he himself might have acknowledged.
6These ambivalences come to light in a particularly telling way if one examines the role of the East in his geographical thinking. For the semantics and the valuations of this cardinal direction are fluctuating in Barrès’s writings: sometimes, the East is emphatically invoked and claimed, sometimes denigrated and rejected, sometimes concealed and suppressed. Barrès’s East often wears a menacing Pickelhaube or an alluring veil, defines and divides Europe, is, at the same time, a promise of joy and a menace of horror.
7In the following, I will define Barrès’s particular concept of geography, blending locational and mental properties, before I analyse various manifestations of the East in his works: how the formative voyage is generally a voyage to the East; how the East is paradoxically to be found in the West, as a sort of counterweight to the devitalizing effects of civilization; how, because of its “Easternness”, Germany is excluded from Europe. In a last section, I will examine Barrès’s last major work, Un Jardin sur l’Oronte (1922), a story of passionate, culture-crossing love at the time of the Crusades, and show how the view from the East seems to be subverting Barrès’s – and not only his – categories.
- 8 Cf. Reimar Müller, “Montesquieu über Klima und Gesellschaft – die Klimatheorie und ihre Folgen”, S (...)
- 9 The most concise exposition of this theory is to be found in Barrès’s essay Le 2 novembre en Lorrai (...)
8According to Barrès, human beings are determined by the conditions of their home region. This makes Barrès a late successor of the climatological theory famously developed by Montesquieu in his De l’Esprit des lois, but dating back to antiquity8. Yet, Barrès introduced a cultural element into this theory, and, as a child of the 19th century, he introduced history: Not only la terre, but also les morts exert their influence on the human being, or better, it is their concomitant action, for they form an inseparable entity. This entity is “landscape”, i.e. cultured nature, a unity of natural conditions and human influence spread out over time9. The meaning of a landscape is best grasped not necessarily in the centres of population (where the layers of cultural history are thickest), but, in what seems to be a romantic residuum in Barrès’s theory, in nature and in solitude :
Dans le pays où les miens ont duré, la vallée de la Moselle me paraît trop populeuse encore, trop recouverte de passants pour que j’entende bien ses leçons. J’aime à gravir les faibles pentes qui la dessinent, à parcourir indéfiniment, loin des centres d’habitation, le vieux plateau lorrain et, par exemple, le Xaintois, ancien pays historique où se dresse la montagne de Sion-Vaudémont. Venant de Charmes-sur-Moselle, quand j’atteins le haut de la côte sur Gripport, au carrefour où passe la voie romaine, soudain dans un coup de vent je reçois sur ma face tout le secret de la Lorraine. Au loin s’étendent devant moi les solitudes agricoles, et, dans un ciel froid, brusquement, émerge, isolée de toute part, la falaise que spiritualise le mince clocher de Sion. Quel enchantement sous mes yeux, quel air vivifiant me baigne, quelle vénération dans mon cœur ! Sainte colline nationale ! Elle est l’autel du bon conseil10.
9The passage ends with a triple exclamation. In Barrès’s mise en scène, this emotional outburst at the sight of the Lorraine landscape culminating in the “spiritualised” mountain – “spiritualised”, i.e. bearing ancient signs of human culture –, marks the cognition of the individual’s rootedness. Thus experiencing the link to his region, Barrès can state : “ Ce qui fait les dessous de ma pensée, ma nappe inépuisable, c’est ma Lorraine ”11.
- 12 Ibid., p. 98.
- 13 Ibid., p. 186.
10Yet, Barrès attributed such a personality- and identity-forming power of locality not only to the home region, but to all climates, even if he played down and denigrated this influence of foreign soils after his nationalist turn, as risking “ de contrarier nos énergies profondes ” and besetting a person with a “ stérile anarchie ”12. In his decadent period, he saw this power located even more in cities than in nature. In his later Amitiés françaises (1903), Barrès passes them in review, in order to bid them farewell : “ Venise, Sienne, Cordoue, Tolède, vous savez si je vous pressais avec une jeune et généreuse ardeur ; mais, derrière vos langueurs qui sortaient de moi tout mon sang, qu’ai-je trouvé qui me touchât l’âme ? ”13. Most of the above and other towns figure, besides evocatory landscapes, in his signature collection Du Sang, de la volupté et de la mort (1894).
- 14 So, to some extent, you could describe Barrès’s concept of geography as an elaboration and extensio (...)
- 15 The concept of rootedness obviously follows the same pattern of blending these properties, up from (...)
- 16 Ibid., p. 733.
- 17 Ibid., p. 101.
11What is it specifically that composes that power? Barrès’s particular concept of geography functions in the same way as his concept of landscape. In fact, the former comprises the latter and can be described as its generalization. If landscape is made up of terre and morts, of the natural and the cultural, for Barrès, all places are characterized by a combination, a blending, a symbiosis of locational and mental properties14. These different classes of properties exist on the same level of reality and have the same level of potency; the mental is naturalized, nature “mentalized”15. In that sense, the mountain of Sion-Vaudémont is shrouded by “ nulle brume, nul brouillard germanique ”16, and stands, together with Sainte-Odile, that other mountain figuring as a summit of his “ pensée française ” cited above, for “ les vicissitudes de la résistance latine à la pensée germanique ”17 – resistance against German thinking primarily, rather than German troops.
12In some places, this aspect is particularly perceptible; there, the power is stronger than in other places: “ Il est des lieux où souffle l’esprit ”18 is the telling heading of the opening chapter of La Colline inspirée (1913), a historical novel in which precisely Sion-Vaudémont takes centre stage. Barrès, who certainly had a knack for la formule heureuse, calls these places “ stations idéologiques ”, in analogy with “ stations thermales ”. Deriving “ idéologique ” not from ‘ideology’, but directly from “idea”, Barrès believes specific mental forces to flow in these places, affecting the mind, just as in spa towns springs of beneficial water affect the body. Adapting this formula, his blended concept of geography may therefore be best summed up as “ideological geography”.
13It is interesting to note that even fictional characters (like Hamlet) can cause such “ideological” wellsprings to emerge in a place :
- 19 Barrès, L’Œuvre, vol. 2, p. 356. Italics are by Barrès himself.
Certains lieux fameux dans l’histoire de la sensibilité humaine portent nos âmes au-delà de nos propres émotions et nous communiquent les fièvres qui les remplirent un jour. Telle la plage d’Elseneur, où l’obscur Hamlet lamentait la mort de son père et ses chagrins personnels ; telles les chambres trop étroites d’Auxonne, de Dole et de Seurres, où le jeune Bonaparte essayait en écritures déclamatoires son génie qui, si les trônes n’avaient pas été vacants, nous eût donné un Byron. Ce sont là des stations idéologiques aussi puissantes sur l’imagination que telles stations thermales sur des tempéraments déterminés19.
- 20 In his nationalist phase, Barrès emphasizes how geography informs his thinking, while in his decade (...)
- 21 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 1, p. 358.
14But even whole regions or countries are to be regarded as such “stations”, notably one’s home region20, or Spain, for example, as in the novella Un Amateur d’âmes, included in Du Sang, de la volupté et de la mort. There, Delrio takes his sister on a tour around Spain in order to enhance her mental qualities: She is a pale femme fragile, and confronting her with passionate, high-contrast Spain shall give her what “ elle manquait d’intensité ”21. Again, Barrès uses the imagery of the spa. The following passage also provides good examples for the formulas Barrès uses for blending locational and mental properties :
- 22 Ibid., p. 358-359. Vital Rambaud also points out that Spain functions as such a “station” for Delri (...)
Au nord, les Espagnes sont sécheresses : fécondes, abondantes quand même, leur aridité étant faite de sensibilité contractée. Au midi, c’est un fleuve irrésistible de sensualités... Dans ce pays double, toute mollesse et puis rien que ressort, la lutte est éternelle des Castillans contre les Maures et contre l’enchantement d’Andalousie. Long effort, puissant contraste d’ou sortit le génie ascétique... Delrio en espérait beaucoup pour la Pia, jugeant cette opposition violente aussi efficace, comme excitant moral, qu’en thérapeutique les douches à jets alternés, brûlants et glacés. Je ferai son âme plus souple et plus forte, se disait-il22.
15Such regions are the destination of what, in L’Ennemi des lois (1893), Barrès calls the “ voyage idéologique ”23, the formative voyage for the soul.
- 24 She is cruelly murdered towards the end of the novel; according to Dietrich Scholler’s perspicaciou (...)
16The protagonists of many of Barrès’s texts are voyagers, and when they long for knowledge, self-knowledge and transformation, they generally go east. They may not leave Europe in its traditional boundaries, yet they go east of France. If, in his later works, the contribution of the East is mostly pernicious – it is ex oriente luxuria, as personified, for example, by the Armenian femme fatale Astiné Aravian in Les Déracinés (1897)24 –, in the earlier works, it is still ex oriente lux, and enlightenment is found mainly in Venice – the doorstep of Orient proper – and in Germany.
- 25 Cf. for a detailed analysis of this self-fashioning Hufnagel, Glück in Venedig, especially p. 172-1 (...)
17Un homme libre (1889), the central part of Le Culte du moi, tells the story of a self-fashioning in which the experience of Venice plays a vital part25. The nameless protagonist achieves his goal of renewing and perfecting himself only after traversing Europe from west to east: He starts out at the Island of Jersey, in a state of existential insufficiency, passes through his home region of Lorraine, which seems utterly sterile to him, and ends up in Venice, an inverted mirror-image of his starting point, as it is also an island divided from terra firma. He freely choses the city as the model for his future self and acts accordingly to conform to this model of happiness :
- 26 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 1, p. 155-156.
Je suis venu à Venise pour m’accroître et pour me créer heureux. Voici cet instant arrivé. … Désormais convaincu que Venise a tiré de soi une vision de l’univers analogue et supérieure à celle que j’édifiais si péniblement, je prétends me guider sur le développement de Venise. Au lieu de replier ma sensibilité et de lamenter ce qui me déplaît en moi, j’ordonnerai avec les meilleurs beautés de Venise un rêve de vie heureuse pour le contempler et m’y conformer26.
- 27 Ibid., p. 291.
- 28 Cf. ibid., p. 293.
18In L’Ennemi des lois, the hero, the very special anarchist André Maltère, is in search of a new social order liberating the individual. So he is sent to jail. Freshly released, he travels to Venice: Jail has made him “ un peu déprimé et imbibé de choses médiocres ”, so he feels the need to “ refraîchir de beaux spéctacles ses yeux et tous ses sens ”27, as the narrator writes with an impudent irony characteristic of both the novel and its hero. While a young woman, Claire, prepares their marriage, André sets off with another woman, an errant princess from Russia named Marina. In Venice, she becomes his lover: Her sensuality conflates with the image of Venice in his mind28. Venice ends up symbolizing a first lesson of how human beings might live together.
- 29 Ibid., p. 304.
- 30 Ibid., p. 312.
19After his return to Paris, André soon embarks on his honeymoon with Claire, which takes them to Germany, specifically to Bavaria, following the footsteps of Barrès on his own honeymoon. Whereas Monsieur and Madame Barrès visited the Wagner festival of Bayreuth, the fictional couple in search of a new sociability immerses itself in other domains of culture emerging from German soil: Having already studied Saint-Simon and Fourier in France and having found them inadequate, they now read the German socialists Lassalle and Marx; they look for the genius loci in fat-rich German cuisine – “ Au bout de quelques jours, Munich parut agir sur eux ”29 –, and they develop an understanding and even a sympathy for the German soul by viewing the paintings of the Alte and Neue Pinakothek. Yet, it is their voyage to the spectacular castles of king Ludwig II, obviously particularly potent “ stations idéologiques ”, that triggers the decisive insight, even if it is a negative one and puts an end to their investigation. In their interpretation, the castles depict the struggle of an individual to escape a society, perceived as inadequate, and at the same time they show “ l’antinomie irréductible d’un rêve avec sa realisation ”30: All utopian systems for a transformation of society, once realised, become sclerotic, imprison rather than liberate the individual in a set of rules.
20André concludes that the new society cannot be based on laws, on anything intellectual, but only on something deeper, on an emotional state, on the “ vérités qui nous font pleurer ”31. It is his dog that finally leads the way. In the last moment, they save it from vivisection, a brutal practice that disqualifies science, too, as a guideline for society. The compassion André, Claire and Marina feel for the animal induces them to stop all theorizing and move to the countryside, planning to live in a Candide-like garden, in a happy ménage à trois.
21Beyond the realm of fiction, too, Barrès practices the formative voyage to the East, even if he conceals the direction, as in Du sang, de la volupté et de la mort. The book consists of four parts, uniting about 25 texts – novellas, travel impressions and essays –, retracing Barrès’s wanderings through Europe, chasing exquisite emotions, sensations and conceptions – the “idéologies passionnées” of the first part’s title. The second part stands for the West, being entitled “ En Espagne ”, the third for the South – “ En Italie ” –, while the final part is dedicated to things found “ Dans le Nord ”. The East is ominously absent from this picture.
22Yet, at a second glance, it becomes evident that Barrès moves eastward almost with every one of the five texts of the northern section; they are all characterised by a strong sense of locality. Starting out west of Paris, in the Bois de Boulogne and Versailles, he moves to the French capital itself: Amitié pour les arbres sees Barrès at his Parisian writing desk, looking through the window at the tree in his neighbour’s garden, provoking a reflection on the value of these plants, that so often figure, concretely and metaphorically, in his works. Perhaps surprisingly, his thoughts are drawn to far-off countries: Armenia, Spain, Greece, Germany. While these flights of thought remain hypothetical voyages, they seem to set him going: With the next text, he moves to the Franco-German border region.
23The last and most eastern text sees Barrès in Bayreuth. It is an enthusiastic account of his experience of Parsifal, the opera that, according to Wagner’s will, until 1913 was performed exclusively in his own opera house. In ecstatic terms, Barrès describes the epiphany he experienced during the performance: It became clear to him that Wagner was a prophet in the same right as Socrates and Jesus. According to Barrès, Wagner promulgates a new ethic, complementing and replacing the teachings of the other two; he promulgates the ethic of modernity: “ être un individu, voilà l’enseignement de Wagner ”32. This individualism that makes a law of the individual’s instincts, his pre-rational impulses and perceptions, is genuinely aesthetic, and this aesthetic individualism is the principle governing all the texts making Du sang, de la volupté et de la mort, the texts of which the Bayreuth piece is the very last. The volume thus culminates in the explicit formulation of its governing principle, presented as a revelation, justifying retrospectively the other texts we have just read. And this revelation and justification comes from the East.
24By the way, it is not a specific line, a word or a musical motif that sparks this epiphany. It is a gaze, in the third act, during Karfreitagszauber. And, adequately for a geographical thinker, it is a gaze upon a landscape: According to Barrès, in this performance, Kundry, freshly redeemed by Parsifal, stood up and looked upon the meadows, presumably painted onto the backdrop, prompting a rapturous Barrès to comment: “ Immortelle minute, bénéfice qui ne saurait se perdre, point suprême où se dissipe tout notre émoi voluptueux pour que nous soyons exténués de sublime! ”33. This pregnant gaze, then, gives the title to the piece: Le Regard sur la prairie.
- 34 Ibid., p. 403.
- 35 Ibid., p. 414.
25If, on the face of the page, the East is concealed in Du sang, de la volupté et de la mort, it is also because the East is present in the very West: As we have seen already in Un Amateur d’âmes, also in the other texts dedicated to the Iberian Peninsula, Spain is fundamentally defined by the ancient presence of the Arabs. In Cordoba, Barrès sees even in the children he encounters in the street “ [d]es petites Sarrasines ”34. Spain, thus, may be part of Europe, but only at the prize of being non-European at the same time: Oriental and African. This explains the beauty, for example, of Granada : “ c’est de posséder les plus beaux arbres du Nord et des eaux vives, sous un soleil africain ”. These contrasts give Spain a special emotional intensity : “ Pour rompre l’atonie, l’Espagne est une grande ressource. Je ne sais pas de pays où la vie ait autant de saveur. ...elle met dans l’âme une sorte de fureur aussi prompte qu’un piment dans la bouche ”35.
- 36 Barrès, L’Œuvre, vol. 11, p. 106.
- 37 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 1, p. 414.
26The emotional intensity is, for Barrès, generally a sign of the Orient; in an orientalistically clichéd, yet positively valued fashion, the East functions as shorthand for strong emotionality. Still in the late Une Enquête aux pays du Levant (1923), Barrès describes the Orient in similar terms as Spain in 1894: It restores “ l’enthousiasme ” in enfeebled Europeans36. As he wrote then, in À la Pointe extrême d’Europe : “ Là, enfin, on entrevoit que la sensibilité humaine n’est pas limitée à ces deux ou trois sensations fortes (l’amour, le duel, la cour d’assises) qui, seules, subsistent dans notre civilisation parisienne ”37, brilliantly condensing in a parenthesis of three terms what could form the plot of a novella by Maupassant, paradigm of the civilised petites drames de la vie parisienne.
- 38 Ibid., p. 417.
- 39 Ibid.
27He retrieves the whole range of strong emotions and sensations he has sought throughout Europe only in the less civilised – for less European – parts of the continent. At the only half-European frontier of Europe, standing amidst the deserted rocks of a cape, Barrès imagines himself to encounter them like a pack of wild beasts : “ Acculées à la pointe de notre continent, dans la péninsule, des sensations grouillent, fermentent et se mélangent qui, peu à peu, ont été chassées des autres pays... Nul moyen d’augmenter ce troupeau, de le mener plus loin ”38. So he has reached a dead end, yet not only geographically. Obviously, “ à la pointe extrême d’Europe ” means also at the extremity of European emotional intensity, largely lost already, and looking westward, across the “ grand large d’Amérique ”, is not promising : “ Mais là-bas n’a plus de terres inconnues, rien que des répétitions de notre Europe ”39. He has to turn towards his inner East, towards the inner East of Europe that has made Spain so hospitable a place for this intensity.
28If Spain is only half European like an alluring mermaid is only half human, not even Greece is, in Barrès’s view, unconditionally the cradle of European civilisation, a notion, however, so universally entrenched in the European self-concept that it may still be Greece’s trump card for remaining in the Eurozone, economic reasoning notwithstanding. In Les Déracinés, the narrator muses that a young man from Lorraine may be able to assimilate Greek thought, albeit inherently alien to him, but that is how far to the East his mind will go without danger40.
- 41 Cf. Barrès, L’Œuvre, vol. 11, 462. Cf. also Ousselin, The Invention of Europe, p. 87.
29More and more, however, Barrès uses the East as a tool to actively separate Germany from the rest of Europe, understood mainly as a community of Latin countries, and ultimately to exclude it from Europe altogether. He does so, by ascribing qualities to Germany that apparently are not easy to reconcile: on the one hand, the mechanical apparatus of universal logic, embodied in Kantian philosophy and resulting in a great sense of organization41; on the other hand, an overpowering emotionality, leading to the dissolution of the individual, embodied in Wagnerian music. Yet, they coincide in what Barrès conceptualizes as ‘Asian nihilism’: Germany is to be excluded from Europe because it threatens the European concept of individuality.
- 42 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 1, p. 500.
30In Les Déracinés, the philosophy professor Bouteiller begins to ‘uproot’ his young Lorrainian pupils by exposing them to the subtleties of Kantian philosophy. Especially disorienting, of course, is Kant’s argument that we do not perceive the world as it is, but as our mental structure makes us perceive it, the argument that had already made Kleist despair. It leaves them, too, with “ le plus aigu sentiment du néant ”. Barrès does not explain why, but he characterizes the dissolving of certainties by Kantian criticism as oriental, in the sense of Asian: These thoughts carry the “ lointains parfums orientaux de la mort, filtrés par le réseau des penseurs allemands ”42. Perhaps Barrès has in mind a sort of Nirvana of inactivity that individuals might fall into, like an Indian yogi, after all their trust and confidence in their access to the world, their moral certainties of instinctive, ‘rooted’ gut-feeling have vanished into nothingness. Probably he also builds on the opposition of individual vs. community of uniform masses, conceived as an opposition of a European and an Asian conception. In that sense, Kantian philosophy also means the death of the individual as its “ ineffable” concreteness is supplanted by the universally equalizing abstraction of logic.
- 43 Barrès, Mes Cahiers, p. 156.
- 44 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 2, p. 186.
- 45 Ibid., 104. Cf. for Barrès’s widespread use of this metaphor Ouston, Landscape in Barrès’s Art of P (...)
31The link to Asia is more immediately evident in Wagner, whom Barrès derives from Schopenhauer whom, in turn, he derives from “ la philosophie asiatique ”43, presumably conceived of as Buddhist self-annihilation. So, at the end of his Amitiés françaises, Barrès sees France under constant attack by a formidable flood : “ ce flot de nihilisme et ces noirs délires que, par-dessus la Germanie, nous envoie la profonde Asie ”44. The waves of this flood brake violently at la ligne bleue des Vosges, Lorraine (and Alsace) acting as a protective dyke for France. Barrès frequently uses this metaphor of the Asian-German flood running against the dyke of the Eastern provinces, whose mission is “ de se sacrifier pour que le germanisme... ne dénaturât point la civilisation latine ”, a mission that, according to Barrès, has not changed since the Roman Empire was assailed by “ les barbares de l’Est ”45.
- 46 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 2, p. 187.
- 47 Ibid., p. 188.
- 48 Cf. ibid., p. 267.
- 49 Cf. ibid., p. 188. The metaphorical fear of dissolution – dissolution of the nation, of race, of di (...)
- 50 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 2, p. 44.
- 51 Ibid., p. 188.
32In Les Amitiés françaises, however, he is very specific about this flood and what it is carrying: It is “ tout le vaste flot de l’Asie, qu’un Tristan, qu’une Yseult, nous versent à nous submerger ”46. The “forces presques élémentaires” of their emotionality, culminating in the voluntary dissolution of individuality of Isolde’s Liebestod, might be necessary, Barrès muses, to excite the obtuse temperament of Germans: “ la blonde Germanie, [est] lourde à s’émouvoir, somnolente de la longue grossièreté, appesantie de bière ”47 – especially the terrible Prussians, dominating Imperial Germany, are swamp-dwellers, as Barrès reminds his readers in his novel Au Service de l’Allemagne (1905)48, and whereas Lorraine, for example, presents spiritual summits, as we have seen, their mind is as flat as the arid plains of Brandenburg. It is dangerous to apply the same brute force of emotionality to the more delicate French, as their sensibility is more “composed” in a literal sense, more formal, and its crystalline, definite, fixed structure will be dissolved by the indistinct wave49. “ Je ne souhaite à personne de se soumettre aux influences de cette sublime tragédie, car ce qu’elle met dans notre sang, c’est une irritation mortelle, le besoin d’aller au-delà, plus outre que l’humanité ”50, Barrès writes in the contemporary La Mort de Venise, included in Amori et dolori sacrum. There, he adds to the foreignness of Tristan by linking and likening it to an orientalised Venice, where Wagner actually composed parts of his opera. He finally describes them both, city and opera, as a germ, a fever, a poison. In Les Amitiés françaises, he exhorts his readers to keep off: “rejetons le poison de l’Asie ”51.
33This looks like an ambivalent prescription ad usum delphini; Barrès’s book is meant to exemplify the right way of educating the youth, especially his own son Philippe. Yet, Tristan is also an enticing drug. Barrès does not disavow his Wagnerite past: “ j’ai subi comme d’autres, et plus peut-être, ce flot de nihilisme... Leurs philtres [de Tristan et d’Yseult] m’enivrèrent, me corrompirent, m’allaient dissoudre ”52. Now, “matured”, he abstains and wants the young not even to start. The dolphins, however, might want to ride the waves for themselves.
- 53 Huré, Le dernier des écrivains orientalistes, p. 223.
- 54 Cf. for the oriental theme in Barrès’ works the rich material in Frandon, L’Orient de Maurice Barrè (...)
- 55 Bernard Heyberger, “Barrès Maurice”, in François Pouillon (éd.), Dictionnaire des orientalistes de (...)
- 56 Cf. Kreutzer, Orientalism, p. 551.
- 57 Said, Orientalism, p. 57.
34Barrès has been called “ le dernier des écrivains orientalistes ”53, and even if the author of that line did not mean it in the sense of Edward Said’s famous book, it seems as if one could easily apply Said’s argumentative grid to Barrès’s work; so many of its references to the Middle East purely originate in literary tradition, and so self-assuredly does he claim the people of the Ottoman empire to necessitate the benefactions of the “ mission civilisatrice ” of Occidental France54. Especially his last novel, Un Jardin sur l’Oronte, could appear as a trashy collection of the orientalist stereotypes Said accuses the West of having imposed on the Middle East. It has been defined as a “ fantaisie de harem ”55, a formula that evokes paintings by Ingres or Gérôme of naked women in the bathhouse, and even if this formula is grossly misleading, you still have in this story, set at the time of the Crusades, the decadent grandeur of a morally questionable emir’s court, the crushing defeat of the Arabs at the hands of superior European military might, and a poor French knight being enthralled by a queen of the harem: through the sensuality of her singing, she makes him lose his rationality. He abandons his European comrades-in-faith and -in-arms, only to suffer her betrayal, leading to his brutal death. Hence, all elements of Orientalism are present: sensuality, irrationality, decadence, femininity, corruption, brutality, as goes their handbook-definition56. Said himself highlights two “essential motifs”: the juxtaposition of powerful Europe and defeated Asia, and the Orient seductively insinuating danger to rationality57. These are key elements of the plot of Un Jardin sur l’Oronte.
35Yet, I will argue that, against this prima facie appearance, Barrès not only blurs the East-West opposition, so carefully delineated by Said, but actually subverts it. Moreover, Un Jardin sur l’Oronte is a reflection on the very process for which Said blames the West: that of projecting one’s conceptions and preconceptions on other cultures. But let me first summarize the storyline of the novel. Sire Guillaume, a young French knight fluent in Arabic, comes to Qalaat, in order to help negotiate a peace deal between a local emirate and a crusader principality. The young man becomes the confidante of the emir who grows fond of the strange young man, so fond, that he lets him see the women of his harem. Guillaume falls in love with Oriante, the emir’s favourite, when he hears her singing in the gardens. He fears that love and longs for it at the same time. She seems to reciprocate the attraction. Out of the blue, the emirate is attacked by other French crusaders. Oriante decides Guillaume to stay, and he helps defend the citadel. When the emir eventually dies, Oriante makes Guillaume the new leader, and for a while, they enjoy their love. But the fortress is doomed. Guillaume wants to flee together with his lover. He manages to escape, yet unbeknownst to him, she decides not to follow him. Guillaume passes months of fear and uncertainty about Oriante in Damascus; then he learns that she has become the wife of the new Christian master of Qalaat. Furious, he returns to the city. He manages to meet her, and they resume their love affair in secret, but after a while, that is not enough for him. Oriante helps him to return among the Christian knights. When during a soirée, Oriante sings again, Guillaume, consumed by passion, accuses her of treason and insults the knights. They beat him so brutally that he dies shortly afterwards.
- 58 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 2, p. 796.
- 59 Cf. ibid., p. 773, 775.
- 60 Cf. ibid., p. 774, 769, 761-762, 798-801.
36Where the West moves into the East, where Europe invades the Orient, its characteristics should become distinct all the more clearly through this confrontation. In Barrès’s novel, however, the Europeans are almost systematically described by characteristics that Said lists as ‘oriental’, while the Arabs display ‘western’ qualities. Guillaume is all passion and irrational desire, while Oriante displays cool, realistic reasoning. I cite the last of many examples: In the climactic moment of the novel, after her second performance, she asks him: “ Me commandes-tu de perdre l’usage de la raison? Que dois-je faire ? ”. Followed by : “ Me montrer franchement ton cœur, dit-il avec désespoir ”58. Similarly, the encounters between Guillaume and the sultan of Damascus are depicted as an encounter between enraged passion and economic Realpolitik59. If brutality is said to be a domain of the Orient, here, the Christians are the real Orientals: After the fall of Qalaat, the crusaders massacre the people. Even before, they act as barbarians, as they vow to let only those of the inhabitants leave the besieged citadel, that hand over their women. Guillaume, too, exhibits un-Christian cruelty. At the beginning of the siege, he advises to abandon the people that have sought shelter in the city beneath the fortress, and even to take their provisions, reducing them to misery, whereas the emir feels his responsibility towards his subjects as any good Christian prince should do. And at the end of the novel, the other French knights, not some Arab warriors, treat Guillaume so harshly that his death is described with overtones of a martyr’s passion60.
- 61 This argument naturally hinges on the condition that Guillaume’s Tristan is anachronistically confl (...)
37On other levels of the text, too, Barrès subverts the expectations of orientalist orientation. At Oriante’s instigation, the emir gifts a woman of the harem to Guillaume. She serves as his companion, and later she functions as messenger between the lovers and as their mutual confidante. She is called Isabelle of all names – like the Spanish queen that oversaw the expulsion of the last Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula, baffling east-western correlations. But most significantly, when Guillaume tries to pinpoint the differences between eastern and western sociability and sensibility, he chooses the story of Tristan and Iseult as his primary example for the western way – Tristan, that Barrès, as we have seen, had decried as an Asian poison61. In this way, Barrès seems to subvert his own conceptions, as developed elsewhere, too. All of Barrès’s harangues about the dangers of Tristan notwithstanding, in Un Jardin sur l’Oronte, Asian Tristan becomes the definiens of Europe, and not ex negativo. Thus, actually, Guillaume does not need Oriante, that Orient made woman, to lose his rationality: As an adept of Tristan, he never had it, and it seems as if Europe were but another Asia.
- 62 Cf. ibid., p. 751.
- 63 Ibid., p. 754.
- 64 Ibid., p. 800.
- 65 Ibid. “Je voudrais entendre jusqu’à la fin votre voix; non pas vos pensées, qui sont mélangées, mai (...)
- 66 Cf. Said, Orientalism, p. 244-245.
38In the end, Guillaume dies because he has come to Syria in order to live his own Tristan story. In other words, Barrès consciously shows him as someone who finds nothing but his own projections. Right at the beginning of the novel, Guillaume confesses that, at the instigation of his mother, he has come to the Orient to find an angel62. When he sees Oriante for the first time, “ l’ange du désir apparut à visage découvert. Ce fut comme si l’on étalait à nu devant le jeune homme les secrets de son propre cœur ”63. It is not cognition, it is recognition; Barrès shows him thinking to find the angel of his own imagination. Guillaume sticks with this closed cognitive circuit until the very end. On the edge of death, he tells Oriante : “ Ce n’est pas vous que j’aime,... j’aime cet ange invisible, pareil à vous, mais parfait, qui se tient au côté de votre humanité imparfaite ”64. His last wish is to hear the enchanting sound of her voice, but not her thoughts65. In other words, the West is interested in the colourful melody; it is not interested in communication with the East. Could there be a more emblematic definition of Orientalism? Edward Said might have found more interesting things reading Un Jardin sur l’Oronte instead of Une Enquête aux pays du Levant that he cites in his book and that gives him the same stereotypes he finds elsewhere over again66.
39So Guillaume falls for his own projections. Yet, Barrès makes things even more complicated, as I already indicated: Guillaume gets those projections of the East generally from Tristan that is ‘eastern’ in itself, setting off a jeux of mirrors without end: The East is mirrored in the West that itself is mirrored in the East that in turn...
- 67 Barrès, Romans et voyages, vol. 2, p. 745.
40Barrès shows to be fully conscious of these processes of projection through the framework story into which the story of Guillaume is inserted: The frame destroys any claim to authenticity of the story and ironically labels it as fiction – the fiction of Europeans about the Orient. In the frame, two Europeans, a Frenchman – presumably Barrès himself – and a young Irish archaeologist meet by chance in the Syrian town of Hama. They meet in a moment that crucially casts doubt on European self-conception: the beginning of the First World War. They feel alienated in a town made up of “ maisons aveugles et muettes ”67 that defy their understanding. So they set out to buy antiquities, obviously in the hope to find a connecting factor. A Jewish merchant, who seems to be specialized in European customers, readily presents the goods to satisfy them: Roman busts and coins – and an Arabian manuscript, containing the crusader story. The archaeologist delves into the text and, delighted at its curiosity, proposes to translate it liberally to an equally delighted Barrès, happy to have him drive out the ennui of the incomprehensible Arab town. So before it reaches us, the story undergoes at least two translations, two transformations – from Arab to English to French, and from the Irishman’s retelling to that of Barrès.
- 68 Ibid., p. 747.
- 69 Ibid.
41As if these relativizing signals of the mysterious manuscript and its liberal retelling were not enough, the textual Barrès explicitly casts doubts on the Irishman’s credibility: The Irish are famous for being prodigious fabulators, he says, “ et je me rappelle comment Oscar Wilde... racontait avec des airs de magicien des histoires qu’il jurait exactes et qui étaient de purs mensonges ”68. But evidently, it does not matter if the story is true, is authentic or not: The story is like an “ oiseau bleu sous les étoiles ”69, and imagination takes wings. For the Barrès of the Jardin, Orientalism is a self-conscious aesthetic game, played by Europeans for Europeans. The vertiginous series of endless mirror reflections points in the same direction. Within the fictional realm of the novel, the East, thus, functions as a free aesthetic space where all settings and definitions – Europe, reason, emotion – can playfully be re-examined; where Barrès can savour Tristan again without fearing a hangover.
42Barrès’s East has many faces, many colours. It is linked to purity and hybridity: Spain is fascinating because it has incorporated the Eastern promises of emotionality. And the bastions of the East are great because they keep the East out. The East is dangerous disease and source of knowledge, as the feverish lagoon of Venice, Germany and Wagner exemplify, all three having ambivalent values. The East is far and near: it is never to be reached but in imagination, and the voyage en orient brings enlightenment within Europe. East is shorthand for emotion, and it is full of reason, even of calculation, as Spain and Oriante attest. Barrès’s East is less a fixed category than a moving concept strategically evoked, a semantic cloud that radiates different connotations at different times. The ironic intricacies of Un Jardin sur l’Oronte suggest that Barrès could be fully aware of his juggling with meanings.
- 70 Cf. Ousselin, The Invention of Europe, p. 105.
43So the needle of Barrès’s compass dances. The East can be found everywhere, even in countries generally located in the heart of Europe. His distancing views of countries like Spain, Greece and Germany belie any monolithic conception of Europe, as Edward Ousselin has rightly noted70. Such ‘occidentalist’ misconceptions are debunked by Barrès’s usages of the East. Yet, he redraws Europe’s boundaries and contours often enough by using orientalist topoi, and not infrequently in xenophobic intent. That is just one of the many paradoxes one may encounter in reading Barrès.