The Method and Vision of Paul Bénichou: An Essay

Mark K. Jensen
Pacific Lutheran University

VI: Spiritual Authority in Modernity and Postmodernity

Romanticism, then, so often regarded as a reaction against the Enlightenment, was, in fact, a "second edition" of it. {96} A new appreciation of the importance of the spiritual helped accomplish the promotion of the poet-thinker to a priest-like status, overcoming or moderating liberals' hostility toward religion.

We should note that romantic poetry accomplished this by opposing science. . . . Lamartine proclaimed: "I suffer from the misfortune of having been born in a century of mathematics." This protest has remained as a permanent temptation in the history of modern poetry, no doubt on account of the fact that it sprang from religious roots. {97}
With the new status of the artist came the promotion of the imagination and the development of a common credo that swept up even those who, like Alfred de Vigny, were temperamentally ill-suited to it. Consensus on this promotion was short-lived, however. Already shaken in the aftermath of 1830, after 1848 the poet-thinker ceased to be a credible "spiritual authority" to bourgeois society. The Church resumed her status as the official spiritual power. {98} Modern conservatism emerged as "the eighteenth century begins to be the object of a vast intellectual disapproval." {99} The poets and writers, for their part, became thoroughly "disenchanted" -- and, it will be recalled, it was to understand this that Bénichou originally untertook his long intellectual journey.

Yet poets were still moved by a humanitarian ideal in which society has lost its perfect faith. Increasingly isolated, a deeply disenchanted poetry "inaugurated an era in which we still find ourselves, one in which poetry has become difficult -- scarcely accessible to the public, even when it wishes to be." {100} If it has kept its prestige, it is because it has retained a single article of its romantic faith: "that of being a mode of deepening our insight into the universe. It maintains its ministry not as a mission but as a mode of intuitive and esoteric knowledge superior to science." {101} A metaphysics of the symbol, with roots in the Middle Ages but which modern science rejects, continues to be affirmed by modern poetry, though it is not developed systematically in any convincing manner. Such a metaphysics has often been taken to be a defining characteristic of Romanticism per se. {102}

The attempt to raise up poetry to compete with philosophy and religion is not an act of personal hubris on the part of this or that poet; rather, such an effort goes to the heart of what poetry has tried to be in modern times. Romanticism's choice of symbol and metaphor as the essence of poetry -- an absolutely new notion, according to Bénichou -- is an understandable development: of all rhetorical figures, metaphor is "the only [rhetorical device] whose reach exceeds grammar so as to aim at knowledge." {103} This notion was not new, but had heretofore been grounded in theology. The claim on the part of poets to judge for themselves which symbols and which metaphors illuminate reality has led to the suspicion that they invent what they claim to find. Romanticism becomes suspect:

In none of the known religions are priest and god so hard to distinguish as in the poetical religion of the nineteenth century. This religion insists that we ought not to distinguish knowledge and imagination, to both of which poets lay claim, contradictorily and cumulatively, as their peculiar right. {104}
Such is the dialectic in which Romantic poets and their successors find themselves involved.

Bénichou's own evaluation of the pretensions of the Romantic poets to penetrate the secrets of reality is complex and deserves more extended commentary than can be given here. To summarize his views: he approves of the role of poetry as critic of the world; rejects its claims to give us knowledge (connaissance) of reality; but, refusing poets' claims to status as savants, recognizes their right to that be considered as sublime seers (voyants). If we refuse even this, all of modern poetry risks rejection. This is a rejection that Bénichou was unwilling to contemplate. According to poets the status of seer is justified, ultimately, by the conviction that, after all, they do know something about the beautiful and the good, which, while participating irreducibly in what makes human experience human, goes beyond the order of facts and truths to which ordinary paths to knowledge give us access. {105} Bénichou work may be regarded as a multi-volume argument in support of this claim.

One of the most striking corroborations of Bénichou's interpretation of Romanticism is the light it sheds on that most difficult of modern poets, Mallarmé. The lack of social acceptance writers and poets encountered, beginning in 1830 and definitively after 1848, posed an acute problem for all of them, to which they responded in different ways. Baudelaire recurred first to aestheticism and then to religion, Gautier to aestheticism, Rimbaud to a sort of human supernaturalism; but the case of Mallarmé is among the most remarkable.

Mallarmé, at the end of a long and torturous meditation, finds himself confronting nothingness, and proclaims that fact . . . The symbol . . . in his eyes took the form . . . of a pure vanishing away of the particular object [la chose]. . . . . [H]e saw himself as a priest of an Ideal that was imperious, but non-existent [nul], the hero of a funereal tragedy in which absence takes possession of everything. . . . He ended by renouncing [his attempt when young to construct a new salvific metaphysics] . . . He accepted that poetry does not represent the supreme reality of the universe, but rather the experience that deprives us of that reality. . . . He began to represent his encounter with nothingness with regard to every single thing . . . He had achieved, through his mortifying experience, a compact and solitary language, closed to any facile understanding and as rich in metaphors as it is laconic. . . . What is more, he succeeded in dedramatizing his adventure, in treating with humor the inordinate aspiration he bore within himself . . . {106}
Read from this prespective, many of Mallarmé's most difficult poems seem to reveal their secrets. If literary history and criticism are to be judged by their fruits rather than by their methodology, his interpretation of Mallarmé may be a striking confirmation of the value of Bénichou's work. {107}

Our present relation to the notion of a spiritual power is, according to Bénichou, in a confused state. In the aftermath of 1848, a deep split between left and right developed. Consensus on the role of "spiritual authority" has been most difficult to imagine in such circumstances -- hence the remoteness from us of much of the Romantic era. E uno plura: to a large extent we continue to live in this condition. "In this period of non-consensus, the idea of a spiritual power loses its basis, due to the fact that the Spirit [l'Esprit] is divided." {108} After the Second World War, the discrediting of the right led to the predominance of the left. "We are still living upon that impetus, but in an extremely weakened form based on indifference and great skepticism. What is left to us are the simplest principles of humanity and morality, from which it is difficult to imagine a vast movement growing." {109} Bénichou offers three reasons why this should be so: by invoking the humanitarian credo, the Soviet system discredited it; the French anti-humanist school of philosophy has paradoxically grafted itself onto "a hyperbolical insistance on human rights, adding to the general confusion of minds" {110} ; and, above all, new problems like colonialism and the suspicion of scientific rationality have been discovered. In addition, "and one could just as well refer to economic phenomena in this regard, we have the impression of being in the presence of forces which we are much further from mastering than before." Hence our present state of confusion. In this muddle, the place of savants is still unresolved. They must have a place in any secular spiritual power, but they cannot themselves found values. It is impossible to tell when or how a new "spiritual authority" will reconstitute itself. {111}

This essay has all but neglected the aspects of Paul Bénichou's work that have earned him the profound respect he enjoys in the Republic of Letters, that land the size of whose population grows ever more doubtful. (The reader may have guessed that belief in the Republic of Letters, and my hope that the information revolution may revive it in new ways, underlie my decision to publish this essay on the web.) There is little need to emphasize the value of these studies. His close readings of French authors from the early seventeeth century through the middle of the nineteenth century, from Corneille to Mallarmé, deserve Todorov's description of them as "not only . . . [an] irreplacable introduction . . . but also . . . exemplary historical analyses." {112} What this essay has sought to demonstrate is the interest of his historical vision. It is a vision that springs from his detailed commentaries and, at the same time, guides and orients them. Only in the last years of his long career did it become possible to see the larger coherence of his lifework and its potential value in clarifying our own historical whereabouts.

Notes to Part VI
{96} Bénichou, "Parcours d'un écrivain," p. 26.
{97} Ibid., p. 27.
{98} This account is borne out by a comprehensive social history of nineteenth-century French Catholicism. Cf. Ralph Gibson, A Social History of French Catholicism: 1789-1914 (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 199-206.
{99} Bénichou, "Parcours d'un écrivain," p. 28.
{100} Ibid., p. 29.
{101} Ibid.
{102} Cf. for example René Wellek, "The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History," in Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 197. [Essay originally published in 1949.]
{103} Bénichou, "Sur Mallarmé," in Le Surnaturalisme français (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1979), p. 100.
{104} Ibid., p. 101.
{105} Bénichou develops these views at length in his conclusion to L'École du désenchantement, pp. 596-600.
{106} Bénichou, "Sur Mallarmé," pp. 102-03.
{107} Bénichou wrote about Mallarmé throughout his career. The first published piece of which I am aware is a 1949 article entitled "Mallarmé et son public," which appeared in Cahiers du sud and is reprinted in L'Écrivain et ses travaux (Paris: José Corti, 1967), pp. 69-88. Most of his subsequent writings on Mallarmé can be found in Selon Mallarmé (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), of which a corrected pocket edition was published in 1999. His article "Sur Mallarmé," cited above, retains its interest, though most of its points are made passim in Selon Mallarmé. For further information on Bénichou's writings on Mallarmé, see my annotated bibliography of Bénichou's writings.
{108} Bénichou, "Parcours de l'écrivain," p. 31.
{109} Ibid.
{110}Ibid. Cf. Luc Ferry & Alain Renaut, La Pensée 68: Essai sur l'anti-humanisme contemporain (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), especially pp. 55-60.
{111} Bénichou, "Parcours de l'écrivain," pp. 31-32.
{112}Todorov, Critique de la critique, p. 143.

Last Update August 21, 2001