The Thematics of Commitment: The Tower and the Plain

The Thematics of Commitment: The Tower and the Plain

by Peter Maxwell Cryle

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ISBN-13: 9780691611853
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #867
Pages: 472
Product dimensions: 9.90(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Thematics of Commitment

The Tower & The Plain


By Peter Maxwell Cryle

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06610-3



CHAPTER 1

The Hill and the Plain:La Colline inspirée


There are towers in Maurice Barrès's novel, and other structures that may be comparable (churches, monasteries), but what matters most is the site: "Le couvent sera peut-être détruit, disait-il, qu'importe! Je n'attache d'importance qu'à l'emplacement" (pp. 175–176). Building may well be quite important, in fact, but not the building. If there is any architectural concern, it is with the base, which must provide solidity. We ought to speak here of pyramids rather than of fragile and gracious ivory towers, for this can be the shape of society itself: "Etrange pyramide qui se construit sur ce haut lieu! Un petit peuple lève son regard vers Léopold, et lui-même est tout tendu vers un monde mystérieux qu'il distingue déjà par éclairs, derrière le monde des apparences" (p. 81). Yet far superior still to the pyramid, precisely because it is not constructed by human effort, is the hill that gives the work its title. The hill is the earth raised up, a natural foundation for the tower that gives it more than just contingent cultural superiority. Almost before any human activity occurs, it is possible to talk about the work of the earth: "Il semble que, chargées d'une mission spéciale, ces terres doivent intervenir, d'une manière irrégulière et selon les circonstances, pour former des êtres supérieurs et favoriser les hautes idées morales" (p. 7). The process is not entirely reliable, as we can see, but it will eventually be possible for the narrator to say: "Une fois encore le site a produit son effet." (p. 249). We might say in phenomenological terms, as a way of describing the appropriateness of Barrès's work to the present study, that La Colline inspirée is less concerned with the individual in isolation than with the modalities of consciousness proper to a particular place.

The place, we are told, is a "faible éminence" (p. 7). In other words, it is not a mountain but a hill, something of human proportions, as Bachelard notes in another context:

La vue sur la colline que nous appelons, à Bar-sur-Aube, la montagne Sainte-Germaine donne un monde circulaire bien clos dont le clocher est le centre. Quel décor pour y rêver l'impérialisme du sujet sur le spectacle contempté! Mais à Strasbourg, l'ascension est brusquement inhumaine.


To say that it is a "faible éminence" is to remind us most particularly that it is worn down by time, "sur une terre la plus usée de France" (p. 7), just as the castle standing on it has been worn down to the point where we have "la dernière tour" (p. 7). Time here seems to act as a purifying agent, eliminating the proliferating signs of human activity in favor of that which is essential. Figuratively, Léopold Baillard himself becomes a tower: "La guerre a rejeté tant de choses au fond des siècles! L'histoire des Baillard fait désormais partie d'un monde aboli. On n'en voit plus au milieu des broussailles que l'espèce de tour ruinée qu'est la vieillesse de Léopold" (p. 218). It is as if the only true tower, for Barrès, were a ruined one. Yet all the time, this process of erosion is guaranteeing the solidity of whatever is left by reducing the tower to its base, wearing it all down to bedrock: "rien ne reste chez ce vieil homme que le granit, les formations éternelles, les pensées essentielles d'un paysan et d'un prêtre, les souvenirs de la vieille patrie et les aspirations vers la patrie éternelle" (p. 203). The hill remains as a vestigial eminence, in the very modesty of its dimensions a sign of that which endures eternally. To say of the hill "elle demeure" is a play on words; what is left is essentially what will always remain: "Elle demeure, elle reste à sa place, pour être un lieu de recueillement où nous rassemblons nos forces, pour nous remuer d'un pressentiment, nous enlever à l'heure passagère, à nos limites, à nous-mêmes, et nous montrer l'éternel" (p. 14).

It should be made quite clear, however, that the hill is not valued here for the gentleness of its slopes, for the ease of climbing described by Bachelard, in unfailing pursuit of the imagination of comfort: "La colline ... nous a donné, juste a notre mesure, ce qu'il nous faut de vie verticale pour que nous aimions gravir doucement, gravir par la pensée, sans nulle fatigue réelle — sans nulle fatigue imaginaire surtout — la pente où s'étagent les vergers et les moissons." Indeed, in La Colline inspirée the slopes of the hill are the place of instability — "la pente qui glisse" (p. 184) — and of compromise that cannot endure: "Les schismatiques étaient chassés du plateau, mais ils s'accrochaient avec l'énergie du désespoir aux pentes de la colline. Ni le préfet, ni l'évêque ne pouvaient se satisfaire d'un succès incomplet" (p. 153). It cannot be a matter of "hanging on": the hill must be, for Barrès, a place on which to stand, not so much a gentle slope as moderate or stable verticality. What is most appropriate, the hill of Sion is essentially a plateau with a (habitable) peak at each of its opposite extremities (p. 10). It is the place of immobility, the fixed point from which the truth can be known.

To quote another work that bears on its cover the name Maurice Barrès — supposing, if we may, the relative coherence of all such known works — "QU'EST-CE QUE LA VÉRITÉ? Ce n'est point des choses à savoir, c'est de trouver un certain point, un point unique, celui-là, nul autre, d'où toutes choses nous apparaissent avec des proportions vraies." La Colline inspirée tells us that instead of prospecting action and confronting choice, we can find the place that "nous soumet à un ordre, nous dispense de chercher notre voie et nous introduit dans l'harmonie divine" (p. 40; my italics). This hardly looks like commitment as we have begun to understand it, but being in just the right place, on the hill that is "le centre de la nature" (p. 82), does enable one to make a synthesis of the earthly and the divine — precisely the opposite of that disjunction that characterizes detachment in La Chartreuse de Parme. "C'est toujours ici," says the narrator of La Colline inspirée, "le point spirituel de cette grave contrée; c'est ici que sa vie normale se relie à la vie surnaturelle" (p. 12). Could it be that the commitment is "ready made"? Let us "stay" a little longer on La Colline inspirée before we attempt to adjust our predictions.

We can see from here that horizontal movement is likely to be the enemy. It is not the plain in itself: the plain is the rest of nature and, in its own way, is no less eternal than the hill. After all, they are both of the earth. The traditional enemies, for Barrès — and more generally in the watchtower tradition, no doubt — are those who move across the plain as invaders: barbarians, Germans, protestants. They sweep along like a river of time — "l'immense flot germain" (p. 207); "le fleuve immonde des barbares" — carrying only corrosive salt — "le protestantisme, flot venu de l'Océan germanique dont le sel eût transformé nos terres!" — with no foundations, no site, nothing more beneath them than sand. They are most hateful, it seems, not because they are disorderly — they do in fact have an "ordre puissant," a "force rythmée" (p. 208) — but because they do not stop: "Du matin jusqu'à la nuit, le fleuve s'écoule, un défilé ininterrompu" (p. 208). They have no standpoint from which to know eternal truth. Instead of the time that confirms, they are caught up in the time of radical change; instead of erosion, the flood. More than just an isolated watchtower, the whole country of Lorraine constitutes a "barrage gallo-romain" (p. 207); but however steadfast its resolve, however precisely militant its resistance, it cannot reliably stand against them.

Less catastrophically but for much the same reasons, travel also appears as a danger, even to Léopold Baillard: "Dans sa jeunesse et hier encore, en battant tous les chemins de l'Europe, il avait diminué son être; il s'était senti jour par jour refroidi, gêné, peut-être dégradé. A courir le monde et surtout à lutter contre l'évêque, il avait failli perdre sa véritable nature" (p. 96; my italics). Here we find none of the sublime confidence in the midst of adventure that animates Fabrice nor the security in detachment. How can we be sure of finding ourselves again if we run around in the horizontal world? Even to search is a kind of scattering: 'Tandis que Chateaubriand et Byron, à chercher partout le bonheur, usent et dégradent leur énergie, Napoléon l'affermit autour de son idée fixe." The important thing is to find, or rather to have found, to stay and confirm. "Mieux que les voyages, certains repos forment la jeunesse," we are told in Les Déracinés.

Travel has a clear economic function here, as in so many novels, from the picaresque to the Bildungsroman, but it is seldom really productive. It is true that the Baillards and their supporters, especially Therfese and her "soeurs quêteuses" (p. 29), spend a lot of time in the (horizontal) search for money, as they later do when first Quirin, then François, and eventually even Léopold manage to make a living as commis voyageurs (see pp. 187, 194, etc.). But this is courir le pays (p. 177) rather than courir le monde: it works in a more limited area and has other functions that reconcile the economic and the spiritual: "le commerce des esprits célestes et des âmes" (p. 177). Indeed at the height of their powers, the Baillard brothers, as a group, seem to be able both to travel and to stay:

Quirin se multiplie chez les homines d'affaires de Vézelise, de Lunéville et de Nancy, faisant les chemins de jour et de nuit par les temps les plus affreux; François court les villages pour entretenir l'enthousiasme et lutter contre la défection; quant à Léopold, il demeure dans sa chambre et, les pieds sur les chenets, s'entretient avec les astres. (p. 104)


Nonetheless, it seems that one cannot travel at all without expending one's energy. The only way to conserve it perfectly is to stay still and to be silent. The wasteful production of spiritual noise is like a "cortège de carnaval," whereas true accumulation occurs in silence and immobility:

La montagne respire du départ de ces insensés. Ils ont follement dépensé, prodigué, gâché ses forces religieuses accumulées. Ils l'épuisaient et la compromettaient. Il faut qu'elle se refasse, qu'elle répare; il faut que la solitude et le silence recomposent les vestiges et l'autorité qu'un cortège de carnaval en quelques mois vient de dilapider. Un beau silence se réinstalle sur la colline. (p. 162)


If there is any form of productive, or at least nonwasteful, displacement it must be the promenade, the kind of walking that occurs within a well-defined space and that is appropriate to meditation: "Léopold vivait comme un moine: Saxon était sa cellule, toute la Lorraine son promenoir" (p. 199; see p. 105). This is so presumably because it organizes time and, quite literally, makes a place for stasis. The "promeneur" evoked in general terms by the narrator can stop — must stop, no doubt — at the most beautiful "stations de ce pèlerinage" (p. 164; my italics), thereby participating in a collective promenade that has gone on for centuries. Such a liturgical walk allows of regular, confirming reflection and avoids completely the dissipation of travel.

The point of stopping, it seems, is to look. But who looks at what, exactly? Can we speak here of the intellectual's observation — or at least contemplation — of the world? The question is not easily answered. What we do know at least is that the look "of' the hill (see p. 14) is an outgoing one, the contrary of which can be found not in this text but in the description of an excursion in Les Déracinés: "Mais Gallant de Saint-Phlin excepté, ils ne sentaient pas la nature, ne savaient pas l'utiliser. En leur fermant l'horizon pendant une dizaine d'années, on les avait contraints de ne rien voir qu'en eux." For one who stands on the hill of Sion, the horizon is not closed but open: "Sur la hauteur, c'est un plateau, une promenade de moins de deux heures à travers des chaumes et des petits bois, que la vue embrasse et depasse pour jouir d'un immense horizon et de l'air le plus pur" (p. 10). Yet there is not only a flight of attention toward the most distant points; the look returns closer to home, such that after the horizon one notices the plain: "Si vous portez au loin votre regard, vous distinguez et dénombrez les ballons des Vosges et de l'Alsace; si vous le ramenez plus près sur la vaste plaine, elle vous étonne et ... vous charme" (p. 10). We are reminded here again of the fact that the hill is a faible éminence. Because all that surrounds it is flat, the horizon is vast, but that which is immediately below is not very distant and can be seen in detail.

Faible also, however, suggests a kind of weakness, and although that should never make us doubt the hill's eternal qualities of endurance, it suggests a certain exposure of the place. We know it to be attended by a vent perpétuel (p. 10) so that the person standing on it feels the breath of the spirit (p. 5). This might serve to remind us that there are vectors crossing this space in both directions: the person on the hill looks out, but he or she is exposed, not only to the wind indeed but also to being seen. The hill is an object of attention for those on the plain: "Dans tous nos cantons, dès que le terrain s'élève, le regard découvre avec saisissement la belle forme immobile, soit toute nette, soit voilée de pluie, de cette colline posée sur notre vaste plateau" (p. 7). We should not doubt, furthermore, that in appropriate conditions what people do on the hill can be clearly "seen" from below: "Toute la Lorraine regarde la ronde satanique menée sur la colline, dans les brouillards de l'hiver, par les trois prêtres et leurs religieuses échevelées" (p. 128). Instead of a situation in which the person in the high place has the initiative, being able to look at the world before acting, we find here that he or she is already being acted upon, at least to the extent of being looked at. There is no beginning, and, in that sense at least, it is hard to find the place of the intellectual observer. It seems much more appropriate to speak in terms of exchange, or of intercourse, between the hill and the plain. The hill throws out a spiritual challenge, reminding the plain that all is not just domestic routine (p. 8); meaningful words take little time to "glisser le long des pentes de la colline" (p. 75). On exception — and the exception is defined as such by its being a religious celebration — people actually leave the plain and come up the hill in pilgrimage, "Arrachés pour un jour à leur vie matérielle" (p. 78).

How then can we situate, with respect to commitment as we have begun to understand it, the organization of the world that emerges from a reading of La Colline inspirée? So much of what we predicted seems to be denied by the steadfast immobility — or, at best, the cyclical nature — of this Barresian landscape. Can commitment be worked out here, or even worked at? Before facing these questions, let us attempt to confirm our own resolve by examining why, apart from our recognition of high places and the look, we ought to continue to consider La Colline inspirée within a thematics of commitment. The best way to do this may be to talk about values. We find here, not surprisingly, an affirmation of aerial values — "L'âme! le ciel! vieux mots dont la magie garde encore sa force" (p. 14). But there is also a desire for action, for that which gives form to one's energy. Pure contemplation is not enough:

Qu'elle est charmante dans ses quatre saisons la colline bleuâtre! Mais l'on s'ennuierait à la longue de cette solitude. Le coeur s'y gonfle d'air pur, mais reste sans mouvement, inactif, inerte; il voudrait aimer, réprouver, agir. Cette nature toute seule nous communique mille sentiments qui ne savent que faire d'eux-mêmes dans ce désert. Il manque ici une présence, quelque chose qui incorpore les énergies de ce haut lieu. Où sont les fils de la colline? (p. 166; my italics)


What matters finally is not even living on the hill, or life on the hill, but the landscape as such: "Mais ce qui vit sur la colline ne compte guère et ne fait rien qu'approfondir la solitude et le silence. Ce qui compte et ce qui existe, où que nous menions nos pas en suivant la ligne de faîte, c'est l'horizon et ce vaste paysage de terre et de ciel" (p. 10). Air and earth are affirmed together, as part of the same world; there cannot be a question of detachment, if detachment, in its most general form, constitutes the air as a separate domain and prefers it to the earth.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Thematics of Commitment by Peter Maxwell Cryle. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. v
  • METHODOLOGICAL PREFACE, pg. vii
  • ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, pg. xvii
  • INTRODUCTION, pg. 1
  • I The Hill and the Plain: La Colline inspirée, pg. 23
  • II. The Upright and the Rampant: Germinal, pg. 56
  • III. The Ups and Downs of Commitment and Detachment: “La Comédie de Charleroi”, pg. 82
  • IV. The High Plateaus: L’Homme à cheval, pg. 118
  • V. Getting Down to Earth: Les Mouches, “Erostrate,” Les Chemins de la Liberté, pg. 172
  • VI. Making Molehills out of Mountains: Imaginative Polemics in Sartre and, pg. 218
  • VII. Routine Elevation: Le Mythe de Sisyphe, La Peste, L’Exil et le royaume, La Chute, pg. 242
  • VIII. Refusing to Go Down: Rhinocéros, Le Piéton de Vair, pg. 295
  • CONCLUSION, pg. 332
  • NOTES, pg. 365
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SECONDARY TEXTS, pg. 408
  • INDEX, pg. 439



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