Review of Antoine Compagnon’s Les antimodernes: de Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes

Antoine Compagnon. Les antimodernes: de Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes. Paris: Gallimard (Bibliothèque des idées), 2005. 464 pp.

Antoine Compagnon. Les antimodernes: de Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes. Paris: Gallimard (Bibliothèque des idées), 2005. 464 pp.

Given the long-standing polemics surrounding the reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre, Antoine Compagnon’s recent volume is timely, if not long overdue. For decades, Maistrian thought has been divided into one of two camps: either he is viewed by liberal historians and political scientists as the forefather of European fascism or he is considered a major precursor to French romanticism and modernism.

Compagnon breaks through this traditional opposition that either demonizes or lauds the Savoyard thinker by recasting his (and his politico-literary descendants) in terms of their anti-modernity. Yet far from being an isolated monograph on Maistre, Les anti-modernes is a systematic study of the entire anti-modern tradition in France. The book begins with the founding ideas of anti-modernity and is followed by a series of monographs that trace nearly two centuries of this thought from Maistre, Chateaubriand and Lacordaire through Renan and Bloy, Benda and Gracq, concluding, curiously, with Roland Barthes.

What does it mean to be anti-modern? Compagnon’s definition is admittedly somewhat paradoxical (it is no surprise that he penned an earlier book titled The Five Paradoxes of Modernity) by remarking that “les véritables antimodernes sont aussi, en même temps des modernes” (7). This paradox, however, becomes clear when situated historically: all of Compagnon’s anti-moderns discern residual effects of the Revolution on the French collective psyche and are drawn to the victims of modern historical experience.  Thus, Compagnon explains why anti-modern writers “entretiennent une relation particulière avec la mort, la mélancolie et le dandysme: Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly sont les héros de la modernité” (9). While anti-modern thought has origins in anti-revolutionary (and therefore anti-modern) politics, it nevertheless is the motor of literary production that has come to be known as “modern” [e.g. “le génie antimoderne s’est réfugié dans la littérature, et dans la littérature même que nous qualifions de moderne, dans la littérature dont la postérité a fait son canon” (10)].  Literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, Compagnon suggests, is “sinon de droite, du moins résistante à la gauche” (11), leading the following generations to prefer Chateaubriand to Lamartine, Baudelaire to Hugo, Flaubert to Zola, Proust to Anatole France, Gracq to the Nouveau Roman, etc.  In sum, literary ascendancy goes to those, recalling the Five Paradoxes, who are in modernity but are not fooled by it, or, as he states in the present volume, who are “les modernes en liberté” (14).

Six thematic constants establish the fundamental basis of anti-modern thought, all  of which can be traced back to Maistre, Chateaubriand and Baudelaire (14).  Beginning, logically, in the historico-political realm, the first of these is an ironic counter-revolutionary stance.  Part of the generation that followed the Revolution, wielding the pen and not the sword, combat its consequences.  Dogmatically resistant to ideals of equality, democracy and universal suffrage, the anti-modern champions an elitist oligarchy of intelligence (36).  To confront principles of universalism is also to take issue with its sources; hence, the second anti-modern tendency is to oppose 18th-century philosophy and the liberal tradition it engendered (hence Compagnon’s accompanying label anti-lumières).  Recognizing the ironic futility of their situation, the third trait is more existential in character and represents a neologism in the 19th century: pessimisme.  Littré’s definition reflects anti-modern thought by recognizing an “un excès du mal” (64), a philosophical trend that Compagnon traces from Pascal through Schopenhauer to Baudelaire.

This idea of le mal that spans the anti-modern thoughtscape is addressed directly in the fourth theme that introduces a religious category : le péché originel.  In this chapter, Compagnon remarks on the Hobbesian or Sadian view of human nature held by anti-modern thinkers from Baudelaire to Proust. He also explore Maistrian concepts from Considérations sur la France and Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg—especially réversibilité and the necessity of blood atonement.  Shifting from theology to a connected field for anti-moderns, the aesthetic, the fifth element favors the sublime in the arts.  Appropriating Kantian terminology, the sublime is seen as surpassing the faculties of the senses; is used in reference to the horrors of the Revolution (111); and is considered the founding principle of Romanticism (124) and Dandyism (129). The sixth and final trait of the anti-modern position concerns the provocative and sanguinary writing style of its proponents, what Compagnon characterizes as vitupération.  Irony, paradox, antithesis, oxymoron, fragmentary writing and sharp wit characterize this vehement opposition to “the new” that nostalgically wields the pen as though it were the Ancien Régime sword.

Instead of focusing on the familiar figures of Baudelaire, Flaubert or the brothers Goncourt, Compagnon discusses neglected anti-moderns such as Lacordaire, Léon Bloy, Charles Péguy, Albert Thibaudet, Julien Benda, Julien Gracq and a Roland Barthes “en retrait de Tel quel” (14). While using traditional literary history as a backdrop, Compagnon draws out an anti-modern undercurrent: Lacordaire’s model of Christianity, for example, is positioned between those of Maistre and Chateaubriand; Bloy is introduced in the context of Ernest Renan and the question of anti-modern anti-Semitism;  Péguy is cast in relation to Bergsonian and Pascalian philosophy and against modern theories of determinism and positivism.  Two lengthy chapters on Benda and Thibaudet find grounding amidst Gide and the NRF.  Gracq figures in this volume because of his reactionary débats against the nouveau roman and others theories of his contemporaries.  The final chapter offers an intimate portrait of Barthes, positioning his last lecture series at the Collège de France as anti-avant-garde (420). The post-Tel quel Barthes is not well-known; but, this volume effectively introduces some of his final projects, ultimately qualifying him, too, as anti-modern in his modernity.

In his conclusion, Compagnon addresses the impossibility of politically situating contemporary anti-moderns on the right or left as they tend to straddle such categories.  “(L)a droite les pense de gauche, et la gauche de droite” (446).  He questions whether the position would include modern political turncoats: liberals turned Straussian neo-cons in America or the Nouveaux Réactionnaires in France (446).  Ultimately, however, he appears to once again limit his definition to the literary realm—where Maistre and Barthes meet—and borrows a phrase attributed to Gracq, who called Chateaubriand “un réactionnaire de charme” (448, his italics) to qualify all anti-modern thought and thinkers: “la réaction plus la charme, c’est-à-dire la traversée de la réaction, la réaction contre la réaction, ou l’ironie de la réaction et la requalification du pessimisme […] les antimodernes sont le sel du moderne” (448).

While Compagnon recognizes the faults of his approach—“Tous les antimodernes ne se réduisent pas à un type unique” (441) and “Trop d’antimoderne tue l’antimoderne” (441)—Compagnon’s volume, especially second part, wears a little thin by including so many unconventional characters and by the enormous breadth of the period studied.  The programmatic and procrustean nature of his presentation (to which we are accustomed from Five Paradoxes) can prove useful if not abused. For this reason, the first part of the book is much more rewarding and enjoyable than the second. Furthermore, although his portrait of Barthes is useful for understanding the end of Barthes’s career, his inclusion in this study (which he admits, especially on grounds of Barthes’s almost total lack of vituperation in his writing) feels a bit tiré par les cheveux.  It is as though Compagnon loosens his definition in order to accommodate some of his examples de deuxième ordre.

Nevertheless, this book is the best and most original on the topic, especially in its systematic analysis of the genealogical posterity of Maistrian thought.  Even if not all of Compagnon’s examples belong on Joseph de Maistre’s ideological family tree, the thematic exposé in Part I clarify Maistre’s contribution to literary modernity. Neither right nor left, neither fascist nor romantic, Maistrian thought and those who adopt it should hereafter, following the Compagnon volume, be unified beneath a common standard: anti-modern.

#Bob Hudson#Review of Antoine Compagnon's Les antimodernes: de Joseph de Maistre à Roland Barthes#Vol. 5 Issue 1 Fall 2006