The Boulangist Movement 1888

Boulangism and the Young

by Jules Tellier

Source: Le Parti National, May 29, 1888;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

M. Maurice Barrès is a very talented novelist and a journalist of much wit. Among the young journalists of my generation (I mean those who are about 25 years old) I am not far from thinking that none have more natural gifts, and in any case I’m sure that none are able to make more skillful use of theirs. It is certain that he will “arrive,” in the slightly strange meaning given it by adolescents of large appetite. And what’s even more important, it is absolutely certain that he will write beautiful prose works. I recall having already praised him, and I’m firmly resolved to do it again.

And now here I am feeling quite comfortable in telling you that for about a month M. Maurice Barrès has profoundly annoyed me.

Last month, in the “Revue Indépendante” M. Barrès saluted General Boulanger in the name of “intellectual youth.” If he meant by this the students, they are hardly Boulangists, as we know. And if he meant young men of letters, they hardly care enough about the “brave general” to either attack or defend him, being completely occupied with the handling of phrases and the divine game of rhymes. I gently made this observation to M. Barrès in another organ. And God only knows if I am still persuaded that this is the pure truth!

But M. Barrès isn’t giving up. These past days he again praised M. Boulanger in the name of his friends. (And, my God, what friends is he speaking of?) He declared that he took no account of the student demonstrations. And for my part I ask no better than to take no account of them either, but we have to come to an agreement. For M. Barrès these young people only shouted “Down with Boulanger” after having consumed too much beer. But is it certain that those who shouted “Vive!” had absorbed less? And then there are the Normaliens, of whom 117 out of 130 declared themselves against the dictator dear to M. Barrès. Is it that the Ècole Normale has become a kind of official brasserie and that from dawn to dusk they give themselves over to gargantuan agapes? Frankly, such arguments are not worthy of an intelligence of that distinction, and we would expect better of him.

But, M. Barrès will say to me, whether beer had something to do with it or not, that isn’t so important. Just the young having some fun. The simple joy of demonstrating had a lot to do with the demonstrations. Should I say that we never know who speaks seriously and who is joking? Should I admit that there are moments when I suspect M. Barrès of mocking me, himself, “intellectual youth” and even the general?

And will M. Barrès also tell me that intellectual youth is “tired of parliamentarianism?” But what does it matter if it was a hundred times more tired than it is? However tired I might be, there is no plausible reason for me to prostrate myself before the first passerby. Who is the general and what does he want? Does he have any personal value and ideas on government, and what are they? And until I know this, why would I take him for guide in my lassitude? Buddhism too is something quite different from current parliamentarianism, yet the fatigue caused me by the speeches of M. Goblet have never given me the idea of converting to Shakia Mouni.

Note that M. Barrès doesn’t only think that Boulangism is the necessary end point to our political lassitude. He claims more. He wants Boulangism to be the logical and natural solution to the troubles of our adolescents, the vague disquiet of the young who have kept the taste and the regret for action, and which is lacking a faith in order to act. And so I rise up completely. The words with which his recent book ended” “You alone, oh Teacher, Whoever you might be, religion, axiom, or prince of men!” M. Maurice Barrès committed that singular error in taste of inscribing them as the epigraph to his first article on the general. Oh Barrès, Barrès! How you spoiled and profaned that poor sentence that seemed to me so beautiful, and sad, and profound, and which I sang to myself in my moments of boredom. How much better you’d do leaving the divine cult of letters out of all these thing!

And it is precisely in favor of letters the M. Barrès claims to be speaking. The republicans treated letters with disdain. M. Weiss, M. Louis Mémard, M. Jules Simon, M. Soury, brand new republicans, set them to the side. I say nothing against this, and I feel bad about it. But however discontented I might be, why would my discontent lead me to rally to the general? Does M. Boulanger have insights into literature? And what would lead me to think so? Could it be that because regarding the German invasion, and in return for financing, he carries out the tasks of a bookseller which neither M. Barrès nor myself want to charge ourselves with? Is there something else, and what is it? Has M. Barrès had the good fortune of having M. Boulanger reveal to him in the course of some private conversation his ideas on the naturalism of M. Zola, the “décadisme” of M. Verlaine, the symbolism of M. Moréas, and the idealo-realism of M. Jules Case? If this is the case, let him reveal it to us and we’ll see.

I know that the general has on his side a novelist, M. Rochefort and two poets, Messrs. Clovis Hugues and Paul Déroulède. And surely the verses of Messrs. Déroulède and Hugues have their interest. We can find them very distressing or very amusing in accordance with our humor and depending on if we have an inclination more towards a Democritian or a Heraclitian concept of things. But perhaps these two rhapsodists poorly represent modern poetry. And perhaps as well “intellectual youth” cares as much about them as a fish does about apples.

What could I add? M. Barrès complains that those who govern us have insufficiently admired Hugo, and he feels the need to defend his memory against the coarseness of their commentaries. But does he think that M. Laguerre admires him more? For my part, I attended a conference of the young and intelligent lawyers on the great poet, and I swear on M. Barrès that this is how he quoted the final stanza of the “Chatiments:”

S’il n’en reste plus que mille, je serai le millième,
S’il n’en reste plus que cent, je brave encore Sylla,
S’il n’en reste plus que dix, je serai le dixième,
Et s’il n’en reste plus qu’un, je serai celui-la! [1]

M. Laguerre, M. Rochefort, M. Clovis Hugues, M. Déroulède, I understand full well that they won’t be M. Boulanger’s advisers if he were to arrive at power. But why would those who would replace them care more about literature? And after all, will those who govern us ever care about it? M. Rouher didn’t understand poetry any better than M. Ferry. Théophile Gautier, a supporter of the empire, waited twenty years for the empire to grant him a seat as senator or even a library; he waited in vain. Napoleon III congratulated Saint-Beuve for “his charming articles” in the “Moniteur” when the great critic had already left the newspaper four years earlier. Louis-Philippe was mortally wounded that Musset had used the familiar form in an admiring sonnet. Louis XIV gave Chapelain a pension three times greater than that of Corneille. The elderly Flaubert passed his life saying that all governments hate literature. And the divine poet Alfred de Vigny wrote a whole book to prove this. M. Barrès knows this as well as I do. Why then does he forget it today?

In any case, let him continue his Boulangist campaign: this is an affair between himself and his conscience. But let him at least do us the kindness of speaking only in his own name, since we haven’t given him a mandate to speak in ours. And as a general rule, whoever wants to bow down should bow down alone, and it is always wrong to claim to have the muses bow down along with you. When – at the time when Lamartine was under suspicion and Hugo in exile – M. Arsène Houssaye in 1853 published a collective anthology that he titled: “Poetry for Napoleon III,” the author of ‘The Hundred and One Sonnets” overstepped his rights by far. M. Barrès no doubt has more right to represent the young of 1888 than M. Houssaye did to represent poetry in 1853. But even so, if he wants to raise a monument to M. Boulanger, he should inscribe his name alone on its frontispiece. There will be a few of us to think that this is already a lot, and that in doing so he does a great enough honor to the general from Clermont.

1. The actual final stanza of the poem "Ultima Verba” is:

Si l’on n’est plus que mille, eh bien, j’en suis ! Si même
Ils ne sont plus que cent, je brave encor Sylla ;
S’il en demeure dix, je serai le dixième ;
Et s’il n’en reste qu’un, je serai celui-là !