Bohemian Versus Bourgeois
One cause of cynicism was political bewilderment. Gautier complained that his 'best enemies' advised him to be red one day and white the next (and out of boredom he concluded that 'poets, dreamers, and musicians had no business trying to be good citizens'). Early in Murger's Vie de Boheme, Rodolphe, the young artist, instructs the concierge in charge of his garret to awaken him every morning by announcing the day of the week, the day of the month, the quarter of the moon, and the form of the government. After two generations of revolution, war, propaganda, and countless panaceas, there were those who could only respond with exhaustion, hilarity, and contempt, or seek the respite of new forms of imagination. Yet it was precisely political confusion that permitted Bohemian life to exist. For however the bourgeoisie might defile the life of the spirit, it lacked the ideological bone structure capable of placing all of society under the pale of one jealous and inflexible order. Bohemia, for its part, despite all of the burning bitterness of its anti-social feeling, was, almost by definition, politically powerless. What it caused to nourish instead was, in Dondey's words, the 'arsenal of the soul,' the pursuit of purely ideal engagements. Of these the most typical and the most influential historically was the religion of beauty, l'art pour l'art, a kingdom whose integrity was free from the secular world, whose tasks arose only out of the individual's own creativity and which, therefore, permitted the gratification of the romantic need to be at the same time significant and self-centered.
Art for art's sake was a saving vision. It was also a sectarian devotion exhibiting and accepting the martyrdom of philistine incomprehension, or as Chateaubriand called it, 'the pageant of the bleeding heart.' What this meant to a generation without religious faith and incapable of social optimism may be seen in the theatrically sincere notes of office workers, law clerks, and minor fonctionnaires collected by the literary historian Rene Maigron, in which obscure young men pay the symbolic homage of life and death to the romantic dream of redeeming beauty. One, written by a 'future litterateur' in 1836, says:
I shall open my breast to the great wind of Art and my quivering heart will ecstatically exult while my ship, upon the wind of beauty will joyfully sail over the purple sea. Far, far and even farther, believe not in the abyss. Fly my beautiful vessel, far from the hated shore. Higher and always higher. We shall lull sweetly along, over the misty expanses, toward the enchanted dream.Another reads:
Heroes die smiling in the flames, and like them, I go smiling to the funeral pyre. Divine Art, I carry you in my soul. Let me be worthy of you.For men so precious, so exacting, and so vulnerable, death appeared, understandably, as the only harbor open to lonely sensibility. Their books had titles like Necropolis, Philosophie du desespoir, Entre la vie et la mort, Memoires d'un suicide, and L'Amour de la mort. According to Sainte-Beuve the ideal of the romantic generation was to be a great poet and to die. 'Never was death more loved than then,' said Maxime DuCamp speaking of the romantic years and the sensuous necrophilia of writers for whom death had 'the delicate aroma of flowers or perfume' bears him out.
There were, in fact, some semi-serious efforts to formalize the suicidal ideal, such as The Suicide Club (originally called the Fed-ups Club) organized at the Sorbonne in 1846. The Suicide Club recruited its members between the ages of eighteen and thirty. It pledged them to show the bourgeoisie that nothing could be nobler than self-destruction. It excluded those wishing to end their lives because of disappointment in love, financial difficulties, or incurable disease. And it prohibited all suicide methods likely to cause disfiguration. Romanticism, which united art and life, art and self, and death and self, was also bound to unite death and art. It is, therefore, perfectly fitting that the poet Theophile Dondey should choose the surroundings of grand opera as the ideal setting for his final moment.
I would sit alone in a quiet box, and when the violins, the oboes, and the musical throats rise like sonorous arches before the admiring bean. I shall swallow a handful of some bliss-bringing opiate...as the chaste-sensuous music pours out its homage to my beautiful death.After the suicides of the young dramatists Escousse and Lebras, there was talk in the newspapers of self-killing as 'the devouring plague of the times,' and speeches were made in the Chamber of Deputies blaming the excesses of literary excitement. Still, one must not expect death as an ideal to be followed by death in fact. Goethe survived The Sorrows of Young Werther and Rousseau La Nouvelle Heloise. Even de Senancour did not listen to his own suicidal advocacies in Obermann, though there would seem to be no retreat from them. The Suicide Club was, of course, an elaborately outrageous joke aimed chiefly at a succes de scandale; only one suicide among its members was actually reported. But intellectually it was a testimony to death as 'the only airtight Bohemia.' It warned against disfiguration so as to protect aesthetic pride to the last. And it taught that, just as ordinary contentment made life void and vulgar, commonplace forms of suffering, like money troubles, heartbreaks and ill health, rendered death spiritually meaningless.
The Suicide Club and other necrophilic displays of Bohemia were, of course, linked to the fatuously masochistic side of romanticism. But they remind us all the same of de Lamennais' observation that self-killing was essentially an act of self-worship and, as such, one of the chief signs of modern decay. In this respect, de Lamennais merely anticipated the theories of the classical sociologists. Compare, for example, de Lamennais' analysis with that of Emile Durkheim in the latter's famous study. Suicide. According to de Lamennais:
One can flatter pride with vain promises of independence, but one cannot cure the wound of the heart. As man moves away from order, anguish presses around him. He is the king of his own misery, a degraded sovereign in revolt against himself, without duties and without bonds, without society. Alone in the midst of the universe, be runs rather than seeks to run away into nothingness.De Lamennais is solemn and ironic; Durkheim is factual and brief. But their arguments are essentially the same. Durkheim writes:
Therefore, the educated man who kills himself, does not kill himself because he is educated but because the religious society of which be is a part has lost its cohesion.This statement, however, is only part of Durkheim's theory of suicide as a product of the moral watering-down of institutions of modern society. He comes closer to the relationship between suicidal ideas and the ailments of the modem literati when be points out that it was precisely the Utopian intensity of their aesthetic and intellectual dreams that led to bitterness and demoralization. It should not be thought, of course, that, as a philosophical argument, individualistic suicide was an invention of the nineteenth century. Montesquieu attacked European legislation on suicide as too severe; for, why, he asked, should a man who is poor, unhappy, or scorned by his fellows be compelled to remain within society? The psychologist and philosopher Baron Holbach argued simply that 'the pact that binds man to society...is conditional and reciprocal, and a society which cannot bring well-being to us loses all rights upon us.' In Montesquieu there is a dismissal of the old odium against suicide which saw in it always a defiance of man's obligation to social membership regardless of subjective sufferings. Holbach speaks for the view of the Enlightenment that society was only a contract among individuals for the benefit of individuals, and that turns suicide into a kind of civil right. But it is only with Durkheim's description of suicide egoiste that we step into the atmosphere of modern literary motivations.