Barrès, Maurice

views updated Jun 27 2018


BARRÈS, MAURICE (1862–1923), French writer and political figure.

Regarded as a leading writer of his day, Maurice Barrès is now seen as a second-rate novelist, at best. However, while his contemporaries considered him a fairly minor political presence, Barrès has become, in the hands of historians, an important, indeed an emblematic, personnage of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French society. He remains one of those characters with whom the historian of Third Republic France is all too familiar, if never comfortable: an ambiguous, difficult-to-slot, controversial figure—of a certain notoreity and very uncertain fame in two different realms, the political and the literary-cultural.

The coddled son of Lorraine bourgeoisie, Barrès came to Paris in his late teens, ostensibly to study law, but in fact intent on making a name in letters. Before he was thirty, Barrès had produced reams of tendentious journalism and numerous books and novels (mostly romans à clef), including L'Ennemis des lois (1893; The enemy of law) and Le culte du moi (The cult of myself), comprising Sous l'oeil des barbares (1888; Under the eye of the barbarians), Un homme libre (1889; A free man), and Le jardin de Bérénice (1891; The garden of Berenice). Elegantly crafted, stingingly ironic toward received values and hierarchies, and, throughout, unfailingly and remorselessly self-absorbed, Barrès's works earned him the sobriquet "Prince of [Today's] Youth."

The works are quite apolitical and sophisticated in outlook. In a famous piece (published in 1892 in Le Figaro, the leading conservative newspaper of the day) on the ongoing literary "quarrel between the nationalists and the cosmopolitans" Barrès sided squarely with the latter. The young Barrès exercised a huge influence over the minds and sensibilities of many French literary giants, from Marcel Proust (1871–1922) and André-Paul-Guillaume Gide (1869–1951), to Henry-Marie-Joseph Montherlant (1896–1972), Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), and François Mauriac (1885–1970), all superior to him in talent. If many of them would criticize the later Barrès; none would gainsay his inspiration to them.

In the midst of a sky-rocketing literary career, while all of twenty-five years old, Barrès became embroiled in one of the most seductive and complex affairs of modern French political history: the movement led by a renegade general, Georges-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger (1837–1891), aimed against the constituted government of the Third Republic. The renowned aesthete, dilletante, narcissist, and cosmopolitan Barrès committed himself to a panoply of conservative political views, ranging from irredentism (revanchisme; a policy directed toward recovering the lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine, taken by Germany in 1871) and jingoist xenophobia, to antiliberalism and a species of anti-Semitic populist socialism that can be considered a precursor of French fascism of the 1930s. Barrès furthermore became an expert on Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I; r. 1804–1814/15) and other such "professors of energy," as he famously dubs dubious military heroes.

The political masts to which Barrès henceforward lashed himself thus included the most rebarbative movements in pre–World War I French history— Boulangism, anti-Dreyfusism, and anti-Semitism. He served them in a number of ways, standing in many elections and being returned to the Chamber of Deputies for Nancy, and later for Neuilly, a fashionable suburb of Paris. He edited a newspaper (La cocarde) that became a kind of factory of "radical" rightwing political thought, and, above all, he published novels—huge romans à clef, like Le roman de l'énergie nationale (1897–1902; The novel of national energy; in three volumes), Colette Baudoche (1909), La colline inspirée (1913; The inspired hill), and so forth—that recast French history since 1870 in passionate patriotic terms and that promoted the nationalist goals in which he believed.

Barrès insisted he was only "defending my native land and my dead," and "serving France," and that his cause was therefore "national" and not political. He accused his opponents (and sometimes his allies) of being "men who put their systems ahead of France," but what he never grasped was that there could be no "serving France" without (sooner or later) producing a "system."

Barrès has been seen by some as a leading precursor of the French version of fascism. Most French historians and biographers, on the other hand, do not agree. Yet, in all, politicians and others reading Barrès, even some on the left, supported authoritarian policies that worked against the classical Enlightenment tradition in France. Barrès left the high ground of his original thoughtful ambiguity for the low and treacherous marshes of instinctual and irrational politics.

See alsoBoulanger Affair; Dreyfus Affair; France; Maurras, Charles; Nationalism; Sorel, Georges.


Primary Sources

Barrès, Maurice. Scènes et doctrines du nationalisme. Paris, 1902.

Secondary Sources

Bécarud, Jean. Maurice Barrès et le Parlement de la Belle Époque (1906–1914). Paris, 1987.

Broche, François. Maurice Barrès. Paris, 1987.

Chiron, Yves. Maurice Barrès: Le prince de la jeunesse. Paris, 1986.

Curtis, Michael. Three against the Third Republic: Sorel, Barrès, and Maurras. Princeton, N.J., 1976.

Doty, Charles Stewart. From Cultural Rebellion to Counter-revolution: The Politics of Maurice Barrès. Athens, Ohio, 1976.

Soucy, Robert. Fascism in France: The Case of Maurice Barrès. Berkeley, Calif., 1972.

Sternhell, Zeev. Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français., Paris, 2000. Orig. pub. 1972.

Vajda, Sarah. Maurice Barrès. Paris, 2000.

Vartier, Jean. Barrès et le chasseur de papillons. Paris, 1989.

Steven Englund

Auguste Maurice Barrès

views updated Jun 11 2018

Auguste Maurice Barrès

The French writer and politician Auguste Maurice Barrès (1862-1923) was the author of numerous novels, essays, and articles and was a member of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Académie Française.

Maurice Barrès was born in Charmes near Nancy and passed a happy childhood in a well-to-do family. In 1882 Barre's went to Paris to study law, but he soon became involved in the literary life of the Latin Quarter and acquired a reputation as a rebel and dandy. He flaunted his egotism, while also expressing a profound desire for action, in his first trilogy, Le Culte du moi (Sous l'oeil des barbares, 1888, Under the Eye of the Barbarians; Un Homme libre, 1889, A Free Man; and Le Jardin de Bérénice, 1891, The Garden of Bérénice). The themes of exoticism and fascination with death and decay occur in these early works, as well as in some later ones, such as Du Sang, du volupté et de la mort, (1894, Of Blood, Pleasure, and Death), Greco ou le secret de Tolède (1911, Greco or the Secret of Toledo), and Jardin sur l'Oronte (1923, Garden on the Orontes).

Barrès made his political debut in 1889 as a successful Boulangist candidate for the Chamber of Deputies. Although presenting himself for election four more times after 1893, he did not reenter the Chamber until 1906, as deputy from the first arrondissement in Paris—a seat he held until his death.

In his second trilogy, Le Roman de l'energie national (Les Déracinés, 1897, The Uprooted; L'Appel au soldat, 1900, The Calling of the Soldier; and Leurs Figures, 1902, Their Faces), Barrès analyzes himself and his relation to Lorraine, the province of his birth. This examination leads his to believe that the individual, as well as the nation, is formed by the land and the dead. A rejection of the formative forces, and thus of identity, can only lead to disaster for both the individual and the collectivity. These novels serve as the literary expression of Barrès's espousal of nationalism as a political philosophy and as a guide to action.

Prior to 1906, Barrès, the leading anti-Dreyfusard intellectual, had been a vehement opponent of the parliamentary republic. After his reelection to the Chamber, he assumed a more moderate stance, viewing his proper role in politics as that of moral mentor.

Alsace-Lorraine was at the core of Barrès's political thought and literary activity. Before World War I he published two novels—Au Service de l'Allemagne (1905, In the Service of Germany) and Colette Baudoche (1909)— dealing with the dilemma facing people of French culture who chose to remain in the occupied territory. When the war broke out, he welcomed the conflict as the occasion for France's moral rejuvenation, and he devoted himself to propaganda sustaining morale on the home front. After 1918 he was one of the most prominent advocates of a strong Rhine policy and full implementation of the Treaty of Versailles. He died in December 1923 and was honored with a national funeral.

Further Reading

Very little of Barrès's work has been translated into English, and there is no full-length biography of him in English. A view of aspects of his work and life is in Flora Emma Ross, Goethe in Modern France, with Special Reference to Maurice Barrès, Paul Bourget and André Gide (1937). Michael Curtis, Three against the Third Republic: Sorel, Barrès, and Maurras (1959), has a detailed biographical and critical study of Barre's as an antirepublican intellectual. John Cruickshank, French Literature and Its Background (vol. 5, 1969), is useful for the literary background of Barrès's time. □