Benichou, Paul

views updated


BENICHOU, PAUL (1908–2001), French literary critic and historian of literature. Born in Tlemcen to a Jewish Algerian family, Benichou, was soon recognized as a brilliant student and sent to study in Oran and then Paris' prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand high school. While teaching literature in Paris, he began the research and the writing on his first major essay on French classicism, Morales du Grand Siècle, but was barred from teaching in 1940 as a result of the antisemitic legislation of the Vichy regime, which stripped him, as an Algerian Jew, of French citizenship and forced him to flee to Argentina, where he pursued his teaching career. Morales du Grand Siècle was eventually published by Gallimard in 1948 and Benichou came back to France in 1949. During his Argentinean years, Benichou, unable to access French archives, began a critical study of the romancero, whose brilliant originality was highly praised, and became acquainted with writer Jorge Luis Borges, whom he would later translate into French. In five independent but interrelated essays tracing back the origins of French romanticism (Le Sacre de l'écrivain, 1973; Le Temps des prophètes, 1977; Les Mages romantiques, 1988; L'École du désenchantement, 1992; Selon Mallarmé, 1995), Benichou tried to account for the pessimism of most major 19th century French writers, as opposed to the general euphoria of the time. This series of essays, which Benichou began to publish only at the age of 65, renewed the vision of French romanticism and its link to classicism, and taken together they provide a panorama of French literature from 1750 to 1900, as well as a milestone in the general theory of literature. Benichou characteristically linked literary theory to the history of ideas, thus providing insights on the relation of the writer to contemporary society whose far-reaching implications earned him recognition as one of the major scholars of the 20th century.

[Dror Franck Sullaper (2nd ed.)]