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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Enacting Sincerity: Nerval and the Cultural Politics of Imagination

  • Author(s): Talley, Catherine
  • Advisor(s): Guerlac, Suzanne
  • et al.

This dissertation proposes a new reading of the work of Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), placing him alongside Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire as an insightful critic of modern life. During the 1840s and 1850s, the literary field in France was increasingly shaped by bourgeois values like sincerity, originality, and authenticity, and by the individualism that they underpinned, restricting authorized forms of writing and of subjectivity. I argue that Nerval’s writing constitutes an astute opposition to this transformation of literary subjectivity and the limitations it placed on imaginative experience and practice. Rather than merely reflecting the author’s own psychological crises (as is usually claimed), Nerval’s writings strategically reinvent the literary text as a site of new forms of collective imaginative practice.

By considering Nerval’s work as a journalist, playwright, critic, and travel writer, as well as a poet, I draw out Nerval’s engagements with specific institutions and discourses, from censorship and intellectual property law to the national philosophy curriculum and literary criticism journals. From these local engagements emerges a shrewd critical voice that speaks directly and explicitly to the influence of bourgeois culture on the literary field. I argue that, though he is traditionally read as a figure of Romantic isolation and eccentricity, Nerval should rather be understood in relation to figures like George Sand and Maurice Barrès, writers who advocated a renewal of communal ties (albeit from very different political perspectives). Unlike these contemporaries, however, Nerval approaches community as a formal challenge, as well as a theme. He explodes the framework of the individual writing subject through, for example, a pervasive intertertextuality that constantly relates his texts to other writing and reading experiences. My project thus rejoins the critical tradition that emphasizes the failure to coincide with oneself as the essential feature of Nerval’s writing practice. However, I give this “failure” a productive and strategic value rather than the tragic valence attributed to it by psychoanalytic readings, be they psycho-biographical or post-structuralist. The mobility and porousness of the Nervalian writing subject are a formal innovation that generates a literature of community rather than self-expression.

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