Marcel Schwob and Moody History

by guest contributor Dylan Kenny

Everyone in Paris knew Marcel Schwob (1867-1905). Journalist, critic, slang philologist, decadent symbolist fabulist, whose French Hamlet Sarah Bernhardt acted in 1899, whose 1904 lectures on François Villon were attended by Max Jacob and his friend Picasso, who was the dedicatee of Valéry’s meditative essay on Leonardo (1894) and Jarry’s absurd Ubu Roi (1896), who voyaged to Samoa to visit the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson (he got all the way to Samoa, but got sick before he could complete the pilgrimage): Schwob left his fingerprints all over the Parisian fin-de-siècle (P. Jourde, “L’Amour du singulier,” in Schwob, Oeuvres). His fiction ranges widely: from vies imaginaires of historical figures like Empedocles, Paolo Uccello, and Pocahontas, to eerie vignettes of war-torn 15th-century France, to Mimes imitating the Hellenistic poet Herodas, who had only just been published in 1891 (W.G. Arnott, “Herodas and the Kitchen Sink“). Schwob combines a philologist’s attention to detail with a fabulist’s elusive suggestion; the result is a thick, mysterious atmosphere blending history and fantasy.

Schwob’s scholarly work was tied essentially to Villon; the lectures he gave in 1904, a few months before his death, were the product of a lifetime of study. Villon is already central in his first book, the 1889 Étude sur l’argot français, written with his friend Georges Guieysse, with whom he had studied linguistics under Saussure and Michel Bréal, a key figure in the history of semantics (P. Champion, Marcel Schwob et son Temps, 43-49).  In the Étude, Schwob and Guieysse argue that argot, as exemplified by the slang of Villon and the coquillards, was originally a technical language used by oppressed classes and criminals to evade authority. It was, and still is, deliberately constructed according to rules, almost literary procedures, which the linguist can induce from the literary record and the structures of contemporary slang. As they explain with dizzying, fantastic scientific metaphors:

This language has been decomposed and recomposed like a chemical substance, but it is not inanimate like salts or metals. It is constrained to live under special laws, and the phenomena which we note are the result of this constraint. The animals of the great oceanic depths collected by the expeditions of the Travailleur and the Talisman are eyeless, but on their bodies they have developed pigmented and phosphorescent spots. Likewise argot, in the shallows where it moves, has lost certain linguistic faculties, and has developed others that take their place; deprived of the light of day, it has produced under the influence of the place that oppresses it a phosphorescence by which glow it lives and reproduces: synonymic derivation (Schwob and Guieysse, Étude sur l’argot français, 27-8).

With the breathlessness of explorers encountering alien life-forms, Schwob and Guieysse announce the possibility of breaking the old codes embedded in Villon’s poems. It was a project that would occupy Schwob for the rest of his life, and through which he would become renowned for his erudition in the Paris literary scene.

Schwob’s only real Anglophone attention has come from dedicated fans of decadent and avant-garde fiction. Wakefield Press published a translation of The Book of Monelle in 2012, the same year the boutique press Tartarus issued a volume of stories (already out of print); most recently, the journal Asymptote published the Herodian Mimes. Like the English medievalist M.R. James (1862-1936), whose formidable philological and historical work has been overshadowed by his ghost stories, Schwob has been remembered for his weird fiction, at the expense of his scholarly efforts.

But are the fictional and the historical so easily separated in the work of Schwob or James? James’s ghost stories imagine a secret, pagan darkness that occasionally rises up to terrify some mild-mannered antiquarian who unwittingly awakens it; they bear the stamp of a lifetime in archives and libraries. Schwob’s elliptical stories of the fifteenth century conjure the world that was the primary object of his scholarly labors. Across Europe, the scholarly efforts of a generation to interpret the classical, medieval, and Renaissance past are perfumed by fantasy. Think of vatic Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who made a note in 1929: “Of the influence of antiquity. This story is like a fairy tale [märchenhaft] to tell. A ghost story for people who are all grown up [Gespenstergeschichte für ganz Erwachsene]” (G. Didi-Huberman, L’Image survivante: histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, 10). When did historical scholarship develop this pulpy atmosphere? How pervasive was it? Was it serious? Mere ornament? What was the range of its meanings? Only the most coarse-grained view recognizes a common mood between Schwob, James, and Warburg; each of them had very different concepts of history and the work of the historian. How could we tell the story of a historiographical mood? What is the intellectual history of history’s creepiness?

The earliest association of history and terror that I know of is in Book XI of the Odyssey. Odysseus, reciting his story to the Phaeacians, tells of his journey to Hades, where he met the shades of the dead. They emerged, he says, in reverse order of death: first came his companions from Troy, whom he engaged in conversation. Then Hercules, wearing a terrifying belt engraved with horrendous images, rose up and accosted him. Odysseus, though he would have liked to see even older heroes, high-tailed it out of Hades before some yet-older, unmanageable terror emerged, some monster Gorgon from the most archaic past.
The story makes for one of the strangest passages in Homer. I think it must have grabbed the attention of Warburg, who saw archaic trauma at the foundation of the history of culture. Schwob, who cites Book XI in the last of his Mimes, was certainly impressed by its lurid detail. But I wonder if Schwob wasn’t also thinking of this story’s literary character, and the crafty Odysseus weaving his tales for an enthralled audience.

Dylan Kenny is an MPhil student in early modern history at Cambridge. His current research focuses on the place of Herodotus in the work of the sixteenth-century printer and scholar Henri II Estienne.

3 comments

  1. History and terror: they do go together so often, and so well. Think of Xenophanes, whose favorite way to open a conversation was “How old were you when the Mede came?”

    I love the reference to M.R. James, though I think there’s another layer in some of his stories: between the ancient pagan darkness and the mild-mannered modern antiquary sometimes lurks a medieval or later Christian cleric, whose wrong choices give the ancient force its ability to live on and do harm. In “The Uncommon Prayerbook,” Christian ritual itself, admittedly of a special kind, generates some powerful dark forces.

    As to the overshadowing of James’s scholarship by his stories: partly this is the natural fate of the catalog-maker and editor, most generous of humanists, and most likely to be remembered for the mistakes pointed out by later scholars rather than the tons of learning that those same latecomers pillage without mercy or, often, memory. Though it’s true, James doesn’t lurk as scarily in current scholarly memory as, say, Moritz Steinschneider, who practiced the same craft.

    Many thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for the comment; I had never heard that great Xenophanes line! Its original setting seems especially appropriate, and worth quoting at length (in Arthur Fairbanks’ translation): “The following are fit topics for conversation for men reclining on a soft couch by the fire in the winter season, when after a meal they are drinking sweet wine and eating a little pulse: Who are you, and what is your family? What is your age, my friend? How old were you when the Medes invaded this land?”
      The scene described—fire, sweet wine, winter chill—could just as well fit M.R. James’s annual Christmas Eve readings at King’s College. I wonder what kind of stories Xenophanes was after; we know how Odysseus responded to such questions (τίς πόθεν εἶς ἀνδρῶν?) but what about that specific insistence on the Medes’ invasion? Was Xenophanes fed up with rambling, sweet-wine-fueled liars? Did he want lies of a certain kind? Tales of personal trauma or heroism? Or was he encouraging a kind of historical research in those quiet hours?

      Xenophanes’ emphasis on the intimacy of this kind of discussion reminds me that we should consider the publics of the authors I’ve mentioned. Even as his stories attracted a wide audience, far beyond King’s College, James dismissed them as trifles. I don’t know enough about the history of Schwob’s editions to know how widely his works circulated, but he was close enough to the literati to give even his more pulpy stuff a sheen of high culture. I know very little about all those many popular ghost-story writers who were not amateur or professional philologists: how did the genre as a whole shape these more learned efforts? Did popular literature seep into scholarship through hidden channels? (I’ve wondered, for example, about the influence of Buffalo Bill shows and Western dime novels on Warburg’s famous trip to see the Hopi—an influence I doubt Warburg would acknowledge, but which may nevertheless have had some force.)

      On the M.R. James wrinkle: it’s true, we shouldn’t flatten the complex histories of transmission in his stories, which can involve all sorts of human error. All those previous encounters with the past provide so much of the drama as the modern antiquary comes to grips with the depth of his predicament. Vernon Lee—another fascinating and important figure in this context—is especially good at narrating the twists and turns of survival, as in her great story “Marsyas in Flanders”.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the idea that James’s ghost stories allegorize the complicated transmission histories that he reconstructed as a scholar. No wonder the various forms of interference practiced by Christians have strange and sometimes destructive effects.

    Of course James dismissed his stories as trifles. But those ritualized Christmas readings were a good way to ensure that they made an impression on rising scholars and literary folk.

    As to Warburg, I wonder: he grew up just too soon, I think, to read Karl May as a boy. But he always had an eye for popular entertainments.

    I have always suspected that for Xenophanes and his contemporaries, saying where you were when you heard that the Persians were coming had something of the force–mutatis a few mutandis–of doing the same for the assassination of Kennedy had for mine. An unforgettable epoch date, not found in a chronicle but burnt into memory.

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