Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man, or the Impossibility of Thought

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By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

In his L’Oraison funèbre en l’honneur des citoyens tombés of August 10, 1792, the French writer and priest Cousin de Grainville preached a funeral oration full of revolutionary fervour for those killed during a recent insurrection. In it, he painted an enthusiastic picture of the future in which “from dawn till sunset, the people will reign” as “happiness awaits this moment to descend from heaven to earth” when “men will find a brother and abundance.” Deploying a millenarian tone, Grainville enjoined his audience to be “big as the revolution” for “the victories of our brothers in arms [would] change the world” and “all countries become fertile.” He wanted to help “engrave in indelible traits the memory” of those who had helped herald a new dawn and if possible, render it “hereditary, by showing from what dreadful precipice their memorable victory has saved us, and of which good deeds it [would] be followed.”

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Cousin de Grainville, Le dernier homme (1805)

And yet, a little more than ten years later, in February 1805, Grainville threw himself into the Seine, leaving behind him his epic, The Last Man (Le dernier homme), in which he staged the extinction of mankind and the destruction of the earth. This was the first work of its kind, a subgenre of apocalyptic literature he was credited with pioneering, and which would spawn various other novels in the course of the early nineteenth century, including contributions from Byron to Shelley. While it fell into oblivion soon after its publication and has only  ever been sporadically examined since, Grainville’s Last Mandeserves to be revisited for its ability to qualify traditional accounts of the passage to modernity, and as a literary testament to the devastation the author experienced first-hand after the foundering of the revolutionary project and the gaping disillusionment that followed.

Divided into ten cantos, the nameless narrator of The Last Man travels to a cave in the ruins of Palmyra, where a mysterious spirit reveals to him the future of mankind through enchanted mirrors—a future in which abundance has been replaced with sterility when crops fail and thehuman race loses its ability to reproduce and starts dying out. The survival of mankind, which here goes against God’s will, depends solely on the marriage and procreation of a chosen man, Omegarus, with a chosen woman, Sydaria. This they succeed in doing, with the help of the Genius of the Earth, until the last man, Omegarus, upon having a vision of the degenerate and cannibalistic race he would father, chooses to obey God and abandon Sydaria to die, thus precipitating the destruction of the world.

The story itself is a fascinating mess, a confused bundle of different, unfulfilled typologies and often contradictory strands, which never lets itself be pinned down and from which no clear-cut conclusion or unequivocal moral lesson can be taken away, no new vision allowed to emerge.Omegarus inhabits a world no longer ordered by God and seemingly devoid of the promise of messianic redemption or revolutionary palingenesis. The traditional eschatological motif has been eviscerated and divorced from its doctrinal dimension and brought to human scale, offering the reader instead a phenomenology of the apocalypse which constantly alternates viewpoints. Linear and sequential chronology has been broken up in favor of a radically fragmented temporality and extreme historicity which Grainville manipulates to exhaustion through the use of reiterations, pictures, tableaux, and flashbacks.

In fact, the initial premise is paradoxical, for time itself has been upended from the very inception. The narrator witnesses these future events as they unfold, events which the Spirit tasks him with memorializing even before they have occurred, so that people can know of the last man, who “will have no descendants who can know and admire him. My desire is that before he is born, he will be known in memory. I wish to celebrate his struggles and his victories over himself—to tell of the pains he will suffer to shorten those of humanity, to end the reign of time, and to hasten the day of eternal recompense that awaits the just.”

While the modern project served to consecrate man’s conquering of an uncertain and open-ended future, here that future already appears foreclosed and, so to speak, dead before being born. It is, in fact, in its self-abortion and as a future already past, that it is to be memorialized. Upon reaching Paris, Omegarus contemplates a sea of ashes. The city has vanished and been reduced to “an extensive waste, an immense field of dust.”

Paris was no more: the seine no longer flowed amidst its walls; its gardens, its temples, its Louvre have disappeared. Of the great number of buildings that covered its heart, there was not even a little cabin left where one could rest.

Aside from a statue of Napoleon, the sole object that survives and to which Omegarus pays a final homage as his “name cannot live longer in memory,” nothing remains of the past—nothing, not even the sight “of the grave of [Grainville’s] brothers” who “[taught] him his duty” as he once put it in his Oraison Funebre. The break from the past is such, in fact, that he is denied even the possibility of mourning an irrevocably lost past. “Even the ruins have perished,” exclaims Omegarus as he mourns the fact that he cannot even find a ruin to feel melancholic about.

Are those the remains of this superb city of which the slightest movements agitated both worlds? I did not find a ruin, not even a stone over which I could shed my tears.

The Last Man’s narrative goes nowhere, and offers no resolution. Grainville’s account constantly oscillates between hope and bleakness, visions of paradise and gratuitous suffering and cruelty and it is impossible to make sense of it. The apocalyptic event itself—presented as the culmination of the narrative—is muted and the resurrection of men does not occur, nor does the final judgment, in the process rendering Omegarus’ design to conquer history by tragically fulfilling it, futile. Grainville baffles every expectation and hope he raises including the final possibility of regeneration or renewal of possibility.

In fact, the fulfilment of human agency and the course of history seem to lie in their self-abortion, harking back to the initial paradoxical premise on which the novel is built: to save mankind, it will be necessary to sacrifice it. In a sad irony, history here finds its fulfilment in its termination from within, as Omegarus places man’s newly discovered freedom of choice and agency in the service of his own dissolution. It is, ultimately, life for its own sake—in its most extreme incarnation of a cannibalistic, and meaningless, potential future mankind—that Omegarus decides against. All that remains is a general sentiment of uncertainty and emptiness.

The narrative literally goes in circles, ultimately reaching a dead-end in its closing moments, when the celestial spirit turns down the narrator’s request for knowledge about the fate of the world, “consign[ing] him [instead] to the revelation of this history of the last age of the earth,” thus looping back the conclusion to the narrative’s very beginning and restricting the narrator—and reader—to the seemingly endless reiteration of a future already past from and from which it seems impossible to break from. While Adam violated the prohibition to seek knowledge and in the process triggered the human adventure, Omegarus and the narrator -come to understand that it is simply futile and that there is no escape to retroactive self-annihilation.

What Grainville experienced first-hand, and inscribed in the body of the text itself, beyond the failure of the millennial prospects attached to the Revolution and the end of one particular world, was the impossibility of conjuring up a new world altogether, from thought itself.  The permanent state of irresolution that forms the core of the novel gestures towards the defeat of the human mind, whose “choicest productions,” in what Michelet came to refer to “l’age d’ennui,” had been reduced to “nothing” and been “abandoned to destruction”.

In the Last Man, Grainville places imagination in the service of its own defeat. And yet, even as a young man, in his 1772 essay Quelle a ete l’influence de la philosophie sur ce siècle,for which he won a prize from the Academy of Besançon, Grainville had inveighed against the steep decline in his fellow men’s ability to imagine and to project themselves, describing how the “contempt for imagination” had deprived men of the “life, fire and enthusiasm which animated [our] first artists” but had turned men into cold reasoners who “follow[ed] one another with the same care as a herd going over a mountain.” For him, the modern project could not be carried simply by “the habit of yielding to only intrinsic evidence” (l’habitude de ne ceder qu’a l’evidence intrinseque) but required poetry and fantasy to make sense of it and conjure up a new world. Now in the post-revolutionary period, reduced to misery and ostracized from society mainly for having sworn an oath of allegiance to the new revolutionary constitution, Grainville experienced first-hand the fulfilment of his prediction. It was precisely this that struck him as so extraordinarily bleak: that thought itself had been aborted.

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

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