Why does literature seek to give meaning to the yearning for death?

 7th March, 2009

Je ne vous ai pas rendu heureux, et je vous laisse malheureux, et moi je meurs; cependant je ne puis me résoudre à souhaiter de ne vous avoir pas connu.

Charrière, Isabelle de . Caliste, ou suite des lettres écrites de Lausanne, 1788

From Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse to Malraux’s Conquérants, French letters since the eighteenth century are strongly coloured by death and, more particularly, by death wishes. In the last couple of weeks, I have been looking with considerable interest at this subject that most will regard as unnecessarily stern in an age where happiness has been erected into a moral imperative.

What such people overlook, of course, is that happiness is sometimes impossible to achieve. Finding morally satisfactory alternatives to a utopian happiness is one of the modern world’s most thankless tasks, and only by reading authors from a less demanding period can one hope to find a realistic alternative moral framework to these unrealistic dictates. Yet no author really tackles the subject in a way with which I can identify.

Rousseau’s sentimentalism, by its excessive emphasis on nature, I have always found unrealistic and hypocritical; ultimately, the very emphasis on sincerity backfires. There is no such thing as a natural, spontaneous state of happiness. Does this mean, then, that a quest for a sincere framework for a death wish is impossible? Not necessarily, and we hardly have to look far to see why. Werther, undoubtedly European literature’s most famous example of a death wish model, dies in an authentically untheatrical way. Yet, as Goethe himself points out to his secretary in 1821:

Es müsste schlimm sein, wenn nicht jeder einmal in seinem Leben eine Epoche haben sollte, wo ihm der Werther käme, als wäre er bloß für ihn geschrieben1.

Eckermann, Johann Peter . Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens. Bd. 3., Leipzig, 1848 (40)

The very simplicity of the plot in Die Leiden des jungen Werther makes Werther a perfect role model. It explains both the novel’s success and, I suspect, Goethe’s subsequent dislike of a book he wrote at the age of twenty-four. Ultimately, there is something distasteful about role-models of any kind when this subject is treated: Werther, therefore, is emphatically not for me.

From this perspective, a more promising framework might have been provided by Balzac, whose boundless capacity for cynicism and pessimism provides the ideal state of mind for the unpretentious, undemanding treatment of the subject that I was seeking. Raphaël de Valentin, killed by an excess of love, is after all believed to have been a role model for Freud. Yet in La Peau de chagrin, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the subject is treated from exactly the same standpoint, there is, again, a determination to plaster some sort of significance — in this instance, the danger of putting too much trust in power and knowledge. Ultimately, superficially unconventional deaths such as Raphaël’s or Dorian’s are depicted in a judgmental manner that puts them in the same category as the more conventional and, of course, equally Balzacian death-bed scene attended by a doctor who, when the time comes, gives way to the confessor. Appropriate in some contexts, and certainly not a setting I would condemn out of hand. Yet despite the apparent diversity, I could not find a single author who treated the subject with the candour and simplicity that I feel it deserves.

It was by reading the excellent introduction to the Classiques de poche edition of my favourite book, Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, that I came across a mention of Mme de Charrière, of whom I had previously never heard: to the extent that she is still known at all, she is so mostly as an early advocate of gender equality and, of course, she is also famous for having had a liaison with the youthful Constant in around 1786. I was not expecting to find anything useful in Constant’s Adolphe because, despite the purity of style which I hold to be the summit of French literature, I have never been able to identify at all, either with the inconsequential Adolphe, or with the passion-devoured Ellénore. Yet in Isabelle de Charrière’s Caliste, the author’s resolutely modern approach to morals is applied also to the heroine’s death wish, in a manner that Sainte-Beuve had already found convincing:

Les lettres de Madame de Charrière sont tout simplement une petite perle. Elle avait peu compté sur l’amour, elle n’avait pas désiré la gloire ; mais, lors même que la raison fait bon marché des chimères, la sensibilité sevrée se retrouve là-dessous et n’y perd rien.

À défaut de passion proprement dite, un pathétique discret et doucement profond s’y mêle à la vérité railleuse, au ton naïf des personnages, à la vie familière et de petite ville, prise sur le fait. Quelque chose du détail hollandais, mais sans l’application ni la minutie, et avec une rapidité bien française.

Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin . Portraits Littéraires, 1844

This sensibilité sevrée, to me, when applied by Isabelle de Charrière to her heroine’s death wish, provides a more honest, more modest yet ultimately more modern approach than that of her more famous disciple. She cuts out the pathos and does not pretend to drape an artificial meaning over a gesture dictated by nothing more than reality.

And in doing so, she provides me with what I had been looking for.

  1. It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him. ↩︎