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aurais-je sauvé geneviève dixmer?

19 may 2024

In Chapter 3 of Dumas' Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, there's an encounter in Paris between our hero Maurice Lindey and a mysterious young woman he's met out after curfew, during the 1793 Terror. Maurice leads her out of danger, and she offers him a ring as a reward; he disdains payment. But then:

—Fermez les yeux, dit l'inconnue. Maurice obéit. La jeune femme prit ses deux mains dans les siennes, le tourna comme elle voulut. Soudain une chaleur parfumée sembla s'approcher de son visage, et une bouche effleura sa bouche, laissant entre ses deux lèvres la bague qu'il avait refusée.

"Close your eyes," said the stranger. Maurice obeyed. The young woman took his hands in hers and positioned him just as she liked. Suddenly a scented warmth seemed to come near his face, and a mouth fluttered his mouth open, leaving between his lips the ring that he had refused.
The episode is melodramatic but wildly memorable. Wilder still – at least to me personally – is that I recently read Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge and only learned, late in the book, that my favorite literary critic, Pierre Bayard, had written an entire study devoted to Dumas' less-than-world-famous potboiler. This is like a stamp collector realizing that his favorite band had once released an album – an album he'd never heard of – full of songs devoted to rare stamps.

Aurais-je sauvé Geneviève Dixmer? quotes the passage I quoted above, as support for the young Pierre Bayard falling desperately in love with Dumas' heroine. Though it seems that Bayard fell mostly in love with actress Anne Doat as Geneviève Dixmer in a 1963 miniseries of Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, an fall you will excuse if you pull up some photos of Anne Doat c1963.

Bayard so longs to save Geneviève from the guillotine that he "descends" into Dumas' novel itself to extricate her. The conceit is not unlike that used by John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman in the opera Ghosts of Versailles, though Bayard doesn't refer to the opera. Novel and opera (and Bayard's Aurais-je sauvé) prominently feature Marie Antoinette.

Aurais-je sauvé Geneviève Dixmer? is one of the most oddly-constructed books I've ever read. Once Bayard establishes that he can insert himself as a character into a literary work, he proceeds to retell the entire story of that literary work (Maison-Rouge) in great detail, often quoting long passages. Since I'd just read Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge, the effect was one of very intense study indeed; but you wouldn't necessarily have to have read Dumas' novel at all in order to follow Bayard's arguments.

Bayard dives into Maison-Rouge for the thrill of it, and because he has a crush on Geneviève, even fifty years after that TV show. But his academic purpose is to use Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge as a proving ground for ethical debates. In this project, he follows a critic I'd like to read, Frédérique Leichter-Flack, who similarly treats literature as the best way to reflect on ethical choices. Proto-trolley-problems abound in fiction, but they are presented as the kinds of things that might actually have happened (and in the case of historical fiction, surely did happen). Probably nobody has ever been confronted with the bizarrely-malfunctioning public-transit systems so common in philosophy textbooks. But "Do I lie to save this person from the guillotine" was briefly an everyday choice.

Kant would say no, of course: nobody should ever lie, and the context is immaterial. Consequentialists would say of course, of course: what kind of friend or even stranger turns people over to a mob? Bayard would say … it's complicated. And proceed to illustrate why, by means of Dumas.

This project succeeds in part because Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge isn't all that great a novel. People do odd, impulsive, contradictory things in the novel, in part because Dumas (in ways critics, including Bayard, are just starting to acknowledge) co-wrote the book with his frequent collaborator, Auguste Maquet. Weak fiction can be more like real life than strong, perfectly-wrought fiction. Inconsistent characters behave as if they are driven by whim, inattention, and stubbornness – as are we all, so much of the time.

I can't really judge whether Aurais-je sauvé Geneviève Dixmer? makes a strong intervention into how we use literary works to think about ethics. It may be very facile stuff, from a philosopher's point of view; it may be drafting on Leichter-Flack's arguments. But I was struck by Bayard's sense of how we continue throughout life to live in the terms that the books we'd loved young set for us.

L'enfant, mais tout autant la part enfantine de nous-même qui lui survit et continue d'agir en nous, vivent effectivement dans ces livres, ou en tout cas dans ceux qui nous ont marqués en profondeur.

The child, and just as much, the childish side of us that lingers on and continues to work within us, lives inside of books, or in those books that affected us deeply, anyway. (location 218)
Whether we think with steel-trap clarity – or in a muddle of emotions, logic, and body – we make our way through things using the fictions we love best.

Bayard, Pierre. Aurais-je sauvé Geneviève Dixmer? 2015. Kindle Edition.