Alexandre Dumas Enters the Pantheon.

I am not within the conscience, of the President of the Republic, what the motive is, deep down, really deep down, I have no idea. One of the arguments which could carry weight, I would say, in favour of this decision, is the popular character of Alexandre Dumas. Also he is someone who belongs, I would say, to our cultural mythology. It is paradoxical because in some ways, he isn’t someone we study, he isn’t someone we take seriously but he is, at the same time, someone everyone knows.

The President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, has decided to let Alexandre Dumas into the Pantheon, in the ancient church of Saint Genevieve in Paris, converted into a pantheon for great men by the National Assembly, during the Revolution, to put there the ashes of Mirabeau. The ashes of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte-Cristo, will be transferred there in autumn 2002, on the occasion of the bicentenary of his birth. This tribute may seem surprising. Whilst Alexandre Dumas is popular, his place alongside great writers is contested. Madame Soutet, professor at the University of Lyon, is a specialist in nineteenth century literature.

Well, politically, if you like, Alexandre Dumas, I understand, was rather Republican, so it’s true that in some ways it is rather politically correct, but at the same time, we realise that some opinions are a bit divided with regard to this decision because to include Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexandre Dumas in the Pantheon, we are aware that somewhere there, we are putting people on the same level of importance, who on the literary plane, whilst Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexandre Dumas are obviously writers, even so very different personalities, and who have not contributed to literature, who have brought nothing at all to thought, ultimately the same thing, who have not influenced thought in a significant way. So we cannot put on the same level from that point of view at all Dumas with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Yet it is undeniable, the work of Alexandre Dumas was a childhood favourite his century and also of ours too. One for all, all for one, that’s the motto of the Musketeers which excites the imagination and the d’Artagnan lying dormant within each one of us. Louis XIII, Cardinal de Richelieu, Queen Margot, are known to us largely thanks to his texts. Jules Michelet once said to Alexandre Dumas that he taught more history to the people than all the historians put together. Yet…

Alexandre Dumas is not an author, I would say, who is studied much.

Dumas is not studied. He does not have a place in the programme of literature at secondary level.

To my knowledge, recently there is one professor who was slightly interested in Alexandre Dumas, that was Jean-Yves Tadier, who is a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, and has written a work entitled Le Roman d’Aventure – The Adventure Novel. And what is interesting in fact is the relationship that Jean-Yves Tadier establishes between Alexandre Dumas and the adventure novel. The adventure novel really in a general way is considered to be the minor style. It is a style, if you like, of entertainment. It is literature for amusement. And Alexandre Dumas is read today, I would say under that title, as an author who entertains. It is for that reason also without doubt, that the television is interested in Alexandre Dumas. We have recently had the adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

What I would say as well, is that Alexandre Dumas in overall style, author of the nineteenth century lived in a time when the story, the style of the novel, was put in place, that is to say that we really witnessed the appearance of the novel. The novel was a style which was disparaged. The novel was a style which had had difficulty finding its place. And the novel of the nineteenth century takes I would say all sorts of appearances. And Alexandre Dumas, then belongs to, or embodies one of these expressions of the novel. He also contributed in fact, to the revival of the novel. He was one of the authors, without doubt, who popularised what I believe was important, who had popularised the novel.

It is the university which cold shoulders him. What is the problem?

The problem in research, is that very often, you follow a tradition, and it’s true that you wouldn’t dare… you might do it now, but only a few years ago, I would say for 15 or 20 years, it would have seemed almost indecent, I say indecent deliberately, to dedicate all your research, that’s to say 10 years of life, indeed 15 years, solely, to an author like Alexandre Dumas. Basically, Dumas is the victim of an image.

So, what makes Dumas not be considered as an author, I would say, serious (author), is his simplicity, that’s to say the writing of Dumas… You realise that Dumas published first of all mainly in serial form, that’s in newspapers, so right away it is a literature which goes… or writing which is going to make in advance, I would say, the techniques which are foreseen, the techniques of suspense, for example… the titles also of the chapters, in short are made, in some ways to entice the reader. And so, it’s this aspect, this superficial aspect, superficial writing, and which is not profound, which is without doubt… which makes it without doubt that Dumas is still not taken really seriously today.

As a man of letters, Dumas is going to have to do without commentaries and university exegesis a little longer, we have realised. He will go into the Pantheon on the single fact of his genius. Let us read an extract from a letter that Jules Michelet wrote to him:

I have needed to write to you for a long time to explain to you the amazement that struck me at your inexhaustible genius, the immense river of your invention. You are more than a writer. You are a force of nature, and I have for you the deep affinity for you as I have for [nature ] herself.

An extract from the novel “La Comtess de Charney” where Alexandre Dumas described how the ashes of Mirabeau, put into the Pantheon by the Assembly were much later taken out by the Convention, a text whose closeness will probably not repulse Voltaire, neither in the context nor the form.

Three years later on a dull autumn day, no longer in the drawing rooms, but in the rooms of the Tuillerie Palace, when the Convention, having killed the king, having killed the queen, having killed the Girondists, having killed the Jacobites, having killed the Cordeliers, having killed the mountain dwellers, having killed itself, there was nothing more living to kill, so it began killing the dead. It was then with a savage joy that it declared that it had been mistaken in the judgement it had rendered to Mirabeau and that in its eyes, genius could not pardon corruption.

$Id: 2002_03_cul.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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