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Remy de Gourmont.


Remy de Gourmont. (Image: Wiki Fundation)IT IS FOOLISH, perhaps, to say that a man “stands for all that is best in such and such a country.” It is a vague phrase, and the use of vague phrases is foolish, and yet Remy de Gourmont had in some way made himself into a symbol of so much that is finest in France that one is tempted to apply some such phrase to him.

I think no man in France could have died leaving so personal a sense of loss among scattered groups of intelligent young men who had never laid eyes on him. I do not mean to say that he was the “greatest writer in France.” That method of assessing authors by size is unfortunate and Victorian. There were in France a few pre-eminently good writers: Anatole France, Remy de Gourmont, Henri de Regnier, Francis Jammes, Laurent Tailhade. There are some popular figures and crazes like Maeterlinck, Claudel, and Paul Fort. I am not an examining board trying to determine which of these gentlemen is to receive the highest award. I am not determining a percentage of bay leaves. The writings of the first first-mentioned men are all of them indispensable to one’s comfort.

Yet before the war Anatole France was so old that communication between him and the active part of our world had almost ceased. And Henri de Regnier was set apart, as it were, amid “The Spoils of Poynton,” or behind some such metaphorical barrier. And M. Jammes, after four beautiful books to his credit, had gone gaga over Catholicism, and from Remy de Gourmont alone there proceeded a personal, living force. “Force” is almost a misnomer; let us call it a personal light.

The man was infused through his work. If you “hold a pistol to my head” and say: “Produce the masterpiece on which you base these preposterous claims for M. de Gourmont!” I might not be able to lay out an array of books to equal those of his elder friend, M. France, or of M. de Regnier, or to find three volumes of poems to compare with the first books by France [Francis] Jammes, or, indeed, to uphold that test against various men whose names I have not mentioned. You, on the other hand, would be in very much the same fix if you were commanded suddenly to produce the basis of your respect for De Quincey or Coleridge.

It is, I think, Coleridge who says that the test of a great poet is not to be found in individual passages, but in a mysterious pervasive essence, “everywhere present and nowhere a distinct excitement.”

As you read M. de Gourmont’s work it is not any particular phrase, poem, or essay that holds you, so much as a continuing sense of intelligence, of a limpid, active intelligence in the mind of the writer.

I express, perhaps, a personal and an unpopular emotion when I say that this constant sense of the intelligence of the man behind the writing is a great comfort. I even hope that intelligence, in writers, is coming back, if not into fashion, at least into favour with a public large enough to make certain kinds of books once more printable. We have suffered a period in which the glorification of stupidity and the worship of unintelligent, “messy” energy have been too much encouraged. (With the appearance of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, and the more “normal” part of Mr. Wyndham Lewis’s narrative writings, one may even hope that intelligence shall once more have its innings, even in our own stalwart tongue.)

‘It is not any particular phrase, poem, or essay that holds you, so much as a continuing sense of a limpid, active intelligence.’

THE QUALITIES OF M. de Gourmont’s intelligence? Limpidity and fairness and graciousness, and irony, and a sensuous charm in his decoration when he chose to make his keen thought flash out against a richly-colored background; these things were all in his writing. The peculiarity of his narrative work may have been just this method of resting the mind as it were by an “aroma.” What shall I call it?

He stirs the “sense of the imagination,” the reader is pervaded by luxurious rest, and then when the mind is most open, de Gourmont darts in with his acumen, a thrust, an incisive or revolutionary idea, spoken so softly.

His “Diomèdes” searches for truth in the Rue Bonaparte and environs. As Turgenev builds up a whole novel to enforce two or three Russian proverbs; to make you know that he, the author, has understood some very simple phrase in all its profundity; as in the “Nichée de Gentilshommes” he has put first, “The heart of another is a dark forest,” and then in the middle of the book, man, his hero, opposed to the old trees of his dismantled garden, and then finally old Maria Timofevna’s “Nothing by death is irrevocable,” so, in a very different manner, Remy de Gourmont has embedded his philosophy in a luxurious mist of the senses. But this particularity of method would, in itself, amount to very little.

M. de Gourmont wrote, twice a month, a little “Epilogue” in the Mercure de France. Early in his career he had written a large and beautiful book on Le Latin Mystique du Moyen Age, and in this book he laid before his few readers a great amount of forgotten beauty, the beauty of a period slighted by philological scholars. These were causes contributory to his position, but no one of them would have accounted for it.

His work had what very little work ever has, despite continuous advertisements to the contrary. It had a personal charm, and this charm was that of intelligence.

IDEAS CAME TO HIM as a series of fine wines to a delicate palate, and he was never inebriated. He never ran amok. And this is the whole difference between the French and Tedescan systems: a German never knows when a thought is “only to be thought” – to be thought out in all its complexity and its beauty – and when it is to be made a basis of action.

I believe England guards against such mistakes by mistrusting thought altogether. At least I once saw a very amusing encounter, as follows: A Russian, who had taken degrees at Leipzig on prehistoric Greek philosophers, came to England. He believed that “The Germans are the only Greeks of to-day.” He was going, at least he said he was going, “to convert England to philosophy.” It was a noble adventure.

He propounded his crusade in a company consisting of two foreigners, myself, and one Englishman. All the Englishman said was, “I don’t believe in ideas.”

It was a very sincere personal statement. The Russian shortly afterwards retired to Paris, to start a peripatetic school in the “Jardins du Luxembourg,” but he finally went to America, and was at once made a professor.1

England has been very safe with her “Don’t believe in ideas.” Germany has got decidedly and disgustingly drunk. But Paris is the laboratory of ideas; it is there that poisons can be tested, and new modes of sanity be discovered. It is there that the anti-septic conditions of the laboratory exist. That is the function of Paris.

It was peculiarly the function of M. Remy de Gourmont.

FOR YEARS HE had written “controversially,” if I may use a word with such strong connotations. I believe he has never once made an over-statement, or, for that matter, an under-statement of his thought. I don’t say that he has always been right. But he had this absolute fairness, the fairness of a man watching his own experiment in laboratory. And this absolute fairness, this absolute openness to all thought, is precisely the most difficult thing to attain.

We are all touched with the blight of Tertullian. Whatever our aims and ambitions and our firm conviction to the contrary, we have our moments off guard when we become unfair, and partisan, and personal in our spite, and intolerant.

M. de Gourmont carried his lucidity to the point of genius. All ideas, all works of art, all writing came to him, and he received them all graciously, and he praised graciously, or ignored graciously. And he wrote beautifully and graciously from himself. He was the friend of intelligence. He had not lost touch with “les jeunes.”

‘When youth is divided into acrimonious parties it is perhaps difficult for age to tell which side has the intelligence, but you could trust M. de Gourmonth to discover intelligence in whatever form it might appear.’

And that last is more important and more difficult than one might think. If a man had “come in” with one generation and taken part in the development of and triumph of one “new” set of ideas, it is especially and peculiarly difficult for him to adapt himself to the next set, which comes in some twenty years later. No man can lead two movements, and it is very hard for him to understand two movements. A movement degenerates into over-emphasis. It begins with the recognition of a neglect. When youth is divided into acrimonious parties it is perhaps difficult for age to tell which side has the intelligence, but you could trust M. de Gourmonth to discover intelligence in whatever form it might appear.

IT IS A slight thing that I am going to tell now, but it is not without its minute significance. When I was in Paris some years ago I happened, by merest accident, to be plunged into a meeting, a vortex of twenty men, and among them five or six of the most intelligent young men in Paris. I should say that Paris is a place like another; in “literature” the French are cursed with amorphous thought, rhetoric, bombast, Claudel, &c., stale Hugo, stale Corneille, &c., just as we are cursed here with stale Victoriana, stale Miltoniana, &c. The young party of intelligence in Paris, a party now just verging on the threshold of middle-age, is the group that centred about “L’Effort Libre.” It contained Jules Romains, Vildrac, du Hamel, Chennviere, Jouve, and their friends. These men were plotting a gigantic blague. A “blague” when it is a fine blague is a satire upon stupidity, an attack. It is the weapon of intelligence at bay; of intelligence fighting against an alignment of odds. These men were thorough. They had exposed a deal of ignorance and stupidity in places when there should have been the reverse. They were serious, and they were “keeping it up.” And the one man they mentioned with sympathy, the one older man to whom they could look for comprehension, and even for discrete assistance, was Remy de Gourmont. Remy would send them a brief telegram to be read at their public meeting.

That is, at first sight, a very trifling matter, but, if examined closely, it shows a number of things: first, that M. de Gourmont was absolutely independent, that he was not tied to any institution, that his position was based on his intelligence alone and not on his “connections” (as I believe they are called in the “literary world”).

“Franchement d’écrire ce qu’on pense, seul plaisir d’un écrivain.” “To put down one’s thought frankly, a writer’s one pleasure. That phrase was the centre of M. de Gourmont’s position. It was not a phrase understood superficially. It is as much the basis of a clean literature, of all literature worth the name, as is an antiseptic method the basis of sound surgical treatment.

“Franchement,” “Frankly,” is “Frenchly,” if one may drag in philology. If, in ten lines or in a hundred pages, I can get the reader to comprehend what that one adjective means in literature, what it means to all civilisation, I shall have led him part of the toward an understanding of M. de Gourmont’s importance.

“Frankly” does not mean “grossly.” It does not mean the over-emphasis of neo-realism, of red-bloodism, of slums dragged into light, of men writing while drugged with two or three notions, or with the lust for an epigram. It means simply that a man writes his thought, that is to say, his doubts, his inconclusions as well as his “convictions” (which last are so often borrowed affairs).

THERE IS NO lasting shelter between an intelligent man and his own perception of truth, but nine-tenths of all writing displays an author trying, by force of will, to erect such shelter for others. M. de Gourmont was one of the rare authors who did not make this stupid endeavour; who wholly eschewed malingering.

It was not a puritanical privation for him, it was his nature to move in this way. The mind, the imagination is the proper domain of freedom. The body, the outer world, is the proper domain of fraternal deference.

The tedium and the habit of the great ruck of writers is that they are either incoherent and amorphous, or else they write in conformity to, or in defence of, a set of fixed, rigid notions, instead of disclosing their thought… which might, in rare cases, be interesting. It is to be noted that de Gourmont is never tedious. That is the magic of clarity.

“A very few only, and without gain or joy to themselves, can transform directly the acts of others into their own personal thoughts, the multitude of men thinks only thoughts already emitted, feels but feelings used up, and has but sensations as faded as old gloves. When a new word arrives at its destination, it arrives like a post-card that has gone round the world and on which the handwriting is blurred and obliterated with blots and stains.”

I opened the “Chevaux de Diomèdes” at random and came upon that passage of M. de Gourmont’s thought.

“Non è mai tarde per tentar l’ignoto,
Non è mai tarde per andar più oltre.”

but it was never with the over-orchestration of the romantic period, nor with the acrid and stupid crudity of societies for the propagation of this, that, and the other, that de Gourmont’s mind went placidly out into new fields.

Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, public domain, taken from ( never abandoned beauty. The mountain stream may be as antiseptic as the sterilised dressing. There was the quality and the completeness of life in M. de Gourmont’s mode of procedure. Just as there is more wisdom, perhaps more “revolution,” in Whistler’s portrait of young Miss Alexander than in all the Judaic drawings of the “prophetic” Blake, so there is more life in Remy than in all the reformers.

Voltaire called in a certain glitter to assist him. De Gourmont’s ultimate significance may not be less than Voltaire’s. He walked gently through the field of his mind. His reach, his ultimate efficiency are just this: he thought things which other men cannot, for an indefinitely prolonged period of time, be prevented from thinking. His thoughts were not merely the fixed mental habits of the animal homo.

And I call the reader to witness that he, de Gourmont, differed from Fabians, Webbists, Shavians (all of whom, along with all dealers in abstractions, are ultimately futile). He differed from them in that his thoughts had the property of life. They, the thoughts, were all related to life, they were immersed in the manifest universe while he thought them, they were not cut out, put on shelves and in bottles.

Anyone who has read him will know what I mean. Perhaps it is quite impossible to explain it to one who has not.

IN POETRY AS in prose M. de Gourmont has built up his own particular form. I am not sure that he was successful, in fact, I am rather convinced that he was not successful in the “Simone,” where he stays nearer the poetic forms invented by others. His own mode began, I think, with the translation of the very beautiful “sequaire” of Goddschalk in “Le Latin Mystique.” This he made, very possibly, the basis of his “Livre de Litanies,” at least this curious evocational form, the curious repetitions, the personal sweeping rhythm, are made wholly his own, and he used them later in “Les Saints de Paradis,” and last of all in the prose sonnets.

These “sonnets” are among the few successful endeavours to write poetry of our own time. I know there is much superficial modernity, but in these prose sonnets Remy de Gourmont has solved the two thorniest questions. The first difficulty in a modern poem is to give a feeling of the reality of the speaker, the second, given the reality of the speaker, to gain any degree of poignancy in one’s utterance.

That is to say, you must begin in a normal, natural tone of voice, and you must, somewhere, express or cause a deep feeling. I am, let us say, in an omnibus with Miscio Itow. He has just seen some Japanese armour and says it is like his grandfather’s, and then simply running on in his own memory he says: “When I first put on my grandfather’s helmet, my grandmother cried… because I was so like what my grandfather was at eighteen.”

You may say that Itow is himself an exotic, but still, there is material for an hokku, and poetry does touch modern life, or at least pass over it swiftly, though it does not much appear in modern verses.

M. de Gourmont has not been driven even to an exotic speaker. His sonnets begin in the metropolis. The speaker is past middle age. It is a discussion of what he calls in the course of the sequence of poems “la géométrie subordonée du corps humain.”

I SHALL GIVE a dozen or more phrases from the sequence (which consists, if I remember rightly, of about two dozen poems). By this means I shall try to give, not a continuous meaning, but simply the tone, the conversational, ironic, natural tone of the writing. The scientific dryness, even, as follows: —

“Mes deductions sont certains….
“Mais le blanc est fondamental….
“J’ai plus aimé les yeux que toutes les autres manifestations corporelles de la beauté….”
“Les yeux sont le manometer de la machine animale….
“Et leurs paroles signifient le désir de l’être, ou la placidité de sa volonté….
“Mais on pense aussie avec les mains, avec les genoux, avec les yeux, avec la bouche et avec le cœur. On pense avec tous les organes,…
“Et à vrai dire, nous ne sommes peut-être que pensée….
“Je parlerais des yeux, je chanterais les yeux toute ma vie. Je said toutes leurs couleurs et tutes leurs volontés, leur destinée….
“Dont je n’ignore pas les correspondances….
“C’est une belle chose qu’une tête de femme, librement inscrite dans le cercle esthétique….”

Or even more solidly: —

“Je sculpte une hypothèse dans le marbre de la logique éternelle….
“Les épaules sont des sources d’où descende la fluidité des bras….”

And then, when one is intent and wholly off guard, comes, out of this “unpoetic,” unemotional constatation, the passage:

“Les yeux de font des discours entre eux.
Près de se ternir… les miens te parleront encore, mais ils n’emporteront
pas bien loin ta réponse,
Car on n’emporte rien, on meurt. Laisse-moi doue regarder les yeux que
j’ai decouverts,
Les yeux qui me survivront.”

He has worn off the trivialities of the day, he has conquered the fret of contemporaneousness by exhausting it in his pages of dry discussion, and we come on the feeling, the poignancy, as directly as we do in the old poet’s –

Λέγουσιν αἱ γυναῖκες
Ανακρέων γέρων εἶ.
“Dicunt mihi puellae
Anacreon senex es.”

It is the triumph of skill and reality, though it is barbarous of me to try to represent the force of the original poems by such a handful of phrases taken at random, and I am not trying to convince anyone who will not read the “Sonnets in Prose” for himself.

This article first appeared in The Fortnightly Review (in NS 98, December 1915) only a few weeks after the death of Remy de Gourmont on 27 September 1915. Glenn S. Burne, explaining (in Remy de Gourmont [Carbondale, 1963]), Gourmont’s appeal, claimed that “in 1915, witers saw in Gourmont a fine reflection of thier own asprations. He especially pleased them because the freedom that he fought for was not really anarchical, though it appeared so to his more conservative opponents. As Aldington wrote in The Little Review (1915), ‘He has an influence, especially over the younger and more adventuresome spirits, which few writers today possess,’ and as Pound wrote to Sarah Perkins Cope (April 22, 1934), ‘My generation needed Remy de Gourmont.'” (112-113)

  1. This tale is not a figment of my imagination; it is not an allegory, but fact.
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