Skip to content

‘A greater writer than in fact he ever became…’?


GourmontAS WE APPROACH the centenary of Remy de Gourmont’s death next year, it’s time for a reconsideration of this largely forgotten, but historically important, figure. He is quite the intriguing paradox. Gourmont was born in 1858 into a distinguished Norman family of artists, writers, and artisans, including the eminent 17th-century poet François de Malherbe. (Incidentally, Malherbe’s Wikipedia entry, written by someone who sounds like he’s carrying a 400-year-old grudge against him, is most entertaining.) Moving from Normandy to Paris, Gourmont was briefly employed as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale until he was fired for publishing an article which offended patriotic sensibilities. Stricken with a disfiguring disease in his twenties, he had little social contact for his remaining three decades, writing prolifically in his apartment. Along with some associates led by Alfred Vallette, he helped to revive the venerable journal Mercure de France, much as the present publication revives the venerable Fortnightly Review. In addition to the journal printing a great many of Gourmont’s articles, it soon moved into publishing and issued many of Gourmont’s books, still keeping a number of them in print today. He died of a stroke in 1915 at the age of 57.

The degree of acclaim showered upon Gourmont in the decade following his death may be startling to modern readers. Among writers, T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘Of all modern critics, perhaps Remy de Gourmont had most of the general intelligence of Aristotle.’ (1920, 13) Ezra Pound’s eulogy said: ‘Gourmont is dead and the world’s light is darkened.’ (in Burne 1963, 19) Amy Lowell wrote that ‘no one of the later period of French literature has been more prominent than he. . . .’ (107) Richard Aldington said that he ‘possessed one of the acutest and freest minds of his own—I might almost add, any—age.’ (34) John Cowper Powys wrote that ‘the death of Remy de Gourmont is one of the greatest losses that European literature has suffered since the death of Oscar Wilde.’ (in Sieburth 22—These were the years which saw the losses of, for example, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Zola.) Pound and Aldous Huxley took time from their own writing to translate Gourmont’s books.

The critics were no less enthusiastic. Giovanni Papini called him ‘the most intelligent man in France, and one of the keenest intellects in the whole world.’ (198) John Macy called him ‘the greatest critic that has been born.’ (159) Arthur Ransome called him ‘one of the finest intellects of his generation.’ (9) Ludwig Lewisohn wrote of critics: ‘All experience, the whole soul of man — nothing less than that is now our province. And no one has done more to bring us that critical and creative freedom and enlargement of scope than Remy de Gourmont.’ (iv) F.S. Flint called his work ‘astounding in its diversity and complexity, in beauty and profundity.’ (Sieburth 10) Decades later, Glenn S. Burne credits Gourmont with ‘producing one of the richest storehouses of erudition and critical commentary in modern literature.’ (1963, 6) Harry Moore claimed that ‘by 1922, seven years after Gourmont’s death, his works were more widely read than those of any other French writer….’ (v)

But then there’s the other side. Even some major Gourmont enthusiasts were acutely aware of his weaknesses. This was particularly true with regard to his imaginative writing. When it comes to Gourmont’s specific works, Pound’s compliments are, more often than not, backhanded. He wrote that Gourmont ‘is poet, more by possessing a certain quality of mind than by virtue of having written fine poems; you could scarcely contend that he was a novelist.’ (Instigations 170) Pound also wrote that Une Nuit au Luxembourg is ‘the best of his art,’ but adds that ‘even in it, the characters do little but talk philosophy, or rather drift into philosophic expression out of a haze of images. . . .’ (Instigations 172)

Eliot called Gourmont ‘a real master of fact—sometimes, I am afraid, when he moved outside of literature, a master illusionist of fact.’ (1964, 21) Richard Aldington wrote that Gourmont’s complexity is ‘excessive,’ ‘an obstacle,’ and ‘baffles analysis.’ (15) He said that Gourmont ‘was potentially a greater writer than in fact he ever became,’ and that ‘his stories and novels are in parts superannuated, his poems seem dated, his plays abortive experiments in an art for which their author was singularly unfitted. What is more serious, one cannot point to any book of his and assert honestly that it is a complete, successful and permanent masterpiece.'(16) Lowell selected him as one of just Six French Poets for her book subtitled Studies in Contemporary Literature, yet she begins her chapter on him thus:

Of the six poets whom I have chosen for the subjects of these essays, it is certain that the one for whom Anglo-Saxon readers must feel the least sympathy is Remy de Gourmont. He is also the one who, considered strictly as poet, must be acknowledged to be the least considerable. . . . And nowhere among his poems is there one which can be considered a masterpiece. (107)

With friends like these. . . .

As early as thirty-five years ago, Richard Sieburth wrote that ‘the remarkable prestige that Pound and his contemporaries accorded to Gourmont must seem something of a mystery to the reader of today.’

Much later, even Glenn S. Burne, the most prominent and enthusiastic Anglophone Gourmont scholar and champion of the past half-century, said that Gourmont’s poetry ‘lacks true feeling, true poetic impulse’ (15), and while ‘his novels, plays, and poetry. . . . are worthy of consideration’ as ‘‘exercises” in clarifying his own ideas, and . . . maneuvers in a war of literary theories,’ they nevertheless have ‘inherent weaknesses as autonomous works of art.’ (7) Since they served their purpose long ago in helping him to clarify his ideas, and since that particular ‘war of literary theories’ has been succeeded by others, most of us no longer have much of a need to read them. Burne went on to say that ‘Gourmont lacked the power to create and animate human characters and to project them into significant and convincing situations.’ (31) Even today, the online catalogue of the Atlas Press, which was trying to sell a volume of Gourmont’s stories, describes them as ‘too highly perfumed for the twentieth century,’ much less the twenty-first. As early as thirty-five years ago, Richard Sieburth wrote that ‘the remarkable prestige that Pound and his contemporaries accorded to Gourmont must seem something of a mystery to the reader of today.’ (3) And he does not mean only Anglophone readers. ‘Gourmont’s forty-volume œuvre remains virtually unread in his native country, of interest only to literary historians.’ (4) Cover of Gourmont's The Phisiology of Love, taken from Alex Hillman publications

Not that publishers haven’t tried. An American paperback edition of The Physiology of Love, with its salacious chapters on such subjects as ‘Loves of the praying mantis,’ ‘Limits of intelligence among bees,’ and ‘Chastity of fish,’ had this cover, while a 1970s edition of Pound’s 1926 translation (as The Natural Philosophy of Love) was given ‘an appropriately prurient cover to catch the commuter’s tired eye (‘Before Kinsey and before Dr. Reuben there was The Natural Philosophy of Love. . . .’)’ (Sieburth 4) The only English-language volume of his imaginative work to be published since the 1920s was given the title The Angels of Perversity and filled most of its front cover with a still of Brigitte Bardot displaying her décolletage.

Readers seeking those kinds of thrills must inevitably have been disappointed by both volumes, and even those ploys didn’t keep the books in print very long, though you can still purchase a Kindle edition of the latter. Aside from some French editions kept alive by Mercure de France, the press he co-founded, almost none of his books remain in print. Interested readers, however, will find dozens of them available for free download from the Internet Archive, including quite a few 1920s English translations. Remy de Gourmont’s diminished reputation today is partly due to the restlessness of his creative mind. A man of letters in the broadest sense, he wrote a great many kinds of works on a great many kinds of subjects. He was a poet, novelist, short-story writer, playwright, essayist, translator, polemicist, and philosopher, as well as a typographer, book designer, and more.

THAT LIST MIGHT sound familiar to English readers, being equally applicable to Gourmont’s older contemporary William Morris. It’s not too surprising that their critical fates have suffered in similar ways. Had either focused on a smaller number of activities, accomplishing more in each area, he might be more highly regarded today. Aside from his equivocal critical reception, the man was himself a living paradox, as practically everyone noted. Edmund Gosse said that ‘he had always unflinchingly avowed himself an aristocrat and an anarchist. . . .’ (221) Aldington wrote of his ‘strange mingling of the priest and the sensualist, of the mystic in sentiment and the sceptic in intelligence.’ (17) Macy wrote that ‘no other man was ever blessed with such a combination of the safe, sane, intellectually comfortable and the restless, daring, venturesome,’ and that ‘when he was born, the gods went crazy and put into one person an elf and a sage, Ariel and Prospero, Morgan and Merlin.’ (156 and 154) Burne made a lengthy catalogue of Gourmont’s ‘mass of apparent contradictions’ (e.g., his balancing of optimism and pessimism, rationalism and irrationalism, materialism and idealism) and attributed it to his ‘extreme desire for an uncommitted intellect, free to move and to choose sides at will.’ (1963, 52-53) Gourmont wrote: ‘Philosophically, I consider contradiction as necessary to intellectual and emotional equilibrium’ (in Burne 1963, 53), and ‘There are no ideas so remote, no images so incongruous, that an easy freedom of association cannot join them at least for the moment.’ (1966,11) In this, he echoed another older contemporary, Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.).’ (246)

This ability to balance seemingly divergent perspectives enabled him to find common ground among such ideologies as ‘symbolism, anarchism, idealism, Ibsenism. . . . How might a synthesis be constructed out of such contradictory elements? The task fell largely to the writer Gourmont.’ (Brotchie 57) Alfred Jarry, taken from Wikimedia FoundationIronically, much of the interest in Gourmont today stems from his brief, superficial, and troubled relationship with a writer who seemed far less significant at the time: Alfred Jarry. Before the notorious Ubu Roi, and before ‘Pataphysics, the young Jarry was a Symbolist writer who attracted Gourmont’s attention, and Gourmont’s ‘influence was one of the determining factors in his career.’ (Beaumont 39) Jarry also shared Gourmont’s anarchistic and contrarian strains. Jarry dedicated his early play Haldernablou to Gourmont, who, in turn, wrote admiringly of Jarry’s book Les Minutes de sable memorial, and invited Jarry to co-edit the art magazine l’Ymagier with him. Soon, however, the irrepressible Jarry insulted Gourmont’s mistress in a novel, L’Amour en Visites (Visits of Love), and in ‘a scurrilous poem.’ (Brotchie 111) ‘Jarry’s name disappeared from the masthead of L’Ymagier. . . ,’ (Brotchie 111), and Gourmont removed him ‘from his Livre des Masques series of contemporary writers and artists, to appease his slighted mistress.’ (Fell 178) The first minor resurgence of interest in Gourmont came in the early 1960s, when several of his key works were republished in France, and when Glenn Burne anthologized and discussed Gourmont in the United States. It’s not coincidental that those years also saw a Jarry boom, particularly in the Anglophone world, beginning with the famous special issue of Evergreen Review which introduced ‘Pataphysics to America. A recent modest revival of interest in Jarry and ‘Pataphysics (see my recent review in these pages) has led to discussions of Gourmont in several books about Jarry.

He was particularly important as ‘the leader of the symbolist movement, of which his stern mental training and curious erudition permitted him to be the brain.’ (Gosse 216) He had a symbiotic relationship with the Symbolist writers, much like that of the New Critics with the Modernists and the poststructuralists with the postmodernists. He echoed both their modes of thinking and of writing, writing that ‘what you called dream or fantasy, is therefore the true reality for those of us who conceive these dreams and fantasies. . . .’ (in Brotchie 59) There is a manifest affinity of style between the Symbolist writers and Gourmont, not only in his poetry and fiction, but also in his criticism and theory, rather like that between, say, Sollers and Barthes. This is particularly clear in Andrew Mangravite’s splendid The Book of Masks, where excerpts from Gourmont’s essays are juxtaposed with texts by the writers discussed. His understanding of Symbolism, as practiced by that generation of French writers, was right on the money:

What is the meaning of Symbolism? Practically nothing, if we adhere to the narrow etymological sense. If we pass beyond, it may mean individualism in literature, liberty in art, abandonment of taught formulas, tendencies towards the new and strange, or even towards the bizarre. It may also mean idealism, a contempt for the social anecdote, anti-naturalist, a propensity to seize only the characteristic details of life, to emphasize only those acts that distinguish one man from another, to strive to achieve essentials; finally, for the poets symbolism seems allied to free verse, that is, to unswathed verse whose young body may frolic at ease, liberated from embarrassments of swaddling clothes and straps. (1921, 10)

In his own criticism,

…obvious facts are often spelled out, while the most complex ideas are left tantalizingly in midair, undeveloped, unexplained, or couched in an / elusive bit of poetic imagery. This, according to Gourmont’s view of things, is as it should be. As a member of the Symbolist school of ‘suggestion’ and ‘evocation’ as distinct from ‘statement,’ Gourmont wishes to be explicit only in what he denounces. . . . (Burne 1966, 6-7)

As he accurately wrote in his famous Preface to The Book of Masks, ‘it is difficult to characterize a literary evolution in the hour when the fruits are still uncertain and the very blossoming in the orchard unconsummated,’ (1921, 9) and Gourmont handled this challenging task admirably. While others, such as Anatole France and Jules Lemaître, were attacking the Symbolists, Gourmont staked his reputation on them. Inevitably, he championed some duds, but he made the reputations of several key figures who might easily have been overlooked and lost to literary history.

One of his most important contributions was his discovery of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror.

First published in 1869 in Brussels but totally ignored, it was republished in Paris in 1890 at the initiative of a young Belgian publisher and rescued from total oblivion by the eagle eye of Gourmont at the Bibliothèque Nationale, who revealed the existence of this extravagant work to the literary world in a celebrated article in the Mercure de France of 1 February 1891, entitled ‘La Littérature Maldoror’. (Beaumont 53)

Modern literature would be substantially different without the influence of that seminal work, so we owe quite a debt to Gourmont.

Gourmont commanded considerable respect in his native France, and, as is sometimes the case in international literary relations, achieved an even greater fame and respect abroad. In France he was but one of many; in England and America he was chosen as the ideal man of letters by a considerable group of aspiring authors: he was a scholarly artist of proven courage and devotion to the highest standards of art and so possessed of the very qualities sought by young writers earnestly looking for a prestigious guide and prophet in their own struggles to establish a ‘new’ literature. (Burne 1963, 3-4)

Though Pound was initially attracted to, and practiced, a kind of symbolism, he had decisively abandoned it by 1914:

Imagism is not symbolism. The symbolists dealt in ‘association,’ that is, in a sort of allusion, almost of allegory. They degraded the symbol to the status of a word. (Sieburth 13)

Accordingly, Pound had little use for the Gourmont who practiced and exalted symbolism. He wrote that The Book of Masks was ‘not particularly important’ and ‘of temporary interest.’ (Instigations 182-83) Gourmont was, however, many-sided, and Pound found the sides he needed. For Pound as for Eliot, Gourmont’s most productive concept was the dissociation of ideas.

There are two ways of thinking. Either you accept current ideas and associations of ideas, just as they are, or you undertake to form new associations or, what is rarer, original associations of ideas. An intelligence capable of such efforts is, more or less, according to the degree, abundance, and variety of other gifts, a creative intelligence. It is a matter of either conceiving new relationships among old ideas and images, or of separating old ideas, old images united by tradition, and considering them one by one, being free to rework them and arrange an infinite number of new couplings which a new operation will disunite once again until new ties, always fragile and equivocal, are formed.” (1966, 11)

This not only validated Pound’s own ideas and methodology, but it led him toward truly productive modes of inquiry, helping to lay the groundwork not only for Imagism, but for modernism more generally.

THE GOURMONT BOOK which had the greatest impact on the Anglophone modernists was The Problem of Style. Its origin—one might well say its pretext—is a rather fatuous 1901 writing manual, La Formation du Style par l’assimilation des Auteurs, by the now-forgotten Antoine Albalat. Neither book has ever been translated, but you may read the French texts in the Internet Archive (Albalat and Gourmont), and translated excerpts from The Problem of Style have appeared in Selections and Selected Writings. Albalat had advocated more or less straightforward imitation of classical models, while Gourmont recommended studying the styles of illustrious predecessors but developing something new and individual from them. Poor Albalat was such an easy target that, for readers today, the book would be improved by the omission of the attack in favor of a more direct statement of Gourmont’s thesis. Still, Albalat’s method gave Gourmont a convenient starting point from which he could launch his own, far more sophisticated, argument.

…in the era of Jacques Derrida and Homi Bhaba we have gotten used to a different sort of critical obscurity, one that speaks more to our concerns.

It’s ironic that one of our biggest obstacles in appreciating The Problem of Style, like much of Gourmont, is the problem of its style. Even Burne acknowledges that ‘Gourmont’s essays do not always make easy reading.’ (1966, 6) While obscurity has its purposes, in the era of Jacques Derrida and Homi Bhaba we have gotten used to a different sort of critical obscurity, one that speaks more to our concerns. Whether one reads the book in French or in translation, the level and nature of its abstraction makes it far less welcoming than, say, the critical prose of Baudelaire a generation earlier or of Bataille a generation later. Similarly, the style of Gourmont’s erotic tales is far less welcoming than those of Baudelaire’s ‘The Jewels’ or Bataille’s Blue of Noon. Inevitably, Gourmont sometimes seems painfully dated. He begins his essay on ‘Women and Language,’ for example, with this backhanded compliment: ‘The role of women in the work of civilization is so great that it would scarcely be exaggeration to say that the structure is built on the shoulders of these frail caryatids.’ He continues in this vein, asserting that ‘Women know things that have never been written or taught. . . ,’ leaving unspoken the implication that they don’t know much of what has ‘been written or taught.’ They are ‘the patient educators of childhood. This role is so natural that it seems humble.’ They have mastered ‘the simple play of two knitting needles.’ (1966, 130) He keeps praising in limited and condescending ways. We can, of course, say that he was not only reflecting the ubiquitous prejudices of his day, but, in fact, giving women more credit than most of his contemporaries did, but we still have nothing to learn from him in this area, as in several others, such as biology.

For readers today, I can’t recommend his poetry, fiction, drama, or amateur science, but for those interested in French Symbolism or in the roots of Anglo-American modernism, his best non-fiction, such as The Book of Masks, The Culture of Ideas, and The Problem of Style, remains well worth our attention. Indeed, we can ill afford to ignore or dismiss a body of work so venerated by major cultural figures. More to the point, reading a sampling of his work, as in the out-of-print Selected Writings, provides a fascinating look into the remarkable workings of a many-sided mind. In our increasingly specialized world, where the sum of human knowledge has grown so prodigiously, our polymaths no longer have the range of Leonardo da Vinci, Athanasius Kircher, and Benjamin Franklin. We still, however, find the occasional figure such as semiotician-anthropologist-novelist Umberto Eco, chemist-novelist-playwright Carl Djerassi, and painter-writer-composer Tom Phillips. Gourmont, though, was not only one of these, but also a man who deliberately abandoned intellectual consistency for the excitement of the free play of ideas. It’s inspiring to watch a first-rate mind enjoying the freedom of trying on different, and even contradictory, perspectives. The results were not always convincing, but the process was exhilarating for him, and may be so for us.


Aldington, Richard. 1944. Introduction. Remy de Gourmont. Selections. 1-34.

Beaumont, Keith. 1984. Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study. New York: St. Martin’s.

Brotchie, Alastair. 2011. Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Burne, Glenn S. 1963. Remy de Gourmont: His Ideas and Influence in England and America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

—. 1966. Introduction. Gourmont. 1966.

Eliot, T.S. 1920. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methuen.

—. Selected Essays. 1964. New Edition. New York: Harcourt.

Fell, Jill. 2005. Alfred Jarry: An Imagination in Revolt. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Gosse, Edmund. 1922. Aspects and Impressions. New York: Scribner’s.

Gourmont, Remy de. 1992. The Angels of Perversity. Trans. Francis Amery. Sawtry: Dedalus.

—. The Book of Masks. 1921. Trans. Jack Lewis. Boston: Luce.

—. Selected Writings. 1966. Trans. Glenn S. Burne. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

—. Selections. 1944. Trans. Richard Aldington. London: Heinemann. Orig. ed. 1928.

—. A Virgin Heart. 1925. Trans. Aldous Huxley. New York: Greenberg.

Lewisohn, Ludwig. Introduction. Gourmont. The Book of Masks.

Lowell, Amy. 1920. Six French Poets: Studies in Contemporary Literature. New York: Macmillan.

Macy, John. 1922. The Critical Game. New York: Boni and Liveright.

Mangravite, Andrew, ed. and trans. 1994. The Book of Masks. London: Atlas Press.

Moore, Harry T. Preface. Burne. 1963.

Papini, Giovanni. 1922. Four and Twenty Minds. Trans. Ernest Hatch Wilkins. New York: Crowell.

Pound, Ezra. 1967. Instigations of Ezra Pound. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press.

Ransome, Arthur. 1919. Translator’s Preface. Remy de Gourmont. A Night in the Luxembourg. Trans. Arthur Ransome. Boston: Luce.

Sieburth, Richard. 1978. Instigations: Ezra Pound and Remy de Gourmont. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Whitman, Walt. 1982. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America.

Paul Cohen, Director of Graduate Studies in English at Texas State University, has written compulsively on literature, art, music, film, computing, pedagogy, and, in The Fortnightly Review, on ‘Pataphysics.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *