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The problems and pleasures of ‘Le Probléme du style’

By JOHN TAYLOR

Remy de Gourmont, by Pierre-Eugène Vibert. (Wiki)Nearly all of us in the Anglo-American world of letters first became acquainted with the French writer Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915) through Ezra Pound. The latter often mentions Gourmont in his articles and devotes two full essays to him: “Rémy de Gourmont” (Fortnightly Review, December 1915), which is an extended obituary, and especially “Rémy de Gourmont: A Distinction”, a long piece first published in 1920 in Instigations and then included in the 1954 Faber edition of the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Pound wrote a second obituary for Poetry in 1916, and this article continues to circulate as well.

If it was not through Pound, then it was, of course, through T. S. Eliot that we had first heard of Remy (not “Rémy”, as Pound spells it) de Gourmont. In his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood, Eliot gratefully acknowledges the influence of the French writer in regard to the question of “considering poetry . . . primarily as poetry and not another thing”. In essence, this was the beginning of the New Criticism. Gourmont’s focus on “style” thereby laid the foundations for a critical methodology that flourished among Anglo-American academic scholars for several decades.

Practically speaking, Gourmont’s critical approach entails close reading, with particular attention paid to how a poet or writer forms images, similes, and metaphors. He studies how these and other stylistic features evolve from author to author, from historical period to historical period. It is not the subject matter—the plot of a novel, the theme of a poem—that interests him primarily, but rather how language is used precisely and inventively. Gourmont also dissects what “imitation” entails, a topic that surely caught the attention of he who coined the phrase “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. Another of Gourmont’s concepts, formulated in his essay “La Sensibilité de Jules Laforgue” (Promenades littéraires, 1904), is the “dissociation of ideas”, which Eliot famously transmutes, in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), into the “dissociation of sensibility”. For both Eliot and Pound, Gourmont was a fountainhead of insights that could be transported across the Channel and the Atlantic.

This being said, from the French perspective at least, the importance that Pound and Eliot gave to Gourmont now seems quaint. Despite facsimiles of his books recently made available electronically, Gourmont is little read in France. Perhaps Sixtine, roman de la vie cérébrale (1890) or Une nuit au Luxembourg (1906), which is another novel, are exceptions. Or his Lettres à l’Amazone (1914), a collection of passionate missives addressed to Nathalie Clifford Barney, with whom he shared an amorous friendship. And yet at the time of his death, Gourmont was one of the most prominent men of letters in his country. In Guide to Kulchur (1970), Pound reflects this reputation by noting somewhat ominously: “The young frenchmen of 1920 had NO elders whom they cd. in any way respect. Gourmont was dead”.

In any event, Le Problème du style (1902; revised edition 1907), the book that most nourished the two American poets, has long been out of print. A print-on-demand version has appeared at Nabu Press, but there is no standard edition available in French bookshops. Like nearly all the contemporaneous French writers and poets whom Pound championed or at least highlighted, Gourmont seems out of the discussion in his homeland. In his Fortnightly Review piece, the author of ABC of Reading situates Gourmont among other “pre-eminently good writers” like Anatole France, Henri de Regnier, Francis Jammes, and Laurent Tailhade, adding to them some “popular figures and crazes” like Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Claudel, and Paul Fort. Further on in the same essay, he mentions Jules Romains, Charles Vildrac, Georges Duhamel (which Pound spells “du Hamel”), Georges Chenneviere (which Pound spells “Chennviere”), and Paul Jean Jouve. Of these, only Jouve and Claudel continue to be read in any widespread way.

Marcel Proust, taken from the Wikimedia Foundation.TO GIVE POUND the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was still impossible in 1915, and even in 1920, to appraise what the appearance of Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann had signified in 1913. The second volume, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, of Proust’s magnum opus was issued in 1918. During this same period, Dada was born in 1916 and Surrealism in 1924. Henri Bergson’s ideas, going back to Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889), were still very much in the air. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s books, which would exert a lasting influence on many French poets and writers, would start appearing in the late-1920s. And may I mention another contemporaneous figure, Valery Larbaud, an ever-invigorating presence who has never left the stage? Even viewed broadly over several decades and as a nexus of movements and mouvances, French literature headed in directions other than those imagined by Pound and other than those taken by most of the poets and writers who had caught his eye. In the process, Gourmont, too, seems to have been increasingly neglected.

What I am formulating here is no criticism of Gourmont’s critical theory per se. Interestingly enough, an English reader opening Le Problème du style today can only be struck by how “un-French” it is, philosophically speaking. The underpinnings of Gourmont’s notions of mental images and sense impressions hail back, not to Descartes or to Malebranche, but rather to Hobbes and Locke. “The logic of the eye and of each of the other senses”, writes Gourmont in Le Problème du style, “suffices to guide the mind”. “Philosophy”, he adds, “which is popularly considered to be the realm of ideas (those chimaera!), is lucid only when it is conceived and formulated by sensorial writers”. Later on, he declares: “Sensation forms the basis of everything, of moral and intellectual life as well as physical life”. With style itself, Gourmont associates “physiology”. “The true problem of style is a matter of physiology”, he argues. “We write as we feel, as we think, with our entire body. Intellection is only one of the modes of being of sensibility, and not the most stable one, even less so the most voluntary one”.

Gourmont’s critical presuppositions are thus at antipodes from those informing Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, behind which lies a voluntarily introspective, self-seeking, philosophical method that still deeply affects French literature—which, in addition (or as a consequence), has long had a rich, varied, predominantly autobiographical orientation. Gourmont’s “English” philosophical vantage point could, therefore, puzzle or perturb a French reader of Le Problème du style and, arguably, has influenced in the long run its marginal position in French intellectual history; whereas, in contrast, Gourmont’s Locke-like axioms perhaps enhance its assimilability for English readers seeking the sources of Anglo-American modernism. Again, these bi-cultural observations formulate no criticism of Gourmont’s critical method. There is definitely food for thought in his rehabilitation of what he calls “physiology”; that is, literary sensibility defined as being informed by all the bodily functions (including intellection, of course, but not exclusively). However, even as many Frenchmen prefer Camembert to cheddar in London, it seems that few French writers and thinkers wish to sample this food. Needless to say, in our present era, structuralist and post-structuralist readings of literature are hardly Gourmont-ish in flavour. Yet it has just occurred to me: are some of Roland Barthes’s sensitive, sensually attentive readings perhaps rather Gourmont-ish and therefore exceptions to this rule?

Ezra Pound, photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn, taken from the Wikimedia Foundation.WHEN POUND DISCOVERED Le Problème du style in 1912, he could not help but be drawn to a philosophical background giving precedence to sense impressions as opposed to the thought processes on which the French philosophical tradition had traditionally been based. However, his fascination for Gourmont was not exactly stated in these terms. Ever seeking to spot some literary figure who had “made it new” (and this same literary and historical curiosity often obtains, in somewhat different terms, in Le Problème du style as well), Pound sees Gourmont as the writer who had “prepared our era”, as he claims in the Instigations essay. “Behind [Gourmont] there stretches a limitless darkness. . .”, he adds, subsequently citing rather incoherently a number of “periods” of English literature and thereby passing over countless counter-examples that could have been taken from continental European literature and, notably, from nineteenth-century French literature. Did not Balzac, Flaubert, Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, who remain to the present day the true wellsprings of contemporary French writing, also “prepare our era”? The French Symbolists, who are initially dear to Gourmont’s heart (and who also comprise Verlaine, Huysmans, and Barbey d’Aurevilly), go back to the nineteenth century. Pound rightly notes that “Gourmont had his beginning” among them, but he errs once again by implicitly associating the Symbolists with the eighteenth century. In any event, Gourmont has had few French disciples in modern times, even as Imagism and Realism—two essentially Anglo-American literary schools toward which his ideas ultimately point—have had few French adepts.

Pound’s critical and chronological confusions aside, the poet of the lines “the apparition of these faces in the crowd; / petals on a wet, black bough” found affinities with Gourmont’s predilection for sense impressions because it was so easily transposable into Imagism. This movement had taken shape in 1909, under the instigation of T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint, first at the Poets’ Club and then at the Secession Club in London. Pound joined them and other Imagists that same year. Gourmont had preceded them conceptually. When he argues, in Le Problème du style, that “without visual memory, without a reservoir of images from which the imagination can draw in order to make new, infinite combinations, there is no style, no artistic creation”, he posits “the image” as founding style, not as a mere decorative element or even as one among other integral elements. Image-making is the fundamental element.

GOURMONT SUBSEQUENTLY REFINES this central idea by describing what he calls the “vital circulation”. “Sensation is transformed into word-images”, he observes, and then “these [word-images] are transformed into word-ideas; and these into word-sentiments.” A kind of circuit forms, in fact mirrors our relationship with the world, and writers must remain aware of it in their pursuit of a truthful evocation of reality. According to French critic, “sensation successively draws upon, and rejects back into, the vital torrent the images that are necessary to intelligence; these images, once they have been attenuated by cerebral mechanisms and have become vain abstract ideas, are gathered back up and reanimated by sentiment, and it is then that the images go into action, venomously or curatively, and determine human gestures, the sources [in turn] of our strongest and most active sensations”. Gourmont compares this circuit to that of the blood. “Troubles with the circulation of ideas produce all of literature, all of art, all playing, all of civilisation”, he concludes.

Gourmont goes on to argue for the construction of arresting metaphors through a juxtaposition of different images, a figure of rhetoric that he considers superior to the “more primitive” . . . Homeric simile.

Writing in Poetry in 1913, Pound defines the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” and similarly calls for its pre-eminence. Pound’s advocacy of the image parallels Gourmont’s position that “reasoning by means of sensorial images is much easier and much surer than reasoning by means of ideas”. However, in Le Problème du style, Gourmont goes on to argue for the construction of arresting metaphors through a juxtaposition of different images, a figure of rhetoric that he considers superior to the “more primitive” (as he puts it) Homeric simile. This goal of elaborating unusual metaphors or—more appropriately—complex images is not entirely “imagistic” in Pound’s sense. And this “new”—the adjective used by Gourmont—kind of metaphor prefigures the typical surrealistic image, as initially defined by Pierre Reverdy in an issue of his magaine Nord-Sud in 1917. An image, for Reverdy, “cannot arise from a comparison but rather from the coming together of two realities more or less distanced from each other. The more distant and precise the relations between these two juxtaposed realities, the greater the strength of the image—the greater its emotional force and poetic actuality.”

To these efforts to understand how we make images and metaphors can be contrasted William Carlos Williams’s seminal notion of “no ideas but in things”. The phrase is actually a line in the 1927 version of his poem “A Sort of Song” (Paterson). Through the critical and poetic enthusiasm it provoked, the line blossomed into an entire poetics that is still prevalent among American poets. Williams’s notion likewise seems derivable, if at one remove, from the primacy that Gourmont gave to sense impressions as opposed to ideas.

Taking off from Williams’s phrase, let me now make this speculation, already implicit in Gourmont’s own poetics: do Anglo-American poets tend to begin with a thing and work toward an idea, whereas French poets begin with an idea and work toward a thing? Francis Ponge provides the most obvious example of this poetic, indeed “stylistic” direction, but there are many other French poets who progress similarly. In light of this criterion, Gourmont, the meticulous author of Esthétique de la langue française (1899) and other books examining French grammar and style under a magnifying glass, would definitely be “Anglo-American”.

AS TO ITS readability today, Le Problème du style suffers from its very conception. Its most interesting part, the long first title section that so influenced Pound and Eliot, is organised as a “refutation” of Antoine Albalat’s sententious L’Art d’écrire, enseigné en vingt leçons (1899). Albalat (1856-1935) was a specialist of French literature who interests us even less—much less—than some of the writers whom Pound puts forward in his articles about Gourmont. Adopting an argument/counter-argument form for his disquisition, Gourmont must cite at some length Albalat’s notions so that he can more honestly refute them. Albalat expatiates on how one should read certain classic authors in order to learn “how to write” from them—and in “twenty lessons” to boot! Gourmont has no trouble dismantling Albalat’s boring ideas, but in the process his own critical clarity remains, as it were, like circles of light amid the dustiness of the other’s dusty book.

Let’s ignore that aspect. There is much wit in Gourmont’s own lively style, not to mention much deep insight. The contemporary reader should concentrate on the author’s subtle analyses of different stylistic features. It’s so stimulating and pleasurable to follow this critic who reads his fellow writers on their own terms, and who constantly reveals to us, through precisely observed examples, how literary language can be so excitingly different from ordinary parlance.


John Taylor has lived in France since 1977. He is the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction Publishers, 2004, 2007, 2011) and Into the Heart of European Poetry (Transaction, 2008). He has recently translated books by Philippe Jaccottet, Jacques Dupin, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, and Louis Calaferte. In 2013, he won the Raiziss-de Palchi Translation Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets for his project to translate the Italian poet Lorenzo Calogero. His most recent personal book is If Night Is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press, 2012).

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