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The ‘secular monk’ in the rue des Saints-Pères.

By RICHARD ALDINGTON.

I.

Quid ergo sum, deus meus? Quae naturae sum? Varia, multimoda vita et immensa vehementer.
S. Aug.
O God, what am I? Of what essence am I? A various multiform life of vast immensity.
St. Augustine

Remy de Gourmont (Vibert 1911)THE LIFE OF Remy de Gourmont was that of a studious recluse; it offers no startling episodes, no dramatic events. It was a life of intense mental activity lived out, so to speak, in the cell of a secular monk, manifested only in his writings. The true biography of Remy de Gourmont is in his collected works.

There were Gourmonts in the sixteenth century, engravers and printers. Gilles de Gourmont printed at Paris in 1507 the first Greek book issued in France. These Gourmonts played a part in French humanism, predecessors, perhaps rivals, of the better known Estiennes. The arms they used as a printer’s mark are still those of the Gourmont family; but France has now no College of Heralds, and these arms as well as the title of Comte bestowed on Remy de Gourmont’s father by some writers are perhaps not much more authentic than American genealogies. It is certain that the Gourmonts were country gentlemen of Normandy in the 17th and 18th centuries, that there were abbots of the diocese of Coutances who belonged to this Catholic family of the minor nobility.

Remy de Gourmont was the son of Auguste Marie de Gourmont and Marie Mathilde de Montfort and was born on the 4th of April, 1858, at Chateau La Motte, Bazoches-en-Houlme, Orne, Normandy. When he was ten, the family moved north, nearer to the sea, to the manor of Mesnil-Villeman, in the department of Manche. Remy de Gourmont was educated at the Lycée of Coutances and in the Faculty of Law at the University of Caen. It appears that even in his boyhood the versatility and indiscipline of his mind were noticeable. When he was sixteen, his master, the abbé Lair, reported: “An easy, distinguished intelligence which he cannot learn to direct. He makes too many excursions into the field of fantasy.” These priests are marvellous judges of character; that judgment applies to the mature as well as to the adolescent Gourmont, for those mental “excursions” at the call of whim remained one of his most valued sins. At the University he spent more time reading at hazard in the town library than in following his course. But this inability or refusal to follow the dull lessons of dull masters is not uncommon in youths of talent, impatient to develop in their own way. A successful university career proves little but docility and medium intelligence; which explains why women are so often successful. The original mind is general more rebellious. The misfortune for Gourmont is that he was educated at a provincial university and not in the capital; had he spent those student years in Paris he would have been saved ten years of hesitations and fumblings.

It was not until 1883, when he was twenty-five, that Gourmont came to Paris, as assistant librarian in the Bibliothèque Nationale. His life seems to have been obscure and his literary talent developed slowly and along regrettable lines. He produced compilations for a publisher and contributed to an encyclopaedia, gratifying tastes or creating habits which he never entirely threw off. He appears to have had no contact with the active literary life of the time, but lived in some obscure district, spending his days between the Library, literary hack-work and (it would seem) unsatisfactory amours. The first number of Mallarmé’s Vogue (1886) revealed him to the school of writers who had preserved or taken up again the Romantic tradition, and created the opposition movement to the Naturalistes which is generally known as Symbolisme. Gourmont was then twenty-eight, and it was not until four years later that the publication of Théodat showed the first tardy fruit of this literary conversion. Meanwhile, he had come to know Villiers, Huysmans, Mallarmé; but his literary life was disturbed and stimulated in 1887 by his violent passion for Mme. De Courrière. This liaison – for some reason he did not marry her – accentuated his aloofness from society and appears to have lasted for the rest of his life. Even after the dazzling appearance of the American Amazon in Gourmont’s life, Mme. De Courrière went on living in the flat next to Gourmont’s.1

ABOUT THIS TIME occurred that facial disfigurement which completed his isolation from ordinary life and held him almost a prisoner in the solitude of his study for the rest of his days. This “accident to his health”,2 as it is discreetly termed, completely changed his appearance. M. Jean de Gourmont (his brother) has related that when Remy first returned home after his disfigurement, his own father did not recognise him. Yet, in spite of this misfortune and his natural shrinking from society, he was not abandoned by Mme. De Courrière and still enjoyed the fugitive contacts whose memory has peopled his books with so many feminine figures. This disaster must have occurred about 1889, when the Mercure de France was founded. In 1891, an article in that review, directed against the French party which still clamoured for la revanche, was made a pretext to dismiss him from the public service. Gourmont will have the sympathy of all independent persons in this affair. There are few factions so dangerous and exasperating in modern nations as the excessive nationalists of all countries, the “Jingos” of England, the “spread-eagles” of America. Their patriotism is offensive, narrow, truculent, indecent; their creed is an imbecile xenophobia and their existence a menace to international peace and national freedom. Urging war in time of peace, they are general to be found in the rear administrations of war-time armies. Gourmont’s protest was a little intemperate and stinging, but none but a furious nationalist would dissent from its views. However, his adversaries were powerful, and a man who is now considered one of the glories of France was dismissed ignominiously from the public service through the efforts of a journalist, the noisy mouthpiece of a dissolute faction.

This dismissal completed the ring of solitude which enclosed him. For a quarter of a century he lived his recluse life in the Rue des Saints-Pères, venturing only to the Mercure office, to the Café de Flore, and to the bookstalls along the quays. In the summer he spent a few weeks at his family home in Normandy. Otherwise his days were those of studious routine, and his only excursions were the literary and philosophical promenades of which he has left such agreeable accounts. Towards the end of his life this literary hermit was drawn from his cell by the charms of the Amazon. An American poetess living in Europe, Miss Natalie Clifford Barney, was attracted by Gourmont’s work and he speedily developed a violent affection for her. Under the influence of this passion he emerged from his solitude and his old friends marveled to see him renewed in his work and to learn that he had ventured, first as far as the Rue Jacob, then to the Bois and other districts of Paris, under Miss Barney’s guidance. He even attended Miss Barney’s dances, once in fancy-dress, appropriately as a mandarin; and carried this life of society dissipation so far as to call on Anatole France. Considering Gourmont’s horror of Americans and Americanism (he was equally prejudiced against the English and penned some fierce and slightly foolish diatribes against England during the Boer War) it is amusing to reflect that the charm and interest of his last years came from a native of America. It is with a pleased malice that I also reflect that this book in his honour will appear in Chicago, a city for which he professed a peculiar horror. How greatly one regrets that Miss Barney’s plan for taking him to America was never carried out!

remyportThough comparatively weak in health and subject to colds, Gourmont was not actually infirm in 1914, when the European war devastated all our lives.3 He had been ill and was then convalescent in Normandy. The shock undoubtedly hastened his end. Already his Dialogues of Amateurs and his Letters to the Amazon had showed a mind profoundly disillusioned, a spirit plunged deep in a bitter nihilism. The war destroyed what little zest was left him in life. The letters written to me during the last eighteen months of his life (and published an appendix to Vol. I) will show his lamentable state of mind and the dreary tasks to which he was subjected. My influence with the periodical press of England and America was even less then than it is now; I had to deal with people who knew little and cared less about Gourmont, while my own enthusiasm for his work was considered as a foolish young man’s eccentricity. Now that Gourmont is famous and has even received such posthumous attentions as a statue in a public garden, a commemorative plaque on his house, a place in all the latest histories of French literature, much “appreciative” palaver, it is painful to remember how difficult it was to place his articles and to obtain adequate payment for them. But for Miss Amy Lowell the results would have been meagre; and I cannot think that two hundred dollars was a high price to pay for the complete manuscript of Une Nuit au Luxembourg. In England, Mr. Harold Monro and Mr. J. C. Squire were sympathetic and did what they could. One difficulty was that the breakdown in Gourmont’s health and his profound depression of spirits resulted in poor work; and it was hard to persuade editors to pay for a reputation that had not yet reached them or their public. Perhaps the best work he did during this regrettable money-hunting was the two epigrams published in Poetry by Miss Harriet Monroe, for which she paid handsomely – at least, Gourmont thought so.

M. Jean de Gourmont has described how his brother was seized with his last illness, a haemorrhage of the brain:

On Saturday evening, the 25th September, 1915, about 1:30, I leaned out of my window and noticed that was a light in Remy’s flat. I thought he had forgotten to turn off his electric light; but I felt uneasy and went up to him. I found him collapsed in his wicker armchair near his writing-table. I tried to give him my am but he collapsed and I had to carry him to divan a few steps away from the table. In agitation I called Mme. De Courrière from the flat below and we laid him on the best. While I felt his pulse, he gazed at me, questioned me with a very intense, an intense blue, gaze; I smiled at him to reassure him.”

He died at six o’clock in the evening of the 27th September. The funeral service took place in the church of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Remy de Gourmont was buried in the Cemetery of Père Lachaise with the ceremonies usual at the interment of a French man of letters.

A GOOD DEAL has been written by those who knew Gourmont personally about his appearance, habits and dwelling. A few selected passages of this kind are here appended. M. Edmond Barthelmy gives this account of Gourmont in 1890:

He received me in his apartment of the Rue des Saints-Pères which he afterwards left for a quitter one on the floor about, looking over the court-yard. It was a hot day. The shutters of the study were half closed and there was a gentle half-light in the flat. We heard the dull rumble of the three-horse omnibuses which at that period went down the Rue des Saints-Pères. Gourmont was dressed in a loose garment of black stuff, held at the chest by a metal clasp ornamented with coloured stones; the wide, opened sleeves showed his wrists, and his small hands, while he talked to you with his halting elocution, looking calmly at you with his large grey-blue eyes, were generally rolling a cigarette. He wore a sort of ecclesiastical skull-cap on his head.”

M. Emile MaAndré Rouveyre's sketches.gne describes this refuge in the Rue des Saints-Pères as follows: It contained a narrow rectangular ante-room, a tiny kitchen filled with book-shelves and with books on the stove, an immense dining-room, surrounded with book-shelves filled and double-filled with books; the study was walled with books, the armchairs and chairs of faded yellow velvet supported heaps of books, and more heaps of books filled every nook and corner; the view from this study was a piece of wall and a triangle of sky above the roof…. The same author goes on:

Abashed perhaps by a slight difficult of speech Remy de Gourmont was not very conversational. He hated mere talkers as much as bad writers… Before he became intimate with another man, he observed him silently for months, often without showing the slightest sign of sympathy or even of politeness.”

Mme. Rachilde is characteristically sharp:

The gentle Remy, a pale little man, with clear very blue eyes, slovenly in appearance, with no desire for neatness or the slickness of young literary apprentices to-day; he talked stammeringly, asserted nothing, then suddenly brought out a brilliant paradox4 like a gentleman who, after all, does know how to use a sword.”

M. Pierre Querlon wrote of him in 1903:

“He is not tall; his face is strong; his high wide forehead is square; his blue eyes shine clear behind his glasses, sometimes over of beside them. He walks along the quays, with books under the cape of his cloak. He goes up to the Rue des Saints-Pères to his flat, puts on his black velvet robe, his felt skull-cap and sits down in the large wicker armchair of his study. Books are aligned from floor to ceiling.”

M. Pierre Loüys wrote after his death:

As far back as I can remember I have never met my old friend anywhere but in bookshops or in front of book-stalls. His ravaged face, which acquired a certain beauty of expression as he grew older, appeared from a distance to the frequenters of the quays between the soft hat and the muffler. It was a rather sad and shy face disfigured by an unhappy life.”

But by far the best sketch of Gourmont is that by my friend, M. André Rouveyre, whom I am about to pillage for the following excellent observations:

When Gourmont went out with a friend, he contrived to urge the friend in front of him, chiefly at the departure, for thus he could better tackle the difficulties of his physical movements…

His body was very restive to his orders; its different mechanisms needed an urge of the will to get into action. Nothing in his physical make-up seemed to go by itself with comfortable spontaneity. On the contrary, one saw that the animal would never obey. Owing to this fact, all his behaviour was indecisive, distorted, slow, abrupt…

Every one of his physical movements showed this hesitation and difficulty, which appeared even in his speech. All material life assailed him and put him to a perpetual combat; absolutely retired into his thought, and as a gradual result of a refusal of obedience by his general being, he found himself at bad. Reiterated orders were needed to make his body go and come…

He hardly ever allowed himself to be accompanied in the street, even by an intimate friend. Gourmont knew too well the mutual distress resulting from his embarrassment, the tyrannical disorder which rent him in the action of moving forward.

Therefore he shut himself up in precise habits, where a relative daily automatism could be installed. At the end of some time on the same route, the watchfulness over his body could be relaxed a little, a daily walk became possible. He then appeared happy…

The illness, from another age, which struck him an, in fact, dominated his mature life, had gnawed and sculpted his face, fixed the lower lip in the position of disdain. So that this, by morally surmounting it, corrected the slow disintegration of his face, burned, scarred, swollen near the lips; partly too white, dry and shining; partly rough, red and incontinent. Here and there it was as if livid clouds passed over it.

…the eyes made his face glitter with a dazzling nobility.

He had ceased to laugh…

Gourmont’s gaze (from his bluish-green eyes, unfindable, they were so steady) carried his spiritual life; he was charged with such a power that a sensitive man could not sit opposite him without understanding his own weakness.

…a dazzling intellectuality came from him, chiefly from the eyes, whose rays were like rapid, piercing shafts of steel…

Gourmont, from his cloistered life, his condition and his spiritual elevation, was absolutely isolated, out of society. He behaved with a strange and painful awkwardness when necessity forced him into it. His oldest friends, who loved him, had to be prudent in talking to him…

From lack of practice he had no urbanity and his physical defect had added a restrained sharpness; but then there was a sudden, innocent joy when someone or some circumstance showed him, even if it were a delusion, that he was not the reprobate. Miss Barney was a happily opportune apparition in his life…. With her Gourmont was transfigured…. All his infirmities seemed to vanish…

In his own flat, dressed in his Trappist frieze, he looked to me like the devil forced to turn hermit.

The atmosphere was panic, secret, shadowy, in his ill-aired, dusty domicile… the place was warm, padded, unendurable, unhealthy, and its shell was composed of piled-up, dusty books built by the hands of the solitary wandering in his quarter and along the quays. It lacked nothing but fresh air – air of any kind. An eagle’s nest, a toad’s hole…

With me his ravaged face smiled supernaturally, with kindness, intellectual attachment, good nature.”

M. Rouveyre has written more indulgent pages on Gourmont, but I have preferred to give these fragments of intense vision.5

The drawings by M. Rouveyre…will show the almost cruel probity of his artistic conscience. These drawings, the photographs, and the above quotations should give a clear impression of Gourmont’s outward man and life. For that other, more precious and, I am convinced, humanly imperishable Gourmont, the reader must meditate over the written word which is the record of an immense intellectual effort.

II.

The mind of Voltaire is like a perfectly turned billiard-ball, ever on the roll and continuously achieving the most accurate and pleasing angles; the mind of Gourmont is like the same ball carved by a Chinese artist into a nest of highly fretted spheres one within the other, made heaven knows how and quite useless for the practical game of life.

REMY DE GOURMONT was the complex product of an old and complex civilisation, “too complex, perhaps,” as he wrote me with gentle irony when, with the hopefulness of youth, I had attempted to explain him in a short article. I am less hopeful now; and, just as much of his life is rather mysterious to us because of his obedience to the ancient precept “Hide thy life”, so there are mysterious complexities in his thought and literary personality. Gourmont was a polygraphe, a writer of many kinds of literary works; and such writers are invariably suspected of superficiality. As I have written of another great French polygraphe, Voltaire, “we are unwilling to believe that a man could write so much so well”. But this is merely the elementary or mathematical aspect of Gourmont’s complexity, which is something very different from versatility and variety of interests. The personality of Voltaire is not very complex; he was a man of remarkable intelligence and opportunist character, whose expansive energy simulated a complexity which, on analysis, proves to be only variety. The complexity of Gourmont is real and inherent. The mind of Voltaire is like a perfectly turned billiard-ball, ever on the roll and continuously achieving the most accurate and pleasing angles; the mind of Gourmont is like the same ball carved by a Chinese artist into a nest of highly fretted spheres one within the other, made heaven knows how and quite useless for the practical game of life. (Gourmont does make one thing of the conventional idea of a lettered mandarin.) You may take two pieces of Voltaire’s prose, one written in 1720, the other 1770, and at once you will recognise them as products of the same mind; but compare Gourmont’s work in 1890 with his work in 1905 – is the sensual, mystic idealist of Sixtine the author of the skeptical, Nietzschean Dialogues des Amateurs? Already the mind which produced Sixtine was singularly complicated; but it passed rapidly through many phases, each of which left definite and permanent traces, until the resulting complexity baffles analysis. Yet it is always the same mine. Hence the “problem of Gourmont” which has never been seriously attacked by anyone except M. André Rouveyre.6

Obviously, simplicity is not the commonest quality in great writers, but rather the contrary. The excessive complexity of Gourmont, which the most superficial reader cannot overlook, is not so much something abnormal as an obstacle to a clear comprehension of his gifts and faults. To one long familiar with Gourmont’s work it becomes a certainty that he was potentially a greater write than in fact he ever became. There is already a considerable amount of waste-matter in his published work; already 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 or books of his and assert honestly that it is a complete, successful and permanent masterpiece. Yet one has an even stronger conviction that the name of Remy de Gourmont will not perish, that his mind was not only curious and complex but a permanent addition to the vast gallery of European intelligence, that there are gifts both of artistry and thought scattered through his thirty or forty volumes which are original, powerful and animating. Writing was Gourmont’s life; he adored it, and when he was not writing or reading for the purpose of writing, he was bored. He was as perfect a type of the man of letters – taken in its highest sense – as one could discover. He appears to have had scarcely any active interests outside the realm, though it is a vast one, of ideas. He did not travel much, too little in my opinion. He shows no knowledge or love of music. He looked at pictures – who can fail to do so in Paris? – and had considerable appreciation of them; but modern painting after the Impressionists eluded him, and his articles on Cézanne and the Indépendents are a little painful to an admirer. Theology, in his early days, science in middle life, deeply interested him, but from a literary and amateur’s point of view. He was a recluse. Consequently his life was inactive, thrust back on itself; his thought was a magnificent rehandling of second-hand elements; his logic rearranged material brought him by others; and instead of concentrating his genius, he dissipated it through a mass of writings all of high quality, but few or none of the highest. The chief reason rot he present book is that it seeks to reduce this diluted thought to its essence. Repetition is not Gourmont’s vice – he was alert and fertile enough – but dilution. He wrote too often because writing was a kind of sensual pleasure, an oblivion from common life, a gentle intoxication of the mind. That strange mingling of the priest and sensualist, of the mystic in sentiment and the sceptic in intelligence, which forms part of Gourmont’s complexity, explains his exclusive and unbridled passion for writing. In writing he found the priest’s daily devotion and the lover’s pleasures, the exaltations of mysticism an the detached contentment of the scientist. He wrote to please himself, he wrote as a self-indulgence. More, his writing was often a form of morose delectation.

Gourmont at home.Gourmont’s genius was essentially critical, and almost to the end he persisted in regarding it as apt for any literary task he liked to set it. His intellectual curiosity was superb. He refused to give it any limits; he refused to accept any limits as a writer, and that is coming perilously close the frontiers of journalism. Art insists on limits, whether inherited or self-imposed. It is strange that Gourmont, who admired Flaubert so much, did not make a stricter use of the principle implied in Flaubert’s methods. Flaubert chose, and upheld his choice with agonized persistence. Gourmont, a born critic, was never able to quash the poet in him for the benefit of his criticism, as Flaubert quashed the wild Romantic in himself for the benefit of his realism. (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”) An even more serious result of this disregard of limits is that Gourmont, probably without knowing it, descended from the rank of critic to that populariser. The distinction is a valid one, which does not need defending. It is disturbing to remember that Gourmont began his literary career with a series of hack compilations which nobody reads and which ought to disappear from his bibliography; but the taste remained – and was gratified – even when he had developed into a first class writer. It is possible for an artist (I am thinking of the great Italians like Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Bernini) to animate all the arts with exceptionally energetic genius. Yet is not Leonardo a warning? And it is certainly possible for poet, critic and philosopher and even scientist to live in one great mind. But Gourmont was not Goethe. True, the whole irregular mass of Gourmont’s production is help together loosely by the thread of his personality; but that personality was indeed ondoyant et divers, wavering and diverse. I doubt whether his energy was sufficient to carry on all these campaigns with success; he divided his intellectual army too much – a great strategical fault – and sent his forces against too many provinces. To drop these military metaphors, let me put it this way: Gourmont did not succeed like Sainte-Beuve, in subordinating his imaginative, creative gifts to the benefit of a great critical work; nor, like Walter Pater, did he succeed in fusing imagination and critical intellect in a pleasing hybrid. The work of Sainte-Beuve is a whole, and the work of Pater is a whole; but the work of Gourmont is a series of brilliant parts which only just cohere.

Mercure de FranceTHE ABOVE SECTION had been written chiefly for a few people, long acquainted with Gourmont’s work, who many open this book. But a translation must aim necessarily at reaching those who have not studied an author in the original and who probably make his acquaintance for the first time. While, therefore, it has been obvious that I am fully aware of Gourmont’s defects and that I do not claim an excessively high place for his works, I must make it equally plain to those who come to him for the first time that I rank him high among modern European authors, far higher than ordinary official criticism will allow. As a novelist I think him certainly inferior to Flaubert, but I put him in with Huysmans and France. As a philosopher and essayist I hold him inferior to Nietzsche but considerably above Maeterlinck. He was perhaps the most erudite non-specialist writer of his age, and as a general critic he was unique in his generation. Mr. T. S. Eliot calls Gourmont “the critical conscience of a generation”, and I eagerly borrow the phrase. Gourmont was indeed the critic of the Symbolistes, using that vague term in its widest sense. If he had nothing but his work for the Mercure de France, he would be important, for the Mercure de France was the centre of a whole new literary movement, which left considerable traces in French literature and influenced many foreigners. But Gourmont was a great deal more than the valiant defender of a new generation, exposed, as usual, to the insults and opposition of the successful literary traders. He was a great Individualist, one of the last and boldest defenders of individual liberty against the increasing tyrannies of democracy and socialism.

This book [Remy de Gourmont, Selections from all his works] contains (I hope it is not an idle boast) the essence of thirty volumes and a life-work of intense thought. I try to imagine how I should feel if I came upon its contents for the first time, and I think I should be as excited and captured as when I first “discovered” Gourmont (through F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound) some fifteen years ago. But I also try to imagine what may be usefully said to those who will not be spontaneously conquered, to provide a thread for the safe exploration of this labyrinth. I can see there are some for whom Gourmont will be an immediate delight, but for others almost every thought and page in this volume will be an offence. The already converted and the unconvertable need no attention; but there are many who might be benefited by this sharp pungent thinker, this agreeable sensualist, if their prejudices were lulled.

Let us make no mistake about it; Gourmont’s art and thought are profoundly revolutionary…He is the greatest of the intellectual Nihilists foretold by Nietzsche, after whom there is — what?

Let us make no mistake about it; Gourmont’s art and thought are profoundly revolutionary, not in the conventional, Moscow, barbarous way, but in the subtle, acute, elegant, delicately graduated way of a highly civilised, over-civilised thinker. He is the greatest of the intellectual Nihilists foretold by Nietzsche, after whom there is – what? Gourmont is the unfailing champion of Individualism – of Egotism if you like – and the one clue to his multiple and complex personality and work is a recognition of this uncompromising Individualism. He is the defender of liberty of expression, liberty of morals, liberty of action. Perhaps he claimed the impossible, but only the efforts of these uncompromising Individualists have saved us so far from a new Middle Ages of dreary collective tyranny. Everywhere the interests of the group are preferred to the interests of the individual; everywhere, as Gourmont pointed out, the insane process is occurring of making great groups happy by destroying the personal happiness of every individual in the group. Everywhere liberties, the liberty to love, the liberty to drink what we please, the liberty to travel, the liberty to work, the liberty to enjoy, the liberty to express opinions contrary to those of the majority, to doubt the gods of the herds and the heard-leaders, the liberty to be happy in one’s own way – all these liberties are being abolished or curtailed in the name of frothy social theories or the deplorable slave morals of the gospels. All Gourmont’s work is a significant protest against the over-organisation of society for the benefit of human mediocrity. The life and work of Huysmans are an artist’s exasperated protest against the exterior of industralised life. Gourmont is far more profound, if less exquisitely an artist. Accepting the science which Huysmans rejected in horror, Gourmont went deeper, analysed and exposed the delusive theories and ideas which have been developed by confused by persuasive minds from our chaos of moribund but still vicious religions and vital but uncertain and over-assertive sciences. The attentive reader of the second volume of this book will see how Gourmont applied his individualist method to the analysis of a vast number of problems, views, opinions, beliefs, religious, philosophical, literary, social, moral, sexual. A great critic of literature, a greater critic of ideas, and a still greater critic of humanity.

It is not enough, however, to say that Gourmont was an Individualist. With him one much always qualify, always elaborate. In his Individualism there was nothing harsh, vulgarly assertive, selfish. In him Individualism was qualified by a fine sensibility, an exquisite intellectual probity, a profound culture. His mind was infinitely subtle and delicate. This delicacy, this subtlety are conspicuous in the sensuality which was so powerful a motive in Gourmont’s work. Let me say at once that I do not apologise for Gourmont’s sensuality; I admire and I praise it. I consider it a most valuable contribution towards the freeing of intelligent men and women from the bondage of Christian prudery and the disgusting coarseness which is the inevitable reaction. Those nations which most fiercely repress the pleasures of the sex are those where the greatest coarseness and hidden license are generated. As Gourmont was never weary of showing, there is an imperfect “dissociation of ideas” due to the fat that people are too cowardly to defy the Christians and too lazy-minded, too insensitive, to resolve the subject in a healthy and joyous manner. Among the more ordinary and vulgar minds, the idea of sex has never been dissociated from the idea of the digestive functions; consequently a “dirty” jest may be made indifferently about either the most exalting or the most humiliating of bodily functions. To the sensualist this vulgar confusion, which is the corollary of Christian prudery, is deeply revolting. It is truly “obscene” just as the prudish denial of sexual pleasure, the endeavour to hush it up, scuffle it out of sight, divert from it the minds of the young when Nature has brought them to the point when their lives should be irradiated with sexual happiness, it “obscene”. Many minds above the coarse vulgar have dissociated the sexual from the digestive fact; but they have not learned to dissociate the sexual from the procreative act. All our sexual legislation is based on the assumption that the sexual act must be procreative. It considers one end only: the unlimited supply of new citizens to be reared at the expense of their progenitors. I am not going to enter on the familiar controversy of birth control; it is obvious to me that no amount of puritan legislation will prevent it and that the more highly intelligent a nation is, the wider birth-control extends. Gourmont’s sensuality involves another, more personal, more interesting fact – that with civilised man sexual love is not only an instinct but an art. Here, as everywhere, Gourmont is the Individualist, always opposed to the Christian theory of repression. His method, which I am convinced is the true way of civilisation, is to refine through liberty the passions which cannot be suppressed without reducing mankind to the level of an ant-hill. Insensibly I find myself expounding a Gourmont doctrine; but the very essence of Gourmont’s thought is that he placed himself quite apart from doctrines and parties. It was a Nietzschean effort to rise “beyond good and evil”. But this uncompromisingly individualist judgment does not necessarily reduce Gourmont to a minority of one. Inasmuch as every one of us is an individual, inasmuch as we exist more or less apart from collective bodies and opinions, Gourmont speaks to us. He speaks to us not as members of groups, not as citizens, but as individuals. He does not assert that he had anything valuable to tell us; he does not pretend to solve anyone’s problems, offers no panacea, makes no promises, cares nothing whether he is read or not, or, if read, whether anyone accepts or rejects his thought. “The world is my representation”, he says (under the influence of Schopenhauer), adding characteristically, “and yours too, my brother”. This quality he called “disinterestedness” by which he meant the attempt to know and to say what is or seems to be, without reference to any preconceived hypothesis, and without any regard to personal prejudices. Consequently he was always ready to change his mind, always prepared to deny to-day what he had asserted yesterday, not from inconsequence ad incoherence but because the complex relation of things seemed to have altered or because he had learned something he did not know before. He had the intellectual probity of the great Sceptics. Those who like a simple world, all black and white without any gradations of shadowing, object to this type of mind. According to them the Sceptic has no convictions, hence is not “serious,” is a “dilettante”. This will not do; for the Sceptic can show by irrefutable analysis that these convictions are erroneous, based on misunderstanding or prejudice, have in fact no counterpart in nature, then the Sceptic has performed a service of liberation. Where is the virtue of being blind or one-eyed? But the ruthless criticism of a sceptic like Gourmont may be dangerous to weak minds? I do not deny it, but retort that a male adult writer has no need to consider the possible effect of his thought on the weak-minded, any more than he need worry about the effect on virgins of expressing his sensibility. Still one must recognise this impasse: Gourmont shows that all action and every motive for action is vain, and yet he is compelled to assert that everything which provides a motive for action is necessarily good, i. e. because life is an end in itself, and without action there is no life.

THE EUROPEAN WAR imposed action on millions; it also destroyed the motives for action apart from itself. Consequently we have since witnessed feverish efforts to establish convictions, to build up doctrines containing an imperative. The efforts are useless; Gourmont’s criticism remains intact. It is useless to seek a sanction for life outside of life. So penetrated am I with the spirit of skepticism that I cannot regard the post-war philosophic and religious constructions as anything but temporary shelters for the timid. True to the principle of Individualism, let us not attempt to pull others out of their little intellectual dug-outs where they feel safe and permanent; but let us rejoice that some prefer to remain outside.

Obviously, in a last analysis, all doctrine, all opinion are equally vain. We may thing that certain liberties provide more opportunity for individual happiness, and we may think that individual happiness is important. Rough common sense would seem to assert this, but men are so curious that they may realize the paradox of being happy by abandoning personal happiness, of abandoning personal happiness, of abandoning liberties for the benefit of any one among a number of delusive promises of collective happiness. Consequently, the true value of a writer like Gourmont does not lie wholly in his vies but in the quality of the mind b which those views are elaborated and illustrated. One is not to accept any statement, however undogmatic, as dogma. Gourmont said that he who thinks, feels and sees well, writes well. Therefore I should urge that this book be considered not as a body of opinion and statement to be accepted or rejected, but partly as a work of art to be enjoyed, partly as an invitation to think, feel and see for oneself.

The development of Gourmont’s talent and the various influences which helped him to develop must at least be glanced at in an Introduction, though the subject is so complicated and vast that I approach it with considerable diffidence. Let us imagine our young man newly arrived in Paris in 1883. He comes from a Catholic aristocratic family; he has been well educated, but has followed his own whim rather than prescribed courses, and we shall note that his culture is Franco-Latin, and not Greek. He is not exactly a “manière de mécréant”, a sort of sinner, as M. Rouveyre gaily calls him, but along with great intellectual curiosity and a passion for books, he possesses a delicate sensibility, strong sensuality and extreme independence. He is shy and solitary, but animated with literary ambitions and the irresistible itch to write. Without any friends among the active literary groups, he not unnaturally drifts at first into works of learned compilation, made easier for him by his position in a great public library. The dominant literary school in France is that of the Naturalistes, the Soirées de Médun group, headed by Zola. Apart from them, are the real “masters”, Flaubert and the Goncourts. The Naturalistes represent a sort of narrow positivism in literature. From fastidiousness, from individualist self-assertion, from a vein of romanticism, Gourmont utterly rejects this school, and goes his own obscure way. This we might call the first phase.

HuysmansAmong the Naturalistes was one original author who gradually became estranged from their principles and eventually converted himself into a Roman Catholic. This was Huysmans. In A Rebours he drew a fantastic picture of an artistic decadent who withdrew from life and, among other things, amused himself by reading the Latin authors of the middle ages. About the time of its publication there also appeared a small periodical, called Vogue,7  edited by Stephane Mallarmé, and containing work by the “idealists” who refused to follow the Zola “realists”. Mallarmé, Verlaine, Villiers, were all praised in A Rebours. This book exercised a considerable influence on Gourmont. He plunged with zest into the study of mediaeval Latin (with which he was already acquainted) and eventually produced the commentated anthology, Le Latin Mystique. He chose Mallarmé, Villiers, Verlaine and Huysmans as his literary admirations, and especially sought – and found – the companionship of Huysmans. On the other hand this Catholicism and Satanism were a mere form of idealistic decoration for Gourmont; he attempted to use Christian symbolism for purely artistic purposes as the Renaissance used pagan mythology. Huysmans, to Gourmont’s great surprise, took the supernatural decoration seriously. If Huysmans influenced Gourmont, it is also true that Gourmont unwittingly had a great influence on Huysmans. In my view La-Bas was built on their friendship; Durtal is Huysmans, Des Hermies is Gourmont, and possible Mme. de Chantelouve is Mme. de Courrière. I have given much of Gourmont’s essay on his personal relations with Huysmans, which shows amusingly how Gourmont unwittingly decided the older man’s conversion.

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MdFfoundTHEN CAME THE founding of the Mercure de France, which gave Gourmont a firm platform for the exposition of his views and a means for publishing anything he chose to write. (Most of his early works published in book form appeared in very small limited editions.) The influence of Mallarmé shows itself strongly in his artistic work, and philosophically he was dominated by Schopenhauer. For several years he produced “Symboliste” work (the various pieces in Le Pélerin du Silence, Lilith, Théodat, Histoires Magiques; the Chevaux de Diomède is already a slight departure) and made himself the critical defender of the Symbolistes (the two Livres des Masques, Idéalisme). This period was fertile and produced some valuable work, but Gourmont demonstrated his intense individualism by evolving out of Symbolisme into something peculiar to himself. The writing of Epilogues had brought him into touch with contemporary life, at least as revealed through the newspapers. His serious reading became really extensive, and enabled him to correct many of the hasty, erroneous and biased judgments of his earlier critical career. I consider that Nietzsche was a tremendous influence, a real liberation to Gourmont. This can scarcely be exaggerated, and I think (as I have said in an earlier essay) that Gourmont’s “dissociation of ideas” is really an adaptation of Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values”.

The Chemin de Velours still keeps touch with Gourmont’s earlier studies in Christian literature and is a sort of bridge between his earlier and later manner of thought. He gave much attention to technical problems of style and grammar (Problème du Style, Esthétique de la langue Française) and began to give serious attention to biology (Physique de l’Amour). Meanwhile he had abandoned the exclusive literary taste of the Huysmans-Mallarmé period, and as the various Promenades Littéraires and Promenades Philosophique show, was deeply interested in classic French literature and in contemporary science and philosophy. During this period (1900-1910) Gourmont was in full maturity and produced much of his best work. His excursions into classical Latin poetry (Ovid, Lucretius) and a somewhat fanciful passion for Epicurus produced the admirable Nuits au Luxenbourg. Voltaire, whom he had scoffed at in the ‘nineties, now appears as a constant inspiration, in the Epilogues and Dialogues, and in the Luxembourg. Gourmont’s interest in natural history is clearly showed in Un Coeur Virginal and in many passages of his occasional writing. The field of his purely literar operations was immense. While he was not strong in Greek, he had an unusually wide knowledge of Latin literature, particularly in the later periods; he touched and drew sustenance from the literatures of England, America, Germany, Italy and Spain. He wrote a long essay on Dante and Beatrice, translated a Spanish work of the 16th century, modernized mediaeval French texts. But, his most important work as a purely literary critic was, naturally, in French literature. His discovery of the unexpurgated MS of Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyage to the Moon would along have made the academic fortune of a professor. But we find traces of him everywhere, inspiring reprints, and provoking revivals with exquisite good taste. How much does the Mercure series, Collection des plus belles pages, owe to Gourmont? In any case, the revivals of Théophile, Rivarol, Chamfort, Restif, Laclos and many others owe much or something to Remy de Gourmont. His literary essays form a considerable portion of his baggage; they do not make the same mass effect as Sainte-Beuve’s Lundis, but they are both more intelligent and more individual, and extend over a wider period. As a corrective and supplement to Sainte-Beuve, Remy de Gourmont’s literary essays are deserving of the most serious consideration by all students of French literature. He is particularly valuable on the Symboliste period and its predecessors (Flaubert, the Goncourts, Huysmans, Villiers, Mallarmé, Verlaine), on the omantics (especially Chateaubriand), but interesting also on the 18th century, on the 17th century non-classic poets, on the great prose-writers (Montaigne, Rabelais) of the 16th century; and he has left notes on mediaeval French authors. His great value as a literary critic lies in this: that he was himself a creative artist and wrote with a view to creative activity; that he had given great attention to problems of language, meaning, philology, grammar; that he criticised his contemporaries with his knowledge of past literature, and interpreted past literature with a complete understanding of modern literary interests and problems. Consequently his literary criticism is neither the hap-hazard dogmatising of the ill-informed amateur nor the sterile, unrelated labour of the mere researcher and scholar, ignorant of contemporary literature and generally destitute of literary gifts.

After 1910 there appears a distinct slackening of production, followed by the unexpected renaissance due to Miss Barney’s influence. The Letters to the Amazon are undoubtedly the finest work he produced in his last period.

THE TURN GIVEN to Gourmont by his “dissociation of ideas” and studies in language and meaning is particularly important. He analysed the meaning of words and showed how endless confusion arises from the almost universal looseness of usage. Yet, the artist in him prevented his falling into any pedantic and necessarily hopeless scheme for the reform of speech and the scientific fixing of meaning. He saw that the source of language is the speech of the people and that a writer must adapt the general speech to his special purpose, or remain for ever a mandarin inaccessible except to the few and doomed to speedy oblivion.

Remy de Gourmont, then, while unfitted for action to an extent almost humorous if it were not pathetic, possessed one of the acutest and freest minds of his own – I might almost add, any – age. His was a great literary career, whose sole reward was itself. He received no public honours, died poor, and, comparatively speaking, little read. Since his death his books have rapidly achieved a wide circulation which continually increases. Those who knew and valued him in his life-time cherish his memory with pride and affection, and feel a personal interest in the diffusion of his name and works.


aldingtonnpgportRICHARD ALDINGTON was a writer, critic, and an ‘imagist’ poet (the word was coined by Pound for Aldington and his wife, HD, according to Michael Levenson). This essay forms the introduction to Aldington’s two-volume Remy de Gourmont, Selections from all his works (Chicago, 1928) and was transcribed for The Fortnightly Review.

Aldington was among Remy de Gourmont’s most ardent supporters. His celebration of the man he described as ‘one of the best examples…of West European culture now living’ had appeared in The Little Review [pdf] in May 1915 only a few months before the death of on 27 September 1915.

Images courtesy of remydegourmont.org.

NOTES:

  1. She wrote me a strange letter a few days after Gourmont’s death; unfortunately, it seems to have been lost from my papers in the disturbance of the war years.
  2. It was a form of lupus
  3. As an example of the real spiritual affection felt for Gourmont by his admirers I am tempted to give these two facts. During his military service M. André Rouveyre carried in his belt, as a sort of talisman, Gourmont’s last letter to him. I bought a copy of Les Chevaux de Diomède during the war in the small town of Hesdin, carried it with me into action, read and re-read it in the strangest and dreariest places, and still preserve it, a battered but valued relic.
  4. Remy de Gourmont detested paradoxes and never uttered them. By “paradox” Mme. Rachilde no doubt means an original idea.
  5. I have carefully avoided the insipid and insincere panegyrics of those who neither knew nor really admired Gourmont. At his funeral, the inevitable deputy “saluted a great Republican” in Gourmont; regrettable that a corpse cannot laugh.
  6. See: Souvenirs de mon Commerce (1920) and Le Reclus et le Retors (1927).
  7. No connection with the contemporary Vogue.

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