By ELTON HOCKING.
At Meudon,—where he was not born, where he did not die, where perhaps he never even lived,—a plaster bust of François Rabelais was dedicated last year. I scarcely need to add that on that occasion there was the customary speech-making and banqueting. Such is our French manner of honoring our great men, and especially our great writers: they have thought for us, and we eat for them. Did I not read in the papers that they would eat again this month, and a year from now,—in short, that a society had been formed to eat every year in honor of Rabelais? Just as there was already an eating society in honor of Molière, which met every winter at Paris to devour choice morsels, similarly the Meudon group will meet every spring and eat in honor of Rabelais, food of a more rustic nature, no doubt. … If it is the privilege of the Molierists to display a somewhat fastidious taste and thus to imitate their idol, who lived by regimen, the Rabelaisians doubtless are less squeamish, robust enough to stomach the crudest fare.1
SO FAR AS is known, no societies have ever been formed for the purpose of eating in honor of Ferdinand Brunetière, the writer of these lines of pleasant banter. A few years after writing them, however, he was nevertheless the occasion of a monster banquet.
One evening in April, 1895, some eight hundred guests thronged the banquet hall of Saint-Mandé in order to eat and drink to the honor of science and Marcelin Berthelot, and to the dishonor of Ferdinand Brunetière. Conspuer Brunetière!—that was the order of the day. There were speeches by Brisson, Poincaré, Berthelot, Zola, Claretie and other luminaries less remembered today. There were scores of celebrities from the various divisions of the Institut, from the Academy of Medicine, the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, the Museum, the Observatory; there were political leaders of State and city government; there were artists, poets, novelists, journalists; there were leaders of the social world, and noisy delegations of students. All Paris was there,—the tout Paris of 1895,—to offer toasts and libations to science, and to attest its beneficence by simultaneous ingurgitation of food and philosophy.
But most of all, this banquet was held as a demonstration of protest against Brunetière. Three months before, he had dared to publish in his Revue des deux mondes an article which denounced the positivistic and materialistic spirit of modern science, and proclaimed that morality and happiness were to be found not in science, but in the spirit of the Church.
“What followed was more than a scandal; it was an insurrection,” wrote a contemporary.2 The Paris newspapers carried daily discussions of the article. Berthelot, Richet3 and others retaliated in the name of science. Mgr. d’Hulst, Rector of the Institut Catholique in Paris, attacked Brunetière in the name of the Church. The serious periodicals, whether their complexion was philosophical, literary, scientific, or religious, joined in the controversy. Brunetière himself received countless letters from individuals, some of whom approved his attitude. In general, however, there was a chorus of denunciation, for Science, “the new idol,” was still worshipped blindly. To question its omnipotence and its beneficence, in whatever realm, was treason. To maintain that religion was not superseded by science was rank heresy. What was worst of all was that the traitor and heretic should be Brunetière. During the twenty years of his brilliant public career he had been frankly a rationalist, positivist, Darwinian.4 He had openly professed his repugnance to any form of mysticism. The friend and admiring follower of Taine and Renan, he had never seriously questioned their doctrines and influence. And now, just after their death, they were repudiated by Brunetière, who by common consent had succeeded to their role as intellectual leader of the age. Eminent professor at the Sorbonne and Ecole Normale, Academician, editor of the most authoritative periodical, acknowledged successor of Sainte-Beuve and Taine in literary criticism, and the most brilliant orator in France, Brunetière was indeed a great influence upon public opinion. His ringing proclamation made him a renegade of the first magnitude. Hence the jeers, the cheers, the three months of scandal and uproar, and finally, the banquet. “A man would not feel himself to be alive if he had no enemies,” was his characteristic comment.5 Always sufficiently alive in this sense, the pugnacious critic and philosopher now found himself revivified a hundredfold. If one applied here the “Unanimist” theory of Jules Romains one might say that the personality of Brunetière attained the maximum of its potentialities during those early months of 1895, when the searching light of French intellect was focussed upon him. Whatever opinion one may hold of his ideas at that time, it is certain that this storm of controversy testified to the enormous influence which he commanded, and which is largely forgotten today.
His personality and character have been generally misunderstood and misrepresented. His pugnacity is obvious, but it is too often overlooked that he fought not against persons, but against influences; not for his friends, but for ideas whose supporters were therefore his friends. His sincerity has never been questioned, but certain of his more paradoxical statements have been dismissed with a smile and the word, “boutade.” Thus, for example, the proclamation of his own objectivity, addressed sternly to another critic: “You always praise what you like; I never do.”6 The word “never” is, of course, an exaggeration, but the phrase becomes significant when we know that he used his influence to secure publication of the Thaïs7 of Anatole France. Anyone who is familiar with Brunetière knows that Thaïs could not appeal to him personally, but as a critic he felt convinced that it had high artistic value. For him, this was conclusive.
The same disinterested devotion to merit impelled him to befriend Paul Hervieu. When still a young subaltern at the Revue des deux mondes he read the manuscript of Hervieu’s Inconnu, and accepted it for publication. He was so convinced of its merit that when his decision was overruled, he made an issue of the matter, announcing that the novel should be accepted, or he would resign. It was not until long afterward that Hervieu learned of the incident, and then only in a roundabout manner.
In this country [America] he is little read, and liked still less…[more]
Note: This essay is the first chapter of Ferdinand Brunetière: Evolution of a Critic (University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, 36. Madison, Wisconsin. 1936). The editors have republished the chapter, which runs to more than 30,000 words, as an ebook supplement, with permission. A link to our supplement appears below. The complete text of Elton Hocking’s text is archived online at https://archive.org/details/ferdinandbruneti00hock. Our version has been given a new title (“Brunetière and the ‘monster banquet'”) and an editorial review prior to publication in the ebook format.
Subscribers may download the supplement to our Brunetière dossier, published by our Odd Volumes imprint, without charge by clicking this link. The format used is .pdf, allowing the book to be read on all text readers, including Kindle.
- F. Brunetière, Questions de critique, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1889, 2e édition, pp. 1-2. ↩
- L. Richard, F. Brunetière, Paris, Sansot, 1905, p. 40. ↩
- Richet is the subject of additional commentary elsewhere in The Fortnightly. — FR ↩
- Late in the year 1894, even while Brunetière was making his momentous journey to Rome, his intimate friend and colleague Victor Giraud wrote: “M. Brunetière will probably never be a believer.” M. Giraud has loyally declined to delete the phrase from later editions. (V. Giraud, les Maîtres d’autrefois et d’aujaurd’hui, Paris Hachette, 1912, p. 201. ↩
- In his Discours de combat, Paris, Perrin, vol. II (1903), p. 166. ↩
- This anecdote is related by J. Lemaître, Les Contemporains, Paris, Lecène et Oudin 1896, vol. VI, préface, p. 11. ↩
- Available online via Project Gutenberg. —FR ↩