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Selections from ‘The Problem of Style’.


Translated by Richard Aldington.

WITHOUT VISUAL MEMORY, without the reservoir of images where imagination dips for new and infinite combinations, there is no style, no artistic creation. That alone permits us not only to paint the different movements of life by means of verbal figures, but to transform immediately into visions every association of words, every worn metaphor, even every isolated word, in short, to give life to death. From this power came allegories, such as The Shepherd of Hermas, the Consolation of philosophy, the Vita Nuova, the Roman de la Rose, the Palace of Divine Love; the style of Michelet and of Taine are the product of this very happy faculty for changing the abstract into the concrete, for making the very stone breathe and “the stars of palpitate”.

Language is full of clichés, which were originally bold images, happy discoveries of the metaphorical power. All abstract words are the figuration of a material act; pondering is weighing…In speech everything is images; the smoothest discourse is a tissue of more rugged metaphors than a page of Goncourt or of Saint-Pol-Roux. They have been called worn coins; and that is almost true. But whether worn or new, they are coins; with an obverse which is the meaning at departure, and a reverse which is the meaning at arrival. There are obverses and reverses so outworn that the most tyrannical imagination can no longer animate them. Nevertheless many of those who make use of these coins from preference also make use of their eyes at least to classify the drab verbal riches heaped up in their memories. At the mention of the word “ocean” instead of a glacous immensity or a shore of sand or cliffs or any similar vision rising before them, they see—admirable simplification!—the word itself written in space in printed letters, OCEAN. More advanced intellectually than the visuals, these privileged individuals are grouped at the negative poles of the magnet whose positive pole is occupied by the artists.

MdFlogoTHE WRITER WITH an abstract style is almost always a sentimentalist, at least a sensitive. The artist-writer is hardly ever sentimental and very rarely a sensitive; that is to say, he incorporates all his sensibility in his style, and has very little left for life and the profound passions. The one takes a ready-made phrase or writes a facile phrase wherein, deceived by his own emotion, he thinks there is an emotive value; the other takes words which are merely handfuls, constructs the limbs of his work and erects a statue which whether beautiful or ugly, heavy or winged, will yet keep in its attitude some of the life which animated the hands by which it was moulded. Nevertheless the vulgar will feel more emotion from the banal phrase than from the original phrase; and this will be the counterproof: to the reader who draws his emotions from the very substance of what he reads is opposed the reader who only feels what he reads to the extent that he can apply it to his own life, to his griefs, to his hopes. He who enjoys the literary beauty of a sermon by Bossuet cannot be touched by it religiously, and he who weeps for the death of Ophelia has no aesthetic sense. These two parallel categories of writers and readers constitute the two great types of cultivated humanity. In spite of shades and over-lappings, no understanding is possible between them; they despise each other, for they do not understand each other. Their animosity extends in two wide, sometimes subterranean, streams throughout literary history.

Like all the writers of his time and before it and even after it, Flaubert underwent the initial influence of Chateaubriand which is neither miraculous nor very important. Starting from any other school Flaubert would similarly have become what he was, himself. Life is a process of stripping. The end of a man’s own activity is to cleanse his personality, to wash from it all the stains left on it by education, to free it from all the imprints imposed on it by adolescent admirations.


A TIME COMES when the scoured coin is clean and shining with its own metal. But, following another image, I think of the stripping of wine which, freed from its disturbed particles, its vain vapours, its false colours, one day becomes gay with all its grace, proud with all its strength, limpid and smiling like a new rose. Since Flaubert is one of the most profoundly personal writers that ever existed, one of those who may be read most clearly through the lace of style, it is easy to follow in his work the progressive stripping of the man. To do that, you must read successively Madame Bovary, L’Education Sentimentale, Bouvard et Pécuchet; only in this last book is the work completed, only there does the man’s genius appear in all its transparent beauty. The few phrases where he imitates Chateaubriand through having read him too much and having carried him too long in his veins—what a little thing is such an epic! The most admired books of Flaubert to-day, La Tentation and Salambo (an endowment which would yet suffice for two great writers), are the least pure and the least beautiful. The only books are those where a writer has related himself by relating the morals of his contemporaries, their dreams, their vanities, their loves and their follies. What are the descriptions of Salambo and their long cadenced phrases compared with the brief notations and abridgements of Bouvard and Pécuchet, that book which is only comparable with Don Quixote, which amuses us as the novel of Cervantes amused the seventeenth century, and which, when the familiar period is over, will remain the archive where posterity will clearly read the hopes and vexations of a century? And the soul of a man, too. This book is so personal, so woven as it were from nervous fibres that no one has ever been able to add to it a page which did not produce the effect of a piece of cloth on a tulle dress. The miracle is that this work of flesh seems wholly spiritual. At first, it seems like a catalogue of little experiments which any laborious man could easily complete; it cannot be touched; it is a living animal which squirms and cries as soon as the needle is plunged into it to may the join. All Flaubert seems impersonal. It has become a proverb. As if a great writer, as if a man with a strong, excessive dominating, extravagant sensibility could be long—what? The contrary of the one word which can define him! An impersonal work of art, an impersonal work of science! If ever I have been guilty of such an abuse of words, may I be pardoned. It was from ignorance. But now I know that only mediocre works are impersonal, and that there is more personality in Claude Bernard’s Leçons de Physiologie Éxperimentale than in the Confession d’un Enfant du Siecle. There is not such and such kind of art; there is not science on the one side and literature on the other; there are brains which function well and brains which function badly.

MdFlogoFLAUBERT INCORPORATED ALL his sensibility in his work; and by sensibility I mean, here as everywhere, the general power of feeling such as it is unequally developed in every human being. Sensibility includes reason itself, which is only crystalized sensibility. Outside his books, wherein he transfused himself drop by drop to the dregs, Flaubert is not very interesting; he is nothing but dregs; his intelligence is disturbed, exasperated to an incoherent fantasy. He, whose written irony is duped by no social pretence, no mask, no dream, allowed himself to be taken in by false talents and false loves; he rolled in poetic sentimentality or howled stupid insults against the middle class. Far from his work being impersonal the parts are here reversed; the man is vague and made up of incoherences, while the work lives, breathes, suffers and smiles nobly.

MdFlogoI DO NOT condemn the imaginary notation of things “not seen.” Art must not be limited to the immediate data of the senses. The imagination is richer than the memory but it is only richer with the new combinations it imposes on the elements furnished it by the memory. To imagine is to associate images and fragments of images; that is not creating. Man cannot create either an atom of matter or an atom of idea. All imaginative literature, then, like positive literature, and like science itself, rests on reality. But it is freed from all care for absolute exactitude, is subject only to that relative exactitude which is general logic, and the laws of general logic are sufficiently subtle for us to admit the Divine Comedy or Gulliver’s Travels. The methods of illusion of Dante and Swift are very different from those of Homer; nevertheless these great poets have conquered the approbation and admiration of human generations.

MdFlogoI THINK THAT art from its essence is absolutely unintelligible to the people. Whether it is Racine or Mallarmé, Raphael or Claude Monet, the people cannot understand artistically either a poem or a picture because the people is not disinterested and art is disinterestedness. For the people everything is in the subject of the picture and the poem; for “the intellectual” everything is in the manner in which the subject is treated. The people stops before Greuze’s Happy Family (or some imbecility of that kind); but he who loves painting wishes that the Greuzes were turned toward the wall because they annoy his eye which is amused by a pot or a caldron of Chardin. All those who wander in museums are able to make such observations; a chance visitor never utters a word which betrays an art sensation; what tickles the worthy man or the young “lady” is the anecdote, the maternal or amorous gesture, the pretty dress, the noble cry of bravery uttered n the smoke by the man with the plume; in poetry it is the anecdote and sentiment; poetry which is not lyric; the poetry which tells stories is the only poetry which has ever been popular in any country.

Therefore, relative to the people, it is quite indifferent whether a work of art is obscure or luminous, because the people will never judge it as a work of art but only as a dramatic work, as a work representative of an action. The people understands the act expressed or does not understand it; if it understands, it accepts or rejects for reasons which have nothing to do with art, since art, indifferent to acts, is only interested in the manner in which the act is simulated. Pigs at a trough can make a work of art very superior (I think this is indisputable) to certain frames wherein the freshest flowers blossom; do not put an uneducated man to choose between these two canvases; if, like Tolstoy, you believe in the artistic infallibility of the people, you may be disappointed.

Therefore the people must be left aside; the people is not made for art nor art for the people. The people does not enjoy the exception and, I maintain, art is a perpetual exception.

MdFlogoGREEK BEAUTY ITSELF is displeasing when admired too closely. Passionate admiration tends to realize, that is to say, to copy; and thus artistic erudition and museums corrupt the artless taste of a race. Copying is so tempting to idleness, it is so restful a form of activity! The nineteenth century did nothing else in the decorative arts; it is to be hoped that, after a few laborious attempts it will not take as its motto the last words of Bouvard et Pécuchet: “And they returned to their copying.” Even to-day unfortunately many worthy and sensible people think that an armchair in the imitation Louis XV style is more “artistic” than a simple rush-bottom chair and it would be difficult to undeceive them. In the distant provinces there are chair-makers capable of making a rush-bottom chair which could be described perhaps as naïve art. The copy, even when cunning, is never art. The copy of a beautiful thing is always an ugly thing. It is an act of cowardice in admiration of an act of energy.

MdFlogoPERHAPS AT LAST it has been discovered that good books are irrefutable and that bad books refute themselves.

MdFlogoIT IS ABSURD to seek the truth—and to find it—when we have reached the age of reason, as to put our shoes in the hearth on Christmas eve.

MdFlogoTRUTH TYRANNIZES; doubt liberates.


WE WRITE AS we feel, as we think, with the whole of our bodies.

MdFlogoI HAVE NOT noticed that the books which nobody reads are more absurd than those which everybody reads.

MdFlogoA WRITER WHEN he is writing should never think of his masters or even of his style. If he sees, if he feels, he will say something; it may be interesting or not, beautiful or mediocre, the risk must be taken….Style is feeling, seeing, thinking, and nothing more.

MdFlogoTHE SONG OF ROLAND is not a poem, it is life fixed, arrested, not in space but in time; it is not art, it is crude reality with lights, movements, projections, shadows.

MdFlogoTHE ART OF describing is the art of seeing, the art of feeling with all one’s organs, with every fibre of the nerves.

MdFlogoA FOOL, HOWEVER able he may be in aping talent, never has style; he only pretends he has.

MdFlogoA BOOK WHICH the veneration of ages has made sacred is no longer a book; it is a part of nature. We read it like a landscape, like a city, and we feel in it what we are capable of feeling.

MdFlogoTHE ART OF writing, which can only be the art of writing in the fashion of the day, is too changeable to be taught.

MdFlogoYOU CAN KEEP much closer to nature in general language than in technical language, and moreover you make yourself better understood.

MdFlogoVOLTAIRE IS NOT simple; simplicity is not the vice of witty people.

MdFlogoNOTHING PERISHES MORE quickly than style unsupported by the solidity of vigourous thought.

MdFlogoTHE SIGN OF the man in an intellectual work is the thought. The thought is the man himself. Style is thought itself.

MdFlogoIT SEEMS AS if in proportion to the decline of public interest in poetry the poets become more numerous and more daring.

MdFlogo…EVERY ORIGINAL GENIUS is at first ignored or opposed by the mass of his contemporaries, at the same time that he is adored in a conventicle which gradually becomes the universal Church. In a democratic country one enters directly into fame, and the more cultivated the country is, the more widespread its average education, the harder it is to cut a way through the wall of indifference.

MdFlogoTHE TIMID LEARNED get used to everything, even to genius….

MdFlogoWHAT WE CALL primitive art is on the contrary an art of extreme civilization, since it is both stylized and symmetrical.

MdFlogoTHINK OF THE time wasted by poor children in learning by heart rule and exceptions which will never be of any use to them! Imagine creatures who should be taught cooking and all its secrets at length when they were fated to live on bacon and soup.


Remy de Gourmont’s ‘The Problem of Style’ may have been conceived as an attack on an obscure French pedant, but, as Glenn S. Burne (Remy de Gourmont; Carbondale, 1962) observed, its ‘influence on Enlish and American writers of he time can hardly be overestimated’.

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