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Promenades littéraires: 7ième série.


Promenades...THE GREAT MASS of people is becoming less and less interested in literatue. Almost all the newspapers founded with a literary formula have given up short stories and criticism. At one time L’Echo de Paris published in its first column poems by M. de Régnier and M. Vielé-Griffin; those days seem to belong to the old regime. All the literary supplements have disappeared and those which persist incline towards illustrations, curiosity, history. Here is not the place to complain of such a change; it has made the fortunes of the reviews which evolved at the right time and, while keeping their dignity and even their disdain, little by little threw off their too esoteric tendencies. But the reviews do not publish half a million copies. A great morning paper with a circulation of about that number undertook an inquiry into the present state of French literature, at the end of the summer, at a moment of repose and political calm. It fell absolutely flat; the public, knowing nothing about the subject except the names of a few dramatic authors, did not understand it at all, and this must have appeared to readers like the stories which the newspapers are accustomed to relate, in exchange for various fees, about pink pills and Belgian cough lotions. By annexing new millions of readers to the reading of daily news items and current politics, the great popular newspaper has only annexed uneducated persons. But these uneducated persons are the majority and make the law. It is they who, by their ignorance and their vulgarity, have exiled from the press everything which is thought, art, an aesthetic and disinterested game. There are still a few little workshops to be seen; they date from the distant past, they are tolerated and they will disappear with those who inhabit them.

For a long time it was one of the originalities of France that its newspapers were a mouthpiece for literature and philosophy as well as for politis. Taine and Renan wrote for the newspapers, at the same time as Goncourt, Maupassant, Villiers, Daudet. A considerable portion of the Trophées appeared serially in a great newspaper where M. Anatole France conducted around new books his irony embroidered with erudition – or the contrary. Now fine pages of style and thought are infinitely rare in the press. Is that to say that the source has dried up and that through lack of masters we have had to resign ourselves to disciples and understudies? No one will say so, except those whose interest it is to justify their negligence or to flatter the intellectual meanness of the public. At least one branch of higher French culture is in a dazzling state, scientific speculation. No place has been given it by the successors of those who in their time welcomed the fashionable philosophy. They failed to see that a world of ideas has arisen, stifling under its movement the last sigh of M. Renan’s nostalgic reveries.

MdFlogoTHE PHYSICIST AND the biologist are often as ignorant of philosophy, art and literature, as a land-surveyor or a writing master may be; and the critic, the novelist and the philosopher pass judgment on life, its passions and the causes of passions while ignoring all the light which would be given them by physiology, biology and medicine. The occasional attempts at synthesis which have been made are not welcomed; the way is not prepared; nothing is achieved by obscure mixtures. If a playwright, trying to astonish the Boulevard by his darings brings a man of science on the stage, he is made to utter absurdities and is shown looking for the microbe of love! This would make one angry if it did not happen in the lower world of sentimental farce.

MdFlogoSCIENCE AND ITS methods have no general influence on belief and ways of thinking. The continued weakening of intelligences finds therein no source of strength, no reinvigoration. Yet France is less affected than any country in the world. It may still observe with a certain amount of complaisance the intellectual subsidence to which the Anglo-Saxon world has been reduced by the taste for religious nonsense. These nations with their great physical activity are perhaps on the way towards reducing themselves to the mechanical condition of ants or bees. The intelligence is there concentrated on a few practical points; everything which is disinterested escapes it. Hence an absence of culture which places them at the mercy of every religious imposture. Messiahs, prophets, mystic healers, raisers of the dead, swarm in these environments which are lacking in the critical sense.

MdFlogoIN SPITE OF counter assertions, in spite of boastings, owing to the universal care which is taken to teach little things to a multitude of little mines, it seems that the fashion and the tendency towards ignorance and stupidity… The time is perhaps not far distant when everything above the level of primary school will be considered pretentious or senseless.

MdFlogoIT MAY BE said generally that, apart from politics and anecdotes, average humanity is interested in nothing, except comfort.

MdFlogoMECHANICS ARE A petty thing. Humanity has been made what it is by the passion for science, for the arts, for literature. The possession of a railway, even an electric one, does not raise the mentality of a negro people. All the nobility of mankind lies in the attention of which it is capable in order to maintain the decoration of thought and beauty, which is the whole of civilisation.

MdFlogoSCEPTICISM IS NOT indifference; on the contrary. It is passion contained and properly directed, the passion which can distinguish the essential from the transitory in life, which laughs appropriately and shrugs its shoulders at the right moment.

Remy de Gourmont’s ‘Promenades’ appeared in every issue of the Mercure de France (this is from the April 1900 issue). Intended to elicit discussion if not outrage,  the short, sometimes witty, tirades were readers’ favorite. This translation is by Richard Aldington.

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