Skip to content

Promenades littéraires, 1.


Translated by Richard Aldington.

remy150slug2ALMOST ALL SUPERIOR animals are more intelligent during their youth. The sign they give of it is their love of play, that is, of disinterested exercise. Intelligence is disinterested. It finds its end in the manifestation of its own activity; it is only additionally and as it were by accident that it becomes practical. But it may also be said that the more disinterested an act is the more nearly is approaches perfect; therefore the more disinterested it is, the more practical….Genius is almost always accompanied by a strong propensity to play; in their moments of repose great men willingly act like children, and many are only big children of genius. M. Renan liked to play. But, being a man of the Church and of study, he played silently like the choir boys who play mute tricks on each other behind the altar. He read novels. They were his secret passion. More than once, it is said, Mme. Renan had to confiscate the jocose book wherein the author of The Origins of Christianity was deliciously wasting his time. “M. Renan,” she would say severely, “I will give you back this nonsense when you have finished your article for M. Buloz.” And the grieved writer took up once more the thread of his ideas about Averroes or the origin of language. Later on this need for play in Renan took a higher form. Instead of reading novels he wrote them himself. Having chosen the form of the dialogue he wrote Le Prêtre de Némi, L’Abesse de Jouarre, and several other fantasies equally useless to his fame, but whose very inutility proves to what an extent the love of play remained developed in him till the very eve of his death.

AS I HAVE already explained several times, contrary to common opinion, criticism is perhaps the most subjective of all literary forms; it is a perpetual confession; while we think we are analysing the works of others we are unveiling and exposing ourselves to the public. This necessity explains why criticism is generally so mediocre and why it so rarely succeeds in holding our attention, even when it deals with the question which interests us most. To be a good critic a man must have a strong personality; he must be able to impose himself and to rely not on the choice of subjects but on the value of his own mind. In art the subject matters little, at least it is never more than one of the parts of art; the subject is no more important in criticism, it is never anything but a pretext.

Maurice_de_MaeterlinckTHERE WAS SOMETHING quite new in the Princesse Maleine, and nearly every one of M. Maeterlinck’s dramatic works had confirmed us in the idea that if the theatre could be renewed it would be by this method, at once ingenuous and sophisticated, which sets out to paint the mysterious side of men and to show souls rather than scenery. No critic has been willing to understand that, and the public was quite incapable of understanding it alone. But before, in Cyrano de Bergerac, they were moved to the bottom of their hearts.

This heroic comedy is certainly charming and far superior to the ordinary French play. It has several merits. It is written in sprightly, flattering, hectoring verses, which are sometimes tender and then for a few couplets good sentimental poetry. It is filled with wit, with amusing sallies, with bravado, with buffoonery. Then it broke happily with mania for problem plays and did not attempt to prove anything; it sketched a character and related adventures. It must be said, because it is true – after the dreadful plays of Alexander Dumas, Cyrano was refreshing, a delicious iced wine after a long walk in dusty roads. It is easy to understand the astonishment of the critics and the joy of the public. For twenty years and more we had been invited to the theatre to listen to lawyers discussing a beautiful divorce case, children’s rights, the father’s rights, the mother’s rights, the State’s rights, the future of society, the future city, military service; or else doctors discussed some unpleasant disease, some difficult surgical operation, the establishment of hospitals or of prisons and a number of other questions equally unpleasant and stupid, since they are insoluble, especially on the stage. In the presence of Cyrano’s wit and bravura, the suspicious spectators felt regenerated; instead of the disgusting sides of life they were shown its most brilliant face; they were presented with love, heroism and beauty!

The enthusiasm was unanimous. It resulted in some illusions. M. Emile Faguet, usually so sober and even skeptical, was carried away with a sort of delirium. He compared M. Edmond Rostand to Pierre Corneille and asserted that he had just witnessed the representation of a new Cid. Recently he has repeated this strange estimate and has added something unexpected. According to him, Cyrano de Bergerac is at the same time something like the Cid and Le Génie du Christianisme, that is to say, if I understand him aright, the dawn of a new era in French literature. It is not altogether that. Cyrano is indeed a date in the history of our literature, but it does not mark the beginning of a new period; it marks the end of a romantic cycle. This glittering play is the last rocket in a display of fireworks.

THE TWO FORCES which lead men are the desire of living and the desire of knowing, sentiment and curiosity, love and science. The drama of life is the conflict between these two forces, the struggle we carry on sometimes against one, sometimes against the other. When humanity allows itself to be dominated by the vital instinct, it may live an intense material life but lives it stupidly; if it blindly obeys the instinct of knowledge, it may rise very high in the intellectual regions but at the expense of practical necessities. Superiority in men, as in nations, occurs when the two forces are in equilibrium, when the intellectual flowering is the logical result of a strong material vitality.

This equilibrium is extremely rare and when it does happen only lasts for an instant. Individuals and nations unconsciously allow themselves to be dominated by one of these forces and, as the case may be, find themselves maintained in a state near to that of animality or intellectually exalted without measure.

THEJules_Lemaître_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17662 CRITICAL LITERATURE of M. Jules Lemaitre has the merits of clarity, acuteness and good sense; we may regret that his has not also, not principles which it can very well do without, but a direction. It indeed moves forward rather at hasard. This witty writer has lacked the possession of a literary faith, even for two or three short years. That is the most fortunate of intellectual disciplines. We learn to judge by other motives than our personal taste; we feel the necessity for certain aesthetic sacrifices; we learn that even in a limited fields works may have a social interest independent of their art interest. Small literary groups are very useful; they initiate us into a certain quality of injustice, which has a great moralising value, because it is a means of opposing a greater injustice. The nerves always slacken soon enough and the time for certain concessions comes always too soon. Boileau, so cruel in his verses, is indulgent in his letters and prose commentaries. But, good or bad, his work is done. If the Symbolistes had not shown themselves so disdainfully unjust to Victor Hugo, they would never have conquered their place in the sun. The great defect of M. Jules Lemaitre’s criticism is that it had no object; it lacked force, because its author lacked discipline. We my say the same of his imaginative works, novels or plays. Apart from certain initiative books, almost all literature derives its value from its conformity with a momentary aesthetic ideal. A contemporary of romanticism must be romantic; if not, whether Béranger or Viennet, he is no one. Can even a Shakespeare belong to no school at all? Shakespeare at first carried on the drama as he found it. It was the misfortune of some of our contemporaries, who were highly gifted, that they were neither Parnassians nor Naturalistes nor Symbolistes.

THE BEAUTY OF tragedy and its human and superhuman interest lie in the fact that it only shows us person living above the laws, free from vulgar duties, liberated by their birth and good pleasure from the miseries of sentimental promiscuity, from certain hypothetical obligations, from the cautions of equality. When Louis XIV weeps for Mlle. de la Vallière the sincerity of his grief is absolute, for he has nothing to treat with deference, neither the proprieties which he regulates, nor opinion which he directs, nor himself, the model of attitudes. Man appears naked and in his misery, stripped of social costume, near to being a god or a pure animal, a man in short and nothing more than a physiology. That is the rampart against abstraction. The hero, humanly all-powerful, is made of flesh; he bleeds, he weeps and he moans; and these dominating emotions are freely excited without any obstacle but the limits which a sensibility places on itself.

Tragedy developed originality and egoisms; in default of gods and heroes it created chance demi-gods, proud adventurers with no fear save of force, their mistress and their enemy, men without method but superior in their disorder to the finest productions of rules and obedience. The drama and the novels of to-day, by warning men that they are subject to each other and jointly responsible, arrest individual efforts towards liberty. There are hardly any free men left. The strongest treat deferentially the customers who nourish their vanity; the mob directs the movements of heroes; the most disdainful shoulders bow beneath the anonymous gaze of the people.

250px-Victor_hugoLITERATURE, WHICH IS not a country inhabited by simple people, is nevertheless filled with the most naïve legends. Thus it is generally believed that all the great writers of a period lived in a state of perfect friendship or at least of profound reciprocal esteem. Second rate professors who only esteem literature as a school of morality, a method of education, do not hesitate to describe to us the feelings on respectful admiration which Molière and Racine, Boileau and La Fontaine felt for each other, and even Bossuet and Fénelon, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. At all costs it must be insinuated to children and to that big child, the public, that genius is always accompanied by virtue, by all virtues. Have not these audacious educators gone so far as to make George Sand the model of family mothers, the preeminently good lady, a sort of lay Madonna? As to Victor Hugo, it is quite agree that all his contemporaries admired him, adored him; that he never met a contradictor except in the lowest class of politicians or littérateurs; that he was a god, in whose presence the best minds of the nineteenth century felt honoured at being allowed to swing the censer.

If the cult of Victor Hugo really existed, it was chiefly practised by pious parasites who made their living out of that altar, and it always met with numerous contradictors. We can admire a man and even consider him a great poet, without feeling obliged to fall on our knees before him or to take off our hats when his name is mentioned, as the Spaniards used to do when they spoke of God or the King. In France we do not like such exaggerations; we think them in bad taste. Victor Hugo’s incense-bearers would have made him ridiculous if that were possible; the ridicule fell on them, and it was in the midst of a rather moderated enthusiasm that we inaugurated the other day the rather ordinary museum which some worthy people wished to consecrate to his memory.

In spite of the profound influence which romanticism has exercised on French minds, it has remained classical, a lover of measure, of the rule, of a dignified simplicity. It would be hard to convince those who have retained some sense of tradition and historical truth, that all French literature is summarised in Victor Hugo, that there was nothing before him and that there will be nothing after him. French literature has now nine centuries of existence; it has several times made and re-made the education of Europe. A man, however great he may be, a Victor Hugo himself, only has is place in so immense a cycle; he does not fill the whole cycle.

Such an estimate will not satisfy the literary devotees who bring everything back to Victor Hugo, make him the centre, if not of the world, at least of French thought in the nineteenth century. These devotees come near to considering as malefactors those who retain the full liberty of their judgment before the colossus. But usually, distressed in their piety, they put their fingers in their ears in order not to hear the blasphemies; or else they feign not to have understood.

The Romantics themselves seem sober and meek beside the Decadents. Even when they got tired of that name and wished to be called Symbolistes, what fever there still was and what insanities! The cause? It has not yet been found.

I THINK THERE has never been such a growth of extravagance at any other moment of our vast and long literary history. The Romantics themselves seem sober and meek beside the Decadents. Even when they got tired of that name and wished to be called Symbolistes, what fever there still was and what insanities! The cause? It has not yet been found. It is certainly rather social than literary. No doubt it must be looked for in that development of individualism which accompanied the first years of the Third Republic. Political liberty, which was then immense, engendered the taste for literary liberty. To-day, when political liberty tends to be restricted, literary liberty follows the same course; the latest young writers are almost all Socialists, moderate, disciplined, and practical. They support the government (which is their affair); fifteen years ago we did not even know there was a government. We enjoyed the liberty of writing, the liberty of living, every liberty, and thought of nothing but expressing our way of thought even if it was a little mad.

But decadence—what an error! Never had there been so much extravagance, perhaps because there had never been so much sap; talents were born every day. There was a perpetual creation, as in the first ages of the world. And how disinterested these young people were! But, I must admit, this excessive disinterestedness which led them to defy the public, to make fun of the newspapers and to hide themselves in tiny reviews, was also one of the causes of their tardy success. They pretended they could get on without the vulgar reader, who very easily got on without them.

Between 1885 and 1895 it was impossible to write in verse or prose without thinking of Mallarmé or Verlaine. Mallarmé was of great importance. You went to call on him, rather as you would go to the Sibyl; you listened to him talk as though it were an oracle. Really, he was a sort of god. He was even more venerated than he was beloved. He was benevolent, but without any familiarity. Praise from his mouth was as disturbing as a decree of Providence. I can still see M. de Régnier blushing with emotion at a delicate compliment from the master. That little drawing room in the rue de Rome was an excellent school of respect; there we felt we had the value of fame, we learned to set its radiance above all other human distinctions. Perhaps only those who were disciples of Mallarmé can understand the profound meaning of the words which are to be read in the life of a Greek philosopher: “He was a disciple of Socrates.” The respect we felt in that little sanctuary was not superstitious; it was legitimate, for Mallarmé’s talk was indeed, as M. Moréas says, “a clear source of aesthetic pleasures.”…

Verlaine inspired less respect; it was rather curiosity. He was only too well known. He was to be met with too often in strange company on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. It was not rare to see him drunk. Those who liked his poems avoided him and dreaded to hear unpleasant anecdotes about him. He was not so much a man as an elderly child. He had no control over himself, gather sensations as a schoolboy gathers blackberries from the hedges on his way home from school…. He was a child, yes, but he was a vicious child and sometimes evil. His candour is a legend, and his misery another. Certainly he never lived in opulence; but that was very fortunate for him and for us. Wealth would have shortened his life, for he had absolutely no reason. Nature, and not society, must be held responsible for his miseries; he had a terrible temperament; he was like a horseman without spurs or bridle mounted on an impetuous horse.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_cropI DO NOT think the American environment was more hostile to Poe than the French environment was to certain of our contemporaries. He had enemies, but also literary friends and admirers; he lived with two women whom he adored, Mrs. Clemm and Virginia; he earned his living by work which does not seem to have displeased him, for he liked to write, and not only his tales and poems, but his articles; he was combative, he lingered over, he enjoyed his polemics where he insisted on having the last word, although his insolence was ill-suited to disarm his adversaries.

His full value was not known, but his relative superiority was admitted; it seems certain that if he had lived, his last years would have been those of a literary dictator; he was destined to conquer, even in the rude intelligence of his compatriots, the reputation of Longfellow for whome he was cruel and who yet did him justice.

In England, yes, he would have been better appreciated; England has a really intellectual, really aristocratic public for whom an original page of writing is a benefit and who can show pecuniary gratitude. The Englishman pays for his pleasure.

In France, Poe would perhaps have suffered more. He was no more capable of earning his living than Baudelaire, Flaubert, Villiers, Verlaine, Mallarmé; his tales with their rich ideality would have been scorned, like those of Villiers, by the mass of democratic readers and no review or newspaper would have accepted his disdainful violent criticisms, which abruptly dropped their aggressiveness only to treat the most obscure problems of the expression of thought in a style whose precision is sometimes a little harsh.

A writer of his intelligence always considers that his environment is the worst of all those in which he might have lived. The scorn which Poe professed for the Americans, Schopenhauer felt for the Germans, Carlyle for the English, Leopardi for the Italians, and Flaubert for the French. Some knew that all human herds were the same; they have no desire to eat in other fields a grass which is always poisoned by the malevolence of man.


Remy de Gourmont was a French symbolist poet, an inflential critic and the founding editor of Mercure de France. To access the Fortnightly‘s Gourmont dossier, see here


Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x