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Title: Decadence and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas
Author: Gourmont, Remy de
Language: English
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Authorized Translation by William Aspenwall Bradley

Grant Richards Ltd.
St Martin's Street

[Illustration: REMY DE GOURMONT
From a hitherto unpublished portrait by Hélène Dufau in
the possession of Miss Barney.]


    I. The Disassociation of Ideas
   II. Glory and the Idea of Immortality
  III. Success and the Idea of Beauty
   IV. The Value of Education
    V. Women and Language
   VI. Stéphane Mallarmé and the Idea of Decadence
  VII. Of Style or Writing
 VIII. Subconscious Creation
   IX. The Roots of Idealism

            Note.--The first, sixth, seventh, and eighth
            essays are translated from La Culture des
            Idées; the ninth is from the Promenades
            Philosophiques; and the remaining essays are
            from Le Chemin de Velours.


When, more than ten years ago, I wrote the first article on Remy de
Gourmont which, so far as I know, appeared in America--North America,
_bien entendu_, for the author of _La Culture des Idées_ and _Le Chemin
de Velours_ was already well known and admired in such South American
literary capitals as Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and La Plata--it
was refused by one editor on the ground that he could not assume
the responsibility of presenting a writer of Gourmont's dangerous,
subversive, and immoral tendencies to the readers of his conservative
and highly respectable journal. Gourmont's revenge--and mine--came a
few years later when, at the time of his death, in 1915, the same paper
paid him editorial tribute, recognizing the importance of the place
he had occupied in the intellectual life of France for a quarter of a

What was this place precisely? An attempt has been made to define it
by a recent French writer, M. Jules Sageret, who speaks of Gourmont as
having represented in our time the _encyclopédiste honnête homme_ of
the eighteenth century, and this is sufficiently accurate, in spite
of the fact that Gourmont was no deist, and that he made a much more
extended application of that _esprit critique_ which he inherited from
Diderot and Voltaire. He himself notes the paradox presented by the
latter, who, while combating the principle of authority so violently
in one field--that of dogmatic theology--accepted it so absolutely
and unquestioningly in another--that of poetic art, as stated once
and for all by Boileau. Gourmont recognized no such limits of the
critic's function. He was, in fact, a fearless, uncompromising, and
universal free-thinker--_libertin_--who, endowed with a restless
scientific curiosity, a profound irrespect, and an extraordinarily
sharp and supple analytical intelligence, confronted all affirmations,
all dogmas, in the fixed intent of liberating the life imprisoned in
them. "I dislike prisons of any sort," he declared in the preface to
_Le Problème du Style_, and he scouted the claims of those who, having
constructed a cell, claimed to cabin the truth.

Even the pursuit of truth seemed, to this convinced sceptic of the race
of Montaigne, an idle undertaking, unworthy of any truly philosophic
intelligence. "It is as absurd to seek the truth--and to find it--once
we have reached the age of reason, as to put our shoes on the hearth
Christmas Eve." And he cites "one of the creators of a new science,"
who said to him, "At the present moment we can establish no theory, but
we are in a position to demolish any theory that may be established."
He adds, summing up: "We must seek to rest always at this stage; the
only fruitful quest is the quest of the non-true." Yet Gourmont himself
was carried beyond it in his destructive zeal, when he snatched,
somewhat hastily, at the theories of his friend René Quinton, the
biologist, to which the fates have not proved altogether kind since
they were first stated. For there is usually a positive flaw in the
armour of even the most discreet "sower of doubts," and how could
Gourmont, who took Pierre Bayle's famous profession as his own device,
resist the temptation to avail himself of so formidable an arsenal
against the pretentions of the human reason to impose its frail and
arbitrary laws upon the universe?

"Reason," he says, writing of Kant's method in _Promenades
Philosophiques_, "is only a word--expression of the most convenient
ways of comprehending the multiple relations which unite the varied
elements of nature. The reason is only a unity of measure, though a
necessary unit, and one without which there would be such differences
between men's judgments that no society would be possible. But this
necessity is not anterior to life; it is posterior to it. What is
necessary, what is reasonable, is what is; but any other mode of
being, as soon as it was, would be equally necessary and reasonable."
Instead of any rationalistic system whatsoever, we need "a flat-footed
philosophy, familiar and scientific, always provisional, always at the
disposal of the new fact which will necessarily arise, a philosophy
which is merely a commentary on life, but on life as a whole. Man
separated from the rest of nature is a pure mystery. To understand
something of our own constitution, we must plunge ourselves, humbly,
into the vital milieu whence religious pride has withdrawn us, in order
to raise us to the dignity of jumping-jacks of the ideal."

It was thus that, in his essay on _La Physique de l'Amour_, Gourmont,
in order to disassociate the idea of love, which, rationalized, has
itself become a sort of religion, with poets for priests, sought
to "situate" man's sexual experience in the vast vital milieu of
universal sexuality, and such were the aim and method of all his
disassociations. In them he reveals himself as perhaps the most potent
corrosive intellectual agent of our time, after Nietzsche, to whom
he owed a certain élan, and whom he helped to make known in France.
All he offers is, in accordance with his own requirement, a simple
commentary on life--on life as a whole--when it is not, more simply
still, as in his literary criticism, a mere record of his sensations;
but this commentary is so shot through with the light of his searching
intelligence, and with his sensual irony, that there is little in
the ramshackle structure of accepted truth capable of resisting its
implications. To taste it to the full, one needs, no doubt, a certain
preliminary preparation in disillusion, but, for those who have already
had this, no intellectual poison is more subtly stimulating--or more
salutary, either.

Where, as in the case of Gourmont, the wealth to draw upon is so
great, a book of selections is particularly difficult. A word may be
added here as to the plan of the present volume. In the preface to _La
Culture des Idées_, which gave him his first reputation, and which
remains the cornerstone of his critical achievement, Gourmont refers
to the incoherence in its composition, which "no preface can either
correct or palliate."

"What good is it for me to pretend, for example," he asks, "that these
miscellaneous articles are closely bound together by a common idea?
Doubtless some of them hang together fairly well, and seem even to
grow one out of the other; but, in its ensemble, the book is merely a
collection of articles. When Voltaire wanted to give his opinion on a
current topic, he published a pamphlet. We, to-day, publish an article
in a review or a journal. But Voltaire, at the end of the year, did
not gather his various pamphlets into a volume. He let them follow
their destiny separately. They were collected only in his complete
works, where, then, it was possible, grouping them according to their
affinities, to avoid that variegated air necessarily assumed by our
collections of articles."

What has here been attempted is a first _triage_ of a part--the
essential part--of Gourmont's work, and its logical rearrangement. At
the head of the volume I have placed that article on _La Dissociation
des Idées_, which Gourmont himself regarded as having "perhaps a little
more importance than the others" in _La Culture des Idées_, since in
it he exposes his method; and this I have followed with four articles
from _Le Chemin de Velours_, which are there grouped together under
the general head of _Nouvelles Dissociations_, and which form its
natural suite or sequence. In this way I feel I have been able, not
only to offer a book more homogeneous than either of the two from which
its contents have been taken, but also, in a measure, to realize for
Gourmont a project which, as he explained, the conditions of modern
publishing alone prevented him from realizing. So far as I know, this
is the first English translation of his essays authorized by Gourmont
or his personal representatives.

For the hitherto unpublished portrait of Gourmont which appears as
frontispiece to this volume, I am indebted to the very great kindness
of Miss Natalie Clifford Barney, of Paris.

                                                           W. A. B.

Vence (A.M.), France, 26 March, 1921.





There are two ways of thinking. One can either accept current ideas and
associations of ideas, just as they are, or else undertake, on his own
account, new associations or, what is rarer, original disassociations.
The intelligence capable of such efforts is, more or less, according
to the degree, or according to the abundance and variety of its other
gifts, a creative intelligence. It is a question either of inventing
new relations between old ideas, old images, or of separating old
ideas, old images united by tradition, of considering them one by one,
free to work them over and arrange an infinite number of new couples
which a fresh operation will disunite once more, and so on till new
ties, always fragile and doubtful, are formed.

In the realm of facts and of experience such operations would
necessarily be limited by the resistance of matter and the
uncompromising character of physical laws. In the purely intellectual
domain they are subject to logic; but logic itself being an
intellectual fabric, its indulgence is almost unlimited. In truth,
the association and the disassociation of ideas (or of images, for
the idea is merely a worn-out image) pursue a winding course which
it is impossible to determine, and whose general direction, even, it
is difficult to follow. There are no ideas so remote, no images so
ill-assorted, that an easy habit of association cannot bring them
together, at least, momentarily. Victor Hugo, seeing a cable wrapped
with rags at the point where it crossed a sharp ridge, saw, at the
same time, the knees of tragic actresses padded to break the dramatic
falls in the fifth act;[1] and these two things so remote--a rope
anchored on a rock, and the knees of an actress--are evoked, as we
read, in a parallel which takes our fancy because the knees and the
rope are equally "furred,"[2] the first above and the latter below, at
the bend; because the elbow made by a cable thus cast bears a certain
resemblance to a leg that is bent; because Giliatt's situation is quite
tragic; and, finally, because, even while perceiving the logic of these
comparisons, we perceive, no less clearly, their delicious absurdity.

Such an association is perforce extremely fugitive, unless the language
adopts it and makes of it one of those figures of speech with which
it delights to enrich itself. It should occasion no surprise were
this bend of a cable to be called its "knee." In any event, the two
images remain ever ready to be divorced, divorce being the permanent
rule in the world of ideas, which is the world of free love. This fact
sometimes scandalizes simple folk. Whoever first dared to say the
"mouth" or the "jaw" of a cannon, according to which of those terms is
the older, was, without doubt, accused either of preciousness or of
coarseness. If it be improper to speak of the "knee" of a rope, it is
quite proper to speak of the "elbow" of a pipe or the "paunch" of a
bottle. But these examples are presented merely as elementary types of
a mechanism which is more familiar to us in practice than in theory.
Leaving aside all images still living, we shall concern ourselves
exclusively with ideas--that is to say, those tenacious and fugitive
shades which flutter about eternally bewildered in men's brains.

There are associations of ideas so durable that they seem everlasting,
so closely knit that they resemble those double stars which the naked
eye seeks in vain to separate. They are usually called "commonplaces."
This expression, relic of an old rhetorical term, _loci communes
sermonis_, has, especially since the development of individualism,
assumed a slighting sense which it was far from possessing at the
start, and even as late as the seventeenth century. The meaning of
"commonplace" has also been narrowed, as well as debased, till it has
come to be a variant of cliché, or hackneyed expression--that which has
already been seen or heard; and, for the mass of men, who employ words
without precision, commonplace is now one of the synonyms of _cliché_.
But _cliché_ refers to the words, commonplace to the ideas. _Cliché_
defines the form or the letter, commonplace the substance or the sense.
To confound them is to confound the thought with the expression of the
thought. The _cliché_ is immediately perceptible. The commonplace very
often escapes notice if clothed in an original dress. There are not
many examples, in any literature, of new ideas expressed in a new form.
The most captious mind must commonly content itself with one or other
of these pleasures, only too happy when not deprived of both at once,
which is not very rarely the case.

The commonplace is both more and less than a hackneyed expression. It
is hackneyed, but sometimes unavoidably so. It is hackneyed, but so
universally accepted that it comes consequently to be called a truth.
Most truths which travel the world (truths are great travellers) may
be regarded as commonplaces, that is to say, associations of ideas
common to a large number of men, none of whom would dare deliberately
to disassociate them. Man, in spite of his lying tendency, has great
respect for what he calls the truth. This is because truth is the staff
with which he travels through life, because commonplaces are the bread
in his wallet, the wine in his gourd. Deprived of the truth contained
in commonplaces, men would be without defence, without support, and
without nourishment. They have so great a need of truths that they
adopt new ones without rejecting the old. Civilized man's brain is a
museum of contradictory truths. This does not disturb him, because he
is a "successive." He ruminates his truths one after the other. He
thinks as he eats. We should vomit with horror if we had presented to
us, in a large dish, the various aliments, from meat to fruit, mixed
with soup, wine and coffee, destined to form our "successive" repast.
Our horror would be as great were we shown the repellent amalgam
of contradictory truths which find lodgment in our mind. Some few
analytical intelligences have sought vainly to draw up in cold blood
the inventory of their contradictions. To each objection offered by
reason, sentiment opposes an immediately valid excuse; for, as M.
Ribot has pointed out, the sentiments are what is strongest in us,
representing the elements of permanence and continuity. It is not
less difficult to inventory the contradictions of others, where a
single individual is concerned; for here we come up against hypocrisy
which has, precisely, as its social rôle, to dissimulate the too
strident clash of our variegated convictions. We should then question
all men--that is to say, the human entity--or at least groups of men
sufficiently numerous for the cynicism of some to compensate the
hypocrisy of others.

In the lower animal regions and in the vegetable world, budding is
one of the ways in which life is created. Scission is seen to take
place equally in the world of ideas; but the result, instead of being
a new life, is a new abstraction. All general grammars, or elementary
treatises on logic, teach how abstractions are formed. They have
neglected to teach how they are not formed--that is, why a given
commonplace persists in living on without posterity. It is a somewhat
delicate question, but it would suggest interesting remarks for a
chapter to be called "Refractory commonplaces, or the impossibility of
disassociating certain ideas." It would, perhaps, be useful to examine
first how ideas become associated, and to what end. The method of this
operation is of the simplest sort. Its principle is analogy. There are
very remote analogies; there are others so close that they lie within
reach of all.

A great many commonplaces have an historic origin. One day two ideas
became united under the influence of events, and this union proved more
or less lasting. Having seen with its own eyes the death-struggle of
Byzantium, Europe coupled these two ideas, Byzantium-Decadence, which
became a commonplace, an incontestable truth for all men who read and
write, and thus necessarily for all the rest--for those who cannot
verify the truths offered them. From Byzantium, this association of
ideas was extended to the whole Roman Empire, which is now, for sage
and respectful historians, nothing but a succession of decadences.
We read recently in a weighty newspaper: "If the despotic form of
government possessed a special virtue, conducive to the creation of
good armies, would not the establishment of the empire have inaugurated
an era of development in the military power of the Romans? It was, on
the contrary, a signal for downfall and destruction." This commonplace,
of Christian origin, has been popularized, in modern times, as
everyone knows, by Montesquieu and Gibbon. It has been magisterially
disassociated by M. Gaston Paris, and is now nothing but nonsense.
But, as its genealogy is known--as its birth and its death have been
witnessed--it may serve fairly well as an example to explain the
nature of a great historic truth.

The secret purpose of the commonplace is, in fact, to express a truth.
Isolated ideas represent merely facts or abstractions. To form a truth,
two factors are needed--a fact and an abstraction. Such, at least, is
the commonest mode of generation. Almost every truth, almost every
commonplace, may be resolved into these two elements.

The word "truth" may almost always be employed concurrently with
the word "commonplace," and is thus defined, once and for all, as a
commonplace which has not yet been disassociated, disassociation being
analogous to what, in chemistry, is called analysis. Chemical analysis
challenges neither the existence nor the qualities of the substance
which it disassociates into diverse elements often disassociable in
their turn. It limits itself to liberating these elements and offering
them to synthesis which, varying the proportions and adding new
elements, will, if it likes, obtain entirely different substances. With
the fragments of a truth can be constructed another truth "identically
contrary." Such a task would be a mere game, but useful, nevertheless,
like all those exercises which limber the intelligence and lead it
towards that state of disdainful nobility to which it should aspire.

There are, however, truths that one dreams neither of analyzing nor of
denying. Whether furnished us by the secular experience of humanity,
or forming part of the axioms of science, they are incontestable. The
preacher who proclaimed from the pulpit, before Louis XIV, "Gentlemen,
we shall all die!" proffered a truth which the king, though he scowled,
did not pretend seriously to dispute. It is, however, one of those
truths that have doubtless experienced the greatest difficulty in
becoming established, and are not, even now, universally admitted.
It was not all at once that the Aryan races connected these two
ideas--that of death and that of necessity. Many black tribes still
have not reached this point. There is no natural death, no necessary
death, for the Negro. The sorcerer is consulted, at each decease,
in order to ascertain the author of this secret and magic crime. We
ourselves are still somewhat in the same mental state, and every
premature death of a prominent man gives immediate rise to rumours of
poisoning, of mysterious murder. Everyone remembers the legends started
by the death of Gambetta and of Félix Faure. They connect naturally
with those that stirred the end of the seventeenth century--with those
which, far more than the facts, doubtless rare, darkened the sixteenth
century in Italy. Stendhal, in his Roman anecdotes, overworks this
poison superstition which must still, in our day, claim more than one
judicial victim.

Man associates ideas, not at all in accordance with verifiable
exactitude, but with his pleasure and his interest. That is why most
truths are merely prejudices. Those that are least open to question are
also those that he has always sought to combat cunningly with the ruse
of silence. The same inertia is opposed to the work of disassociation
seen operating slowly on certain truths.

The state of disassociation reached by moral commonplaces seems to bear
a rather close relation to the degree of intellectual civilization.
Here, too, it is a question of a sort of struggle, carried on, not
by individuals, but by peoples formed into nations, against palpable
facts which, while augmenting the intensity of the individual life,
diminish, for that very reason, as experience proves, the intensity of
collective life and energy. There is no doubt that a man can derive
from immorality itself--from his refusal to subscribe to the prejudices
inscribed in a decalogue--a great personal benefit; but a collectivity
of individuals too strong, too mutually independent, makes but a
mediocre people. We have, in such cases, the spectacle of the social
instinct entering the lists against the individual instinct, and of
societies professing, as such, a morality that each of its intelligent
members, followed by a very large part of the herd, deems vain, outworn
or tyrannical.

A rather curious illustration of these principles will be found by
examining the present state of sexual morality. This morality, peculiar
to Christian peoples, is based upon the exceedingly close association
of two ideas--that of carnal pleasure and that of generation. Any
man or people that has not disassociated these two ideas, has not
mentally liberated the elements of this truth, namely, that outside
of the properly generative act, accomplished under the protection of
the laws, whether religious or civil--the second being mere parodies
of the first, in our essentially Christian civilizations--sexual acts
are sins, errors, faults, weaknesses. Whoever consciously adopts
this rule, sanctioned by the codes, belongs evidently to a still
rudimentary civilization. The highest civilization being that in which
the individual is freest, the most exempt from obligations, this
proposition would be open to question only if taken as a provocation
to libertinism, or as a depreciation of asceticism. It does not matter
here whether it be moral or immoral. It ought, if exact, to be seen,
at the first glance, in the facts. Nothing is easier. A statistical
table of European natality will convince the stubbornest that there
is a very close bond--a bond of cause and effect--between a people's
intellectuality and its fecundity. The same is true for individuals
as for social groups. It is as a result of intellectual weakness that
working-men allow their homes to be flooded with offspring. The slums
are full of unfortunate individuals who, having begotten a dozen
children, are surprised to find life harsh. These poor creatures, who
lack even the excuse of religious beliefs, have not yet learned to
disassociate the idea of carnal pleasure and that of generation. In
their case, the first determines the second, and their acts respond to
a childish, almost animal cerebral process. The man who has reached a
really human stage in the scale of intelligence, limits his offspring
at will. It is one of his privileges, but it is among those that he
attains only to die of them.

Fortunate for the individual whom it sets free, this particular
disassociation is, in fact, far less fortunate for a people. However,
it will favour the further development of civilization, by maintaining
upon the earth, the spaces required for human evolution.

It was not till fairly late that the Greeks succeeded in separating
the idea of woman and that of generation; but they had already
disassociated, at a very early date, the idea of generation and that
of carnal pleasure. When they ceased to consider woman solely as an
instrument of generation, the reign of the courtesans began. The Greeks
seem, moreover, always to have had an extremely vague sexual morality,
though this did not prevent them from cutting a certain figure in

Christianity could not, without forswearing its own principles,
encourage the disassociation of the idea of carnal pleasure and that
of generation; but it successfully promoted, on the other hand, the
disassociation of the idea of love and that of carnal pleasure, and
this was one of the great conquests of humanity. The Egyptians were so
far incapable of understanding such a disassociation, that the love of
a brother and sister would have seemed nothing to them if it had not
led to sexual intercourse. The lower classes of great cities are often
enough quite Egyptian in this regard. The different sorts of incest
which occasionally come to our notice, testify to the fact than an
analogous state of mind is not absolutely incompatible with a certain
intellectual culture. The peculiarly Christian form of chaste love,
freed from all idea of physical pleasure, is divine love, such as it
is seen flowering in the mystical exaltation of the contemplatives.
This is the really pure love, since it corresponds to nothing that
can be defined. It is the intelligence adoring itself in its own
infinite self-made image. Whatever sensual element may be involved
has its source in the very constitution of the human body, and in the
law governing the interdependence of the organs. No account should,
therefore, be taken of it in a non-physiological study. What has been
clumsily called Platonic love is thus a Christian creation. It is in
the last analysis a passionate friendship, as vital and jealous as
physical love, but freed from the idea of carnal pleasure, just as
the latter had already been freed from the idea of generation. This
ideal state of the human affections is the first stage on the road to
asceticism, and asceticism might be defined as the state of mind in
which all ideas are disassociated.

With the waning of the Christian influence, the first stage of
asceticism has become a less and less frequent halting-place, and
asceticism itself, grown equally rare, is often reached by another
route. In our day the idea of love has once more been closely connected
with the idea of physical pleasure, and moralists are busy refashioning
its primitive association with the idea of generation. It is a rather
curious retrogression.

An historical psychology of humanity could be attempted by determining
the precise degree of disassociation attained, in the course of the
centuries, by a certain number of those truths which the orthodox agree
to call primordial. This method ought even to form the base, and this
determination the very aim, of history. Since everything in man comes
back to the intelligence, everything in history ought to come back to
psychology. It would be some excuse for the facts, were they found to
admit of an explanation neither diplomatic nor strategic. What was
the association of ideas, or the truth not yet disassociated, which
favoured the accomplishment of the mission which Jeanne d'Arc believed
to have been received from heaven? To answer this question, it would
be necessary to discover certain ideas capable of uniting equally in
French brains and in English, or a truth at that time indisputably
admitted by all Christendom. Jeanne d'Arc was regarded, at once by her
friends and by her enemies, as possessing a supernatural power. For
the English, she was a very potent sorceress. Opinion is unanimous on
this point, and there is abundant evidence. But for her partisans? For
them she was doubtless a sorceress also, or rather, a magician. Magic
is not necessarily diabolical. Supernatural beings, that were neither
angels nor demons, but Powers which man's intelligence could bring
under its dominion, were afloat in the imagination. The magician was
the good sorcerer. Were this not so, would a man as wise and as saintly
as Albertus Magnus have been taxed with magic? The soldier who followed
Jeanne d'Arc, and the soldier who fought her, sorceress or magician,
formed of her, quite probably, an idea identical in its dreadful
absurdity. But if the English shouted the name of sorceress, the French
withheld the name of "magician," doubtless for the same reason which so
long protected the usurper Ta-Kiang through the marvellous adventures
narrated by Judith Gautier in her admirable _Dragon Impérial_.

What idea, at any given moment, did each class of society form of the
soldier? Would not the answer to this question contain a whole course
in history? Coming down to our own time, it might be asked at what
moment the idea of honour and the military idea became united in the
common mind. Is the union a survival of the aristocratic conception
of the army? Was the association formed as a result of the events of
thirty years ago, when the people decided to exalt the soldier for its
own encouragement? This idea of honour should be clearly understood. It
contains several other ideas--ideas of bravery, of disinterestedness,
of discipline, of sacrifice, of heroism, of probity, of loyalty, of
frankness, of good humour, of openness, of simplicity, etc. The word
itself would, in fine, be found to sum up the qualities of which the
French race believes itself to be the expression. To determine its
origin would be, then, to determine automatically the period when
the Frenchman began to believe himself a compendium of all the manly
virtues. The military man has remained in France, in spite of recent
objections, the very type of the man of honour. The two ideas are
united very energetically. They form a truth which is scarcely disputed
to-day, except by individuals of slight authority or of doubtful
sincerity. Its disassociation is, therefore, very little advanced as
regards the nation as a whole. It was, however, for a moment at least,
completely effected in certain minds. This involved, from the strictly
intellectual point of view, a considerable effort of abstraction which
we cannot but admire when we regard dispassionately the cerebral
machine in its functioning. Doubtless the result achieved was not
the product of normal reasoning. The disassociation was accomplished
in a fit of fever. It was unconscious, and it was momentary; but it
_was_, and that is the important point for the observer. The idea of
honour, with all it implies, became separated from the military idea,
which, in this instance, is the factual idea, the female idea, ready
to receive all the modifiers, and it was perceived that, if there
was a certain logical relation between them, this relation was not
necessary. There is the decisive point. A truth is dead when it has
been shown that the relations between the elements are habitual, and
not necessary; and, as the death of a truth is a great benefit for
mankind, this disassociation would have been very important if it had
been definitive, if it had remained stable. Unfortunately, after the
effort to attain the pure idea, the old mental habits resumed their
sway. The former modifying element was instantly replaced by an element
by no means new, less logical than the other, and even less necessary.
The operation seemed to have miscarried. Association of ideas occurred
again in the very same form as before, though one of the elements had
now been turned inside out, like an old glove. For honour had been
substituted dishonour, with all the adventitious ideas belonging to
the old element transformed into cowardice, deceitfulness, lack of
discipline, falseness, duplicity, wickedness, etc. This new association
of ideas may have a destructive value, but it offers no intellectual

The moral of this anecdote is that the ideas which seem to us the
clearest, the most evident,--the most palpable, as it were--are, even
so, not strong enough to impose themselves in all their nakedness
upon the average mind. In order to assimilate the idea of the army,
a contemporary brain must swathe it with elements which have only a
chance or current relation with the main idea. A humble politician
cannot, doubtless, be expected to adopt Napoleon's simple idea of
an army as a sword. Very simple ideas lie within the reach of very
complicated minds only. It seems, however, that it should not be absurd
to regard the army merely as the exteriorized force of a nation, and
then to demand of this particular force only those very qualities which
are demanded of force in general. But perhaps even this is too simple?

What excellent opportunities the present offers for one who would
study the mechanism of the association and disassociation of ideas!
We often talk of ideas. We write on the evolution of ideas. Yet no
word is vaguer or more ill-defined. There are naïve writers who hold
forth on the Idea, with a capital I. There are co-operative societies
that start out suddenly in quest of the Idea. There are people who
devote themselves to the Idea, who live with their gaze fixed upon the
Idea. Just what is meant by such rambling? That is what I have never
been able to understand. Employed thus, alone, the word is perhaps a
corruption of the word Ideal. Is the modifying term perhaps understood
also? Is it a stray fragment of the Hegelian philosophy which the
slow advance of the great social glacier has, in passing, deposited
in certain heads, where it rolls and clatters about like a rock? No
one knows. Employed as a relative, the word is not much clearer in
ordinary phraseologies. Its primitive meaning is too far forgotten, as
well as the fact that an idea is nothing but an image that has reached
the state of abstraction, of notion; but it is forgotten also that,
in order to be entitled to the name of idea, a notion must be free
from all compromise with the contingent. A notion, reaching the estate
of idea, has become indisputable. It is a cipher, a sign--one of the
letters in the alphabet of thought.

Ideas cannot be classed as true and false. The idea is necessarily
true. An idea that can be disputed is an idea mingled with concrete
notions, that is to say, a truth. The work of disassociation tends,
precisely, to free the truth from all its fragile part, in order
to obtain the pure, one, and consequently unassailable idea. But
if words were never used save in their unique and absolute sense,
connected discourse would be difficult. There must be left a little
of that vagueness and flexibility which usage has given them; and, in
particular, too much stress must not be laid upon the gap separating
the abstract from the concrete. There is an intermediate state between
ice and water--that in which the latter begins to congeal, when it
still cracks and yields under the pressure of the hand plunged into
it. Perhaps we should not even demand that the words contained in
philosophic handbooks should abdicate all pretension to ambiguity.

The idea of army, which aroused serious polemics, and which was
liberated an instant, only to be obscured anew, is one of those
that border on the concrete and cannot be spoken of without minute
references to reality. The idea of justice, on the contrary, can be
considered in itself, _in abstracto_. In the inquiry made by M. Ribot
on the subject of general ideas, almost all those who heard the word
Justice pronounced, saw, in their mind's eye, the legendary lady with
the scales. There is, in this traditional representation of an abstract
idea, a notion of the very origin of that idea.

The idea of justice is, in fact, nothing but the idea of equilibrium.
Justice is the dead-point in a series of acts--the ideal point at
which contrary forces neutralize each other to produce inertia. Life
which had passed this dead-point of absolute justice could not longer
live, since the idea of life, identical with that of a conflict of
forces, is necessarily the idea of justice. The reign of justice could
only be the reign of silence and of petrification. Mouths cease to
speak--vain organs of stupefied brains--and arms uplifted in suspended
gesture describe nothing further in the frozen air. Theologians
situated justice beyond the world, in eternity. There only can it be
conceived, and there only can it, without danger to life, exercise
once and for all its tyranny which knows but one sort of decree, the
decree of death. The idea of justice, then, clearly belongs to the
series of ideas that are indisputable and undemonstrable. Nothing can
be done with it in its pure state. It must be associated with some
element of fact, or we must cease using a word which corresponds only
to an inconceivable entity. To tell the truth, the idea of justice
is perhaps here disassociated for the first time. Under this name
men allege sometimes the idea of punishment, which is very familiar
to them, sometimes the idea of non-punishment--a neutral idea, mere
shadow of the former. It is question of punishing the guilty and of
not disturbing the innocent--a distinction which, in order to be
comprehensible, would immediately imply a definition of guilt and
a definition of innocence. That is difficult, these words from the
moral dictionary having to-day nothing but a dwindling and entirely
relative significance. And why, it might be asked, should a guilty man
be punished? It would seem, on the contrary, as if the innocent man,
who is supposed to be healthy and normal, were much more capable of
supporting punishment than the guilty man, who is sick and weakly. Why
should not the imbecile, who has let himself be robbed, be punished
instead of the robber, who has certain excuses to offer? That is
what justice would decree if, instead of a theological conception,
it were still, as at Sparta, an imitation of nature. Nothing exists
save by virtue of disequilibrium, of injustice. Every existence is
a theft practised upon other existences. No life flourishes except
in a cemetery. If, instead of being the denier of natural laws,
humanity wished to become their auxiliary, it would seek to protect
the strong against the coalition of the weak, and give the people to
the aristocrats as a footstool. It would seem, on the contrary, as if
that which is to-day understood by justice were, simultaneously with
the punishment of the guilty, the extermination of the strong, and,
simultaneously with the non-punishment of the innocent, the exaltation
of the humble. The origin of this complex, bastard, hypocritical idea
should then be sought in the Gospel, in the "woe to the rich" of
the Jewish demagogues. Thus understood, the idea of justice appears
contaminated at once by hatred and by envy. It no longer retains
anything of its original meaning, and one cannot attempt its analysis
without danger of being duped by the vulgar meaning of the words.
Yet, with a little care, it would be seen that the depreciation of
this useful term arose originally from a confusion between the idea
of right and the idea of punishment. The day when justice came to
mean sometimes criminal justice, sometimes civil justice, the world
confused these two practical notions, and the teachers of the people,
incapable of a serious effort of disassociation, have come to magnify
a misunderstanding which, moreover, serves their own interests. The
real idea of justice appears then, finally, as quite non-existent in
the very word which figures in the human vocabulary. This word resolves
itself, on analysis, into elements which are still very complex, and
among which may be distinguished the idea of right and the idea of
punishment. But there is so much that is illogical in this curious
coupling, that we should be inclined to doubt the accuracy of our
operation, did not the social facts furnish its proof.

We might here examine this question: do abstract words really exist for
the people, for the average man? Probably not. It would even seem as if
the same word attained only graduated stages of abstraction, according
to the degree of intellectual culture. The pure idea is more or less
contaminated by concern for personal, caste or group interests, and
the word justice, for example, thus clothes all sorts of particular
and limited meanings under the weight of which its supreme sense
disappears, overwhelmed.

The moment an idea is disassociated and it enters thus, quite
naked, into circulation, it begins to pick up, in the course of its
wanderings, all sorts of parasitic vegetations. Sometimes the original
organism disappears entirely, devoured by the egoistic colonies which
develop in it. A very amusing example of the way in which ideas are
thus deflected was recently given by the corporation of house-painters,
at the ceremony called the "Triumph of the Republic." These workmen
carried a banner on which their demands for social justice were summed
up in the cry: "Down with Ripolin!" The reader should know that Ripolin
is a prepared paint which anyone can apply, in order to understand the
full sincerity of this slogan as well as its artlessness. Ripolin here
represents injustice and oppression. It is the enemy, the devil. We
all have our ripolin with which we colour, according to our needs, the
abstract ideas which otherwise would be of no personal use to us.

It is under one of these motleys that the idea of liberty is presented
to us by the politicians. Hearing this word, we now perceive little
other than the idea of political liberty, and it would seem as if all
the liberties which man is capable of enjoying were summed up in this
ambiguous expression. Moreover, it is the same with the pure idea of
liberty, as with the pure idea of justice; it is of no use to us in
the ordinary business of life. Neither man nor nature is free, any
more than either is just. Reasoning has no hold upon such ideas. To
express them is to assert them, but they would necessarily falsify
every argument into which one might wish to introduce them. Reduced
to its social significance, the idea of liberty is still incompletely
disassociated. There is no general idea of liberty, and it is difficult
to form one, since the liberty of an individual is exercised only at
the expense of the liberty of others. Formerly liberty was called
privilege. Taking everything into account, that is perhaps its true
name. Even to-day one of our relative liberties--the liberty of the
press--is an ensemble of privileges. Privileges also are the liberty
of speech granted to lawyers, the liberty of trade unions, and,
to-morrow, the liberty of association as it is now proposed to us. The
idea of liberty is perhaps only an emphatic corruption of the idea of
privilege. The Latins, who made great use of the word liberty, meant by
it the privilege of the Roman citizen.

It is seen that there is often an enormous gap between the common
meaning of a word and its real significance in the depths of obscure
verbal consciousnesses, whether because several associated ideas
are expressed by a single word, or because the primitive idea has
been submerged by the invasion of a secondary idea. It is thus
possible--especially in dealing with generalizations--to write
sentences having at once an apparent and a secret meaning. Words,
which are signs, are almost always ciphers as well. The unconscious
conventional language is very much in use, and there are even matters
where it is the only one employed. But cipher implies deciphering. It
is not easy to understand even the sincerest writing, and the author
himself often goes astray because the meaning of words varies not only
from one man to another, but from moment to moment, in the case of the
same man. Language is thus a great cause of deception. It evolves in
abstraction, while life evolves in complete concrete reality. Between
speech and the things designated by speech, there is the same distance
as between a landscape and the description of a landscape. And it must
still further be borne in mind that the landscapes which we depict
are known to us, most often, only through words which are, in turn,
reflections of anterior words. Yet we understand each other. It is a
miracle which I have no intention of analyzing at present. It will
be more to our purpose, in concluding this sketch, which is merely a
method, to undertake the examination of the quite modern ideas of art
and of beauty.

I am ignorant of their origins, but they are later than the classic
languages, which possess no fixed and precise words to express them,
though the ancients were as well able as we to enjoy the reality
they contain--better, even. They are intertangled. The idea of art
is dependent upon the idea of beauty; but this latter idea is itself
nothing but the idea of harmony, and the idea of harmony reduces
itself to the idea of logic. The beautiful is that which is in its
place. Thence arise the sentiments of pleasure given us by beauty. Or
rather, beauty is a logic which is perceived as a pleasure. If this
be admitted, it will at once be understood why the idea of beauty, in
societies dominated by women, is almost always restricted to the idea
of feminine beauty. Beauty is a woman. There is in this an interesting
subject for analysis, but the question is somewhat complicated. It
would be necessary to show, first, that woman is no more beautiful than
man; that, situated on the same plane in nature, constructed on the
same model, made of the same flesh, she would appear to a sensitive
intelligence, exterior to humanity, exactly the female of man--exactly
what, for man, a jenny is to a jack. And, observing them more closely,
the Martian, who wished to learn something concerning the aesthetics of
terrestrial forms, would even note that, if there be a real difference
in beauty between a man and a woman of the same race, of the same
caste, and of the same age, this difference is almost always in favour
of the man; and that, moreover, if neither the man nor the woman be
entirely beautiful, the defects of the human race are more accentuated
in the woman, where the twofold projection of the belly and the
buttocks--sexual attractions, no doubt--breaks unpleasantly the double
line of the silhouette. The curve of the breasts is almost inflected
under the influence of the back, which has a hollow tendency. Cranach's
nudes confess naïvely these eternal imperfections of woman. Another
defect which artists, when they have taste, remedy instinctively, is
the shortness of the legs, so marked in the photographs of nude women.
This cold anatomy of feminine beauty has often been made. It is, then,
useless to insist upon it--all the more because, unfortunately, its
verification is only too easy. But if woman's beauty be so vulnerable
to criticism, how does it happen that, in spite of all, it remains
indisputable--that it has become for us the very basis and leaven of
the idea of beauty? It is a sexual illusion. The idea of beauty is
not a pure idea. It is intimately connected with the idea of carnal
pleasure. Stendhal had an obscure perception of this line of reasoning
when he defined beauty as "a promise of happiness." Beauty is a woman,
even for women themselves, who have carried docility with regard to
men to the point of adopting this aphorism which they are capable of
understanding only under the form of extreme sensual perversion. We
know, however, that women have a particular type of beauty, which men
have naturally branded "doll-like." If women were sincere, they would
long ago have stigmatized equally the type of feminine beauty by which
man most readily lets himself be seduced.

This identification of woman and beauty goes so far to-day that we
have had innocently proposed us the "apotheosis of woman," meaning the
glorification of beauty, with all the promises contained in Stendhal's
definition taken in its erotic sense. Beauty is a woman and woman is a
beauty. The caricaturists accentuate the common sentiment by invariably
coupling with a woman, whom they strive to render beautiful, a man
whose ugliness they stress to the extreme of vulgarity; and this in
spite of the fact that pretty women are so rare in life, that after
thirty a woman is almost always inferior, age for age, in plastic
beauty, to her husband or lover. It is true that this inferiority is no
easier to demonstrate than it is to feel, and that reasoning remains
ineffective, once the page is finished, for the reader as well as for
the writer; and this is very fortunate.

The idea of beauty has never been disassociated save by aestheticians.
The common run of men accept Stendhal's definition, which amounts to
saying that this idea does not exist--that it has been absolutely
devoured by the idea of happiness--of sexual happiness, happiness given
by a woman. That is why the cult of beauty is suspect for moralists who
have analyzed the value of certain abstract words. They translate this
one by the cult of the flesh, and they would be right, if that last
expression did not imply a somewhat silly attack upon one of man's most
natural tendencies. The necessary result has been that, in opposing
such excessive apotheosis of woman, they have infringed upon the rights
of art. Art being the expression of beauty, and it being possible to
understand beauty only under the material aspects of the true idea
which it contains, art has become almost uniquely feminine. Beauty is
woman; and art, also, is woman. But the latter is less absolute. The
notion of art is even fairly clear for artists and for the _élite_. The
idea of art has been extremely well liberated. There is a pure art
which is concerned exclusively with self-realization. No definition
of it even should be given; for such a definition could not be made
without connecting the idea of art with ideas which are foreign to it,
and which would tend to obscure and sully it.

Previous to this disassociation, which is recent, and whose origin
is known, the idea of art was connected with diverse ideas which are
normally foreign to it--ideas of morality, of utility, or education.
Art was the edifying illustration introduced into religious or
philosophical catechism. This was the conception of the last two
centuries. We freed ourselves from that yoke. There are now those who
would like to put it back upon our necks. The idea of art has again
been sullied, this time with the idea of utility. Art is called social
by modern preachers. It is also called democratic, both epithets being
well chosen, if it was meant by them to imply complete negation of its
principal function. Admitting art because it can improve individuals
or the masses, is like admitting roses because an eye-wash can be
extracted from them. It is confounding two series of notions which
the well-regulated exercise of the intelligence places upon entirely
different planes. The plastic arts have a language; but this language
cannot be translated into words and phrases. The work of art says
things which are addressed directly to the aesthetic sense, and to
it alone. What it can add, in such a way as to be understood by our
other, faculties, is not worth listening to. And yet it is this
negligible element which interests the boosters of social art. They
are the majority and, as we are governed by the law of numbers, their
triumph seems assured. The idea of art will, perhaps, prove to have
been disassociated for a few years only, and for a small group of

There are, then, a very large number of ideas that are never employed
by men in their pure state, either because they have not yet been
disassociated, or because this disassociation has been incapable of
achieving stability. There are also a great many ideas which exist in
the state of disassociation, or that can provisionally be considered so
to exist, but which have a special affinity for other ideas with which
they are most commonly encountered. There are still others which seem
refractory to certain associations, whereas the facts to which they
correspond are, in reality, extremely frequent. Here are a few examples
of these affinities and of these repulsions, chosen in the profoundly
interesting realm of commonplaces, or truths.

Flags were originally religious tokens, like the oriflamme of
Saint-Denis, and their symbolic utility has remained at least as
great as their real usefulness. But how, outside of war, have they
become symbols of the idea of country? This is easier to explain by
the facts themselves than by abstract logic. To-day, in nearly all
civilized countries, the idea of country and the idea of flag are
invincibly associated. The two words are even interchangeable. But
this is a question of symbolism quite as much as of association of
ideas. Insistence upon it would lead us to the language of colours,
counterpart of the language of flowers, but still more unstable and
arbitrary. If it is amusing to note that the blue of the French flag is
the consecrated colour of the Virgin and of the children of Mary, it
is no less so to find that the pious purple of the robe of Saint-Denis
has become a revolutionary symbol. Like the atoms of Epicurus, ideas
cling together as best they may, through chance encounters, shocks and

Certain associations, though very recent, have rapidly acquired a
singular authority, like those of education and intelligence, of
education and morality. But, at most, education may have something
to say for one of the particular forms of memory, or for a literal
knowledge of the commonplaces contained in the Decalogue. The
absurdity of these forced relations appears very clearly in that
which concerns woman. It seems clear that there is a certain sort of
education--that which they receive to-day--which, far from stimulating
their intelligence, tends rather to blunt it. Since they have been
educated seriously, they no longer have the least influence either
in politics or in literature. Compare, in this connection, our last
thirty years with the last thirty years of the _ancien régime_.
These two associations of ideas have, nevertheless, become veritable
commonplaces--truths which it is as useless to expose as to combat.
They take their place with all those which infest books and the
degenerate lobes of man's brain--with old and venerable truths like:
virtue-recompense, vice-punishment, God-goodness, crime-remorse,
duty-happiness, authority-respect, unhappiness-punishment,
future-progress, and thousands of others, some of which, though absurd,
are useful to mankind.

It would be equally possible to make a long catalogue of the
ideas which men refuse to associate, while delighting in the most
disconcerting _débauches_. We have given above the explanation of this
stubborn attitude, namely, that their principal occupation is the
pursuit of happiness, and that they are much more concerned with
reasoning in accordance with their interests than with the rules of

Thence the universal aversion to connecting the idea of nothingness
with the idea of death. Though the former is evidently contained in the
latter, humanity insists upon considering them separately. It opposes
their union with all its force, never tiring of driving between them a
chimerical wedge upon which resound the hammer-blows of hope. This is
the finest example of the illogical that we can offer ourselves for our
diversion, and the best proof that, in the gravest matters, as in those
of slightest concern, it is sentiment which always triumphs over reason.

Is it a great thing to have learned that? Perhaps.

November, 1899.

[1] _Les Travailleurs de la Mer_, 2nd part, 1st Book, VII.

[2] Technical term.



The idea of glory is not one of the most difficult to resolve. It can
be identified with the general idea of immortality, of which it is
but one of the secondary and naïver forms, differing from it only in
the substitution of vanity for pride. In the one we have the idea of
duration fortified by the pride of a being who believes himself of
immortal importance, but who consents to enjoy without fuss an absolute
perennity. In the other, vanity, replacing pride, puts aside the idea
of the absolute, or, declaring itself incapable of attaining it,
clings to a desire of eternity, no doubt, but an objective eternity,
perceptible to others--a ceremonial eternity which wastes in world-wide
repute that which absolute immortality gains in depth and in proud

Abstract words define inadequately an abstract idea. It is better to
fall back upon the common opinion. Everybody knows what glory is. Every
writer pictures to himself literary glory. Nothing is clearer than this
sort of illusion. Nothing is clearer than love and desire. Definitions,
which are indispensable for dictionaries only, contain of reality
precisely what a net, raised at the wrong moment from the sea where
it awaited its prey, contains of obscure, squirming life. Sea-weed
writhes in its meshes. Lanky creatures stir their translucent claws,
and here are all sorts of helices or of valvules which a mechanical
sensibility keeps tight-shut. But reality, which was a big fish, with
a sudden swish of its tail, flopped overboard. Generally speaking,
clear, neat sentences have no meaning. They are affirmative gestures,
suggesting obedience, and that is all. The human mind is so complex,
and things are so tangled up in each other that, in order to explain a
blade of grass, the entire universe would have to be taken to pieces;
and in no language is there a single authentic word upon which a lucid
intelligence could not construct a psychological treatise, a history
of the world, a novel, a poem, a drama, according to the day and the
temperature. The definition is a sack of compressed flour contained in
a thimble. What can we do with it, unless we are antarctic explorers?
It is more to the point to place a pinch of flour under the microscope
and seek patiently, amid the bran, the living starch. In what is left
after analyzing the idea of immortality, the idea of glory will be
found a shining speck of gold.

Man still believes himself the last achievement of the creative
power. Darwin, corroborating the Bible, ushered the human couple out
of the shades on the sixth day only; and the leading scientists take
the same stand--a fact which favours those dubious books in which
the questionable concordance of Science and Faith is celebrated. But
Darwinism is on the eve of disappearing before preciser notions.
To-morrow we shall no longer be obliged to believe that the creator of
the universe, having organized the lower species without moral ideas,
invented man for the purpose of depositing in his brain a principle
which it had got along very well without itself, in the course of its
preparatory labours. If man is no longer the latest arrival,--if he
is a very old animal in the history of life,--if the flower of the
life-tree is not Adam but the Dove,--then the whole metaphysic of
morals will collapse. What! after the masterpiece, Man, He (or She,
according to which meaningless word may be professed) humbles Himself
to make the Bird! What! the stork after Abraham's ancestor! Yet so it
is. M. Quinton's labours[1] will no longer permit us to doubt it. It
becomes certain that the human intelligence, far from being the goal of
creation, is only an accident, and that moral ideas are but parasitic
vegetations arising from an excess of nutrition. The phenomena of
intelligence, moral consciousness, and all the titles of nobility
engrossed on the parchment, might perfectly well, no doubt, have
appeared in any other species whatsoever. The birds, whose evolution
is as yet incomplete, will not, perhaps, be exempted from them. Their
arterial system is superior to man's--simpler and stronger. They can
eat without interrupting their breathing. They steal, they speak, they
can recite the Rights of Man or the Nicene Creed--supreme achievements
of large numbers of men. The bird, chronological king of creation, has
remained, till now, and in spite of its improvements, an animal. The
bird series does not seem, in point of intelligence, superior to that
of the mammals, among which Man figures as an inexplicable exception.
Intelligence could then be regarded as an end, only if each of the
animal species were rigorously determined and stationary. This is M.
Quinton's opinion, at least provisionally. The species, since they
are species--since the individuals which compose them are reproduced
in beings identical with themselves--the species, such as they are
defined, by these very syllables--spec-i-es--may disappear, but they
can no longer change. Man has quite certainly passed through various
states in which he was not a man; but the day man produced a man,
humanity began immutable. It is then possible that human intelligence,
instead of being an accident, a derogation, was determined, from the
beginning, like the human hand, the human feet, the human hair. It
would then have a normal, logical rôle in the universe, and its very
excess--genius--would be but exuberance of energy. But we should still
have to explain the bird's stupidity. Is it, perhaps, an evidence of
the intellectual degeneration of the creative forces? The most probable
opinion is that intelligence is an excrescence, like an oak-apple. To
what insect's bite do we owe it? We shall never know.

It matters little whether the intelligence be, as Taine believed, a
normal product of the brain, or a malady, especially as a blemish,
transmitted as such from generation to generation, ends by losing its
pathological characteristics. It becomes an integral and normal part
of the organism.[2] Its accidental origin is, however, corroborated
by this, that although an excellent instrument for a priori
combinations, the intelligence is, one would say, especially unfitted
for the perception of realities. It is to this infirmity that we owe
metaphysics, religions and ethical systems. As the external world can
reach the consciousness only by scrupulously conforming to all the
nooks and crannies of the pocket, it turns out that, believing to hold
an image of the world, we have only an image of ourselves. Certain
rectifications are possible. Analysis of the phenomena of vision has
made us admit that. By comparing our sensations and our ideas with what
we can comprehend of the sensations and ideas of others, we arrive at a
determination of probable averages; but, above all, negative averages.
It would be easier to draw up a list of non-truths than a list of
truths. To affirm that a given religion is false, no longer denotes
great boldness of intellect or even much intellect. The veracity of any
religion whatsoever is to-day a subject for controversy only for the
various European clergies who make their living out of it, or for those
belated rationalists who, like their master Kant, are ever awaiting the
propitious and lucrative hour for opportune conversions. But, to the
naïve question presented by those who, like nature, in the seventeenth
century, abhor a vacuum:--"What will you put in its place?"--no answer
can be made. It is enough, and it is no small thing at that, to have
transmuted a truth into a non-truth. The higher calling of criticism is
not even, as Pierre Bayle proclaimed, to sow doubts; it must destroy.
The intelligence is an excellent instrument of negation. It is time to
employ it, and so stop trying to rear palaces with picks and torches.

The history of the idea of immortality is a good example of our
congenital inability to perceive realities otherwise than reshaped and
worked over by the understanding. The idea of immortality is born of
belief in the double. In sleep, and while the body is inert, there is
a part of man that stirs, that travels, that fights, that eats, enjoys
or suffers, exhibits all the phenomena of life. This part of man, this
double of man, this astral body, survives the decomposition of the
material body, whose habits and needs it keeps. Such, doubtless, is the
origin of the belief in what, since Hellenism, we call the immortality
of the soul. In an earlier stage, the Egyptian religion was based upon
the theory of the double. It was for doubles, and not for souls, that
first real, and later symbolic, food was placed in the tombs. But the
Egyptian religion was already charged, in addition, with the idea of
justice, of equilibrium. The doubles were weighed in the scales of
good and evil. Ethical metaphysics had obscured the primitive idea of
immortality, which is nothing but the idea of indefinite duration.

For theologians, for philosophers--if there still be any to profess
these honest doctrines--for the common run of men, the idea of
immortality, or of the future life, is intimately connected with the
idea of justice. Eternal happiness is a compensation accorded human
sorrows. There are also--but these are for theologians only--personal
torments to punish infractions of priestly orders, which tortures
are, moreover, an additional recompense for the good, and a guarantee
against promiscuity. We have here an aristocratic selection, but one
based upon the idea of good and bad, instead of upon that of strength
and weakness. These strange reversals of values enraged Nietzsche. They
should be accepted as at least transitory consequences of civilized
man's sensibility. Primitive man, whose nervous vibrations are few, and
whose intelligence is passive, feels suffering, though dully, but does
not feel injustice, which is moral suffering. To encounter a similar
state we must cross the middle regions, and question a Goethe, a Taine
or a Nietzsche--men in whom intelligence has finally conquered by
its very excess, repelling the pleadings of pity and the sentimental
pitfalls of justice. If the idea of immortality had been born in a
superior intelligence, it would have differed only by its greater logic
from the brutal conceptions of primitive humanity.

M. Marillier has collected and co-ordinated all that which, in the
beliefs of the uncivilized, relates to the survival of the soul.[3] The
ensemble of the facts shows that the idea of justice has had not the
slightest share in forming the conception of the idea of immortality.
There have been few discoveries more important for the history of human
beliefs. The idea of immortality was, at first, as M. Marillier has
the hardihood to assert, a purely scientific conception. It is the
magnification and prolongation of a fact--of a fact badly observed,
but still a fact. The future life is the continuation of the present
life, and involves the same customs, the same pleasures, the same
annoyances. This world also has a double: the other world. The bad and
the good, the strong and the weak, continue there as here. Sometimes
life, without change in the relations of its elements, is more clement
in the other world. Sometimes, in the same conditions, it is worse.
But, whether the future life be considered as better or worse, it is
the same for all. Better still, it implies perfect equality in those
commonplace pleasures which are the average ideal of the civilized man
as well as of the savage. The tribes of New Guinea, rendered anaemic by
hunger, dream of eating unlimited sago throughout eternity. As it would
be possible to discover, even in this egalitarian paradise, some vague
idea of compensation, hence of justice; we must go farther, to Java,
where paradise--doubtless because of an excessive toll--was accessible
only to the rich; to those resigned races, where alone the kings, the
priest and the nobles, were saved; to Borneo, where the hereafter,
divided into seven circles, corresponded to the seven circles of the
social hierarchy. In another corner of the great island, "every person
whom a man kills in this world becomes his slave in the next." There
we have a paradise clearly based upon the idea of force, and a belief
which laughs a little at the categorical imperative. Not only is the
weak not "recompensed," but his weakness and his suffering may, through
the caprice of the strong, be raised to the infinite. The slayer has
acquired an immortal profit. Societies in which there is poetry, art,
laughter, love, still exist with such a morality. The fact may sadden,
but it does not surprise us; for it is evident that we have here a
terrible element of resistance against foreigners. Such a system has
its drawbacks. From time to time, in Borneo, a band of young Dyaks who
have not yet killed, dash into a town and slay. Having thus gained
immortal life and a slave, they remain more tranquil thereafter. Among
the Shans, a man killed by an elephant forfeits paradise. Eaten by a
tiger, he becomes a tiger. Women who die in child-bed become ghouls
and haunt the tombs, their feet reversed, heels foremost. In the
Mariannas, there is a heaven and a hell. Violent death leads to hell,
natural death to paradise. These people were destined to be slaves from
all eternity. In another region of Oceania, the fate of the soul is
decided by the family of the deceased, who throw dice for it. Odd means
annihilation, even eternal happiness. In Tahiti, the blind souls, on
leaving the body, wander away to a plain where there are two stones.
One, touched first, confers immortal life, the other eternal death.
This is almost sublimely absurd. It is as grandiose and terrible as
predestination. Saint Augustine placed the one in the night, before
birth. The Tahitians situated the other in the shades, after death.
Protestantism, to which those poor people have since surrendered, has
not much changed their beliefs. Generally speaking, the greatest effort
of a religious or philosophical innovator is to put at the end what was
originally at the beginning, or vice versa.

By connecting itself with the idea of immortality, the idea of justice
has, then, singularly disturbed its original character. It has even
contaminated the idea of earthly immortality--the idea of glory.


How glory, first reserved for the kings and warriors sung by the
poets, has come finally to be attributed to the poets themselves, even
more than to the heroes of their poems, is an historic fact whose
exact origin would be of little interest. It would be more curious
to discover as a result of what change in the manners and customs,
or through what enhancement of egoism and of vanity, the complicated
idea of justice came to attach itself to the idea of the perennity of
the name and of the work. At what epoch of Greek civilization, did an
Athenian dramatist, whose play had been flouted by the public, have the
boldness to appeal to posterity? Are any ancient texts known wherein
such recriminations may be read? Sensibility has increased to such
an extent that there exists to-day no scorned poetaster who does not
dream of the justice of future generations. The _exigi monumentum_ of
Horace and Malherbe has become democratized; but how can we believe
that the vanity of authors has ever had a beginning? The fact must be
admitted, however, in order to keep within the logic of the successive
developments of human character.

Literary glory was at first merely the sentiment of the future duration
of the present reputation--a legitimate sentiment which accords fairly
well with the facts; for absolute revivals are almost as rare as solid
rehabilitations. To-day it is a scientific probability. Æschylus
believed that the relation existing in his own lifetime between the
_Suppliants_ and public opinion would continue the same throughout
the ages. Æschylus was right; but not if he cherished the same dream
with regard to the _Danaides_ and the _Egyptians_. Yet Pratinas saw
himself, in the future, one of the rivals of Æschylus, and Pratinas
is to-day but a word, scarcely a name. The idea of glory, even in its
oldest and most legitimate form, would seem, therefore, to contain the
idea of justice, at least by preterition, since its non-realization
at once suggests to us the idea of injustice. But men of so ancient
a civilization should not be made to reason in terms of our modern
sensibility. Pratinas would, perhaps, have submitted to destiny. He
would, perhaps, have called a fact, pure and simple, what we are
pleased to name injustice.

The idea of justice, since it is subject, to the variations of
sensibility, is of the most instable sort. Most of the facts that we
class to-day in the category of injustice, were left by the Greeks in
the category of destiny. For others, which we ditch under the name of
misfortune, or of fatality, they strove to find a cure. In principle,
when a people restricts the category "destiny" in favour of the
category "injustice," the truth has begun to confess its decadence. The
extreme state of sensibility to injustice is symbolized by the gag of
Zaina, who breathed only through a veil, in order to destroy no life--a
state of intellectual degradation towards which European humanity, with
its mystic vegetarians, precursors of sentimental socialists, is also
progressing to-day. Have we not already our "lower brothers," and are
we not agreed to praise the machines that spare animals the exercise of
their muscles? To weep over the slave who turns the wheel, or the poet
who sings in the desert, is a sign of depravity; for the fact is that
the slave who turns the wheel loves life more than he suffers from his
labour, while the poet who croaks like a frog in his hole finds singing
an agreeable physiological exercise.

The physical laws promulgated or established by scientists are
confessions of ignorance. When they cannot explain a mechanism, they
declare that its movements are due to a law. Bodies fall by virtue
of the law of gravitation. This has precisely the same value, in
the serious order, as the comic _virtus dormitiva_. Categories are
confessions of impotence. To throw a fact into the abyss of destiny, or
into the drawer of injustice, is to renounce the exercise of the most
natural analytical faculties. The _Lusiads_ was saved because Camoens
was a good swimmer, and Newton's treatise on light and colours was
lost because his little dog, Diamond, overturned a candle. Presented
thus, these two events belong henceforth neither in the category
Providence nor in the category Fatality. They are simple facts--facts
like thousands of others that have occurred without men finding in them
a pretext for enthusiasm or for anger. That Æschylus has survived and
Pratinas is dead are accidents like those which happen in war. There
are some more scandalous, but none should be judged in accordance with
the puerile notion of a distributive justice. If justice is wounded
because Florus keeps afloat in the shipwreck where Varius and Calvus
perish, it is justice which is wrong. It was out of place there.

However, just as it has attached itself to the idea of paradise, so
the idea of justice has become the parasite of the idea of glory. For
the immortality for which Tahiti gambled heads or tails, has, with the
best will in the world, been substituted providential immortality; but,
so far as glory, at any rate, is concerned, we know that Providence,
even if it does not determine the name of the elect by lot, is governed
by motives that it would, perhaps, not dare to acknowledge. However
unjust man may be, by nature and by taste, he is less unjust than the
God he has created. Thus, as Ausonius has pertinently remarked, chaste
men engender obscene literatures. So, also, the work of the veritable
genius is always inferior to the brain which bore it. Civilization has
put a little method into glory, provisionally.

Even in the spiritual order, men have almost always been at variance
with the decisions of their gods. Most of the saints in the past were
created by the people in spite of the priests. In the course of the
centuries the catalogue of the saints and the catalogue of the great
men have drawn so far apart that they will soon not have a single
name in common. Almost all the really venerable men of this last
century--almost all those whose clay contained veins or traces of
gold--were outcasts. We live in the age of Prometheus. When Providence
alone ruled the earth, during the interregnum of humanity, she caused
such hecatombs that intelligence nearly perished. In the year 950, the
son of a serf of Aurillac, young Gerbert, summed up almost the whole
European tradition. He was, all by himself, civilization. What a moment
in history! Men, by an admirable instinct, made him their master. He
was Pope Sylvester II. When he died, there began to be built, on that
column which had sustained the world, the legend destined to find
its culmination in Goethe's _Faust_. Such is Glory, that Gerbert is
unknown. But he is not unknown like Pythagoras. It has been possible
to write his life, his writings have been preserved. If Gerbert is not
one of our great men to-day, he will perhaps be to-morrow. He has kept
intact all the possibilities of his resurrection. The reason is that,
leaving aside the paradoxical idea of Providence, we have since Gerbert
scarcely changed our civilization.

When the Christians came into power, they preserved, outside those few
spared by chance, only the books necessary for school instruction.
There has survived of Antiquity precisely what would have survived
of the seventeenth century, if the professors of the old University,
together with the Jesuits and the Minims, had possessed the power of
life and death over books. Adding La Fontaine to Boileau's catalogue,
they would have burned the rest. The Christians burned much, in
spite of their professions of love; and what they did not burn they
expurgated. It is to them that we owe the almost burlesque image of a
chaste Virgil. The authentic incompletion of the _Æneid_ afforded a
good pretext for cuts and erasures. The booksellers charged with the
task were, moreover, unintelligent and lazy. But the great cause of the
disappearance of almost all pagan literature was more general. A day
came when it was deemed of no interest. From the first centuries its
circle had already begun to dwindle. Could a Saint Cecilia find any
pleasure in Gallus? This delicious, heroic Roman woman (who was found
last century lying in the dust, in her bloody robes) changed her heart
with her religion. Women ceased to read Gallus, and Gallus has almost
completely perished.

In his interesting book on this subject,[4] M. Stapfer has not taken
into account changes in civilization. He has thought only of chance to
explain the loss of so many ancient books. Chance is a mask, and it is
precisely the duty of the historian to lift this mask, or to tear it.
Between the sixth century and our own day, there has been one further
partial modification in civilization--in the fifteenth century. About
that time, the old literature began to lose its hold upon the public.
The novels, the miracles, the tales seemed suddenly to have aged. They
were no longer copied or recited. They were seldom printed, a single
manuscript having preserved for us _Aucassin et Nicolette_, which is
something like the _Daphnis and Chloe_ of the Middle Ages. Accidents
frighten the poet--and even the critic, who is colder, whose logic
is more rigorous--the moment the suggestion is made of separating
the purely historical idea of literary survival from the sentimental
idea of justice. Till now--and I allude once more to the conservative
rôle of modern civilization--the printing-press has protected writers
against destruction; but the serious rôle of printing affects as yet
only four centuries. This distant invention will appear some day as
if contemporary at once with Rabelais and with Victor Hugo. When a
time equal to that which separates us from the birth of Æschylus--two
thousand three hundred and seventy-five years, let us say--shall have
elapsed between us and a given moment of the future, what influence
will printing have had on the preservation of books? Perhaps none.
Everything not worth the trouble of reprinting--that is to say
everything, with the exception of a few fortunate fragments--will have
disappeared, and the more rapidly that the material substance of books
has become more precarious. Even the discovery of a durable paper would
not give absolute assurance of survival, because of the temptation to
employ this excessively strong paper for a thousand other purposes.
Thus the value of the parchment has often led to the sacrifice of a
manuscript, just as gold articles go necessarily to the smelting-pot
once the style has changed. The best material for the preservation of
books would be something unchanging, but fragile, slightly brittle, so
that it would be good for nothing outside its binding. Would not such a
discovery be a curse?

For the work of the last four centuries, and for what, about 1450,
remained undamaged of the earlier work, as well as for what has since
been found in the dustbins, printing has proved a memorable blessing.
We are not obliged to accept the opinions of the past. The books are
there, and whether they be common or rare, we can find and read them.
We are the startled and clement judges of the glory and of the obloquy
that Boileau distributed to his contemporaries. Martial dishonoured
poets who were perhaps a Saint Amant or a Scudéry; but we have beneath
our eyes the documents composing the _dossier_ of the _Satires_, and no
professor friendly to good morals and eternal principles can make us
share his commonplace hatreds. A witty writer has remarked that Boileau
treated the writers whom he disliked almost the way we treat convicted
assassins or seducers of little girls; but, thanks to the unforeseen
permanence of books, this ancient abuse matters no more for the judges
to-day than a lawyer's vituperation. I have Sanlecque within hand's
reach, even Cotin, even Coras. If they are poor writers, I shall say so
only as a result of my own personal impression.

A catalogue of lost books has been compiled.[5] Their number reaches
five or six hundred, and to attain even this figure, the author was
obliged to count some works which have merely strayed, as well as
several editions of works reprinted more than once. Were there, among
these lost books, any pages really worth crying over? It is hardly
likely, judging from the epitaphs of these tombs. The following were
doubtless neither other _Maximes_, nor other _Phèdres_, nor even
other _Alarics_: _Herménégilde_, tragedy, by Gaspard Olivier (1601);
the _Poétiques Trophées_, by Jean Figon de Montélimard (1556), or
the _Courtisan Amoureux_ (1582) or the _Friant Dessert des Femmes
mondaines_ (1643). But who knows? However, the _Coupe-Cul des Moines_,
or the _Seringue spirituelle_, inspires but feeble regrets, and it
is the same with the _Estranges et espouvantables Amours d'un diable
déguisé en gentil-homme et d'une demoiselle de Bretagne_. A more
palpable loss is that of several _Almanachs_ prepared by Rabelais, but
even this does not matter so very much. The fact that feverish fingers
wore out the first editions of _Astrée_, of the _Aventures du baron de
Fœneste_, of the _Odes_ of Ronsard prematurely,[6] proves nothing but
the immediate success of these works which do not cease to be in the
hands of all connoisseurs for more than half a century, and the same
might be said of the original editions of the first novels of Alexandre
Dumas, which cannot be classed, for the most part, among lost books.
But the fact that we can still read the inscriptions in a cemetery
proves, at least, that those buried beneath them had a name and a
fame, however transitory. The real lost books are those whose very
titles to-day could be suspected by nobody. This anonymous dust would
not, doubtless, fill a very large ossuary; but a necropolis could be
constructed from lost manuscripts.

It is not probable that, of the French literature of the Middle Ages,
much more than the hundredth part has survived the changing fashion.
Almost all the dramatic works have disappeared. The number of authors
must have been immense at a time when the writer was his own publisher,
the poet his own reciter, the dramatist his own actor. In a certain
sense printing proved an obstacle to letters. It operated a selection
and cast contempt upon books that had failed to find a publisher. This
situation still exists, though mitigated by the low cost of mechanical
typography. The invention with which we are now threatened--a
home-printing-press--would triple or quadruple the number of new books,
and we should have mediaeval conditions once more. Everyone with a
smattering of culture--and some others, as is the case to-day--would
venture the little work which the writer confides to his friends before
offering it to the public. Every progress ends by defeating its own
purpose. Reaching its maximum development, it tends to re-establish the
primitive state which it had superseded.

The change in civilization, from antiquity to the Middle Ages, was
intellectual and sentimental rather than material. The same trades
continued under the same primitive conditions. The bookshop in the time
of Rutebeuf was the same that sold the _Odes_ of Horace, when they
were fresh and full of life. In both periods, which were similarly
periods of expansion, literature was similarly abundant. There remains
almost nothing of it to-day. All Latin poetry, from Ennius to Sidonius
Apollinaris, is contained in two folio volumes,[7] but almost the
whole second volume is devoted to the Christian poets. The Greeks
have been less badly treated. Antony made a gift to Cleopatra of
the library at Pergamos, which contained two hundred thousand Greek
works, each in a single copy. Greek literature, in Didot's edition,
is contained in sixty-one volumes. If we add an occasional treatise
of Aristotle, Herondas, Bacchylides, the number of pages will not be
greatly increased. Literature fared the same as an army which has been
decimated. The dead are buried and the survivors become heroes. We may
judge of the relative, but not of the absolute value of what is left.
Here we encounter Pratinas once more. He teaches us that glory is a


Glory is a fact pure and simple, and not a fact of justice. There is
no exact relation between the real merit of a writer (our examination
is limited to literary glory) and his standing. In order to reward the
survival of the book during the last four hundred years, in accordance
with the dictates of chance and, if you like, of injustice, criticism
has invented a hierarchal system which divides writers into castes,
from the idiot to the man of genius. This looks solid and serious. It
is, however, arbitrary, since aesthetic or moral judgments are merely
generalized sensations. Literary judgment thus rejoins religious
judgment so completely as to become identified with it.

Earthly immortality and the other--that which operates ideally
beyond real life--are conceptions of the same order, due to a
single cause--the impossibility for thought to think of itself as
non-existent. Descartes merely presented a physiological maxim whose
human truth is so absolute that it would have been understood by
the oldest and humblest peoples. "I think, therefore I am," is the
verbal translation of a cellular state. Every living brain thinks
this, even though unconsciously. Each minute of life is an eternity.
It has neither beginning nor end. It is what it is. It is absolute.
Yet the disagreement between the cerebral truth and the material
truth is complete. The organ by which man thinks himself immortal
dies, and the absolute is conquered by reality. The disagreement is
complete, evident, undeniable. Yet it is inexplicable. Confronted with
such a contradiction, the hypothesis of a duality assumes a certain
force, besides which the laboratory itself affirms the essential
difference between muscular and cerebral toil. The bending of the
forearm, and even of a phalanx, releases a certain amount of carbonic
acid. Cerebral activity, all muscles being in repose, registers no
trace of combustion. This does not mean that the organs of thought
are immaterial. They can be touched, weighed and measured; but their
materiality is of a special sort whose vital reactions are as yet
unknown. Inexplicable in theory, the disagreement between thought and
the flesh is thus explained, in fact, by a difference at least of
molecular construction. They are two states, each of which has but a
superficial knowledge of the other, and the flesh which thought always
represents to itself as eternal is certain of dissolution.

There are, then, two immortalities: the subjective immortality which
a man accords himself readily, even necessarily, and the objective
immortality, of which Pratinas has been robbed and which is a fact. If
what we have said be true and if, in the absence of precise methods
of analysis, the first--religious or literary--no longer admits of
other than philosophic--that is to say, vague--reflections, objective
immortality, on the other hand, is a less abstract subject for
discussion. It would even be possible, with a little good will, to
bring all history within its scope; but French literature forms a long
and brilliant enough cavalcade for our purpose.

The moment words clasp beneath their wings a certain amount of
perceptible reality, they readily yield their formula. Glory is life in
the memory of men. But of what men, what life?

M. Stapfer[8] has attempted to enumerate the works which, from the
sixteenth to the eighteenth century, have lasted--what is called
"lasting" in professional critical language. This chapter, wittily
entitled (with a touch of Jansenism) "the little number of elect,"
would be brief were it but a catalogue. In short--and this may be
admitted provisionally--among all the French writers of the last three
centuries, twenty-five or thirty may be said to have achieved what
is called glory; but of these thirty, the majority are scarcely more
than a name. What life, and of what men? M. Stapfer is thinking of
works that it might occur to a modern Frenchman, "of average culture,"
to glance at on a rainy day. It is impossible to make a serious
analysis if we permit such expressions as "average culture" to enter
our reasoning. A man of "average culture" may very possibly enjoy
Saint-Simon, without owning either a Pascal, a Bossuet, a Corneille or
a Malherbe. A man can read and reread Pascal, yet have little taste for
Rabelais. But these amateurs of hard reading are professors, churchmen,
lawyers--men who, even if they are not writers themselves, have a
professional interest in letters, and are obliged to keep in touch with
the classic period of French literature. And where have they learned
that Boileau is a better poet than Théophile or Tristan? At college,
for it is through the college that literary glory maintains itself in
the bored recollection of heedless generations. There is no "average
culture" that can be felt and figured by a flexible curve; but there
are programmes. Villiers de l'Isle-Adam invented the "Glory Machine."
There is, in the Ministry of Public Instruction, a hall on the door
of which should be read: "Bureau of Glory." It is the seat of the
Superior Council which elaborates the study programme. This programme
is the "stuffer" which produces average cultures. Names omitted from
it will remain eternally unknown to generations whose paternal guide
it will be. But an educator's conscience will not permit him to impose
upon children knowledge of writers whose morality is not universally
admitted. Molière was very immoral in his day, and this was the secret
of his success with a public which had no other choice, on its days of
repentance, than among the most eloquent or the most skilful preachers.
It is as he has been less understood, that Molière has become, little
by little, a moralist. As successive sensibilities have distinguished
themselves more sharply from the sensibility of the seventeenth
century, the coarseness has lost its rank odour and we have come at
last to find delicate certain sallies which, brought up to date, would
embarrass us. Molière, much more brutal at bottom than on the surface,
enjoys what might be called an acquired morality. It is an inevitable
phenomenon of adjustment. It was necessary either to sacrifice Molière
or to demonstrate the beauty of his philosophic genius.

His saying, which is only a saying, "For the love of humanity," has
been hollowed and dug out by the commentators like an ivory ball which,
at last, in the lathe, becomes a system of concentric spheres. It is
merely a child's rattle. How are the _Femmes Savantes_ and Feminism
to be reconciled? This will be a very curious teat to follow. In her
_Réflexions sur les Femmes_, so penetrating and so well written, Madame
de Lambert says that this comedy, odious in itself, made education for
young women seem improper, immodest, almost obscene; whence the craze
for purely sensual pleasure to which women inclined, since they had
no other resources than love and good living. The difficulty will be
solved by considering separately the idea of feminism and the idea of
the _Femmes Savantes_, and by cavilling at the word "savant," which
has recently come to have a very definite significance. The _savant_,
in the seventeenth century, was the amateur, not only of the sciences,
but of letters--the man eager for all novelties, who discussed vortices
without neglecting Vaugelas. Madame de Sévigné was a "femme savante,"
also Ninon. No doubt it was necessary to save Molière's work. It was
worth it. But might not it have been done more honestly, and with
greater lucidity?

Attempted on Rabelais and on Montaigne, the same work of adjustment
has been less successful. Rabelais, in particular, has discouraged
the most stubbornly naïve; and, since it was impossible to glean
virtuous sheaves in his abbey of good pleasure, Pantagruel was classed
among the vague precursors of modern ideas--which has no appreciable
meaning, modern ideas being extremely contradictory. La Fontaine has
lent himself to the caprices of the moralists with that indifference
to good and evil which was the peculiarity of his exclusively sensual
temperament; while, as for Racine, whose work would be frightful,
were it not expressed in a language as cold and abstract as algebra,
the Jansenist devotion of his last days has made it possible to
discover pious intonations even in his most delirious celebrations
of cruelty and lust.[9] Why has not the same process been applied to
a Saint-Amant or a Théophile? Here is seen the influence of Boileau,
whom it is still dangerous to contradict when seeking a certain quality
of reputation. Happy to find their task limited and determined by a
celebrated authority, the educators closed their catalogue of glories
the moment it was decently long enough. Their enterprise was one of
moral, far more than literary, criticism. A single book--the _Fables_,
for example--would have sufficed them as an album wherein to deposit
the cunning aphorisms of the old catechism. The educator's ideal is the
_Koran_, whose pages contain, at the same time, a sample of writing, a
model of style, a religious code, and a handbook of morals.

We may, then, conclude that, in reality, there is no literary glory.
The great writers are offered to our admiration not as writers, but as
moralists. Literary glory is an illusion.

And yet, in reserving for school-use some of the greatest French men
of genius, the literary historians have been obliged to justify their
choice, to feign artistic preoccupations. Nisard wrote a history of
French literature concerned with little else than morality. Such a
preoccupation was found noble, but too exclusive. The common handbooks
mingle adroitly the two orders. A child should not know quite whether
La Fontaine is prescribed for him as a great poet or as an old chap
who counselled prudence--as the author of _Philémon et Baucis_, or as
the precursor of Franklin. Armed with the four rules of literature,
the professors have examined talents and classified them. They have
conferred prizes and honourable mentions. There is the first order
and there are orders graduated all the way down to the fourth and the
fifth. French literature has become arranged hierarchically like a
tenement house. "Villon," one of these measurers once said to me, "is
not of the first order." Admiration must be shaded according to the
seven notes of the university scale. Earnest flutists excel at this

It is not a question of disputing the awards of glory or of proposing
a revised list. Such as it is, it serves its purpose. It may have the
same usefulness as the arbitrary classifications of botany. It is not a
matter of amending it, it is a matter of tearing it up.

That Racine is a better poet than Tristan l'Hermite, and that
_Iphigénie_ is superior to _Marianne_, are two propositions unequally
true; for we might quite as well be asked to compare this, which is by

    Que c'est une chose charmante
    De voir cet étang gracieux
    Où, comme en un lit précieux,
    L'onde est toujours calme et dormante!

    Quelles richesses admirables
    N'ont point ces nageurs marquetés,
    Ces poissons aux dos argentés,
    Sur leurs écailles agréables![10]

with this, which is by Tristan:

    Auprès de cette grotte sombre
    Où l'on respire un air si doux,
    L'onde lutte avec les cailloux,
    Et la lumière avec que l'ombre.

    Ces flots, las de l'exercice
    Qu'ils ont fait dessus ce gravier,
    Se reposent dans ce vivier,
    Où mourut autrefois Narcisse.

    L'ombre de cette fleur vermeille
    Et celle de ces jons pendans
    Paraissent estre la-dedans
    Les songes de l'eau qui someille.[11]

I am well aware that I am here comparing the best of Tristan with the
worst of Racine; but all the same, if Racine had his park, Tristan had
his garden, and it is often agreeable there. Let us then tear up the
list of awards in order to remain ignorant of the fact that Tristan
l'Hermite is a poet "whose versification is ridiculous,"[12] so that
our pleasure in meeting him may not thus be spoiled in advance, and so
that, with him, we may dare address his muse:

    Fay moy boire au creux de tes mains,
    Si l'eau n'en dissout point la neige.

This is the drawback to comparative methods. Having set up the great
poet of the century as a standard, the critics thereafter value the
others merely as precursors or as disciples.[13] Authors are often
judged according to what they are not, through failure to understand
their particular genius, and often also through failure to question
them themselves. Pratinas, truly, is better treated. He enjoys silence.

But he is dead, and we are discussing the living. Living what life,
and in the memory of what men? Life is a physical fact. A book which
exists as a volume in a library is not dead, and is it not perhaps
a glory more enviable to remain unknown, like Théophile, than to be
famous, like Jean-Baptiste Rousseau? When glory is merely classic, it
is perhaps one of the harshest forms of humiliation. To have dreamed
of thrilling men and women with passion, and to become but the dull
task which keeps the careless schoolboy a captive! Are there, however,
any universal reputations that are not classic? Very few, and in that
case, they have another blemish. It is for their smut that Restif's[14]
ridiculous novels are still read--also Voltaire's syphilitic tales, and
that tedious _Manon Lescaut_, so clumsily adapted from the English. The
books of yesterday no longer have a public, if by public be understood
disinterested men who read simply for their pleasure, enjoying the art
and the thought contained in a book; but they still have readers, and
all have some.

The only dead book is the book which is lost. All the rest live,
almost with the same life, and the older they grow, the more intense
this life becomes, becoming more precious. Literary glory is nominal.
Literary life is personal. There is not a poet of the prodigious
seventeenth century who does not come to life again each day in the
pious hands of a lover. Bossuet has not been more thumbed than this
_Recueil_ by Pierre du Marteu;[15] and, all things considered, the
_Plainte du cheval Pégase aux chevaux de la petite Écurie_, by Monsieur
de Benserade, is more agreeable and less dangerous reading than the
_Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle_. Is pompous moralizing after
all so superior to sprightly burlesque? Every mountain plant offers
an equal interest to the artless botanist. For him the euphorbia is
not celebrated or the borage ridiculous (besides which it has the most
beautiful eyes in the world), and he fills his bag till it can hold
not another blade of grass. Literary glory was invented for the use
of children preparing their examinations. It matters little to the
explorer of the mind of the past that this agreeable verse is by an
unknown poet, or that profound thought by a despised thinker. A man
and his work are so different in interest! The man is a physiological
entity of value only in the environment that developed it. The work,
whatever it may be, can keep an abstract power for centuries. This
power should not be exaggerated or erected into a tyranny. A thought is
very little more than a dry flower; but the man has perished and the
flower still lies in the herbal. It is the witness to a life that has
disappeared, the sign of an annihilated sensibility.

When, in the Gallery of Apollo, we gaze at those onyxes and those
corundums in the form of conches and cups, those gold plaques engraved
with flowers, and those flaming enamels, do we, before daring to
rejoice, demand the name of the artist who created such objects? If we
did, the question would be vain. The work lives and the name is dead.
What matters the name?

"I, who have no wish for glory," wrote Flaubert. He spoke of
posterity--of that future and, consequently, non-existent time, to
which so many second-rate energies sacrifice the one reality, the
present hour. Since none of Flaubert's books can serve as a pretext
for moral teaching, he was well-advised. He did not wish for glory,
and he will not have it, unless _Madame Bovary_ retains during
the next century its equivocal reputation and finds a place, in
schoolboy-tradition, among the celebrated bad books. This is little
likely, seeing that _Mademoiselle de Maupin_ is already hard to read.
But that which cannot be said for the future, either of him or of any
writer of the last half of the century, may be said for the past.
Gautier and Flaubert have known glory--the glory that they accorded
themselves in the invincible consciousness of their genius. Glory is a
sensation of life and of strength; a food-sprite would taste it in a
tree trunk.

How amusing it is to listen to the eloquent professor who declares:
"This book will not last." But no book lasts, and yet all books last.
Do you know _Palemon, fable bocagère et pastorale_, by the Sieur
Frénicle?[16] Well, this book has lasted, since I have just read it,
and since I resurrect one of its verses, which is not ugly:

    O, que j'eus de plaisir à la voir toute nue!

It is time man learned at last to resign himself to annihilation,
and even to enjoy that idea whose sweetness is incomparable. Writers
might give the people the example, by resolutely abandoning their
vainglorious hopes. They will leave a name which will grace the
catalogues for several centuries, and works which will last as long as
the matter upon which they are printed. This is a rare privilege, for
which they ought to be willing to silence their complaints. And even
were this illusory eternity to be denied them, as well as all present
glory, why should that diminish their activity? It is to the passer-by,
not to future humanity, that the wild cherry-tree offers its fruits;
and even if no one passes, just as in the spring it has covered itself
with snow, so it puts on its purple with the coming of summer. Life
is a personal, immediate fact, which glides past the very moment it
is perceived. It is bad reasoning to attach to this moment the age to
come; for the present alone exists, and we must keep within the limits
of logic in order to remain men. Let us be a little less primitive, not
fancying that the next century will be the "double" of the present,
and that our works will keep the position they hold to-day, or will
have a worse. Our way of understanding _Bérénice_ would afflict
Racine, and Molière would gladly blow out the candles on nights when
the _Misanthrope_ is such a bore. Books have but one season. Trees,
shrubs, or simple blades of grass, they die having sometimes sown their
kind, and true glory for a writer would be to call forth a work whose
shade would smother him. That would be true glory, because it would
be a return to the noblest conditions of life. The witnesses of the
past are never anything but paradoxes. They began to languish a few
years, or even less, after their birth, and their old age drags on, sad
and wrinkled, amid men who no longer either understand or love them.
To desire immortality is to wish to live forever in the condition of
Swift's "Struldbruggs."

"Such are the details imparted to me respecting the Immortals of this
country...."--and man's sentiment continues to revolt against the
idea of destruction, and the writer trembles at the idea of perennial
obscurity. Our sensibility needs a tiny light in the far-off distance
among the trees which line our horizon. That reassures the muscles,
calms the pulses.


[1] _Communication à l'Académie des Sciences_ (_13 Avril 1896_),
certified and rendered more precise by later investigations which
M. Quinton has explained to me. Here, without scientific apparatus,
is what, as a result of precious conservations, would appear to be
the general order in which the animals appeared, beginning with the
fishes, and taking account only of those which have yet been covered:

      I. Fish                    IV. Mammals                   V. Birds
     II. Batracians    a. Monotremata      x. Primates:
    III. Reptiles      b. Marsupials         (Lemurs, Monkeys,
                       c. Edentates              Men)
                       d. Rodents          y. Carnivora:
                       e. Insectivora        (latest arrivals:
                       f.  -- --              blue fox, white
                       g.  -- -- --           bear)
                       h.  -- -- --        z. Ruminants:
                           -- -- --          (last arrival:
                           -- -- --           reindeer)

The bearing of this list upon any question whatsoever of general
philosophy is evident for all who know how to disassociate ideas.
It would have thrilled Voltaire. For the rest, I claim the honour
of having been the first to announce to the larger public these new
scientific views, which will, logically, have a magnificent wealth of
consequences. I have already made a less precise allusion to them,
notably in the _Wiener Rundschau_, May 1899.

[2] Intelligence can thus be conceived as an initial form of instinct,
in which case the human intelligence would be destined to crystallize
into instinct, as has occurred in the case of other animal species.
Consciousness would disappear, leaving complete liberty to the
unconscious act, necessarily perfect in the limits of its intention.
The conscious man is a scholar who will reveal himself a master the
moment he has become a delicate but unerring machine, like bee and

[3] _La Survivance de l'Ame et l'idée de justice chez les peuples non
civilisés_, Paris, Leroux, 1894.

[4] _Des Réputations littéraires: Essai de morale et d'histoire_.
Première série. Paris, Hachette, 1893.

[5] _Livres perdus: Essai bibliographique sur les livres devenus
introuvables_, by Philoumeste Junior, Brussels, 1882.

[6] These privately printed editions of three hundred copies or less
have necessarily been worn out in proportion to their success.

[7] _Opera et Fragmenta veterorum poetarum latinorum_. London, 1713

[8] Opus cit., p. 103.

[9] This was written on the appearance of M. Louis Proal's work, _Le
Crime et le Suicide Passionnels_ (F. Alcan, 1910), in which, referring
to sex dramas in the criminal courts, Racine is quoted, every ten
pages, for reference and comparison. Everyone hesitates to say just
what an age of passion and of carnal madness the _Grand Siècle_ really

[10] _L'Étang_. This poem forms part of the set of five odes in which
Racine celebrated Port-Royal des Champs: _L'Étang, Les Prairies, Les
Bois, Les Troupeaux, Les Jardins_.

[11] _Le Promenoir des Deux Amans_.

[12] Vapereau, _Dictionnaire des Littératures_.

[13] An excellent doctor's thesis on Tristan l'Hermite, by M. V. M.
Demadin, bears precisely this title: _Un précurseur de Racine_.

[14] The first volume, and that alone, of Restif de la Bretonne's
_Monsieur Nicholas_ should be excepted.

[15] _Recueil de quelques pièces nouvelles et galantes, tant en prose
qu'en vers_. Cologne, 1667.

[16] Paris, published by Jacques Dugast, aux Gants Couronnez, 1632.



In one of his _Paradoxes_, where he at times has a touch of
Heine's irony or of Schopenhauer's wit, Max Nordau has sketched
the Machiavellian plan of a school of success. The reverse of the
usual morality would be taught there, and not virtue, but the art of
arriving. This school already exists. It is life. Precocious eyes and
ears take in its teachings from adolescence. There are young men who
consecrate themselves to success, like others to the priesthood or
to glory. Are they unreasonable? No. And contemptible? Why? Writing,
singing, sculpturing are acts. Thinking, even in the silence of the
night and in the depth of a dungeon, is an act. But what act is there
that has not for its end its own accomplishment? The reasoner who has
convinced himself will necessarily wish to persuade others; and the
poet who admires himself, to force others to share his enthusiasm.
Those who are contented with an intimate or restricted approbation are
perhaps wise, but they will not be numbered among the strong. Though
timid, though disdainful, the dreamer wishes the glory of dreaming, and
he would dream with delight before throngs rapturously contemplating
his eyes lost in an ocean of dreams and of nonsense. That would be
success. Success has something precise which soothes and nourishes. It
is a repast. It is a fact. It is the final goal.

Success is a fact in itself, and quite aside from the word or the act
which it accompanies. The assassin who has accomplished his crime, step
by step, experiences other joys than that of slaked avidity. He finds,
in short, that success has declared for him; and, all pursuit thrown
off his track, we understand very well the state of mind that Barbey
d'Aurevilly has dared to describe. Yet crime, unless of a political
order, is seldom publicly applauded in our civilizations, as among
the Dyaks of Borneo, or the subjects of the Old Man of the Mountain.
That is why, in spite of the celebrated irony, we shall not consider
assassination "as one of the fine arts." It should at least be classed
among the arts whose success is their one and only end, and which
attach much less importance to their initial designation than to what
they are called at the end. But that is not the subject of this essay,
which is very serious, and whose words will all be carefully weighed.
It will deal exclusively with works of art and, in particular, with
literary works.

Success, then, is a fact; but, in the case of those acts which concern
us here, it is a contingent fact and one that does not change the
essence of the act itself. In this respect, I should be inclined to
compare success to consciousness--a torch which, lighted within us,
illumines our actions and our thoughts, but has no more influence on
their nature than, when the moon is shining, the shadow of a passing
train has on its speed. Consciousness determines no act. Success
does not create a work, but sheds such light upon it that some trace
of it almost always remains in the memory of men. A writer does not
become Racine because he has been applauded before the footlights,
and he remains Racine, even if _Phèdre_ be played six nights in
succession to empty boxes;[1] but he becomes Pradon, and that is a
good deal. To be Pradon through the centuries is to live with a glory
dark and disagreeable, sad and vain. Quite so, but it is scarcely
less precarious than the life which we call real. Pradon is at once
ridiculous and illustrious. It is impossible to tell the story of
Racine's career without bringing his name into it. We search his
works in order to understand that renown of a day which has been
prolonged over so many morrows. It cannot be doubted; Pradon had almost
no talent, though he was fairly adroit in his trade as a dramatic
constructor. He was, as the journalists say, a man of the theatre.
Critics have even gone so far as to claim[2] that, in order to have
a perfect _Phèdre_, the play should have been written by Racine on
Pradon's plan. That is absurd; but every success has its cause. The
cabal explains nothing. The Duchesse de Bouillon would not have
risked the battle on a worthless card. Pradon was known. His tragedy
of _Pyrame et Thisbé_ had been applauded. Ten years after _Phèdre_,
and without any cabal, his _Régulus_ was praised to the skies. He was
therefore destined to enjoy a moderate reputation, such as _Solyman_,
for example, brought its author, the Abbé Abeille, about the same date.

Was it fortunate for this commonplace poet to have encountered the
Duchesse de Bouillon? Anticipating our modern methods, this terrible
woman had hired the boxes of the two theatres, filling those at one and
leaving the others empty. To-day, she would have bought the newspapers
in addition, but no one knows how much she paid the cackling of the
newsmongers and the pamphleteers. It was a masterpiece in its way,
since it succeeded marvellously; but what did Pradon gain by it? After
much abuse, an ocean of posthumous blame. Not a day passes that some
professor does not treat him as if he were a Damiens or a Ravaillac.
Is immortality a sufficient reward for such treatment? Is shameful
immortality preferable to oblivion? First of all, we should dismiss
the shame, and ignore the abuse. Every success inflames the fire of
hatred and deepens the descending smoke. That does not matter. Hate is
an opinion. So is abuse; and so are the words that cast infamy. Success
is a fact. The Duchesse de Bouillon could not change the essential
value of the two Phèdres, any more than she could transmute "vile
lead" into pure gold; but she could veil the gold and gild the lead,
and she could force posterity to repeat her favourite's name. That was
her work. It was well done and it has remained memorable. No one knew
at the time which to admire of these two paintings with like frames.
Pradon's friends were as powerful as Racine's. The latter had Boileau,
the former Sanlecque, his sometimes successful rival. But Boileau's
authority faded before that of Madame des Houlières, representing
polite society and the _ruelles_. Thanks to the quarrel of the Sonnets,
even wit ranged itself on Pradon's side, for the Duc de Nevers' still
conserves to-day the most amusing malice. Molière, who detested Racine,
and had already lent his theatre to a parody of _Andromaque_, would,
no doubt, have favoured Pradon. His death spared the friends of sound
letters that scandal. It was, therefore, a reasonable illusion around
which success crystallized, and the witlings had no cause to blush
for the part which they played. It is a pious lie on the part of the
historians of French literature to pretend that the true public avenged
Racine for the desert organized by Madame de Bouillon. The boxes of the
Hôtel de Bourgogne had been hired for six days, while Racine's _Phèdre_
had but seven performances. The public had understood. It obeyed
success as dogs obey the sound of the whistle.

The reason is that success, though organized by fraudulent means,
possesses a powerful attraction for the throng, even the literary
throng. Assuredly, the theatrical public was, in 1677, far superior,
in point of intelligence, education and taste, to the average public
to-day. Yet it is seen applauding decidedly commonplace plays, while
disdaining those of the first quality. The reason is that success,
and especially theatrical success, can spring spontaneously from an
accident,--from the agreeable face of an actress, from a fine gesture,
from a well-timed bit of applause, from the caprice or emotion of a
small group of spectators. The herd follows--since all men who come
together are herds--and history numbers one more name and date.

The Americans--of the North, for in the South they have more
finesse--never hesitate before success. What dramatic poem is it
whose success has surpassed the enthusiasm aroused even by the _Cid_
and by _Hernani_? _Cyrano de Bergerac_. Then this work is worthy of
admiration, and they have it, as well as _l'Aiglon_, learned by heart
in the schools where, though themselves illiterate, they cultivate
learned wives. To repeat once more my real thought, I do not find
that unreasonable. Let us not confound history, which is a complete
or at least a consecutive novel, with the present, which appears to
us in fragments, like a newspaper torn into a thousand pieces. How
are these to be arranged, in what order? We have not the slightest
idea. Our wisest and sanest contemporary judgment will be ridiculous
in twenty years, because we lacked patience to reconstitute the entire
sheet, or because the fire or the wind snatched away a number of the
tiny squares. In this hazy state of our ideas, success gleams like an
electric moon. Something undeniable is shining--something that the
professors of philosophy call a criterium. But let us call it simply a
fact, just as a flower is a fact, or a shower, or a conflagration. And
what can be opposed to this fact, to contradict it? Almost nothing--the
product of a judgment, certain men's notion of literary beauty.
Moreover, this opposition is not radical, since beauty does not at all,
in principle, exclude the chances of success. No bets should be placed
on beauty. It would be imprudent to back her on even terms; but there
are historic instances where the most beautiful work has also been the
most warmly welcomed. In such cases success is adorable, like the sun
which comes at just the right moment to ripen the crops, or the storm
to fill the brooks and springs to overflowing. What is a beautiful book
of which not a single copy remains known to us? What was an armless
Venus before M. de Marcellus had summoned her from the abysses? Success
is like daylight and, once again, if it does not create the work, it
completes it by rending the shadowy veil by which it is encompassed.

There is another consideration which enhances still further the value
of success, namely that, if the purpose of a work of art be to please,
the greater will be the number of its conquests and the better this
purpose will have been accomplished. Art has certainly a function,
since it exists. It satisfies a need of our nature. To say that this
need is, precisely, the artistic taste, is to say that a man likes
coffee or tobacco because they satisfy his taste for coffee or tobacco.
It is to say nothing at all--not even nonsense. It is to utter words
without any meaning whatsoever. Things do not correspond with this
simplicity in life--with this amiable relation of the kettle to its
cover. Let us leave such explanations to the Christian philosophy of
final causes. The purpose of art being to please, success is at least
a first evidence in favour of the work. The idea of pleasing is very
complex. We shall see later what it contains; but the word may serve
us provisionally. Then this work pleases. A tower has suddenly arisen
accompanied by the passionate plaudits of the crowd. That is the fact.
This tower should be demolished. That is not easy, since by a singular
magic almost all the battering-rams brought against it turn into
buttresses which add their weight to the solidity of the monument. This
monument must be convinced that it does not exist, this crowd that its
admiration has not moved all those stones, that it lies; that it is
hallucinated, or that it is imbecile. This cannot be done. It finds the
tower beautiful. What can we answer, except "Yes, it is beautiful"?

The priest takes a wafer on the corporal and elevates it to divine
dignity. He places it in the monstrance and shows it to the people, who
during this ceremony kneel, bow, pray and believe. The work exalted
by success is no less chosen by chance than the wafer by the priest's
fingers; but its divinity, also, is no less certain the moment this
choice has been made. The decrees of destiny must be respected, and
popular piety not thwarted.


Yet, it is said, there is an aesthetic. There are several aesthetics,
even. But we shall suppose there is but one, and that--always in
principle--it has good reasons for opposing success, whatever it may
be. Acceptance of an aesthetic obliges us to admit that there is an
absolute beauty, and that works are deemed beautiful according to the
degree of their resemblance to this vague and complaisant ideal. It is
this aesthetic--admitting its existence for the moment--that is now to
be laid open and submitted to the scalpel.

The sensibility which yields to success, or which produces it, is very
interesting; but perhaps it will be permitted not to despise entirely,
and at very first sight, the sensibility which opposes success and
denies that the successful work is, as such, the beautiful work. These
two sensibilities, though equally spontaneous, are not equally pure.
The second is very mixed. The aesthetic which sums it up--an aesthetic
as fragile as morality--is a mixture of beliefs, of traditions, of
arguments, of habits, of conceptions. Respect enters into it--also fear
and an obscure appetite for novelty. "On new thoughts let us make old
verses." The new-old--that is what all aesthetics extol, for a caste
must be flattered in keeping with its nerves and its erudition. The
artist's judgment, in artistic matters, is an amalgam of sensations
and superstitions. The simple-minded crowd has merely sensations.
Its judgment is not aesthetic. It is not even a judgment. It is the
naïve avowal of a pleasure. It follows necessarily from this that the
aesthetic caste alone is qualified to judge the beauty of works, and to
accord them this quality. The crowd creates success, the caste creates
beauty. It is all the same, if you like, since there is a hierarchy
neither in acts nor in sensations, and all is but movement. It is the
same, but it is different. There, then, is one point established. In
art, the opinion of the intelligence is opposed to the opinion of
sensibility. Sensibility is concerned only with pleasure. If, to this
pleasure, an intellectual element be added, we have aesthetics. The
crowd can say: that pleases me, hence it is beautiful. It cannot say:
that pleases me, yet it is not beautiful, or: that displeases me,
yet it is beautiful. The crowd, as such, never lies; while aesthetic
judgment is one of the most complicated forms of falsehood.[3]

It is very evident that absolute beauty exists no more than truth,
justice, love. The beauty of the poets, the truth of the philosophers,
the justice of the sociologists, the love of the theologians, are
all so many abstractions which enter the realm of our senses--and
very clumsily--only when blocked out by the sculptor's chisel. Like
ideas conceived in the future or in the past, they express a certain
harmony between our present sensations and the general state of our
intelligence. This is especially felt in the case of truth, which is
indeed a sensation uncontradicted by our intelligence; but any other
intelligence may contradict it, or it may find itself contradicted by
sensations of a different order or intensity.

The idea of beauty has an emotional origin, connected with the idea
of generation. The female who is to be the mother must conform to the
racial type. That is, she must be beautiful.[4] Woman is less exacting,
perhaps because man transmits very little of himself to his offspring.
The first standard of beauty was, then, woman and, in general, the
human body. Beauty, in the case of an animal, an object, is possession
of something human in the form, in the character. A landscape can be
described in terms almost all of which would apply to the beauty of a
woman, and marble has her whiteness, sapphires are her eyes, coral is
her lips. We have here a whole vocabulary of poetic commonplaces. To be
sure, some of them should be corrected, and it should be noted that it
is ebony which is black as black hair, and the swan which has a woman's
neck. Beauty is so sexual that the only generally accepted works of art
are those which show, quite simply, the human body in its nakedness.
By his persistence in remaining purely sexual, the Greek sculptor has
placed himself above all discussion for eternity. It is beautiful,
because it is a beautiful human body, such as every man or every woman
would like to unite with for the perpetuation of the race.

But another fact, more obscure, though not less certain, permits us
to bring the idea of beauty back by another route to the very idea of
sexuality. This is, that all human emotions, whatever their order,
nature or intensity, awaken a more or less marked response in the
genital nervous system. Sexual pathology has thrown light upon this.
Perfumes, as well as the smell or sight of blood, noise and heat,
intellectual or muscular effort, repose and fatigue, drunkenness
and abstinence--the most contradictory sensations all favour the
sexual impulse. Others, like fear, cold, vexation, also react upon
a neighbouring and intricate centre in the genital system. Read the
first chapter of _En Ménage_, in which M. Huysmans describes the effect
produced upon a gentle, nervous being by the discovery of a lover in
his wife's arms. Among the emotions which reverberate most surely on
every somewhat sensitive organism, aesthetic emotions must be placed
in the first rank. And thus they return to their origin. That which
inclines to love seems beautiful. That which seems beautiful inclines
to love. There is between the two an undeniable relation. A man loves
a woman because she is beautiful, and he deems her beautiful because
he loves her. It is the same with everything that permits associations
of sexual ideas, and with every emotion which reacts upon the genital

But it is not at all necessary for a work of art to present a sensual
picture in order to awaken ideas of love. It is enough for it to be
beautiful, captivating. It stirs passion. Where shall we seek the
seat of this passion? The brain is merely a centre of transmission.
It is not a terminus. It is a happy and praiseworthy error to have
made man's brain his absolute centre, but it is an error. The sole
natural end of man is reproduction. If his activity had another goal,
he would no longer be an animal, and we fall back into Christianity, to
be confronted again by the soul, demerit and all the jargon employed
by spiritualistic quacks. Emotion becomes conscious at the very
moment of its passing, but it merely passes, leaving its image, and
descends to the loins. This manner of speaking is perhaps figurative,
and, moreover, I am not speaking of intense and strongly localized
excitations. What is meant is merely that aesthetic emotion puts man in
a state favourable to the reception of erotic emotion. This state is
communicated to some by music, to others by painting, the drama. I have
known a man--of a certain age, it is true--who could cheat a sexual
desire by glancing at engravings. The reverse example would, doubtless,
be less paradoxical. Aesthetic emotion is that from which man lets
himself be most easily diverted by love, so easy, almost fatal, is the
passage from one to the other. This intimate union between art and love
is, moreover, the sole explanation of art. Without it--without this
genital repercussion--it would never have been born; and, without it,
it would not be perpetuated. Nothing is useless in deep-seated human
habits. Everything which has lasted is, for that reason, necessary. Art
is the accomplice of love. Take love away, and there is no longer art.
Take art away, and love becomes merely a physiological need.

But it is less here art itself that is concerned than its emotional
power, and there must therefore be grouped under the name of art
everything in the nature of spectacle or sport--every diversion enjoyed
in public, or with regard to which one communicates to himself his
impressions. Fireworks can thrill quite as much as a tragedy. The
sole hierarchy is that of intensity; but there is no doubt that the
success of a work of art greatly increases its emotional power upon
men in general. Hence, for the crowd, the quite natural belief that
every successful work is beautiful, and that failure and scorn are
always merited. In short, what the caste calls beauty, the people call
success; but they have learned from the aristocrats this word truly
devoid of meaning for them, and employ it to enhance the quality of
their pleasures. That is not entirely illegitimate, success and beauty
having a common origin in the emotions, their sole difference being the
difference of the nervous systems in which they have evolved.

But very few men are capable of an original aesthetic emotion. Most of
those who believe they experience it are like the people themselves,
merely obeying the suggestion of a master, the bidding of their
memories, the influence of their environment, the fashion. There is a
passing beauty as precarious as popular success. A work of art extolled
by the caste to-day will be despised by the caste to-morrow, and less
trace of it will perhaps remain than of the work rejected by the caste
and acclaimed by the people. For success is a fact whose importance
increases with the dust it raises, with the number of the faithful come
to accompany the cortège. The emotions of the caste and the emotions
of the people are destined to the same end. Nature, which makes no
leaps, makes no choice either. It is a question of making children.
The sense of smell (or an analogous sense) is so highly developed in
the emperor-moth, that a female egg of that rare butterfly attracts
a throng of males to the spot where not one was seen before. This
acuteness would be absurd if it merely served the emperor-moth to
select a more delicate repast in the flowery flock or, in one way or
another, to increase its pleasure and its spiritual advancement, the
culture of its intelligence. It is an aid to the emperor-moth in making
love. It is its aesthetic sense.

However, there are human natures, less diffuse or more refractory, in
which the emotions do not react upon the centre of major sensibility,
either because this centre is atrophied, or because the emotional
current has encountered in its course an obstacle, a dyke, an
impervious barrier. Let us, without examining too closely the aptness
of the analogy, avail ourselves of the commonest and most striking
comparisons. An electric current is thrown into a wire for the purpose
of creating motion. The wire falls supported by a bit of wood and,
instead of motion, heat is generated. The train which was to have
been propelled burns. So the emotion, on its way towards the genital
sense which it is meant to awaken, encounters a centre of resistance.
It is broken, twists back upon itself, but becomes installed; and all
the emotions of the same order, which pass by the same centre, will
share the same fate. A wheel was to be turned, and we have fireworks.
The species was to be preserved, and we have born the idea of beauty.
Aesthetic emotion, even in its purest, most disinterested form, is,
then, merely a deviation of the genital emotion. Aphrodite, who urged
us to her cult, no longer troubles us. The woman has vanished. Noble
forms are left, agreeable lines; but a horse also is beautiful, and
a lion, and an ox. Fortunate short-circuit which has permitted us to
reflect, to compare, to judge! The current hurled us on towards the
sister of the goddess. Now it turns us from her, for she is less fair!
It might be supposed that it is in the region of the intelligence
the emotional current has become diffused, thus forming that mixture
of emotion and intelligence which gives us the aesthetic sense.
Intelligence is an accident. Genius is a catastrophe. We must carefully
avoid even dreaming of a social state where health, equilibrium,
equity, moderation, order would reign uniformly, where catastrophes
would be impossible, and accidents very rare. Human intelligence is
certainly the consequence of what we naïvely call evil. If the threads
did not become cut and knotted, if emotion always attained its goal,
men would be stronger and handsomer, and their houses would be as
perfect as ant-hills. Only, the world would not exist.


Before returning to our point of departure, here is a résumé:

Two sorts of emotions share in the shaping of the aesthetic sense:
emotions of a genesial nature, and all the other emotions whatsoever,
in a proportion which varies infinitely with each man. The first are
those which we feel when confronted with the perfect representation
of our racial type. Apollo is beautiful, because he is the human
male in all its purity. For the majority of men, every adventitious
idea being rigorously excluded, the sight of the marble is agreeable
because it evokes desire, either directly or, according to the sex,
by counter-evocation. Stendhal's saying will be remembered: "Beauty
is a promise of happiness." The sensualistic philosophy which enabled
him to make this definition was not stupid. We shall be obliged to
return to it, with science as a point of support. In short, it was
then for the purpose of describing the "promise of happiness," that
the word "beauty" was invented. And this word has been successively
applied to everything that promised men the realization of one of their
increasingly numerous and complex desires. Later, the emotional need
having become extremely developed, it was also applied to all causes
of emotion, even terrible or sanguinary; but these varied emotions,
which make up the very life of man, have a goal--like the sense of
smell in the emperor-moth. They penetrate us to make us remember that
our one duty, as living creatures, is to conserve the species. Whatever
sense they may have struck first, they recoil from it towards the
centre of general sensibility. I think of those romantic lovers seen
enveloped by the storm, possessing each other furiously, or of the
gentle emotion of Tibullus, _quam juvat immites_.... The horrible,
stupid, savage tragedies which delighted the Greeks and the French of
the _ancien régime_ were philters, and nothing more. If the great poets
(like women, great poets have neither taste nor sense of disgust) had
not taken the trouble to rethink the stories of Orestes, of Thyestes,
of Polynices, we would deem these to be the delirious ravings of a
society in its infancy or in its final decay. Not one of Racine's
tragedies but has been played a hundred times in the criminal court by
loathsome actors. You will find, if you look for them, in the special
treatises of Ball and of Binet, and in popular works, examples of the
transformation of any sensation whatsoever into sexual act. Here there
are no categories, the field is unlimited. Men have been known for whom
the smell of rotten apples gave strong and necessarily sexual emotions.
Schiller always kept a stock in his table drawer; but, as he possessed
a refractory passage in which the emotional currents were in large part
broken, he made verses, when he had inhaled them, instead of making

Here, then, we have a whole class of men in whom the emotions,
arrested halfway, are transformed into intelligence, into aesthetic
taste, into religious feeling, into morality, into cruelty, according
to the environment and the circumstances, and according to an
exceedingly obscure system of dynamics. It may even be said that this
transformation of the emotions takes place, more or less, in all men.
The emotions may chance also to react almost equally in all directions,
a notable part travelling towards the genital centres while enough
remains _en route_ to produce a great philosopher, a great artist, a
great criminal. Love seems peculiarly connected with cruelty, either
by its absence or by its excess. The mimetic of cruelty is precisely
that of sexual love. Duchenne of Boulogne has proved that by his
experiments. In types of men like Torquemada or Robespierre, the
emotions do not reach the genital sense. They encounter an obstacle
which shunts them off towards another centre. Instead of being
transformed into the need for reproduction, they are transformed into
the need for destruction. But there is the Neronian type and there
is the Sadie type, in which sexuality and cruelty become exasperated
simultaneously and are intertangled. There are men capable of stronger
emotional shocks than other men. Though divided and distributed towards
two goals, the current remains strong enough to produce acts of great
intensity. The same phenomenon, though in a less sinister form, appears
when intellectual power comes into play simultaneously with genital
power. Every man capable of emotion is capable of love, and at the same
time, either of cruelty, of intellectuality, or of religious sentiment;
but the emotional current is sometimes entirely absorbed by one of the
human activities, and we have one variety of extreme types, the other
variety being furnished by men of a great emotional receptivity and,
consequently, of a great diversity of aptitudes.

But let us keep to the human average, and to the question of
aesthetics. According to the quantity withdrawn from the emotional
current, we shall, for example, have a spectator who retains from the
tragedy its entire content of pure, robust beauty--who will go away in
a state of intellectual emotion, less sensible to the murder than to
the curve of the arm that struck the blow; to the curses and terrors,
than the musical form which limits them, encloses them, gives them
life. We shall also have a spectator who, in spite of a few glimmerings
of intellectual emotion, leaves the theatre very much as he might a
boxing-match or a bull-fight. There are the two extremes. One man,
looking at a perfect statue, enjoys the grace of the curves, thinks:
what a beautiful work! The other cries: what a beautiful woman! Between
these two types there is a whole series of shading. For the man of
average type, the idea of beauty scarcely exists. He will judge the
work of art according to the intensity or the quality of his emotion.
It gives him pleasure, or it leaves him cold, and that is all. It is
this average type that determines success in art, the average type must
be pleased. Its emotion must be stirred.

The representatives of the aesthetic caste also judge a work of art
by the emotion it gives them, but this emotion is of a quite special
order. It is the aesthetic emotion. For them those works alone that
are capable of communicating the aesthetic thrill or emotion belong to
art, to the category of beauty. Thus are excluded from art utilitarian,
moralizing, social works possessing any purpose whatsoever outside this
precise and exclusive goal, aesthetic emotion; also works of too sexual
a type, whose appeal to genital exercise is over-direct, though they,
too, respond--in their case with excessive clarity--to men's primitive
notion of artistic beauty. In this way has been formed that aesthetic
category which, eternally instable, ranging from realism to idealism
(a certain idealism), from sentimentalism to brutality, from religious
feeling to sensuality, remains, nevertheless, a closed garden.

Art is, then, that which gives a pure emotion,--that is to say, an
emotion without vibrations beyond a limited group of cells. It is
that which invites to neither virtue nor patriotism, nor debauch, nor
peace, nor war, nor laughter, nor tears, nor anything other than art
itself. Art is impassible, and as an old Italian poet said of love,
_non piange, nè ride_. There is nothing about it either rational, or
just, or consistent with any truth. It is a matter of the manners
and customs of an intellectual caste. Born of an imperfection in the
nervous system, the idea of beauty has picked up, on the way, all sorts
of rules, prejudices, beliefs, habits, and it has constructed itself
a canon whose form, without being absolute, fluctuates at any given
moment between certain limits only. The restriction is necessary.
All refined men of an epoch agree on the idea of beauty. To-day, for
example, there are certain touchstones: Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rodin,
Monet, Nietzsche. To admit that you are not moved by the _Hands_, by
_Hérodiade_, by _Eve_, by the _Cathédrales_, by _Zarathoustra_, is
to admit that you are devoid of aesthetic sensibility. But works of
quite another tone were formerly admired by the same human group.
From Ronsard to Victor Hugo, the principle of beauty was sought in
imitation. Artists imitated the classics, the Italians, the Spaniards,
the English. In the last century, it was the effort after originality;
and this produced even a few years ago an excess of false notes, but a
music less flat, on the whole, than that which had so long wearied the
Muses. Not that the artist imitated less, but he did so in the illusion
of creating something new, and illusion is almost always productive.
France is, moreover, the country where the idea of beauty has undergone
the greatest number of variations, since it is peopled by an animated,
eager race always attentive to what is happening and ready to make the
acquaintance of everything strange and new, reserving the right to
laugh at this novelty, if it does not suit their temperament.

Our aesthetic sense, then, has its caprices. But, historically
variable, it is consistent enough at any given moment. There is an
aesthetic caste to-day. There was always one, and the history of
French literature is little more than the _catalogue raisonné_ of the
works successively chosen by this caste. Successes are shaped in the
street. Glory issues from _cénacles_. As there are no examples to the
contrary, this clearly must be admitted to be a fact--also this, that
the _cénacles_ become disgusted with the glories that escape them,
and start running the streets. A fact is always legitimate, since it
is always logical; but we can always oppose to it the repugnances of
our own sensibility, or of a group of sensibilities. That is the way
of the crowd when led by certain educated mediocrities, who make good
lawyers, since they hate the house which they are fighting, and which
does not recognize them. To the often obscure reputation established by
the aesthetic group, we see, then, incessantly opposed the celebrities
of success. It is easy to dupe the people by showing them, on the one
hand, the poor solitary lamp; on the other, the harsh glare of globes
and the mad riot of tulips.

But the people have little need of encouragement. They go quite
naturally towards that which dazzles them. This also is a fact, and
this also is legitimate. The public, led by cunning shepherds, does
wrong to despise the confused gleam of the stars; but the aesthetic
caste does wrong to laugh at the people's pleasures. It also does
wrong when it monopolizes certain words and refuses to call works of
art those compositions which, no less than those which they themselves
admire, have as their aim to stir emotion. It is a question of quality,
not of essence. The aesthetic caste suffers less from seeing a poor
thing applauded, than a real work disdained. Its judgment, so sure
in scenting false art, suddenly weakens, and is angered, because a
votary of the popular taste does not incline before its admirations.
It is always a mistake to appeal to justice; but it is madness to
appeal to the justice of a social group. We should abandon all that;
and shut ourselves up in an opinion as in a tower. It would be easier
to cut the throats of a hundred fanatical admirers of _Quo Vadis_?
than to convince them, and far less fatiguing. Literary justice is
an absurdity. It supposes emotional parity among men belonging to
different physiological categories. A work is beautiful for those whom
it moves. Sensibility is incorruptible--popular sensibility as well as
that of the _cénacles_. It is as incorruptible as taste and as smell.
It was formerly imagined that there was such a thing as taste--an
absolute taste worshipped in a temple. Nothing is more ridiculous,
nothing more tyrannical. Let us leave men to seek their pleasure
freely. Some want to have their feelings harrowed, others their spleen
banished, still others their heart pierced. Different instruments are
needed for each of these operations. Art is a form of surgery whose
case is well equipped, and a pharmacopeia filled with vials of every
form and odour.

People talk very seriously--that is, without laughing--of initiating
the people to art. In less vague terms, corresponding to a certain
scientific reality, this would mean so shaping the physiology of men in
general, that emotion, instead of reaching the genital centre, spreads
towards the aesthetic centre. The enterprise is not of the easiest.
Poor people! How it is made game of, and how stupid, in their goodness
of heart, are its intellectual masters! These really believe that taste
for painting, for music, for poetry, is learned like orthography or
geography! And suppose it could be, and suppose a few admirations had
been imparted to a few workmen. What does it matter that the people
do not admire what we admire? They would have the same right to ask
us to share their enthusiasms. There is no absolute aesthetic. That
which moves us is beautiful; but we can be moved only in the measure of
our emotional receptivity, and according to the state of our nervous
system. Insensibility to what we call beauty,--a very complex idea,
the moment we leave the human form,--would seem, on the whole, to be
merely the sign of a healthy organism, of a normal brain, in which the
nervous currents go straight to their goal, without turning aside. But
this simple state is rare. All men are capable of receiving certain
aesthetic emotions, and all are eager for them; but almost no man is
concerned with the quality of this emotion. The important thing is
to be moved. No other monument since the cathedrals--perhaps since
the pyramids--has so' stirred human sensibility as the Eiffel Tower.
Confronted with all that junk reared on high, stupidity itself became
lyric, fools meditated, wild asses dreamed. From those heights swept
down, as it were, a storm of emotions. An attempt was made to divert
it, but it was too late. Success had arrived. The more admiration a
work receives, the more beautiful it becomes for the multitude. It
becomes beautiful and almost alive. Emotional waves, starting from
it, come, like combers, to break upon a people drunk and panting. The
whole organism holds carnival. Stupid and beautiful, the genius of the
species smiles in the shade.

Such is the social rôle of art. It is immense. There is an Australian
bird which builds, as its nest, a big cabin where it spreads all the
shining pebbles it finds. The male, amid the mosaic, dances a grave
minuet before his troubled companion. This is art surprised at its
obscure birth--at the very moment of its intimate association with the
expansion of the genital instinct. A red pebble gives an emotion to a
bird, and this emotion heightens its desire. Such is the social rôle of
art. The people--and by the people, I here mean the mass of men--must
admire. They must experience aesthetic emotions, must quiver with long
nervous vibrations, must have rich and complicated loves; but, what
matters it whence comes the cloud, so long as it rains!

I have merely wished to show the legitimacy of all aesthetic emotion,
whatever its source, and of all success, whatever its quality; but I
shall be readily believed if I confess that I retain my preferences for
a certain form of art, for a certain expression of beauty. I depart in
this respect from the common sentiment, that I do not believe it useful
to generalize opinions, to teach admirations. To force admiration
is almost as wicked as to force an entrance. It is for each man to
procure himself the emotion he needs, and the morality which suits
him. Apuleius's ass wanted to crop roses, because by so doing he would
resume the human form. It is a very good idea to crop roses. It is one
way to achieve freedom.


[1] At the Hôtel de Bourgogne, while at Giénégaud his rival Pradon's
play was received with great applause.

[2] Bayle. And Racine, recognizing his adversary's craft, said: "The
whole difference between me and Pradon is that I know how to write."

[3] In another essay, _Women and Language_, I have considered the
lie as the mark of man as opposed to the animal. The superiority of
a race, of a group of living beings, is in direct ratio to its power
of falsehood--that is to say, reaction against reality. The lie is
only the psychological form of the Vertebrate's reaction against its
environment. Nietzsche, anticipating science, says: "The lie is a
condition of life."

[4] There is a presentiment of this in Montesquieu's remark, recently
published; it is conformity that constitutes beauty _Æsthetics_. Father
Buffier has defined beauty as the assembling of the commonest elements.
When his definition is explained, it is excellent. Father Buffier says
that beautiful eyes are those resembling the greatest number of other
eyes; the same with the mouth, the nose, etc. It is not that there are
not a great many more ugly noses than beautiful ones, but that the
former are of many different sorts, and that each sort of ugly noses is
much smaller in number than the beautiful sort. It is as if, in a crowd
of a hundred men, there were ten dressed each in a different colour; it
is the green that would predominate.


Without being as widespread as it might be, and as it will be,
education is very, much in vogue. We live less and less, and we learn
more and more. Sensibility surrenders to intelligence. I have seen a
man laughed at because he examined a dead leaf attentively and with
pleasure. No one would have laughed to hear a string of botanical terms
muttered with regard to it; but there are some men who, while not
ignorant of the handbooks, believe that true science should be felt
first as a pleasure. It is not the fashion. The fashion is to learn in
books alone, and from the lips of those who recite books.

Cornelius Agrippa, who possessed all the learning of his time, and
more, amused himself by writing a "Paradox on the uncertainty, vanity,
and abuse of the sciences."[1] This might be rewritten to-day, but
on another note. For a science does not have to be uncertain, vain
and abusive in order to be useless to one who cultivates it; and,
on the other hand, the certainty of a science, its interest and
its legitimacy, do not confer upon it an absolute right to mental
governance. We would even gladly agree as to the absurdity of a debate
upon the certainty or uncertainty of the sciences. Some are aleatory,
but the light-minded or interested alone call them so. The word science
involves, by definition, the idea of objective truth, and we must abide
by that, without further dispute, even conceding this objective truth,
whatever repugnance may be felt for the indissoluble union of two words
which then become ironical.

It is, moreover, a question not of science, but of education, for
which science furnishes the matter or the pretext. What is the value
of education? What sort of superiority can it confer upon an average
intelligence? If education be sometimes a ballast, is it not more often
a burden? Is it not also, and still more often, a sack of salt which
melts upon the ass's shoulders in the first storms of life? And so on.

Education is of two sorts, according as it is useful or decorative.
Even astrology can become a practical science, if the astrologer finds
his daily bread in it; but what good can it do a magistrate to know
geometry if not perhaps to warp his mind? Everything that concerns his
trade--draughtsmanship and archaeology, even, and all notions of this
order--will prove profitable to an intelligent carpenter; but of what
use could an aesthetic theory be to him if not perhaps to hamper his
activity? When it does not find some practical application or turn
itself into cash, education is an ingot sleeping in a glass case. It is
useless, not very interesting, and quite devoid of beauty.

There is much talk, in certain political circles, of integral
education. This means, doubtless, that everybody should be taught
everything--also, that a vague universal notion would be a great
benefit, a great comfort for any intelligence whatsoever; but,
in this reasoning, there is a confusion between matter and form.
The intelligence, which has a general and common form, has also
a particular form for each individual. Just as there are several
memories, so there are several intelligences; and each of these
intelligences, modified by its own physiology, determines the
individual intellect. Far from its being a good thing to teach
everybody everything, it seems clear that a given intelligence can,
without danger to its very structure, receive only those kinds of
notions which enter it without effort. If we were accustomed to attach
to words only those relative meanings they admit of, integral education
would signify the sort of education compatible with the unknown
morphology of a brain. In the majority of cases the quantity of this
education would amount to nothing, since most intelligences cannot be

At least by the methods at present employed, which may be summed up
in a single word--abstraction. It has come to be admitted in teaching
circles that life can be known only as speech. Whether the subject be
poetry or geography, the method is the same--a dissertation which sums
up the subject and pretends to represent it. Education has at length
become a methodical catalogue of words, and classification takes the
place of knowledge.

The most active, intelligent man can acquire only a very small number
of direct, precise notions. These are, however, the only ones of any
real depth. Teaching gives nothing but education. Life gives knowledge.
Education has at least this advantage, that it is generalized,
sublimated knowledge and thus capable of containing, in small bulk,
a great quantity of notions; but, in the majority of minds, this too
condensed food remains inert and fails to ferment. What is called
general culture is usually nothing but a collection of purely abstract
mnemonic acquisitions which the intelligence is incapable of projecting
upon the plane of reality. Without a very lively and universally active
imagination, notions confided to the memory dry up in a dead soil.
Water and sun are required to soften and ripen the sprouting seed.

It is better to know nothing than to know badly, or little, which is
the same thing. But do we know what ignorance is? So many things have
to be learned in order to appreciate and understand it! Those who might
enjoy ignorance, since they possess it, are under too many illusions
concerning themselves to find any frank refreshment in it; and those
who would be glad to do so, have left their first innocence too far
behind them. There have been moments of civilization when men knew
everything. It was not much. Was it much less than all the science
of to-day? This relativity may well make us reflect upon the value
of education. It will aid us also to indicate its true character.
Education is never other than relative. It ought, then, to be practical.

M. Barrès, in his last novel,[2] makes a deputy of Burdeau's type
say: "Virtue, like patriotism, is a dangerous element to arouse in
the masses." To these two abstractions should, perhaps, be added all
the others, in order to decree a general ostracism against every
idea that has not first been defined. And this would not mean the
proscription of virtues or of patriotic sentiments, but simply this,
that nothing is worse for the health of an average intelligence than
playing with abstract words--than that false verbal science which is at
once found inapplicable on entering real life. It is not a matter of
being virtuous; how realize a word which is the synthesis of several
contradictory ideals? It is a matter of accommodating one's nature to
the vital conditions and moral traditions of his environment. It is
not a matter of being patriotic. It is a matter of defending, against
strange beasts, the purity of the spring where one drinks. It is not a
matter of knowing the abstract principle in which the broad river of
general ideas may find its source. It is a matter of making life at
once an act of faith and an act of prudence. It is a matter first and
foremost of preserving enough simplicity to breathe joyfully the social
air, and enough suppleness to obey, without cowardice, the elementary
laws of life.

Life is a series of sensations bound together by states of
consciousness. Unless your organism is such that the abstract notion
redescends towards the senses the moment it has been understood;
unless the word Beauty gives you a visual sensation; unless handling
ideas gives you a physical pleasure, almost like caressing a shoulder
or a fabric, let ideas alone. When a miller has no grist, he shuts
his sluices and sleeps, or goes and takes a walk. He never dreams of
running his mill when it is empty, and wearing out his stones grinding
air. Education is often nothing but the wind raised by the whirling of
the bolts, and felt as words.

Teaching, from top to bottom--from the official to the popular
universities, from the village school to the École Normale--is little
else than a phrase-factory. The most valuable of all is the primary
school, where one learns to read and write--acquisitions, not of a
science, but of a new sense. If there were cut from the programme of
the rest everything useless--everything inapplicable to life or to
some profession or trade--scarcely enough would be left for eighteen
months' schooling.

The greater part of the people still escape the tortures of listening
to gentlemen who recite books. The children of the poor, freed from
the scholastic prison, learn a trade, which is an enhancement of one's
self, and begin to live at an age when their rich brothers still spend
their time handling words which correspond to nothing real--tools
which sculpture the eternal void.[3] This is about to be remedied, and
here is the subject of a night lecture in a people's university: "The
Development of the Idea of Justice in Antiquity." Even supposing--what
is little likely--that the professor said nothing on this subject that
could not be absorbed by a healthy intelligence, of what use could such
a discourse possibly be to a popular audience, and what could such
an audience derive from it applicable to its own humble existence?
Less, assuredly, than from the old-fashioned sermons which were not
afraid to flout its vices and to play upon its cowardice to keep it
from low pleasures. But the clergy of the lay religion is grave and
disdainful of facts. Souls speak to souls. The ideal descends upon the
people. The first Christians at least met both to pray and to eat in
fraternal union. After the repast, some arose to utter prophecies. The
modern prophets live only on abstractions, and they gladly share this
economical and ridiculous food with their brethren.

The man who has slowly acquired a science, has, aside from the social
advantages which it offers him, conferred, by that very fact, a special
force and agility upon his organs of attention. He possesses not only
the desired science, but a whole hunting outfit in good condition, and
all ready for new quarry. When he has carefully and patiently acquired
a foreign language, he can afterwards, with far less effort, master
the other languages of the same family. But, if he has had recourse
to some time-saving method, the acquisition no longer possesses its
proper value, and may even deteriorate more or less rapidly. Water,
boiled very quickly, grows cold equally fast--a fact ignored by the
manufacturer who had set up public boilers. By the time it had crossed
the street, the water was as cold as if it had come from a cool spring.
It is for this same reason that quick teaching by the lecture system
is so particularly useless. The listener learns to believe and not to
reason, which would still be a way of acting and of living.

Educational baggage is composed almost entirely of beliefs. Literature
and science are taught like a catechism. Life is the school of prudent
doubt. The school is a pretentious church. Every professor is equipped
with an arsenal of aphorisms. The youth who refuses to let himself be
made a target is despised. The inversion of logical values is carried
to the point where certain intellectual acts--resistance to scientific
faith, Cartesian reserve--are considered signs of unintelligence.

M. Jules de Gaultier has invented a new Manichaeism whose prudent
employment will prove very useful in clearing up certain questions.[4]
To the vital instinct he opposes the instinct of knowledge; but the
former is not the good principle, any more than the latter is the bad
principle. They have both their rôle in the work of civilization; for,
if the latter develops in man the need to know at the expense of the
forces which conserve his vital energy, it permits the intelligence,
at the same time, the better to enjoy both itself and the life of the
feelings. The spontaneous and unconscious genius of growing races
refuses obedience to neither of these great instincts. Life does not
exhaust its energy, which is immutable, but the modes of energy which
it has assumed. We tire of feeling before we tire of knowing. This
is what Leibnitz has naïvely expressed, and what has been repeated
with him by all those whose intelligence is the vulture: "It is not
necessary to live, but it is necessary to think." When this aphorism
reaches the people, it means that the decadent vital instinct has begun
to give up the struggle. The glorious flowering-time has arrived, but
the plant will die once the insect horde has fertilized it and the wind
has borne its seed to a virgin soil.

An ignorant mass forms a magnificent reserve of life in a people. Our
civilization has failed to recognize this. It is an immense field of
little flowers which exhausts the earth's vigour for the sake of a
senseless effulgence.

Such ideas, even in the attenuated form of images, may seem barbarous
to those who believe in the "benefits of education"; but it begins to
be easier to find adjectives than arguments to regenerate this ancient
and almost exhausted theme. Hearing so many journalists and deputies
speak of education as a sovereign elixir, it is clear that they have
tasted it at the sound, authentic source--that of the handbooks and the
encyclopedias--but not from those detestable jars in which the evil
genius of analysis slumbers. The true science, the "gay science," is
singularly poisonous. It is quite as poisonous as it is salutary. It
contains as many doubts as there are specks of gold in Danzig brandy.
One never knows just where the intoxication produced by this heady
liquor may lead an intelligence not too strong or too sceptical.

Compared with science, education is so slight a thing that it scarcely
merits a name. What are elementary notions of chemistry worth, when
we think of the chemist who handles bodies, composing and decomposing
them, who counts the molecules and weighs the atoms? And what
difference does it make whether a hundred thousand bachelors know the
elements of the air? But already they know it no longer. Had they been
taught to breathe, they would, perhaps, have escaped two or three
diseases, a predisposition to which, or whose germs, they transmit
joyfully to their children. It is necessary (despite a celebrated
irony) to have a chemistry and chemical industries, but not to teach
the man in the street the obscure principles of a vain science.

This is only an example, but it could be extended to almost all the
elements of general culture. An average brain to-day resembles those
experimental gardens in which flourish specimens of all the flora. Yet
this garden has its special utility, whereas brains rich in little of
everything are good for nothing. The ground has not even been turned
into a parterre, but into a herbarium, and the dried plants are so
commonplace, so defective, that they can be put to no decent use. The
majority of the flower-beds, at least, should have been reserved for a
profound and passionate culture. When this is done, the dead corners of
the garden acquire once more a certain importance. They furnish manure
and mould to warm the heart of the living garden.

We do not, then, pretend to say that general culture is useless. It
is indispensable as an auxiliary and a reserve, but as such only, and
on condition that the general, superficial culture is accompanied by
one or more sections of intensive culture. Alone, it has no value. If
from the average level, we descend to the little gardens of the people,
we now see, replacing rank but luxuriant grass, mere sickly growths
already frozen by life. All the natural flora has been weeded out, and
what was sown instead, in a soil poorly cleared and prepared, has been
unable to come up because there was neither sun nor water. The sole
interest of these ridiculous little kitchen-gardens is a tree, which
is often tall and stately--some chestnut or linden. This is the trade
in which the man has resolutely perfected himself. One of these trees
alone is worth all the general cultures which have relegated it to a
stony corner. It dominates them by its utility and by its beauty.

Man's justification in life is that he is a function. His days on
earth must produce a result. That is why we shall eternally regret the
abolishing of the trades by the extreme division of labour. Industrial
civilization has withdrawn from a vast number of men the pleasure
that they used to find in their work. A high salary may make a man
satisfied to have worked, but it does not give him satisfaction in the
work itself, the joy of employing the present hour in the realization
of a definite object. Industry has operated against the artisan to the
advantage of the idler, and also to the advantage of capital against
labour. Any mechanical invention whatsoever has been more harmful
to humanity than a century of war. The hedemonic value of muscular
activity has been so far diminished that the only moments when workmen
are conscious of living are those when the normal man relaxes--the
moments of repose; and, necessarily, the temptation has been to dilate
these hours of negative sensation to the point of absorbing in them the
whole pleasure of living. Alcohol has afforded the means.

In order to suppress this source of excitation, people with good
intentions but unhealthy minds--that is to say, out of touch with
reality--have contemplated opposing the pleasure of learning to the
pleasure of drinking. If such a task were possible, physiological
intoxication would be replaced by cerebral intoxication, and that
would not be a very desirable result. To follow a day of muscular
effort with an evening of intellectual effort, is to double the total
fatigue without real profit to the man subjected to such a régime.
Consider the poor wretch who, after ten hours of shoving a block of
wood under the sharp teeth of a circular saw, comes back, after a
picked-up supper, to listen to a gentleman address him on the holiness
of justice! But justice would require the preacher to take turns with
the artisan in shoving the blocks of wood and in comfortably studying
the fruitful principles of social charlatanism. Poor people who, with
their instinctive need of priests, believe themselves victors because,
having denied a dogma, they now applaud the moral aspect of this same
dogma, but deformed by hypocrisy and hatred! It is through education--a
very ancient invention--that the clergy has dominated the people and
the world; and it is through education also, that the lay preachers are
determined to clip the last claws of the vital instinct.

For all these teachers teach desperately the negation of life. They
infect the healthy section of the people with their own unhealthy
habits of receiving sensation only by reflex, of watching in a glass
the life they dare not encounter, and they do so with a certain
good faith. The real object of this education is the implanting of
a morality--a singular morality, whose precepts are almost entirely
negative. By weakening the will to live, to the profit of an instable
cerebrality, they fashion those enervated, obedient, docile generations
which are the dream of second-rate tyrants. At the very moment when a
race needs, merely to persist, all the forces of which its instinct
is perhaps still the depository, they pour out for it, though in an
impoverished, poisoned form, that very liquor with which the Roman
apostles tamed the surplus energy of the barbarians. If a rationalistic
or religious protestantism were to pre-empt the sovereign place of
our traditional, pagan Catholicism, we should share the fate of those
conquered peoples.

But how is it possible not to be tempted to furnish rules of conduct
along with rules of grammar? All we ask is that these precepts should
not be depressants, but that the young should find in them, on the
contrary, an incitement to activity--to all the activities. Education,
in itself, is nothing. It can be judged only when its surroundings are
examined by the light of this torch. A torch is useful, not because of
its light, but because of the object on which its light falls. We see
also an oven methodically heated with brushwood and faggots; but this
heat is merely a sterile blaze if, when it dies down, the dough of the
eternal bread be not given it to bake.

Education is a means, and not an end. It is painfully absurd to learn
for learning's sake, to burn for the sake of burning. The very song of
the birds is not in vain. During the periods of sexual calm the great
love concerts are rehearsed. Considered as the precise instrument of a
future work, education may have a very great, even absolute importance.
It may be the necessary condition of certain intellectual achievements.
It will be the staff of the intelligence; but, offered to a second-rate
brain, directed simply and solely to the enlargement of the memory, it
has no power to regenerate sick cells. It will rather serve to crush
them. It will make them dull. It will divert from the natural needs of
life the activities merely meant for daily exercise. Education ballasts
unstable genius, giving it subjects for comparison and motives for
reflection. To genius already established, it affords a little of that
uneasiness which is the source of irony. It is sometimes a support for
certitude, sometimes the cause of gravitation towards doubt. But it has
an influence only upon intelligences in action or capable of action.
It does not determine, it inclines. Above all, it does not create
intelligence. We are constantly offered examples of men who, educated
in all that is taught, remain mediocrities, and who, though they have
written for twenty years, have not even learned how to write. And, on
the other hand, there are others who know but one trade, and who have
read nothing but life. Their lucidity sometimes shames even genius.


[1] "A work," continues the translator, "which can profit the reader,
and which brings marvellous contentment to those who frequent the
courts of the _grands seigneurs_, and who wish to learn how to talk of
an infinite number of things opposed to the common opinion." S. 1. 1603.

[2] _L'Appel au soldat_.

[3] Someone remarked in the course of a conversation: "The peasant is
a real person; he is a scientist, a physicist." All modern political
effort tends to turn the physicist into a metaphysician. This effort
is well under way for the working-man, who begins to despise toil and
value phrases. His surprise is great when he finds that the word has no
effect upon reality.

[4] _De Kant à Nietzsche_.


Women's rôle in the work of civilization is so great that it would
scarcely be an exaggeration to say that the edifice is reared on the
shoulders of these frail caryatides. Women know things that have never
been written or taught, and without which almost the whole equipment
of our daily life would be rendered useless. In 1814, some Cossacks,
who had discovered a supply of stockings, drew them on directly over
their boots--a general example of our commonest acts, had not women,
for centuries of centuries, been the patient teachers of childhood.
This rôle is so natural that it seems humble. We are struck only
by what is extraordinary. The powerful machinery of a woolen-mill
overwhelms us. Who has ever felt moved at the sight of the simple
play of a pair of knitting-needles? Yet, compared with these little
sticks, the greatest power-loom becomes insignificant. It represents a
particular civilization. The wooden or steel needles represent absolute
civilization. In every field the essential should be distinguished from
the accessory. In civilization women's part represents the essential.

It is easier to feel this than to prove it, for it is a question
precisely of those acts which pass unperceived along life's path--of
all sorts of things which are never mentioned, because they are not
observed or because their importance is not understood. Thus physiology
was long unknown, while curiosity was occupied with monsters. The
continuous phenomenon ceases to exist for our senses. It was a
city-dweller, or a prisoner, or a blind man suddenly restored to
sight, who first noted natural beauty. There is an external physiology
which disappears in habit. Analyzed, it reveals the most important
voluntary act of our lives--voluntary, in the sense that they are
contingent compared with the primordial movements of the life of a
species; voluntary, if the will be regarded as the consciousness of an
unconscious effort.

       *       *       *       *       *

Whether sense or faculty, speech cannot logically be separated from
hearing, but the education of the ear is much less perceptible than
that of the vocal apparatus. They can thus be considered separately, or
at least without observing a precise order in acquisitions which are
entangled like all the activities of life. Moving, hearing, seeing,
speaking--all these are connected. Imitation imposes itself upon all
the functions at the same time, though an appreciable order of birth
can be established for each of them. This order is of little moment in
a study where it is question, not of the intelligence which receives,
but of the intelligence which gives--of the exterior and not of the
interior psychological life.

Speech is feminine. Poets and orators are feminine types. To speak is
to do woman's work. Because woman speaks as a bird sings, she alone is
capable of teaching the language. When the child attempts to imitate
the sounds it has heard, the woman is there to watch him, to smile at
him, and to encourage him. There is established a mute working contract
between these two beings, and what patience the one who knows displays
in guiding the one who tries! The first words pronounced by a child
correspond in its mind to no object, to no sensation. The child, at
this moment of its life, is a parrot, and nothing more. It imitates.
It speaks because it hears others speaking. If the world were silent
around it, speech would remain congealed in its brain. Thence the
importance of a woman's prattle--an importance far greater than that
of the most beautiful poems and of the profoundest philosophies. The
function which makes man a man is the special work of the woman. A
child reared by a very feminine and very talkative woman is formed
rather for speech and, consequently, for psychologic consciousness.
Left to the care of a taciturn man, the same child would develop very
slowly--so slowly, perhaps, that it would never attain the full limits
of its practical intelligence.

Were it possible to assign an origin to language, one would say that
woman had created it; but the secret of all origins will forever escape
us. Birds sing, the dog barks, man speaks. It is not easier to imagine
a dumb man than a dumb dog or a dumb finch; and if these species
formerly existed without a voice, it is not easy to see why they should
have acquired an organ which many other animals, including the birds
of the South Polar regions, get along very well without. If language
were learned or acquired--if, in order to recover its first traces, the
celebrated roots, it were enough to find the common mother of Latin and
Sanskrit, of Greek and of Anglo-Saxon--it is not easy to see why the
dog does not converse with his master otherwise than with his tail, his
eyes and his yelping. But the dog will never speak, because the genius
of an animal species is as rigorously determined as the forms of the
crystalline species.

The view that the oldest language was composed of five or six hundred
monosyllables, is now without value, though it had a certain force.
It gave weight to several hypotheses whose absurdity was not at first
evident. Yet nothing had ever been observed in any real language
resembling an even unconscious reservoir of roots. Words are born of
each other by derivation, coming into the world sometimes longer,
sometimes shorter, than the original word. This derivation is always
dominated by a real, living concrete sense. No man whose mind has not
been spoiled by special studies, has the sense of roots. The ba, be,
bi, bo, bu of the alphabets, are, according to the theory, so many
roots; but a series of kindred meanings has not been attributed to
each of these sounds. They are capable, even in the same language, of
expressing them all, either by chance, or according to a logic whose
laws are undeterminable.

The primitive element in speech is not the word but the phrase. Man's
spoken phrase is instinctive, like the sung phrase of the bird, like
the yelped phrase of the dog. The word is a product of analysis.

In order to give the word priority over the phrase, the older school
started from this idea, namely, that the word is created after the
thing has been perceived, man acting as a nomenclator, as a professor
of botany who gives names to sprigs of moss. The reality is different.
The child stammers words before knowing the objects of which these
words are the signs. It is possible that man spoke--chattered--a long
time before a fixed relation became established between things and the
familiar sounds issuing from his mouth.

Thousands of languages can thus have been chattered successively on
thousands of territories--languages lacking precision, essentially
musical, a succession of phrases in which certain sounds only
corresponded to realities; but these sounds, in spite of their
importance, in spite of their utilitarian and representative value,
may be supposed to have been at first almost as fugitive as the rest
of the speech. An unwritten language never survives the generation
which created it. Among savages each generation remakes its language
so completely that the grandfather is a stranger among his own

If this primitive chattering be admitted, it will readily be admitted
also that woman must have had a large share in it, while arousing the
mind of the males by her laughter and her attention. Woman has little
capacity for verbal innovation. Among so many excellent women writers,
none has ever created a language in the sense of which this is said
of Ronsard, of Montaigne, of Chateaubriand, or of Victor Hugo; but
she repeats well--often better than a man--what was said before her.
Born to conserve, she performs her rôle to perfection. Eternally,
unwearyingly she rekindles from the failing torch a new torch identical
with the old. It is in the hands of women--dancers in life's ballet,
or melancholy vestals in deep caverns--that the _lampada vitai_ shine.
What woman has been historically, she will always be and she has always
been, from before history even.

Certain words became fixed in the primitive chattering. This was the
work of woman. Destined to attention by the monotony of her domestic
labour,[1] she rebelled against the useless renewal of terms. Her life
became complicated in those lands where the game was abundant, where
nature was fertile. Men's needs increased with their wealth, and with
them, woman's occupations. Having to work more, she had less time to
listen to songs and speeches. Novelties succeeding each other too
rapidly, upset her. She corrected the language of men who, in their
turn, became disconcerted. Thus were born the words in common use, and
thus the fixed sounds corresponding to realities in man's spoken song
gradually grew in number.

Woman, whose memory is excellent, had also, from the earliest times,
no doubt, retained the most musical, the most rhythmical parts of
speech--some combination of phrases resembling those melopeias repeated
insatiably by Negroes. Man created. Woman learned by heart. If a
civilized country were one day to reach that state of mind in which
every novelty is at once welcomed and substituted for traditional ideas
and methods--if the past were to yield constantly to the future--then,
after a period of frenzied curiosity, men would be observed falling
into the apathy of the tourist who never glances twice at the same
object. In order to recover their grip, they would be obliged to seek
refuge in a purely animal existence, and civilization would perish.
Such a fate seems to have overtaken ancient peoples, so eager to renew
their pleasures that their passing has left but hypothetical traces.
Excess of activity, far more than torpor, has caused the decay of many
Asiatic civilizations. Wherever woman has been unable to intervene and
to oppose the influence of her passivity to the arrogance of the young
males, the race has exhausted itself in fugitive essays. We can, then,
be sure that, wherever a durable civilization has been organized, woman
was its cornerstone.

Arising, as a reciter, before the creator, woman formed a repertory,
a library, archives. The first song-book was woman's memory, and it
is the same with the first collection of tales, the first bundle of

However, the invention of writing came, like all progress,
successively, to diminish woman's importance as archivist. Since
everything that seemed worth remembering was fixed by signs on
durable matter, it became woman's duty and pleasure to perpetuate
what men condemned to oblivion. She has performed faithfully a task
that matter has almost always betrayed; and so it is that tales which
were never written, and which assuredly go back to the earliest ages,
have come down to us. Women who had been entertained by them as
children, entertained their own children with them in turn. In spite
of the efforts of rational pedagogy, which would like to substitute
the history of the French Revolution, or that of the founding of the
German Empire, for _Tom Thumb_, mothers still put their good children
to sleep with blue story or red, of love or of blood. But this oral
literature, whose themes are so much more numerous than those of
written literature, has been found to possess the greatest beauty,
and consequently a supreme importance. We owe the salvaging of this
treasure to woman's conservative genius.

She conserved also the songs, the tunes (and the dances accompanying
them) which man sheds at the very moment when he leaves his youth. For
him they are futilities, and he never gives them another thought. For
woman, they are means of pleasing and she remembers them always. When
hope has departed, she falls back upon them to live again the happy
days of her youth. Thus do old women keep their hearts young.

Women do not seem to have had a great share in the invention of tales
and of songs. They have preserved, which is a way of creating. Yet one
finds, nevertheless, the mark of their mind in certain variants. Their
tendency was to tone down the end of a tale, to quiet the effervescence
of a song too rollicking. This invention saved the life of many of
these small things, by making them available to children, whose memory
is an exceedingly sure casket.

Along with literature women saved a whole collection of notions
difficult to determine. It is not a question of the long string of
superstitions, but of the element of practical science contained in
these superstitions, these beliefs, these traditions. To estimate the
importance of this chapter of human knowledge, one should make a sort
of examination of his own consciousness. Then, after long reflection,
he will be able to distinguish between things learned from books,
and those which, while never written, everyone knows. What is truly
indispensable for the conduct of life has been taught us by women--the
petty rules of politeness, those acts which win us the cordiality or
deference of others; those words which assure us a welcome; those
attitudes which must be varied according to the character and the
situation; all social strategy. It is listening to women that teaches
us to speak to men, to worm our way into their will. For those alone
who know how to please, can teach the art of pleasing.

Even before he speaks, a child knows the value of a smile. It is his
first language, and nothing proves that it is absolutely instinctive.
The animal has only those attitudes which are the sign of a need. Some
are beautiful, some are pretty, but none are voluntary.

The smallest child's smile often veils an intention. Woman has taught
it the mystery of exchanges, and the fact that a friendly gesture can
win food and other things essential to life. The little girl, better
disposed than the boy to appreciate this teaching, knows the value of
curving lips and of the wave of her rosy hand, long before knowledge
of the vocal signs has permitted her tender brain the most elementary
reasoning. It is, then, in her case, pure imitation; but the act is
favoured by recollection of the end already obtained by the first
attempt, and we have here a very curious and obscure example of an
effect determining its cause in physiological unconsciousness.

Since women have little in their lives but passional relations, this
very primitive play remains the basis of their social tactics. Men feel
progressively the need of complicating this elementary science, but it
always remains for them a supreme resource. To touch his conqueror, to
please him--such is the last argument of the conquered.

All mimetic art is the work of women. Even when she is silent, a woman
continues to speak--often with a sincerity which her words lack. Even
when she is motionless she continues to speak, and she is often more
eloquent then than with words or with gestures. The form of her body
makes her breathing a language. The rhythm of her bosom betrays the
state of her soul and the degree of her emotion. No speech finds a
man more sensitive. But their eyes have at their disposal a keyboard
still more extended, though less effective. With her eyes, with the
varied curves of her mute mouth, woman can express her inmost thought.
The eye pales or kindles, lifts or lowers its look, and it spells
desire or disdain, anger or promise--so many pages understood by man
the moment he has an interest in reading them. To these gleams and
these movements, the play of the eyelids adds its value. This play is
affirmative, negative, interrogative. It utters a short and decisive
yes, or a yes of languor and abandon. It questions in the tone of anger
or of complaining. It refuses with a half-abrupt closing of the pupil,
which veils the eyes without closing them. But how many other shades
there are, and how rich in speech the smile is, also! The whole woman
speaks. She is language incarnate.

Her children will first be actors. Like their mother, they will learn
how to speak at the start with everything that is silent--precious
acquisition. Darwin found the first sketch of emotional expression
in animals. There is an important element of instinct in the human
mimetic. Woman has cultivated these primitive movements, has refined
and multiplied them. To the signs of the true emotions have come to be
added the signs of the false emotions, and then only has a language
been created. Animal expression of the emotions is not a language, for
it would be incapable of making believe. True language begins with
the lie. There is a real meaning in the famous saying that language
was given to man to disguise his thought. The lie, which is the sole
external proof of psychological consciousness, is also the sole proof
that signs are language, and not unconscious mimetic. The lie is
the very basis of language and its absolute condition. Analysis of
linguistic facts proves this clearly enough, since every word contains
a metaphor, and since every metaphor is a transposition of reality,
when it is not a wilful, premeditated falsehood. But, taking language
such as it appears to us, and supposing each word to correspond to
an object, it may be said that, if there existed a man who had never
lied, that man never spoke. It is not, in fact, speaking, to say "I
am afraid," or "I am cold," when you are afraid, or are cold. It is
expressing an emotion or a sensation by means of verbal signs analogous
to the trembling of the animal famished or frozen. But if, on the
contrary, denying his emotion or his sensation, the man who is cold
says "I am warm," and the man who is hungry says "I am not hungry,"
he speaks. Whether he employ words, gestures or written signs, it is
by this, by the lie--that is to say, by consciousness--that the man
is recognized. Lie, let it be understood, here signifies expression
of an imaginary sensation. It is a matter of psychology, not of
morality--separate domains.

If woman is language, she should be lie, and also consciousness.
All three are connected and form but one. The first of these points
has never been studied, but popular opinion favours it. Not only
do women speak more readily than men, they employ a better syntax,
a less haphazard vocabulary, their pronunciation is excellent. One
feels that language is their element. The second point, the lie, is
not disputed; but women are reproached with it, whereas it is the
consequence of another gift and, moreover, an assertion of their
spiritual nature. Women lie more than men. Then it is because they have
a greater sentiment of independence, a livelier consciousness; and here
we have reached the third point, without, it seems to me, a minute
demonstration being necessary.

The hysterical lie has been spoken of. It is probable that there is an
error here, not in the terms, but in the intention which has brought
them together. If unconscious life is meant, it is an absurdity. The
lie is, on the contrary, the very sign of consciousness, and there
can be no lie save where there is full and active consciousness. A
distempered sensation, expressed as felt, should not be confused with
the intentional travestying of the exposition of a true sensation--the
first term of the series with the last. The animal never lies. How
could it? It is forced to express its sensation just as he feels
it. If it wishes to bite, the dog curves his lips, shows his teeth.
If you see it hold back, play the hypocrite, lie, it is because,
through its contact with man, it has perhaps acquired a rudiment of
consciousness--because its acquired education comes, at such a moment,
into conflict with its instinct. Moreover, ruse--especially when
applied to defence, or to the search for food--is something quite
different from the lie. It is the acute form of prudence. The true lie
is purposeless, without other utility than the assertion of a superior
detachment. It presents itself as a negation of the ties that attach
man to reality, in which respect it approaches poetry and art, of which
it is one of the elements. Art is born, like the lie, of a lively
consciousness of the sensations and emotions. It declares a state of
extreme sensibility, together with a tendency to repel that reality
whereby a man's senses were wounded. Art, whatever its form, implies
a profound knowledge of the signs, and the will to transpose them,
without reference to their customary concordances. The artist is he
who lies superiorly--better than other men. If he lies with speech, he
is the poet; with inarticulate sounds, the musician; with forms whose
attitudes he fixes, the sculptor, and his art is merely the extreme
development of the language of motion (of which the dancer represents
a very fugitive stage); with lines and colours, the painter, and what
does this last do if not restore to primitive hieroglyphics their true
aspect and all their natural scope? Art is a language, and it is only

But if woman is language, how do women happen to have played so
inconspicuous a part in the supreme activity of language? Critics,
to flatter them, have alleged some sort of lateral heredity whereby
it is demonstrated that, as the daughters of mothers less and less
cultivated, going back through the centuries, it is not surprising
that their aptitudes are inferior to those of the males. This is not
to be taken seriously. For, if it be true that genius and talent are
often directly related with anterior cultures, there are also sudden
aptitudes developed by the environment. Why should not a girl find
this aptitude in her flesh, like her brother? Moreover, for thousands
of years now, women have been taught music. Yet it is perhaps the art
in which they have least created. The cause lies deeper. Woman is
language, but language is useful. Her rôle is not to create, but to
conserve. She accomplishes this task marvellously. She creates neither
poems nor statues, but she creates the creators of the poems and of the
statues. She teaches them language, which is the condition of their
science, the lie which is the condition of their art, the consciousness
which gives them their genius. When the child, about the age of six or
seven, leaves the woman's hands, the man is already man. He speaks, and
that is man in his entirety.

Woman's great intellectual task is teaching the language. The
grammarians and their substitutes, school-teachers and professors,
fancy that they are the masters of language, and that, without
their intervention, men's language would perish in confusion and
incoherence. They have been maintained for ages in this illusion, yet
there is none more ridiculous. Women are the elementary, and poets the
superior artisans of language, both unconscious of their function.
The intervention of grammarians is almost always bad, unless it limit
itself to a statement of the facts--unless it dare restore to the hands
of women and of poets an influence which science could exert only with
injustice. Here are some children who speak. They are going to school
to have a lesson in grammar. They speak, and employ all the forms of
the verb, all the shades of syntax, easily and correctly. They speak,
but here now is the school, and the master succeeds in teaching them
the nature of the imperfect subjunctive. For a function, the pedagogue
has substituted a notion. He has replaced the act by consciousness of
the act, the word by its definition. He teaches grammar. He does not
teach language.

Language is a function. Grammar is the analysis of this function. It is
as useless to know grammar in order to speak one's native tongue, as to
know physiology in order to breathe with one's lungs, or to walk with
one's legs. Compared with the rôle of the ignorant mother who plucks,
like a flower, the first word blossoming on her child's lips, the
teacher's rôle amounts to almost nothing. It is the mother herself who
sowed this word which has just bloomed. For, if language be a function,
it must be given the material on which to work. A woman's idle chatter,
differing so slightly from that of the little girl talking to her doll,
is the child's first lesson, and the one whose importance surpasses
every other. Words are so many seeds which will sprout, grow and come
to fruition in the young brain. Without this ceaseless random sowing,
the child's linguistic function would remain inert, and only vague and
perhaps inarticulate sounds would issue from its lips. It has sometimes
been wondered what language children, brought up together beyond reach
of the human voice, would speak. Perhaps they would speak none at all.
It is a question that no one can solve. At all events, they would speak
merely a rudimentary language--that is to say, one too rich, variable
and entirely unknown. For innate roots exist no more than innate ideas.
The child does not create his language. Still less does he secrete
his language. He learns it. He speaks the way people speak about him
in his cradle. He is a phonograph and at first functions no less
mechanically. Before he is able to situate verbal signs with reference
to the objects represented, he possesses them in great quantity, but in
confusion, pell-mell. Later he will learn to utilize this wealth. Since
he knows, on the one hand, the words and, on the other, the objects,
the operation of combining them in his memory will be of the simplest,
most natural order. The woman directs this combination joyfully, and
she admires herself in her admiration of the child's progress. She
believes that the double acquisition of the word and of the object is
made exclusively at her command, and that fills her with pride. Thus,
ignorance of the child's psychological mechanism assures the teacher's

Later, as poet, story-teller, philosopher, theologian or moralist--as
creator of values, in Nietzsche's very forceful expression--the child
will usually employ in her honour this language that he receives almost
entirely from woman. The larger part of literature is the indirect
work of woman, made for her, to please or to pique her, to exalt or
to decry her, to touch her heart, to idealize or to curse her beauty
and her love. The two sexes had to be thus profoundly dissimilar,
foreign, opposite, for one to become the other's adorer. With equality
of tastes, of needs, of desires, bodily differences would not have
sufficed, nor the injunction of the species. Humanity could perpetuate
itself without love;[2] but love would have been impossible without the
radical divergences which render man and woman two mutually mysterious
worlds. Only the unknown can be adored. There is no longer a religion
where there is no longer mystery. In all societies, so long as she
is young and beautiful, woman, even when a slave, is the mistress of
civilization. The poets, inspired by her grace, heighten this supremacy
by making her the theme of their songs; and poetry, which had, at
first, no other aim than to tell the joys of possession or the pangs of
desire, completed its evolution by creating love. For love, with all
the sentiment, the passion, the dream, the happiness, the tears which
this word implies, is at bottom a verbal creation and the imaginative
achievement of the artists of language.

It is through poems, tales, traditional narratives, that ordinary man,
inclined to enjoyment only, has learned to love, to enhance infinitely
his commonplace joys and futile sorrows. Let us repeat here Nietzsche's
saying--the poet has been the creator of sentimental values. But almost
as soon as created, they have escaped him. Possessing herself of these
new values, woman has turned them into instruments to assure her
sovereignty. She has, in all simplicity, culled the fruits of language,
her work.

How love has evolved under this domination, with all the benefits
which have accrued from it, would be a long chapter in the history of


[1] The idea of thus introducing attention into the world through woman
is M. Ribot's, in his _Psychologie de l'attention_.

[2] Copulation would have sufficed for that. Life in common, after
fertilization, is extremely rare, except among primates and birds.
Among carnivorous insects, the union is often mortal for the male whom
the stronger female devours.

Note.--Philosophic deductions are of value only if they agree exactly
with science; but then they have a value. I have therefore availed
myself of the opportunity to complete the note on a previous page,
concerning the lie considered as a vital reaction. Here is the
scientific statement of the question:

"M. R. Quinton has been led, in the course of his investigations,
to recognize that all living beings are divided into two great
physiological groups, which correspond exactly to the two anatomical
groups: _Invertebrates_ and _Vertebrates_--The first, and lower group
(Invertebrates), always in equilibrium with the environment, supporting
all the exterior conditions, however unfavourable; the second, and
higher (Vertebrates), not accepting these conditions, reacting against
them, always in disequilibrium with the environment, maintaining
internally the saline concentration of their origins, in opposition
to the sea, which becomes more concentrated, or to fresh water which
loses its salt; maintaining, moreover, its original temperature
in opposition to a terrestrial environment which grows colder,
_lying to the environment_, in short, in order to maintain its most
favourable conditions of life. The lie, of which we speak, is only the
psychological form of this reaction, on the part of the _Vertebrates_,
against the hostility of the environment."

The obscure terms in this note (saline concentration, temperature of
the origins) are explained in M. Quinton's book: _L'Eau de mer, milieu


            Decadence: A very convenient word for ignorant
            pedagogues; a vague word behind which our
            laziness and lack of curiosity concerning the
            law seek shelter.

                         BAUDELAIRE: Letter to Jules Janin.


Abruptly, about 1885, the idea of decadence entered French literature.
After serving to glorify or to ridicule a whole group of poets, it
had perched, as it were, upon a single head. Stéphane Mallarmé was
the prince of this ironical, almost injurious realm, as it would have
been, had the word itself been rightly understood and employed. But,
by an eccentricity which is a Latin trait, the academic world, in
keeping with its normal but unwholesome horror when confronted with
new tendencies, called thus the fever for originality which tormented
a generation. M. Mallarmé, rendered responsible for the acts of
rebellion which he had encouraged, appeared to the innocent ass-drivers
who accompany but do not conduct the caravan a redoubtable Aladdin,
assassin of the sound principles of universal imitation.

These are, after all, thoroughly literary habits. They have been
flourishing now for nearly three centuries, and the most celebrated
revolts have hardly lopped their branches--have never uprooted them. No
sooner had the Romantic insolences subsided than the poet was forced
to crawl, half-smothered, under the ancient greenwood which furnishes

These habits are also thoroughly Latin. The Romans, so long as they
were Romans only, knew nothing of individualism. Their civilization
offers the spectacle of a fine social animality. Emulation with them
aimed at likeness, just as, with us, it aims at unlikeness. Once
they possessed five or six poets--successful off-shoots of Hellenic
grafting--they refused to admit any others, and it is quite possible
that, their social, racial instinct dominating the instinct of freedom
and individuality, no poet of fresh inspiration was born to them for
four or five centuries. They had the emperor and they had Virgil, and
they obeyed both equally until the Christian revolt and the barbarian
invasion joined hands above the Capitol. Literary liberty, like all
other liberties, is born of the union of consciousness and strength.
The day when Saint Ambrose, writing his hymns, disregarded the Horatian
principles should be memorable, for it marks unmistakably the birth of
a new mentality.

Just as the political history of the Romans has furnished us with the
conception of historical decadence, so the history of their literature
has furnished us with the conception of literary decadence--the
two faces of a single idea; for it has been easy to indicate the
coincidence of the two movements, and to inculcate the belief that
there was a necessary connection between the two. Montesquieu owes his
fame to the fact that he was particularly the dupe of this illusion.

Savages find it very difficult to admit the possibility of natural
death. For them, every death is a murder. They have not the slightest
sense of law; they live in the domain of the accidental. It has been
agreed to call this state of mind inferior, and it is inferior,
though the notion of rigid law is just as false and as dangerous as
its negation. The only absolutely necessary laws are natural laws,
which can neither vary nor change. In the case of social and political
evolution, not only are there no necessary laws, but there are no very
general laws even. Either these so-called laws, confused with the
facts which they explain, amount to nothing but wise and honourable
assertions, or else they declare, though over-emphatically, the very
principle of change. Empires, then, are born, grow and die. Social
combinations are unstable. Human groups have, at different epochs,
different powers of cohesion. New affinities appear and are propagated.
Here there would be the material for a treatise on social mechanics,
if the writer did not insist too rigorously on squaring his philosophy
with the reality of unexpected catastrophes. For the unexpected must
be left a place which is sometimes the throne whence irony flashes and
laughs. The idea of decadence is, then, merely the idea of natural
death. Historians admit no other. To explain the taking of Byzantium
by the Turks, they make us listen to the murmur of theological
quarrels, and the crack of the Blue's whip in the circus. Longchamps
leads to Sedan, no doubt, but Epsom leads to Waterloo also. The long
decadence of crumbling empires is one of the most singular illusions
in history. If certain empires have died of sickness or of old age,
the greater number, on the contrary, have succumbed to violent death,
in the plenitude of their physical power, in the full force of their
intellectual vigour.

Then, too, intelligence is personal, and no reasonable relation can
be established between the power of a people and the genius of an
individual. Neither Greek literature, nor the literatures of the Middle
Ages, correspond to stable and powerful political institutions, Greek,
Italian or French; and it is precisely now, when their material power
has become negligible, that the Scandinavian kingdoms have decked
themselves with original talents. It would, perhaps, be nearer the
truth to say that political decadence is the condition most favourable
for intellectual flowering. It is when a Gustavus Adolphus and a
Charles XII are no longer possible, that an Ibsen and a Björnson
appear. In the same way, the fall of Napoleon seemed a signal for
nature to clothe herself again joyously in green, and to put forth
her most magnificent growths. Goethe was the contemporary of his
country's ruin. In order to exercise and satisfy our tendencies towards
historical scepticism, we should not, however, fail to oppose to these
examples the phenomena of those doubly glorious epochs of which the
pompous century of Louis XIV is the venerated model. After this, a
few minutes' reflection will force us to adopt a somewhat different
opinion from that which passes current persistently in text-books and
in conversation.

Bossuet was the first to whom it occurred to judge universal
history--or what he naïvely regarded as such--in accordance with
the principles of Biblical Judaism. He saw the fall of all those
empires upon which Jehovah had laid his heavy hand. This is the idea
of decadence explained by that of punishment. Montesquieu's more
complicated philosophy is perhaps even more puerile. It is impossible
to name without a sort of disgust a historian who dates the decadence
of Rome from the dawn of those admirable centuries of world-peace
which, perhaps, constitute the one happy epoch of civilized humanity.
The meaning of the words must be scrutinized closely. Then it will be
perceived that they have no sense, and that memorable writers used them
all their lives without understanding them. But however debatable, or
at least however vague, it may be, the general idea of decadence is
clear and distinct compared with the more restricted notion of literary

From Racine to Vigny, France produced no great poet. This is a fact.
Such a period is certainly one of literary decadence; yet we should
not go further than the fact itself, or attribute to it an absurd
character of logic and necessity. Poetry was asleep in the eighteenth
century, through lack of poets; but this failure is not the result of a
too free flowering prior to that period. It is what it is, and nothing
more. If we call it decadence, we admit the existence of a sort of
mysterious organism--a being, a woman--Poetry--who is born, brings
forth, and dies, at almost regular intervals, after the manner of human
beings. This is an agreeable conception--subject for a dissertation or
lecture--but one which should be omitted from a discussion, which aims
only at the anatomy of an idea.

The principal trait of eighteenth century poetry is its spirit of
imitation. That century was Roman in its cultivation of this spirit.
It imitated furiously, gracefully, tenderly, ironically, stupidly.
It was "Chinese" as well as Roman. There were "models." The word
was imperative. The poet was not obliged to describe the impression
produced upon him by life; he had to watch Racine and scale the
mountain. What a singular psychology! The same philosopher who sapped
the idea of respect in politics, replastered and whitewashed it anew
in literature. There were critics. While Goethe was writing _Werther_,
they were comparing Gilbert and Boileau. It was a degradation. Must
we seek a cause for it? That would be vain. To attempt to explain why
no poet was born in France for a hundred years, with the exception of
Delille[1] and of Chénier, would lead necessarily to explaining the
birth of Ronsard, Théophile or Racine also. We know nothing about it,
and nothing can be known. Stripped of its mysticism, its necessity, all
its historical genealogy, the idea of literary decadence is reduced to
a purely negative notion--to the simple idea of absence. This sounds
so simple that one scarcely dares to express it; but, when superior
intelligences are lacking at a given moment, the multiplication of
mediocrities makes itself acutely and actively felt; and, as the
mediocre man is an imitator, the epochs that have justly been called
decadent are nothing but epochs of imitation. In the last analysis, the
idea of decadence is identical with the idea of imitation.


Yet, in the case of Mallarmé and of a literary group, the idea of
decadence has been assimilated to its exact opposite--the idea of
innovation. Such judgments have made a particular impression upon
men of one generation because, doubtless, we ourselves were involved
and foolishly flouted by "right-minded" critics; they were, however,
merely the clumsy and decrepit modern version of those decrees with
which the mandarins of every age have sought to curse and to crush the
new serpents breaking their shell under the ironical eye of their old
mother. Diabolical intelligence laughs at exorcisms, and the University
has been no more able than the Church to disinfect it with its holy
water. In the past a man rose up--buckler of the faith--against
heresies and novelties. He was the Jesuit. To-day it is too often
the Professor who arises as champion of the rules. Here again we
have the antinomy which surprises us in Voltaire and the Voltairian
of yesterday. The same man, so courageous where justice or political
liberty is concerned, recoils the moment it is a matter of literary
novelty or liberty. When, reaching Tolstoy and Ibsen, he alludes to
their glory, he adds (in a note): "Are these reputations--especially
Ibsen's--firmly established? The question whether the author of
_Ghosts_ is a mystifier or a genius has not yet been settled."[2]
Such, confronted with the unknown--with the not yet seen or read--is
the attitude of a writer who, in the very volume here quoted, proves
that he possesses praiseworthy independence of judgment. I need not
add that, in his pages, the "decadents" are scouted on every occasion.
How, after this, can we be surprised at the dull raillery of lesser
minds? A new way of stating the eternal truths is always a scandal for
men--especially for men who are too well-educated. They feel a sort of
fright, and to recover their assurance they have recourse to denial,
to abuse, to derision. It is the natural attitude of the human animal
in the presence of physical danger. But how have we come to regard as
a peril every real innovation in art or in literature? Why, above all,
is this assimilation one of the maladies peculiar to our time--perhaps
the gravest of all, since it tends to restrict movement and to obstruct

For years Delacroix and Puvis de Chavannes, so different in
their genius, were hooted and rejected by the juries. Under
evidently contradictory pretexts, a single explanation is
discovered--originality. The guardians of art feel themselves menaced
by a work which reveals almost no trace of previous methods--one
not visibly attached to something known and already understood. Each
of them reacts to the provocation according to his own peculiar
temperament. Formulae change, too, periodically. The eighteenth century
considered non-imitation a breach of taste, and that was a serious
matter at a time when Voltaire was erecting a temple, which was only a
templet, to this sprightly god. For ten years, and up to a few weeks
ago, artists and writers who refused to rifle the masters were branded
decadents or symbolists. This last insult prevailed in the end, being
verbally more obscure and consequently easier to handle; it contains,
moreover, precisely the same abhorrent notion of non-imitation.

It was said long ago, considerably before M. Tarde had developed his
theory of social philosophy, that "imitation rules the world of men, as
abstraction that of things." This law is very evident in the particular
domain of art and of literature. Literary history is, in sum, nothing
but the chart of a succession of intellectual epidemics. Some have
been brief. Fashion changes or continues in accordance with caprices
impossible to foresee and difficult to determine. Shakespeare had no
immediate influence. Honoré d'Urfé, during his life and after his
death, was, for half a century, the master and inspirer of all romantic
fiction. He would have reigned still longer, had it not been for _La
Princesse de Clèves_, the clandestine work of a _grande dame_. The
seventeenth century, part of whose literature was merely translation
and imitation, was not, however, averse to moderate and prudent
novelties. The reason is that, if it would have been discreditable not
to imitate the ancients--or, strange as it may seem, the Spaniards,
but only the Spaniards!--in their fables and phrases (Racine trembled
because he had written _Bajazet_), it was a mark of honour to be able
to give classic borrowings an air of freshness and novelty.

However, this literature itself very quickly became classic. There was
thus a second source of imitation; and, since it was more accessible
than the first, it soon came to be almost the sole spring sought by
successive generations to drink and pray and water their ink. Boileau
was deified before his death. As soon as he could read at all, Voltaire
read Boileau. The principle of imitation was thenceforth supreme in
French literature.

Leaving aside the exceptions--however memorable--this principle
has remained very powerful and so well understood, with the spread
of education, that a critic has only to invoke it, for a shamefaced
reader to cast aside a new work which he has found refreshing. Thus the
newspaper critics have kept Ibsen from being acclimatized in France.
Thus, too, verse plays, imitative works par excellence, succeed even
on the boulevards! These theatrical events, always much magnified by
advertising, furnish excellent illustrations for a theory.

The idea of imitation has, then, become the very soul of art and of
literature. It is no more possible to-day to conceive of a novel which
is not a counterpart or sequel of a preceding novel, than it is to
conceive of rhymeless verse, or verses whose syllables have not been
scrupulously scanned. When such innovations nevertheless occurred,
altering suddenly the accustomed aspect of the literary landscape,
there was a flutter among the experts. To conceal their embarrassment,
they began to laugh (third method). Then they uttered judgments.
Since these productions in verse or in prose are not imitated after
the latest models, or the works praised by the handbooks, they must
necessarily spring from an abnormal source, since it is not familiar
to us--but which? There were attempts at explanation by means of
Pre-Raphaelitism, but they were not decisive; they were even a little
ridiculous, so profound and invulnerable was the ignorance on every
hand. But about this time appeared a book which suddenly enlightened
all minds. A parallel imposed itself inexorably between the new poets
and the obscure versifiers of the Roman decadence, praised by des
Esseintes. The movement was unanimous, and the very ones thus decried
accepted this opprobrious epithet as a distinction. Once the principle
was admitted, there was no lack of comparisons. Since no one--not even
des Esseintes himself, perhaps--had read the depreciated poets, it was
no trick at all for any critic to compare Sidonius Apollinaris, of whom
we knew nothing, with Stéphane Mallarmé, whom he did not understand.
Neither Sidonius Apollinaris nor Mallarmé is a decadent, since both
possess, in different degrees, their own originality; but for that very
reason the word was justly applied to the poet of _L'Après-midi d'un
Faune_, for it signified obscurely, in the minds of the very persons
who employed it, something little known, difficult, rare, precious,
unexpected, new.

If, on the contrary, it were desired to restore to the idea of literary
decadence its real and really cruel meaning, it is not, we suspect,
Mallarmé or Laforgue, or any symbolist still writing, who should be
named to-day. The decadent of Latin literature is neither Ammianus
Marcellinus, nor Saint Augustine, each of whom fashioned a language
in his own manner, nor is it Saint Ambrose, who created the hymn, nor
Prudentius, who developed a literary genre, the lyrical biography.[3]
We are beginning to have a greater indulgence for Latin literature of
the second period. Tired, perhaps, of ridiculing it without reading
it, we have begun to glance at it a little. Before long, this simple
notion will be admitted, that there is no inherent distinction between
good Latin and bad Latin; that languages live and that their changes
are not necessarily corruptions; that a man could have genius in the
sixth century as well as in the second, in the eleventh as well as
in the eighteenth; that classic prejudices constitute an obstacle
to the development of literary history and to integral knowledge of
the language itself. Had they been better understood, the poets in
the library at Fontenay would not have served to christen a literary
movement, unless the intention had been to compare idealistic with
Christian innovators--a difficult and rather ridiculous undertaking.


I have wished here merely to attempt the historical (or anecdotal)
analysis of an idea, and to indicate, by means of a somewhat elaborate
example, how a word comes to have only the meaning which it is our
interest to give it. Hence I do not believe it necessary to establish
minutely the ground of Stéphane Mallarmé's claims to either hatred or

Hatred is queen in the hierarchy of literary sentiments. Literature is,
perhaps, with religion, the abstract passion which excites men most
violently. True, we have not yet seen literary wars resembling the
religious wars of--let us say--the past; but that is because literature
has never yet descended suddenly to the people's level. By the time
it reaches them, it has lost its explosive force. It is far from
the first night of _Hernani_ to the sale of the play in illustrated
editions. However, it is not hard to imagine a mobilization of German
sentimentality against English humour or French irony. It is because
peoples do not know each other that they hate each other so little. An
alliance marked by close fraternization always ends in cannon shot.

The hatred which pursued Mallarmé was never very bitter, for men hate
seriously, even in matters of literature, only when material interests
come to envenom a little the strife for the ideal; but he offered
no surface for envy, and he bore injustice and abuse as necessities
inherent in the very nature of genius. It was only, then, the pure
and unalloyed superiority of his intelligence that was derided, on
the pretext that he was obscure. Artists, even when depreciated by
instinctive cabals, receive orders, earn money. Poets have the resource
of long articles in the reviews and in the newspapers. Certain of them,
like Théophile Gautier, earned their living in this way. Baudelaire
succeeded ill at it, Mallarmé worse still. It was, then, in his case,
against the poet stripped of every social ornament that the sarcasm was

There is, by accident, at the Louvre, in a ridiculous collection,
a marvel, an Andromeda, carved in ivory by Cellini. It is a
terror-stricken woman, all her flesh aquiver with fright at being
bound. Where can she flee? It is also Mallarmé's poetry. The emblem
is the more appropriate that, like the sculptor, the poet wrought
nothing but cups, vases, caskets, statuettes. He is not colossal, he
is perfect. His poetry does not present a great human treasure spread
forth before the dazzled crowd. It does not express common, strong
ideas, which easily galvanize popular attention dulled by toil. It
is personal, shrinking like those flowers that fear the sun. It has
no scent save at evening. It yields its thought only to the intimacy
of another thought, trusty and sincere. Its excessive modesty, it is
true, draws about itself too many veils; but there is much delicacy
in this eagerness to flee the eyes and hands of popular appreciation.
Flee, where could it flee? Mallarmé sought refuge in obscurity as in
a cloister. He interposed the wall of a cell between himself and the
understanding of others. He wished to live alone in his pride. But that
was the Mallarmé of the last years, when, hurt, but not disheartened,
he felt himself seized with the same disgust for vain phrases which had
also, in the past, stricken Jean Racine--the years when he created a
new syntax for his own use, when he used words according to a system
of new and secret relations. Stéphane Mallarmé wrote relatively much,
and the greater part of his work is stained by no obscurity; but,
if later and towards the last, beginning with the _Prose pour des
Esseintes_, there are doubtful phrases or irritating verses, it is only
an inattentive and vulgar mind that dreads to undertake the delicious

There are too few obscure writers in French. So we accustom ourselves
like cowards to love only writing that is easy and that will soon
be elementary. Yet it is rare that books blindly clear are worth
rereading. It is clearness that constitutes the prestige of classic
literature and it is clearness that makes them so clearly tiresome.
Clear minds are commonly those that see but one thing at a time. When
the brain is rich in sensations and in ideas, there is a constant eddy,
and the smooth surface is troubled at the moment of spouting. Let us,
like M. Doudan, prefer marshes swarming with life, to a glass of clear
water. One is thirsty at times, to be sure. Well, then, one filters.
Literature which gives immediate pleasure to all men is necessarily of
no value. It must first, falling from on high, leap in cascades from
ledge to ledge, in order to flow at last through the valley, within
reach of all men and of all stocks.

If, then, one undertook a definitive study of Stéphane Mallarmé,
the question of obscurity would have to be treated exclusively from
the psychological standpoint, for the reason that there is never
absolute, literal obscurity in an honestly written work. A sensible
interpretation is always possible. It will, perhaps, vary according
to the evening hour, like the play of cloud-shadows on the velvet
lawn; but the truth, here and everywhere, will be what our passing
sentiment shall make it. Mallarmé's work is the most marvellous pretext
for reveries yet offered men weary of so many heavy and useless
affirmations. It may well be that a poetry full of doubts, of shifting
shades, and of ambiguous perfumes, can alone please us henceforward;
and, if the word decadence really summed up all these autumnal,
twilight charms, we might welcome it, even making it one of the keys of
the viol; but it is dead; the master is dead, the penultimate is dead.


[1] It must be remembered that the Abbé Delille is not at all, as is
commonly believed, a poet of the Empire. Almost all his poems and his
glory date from the _Ancien Régime_.

[2] P. Stapfer, _Des Réputations littéraires_, Paris, 1891.

[3] A genre which has degenerated into the complaint. But the complaint
has had its great period. The oldest poem in the French language is a
complaint and inspired, precisely, by one of the poems of Prudentius.



            Et ideo confiteatur eorum stultitia, qui
            arte scientiaque immunes, de solo ingenio
            confidentes, ad summa summe canenda prorumpunt;
            a tanta praesuntuositate desistant, et
            si anseres naturali desidia sunt, nolint
            astripetam aquilam imitari.

                                  DANTE: De vulgari eloquio.

Depreciation of "writing"--that is, writing as an art--is a precaution
taken from time to time by worthless writers. They believe it sound,
but it is the sign of their mediocrity and the avowal of a secret
regret. It is not without chagrin that the impotent man gives up the
pretty woman whose limpid eyes invite him, and there must be bitterness
in the disdain publicly proclaimed by one who confesses utter ignorance
of his trade, or absence of the gift without which exercise of that
trade is an imposture. Yet some of these poor creatures actually pride
themselves upon their poverty. They declare that their ideas are rare
enough not to need fine clothing; that the newest, richest imagery is
merely the veil thrown by vanity over the emptiness of the thought;
that what matters, after all, is the substance and not the form, the
spirit and not the letter, the thing and not the word; and they can
continue like this a long time, for they have at their command a whole
flock of facile commonplaces which, however, fool nobody. We should
pity the first group and despise the second, replying to neither,
unless it be to say this: that there are two literatures, and that they
belong to each other.

Two literatures. This is a prudent and provisional form of expression
intended to divert the mob by according it a share in the landscape,
a view of the garden which it may not enter. If there were not two
literatures and two provinces, it would be necessary to cut at once the
throats of nearly all French writers--a dirty job and one in which, for
my part, I should blush to have a hand. Enough, then. The boundary is
established. There are two sorts of writers: the writers who write and
the writers who do not write--just as there are voiceless singers and
singers with voices.

The disdain for style would seem to be one of the conquests of 1789.
At least, prior to the democratic era, it had been taken for granted
that the one way to treat writers who did not write was to ridicule
them. From Pisistratus to Louis XVI, the civilized world was unanimous
on this point--a writer must know how to write. This was the Greek
view, and the Romans loved fine style to such a degree that they came
to write very badly through wishing to write too well. Saint Ambrose
esteemed eloquence so highly that he regarded it as one of the gifts of
the Holy Spirit--_vox donum Spiritus_--and Saint Hilary of Poitiers,
in chapter thirteen of his _Treatise on the Psalms_, does not hesitate
to call bad style a sin. It cannot, then, be from Roman Christianity
that we have derived our present indulgence for uncouth literature.
Still, inasmuch as Christianity is necessarily responsible for all
modern aggressions against external beauty, it might be supposed that
the taste for bad style was one of those Protestant importations that
befouled France in the eighteenth century--contempt for style and moral
hypocrisy being Anglican vices.[1]

However, if the eighteenth century wrote badly, it did so
unconsciously. It thought that Voltaire wrote well, especially in
verse, and reproached Ducis only with the barbarousness of his models.
It had an ideal. It did not admit that philosophy might be an excuse
for bad literature. It rhymed everything, from the treatises of Isaac
Newton to garden manuals and 'cook-books. This lust for putting art
and fine language where they did not belong, led to the adoption of a
medium style calculated to elevate all vulgar subjects and to degrade
all the others. With the best of intentions, the eighteenth century
ended by writing as if it were the most refractory to art in the
world's history. England and France signed, at that time, a literary
pact destined to endure till the arrival of Chateaubriand, whose
_Génie du Christianisme_[2] sounded its solemn dissolution. From the
appearance of this book, which opens the century, there has been but
one way for a writer to have talent, namely, to know how to write--no
longer in the manner of La Harpe, but in accordance with the examples
of an unconquered tradition as old as the first awakening of beauty in
human intelligence.[3]

But the eighteenth century manner corresponded only too well to the
natural tendencies of a democratic civilization. Neither Chateaubriand
nor Victor Hugo was able to abrogate the organic law which sends the
herd plunging down to the green plain where there is grass, and where
there will be nothing but dust, once it has passed. It was soon deemed
useless to cultivate a landscape destined to popular devastations, so
there sprang up a literature without style, just as there are highroads
without grass, without shade, and without wayside springs.


Writing is a trade, and I should rather see it catalogued between
cobbling and carpentry, than separated from the other manifestations of
human activity. Thus set apart, it can be virtually denied existence
under colour of according it special honour, and so far removed from
every vital interest that it will die of its isolation. Given, however,
its place in one of the symbolic niches along the great gallery, it
suggests apprenticeship and the handling of tools. It repels impromptu
vocations. It is severe and uninviting.

Writing is a trade, but style is not a science. "Style is the man,"
and that other formula, "Style is inviolable," offered by Hello, mean
exactly the same thing, namely, that style is as personal as the
colour of the eyes or the sound of the voice. One can learn to write;
one cannot learn to have a style. A writer can dye his style, as he
does his hair, but he must begin over again every morning, and have
no distractions. It is so little possible to acquire a style, that
one is often lost in the course of a lifetime. When the vital force
diminishes, writing suffers. Practice, which improves other gifts,
often spoils this one.

Writing is very different from painting or modelling. To write or to
speak is to make use of a faculty necessarily common to all men--a
primordial and unconscious faculty which cannot be analyzed without
the complete anatomy of the intelligence. That is why all treatises on
the art of writing, whether they number ten pages or ten thousand, are
but vain sketches. The question is so complex that it is hard to know
where to attack' it. It has so many sharp points, and is such a thicket
of thorns and thistles that, instead of plunging straight into it, one
goes around, and that is wiser.

To write, as Flaubert and Goncourt understood it, is to exist, to be
one's self. To have a style is to speak, in the midst of the common
language, a peculiar dialect, unique and inimitable, yet so constituted
as to be at once the language of all and the language of an individual.
Style is self-evident. To study its mechanism is useless to the
point where uselessness becomes a positive menace. That which can be
recomposed from the products of stylistic distillation bears the same
resemblance to the style distilled, that a perfumed paper rose bears to
a real rose.

Whatever be the fundamental importance of a "written" work, possession
of style enhances its value. It was Buffon's opinion that all the
beauties found in a well-written book, "all the relations which
constitute style, are so many truths quite as useful for the mind as
those forming the substance of the subject, and perhaps even more
precious." And, despite the common disdain, this is also the common
opinion, since the books of the past which still live, live only by
virtue of their style. Were the contrary possible, such a contemporary
of Buffon as Boulanger, author of _L'Antiquité dévoilée_, would not be
unknown to-day, for there was nothing mediocre about the man but his
way of writing. And is it not because he almost always lacked style,
that another contemporary, Diderot, has never enjoyed more than a few
hours of reputation at a time, and that as soon as people stop talking
about him, he is forgotten?

It is because of this incontestable preponderance of style that the
invention of plots is of no great importance in literature. To write
a good novel or a lasting drama, one must either select a subject so
banal that it is absolutely nil, or invent one so new that genius alone
can get anything out of it--_Romeo and Juliet_, or _Don Quixote_.
Most of Shakespeare's tragedies are merely a succession of metaphors
embroidered on the canvas of the first story that came to his hand.
Shakespeare invented nothing but his lines and his phrases. His
images being new, their novelty necessarily communicated life to the
characters. If _Hamlet_, idea for idea, had been written by Christopher
Marlowe, it would be merely an obscure, clumsy tragedy, cited as an
interesting sketch. M. de Maupassant, who invented the majority of
his themes, is a lesser story-teller than Boccaccio, who invented
none of his. Besides, the invention of subjects is limited, though
infinitely flexible. But, change the age, and you change the story. If
M. Aicard had genius, he would not have translated Othello; he would
have remade it, just as the youthful Racine remade the tragedies of
Euripides'. If man did not have style as a means of achieving variety,
everything would be said in the first hundred years of a literature.
I am quite willing to admit that there are thirty-six situations for
novels and dramas, but a more general theory can, as a matter of fact,
recognize four only. Man, taken as the centre, may have relations with
himself, with other men, with the other sex, with the infinite--God
or Nature. A piece of literature falls necessarily into one of these
four categories; but were there in the world one theme only, and that
_Daphnis and Chloe_, it would suffice.

One of the excuses made by writers who do not know how to write, is
the diversity of genres. They believe that one genre calls for style,
and that another does not. A novel, they say, should not be written
in the same tone as a poem. True; but absence of style means absence
of tone also, and when a book lacks "writing," it lacks everything.
It is invisible or, as we say, it passes unnoticed. And that is as
it should be. After all, there is but one genre, poetry, and but one
medium, verse; for beautiful prose must have a rhythm which will make
us doubt whether it be merely prose. Buffon wrote nothing but poems,
as did Bossuet and Chateaubriand and Flaubert. If the _Époques de la
Nature_ stirs the admiration of scientists and philosophers, it is none
the less a sumptuous epic. M. Brunetière spoke with ingenious boldness
of the evolution of the genres. He showed that Bossuet's prose is but
one of the cuts in the great lyric forest where Victor Hugo later was a
woodsman. But I prefer the idea that there are no genres, or that there
is but one only. This, moreover, is in closer accord with the latest
theories of science and philosophy. The idea of evolution is about to
disappear before that of permanence, perpetuity.

Can one learn to write? Regarded as a question of style, this
amounts to asking if, with application, M. Zola could have become
Chateaubriand, or if M. Quesnay de Beaurepaire, had he taken pains,
could have become Rabelais: if the man who imitates precious marbles by
spraying pine panels with a sharp shake of his brush, could, properly
guided, have painted the _Pauvre Pêcheur_, or if the stone-cutter, who
chisels the depressing fronts of Parisian houses in the Corinthian
manner, might not, perhaps, after twenty lessons, execute the _Porte
d'Enfer_ or the tomb of Philippe Pot?

Can one learn to write? If, on the other hand, the question be one of
the elements of a trade, of what painters are taught in the academies,
all that can indeed be learned. One can learn to write correctly,
in the neutral manner, just as engravers used to work in the "black
manner." One can learn to write badly--that is to say, properly, and
so as to merit a prize for literary excellence. One may learn to write
very well, which is another way of writing very ill. How melancholy
they are, those books which are well-written--and nothing more!


M. Albalat has, then, published a manual entitled _The Art of Writing
Taught in Twenty Lessons_. Had this work appeared at an earlier date,
it would certainly have found a place in the library of M. Dumouchel,
professor of literature, and he would have recommended it to his
friends Bouvard and Pécuchet: "Then," as Flaubert tells us, "they
sought to determine the precise constitution of style, and, thanks
to the authors recommended by Dumouchel, they learned the secret
of all the genres." However, the two old boys would have found M.
Albalat's remarks somewhat subtle. They would have been shocked to
learn that _Télémaque_ is badly written and that Mérimée would gain by
condensation. They would have rejected M. Albalat and set to work on
their biography of the Duc d'Angoulême without him.

Such resistance does not surprise me. It springs, perhaps, from an
obscure feeling that the unconscious writer laughs at principles,
at the art of epithets, and at the artifice of the three graduated
impulses. Had M. Albalat known that intellectual effort, and
especially literary effort, is, in very large measure, independent
of consciousness, he would have been less imprudent and hesitated to
divide a writer's qualities into two classes: natural qualities and
qualities that can be acquired. As if a quality--that is to say a
manner of being and of feeling--were something external to be added
like a colour or an odour. One becomes what he is--without wishing to
even, and despite every effort to oppose it. The most enduring patience
cannot turn a blind imagination into a visual imagination, and the
work of a writer who sees the landscape, whose aspect he transposes
into terms of literary art, is better, however awkward, than after
it has been retouched by someone whose vision is void, or profoundly
different. "But the master alone can give the salient stroke." I can
see Pécuchet's discouragement at this. The master's stroke in artistic
literature--even the salient stroke--is necessarily the very one on
which stress should not have been laid. Otherwise the stroke emphasizes
the detail to which it is customary to give prominence, and not that
which had struck the unskilled but sincere inner eye of the apprentice.
M. Albalat makes an abstraction of this almost always unconscious
vision, and defines style as "the art of grasping the value of words
and their interrelations." Talent, in his opinion, consists "not in
making a dull, lifeless use of words, but in discovering the _nuances_,
the images, the sensations, which result from their combinations."

Here we are, then, in the realm of pure verbalism--in the ideal region
of signs. It is a question of manipulating these signs and arranging
them in patterns that will give the illusion of representing the world
of sensations. Thus reversed, the problem is insoluble. It may well
happen, since all things are possible, that such combinations of words
will evoke life--even a determinate life--but more often they will
remain inert. The forest becomes petrified. A critique of style should
begin with a critique of the inner vision, by an essay on the formation
of images. There are, to be sure, two chapters on images in Albalat's
book, but they come quite at the end. Thus the mechanism of language is
there demonstrated in inverse order, since the first step is the image,
the last the abstraction. A proper analysis of the natural stylistic
process would begin with the sensation and end with the pure idea--
so pure that it corresponded not only to nothing real, but to nothing
imaginative either.

If there were an art of writing, it would be nothing more or less than
the art of feeling, the art of seeing, the art of hearing, the art of
using all the senses, whether directly or through the imagination;
and the new, serious method of a theory of style would be an attempt
to show how these two separate worlds--the world of sensations and
the world of words--penetrate each other. There is a great mystery
in this, since they lie infinitely far apart--that is to say, they
are parallel. Perhaps we should see here the operation of a sort of
wireless telegraphy. We note that the needles on the two dials act in
unison, and that is all. But this mutual dependence is, in reality, far
from being as complete and as clear as in a mechanical device. When
all is said, the accords between words and sensations are very few
and very imperfect. We have no sure means of expressing our thoughts,
unless perhaps it be silence. How many circumstances there are in life,
when the eyes, the hands, the mute mouth, are more eloquent than any


M. Albalat's analysis is, then, bad, because unscientific. Yet from
it he has derived a practical method of which it may be said that,
while incapable of forming an original writer--he is well aware of
this himself--it might possibly attenuate, not the mediocrity, but the
incoherence, of speeches and publications to which custom obliges us to
lend some attention. Besides, even were this manual still more useless
than I believe it to be, certain of its chapters would nevertheless
retain their expository and documentary interest. The detail is
excellent, as, for example, the pages where it is shown that the idea
is bound up in the form, and that to change the form is to modify the
idea. "It means nothing to say of a piece of writing that the substance
is good, but the form is bad." These are sound principles, though the
idea may subsist as a residue of sensation, independently of the words
and, above all, of a choice of words. But ideas stripped bare, in the
state of wandering larvae, have no interest whatever. It may even be
true that such ideas belong to everybody. Perhaps all ideas are common
property. But how differently one of them, wandering through the
world, awaiting its evocator, will be revealed according to the word
that summons it from the Shades. What would Bossuet's ideas be worth,
despoiled of their purple? They are the ideas of any ordinary student
of theology, and, uttered by him, such a farrago of stupid nonsense
would shock and shame those who had listened to it intoxicated in the
_Sermons_ and _Oraisons_. And the impression will be similar if, having
lent a charmed ear to Michelet's lyric paradoxes, we come across them
again in the miserable mouthings of some senator, or in the depressing
commentaries of the partisan press. This is the reason why the Latin
poets, including the greatest of them all, Virgil, cease to exist
when translated, all looking exactly alike in the painful and pompous
uniformity of a normal student's rhetoric. If Virgil had written in
the style of M. Pessonneaux, or of M. Benoist, he would be Benoist, he
would be Pessonneaux, and the monks would have scrapped his parchments
to substitute for his verses some good lease of a sure and lasting

Apropos of these evident truths, M. Albalat refutes Zola's opinion
that "it is the form which changes and passes the most quickly," and
that "immortality is gained by presenting living creatures." So far
as this second sentence can be interpreted at all, it would seem to
mean that what is called life, in art, is independent of form. But
perhaps this is even less clear? Perhaps it will seem to have no sense
whatever. Hippolytus, too, at the gates of Troezen, was "without form
and without colour" only he was dead. All that can be conceded to this
theory is that, if a beautiful and original work of art survives its
century and, what is more, the language in which it was written, it
is no longer admired except as a matter of imitation, in obedience to
the traditional injunction of the educators. Were the _Iliad_ to be
discovered to-day, beneath the ruins of Herculaneum, it would give us
merely archaeological sensations. It would interest us in precisely
the same degree as the _Chanson de Roland_; but a comparison of
the two poems would then reveal more clearly than at present their
correspondence to extremely different moments of civilization, since
one is written entirely in images (somewhat stiff, it is true) while
the other contains so few that they have been counted.

There is, moreover, no necessary relation between the merit of a
work and its duration. Yet, when a book has survived, the authors of
"analyses and extracts conforming to the requirements of the academic
programme" know very well how to prove its "inimitable" perfection,
and to resuscitate (for the brief time of a lecture) the mummy which
will return once more to its linen bands. The idea of glory must not
be confused with that of beauty. The former is entirely dependent upon
the revolutions of fashion and of taste. The second is absolute to the
extent of human sensations. The one is a matter of manners and customs;
the other is firmly rooted in the law.

The form passes, it is true, but it is hard to see just how it could
survive the matter which is its substance. If the beauty of a style
becomes effaced or falls to dust, it is because the language has
modified the aggregate of its molecules--words--as well as these
molecules themselves, and because this internal activity has not taken
place without swellings and disturbances. If Angelico's frescos have
"passed," it is not that time has rendered them less beautiful, but
that the humidity has swollen the cement where the painting has become
caked and coated. Languages swell and flake like cement; or rather,
they are like plane-trees, which can live only by constantly changing
their bark, and which, early each spring, shed on the moss at their
feet the names of lovers graven in their very flesh.

But what matters the future? What matters the approval of men who
will not be what we should make them, were we demiurges? What is this
glory enjoyed by man the moment he quits the realm of consciousness?
It is time we learned to live in the present moment, to make the best
of the passing hour, bad though it may be, and to leave to children
this concern for the future, which is an intellectual weakness--though
the naïveté of a man of genius. It is highly illogical to desire the
immortality of works, when affirming and desiring the mortality of the
soul. Dante's Virgil lived beyond life, his glory grown eternal. Of
this dazzling conception there is left us but a little vain illusion,
which we shall do well to extinguish entirely.

This does not mean, however, that we should not write for men as if we
were writing for angels, and thus realize, according to our calling and
our nature, the utmost of beauty, even though passing and perishable.


M. Albalat shows excellent judgment in suppressing the very amusing
distinctions made by the old manuals between the florid style and the
simple style, the sublime and the moderate. He deems justly that there
are but two sorts of style: the commonplace and the original. Were
it permitted to count the degrees from the mediocre to the bad, as
well as from the passable to the perfect, the scale of shades and of
colours would be long. It is so far from the _Légende de Saint-Julien
l'Hospitalier_ to a parliamentary discourse, that we really wonder if
it is the same language in both cases--if there are not two French
languages, and below them an infinite number of dialects almost
entirely independent of one another. Speaking of the political style,
M. Marty-Laveaux[5] thinks that the people, having remained faithful
in its speech to the traditional diction, grasps this very imperfectly
and in a general way only, as if it were a foreign language. He wrote
this twenty-seven years ago, but the newspapers, more widely circulated
at present, have scarcely modified popular habits. It is always safe
to estimate in France that, out of every three persons, there is
one who reads a bit of a paper now and then by chance, and another
who never reads at all. At Paris the people have certain notions
concerning style. They have a special predilection for violence and
wit. This explains the popularity, rather literary than political, of a
journalist like Rochefort, in whom the Parisians have for a long time
found once more their ancient ideal of a witty and wordy cleaver of

Rochefort is, moreover, an original writer--one of those who should be
cited among the first to show that the substance is nothing without the
form. To be convinced of this, one has only to read a little further
than his own article in the paper which he edits. Yet we are perhaps
fooled by him. We have been, it appears, for fully half a century,
by Mérimée, from whom M. Albalat quotes a page as a specimen of the
hackneyed style. Going farther, he indulges in his favourite pastime;
he corrects Mérimée and juxtaposes the two texts for our inspection.
Here is a sample:

    _Bien qu'elle ne fût pas           Sensible au plaisir d'attirer
    insensible_ au plaisir _ou         sérieusement un homme aussi
    à la vanité d'inspirer un          léger, elle n'avait jamais pensé
    sentiment sérieux_ à un homme      que cette affection pût devenir
    aussi léger _que l'était Max       dangeureuse.
    dans son opinion_, elle n'avait
    jamais pensé que cette
    affection pût devenir _un
    jour_ dangeureuse _pour son

It cannot, at least, be denied that the severe professor's style is
economical, since it reduces the number of lines by nearly one-half.
Subjected to this treatment, poor Mérimée, already far from fertile,
would find himself the father of a few thin opuscules, symbolic
thenceforth of his legendary dryness. Having become the Justin of
all the Pompeius Troguses, Albalat places Lamartine himself upon the
easel to tone down, for example, _la finesse de sa peau rougissante
comme à quinze ans sous les regards_, to _sa fine peau de jeune fille
rougissante_. What butchery! The words stricken out by M. Albalat are
so far from being hackneyed that they would, on the contrary, correct
and counteract the commonplaceness of the improved sentence. This
surplusage conveys the exceedingly subtle observation of a man who has
made a close study of women's faces--a man more tender than sensual,
and touched by modesty rather than by carnal prestige. Good or bad,
style cannot be corrected. Style is inviolable.

M. Albalat gives some very amusing lists of _clichés_, or hackneyed
phrases; but this criticism, at times, lacks measure. I cannot accept
as _clichés_ "kindly warmth," "precocious perversity," "restrained
emotion," "retreating forehead," "abundant hair," or even "bitter
tears," for tears can be "bitter" and can be "sweet." It should be
understood, also, that the expression which exists as a _cliché_ in one
style, can occur as a renewed image in another. "Restrained emotion" is
no more ridiculous than "simulated emotion," while, as for "retreating
forehead," this is a scientific and quite accurate expression, which
one has only to be careful about employing in the proper place. It is
the same with the others. If such locutions were banished, literature
would become a kind of algebra and could no longer be understood
without the aid of long analytical operations. If the objection to them
is that they have been overworked, it would be necessary to forego
all words in common use as well as those devoid of mystery. But that
would be a delusion. The commonest words and most current expressions
can surprise us. Finally, the true _cliché_, as I have previously
explained, may be recognized by this, that, whereas the image which
it conveys, already faded, is halfway on the road to abstraction, it
is not yet sufficiently insignificant to pass unperceived and to take
its place among the signs which owe whatever life they may possess to
the will of the intelligence.[7] Very often, in the _cliché_, one of
the words has kept a concrete sense, and what makes us smile is less
its triteness than the coupling of a living word with one from which
the life has vanished. This can be seen clearly in such formulas as:
"in the bosom of the Academy," "devouring activity," "open his heart,"
"sadness was painted on his face," "break the monotony," "embrace
principles." However, there are _clichés_ in which all the words
seem alive--_une rougeur colora ses joues_; others in which all seem
dead--_il était au comble des ses vœux_. But this last was formed at a
time when the word _comble_ was thoroughly alive and quite concrete.
It is because it still contains the residue of a sensible image that
its union with _vœux_ displeases us. In the preceding example the word
colorer has become abstract, since the concrete verb expressing this
idea is _colorier_, and goes badly with _rougeur_ and joues. I do not
know just where a minute work on this part of the language, in which
the fermentation is still unfinished, would lead us; but no doubt in
the end it would be quite easy to demonstrate that, in the true notion
of the _cliché_, incoherence has its place by the side of triteness.
There would be matter in such a study for reasoned opinions that M.
Albalat might render fruitful for the practice of style.


It is to be regretted that he has dismissed the subject of periphrasis
in a few lines. We expected an analysis of this curious tendency to
replace by a description the word which is the sign of the thing in
question. This malady, which is very ancient, since enigmas have been
found on Babylonian cylinders (that of the wind very nearly in the
terms employed by our children), is perhaps the very origin of all
poetry. If the secret of being a bore consists of saying everything,
the secret of pleasing lies in saying just enough to be, not understood
even, but divined. Periphrasis, as handled by the didactic poets, is
perhaps ridiculous only because of the lack of poetic power which it
indicates; for there are many agreeable ways of not naming what it is
desired to suggest. The true poet, master of his speech, employs only
periphrases at once so new and so clear in their shadowy half-light,
that any slightly sensual intelligence prefers them to the too absolute
word. He wishes neither to describe, to pique the curiosity, nor to
show off his learning; but, whatever he does, he employs periphrases,
and it is by no means certain that all those he creates will remain
fresh long. The periphrasis is a metaphor, and thus has the same
life-span as a metaphor. It is far indeed from the vague and purely
musical periphrases of Verlaine:

    _Parfois aussi le dard d'un insecte jaloux_
    _Inquiétait le col des belles sous les branches,_

to the mythological enigmas of a Lebrun, who calls the silkworm

    "_L'amant des feuilles de Thisbé_."

Here M. Albalat appropriately quotes Buffon to the effect that nothing
does more to degrade a writer than the pains he takes to "express
common or ordinary things in an eccentric or pompous manner. We
pity him for having spent so much time making new combinations of
syllables only to say what is said by everybody." Delille won fame by
his fondness for the didactic periphrasis, but I think he has been
misjudged. It is not fear of the right word that makes him describe
what he should have named, but rather his rigid system of poetics, and
his mediocre talent. He lacks precision because he lacks power, and he
is very bad only when he is not precise. But whether as a result of
method or emasculation, we are indebted to him for some amusing enigmas:

    _Ces monstres qui de loin semblent un vaste écueil_.

    _L'animal recouvert de son épaisse croûte,_
    _Celui dont la coquille est arrondie en voûte._

    _L'équivoque habitant de la terre et des ondes._

    _Et cet oiseau parleur que sa triste beauté_
    _Ne dédommage pas de sa stérilité._

It should not, however, be thought that the _Homme des Champs_, from
which these charades are taken, is a poem entirely to be despised.
The Abbé Delille had his merits and, once our ears, deprived of the
pleasures of rhythm and of number, have become exhausted by the new
versification, we may recover a certain charm in full and sonorous
verses which are by no means tiresome, and in landscapes which, while
somewhat severe, are broad and full of air.

                      ... _Soit qu'une fraîche aurore_
    _Donne la vie aux fleurs qui s'empressent d'éclore,_
    _Soit que l'astre du monde, en achevant son tour,_
    _Jette languissamment les restes d'un beau jour._


Yet M. Albalat asks how it is possible to be personal and original.
His answer is not very clear. He counsels hard work and concludes that
originality implies an incessant effort. This is a very regrettable
illusion. Secondary qualities would, doubtless, be easier to acquire,
but is concision, for example, an absolute quality? Are Rabelais
and Victor Hugo, who were great accumulators of words, to be blamed
because M. de Pontmartin was also in the habit of stringing together
all the words that came into his head, and of heaping up as many as a
dozen or fifteen epithets in a single sentence? The examples given by
Albalat are very amusing; but if Gargantua had not played as many as
two hundred and sixteen different and agreeable games under the eye of
Ponocrates, we should feel very sorry, though "the great rules of the
game are eternal."

Concision is sometimes the merit of dull imaginations. Harmony is a
rarer and more decisive quality. There is no comment to be made on
what Albalat says in this connection, unless it be that he believes a
trifle too much in the necessary relations between the lightness or
heaviness of a word, for example, and the idea which it expresses.
This is an illusion which springs from our habits of thought, and
an analysis of the sounds destroys it completely. It is not merely,
says Villemain, imitation of the Greek or the Latin _fremere_ that
has given us the word _frémir_; it is also the relation of its sound
to the emotion expressed. _Horreur, terreur, doux, suave, rugir,
soupirer, pesant, léger_, come to us not only from Latin, but from an
intimate sense which has recognized and adopted them as analogous to
the impression produced by the object.[8] If Villemain, whose opinion
M. Albalat accepted, had been better versed in linguistics, he would
doubtless have invoked the theory of roots, which at one time gave
to his nonsense an appearance of scientific force. As it stands, the
celebrated orator's brief paragraph would afford very agreeable matter
for discussion. It is quite evident that if _suave_ and _suaire_ invoke
impressions generally remote from each other, this is not because of
the quality of their sound. In English, _sweet_ and _sweat_ are words
which resemble each other. _Doux_ is not more _doux_ than _toux_ and
the other monosyllables of the same tone. Is _rugir_ more violent than
_rougir_ or _vagir_? _Léger_ is the contraction of a Latin word of five
syllables, _leviarium_. If _légère_ carries with it its own meaning,
does _mégère_ likewise? _Pesant_ is neither more nor less heavy than
_pensant_, the two forms being, moreover, doublets of a single Latin
original, pensare. As for _lourd_, this is _luridus_, which meant many
things: yellow, wild, savage, strange, peasant, heavy--such, doubtless,
is its genealogy. _Lourd_ is no more heavy than _fauve_ is cruel. Think
also of _mauve_ and _velours_. If the English _thin_ means the same as
the French _mince_, how does it happen that the idea of its opposite,
_épais_, is expressed by _thick_? Words are negative sounds which the
mind charges with whatever sense it pleases. There are coincidences,
chance agreements, between certain sounds and certain ideas. There are
_frémir, frayeur, froid, frileux, frisson_. Yes; but there are also:
_frein, frère, frêle, frêne, fret, frime_, and twenty other analogous
sonorities, each of which is provided with a very different meaning.

M. Albalat is more successful in the balance of the two chapters where
he treats successively word harmony and sentence harmony. He is right
in calling the Goncourts' style _un style désécrit_. This is still more
strikingly true applied to Loti, in whose work there are no longer any
sentences. His pages are thickets of phrases. The tree has been felled,
its branches have been lopped; there is nothing left but to make
faggots of them.

Beginning with the ninth lesson, _L'Art d'écrire_ becomes still more
didactic, and we encounter Invention, Disposition and Elocution.
I should find it hard to explain just how M. Albalat succeeds in
separating these three phases of composition, which are really one.
The _art of developing a subject_ has been refused me by Providence.
I leave all that to the unconscious, nor do I know anything more of
the _art of invention_. I believe that an author invents by reversing
the method of Newton--that is, without ever thinking about it, while,
as for elocution, I should hesitate to trust myself to the method of
recasting. One does not recast, one remakes, and it is so tedious to
do the same thing twice, that I approve of those who throw the stone
at the first turn of the sling. But here is what proves the inanity
of literary counsels: Théophile Gautier wrote the complicated pages
of _Capitaine Fracasse_ at odd moments on a printer's table, among
half-opened bundles of papers, in the stench of oil and ink, and it is
said that Buffon recopied eighteen times the _Époques de la Nature_.[9]
This divergence is of no importance, since, as M. Albalat should have
said, there are writers who make their corrections mentally, putting
on paper only the swift or sluggish product of the unconscious, while
there are others who need to see exteriorized what they have written,
and to see it more than once, in order to correct it--that is, to
understand it. Yet, even in the case of mental corrections, exterior
revision is often profitable, provided, as Condillac puts it, the
writer knows how to stop, to bring to a conclusion.[10] But too often
the demon of Betterment has tormented and sterilized intelligence. It
is also true that it is a great misfortune to lack self-criticism. Who
will dare to choose between the writer who does not know what he is
doing, and the one who, endowed with a double nature, can watch himself
as he works? There is Verlaine and there is Mallarmé. One must follow
the bent of one's own genius.

M. Albalat excels in definitions. "Description is the animated
depiction of objects." He means that, in order to describe, a writer
must, like a painter, place himself before the landscape, whether
this be real or imaginary. Judging by the analysis that he makes of a
page of _Télémaque_, it seems clear that Fénelon was only moderately
endowed with visual imagination, and more moderately still with
the gift of words. In the first twenty lines of the description of
Calypso's grotto, the word _doux_ occurs three times, and the verb
_former_ four. This has, indeed, become for us the very type of the
inexpressive style, but I persist in believing that it once had
its freshness and grace, and that the appeal which it made when it
appeared was not unjustified. We smile at this opulence of gilt paper
and painted flowers--the ideal of an archbishop who had remained a
theological student--and forget that no one had described nature since
_Astrée_. Those sweet oranges, those syrups diluted with spring-water,
were refreshments fit for Paradise. It would be cruel to compare
Fénelon, not with Homer, but even with the Homer of Leconte de Lisle.
Translations too well done--those that may be said to possess literary
literalness--have in fact the inevitable result of transforming into
concrete, living images everything which had become abstract in the
original. Did λευκοβραχίων mean one who had white arms, or was it
merely a worn-out epithet? Did λευκάκανθα suggest an image such as
_blanche épine_, or a neutral idea like aubépine, which has lost its
representative value? We cannot tell; but, judging dead languages by
the living, we must suppose that most of the Homeric epithets had
already reached the stage of abstraction in Homer's own time.[11]
It is possible that foreigners may find in a work as outworn for us
as _Télémaque_, the same pleasure which we derive from the _Iliad_
done in bas-relief by Leconte de Lisle. _Mille fleurs naissantes
émaillaient les tapis verts_ is a _cliché_ only when read for the
hundredth time. New, the image would be ingenious and pictorial. Poe's
poems, translated by Mallarmé, acquired a life at once mysterious and
precise which they do not possess to the same degree in the original,
and, from Tennyson's Mariana, agreeable verse full of commonplaces and
padding, grey in tone, the same poet, by substituting the concrete
for the abstract, made a fresco of lovely autumnal colouring. I offer
these remarks merely as a preface to a theory of translation. They
will suffice here to indicate that, where it is a question of style,
comparison should be made only between texts in the same language and
belonging to the same period.

It is very difficult, after fifty years, to appreciate the real
originality of a style. To do so, one should have read all the notable
books in the order of their publication. It is at least possible
to judge of the present, and also to accord some weight to the
contemporary opinions of a work. Barbey d'Aurevilly found in Georges
Sand a profusion of _anges de la destinée_, of _lampes de la foi_, and
of _coupes de miel_, which certainly were not invented by her any more
than the rest of her washed-out style; but "these decrepit tropes"
would have been none the better if she had invented them. I feel sure
that the cup, whose brim has been rubbed with honey, goes back to the
obscure ages of pre-Hippocratic medicine. Hackneyed expressions enjoy
a long life. M. Albalat notes justly "that there are images which
can be renewed and rejuvenated." There are many such, and among them
some of the commonest; but I cannot see that, in calling the moon the
_morne lampe_, Leconte de Lisle has been very successful in freshening
up Lamartine's _lampe d'or_. M. Albalat, who gives evidence of wide
reading, should attempt a catalogue of metaphors by subject: the moon,
the stars, the rose, the dawn, and all the "poetic" words. We should
thus obtain a collection of a certain utility for the study of words
and psychology of elementary emotions. Perhaps we should learn at last
why the moon is so dear to poets. Meanwhile he announces his next book,
_La Formation du style par l'assimilation des auteurs_; and I suppose
that, once the series is complete, everyone will write well--that
there will henceforth be a good medium style in literature, as there
is in painting and in the other fine arts, which the State protects
so successfully. Why not an Académie Albalat, as well as an Académie

Here, then, is a book which lacks almost nothing except not having
a purpose, except being a work of pure and disinterested analysis;
but, were it to have an influence, were it to multiply the number of
honourable writers, it would deserve our maledictions. Instead of
putting the manual of literature and all the arts within the reach of
all, it would be wiser to transport their secrets to the top of some
Himalaya. Yet there are no secrets. To be a writer, it is enough to
have natural talent for the calling, to practise with perseverance,
to learn a little more every morning, and to experience all human
sensations. As for the art of "creating images," we are obliged to
believe that this is absolutely independent of all literary culture,
since the loveliest, truest and boldest images are enclosed in the
words we use every day--age-old products of instinct, spontaneous
flowering of the intellectual garden.


[1] On the importance and influence of Protestantism at this time, see
the work of E. Hugues, pilfered by Protestant writers for the last
twenty-five years: _Histoire de la Restauration du Protestantisme en
France au XVIIIe siècle_ (1872).

[2] A book so little known and disfigured in its pious editions.
Nothing could be less pious, however, or less edifying, after the
first volume, than this curious and confused encyclopedia, where we
find _René_ and statistical tables, _Atala_ and a catalogue of Greek
painters. It is a universal history of civilization and a plan of
social reconstruction.

[3] In speaking of the eighteenth century, exception must always
be made of the grandiose and solitary Buffon, in his tower at
Montbard, who was, in the modern sense of these words, a scientist, a
philosopher, and a poet.

[4] An attempt will be made some day in a study in the _World of
Words_, to determine whether words have really a meaning--that is to
say, a constant value.

[5] _De l'Enseignement de notre langue_.

[6] M. Albalat has italicized everything he deems "banal or useless."

[7] See the chapter on the _cliché_, in my book, _L'Esthétique de la
Langue française_.

[8] _L'Art d'écrire_, p. 138.

[9] Or rather, had them copied by his secretaries. He afterwards
reworked the clean copy. There is a whole volume on this subject: _Les
Manuscrits de Buffon_, by P. Flourens, Paris, Garnier, 1860.

[10] There is, on this point, a pretty passage from Quintilian, quoted
by M. Albalat, p. 213.

[11] I take it for granted that the reader no longer believes that the
Homeric poems were composed at haphazard by a multitude of rhapsodists
of genius, and that it was enough to string these improvisations
together to get the _Iliad_ and the _Odyssey_.


Certain men have received a special gift, which distinguishes them
in a striking fashion from their fellows. The moment discus-throwers
or generals, poets or clowns, sculptors or financiers rise above the
common level, they demand the particular attention of the observer.
The predominance of one of their faculties marks them out for
analysis, and for that analytical method which consists in successive
differentiation. We come thus to discern in mankind a class whose
distinguishing trait is difference, just as, for common humanity, this
trait is resemblance. There are men who let us know nothing of what
they are going to say when they begin to speak. These are few. There
are others who tell us all, as soon as they open their mouths. It is
alleged that in this class there are marked disparities; for it is
undeniable that, even among those who, at first sight, resemble each
other most closely, there are no two creatures who are not, at bottom,
contradictory. It is the highest glory of man, and the one that science
has been unable to wrest from him, that there is no science of man.

If there be no science of the common man, still less is there a science
of the different man, since the manifestation of this difference makes
him solitary and unique, that is to say, incomparable. Yet, just as
there is a general physiology, so there is a general psychology, also.
Whatever their nature, all the beasts of the earth breathe the same
air, and the brain of the genius, like that of the ordinary mortal,
derives its primordial form from sensation. We have only a rough idea
by what mechanism sensation is transformed into action. All we know is
that the intervention of consciousness is not needed to bring about
this transformation. We know also that this intervention may prove
harmful through its power to modify the predetermined logic, to break
the series of associations in order to create in the mind the first
link of a new volitional chain.

Consciousness, which is the principle of liberty, is not the principle
of art. It is possible to express quite clearly what has been conceived
in the unconscious shades. Intellectual activity, far from being
intimately allied with the functioning of consciousness, is more often
disconcerted by it. We listen badly to a symphony, when we know we are
listening. We think badly, when we know we are thinking. Consciousness
of thinking is not thought.

The subconscious state is the state of automatic cerebration in full
freedom, while intellectual activity pursues its course at the extreme
limit of consciousness, a little below it and beyond its reach.
Subconscious thought may remain for ever unknown. It may, on the other
hand, come to light, either at the precise moment when the automatic
activity ceases, or later--even after several years. These facts of
cogitation do not, then, belong to the domain of the unconscious,
properly speaking, since they can become conscious. Besides, it will
doubtless be preferable to reserve to this rather vast word the
meaning given it by a particular philosophy. The subconscious state
differs also from the state of dreams, though dreams may be one of
its manifestations. The dream is almost always absurd, with a special
sort of absurdity, and is incoherent or orderly, according to its
associations which are entirely passive,[2] and whose procession
differs even from that of ordinary passive associations, conscious or

Imaginative intellectual creation is inseparable from the frequency
of the subconscious state, and in this category of creations must
be included the discovery of the scientist and the ideological
construction of the philosopher. All who have invented or discovered
something new in any field whatsoever, are imaginatives as well
as observers. The most deliberate, the most thoughtful, the most
painstaking writer is constantly, and in spite of himself, enriched
by the effort of the subconscious. No work is so completely a product
of the will that it does not owe some beauty or novelty to the
subconscious. No sentence, perhaps, however worked over, was ever
spoken or written in absolute accord with the will. The search for the
right word in the vast, deep reservoir of verbal memory is itself an
act which escapes so completely from the control of the will, that very
often the word on its way flees at the very moment when consciousness
is about to perceive and to grasp it. Everyone knows how hard it is to
find, by sheer force of will, the word wanted, and also with what ease
and rapidity certain writers summon up, in the heat of composition, the
rarest or the most appropriate words.

It is, however, imprudent to say: "Memory is always unconscious."[4]
Memory is a secret pool where, unknown to us, the subconscious casts
its net. But consciousness fishes there quite as readily. This pond,
full of chance fish previously caught by sensation, is particularly
well known to the subconscious. Consciousness is less skilful in
provisioning itself from this source, though it has at its service
several useful tricks, such as the logical association of ideas and
the localization of images. Man acquires a different personality,
according as the brain works in the darkness or by the lantern-light
of consciousness; but, save in pathological cases, the second of
these states is not so well defined that the first cannot intervene
without interrupting the effort. It is under these conditions, and in
accordance with this concert, that most works conceived, in the first
instance either by the will or by the dream faculty, are completed.

In Newton's case (as a result of constant attention) the work of
the subconscious is continuous, but connects itself periodically
with voluntary activity. Now conscious, now unconscious, his thought
explores all the possibilities. With Goethe, the sub-conscious is
almost always active and ready to deliver to the will the multiple
works which it elaborates without its aid and far from it. Goethe
himself has explained this in a marvellously lucid and instructive
page:[5] "Every faculty of action, and consequently every talent,
implies an instinctive force at work unconsciously and in ignorance
of the rules whose principle is, however, implicit. The sooner a man
becomes educated, the sooner he learns that there is a technique,
an art, which will furnish him the means of attaining the regular
development of his natural faculties. It would be impossible for
what he acquires to injure in any way his original individuality.
The supreme genius is he who assimilates and appropriates everything
without prejudice to his innate character. Here we are confronted
with the divers relations between consciousness and unconsciousness.
Through an effort of exercise, of apprenticeship, of persistent and
continuous reflection, through results obtained, whether good or bad,
through the movements of resistance and attraction, the human organs
amalgamate, combine unconsciously the instinctive and the acquired,
and from this amalgam--from this chemistry at once conscious and
unconscious--there issues at last a harmonious whole which fills the
world with words. It is nearly sixty years since, in the full flush
of my youth, the conception of _Faust_ came to me perfectly clear and
distinct, all its scenes unfolding before my eyes in the order of their
succession. From that day the plan never left me, and living with it in
view, I took it up in detail and composed, one after the other, those
bits which, at the moment, interested me most, with the result that,
when this interest has failed me, there have occurred gaps, as in the
second part. The difficulty, at such points, was to obtain, by sheer
force of will, what, in reality, is obtainable only by a spontaneous
act of nature." It also happens conversely that a work conceived in
advance and deferred in execution, comes at last to impose itself upon
the will. The subconscious then seems to overflow and submerge the
conscious, dictating things that are written only with repugnance.
This is the obsession which nothing discourages, and which triumphs
over even the most lackadaisical laziness, the most violent aversion.
Later, once the work is completed, there is often experienced a sort
of satisfaction. The idea of duty, which, ill understood, causes so
many ravages in timid consciences, is no doubt an elaboration of the
subconscious. Obsession is perhaps the force which impels to sacrifice,
just as it is that which incites to suicide.

Schopenhauer used to compare the obscure and continuous effort of the
unconscious, in the midst of impressions imprisoned in the memory,
to rumination. This rumination, which is purely physiological, may
suffice to modify convictions or beliefs. Hartmann discovered that
a hostile idea, at first brushed aside, succeeded, after a certain
time, in supplanting in his mind the idea which he was accustomed to
entertain of man or of a fact: "If you wish or have the occasion to
express your opinion upon the same subject, after days, weeks, or even
months, you discover, to your great surprise, that you have undergone
a veritable mental revolution--that you have completely abandoned
opinions which, up to that time, you had firmly believed to be yours,
and that new ideas have completely taken their place. I have often
noted this unconscious processus of digestion and mental assimilation
in my own case, and have always instinctively refrained from disturbing
the process by premature reflection, whenever it involved important
questions affecting my conceptions of the world and of the mind."[6]
This observation might be extended to the exceedingly interesting
problem of conversion. There is no doubt that people have suddenly felt
themselves brought, or brought back, to religious ideas, when they
had neither wish nor fear nor hope for this change. In conversion the
will can act only after a long effort on the part of the subconscious,
and when all the elements of the new conviction have been secretly
assembled and combined. This new force, which supports the convert, and
whose origin is unknown to him, is what theology calls grace. Grace is
the result of a subconscious effort. Grace is subconscious.

Like Hartmann, but instinctively, and not, in his case, by philosophic
preconception, Alfred de Vigny entrusted to the subconscious the
nurture of his ideas. When they were ripe, he recovered them. They
came back of their own accord to offer themselves rich with all the
consequences of their secret burgeoning. It may be supposed that, like
Goethe, he was a subconscious whose promissory notes were on very
long time, since Vigny left, between certain of his works, unusually
long intervals. It is highly probable that, if there are individuals
whose subconsciousness is inactive, there are others who, after a
period of activity, cease suddenly to produce, either as a result of
premature exhaustion, or through a modification in the relations of
the brain cells. Racine offers the singular example of a twenty years'
silence broken just halfway by two works which have only a formal
resemblance to those of his first phase. Can it be supposed that it
was through religious scruple that he so long refused to listen to the
suggestions of the subconscious? Can it be supposed that religion,
which had modified the nature of his perception, had, at the same time,
diminished the physiological power of his brain? Such a supposition
would run counter to all other observations, which go to show, on the
contrary, that a new belief is a new excitant. It seems, then, probable
that Racine became silent simply because he had almost nothing more
to say. It is a common adventure, and he found in religion the common

A distinction should then be made between two sorts of subconscious
individuals--those whose energy is short-lived and strong, and those
whose force is less ardent but more sustained. The two extremes are
exemplified by the man who produces a remarkable work in his early
youth, then ceases, and by the man who offers for sixty years the
spectacle of a mediocre, useless and continuous effort. I am speaking,
of course, of those works in which the imaginative intelligence
plays the major part--works in which the subconscious is always the

More practically, and from a totally different point of view, M.
Chabaneix, having studied the continuous subconscious, divides it into
nocturnal and waking subconsciousness. If the former be a question of
sleep or of the moments preceding sleep, it is oneiric or pre-oneiric.
Maury, who was particularly afflicted by them, has carefully considered
the hallucinations which are formed the moment the eyes close in sleep.
It is not clear that these hallucinations which are called hypnagogic,
and which are almost always visual, can have a special influence on the
ideas undergoing elaboration in the brain. They are rather embryonic
dreams which influence the course of the thought only as dreams
influence it. It happens, at times, that the conscious effort of the
brain is prolonged during the dream, even reaching its goal there,
and that, on awaking, the dreamer finds himself, without reflection
or difficulty, master of a problem, a poem, a combination, which had
baffled him previously. Burdach, a Koenigsberg professor, made, in
his dreams, several physiological discoveries which he was afterwards
able to verify. A dream was sometimes the point of departure for an
undertaking. Sometimes a work was entirely conceived and executed
during sleep. It is highly probable, however, that it is the conscious
reason which, at the moment of awaking, judges and rectifies the
dream spontaneously, gives it its true value, and divests it of that
incoherence peculiar to all dreams, even the most rational.

Inspiration, during the waking state, seems the clearest manifestation
of the subconscious in the domain of intellectual creation. In its most
pronounced form, it would seem to come very close to somnambulism.
Certain attitudes of Socrates (according to Aulus Gellius), of Diderot,
of Blake, of Shelley and of Balzac, give force to this opinion. Doctor
Régis[7] says that almost all men of genius have been "waking sleepers"
butt the waking sleeper is not infrequently an "absent-minded"
individual--one whose mind tends to become concentrated upon a problem.
Thus the excess and the absence of psychological consciousness would
seem, in certain cases, to manifest themselves by identical phenomena.
Of what did Socrates think days when he remained motionless? Did he
think? Was he conscious of his thought? Do the fakirs think? And
Beethoven, when, hatless and coatless, he let himself be arrested as a
tramp? Was he under voluntary obsession, or in a quasi-somnambulistic
condition? Did he know what he was pondering so deeply, or was his
cerebral activity unconscious? John Stuart Mill composed his work on
logic in the streets of London, as he went daily from his house to the
offices of the India Company. Will anyone believe that this work was
not planned in a state of perfect consciousness? What was subconscious
in Mill, says M. Chabaneix, was the effort to make his way in a
crowded street. "There was here automatism of the inferior centres."
This reversal of terms--more frequent than certain psychologists have
believed--may suggest doubts as to the true nature of inspiration.
One ought at least to ascertain whether, from the moment when the
realization--even purely cerebral--of a work begins, it is possible for
this effort to remain wholly subconscious. Mozart's letter explains
nobody but Mozart: "When I feel well and am in a good humour, whether
riding in a carriage or taking a walk after a hearty meal, or at night
when I cannot sleep, thoughts come thronging to me, and without the
slightest effort. Where do they come from, and by what avenue do they
reach me? I know nothing about it, have nothing to do with it. I keep
in my head those that please me, and hum them--at least, so others
have told me. Once I have my air, another soon comes to join it. The
work grows, I hear it continually and get it more and more distinct,
till at last the composition is entirely completed in my head, though
it may be a long one.... All this takes place in me as in a beautiful,
distinct dream.... If I start to write afterwards, I have nothing
to do but to take out of the sack of my brain what has previously
accumulated there, as I have explained to you. Thus it takes scarcely
any time at all to put the whole thing on paper. Everything is already
in perfect shape, and my score seldom differs very much from what I had
in my head beforehand. It does not bother me to be interrupted while
I am writing...."[8] With Mozart, the whole process is, therefore,
subconscious, and the material labour of execution amounts to little
more than mere copying.

I have seen a writer hesitate to correct his spontaneous composition
for fear of marring the tone. He was aware that the state in which he
corrected would be quite different from that in which he had written,
and in which he had, at the same time, conceived his work. Often a
word overheard, an attitude caught sight of, a singular individual
passed in the street, gave him the sole suggestion for his tales,
which he improvised in three or four hours. If he attempted to follow
a preconceived plan, he almost always abandoned it after the first
page, and finished his story in accordance with a new logic, reaching
a conclusion quite different from that which had seemed best to him
when he began. Some of these plans had been drafted under so strong
a subconscious influence, that later he no longer understood them,
recognized them only by the writing, and was able to determine their
date only by the kind of paper he had used, and by the colour of the
ink. On the contrary, other projects (for longer works) recurred to him
quite frequently. He was conscious of thinking of them several times
a day, and was convinced that it was these reveries, even when vague
and inconsistent, that rendered the work of execution comparatively
easy. In fact, I have never seen him seriously preoccupied with regard
to works which were, however, supposed to be the result of a rather
arduous effort. He never spoke of them, and I believe firmly that he
never gave them a conscious thought till the moment when he wrote the
terrible first lines. But, once the work was under way, almost all
his intellectual life concentrated on it, the periods of subconscious
rumination perpetually returning to join those of voluntary meditation.

As nearly as I have been able to make out, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam had
this same method of working. Once an idea had entered his mind--and
it sometimes entered quite suddenly, in the course of a conversation
most often, for he was a great talker, and profited by everything--this
idea, which had come in timidly and silently through the side-door,
soon installed itself as if it were at home, and invaded all the
reserve spaces of the subconscious. Then, from time to time, it rose
to the conscious level, and really obliged Villiers to act under its
obsession. At such moments, no matter who was with him, he talked. He
talked even when he was alone. Indeed he always talked as if he were
alone, when he talked of his idea. I heard thus, fragmentary, several
of his last stories, and once when we were seated in front of a café on
the boulevard, I had the impression that I was listening to veritable
mental wanderings in which this assertion recurred periodically: "There
was a cock! There was!" It was only some months later, when _Le Chant
du Coq_ appeared, that I understood. He spoke in a low voice, without
addressing me. Yet his conscious aim, in thus turning over his ideas
aloud, was to attempt to divine their effect upon a hearer. But, little
by little, this purpose became obscured. It was the subconscious that
was talking in his stead. He worked slowly. There exist five or six
superimposed manuscripts of _L'Ève Future_, and the first differs
so much from the last that Edison's name alone serves to link them
together. It is often said of a man, who has written little, that he
has done little work; but I am convinced that Villiers de l'lsle-Adam
never stopped working an instant, even when asleep. In spite of the
often absolute blockade that his ideas established about his attention,
no mind ever worked more rapidly or was better gifted for conversation.
He knew nothing of the twilight moments of awaking. After the fewest
hours of sleep, he found himself, at a bound, in full possession of his
verve and of his lucidity. Though, he was unquestionably the man of his
books, it would, however, be possible to find in him the sketch of a
dual personality, in which the conscious and unconscious so overlapped
that it would be difficult to disentangle them. It would, on the
other hand, be easy to write two lives of Mozart--one on the social
individual, the other on the man in his second state, both perfectly

Baudelaire used to say: "Inspiration means working every day"; but
this aphorism does not appear to epitomize his personal experience.
Regular daily work is, so to speak, inspiration regularized,
domesticated, enslaved. These terms do not involve a contradiction,
for it is certain that the second state can only gain in depth by
becoming periodic. Habit, so powerful, reinforces nature to strengthen
a psychological state which then comes to be a veritable necessity.
Those who depart from a daily routine experience a certain uneasiness
both during and after their regular working-hours--sometimes a real
distress--especially if they remain in the same surroundings. Remorse
has, perhaps, no other origin, whether it be connected with an habitual
act which has not been accomplished, or with an act which is not
habitual, and which has violently interrupted the customary procession
of the days.

If inspiration be a second state, it may, then, be a second state
induced voluntarily. There is no doubt that artists, writers,
scientists can work without preparation when obliged to, spurred on
only by necessity, and that, on the other hand, the work thus produced
is quite as good as that done entirely for its own sake. This does not
mean that the subconscious has remained inactive during the effort
initiated by the will, but that its activity has been induced. There
is, then, a subconscious state which is not spontaneous, which comes to
mingle with the conscious when required by the will, but which, little
by little, as the work progresses, substitutes itself for the will. It
is often enough to set to work, in order to feel all the difficulties
that had paralyzed effort vanish one by one; but perhaps this reasoning
is paralogical, and the work has precisely become possible only because
of the preliminary breaking-down of the obstacles which had confronted
the mind in the first place. In either case, however, there is evident
intervention of the subconscious forces.

How does a sensation become an image, the image an idea? How does the
idea develop? How does it assume the form which seems best to us? How,
in writing, is contribution levied upon the verbal memory? These are
all questions which seem to me insoluble, yet whose solution would be
necessary in order to formulate a precise definition of inspiration.
"Neither reflection nor will-power can take the place of inspiration
for the purpose of original creation," writes M. Ribot.[9] No doubt;
but reflection and force of will may nevertheless have their rôle in
the evolution of this mysterious phenomenon, and then, too; on the
other hand, cases of pure intellectual automatism are rather rare. It
must doubtless be supposed that those who are capable of experiencing
the happy influence of inspiration, are also those most capable of
feeling with force and with frequency the shocks of the external
world. Imaginatives are also sensitives. Their brain reserves must be
very rich in elements. This supposes a constant supply of sensations,
as well as a very lively sensibility and an incessantly renewed
capacity for feeling. This sensibility, too, belongs, in large part,
to the domain of the subconscious. There are, according to Leibnitz's
expression, "thoughts which our soul does not perceive." There are also
sensations which our senses do not perceive, and it is perhaps these
sensations which leave our brain as they entered it--subconsciously.
The most fruitful observations are those which we make without knowing
it. To live without thinking of life is often the best means for
coming to know life. After half a century and more, a man sees the
surroundings, the scenes, and the events of his unreflecting childhood
rise before him. As a child, he had dwelt in the external world as
in an extension of himself, with a purely physiological concern. He
had seen without seeing. Yet now, while the middle distance remains
veiled in mist, it is this period of his most fleeting impressions
that returns and takes on life before his eyes. It is very evident
that the sensation, which has entered us without our being aware of
it, can never, at any moment, be voluntarily evoked; but the conscious
sensation, on the contrary, can return suddenly, without any assistance
from the will. The subconscious has, then, dominion over two orders of
sensations, whereas consciousness has but one at its disposal. This
may explain why will and reflection have so restricted a share in the
creations of literature and of art.

But what is their rôle in the rest of life?

In principle, man is an automaton, and it would seem that in him
consciousness is an acquisition, an added faculty. Let us not be
deceived. Because man walks, acts, talks, he is not necessarily
conscious, nor is he ever completely conscious. Consciousness, if we
take the word in its precise, absolute sense, is without doubt the
possession of the few. In crowds men become particularly automatic.
Indeed, their very instinct to herd together, to do all of them the
same thing at the same time, is unmistakable evidence as to the nature
of their intelligence. How can we suppose consciousness and will to
exist in the members of those dense throngs which, on days of festivals
or during disorders, move forward in a mass toward the same point, with
the same cries and the same gestures? They are ants, that come out from
under the blades of grass after a rain, and nothing more. The conscious
man, who mingles without reflection in the crowd, who acts as the crowd
acts, loses his personality. He is now merely one of the tentacles of
the great artificial octopus, and almost all his sensations die away in
the collective brain of the hypothetical animal. From this contact he
will bring back next to nothing. The man who comes out of the crowd,
like the man saved from drowning, has one recollection only--that of
having fallen into the water.

It is among the small number of the conscious élite that must be
sought the veritably superior examples of a humanity of which they
are, not the leaders--that would be a pity, and too contrary to
instinct--but the judges. However--and this is a subject for serious
meditation--these individuals, raised above the rest, attain their
full power only at moments when the conscious, becoming subconscious,
opens the locks of the brain and lets the renewed floods of sensation
rush back to the world whence they were derived. They are magnificent
instruments on which the subconscious alone plays with genius, for it,
too, is subconscious. Goethe is the type of these dual men, and the
supreme hero of intellectual humanity.

There are other men, not less rare, but less complete, in whom the
will plays but a very ordinary rôle, and who are nothing the moment
they cease to be under the influence of the subconscious. Their genius
is often only the purer and more energetic because of this. They are
more docile instruments under the breath of the unknown God. But, like
Mozart, they do not know what they do. They obey an irresistible force.
That is why Gluck had his piano moved out into the middle of a meadow,
in the full sunlight. That is why Haydn gazed at a ring, why Crébillon
lived surrounded by dogs, why Schiller frequently inhaled the odour of
rotten apples with which he had filled the drawer of his table. Such
are the most innocent fantasies of the subconscious. There are others
that are both more insistent and more terrible.

[1] Suggested by _Physiologie cérébrale: Le Subconscient chez les
artistes, les savants, et les écrivains_, by Dr. Paul Chabaneix,
Paris, J.-B. Baillière. This study was already written when M. Ribot's
masterly work, _L'Imagination créatrice_ (July, 1900), appeared.

[2] See in a dream related by Maury (_Le Sommeil et les Rêves_) the
word _jardin_ causing the dreamer to visit Persia, then to read _L'Ane
mort_ (Jardin, Chardin, Janin); and in another dream, the syllable lo
conducting the mind from the word _kilomètre_ to _loto_, viâ _Gilolo,
lobélia, Lopez_. However, the poet (by reason of rhyme or alliteration)
experiences similar associations, but he must have the ability to
render them logical, a thing which rarely happens in dreams pure and
simple. Victor Hugo, a veritable incarnation of the Subconscious,
rioted in these associations, which were at first involuntary.

[3] With regard to dreams, M. Chabaneix says (p. 17) that those who
often think in visual images are subject to dreams in which the images
are objectified in amplified form. A personal observation contradicts
this, but in mentioning it I am only opposing a single observation to
many observations. I refer to a writer who, although besieged, when
awake, by internal visual images, sees images but rarely in dreams and
never has any characteristic hallucinations. Recently, having reread
Maury's book during the day, he experienced that night, for the first
time, two or three vague hypnotic hallucinations, caused doubtless by
the desire or fear of knowing this state.... This case may serve to
explain the contagion of hallucination by books.--He saw kaleidoscopic
flashes, then grinning heads, finally a figure clad in green, of life
size, of whom the dreamer, looking out of the corner of his right eye,
saw only one-half. At this moment, he was awaking. The figure evidently
came from an illustrated history of Italian painting, which he had
glanced at in the forenoon.

[4] _Le Subconscient_, p. 11.

[5] Letter to W. von Humboldt, 17 March, 1832 (_Le Subconscient_, p.
16). Goethe was then eighty-three; he died five days later. The whole
letter is quoted by Eckermann.

[6] _Le Subconscient_, p. 24.

[7] Preface to _Le Subconscient_.

[8] Jahm, quoted in _Le Subconscient_, p. 93.

[9] _Psychologie des Sentiments_.--W. von Humboldt said: "Reason
combines, modifies and directs; it cannot create, because the vital
principle is not in it" (_Ideas on the New French Constitution_).



Since writing, in _Physique de l'Amour_, the chapter on "The Tyranny
of the Nervous System," with its criticism of Lamarck's saying, "the
environment creates the organ," I have come to conceive some doubts on
the legitimacy of my ideas. I am going to state them without definitely
taking sides either against myself or against subjective idealism, to
which in the last analysis I remain in large part faithful.

Idealism is to-day the dominant doctrine in philosophy, which was bound
to come to it, after a period of raillery, for reasoning leads to it

We know that there are two idealisms. It is then prudent, whenever this
word is employed in a context not purely philosophic, to define it.
There are two idealisms, both qualified by a word which is identical
in form, but different in meaning, since one comes from _ideal_, the
other from _idea_. The former is the expression of a moral or religious
state of mind. It is very nearly synonymous with spiritualism, and it
is this that M. Brunetière employs when that hard-hearted man becomes
sentimental on the subject of the "renaissance of idealism." There is
a certain "Revue Idéaliste," marked by a serene religious sentiment,
which belongs to the same clan, and in which it would be a mistake to
seek any enlightenment on Berkeley's doctrine.

The other idealism, which it would have been better to call ideaism,
and which Nietzsche has carried to the point of phenomenalism, is
a philosophical conception of the world. Schopenhauer, who was not
its inventor, has provided it with its best formula--the world is my
representation. That is to say, the world is such as it appears to me.
If it has a real existence in itself, it is inaccessible to me. It is
that which I see it, or feel it, to be.

Schopenhauer's formula withstands every criticism. It is irrefutable.
The doctrine which derives from it, if attacked directly, presents
itself as an impregnable fortress. Every reasoning blunts itself
impotently against it. It has this remarkable quality, that it is as
valid for the sensation, for the sentiment, as for the idea. There
may be based upon it equally, at will, a theory of intelligence, like
Taine's, or a theory of sensibility--something which has not been
yet attempted. Take the hackneyed statement that the same painful
event does not affect with the same intensity two persons whom it
strikes with the same external force. That is idealism. Take the
subject of tastes and of colours (in which Nietzsche found so much
amusement). There too, we have idealism. Whenever we study life,
facts, intelligences, physiologies, sensibilities for the purpose of
finding, not resemblances, but differences, we are practising idealism.
While there is life, there is idealism. That is to say, there are,
according to the species, or even the individual, different ways of
reacting against an external or internal sensation. Everything is
merely representation, for a bird as well as for a man, for a crab as
for a cuttle-fish. Reality is relative. A woman, a nervous man even,
can suffer intensely--perhaps lose consciousness--by imagining the
amputation of a leg, the scraping of the bones. Hardened soldiers,
on the contrary, have undergone such operations without flinching.
A particular taste for cruelty should not be attributed to the
civilizations which countenanced torture, and to those which still
practise it. The refinements which the Chinese bring to physical
punishment are nothing but a very clear indication of insensibility.
That which agonizes a European makes a yellow man smile. But there are,
among men of the same social group, numerous degrees of sensibility.
Pain, like pleasure, is a representation. The formula has been extended
to groups. A people is what it believes itself to be, very much more
than what it actually is. Most social disorders are merely collective

But it is difficult to explain idealism by an examination of the facts
of sensibility. They are too well known, too generally admitted,
to support a philosophic construction. A point of departure more
extraordinary and less easy to understand is needed. The phenomenon of
vision is generally employed in this connection. It seems simple, but,
when analyzed, it is exceedingly mysterious.

Seeing is the most natural thing in the world. Yet, what do we see,
when we see a tree? A tree, to be sure, but not the tree itself. What
enters us, as object perceived, is not the tree as tree, but the tree
as image. What is the image worth? Is it exact?

So it may be supposed, since it is sensibly the same for the various
persons who perceive it, and since divergences of appreciation begin
only when there come into play judgments conditioned by sentiment or
interest. This supposed exactitude is, in any case, very relative. An
image is an image, a photograph, and it differs from the reality-tree
(pure hypothesis) as much as a round, long, branching, leafy object
differs from a graphic representation, without thickness. It is true
that tactile sensation, or its memory, comes then to our aid, adding
to the tenuousness of the visual image the idea of consistence, of
resistance, without which we have difficulty in conceiving matter. We
can then--and thanks also to our observation of the opposing play of
light and shade--give this vain image its true position in space.

But however complete and concordant may be the actions of our senses,
when it is a question of knowing an object--even when, as in sexual
love, the six senses, including the genital sense, come into play
simultaneously--it is none the less the fact that the object known
remains exterior to ourselves. Besides, this qualification "known" is
little appropriate to the object perceived, since it has an interior
face, inaccessible at first glance to our senses. If we are dealing
with a living being--and all the more if this being be intelligent and
complex--we must exercise all sorts of faculties and devote ourselves
to minute analyses in order to arrive, even then, at a knowledge that
is very nearly illusory.

Knowledge arrives, then, at a certain bankruptcy. It is not very far
from this point to that of proclaiming the uselessness of the external
world as a means of explaining the nature of knowledge itself. It is
only a step from uselessness to reality. The idealistic philosophers
who develop their theory to its logical conclusion, can say, without
paradox, that everything occurs in vision, for example, as if the
object did not exist--as if intelligence, though believing that it
receives aid from the eye, in reality created this object just as far
as it wishes to know it. The phenomenon of hallucinations gives an
appearance of reason to these exasperated idealists. Did not Taine,
who was not exasperated, call sensation a true hallucination? But why
true? That is a word which, in the circumstances, it is difficult to
justify. It would be juster to say that hereditary habit inclines us
to regard certain sensations as true, certain others as false. Perhaps
utility serves us also as guide, and we imagine, in order to reassure
ourselves, an external and fallacious world whose operations correspond
to the movements of our psychology.


There is another way of knowing, at once more elementary, more
intimate, and more uncertain. This is absorption. The elements of our
nourishment, in proportion as we "know" them, disintegrate, yield
soluble parts to our organism, and reject the rest in a form equally
unknowable. If we reject, as we should, the primitive distinction
between soul and body, admitting only the body and believing everything
to be physical, then this way of knowing should be studied parallel
with those ways which spring from each of our different senses, or from
their collaboration. It is certain that absorption has taught man in
every age. It is through it, and not by virtue of an unknown instinct,
that he has succeeded in separating vegetables and animals into good
and bad, into useful and harmful or indifferent. Our analytical methods
are still unable, save perhaps in particularly expert hands, to
distinguish mushrooms as a harmful or favourable form of nourishment.
The expert himself must be guided, for this delicate operation, by
a direct and real experiment of absorption. Man, devoid of science,
took himself as laboratory. None was surer. He acquired, by this
means, certain parts of his knowledge which have proved most useful to
humanity and to the domestic animals. From time to time medications
are rediscovered which figure in ancient pharmacopeias. Thus formate
of lime or of soda, recently prescribed as a muscular invigorant,
contains scarcely a principle that did not figure in the old "water
of magnanimity," obtained by maceration and distillation of a certain
quantity of ants. How did our ancestors, who were no doubt shepherds
and labourers, come to distinguish the virtue of ants? Evidently by
eating them. The foul Arabs and other low forms of humanity who eat
their vermin, find in them, perhaps, an analogous tonic. This practice,
like all those which resolve themselves into absorption, is assuredly
dictated by experience. Neither a man nor an animal can, in principle,
become addicted to an act which is harmful to him. Between acts that
are harmful, and acts that are salutary, there is a whole series of
games, but it is difficult to admit that a daily game is a harmful act.

Why do not peasants eat certain abundant rodents? It is easy to answer
by offering taste and disgust as pretexts; but this is reversing the
logical order of the terms of the argument.

A food does not disgust by its odour. The odour of a food disgusts
because this food is harmful or useless. To understand this, without
the necessity of insisting upon it, it is enough to think of all those
foods with nauseous odours, which we appreciate much more than those
which might be considered pleasant. Such is the fruit of experience,
that is to say, of knowledge.

I believe that absorption should be considered one of the best means
we have of appreciating the practical value of certain parts of the
external world. Agriculture, kitchen-gardening, cooking, pharmacy
almost entirely, are born of it. Assuredly men, even the rarest
chemists and physiologists, could suck a kola-nut for years, without
suspecting those virtues that savages found quite simply by cracking it
with their teeth.

They jest who, ignoring not only the importance but the very existence
of this sixth or seventh or tenth sense, attribute to taste or to smell
a mysterious power of divining the harmfulness of a plant or of its
fruit. How can they help seeing immediately that this preservative
instinct, if it be hereditary, has had a beginning, and that, at this
beginning, there was a fact of knowledge? The traditional notion
of instinct must be left in the old theological and spiritualistic
repertories. It serves simple people as an easy means of distinguishing
man from the animals. Animals have instinct, man has intelligence.
There are proofs. Man poisons himself with mushrooms, frugivorous
animals never. What man? Not the traditional peasant surely. Only the
_déraciné_ or the city-dweller, who has naturally lost an instinct
which was useless to him. This proof proves only that it is dangerous
for man, as for the other animals, or for plaints themselves, to
change their habitat. There is a painful, uncertain transitory phase.
It is during this phase that we go into the woods, picknicking,
and gather toadstools. But rabbits in cages, when given wet grass
or vegetables instinctively unknown to them, allow themselves to
be completely poisoned. Free, it would never have occurred to them
to crop at dewfall, because their ancestors, dwelling in extremely
thick woodlands, were ignorant of the very existence of the dew, and
transmitted distrust of wet grass to their offspring.

Man, even in the state of semi-civilization, is burdened with too much
knowledge for it all to be transmitted hereditarily; but there is no
doubt that the oldest and most useful reaches us in this manner. When
we walk in the forest there are berries that tempt us, whortleberries,
for example, but never alderberries. Who has taught us (I am supposing
a real ignorance), that they are purgative and even dangerous?
Instinct? What is instinct? The hereditary transmission of knowledge.

This transmission can, without doubt, occur in the case of abstract
ideas, as well as of practical ideas--that is to say, useful for the
conservation of life. Some, besides, are really useful, and even
primordial. It is as reasonable to believe that they are inherited
as to suppose them personally acquired. It might be possible to
rehabilitate the theory of innate ideas, by revising it carefully and
eliminating from its catalogue all sorts of Platonic or Christian
inventions, too recent to have entered our blood.

As to the direct knowledge of ideas, this is gained in a form
sensibly analogous to the knowledge of matter by absorption. Once
they have entered us, ideas either remain inert, unknown, or else
are disintegrated. In the first case, it is not long before they are
expelled from the brain, much like an indigestible morsel which has
entered the intestines. Their stay may produce a certain irritation,
even lesions. That is to say, it may provoke absurd acts, manifestly
without logical relation to the normal physiology of the patient. This
effect may be observed in all countries, but especially in France, at
the time of great political or moral crises. We see people tormented
by the presence of a parasitic idea in their brain, like sheep by the
residence of a trumpet-fly's egg in their frontal sinus. Man, like the
sheep, has the "itch." That ends badly for the sheep--for the man also,
very often.

In the second case, the external ideas that have entered the brain
are disintegrated there and unite their atoms with the other atomic
knowledge already within us. An idea is digested, assimilated.
Assimilated, it then becomes very different from what it was when
it entered the intelligence. Like intestinal absorption, mental
absorption is, therefore, an excellent though indirect way of acquiring
knowledge. In both cases, the ideas, like the aliments, will be known,
not immediately, but by their effects. Thus men know hereditarily
that certain ideas are individual or social poisons, and that others
are equally favourable to the welfare of the individual or to the
development of a people. But, in this order, notions of utility and
of harmfulness are much less precise. We have seen a certain idea,
reputed to be very dangerous, contributing to the health of a man, of
a family, of a society, of civilization itself. Ideas are extremely
workable, plastic. They take the shape of the brain. There are perhaps
no ideas that are bad for a healthy brain whose form is normal. There
are perhaps no good ones for a brain that is sick and warped.


But let us come back to our tree or our ox. This ox can enter us in one
of two ways. First, partly, but really, in the form of food. What we
absorb of it in that way cannot, evidently, be known as ox. It reaches
our knowledge only through its effects--strength, health, gaiety,
activity, depression. Even were this absorption total in the case of a
small animal, digestible in all its parts, the result, from the point
of view of immediate knowledge, would be the same, since the object
becomes resolved into elements which render its form unknowable.

The other manner--that which brings into play the external senses--will
make us know the ox, in appearance as such, in reality as image of an
ox. What is the true value of this knowledge? We must here return to
this question, in order to enter more easily upon the second part of
this essay.

Truth has been very seriously defined as conformity of the
representation of an object with this object itself. But that solves
nothing. What is the object itself, since we can know it only as
representation? It is useless to carry the discussion further. We shall
turn indefinitely around the fortress of idealism, without ever finding
an opening, or any weak point. We shall enter it never, no argument
serving as a bomb against its solid walls.

However, we must consider carefully. Having thoroughly reflected, we
shall ask if this fortress be real, or if, on the contrary, it be not,
perhaps, a representation without object, a pure phantom, like those
sunken cities whose bells still ring for great festivals, but are heard
only by those who believe in their mysterious life. This doubt will
lead us to re-examine the reasoning of Berkeley and of Kant, and see
if it be well constructed. Does it start from the senses to reach the
mind? Or may it not, perchance, be one of those mental conceptions
which fall back upon the senses like an avalanche, freezing and
smothering them?

How have the senses been formed? Such is the question. Has there
always been an opposition between the ego and the non-ego? There is
nothing in the intelligence that has not first been in the senses.
By intelligence, we must in this philosophic dictum, due to Locke,
understand the psychologic consciousness. Let us leave aside the
consciousness, which can only serve to complicate the problem.
Consciousness is a phenomenon of secondary order and of an entirely
sentimental utility, if it be restricted to man; commonplace and of
pure reflex, if extended to all sensible matter. Let us consider this
matter in perhaps its humblest manifestations, taking account only of
the actions and reactions, exactly as we might observe the influence
of heat, of light, or of cold on milk, wine or water. In living matter
there will, however, be something more--the decomposition will be
compensated by assimilation, and if the assimilation be abundant, there
will be generation. Other forms, resembling the first, will detach
themselves from the matrix form. This represents life essentially,
a living being, a being limited in duration by the very fact of its
growth, which constitutes an effort and a loss. Let us consider a being
whose senses are not differentiated, and let us see how it gets on with
the rest of the world, how it knows it.

The amoeba has no exterior senses. It is an almost homogeneous mass,
and yet it is sensible to almost the same sensorial impressions as the
highest mammal. It feeds (smell and taste); it moves (sense of space,
touch); it is sensible to light, at least to certain rays (sight);
its environment being in perpetual movement, ceaselessly traversed by
sonorous waves, it doubtless reacts to these vibrations (hearing).
Perhaps, even, it possesses, without special organs, senses which we
lack, and which we recover only by study and analysis, such as the
chemical sense, which judges the composition of a body, declares it
assimilable or counsels its rejection. The exercise of all these senses
denotes, first of all, a very long heredity. They have, doubtless, been
acquired successively only, unless, the absence of one of them being
capable of causing death, their presence is the strict consequence
of the life of this humble beast. But it is useless to construct any
hypotheses on the subject. It is enough to keep to the fact, and this
fact is the existence of a being without differentiated organs, that is
to say, a being all of whose parts are equally adapted to react against
every external excitation.

Why these reactions? They are one of the conditions of life. But could
not life be conceived without them? It is possible. It is a question of
environment. If the amoeba's environment were homogeneous and calm, if
it were of a constant temperature and luminosity, if it furnished an
abundance of proper nourishment, if, in a word, the animal dwelt in an
alimentary bath, no reactions would be necessary, and its only movement
would be to open its pores for food, to reject the excess of this food,
to divide itself, when swollen, into two amoebas. Why, then, does it
possess all these senses which, though unorganized, are perfectly
real? Because the environment obliges it to have them, because of its
instability. The senses, whether differentiated, or spread over the
entire surface of a living form, are the creation of the environment
which--light, sound, material exteriority, odours, etc.--acts in
accordance with different discontinuous manifestations. Constant or
continuous, they would be without effect. Discontinuous, they make
themselves felt. Discontinuous light has created the eye, just as the
drop of water creates a hole in granite.

A being, whatever it may be, whether vague and almost amorphous or
clearly defined, is not isolated in the universal vital environment.
It is the molecule of a diapason. It vibrates, not of its own accord,
but in obedience to a general movement. The living cell, itself in
internal movement and subjected to all the reactions of external
movement, perceives this movement doubtless as an unique impression
only. But when several cells come together and live in permanent
contact, the impressions of external movement begin to be perceived as
differentiated. Is this then necessary? Do there then already exist
luminous vibrations, different from sonorous vibrations? Assuredly,
since otherwise the sensorial differentiation would be inexplicable,
being useless. The union of several cells permits the animal to
divide its work of perception, and to present to each perceptible
manifestation an organ or, at least, the sketch of an organ,
appropriate to receive it.

It would be possible, it is true, from the idealistic point of view,
to suppose that the senses are a creation of the individual, an
enhancement of his own life, and that he differentiates, on his own
initiative, his cinematic impression. This would be a phenomenon of
spontaneous analytic creation, the analyzing instrument existing prior
to the matter analyzed, or even, for exasperated idealists, creating
this matter according to determinate needs, once and for all, by its
own physiology. It would then be a property of organized living matter
to fabricate senses for itself, and to diversify, by this means, its
own life. This point of view is not easy to admit for several reasons,
purely physical.

First, if this sensorial differentiation were a faculty of living
matter, it would not be observed to be limited in its powers, as it
is. Even admitting certain senses unknown to man, such as the chemical
sense, the electric sense, the sense of orientation (extremely
doubtful), it is still seen that the number of senses is very limited.
But, far more important, the fundamental senses are found to be
identical among the majority of the higher species, vertebrates and
insects, with very few exceptions. The moment the animal arrives at
sensorial differentiation, this differentiation occurs in response to
the manifestations of matter.

The senses should, then, correspond to external realities. They have
been created, not by the perceiving being, but by the perceptible
environment. It is the light that has created the eye, just as, in
our houses, it has created the windows. Where there is no light,
fish become blind. This is perhaps the direct proof, for if light is
the creation of the eye, this creation can occur at the bottom of
the sea quite as well as on the surface of the earth. Another proof:
these same fish, having become blind, but still requiring a luminous
habitat, create for themselves in the night of the abysses, not eyes,
but apparatus directly productive of light; and this artificial light
creates anew the atrophied eye. The senses are then clearly the product
of the environment. That is all they can do, moreover, their utility
being nil, if the environment is not perceptible. It might still be
objected that it is the nervous system which, having intuition of an
environment to be perceived, creates for itself organs adapted to this
perception. But this is merely begging the question; for, either the
nervous system has knowledge of the external environment, which means
that it already has senses, or else it has no senses, and thus can
have no knowledge. A more serious objection would be that, sensorial
aptitude being a property of the nervous system, it would afterwards
create for itself organs in order to perceive more distinctly, and
clearly differentiated, the various natural phenomena. This view would
explain up to a certain point the creation of sensorial organs, but
not the existence of the senses themselves as sensitive power. It is,
moreover, certain that the nervous system acts rather by tyrannizing
the organs at its disposal, than by seeking to modify these organs or
to create new ones. It is a power which evidently exceeds the limits
of its capacity. It has, on the contrary, devolved upon the external
phenomena which, in acting mechanically on the living matter, produce
in it local modifications. The organs of the senses seem to be nothing
other than surfaces sensitized by the very agents which, once their
work is done, will reflect in them their particular physiognomy. The
eye--let us take once more this example, and repeat it--is a creation
of light.

Since they are themselves the work of the principal general
phenomena, the senses ought then to agree exactly--allowing for
approximation--with the very nature which has created them. The
luminous environment is not, in this case, a dream, but a reality, and
a reality existing prior to the eye which perceives it; and, since the
eye is the very product of light, objects situated in this luminous
environment should be perceived by it as an exact image, just as the
drill which creates a hole, creates it strictly to its size, its form,
its image. Bacon said that the senses are holes. Here this is only a


There remains the question of the co-ordination of the impressions
received materially by the senses. This co-ordination, for elementary
sensations, is evidently identical for all beings. The snail, his horn
being threatened, and man, his eye, make the same shrinking movement.
Identical acts can have as cause only identical realities, or ones
perceived as such. With judgment, we enter upon the mystery. If light
is constant, the judgment which admits its existence is variable
according to the species, and, in the higher species, according to
the individual. It is clear that all eyes are affected by light, but
we do not know to what degree, or according to what mode of spectral
decomposition. It is the same for all other senses. Even if the
reality of the sensible world be admitted, we are obliged to pronounce
cautiously upon the quality of this reality, as reality perceived and
judged. We then return to idealism, though having had a quite different
end in view. We must retrace our steps, contemplate anew the ironic
portress, and resign ourselves never to know anything save appearance.

Another fact, however, remains--another fortress, perhaps, reared
facing the other. This is, that matter existed before life. The gain
seems slight, but it is equivalent to saying that the phenomena
perceived by the senses are exterior to the senses which now perceive
them; and this perhaps means that, if life becomes extinct, matter
will survive life. The proposition of the idealists that the world
would come to an end if there were no longer any sensibilities capable
of feeling it, any intelligences capable of perceiving it, seems,
therefore, untenable. And yet what would a world be, that was neither
thought nor felt? We must recognize this, that when we think of a world
void of thought, it still contains our thought, or it is our thought
which contains it and animates it. Another phenomenon analogous to
this has, perhaps, contributed much to belief in the immortality of
the soul, namely, that we cannot conceive of ourselves as dead save
by thinking of this death, by feeling and seeing it. The idea of our
non-existence supposes, moreover, the life of our thought. That there
is here an illusion due to the very functioning of the mechanism of
thought is probable enough; but it is difficult not to take it into
account. It would seem somewhat high-handed to make abstraction of it.

We can attempt it, however, and try a new road leading "beyond
thought." The way would be to consider the general movement of the
things in which our thought itself is closely implicated, and by which
it is rigorously conditioned. Far, perhaps, from thought thinking life,
it is life that animates thought. What is anterior is a vast rhythmic
undulation, of which thought is but one of the moments, one of the

The position taken by man outside the world to judge the world, is a
factitious attitude. It is, perhaps, only a game, and one that is too
easy. The division of man into two parts, thought, physical being,
one considering the other and pretending to contain it, is only a
philosophic amusement which becomes impossible the moment we stop to
consider. There is, in fact, a physic of thought. We know that it
is a product, measurable, ponderable. Unformulated externally, it
nevertheless manifests its physical existence by the weight which it
imposes upon the nervous system. It needs speech, writing, or some sort
of sign, in order to manifest itself externally. Telepathy, thought,
penetration, presentiment--if there be any facts in this category which
have really been verified--would in such a case be so many proofs of
the materiality of thought. But it is useless to multiply arguments in
favour of a fact which is no longer contested save by theology.

This fact of materiality gives thought a secondary place. It is
produced. It might not be. It is not primordial. It is a result, a
consequence--doubtless a property of the nervous system, or even of
living matter. It is then through a singular abuse, that we have become
accustomed to consider it isolated from the ensemble of its producing

But, if thought be a product, it is, none the less, productive in
its turn. It does not create the world, it judges it. It does not
destroy it, it modifies and reduces it to its measure. To know is to
frame a judgment; but every judgment is arbitrary, since it is an
accommodation, an average, and since two different physiologies give
different averages, just as they give different extremes. The path,
once again, after many windings, brings us back to idealism.

Idealism is definitely founded on the very materiality of thought,
considered as a physiological product. The conception of an external
world exactly knowable is compatible only with belief in the reason,
that is to say, in the soul, that is to say, furthermore, in the
existence of an unchangeable, incorruptible, immortal principle,
whose judgments are infallible. If, on the contrary, knowledge of
the world be the work of a humble physiological product, thought--a
product differing in quality, in modality, from man to man, species
to species--the world may perhaps be considered as unknowable, since
each brain or each nervous system derived from its vision and from its
contact a different image, or one which, if it was at first the same
for all, is profoundly modified in its final representation by the
intervention of the individual judgment.

If the same object produces the same image on the retina of an ox or
the retina of a man, it will not, doubtless, be concluded, therefore,
that this image is known and judged identically by the ox and the man.

There are no two leaves, there are no two beings, alike in nature. Such
is the basis of idealism and the cause of incompatibility with the
agreeable doctrines with which men continue to be entertained.

The reasons of idealism plunge deep down into matter. Idealism means
materialism, and conversely, materialism means idealism.


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