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The Guarded Secrets

by Anatole France

M. Ferdinand Brunetière, of whom I am very fond, has a great quarrel with me. He reproaches me with misunderstanding the very laws of criticism, with having no criterion by which to judge the things of the mind, with floating amid contradictions with no guide but my instincts, with never getting out of myself, with being enclosed within my subjectivity as in a dark prison. Far from complaining at being thus attacked, I rejoice in this honorable dispute, every circumstance of which flatters me: the merit of my opponent, the severity of a censure which yet hides so much indulgence, the greatness of the interests involved. For, according to M. Brunetière, there is at stake nothing less than the intellectual future of our country.... I have many disadvantages if I must necessarily contend with M. Brunetière. I shall not point out the inequalities so certain as to be obvious at once. I shall merely indicate one of a very special nature. It is this, that while he finds my criticism vexatious, I find his excellent. I am thus reduced to that defensive position which all tacticians consider bad. I hold the powerful critical structures of M. Brunetière in very high esteem. I admire the solidity of their materials and the greatness of their plan. I have just read the discourses delivered at the Ecole Normale by this most able lecturer on the Evolution of Criticism from the Renaissance to Our Days, and I feel no displeasure in proclaiming that his ideas are conducted with much method, marshaled in an order that is most happy, impressive and new. Their march, heavy but sure, recalls the famous maneuver of the legionaries, who advanced in closely serried ranks under protection of their shields to the assault of a city. That was the famous testudo formation, and it was a formidable one. A little surprise is mixed, perhaps, with my admiration when I see whither that army of ideas is bound. M. Ferdinand Brunetière plans to apply to literary criticism the theories of evolution. And, if this enterprise seems interesting and praiseworthy in itself, yet one has not forgotten the energy recently expended by this critic in the cause of subordinating science to morals and of weakening the authority of every doctrine founded on the natural sciences.... I do not at all affirm that M. Brunetière belies his own convictions or contradicts himself. I mark a trot of his nature, a turn of his character which is, with a great deal of consistency, to fall voluntarily into the unexpected and the unforeseen. It was said, one day, that he was paradoxical, and that saying seemed an ironical one, so solidly established was his reputation as a good reasoner. But one has come to see on reflection that he is, in fact, a trifle paradoxical in his manner. His ability in proving things is prodigious: he must always be proving something, and he is fond, at times, of powerfully supporting extraordinary and even stultifying opinions. By what cruel fate am I doomed to admire a critic who corresponds so little to my sentiments! For M. Ferdinand Brunetière there are simply two kinds of critical methods: the subjective, which is bad, and the objective, which is good. According to him, M. Jules Lemaître, M. Paul Desjardins and myself--we are tainted with subjectivity, and that is the worst of evils: for from subjectivity one falls into illusion, into sensuality and into lust, and judges the works of man by the pleasure that they give one, which is an abominable thing. For one must not be pleased with some product of the mind until one knows whether one is right in being so pleased; for man is, above all, a rational animal and he must first use his reason; hence it is necessary to be right and it is not necessary to find pleasure; for it is the attribute of man to seek to instruct himself by the methods of logic, which are infallible; hence one ought always to put a truth at the end of a chain of reasoning, like a knot at the end of a plait; for without that, the reasoning will not keep from unraveling, and it must keep from unraveling; and thereupon one joins together several strands of reasoning in such a way as to form an indestructible system--which lasts a dozen years. And that is why objective criticism is the only good criticism. M. Ferdinand Brunetière holds the other method to be fallacious and deceptive. And he gives various reasons. But I am forced, first of all, to produce the incriminating text. It is a passage in my Vie Litteraire which reads as follows: There is no such thing as objective criticism any more than there is objective art, and all who flatter themselves that they put aught but themselves into their work are dupes of the most fallacious illusion. The truth is that one never gets out of oneself. That is one of our greatest miseries. What would we not give to see, if but for a minute, the sky and the earth with the many-faceted eye of a fly, or to understand nature with the rude and simple brain of an ape? But just that is forbidden us. We cannot, like Tiresias, be men and remember having been women. We are locked into our persons as into a lasting prison. The best we can do, it seems to me, is gracefully to recognize this terrible situation and to admit that we speak of ours selves every time that we have not the strength to be silent. M. Brunetière, having quoted these lines, remarks at once "that one cannot affirm with greater assurance that nothing is sure." I could easily answer that no contradiction is involved since there is no novelty in asserting that we are fated to know things only by the impressions which they make on us. That is a truth which observation can establish and so striking a one that it reaches everyone. It is a commonplace of philosophy. One need not fix one's attention on it too closely, and above all one need not see in it a doctrinal pyrrhonism. I confess that I have more than once glanced sidewise at absolute skepticism. But I have never entered that region; I have been afraid to put my foot on that foundation which engulfs everything one entrusts to it. I have feared the formidable sterility of those two words: "I doubt." Such is their force that the lips which have once advisedly uttered them are forever sealed and can never more be opened. If one doubts, one must be silent; for whatever discourse one may hold, to speak is in itself to affirm. And since I have not had the courage of silence and of renunciation, I have desired to believe and I have believed. I have believed at least in the relativity of things and in the succession of phenomena. In fact, reality and appearance--it is all one. To love and to suffer in this world, images suffice; it is not necessary that their objectivity be demonstrated. In whatever fashion one conceives of life, and though one knows it to be the dream of a dream--one lives. That is all we need to Found sciences, arts, moralities, impressionistic and, if you please, objective criticism. M. Brunetière is of the opinion that one can leave one's inner self and proceed beyond that self as much as one desires, like that old professor of Nürenberg whose surprising adventure M. Josephin Peladan, who is a mage, has recently related. This professor, who was much occupied with aesthetics, nightly left his visible body and proceeded, in his astral body, to compare the legs of the lovely mortal sleepers with those of the Venus of Praxiteles. "The self-deception," M. Brunetière affirms, "if we must assume its existence, is in believing and teaching that we cannot get out of our ego when, on the contrary, the whole business of life is precisely that. And the reason for this will undoubtedly seem very strong when we remember that otherwise there would be no such thing as society or language or literature or art." And he adds: "We are men. . . . And we are men, above all, by the power we have of going forth from ourselves in order to seek, to find and to recognize those very selves in others." That is surely saying a great deal. We are in the cave and we see the phantoms of the cave. Without that life would be too sad. It has no charm and no preciousness save by virtue of the shadows that flit along the sides of the walls within which we are prisoned, shadows that resemble us and that we strive to recognize as they pass and, sometimes, to love. As a matter of fact, we see the world only through the medium of our senses which shape and color it as they please, and M. Brunetière does not contest the point. He seeks support, on the contrary, in these conditions of our knowledge to found his objective criticism. Considering that the senses bring to all men impressions of nature that are very nearly alike, so that what seems round to one will hardly seem square to another, and that the sense of hearing functions in the same way if not in the same degree in all minds, he derives from these facts what we call common sense, and founds his criticism on this universal agreement. He is not himself without the perception that it is thus ill-founded. For this agreement, which suffices to form and preserve societies, does not suffice when it is a question of, establishing the superiority of one poet over another. Granted that men are sufficiently alike for each to find in the market places and in the bazaars of a great city what is necessary for his existence. So much is not doubtful. But nothing is less probable than that there should be but two men in one country who feel a Vergilian line in absolutely the same fashion. In mathematics there is a kind of superior truth which we all accept. But we do so for the very reason that its perception is not through the senses. Physicists, on the other hand, are forced to reckon with what is called the personal equation in all the sciences of observation. A phenomenon is never perceived absolutely alike by any two observers. M. Brunetière cannot hide from himself the fact Hat the personal equation disports itself nowhere more freely than in the illusive domains of the arts and of literature. In that field there is never unanimous agreement or stable opinion. He acknowledges that. Or, at least, begins by acknowledging it. "To omit our contemporaries whom, it is clear, we see in no proper perspective, how many varying judgments have not men, during the past three or four centuries, delivered on a Corneille or a Shakespeare or a Cervantes, a Raphael or a Michelangelo! Even as there is no opinion so extravagant and absurd but that some philosopher has upheld it, so there is none, however scandalous or hostile to great genius, which does not bear the authority of some critic's name." And to prove that the great men cannot expect any more justice from their peers, he shows us Rabelais insulted by Ronsard and Corneille publicly preferring Boursaulet to Racine. He ought also to have shown us Lamartine despising La Fontaine; he could also have exhibited Victor Hugo badly misjudging all our classics except Boileau, for whom, in his declining age, he entertained some kindness. In a word, M. Brunetière admits that there are very many directly conflicting opinions in the republic of letters. It is in vain that he bethinks himself later and declares with assurance that "it is not true that the opinions are so divergent or the divisions so deep." It is equally in vain that he borrows the authority of an opinion of M. Jules Lemaître to affirm the admission by all lettered men that certain writers exist, despite their faults, while others simply do not exist. For instance, Voltaire as a writer of tragic drama exists; Campistron does not, nor the Abbe Leblanc nor M. de Jouy. That is the first point that he wishes one to grant him. But one will hardly do so, for when it came to making out the two lists there would hardly be any common understanding. The second point to which he clings is that there are degrees which are really grades conferred on genius by faculties of grammarians and in the universities of rhetoricians. Obviously such diplomas might tend a good deal to further order and regularity in the realm of great fame. Unhappily they lose much of their value through human contradictoriness. These licenses and doctorates, which M. Brunetière believes universally recognized, impress scarcely anyone but those who confer them. As a matter of pure theory a critical method is conceivable which, proceeding from science, might share the latter's certainty. It may be that the sentiments we entertain toward the ethics of M. Maurice Barres or the prosody of Mr. Jean Moréas depend on the idea we hold concerning the forces of the cosmos and the mechanics of the heavens. All things in the universe are inextricably intertwined. In reality, however, the links of the chain are, in any given spot, so jumbled that the devil himself could not disentangle them, even if he were a logician. And in addition, we should gracefully admit that what humanity knows least about is its beginnings. It is the fundamental principles that we lack in all matters and particularly in our knowledge of the products of the mind. One cannot foresee to-day, whatever one may say, a time when criticism will have the rigor of a positive science. One may even believe, reasonably enough, that that time will never come. Nevertheless the great philosophers of antiquity crowned their cosmic systems with a poetics. And they did wisely. For it is better to speak of beautiful thoughts and forms with incertitude than to be forever silent. Few things in the world are so absolutely subject to science that they will let science reproduce or predict them. And one may be sure that a poem or a poet will never be among those few. The things that touch us most nearly, that seem loveliest and most desirable to us, are precisely those that remain ever vague to us and partly mysterious. Beauty, virtue and genius will forever guard their secret. Neither the charm of Cleopatra nor the sweetness of Saint Francis nor the poetry of Racine will ever permit themselves to be reduced to formula If these things sustain a relation to science. it is to one that is blended with art, that is intuitive, restless, forever unfinished. That science or, rather, that art exists. It is philosophy, ethics, history, criticism--in a word, the whole beautiful romance of man. Every work of poetry or art has been in all ages the subject of disputes, and it is perhaps one of the great charms of beautiful things to remain questionable. And it is vain to deny that they are all, all questionable. M. Brunetière is quite unwilling to admit this universal and fatal incertitude. It is too repugnant to his authoritarian and methodical mind, which would be forever classifying and judging. Let him judge, then, since his temper is so judicial. And let him drive his serried arguments in their terrifying battle array since he is indeed a warrior critic! But can he not forgive some innocent soul for concerning itself with the things of art with less rigor and consistency than he has, and with displaying less use of the reason, above all, of ratiocination? Can he not forgive such an one for keeping in criticism the tone of familiar talk and the light step of a stroll; for stopping where he pleases and, perhaps, indulging in confidences; for following his tastes, his fancies and even his caprice, provided only that he be always veracious, sincere and kindly; for not knowing everything nor explaining everything; for believing in the irremediable diversity of opinions and feelings and for speaking most gladly of that which one must love.