Two French Personalities

MOST authors who spend themselves upon their subject are content to hand over to criticism the task of appraising their talents. There are even writers of autobiography, with themselves of a necessity for subject, who, while recording their recollections, their impressions, or their inmost thoughts, leave it to reader or critic to detach from their pages and define as a whole the personality which makes the charm or interest of their works. In fact, as a general rule, after reading a book we are left with a certain accumulation of sensations, pleasurable or not, for which we have ourselves to find the reason. But M. Sarcey leaves as little to the analysis as to the imagination of his readers, and the pen of the critic, were it not set in motion by extraneous and intermittent motives which we forbear to cite, might lie upon his desk and be at peace. M. Sarcey has reviewed himself. His recollections and ideas are weighed judiciously, one by one, as they are set forth ; we are told exactly from what manner of man they proceed; together with our pleasure we find our reasons for being pleased; and if there should by chance be a reader so ungrateful as not to be pleased, he would probably find that M. Sarcey had given him the reasons for that attitude as well. His sincerity is impeccable and disarming to friend as well as foe. He sets before us all his aptitudes and disqualifications for the career of a lecturer (the present volume, the second of his reminiscences, deals wholly with platform experiences) ; he narrates his failures, his successes, and, last stroke of honesty, the partial failure of his success. He has devoted himself to lecturing as an art, and has mastered its technique; he has learned to hold and manipulate his public, and he now turns round frankly to show it how the thing is done, — to give the receipt, and tell off the exact proportions of truth and artifice in the feasts at which it has been an habitual guest.

There is something specially and agreeably Gallic in this sincerity of M. Sarcey’s. It is not an untrained nor a reckless sincerity, — of the sort that ignores its environments, and takes the risk of misunderstanding or ridicule ; it is the outcome of a thorough knowledge of the world, a just sense of proportion, a due consideration for others, and a determination not to be duped. “ You can save yourself from being ridiculous only by being sincere,” he says, in treating of the relation between lecturer and audience, and of the discretion and courage required to run the gauntlet of the terrible blague parisienne. Sincere, — that is to say frank and direct; not, of course, zealously carried away by conviction. We have here the perfect art of sincerity, and there is something so finished and graceful about it, so free from fatuity, so detached and sane, that the more we contemplate it the more we admire.

Souvenirs d’Age Mûr1 is an entertaining book, deftly put together, and extremely well written in that racy, idiomatic, yet polished style, that every-day Parisian, of which M. Sarcey is in his way almost as complete a master as is M. Renan of a larger and more exquisite diction. The work has three distinct elements of interest: it is at once a section of autobiography, a history of lecturing and lecturers in Paris, and a manual of the art. Among the anecdotic material, which is amusing without being too trivial or gossipy, we find something which is new to us, at least, even on the eternally old theme of stage fright. M. Sarcey declares that a certain mode of utterance of Sarah Bernhardt’s, when “ the words come from her mouth as if hammered, with a sharp sonority,” was originally the effect of stage fright, cleverly adopted into her performance, and transformed from a necessity into a virtue. The most interesting part of the book, even to readers who have no intention of appearing upon the platform, is that which treats of lecturing as an art, and of art in general. Here M. Sarcey has much to say, and does not say too much. He has trained himself not to talk above the heads of his audiences. This reserve made, he displays admirable intelligence ; and when an author has the sagacity to restrict himself thus, it can be neither pertinent nor gracious to inquire how far his intelligence would have carried him if the brake had not been applied.

It is worthy of note that, although M. Sarcey was already a successful teacher and journalist before he entered upon the career of a lecturer, he did not make the latter a mere appendage of the other two professions, but set to work to master its technicalities from the beginning, putting his new wine into new bottles. He has some apt remarks on the difference between teaching and lecturing. In teaching, he says (we take the liberty of abridging rather than quoting), it is not eloquence that tells, nor charm, but enthusiasm for the subject and a real interest in the pupils. The ground to be gone over is new to them : stimulate their interest by the vitality of your own ; say to them with conviction that a work of art is great, and they will catch the enthusiasm, will feel it to be great, and will afterwards find or accept reasons for its greatness. With a general audience, on the other hand, the attraction centres in the personality of the lecturer. Here M. Sarcey’s advice is: make yourself a self ; intensify a little the traits of your personality ; make of the essential gifts and idiosyncrasies which belong to you a complete and consistent whole, like a character conceived and worked out by an actor, For the matter of the lecture, the first requisite, according to M. Sarcey, is to have something to say, to be familiar with the subject and have command of it ; the second, to say nothing new. “ Get well into your head this primordial truth, you who aspire to amuse or instruct your contemporaries by lecturing : one can teach people only what they know, can persuade them only of those things of which they have already a desire to be convinced; one can open up to them only those ideas upon which they have some illumination in advance ; the good seed of the word fructifies only in minds prepared beforehand for its reception. Distrust every new idea which comes into conflict with an old prejudice, and above all with a widespread feeling; or, if you decide to risk it, do so with extreme circumspection.”

It would seem as if there might be something chilling to enthusiasm in having not only to fish for compliments, but to sound the waters from which they are drawn. Yet, notwithstanding these necessities, M. Sarcey tells us that he has dearly loved la conférence, with a love not altogether happy. He was one of the pioneers of the profession in Paris, and he has made efforts and sacrifices during many years, not alone for personal success, but for the establishment of lecturing as a recognized intellectual recreation in that city. He was warned from the first that the lecture would never be acclimated there, and his own experience and observation bring him in the end to this conclusion : “ I confess that my efforts have been made in vain. We have at this moment neither a school of lecturers nor a public devoted to lectures.” What is the reason of this indifference ? Can it be that people weary of being told by their prophets that which they know already ? Do ridicule and frivolity triumph in the end over sincerity itself ? Or is lecturing, after all, like the New Christianity, neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring; having, apart from its academic uses, little excuse for being save in cultivated provincial circles deprived by distance of the benefit of other sources of intellectual supply ?

M. Renan has had an infinitely more difficult mission in life than M. Sarcey, but in none of the autobiographical chapters through which, from time to time, he honors the public with his confidence is there any word of failure. He has had the courage to tell people what they did not know, or, if they guessed it, had no intention of believing, and the tact to persevere in asserting it, till the intrepidity with which he continues to do so is almost superfluous, like those morphological parts which survive the conditions that called them into being. He cast his seed long ago into unprepared ground, but there have been many harvests since. M. Sarcey’s topic, lecturing, is a question of the hour. M. Renan, in his most fugitive pages, deals with the problems of eternity ; looking, if not with the eye of faith, at least with that of a serene and sagacious philosophy, from the world about him to the starry heavens above. La blague parisienne, so patent a fact to M. Sarcey’s mundane perceptions, is doubled to M. Renan by the possibility of a more knowing blague, an irony that may lurk in those unseen upper spaces. The position of an unfortunate lecturer before a hypercritical audience here below would appear to be one of solid comfort compared with this intellectual situation ; but M. Renan is completely at ease in it, secure, so far as a man of intellect can feel secure, in his sincerity, in his suavity, and in his irony, which truly is of a sort to be unavailing only in a sphere, if any such exist, where that figure is expunged from rhetoric.

The most astonishing and perfect creation of M. Renan’s irony is his optimism. Almost he would persuade us, if not to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that the human intellect is marching to a millennium of absolute knowledge and happiness, at least to believe that he believes it. It looks abundantly like it. Never, perhaps, was this ancient planet caressed by a more gracious or a more insinuating philosophy. Listen to M. Renan as he rebukes Amiel for his pessimism, and holds up to him the consolations of intellect and progress. In the Amiel journal is a page commenting on the epicureanism, the superficiality, the seminarist insincerity, of M. Renan, whom Amiel reproaches with having left out of his view of life the entire question of sin and redemption. The paper in which this criticism from beyond the tomb is taken up, phrase by phrase, in which M. Renan justifies himself and in turn criticises Amiel, is not the least interesting and characteristic in the present volume.2 He renders high tribute to Amiel’s philosophic powers, speaking of him as “ assuredly one of the strongest speculative minds which, during the period between 1845 and 1880, have meditated upon life.” He dwells upon his sincerity, his sensitive goodness, his delicacy of thought, and indicates with almost equal tenderness, and very justly, his morbidness, his defects of temperament and education, his limitations. He inquires pertinently how, with so many things to be learned and investigated, with all history lying behind him, and science continually opening up wider vistas before him, a man can deliberately take time to record the operations of his own mind. He does not inquire how accumulated knowledge and the results of many intellectual operations can have so great value, if the history of one mind has so little. He holds up the facts of life patiently and reasonably to the suffering morsel of intelligence that was Amiel, and unfolds hopes that the human race may in time perfect, not itself alone, but its Creator as well. It is always an intellectual delight to behold M. Renan tossing the spheres, six at a time, from one hand to the other; and we have to recover from the exhilaration caused by this spectacle before we ask ourselves whether all this optimism has not made out a worse case for us than the doctrine which it set out to refute, and whether Amiel’s pessimism, with its earnestness and resignation, does not offer truer sources of consolation. The admirable discourse on the present state and tendency of things with which M. Renan received M. Jules Claretie at the Academy brings further evidence that, if he does not lay sufficient stress for a Genevan conscience upon the sins of the world, he is at all events sufficiently aware of its blunders, and that the absolution which he pronounces so graciously has in it a little drop — oh, not so much ! — of bitterness.

But how charming he is, and, as he has called himself a curé raté, what a bon curé, whether in bestowing his rebukes upon Amiel, or in his benediction on the Celtic dinners or on the presumably apocryphal Society for the Propagation of the French Language ! Dr. Johnson, it will be remembered, said of Burke, “ If a man were to go at the same time with Burke under a shed to shun a shower, he would say, ‘ This is an extraordinary man;’” and similarly, no one can read the most detached and fugitive of M. Renan’s Leaves without being aware of his magnitude. His intellect and style are Olympian even on the smallest occasions. There is no other word for it, and we must risk the confusion of mythologies in our figures, and let the Olympian who is no less kind to the human race remain alongside of the bon curé. In spite of his optimism, we are indebted to M. Renan for much consolation and enjoyment, and, notwithstanding his paradox, for true enlightenment. The German scholars may have absorbed and enlarged and improved upon his theories and ideas; but they work in the region of technicalities, while he has the chance of carrying his thoughts beyond time and the hour in his capacity of a classic.

  1. Souvenirs d’Age Mûr. Par FRANCISQUE SARCEY. Deuxième Edition. Paris: Paul Ollendorff. 1892.
  2. Feuilles Détachées. Faisant suite aux Souvenirs d’Enfance et de Jeunesse. Par ERNEST RENAN, Membre de l’Institut. Paris: Calmann Lévy. 1892.
  3. Boston : Carl Schoenhof.