Ferdinand Brunetière and His Critical Method


“ THE French, " says Joubert, " seem to love the arts less for themselves than for the pleasure to be had from criticising them.” It is a striking proof of this naturally critical bent of the French mind that, since the time of Ronsard, criticism in French literature has always preceded or accompanied creation. Of late, it has been tending more and more to take the place of creation. It forms the most interesting and important part of French literary production at the present day. The critics are already beginning to have no resource except to criticise one another. It may be said, indeed, that French literature is suffering from a surfeit of criticism, whereas in English there is a conspicuous lack not only of good individual critics, but still more of a recognized critical method and of a critical tradition.

We may admire and imitate French literary criticism as we admire and imitate French art, but with very much the same reservations. We receive the impression, when in the presence of the pictures of a French Salon, that mere procédé—the mastery of technique and execution — has taken in large measure the place of creation. In like manner, in recent French criticism, an adroit manipulation of a large critical vocabulary and of highly perfected critical methods frequently serves as a substitute for insight and original reflection. SainteBeuve said of the critics of his day that they abounded in all the needful critical virtues except the essential virtues of authority and judgment. It may be said with even more truth of many of the present generation of French critics that what they have gained in brilliancy and versatility they seem to have lost in weight and impressiveness. The critic is too often only a clever dilettante, who has no aim beyond that of entertaining the public with a display of his own intellectual virtuosity.

It is the distinction of M. Brunetière to have avoided the reproach of SainteBeuve, and to have given back to the word “ critic ” something of its former meaning. He has had an ideal and convictions, and has insisted on judging with reference to them, at a time when ideals and convictions, at least among the educated classes, have almost completely gone out of fashion. He has possessed something of the power that usually belongs to those who have convictions, to impose themselves upon those who have none. He has persisted in the somewhat antiquated notion that books exist primarily to express ideas, whereas most people nowadays turn to books, not for ideas, but for entertainment, or at best for elegant æsthetic sensation. The first impression, indeed, the reader of M. Brunetière receives is that of a man who, by temperament and instinct, has found himself thrown into natural contradiction with his contemporaries. He has made himself the champion of the classical tradition and proclaimed the supremacy of reason at an epoch when art has been given over to every form of morbid subjectivity. He has been stern and ascetic in his attitude toward life in a period of easy-going self-indulgence, and strenuous in the midst of general relaxation. He has produced work marked by eminently masculine qualities at a time when literature has fallen to a great extent under the influence of women. He has restricted his style to the syntax and the vocabulary of Bossuet in an age which has seen the publication of the sonnets of Mallarmé and of the Journal of the Goncourts.

We feel in reading M. Brunetière as we feel in reading Taine, that something of scholasticism still lingers in the land of its origin. Though they have both tried to apply the methods of inductive science, they remain scholastic in their passion for vast structures of original ideas conceived with geometric symmetry, and with reference less to the observed facts than to a logical requirement of the mind ; they are scholastic by their use as well as by their abuse of dialectic, by their proneness to mistake ratiocination for reason. There has survived in the case of M. Brunetière something also of the scholastic temper. He is imperious and dogmatic in tone, and at slight provocation grows disputatious and polemical. In default of a real adversary, he frequently addresses himself to an imaginary one. A modern Siger of Brabant, he has looked upon it as his mission to syllogize truths unpalatable to most of his countrymen. He has been called the inventor of “ militant " criticism. “ Behind his battering-rams,” says M. Jules Lemaître, “there is always a reserve of catapults,”

The history of M. Brunetiere’s work as a critic is, to a great extent, the history of bis polemics. Three of these polemics in particular deserve attention. Atthe very beginning of his career as a writer in the Revue des Deux Mondes he singled out M. Zola and the naturalists for his attacks, and continued these attacks in a running fire of articles extending over a period of nearly twelve years. Later on, he proclaimed that modern science was bankrupt, that it had failed to keep its promise, and he thus became involved in a war of pamphlets with M. Berthelot and other advocates of purely experimental methods. And finally, for a number of years he has never lost an opportunity to assail M. Jules Lemaître and M. Anatole France and the partisans of “ impressionistic ” criticism. He has thrown himself with special ardor into this last controversy. It has been for him a conflict pro arts et focis, involving as it does the very life of criticism. Man, according to the impressionists, is absolutely imprisoned in his own subjectivity, and the most the critic can hope to do is, not to pronounce judgment, but merely to express his own tastes and preferences. The cultivation of literary criticism in France for several centuries has had the somewhat paradoxical result of producing critics who deny the possibility of criticism. “ As for myself,” says M. France in the preface to the fourth volume of his critical studies, “ I am not in the least a critic. I have no talent for working the threshing-machines into which ingenious persons put the literary harvest in order to separate the grain from the chaff.” His utmost endeavor, he adds elsewhere, is to tell pleasantly of the “ adventures ” of his soul as it ranges at large in the ample domain of books. M. France, it may be noted in passing, is fond of talking of his “soul,” when he means in reality his nerves and sensibility. M. Lemaitre and M. France are both des féminins. To the personality of M. France in particular there attaches something of that elusive feminine charm which makes its possessor a baffling problem to others, and very often to himself. The debate between him and M. Brunetière has at times taken on the aspect of a warfare between the masculine and the feminine principles. Strength has been pitted against charm, and reason has been arrayed against sensibility.

While it is not easy to confine in a formula such subtle clerks as M. Lemaitre and M. France, we may say that in the general position they have taken in denying all fixed standards they have only given an extreme expression to what was already in germ in their masters, SainteBeuve and Renan. Sainte - Beuve, instead of judging literary work with reference to an absolute standard, had sought rather to explain it, to show how far it was purely relative, — the necessary result of the temperament of the writer and of the time in which he lived. Criticism, during the classical period of French literature, had rested on the assumption not only that this æsthetic absolute existed, but that it had found expression in a code of established rules. The individual author, isolated from his environment and looked upon as a free agent, was awarded praise or blame according as he approached or fell short of the perfect standard. Each advance of criticism during the present century has tended, on the one hand, to limit personal responsibility in literary creation, and, on the other hand, to weaken the belief in an absolute beauty. The last step was taken when Taine attempted to prove that a writer is the necessary product of his race, heredity, and environment. With the determinism of Taine, both art and artist pass from the domain of the absolute into the region of pure relativity.

The substitution of the notion of the relative for the notion of the absolute, — this indeed would seem in the retrospect to have been the characteristic achievement of the nineteenth century, not only in literary criticism, but in all departments of thought. From Hegel to Darwin, the idea of becoming,” of growth and development, has, in a hundred forms, so penetrated and transformed the mental habits of the modern man as to make it increasingly difficult for him to look upon anything as fixed and final. Emerson, says Mr. Chapman in The Atlantic Monthly for January, 1897, “is probably the last great writer to look at life from a stationary standpoint,” to live in the habitual consciousness of the permanent rather than of the transitory. “ The absolute is dead ! ” exclaimed Edmond Scherer in 1860. But the heart refused to ratify this verdict of the head. It was in the conflict between the modern doctrine of the relative and the temperamental craving for an absolute that lay the life tragedy of Scherer, and, in a lesser degree, of Matthew Arnold. Renan’s attempt to reconcile in himself the old man with the new resulted in his theory of a God who does not yet exist, but is in process of " becoming.” It. was left for the disciples of Renan, and especially for M. Anatole France, to rid themselves of these weak scruples, and to arrive at what may be termed the doctrine of the absolutely relative. The affirmation of M. France that he is absolutely imprisoned in his own personality, that there is no ideal standard to which he may refer either his own opinions or those of others, has as its corollary a doctrine of universal illusion. The immense indulgence that he professes comes in part, indeed, from his power of sympathy, but it arises even more from a tranquil contempt for human nature thus looked upon as the mere puppet of illusion. The new sect of " flowing ” philosophers to which M. France belongs has arrived at a conception of life closely corresponding to that of the “ flowing ” philosophers of old.

“ All thoughts, all creeds, all dreams, are true,
All visions wild and strange ;
Man is the measure of all truth
Unto himself. All truth is change.”

The Oriental doctrine of illusion has thus appeared in Western thought, but not accompanied, as it was in the mind of the Hindoo, by a vision of the One. Leconte de Lisle, who is the poet of this modern doctrine of illusion, is the diametrical opposite of Emerson : he excels in seizing and rendering with extraordinary intensity the most fugitive appearances of space and time, and all without, the slightest sentiment of a spiritual reality either in man or behind the shows of nature. There has passed into his verse something of the horror and vertigo that come from thus contemplating the meaningless flow of phenomena as they start up from vacancy, stand out for a moment on a background of deepest black, and then vanish into the void.

“ Éclair, rêve sinistre. éternité qui meat,
La Vie antique est faite inépuisablement
Du tourbillon sans fin des apparences vaines.”


In a society which can no longer offer its members any ideal ends to which they may aspire in common, the individual is left largely to his own resources. In the absence of any fixed rule of conduct he follows his temperamental leaning, and frequently ends by falling, as the French adage puts it, in the direction in which he leans. M. Berthelot, the eminent professor of chemistry at the Collège de France, naturally inclined toward a blind faith in experimental methods ; he proved that he had fallen victim to this inclination when he proclaimed, a few years ago, that science holds the key to all knowledge, and that “ there are no more mysteries.” M. Brunetière has protested, though in a different spirit from Emerson, against the " impudent knowingness ” of contemporary science. M. Berthelot’s readiness to reject all knowledge not derived directly from observation and analysis lias been characteristic of one very large class of minds during the latter half of the century. Emerson’s distrust of this whole modern view of knowledge was based on the perception that it would lead to a loss of faith in the freedom of the will. It is interesting to compare what he wrote, in his essay on Experience, of the dangers of a scientific fatalism with what has actually resulted from the diffusion of the doctrines of Taine.

M. Émile Zola took as motto for one of his first novels a phrase of Table’s : “ Virtue and vice are products, no less than sugar and vitriol.” He proposed to prove by examples what Taine had thus stated abstractly, and to show by means of “human documents” that a man’s character is determined by his blood and nerves. M. Brunetière, in the pitiless polemic he has waged against M. Zola and the naturalists, has taken special pains to demolish their scientific pretensions. He has stripped from their work its veneer of pseudo-science, and has shown that at bottom, so far from being a reaction against romanticism, it is in many ways its logical continuation. “ French literature,” says Taine in his essay on Édouard Bertin, “ has followed since 1830 a rapidly descending path ; ” and he adds elsewhere in the same essay that this path has led always in one direction, — in the direction of “ sensation, absorbing, physical, and personal.” Naturalism is only a more advanced stage than romanticism in this lapse of literature from the region of ideas and objective thought into the region of pure sensation. The best critics are agreed that the temperament of M. Zola reproduces on a lower plane the temperament of Hugo. Naturalism, indeed, is already in germ in the confessions of Rousseau. What was only morbid subjectivity in the earlier of Rousseau’s descendants has, in the case of men like M. Zola and M. Huysmans, passed over into a state bordering on hallucination. “ I await impatiently the appearance of his next nightmare,” says M. Lemaître, referring to the approaching publication of a novel by M. Zola.

M. Brunetière has taken a distinctly hostile attitude not only toward M. Zola and the naturalists, but also toward romanticism and the whole literature issued from Rousseau. He has been one of the first to point out what he calls the essentially “ lyrical ” character of the great romantic writers : and by this he means their complete self - absorption, their unwillingness to occupy themselves with anything except their own emotions, their imperviousness to ideas. At the distance of nearly a century, the attempt of Chateaubriand to stem the current of modern thought, and to react in the name of religion toward the Middle Ages, is seen to have resulted, not in the maintenance of a Christian ideal in literature, but in the profound isolation of literature from life. It had been the ambition of André Chénier to effect a reconciliation between the artistic imagination and modern science, but the writers who followed in the lead of Chateaubriand took a certain pride in remaining ignorant of the intellectual and scientific aspirations of their age. The penalty they paid was an increasing incapacity for ideas. Chateaubriand himself was concerned more with the images and the musical cadences of his periods than with their intellectual content. Resolutely silencing in himself any velleity he may have had to think, and bidding defiance to the bourgeois, Gautier gave himself up exclusively to the search for rare and refined æsthetic sensation. In the case of Gautier and the “ Parnassiens ” his imitators, this sensation consisted, for the most part, in the attempt to produce with words the effects of painting and sculpture. The poetry of Paul Verlaine marks the transition from the “ Parnassiens ” to the " symbolists,” who have sought to obtain æsthetic enjoyment not so much through forms and colors as by the medium of sound, by dissolving the personality in vague and voluptuous musical reverie. As time has gone on, the means employed by the different schools to arrive at a titillation of the æsthetic faculty have grown increasingly complex and incomprehensible to the uninitiated. “ Literature,” says M. Lemaître, “ tends more and more to become a mysterious diversion of mandarins.”

If such has been the fate of a literature devoid of intellectual qualities, science, bereft of the succor of the imagination, has only too often fallen into arid analysis. The result has been the formation in society of two classes, one composed of æsthetes and the other of analysts, — les artistes and les intellectuels, — mutually incapable of understanding each other. In spite of their apparent divergence, however, the two classes have had one important point of resemblance. The artist has pursued his æsthetic sensation, and the scientist bis analysis, mechanically, and as ends in themselves, without reference to any ideal which would have brought them into contact with life as a whole. They have refused equally to take cognizance of that higher region of their own natures which is independent of both sensation and analysis, and they have thus cut themselves off from the insight which alone makes possible a belief in the freedom of the will. In this way it has come to pass that M. Zola, one of the extreme representatives of a literature of pure sensation, is able to agree with Taine, one of the extreme representatives of a science of pure analysis, in the affirmation that " virtue and vice are products, no less than sugar and vitriol ! ”

M. Brunetière has not only deplored this isolation of literature from life, but he has also had a clear insight into the remedy. He has declared that literature may escape from dilettante trifling only by proposing for itself some ideal aim. It is likewise through his sense of the need of an ideal and of a principle of authority in modern society that he has been led on various occasions to make concessions to Catholicism which may very well seem excessive. It is in defense of what he believes to be the ideal rights of man that he has been drawn into all his polemics. He has been hostile to M. France and the “ impressionists ” because they have denied that, in addition to an apparent self of sensations and impressions, there exists in each man a real self which he possesses in common with all men. He has attacked M. Zola and the naturalists because of their disregard of those qualities which are most truly human, because of their attempt to reduce man to the plane of animal instinct. And finally, in the face of a science of pure observation, he has affirmed that there are faculties in man which learn, not by observation, but by intuition, and whose needs are not the needs of the senses and understanding. According to his own definition. his work has been a reaction against nineteenth-century naturalism, a protest against the absorption of man into nature. “ There is surely,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “ a piece of divinity in us ; something that was before the elements and owes no homage unto the Sun.” Much of what M. Brunetière has written has been a plea, in one form or another, for this transcendental portion of man which distinguishes him from nature ; and yet he differs from Sir Thomas Browne in that he seems to have arrived at the notion of this supersensuous self more by logic than by direct vision. His idealism. resting as it does on ratiocination rather than on insight, remains essentially negative, and so has failed to console him. There is abundant evidence in his work that he too has suffered from the despondency and low spiritual vitality from which few French men of letters of the present generation have escaped.

M. Brunetière is fond of speaking of Christianity and Buddhism as the great pessimistic religions, and of identifying their doctrines with those of Schopenhauer. In one of his essays, indeed, he seems to put the system of Schopenhauer above Christianity and Buddhism. He fails, on the one hand, to feel the essentially negative character of the philosophy of Schopenhauer; and on the other hand, he has no organ to appreciate that positive principle of joy and illumination which is the saving element of both Christianity and Buddhism. " Let us live happily, then, though we call nothing our own; for so shall we be like to the bright gods feeding on happiness.” There is something in the ring of this passage which will serve once for all to mark the difference between the temper of Buddhism and the acrid disillusion of Schopenhauer; and what is true of Buddhism, it scarcely need be added, is still truer of Christianity.


Sainte-Beuve, almost alone of modern critics, succeeded in practicing criticism both as a science and as an art; or, as he himself puts it, in combining poetry with physiology. Taine, the most distinguished of Sainte-Beuve’s disciples, attempted to make of criticism a pure science, while others, like M. Lomaître, have cultivated criticism almost entirely as an art. M. Brunetiere also has aimed to make of criticism both a science and an art, but it is evident at a first glance that his art is not the art of Sainte-Beuve. By his dogmatic temper he is naturally fitted to keep alive that tradition of classical criticism which, begun in Latin by Scaliger, was continued in French by a series of critics extending from Malherbe and Boileau to Nisard. If he has been more than a mere “ dogmatic ” critic, it is because, in addition to his cult of the past, he has had a certain amount of scientific instinct, and at the same time a strong sense of historical development.

It is this sense of historical development which has led M. Brunetière to his attempt at constructive criticism. In his first series of lectures on L’Évolution des Genres, at the École Normale, in 1889, he declared his intention of seeking the same help from the doctrines of Darwin that Taine had sought from the doctrines of Cuvier. This literary Darwinism of M. Brunetière is in general an attempt to demonstrate that the different genres, or kinds of composition, evolve in much the same way as the animal species. He has proposed to show “in virtue of what circumstances of time and place they originate ; how they grow after the manner of living beings, adapting or assimilating all that helps their development ; how they perish ; and how their disintegrated elements enter into the formation of a new genre.” For instance, the mediæval Chansons de Geste ramified into prose chronicles and Round Table romances, and these romances, in the course of evolution, have passed over into the modern novel.

M. Brunetière’s evolutionary theory is admirable when thus stated in general terms. It is only when he begins to descend into details that we hesitate to follow him. We feel that in the working out of his system his scholasticism has often got the better of his science, and that he has been led astray by his love of logical symmetry. For example, Darwin has attempted to account for the origin of species by supposing that certain animals tend, for some unexplained reason, even under the same influences of environment, to diverge and become different from others of their kind. In the same way, M. Brunetière tells us, individuals appear from time to time who have the power to modify the course of literature and to originate new literary genres. He thus uses a doubtful analogy with what is in itself most hypothetical in Darwin’s doctrine to explain the one supremely important event in art, namely, the rise of a creator. It is hard to find a firm foundation for a belief in inspiration on the shifting sands of evolution. If M. Brunetière’s parallel be exact, the individual who innovates in literature does so in obedience to a blind cosmic impulse rather than by a deliberate act of his own will. The genres, as M. Lemaitre points out, become in his hands pure scholastic entities, vegetative abstractions, evolving in virtue of a life of their own, and with little reference to the authors through whose brains they pass.

But how does M. Brunetière, after thus abandoning to evolution, to the region of the relative, nearly everything that was regarded as fixed and stationary by oldtime critics, manage to find a basis for “ dogmatic ” criticism ? What standard is there raised above the realm of flux and change, with reference to which a work of art may be ranked as good or bad ? How are we to escape, in our literary judgments, from the web of illusion thrown about us by our own temperaments, and from the fancies and passing fashions of the society in which we live ? How, finally, are we to be rescued from the “ impressions ” of M. Anatole France ? M. Brunetière’s immediate answer to these questions is that we must subordinate our sensations and emotions to reason. If we enter more deeply into his thought, we find that he has been led, in the search for an absolute, to what may be termed the belief in an absolute man, to the Platonic, or the scholastic conception of “ humanity.” Emerson, with his admirable instinct for what makes for unity rather than diversity in human nature, says somewhere that the masterpieces of literature seem to have been written by one all-wise, allseeing gentleman. In the same spirit, M. Brunetiere would measure the value of a work of art according as it expresses this universal and essential humanity ; according as it unites the power of giving a high degree of æsthetic pleasure with that of suggesting truly human thoughts and emotions. This standard does not differ fundamentally from Matthew Arnold’s when he attempted to classify writers by the depth and seriousness of their criticism of life.

The doctrine of the absolute man is in itself only a metaphysical abstraction, and M. Brunetière has refused to rest his criticism directly upon it. For an absolute based on this speculative unity of the human spirit he has substituted in practice an absolute based on the unity of the human spirit as it has manifested itself in history. To the personal preferences and impressions of any particular man he opposes the testimony and experience of all men as embodied in tradition. That writer is most truly human, and consequently most worthy of praise, who has appealed through successive generations to the largest number of men. An opinion carries weight with M. Brunetière in proportion as it is ancient and universal. He has given a new application to the old church maxim, “ Securus judicat orbis terrarum ; ” he has not hesitated to curtail the individual’s right of independent judgment, as he has curtailed the individual’s right of independent creation, and all to the greater glory and profit of human nature in general.


It will be seen from the foregoing study that neither the idealism nor the evolution of M. Brunetière is altogether satisfactory ; but it is in tlie effort to unite these seeming opposites, to reconcile idealism with evolution, the absolute with the relative, that the real originality of M. Brunetière lies ; it is this which makes him one of the most noteworthy figures in recent European thought. In this respect, so far from being a mere reactionary. he may have given some indication of the way in which the men of the twentieth century will attempt to complete the thought of their predecessors of the nineteenth.

For one who has lived like M. Brunetière in an age of spiritual and intellectual confusion, it is no mean achievement to have attained, as he has done, if not an essential, at least an outward and logical unity in his work. This logical coherency has given him an easy superiority in his polemic with the impressionists. In the eyes of the more serious part of the public, M. Lemaitre and M. France have tended to fall to the rank of clever entertainers, while M. Brunetière, for a number of years, has been gaining steadily in authority. His influence in the main has been tonic and invigorating, and, unlike Taine and Renan, he has been honored in his disciples. What reservations are to be made fall mainly upon matters of detail ; he has been justly reproached with a certain ungraciousness and lack of amenity in his tone. M. Brunetière says of the images of Leconte de Lisle that they are too precise and sharply defined, and that they are deficient in power of poetical suggestion. In much the same way, the ideas of M. Brunetière may be said to be deficient in power of intellectual suggestion. There is a certain angularity and lack of atmosphere in his thought. His style is always lucid, but rarely luminous. M. Lemaitre, on the contrary, has written admirable single pages, pages which Sainte-Beuve would probably be more willing to sign than those of any other living French critic. Animation, sprightliness, sparkling wit, and at the same time the power to insinuate deep and penetrating reflection under cover of a light and airy irresponsibility. — these and other literary virtues abound in M. Lemaître. Yet his work as a whole is almost entirely without the sense of direction. It bears marks of that spiritual bewilderment which seems of late to have overtaken most educated Frenchmen.

It is possible, again, to lavish praise on particular features of the writings of M. France. With his exquisite sensibility and profound appreciation of the sensuous side of life, he is an artist even more than a critic ; and yet, once beyond the allurement and fascination of his form, we find that his philosophy of life is nothing better than a subtle hedonism. In our total estimate of M. France we are forced to agree with M. Greard, who, on receiving him, a few months ago, at the Academy, contrived to slip some very disagreeable reservations into the midst of much unctuous eulogy. The books of M. France have encouraged what M. Gréard calls “ les songeries malsaines et les dilettantismes dissolvants.” He has exercised an unwholesome influence on young men in France, for much the same reasons that Walter Pater is said to have exercised an unwholesome influence on the youth of Oxford. Culture like that of Walter Pater and M. France represents the running out of a certain type of humanism. Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, apart from its charm of manner, offers in the person of its hero the spectacle of humanism fallen into its dotage.


From the visit of M. Brunetière to this country, and from the lectures he has given at different American universities, only good can follow, though unfortunately it has hardly been possible for him, in so brief a stay, to make his influence fully felt. He has furnished American scholars with a much needed example of the way in which vast and exact learning may be united with a sense for literary form, and with the love and capacity for general ideas. There exists in many American college faculties a division similar to that in France between “les artistes” and “les intellectuels,” the aesthetes and the analysts. Only on this side of the ocean the second class greatly outnumbers the first; and such æsthetes as we have are of inferior quality as compared with the analysts. One of the first things that struck M. Brunetière, on coming into contact with our university life, was this predominance of purely analytical scholarship, — a predominance which he attributes to an excessive imitation of German models. He even agreed with the opinion expressed by one of the Harvard professors, that several of our great universities are in danger of degenerating into mere technical schools, as a result of losing hold on the old humanistic ideal ; and yet M. Brunetière would be the first to recognize that it is too late to think of an entire return to the humanistic tradition. M. France, as we have seen, represents in some respects the running out of this tradition. It has rather been the aim of M. Brunetière to gather up what is vital in humanism and to combine it with modern science. By this endeavor to humanize science, as well as by his other qualities, he deserves to rank as a French scholar of the best type. As such, he stands for many things which we in the United States appreciate imperfectly as yet. but which we may profitably learn, if we are to avoid a one-sided development in our national culture. Matthew Arnold has said of Voltaire that people of AngloSaxon blood are in no danger of catching his faults, whereas they are seriously in need of many of his virtues. This remark may be made with equal truth of M. Brunetière.

Irviny Babbitt.