The Correspondence of George Sand
THE long-promised letters of George Sand to Alfred de Musset appeared recently in the Revue de Paris, and were followed by a second series addressed to Sainte-Beuve.1 Even before the publication of these letters there were signs of a revival of interest in George Sand. Her reputation had suffered an eclipse during the triumph of naturalism. But now that naturalism has “ grown to a pleurisy and died in its own too much,” the younger generation of French writers is making earnest, one is almost tempted to say desperate, efforts to arrive at some form of idealistic art; and this movement promises to result in an increase in the vogue of George Sand, as it has already resulted in a falling off in the vogue of Balzac.
Taine says that there is in the whole history of literature no other writer whose career is as instructive as that of George Sand, — no writer for the study of whose life there is such abundant material, and none to whom it is possible to apply so perfectly the method of Sainte-Beuve. The world at present shows signs of growing weary of the method of Sainte-Beuve as it has grown weary of naturalism ; we are coming to be less concerned with the natural origins of a writer’s talent, and more concerned with getting at this talent in itself, with measuring its absolute elevation, with finding out how far it is the product of the writer’s will as well as of his environment. The life of George Sand lends itself even more to the latter method of treatment — the method of the new criticism — than to that of Sainte-Beuve. Taine himself, with the sympathy he showed toward the last for the points of view most different from his own, has remarked that an admirable study might be made of the evolution of George Sand’s character as revealed in her works. Nothing she has written is richer in material for a study of this kind than her letters, and among the letters themselves the most interesting are those she exchanged with Flaubert. Her talent as an artist reached its maturity no doubt in the country idyls, but it is rather in these letters to Flaubert that we are to seek the clearest and fullest expression of her character and views of life.
For the beginning of George Sand’s career we need to turn, not to the correspondence, but to her autobiography,— L’ Histoire de ma Vie,—especially to the chapters devoted to the years spent in the Couvent des Anglaises at Paris. It is well to remember that during her convent life she passed through a period of fervent Catholic mysticism. “ I feel,” we read in one of her later letters, “ a foretaste of infinite ecstasies, and of ravishments like those of my childhood when I thought I saw the Virgin, like a white blur on a sun floating over my head.” Her early letters contrast curiously in their simple and unaffected tone with those she wrote after coming under the influence of romanticism, toward the end of her unhappy married life with the Baron Dudevant. George Sand doubtless had real grievances against her husband, but her main grievance seems to have been that he was not a man of genius. She finally decided on a separation, and early in 1831 came to Paris, and “embarked,” as she expresses it, “ on the stormy sea of literature.” The years immediately following have been appropriately termed by Matthew Arnold the period of “ agony and revolt.” She strove to escape from every form of convention, and took delight in shocking all the ordinary notions of bourgeois propriety. She dressed in men’s clothing and frequented Bohemian society. She informs one of her correspondents that her main item of expense is for tobacco. Like all the romantic writers, she professed the religion of passion, an ideal to which she has given expression in Lélia. “ For poetic souls,” she says in this work, “ the sentiment of worship enters even into the love of the senses.” Of this mixture of idealism and sensuality there is only too much in the whole modern conception of love. We find in Petrarch one of the earliest instances of this epicurean use of the religious sentiment, that would bring the ideal down from heaven and throw its celestial glamour over earthly passions. But the whole tendency has perhaps reached its culmination in the extraordinary product known as romantic love, that “mortal chimera ” which, in the words of M. René Doumic, “ has raged for a century in French literature, — which has infected people’s minds, perverted their ideas, disturbed society, undermined morality, and made thousands of victims, of whom George Sand and Alfred de Musset are only the most illustrious.” Her affair with Alfred de Musset, we need hardly add, as well as one or two other like experiments in romantic love, ended for her only in disillusion, — disillusion so complete that for a time she fell into utter despair, and contempt for herself and others. “If I should tell you,” she confesses later to a friend, “ the point to which I pushed my abhorrence of everything, my horror of existence, I should seem to you to be relating an idle tale.” She speaks of her “ anti-social spirit,” of her “hatred of all men,” and says she would not stir to save her neighbor’s child from drowning. She was haunted by thoughts of suicide. “ Ten years ago,” she wrote in 1845 to Mazzini, “ I was in Switzerland; I was still in the age of tempests; I made up my mind even then to meet you, if I should resist the temptation to suicide which pursued me upon the glaciers.” She finally retired to Nohant, where she was to pass the rest of her life. Her youth, to use her own expression, had come to an end “ in the midst of convulsions and groans.” We can follow in her letters the process of reflection by which she arrived at a state of comparative calm. “ I have had a terrible duel with myself, a gigantic struggle with my ideal; I have been profoundly broken and wounded ; now I am vegetating quietly enough.” Her return to sanity and self-possession was made easier by her freedom from selflove ; for, whatever misuse she had made of the ideal, she had not used it to idealize herself. She was not “ infected,” to borrow her own phrase, “ with that immense vanity which characterizes the men of the reign of Louis Philippe.” She began to have doubts about the divine nature of romantic love. “ At present I am going to have the courage to say it,” she writes in one of her recently published letters to Sainte-Beuve : “ the loves which make us suffer are not the loves that God intended for us ; and we are deceived in thinking so.” “ Let the reign of truth once come, — and I believe in this reign of truth, though I know it will not be in my day, — and what we suffered will no longer have a name in human language.”
In the meanwhile, a new form of faith was beginning to rise in the mind of George Sand on the ruins of the religiop of passion. “ As for me,” she declares, “ the teachings of Leroux have resolved my doubts and founded my religious faith.” “ I am plunged in the doctrines of socialism. I have found in them strength, faith, hope, and the patient and persevering love of humanity, — treasures of my youth, which I had dreamed of in Catholicism.” It is worth noting that almost at the same time that George Sand was thus arriving at the gospel of humanity, Renan, escaped from St. Sulpice, was proclaiming the religion of science. It is curious to observe, in the case of both Renan and George Sand, how much easier it is to throw off the old dogmas than to free the mind from the forms of thought and feeling in which a century-long inheritance of Catholicism has moulded it. Just as Renan in his earlier work arrives at the conception of a scientific infallibility, a scientific pope, a scientific heaven and hell, and even of a God created by scientists, so George Sand transfers to socialism the whole vocabulary of Christian mysticism. She speaks of the “ social rebirth ” to be brought about by France, that “ Christ of nations,” of “ social saints,” of “ social martyrs,” and so on. At the news of the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848, she hurried to Paris in boundless exultation. And then, on the complete collapse of all the social dreams and social dreamers, she again fell into deep discouragement. She found that Leroux, “such an admirable man in the ideal life,” floundered hopelessly when brought into contact with reality. And Leroux, in this respect, was symbolical of the whole movement. She speaks of her “ utter depression ” after the days of June. She had made the painful discovery that there entered into the composition of that humanity she had so idealized “ a large number of knaves, a very large number of lunatics, and an immense number of fools.” George Sand remained almost to the very end more or less the dupe of those three great words, Nature, Progress, and Humanity, the indiscriminate use of which has worked such havoc in the thinking of the past two centuries. Yet if she did not give up her dreams of “ social rebirth,” she at least saw that they would have to be adjourned to an indefinite future : —
To the less practiced eye of sanguine youth ;
And high the mountain-tops in cloudy air,
The mountain-tops where is the throne of Truth.”
It cost her “ a heavy effort,” she owned, “ to pass from vast illusions to complete disillusion.”
But she again mastered her despair, and in the very midst of the Second Empire, in the midst of the densest materialism the world has seen since the Roman decadence, she founded anew her faith in the ideal, and this time on a larger and surer base. She gradually awoke to the perception that the “ salvation of France was not to be through politics,”and that the indefinite future progress of humanity was not so important as the immediate definite progress of the individual. She saw that what was most needed was “ a new direction given to men’s hearts and consciences.” “ They are the slaves of circumstance,” she declares of the politicians of her day, “ because they are the born slaves of themselves.”And again : “Duty brings with it its own reward. Calm has been restored to my spirit, and faith has returned.” “Everything passes away, — youth, passions, illusions, and the desire to live. One thing only remains, — the integrity of the heart. The heart grows not old, but, on the contrary, is fresher and stronger at sixty than at thirty, if only it is allowed to have its own way.”
It was toward the beginning of the last period of her life, the period of maturity and insight, that George Sand became acquainted with Flaubert. They were drawn together by a certain native distinction of character, by a certain delicacy and disinterestedness they observed in each other, but especially by the fact that they were impenitent romanticists in the midst of a generation hostile to romanticism. “ You will always remain twenty-five,” she wrote to him, “ in virtue of all kinds of ideas which have become antiquated, if we are to believe the senile young men of to-day.”
Apart from these points of contact, it would be hard to imagine two persons in more radical disagreement than George Sand and Flaubert. She herself avows to him that “ there surely never were two workmen as different as we are ; ” and Flaubert, wondering at the large and easy improvisation of George Sand, replies, " You don’t know what it is to spend a whole day with your head in your hands, racking your miserable brain in the search for an epithet.”The letters they exchanged owe much of their interest to the way in which the traits of each writer are thus constantly thrown into relief by opposition and contrast. George Sand urges Flaubert to exercise his will, and Flaubert answers that he is as “ fatalistic as a Turk.” “ You believe in life and love it,” says Flaubert, “ and life fills me with distrust.” “ It’s strange how little faith I naturally have in happiness. I had in my very youth a complete presentiment of life. It was like a sickly kitchen smell escaping from a basement window.” “Yes,”replies George Sand, “ life is a terrible mixture of pleasure and pain ; ” yet “ we must suffer, weep, hope, be, — in short, we must exercise our will in every direction.” “ You at the first leap mount to heaven,” he says elsewhere, “while I, poor devil, am glued to the earth as though by leaden soles.” “ In spite of your great sphinx eyes, you have always seen the world as through a golden mist,” whereas “ I am constantly dissecting ; and when I have finally discovered the corruption in anything that is supposed to be pure, the gangrene in its fairest parts, then I raise my head and laugh.” Flaubert talks of his need of “ extraordinary and factitious environments.” “ You might leave me,” says George Sand, “ whole hours under a tree, or before two burning sticks, with the certainty that I should find something to interest me. I have learned so well how to live outside of myself. I was not so always. I too have been young and subject to indigestions, but all that is ended.”
Finally Flaubert tells George Sand that the artist must not express his own feelings in what he writes. “ Not put one’s feelings into what one writes ! ” retorts George Sand. “ I don’t understand you at all, — oh no, not in the least.” As a matter of fact, Flaubert had observed that the greatest works of art are impersonal; and not being able to conceive of a region of impersonal human emotion, he decided to eliminate emotion altogether, and to arrive at least at the impersonality of the naturalist. “ We must treat men,” he says, “ as though they were mastodons or crocodiles.” And so he resolutely cut out from what he wrote the very thoughts and feelings he was most burning to utter. “ It is odd,” writes George Sand, “ but there’s a whole side of you which does n’t appear in your books.” It would be hard, indeed, to imagine a more curious contrast than that between the published work of Flaubert and the medley of interjections, ejaculations, slang, profanity, and obscenity we find in his letters.
Paradoxical as the statement is, Flaubert and other French men of letters of the middle of the century who have been reproached with impassibility are in reality about the most subjective, the most completely self-centred, writers in literature. The whole psychology of the school of art for art’s sake is revealed in these letters of one of its chief representatives. The men who profess this doctrine have, for the most part, carried over to art habits of thought, and especially modes of sensibility, which derive from Catholicism. Just as we have found in George Sand the gospel of humanity, and in Renan the religion of science, so we find in Flaubert the fanaticism of art. He preaches abstinence, renunciation, and mortification of the flesh in the name of art. He excommunicates those who depart from artistic orthodoxy, and speaks of heretics and disbelievers in art with a ferocity worthy of a Spanish inquisitor.
Unfortunately, Flaubert was unable to attain to that pure artistic ecstasy, that “ literary delirium,” to which he aspired. If he was at variance with George Sand, he was hardly less at variance with himself. He tells us that his intellectual origins are all in Don Quixote, which he had learned by heart before he knew how to read. There was going on within him, in fact, a warfare between mediæval reverie and modern positivism not unlike that which Cervantes has symbolized in his masterpiece. Born in the period of transition from an age of sentiment to an age of scientific analysis, Flaubert hung suspended between two worlds, and was unable to enjoy the full benefit of either. “ I have contradictory ideals,” he exclaimed, “ and the consequence is hesitation, halting, impotence ! ” If he burst into tears under the stress of lyric emotion, his first impulse was to observe himself in a looking-glass. He became the founder of naturalism, which he abhorred ; on the other hand, if he tried to launch out into some vast poetical subject, he found that his lyric sense had been eaten away by analysis. Like many another writer of the present century, he tried to hide his lack of inner vitality under intellectual accumulation. He tells us that he had read and annotated three hundred volumes as a partial preparation for writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. What predominated in him, however, was his catholic sensibility, and his consequent hatred of modern life. Indeed, we shall not understand Flaubert and one whole school of nineteenth-century artists, especially the so-called decadents, unless we see in them men whose souls are still steeped in mediaeval reverie, and who are unable to acquiesce in our modern rectangular civilization founded on scientific analysis: —
Tout est grand, tout est beau, mais on meurt dans votre air.”
“ I am a Catholic ! ” exclaims Flaubert. “ I have in my heart something of the green ooze of the Norman cathedrals.” And speaking of Salammbo : “ Few persons will guess how melancholy a man must be to try to resuscitate ancient Carthage. That is the Theban desert to which my horror of modern life has driven me.” This horror of modern life grew upon Flaubert, until he came at last to live in a chronic state of indignation, in a white heat of fury at his contemporaries. “ I have written it,” he says of Bouvard et Pécuchet, " in the hope of being able to spit into it some of the bile which is choking me.”
“ I should like to see you,” writes George Sand, “ less indignant at other people’s stupidity.” Flaubert, however, was unwilling to part with his indignation. It was pride and the sense of personal distinction, he is careful to tell us, which sustained him in his life of solitary devotion to art; he needed his indignation to assure himself that he really was superior to the people about him. “ If it were not for my indignation,” he confesses in one place, “ I should fall flat.” Unfortunately, we come to resemble what we habitually contemplate. “ By dint of railing at idiots,” writes Flaubert, “ one runs the risk of becoming idiotic one’s self.” And he says of his two bourgeois, Bouvard and Pécuchet, “ Their stupidity is my stupidity, and it’s killing me.”
George Sand takes Flaubert to task, with admirable tact, for thus tormenting himself with false theories of art. “ Talent,” she says, “ imposes duties ; and art for art’s sake is an empty word.” Beauty is not in itself a cause, but a result, the outcome of the harmony of all the parts either in the life of an individual or in that of a people. Beauty, we may add, is, in itself, only the element of illusion. The man who pursues it as a thing apart is trying to divorce form from substance, and will spend his life, Ixion-like, embracing phantoms. “ O Art, Art,” exclaims Flaubert, “ bitter deception, nameless phantom, which gleams and lures us to our ruin ! ” He speaks elsewhere of the “ chimera of style which is wearing him out soul and body.” George Sand tells us that as she grew older she came more and more to put truth above beauty, and goodness before strength. “ I have reflected a great deal on what is true,” she writes, “ and in this search for truth the sentiment of my ego has gradually disappeared.” Flaubert, on the contrary, in becoming a chercheur d’exquis, in consecrating his life to the quest for beauty, had succeeded only in intensifying the sentiment of his ego and in irritating his nerves. Attaching an almost religious importance to aesthetic sensation, he had been led to humor all the whims of a morbid sensibility. He had fallen into the state which the French describe by the untranslatable word nostalgie, the desire to jump out of one’s skin, to be where one is not; he had become the victim of that artistic hyperæsthesia from which so many French writers since Rousseau have suffered. He complains in his old age : “ My sensibility is sharper than a razor’s edge; the creaking of a door, the face of a bourgeois, an absurd statement, set my heart to throbbing, and completely upset me.”
We are possibly justified in inferring from the life of Flaubert, and that of others of his school, the futility of art when not subordinated to some principle higher than itself. " If any one prefer beauty to virtue,” says Plato, “ what is this but the real and utter dishonor of the soul ? ” Hardly anywhere else in literature will one find such accents of bitterness, such melancholy welling up unbidden from the very depths of the heart, as in the devotees of art for art’s sake, — Flaubert, Leconte de Lisle, Théophile Gautier. George Sand expresses a natural surprise at the agitation in which Flaubert lives at Croisset, — “ that delightful retreat where everything breathes comfort and tranquillity.”
We need not suppose that George Sand was entirely right, and Flaubert entirely wrong, in the theory and practice of art. We can agree with Flaubert in thinking that composition with the great masters was accompanied by fewer throes and paroxysms, by less effort and anguish, than with him. On the other hand, composition with the great masters was not a pure improvisation, as in the case of George Sand; they did not write, as we are to infer she did, in a half-somnambulistic condition. “ I am a mere wind-harp,” she tells Flaubert. “ It is the other who plays upon my heart at will. . . . When I think of it I am filled with fright, and say to myself, I am nothing, nothing at all.” " Genius,” George Sand never tires of repeating, “ comes from the heart,” — a feminine theory of genius which offends less in the mouth of George Sand than when professed by men like Lamartine and Alfred de Musset. Yet it was a too unquestioning obedience to the promptings of the heart that kept George Sand from attaining perfection. " Life,” she confesses, “carries me off my feet.” She is swept away by her feelings and sentiments, her affections and sympathies ; so that Flaubert might well write of her : “ Madame Sand is too benign and angelical.” It may be said, in justification of Flaubert’s view, that the New Testament in one passage promises the kingdom of heaven to the violent. It is the lack of power of concentration, of fiery intensity, and at the same time the lack of that infinite painstaking in detail possessed by Flaubert, which removes George Sand from the first rank of artists. “ I am not,” she admits of herself, “ the ideal artist.” " I am too fond of sewing and scrubbing children ; . . . and then, besides, I am not a lover of perfection. I feel perfection, but I cannot make it manifest.”
The main event that came to disturb the tranquillity of George Sand in her old age was the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. " I am sick with the sickness of my country and my race ! ” she exclaims, after the Commune. " I wish that I had died without learning that barbarism is still so alive and active in the world.” And again : “ I judged of others by myself; I had done a great deal toward mending my own character; I had quenched useless and dangerous ebullitions ; I had sown grass and flowers upon my volcanoes, and I fancied that everybody was capable of self-enlightenment and self-restraint. And now I have been all at once awakened from my dream to find a generation divided between idiocy and delirium tremens.” Flaubert, who, whatever his faults, was not a dupe of humanitarianism, declared, as early as 1848, that Leroux and the other Socialists were not modern men, — that they were still “ up to their necks in the Middle Ages ; ” and he saw in the Commune a manifestation of mediævalism. George Sand, too, taught by experience, was rapidly ridding herself, during the last years of her life, of what was still mediæval in her ways of thinking. This fact appears in her increasing distrust of absolute a priori formulæ. She was gradually attaining to the insight to which Emerson has given expression in his essay on Compensation, — the insight that no truth is true unless balanced by its counter-truth. “ Don’t you see,” she says to one of her political friends, “ that the Catholic priest is supremely intolerant because he rejects absolutely the opposite view ? ” “ Down with the priests in power, whatever garb they may happen to wear. The Republic will take care of itself, if it is not imposed as a dogma.” “ The principles of '93,”she says elsewhere, “have been our ruin ; the Reign of Terror and St. Bartholomew’s Day are an expression of the same spirit.”
With the disappearance of her last humanitarian hopes, the evolution of the character of George Sand may be said to be complete. “ I believe,” she writes to Alexandre Dumas fils, “ henceforward without illusion, and that is the secret of all my little strength.” This survival of faith is indeed the fact most worthy of note in a study of the inner life of George Sand. The great historical error of Christianity has been to confound faith with credulity ; and for the vast majority of modern men, faith has perished along with the creeds with which it had been identified. It is the distinction of George Sand to have rescued repeatedly the precious principle of belief from the wreck of false ideals, and to have had a faith so robust as to outlive shock upon shock of disillusion. In her old age she arrived more and more at a faith free from illusion, — faith founded on the simple feeling, as she expresses it, that " the whole is greater and better than we are,” and on the sentiment of the divine, entirely apart from any attempt to confine it in a formula.
“ If man has drunk at the cup of eternal truth,” she says, “ he no longer takes sides too passionately for or against relative and ephemeral truth.” Together with faith, there entered into the life of George Sand joy, certainty, tranquillity, the sense of conduct, and the belief in the freedom of the will, — good and desirable things all, which seem to be disappearing from the world with the disappearance of faith.
“ I wish to see man as he is,” she writes to Flaubert. “ He is not good or bad : he is good and bad. But he is something else besides : being good and bad, he has an inner force which leads him to be very bad and a little good, or else very good and a little bad.” “ I have often wondered,” she adds, “ why your Education Sentimentale, in spite of its excellence of form, was so ill received by the public, and the reason, as it seems to me, is that its characters are passive, — that they do not act upon themselves.” It is this power to act upon himself, precisely what is most human in man, that Flaubert neglected when he proposed to study men as he would mastodons or crocodiles.
The power which George Sand showed to act on herself is what gives her life its peculiar interest. She might justly say of herself, " I cannot forget that my personal victory over despair has been the work of my will, and of a new way of understanding life which is the exact opposite of the one I held formerly.” How different is the weary cry of Flaubert : “ I am like a piece of clock-work. What I am doing to-day I shall be doing to-morrow ; I did the same thing yesterday ; I was exactly the same man ten years ago.” Or compare the life of George Sand with that of Victor Hugo, who, as the ripe fruit of his meditations, yields nothing better than the apotheosis of Robespierre and Marat.
Taine remarks of Sainte-Beuve that he was the only French writer of the present century, besides George Sand, who showed this power of continuous development. George Sand, however, is superior to Sainte-Beuve in that her growth is symmetrical, instead of being the expansion of a single faculty. She grew toward her ideal as the plant grows toward the sun, and not like the modern specialist, mechanically in one direction. We find in Sainte-Beuve something of that undue confidence in intellectual machinery, of that abuse of the brain, which has followed in the trail of the scientific spirit. “ Poor Sainte-Beuve,” writes George Sand, “ his intelligence has perhaps developed ; but the intelligence does not suffice for the purposes of life, and it does not teach us how to die.” “ You have a better sense for total truth ” (le vrai total), she tells another correspondent, “ than Sainte-Beuve, Renan, and Littré. They have fallen into the German rut: therein lies their weakness.” And Flaubert writes to George Sand : “ What amazes and delights me is the strength of your whole personality, not that of the brain alone.”
Thus, toward the end of her career, George Sand became increasingly free from that nineteenth-century intellectualism which so marred the work of the closing years of George Eliot. “ I feel,” she writes, “that I am coming to be less and less a Christian, and I perceive daily another light dawning beyond that horizon of life toward which I am advancing with ever greater tranquillity.” In spite of what George Sand says about not being a Christian, it would be easy enough to show that many of her faults and nearly all her virtues are a direct inheritance from Christianity, — the Christianity of St. Francis rather than that of St. Thomas Aquinas. A study of her character, indeed, derives its main interest from the fact that she was able to make what Taine calls “ the painful transition from an hereditary faith to a personal conviction.”
We are living in an age when the principle of choice, the sense of direction, is more important than ever before, and at the same time more difficult of attainment. We are under special obligation to those who, like George Sand, have been successful in thus carrying over what was most vital in the old belief, and in combining it with what is most advanced in modern thought. In this respect, George Sand takes rank with Emerson among the pioneers of the idealism of the future ; and like Emerson, she remained true to the ideal without falling into morbid self-consciousness. She perceived no less plainly than Carlyle the degeneracy of the humanity of her day from loss of hold on the moral law, but she did not therefore have a vision of her contemporaries as a “ lot of apes chattering on the shores of the Dead Sea.” For this reason finally George Sand will be remembered not merely as a great literary artist; she will also remain in memory as one of the few who, in an age of great enlightenment and little light, have persevered in the cult of the ideal, in the exercise of le sens contemplatif, oil reside la foi invincible, — “ the contemplative sense wherein resides invincible faith.” And the passages that bear most striking witness to her use of this well-nigh obsolete sense are contained in her correspondence.
- The two series have since been reissued in book form by Calmann Lévy.↩