Ferdinand Brunetière

FEW men have ever crowded more intense activity into a life of fifty-seven years than Brunetière. There are few more striking examples of what may be achieved by a frail physique when sustained by an indomitable will. After having in his youth been refused admission as a student to the Ecole Normale, he finally entered as a teacher into that inner citadel of French higher education. He became member of the Academy in 1893, and almost at the same time, after long service in a subaltern post, editorin-chief of the Revue des Deux Mondes. His trip to this country early in 1897 was only one of his many appearances as orator and lecturer. For over thirty years he was indefatigable as a critic. Yet after publishing nearly forty volumes, he died before finishing the History of French Classicism that promised to be his real monument: Pendent opera interrupta. The completed chapters of this work (covering most of the sixteenth century) are suggestive of a greater mellowness, or at least of some toning down of the logical asperity of his style. The study of Montaigne, which is the last thing he did, is also one of the best, a truly remarkable achievement for a man in the last stages of a wasting disease, especially remarkable for a man so different in temperament from Montaigne as Brunetiere. Pascal makes a celebrated distinction between the esprit de gèomètric, the love and gift for logical reasoning, and the esprit de finesse, the sensitiveness to life in all its infinite complexity. Montaigne, a notable embodiment of the esprit de finesse, has rarely if ever been better judged than by Brunetière; yet one can scarcely admit, as M. de Vogüé claims in his commemorative article in the Revue des Deux Mondes, that there was a perfect balance in Brunetière’s mind between the two elements defined by Pascal. His real kinship in the sixteenth century is not with Montaigne, but with that master logician, John Calvin. There is the same lack of delicacy, amenity, charm; but one should add of Brunetière’s style, as he himself says of Calvin’s, that “its severity has after all its own nobility, and its very angularity and tension its own special majesty.”

Calvin is the first eminent example of the esprit de géométric in French prose, but the same turn for dialectic is visible in the earlier scholastics who wrote in Latin. One cannot read writers like Brunetière and Taine without feeling how much scholasticism still lingers in the land of its origin. This passion for logical consistency has been from the start the chief merit of the French mind, or, when indulged in at the expense of the facts and common sense, its most serious failing. The French readiness on occasion to oppose ratiocination to plain evidence reminds one of M. Jourdain and the skill in fence that enabled him to kill a man par raison démonstrative. Perhaps the most irritating example in the case of Brunetière is the attitude he assumed during the Dreyfus affair. Yet in a general way Brunetière’s logic show’s more respect for the facts than Taine’s. Facts that enter Taine’s mind are like rays of light passing through a bit of Iceland spar, —they are refracted arid polarized along the lines of his theory. There is less real science in Brunetière than in Taine; there is also less pseudoscience. Brunetière’s criticism offers no equivalent to the determinism that pervades the whole of Taine’s work, and imposes upon him a method that is not only unliterary but positively anti-literary. One might enlarge on the dangers of Brunetière’s Evolution des genres (or Darwinism applied to literature) for a man of scholastic temper, were it not that Brunetière was himself so well aware of these dangers. “We should take especial care,” he says, “not to transform what are,after all, simple metaphors into sovereign laws of criticism. In the midst of these ambitious generalizations the sense of the individual is lost. We become accustomed to value in the men and works of the past only the way they can be made to serve our own theories, and life in its diversity and rich complexity escapes us, and eludes the rigid formulas in which we seek to confine it.” There is a valuable germ of truth in Brunetière’s evolutionary theory, but it is already contained in a simple phrase of Aristotle’s Poetics: “Tragedy, after passing through various transformations, finally attained its true nature.” Brunetière is not a scientist, but a logician with a keen sense of historical development.

The sense of historical development is the main point of contact between Brunetière and Sainte-Beuve, and this point of contact only emphasizes their differences. Sainte-Beuve, who was endowed in a supreme degree with the esprit de -finesse, had almost as great a passion for the particular as Brunetière had for the general. He aims, as he puts it, to particularize everything, and when he generalizes it would seem that he does so only under protest. No man was ever more on his guard against the deceit that lurks in universals. Yet if, in Emerson’s phrase, “nature resents generalizing,” what is highest in human nature resents the lack of it. We are justified in demanding a compromise between the multiplicity of the facts and the craving for unity. The epigraph of Brunetière’s Evolution de la poésie lyrique was evidently directed against the method of Sainte-Beuve: “Whenever we are trying to get at the meaning of a complex phenomenon, it is useless, if not dangerous, to go too minutely into details.” The volume on Balzac that Brunetière wrote for an American series shortly before his death is almost bare of details about Balzac’s life; this too is a protest against the tendency of the modern school to substitute biographical small-talk for the serious business of criticism.

Brunetière is admirable as a historian of ideas when his logic is tempered by a sufficient knowledge of the facts, as is the case for nearly the whole of French literature from the sixteenth century to the present day. Throughout this whole field his erudition is immense and is aided by a marvelous memory. He is at his best in tracing main currents of ideas; in such articles, for example, as the one on the Formation of the Idea of Progress. This is a kind of writing which is thoroughly worth while in itself, and of which we have only too little in English. Brunetière, however, knew practically nothing at first hand about G reek, very little about the Middle Ages, and not enough of other modern literatures besides French. He is capable of saying that Lessing wished to rid Germany of Greek and Latin, that Burns and Shelley were at the opposite extreme of the social scale from Byron, and that Plato “ argues like a sophist and thinks like a child.” We may suspect that a man who pronounces such a judgment on Plato is not a trustworthy witness to some of the higher things of the imagination. For the critic who is himself unimaginative lacks the “fit key,” as Chapman expresses it, “with poesy to open poesy.” Brunetière lived neither for the senses nor the imagination, but solely for ideas. One might say of him, reversing Gautier’s familiar remark about himself, that he was a man for whom the visible world did not exist. “He was possibly,” says M. de Vogüé, “the only great man of letters of the nineteenth century for whom Rousseau had never lived,nor Rousseau’s eldest son, Chateaubriand, and who did not have in his blood a single drop of their delicious poisons.” He is in curious contrast in this respect to Taine, who had what some one has called a “violent and carnal imagination,” and who at any rate indulges in almost a superabundance of picturesque details.

If Taine mixes his logic with local color, Brunetière’s logic is militant and oratorical. The title of one of his recent volumes, Discours de Combat, would be equally appropriate for his collected works. He is fond of saying of the great French writers of the seventeenth century that they had a “spoken style” — that they did not “see themselves write,” but “heard themselves talk.” This remark holds good of his own style, which always has the movement of the spoken word without having anything of the ease of conversation. The arguments are clamped and mortised together by logical connectives, and pushed forward in menacing array, in a manner that suggests the advance of Roman legionaries with interlocked shields. “Behind his battering rams,” says M. Lemaître, “there is always a reserve of catapults.” He reminds one of the old. saying about Aristotle, the father of logic: he is ever eager for a fight. “A man would not feel himself alive,” Brunetière remarks in the course of a plea for Christianity (!) “if he did not have adversaries.” His rude and imperious temper has been likened to the testiness of the neo-classical Aristarch, a Boileau or Dr. Johnson. But, unlike Brunetière, these men had an underlying geniality of nature that saved them, even when most severe, from seeming atrabilious.

The history of Brunetière’s criticism is in a large measure the history of his polemics. Renan urges us not to get ruffled, but “to suffer the destinies of the planet to be fulfilled. Our outcries will be of no use, our ill-humor would be quite out of place.” This comfortable philosophy is the exact opposite of Brunetière’s. He liked to quote Comte’s saying that humanity is composed of more dead than living. He so champions the opinions of this dead majority as to come into conflict with nearly all the main tendencies of his own age. He defends the general sense of mankind in such a way as to isolate himself from his contemporaries. “It is a sort of joy,” he remarks, “for a man to stand apart in the midst of an indifferent or hostile society that he lives in and belongs to, but that he judges.” Of this somewhat austere joy Brunetière must have had his fill, especially if, as his friends claim, he was very far from being steeled to the inevitable reprisals. Possibly Brunetière’s sympathy for Alfred de Vigny was due, not only to a common pessimism, but to the fact that, like Vigny, he concealed a great sensitiveness under outer coldness and reserve. A Stoic, born into a somewhat neurasthenic age, Brunetière looked on it as his special mission to pursue every form of epicurean relaxation; and according to Pascal, when men judge by their natural lights, and in the absence of true faith, they are inevitably divided into Stoics and Epicureans. There was, then, an almost necessary conflict between Brunetiere, the least Gallic of Frenchmen, and contemporaries whom he describes as “Epicureans of the decadence;” between Brunetière and M. France, whom he deemed to be no better than a literary voluptuary; between Brunetière and Renan, who seemed to him bent on turning the intellect itself into a means of refined enjoyment.

Brunetière’s great problem becomes the search for a standard and definite discipline that he might oppose to this universal laxity and self-indulgence, or, as he terms it, to this “monstrous and morbid development of the me.” The reactionary tendencies of the last ten years of his life follow naturally enough from the assumptions that one finds in his earliest work. He assumes first that there is needed a principle of restraint in human nature (un principe refrénant), and that this principle cannot be evolved by the individual himself, but must be “exterior, anterior, and superior” to the individual; in other words, it must be sought in the total experience of the race as embodied in tradition. As a result of its loss of traditional standards, modern society seemed to him to be plunging into a bottomless morass of impressionism. His whole work may be best defined as a warfare upon impressionism, political, literary, and religious. The purpose of his polemic with the scientists (la faillite de la science) was to prove that science could give the world no real equivalent for the rule of life it had forsaken. For a similar reason, his attitude was in the main hostile to both the romantic and naturalistic movements which, springing from a common source, divide between them the nineteenth century. Of course the modern school gets round Brunetière’s difficulty by offering as a substitute for the principle of restraint the principle of brotherhood; each man is to give a loose rein to his own instincts and “originality,” and then temper this explosion of egoism by sympathy with an equally free play of individual impulse in others. This is the theory of fraternal anarchy that one finds in Rousseau, and in his American congener, Walt Whitman. But modern France, according to Brunetière, has, in following the leadership of Rousseau, taken a madman for its guide. He thinks we may make fine distinctions about different kinds of individualism, but in practice they are all synonyms for egoism; they all offer an undue opening to “the mobility of our impressions, the unruliness of our individual sense, and the vagrancy of our thought.”

In other words, Brunetière fails to escape from the vicious dilemma of nineteenth-century thought which would either sacrifice the individual to society, or society to the individual; which fails to find a middle ground between anarchical self-assertion and a collectivism that would crush individual initiative. Brunetière’s point of view suggests an interesting comparison with Emerson, because Emerson, like Brunetière, had immense confidence in the collective wisdom of humanity, in what he calls the “constant mind of man.” But, unlike Brunetière, he believes that this wisdom needs to be supplemented by the living insight of the individual. To be sure, Emerson says that “the individual is always mistaken,” and Brunetière would heartily concur; but when Emerson says elsewhere that a “true man is the centre of things — he measures you and all men and all events,” Brunetière and he part company. Bru netiere denies that the individual man can thus be the measure of all things, not only in the sophistical sense that M. France gives to the maxim, but in any sense whatsoever. Emerson would affirm a standard that is both within and without the individual. The standard is entirely outside the individual, according to Brunetière. According to M. France, there is no standard at all, but only universal illusion and relativity. Sainte-Beuve, as usual in questions of this kind, is non-committal, and confines himself to the comment: “The moral world, thrown from its ancient orbit, is rolling without counterpoise toward an unknown future.” The points of view of Brunetière and M. France, which would seem to embody opposite extremes, have at least the merit of reflecting faithfully a main line of cleavage in contemporary French thought. Indeed, one can scarcely speak of the need of respect, authority, and discipline in France without at once being set down as a reactionary. If France does not get beyond this stage, and yet prospers in a large way, all the saints and sages of the past will have been convicted of error in their views of human nature; and this in itself will be a result of considerable interest. Perhaps the examples of an individualism that is disciplined in the Emersonian sense are not extremely numerous even outside of France.

The reasons that led Brunetière into the Catholic Church should now be clear. It alone seemed to him to afford the discipline and the definite standard that could protect society against the individual. The reasons for his conversion, as he himself says, were “social;” they are certainly as far removed as possible from the reasons of those who are drawn into the Church by the æsthetic charm of its ritual. Of this form of epicureanism he remarks contemptuously that “sensuality is not religion.” He turned to Catholicism simply because it seemed to him to hold out the hope of a better-ordered social progress, of a more thoroughly disciplined collectivism. It is misleading to say, as is often done, that Brunetière had a “seventeenth-century soul,” or, like M. de Vogüé, to compare him to Bossuet and Pascal. Brunetière’s constant preoccupation with the humanitarian problem — the future of society and the relations of man to his fellow-man — savors of Auguste Comte rather than of Bossuet. In his inner mood, again, he has more in common with Schopenhauer than with Pascal. It is enough to compare Brunetière’s “social reasons” with the bit of parchment found sewn into Pascal’s coat, on which he had recorded the details of his conversion (night of November 23, 1654). Pascal sums up this sudden illumination in the words, often repeated, “Joy, certainty, peace.” Brunetiere lacked vision; he did not possess, like Pascal, any inner sanctuary of peace into which he could withdraw from the “tumult of the time disconsolate.” He had little experience of that wisdom which Joubert defines as “repose in the light.” He was a true child of his age in that he sought salvation in work and not in meditation; or rather, for the stoic Brunetière as for the epicurean Sainte-Beuve, work was, by their own avowal, a means of escape from the abyss of metaphysical despair. “As for Brunetière, ” some one is reported to have said, “one of these days it wall be found that he has hanged himself before a crucifix.”

Brunetière’s lack of inwardness impairs not only his defense of religious tradition, — it also impairs his defense of tradition in literature. One is tempted to say, at the risk of being misunderstood, that he did not take sufficiently into account in either religion or literature the aristocratic elements that make directly for the perfecting of the individual, and only indirectly for the perfecting of society. What Sainte-Beuve lamented in the decay of humane letters was the disappearance from the world of delicacy and distinction, and not simply the weakening of a discipline. The point may be made clear by comparing the attitude of the two men toward Balzac. Both Balzac and Victor Hugo are indeed veritable touchstones for the critic, being, as they are, writers of immense power, but a power Titanic and Cyclopean rather than human. Brunetière ascribes Sainte-Beuve’s hostility to Balzac to personal pique and jealousy. Personal pique there certainly was, but the underlying ground of SainteBeuve’s hostility was his humanism — the fact, as he himself says, that “he still belongs in spite of everything to the classical school.” Sainte-Beuve shows himself a better humanist than Brunetiére, when he admires Balzac’s exuberant creative energy, but at the same time is repelled by his violence and lack of measure.

Many American readers of the volume on Balzac have doubtless been puzzled by Brunetière’s warmth of admiration for a writer who, as he truly says, had immense influence in promoting the whole French naturalistic movement, from Taine to Zola. Did not Brunetière begin his career as a critic by an onslaught on the naturalistic novel, and is he not always urging us to react against the “naturalism that we still have in our blood,” and become “idealists”? The difficulty will be at least partially solved if we remember that Balzac and Brunetière both became Catholics, and for somewhat similar reasons. Balzac, like Brunetière, fails to find in the individual life any resource against itself; he depicts it, not as a struggle between one’s higher and lower nature, but merely as the unfolding of a master-impulse that is determined in turn by the pressure of an infinitely complex environment; he was unable to conceive of any inner avenue of escape for the individual from his own egoism and subjectivity, and so he opposes to individualism a social solidarity that receives its ultimate sanction from the Church. Like Brunetière, he sides with society against the individual. In their return to the discipline of the past, Brunetière and Balzac both take their point of departure in naturalistic pessimism. If we had no other evidence in the case of Brunetière, his sympathetic study of Schopenhauer would suffice.

An inevitable question arises in dealing with this difficult relationship between Brunetière’s “naturalism,”and his “idealism:” How did he reconcile his keen sense of historical relativity with the need imposed by his logic, of an outer absolute ? His most evident ambition as a thinker is to combine the faith of the past in what is stable with the modern idea of development. Even dogma itself evolves, he asserts, and in all this part of his thought it is easy enough to trace the influence of Cardinal Newman. His plea for a Catholicism that would develop in harmony with some of the aspirations of modem democracy seems to have found favor with Leo XIII, but to be far less acceptable to the present Pope. Some of the arguments that he brings to the defense of tradition are certainly surprising. In fact, one suspects in Brunetière a violent love of paradox, which he gratifies, not by attacking the general sense of mankind, but by the means he employs in defending it. It is, he confesses, an undertaking at once hazardous and novel to press into the service of Catholic orthodoxy Comte’s Positive Philosophy and the Origin of Species. He identifies the scientific doctrine of heredity and the dogma of original sin, draws a parallel between the American Constitution and the Roman Church, and brings Darwin to the aid of St. Vincent de Lérins. We may well refuse to follow him in these bizarre associations ; yet we must recognize that he is wrestling manfully all the while with what is after all the central problem of contemporary thought, the problem how to adjust the rival claims of “being” and “becoming; ” how to retain the conquests of naturalism and at the same time assert the integrity of that part of man which is above phenomenal nature.

Brunetière, indeed, has an almost unerring instinct for the large and vital questions, even when he misses the right solution for them. He is instructive in his errors, even in his failure to recognize that the remedy for the excesses of individualism must be a higher individualism, that the lance of Achilles can alone heal the wound it has made. There is no better antidote to impressionism than to read him through with a view to refuting him. He may be recommended as a corrective to those who suffer from epicurean indolence and unwillingness to think. It is some distinction to have attained, as Brunetière did, even to a logical cosmos in an age whose current philosophy would seem to be what a Harvard undergraduate, replying to a question as to the religion of China, described as confusionism. The atmosphere that surrounds his work has the stoic bleakness.; yet he is tonic by the very faith he feels in the virtues of clear and consistent reasoning. “Who of us,” says Brunetière, “hasn’t his weaknesses? Mine — one of mine — has always been to love doctrinaires; and see how indulgent I am for them: I pardon them not only for having had doctrines and for having defended them sturdily, but for having changed doctrines, every time that they have given good reasons for so doing, — I mean good doctrinal ones.” He is convinced that it is “ideas that govern the world.” Herein he differs from M. Faguet, a really distinguished thinker, who has no belief in the practical efficacy of thought; and that is perhaps why M. Faguet’s work, brilliant as it undoubtedly is, fails to leave its sting. “Take Rousseau from the history of the eighteenth century,” writes Brunetière, “and you put off the Revolution by perhaps twenty or twenty-five years; take from his writings the Social Contract, and you make the Jacobin programme impossible; take from the Social Contract itself merely the sixth and seventh chapters of the fourth ,book, and you suppress Robespierre.” Fortunately the connection between logic and life is not always so close.

Brunetière has only contempt for those who would divorce scholarship from ideas, or who, having ideas, fail to subordinate them to some serious end; contempt for the dilettantes and impressionists who see in literature only the occasion for an agreeable vagabondage of the intellect or sensibility; likewise for those who lose themselves in over-minute investigations: for instance, the man who devoted a volume of five hundred pages to proving that Molière died at No. 40 and not at No. 34 Rue Richelieu; or the man who searched through the records of Paris churches — eighty manuscript volumes — in order to determine the exact date of the birth of Ninon de Lenclos! In one of his most vigorous papers (La Fureur de l’Inédit) he assails what is perhaps the main fetish of modern scholarship, — “original” research. “Science and conscientiousness,” he exclaims, “delicacy of taste, tact, the art of selection and composition, feeling for style, felicity of expression, art or grace, eloquence or strength, all that formerly went under the name of talent, or even genius, —do any of these qualities really count in the eyes of a decipherer of texts or an editor of unpublished documents ? And public opinion, which they have already more than half corrupted, seems likely soon to side with them.” Brunetière waged continuous war on this tendency of scholarship toward Alexandriani sm, toward what Bacon termed, in speaking of spelling reform, “unprofitable subtleties.” No one in his generation so emphasized the relationship between literature and thought, the relationship between thought itself and life.

“ Le vrai Dieu, le Dieu fort, est le Dieu des idées.”

The example Brunetière set in this respect is needed in this country even more than in France.