The Evolution of an Egoist: Maurice Barrès

ONCE upon a time a youth, slim, dark, and delicate, lived in a tower. This tower was composed of ivory, — the youth sat within its walls, tapestried by most subtle art, and studied his soul. As in a mirror, a fantastic mirror of opal and gold, he searched his soul and noted its faintest music, its strangest modulations, its transmutation of joy into melancholy; and he saw its grace and its corruption. These matters he registered in his “little mirrors of sincerity.” And he was happy in an ivory tower and far away from the world, with its rumors of dullness, feeble crimes, and flat triumphs. After some years the young man wearied of the mirror, with his spotted soul cruelly pictured therein; wearied of the tower of ivory and its alien solitudes; so he opened its carved doors and went into the woods, where he found a deep pool of water. It was very small, very clear, and reflected his face, reflected on its quivering surface his unstable soul. But soon other images of the world appeared above the pool: men’s faces and womens, and the shapes of earth and sky. Then Narcissus, who was young, whose soul was sensitive, forgot the ivory tower and the magic pool, and merged his own soul into the soul of his people.

Maurice Barrès is the name of the youth, and he is now a member of the Académie Française. His evolution from the ivory tower of egoism to the broad meadows of life is not an insoluble enigma; his books and his active career offer many revelations of a fascinating, though often baffling, personality. His passionate curiosity in all that concerns the moral nature of his fellow man lends to his work its own touch of universality; otherwise, it would not be untrue to say that the one Barrès passion is love of his native land. “France” is engraved on his heart; France and not the name of a woman. This may be regarded as a grave shortcoming by the sex.


Paul Bourget has said of him: “Among the young people who have entered literature since 1880 Maurice Barrès is certainly the most celebrated. . . . One must see other than a decadent or a dilettante in this analyst . . . the most original who has appeared since Baudelaire.” Perhaps, as Stendhal once hinted, praise from colleague to colleague is but a certificate of resemblance. Yet Bourget said much more about the young writer, then in his twenties, who in 1887 startled Paris with a curious, morbid, ironical, witty book, a production neither fiction nor fact. This book was called, Sous l’Œil des Barbares.1 The volume made a sensation. Not that Barrès was then unknown; he had made several efforts to lay hold of notoriety, though not successfully. He was born the 22nd of September, 1862, at Charmes-sur-Moselle (Vosges), and received a classical education at the Nancy (old capital of Lorraine) Lyceum. Of good family, — among his ancestors he could boast some military men, — he early absorbed a love for his native province, a love that later was to become a species of soil worship. His health not very strong at any time, and nervous of temperament, he nevertheless moved on Paris, for the inevitable siege of which all romantic readers of Balzac dream during their school days. “ A nous deux !” muttered Rastignac, shaking his fist, at the city spread below him. “A nous deux! ” have exclaimed countless youngsters ever since. Maurice, however, was not that sort of Romantic. He meant to conquer Paris, but in a unique way; he detested melodrama. He moved to the capital in 1882. His first literary efforts had appeared in the Journal de la Meurthe et des Vosges ; he could see as a boy the Vosges Mountains; and Alsace, not far away, was in the clutches of the hated enemy. In Paris he wrote for several minor reviews, met distinguished men like Leconte de Lisle, Rodenbach, Valade, Rollinat; and his Parisian début was in La, Jeune France, with a short story entitled “Le Chemin de l’Institut ” (April, 1882). Ernest Gaubert, who has given us these details, says that, despite Leconte de Lisle’s hearty support, Mme. Adam refused an essay of Barres as unworthy of the Nouvelle Revue. In 1884 appeared a mad little review, Les Taches d’Encre, irregular in publication. Despite its literary quality the young editor displayed some knowledge of the tactics of “new” journalism. When Morin was assassinated by Mme. Clovis Hugues, sandwich men paraded the boulevards carrying on their boards this inscription: “Morin reads no longer Les Taches d’Encre! ” Perseverance such as this should have been rewarded; but little “ Ink-spots ” quickly disappeared. Barrès founded a new review in 1886, Les Chroniques, in company with some brilliant men. Jules Clarétie about this time remarked, “Make a note of the name of Maurice Barres. I prophesy that it will become famous.” Barrès had discovered that Rastignac’s pugnacious methods were obsolete in the battle with Paris, though there was no folly he would be incapable of committing if only he could attract attention — even to walking the boulevards in the guise of primeval man. Far removed as his exquisite art now is from this blustering desire for publicity, this threat, uttered in jest or not, is significant. Maurice Barrès has since stripped his soul bare for the world’s ire or edification.

Wonder-children do not always pursue their natural vocation. Pascal was miraculously endowed as a mathematician; he ended a master of French prose, an hallucinated, wretched man. Franz Liszt was a prodigy, but aspired to the glory of Beethoven. Raphael was a painting prodigy, and luckily died so young that he had not time to change his profession. Swinburne wrote faultless verse as a youth. He is a critic to-day. Maurice Barrès was born a metaphysician; he has the metaphysical faculty as some men have a fiddle hand. He might say with Prosper Merimée, “Metaphysics pleases me because it is never-ending.” But not as Kant, Condillac, or William James — to name men of widely disparate systems — did the precocious thinker plan objectively. The proper study of Maurice Barrès was Maurice Barrès, and he vivisected his ego as calmly as a surgeon trepanning a living skull. He boldly proclaimed the culte du moi, proclaimed his disdain for the barbarians who infringed upon his I. To study and note the fleeting shapes of his soul — in his case a protean psyche — was the one thing worth doing in a life of mediocrity. And this new variation of the eternal hatred for the bourgeois contained no menaces leveled at any class, no groans of disgust à la Huysmans. Imperturbable, with an icy indifference, Barrès pursued his fastidious way. What we hate we fight, what we despise we avoid. Barrès merely despised the other egos around him, and entering his ivory tower he bolted the door; but on reaching the roof did not fail to sound his horn announcing to an eager world that the miracle had come to pass — Maurice Barrès had discovered Maurice Barrès.

Egoism as a religion is no new thing. It began with the first sentient male human. It has since preserved the species, discovered the “inferiority” of women, made civilization, and founded the fine arts. Any attempt to displace the ego in the social system has only resulted in inverting the social pyramid. Love our neighbor as ourself is trouble-breeding; but we must first love ourself as a precaution that our neighbor will not suffer both in body and mind. The interrogation posed on the horizon of our consciousness, regarding the perfectibility of mankind, is best answered by a definition of socialism as that religion which proves all men to be equally stupid. Do not let us confound the ideas of progress and perfectibility. Since man first realized himself as man, first said, “I am I,” there has been no progress. No art has progressed. Science is a perpetual rediscovery. And what modern thinker has taught anything new ?

Life is a circle. We are imprisoned, each of us, in the cage of our personality. Each human creates his own picture of the world, re-creates it each day. These are the commonplaces of metaphysics. Schopenhauer, greater artist than original thinker, has shown some of them to us in tempting garb.

Compare the definitions of Man made by Pascal and Cabanis. Man, said Pascal, is but a reed, the feeblest of created things; yet a reed which thinks. Man, declared the materialistic Cabanis, is a digestive tube — a statement that provoked the melodious indignation of Lacordaire. What am I? asks Barrès; je suis un instant d’une chose immortelle. And this instant of an immortal thing has buried within it something eternal of which the individual has only the usufruct. (Goncourt wrote, “What is life? The usufruct of an aggregation of molecules.”) Before him Sénancour in Obermann — the reveries of a sick, hermetic soul — studied his malady, but offered no prophylactic. Amiel was so lymphatic of will that he doubted his own doubts, doubted all but his dreams. He, too, had fed at Hegel’s ideologic banquet, where the verbal viands snared the souls of the guests. But Barrès was too sprightly a spirit to become a mystagogue. Diverse and contradictory as are his several souls, he never utterly succumbed to the spirit of analysis. Whether he was poison-proof or not to the venom that slew the peace of the unhappy Amiel (that bonze of mysticism), the young Lorraiuer never lacked elasticity or spontaneity, never ceased to react after his protracted plunges into the dark pools of his subliminal self. And his volitional powers were never paralyzed. Possessing a sensibility as delicate and vibrating as Benjamin Constant, or Chopin, he has had the courage to study its fevers, its disorders, its subtleties. He knew that there were many young men likehim, not only in France, but throughout the world, highly organized, with less bone and sinew than nerves, — exposed nerves; egoistic souls, weak of will. We are sick, this generation of young men, exclaimed Barrès; sick from the lying assurances of science, sick from the false promises of politicians. There must be a remedy. One among us must immolate himself, study the malady, seek its cure. I, Maurice Barrès, shall be the mirror reflecting the fleeting changes of my environment, social and psychical. I repudiate the transcendental indifference of Renan; I will weigh my sensations as in a scale; I shall not fear to proclaim the result. Amiel, a Protestant Hamlet (as Bourget so finely says) believes that every landscape is a state of soul. My soul is full of landscapes. Therein all may enter and find their true selves.

All this, and much more, Barrès sang in his fluid, swift, and supple prose, without a vestige of the dogmatic. He did not write either to prove or to convince, only to describe his interior life. He did not believe, neither did he despair. There is a spiritual malice in his egoism that removes it far from the windy cosmos of Walt Whitman or the vitriolic vanity of d’Annunzio. In his fugue-like flights down the corridor of his metaphysics, he never neglects to drop some poetic rose, some precious pearl of sentiment. His little book, true spiritual memoirs, aroused both wrath and laughter. The wits set to work. He was called a dandy of psychology, nicknamed Mlle. Renan, pronounced a psychical harlequin, a masquerader of the emotions; he was told that, like Chateaubriand, he wore his heart in a sling. Anatole France, while recognizing the eloquent art of this young man, spoke of the “perverse idealist” which is Maurice Barres. His philosophy was pronounced a perverted pyrrhonism, the quintessence of self-worship. A Vita Nuova of egoism had been born.

But the dandy did not falter. He has said that one never conquers the intellectual suffrages of those who precede us in life; he made his appeal to young France. And what was the balm in Gilead offered by this new doctor of metaphysics ? None but a Frenchman at the end of the last century could have conceived the Barrèsian plan of soulsaving. In Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Villiers de l’Isle Adam, the union of Roman Catholic mysticity and blasphemy has proved to many a stumbling stone. These poets were believers, yet Manicheans; they worshiped at two shrines; evil was their greater good. Barrès plucked several leaves from their breviaries. He proposed to school his soul by a rigid adherence to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. With the mechanism of this Catholic moralist he would train his ego, cure it of its spiritual dryness, — that malady so feared by St. Theresa, — and arouse it from its apathy. He would deliver us from a Renan-ridden school.

This scholastic fervor urged Barrès to reinstate man in the centre of the universe, a position from which he had been routed by science. It was a pious, mediæval idea. He did not however assert the bankruptcy of science, but the bankruptcy of pessimism. His book is metaphysical autobiography, a Gallic transposition of Gœthe’s Wahrheit und Dichtung. We may now see that his concentrated egoism had definite aims and was not the shallow conceit of a callow Romantic.

Barrès imbibed from the Parnassian poetic group his artistic remoteness. His ivory tower is a phrase made by Sainte-Beuve about de Vigny. But his mercurial soul could not be imprisoned long by frigid theories of impeccable art, — of art for art’s sake. My soul! that alone is worth studying, cried Maurice. John Henry Newman said the same in a different and more modest dialectic. The voice of the French youth is shriller, it is sometimes in falsetto; yet there is no denying its fundamental sincerity of pitch. And he has the trick of light verbal fence beloved of his race. He is the comedian among moralists. His is neither the frozen eclecticism of Victor Cousin, nor the rigid determinism of Taine. Yet he is a partial descendant of the Renan he flouts, and of Taine, — above all, of Stendhal and Voltaire. In his early days if one had christened him Mlle. Stendhal, there would have been less to retract. Plus a delicious style, he is a masked, slightly feminine variation of the great mystifier who wrote La Chartreuse de Parme, leaving out the Chartreuse. At times the preoccupation of Barrès with the moral law approaches the borderland of the abnormal. Like Jules Laforgue his intelligence and his sensibility are closely wedded. He is a sentimental ironist with a taste for selfmockery, a Heine-like humor. He had a sense of humor, even when he wore the panache of General Boulanger, and when he opposed the Dreyfus proceedings. It will rescue from the critical button-moulder, who follows in the footsteps of all thinkers, many of his pages.

A dilettante, an amateur—yes! But so was Goethe in his Olympus, so Stendhal in his Cosmopolis. He elected at first to view the spectacle of life, to study it from afar, and by the tempo of his own sensibility. Not the tonic egoism of Thoreau this; it has served its turn nevertheless in France. Afferent, centripetal, and other forbidding terms, have been bestowed upon his system; while for the majority this phrase egoism has a meaning that implies our most selfish instincts. If however, said Bourget, you consider the word as a formula, then the angle of view is altered; if Barrès had said in one jet, “Nothing is more precious for a man than to guard intact his convictions, his passions, his ideal, his individuality,” those who misjudged this courageous apostle of egoism, this fervent prober of the human soul, might have modified their opinions — and would probably have passed him by. It was the enigmatic message, the strained symbolism, of which Barres delivered himself, that puzzled both critics and public. Robert Schumann once propounded a question concerning the Chopin Scherzo: “How is gravity to clothe itself if jest goes about in dark veils ?” Now Barrès, who is far from being a spiritual blaguer, suggests this puzzle of Schumann. His employment, without a nuance of mockery, of the devotional machinery so marvelously devised by that captain of souls, Ignatius Loyola, was rather disquieting, notwithstanding its very practical application to the daily needs of the spirit. Ernest Hello, transported by such a spectacle, may not have been far astray when he wrote of the nineteenth century as “having desire without light, curiosity without wisdom, seeking God by strange ways, ways traced by the hands of men; offering rash incense upon the high places to an unknown God, who is the God of darkness.” Ernest Renan was evidently aimed at, but the bolt easily wings that metaphysical bird of gay plumage, Maurice Barrès.


He has published over twelve volumes and numerous brochures, political and “ psycho-therapic,” many addresses, and one comedy, Une Journée Parlementaire. He calls his books metaphysical fiction, the adventures of a contemplative young man’s mind. Paul Bourget is the psychologist pure and complex; Barrès has — rather, had — such a contempt for action on the “earthly plane,” that at the head of each chapter of his “idealogies” he prefixed a résumé, a concordance of the events that were supposed to take place, leaving us free to savor the prose, enjoy the fine-spun formal texture, and marvel at the contrapuntal involutions of the hero’s intellect. Naturally a reader, hungry for facts, must perish of famine in this rarefied æsthetic desert, the background of which is occasionally diversified by a sensuality that may be dainty, yet is disturbing because of its disinterested portrayment. The Eternal Feminine is not unsung in the Barrès novels. Woman for his imagination is a creature exquisitely fashioned, hardly an odalisque, nor yet the symbol of depravity we encounter in Huysmans. She is a “phantom of delight;” but that she has a soul we beg to doubt. Barrès almost endowed her with one in the case of his Bérénice; and Bérénice died very young. A young man, with various names, traverses these pages. Like the Durtal, or Des Esseiutes, or Folantin, of Huysmans, who is always Huysmans, the hero of Barrès is always Barrès. In the first of the trilogy — of which A Free Man and The Garden of Bérénice are the other two we find Philippe escaping by seclusion and reverie the barbarians, his adversaries. The Adversary — portentous title for the stranger who grazes our sensitive epidermis — is the being who impedes or misleads a spirit in search of itself. If he deflects us from our destiny he is the enemy. It may be well to recall at this juncture Stendhal, who avowed that our first enemies are our parents, an idea many an insurgent boy has asserted when his father was not present.

Seek peace and happiness with the conviction that they are never to be found; felicity must be in the experiment, not in the result. Be ardent and skeptical! Here Philippe touches hands with the lulling Cyrenaicism of Walter Pater. And Barrès might have sat for one of Pater’s imaginary portraits. But it is too pretty to last, such a dream as this, in a world wherein sorrow and work rule. He is not an ascetic, Philippe. He eats rare beefsteaks, smokes black Havanas, clothes himself in easy-fitting garments, and analyzes with cordial sincerity his multi-colored soul. (And oh! the colors of it; oh! its fluctuating forms.) The young person invades his privacy — a solitary in Paris is an incredible concept. Together they make journeys “conducted by the sun.” She is dreamlike until we read, “ Cependant elle le suivait de loin, delicate et de hanches merveilleuses” — which delicious and dislocated phrase is admired by lovers of Goncourt syntax, but must be shocking to the old-fashioned who prefer the classic line and balance of Bossuet.

Is that all? one asks in Stendhalian dialect. Nothing happens. Everything happens. Philippe makes the stations of the cross of earthly disillusionment. He weighs love, he weighs literature,— “all these books are but pigeon-holes in which I classify my ideas concerning myself, their titles serve only as the labels of the different portions of my appetite.” Irony is his ivory tower, his refuge from the banalities of his contemporaries. Henceforth he will enjoy his ego. It sounds at moments like a Bunthorne transposed to a more intense tonality.

But even beefsteaks, cigars, wine, and philosophy pall. He craves a mind that will echo his, craves a mental duo, in which the clash of character and opposition of temperaments will evoke pleasing cerebral music. In this dissatisfaction with his solitude we may detect the first rift in the lute of his egoism. He finds an old friend, Simon by name, and after some preliminary sentimental philandering at the seashore, in the company of two young ladies, the pair agree to lead a monastic life. To Lorraine they retire and draft a code of diurnal obligations. “We are never so happy as when in exaltation,” and “The pleasure of exaltation is greatly enhanced by the analysis of it.” Their souls are fortified and engineered by the stern practices of Loyola. The woman idea occasionally penetrates to their cells. It distracts them — “woman, who has always possessed the annoying art of making imbeciles loquacious.” Notwithstanding these wraiths of feminine fancy, Philippe finds himself almost cheerful. His despondent moods have vanished. He quarrels, of course, with Simon, who is dry, an esprit fort.

The intercessors now appear, the intellectual saints who act as intermediaries between impressionable, bruised natures and the Infinite. They are the near neighbors of God, for they are the men who have experienced an unusual number of sensations. Philippe admits that his temperament oscillates between languor and ecstasy. Benjamin Constant and Sainte-Beuve are the two “Saints” of Sensibility who aid the youths in thenself-analysis; rather a startling devolution from the “Imitation of Christ” and Ignatius Loyola ! Tiring, finally, of this sterile analysis, and discovering that the neurasthenic Simon is not a companionsoul, Philippe, very illogically and very naturally, resolves that he must bathe himself in new sensations, and proceeds to Venice. We accompany him willingly, for this poet who handles prose as Chopin the pianoforte, tells us of his soul in Venice, and we are soothed when he speaks of the art of John Bellini, of Titian, Veronese, above all of Tiepolo, “who was too much a skeptic to be bitter .... His conceptions have that lassitude which follows pleasure, a lassitude preferred by epicureans to pleasure itself.” Graceful, melancholy Tiepolo! This Venetian episode is rare reading.

The last of the trilogy is The Garden of Bérénice. It is the best of the three in human interest, and its melancholy-sweet landscapes exhale a charm that is nearly new in French literature; something analagous may be found in Slavic music, or in the Intimiste school of painting. Several of these landscapes are redolent of Watteau: tender, doleful, sensuous, their twilights filled with vague figures, languidly joying in the mood of the moment. The impressionism which permeates this book is a veritable lustration for those weary of commonplace modern fiction. Not since has Barrès excelled this idyl of the little Bérénice and her slowly awakening consciousness to beauty, aroused by an old, half-forgotten museum in meridional France. At Arles, encompassed by the memory of a dead man, she loves her donkey, her symbolic ducks, and Philippe, who divines her adolescent sorrow, her yearning spirit , her unfulfilled dreams. Her garden upon the immemorial and paludian plains of Arles is threaded by silver waters, illuminated by copper sunsets, their tones reverberating from her robes. Something of Maeterlinck’s stammering, girlish, questioning Mélisande is in Bérénice. Maeterlinckian, too, is the statement that “For an accomplished spirit there is but one dialogue — that between our two egos, the momentary ego we are, and the ideal ego toward which we strive.” Bérénice would marry Philippe. We hold our breath, hoping that his tyrant ego may relax, and that, off guard, he may snatch with fearful joy the chance to gain this childlike creature. Alas! there is a certain M. Martin, who is Philippe’s political adversary — Philippe is a candidate for the legislature; he is become practical; in the heat of his philosophic egoism he finds that if a generous negation is good waiting ground, wealth and the participation in political affairs is a better one. M. Martin covets the hand of Bérénice. He repels her because he is an engineer, a man of positive, practical spirit, who would drain the marshes in Bérénice’s garden of their beautiful miasmas, and build healthy houses for poor people! To Philippe he is the “adversary” who despises the contemplative life. “He had a habit of saying, ’Do you take me for a dreamer ? ’ as one should say, ‘Do you take me for an idiot?”’ Philippe, nevertheless, more solicitous of his ego than of his affections, advises Berenice to marry M. Martin. This she does, and dies like a flower in a cellar. She is a lovely memory for our young idealist, who in voluptuous accents rhapsodizes about her as did Sterne over his dead donkey. Sensibility, all this, to the very ultima Thule of egoism. Then, Philippe obtains the concession of a suburban hippodrome. Poor Bérénice ! Pauvre PetiteSecousse! The name of this book was to have been Qualis artifex pereo! And there is a fitting Neronic tang to its cruel and sentimental episodes that would have justified the title. But for Barrès, it has a Goethian quality; “all is true, nothing exact.”

In 1892 was published The Enemy of Law, a book of violent anarchical impulse and lyric disorder. It is still Philippe, though under another name, André, who approves of a bomb launched by the hand of an anarchist, and because of the printed expression of his sympathy he is sent to prison for a few months. “ A Free Man, ” he endures his punishment philosophically, winning the friendship of a young Frenchwoman, an exaltée, and also of a little Russian princess, a silhouette of Marie Bashkirtseff, and is an unmistakable blood relative of Stendhal’s “Lamiel.” After his liberation André makes sentimental pilgrimages with one or the other, finally with both of his friends, to Germany and elsewhere. A shaggy dog, Velu, figures largely in these pages, and we are treated to some disquisitions on canine psychology, which, with the death of the dog, inevitably recall episodes in that curious book by François Poictevin, entitled Seals. Nor are the sketches of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, and Ludwig of Bavaria, the Wagnerian idealist, particularly novel. They but reveal the nascent social sympathies of Barrès, who was at the law-despising period of his development. His little princess has a touch of Bérénice, coupled with a Calmuck disregard of the convenances; she loves the “warm smell of stables ” and does not fear worldly criticism of her conduct; the trio vanish in a too gallic, a too rose-colored perspective. A volume of protest, The Enemy of Law served its turn, though here the phrase — clear, alert, suave — of his earlier books is transformed to a style charged with flame and acid. The moral appears to be dangerous, as well as diverting, — develop your instincts to the uttermost, give satisfaction to your sensibility; then must you attain the perfection of your ego, and therefore will not attenuate the purity of your race. The Russian princess, we are assured, carried with her the ideas of antique morality.

In the second trilogy, — Du Sang, de la Volupte et de la Mort; Amori et Dolori Sacrum; and Les Amities Françaises, — we begin an itinerary which embraces parts of Italy, Spain, Germany, France, particularly Lorraine. Barrès must be ranked among those travelers of acute vision and æsthetic culture who in their wanderings disengage the soul of a city, of a country. France, from Count de Caylus and the Abbé Barthélemy (Voyage du Jeune Anacharsis) to Stendhal, Taine, and Bourget, has given birth to many distinguished examples. In the first of the new group, Blood, Pleasure and Death, — a sensational title for a work so rich and consoling in substance, — is a collection of essays and tales. The same young man describes his æsthetic and moral impressions before the masterpieces of Angelo and Vinci, or the tombs, cathedrals, and palaces of Italy and Spain. Cordova is visited, the gardens of Lombardy, Ravenna, Parma, — Stendhal’s city,— Sienna, Pisa; there are love episodes in diaphanous keys. Barrès, ever magnanimous in his critical judgments, pays tribute to the memory of his dead friends, Jules Tellier and Marie Bashkirtseff. He understood her soul, though afterwards cooled when he discovered the reality of the Bashkirtseff legend. (He speaks of the house in which she died as 6 Rue de Prony; Marie died at 30 Rue Ampère). In the succeeding volume, consecrated to love and sorrow, the soul of Venice, the soul of a dead city, is woven with souvenirs of Goethe, Byron, Chateaubriand, Musset, George Sand, Taine, Leopold Robert the painter-suicide, Théophile Gautier, and Richard Wagner. The magic of these prose-dreams is not that of an artist merely reveling in description; Pierre Loti, for instance, writes with no philosophy but that of the disenchanted; he is a more luscious Senancour; D’Annunzio has made of Venice a golden monument to his gigantic pride as poet. Not so Barrès. The image of death and decay, the recollections of the imperial and mighty past aroused by his pen are as so many chords in his egoistic philosophy: Venice guarded its ego from the barbarians; from the dead we learn the secret of life. The note of revolt which sounded so drastically in The Enemy of Law is absent here; in that story Barrès, mindful of Auguste Comte and Ibsen, asserted that the dead poisoned the living. The motive of reverence for the soil, for the past, the motive of traditionalism, is beginning to be overheard. In French Friendships, he takes his little son Philippe to Joan of Arc’s country and enforces the lesson of patriotism. In his newest book, Le Voyage de Sparte, the same spirit is present. He is the man of Lorraine at Corinth, Eleusis, or Athens, humble and solicitous for the soul of his race, eager to extract a moral benefit from the past. He studies the Antigone of Sophocles, the Helen of Goethe. He also praises his master, the great classical scholar, Louis Ménard. Barrès has, in a period when France seems bent on burning its historical ships, destroying precious relics of its past, blown the trumpet of alarm; not the destructive blast of Nietzsche, but one that calls out, “Spare our dead!” Little wonder Bourget pronounced him the most “efficacious servitor, at the present hour, of France the eternal.” Force and spiritual fecundity Barrès demands of himself, force and spiritual fecundity he demands from France. And, like the vague insistent thrumming of the tympani, a ground bass in some symphonic poem, the idea of nationalism is gradually disclosed as we decipher these palimpsests of egoism.


The art of Barres to this juncture had been a smoky enchantment, many-hued, of shifting shapes, often tenuous, sometimes opaque, but ever graceful, ever fascinating. Whether he was a great spiritual force or only an amazing protean acrobat, coquetting with the Zeitgeist, his admirers and enemies had not agreed upon. He had further clouded public opinion by becoming a Boulangist deputy from Nancy, and his apparition in the Chamber must have been as bizarre as would have been Shelley’s in Parliament. Barrès but followed the illustrious lead of Hugo, Lamartine, Lamennais. His friends were moved to astonishment. The hater of the law, the defender of the press of Chambige, the Algerian homicide, this writer of “precious” literature, among the political opportunists ! Yet he sat as a deputy from 1889 to 1893, and proved himself a resourceful debater; in the chemistry of his personality patriotism had been at last precipitated.

His second trilogy of books was his most artistic gift to French literature. But with the advent, in 1897, of Les Déracinés (The Uprooted) a sharp change in style may be realized. It is the sociological novel in all its thorny efflorescence. Diction is no longer in the foreground. Vanished the velvety rhetoric, the musical phrase, the nervous prose of many facets. Sharp in contour and siccant, every paragraph is packed with ideas. The Uprooted is formidable reading, but we at least touch the rough edges of reality. Men and women show us familiar gestures; the prizes run for are human; we are in a dense atmosphere of intrigue, political and personal; Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, the young man of confused ideas and feeble volition, once more appears as a cork in the whirlpool of modern Paris. The iconoclast that is in the heart of this poet is now rampant. He smashes institutions, though his criticism is also constructive. He strives to expand the national soul, strives to combat cynicism, and he urges decentralization as the sole remedy for the canker that is blighting France. Bourget holds that “Society is the functioning of a federation of organisms of which the individual is the cell;” that functioning, says Barrès, is ill-served by the violent uprooting of the human organism from its earth. A man best develops in his native province. His deracination begins with the education that sends him to Paris, there to lose his originality. The individual can flourish only in the land where the mysterious forces of heredity operate, make richer his ego, and create solidarity — that necromantic word which, in the hands of social preachers, has become a glittering and illuding talisman. A tree does not grow upward unless its roots plunge deeply into the soil. A wise administrator attaches the animal to the pasture that suits it.

This nationalism of Barrès is not to be confounded with the perfidious slogan of the politicians; it is a national symbol for the youth of his land. Nor is Barrès affiliated with some extreme modes of socialism — socialism, that day-dream of a retired green-grocer who sports a cultivated taste for dominoes and penny philanthropy. To those who demand progress, he asks, Progressing toward what ? Rather let us face the setting sun. Do not repudiate the past. Hold to our dead. They realize for us the continuity of which we are the ephemeral expression. The cult of the “I” is truly the cult of the dead. The egoism must not be construed as the average selfishness of humanity; the higher egoism is the art — Barrès is the artist, always — of canalizing one’s ego for the happiness of others. Out of the Barrès nationalism has grown a mortuary philosophy; we see him rather too fond of culling the flowers in the cemetery as he takes his evening stroll. As a young man he was obsessed by the vision of death. Remy de Gourmont has said that Barrès is an excessive man despite his appearance of calm. His logic is sometimes audaciously romantic; he paints ideas in a dangerously seductive style; and he is sometimes carried away by the electric energy which agitates his not too robust physique. This cult of the dead, while not morbid, smacks nevertheless of the Chinese. Our past need not be a cemetery, and we agree with Jean Dolent that man is matter, but that his own soul is his own work.

Latterly the patriotism of Barrès is beginning to assume an unpleasant tinge. In his azure, chauvinisme is the ugliest cloud. He loves the fatal word “revenge.” In the Service of Germany presents a pitiable picture of a young Alsatian forced to military service in the German army. It is not pleasing, and Barrès’ rage will be voted laudable until one recalls the stories by Frenchmen of the horrors of French military life. Barrès belongs to the group of militarists and nationalists who were so active in the Dreyfus affair. Among his associates at that time were Drumont, Coppée, Jules Lemaître, Léon Daudet, Lavedan,Brunetière. He upholds France for the French. It is doubtless a noble idea, but it leads to narrowness and to fanatical outbreaks. His influence was great from 1888 to 1893 among the young men. It abated, to be renewed in 1896 and 1897. It reached its apogee a few years ago. The Rousseau-like cry, “Back to the soil!” made Barrès an idol in several camps. His recent election to the Academy, filling the vacancy caused by the death of the poet de Heredia, was the consecrating seal of a genius who has the gift of projecting his sympathies in many different directions, only to retrieve as by miraculous tentacles the richest moral and æsthetic nourishment. We should not forget to add, that by the numerous early Barrèsians, the Academician is looked upon as a backslider to the cause of philosophic anarchy.

Paris is, after all, the proving ground for the world’s theories; the crudest philosophic metal from elsewhere, after being passed through its intellectual smelting furnace, emerges radiant mintage. Thus it is interesting to study the process of purification and adaptation by French thinkers of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzche. The determinism of Taine stems in Germany; his theory of environment has been effectively utilized by Barres. In The Uprooted, the argument is driven home by the story of seven young Lorrainers who descend upon Paris to capture it. Their Professor Bouteiller (said to be Barrès’ old master at Nancy, Burdeau) has educated them as if “they might some day be called upon to do without a mother-country.” Paris is a vast maw which swallows them. They are disorganized by transplantation. (What young American would be, we wonder ?) Some drift into anarchy, one to the scaffold because of a murder; all are arrivistes; and the centre figure, Sturel (Barrès?), is a failure because he cannot reconcile himself to new, harsh conditions. They blame their professor. He diverted the sap of their nationalism into strange channels. A few “arrive,” though not in every instance by laudable methods. One is a scholar. The account of his interview with Taine and Taine’s conversation with him is another evidence of the intellectual mimicry latent in Barrès. He had astonished us earlier by his recrudescence of Renan’s very fashion of speech and ideas; literally a feat of literary prestidigitation. There are love, political intrigue, and a dramatic assassination — the general conception of which recalls to us the fact that Barrès once sat at the knees of Bourget, and had read that master’s novel, Le Disciple. A striking episode is that of the meeting of the seven friends at the tomb of Napoleon, there to meditate upon his grandeur and to pledge themselves to follow his illustrious example. “Professor of Energy,” he is denominated. A Professor of Spiritual Energy is certainly Maurice Barrès. In another scene Taine demonstrates the theory of nationalism by the parable of a certain plane tree in the Square of the Invalides. For the average lover of French fiction The Uprooted must have proved trying. It is, with its two companions in this trilogy of “The Novel of National Energy,” — Stendhal begot the phrase; see his Letters, — a social document, rather than a romance. Nevertheless it is a classic. It embodies so clearly a whole cross-section of earnest French youths’ moral life, that — with L’Appel au Soldat, and Leurs Figures, its sequels — it will be consulted in the future for a veridic account of the decade it describes. One seems to lean out of a window and watch the agitation of the populace which swarmed about General Boulanger; or to peep through keyholes and see the end of that unfortunate victim of treachery and an ill-disciplined temperament. Barrès later reviles the friends of Boulanger who deserted him, by his delineation of the Panama scandal. It is all as dry as a parliamentary blue-book. After finishing these three novels, the dominant impression gleaned is that the flaw in the careers of four or five of the seven young men from Lorraine was not due to their uprooting, but to their lack of moral backbone.

Paris is no more difficult a social medium to navigate in than New York; the French capital has been the battlefield of all French genius; but neither in New York nor in Paris can a young man face the conflict so loaded down with the burden of general ideas and with so scant a moral outfit as possessed by these young men. The Lorraine band, — is it a possible case ? No doubt. Yet if its members had remained at Nancy they might have been shipwrecked for the same reason. Why does not M. Barrès show his cards on the table ? The Kingdom on the table! cries Hilda Wangel to her Masterbuilder. The cards, M. Barrès! The moral! Love of the natal soil does not make a complete man; some of the greatest patriots have been the greatest scoundrels. M. Bourget sums up the situation more lucidly than M. Barres, who is in such a hurry to mould citizens that he omits an essential quality from his programme — God (or character, moral force, if you prefer other terms). Now, when a rationalistic philosopher considers God as an intellectual abstraction, he is not illogical. Skepticism is his stock in trade. But can Maurice Barrès elude the issue ? Can he handle the tools of those pious workmen, Loyola, de Sales, and Thomas à Kempis, for the building of his soul, and calmly overlook the inspiration of these masons of men ? It is one of the defects of dilettanteism that it furnishes a point d’appui for the liberated spirit to see-saw between free-will and determinism, between the Lord of Hosts and the Lucifer of Negation. If we are to take Barrès seriously, and he has in the past forced us to accept him as such, we must ask him why he plays with the counters of Christianity though he may not consider them valid! Is not this debasing the moral currency, to employ a telling phrase of George Eliot ? Paul Bourget feels this spiritual dissonance. Has he not said that the day may come when Barrès may repeat the phrase of Michelet: Je ne peux passer de Dieu! Huysmans achieved the road to Damascus, Huysmans of whom Barbey d’Aurevilly predicted years ago that he must either look down the mouth of a pistol or kneel at the foot of the cross. Will Maurice Barres plod the same weary penitential route without indulging in another elliptical flight to a new artificial paradise ?

  1. In the Sight of the Barbarians.