Thursday, 12 June 2014

Wise Words

Sainte-Beuve’s great work does not go very deep.  The celebrated method which, according to Paul Bourget and so many others, made him the peerless master of nineteenth-century criticism, this system which consisted of not separating the man and his work, of holding the opinion that in forming a judgement of an author - short of his book being “a treatise on pure geometry” - it is not immaterial to begin by knowing the answers to questions which seem at the furthest remove from his work (How did he conduct himself? etc.), to surround oneself with every possible piece of information about a writer, to collate his letters, to pick the brains of those who knew him - talking to them if they are alive, reading whatever they may have written about him if they are dead - this method ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us: that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.  If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it.  Nothing can exempt us from this pilgrimage of the heart.  There must be no scamping in the pursuit of this truth, and it is taking things too easily to suppose that one fine morning the truth will arrive by post in the form of an unpublished letter submitted to us by a friend’s librarian, or that we shall gather it from the lips of someone who saw a great deal of the author.  Speaking of the great admiration that the work of Stendhal aroused in several writers of the younger generation, Sainte-Beuve said:  “If I may be allowed to say so, in framing a clear estimate of this somewhat complex mind and without going to extremes in any direction, I would still prefer to rely, apart from my own impressions and recollections, on what I was told by M. Mérimée and M. Ampère, on what I should have been told, had he lived, by Jacquemont - by those, in short, who saw him often and appreciated the actual man.”

Why so?  In what way does the fact of having been a friend of Stendhal’s make one better fitted to judge him?  For those friends, the self which which produced the novels was eclipsed by the other, which may have been very inferior to the outer selves of many other people.  Besides, the best proof of this is that Sainte-Beuve, having known Stendhal, having collected all the information he could from M. Mérimée and M. Ampère, having furnished himself, in short, with everything that according to him would enable a critic to judge a book to  a nicety, pronounced judgement on Stendhal as follows: “I have been re-reading, or trying to re-read, Stendhal’s novels; frankly, they are detestable.”  (Marcel Proust, By Way of Sainte-Beuve)

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