Littérature et philosophie mêlées

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Medley of Philosophy and Literature
by Victor Hugo
These are only selections from this work

This is a translation which appeared in the September 1835 edition of The New England Magazine, under the title of Scraps of Philosophy and Criticism.

VICTOR Hugo, one of the most popular novelists and dramatists of modern France, has recently published a couple of volumes, with a title which may be, not inaptly, translated, A Medley of Philosophy and Literature. The style of this collection is various ; for its papers were produced at different intervals, during a considerable series of years. We have translated here and there a few brilliant paragraphs, which may convey correctly the author’s sentiments, and may furnish some idea of his style:

WALTER SCOTT AND LE SAGE.

Le Sage, I should say, is more witty; Scott is more original; the one excels in narrating individual adventure, the other mingles with such adventure the description of a whole people, or age the first scorns all truth of place, manner, history ; the latter, scrupulously faithful to truth, owes to it perhaps the magic attraction of his pages. In the works of both, the characters are drawn with skill ; but in Scott they seem better sustained, because they are more lively, and of a fresher nature. Le Sage often sacrifices the conscience of his heroes to the humor of an intrigue; Scott gives his heroes a severer disposition ; their principles, their very prejudices have in them something noble that cannot bend to circumstances. We are surprised, in reading a romance of Le Sage, at his great variety of incident; we are still more surprised, on finishing a romance of Sir Walter, at the simplicity of his plot; and the reason is, that the first labors chiefly on the general action, the second on the particular details. The one paints life, the other paints the heart. In short, the works of Le Sage give us, as it were, experience of fortune; those of Sir Walter Scott give us experience of men.

GREAT MEN

Are those who have felt much, lived much; who, in a few years, have lived many lives. The tallest pines grow only in the regions of storm. Athens, the city of tumult, was the mother of a thousand great men; Sparta, the city of order, boasted but one -- Lycurgus; and Lycurgus was born before his laws.

Thus we see that great men most frequently appear in the midst of popular agitations: Homer, in the midst of the heroic ages of Greece; Virgil, under the triumvirate; Ossian, on the wreck of his country and her gods; Dante, Ariosto and Tasso, in the midst of the reviving convulsions of Italy; Corneille and Racine,in the age of the Fronde; and Milton, chanting the first rebellion at the foot of the bloody scaffold of Whitehall.

And if we examine the individual destiny of these great men, we shall find them harrassed by an agitated and miserable life. Camoens cleaves the waves, his poem in his hand. D’Ercilla writes his verses on the skins of beasts, in the forests of Mexico. Those of them, whom bodily suffering does not divert from suffering of mind, lead a stormy life, devoured by an irritability of disposition, which renders them a burthen to themselves and to those who surround them. Happy they who do not die before their time, consumed by the ardor of their own genius, like Pascal; by grief, like Molidre and liacine -- or victims to the terrors of their own imagination, like the miserable Tasso

KANT’S WIG

Was sold for thirty thousand florins, at the time of his death, and brought only twelve hundred crowns at the last Leipsic fair: a palpable proof, in my opinion, that the rage for Kant and his ideology is abating in Germany. This wig, in its changes of price, may be considered as a thermometer of the progress of Kantism.

APPRECIATION OF CRIME.

Visdelou, that Platonic lover of Lexicology, mentions, in his ‘Supplement to the Oriental Library,’ that the Chinese empress, Un-lieu, was guilty of many crimes, such as the assassination of her husband, her brother, her children; but one in particular, which he calls an ‘unheard-of outrage,’ is an order -- all the laws of grammar to the contrary notwithstanding -- that she should be styled emperor, and not empress!

LETTER WRITING

We now consider in France, and with reason, that an essential part of elegant education is the acquisition of a certain facility of managing what is called the epistolary style. In fact, the style to which we give this name-- if in truth it can be called a style-- is, in literatnre, like a public domain, which all the world have a right to cultivate. It thus happens that the epistolary style belongs rather to nature than art. Productions of this kind, in some fashion, are like flowers, which grow of themselves while other compositions of human wit resemble edifices, which, from foundation to summit, must be laboriously built after general laws and particular combinations. The greater number of letter-writers have been ignorant that they were authors, they have made works, as the often cited Monsieur Jourdain made prose-- without knowing it. They did not write for the sake of writing, but because they had relations and friends, business and affections. They were very little pre-occupied, in their correspondence, with a care for immortality, but, very vulgarly, with the substantial cares of life. Their style is simple as intimacy, and its simplicity constitutes its charm. It is because they sent their letters only to their families, that they have reached posterity. We think it impossible to say what are the elements of the epistolary style; other styles have rules -- this has only its secrets.

FOIBLES OF THE GREAT.

Voltaire should not be judged by his comedies, Boile~u by his Pindaric odes, or Rousseau by his allegories. Criticism should not maliciously seize upon the feebleness which the most distinguished talent often exhibits; nor should history give undue prominence to the httlenesses which are almost always found in the most illustrious charaters. Louis XIV. would have thought himself dishonored, if his valet de chambre had surprised him without a wig; Turenne, when alone in the dark, trembled like a child; and we know that Caesar was alarmed, lest he should be upset in his car of triumph.

THE POET OF WORD5 NOT IDEAS.

When a language has been in use, like ours, during several ages of literature; when it has been created and carried to perfection, turned and twisted into every shape and style; when it has passed not only through all the material forms of rhythm and rhyme, but through no one knows how many comical, tragical and lyrical brains, -- there escapes, like a scum, from the collection of words which compose its literary richness, a certain quantity, or, so to speak, a certain floating mass of conventional phrases, hemistiches, more or less insignificant, which are nobody’s property, but belong to all the world.

Thus it is, that a man of the least invention, with the aid of a little memory, can rake up, by diligence, from this public reservoir, a tragedy, a poem, an ode, which shall be in verses of twelve, eight, or six syllables, of good rhyme and excellent pauses, and not deficient, perhaps, in elegance, harmony, and a certain grace. Thereupon, our master shall publish his work in a great, empty volome, and shall believe himself a lyric, epic, or tragic poet, after the fashion of the fool who thoimght himself the owner of his hospital. Envy, however, the patroness of mediocrity, shall smile upon his labors ; the prouder critics, who wish to imitate omnipotence, and create something, will amuse themselves in building him up a reputation; and connoisseurs, who are not so ridiculously obstinate as to Insist that words should express ideas, will celebrate, after the morning journals, the brilliancy, the point, the taste of the new poet; the saloons-- echoes of the journals -- will be in ecstacy; and the publication of the work will result in no further inconvenience than the premature wearing out of the poet’s hat-rim.

GRAMMAR AND MEDICINE.

The wise men, who are so clear-sighted in grammar, in versification, in prosody, and so blind in poesy, remind us of those physicians who know the slightest fibre of the human frame, but who deny the soul, and are ignorant of virtue.

POETRY.

Poetical composition results from two intellectual phenomena, meditation and inspiration. Meditation is a faculty ; inspiration is a gift. All men, to a certain degree, can meditate; very few are inspired. Spiritus flat ubi vult. In meditation, the spirit acts; in inspiration, it oheys ; because the first is of men, the second comes from a higher source. He who gave us this power is stronger than we. These two processes of thoughts are intimately linked in the soul of the poet. The poet invites inspiration by meditation, as the prophets raised themselves to ecstacies by prayer. That the muse should reveal herself to him, he must in some sort have passed all his material existence in repose, in silence, and in meditation. He must be isolated from external life, to enjoy in its fullness that inward life, which developes in bim a new existence; and it is only when the physical world has utterly vanished from before his eyes, that the ideal world is fully revealed to him. It seems that poetic inspiration has in it some- thing too sublime for~the common nature of man. Genius can compass its greater efforts only when the soul is released from the vulgar cares that follow it in life ; for thought cannot take its wings till it has laid aside its burden. Thence comes it, doubtless, that inspiration is born only of meditation. Among the Jews, the people whose history is so rich in mysterious symbols when the priest had built the altar, he lighted upon it an earthly flame -- and it was then only that the divine ray descended from Heaven.

Happy he who possesses this double power of meditation and inspmratm&n, which is genius ! Whatever may be the age on which he fa~Xs, or the country -- be he born in the bosom of domestic calamities, be he thrown on a time of popular convulsions, or, what is still more to be lamented, on a period of stagnant indifference --let him trust himself to the future; for, if the present belong to other men, the future is for him. He is of the number of chosen beings for whom a day is allotted. Sooner or later, the day comes ; and it is then -- fed by sublime thought, and elevated by divine inspiration -- that he throws himself boldly before the world, with the cry of the poet upon his lips ‘Voici mon Orient: peuples levez les yeux!’

PARADISE LOST.

If ever a literary composition bore the ineffacable impress of meditation and inspiration, it is the Paradise Lost. A moral thought, touching at once the two natures of man; a terrible lesson, conveyed in sublime verse ; one of the most momentous truths of religion and philosophy, developed in one of the most beautiful fictions of poetry; the entire scale of creation run over, from its highest to its lowest degree, an action which commences with Jesus and terminates with Satan; Eve, gradually drawn by curiosity, compassion and imprudence, to her perdition; the first woman in contact with the first devil such is the scene presented by Milton ; a vast and simple drama, in which all the machinery is spirit; a magic painting, in which the shadows of darkness steal gradually over all the brighter tints a poem which at once charms and terrifies

STYLE.

if the name attached to these lines were a name of note, if the voice which speaks here were a voice of power, we would intreat the young and brilliant talents, on ~vhich depends the future lot of a literature, for three ages so magnificent, to reflect how important is their mission, and to preserve, in their manner of writing, the most worthy and severe habitudes. The future -- let them think well of it-- belongs only to the masters of style. Without referring to the admirable works of antiquity, and confining ourselves to our national literature, try to take from the thought of our great writers the expression which is peculiar to it. Take from Molh~re his lively, ardent, frank and amusing verse, so well made, so well turned, so well finished; take from Lafontaine the simple and honest perfection of detail ; take from the phrase of Corneille the vigorous muscle, the strong cords, the beautiful forms of exaggerated vigor, which would have made of the old poet half Roman, half Spaniard, the Michael Angelo of our tragedy, if the elements of his genius had mingled as much fancy as thought; take from Racine that touch in his style which resembles Raphael -- a touch, chaste, harmonious, and repressed, like that of Raphael, although of an inferior power, quite as pure but less grand, as perfect though less sublime ; take from IPenelon -- the man, of his age, who had the best sentiment of antiquity -- that prose, as melodious and severe as the verse of Racine, of which it is the sister; take from Bossuet the magnificent bearing of his periods; take from Boilean his grave and sober manner, at times so admirably colored; take from Pascal that original and mathematical style, with so much appropriateness in the choice of words, and so much logic in every metaphor; take from Voltaire that clear, solid, indestructible prose, that crystal prose of Candide and the Philosophical Dictionary; take from all these great writers that simple attraction -- style ; and of Voltaire, of Pascal, of Boilean, of Bossuet, of Fenelon, of Racine, of Corneille, of Lafontaine, of Moliere, of all these masters, what will remain ?

It is style which insures duration to the work, and fame to the poet. Beauty of expression embellishes beauty of thought, and preserves it; it is at the same time an ornament and armor~ Style, to the idea, is like enamel to the tooth.

POLITICS

Politics, said Charles XII., is my sword. It is the art of deception, thought Machiavelli. According to Madame de M***, it should be the art of governing men with prudence and virtue. The first definition is that of a madman, the second that of a knave; and that of Madame de M**~ is the only one for an honest man. What a pity that it should he so old, and its application so rare

QUALIFICATIONS FOR A SOLDIER.

Madame de M*** recapitulates, after Folard, the qualities ~ sential to a great captain. For my own part, I distrust these perfect definitions, which would comprehend only the exceptions of humannature. It is quite alarming to see the catalogue of preparatory studies marked out for the apprenticeship of the general; but how many excellent generals have there been who could not even read! It would seem the first condition, the sine qua non of every man destined for the wars, that he should have good eyes, or at least that he should be stout and active. Sure enough! But a crowd of great generals have been one-eyed, or crippled. Philip was one-eyed, lame, and maimed of one hand; Hannibal was one-eyed; Bajazet and Tamerlane -- the two thunder-bolts of war, in their age -- were the one lame, the other half-blind; Luxembourg was hunchbacked. It seems even that nature, in ridicule of all our calculations, had wished to show us the phenomenon of a general, totally blind, guiding an army, marshalling his troops for battle, and carrying off victories. Such a man was Ziska, chief of the Hussites.

FUTURE DESTINIES OF RUSSIA.

France, England and Russia are in our day the three giants of Europe. Since our recent political convulsions, these colossal nations have held each a peculiar attitude; England stands upright, France is recovering herself, and Russia for the first timc rising. This last empire -- still young, in the centre of an old continent -- has grown, during the age, with a wonderful celerity. Its future is of immense moment in our destinies. It is not impossible that its barbarism will one day re-temper our civilization ; the Russian soil seems to hold a reserve of savage population for our polished regions.

This FUTURE of Russia--at present so important to Europe-- gives a deep interest to its past. Well to understand what this people will be, one ought carefully to study what it has been. But nothing is more difficult than such a study. We must wander, like a person lost, in a chaos of confused traditions, incomplete narratives, fables, contradictions, and truncated chronicles. The past of this nation is as overshadowed as its sky ; and the deserts of its annals are like those of its territory.

It is, then, no easy thing to make a good history of Russia. It is no trifling enterprise to traverse this night of time, to compass, among so many contradictory and conflicting narrations, the discovery of truth. The writer must seize boldly by the thread of the labyrinth, dispel its darkness, and, by laborious erudition, light up all the summits of this history. His scrupulous and learned criticism, in combining results, will have need to reestablish causes. His pen will fix the yet uncertain features of persons and epochs. Surely, it is no easy task to revive, and pass in review, events that have so long been lost in the lapse of ages.

To be complete, the historian, we think, ought to pay more attention than has hitherto been given to the epoch preceding the invasion of the Tartars; and to devote perhaps a whole volume to the history of those wandering tribes, which acknowledge the sovereignty of Russia. This labor would doubtless throw much light on the ancient civilization which probably existed in the north; and the historian would be much aided by the learned researches of Mr. Klaproth.

Lavesque, it is true, in a couple of volumes supplementary to his great work, has already recounted the history of these wandering tribes ; but this subject still looks for a trustworthy historian. It would be necessary to treat more fully, and more sincerely than Lavesque, certain epochs of great interest; like the famous reign of Catharine, for instance. The historian worthy of the name would brand with the hot iron of Tacitus, and scourge with the lash of Juvenal, this crowned courtezan, to whom the arrogant sophists of the last age paid a homage which they refused to their God and their king; this regicide queen, who selected, even for the ornaments of her boudoir, pictures of a massacre and a conflagration.

Doubtless, a good history of Russia would excite a great deal of attention. The future destinies of this empire are now the fruitful sources of general speculation. These northern regions have already often poured out the torrent of their population over Europe. The French of the present day, among other wonders, have seen pastured, on the green plots of the Tuileries, horses which had been used to bronze at the foot of the great wall of China; arid, in the course of events, unexpected vicissitudes have compelled the nations of the south to address to another Alexander the wish of Diogenes -- ‘Stand out of our sunshine.’