Recollections of My Youth/Preface

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Preface[edit]

One of the most popular legends in Brittany is that relating to an imaginary town called Is, which is supposed to have been swallowed up by the sea at some unknown time. There are several places along the coast which are pointed out as the site of this imaginary city, and the fishermen have many strange tales to tell of it. According to them, the tips of the spires of the churches may be seen in the hollow of the waves when the sea is rough, while during a calm the music of their bells, ringing out the hymn appropriate to the day, rises above the waters. I often fancy that I have at the bottom of my heart a city of Is with its bells calling to prayer a recalcitrant congregation. At times I halt to listen to these gentle vibrations which seem as if they came from immeasurable depths, like voices from another world. Since old age began to steal over me, I have loved more especially during the repose which summer brings with it, to gather up these distant echoes of a vanished Atlantis.

This it is which has given birth to the six chapters which make up the present volume. The recollections of my childhood do not pretend to form a complete and continuous narrative. They are merely the images which arose before me and the reflections which suggested themselves to me while I was calling up a past fifty years old, written down in the order in which they came. Goethe selected as the title for his memoirs "Truth and Poetry," thereby signifying that a man cannot write his own biography in the same way that he would that of any one else. What one says of oneself is always poetical. To fancy that the small details of one's own life are worth recording is to be guilty of very petty vanity. A man writes such things in order to transmit to others the theory of the universe which he carries within himself. The form of the present work seemed to me a convenient one for expressing certain shades of thought which my previous writings did not convey. I had no desire to furnish information about myself for the future use of those who might wish to write essays or articles about me.

What in history is a recommendation would here have been a drawback; the whole of this small volume is true, but not true in the sense required-for a "Biographical Dictionary." I have said several things with the intent to raise a smile, and, if such a thing had been compatible with custom, I might have used the expression cum grano salis as a marginal note in many cases. I have been obliged to be very careful in what I wrote. Many of the persons to whom I refer may be still alive; and those who are not accustomed to find themselves in print have a sort of horror of publicity. I have, therefore, altered several proper names. In other cases, by means of a slight transposition of date and place, I have rendered identification impossible. The story of "the Flax-crusher" is absolutely true, with the exception that the name of the manor-house is a fictitious one. With regard to "Good Master Systeme," I have been furnished by M. Duportal du Godasmeur with further details which do not confirm certain ideas entertained by my mother as to the mystery in which this aged recluse enveloped his existence. I have, however, made no change in the body of the work, thinking that it would be better to leave M. Duportal to publish the true story, known only to himself, of this enigmatic character.

The chief defect for which I should feel some apology necessary if this book had any pretension to be considered a regular memoir of my life, is that there are many gaps in it. The person who had the greatest influence on my life, my sister Henriette, is scarcely mentioned in it.[1] In September 1862, a year after the death of this invaluable friend, I wrote for the few persons who had known her well, a short notice of her life. Only a hundred copies were printed. My sister was so unassuming, and she was so averse from the stress and stir of the world that I should have fancied I could hear her reproaching me from her grave, if I had made this sketch public property. I have more than once been tempted to include it in this volume, but on second thoughts I have felt that to do so would be an act of profanation. The pamphlet in question was read and appreciated by a few persons who were kindly disposed towards her and towards myself. It would be wrong of me to expose a memory so sacred in my eyes to the supercilious criticisms which are part and parcel of the right acquired by the purchaser of a book. It seemed to me that in placing the lines referring to her in a book for the trade I should be acting with as much impropriety as if I sent a portrait of her for sale to an auction room. The pamphlet in question will not, therefore, be reprinted until after my death, appended to it, very possibly being several of her letters selected by me beforehand. The natural sequence of this book, which is neither more nor less than the sequence in the various periods of my life, brings about a sort of contrast between the anecdotes of Brittany and those of the Seminary, the latter being the details of a darksome struggle, full of reasonings and hard scholasticism, while the recollections of my earlier years are instinct with the impressions of childlike sensitiveness, of candour, of innocence, and of affection. There is nothing surprising about this contrast. Nearly all of us are double. The more a man develops intellectually, the stronger is his attraction to the opposite pole: that is to say, to the irrational, to the repose of mind in absolute ignorance, to the woman who is merely a woman, the instinctive being who acts solely from the impulse of an obscure conscience. The fierce school of controversy, in which the mind of Europe has been involved since the time of Abelard, induces periods of mental drought and aridity. The brain, parched by reasoning, thirsts for simplicity, like the desert for spring water. When reflection has brought us up to the last limit of doubt, the spontaneous affirmation of the good and of the beautiful which is to be found in the female conscience delights us and settles the question for us. This is why religion is preserved to the world by woman alone. A beautiful and a virtuous woman is the mirage which peoples with lakes and green avenues our great moral desert. The superiority of modern science consists in the fact that each step forward it takes is a step further in the order of abstractions. We make chemistry from chemistry, algebra from algebra; the very indefatigability with which we fathom nature removes us further from her. This is as it should be, and let no one fear to prosecute his researches, for out of this merciless dissection comes life. But we need not be surprised at the feverish heat which, after these orgies of dialectics, can only be calmed by the kisses of the artless creature in whom nature lives and smiles. Woman restores us to communication with the eternal spring in which God reflects Himself. The candour of a child, unconscious of its own beauty and seeing God clear as the daylight, is the great revelation of the ideal, just as the unconscious coquetry of the flower is a proof that Nature adorns herself for a husband.

One should never write except upon that which one loves. Oblivion and silence are the proper punishments to be inflicted upon all that we meet with in the way of what is ungainly or vulgar in the course of our journey through life. Referring to a past which is dear to me, I have spoken of it with kindly sympathy; but I should be sorry to create any misapprehension, and to be taken for an uncompromising reactionist. I love the past, but I envy the future. It would have been very pleasant to have lived upon this planet at as late a period as possible. Descartes would be delighted if he could read some trivial work on natural philosophy and cosmography written in the present day. The fourth form school boy of our age is acquainted with truths to know which Archimedes would have laid down his life. What would we not give to be able to get a glimpse of some book which will be used as a school-primer a hundred years hence?

We must not, because of our personal tastes, our prejudices perhaps, set ourselves to oppose the action of our time. This action goes on without regard to us, and probably it is right. The world is moving in the direction of what I may call a kind of Americanism, which shocks our refined ideas, but which, when once the crisis of the present hour is over, may very possibly not be more inimical than the ancient regime to the only thing which is of any real importance; viz. the emancipation and progress of the human mind. A society in which personal distinction is of little account, in which talent and wit are not marketable commodities, in which exalted functions do not ennoble, in which politics are left to men devoid of standing or ability, in which the recompenses of life are accorded by preference to intrigue, to vulgarity, to the charlatans who cultivate the art of puffing, and to the smart people who just keep without the clutches of the law, would never suit us. We have been accustomed to a more protective system, and to the government patronizing what is noble and worthy. But we have not secured this patronage for nothing. Richelieu and Louis XIV. looked upon it as their duty to provide pensions for men of merit all the world over; how much better it would have been, if the spirit of the time had admitted of it, that they should have left the men of merit to themselves! The period of the Restoration has the credit of being a liberal one; yet we should certainly not like to live now under a regime which warped such a genius as Cuvier, stifled with paltry compromises the keen mind of M. Cousin, and retarded the growth of criticism by half a century. The concessions which had to be made to the court, to society, and to the clergy, were far worse than the petty annoyances which a democracy can inflict upon us.

The eighteen years of the monarchy of July were in reality a period of liberty, but the official direction given to things of the mind was often superficial and no better than would be expected of the average shopkeeper. With regard to the second empire, if the ten last years of its duration in some measure repaired the mischief done in the first eight, it must never be forgotten how strong this government was when it was a question of crushing the intelligence, and how feeble when it came to raising it up. The present hour is a gloomy one, and the immediate outlook is not cheerful. Our unfortunate country is ever threatened with heart disease, and all Europe is a prey to some deep-rooted malady. But by way of consolation, let us reflect upon what we have suffered. The evil to come must be grevious indeed if we cannot say:

"O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem."

The one object in life is the development of the mind, and the first condition for the development of the mind is that it should have liberty. The worst social state, from this point of view, is the theocratic state, like Islamism or the ancient Pontifical state, in which dogma reigns supreme. Nations with an exclusive state religion, like Spain, are not much better off. Nations in which a religion of the majority is recognized are also exposed to serious drawbacks. In behalf of the real or assumed beliefs of the greatest number, the state considers itself bound to impose upon thought terms which it cannot accept. The belief or the opinion of the one side should not be a fetter upon the other side. As long as the masses were believers, that is to say, as long as the same sentiments were almost universally professed by a people, freedom of research and discussion was impossible. A colossal weight of stupidity pressed down upon the human mind. The terrible catastrophe of the middle ages, that break of a thousand years in the history of civilization, is due less to the barbarians than to the triumph of the dogmatic spirit among the masses.

This is a state of things which is coming to an end in our time, and we cannot be surprised if some disturbance ensues. There are no longer masses which believe; a great number of the people decline to recognise the supernatural, and the day is not far distant, when beliefs of this kind will die out altogether in the masses, just as the belief in familiar spirits and ghosts have disappeared. Even if, as is probable, we are to have a temporary Catholic reaction, the people will not revert to the Church. Religion has become for once and all a matter of personal taste. Now beliefs are only dangerous when they represent something like unanimity, or an unquestionable majority. When they are merely individual, there is not a word to be said against them, and it is our duty to treat them with the respect which they do not always exhibit for their adversaries, when they feel that they have force at their back.

There can be no denying that it will take time for the liberty, which is the aim and object of human society, to take root in France as it has in America. French democracy has several essential principles to acquire, before it can become a liberal regime. It will be above all things necessary that we should have laws as to associations, charitable foundations, and the right of legacy, analogous to those which are in force in England and America. Supposing this progress to be effected (if it is Utopian to count upon it in France, it is not so for the rest of Europe, in which the aspirations for English liberty become every day more intense), we should really not have much cause to look regretfully upon the favours conferred by the ancient regime upon things of the mind. I quite think that if democratic ideas were to secure a definitive triumph, science and scientific teaching would soon find the modest subsidies now accorded them cut off. This is an eventuality which would have to be accepted as philosophically as may be. The free foundations would take the place of the state institutes, the slight drawbacks being more than compensated for by the advantage of having no longer to make to the supposed prejudices of the majority concessions which the state exacted in return for its pittance. The waste of power in state institutes is enormous. It may safely be said that not 50 per cent of a credit voted in favour of science, art, or literature, is expended to any effect. Private foundations would not be exposed to nearly so much waste. It is true that spurious science would, in these conditions, flourish side by side with real science, enjoying the same privileges, and that there would be no official criterion, as there still is to a certain extent now, to distinguish the one from the other. But this criterion becomes every day less reliable. Reason has to submit to the indignity of taking second place behind those who have a loud voice, and who speak with a tone of command. The plaudits and favour of the public will, for a long time to come, be at the service of what is false. But the true has great power, when it is free; the true endures; the false is ever changing and decays. Thus it is that the true, though only understood by a select few, always rises to the surface, and in the end prevails.

In short, it is very possible that the American-like social condition towards which we are advancing, independently of any particular form of government, will not be more intolerable for persons of intelligence than the better guaranteed social conditions which we have already been subject to. In such a world as this will be, it will be no difficult matter to create very quiet and snug retreats for oneself. "The era of mediocrity in all things is about to begin," remarked a short time ago that distinguished thinker, M. Arniel of Geneva. "Equality begets uniformity, and it is by the sacrifice of the excellent, the remarkable, the extraordinary that we extirpate what is bad. The whole becomes less coarse; but the whole becomes more vulgar." We may at least hope that vulgarity will not yet a while persecute freedom of mind. Descartes, living in the brilliant seventeenth century, was nowhere so well off as at Amsterdam, because, as "every one was engaged in trade there," no one paid any heed to him. It may be that general vulgarity will one day be the condition of happiness, for the worst American vulgarity would not send Giordano Bruno to the stake or persecute Galileo. We have no right to be very fastidious. In the past we were never more than tolerated. This tolerance, if nothing more, we are assured of in the future. A narrow-minded, democratic regime is often, as we know, very troublesome. But for all that men of intelligence find that they can live in America, as long as they are not too exacting. Noli me tangere is the most one can ask for from democracy. We shall pass through several alternatives of anarchy and despotism before we find repose in this happy medium. But liberty is like truth; scarcely any one loves it on its own account, and yet, owing to the impossibility of extremes, one always comes back to it.

We may as well, therefore, allow the destinies of this planet to work themselves out without undue concern. We should gain nothing by exclaiming against them, and a display of temper would be very much out of place. It is by no means certain that the earth is not falling short of its destiny, as has probably happened to countless worlds; it is even possible that our age may one day be regarded as the culminating point since which humanity has been steadily deteriorating; but the universe does not know the meaning of the word discouragement; it will commence anew the work which has come to naught; each fresh check leaves it young, alert, and full of illusions. Be of good cheer, Nature! Pursue, like the deaf and blind star-fish which vegetates in the bed of the ocean, thy obscure task of life; persevere; mend for the millionth time the broken meshes of the net; repair the boring-machine which sinks to the last limits of the attainable the well from which living water will spring up. Sight and sight again the aim which thou hast failed to hit throughout the ages; try to struggle through the scarcely perceptible opening which leads to another firmament. Thou hast the infinity of time and space to try the experiment. He who can commit blunders with impunity is always certain to succeed.

Happy they who shall have had a part in this great final triumph which will be the complete advent of God! A Paradise lost is always, for him who wills it so, a Paradise regained. Often as Adam must have mourned the loss of Eden, I fancy that if he lived, as we are told, 930 years after his fall, he must often have exclaimed: Felix culpa! Truth is, whatever may be said to the contrary, superior to all fictions. One ought never to regret seeing clearer into the depths. By endeavouring to increase the treasure of the truths which form the paid-up capital of humanity, we shall be carrying on the work of our pious ancestors, who loved the good and the true as it was understood in their time. The most fatal error is to believe that one serves one's country by calumniating those who founded it. All ages of a nation are leaves of the self-same book. The true men of progress are those who profess as their starting-point a profound respect for the past. All that we do, all that we are, is the outcome of ages of labour. For my own part, I never feel my liberal faith more firmly rooted in me than when I ponder over the miracles of the ancient creed, nor more ardent for the work of the future than when I have been listening for hours to the bells of the city of Is.

Notes[edit]

  1. Upon the very day that this volume was going to press, news reached me of the death of my brother, snapping the last thread of the recollections of my childhood's home. My brother Alain was a warm and true friend to me; he never failed to understand me, to approve my course of action and to love me. His clear and sound intellect and his great capacity for work adapted him for a profession in which mathematical knowledge is of value or for magisterial functions. The misfortunes of our family caused him to follow a different career, and he underwent many hardships with unshaken courage. He never complained of his lot, though life had scant enjoyment save that which is derived from love of home. These joys are, however, unquestionably the most unalloyed.