Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/October 1897/Sketch of Louis Figuier

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PSM V51 D738 Guillaume Louis Figuier.jpg


WHO in America, reading twenty years ago, does not remember The World before the Deluge? It was translated from French into English at a time when the great call in our schools was for more science; when the ministers in numbers of pulpits were "reconciling Genesis with geology," and when boys and girls of fifteen were observing strata and fossil plants and animals as they never had before. Its direct statements, its vivid pictures, above all its exciting reconstructions of primitive epochs—a Silurian age whose principal inhabitant was a tranquil trilobite; a carboniferous era rich in giant ferns and "horsetails"; a Jurassic, whose terrible denizens, ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, pterodactyl, haunted the dreams—caused it to be read by hundreds of young people. There are many men and women in America who can trace their first interest in geology to that work, or to some one of those in the series to which it belonged.

The author of The World before the Deluge, M. Louis Figuier, it was my fortune to meet frequently in the winter of 1893 and '94 in his home in Paris, and the announcement of his death a few months ago led me to believe that many American readers might be interested in the recollections I have of our conversations and in the impressions his curious personality made upon me. M. Figuier was one of those men whom the popular fancy had wearied of and dropped, and who, unable to understand why he was not as thoroughly in touch with his generation as ever, insisted tenaciously on being heard.

The modest apartment of M. Figuier, like the house, was of a past generation. Its vestibule, whose walls were covered with the light striped paper in vogue long ago, and hung with family portraits in fading crayon and water colors, was furnished with an ancient hat tree. Its salon, carpeted with a dark-green Brussels, such as was in style in the United States perhaps forty years ago, "was decorated with numbers of flower pieces, huge wreaths and bouquets, after the manner in which our mothers did their water colors. They were framed in narrow black or gilt moldings, and some of them still bore in the corner the numbers they had borne in the salons of the sixties.

As for M. Figuier, he had all the alertness, the decision, the energy of the life which surged all about and invaded the street in which he dwelt. In spite of his seventy-five years his form was tall and straight; his bearing was that of an officer rather than that of a writer; in his white face was none of the effacement of character so often seen in the old, no letting down of moral and physical self-control; his eye was ardent, indignant, sad by turns; his speech eloquent, rapid, full of conviction, impatient of contradiction. Yet one saw that he was, like the old houses of the Rue Caumartin, "condemned." His bitter protest against the way in which the journalism of the day treats the popularization of science, his persistency in regarding himself as the one and only popularizer; his despair at the good-natured raillery which the hobbies of his old age had called out, all showed that M. Figuier was out of touch. This mingling of generations, this refusal to believe that his work was done, gave me from the first of our acquaintance an interest in the fine old man which was half pathetic, half humorous.

I have never known a person whose origin and early education were more evident. He proved his southern birth—he was a Languedocian—by his fervor, his imagination, his astonishing plans. He showed his Huguenot parentage by the strength of his convictions.

But these things did not explain why, at thirty years of age, he should have left an excellent position as a professor, after having spent years in the universities of Montpellier and Paris preparing for it, and after having begun and succeeded in original investigations, to become a popularizer of science.

It struck me that a man of his evident pride and culture would have a justifiable satisfaction in remaining among savants and in pursuing the conventional path of university work, especially after he had acquired a sure footing. Why did not M. Figuier accept the scholar's career in which he was so well launched? Why did he take up popularization? I asked him one day.

"It was simple enough," he said. "It is true I had taken my degrees and had a good position, but I had the idea that scientific knowledge, which until then had been almost exclusively the property of the learned, should be put within the reach of the reading public, that the people should be enabled to share the fruits of scholarship.

"I was convinced that no one should attempt to do this sort of work but a man of thorough scientific training. I had done all the work the schools offered. I had been a professor. I had made some original researches. I felt that I had a right to attempt to explain in a popular style the wonders of science. My first book, on the Principal Modern Scientific Discoveries, was a success, and I immediately arranged to continue the work. My colleagues blamed me, and said I was belittling science, but I was convinced the thing ought to be done, and I made up my mind to do it if possible.

"In 1855 I began to write scientific letters for La Presse, which under Emile de Girardin was one of the most important papers of Paris. But I soon found I had too much to do. The university or the popularization must be given up. I chose the latter. There were plenty of men willing to do the exclusive work of the former; there was only myself willing to use my training for the press. And that is how I became a journalist."

He never referred to his early journalistic experience without recalling the brilliant circle which he entered when he became a member of the staff of La Presse. It needed only the suggestion of a name then to get his characterization of many a famous man or woman. He would clasp his hands and lift his eyes. "Ah, those were great days! Victor Hugo was living then, you know. The year I joined the staff of La Presse Théophile Gautier was doing its dramatic work, Lamartine was running his Caesar as a feuilleton, and George Sand the Story of her Life. It was around such a nucleus that the Girardins gathered all that was brilliant in Paris into their hótel in the Champs Elysées."

M. Figuier continued writing popular scientific books after he began journalism. The familiar Année Scientifique, which he conducted till the end of his life, was his first venture. It was followed by the Pictures of Nature, the first of which, The World before the Deluge, has been alluded to. This series incuded nine volumes, reviewing the meteorology, physics, mechanics, and chemistry of the globe.

One day when we were talking about the books he said: "I had an ambitious idea in beginning that series. I wanted to chase lying out of the schools."


"Yes, lying. What are mythology and fables but lying?"


"False, all false." M. Figuier never allowed me to oppose him. He rose and took down one of the volumes, opened to a preface, and read me with many a gesture and with increasing warmth of tone the following observations:

"The first book to put into the hands of a child should treat of natural history. Instead of calling the attention of young minds to the fables of La Fontaine, the adventures of Puss in Boots, or the Twelve Labors of Hercules, they should be directed to the simple and naive pictures of Nature—the structure of a tree, the composition of a flower, the organs of animals, the perfection of crystalline forms. It is because the nourishment of the young has been falsehood that the present generation includes so many false, feeble, and irresolute minds.

"If I live a hundred years I shall never forget the frightful confusion into which the reading of my first book threw my young head. It was an abridgment of mythology; and you know what one finds there: Deucalion, who creates the human race by throwing stones over his shoulders; Jupiter, who cracks his skull and lets out Minerva and all her accessories; Venus, who one fine morning is born from the sea foam; old Saturn, with his vicious habit of eating his children; and all the rest of that Olympus where the gods and goddesses commit so many bad actions. How can the head of a four-year-old resist such an upsetting of common sense?"

And so M. Figuier wrote his nine big volumes. Unquestionably they have contributed to interesting the young, not alone of France but of a large part of the world, in the phenomena of Nature; and if they have not yet driven out La Fontaine, Perrault. Mother Goose, and the fascinating inhabitants of Olympus, they have at least entered into healthy competition with them.

His great hobby as a literary worker was system. "System, classification," he would repeat, "it is through them I have done my great work. Every note I take goes into its proper place. So with everything I own. You have asked for data of my life. I can give them to you without looking! See here!" He opened a drawer in a cabinet in the room, and out came a great bundle of clippings—press notices on his work, reviews of his books, sketches of his life. A goodly number of them were American.

"Yes," he said, regarding them with a frown, "I get press notices from America by paying an agency, but that is all. My books have been steadily reproduced there for thirty years. See here, notice after notice of my last book. Happiness beyond the Tomb, and I have been unable to get even a copy of the translation."

It was while pursuing his favorite subject of "system" that M. Figuier revealed to me the great passion of his life. One day he had led me into the vestibule where there were two large cases running to the ceiling. They contained numberless boxes of notes, all labeled. Here were all the subjects M. Figuier treated. At a moment's notice he could have under his eye all that he had accumulated on any subject which interested him. While listening to his enthusiastic explanations I noticed on one shelf a number of neat manuscripts.

"What are these?" I asked.

"My theater," he said, with a tender regard. "There are the plays, mademoiselle, which are going to teach the world science as it was never taught before. There," he continued, warming, "is the greatest of all methods of scientific popularization. Nobody understands it; nobody supports it. The press will not recognize it. New ideas are choked to death in Paris by the jealousy of journalists. These plays have been represented before audiences which were wild with delight. Ah! but they are beautiful! But jealousy keeps them back."

"There is one on your countryman Franklin and electricity; here is another on how Morse got his appropriation bill through; here is one Bernhardt has read and promised me to play. She says it is superb, superb. It is on Catharine of Russia."

"And some of them have been given?"

"Nearly all, at my expense, understand. I believe it is one way to teach science to the people, and I mean to do all I can to push it. Here are two volumes of plays which I have put on at much cost. One season I hired a theater for a series of scientific matinees. Again I made a tour of the provinces with a troupe. I have given ten years of my life and spent my fortune for this idea. Once I lived in a hótel in the Champs Elysées, now I am here." And he looked scornfully around the modest room with its faded air. "I have given it all for my theater."

The pain of the man was too intense, his earnestness too profound, for me to probe deeper into this defeated passion of his old age, and I waited until a free hour in the Bibliothèque Nationale gave me leisure to discover just what M. Figuier's theater was. I found it was just what he said—an attempt to teach science by means of the drama. He argued in this way:

"Works of popular science contribute to dissipating the popular superstitions, concerning thunder, for example; but the book is silent and cold. A theatrical representation which shows the spectator the physical phenomena connected with thunder and lightning, under a striking and material form, will impress much more deeply.

"Besides teaching the laws of the physical and natural sciences, scenes from the lives of celebrated savants should be represented. Instead of taking, for the hero of a play, Cromwell, Richelieu, Louis XIV, Mazarin, take Denis Papin, Gutenberg, Kepler, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton. Before my time no one of these persons had been made the subject of a play, simply because dramatic authors are unfamiliar with the events in the lives of naturalists and physicists. Nevertheless, illustrious savants are just as good as political or military personages for dramas or comedies. A savant is a man. Like every man, he has had his hour of youth and of love, his moments of sorrow and of bitterness. Because he has enriched his age and country by an immortal work is he less interesting than an imaginary personage? There are in the different periods of the lives of all savants subjects for dramas or comedies, situations capable of moving, of exciting to laughter or to tears."

A word on a few of the plays of M. Figuier will show how he carried out this theory. Take the "Marriage of Franklin," which turns around the difficulties which Franklin had to surmount to secure Miss Deborah Read. The tricks which electricity plays at the last moment untie the complications. A complete series of the physical, mechanical, and physiological effects of thunder and lightning are worked into the play.

"Miss Telegraph" portrays the situation of Samuel F. B. Morse before the passage of the bill appropriating money for carrying on his experiments on the electric telegraph, and describes the means by which Miss Ellsworth succeeded in getting the bill through at the last moment.

"The Blood of the Turk" is a "Mr. Isaacs" situation, showing what may result from the infusion of foreign blood into the veins of an old man. The hero has been treated with the blood of a Turk, and finds himself in the extraordinary situation of being half the time a passionate, quarrelsome, amorous Oriental, the other half a weak old man without the courage to fight the duels the Turk has provoked, the appetite to eat the meals the Turk has ordered, the gayety to do the love-making for which the Turk has contracted.

The "Six Parts of the World," in the style of Jules Verne, characterizes the five continents of the globe and discovers a sixth. Dumont d'Urville is the hero, and his expeditions to the south pole form the plot of the play. Lessons on navigation and discoveries, on desert fevers and phosphorescent beetles, on the customs of Madagascar and Australian progress, on American business methods and the character of the lands at the south pole, are all included in five acts.

One day, some time after I made the acquaintance of M. Figuier's theater, I asked him if he believed his idea would be carried out in the future.

"I expect to carry it out myself," he said sturdily.

"Yourself?" I exclaimed. "Oh, not here, not here," he said quickly. "Beyond the tomb. I may fail here, but I shall take it up again when I am dead. I am persuaded that it will be easy to carry out there this idea which has occupied me so seriously here. Do you suppose we are going to be idle there? Not at all. We are going to do what we loved to do here, and do it perfectly, as we have longed and dreamed to do it.

"Do you really believe that?"

"Believe it? Of course I believe it! Does one put into a book what he does not believe? I have put all that into Les Bonheurs d'Outre-Tombe. Does a man at my age talk of what he does not believe? At seventy-five one tells the truth.

"Why should I not believe it? Nature indicates a future life by all her transformations, common sense preaches it, common justice demands it, and if we live again we shall work. Do you suppose the good God is going to leave us with our aspirations unsatisfied? No. Victor Hugo is writing better romances than he ever wrote here, and De Musset better poetry." Then, glancing at the water colors on the walls, "My wife is going on with her pictures, and there I shall succeed with my theater. Why," he cried, with a passionate conviction which was almost awe-inspiring, "that belief is the consolation of my life!"

He based his theories of the future life on no religion. It is modern philosophy based on science and reason, which in his judgment promises a future life. But this promise is only to the upright, who in this world practice righteousness and cultivate their minds. They after death take on the attributes of superior beings—that is, become what M. Figuier calls "étres surhumains," or, in ecclesiastical parlance, angels.

On escaping from the body the new being becomes an inhabitant of the interplanetary spaces. Here all his faculties are quickened to an extraordinary degree, the secrets of Nature are clear to him, social problems are solved, all those whom he has loved on earth and who have died join him. The natural gifts which he has had no opportunity to cultivate on earth have full play there. Unfinished work is completed. He is in relation with the great and wise of all the ages. If he continues in this new sphere to do good and to cultivate his intellect—that is, if he works to raise his soul to perfection—he will be advanced to a superior realm of the sky, where the beings are of a still higher intellectual capacity and possess more numerous faculties.

As he loses more and more of the material element, he ascends higher in the scale of the elect. After passing two series of these celestial progressions and promotions, of which it is impossible to know either the number or the length, the soul arrives at a state of pure essence, and penetrates into the center of our solar system, the sun, whose inhabitants, possessing immortality, form a part of the divine government ruling over this portion of the astronomical system.

To merit such superior happiness man must apply himself during his life on earth to perfecting himself, to purifying his soul, loving his neighbor, spreading happiness about him, increasing his knowledge. He who, on the contrary, perseveres in injustice and ignorance will be condemned to recommence his earthly career, and that again and again until he is fit to leave this globe.

One attractive feature of M. Figuier's interplanetary heaven which he develops in his book is the novel means of travel he imagines to exist there. "Since science," he writes, "excuses itself from explaining the nature of the comets and the role they play in the universe, it is permitted to the imagination to say a word on the subject.

"Is it forbidden to believe that certain comets, notably those that return into our solar system, are agglomerations of super-human beings which have just finished a voyage in the profound depths of the sky and end their trip by returning into the sun? According to this hypothesis, these comets are pleasure trains made up of the inhabitants of ethereal spaces."

In the last conversation I ever had with him I asked him, just as I was about to say good-by, "M. Figuier, do you really believe in your comets made up of souls?"

His stern face lighted up. "Ah, my excursion trains! Who knows? who knows? Perhaps I shall travel in one. But that, you know, is imagination."

And when we rose to leave the salon, and I stopped to regard for the last time the gay wreaths and bouquets on the walls, he added with a nod of complete conviction, "But of one thing I am sure—there I shall succeed with my scientific theater."


M. Vallot's observatory, on the Rocher des Bosses, Mont Blanc, about fourteen thousand five hundred feet above the sea, has developed into a really comfortable abode of eight rooms, furnished with adequate means of keeping-out the cold and the snow and with conveniences for housekeeping. The walls and windows and outer door are double. The house has a kitchen and shop near the entrance; a room for guides, with five beds a provision room; a director's room, with two beds; a registering room; a photograph and spectroscope room; a guest chamber, with three beds; and a physical laboratory. A peculiarity of the kitchen utensils is the construction of the kettles to compensate for the lowered boiling point of the mountain height. The observatory, instituted in 1890, was at first devoted to meteorology; but since the new observatory was erected on the summit, more attention has been given in it to terrestrial physics.