Page 20 of 59
Precaution.—Alfieri, as is well known, told a great many falsehoods when he narrated the history of his life to his astonished contemporaries. He told falsehoods owing to the despotism toward himself which he exhibited, for example, in the way in which he created his own language, and tyrannised himself into a poet:—he finally found a rigid form of sublimity into which he forced his life and his memory; he must have suffered much in the process.—I would also give no credit to a history of Plato's life written by himself, as little as to Rousseau's, or to the Vita nuova of Dante.
Prose and Poetry.—Let it be observed that the great masters of prose have almost always been poets as well, whether openly, or only in secret and[Pg 126] for the "closet"; and in truth one only writes good prose in view of poetry! For prose is an uninterrupted, polite warfare with poetry; all its charm consists in the fact that poetry is constantly avoided and contradicted; every abstraction wants to have a gibe at poetry, and wishes to be uttered with a mocking voice; all dryness and coolness is meant to bring the amiable goddess into an amiable despair; there are often approximations and reconciliations for the moment, and then a sudden recoil and a burst of laughter; the curtain is often drawn up and dazzling light let in just while the goddess is enjoying her twilights and dull colours; the word is often taken out of her mouth and chanted to a melody while she holds her fine hands before her delicate little ears:—and so there are a thousand enjoyments of the warfare, the defeats included, of which the unpoetic, the so-called prose—men know nothing at all:—they consequently write and speak only bad prose! Warfare is the father of all good things, it is also the father of good prose!—There have been four very singular and truly poetical men in this century who have arrived at mastership in prose, for which otherwise this century is not suited, owing to lack of poetry, as we have indicated. Not to take Goethe into account, for he is reasonably claimed by the century that produced him, I look only on Giacomo Leopardi, Prosper Mrime, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walter Savage Landor the author of Imaginary Conversations, as worthy to be called masters of prose.
But why, then, do you Write?—A: I do not belong to those who think with the wet pen in hand; and still less to those who yield themselves entirely to their passions before the open ink-bottle, sitting on their chair and staring at the paper. I am always vexed and abashed by writing; writing is a necessity for me,—even to speak of it in a simile is disagreeable. B: But why, then, do you write? A: Well, my dear Sir, to tell you in confidence, I have hitherto found no other means of getting rid of my thoughts. B: And why do you wish to get rid of them? A: Why I wish? Do I really wish! I must—B: Enough! Enough!
Growth after Death.—Those few daring words about moral matters which Fontenelle threw into his immortal Dialogues of the Dead, were regarded by his age as paradoxes and amusements of a not unscrupulous wit; even the highest judges of taste and intellect saw nothing more in them,—indeed, Fontenelle himself perhaps saw nothing more. Then something incredible takes place: these thoughts become truths! Science proves them! The game becomes serious! And we read those dialogues with a feeling different from that with which Voltaire and Helvetius read them, and we involuntarily raise their originator into another and much higher class of intellects than they did.—Rightly?' Wrongly?
Chamfort.—That such a judge of men and of the multitude as Chamfort should side with the multitude, instead of standing apart in philosophical resignation and defence—I am at a loss to explain this, except as follows:—There was an instinct in him stronger than his wisdom, and it had never been gratified: the hatred against all noblesse of blood; perhaps his mother's old and only too explicable hatred, which was consecrated in him by love of her,—an instinct of revenge from his boyhood, which waited for the hour to avenge his mother. But then the course of his life, his genius, and alas! most of all, perhaps, the paternal blood in his veins, had seduced him to rank and consider himself equal to the noblesse—for many, many years! In the end, however, he could not endure the sight of himself, the "old man" under the old rgime, any longer; he got into a violent, penitential passion, and in this state he put on the raiment of the populace as his special kind of hair-shirt! His bad conscience was the neglect of revenge.—If Chamfort had then been a little more of the philosopher, the Revolution would not have had its tragic wit and its sharpest sting; it would have been regarded as a much more stupid affair, and would have had no such seductive influence on men's minds. But Chamfort's hatred and revenge educated an entire generation; and the most illustrious men passed through his school. Let us but consider that Mirabeau looked up to Chamfort as to his higher and older self,[Pg 129] from whom he expected (and endured) impulses, warnings, and condemnations,—Mirabeau, who as a man belongs to an entirely different order of greatness, as the very foremost among the statesman-geniuses of yesterday and to-day.—Strange, that in spite of such a friend and advocate—we possess Mirabeau's letters to Chamfort—this wittiest of all moralists has remained unfamiliar to the French, quite the same as Stendhal, who has perhaps had the most penetrating eyes and ears of any. Frenchman of this century. Is it because the latter had really too much of the German and the Englishman in his nature for the Parisians to endure him?—while Chamfort, a man with ample knowledge of the profundities and secret motives of the soul, gloomy, suffering, ardent—a thinker who found laughter necessary as the remedy of life, and who almost gave himself up as lost every day that he had not laughed,—seems much more like an Italian, and related by blood to Dante and Leopardi, than like a Frenchman. One knows Chamfort's last words: "Ah! mon ami," he said to Sieys, "je m'en vais enfin de ce monde, o il faut que le cur se brise ou se bronze—." These were certainly not the words of a dying Frenchman.
Two Orators.—Of these two orators the one arrives at a full understanding of his case only when he yields himself to emotion; it is only this that pumps sufficient blood and heat into his brain to compel his high intellectuality to reveal itself[Pg 130] The other attempts, indeed, now and then to do the same: to state his case sonorously, vehemently, and spiritedly with the aid of emotion,—but usually with bad success. He then very soon speaks obscurely and confusedly; he exaggerates, makes omissions, and excites suspicion of the justice of his case: indeed, he himself feels this suspicion, and the sudden changes into the coldest and most repulsive tones (which raise a doubt in the hearer as to his passionateness being genuine) are thereby explicable. With him emotion always drowns the spirit; perhaps because it is stronger than in the former. But he is at the height of his power when he resists the impetuous storm of his feeling, and as it were scorns it; it is then only that his spirit emerges fully from its concealment, a spirit logical, mocking and playful, but nevertheless awe-inspiring.