Giles Lytton Strachey.

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wonderful portraits of the Duchesse de Bourgogne and the Prince de Conti
are in themselves sufficient to disprove that - yet there can be no doubt
that his hatreds exceeded his loves, and that, in his character-drawing,
he was, as it were, more at home when he detested. Then the victim is
indeed dissected with a loving hand; then the details of incrimination
pour out in a multitudinous stream; then the indefatigable brush of the
master darkens the deepest shadows and throws the most glaring
deformities into still bolder relief; then disgust, horror, pity, and
ridicule finish the work which scorn and indignation had begun. Nor, in
spite of the virulence of his method, do his portraits ever sink to the
level of caricatures. His most malevolent exaggerations are yet so
realistic that they carry conviction. When he had fashioned to his
liking his terrific images - his Vendôme, his Noailles, his
Pontchartrain, his Duchesse de Berry, and a hundred more - he never
forgot, in the extremity of his ferocity, to commit the last insult, and
to breathe into their nostrils the fatal breath of life.

And it is not simply in detached portraits that Saint-Simon's
descriptive powers show themselves; they are no less remarkable in the
evocation of crowded and elaborate scenes. He is a master of movement;
he can make great groups of persons flow and dispose themselves and
disperse again; he can produce the effect of a multitude under the
dominion of some common agitation, the waves of excitement spreading in
widening circles, amid the conflicting currents of curiosity and
suspicion, fear and hope. He is assiduous in his descriptions of the
details of places, and invariably heightens the effect of his emotional
climaxes by his dramatic management of the physical _décor._ Thus his
readers get to know the Versailles of that age as if they had lived in
it; they are familiar with the great rooms and the long gallery; they
can tell the way to the king's bedchamber, or wait by the mysterious
door of Madame de Maintenon; or remember which prince had rooms opening
out on to the Terrace near the Orangery, and which great family had
apartments in the new wing. More than this, Saint-Simon has the art of
conjuring up - often in a phrase or two - those curious intimate visions
which seem to reveal the very soul of a place. How much more one knows
about the extraordinary palace - how one feels the very pulse of the
machine - when Saint-Simon has shown one in a flash a door opening, on a
sudden, at dead of night, in an unlighted corridor, and the haughty Duc
d'Harcourt stepping out among a blaze of torches, to vanish again, as
swiftly as he had come, into the mysterious darkness! - Or when one has
seen, amid the cold and snow of a cruel winter, the white faces of the
courtiers pressed against the window-panes of the palace, as the
messengers ride in from the seat of war with their dreadful catalogues
of disasters and deaths!

Saint-Simon's style is the precise counterpart of his matter. It is
coloured and vital to the highest degree. It is the style of a writer
who does not care how many solecisms he commits - how disordered his
sentences may be, how incorrect his grammar, how forced or undignified
his expressions - so long as he can put on to paper in black and white
the passionate vision that is in his mind. The result is something
unique in French literature. If Saint-Simon had tried to write with
academic correctness - and even if he had succeeded - he certainly would
have spoilt his book. Fortunately, academic correctness did not interest
him, while the exact delineament of his observations did. He is not
afraid of using colloquialisms which every critic of the time would have
shuddered at, and which, by their raciness and flavour, add enormously
to his effects. His writing is also extremely metaphorical; technical
terms are thrown in helter-skelter whenever the meaning would benefit;
and the boldest constructions at every turn are suddenly brought into
being. In describing the subtle spiritual sympathy which existed
between Fénelon and Madame de Guyon he strikes out the unforgettable
phrase - 'leur sublime s'amalgama', which in its compression, its
singularity, its vividness, reminds one rather of an English Elizabethan
than a French writer of the eighteenth century. The vast movement of his
sentences is particularly characteristic. Clause follows clause, image
is piled upon image, the words hurry out upon one another's heels in
clusters, until the construction melts away under the burning pressure
of the excitement, to reform as best it may while the agitated period
still expands in endless ramifications. His book is like a tropical
forest - luxuriant, bewildering, enormous - with the gayest humming-birds
among the branches, and the vilest monsters in the entangled grass.

Saint-Simon, so far as the influence of his contemporaries was
concerned, might have been living in the Middle Ages or the moon. At a
time when Voltaire's fame was ringing through Europe, he refers to him
incidentally as an insignificant scribbler, and misspells his name. But
the combination of such abilities and such aloofness was a singular
exception, becoming, indeed, more extraordinary and improbable every
day. For now the movement which had begun in the early years of the
century was entering upon a new phase. The change came during the decade
1750-60, when, on the one hand, it had become obvious that all the worst
features of the old regime were to be perpetuated indefinitely under the
incompetent government of Louis XV, and when, on the other hand, the
generation which had been brought up under the influence of Montesquieu
and Voltaire came to maturity. A host of new writers, eager, positive,
and resolute, burst upon the public, determined to expose to the
uttermost the evils of the existing system, and, if possible, to end
them. Henceforward, until the meeting of the States-General closed the
period of discussion and began that of action, the movement towards
reform dominated French literature, gathering in intensity as it
progressed, and assuming at last the proportions and characteristics of
a great organized campaign.

The ideals which animated the new writers - the _Philosophes_, as they
came to be called - may be summed up in two words: Reason and Humanity.
They were the heirs of that splendid spirit which had arisen in Europe
at the Renaissance, which had filled Columbus when he sailed for the New
World, Copernicus when he discovered the motion of the earth, and Luther
when he nailed his propositions to the church door at Wittenberg. They
wished to dispel the dark mass of prejudice, superstition, ignorance and
folly by the clear rays of knowledge and truth; and to employ the forces
of society towards the benefit of all mankind. They found in France an
incompetent administration, a financial system at once futile and
unjust, a barbarous judicial procedure, a blind spirit of religious
intolerance - they found the traces of tyranny, caste-privilege and
corruption in every branch of public life; and they found that these
enormous evils were the result less of viciousness than of stupidity,
less of the deliberate malice of kings or ministers than of a long,
ingrained tradition of narrow-mindedness and inhumanity in the
principles of government. Their great object, therefore, was to produce,
by means of their writings, such an awakening of public opinion as
would cause an immense transformation in the whole spirit of national
life. With the actual processes of political change, with the practical
details of political machinery, very few of them concerned themselves.
Some of them - such as the illustrious Turgot - believed that the best way
of reaching the desired improvement was through the agency of a
benevolent despotism; others - such as Rousseau - had in view an
elaborate, _a priori_, ideal system of government; but these were
exceptions, and the majority of the _Philosophes_ ignored politics
proper altogether. This was a great misfortune; but it was inevitable.
The beneficent changes which had been introduced so effectively and with
such comparative ease into the government of England had been brought
about by men of affairs; in France the men of affairs were merely the
helpless tools of an autocratic machine, and the changes had to owe
their origin to men uninstructed in affairs - to men of letters. Reform
had to come from the outside, instead of from within; and reform of that
kind spells revolution. Yet, even here, there were compensating
advantages. The changes in England had been, for the most part,
accomplished in a tinkering, unspeculative, hole-and-corner spirit;
those in France were the result of the widest appeal to first
principles, of an attempt, at any rate, to solve the fundamental
problems of society, of a noble and comprehensive conception of the
duties and destiny of man. This was the achievement of the
_Philosophes_. They spread far and wide, not only through France, but
through the whole civilized world, a multitude of searching
interrogations on the most vital subjects; they propounded vast
theories, they awoke new enthusiasms, and uplifted new ideals. In two
directions particularly their influence has been enormous. By their
insistence on the right of free opinion and on the paramount necessity
of free speculation, untrammelled by the fetters of orthodoxy and
tradition, they established once for all as the common property of the
human race that scientific spirit which has had such an immense effect
on modern civilization, and whose full import we are still only just
beginning to understand. And, owing mainly to their efforts also, the
spirit of humanity has come to be an abiding influence in the world. It
was they who, by their relentless exposure of the abuses of the French
judicial system - the scandal of arbitrary imprisonment, the futile
barbarism of torture, the medieval abominations of the penal
code - finally instilled into public opinion a hatred of cruelty and
injustice in all their forms; it was they who denounced the horrors of
the slave-trade; it was they who unceasingly lamented the awful evils of
war. So far as the actual content of their thought was concerned, they
were not great originators. The germs of their most fruitful theories
they found elsewhere - chiefly among the thinkers of England; and, when
they attempted original thinking on their own account, though they were
bold and ingenious, they were apt also to be crude. In some
sciences - political economy, for instance, and psychology - they led the
way, but attained to no lasting achievement. They suffered from the same
faults as Montesquieu in his _Esprit des Lois_. In their love of pure
reason, they relied too often on the swift processes of argument for the
solution of difficult problems, and omitted that patient investigation
of premises upon which the validity of all argument depends. They were
too fond of systems, and those neatly constructed logical theories into
which everything may be fitted admirably - except the facts. In addition,
the lack of psychological insight which was so common in the eighteenth
century tended to narrow their sympathies; and in particular they failed
to realize the beauty and significance of religious and mystical states
of mind. These defects eventually produced a reaction against their
teaching - a reaction during which the true value of their work was for a
time obscured. For that value is not to be looked for in the enunciation
of certain definite doctrines, but in something much wider and more
profound. The _Philosophes_ were important not so much for the answers
which they gave as for the questions which they asked; their real
originality lay not in their thought, but in their spirit. They were the
first great popularizers. Other men before them had thought more
accurately and more deeply; they were the first to fling the light of
thought wide through the world, to appeal, not to the scholar and the
specialist, but to the ordinary man and woman, and to proclaim the
glories of civilization as the heritage of all humanity. Above all, they
instilled a new spirit into the speculations of men - the spirit of hope.
They believed ardently in the fundamental goodness of mankind, and they
looked forward into the future with the certain expectation of the
ultimate triumph of what was best. Though in some directions their
sympathies were limited, their love of humanity was a profound and
genuine feeling which moved them to a boundless enthusiasm. Though their
faith in creeds was small, their faith in mankind was great. The spirit
which filled them was well shown when, during the darkest days of the
Terror, the noble Condorcet, in the hiding-place from which he came
forth only to die, wrote his historical _Sketch of the Progress of the
Human Mind_, with its final chapter foretelling the future triumphs of
reason, and asserting the unlimited perfectibility of man.

The energies of the _Philosophes_ were given a centre and a
rallying-point by the great undertaking of the _Encyclopaedia_, the
publication of which covered a period of thirty years (1751-80). The
object of this colossal work, which contained a survey of human activity
in all its branches - political, scientific, artistic, philosophical,
commercial - was to record in a permanent and concentrated form the
advance of civilization. A multitude of writers contributed to it, of
varying merit and of various opinions, but all animated by the new
belief in reason and humanity. The ponderous volumes are not great
literature; their importance lies in the place which they fill in the
progress of thought, and in their immense influence in the propagation
of the new spirit. In spite of its bulk the book was extremely
successful; edition after edition was printed; the desire to know and to
think began to permeate through all the grades of society. Nor was it
only in France that these effects were visible; the prestige of French
literature and French manners carried the teaching of the _Philosophes_
all over Europe; great princes and ministers - Frederick in Prussia,
Catherine in Russia, Pombal in Portugal - eagerly joined the swelling
current; enlightenment was abroad in the world.

The _Encyclopaedia_ would never have come into existence without the
genius, the energy, and the enthusiasm of one man - DIDEROT. In him the
spirit of the age found its most typical expression. He was indeed _the
Philosophe_ - more completely than all the rest universal, brilliant,
inquisitive, sceptical, generous, hopeful, and humane. It was he who
originated the _Encyclopaedia_, who, in company with Dalembert,
undertook its editorship, and who, eventually alone, accomplished the
herculean task of bringing the great production, in spite of obstacle
after obstacle - in spite of government prohibitions, lack of funds,
desertions, treacheries, and the mischances of thirty years - to a
triumphant conclusion. This was the work of his life; and it was work
which, by its very nature, could leave - except for that long row of
neglected volumes - no lasting memorial. But the superabundant spirit of
Diderot was not content with that: in the intervals of this stupendous
labour, which would have exhausted to their last fibre the energies of a
lesser man, he found time not only to pour out a constant flow of
writing in a multitude of miscellaneous forms - in dramas, in art
criticism, in philosophical essays, and in a voluminous
correspondence - but also to create on the sly as it were, and without a
thought of publication, two or three finished masterpieces which can
never be forgotten. Of these, the most important is _Le Neveu de
Rameau_, where Diderot's whole soul gushes out in one clear, strong,
sparkling jet of incomparable prose. In the sheer enchantment of its
vitality this wonderful little book has certainly never been surpassed.
It enthrals the reader as completely as the most exciting romance, or
the talk of some irresistibly brilliant _raconteur_. Indeed, the
writing, with its ease, its vigour, its colour, and its rapidity, might
almost be taken for what, in fact, it purports to be - conversation put
into print, were it not for the magical perfection of its form. Never
did a style combine more absolutely the movement of life with the
serenity of art. Every sentence is exciting, and every sentence is
beautiful. The book must have been composed quickly, without effort,
almost off-hand; but the mind that composed it was the mind of a master,
who, even as he revelled in the joyous manifestation of his genius,
preserved, with an instinctive power, the master's control. In truth,
beneath the gay galaxies of scintillating thoughts that strew the pages,
one can discern the firm, warm, broad substance of Diderot's very self,
underlying and supporting all. That is the real subject of a book which
seems to have taken all subjects for its province - from the origin of
music to the purpose of the universe; and the central figure - the queer,
delightful, Bohemian Rameau, evoked for us with such a marvellous
distinctness - is in fact no more than the reed with many stops through
which Diderot is blowing. Of all his countrymen, he comes nearest, in
spirit and in manner, to the great Curé of Meudon. The rich, exuberant,
intoxicating tones of Rabelais vibrate in his voice. He has - not all,
for no son of man will ever again have that; but he has _some_ of
Rabelais' stupendous breadth, and he has yet more of Rabelais' enormous
optimism. His complete materialism - his disbelief in any Providence or
any immortality - instead of depressing him, seems rather to have given
fresh buoyancy to his spirit; if this life on earth were all, that only
served, in his eyes, to redouble the intensity of its value. And his
enthusiasm inspired him with a philanthropy unknown to Rabelais - an
active benevolence that never tired. For indeed he was, above all else,
a man of his own age: a man who could think subtly and work nobly as
well as write splendidly; who could weep as well as laugh. He is,
perhaps, a smaller figure than Rabelais; but he is much nearer to
ourselves. And, when we have come to the end of his generous pages, the
final impression that is left with us is of a man whom we cannot choose
but love.

Besides Diderot, the band of the _Philosophes_ included many famous
names. There was the brilliant and witty mathematician, Dalembert; there
was the grave and noble statesman, Turgot; there was the psychologist,
Condillac; there was the light, good-humoured Marmontel; there was the
penetrating and ill-fated Condorcet. Helvétius and D'Holbach plunged
boldly into ethics and metaphysics; while, a little apart, in learned
repose, Buffon advanced the purest interests of science by his
researches in Natural History. As every year passed there were new
accessions to this great array of writers, who waged their war against
ignorance and prejudice with an ever-increasing fury. A war indeed it
was. On one side were all the forces of intellect; on the other was all
the mass of entrenched and powerful dullness. In reply to the brisk fire
of the _Philosophes_ - argument, derision, learning, wit - the authorities
in State and Church opposed the more serious artillery of censorships,
suppressions, imprisonments, and exiles. There was hardly an eminent
writer in Paris who was unacquainted with the inside of the Conciergerie
or the Bastille. It was only natural, therefore, that the struggle
should have become a highly embittered one, and that at times, in the
heat of it, the party whose watchword was a hatred of fanaticism should
have grown itself fanatical. But it was clear that the powers of
reaction were steadily losing ground; they could only assert themselves
spasmodically; their hold upon public opinion was slipping away. Thus
the efforts of the band of writers in Paris seemed about to be crowned
with success. But this result had not been achieved by their efforts
alone. In the midst of the conflict they had received the aid of a
powerful auxiliary, who had thrown himself with the utmost vigour into
the struggle, and, far as he was from the centre of operations, had
assumed supreme command.

It was Voltaire. This great man had now entered upon the final, and by
far the most important, period of his astonishing career. It is a
curious fact that if Voltaire had died at the age of sixty he would now
only be remembered as a writer of talent and versatility, who had given
conspicuous evidence, in one or two works, of a liberal and brilliant
intelligence, but who had enjoyed a reputation in his own age, as a poet
and dramatist, infinitely beyond his deserts. He entered upon the really
significant period of his activity at an age when most men have already
sought repose. Nor was this all; for, by a singular stroke of fortune,
his existence was prolonged far beyond the common span; so that, in
spite of the late hour of its beginning, the most fruitful and important
epoch of his life extended over a quarter of a century (1754-78). That
he ever entered upon this last period of his career seems in itself to
have depended as much on accident as his fateful residence in England.
After the publication of the _Lettres Philosophiques_, he had done very
little to fulfil the promise of that work. He had retired to the country
house of Madame du Châtelet, where he had devoted himself to science,
play-writing, and the preparation of a universal history. His reputation
had increased; for it was in these years that he produced his most
popular tragedies - _Zaïre, Mérope, Alzire_, and _Mahomet_ - while a
correspondence carried on in the most affectionate terms with Frederick
the Great yet further added to his prestige; but his essential genius
still remained quiescent. Then at last Madame du Châtelet died and
Voltaire took the great step of his life. At the invitation of Frederick
he left France, and went to live as a pensioner of the Prussian king in
the palace at Potsdam. But his stay there did not last long. It seemed
as if the two most remarkable men in Europe liked each other so well
that they could not remain apart - and so ill that they could not remain
together. After a year or two, there was the inevitable explosion.
Voltaire fled from Prussia, giving to the world before he did so one of
the most amusing _jeux d'esprit_ ever written - the celebrated _Diatribe
du Docteur Akakia_ - and, after some hesitation, settled down near the
Lake of Geneva. A few years later he moved into the _château_ of Ferney,
which became henceforward his permanent abode.

Voltaire was now sixty years of age. His position was an enviable one.
His reputation was very great, and he had amassed a considerable
fortune, which not only assured him complete independence, but enabled
him to live in his domains on the large and lavish scale of a country
magnate. His residence at Ferney, just on the border of French
territory, put him beyond the reach of government interference, while he
was yet not too far distant to be out of touch with the capital. Thus
the opportunity had at last come for the full display of his powers. And
those powers were indeed extraordinary. His character was composed of a
strange amalgam of all the most contradictory elements in human nature,
and it would be difficult to name a single virtue or a single vice which
he did not possess. He was the most egotistical of mortals, and the
most disinterested; he was graspingly avaricious, and profusely
generous; he was treacherous, mischievous, frivolous, and mean, yet he
was a firm friend and a true benefactor, yet he was profoundly serious
and inspired by the noblest enthusiasms. Nature had carried these
contradictions even into his physical constitution. His health was so
bad that he seemed to pass his whole life on the brink of the grave;
nevertheless his vitality has probably never been surpassed in the
history of the world. Here, indeed, was the one characteristic which
never deserted him: he was always active with an insatiable activity; it
was always safe to say of him that, whatever else he was, he was not at
rest. His long, gaunt body, frantically gesticulating, his skull-like
face, with its mobile features twisted into an eternal grin, its
piercing eyes sparkling and darting - all this suggested the appearance
of a corpse galvanized into an incredible animation. But in truth it was
no dead ghost that inhabited this strange tenement, but the fierce and
powerful spirit of an intensely living man.

Some signs had already appeared of the form which his activity was now
about to take. During his residence in Prussia he had completed his
historical _Essai sur les Moeurs_, which passed over in rapid review the
whole development of humanity, and closed with a brilliant sketch of the
age of Louis XIV. This work was highly original in many ways. It was the
first history which attempted to describe the march of civilization in
its broadest aspects, which included a consideration of the great

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Online LibraryGiles Lytton StracheyLandmarks in French Literature → online text (page 8 of 13)