1. Everything has been said, and we have come too late, now that men have been living and thinking for seven thousand years and more. Concerning human behaviour, the best and finest things have already been culled; we can merely glean after the ancients and the ablest of the moderns.
2. We should strive only to think and speak rightly, without seeking to win others over to our own taste and opinions; that is too great an undertaking.
3. Making a book is a craft, like making a clock; it needs more than native wit to become an author. A certain magistrate was deservedly on the way to the highest honours, he was a shrewd man, well versed in affairs; he has published a book of moral reflections which is outstandingly ridiculous.
4. It is harder to make one's name by means of a perfect work than to win praise for a second-rate one by means of the name one has already acquired.
5. A work of satire or gossip, if it is passed round secretly with instructions to return it in the same way, will be considered wonderful, even if it be second-rate; publication is the snag.
6. Many a moralistic work, if stripped of its foreword, dedicatory epistle, preface, table of contents and censor's permit, would retain barely enough pages to merit the name of book.
7. There are certain things in which mediocrity is intolerable: poetry, music, painting, public eloquence. What torture it is to hear a frigid speech being pompously declaimed, or second-rate verse spoken with all a bad poet's bombast!
8. Certain dramatic poets are prone to long strings of pompous lines, which seem vigorous, lofty and full of noble sentiments. The audience listen avidly, with eyes uplifted and mouths agape, think they are enjoying it and admire the more, the less they understand; they have no time to breathe, they have barely time to acclaim and applaud. I used to think, when I was very young, that such passages were clear and intelligible to the actors, the pit and the amphitheatre, that the authors themselves understood them, and that it was my own fault if, while paying close attention to what was said, I could make nothing of it: I know better now.
9. No literary masterpiece has yet been seen which is the work of several hands: Homer composed the Iliad, Virgil the Aeneid, Livy his Decades, and Cicero his Orations.
10. There is in art a point of perfection, just as there is in nature a point of excellence or of ripeness. The man who feels it and loves it has perfect taste; the man who does not feel it, and who loves what falls short of it or is in excess of it, has defective taste. So there is good taste and there is bad taste, and we are justified in arguing about our tastes.
11. A lively mind is far more common among men than good taste; or rather, there are few men in whom native wit is combined with a sure taste and a judicious critical sense.
12. The lives of heroes have enriched history, and history has embellished the deeds of heroes; I cannot say therefore which is the more indebted, those who write history to those who have provided them with such splendid material, or these great men to their historians.
13. A heap of epithets is poor praise: the praise lies in the facts, and in the way of telling them.
14. The whole of a writer's wit consists in defining rightly and in painting well. Moses, Homer, Plato, Virgil, Horace surpass other writers only through their expressions and their images: it is only by expressing the truth that one can write naturally, powerfully and sensitively.
15. We have had to do to style what we have done to architecture. We entirely abandoned the Gothic manner which a barbarous age had introduced for palaces and temples; we brought back the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders: that which had been seen only in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome became modern, and is now displayed in our porticoes and peristyles. In the same way, in our writings we can only reach perfection and, if possible, surpass the ancients, by imitating them.
How many centuries elapsed before men, in the arts and sciences, were able to return to the taste of antiquity and, at long last, become simple and natural once more!
A man has been nurtured on the ancients and the ablest modern writers, he has squeezed them to extract all he can from them to fill out his own works, and when at last he becomes an author and thinks he can stand on his own feet, he turns against them and abuses them, like those children who, having grown robust and strong by sucking good milk, beat their nurses.
A modern author usually proves the inferiority of the ancients in two ways, by argument and by example: he takes his arguments from his personal taste and his example from his own works.
He admits that the ancients, uneven and lacking in correctness though they may be, contain fine passages; he quotes these, and they are so beautiful that they make one read his criticism.
Certain men of talent have declared themselves in favour of the ancients against the moderns; but they are suspect and seem to be judges in their own case, so closely do their writings reproduce the spirit of antiquity: their testimony is impugned.
16. One should be glad to read one's works to those who are expert enough to correct and appreciate them.
To resent advice or criticism about one's work is the mark of a pedant. An author should accept with equal goodwill the praise and the criticism made of his writings.
17. Among all the different ways of expressing a single one of our thoughts, there is only one which is the right one. We do not always happen on it in speaking or writing; it is none the less true that it exists, and that anything else is weak, and will not satisfy an intelligent man who wants to make himself understood.
A good author, who writes with care, often discovers that the unknown expression for which he had long hunted, and which he finds at last, is the one which is simplest and most natural, and which, it would seem, should have occurred to him immediately and without effort.
Those who write as the spirit moves them are apt to retouch their works; since their mood is not constant, but varies according to circumstances, they soon lose their enthusiasm for the expressions and terms that they loved the most.
18. The same soundness of judgement which makes one write good things also makes one fear lest they should not be good enough to deserve reading.
A second-rate mind thinks he writes divinely; a first-rate mind thinks he writes adequately.
19. Aristus says: `I was advised to read my works to Zoilus: I did so. They impressed him at first, before he had had time to find them bad; he praised them moderately in my presence, and he has never praised them since in front of anyone. I forgive him, and I expect no more of any author; I pity him indeed for having listened to fine things which were not of his own making.'
Those whose rank exempts them from literary jealousy have either passions or needs which distract them and make them indifferent to the ideas of others: hardly anyone is at once mentally, emotionally and materially capable of enjoying the pleasure to be got from a work's perfection.
20. The pleasure of criticizing deprives us of the pleasure of being keenly touched by great beauties.
21. Many people go so far as to feel the merit of a manuscript which is read to them, who cannot speak openly in its favour until they have seen what success it will have on society once printed, or what treatment it will get from connoisseurs: they do not venture to express their opinion, and they want to be supported by the crowd and swept along by the multitude. Then they say that they were the first to appreciate the work, and that the public shares their point of view.
Such people miss the finest opportunities of convincing us that they have abilities mid understanding, that they know how to discriminate, to recognize good work as good, and better work as better. A fine work falls into their hands, it is the author's first book, he has not yet made a great name for himself, he has nothing to predispose them in his favour, and there is no question of playing the courtier or flattering anyone important by acclaiming his writings; nobody is asking you, Zelotes, to exclaim:
This is a masterpiece of wit: man's genius can go no further; this is the highest point that human utterance can reach; in future a man's taste will be assessed by his appreciation of this work;
such excessive and displeasing expressions, which smack of pension- or stipend-seeking, do harm to the very thing which deserves praise and which they seek to praise. Why did you not merely say: `This is a good book'? You'll say that, indeed, in chorus with the whole of France, with foreigners as well as with your compatriots, when the book is printed throughout Europe and translated into several languages: by then it is too late.
22. Some people, having read a book, quote certain passages whose meaning they have not understood, and which they distort further by their own additions; these passages, thus corrupted and disfigured, which are in fact nothing but their own thoughts and expressions, are then held up for censure; they declare that they are bad, and everyone agrees they are bad; but that part of the book which these critics think they are quoting, and which actually they are not quoting, is none the worse for that.
23. `What do you think of Hermodorus' book?' `That it's bad,' replies Anthimus. `That it's bad?' `That it's the sort of book that's not a book at all, or at least one worth talking about.' `But have you read it?' `No,' says Anthimus. Why doesn't he add that Fulvia and Melania have condemned it without reading it, and that he is a friend of Fulvia's and Melania's?
24. Arsenes, from the height of his great wit, looks down on men, and seeing them from such a distance is horrified at their smallness; extolled, exalted, praised to the skies by certain folk who have formed a mutual admiration society, he believes that, having certain merits of his own, he is endowed with all those that anyone can possibly have, and that he will never have; absorbed by his sublime ideas, he barely allows himself leisure to make a few oracular pronouncements; since his lofty character puts him beyond the reach of human judgements, he leaves to vulgar souls the merit of a consistent and uniform way of life, and holds himself responsible for his caprices only to that circle of friends who worship these: they alone know how to judge, know how to think, know how to write, ought to write; there is no other literary work, however well received by the public, and universally enjoyed by people of culture and breeding, that he will deign to read, let alone commend; he is incapable of being corrected by this portrait of himself, which he will never read.
25. Theocrines knows some fairly useless things; his opinions are always eccentric; he is not so much profound as methodical; he makes use only of his memory; he is self-absorbed, disdainful, and seems to be always inwardly laughing at those people whom he thinks inferior to himself. I happen to read my work to him, and he listens to it. When I have read it, he talks to me about his own. `And what did he think of yours?' you ask me. `I've already told you, he talked about his own.'
26. There is no work, however perfect, which would not vanish completely under censorious criticism, if its author chose to believe all the fault-finders who each cut out the passage they like least.
27. We know by experience that if there are ten people who would strike out a certain expression or opinion from a book, an equal number could easily be found who want these kept in. The latter exclaim: `Why suppress that thought? it is new, beautiful, admirably expressed'; and the former declare, on the contrary, either that such an idea was not worth expressing, or that it should have been expressed differently. `There is a phrase in your book,' say some, `that is felicitous and vividly descriptive'; `there is a word,' say others, `that's far-fetched and in any case does not clearly convey what you may perhaps mean'; and all these people are referring to the same expression and the same word, and all of them are connoisseurs and recognized as such. What else can an author do but venture to side with those who commend him?
28. A serious writer is not obliged to fill his mind with all the senseless, abusive and spiteful remarks that may be made about him, nor all the inapt interpretations that may be made of certain passages in his work, still less to suppress them. He is convinced that however scrupulously careful one may be in one's writing, the unfriendly mockery of would-be wits is an unavoidable misfortune, and that one's finest achievements only provide them with the opportunity for a foolish sally.
29. If certain lively and self-confident people are to be believed, words are unnecessary to express ideas: one should communicate with them by signs, or make oneself understood without speaking. Whatever care one may take to be close and concise, however high one's reputation may be in that respect, they consider one diffuse. You have to leave everything for them to fill in themselves, and write for them alone. They imagine a whole sentence from the opening word, and a whole chapter from a single sentence: if you have read them one passage of the work, that's enough, they know all about it, they understand the work. A tissue of riddles would be delightful reading to them; and it's a great pity, for them, that the mutilated style which enchants them is so rare and that few writers make use of it. Comparisons drawn from a swift yet smoothly flowing stream, or from a fire which, famed by the winds, spreads through a forest, devouring oaks and pines, suggest no notion of eloquence to them. But startle them with a firework display or dazzle them with a lightning flash, they'll let you off beauty and solid worth.
30. What a prodigious distance lies between a fine work and one which is perfect, and conforms to the rules of art! I don't know whether any such has yet been seen. It is perhaps less hard for men of exceptional genius to achieve greatness and sublimity than to avoid faults of every sort. Le Cid was greeted on its first appearance with unanimous admiration: it proved stronger than academics and politicians, who strove vainly to suppress it. It united in its favour those whose opinions and feelings are invariably divergent, the aristocracy and the common people; they all concur in knowing it by heart, and in forestalling, at the theatre, the actors who speak its lines. Le Cid, in a word, is one of the finest poems ever written; and one of the best pieces of criticism made on any subject was about Le Cid.
31. When a book exalts your mind and inspires it with lofty and courageous feelings, seek no other rule to judge it by: it is good, and made by the hand of a master.
32. Capys, who sets himself up as a judge of good style and thinks he writes like Bouhours and Rabutin, stands out against public opinion and declares, on his own account, that Damis does not write well. Damis yields to the crowd and says frankly, like everyone else, that Capys is a dull writer.
33. The journalist's duty is to say: `Such and such a book is being read: it is printed by Cramoisy in such and such a format, well bound and on good paper, and sold at such and such a price'; he ought to know the shop-sign of the bookseller who stocks it; he shows himself a fool when he tries to criticize it.
The journalist's loftiest achievement is some empty disquisition about politics.
The journalist goes to bed contentedly with a story which proves false overnight, and which he is obliged to drop next morning when he wakes up.
34. The philosopher spends his whole life observing men, and spends his energies discerning their vices and foibles; if he expresses his thoughts with a certain elegance, it is not so much out of literary vanity as to shed on a truth that he has discovered all the light needed to make the impression that will aid his purpose. Certain readers think however that they have paid him with interest when they pompously declare that they have read his book, and that there's wit in it; but he will have none of their praises, it was not for these that he worked far into the night. He sets his sights higher, and works for a loftier end: the result he seeks from men is rarer than their praises or even their rewards: it is to make them better.
35. Fools read a book and do not understand it; second-rate minds think they understand it perfectly; great minds do not always understand the whole of it: they find obscure that which is obscure, and clear that which is clear; subtle wits find obscurity in what is not obscure, and refuse to understand what is perfectly plain.
36. An author tries in vain to be admired for his work. Fools sometimes admire, but they are fools. Intelligent people have within themselves the seeds of all truths and all feelings, nothing is unfamiliar to them; they seldom admire, they give approval.
37. I do not know if any letters will ever be written with greater wit, elegance, charm and style than we find in those of Balzac and Voiture; they are devoid of those feelings which have prevailed since their time, and which owe their origin to women. The female sex excels our own in this style of writing. They find at the tip of their pen turns and expressions which we produce only after long labour and arduous endeavour; their choice of words is felicitous, and they place these so aptly that, although familiar, they have all the charm of novelty, and seem to be made only for the use to which these writers put them; women alone have the gift of making a single word convey a whole feeling, and of expressing a subtle thought with subtlety; their talk flows along in an inimitable way, with a natural coherence, where the meaning is the sole connexion. If women always wrote correctly, I'd venture to say that the letters of sone of them were the best-written things in our language.
38. Terence needed only a certain warmth: what purity, what correctness, what refinement, what elegance, what character-drawing! Molière needed only to avoid jargon and barbarism, and to write a purer language: what fire, what naturalness, what a spring of wholesome humour, what a portrayal of human behaviour, what descriptions, what scourging of absurdities! But what a man might have been made of these two comic authors put together!
39. I have read Malherbe and Théophile. Both of these understood Nature, but with a difference: the first, writing in a full, sustained style, shows her in her finest and noblest aspects and, at the same time, in all her artless simplicity: he is nature's portrait-painter, her historian. The other, lacking discrimination or exactitude, writing with a free, capricious pen, now overloads his descriptions, labouring details: he is the anatomist of nature; and now invents, exaggerates, going beyond the truth: he is nature's romancer.
40. Ronsard and Balzac had, each in his own field, enough good and bad qualities to make excellent writers, in prose and in verse, of those who came after them.
41. Marot, by his manner and style, seems to have written after Ronsard; there is only a few words' difference between the former and ourselves.
42. Ronsard and his contemporaries did more harm than good to style: they delayed its progress towards perfection, and exposed it to the risk of failing irrevocably to attain it. It is strange that the writings of Marot, so natural and easy, could not make of Ronsard, who was so full of verve and inspiration, a greater poet than either Ronsard or Marot; and on the contrary that Belleau, Jodelle and Du Bartas were so promptly followed by a Racan and a Malherbe, by whom our language, barely corrupted, was then made good.
43. Marot and Rabelais are inexcusable for having scattered ribaldry throughout their works: each of them had enough genius and natural power to do without it, even for those readers who expect an author to make them laugh rather than arouse their admiration. Rabelais is particularly incomprehensible: his book is an enigma which, say what you will, is inexplicable; it is a hybrid monster with the head of a beautiful woman and the feet or tail of a serpent or some other more hideous creature; it is a shocking blend of subtle and ingenious moral observation with foulness. Where he is bad, he exceeds the worst, he is the delight of the rabble; where he is good he attains an exquisite excellence, and the most delicate taste can savour him.
44. Two authors have written censoriously about Montaigne, whom I myself do not consider above all censure; neither of them, it seems, has any sort of respect for him. One of them did not think enough to enjoy an author who thinks a great deal; the other thinks too subtly to appreciate thoughts which come naturally.
45. A grave, serious, careful style goes a long way: we read Amyot and Coëffeteau; which of their contemporaries do we read? Balzac, as regards language and expression, has dated less than Voiture, but if the latter, with his turn of phrase, his wit and his naturalness, is not modern and bears no resemblance to our own writers, it is because they have found it easier to neglect him than to imitate him, while he leaves far behind the handful of writers who have followed in his footsteps.
46. The H*** G*** is worth less than nothing. There are many other works like it. There is as much skill in getting rich by means of a silly book as there is folly in buying it: if one did not know the taste of the public, one would scarcely venture to produce such arrant nonsense.
47. The Opera is obviously the first draft of a fine spectacle; it suggests the idea of one.
I don't know how it is that the Opera, with such perfect music and a truly regal expense, sometimes succeeds in boring me.
There are parts of the Opera that leave one wishing for more; one finds oneself occasionally longing for the end of the whole performance: this is for lack of theatrical effects, of action and of interesting matter.
An Opera nowadays is not poetry, but merely verse; it is not a spectacle, since machines vanished under the efficient administration of Amphion and his tribe: it is a concert, or voices accompanied by instruments. It is an error of judgement and of taste to say, as some do, that machines are merely a childish amusement, fit only for the Marionnettes' Theatre; machines enhance and embellish the imaginary action, and maintain the spectators in that delightful illusion which is the chief pleasure the theatre offers, by shedding further magic over it. We need no aerial flights, no chariots, no transformation scenes, for the two Bérénices or for Pénélope: we need them for operas, and the characteristic of that kind of entertainment is to keep one's mind and eyes and ears bound by the same spell.
48. They did it all, these busy people, they provided the stage sets, the machines, the ballets, the verse, the music, the whole entertainment, even the hall in which it was performed-including the roof and the four walls from their foundation upwards. Who can doubt but that the stag-hunt on the water, the enchanted hunting-party at the Table and the marvellous banquet in the Labyrinth were also their idea? I gather this from their activity and the self-satisfied way in which they congratulate themselves on the success of everything. If I am mistaken, if indeed they contributed nothing towards that splendid and elegant fête which went on for so long and which was planned and paid for by a single man, I wonder at two things: the calm and self-possession of the man who set everything in motion, and the fuss and self-importance of those who did nothing at all.
49. Connoisseurs, or would-be connoisseurs, assume the right to discuss and pass judgement on the theatre, entrench themselves, split into opposing camps each of which, impelled by quite other interests than those of the public or of justice, admires a certain piece of music and denigrates all others. This zealous defence of their own prejudices is equally harmful to the opposite faction and to their own; they discourage poets and musicians by constant opposition, delaying the progress of the arts and sciences by depriving them of the advantages of emulation and by denying various excellent artists the right to create fine works each in his own style and according to his own genius.
50. Why is it that we laugh so freely at the theatre and yet are ashamed to weep there? Is it less natural to be moved by what is pitiful than to be amused by what is ridiculous? Are we deterred by the fear of distorting our features? Such distortion is greater in excessive laughter than in the bitterest grief, and we avert our faces to laugh as well as to weep in the presence of the great and of all those whom we respect. Are we reluctant to show ourselves soft-hearted, and to betray any sort of weakness, particularly over a fictitious subject, as though we had been taken in by it? But, leaving aside those serious or strongminded people who consider excessive laughter as great a failing as tears, and who shun both, what do we expect from a tragic scene? That it should make us laugh? Moreover, is not truth, imaginatively expressed, as vividly present there as in comedy? do not our minds perceive the truth in either genre even before our feelings are stirred? and are we, indeed, so easily satisfied? don't we also require verisimilitude? Since then it is no unusual thing to hear a whole theatre break into unanimous laughter at some passage in a comedy, since this implies, on the contrary, that it is amusing and extremely life-like, so the extreme violence we do to our feelings by restraining our tears, and the false laughter with which we try to conceal them, clearly proves that the natural effect of great tragedy should be to make us all weep quite openly, with one accord, in one another's presence, with no further concern than to wipe our eyes; moreover, after having agreed to indulge in tears, we might discover that we generally run less risk of weeping in the theatre than of dying of boredom there.
51. A poetic tragedy wrings your heart from its very beginning, and barely leaves you, throughout its course, freedom to breathe or time to recover, or if it should allow you some respite, it then plunges you anew into the depths of distress or dread. It leads you to terror through pity, or conversely to pity by means of terror; it takes you on through tears, sobs, suspense, hope, fear, surprise and horror to its catastrophe. It cannot then be a tissue of pretty sentiments, tender declarations, phrases that are sickly sweet or sometimes funny enough to raise a laugh, followed by a closing scene where there is a senseless rebellion and where, for convention's sake, some blood is shed at last and some unfortunate creature loses his life.
52. It's not enough that the way of life shown in the theatre should not be actually immoral, it must be seemly and instructive. There may be certain elements so coarse and vulgar, or even so insipid and uninteresting, that it is neither permissible for the dramatist to notice them nor possible for the audience to be amused by them. Peasants or drunkards may provide a few scenes in a farce; they can scarcely be held truly comic; how could they form the basis or principal action for comedy? `Such characters,' it is sometimes said, `are natural.' By the same rule, then, the whole theatre will be made to watch a lackey whistling, an invalid in his privy, a drunken man sleeping or vomiting? What could be more natural? It is the characteristic of a fop to rise late, to spend half the day at his toilet, to look at himself in the glass, put on scent and patches, receive notes and answer them. Show all this on the stage; the longer you make it go on, for one act, for two am, the more natural it will be, the closer to its original but also the more tedious and insipid.
53. It seems that the novel and the drama might prove as useful as they are dangerous. They show us such great examples of constancy, virtue, tenderness and unselfish behaviour, such fine and perfect characters, that when a young woman turns to look at what lies around her, seeing only unworthy subjects, far inferior to what she has just been admiring, I wonder that she can possibly feel the slightest partiality for them.
54. Where Corneille is excellent, he cannot be equalled: on such occasions he is original and inimitable; but he is uneven. His first plays are arid and feeble, and did not allow one to hope that he would subsequently go so far; just as his latest ones make one wonder how he could fall from so high. In some of his best plays there are inexcusable faults of characterization, a declamatory style that holds up the action and makes it languish, careless faults of versification and expression that are incomprehensible in so great a man. His highest gift was a sublime genius which inspired some of the most felicitous lines ever written, the composition of his plays, sometimes boldly infringing the rules of antiquity, and finally his denouements; for he never submitted to the Greek taste for extreme simplicity: he liked, on the contrary, to multiply incidents on the stage, at which he was almost always successful; he is admirable above all for the extreme variety and the great difference in design between the many plays he has written. There seems to be a greater similarity between those of Racine, which all tend rather more to be the same thing; but he is even and consistent, maintaining the same level throughout, both in the plan and structure of his plays, which are well-proportioned, regular, based on good judgement and on nature, and in his versification, which is correct, richly rhymed, elegant, rhythmical and harmonious: a close imitator of the Ancients, whose clarity and simplicity of action he follows faithfully; he is moreover capable of lofty and astonishing things, just as Corneille is capable of touching and pathetic ones. What greater tenderness than that which pervades Le Cid, Polyeucte and Horace? What nobility is displayed by Mithridates, Porus and Burrhus! Those passions beloved of the Ancients, which their tragic writers loved to arouse in the theatre and which we call pity arid terror, were familiar to both these poets. Oreste, in Racine's Andromaque, and his Phèdre, like the Oedipus and Horace of Corneille, bear witness to this. If however one is allowed to make some comparison between them, and distinguish each of them by what was most characteristic and most outstanding in his work, one might perhaps speak thus: `Corneille subjects us to his characters and his ideas, Racine accepts our own; the former depicts men as they ought to be, the latter depicts them as they are. There is in the former more of what we admire and of what we should imitate; there is more in the latter of what we recognize in others, or experience within ourselves. The one uplifts us, astonishes us, dominates and instructs us; the other delights us, disturbs us, touches us, moves us deeply. The one deals with the finest, noblest, most imperious aspects of the mind; the other with the most insidious and subtle aspects of passion. The former offers us maxims, rules, precepts; the latter, taste and feelings. The plays of Corneille occupy one's mind; those of Racine stir one's heart. Corneille is more of a moralist, Racine is more natural. The one seems to imitate Sophocles, the other owes more to Euripides.'
55. The common people call eloquence the gift that some men have for lengthy soliloquy combined with excited gestures, a loud voice and strong lungs. Pedants, again, only allow it to exist in set speeches, and consider it inseparable from an accumulation of figures of rhetoric, the use of long words, and well-rounded periods.
It would seem that logic is the art of convincing men of some truth; and eloquence a gift of the soul, which makes one master over other men's hearts and minds, enabling one to suggest to them or convince them of whatever one chooses.
Eloquence can be found in conversation or in any sort of writing. It is seldom where it is sought for, and it is sometimes where it is not sought for.
Eloquence is to the sublime as the whole is to the part. What is the sublime? It seems never to have been defined. Is it a figure of speech? does it spring from figures, or at least from certain figures? Is any sort of writing capable of sublimity, or does it pertain only to lofty subjects? Can the eclogue excel except by artless beauty, or familiar letters and conversations except by great delicacy? or rather, do not these qualities, which give such works their perfection, attain a kind of sublimity? What is the sublime? wherein does it lie?
Synonyms are different words or expressions which mean the same thing. Antithesis is an opposition between two truths which shed light on one another. Metaphor or comparison borrows from something unrelated a concrete and natural image of a truth. Hyperbole expresses more than the truth in order to enable the mind to know that truth better. The sublime depicts only the truth, but on a noble theme; it depicts the whole of that truth, its cause and its effect; it is the most fitting expression or image of it. Ordinary minds fail to find the unique expression, and so make use of synonyms. Young people are dazzled by the brilliance of antitheses, and indulge in these. Those whose judgement is sound and who seek for precision in their imagery tend naturally towards comparison and metaphor. Lively and ardent wits, whose excessive imagination makes them overstep fitness and the rules of art, can never have enough hyperbole. As for the sublime, ony the loftiest even among men of great genius are capable of attaining it.
56. Any writer wishing to write clearly must put himself in his readers' place, examine his own work as though it were something unfamiliar which he is reading for the first time, in which he has had no share and which the author has submitted to him for criticism; and then convince himself that one is not necessarily understood because one understands oneself, but because one is in fact intelligible.
57. We write only in the hope of being understood; but we must at least express, in our writing, something worth understanding. Of course we should seek purity of style and aptness of expression; but these apt terms must express lofty, lively and serious ideas, full of excellent meaning. We make but poor use of purity and clarity of style if we employ them on an arid and barren theme, devoid of savour, usefulness or freshness. What do readers gain by understanding easily and without effort things which are frivolous and puerile, sometimes tedious and commonplace, and by being not so much uncertain of an author's meaning as bored by his work?
If a writer is sometimes rather difficult, if he seeks to express himself with some subtlety, and perhaps with excessive refinement, it is only out of respect for his readers' intelligence.
58. There is this disadvantage to be endured in reading books by members of some party or faction, that they do not always give us the truth. Facts are distorted, opposing points of view are not stated with sufficient force or with complete accuracy; and the most longsuffering reader must tire at last of such a great number of harsh and insulting terms used against one another by these earnest men, who make a personal quarrel out of a doctrinal point or a disputed fact.
The peculiar thing about these works is that they deserve neither the prodigious vogue they enjoy for a while nor the profound neglect into which they lapse when, passions and divisions having died down, they become like last year's almanacs.
59. The glory or merit of certain men lies in writing well: that of certain others, in not writing at all.
60. During the last twenty years we have learnt to write correctly: we are slaves to syntax: we have enriched the language with new words, cast off the yoke of latinism, and reduced our style to a way of writing that is purely French; we have almost recovered harmonious rhythm, which Malherbe and Balzac were the first to discover and which so many authors since their time had neglected; we have introduced into our writing all the order and clarity of which it is capable; and this leads us insensibly to enrich it with wit.
61. There are certain artists and men of talent whose minds are as vast as the art or science which they profess; they pay back with interest, through their inventive genius, what they owe to that art or science and to its principles; they break away from art the more to ennoble it, and neglect the rules if these do not lead to greatness or sublimity; they walk alone and unaccompanied, but they soar very high and venture far afield, ever confident and strengthened by the success of the advantages sometimes to be gained from a disregard of the rules. Men of a more sober, timid, moderate cast of mind cannot reach the same heights as these, do not admire them, and indeed cannot understand them, still less seek to imitate them; they stay quietly within their own sphere, and reach a certain point which represents the limit of their capacity and understanding; they go no further, because they see nothing beyond it; they can at best only be first among the second-rate, and attain excellence in mediocrity.
62. There are certain minds which may be called inferior and subordinate, which seem fit only to serve as anthology, register or storehouse for the works of other men of talent: they are plagiarists, translators, compilers; they do not think, they say what these authors have thought; and since the choice of thoughts requires imagination, they choose ill and injudiciously, collecting a quantity of things rather than things of quality; they have nothing original or personal to say; they know only what they have learned, and they learn only what everyone would quite happily be ignorant of: an arid learning, devoid of charm or utility, which has no place in conversation, which nobody uses, like money which is out of circulation; one is astonished at the extent of their reading and, at the same time, bored with their talk and their works. It is such men whom great nobles and the common people mistake for scholars, and whom wise men dismiss as pedants.
63. Criticism is often not a science; it is a craft, requiring more good health than wit, more hard work than talent, more habit than native genius. In the hands of a man who has read widely but lacks judgement, applied to certain subjects it can corrupt both its readers and the writer himself.
64. I advise any author who is an imitator by nature, and who is so extremely modest as to write in the manner of somebody else, to choose as models only such works as contain wit, imagination or even erudition: if he does not equal his originals at least he comes near them, and he gets read. He should on the contrary avoid the pitfall of trying to imitate those who write as the spirit moves them, whose heart dictates their speech, inspires their words and images, and who draw, so to speak, from their innermost being all that they express on paper: these are dangerous models, and those who presume to follow them are apt to become frigid, vulgar and ridiculous. Indeed I should laugh at any man who seriously tried to speak with my voice, or to make his face like mine.
65. A man who is born a Christian and a Frenchman is restricted in satire; lofty themes are forbidden him: he broaches them sometimes, and then turns away to deal with little things, to which he gives dignity by the beauty of his inspiration and of his style.
66. An affected and puerile style should be avoided, for fear of writing like Dorilas and Handburg: on the other hand, in a certain kind of writing one may risk certain forms of speech, using vividly descriptive metaphors, and pity those who do not feel the pleasure there is in using them or understanding them.
67. The writer who considers only the taste of his own time is concerned more with his personal fame than with that of his books: we should always aim at perfection, and then we shall receive from posterity that justice which our contemporaries sometimes deny us.
68. Horace or Boileau said it before you.—I take your word for that; but I said it as my own. Cannot I, after them, have a true thought, and one which others will think after me?
|« NEXT »||« Characters »||« Classics »||« Library »|