Skip to main content

Comedie Intellectuelle

ISSUE:  Winter 1928
Laughing Truths. By Carl Spitteler. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.00. Variety. By Paul Valery. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00.


“COMEDIE Intellectuelle!” — the words are M. Valry’s; it is his ideal, the preoccupation and ultimate goal of his life, of his writings. It is just this which, according to him, “has not yet found its poet, and which in my judgment would be far more precious than the Comedie Humaine; more precious, even, than the Divine Comedy.” Well, in the beginning, M. Valery is a modest man and it would be not fitting should he suggest that, perchance, the world has found in him the poet which he looks for, and the essential nature of whom he so tirelessly defines. But, after all, is that a chief consideration, in spite of its approximate truth? I fancy that M. Valery has analyzed himself and his gifts with appalling thoroughness, and that he is content to speak disinterestedly. The important thing is, that this extraordinary intellectual comedy performs itself constantly in the theatre of his mind, through a multitude of different players. Here is precisely the “central attitude” he speaks of, “from which all the enterprises of learning or science and all the operations of art are equally possible, and a successful co-operation between analysis and action is singularly probable.”

It is only when we understand this starting-point, this “central attitude,” that we can come to find any unity in Valery’s widely diverse views about life and the materials of life. Everything in him draws its strength from this essential root, little matter in which manner or direction it may grow. For, as he says, “the affairs of the world” (i. e.} politics, art, religion, or what you will) “interest me only as they relate to the intellect—everything in relation to the intellect. Bacon would call this intellect an idol. I agree, but I have found none better.”

These words were written after Valery had come back to us; they comprize the essence of twenty years’ retirement from the active world. Over such a time slept Rip van Winkle, and he returned to a world he had lost hold upon— a thing that had grown beyond him. But Valery has not slept; he has been more restless and alert, indeed, than most of his contemporaries who kept plugging away at their little thoughts and worked themselves into a final, abject senility; and now that he has returned from the quite utter silence and meditation that has occupied over a third of his life (he is now fifty-seven), he has lost neither the world nor his own soul, but seems to hold them stronger than ever before. And so the promising young poet of the ‘nineties, given over to abstractions, has now appeared in the new role of the greatest intellectual force, besides Havelock Ellis, in this twentieth century, “Paul Valery, de l’Academie Franchise,” having succeeded Anatole France—an indication of changing taste.

Other great men before us, and men in our own age in fact, have retired from the world; but none in precisely Valery’s way. They have either renounced their particular art, like Rimbaud, or else have recognized a diminishing of their gifts—and have left us gracefully, to live out their mortal span on the laurels of their better years. Not so M. Valery. He went, as might an athlete, into severe ascetic training, long after his career was well on its way and some goodly portion of fame already his. And after these years of quiet thought, of experiments with mathematics, with science, with art, and with the problems of pure reason, he has returned, not as Kipling, for instance, has tried to return, as but the sad shadow of his former self, but as a man greater, a man more vital, a man more vital and complete than the Paul Valery whose appearance was so interesting in the salons of the later nineteenth century. He saw the tumult of change, saw nations clash, and the pain racked the depth of his sensitive soul; and yet he said nothing, awaiting the time of ripeness. But then, when he did speak, it was with a voice how serene and full!

Let us go back for a moment. Here is Valery in 1894 pleading for Universality. “Facil cosa e far si universale— It is easy to make oneself universal!” he quotes, knowing well from what a sudden ecstasy of mind such a phrase must spring. Yet what is this strange quality, this universal mind, he speaks of so reverently here? Is it like the power of the musician to bring forth subtle chords from the keys his fingers can command, the power of the artist in words to wring the richest juice from some familiar term, giving it a sudden depth and core? Is it power, or shall we call it scope? It is power first, I think, and then the conscious development of this power towards the scope of what Valery calls “that prodigious instrument,” the mind. Universality! —how possible is it to define? Valery confesses his doubts. Leonardo, on whom he writes, possessed it; we recognize it in him, but we cannot recognize very definitely its elements. From the presence of the master it shone as a kind of radiant fascination. But was it acquired, or unaccountably inborn, like the rest of his graces? For “this final clarity,” Valery at last concludes, “is attained only after long wanderings and indispensable idolatries.”

To idolatries, Valery, like T. S. Eliot, is not given. But he has wandered far, through every, secret channel into which the mind, in moments of extreme lucidity, allows us to peek. And he has come out of it infinitely spiritualized, sensitive and yet certain. And thus, twenty-five years later, after following out each leit-motif (any number of which, as he says, must direct our thoughts as we move about in a great interplay), he speaks forth again with the idea of consciousness as the strongest motive and impetus of universality. Before this, being young, he was trying to transcend, or revitalize for himself, the experiences of Leonardo; today it is his own experience he speaks of, and through his work plays a faint overtone of pessimism. But this idea of perfecting the consciousness, of gaining a complete mastery over his own nature, is a possession and (partly at least) a satisfaction. To go through all and yet to preserve one’s grace!—this is the universal ideal. To develop oneself to the intensest degree, to tune every, fibre of being to a pitch of infinite reception, and yet always to be able to recognize immediately what is best among the things of life—this is Valery’s means and his end. “To possess this liberty of profound changes, to employ such a wide register of adoptions, is merely to be a man in all his integrity, such a man as we imagine to have existed among the Greeks.”

There is more to say here of this consciousness which has become Valery’s primary tenet in his comedie intellectuelle. After all, it is not new; it was the concern of Pater, of Montaigne, of De Gourmont; Valery has simply given it an unaccustomed intellectual nature, as a variation from the more or less materialistic precept which it has formerly represented. Immeasurable receptivity, steady clairvoyance, together with a power of nice discrimination—and Valery has found all but one element to make his universal man. This other, this rare element, is creative ability, or what he calls construction. The power to receive all, to interpret all, and then to transmute it into a concentrated state, with the result of art, or philosophy, or science, is the ideal, so difficult of attainment. And Valery is like Leonardo — that is to say, he is universal—insofar as he does not concern himself about the type of result, whether it is art or science, but insists that result there must be. He also insists that certain things give, by nature, certain results, and he speaks of the impossibility of making all materials which the artist, for instance, receives, give only artistic results, of the impossibility of all thought giving philosophical resnits. One must be able to distinguish — otherwise chaos and disordered mental processes insue. Each “reception” has its own categoiy, and in that must needs it develop, and in only that. He has no mercy on the poets who “are not yet convinced of the impossibility of squaring all thoughts into poetic form.” To be universal, thinks Valery, one must be able to receive everything intelligently. But the question is this: must one also be able to express intelligently all these materials received, in just the peculiar form they demand? Must this universal mind imply receptivity and versatility both? This much is perplexing. I should like M. Valery to explain.

Not the least interesting thing about this unusual author is his method. In considering Leonardo, for instance, his contempt for the facts of the master’s life is nothing short of magnificent. He is interested in Leonardo’s personality (but Valery distrusts personality; he considers Ego the backbone of man) only as a problem, a part of the intellectual comedy. And yet, at the end, we know Leonardo. The surface appearance of a man, as given by, our modern anecdote-dealers, is how different! Being a true critic, Valery’s concern is not nearly so much for his subject, as for the vital and original attitude of mind his subject leads him to. That is, perhaps, why he sometimes gives the impression of contradicting himself; but he never contradicts his central thought, but only that which grows out of it; and even then it is not so much a contradiction as a dismissal, a jump beyond, as one might erase the pencil outlines of a completed sketch. But now and again, he seems to delve into a world utterly his own, into which we cannot follow, but can only observe, awe-stricken, the marvellous unfolding of his mind.

Well, he is a difficult author, but he is thankful for such in the world, because they train the reader and take him back to the masters of the past, who were also difficult. | The mass of sloppy magazines in modern America is j simply the grievous result of our natural American laziness. So let us value those who do not “fear the reader,” those who “measure neither his labour nor their own.”

We return to the point from which we started—universality. I would not say that Valery had attained fully to it; I think he has a long road to go; but at least he is nearer than the rest of us, and he has shown us the way and some faint glimmerings of the goal. “Facil cosa e farsi universale!” Ah, dear M. Valery, is it so easy, after all?


It is not unnatural that I should come to write about the late Carl Spitteler of Lucerne with a feeling of reverence and strange awe—a feeling that this very human man possessed something of the godlike, or such a quality as we find in other very human men of genius, like Beethoven or Shakespeare. To those of you who have not read him (and how lamentably few Americans have!) this will smack of sudden, sentimental eulogy, and you will suspect me of trying to William Lyon Phelpsize this Swiss Colossus. But I am nevertheless speaking from the depths of my conviction —and no leap-of-moment conviction it is, either. However, in case you are still dubious, let me quote to you the words of a man whose critical judgments you will trust much further than mine—let me quote that extraordinary Frenchman, Romain Rolland. In an In Memoriam address to the Swiss nation after the death of his friend, he said:

“He (Spitteler) is the greatest of you all. Never has your land—the honourable soil of sacred individuality and freedom—produced such a hero of art and thought. . . . Permit a stranger (though so long your guest as to feel for his part that he is no longer a stranger, however you may feel on yours) to honour, now that he has joined the dead, Our Homer, the greatest German poet since Goethe, the only master of the epic since Milton died three centuries ago. But a more solitary figure amid the art of his day than either the one or the other of these.”

The author of “Jean-Christophe” is not given to talking at random. The truth is his law. A number of years ago, Rolland wrote a short Memoir of Spitteler (I think in the Mercure de France) wherein he spoke of him as one of the most beautiful personalities he had ever come into contact with, and he praised his staunch fearlessness, his Olympian strength, his piercing qualities of intellect, and his sterling genuineness. An Immortal had lived in the world with us, and had died at the age of 80, heart-breakingly unrecognized. That is how often the fortune of unusual genius! But, somehow, good work makes its way in the end and impresses itself by virtue of its own power; and perhaps, before long, the tables will turn and the name of Carl Spitteler will be positively dunned into our ears, I myself should not prefer the dunning process; but Spitteler deserves all the trumpets of praise, sempre crescendo, as so few men do, and it is possible that, after all his works are translated, America will give him his fullest due—if ever that could be given. Meanwhile I heartily protest that competent translators should give transient gymnastics and romantic slime the face of the English language, while Spitteler’s best work can still be read only in the German.

A book like “Laughing Truths” is one of the few which it is well-nigh impossible to review. It is too rich, too packed with thought, to be done justice in the space the reviewer has at his command. One’s only hope is to get at the most essential part of the author’s “central attitude” (to borrow Valery’s fine phrase) and to determine, the peculiar kind of vision with which he saw the world. Of course Spitteler deserves a volume—no less—and we may look forward anxiously to Professor Frankel’s biography of him, now in preparation.

Spitteler is much less sophisticated than Valery—not in the sense of wisdom, but in the sense of viewpoint. That is, he judges the values of things insofar as they do, or do not, contribute to his general feeling of well-being and delight. He is much more the genial Epicurean than Valery. much more the child of nature. Of cultural consciousness he is rather impatient, while Valery considers it the prime factor of universality. He is the romanticist, Valery the classicist. But Spitteler, even more than his French contemporary, is inclined to rate beauty above all things — beauty as the only thing of very, great worth to man, under any circumstances. All that man knows and loves traces back to this; beauty is the only movement, the only reality, the only impetus and goal. The great master is loved because he has created what healthy men most need — beauty; and he who comes to the master bathes himself in a sunlit fountain of youth.

This is immeasurably the largest interest of Spitteler’s “central attitude”—and all his points of view have their basis here. For example, he has a very searching discussion of what is moral in art (which, by the way, the diseased Censorship Board cannot afford to miss) in which he maintains (how welcomely!) that it is no less than sheer depravity, to regard a work of art from any other than the artistic point of view. It was created as a work of art, not as a manual of children’s games, and should be looked upon only as such, criticised only as such, and from only this single standpoint of aesthetics. To read a book, as do our Comstockians, for the sole sake of picking out and suppressing the intimate truths of life, is simply a rather dangerous form of perverted sexuality, and warrants nothing less kindly than a course of competent medical treatment. “Cunningly concealed lubricity”!—I tell you there is more of it in one censor than in twentv Theodore Dreisers; the only difference is that Dreiser does not lie about it, while the censor’s mind is one long falsehood in sweat and garbage. Listen! “I do not see how it is possible to give true pictures of life without risk of offense to the jeune fille.

It is no more reasonable to demand that realistic romance should steer clear of the unseemly than it would be in the case of a physiological or pathological textbook. . . . Criticism, however, swallows a classical dung-beetle like this (i. e., Rabelais) as if it were candy, with profound reverences; on the other hand it prosecutes, just for a few unseemlinesses, the moderns, who are as far from Rabelais as white-frocked confirmation candidates are from a tough old master-at-arms. They call this sort of thing literary history; I call it straining at gnats and swallowing elephants.”

Bravo for that! “Truth is beauty.” This, Massachusetts has forgotten. It is very sad. But do not imagine, however, that Spitteler is pleading for filth; he is pleading for exactly the contrary. He asks only for the beautiful; and no lie, no suppression, can be beautiful. “The secret is this. If a book consists wholly of obscenities or indecencies, it is rubbish from the artistic point of view. If a writer introduces the disgusting without justification, that is a fault of style.” How simple that is, and how very good! We could almost say: let us suppress bad writing and we shall have suppressed filth in the bargain; but when it comes to suppressing good writing, let us take care, for that will forge ahead in spite of all, and is still vital and fresh and young when the censor is a proof of Pantheism—on the Desert! So I do not think we need fear Boston over-much, because “the moral pig-dealer will wake up some fine morning and find that he himself has been sold as a swine. This might happen quite unexpectedly; and I heartily hope it will.”

Perhaps i have dwelt at too great length on this, but I do not know where the case has been stated more perfectly or so irrefutably as in Spitteler’s words. Beauty and the full life!—let there be no falsehood in their names. For Spitteler believes that man’s constant development of his inborn forces and gifts is the only, worthwhile aim. All others are subsidiary, the side-shows of the great carnival. But he does not agree with Valery that the process must be conscious. “Which human beings,” he asks, “which natural scenes, which places abide most firmly in your recollection? Those which you observe intentionally, as a leisurely tourist studies towns, men, and landscapes? Not at all; rather those which you passed through with indifference while your spirit was stirred by some momentous experience.” He depends, you will see, upon spiritual reaction rather than upon intellectual “uplift.”

But i cannot talk about him endlessly, as much as I should like to. I can only say this much to you: Take up this book, so representative of all the varied manifestations of this consummate mind, and I can promise you a new and vital experience, entailing a clarification of outlook. All things are materials of thought to him—from music to the many, varieties of cedar trees. He is the most serious of artists, and yet in his most solemn moments nothing can | prevent his riotous, delightful humour from cropping out, malgre lui. Let the poet ponder the “Psychological Study of Poetic Creation” (a keen analysis of the state of the mind as it ripens for the production of a work of art); let the super-modern critic ponder “The Forgotten Epic” (which he defends so magnificently, this only master of it in modern times); and let us all ponder “Copuli, Copula” (wherein he puts forth proof that what we call spiritual love for one of the opposite sex, as was the supposed case with Wagner and a certain lady, is simply the hysterical assumption of a crank).

About the time this is published, Spitteler will have been dead three years. But he always was, and remains, a giant; he is holossal, as they say in Berlin. And yet we cannot know him very intimately, cannot know his Alpine strength, the profound sadness and joy that permeated him, until we read his great poetic epics—the Olympische frvhling (Olympian Spring), Prometheus der Dulder (Prometheus the Sufferer), and Prometheus und Epime- theus. For it is here that he is on his natural field and at his magnificent best, both realistic and idealistic. (Spitteler, by the way, thinks realistic art may save the literature of our generation, because it does away with frivolity.) Here the atmosphere that clings about his style is the pellucid and fresh beauty of his beloved Alps in a quiet blue dawn, with just enough of the morning mist to soften and endow it with mystery, yet as deep and clear as a mountain lake.

Well, he was “one of those fresh and hardy men of the imagination,” whom he speaks so dearly of, “who put forth on the deep in a swift boat, sniffling the morning air, driving shoals of small fish into the nets, and spearing larger fish, until all is spurt and foam.” Yes, sturdy, certain of aim, breathing the loftier air, of this company, was Carl Spitteler!


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading