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Albert Léon Guérard (1880-1959): the Styles of A Humanist

ISSUE:  Summer 1989

A generation has passed since the death of Professor Guérard, but my desire to revisit some of his books has been more than an exercise in nostalgia. By remembering him, and the humanistic tradition to which he belonged, I hope to take some measure of changes which have overtaken the study and criticism of literature in our time; he may help me define our situation today, by way of contrast. The three chief books of Guérard I have been rereading with much pleasure were all written in the thirties, which were my undergraduate student years: not an idyllic time, by any means, but in terms of intellectual culture and excitement they seem almost like a lost Paradise, from which we have since departed—if not necessarily in all ways “declined.”

The watershed of course was World War II and its aftermath, and those earlier years may appear relatively escapist, naive, and simple-minded—though the half century from 1890 has also been understood as “America’s Coming-of-Age” (associated with another World War). This latter perspective governed the work of M.D. Zabel when he first edited Literary Opinion in America (1937)—no assemblage of uncritical “innocents.” But his essayists represented a state of literary culture in which the professional linguists and philosophical theoreticians had not yet come to the fore in large numbers; though the overwhelming majority of his critics were associated with academia, not a single one wrote in terms inaccessible to the intelligent layman. Guérard (Albert Léon—the gifted son is Albert Joseph) was part of a world in which learning (especially about literature, history, and the arts) had not yet become specialized and professionalized. Today we find hosts of linguists, narratologists, psychoanalysts, and so forth, talking (each group) to one another as theoreticians and scientists—certainly not to a general public, and too often not even to the humanistic university as a whole.

Guérard was a representative scholar of his distinguished generation; and when I characterize him as a “humanist” I am thinking of the Renaissance sense of that label, and certainly not of the Neo-Humanists, with whom he was constantly disagreeing. Jacques Barzun, my teacher at Columbia, was a professor of history, and Guérard, of general and comparative literature, but both must have seemed to their students to know everything (or almost everything) in the history of Western culture. Barzun’s course in the 19th century was exploratory and comparative and seemed to me as a beginner to embrace the world. His Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1951) is both massive (two volumes) and a pleasure to read; as he wrote himself, it fuses “several different books: the life of a man who was at once artist, thinker, and doer; a concert or record guide to twelve great works increasingly valued by connoisseurs; an essay on esthetics; an account of nineteenth century culture; and, I daresay, a tract for our times as well.” Similarly, Guérard wrote a four-volume History of French Civilization and a Preface (characteristically a modest title for more than 500 pages) to World Literature. In both teachers, then, the range was very wide, and the critical spirit was ever-present; it was not irrelevant that they were both transplanted Europeans— ardently American, and yet somehow “French.” It is in this broad sense of “humanism” that I shall begin exploring Guérard’s “styles.”


I cannot pretend to cover all of Guérard’s career as a writer; his uncollected essays (in French and English, from 1908 to 1959—by me still largely unread) would fill many volumes; and I have only sampled his “purely” historical writings. But I cannot resist noting that he was born in the same year as my Russian father, and like him came to America during the first decade of our century. In his early sixties, he wrote an autobiographical summary for the Kunitz-Haycraft Twentieth Century Authors (1942), to which I am indebted. “If I am a follower of Montaigne, Voltaire and Renán,” he wrote then, “I am also a disciple of Pascal and Alfred de Vigny.” He seems to me to belong in any history of “French” thinkers and essayists, though he wrote chiefly in English.

“The style was the man,” and if I shall be referring to his “styles” it is because he was by nature decorous, adapting himself to the occasion and the purpose of whatever he wrote. He put himself, mind and soul, with a rich generosity of spirit, into whatever he was doing; and his last essay published posthumously (American Scholar, Autumn 1960), was on the theme of “Personality vs. Personalities”; yet in his scholarly-critical writings on literature, on which I am concentrating for the most part, the personal references are not obtrusive, since they are useful and make general points. He was a master of the illustrative example, anecdote, and quotation.

Guérard wasted no words, came right to the point, and delights us with his beginnings and conclusions. Take, for example, the opening sentences of one of his last books, Napoleon III: A Great Life in Brief (1955), where his style is at its ripest:

A great life? The man whom Victor Hugo branded as Napoleon the Little had greatness thrust upon him: without the magic of his name, he would never have become, and have remained for twenty years, the master of France and the arbiter of Europe. Yet he was not merely, as his enemies called him, “Napoleon’s cocked hat with no brains under it.” He had to achieve greatness: an adolescent dream slowly matured, realized at last not through luck alone, but through pertinacity, shrewdness, and daring. The dream was not ignoble; indeed, it was more generous than the sheer love of personal power which impelled Napoleon I. There must have been greatness, however warped, in the man’s very soul.

That is a perfect paragraph and a splendid opening, relating at once to the book’s subtitle and to the central problem for any biographer of Napoleon III—while giving the reader a precise epitome of the book’s central argument.

The details in the historical writings (with a wealth of knowledge behind each sentence) are carefully chosen and artfully arranged; and one sees clearly how inextricably literary, economic, political, and spiritual history are interrelated in “civilization.” I wonder what miracles Guérard might have wrought if he had turned his attention to American history. When Brandéis University awarded him an honorary degree, he was characterized as “a blend of Gallic wit and American pragmatism.”

Our quotations will illustrate the fact that there are no inert details in Guérard; but there is no forced working up of superficial statements either. Soon after his death, one of the editors of Southwest Review (Dallas, SMU), Margaret L. Hartley, published “The Courageous Idiosyncracy of Albert Guérard” (Autumn 1960), in which she quoted him to this effect: “I have never considered myself as a writer”—a challenging position from one who in fact wrote so much, and so well! He elaborated: “Writing throughout my career has been nothing but a means of conveying thought”—not information, but thought. This transparent lucidity, clearly related to what Anglo-American Puritans called “plain style,” Ms. Hartley linked to his honesty, his refusal to compromise, his courageous self-expression—listening always to what, in a final religious “testament” (Bottle in the Sea), he later called “the voice of God within us.”

Moving on to our main concern, his three books in theory of literature, we note that clarity for Guérard meant the opposite of dogmatic definitions and rules. To start with the last published Preface, we find it described in the Foreword as “work in progress,” the report of an “experiment.” “The study of literature is an effort to think honestly about literature—to think till it hurts.” Guérard sought to generate in his scholars “gentle worry and slight bewilderment.” The ultimate test is “experience,” resulting in open minds and “Pragmatic Relations”—but not confusion: he would not “rest satisfied when we have turned ideas that were vaguely clear into ideas that are clearly vague.” He was not seeking “creative” muddle for its own sake (which is what we sometimes get today): “Our one hope is to challenge the student to find out his own way.” Personality would naturally assert itself, since “individuality” implied what was called “individuation” by Idealist philosophers, and “precise detail” by realistic-naturalistic writers and artists. Thus Guérard’s mind and styles were always working between the poles of clarity and questing freedom; and the arts by which he was nurtured exhibited for him a dialectic of realism-idealism, tempered by pragmatism.

In Twentieth Century Authors, Guérard distinguished between his own “useful” books and those “in which I have put most of myself.” Among the former, he included Preface to World Literature; but elsewhere he expressed a desire to revise that record of an extended “experiment.” Curiously, Literature and Society does not rate a mention in either of these contexts. It might be said that throughout his career as a writer, Guérard struggled against his indebtedness to Taine: in terms of modern French criticism, he may be placed between the freer (“impressionistic”) style of Sainte-Beure and the more systematic, philosophic style of Taine. In Personal Equation (1948), he quoted a passage from Zola which describes this phase of his own writings with an uncanny fidelity:

Taine precludes indifference: if you have anything to say, you must be convinced it deeply matters. . . . He expresses himself in logical form. Every paragraph develops a single idea, stated in the opening sentence, redefined and reconsidered in the last. . . . But Taine is not satisfied with the abstract frigidity of Euclid or Spinoza. His logic is constantly supported by vivid, realistic instances. The blend of restrained passion, cool, masterly argument and telling, picturesque illustrations is extremely impressive.

This analysis of Taine by Zola could be applied with little modification to chapter after chapter in the Preface book and Literature and Society especially.

These are the “useful” books; but it would be wrong to say that Guérard did not put much of “himself” into them— especially in the last four chapters of the latter. The conclusion is entitled “The Prospect for American Literature”; and here our transplanted Frenchman permits himself to speak personally and prophetically in the final paragraph:

The task of American literature is not to sing the pioneer of the material world . . . Let him be honored: but his deeds suffice to his praise. Literature is not a belated and faded imitation of life, but life itself in the experiment. Organized experience is no longer alive: mechanical laws force out and supplant the will of man. From this materialization, art offers an escape; perhaps the sole escape. Art is a flight, not from life, but from death.

The last sentence here points ahead to Art for Art’s Sake (1936)—into which Guérard did indeed “put most of himself”; in the area of literary history and theory, it seems to me his most original and best written work. Was he consciously echoing Oscar Wilde, who has Basil Hallward say of his portrait of Dorian Gray, near the beginning: “I have put too much of myself into it” (my italics)?


Art for Art’s Sake is Guérard’s most systematic book of theory, and his most ardent declaration of literary-aesthetic faith—written from within, as “a form of mysticism” and “direct revelation,” transcending “the laws of common morality and common sense.” It comes to a focus especially in the treatment of the “decadent” fin-de-siècle and turn of the century, when the author was growing up in France and England; it takes shape by way of contrast to the threat of Tainean determinism, and flowers in a life-affirming Religion of Beauty. Between the Society and World Literature books (two rather heavy treatises), Guérard took time out, so to speak, to indulge himself in a more personal and sometimes even lighthearted romp.

And despite the European historical backgrounds, it is a very American book. Society had been emphatically put forward as dedicated to “the study of literature by Americans and for Americans,” but too few of its illustrative examples, perhaps, had been “in the American grain.” Now, paradoxically, a study of chiefly European aestheticism would bring out more of Guérard’s American values and experiences: “what does the gospel of Art for Art’s Sake propose to us today?” he asked (my italics). “A way of escape, a counsel of despair, or a rule of life?” One main point of this book was to opt for the last of these alternatives, for himself as an individual, and for America as a culture.

“A shadowy purpose in this despairing world!”—these words were written against a troubled background of Depression, Nazism, and the emerging Spanish Civil War. While Guérard was citing notorious uses of military activities as “aesthetic” experiences, real Jews and others were struggling grimly to survive: not Art or Beauty were in the daily headlines of 1935, but refugees and other horror tales. “In our student days,” he wrote in the Introduction, “the Dreyfus Case was raging. The worthiest in the land, irreproachable citizens, soldiers and priests, knew by intuition that Dreyfus was guilty.” “Art is a country of the soul; but neither there nor in any country of the flesh is it safe to assert, “My country, right or wrong.” Who is “my country?” Not necessarily the decadent aesthete or the jingo journalist.” (Only the last are my italics. That last sentence, cautiously understated, is a characteristically witty irony.) “Stefan Zweig tells the story of a Jewish book peddler, so passionately absorbed in his pursuit that, living in Vienna, he remained unaware of the Great War.” This is taken to be “an extreme, almost a morbid case”; and Guérard was keenly aware of his idiosyncracy in publishing a declaration for Art in 1936: “Indeed it can be plainly demonstrated that the cult of Beauty leads straight to the Devil.” (How then did it lead him to write one of his best books?) He could not have known at the time that Stefan Zweig, an impoverished refugee in Brazil, would commit suicide with his wife in 1942.

I began rereading Art for Art’s Sake to refresh my memories of the 1890’s and found much more than I had anticipated. “It is our spiritual apparatus that has broken down. Our discussion, at any rate, will not be limited to the academic realm: Art for Art’s Sake is best revealed, not in the impalpable inane, but in clashes with reality.” The Introduction asks: “Can Art Be Defined?”—and the opening paragraph, beginning with war, goes on to a formula “which would sound subtly humorous, if it did not come from Immanuel Kant: . . .adequacy to purpose without purpose.” Behind William James and Bergson, we learn, was Walter Pater, in Marius the Epicurean and The Renaissance: “he gave us a definition of art, clear-cut, profound, perilous . . . . We have to face the same problem in religion” (my italics). “The fear of the commonplace is the beginning of madness. In art, it is not the commonplace that is damning, but the conventional, and sophistication soon becomes the tritest of conventions.” Nor does “pseudo-scientific method” promise a clear answer. “Our failure to define is therefore the first and essential manifestation of Art for Art’s Sake.” By the end of the Introduction, we are well launched on our dangerous quest: “wrestling with an Idea.” Since it is impossible to make a precis of Guerard’s rich book in an essay, we shall have to rest content with illustrating some of the methods and styles so effectively deployed in its three Parts, and its three-chapter Conclusion.

“Hellenism vs. Hebraism” is the Arnoldian heading of Part I, a five-chapter “history” of the Idea. Athens and Rome and Jerusalem lead us rapidly to the early Church, Roman decadence (Gibbon’s “decline”), and the late Middle Ages:

Thus was the stage set for the lurid career of Gilíes de Rais, great feudal noble, companion at arms to Joan of Arc, Marshal of France, robber baron, patron of the arts, sadist, satanist, a puzzle and a delight for all “minds that are not primitive,” a perfect example of Decadentism and a striking caricature of Art for Art’s Sake . . . He was as “representative” of the fifteenth century as Oscar Wilde was representative of England between Victoria’s two Jubilees.

—implying that history is in fact made by exceptional men: the “representative” often is the dissident or rebel. Guérard’s history of an Idea is not conveyed by dry analysis or abstract categories, so much as by vivid examples which illustrate problems under discussion.

By the end of Part I (Chapter V is titled “Symbolism and Decadence”), we realize that Guérard is really doing many things at once. His general subject naturally invited polemic and deep “engagement”; and as a matter of fact, the thirties and forties produced a series of such books. For example, in William York Tindall’s Forces in Modern British Literature (originally published in 1947), the first chapter, titled “Exile,” opens: “The artist’s exile from middle-class society accounts in part for the character of our literature” (my italics). Like Guérard an academic critic, Tindall’s exposition was enlivened by many ironic juxtapositions and sharp barbs of criticism:

A work of art, the exiles said, must be judged by beauty alone. This doctrine, said Tennyson, is “the way to Hell.”

But the entire structure and style of Guérard’s “tract for the times” is governed by purposes beyond lively scholarship: though there is a brief “Bibliographical Note,” for example, there is no index (such as we found in the “useful” books about Society and World Literature). We have a vivid sense that, like Coleridge in Biographia Literature, Guérard is formulating a philosophy, writing a sort of spiritual autobiography, wrestling with more than an “Idea”—in short, seeking salvation. Confronting a series of interrelated problems, he is sketching a Way of Life, for himself, for America, and for a world in crisis. One might think of the “engaged” tone of Irving Babbitt’s controversial Rousseau and Romanticism (1919); but Babbitt’s philosophizing now seems rather primitively dogmatic alongside the intense argumentation and lively dialectics in Guérard’s text.

The contexts of the troubled thirties are all-important for our grasp of what Guérard accomplished; and the cultural lag of the States with respect to Europe is central to his message. Notoriously, France and the Continent in modern times take the lead in matters of intellectual and artistic innovation, Britain usually follows about a decade behind, and America catches up about a second decade later. There may be isolated figures who show the way in England and the States, but the massive conservatism of Anglo-American culture takes time to respond; and this helps explain the tendency of American writers to expatriation in Europe.

As H. S. Canby put it in American Memoir (1947): “Twentieth-century American literature did not really get under way until the mid-twenties . . .after the war when, for a little while, our unsuspected physical, and also moral, power had dominated Europe, and when, turning home, we saw ourselves in a new perspective, these American writers and many others got an attention never before accorded. . . . This was the real fin de siècle in literature for us, and not the dilettantish sophistry of the eighteen-nineties.” Thus, though Guérard’s subject as a French-born scholar was largely focussed on the 19th century, his more immediate target was American culture experiencing a comparable crisis in the 20th.

It is fascinating to trace the flowering of Guérard’s styles toward the complex variety of his best book. Literature and Society and Art for Art’s Sake appear as Siamese twins, thematically linked, interrelated yet gaining in value by virtue of their contrasts. In the Tainean book, as it were, we are groping our way out of determinism towards pragmatism and freedom. It opens: “Art is the expression of a unique personality,” falls back into Taine’s categories for its systematic survey, but then prepares us for the sequel: “the defiant assertion of the Unique against the laws of the herd, we hope to study in a companion volume on The Doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake.” Not only in “Part IV: To-morrow” (which sketches “A Utopia for Literature” and “The Prospect for American Literature”), but especially in “Part III: The Public,” Guérard could not resist abandoning sober scholarly exposition for a satiric tone. This is most blatant in Chapter 19: “Today: Literature as Business,” which moves over from Europe to America. Thus:

As his fame increased, Valéry received more and more for giving less and less. For a few years, he was the author who made most money by refusing to sell. As an Irish critic would put it: “If he had refrained from writing altogether he would be a millionaire.”

This masterly sketch of modern publishing is prophetic of our current malaise half a century later, and at times becomes positively humorous:

An author whose fancy lightly turns to thoughts of pelf is no rarity in the literary world.

It would be hard for the book industry, in a capitalistic civilization, not to become frankly capitalistic. We may expect to see it dominated by huge impersonal concerns which, instead of keeping in their files chatty letters from their author-friends, will think in scientific graphs, and feel not at all. Into this work of soulless giants, personality will break forth once in a while, in the form of a young Napoleon of trade, ruthless, efficient, self-centered. Increasingly, “mere” literature will be looked upon with an indulgent smile.

Of course, he could not have predicted the degree to which university presses later stepped into this cultural gap.

In other words, the publisher attempts to do in a few weeks what Madame Arman de Caillavet did for Anatole France in fifteen years. Naturally, Time fails to respect that which is done without his collaboration. But who cares for Time nowadays? It may be the next fallacy to be exploded by the mathematical hyperphysicists. The method, therefore, is not new; it is the good old “puffing” (shall we say “puffing and blowing”?) of our ancestors. What is new is its commercial application by efficiency experts.

Guérard does not seem to have been aware of the classic satire on this state of affairs in Melville’s Pierre. In any case, this entire chapter is brilliant with observation and insight: the satire seems to have grown spontaneously out of the analysis. And it is not at all unique in Literature and Society.

Yet Art for Art’s Sake is the better, more profound, book— because in it Guérard gives us more “of himself.” It has the effect for me of fireworks, exploding with the personality of the author. Because it is so well written, like poetry it defies precise summary and analysis. Each chapter becomes a Montaigne-like essay on a complex problem: “A Gallery of Philistines”—and “Art for the Sake of”—Money, Prestige, Information, Propaganda. As already indicated, the chapters on Morality are especially dense with argumentation and illustration.

“Like all battle cries, Art for Art’s Sake posits an enemy.” “The Philistine is eternal.” “We should like, tentatively, to hang in our gallery the portraits of Goethe and Victor Hugo. They would not be altogether out of place.” “Art, love and religion belong to the realm of grace, beyond the law. But artists must live, and grace settles no bills.” “The sign of all noble activity is to be without price.” “The present writer has a quixotic fondness for unjustly treated words. In a previous chapter, he attempted to rehabilitate casuistry, which should denote the delicate adjustment of abstract principles to individual cases. In this chapter, he is using propaganda with no touch of scorn.” One wants to go on, in this way, quoting memorable sentences, which almost resist paraphrase: the mark of a classic.

But Art for Art’s Sake is not just a specimen of superb writing; it develops a tightly knit argument, expounds an aesthetic and a way of life, which climaxes in Part III, “The Esthetic Rule of Life.” And the climax is not at all simple: it confronts us with “The Challenge of the New Paganism,” “Art in History and Politics,” and “Art and Religion.” These are, of course, ultimate questions not to be disposed of by simple formulas. And it is here that the American Guérard emerges most forcefully:

Old Malherbe, the dictator of Parnassus under Louis XIII, opined that a good poet was of no more use to the state than a good ninepin player; not a few modern Malherbes would prize Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth far above Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Bring back to us the prosperity of 1929, make it permanent, cause it to increase and multiply, it would still leave us cold, as, under Napoleon, “another victory” simply made the Parisians shrug their shoulders.

About the rivalry between capitalism and communism: “It is a fascinating field of speculation to wonder which of these steel giants will first evolve a soul.”

Yes, Guérard was trying to formulate an Aesthetic of Beauty, but he was all-too-aware of its difficulties on the American scene:

Beauty parlors outnumber saloons; Beauty has become one of the basic industries; a wave of asceticism would cause a major panic . . . Our thoughts are filled with Beauty Parades, Beauty Contests, the House Beautiful. . . Beauty is more than a business, it is a religion.

Prophets and priests of the alleged “existing order” are saying: Peace, peace, when there is no peace. It is futile to stop thought for fear of spiritual chaos; chaos is here, we are immersed in it, and we need thought to seek a way of escape.

One key sentence: “The esthetic gospel, which will be discussed in the next three chapters, bears at times a dangerous resemblance to Decadentism; nor do we claim that the resemblance is superficial and fortuitous.” That was Guérard’s problem in a nutshell.

What saved him, for all his intensity of belief, from sentimentalism, evangelical preaching, and superficial philosophizing was history: a sense for the concrete and actual. In chapter II, on “History and Politics,” though he started with the “Beau Geste” motive, he was building on solid learning about Napoleon (see Reflections on the Napoleonic Legend). Coming to World War I, he refers to the Kaiser’s “fiery speeches”: “It was merely art, I know, but art is seldom allowed long to exist for Art’s Sake only. Napoleon III, the gentle sovereign who hated war, led France to the Crimea, Italy, Mexico—and Sedan.” It is around 1935 that he wrote: “It is possible to remain at peace with Fascism, but only if we make peace as dramatic, as prestigious, as beautiful as war.” Shades of William James! “The Weimar Republic died of congenital common sense. . . . The Third Reich is a work of art; . . . .and we, whose esthetic inclinations run on slightly different lines, can not deny its impressiveness” (my italics). Again, the wry irony of understatement. Abraham Lincoln: “Edgar Lee Masters can not persuade us that the man to whom we erected such an impressive Memorial [that adjective again!] was merely a man, and a fumbling politician. The temple proves the god. The temple creates the god.” “A nation is not a geographical area: a nation is a state of consciousness.”

Which brings us to the “Conclusion” of Art for Art’s Sake. The chapter on “Art and Religion” had climaxed with a firm distinction between the Religion of Beauty and Christianity: “But a Pantheon is the necropolis of faith. Christianity was persecuted, and Christianity triumphed, because it refused to enter the Roman Pantheon.” There was a danger that, after this important (and complex) statement, any further discussion would be anticlimactic; but Guérard prevents this by, first, refusing “to offer a resolution of the discord”:

In this book as in the companion volume Literature and Society our sole aim has been to draw up a catalogue of problems, with a few illustrative facts. . . . In such matters, rightness is not an object that can be transmitted. I am now thinking, not in French, but in English; the ideal of the French is avoir raison, to have reason on their side; ours is to be right.

Hence we get “a statement, not of what I have to give, but of what I am—a confession of experience, and a confession of faith.” Like Mark Twain toward the end of his life (when, incidentally, he seriously admired Cabell’s earliest books), Guérard quoted Luther: “So help me God, I can not otherwise.”

Again, a simple precis is difficult. Each of the “The Three Levels of Art” (Functionalism, Joy of Living, The Despairing Quest) is expounded with a mixture of enthusiasm and critical detachment. Since “the masses in Europe and America are enmeshed in our industrial civilization,” we cannot escape “Benthamite efficiency”; “But I believe that the essential function of Art is to transcend Functionalism.” Moving on (as Hegelians would say) to the higher level of Education, he writes as a Californian who spent a period living in Hawaii: “Utopia was an island, and we all dream, like Sancho Panza, of ruling our individual Barataria.” His suggested cure for the problems of the age (similar to what John Dewey in 1934 had written in Art is Experience) is to make art “the center of education”:

It is not vital to the welfare of the proletariat that they should be able to point differences between a Ter Borch and a Metsu, or to tell offhand whether Botticelli is a wine, a cheese or a dictator. Neither am I advocating the training of all men for art as a career.

Guérard wants all students (American-style democracy is his ideal) to learn “the joy of living,” of “self-expression,” of “achievement”: “an art of, by, and for the people”—shifting Lincoln’s formula from government to art. “Freedom should be the gift of the schools”; but “the artist can not live a harmonious life except in a harmonious community.” At times, he seems to be bringing up to date the ancient Horatian formula of “instruction and delight.”

Guérard was a Romantic at heart, however (in the best American tradition), and could not rest with so obvious a solution. “The Despairing Quest” (Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, which is not mentioned, was originally published in 1933) confronts “the Cabellian formula” with the problem of the Ugly—”the grotesque, the puerile, the barbaric”:

But if Caesar wants to be adored, the Christian will prefer martyrdom; and if Beauty is identified with functional perfection, or with adequacy to a worthy purpose, or with relaxation and entertainment, then Art will have to seek another goddess.

Art rebels “against Beauty”—indeed, in Huysman’s famous formula: against Nature. Perhaps there is “a perversity inherent in the artistic temperament”:

It is a venture beyond organized truth, beyond acknowledged virtue, beyond recognized beauty, and, to follow our prophet Cabell to the very end, beyond the dreary dailiness of life.

and “the poet must sell shares in Xanadu . . . the pure vision is incommunicable; the sole language of the mystic is silence.”

The last words must be given to Guérard himself:

Two lines may sound almost alike. Both may have been written primarily for effect, for profit or for praise, for goodness, for beauty or for truth: yet one will convey a tremor. Some great poets have but half a dozen such lines in their voluminous works: yet they have not lived in vain. The haunting memory, the despairing expectancy of such moments pervade literature, carry us through countless pages of sheer sense and mere beauty. The innumerable company of readers and writers exist only for those few men, and those few men for those rare flashes of Art for Art’s Sake.

This is a teaching of perfection: we are in the presence of Matthew Arnold’s method of “touchstones.” In 1948, Huntington Cairns published The Limits of Art (Pantheon Books); and he twice quoted Guérard’s Art for Art’s Sake, for its praise of “Aucassin et Nicolette” and of Keats’ “The Fall of Hyperion” (as a condemnation of Art for Art’s Sake!), On this paradoxical note, perhaps, we may part company with Guérard’s masterwork.


Our copious quotation from Guérard’s texts makes it unnecessary to attempt a summary outline of his various “styles.” He gave us God’s plenty of wit and wisdom, out of full treasures of learning—spiced with the charm of a literary personality so special as to make us claim him as a “poet” of critical prose. If nothing else, we have been revisiting some excellent books. Jacques Barzun has dedicated his own masterwork, A Stroll With William James, to “rereaders” of literature; and Coleridge in Biographia wrote that “essential poetry” is “that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure.” Certainly Guérard’s books are among those that invite rereading.

But I began this exploration with a larger question in mind: what has happened to the study and criticism of literature in the last half century? Is the old tradition of “humanistic” scholarship dead, or deepening, or undergoing complex metamorphoses? The example of Guérard, along with others of his generation, poses such questions. I do not intend to offer simple answers, since I share his pragmatism and open-mindedness; and experiences of literature and criticism in the late 1980’s do not permit one to be simplistic or dogmatic. I shall attempt to phrase some tentative “conclusions.”

Living through an acute world crisis has reawakened our “imagination of disaster” and apocalypse as we approach the fin-de-siècle of our own century. We all, old and young, have entered into the “third wave” of technology and “artificial intelligence,” and tend to feel a profound malaise and pessimism about the future of humanity. Immediately after World War II, this took the form of existentialist thought, rebellious youth (the American “Beats” and British “angries”), absurdism and penetrating satire, violence and irrationalism, the threat of atomic catastrophe; one voice of sanity was that of Lionel Trilling (The Liberal Imagination, 1950). To help restore confidence, we may revisit the best specimens of those who “have been there before”: Mark Van Doren, for example, wrote his inspiring Liberal Education in the middle year of the war (1943). A.L. Guérard’s thinking and writing has that tonic effect for me.

It has become a cliché to bewail the inadequacies of American education, and to blame these on “impossible” demands made by democracy, the Third World, population explosions, rapidly expanding bibliographies and information-systems, and the like. On the one hand, the profit motive and struggle for power and status; on the other, a yearning to withdraw, to “drop out” and shape little islands of hedonism and art, decent or indecent. Again, Trilling was a perceptive critic in The Opposing Self (1955) and Beyond Culture (1965). Guérard’s early Art for Art’s Sake was prophetic in its engagements with these problems; his insights are still relevant. He is especially sharp in his understanding and criticisms of the various ways in which we continue to seek “escape” from unpleasant realities: concentration on complications of form, sometimes at the expense of commonsense— what William Barrett, in philosophy, has called The Illusion of Technique; profundities of metaphysics and symbolic logic, far removed from everyday experience; jungles of linguistic theory, which leave ordinary language-users (and teachers) gasping for breath; wild worlds of fantasy and incoherent abstract art—among my personal abhorrences; cosmic speculations (“big bangs” and “black holes”)—ditto; the list could easily be extended. I am not denigrating such exciting frontiers of contemporary culture when I say that they make it all the more urgent to keep alive old-fashioned humanistic learning, to preserve our sense of proportion, and to seek “organic” relations to history and tradition.

Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” which appeared a century and a quarter ago, may still help us keep “alive” if we remember his demand that criticism be “sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.” In literary history, we have been bewailing the disappearance of the “man of letters” type—perhaps prematurely. Ernst Cassirer, in Essay on Man (1944), confronted l’art pour l’art and cited Ortega y Gasset’s prophetic The Dehumanization of Art (1925); one may add to those already mentioned Allen Tate—and Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye; and see Horace M. Kallen’s Art and Freedom (1942). Writers like these and Guérard, with their charm of personality, their wit and wisdom, their combination of clarity and complexity, their sophistication and engaged humanity, may yet help us to save our souls and our threatened civilization.


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