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ISSUE:  Summer 1929


The triumph of individualism and the triumph of classicism melt into each other. Now I maintain that the triumph of individualism consists in renouncing one’s individuality. Not one of the qualities of the classic style but is purchased by the sacrifice of some satisfaction. The painters and writers whom today we praise the most, have a manner; the great classic artist strives to have no manner; his effort is towards the commonplace. If he gets the commonplace without great effort, he is not a great artist, and that’s that! A classic work is strong and beautiful only in so far as its romanticism is repressed. “A great artist”—as I wrote some twenty years ago—”has but one care: to become as human as possible; or better, to become commonplace. And the wonderful thing is that it is in this way that he becomes most individual. On the other hand, the writer who misses this human quality, turns out to be bizarre, peculiar, defective.

Shall I recall the words of the Gospel? Why not, since I do not intend to twist their meaning: He who would save his life (his individual life) shall lose it; but he who is willing to lose it, shall save it (or, to translate the Greek text more exactly—shall make it truly alive).”

I believe that a work of consummate art probably passes unobserved at first. It is a work in which the most apparently contradictory qualities—strength and sweetness, precision and poetry, logic and freedom, restraint and grace —breathe so easily that they appear natural and not at all surprising. And this is why the first of those pleasures the writer must give up, is the satisfaction of astonishing his contemporaries. Baudelaire, Keats, Browning, Stendhal wrote for the generations that were to be.

However, I do not believe a classic is necessarily unrecognized at once. Boileau, Racine, Le Fontaine, even Moliere, were appreciated right off; and although in their writings we now see virtues less esteemed by their contemporaries, yet the authors who seem to us the greatest are at the same time the ones most praised in their own time. In spite of Gautier’s rather silly effort to insist on finding unappreciated geniuses among the seventeenth century “grotesques,” these last, compared with our great classic writers, cut by no means the figure that a Baudelaire does by the side of a Ponsard or a Baour-Lormian. The public itself was classic, had a taste for the thing which was classic; the qualities it liked and demanded of a work of art were those very ones which make us call it classic today.


Today the word “classic” is in such honour, is so charged with significance, that for a little you might call classic any big beautiful work. This is absurd. There are great works which are in no sense classic—nor are they on that account any the more romantic. This classification holds good only for France, and even in France what could be less classic than Pascal often is, than Rabelais, than Villon? Not Shakespeare, nor Michelangelo, not Beethoven nor Dostoievsky nor Rembrandt, nor even Dante (I cite only the greatest) are classic. Don Quixote is not classic, and neither are Calder6n’s plays—nor are they romantic either, but simply Spanish. To tell the truth, I know no other classics, since antiquity, but the French ones (save only Goethe—and there again, he became classic only through imitation of the ancients). Classicism seems to me so peculiarly, a French invention, that for a little I would consider the two words, classic and French, synonymous, if the former term could claim to exhaust the genius of France, and had not Romanticism likewise managed to turn French. Anyhow, it is in its classic art that the French genius has most fully, realized itself, whilst every effort towards classicism on the part of any other people will forever be artificial, as happens with Pope, for example. Another reason for this is that in France, and iti France alone, intellect has a tendency to predominate over sentiment and instinct. This by no means implies, as certain foreigners are disposed to think, that sentiment and instinct are wanting. One need only go through the newly re-opened galleries of the Louvre, both of painting and of sculpture, to realize how profoundly reasonable all these works are. What reserve, what moderation! They must be looked at a long time before they consent to deliver up their hidden meanings—so secret is the thrill of them. But is the appeal to the senses—so overflowing in Rubens’ pictures—less powerful in Poussin’s for being restrained?

Classicism—and by that I mean French classicism—tends wholly towards litotes. It is the art of expressing most, by saying least. It is an art of modesty and restraint. All our classic writers are more emotional than they appear at first blush. The romantic authors, through the exuberance of their expression, always tend to seem more moved than they really are, so that with them the word keeps preceding and overflowing the emotion and the thought. This was due to a sort of fizzling out of taste (the result of a lesser degree of culture) which made them doubt the genuineness of what our classics uttered so modestly. For lack of knowing how to get into them, and read between the lines, they thought our classics cold, and considered a defect what is actually their most exquisite beauty—their reserve.

The romantic author is forever between us and his words, the classic must be sought on the other side of them. A certain faculty for passing too quickly, too easily, from the emotion to the word, is the mark of all the French romantics—and therefore they fail to seize the emotion otherwise than by the word; they fail to master it. The important thing for them is not to be moved, but to seem so. In all Greek literature, in the best of English poetry, in Racine, in Pascal, in Baudelaire, you feel that the word, though it reveals the emotion, yet does not hold it all, and that after the word has been said, the emotion whicli preceded it, goes on. With Ronsard, Corneille, Hugo (to cite only great names) it seems that the emotion leads to the word and stops there; the emotion is wordy and the word exhausts it; the sole reverberation is the reverberation of the voice.


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