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A French Critic

ISSUE:  Spring 1928
Messages. By Ramon Fernandez. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

Before I take up what is really vital in Ramon Fernandez’s “Messages,” I must needs deliver myself of a very definite irritation—an irritation that evolves mostly from my impatience with any unnecessary obscurity and confusion of thought. In the first place, M. Fernandez is given to all sorts of diversions, inversions, and contradictions of intellect; but, even worse, the translator, Mr. Montgomery Belgion, is no more capable of precision than spilt wine, and through both misuse and disregard of commas, and through a lack of feeling for the life of words, his work in this book is, for the most part, an unfortunate mess. Take a sentence like this, for example: “Through much considering of quality, Mr. Meyerson’s irrational, as a strange body which must be acknowledged but which remains external to thought, one runs the risk of demolishing that thought itself when perhaps it is not reducible to its philosophic-scientific expression.” If you can discover for me the face of sense in all that contortionism, it will help clear up matters considerably. But that is only one sin out of hundreds. His phrases are often absurd, meaningless, even affected. What on God’s earth is “any vague poetic”?—a phrase referring to Pater. Mr. Belgion is obsessed by literalness, and seems incapable of understanding the expressiveness of language. Thus, when he translates “habitudes aveugles” as “blind habits” he only succeeds in making a very significant idea sound rather preposterous. And finally, another of my quarrels is with his custom of using the English “Mr.” before a Frenchman’s name. So long as he speaks of Mr. Thibaudet and Mr. Bourget, I wonder if he would not have spoken of Anatole France as Mr. France! This is simply an error of taste and technique, a failure to hold a given atmosphere. For there are certain incongruous things which are more repellent than comic. . . .

With that dispatched, let us now consider the opera under review. M. Fernandez is, in a sense, a younger and more modernistic (notice I do not say more modern) Paul Valery. Both are convinced individualists, but situated in this at different poles of thought. Valery considers the personality as the constantly shifting, always indefinite, expression of the Ego. Fernandez demands to see the personality before he can determine the nature of the Ego, in fact before he will believe in its existence. Personally, I am inclined to side with Valery; Fernandez is not always innocent of forced judgment. For the Ego is a man’s vision, so to speak, while the personality is the result of his reaction to what the vision sees. But since Fernandez sometimes seems to lose himself in “the zigzags of thought seeking itself,” I wonder if he has not confused personality with the reactionary synthesis, for he appears to believe that it can actually mold the Ego. The Ego, like the mind, is born with the man, and depends for its growth upon the vitality of its contacts with life—with which the intellect has far more to do than the personality.

And this leads to another point. Fernandez thinks that the independent intelligence does not belong to the continuity of life, whereas Valery thinks that it helps us to create the better life. When Meredith’s Diana cries out in a moment of confusion: “I want to think,” Fernandez calls it a “desperate effort to repel life in order better to live it.” But why is it to repel life? Here, it seems to me, is a rent in the garment. If life is to be really, the creation of the individual for himself (as all true lives must be), then thought must become a part of it and must develop with it. Intuition, which Fernandez puts so much faith in, is vitally necessary, of course, but there comes a time in a rapid progress or a new experience where intuition itself must learn, and only thought, then, can come to the rescue. This writer, who relies so much upon comprehension as the only unifying factor, cannot afford these restrictions. Naturally, thought by itself will not serve to solve all our problems ; neither can man walk everywhere, but when he comes to water his second senses will tell him to construct a boat. I wonder if Fernandez would not say that his refusal to plunge into the water is to repel action in order to safeguard further action.

But that may be carrying an extreme point rather far. What Fernandez demands is spiritual progress, for it is only when he finds this that he can observe the verities, or the changing verities, of life. This is just what he finds in Meredith and fails to find in Proust. In his profound essay on the latter, he points out that Proust erects no hierarchy of values, because what was phenomenal to Proust was not the fact that the Ego grows, but the fact that parts of it are stunted for years, and that the delayed expression of these parts is a sudden revitalization of some dwarfed state in an otherwise mature intelligence. Yet can a once received emotion which failed to impress, say, the boy of fifteen, come suddenly into being again and impress the man of fifty as being the same emotion? We must remember that the mind grows and that objects, still the same in reality, change tremendously in appearance. This is the reason for Proust’s frequent voids—to us, though not to Proust perhaps. For he lived entirely in, and for, the world of the senses. Of course the spiritual, in most men, grows out of this; but Proust was unable to get beyond the sensible. Thus, as Fernandez points out, comes the lack of that spiritual progress which is the test of the validity of a man’s growth.

Fernandez is as perfect a critic of the novel as lives in the contemporary world, because he lets the novel itself go and concerns himself only with the essential spirit of its creator. It is because he comes to life so intensely, so probingly, as if it were something never touched before, that he gives the impression of an athletic freshness. “I like,” he says, “to get hold of thought in its rough state, while it is unwilling, all caught and entangled in the organic trammels which while fettering it also reveal its living necessity.” His idea is to be able to create from what he has; for the poet and the creator, he maintains, are the only leaders of man. “The man, the artist, the analyst . . . I deem all three indispensable to the progress of sane culture.” To know how to handle the materials of life to the best result, is the important thing; and he touches upon the aesthetic discipline when he says that “the great metaphysical void of existence is too often only the lack of an appropriate technique.”

There are a thousand and one considerations in the extraordinary book which I should like to take up and discuss; but that is not possible here. About many things I drastically disagree with him, but still, even in our greatest differences, he always impresses me with the originality and sincerity of his outlook, and that, after all, is what I value in a man.


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