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The Spirit and the Flesh

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

Guy de Maupassant a Biographical Study. By Ernest Boyd. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $4.00.

In Guy de Maupassant’s sensitive soul the materialism that marks our epoch grew like a tumor, enslaved his body and spirit, and ended by shattering bis reason. Or put it this way: in Guy de Maupassant’s nervous system lay the germ of an organic, inherited malady, which, aggravated by sexual excesses, landed him in a strait-jacket, in a private lunatic asylum at Passy. I am sure our generation will prefer to put it that way; it is more scientific. Yet as Maupassant himself said, “Our diseases come from microbes, but where do the microbes come from?”

What a chance for another psychological biography, with no effort at all: the growing fear of being alone, the preoccupation with snicide, autoscopy (we must use some Greek derivatives, preferably newly-learned), violent headaches, dilated pupil, general neurasthenia, ending in “delusions of persecution,” “delusions of grandeur,” and all the other claptrap of modern psychology “discovering” new names for things that Moses and Ramses II and their contemporaries were almost forgetting. Mr. Ernest Boyd, the newest translator of Maupassant’s complete works, conscious of his chance to “study up” in a medical library, chose to make in his first paragraph a gesture of slight impatience at the psychologizers who recently broke into the world’s morgue in the name of biography; and proceeds to recreate Guy de Maupassant in these admirable pages.

Maupassant was a sensualist, a voluptuary. I take it one can observe this without moralizing. He regarded women, as he regarded other meat, exclusively from the consumer’s point of view. And to no meat did he take the robust and joyful appetite of Rabelais. He approached with his intelligence the problems of cook and prostitute. The artful chef creates the illusion of that Rabelaisian hunger for the jaded nineteenth-century appetite; and the successful prostitute creates the illusion of love. Married life, he might say, is a combination of artless cooking and artless love—”the chill, monotonous, and vulgar habits of conjugal love.”

Though he boasted of being a gourmet with both women and other delicacies, he saw no reason—as he wrote Maizeroy —to consider sentimental love anything else than “the hypocrisy of copulation.” And at twenty-two he was complaining to Flaubert of the physical monotony of women, to which the hard-working old fellow-Norman suggested that abstinence might prove a simple alternative.

Fnndamentally he regarded women—which meant sexual pleasure—as trivial; and life revenged itself on him by making him thrall to sex. Along with other members of the Zola group he warred on the bourgeois Third Republic; and he became slave to money. He lived in what would have been to his friend Flaubert great luxury, but he wrangled with his publishers over money, and he had that driven feeling money gives us. He turned to the theatre— which he despised—to bring him money so that he could write books “exactly as he liked them, without caring in the least what happened to them”—that is, write them for art and himself and not his public. For he did not respect his public and he became its drudge. Towards the end he published in the Revue des Deux Mondes, which he despised; and with an eye on income: “The special public of this periodical now knows me and will buy me later on. I have gained new readers.” In those same days he went much into society, and he loathed the ideas and conversations of the salon: “ineluctable proofs of the eternal, universal, indestructible, and omnipotent stupidity” of the human race.

He was cerebral. His brain chased and worried itself in the fruitless efforts of all rationalism. His brain drew little sustenance from his emotions and discordantly mocked, belittled, and slandered them. Even his art could not remain fresh or innocent. “I am incapable of really loving my art. I criticize and analyze it too much. I am too conscious of the purely relative value of ideas, of words, of the most powerful intelligence. I cannot help despising the mind, it is so weak; form, because it is so imperfect. In an acute and incurable form I have a feeling of human impotence, of our efforts which end in miserable makeshifts.” And from the torment of reality he early sought an escape. “Lunatics attract me,” he said early in life. And it was in lunacy he finally found a refuge. Even when it horrified him, as in Le Horla, he approached it irresistibly as a bicyclist swerves towards the object he would avoid.

This sense of the fruitless brought him the overwhelming ennui, the feeling of surfeit, that Baudelaire knew. And he talked of boredom with the same tone of terror Baudelaire used. He was essentially neurasthenic. Even his physique, his magnificent Norman muscles, developed by, hard rowing, turned against him in the end, as if his body, being a fine instrument with no purpose had rent itself asunder. Or was it merely organic disease, all explained in medical literature? Perhaps.

He retained always as his actuating force the adolescent’s morbid and cerebral preoccupation with sex, combined with the disillusionment of the roue who has purchased much love and found it stale. He looked for “pleasure” in love, for “fun,” never for suffering or understanding. And so he always saw through what he called love, as witness (p. 200) the amusing naughty poem on Venus which he wrote to his friend Madame Lecomte du Nouy.

He was born at the middle point of the nineteenth century, when Western civilization had denied its own soul for profits so often that the search for lost youth organized by the romanticists fell through and when honest men—and he was fearlessly, honest—stated candidly that they saw in life only what was before the eye. What lay before the eye, they said, was not symbolic. What Maupassant describes in his stories is, he feels, all there is to it. There are no overtones. The physical is not a reflection of the spiritual. It is the physical, that is to say all. So why lie?

But after he had defined Reality thus bravely, it tallied so badly with his artist’s soul, that at first it bored him and at last it broke his heart; until, released from hopeless reality, he found a raving freedom. Or—an organic nervous disorder, an inherited weakness, or perhaps an infection over which no soul has control and for which medicine then had no specific, shattered him body and mind and left him in a lunatic asylum. I am sure our generation will prefer to put it that way; it is more scientific.


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