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HENRY JAMES: GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

From "Essays in London and Elsewhere," New York, 1893, pp. 138-150.1

This excellent example of the interpretative, impressionistic criticism I have discussed pretty fully in the Introduction, pp. 98-100. It is worth while, however, to point out here that its excellence lies in its exquisite sensitiveness to the inner, emotional significance of fact, and in its power of setting forth the influence of the more subtle and impalpable kinds of fact on the responsive temperament of an artist. Such criticism demands, in the first place, untiring patience and placidity of rumination, in order that your feelings may crystallize themselves, and, in the second place, the finest delicacy of exposition.

Ir is only a reader here and there in all the wide world who understands to-day, or who ever understood, what Gustave Flaubert tried for; and it is only when such a reader is also a writer, and a tolerably tormented one, that he particularly cares. Poor Flaubert's great revenge, however, far beyond that of any editorial treachery, is that when this occasional witness does care he cares very peculiarly and very tenderly, and much more than he may be able successfully to say. Then the great irritated style-seeker becomes, in the embracing mind, an object of interest and honor; not so much for what he altogether achieved, as for the way he strove and for the inspir

1 Copyright, 1893, by Messrs. Harper & Brothers.

ing image that he presents. There is no reasoning about him; the more we take him as he is the more he has a special authority. "Salammbô," in which we breathe the air of pure æsthetics, is as hard as stone;"L'Education," for the same reason, is as cold as death; "Saint-Antoine" is a medley of wonderful bristling metals and polished agates, and the drollery of "Bouvard et Pécuchet" (a work as sad as something perverse and puerile done for a wager) about as contagious as the smile of a keeper showing you through the wards of the madhouse. In "Madame Bovary" alone emotion is just sufficiently present to take off the chill. This truly is a qualified report, yet it leaves Flaubert untouched at the points where he is most himself, leaves him master of the province in which, for many of us, it will never be an idle errand to visit him. The way to care for him is to test the virtue of his particular exaggeration, to accept for the sake of his æsthetic influence the idiosyncrasies now revealed to us, his wild gesticulation, his plaintive, childish side, the side as to which one asks one's self what has become of ultimate good humor, of human patience, of the enduring man. He pays and pays heavily for his development in a single direction, for it is probable that no literary effort so great, accompanied with an equal literary talent, ever failed on so large a scale to be convincing. It convinces only those who are converted, and the number of such is very small. It is an appeal so technical that we may say of him still, but with more resignation, what he personally wailed over, that nobody takes his

great question seriously. This is indeed why there may be for each of the loyal minority a certain fine scruple against insistence. If he had had in his nature a contradiction the less, if his indifference had been more forgiving, this is surely the way in which he would have desired most to be preserved.

To no one, at any rate, need it be denied to say that the best way to appreciate him is, abstaining from the clumsy process of an appeal and the vulgar process of an advertisement, exclusively to use him, to feel him, to be privately glad of his message. In proportion as we swallow him whole and cherish him as a perfect example, his weaknesses fall into their place as the conditions about which, in estimating a man. who has been original, there is a want of tact in crying out. There is, of course, always the answer that the critic is to be suborned only by originalities that fertilize; the rejoinder to which, of equal necessity, must ever be that even to the critics of unborn generations poor Flaubert will doubtless yield a fund of amusement. To the end of time there will be something flippant, something perhaps even "clever" to be said of his immense ado about nothing. Those for some of whose moments, on the contrary, this ado will be as stirring as music, will belong to the group that has dabbled in the same material and striven with the same striving. The interest he presents, in truth, can only be a real interest for fellowship, for initiation of the practical kind; and in that case it becomes a sentiment, a sort of mystical absorption or fruitful secret. The sweetest things in the world of

art or the life of letters are the irresponsible sympathies that seem to rest on divination. Flaubert's hardness was only the act of holding his breath in the reverence of his search for beauty; his universal renunciation, the long spasm of his too-fixed attention, was only one of the absurdest sincerities of art. To the participating eye these things are but details in the little square picture made at this distance of time by his forty years at the battered table at Croisset. Everything lives in this inward vision of the wide room on the river, almost the cell of a monomaniac, but consecrated ground to the faithful, which, as he tried and tried again, must so often have resounded with the pomp of a syntax addressed, in his code, peremptorily to the ear. If there is something tragi-comic in the scene, as of a tenacity in the void or a life laid down for grammar, the impression passes when we turn from the painful process to the sharp and splendid result. Then, since if we like people very much we end by liking their circumstances, the eternal chamber and the dry Benedictine years have a sufficiently palpable offset in the repoussé bronze of the books.

An incorruptible celibate and dédaigneux des femmes (as, in spite of the hundred and forty letters addressed to Madame Louise Colet, M. de Maupassant styles him and, in writing to Madame Sand, he confesses himself), it was his own view of his career that, as art was the only thing worth living for, he had made immense sacrifices to application, sacrificed passions, joys, affections, curiosities, and

opportunities. He says that he shut his passions up in cages, and only at long intervals, for amusement, had a look at them. The orgie de littérature, in short, had been his sole form of excess. He knew best, of course, but his imaginations about himself (as about other matters) were, however justly, rich, and to the observer at this distance he appears truly to have been made of the very stuff of a Benedictine. He compared himself to the camel, which can neither be stopped when he is going nor moved when he is resting. He was so sedentary, so averse to physical exercise, which he speaks of somewhere as an occupation funeste, that his main alternative to the chair was, even by day, the bed, and so omnivorous in research that the act of composition, with him, was still more impeded by knowledge than by taste. "I have in me," he writes to the imperturbable Madame Sand, "a fond d'ecclésiastique that people don't know," the clerical basis of the Catholic clergy. "We shall talk of it," he adds, "much better vivâ voce than by letter;" and we can easily imagine the thoroughness with which between the unfettered pair, when opportunity favored, the interesting subject was treated. At another time, indeed, to the same correspondent, who had given him a glimpse of the happiness of being a grandmother, he refers with touching sincerity to the poignancy of solitude to which the "radical absence of the feminine element" in his life condemned him. "Yet I was born with every capacity for tenderness. One does n't shape one's destiny, one undergoes it. I was pusillanimous in my youth

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