Recollections of My Youth/Little Noemi/Part II

Little Noemi/Part IIEdit

The world in its progress cares little more how many it crushes than the car of the idol of Juggernaut. The whole of the ancient society which I have endeavoured to portray has disappeared. Brehat has passed out of existence. I revisited it six years ago and should not have known it again. Some genius in the capital of the department has discovered that certain ancient usages of the island are not in keeping with some article of the code, and a peaceable and well-to-do population has been reduced to revolt and beggary. These islands and coasts which were formerly such a good nursery for the navy are so no longer. The railways and the steamers have been the ruin of them. And like old Breton bards, to what a case they have been brought! I found several of them a few years ago among the Bas-Bretons who came to eke out a miserable existence at St. Malo. One of them, who was employed in sweeping the streets, came to see me. He explained to me in Breton--for he could not speak a word of French--his ideas as to the decadence of all poetry and the inferiority of the new schools. He was attached to the old style--the narrative ballad--and he began to sing to me the one which he deemed the prettiest of them. The subject of it was the death of Louis XVI. He burst into tears, and when he got to Santerre's beating of the drums he could not continue. Rising proudly to his feet, he said: "If the king could have spoken, the spectators would have rallied to him." Poor dear man!

With all these instances before me the case of the wealthy M.A., seemed to me all the more singular. When I asked my mother to explain it to me, she always evaded an answer and spoke vaguely of adventures on the coast of Madagascar. Upon one occasion, I pressed her more closely and asked her how it was that the coasting trade, at which no one had ever made money, could have made a millionaire of him. "How obstinate you are, Ernest," she replied. "I have often told you not to ask me that! Z---- is the only person in our circle who has any pretensions to polish; he is in a good position; he is rich and respected; there is no need to ask him how he made his money." "Tell me all the same." "Well if you must know, and as people cannot get rich without soiling their fingers more or less, he was in the slave trade."

A noble people, fit only to serve nobles, and in harmony of ideas with them, is in our day at the very antipodes of sound political economy, and is bound to die of starvation. Persons of delicate ideas, who are hampered by honourable scruples of one kind and another, stand no chance with the matter-of-fact competitors who are the men not to let slip any advantage in the battle of life. I soon found this out when I began to know something of the planet in which we live, and hence there arose within me a struggle or rather a dualism which has been the secret of all my opinions. I did not in any way lose my fondness for the ideal; it still is and always will be implanted in me as strongly as ever. The most trifling act of goodness, the least spark of talent, are in my eyes infinitely superior to all riches and worldly achievements. But as I had a well-balanced mind I saw that the ideal and reality have nothing in common; that the world is, at all events for the time, given over to what is commonplace and paltry; that the cause which generous souls will embrace is sure to be the losing one; and that what men of refined intellect hold to be true in literature and poetry is always wrong in the dull world of accomplished facts. The events which followed the Revolution of 1848 confirmed all their ideas. It turned out that the most alluring dreams, when carried into the domain of facts, were mischievous to the last degree, and that the affairs of the world were never so well managed as when the idealists had no part or lot in them. From that time I accustomed myself to follow a very singular course: that is to shape my practical judgments in direct opposition to my theoretical judgments, and to regard as possible that which was in contradiction with my desires. A somewhat lengthy experience had shown me that the cause I sympathised with always failed and that the one which I decried was certain to be triumphant. The lamer a political solution was, the brighter appeared to me its prospect of being accepted In the world of realities.

In fine, I only care for characters of an absolute idealism: martyrs, heroes, utopists, friends of the impossible. They are the only persons in whom I interest myself; they are, if I may be permitted to say so, my specialty. But I see what those whose imagination runs away with them fail to see, viz., that these flights of fancy are no longer of any use and that for a long time to come the heroic follies which were deified in the past will fall flat. The enthusiasm of 1792 was a great and noble outburst, but it was one of those things which will not recur. Jacobinism, as M. Thiers has clearly shown, was the salvation of France; now it would be her ruin. The events of 1870 have by no means cured me of my pessimism. They taught me the high value of evil, and that the cynical disavowal of all sentiment, generosity and chivalry gives pleasure to the world at large and is invariably successful. Egotism is the exact opposite of what I had been accustomed to regard as noble and good. We see that in this world egotism alone commands success. England has until within the last few years been the first nation in the world because she was the most selfish. Germany has acquired the hegemony of the world by repudiating without scruple the principles of political morality which she once so eloquently preached.

This is the explanation of the anomaly that having on several occasions been called upon to give practical advice in regard to the affairs of my country, this advice has always been in direct contradiction with my artistic views. In so doing, I have been actuated by conscientious motives. I have endeavoured to evade the ordinary cause of my errors; I have taken the counterpart of my instincts and been on guard against my idealism. I am always afraid that my mode of thought will lead me wrong and blind me to one side of the question. This is how it is that, much as I love what is good, I am perhaps over indulgent for those who have taken another view of life, and that, while always being full of work, I ask myself very often whether the idlers are not right after all.

So far as regards enthusiasm, I have got as much of it as any one; but I believe that the reality will have none of it, and that with the reign of men of business, manufacturers, the working class (which is the most selfish of all), Jews, English of the old school and Germans of the new school, has been ushered in a materialist age in which it will be as difficult to bring about the triumph of a generous idea as to produce the silvery note of the great bell of Notre Dame with one cast in lead or tin. It is strange, moreover, that while not pleasing one side I have not deceived the other. The bourgeois have not been the least grateful to me for my concessions; they have read me better than I can read-myself, and they have seen that I was but a poor sort of Conservative, and that without the most remote intention of acting in bad faith, I should have played them false twenty times over out of affection for the ideal, my ancient mistress. They felt that the hard things which I said to her were only superficial, and that I should be unable to resist the first smile which she might bestow upon me.

We must create the heavenly kingdom, that is the ideal one, within ourselves. The time is past for the creation of miniature worlds, refined Thelemes, based upon mutual affection and esteem; but life, well understood and well lived, in a small circle of persons who can appreciate one another, brings its own reward. Communion of spirit is the greatest and the only reality. This is why my thoughts revert so willingly to those worthy priests who were my first masters, to the honest sailors who lived only to do their duty, to little Noemi who died because she was too beautiful, to my grandfather who would not buy the national property, and to good Master Systeme, who was happy inasmuch as he had his hour of illusion. Happiness consists in devotion to a dream or to a duty; self-sacrifice is the surest means of securing repose. One of the early Buddhas who preceded Sakya-Mouni obtained the nirvana in a singular way. He saw one day a falcon chasing a little bird. "I beseech thee," he said to the bird of prey, "leave this little creature in peace; I will give thee its weight from my own flesh." A small pair of scales descended from the heavens, and the transaction was carried out. The little bird settled itself upon one side of the scales, and the saint placed in the other platter a good slice of his flesh, but the beam did not move. Bit by bit the whole of his body went into the scales, but still the scales were motionless. Just as the last shred of the holy man's body touched the scale the beam fell, the little bird flew away and the saint entered into nirvana. The falcon, who had not, all said and done, made a bad bargain, gorged itself on his flesh.

The little bird represents the unconsidered trifles of beauty and innocence which our poor planet, worn out as it may be, will ever contain. The falcon represents the far larger proportion of egotism and gross appetites which make up the sum of humanity. The wise man purchases the free enjoyment of what is good and noble by making over his flesh to the greedy, who, while engrossed by this material feast, leave him and the free objects of his fancy in peace. The scales coming down from above represent fatality, which is not to be moved, and which will not accept a partial sacrifice; but from which, by a total abnegation of self, by casting it a prey, we can escape, as it then has no further hold upon us. The falcon, for its part is content when virtue, by the sacrifices which she makes, secures for it greater advantages than it could obtain by the force of its own claws. Desiring a profit from virtue, its interest is that virtue should exist; and so the wise man, by the surrender of his material privileges, attains his one aim, which is to secure free enjoyment of the ideal.