Recollections of My Youth/The Petty Seminary of St. Nicholas du Chardonnet/Part I

The Petty Seminary of St. Nicholas du Chardonnet/Part IEdit

Many persons who allow that I have a perspicuous mind wonder how I came during my boyhood and youth to put faith in creeds, the impossibility of which has since been so clearly revealed to me. Nothing, however, can be more simple, and it is very probable that if an extraneous incident had not suddenly taken me from the honest but narrow-minded associations amid which my youth was passed, I should have preserved all my life long the faith which in the beginning appeared to me as the absolute expression of the truth. I have said how I was educated in a small school kept by some honest priests, who taught me Latin after the old fashion (which was the right one), that is to say to read out of trumpery primers, without method and almost without grammer, as Erasmus and the humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, who are the best Latin scholars since the days of old, used to learn it. These worthy priests were patterns of all that is good. Devoid of anything like pedagogy, to use the modern phrase, they followed the first rule of education, which is not to make too easy the tasks which have for their aim the mastering of a difficulty. Their main object was to make their pupils into honourable men. Their lessons of goodness and morality, which impressed me as being the literal embodiments of virtue and high feeling, were part and parcel of the dogma which they taught. The historical education they had given me consisted solely in reading Rollin. Of criticism, the natural sciences, and philosophy I as yet knew nothing of course. Of all that concerned the nineteenth century, and the new ideas as to history and literature expounded by so many gifted thinkers, my teachers knew nothing. It was impossible to imagine a more complete isolation from the ambient air. A thorough-paced Legitimist would not even admit the possibility of the Revolution or of Napoleon being mentioned except with a shudder. My only knowledge of the Empire was derived from the lodge-keeper of the school. He had in his room several popular prints. "Look at Bonaparte," he said to me one day, pointing to one of these, "he was a patriot, he was!" No allusion was ever made to contemporary literature, and the literature of France terminated with Abbe Delille. They had heard of Chateaubriand, but, with a truer instinct than that of the would-be Neo-Catholics, whose heads are crammed with all sorts of delusions, they mistrusted him. A Tertullian enlivening his Apologeticum with Atala and Rene was not calculated to command their confidence. Lamartine perplexed them more sorely still; they guessed that his religious faith was not built on very strong foundations, and they foresaw his subsequent falling away. This gift of observation did credit to their orthodox sagacity, but the result was that the horizon of their pupils was a very narrow one. Rollin's Traite des Etudes is a work full of large-minded views compared to the circle of pious mediocrity within which they felt it their duty to confine themselves.

Thus the education which I received in the years following the Revolution of 1830 was the same as that which was imparted by the strictest of religious sects two centuries ago. It was none the worse for that, being the same forcible mode of teaching, distinctively religious, but not in the least Jesuitical, under which the youth of ancient France had studied, and which gave so serious and so Christian a turn to the mind. Educated by teachers who had inherited the qualities of Port Royal, minus their heresy, but minus also their power over the pen, I may claim forgiveness for having, at the age of twelve or fifteen, admitted the truth of Christianity like any pupil of Nicole or M. Hermant. My state of mind was very much that of so many clever men of the seventeenth century, who put religion beyond the reach of doubt, though this did not prevent them having very clear ideas upon all other topics. I afterwards learnt facts which caused me to abandon my Christian beliefs, but they must be profoundly ignorant of history and of human intelligence who do not understand how strong a hold the simple and honest discipline of the priests took upon the more gifted of their students. The basis of this primitive form of education was the strictest morality, which they inculated as inseparable from religious practice, and they made us regard the possession of life as implying duties towards truth. The very effort to shake off opinions, in some respects unreasonable, had its advantages. Because a Paris flibbertigibbet disposes with a joke of creeds, from which Pascal, with all his reasoning powers, could not shake himself free, it must not be concluded that the Gavroche is superior to Pascal. I confess that I at times feel humiliated to think that it cost me five or six years of arduous research, and the study of Hebrew, the Semitic languages, Gesenius, and Ewald to arrive at the result which this urchin achieves in a twinkling. These pilings of Pelion upon Ossa seem to me, when looked at in this light, a mere waste of time. But Pere Hardouin observed that he had not got up at four o'clock every morning for forty years to think as all the world thought. So I am loth to admit that I have been at so much pains to fight a mere chimaera bombinans. No, I cannot think that my labours have been all in vain, nor that victory is to be won in theology as cheaply as the scoffers would have us believe. There are, in reality, but few people who have a right not to believe in Christianity. If the great mass of people only knew how strong is the net woven by the theologians, how difficult it is to break the threads of it, how much erudition has been spent upon it, and what a power of criticism is required to unravel it all.... I have noticed that some men of talent who have set themselves too late in life the task have been taken in the toils and have not been able to extricate themselves.

My tutors taught me something which was infinitely more valuable than criticism or philosophic wisdom; they taught me to love truth, to respect reason, and to see the serious side of life. This is the only part in me which has never changed. I left their care with my moral sense so well prepared to stand any test, that this precious jewel passed uninjured through the crucible of Parisian frivolity. I was so well prepared for the good and for the true that I could not possibly have followed a career which was not devoted to the things of the mind. My teachers rendered me so unfit for any secular work that I was perforce embarked upon a spiritual career. The intellectual life was the only noble one in my eyes; and mercenary cares seemed to me servile and unworthy.

I have never departed from the sound and wholesome programme which my masters sketched out for me. I no longer believe Christianity to be the supernatural summary of all that man can know; but I still believe that life is the most frivolous of things, unless it is regarded as one great and constant duty. Oh! my beloved old teachers, now nearly all with the departed, whose image often rises before me in my dreams, not as a reproach but as a grateful memory, I have not been so unfaithful to you as you believe! Yes, I have said that your history was very short measure, that your critique had no existence, and that your natural philosophy fell far short of that which leads us to accept as a fundamental dogma: "There is no special supernatural;" but in the main I am still your disciple. Life is only of value by devotion to what is true and good. Your conception of what is good was too narrow; your view of truth too material and too concrete, but you were, upon the whole, in the right, and I thank you for having inculcated in me like a second nature the principle, fatal to worldly success but prolific of happiness, that the aim of a life worth living should be ideal and unselfish.

Most of my fellow-students were brawny and high-spirited young peasants from the neighbourhood of Treguier, and, like most individuals occupying an inferior place in the scale of civilization, they were inclined to air an exaggerated regard for bodily strength, and to show a certain amount of contempt for women and for anything which they considered effeminate. Most of them were preparing for the priesthood. My experiences of that time put me in a very good position for understanding the historical phenomena, which occur when a vigorous barbarism first comes into contact with civilization. I can quite easily understand the intellectual condition of the Germans at the Carlovingian epoch, the psychological and literary condition of a Saxo Grammaticus and a Hrabanus Maurus. Latin had a very singular effect upon their rugged natures, and they were like mastodons going in for a degree. They took everything as serious as the Laplanders do when you give them the Bible to read. We exchanged with regard to Sallust and Livy, impressions which must have resembled those of the disciples of St. Gall or St. Colomb when they were learning Latin. We decided that Caesar was not a great man because he was not virtuous, our philosophy of history was as artless and childlike as might have been that of the Heruli.

The morals of all these young people, left entirely to themselves and with no one to look after them, were irreproachable. There were very few boarders at the Treguier College just then. Most of the students who did not belong to the town boarded in private houses, and their parents used to bring them in on market day their provisions for the week. I remember one of these houses, close to our own, in which several of my fellow-students lodged. The mistress of it, who was an indefatigable housewife, died, and her husband, who at the best of times was no genius, drowned what little he had in the cider-cup every evening. A little servant-maid, who was wonderfully intelligent, took the whole burden upon her shoulders. The young students determined to help her, and so the house went on despite the old tippler. I always heard my comrades speak very highly of this little servant, who was a model of virtue and who was gifted, moreover, with a very pleasing face.

The fact is that, according to my experience, all the allegations against the morality of the clergy are devoid of foundation. I passed thirteen years of my life under the charge of priests, and I never saw anything approaching to a scandal; all the priests I have known have been good men. Confession may possibly be productive of evil in some countries, but I never saw anything of the sort during my ecclesiastical experience. The old-fashioned book which I used for making my examinations of conscience was innocence itself. There was only one sin which excited my curiosity and made me feel uneasy. I was afraid that I might have been guilty of it unawares. I mustered up courage enough, one day, to ask my confessor what was meant by the phrase: "To be guilty of simony in the collation of benefices." The good priest reassured me and told me that I could not have committed that sin.

Persuaded by my teachers of two absolute truths, the first, that no one who has any respect for himself can engage in any work that is not ideal--and that all the rest is secondary, of no importance, not to say shameful, ignominia seculi--and the second, that Christianity embodies everything which is ideal, I could not do otherwise than regard myself as destined for the priesthood. This thought was not the result of reflection, impulse, or reasoning. It came so to speak, of itself. The possibility of a lay career never so much as occurred to me. Having adopted with the utmost seriousness and docility the principles of my teachers, and having brought myself to consider all commercial and mercenary pursuits as inferior and degrading, and only fit for those who had failed in their studies, it was only natural that I should wish to be what they were. They were my patterns in life, and my sole ambition was to be like them, professor at the College of Treguier, poor, exempt from all material cares, esteemed and respected like them.

Not but what the instincts which in after years led me away from these paths of peace already existed within me; but they were dormant. From the accident of my birth I was torn by conflicting forces. There was some Basque and Bordeaux blood in my mother's family, and unknown to me the Gascon half of myself played all sorts of tricks with the Breton half. Even my family was divided, my father, my grandfather, and my uncles being, as I have already said, the reverse of clerical, while my maternal grandmother was the centre of a society which knew no distinction between royalism and religion. I recently found among some old papers a letter from my grandmother addressed to an estimable maiden lady named Guyon, who used to spoil me very much when I was a child, and who was then suffering from a dreadful cancer.

TREGUIER, March 19, 1831.

"Though two months have elapsed since Natalie informed me of your departure for Treglamus, this is the first time I have had a few moments to myself to write and tell you, my dear friend, how deeply I sympathise with you in your sad position. Your sufferings go to my heart, and nothing but the most urgent necessity has prevented me from writing to you before. The death of a nephew, the eldest son of my defunct sister, plunged us into great sorrow. A few days later, poor little Ernest, son of my eldest daughter, and a brother of Henriette, the boy whom, you were so fond of and who has not forgotten you, fell ill. For forty days he was hanging between life and death, and we have now reached the fifty-fifth day of his illness and still he does not make much progress towards his recovery. He is pretty well in the day time, but his nights are very bad. From ten in the evening to five or six in the morning, he is feverish and half-delirious. I have said enough to excuse myself in the eyes of one who is so kind-hearted and who will forgive me. How I wish I was by your side to repay you the attention you bestowed on me with so much zeal and benevolence. My great grief is to be unable to help you.

"March 20th.

"I was sent for to the bedside of my dear little grandson, and I was obliged to break off my conversation with you, which I now resume, my dear friend, to exhort you to put all your trust in God. It is He who afflicts us, but He consoles us with the hope of a reward far beyond what we suffer. Let us be of good cheer; our pains and our sorrows do not last long, and the reward is eternal.

"Dear Natalie tells me how patient and resigned you are amid the most cruel sufferings. That is quite in keeping with your high feelings. She says that never a complaint comes from you however keen your pain. How pleasing you are in God's sight by your patience and resignation to His heavenly will. He afflicts you, but those whom He loveth He chasteneth. What joy can be compared to that which God's love gives? I send you L'Ame sur le Calvaire, which will furnish you with much consolation in the example of a God who suffered and died for us. Madame D---- will be so kind, I am sure, as to read you a chapter of it every day, if you cannot read yourself. Give her my kindest regards, and beg her to write and tell me how you are going on, and how she is herself. If you will not think me troublesome I will write to you more frequently. Good-bye, my dear friend. May God pour upon you His grace and blessing. Be patient and of good cheer.

"Your ever devoted friend,


"In taking the Communion to-day my prayers were specially for you. My daughter, Henriette, and Ernest, who has passed a much better night, beg to be remembered, as also does Clara. We often talk of you. Let me know how you are, I beg of you. When you have read L'Ame sur le Calvaire you can send it back to me, and I will let you have L'Esprit Consolateur."

The letter and the books were never sent, for my mother, who was to have forwarded them, learnt that Mademoiselle Guyon had died. Some of the consolatory remarks which the letter contains may seem very trite, but are there any better ones to offer a person afflicted with cancer? They are, at all events, as good as laudanum. As a matter of fact the Revolution had left no impress upon the people among whom I lived. The religious ideas of the people were not touched; the congregations came together again, and the nuns of the old orders, converted into schoolmistresses, imparted to women the same education as before. Thus my sister's first mistress was an old Ursuline nun, who was very fond of her, and who made her learn by heart the psalms which are chanted in church. After a year or two the worthy old lady had reached the end of her tether, and was conscientious enough to come and tell my mother so. She said, "I have nothing more to teach her; she knows all that I know better than I do myself." The Catholic faith revived in these remote districts, with all its respectable gravity and, fortunately for it, disencumbered of the worldly and temporal bonds which the ancient regime had forged for it.

This complexity of origin is, I believe, to a great extent the cause of my seeming inconsistency. I am double, as it were, and one half of me laughs while the other weeps. This is the explanation of my cheerfulness. As I am two spirits in one body, one of them has always cause to be content. While upon the one hand I was only anxious to be a village priest or tutor in a seminary. I was all the time dreaming the strangest dreams. During divine service I used to fall into long reveries; my eyes wandered to the ceiling of the chapel, upon which I read all sorts of strange things. My thoughts wandered to the great men whom we read of in history. I was playing one day, when six years old, with one of my cousins and other friends, and we amused ourselves by selecting our future professions. "And what will you be?" my cousin asked me. "I shall make books." "You mean that you will be a bookseller." "Oh, no," I replied, "I mean to make books--to compose them." These dawning dispositions needed time and favourable circumstances to be developed, and what was so completely lacking in all my surroundings was ability. My worthy tutors were not endowed with any seductive qualities. With their unswerving moral solidity, they were the very contrary of the southerners--of the Neapolitan, for instance, who is all glitter and clatter. Ideas did not ring within their minds with the sonorous clash of crossing swords. Their head was like what a Chinese cap without bells would be; you might shake it, but it would not jingle. That which constitutes the essence of talent, the desire to show off one's thoughts to the best advantage, would have seemed to them sheer frivolity, like women's love of dress, which they denounced as a positive sin. This excessive abnegation of self, this too ready disposition to repulse what the world at large likes by an Abrenuntio tibi, Satana, is fatal to literature. It will be said, perhaps, that literature necessarily implies more or less of sin. If the Gascon tendency to elude many difficulties with a joke, which I derived from my mother, had always been dormant in me, my spiritual welfare would perhaps have been assured. In any event, if I had remained in Brittany I should never have known anything of the vanity which the public has liked and encouraged--that of attaining a certain amount of art in the arrangement of words and ideas. Had I lived in Brittany I should have written like Rollin. When I came to Paris I had no sooner given people a taste of what few qualities I possessed than they took a liking for them, and so--to my disadvantage it may be--I was tempted to go on.

I will at some future time describe how it came to pass that special circumstances brought about this change, which I underwent without being at heart in the least inconsistent with my past. I had formed such a serious idea of religious belief and duty that it was impossible for me, when once my faith faded, to wear the mask which sits so lightly upon many others. But the impress remained, and though I was not a priest by profession I was so in disposition. All my failings sprung from that. My first masters taught me to despise laymen, and inculcated the idea that the man who has not a mission in life is the scum of the earth. Thus it is that I have had a strong and unfair bias against the commercial classes. Upon the other hand, I am very fond of the people, and especially of the poor. I am the only man of my time who has understood the characters of Jesus and of Francis of Assisi. There was a danger of my thus becoming a democrat like Lamennais. But Lamennais merely exchanged one creed for another, and it was not until the close of his life that he acquired the cool temper necessary to the critic, whereas the same process which weaned me from Christianity made me impervious to any other practical enthusiasm. It was the very philosophy of knowledge which, in my revolt against scholasticism, underwent such a profound modification.

A more serious drawback is that, having never indulged in gaiety while young, and yet having a good deal of irony and cheerfulness in my temperament, I have been compelled, at an age when we see how vain and empty it all is, to be very lenient as regards foibles which I had never indulged in myself, so much so that many persons who have not perhaps been as steady as I was have been shocked at my easy-going indifference. This holds especially true of politics. This is a matter upon which I feel easier in my mind than upon any other, and yet a great many people look upon me as being very lax. I cannot get out of my head the idea that perhaps the libertine is right after all and practises the true philosophy of life. This has led me to express too much admiration for such men as Sainte-Beuve and Theophile Gautier. Their affectation of immorality prevented me from seeing how incoherent their philosophy was. The fear of appearing pharisaical, the idea, evangelical in itself, that he who is immaculate has the right to be indulgent, and the dread of misleading, if by chance all the doctrines emitted by the professors of philosophy were wrong, made my system of morality appear rather shaky. It is, in reality, as solid as the rock. These little liberties which I allow myself are by way of a recompense for my strict adherence to the general code. So in politics I indulge in reactionary remarks so that I may not have the appearance of a Liberal understrapper. I don't want people to take me for being more of a dupe than I am in reality; I would not upon any account trade upon my opinions, and what I especially dread is to appear in my own eyes to be passing bad money. Jesus has influenced me more in this respect than people may think, for He loved to show up and deride hypocrisy, and in His parable of the Prodigal Son He places morality upon its true footing--kindness of heart--while seeming to upset it altogether.

To the same cause may be attributed another of my defects, a tendency to waver which has almost neutralized my power of giving verbal expression to my thoughts in many matters. The priest carries his sacred character into every relation of life, and there is a good deal of what is conventional about what he says. In this respect, I have remained a priest, and this is all the more absurd because I do not derive any benefit either for myself or for my opinions. In my writings, I have been outspoken to a degree. Not only have I never said anything which I do not think, but, what is much less frequent and far more difficult, I have said all I think. But in talking and in letter-writing, I am at times singularly weak. I do not attach any importance to this, and, with the exception of the select few between whom and myself there is a bond of intellectual brotherhood, I say to people just what I think is likely to please them. In the society of fashionable people I am utterly lost. I get into a muddle and flounder about, losing the thread of my ideas in some tissue of absurdity. With an inveterate habit of being over polite, as priests generally are, I am too anxious to detect what the person I am talking with would like said to him. My attention, when I am conversing with any one, is engrossed in trying to guess at his ideas, and, from excess of deference, to anticipate him in the expression of them. This is based upon the supposition that very few men are so far unconcerned as to their own ideas as not to be annoyed when one differs from them. I only express myself freely with people whose opinions I know to sit lightly upon them, and who look down upon everything with good-natured contempt. My correspondence will be a disgrace to me if it should be published after my death. It is a perfect torture for me to write a letter. I can understand a person airing his talents before ten as before ten thousand persons, but before one! Before beginning to write, I hesitate and reflect, and make out a rough copy of what I shall say; very often I go to sleep over it. A person need only look at these letters with their heavy wording and abrupt sentences to see that they were composed in a state of torpor which borders on sleep. Reading over what I have written, I see that it is poor stuff, and that I have said many things which I cannot vouch for. In despair, I fasten down the envelope, with the feeling that I have posted a letter which is beneath criticism.

In short, all my defects are those of the young ecclesiastical student of Treguier. I was born to be a priest, as others are born to be soldiers and lawyers. The very fact of my being successful in my studies was a proof of it. What was the good of learning Latin so thoroughly if it was not for the Church? A peasant, noticing all my dictionaries upon one occasion, observed: "These, I suppose, are the books which people study when they are preparing for the priesthood." As a matter of fact, all those who studied at school at all were in training for the ecclesiastical profession. The priestly order stood on a par with the nobility: "When you meet a noble," I have heard it observed, "you salute him, because he represents the king; when you meet a priest, you salute him because he represents God." To make a priest was regarded as the greatest of good works; and the elderly spinsters who had a little money thought that they could not find a better use for it than in paying the college fees of a poor but hard-working young peasant. When he came to be a priest, he became their own child, their glory, and their honour. They followed him in his career, and watched over his conduct with jealous care. As a natural consequence of my assiduity in study I was destined for the priesthood. Moreover, I was of sedentary habits and too weak of muscle to distinguish myself in athletic sports. I had an uncle of a Voltairian turn of mind, who did not at all approve of this. He was a watchmaker, and had reckoned upon me to take on his business. My successes were as gall and wormwood to him, for he quite saw that all this store of Latin was dead against him, and that it would convert me into a pillar of the Church which he disliked. He never lost an opportunity of airing before me his favourite phrase, "a donkey loaded with Latin." Afterwards, when my writings were published, he had his triumph. I sometimes reproach myself for having contributed to the triumph of M. Homais over his priest. But it cannot be helped, for M. Homais is right. But for M. Homais we should all be burnt at the stake. But as I have said, when one has been at great pains to learn the truth, it is irritating to have to allow that the frivolous, who could never be induced to read a line of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, are the true sages. It is hard to think that Gavroche and M. Homais attain without an effort the alpine heights of philosophy.

My young compatriot and friend, M. Quellien, a Breton poet full of raciness and originality, the only man of the present day whom I have known to possess the faculty of creating myths, has described this phase of my destiny in a very ingenious style. He says that my soul will dwell, in the shape of a white sea-bird, around the ruined church of St. Michel, an old building struck by lightning which stands above Treguier. The bird will fly all night with plaintive cries around the barricaded door and windows, seeking to enter the sanctuary, but not knowing that there is a secret door. And so through all eternity my unhappy spirit will moan, ceaselessly upon this hill. "It is the spirit of a priest who wants to say mass," one peasant will observe.--"He will never find a boy to serve it for him," will rejoin another. And that is what I really am--an incomplete priest. Quellien has very clearly discerned what will always be lacking in my church--the chorister boy. My life is like a mass which has some fatality hanging over it, a never-ending Introibo ad altare Dei with no one to respond: Ad Deum qui loetificat juventutem meam. There is no one to serve my mass for me. In default of any one else I respond for myself, but it is not the same thing.

Thus everything seemed to make for my having a modest ecclesiastical career in Brittany. I should have made a very good priest, indulgent, fatherly, charitable, and of blameless morals. I should have been as a priest what I am as a father, very much loved by my flock, and as easy-going as possible in the exercise of my authority. What are now defects would have been good qualities. Some of the errors which I profess would have been just the thing for a man who identifies himself with the spirit of his calling. I should have got rid of some excrescences which, being only a layman, I have not taken the trouble to remove, easy as it would have been for me to do so. My career would have been as follows: at two-and-twenty professor at the College of Treguier, and at about fifty canon, or perhaps grand vicar at St. Brieuc, very conscientious, very generally respected, a kind-hearted and gentle confessor. Little inclined to new dogmas, I should have been bold enough to say with many good ecclesiastics after the Vatican Council: Posui custodiam ori meo. My antipathy for the Jesuits would have shown itself by never alluding to them, and a fund of mild Gallicanism would have been veiled beneath the semblance of a profound knowledge of canon law.

An extraneous incident altered the whole current of my life. From the most obscure of little towns in the most remote of provinces I was thrust without preparation into the vortex of all that is most sprightly and alert in Parisian society. The world stood revealed to me, and my self became a double one. The Gascon got the better of the Breton; there was no more custodia oris mei, and I put aside the padlock which I should otherwise have set upon my mouth. In so far as regards my inner self I remained the same. But what a change in the outward show! Hitherto I had lived in a hypogeum, lighted by smoky lamps; now I was going to see the sun and the light of day.