Part 2 out of 9
and anonymous, heavy and joyless. So might a lawyer conceive an art.
Christophe, who had at first been by way of being pleased with the French
for not liking Brahms, now thought that there were many, many little
Brahms in France. These laborious, conscientious, honest journeymen had
many qualities and virtues. Christophe left them edified, but bored to
distraction. It was all very good, very good....
How fine it was outside!
* * * * *
And yet there were a few independent musicians in Paris, men belonging to
no school; They alone were interesting to Christophe. It was only through
them that he could gauge the vitality of the art. Schools and coteries only
express some superficial fashion or manufactured theory. But the
independent men who stand apart have more chance of really discovering the
ideas of their race and time. It is true that that makes them all the more
difficult for a foreigner to understand.
That was, in fact, what happened when Christophe first heard the famous
work which the French had so extravagantly praised, while some of them were
announcing the coming of the greatest musical revolution of the last ten
centuries. (It was easy for them to talk about centuries: they knew hardly
anything of any except their own.)
Theophile Goujart and Sylvain Kohn took Christophe to the Opera Comique
to hear _Pelleas and Melisande_. They were proud to display the opera
to him--as proud as though they had written it themselves. They gave
Christophe to understand that it would be the road to Damascus for him. And
they went on eulogizing it even after the piece had begun. Christophe shut
them up and listened intently. After the first act he turned to Sylvain
Kohn, who asked him, with glittering eyes:
"Well, old man, what do you think of it?"
And he said:
"Is it like that all through?"
"But it's nothing."
Kohn protested loudly, and called him a Philistine.
"Nothing at all," said Christophe. "No music. No development. No sequence.
No cohesion. Very nice harmony. Quite good orchestral effects, quite good.
But it's nothing--nothing at all...."
He listened through the second act. Little by little the lantern gathered
light and glowed: and he began to perceive something through the twilight.
Yes: he could understand the sober-minded rebellion against the Wagnerian
ideal which swamped the drama with floods of music; but he wondered a
little ironically if the ideal of sacrifice did not mean the sacrifice of
something which one does not happen to possess. He felt the easy fluency
of the opera, the production of an effect with the minimum of trouble, the
indolent renunciation of the sturdy effort shown in the vigorous Wagnerian
structures. And he was quite struck by the unity of it, the simple, modest,
rather dragging declamation, although it seemed monotonous to him, and, to
his German ears, it sounded false:--(and it even seemed to him that the
more it aimed at truth the more it showed how little the French language
was suited to music: it is too logical, too precise, too definite,--a world
perfect in itself, but hermetically sealed).--However, the attempt was
interesting, and Christophe gladly sympathized with the spirit of revolt
and reaction against the over-emphasis and violence of Wagnerian art.
The French composer seemed to have devoted his attention discreetly and
ironically to all the things that sentiment and passion only whisper. He
showed love and death inarticulate. It was only by the imperceptible
throbbing of a melody, a little thrill from the orchestra that was no more
than a quivering of the corners of the lips, that the drama passing through
the souls of the characters was brought home to the audience. It was as
though the artist were fearful of letting himself go. He had the genius of
taste--except at certain moments when the Massenet slumbering in the heart
of every Frenchman awoke and waxed lyrical. Then there showed hair that was
too golden, lips that were too red--the Lot's wife of the Third Republic
playing the lover. But such moments were the exception: they were a
relaxation of the writer's self-imposed restraint: throughout the rest of
the opera there reigned a delicate simplicity, a simplicity which was not
so very simple, a deliberate simplicity, the subtle flower of an ancient
society. That young Barbarian, Christophe, only half liked it. The whole
scheme of the play, the poem, worried him. He saw a middle-aged Parisienne
posing childishly and having fairy-tales told to her. It was not the
Wagnerian sickliness, sentimental and clumsy, like a girl from the Rhine
provinces. But the Franco-Belgian sickliness was not much better, with
its simpering parlor-tricks:--"the hair," "the little father," "the
doves,"--and the whole trick of mystery for the delectation of society
women. The soul of the Parisienne was mirrored in the little piece, which,
like a flattering picture, showed the languid fatalism, the boudoir
Nirvana, the soft, sweet melancholy. Nowhere a trace of will-power. No one
knew what he wanted. No one knew what he was doing.
"It is not my fault! It is not my fault!" these grown-up children groaned.
All through the five acts, which took place in a perpetual
half-light--forests, caves, cellars, death-chambers--little sea-birds
struggled: hardly even that. Poor little birds! Pretty birds, soft, pretty
birds.... They were so afraid of too much light, of the brutality of deeds,
words, passions--life! Life is not soft and pretty. Life is no kid-glove
Christophe could hear in the distance the rumbling of cannon, coming to
batter down that worn-out civilization, that perishing little Greece.
Was it that proud feeling of melancholy and pity that made him in spite of
all sympathize with the opera? It interested him more than he would admit.
Although he went on telling Sylvain Kohn, as they left the theater, that it
was "very fine, very fine, but lacking in _Schwung_ (impulse), and did not
contain enough music for him," he was careful not to confound _Pelleas_
with the other music of the French. He was attracted by the lamp shining
through the fog. And then he saw other lights, vivid and fantastic,
flickering round it. His attention was caught by these will-o'-the-wisps:
he would have liked to go near them to find out how it was that they
shone: but they were not easy to catch. These independent musicians, whom
Christophe did not understand, were not very approachable. They seemed to
lack that great need of sympathy which possessed Christophe. With a few
exceptions they seemed to read very little, know very little, desire very
little. They almost all lived in retirement, some outside Paris, others in
Paris, but isolated, by circumstances or purposely, shut up in a narrow
circle--from pride, shyness, disgust, or apathy. There were very few of
them, but they were split up into rival groups, and could not tolerate
each other. They were extremely susceptible, and could not bear with their
enemies, or their rivals, or even their friends, when they dared to admire
any other musician than themselves, or when they admired too coldly,
or too fervently, or in too commonplace or too eccentric a manner. It
was extremely difficult to please them. Every one of them had actually
sanctioned a critic, armed with letters patent, who kept a jealous watch
at the foot of the statue. Visitors were requested not to touch. They did
not gain any greater understanding from being understood only by their own
little groups. They were deformed by the adulation and the opinion that
their partisans and they themselves held of their work, and they lost
grip of their art and their genius. Men with a pleasing fantasy thought
themselves reformers, and Alexandrine artists posed as rivals of Wagner.
They were almost all the victims of competition. Every day they had to leap
a little higher than the day before, and, especially, higher than their
rivals, These exercises in high jumping were not always successful, and
were certainly not attractive except to professionals. They took no account
of the public, and the public never bothered about them. Their art was
out of touch with the people, music which was only fed from music. Now,
Christophe was under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that there was no
music that had a greater need of outside support than French music. That
supple climbing plant needed a prop: it could not do without literature,
but did not find in it enough of the breath of life. French music was
breathless, bloodless, will-less. It was like a woman languishing for her
lover. But, like a Byzantine Empress, slender and feeble in body, laden
with precious stones, it was surrounded with eunuchs: snobs, esthetes,
and critics. The nation was not musical: and the craze, so much talked of
during the last twenty years, for Wagner, Beethoven, Bach, or Debussy,
never reached farther than a certain class. The enormous increase in the
number of concerts, the flowing tide of music at all costs, found no real
response in the development of public taste. It was just a fashionable
craze confined to the few, and leading them astray. There was only a
handful of people who really loved music, and these were not the people
who were most occupied with it, composers and critics. There are so few
musicians in France who really love music!
So thought Christophe: but it did not occur to him that it is the same
everywhere, that even in Germany there are not many more real musicians,
and that the people who matter in art are not the thousands who understand
nothing about it, but the few who love it and serve it in proud humility.
Had he ever set eyes on them in France? Creators and critics--the best of
them were working in silence, far from the racket, as Cesar Franck had
done, and the most gifted composers of the day were doing, and a number of
artists who would live out their lives in obscurity, so that some day in
the future some journalist might have the glory of discovering them and
posing as their friend--and the little army of industrious and obscure men
of learning who, without ambition and careless of their fame, were building
stone by stone the greatness of the past history of France, or, being vowed
to the musical education of the country, were preparing the greatness of
the France of the future. There were minds there whose wealth and liberty
and world-wide curiosity would have attracted Christophe if he had been
able to discover them! But at most he only caught a cursory glimpse of
two or three of them: he only made their acquaintance in the villainous
caricatures of their ideas. He saw only their defects copied and
exaggerated by the apish mimics of art and the bagmen of the Press.
But what most disgusted him with these vulgarians of music was their
formalism. They never seemed to consider anything but form. Feeling,
character, life--never a word of these! It never seemed to occur to them
that every real musician lives in a world of sound, as other men live in a
visible world, and that his days are lived in and borne onward by a flood
of music. Music is the air he breathes, the sky above him. Nature wakes
answering music in his soul. His soul itself is music: music is in all that
it loves, hates, suffers, fears, hopes. And when the soul of a musician
loves a beautiful body, it sees music in that, too. The beloved eyes are
not blue, or brown, or gray: they are music: their tenderness is like
caressing, notes, like a delicious chord. That inward music is a thousand
times more rich than the music that finds expression, and the instrument
is inferior to the player. Genius is measured by the power of life, by the
power of evoking life through the imperfect instrument of art. But to how
many men in France does that ever occur? To these chemists music seems to
be no more than the art of resolving sounds. They mistake the alphabet
for a book. Christophe shrugged his shoulders when he heard them say
complacently that to understand art it must be abstracted from the man.
They were extraordinarily pleased with this paradox: for by it they fancied
they were proving their own musical quality. And even Goujart subscribed
to it--Goujart, the idiot who had never been able to understand how people
managed to learn by heart a piece of music--(he had tried to get Christophe
to explain the mystery to him)--and had tried to prove to him that
Beethoven's greatness of soul and Wagner's sensuality had no more to do
with their music than a painter's model has to do with his portraits.
Christophe lost patience with him, and said:
"That only proves that a beautiful body is of no more artistic value to
you than a great passion. Poor fellow!... You have no notion of the beauty
given to a portrait by the beauty of a perfect face, or of the glow of
beauty given to music by the beauty of the great soul which is mirrored in
it?... Poor fellow!... You are interested only in the handiwork? So long
as it is well done you are not concerned with the meaning of a piece of
work.... Poor fellow!... You are like those people who do not listen to
what an orator says, but only to the sound of his voice, and watch his
gestures without understanding them, and then say he speaks devilish
well.... Poor fellow! Poor wretch!... Oh, you rotten swine!"
But it was not only a particular theory that irritated Christophe; it was
all their theories. He was appalled by their unending arguments, their
Byzantine discussions, the everlasting talk, talk, talk, of musicians
about music, and nothing else. It was enough to make the best of musicians
heartily sick of music. Like Moussorgski, Christophe thought that it would
be as well for musicians every now and then to leave their counterpoint and
harmony in favor of books or experience of life. Music is not enough for a
present-day musician; not thus will he dominate his age and raise his head
above the stream of time.... Life! All life! To see everything, to know
everything, to feel everything. To love, to seek, to grasp Truth--the
lovely Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, whose teeth bite in answer to a
Away with your musical discussion-societies, away with your
chord-factories! Not all the twaddle of the harmonic kitchens would ever
help him to find a new harmony that was alive, alive, and not a monstrous
He turned his back on these Doctor Wagners, brooding on their alembics to
hatch out some homunculus in bottle: and, running away from French music,
he sought to enter literary circles and Parisian society. Like many
millions of people in France, Christophe made his first acquaintance
with modern French literature through the newspapers. He wanted to get
the measure of Parisian thought as quickly as possible, and at the same
time to perfect his knowledge of the language. And so he set himself
conscientiously to read the papers which he was told were most Parisian. On
the first day after a horrific chronicle of events, which filled several
pages with paragraphs and snapshots, he read a story about a father and a
daughter, a girl of fifteen: it was narrated as though it were a matter
of course, and even rather moving. Next day, in the same paper, he read a
story about a father and a son, a boy of twelve, and the girl was mixed up
in it again. On the following day he read a story about a brother and a
sister. Next day, the story was about two sisters. On the fifth day.... On
the fifth day he hurled the paper away with a shudder, and said to Sylvain
"But what's the matter with you all? Are you ill?"
Sylvain Kohn began to laugh, and said:
"That is art."
Christophe shrugged his shoulders:
"You're pulling my leg."
Kohn laughed once more:
"Not at all. Read a little more."
And he pointed to the report of a recent inquiry into Art and Morality,
which set out that "Love sanctified everything," that "Sensuality was
the leaven of Art," that "Art could not be Immoral," that "Morality was
a convention of Jesuit education," and that nothing mattered except "the
greatness of Desire." A number of letters from literary men witnessed
the artistic purity of a novel depicting the life of bawds. Some of the
signatories were among the greatest names in contemporary literature, or
the most austere of critics. A domestic poet, _bourgeois_ and a Catholic,
gave his blessing as an artist to a detailed description of the decadence
of the Greeks. There were enthusiastic praises of novels in which the
course of Lewdness was followed through the ages: Rome, Alexandria,
Byzantium, the Italian and French Renaissance, the Age of Greatness ...
Nothing was omitted. Another cycle of studies was devoted to the various
countries of the world: conscientious writers had devoted their energies,
with a monkish patience, to the study of the low quarters of the five
continents. And it was no matter for surprise to discover among these
geographers and historians of Pleasure distinguished poets and very
excellent writers. They were only marked out from the rest by their
erudition. In their most impeccable style they told archaic stories, highly
But what was most alarming was to see honest men and real artists, men who
rightly enjoyed a high place in French literature, struggling in such a
traffic, for which they were not at all suited. Some of them with great
travail wrote, like the rest, the sort of trash that the newspapers
serialize. They had to produce it by a fixed time, once or twice a week:
and it had been going on for years. They went on producing and producing,
long after they had ceased to have anything to say, racking their brains to
find something new, something more sensational, more bizarre: for the
public was surfeited and sick of everything, and soon wearied of even the
most wanton imaginary pleasures: they had always to go one better--better
than the rest, better than their own best--and they squeezed out their very
life-blood, they squeezed out their guts: it was a pitiable sight, a
Christophe, who did not know the ins and outs of that melancholy traffic,
and if he had known them would not have been more indulgent; for in his
eyes nothing in the world could excuse an artist for selling his art for
thirty pieces of silver....
(Not even to assure the well-being of those whom he loves?
Not even then.
That is not human.
It is not a question of being human; it is a question of being a man....
Human!... May God have mercy on your white-livered humanitarianism, it is
so bloodless!... No man loves twenty things at once, no man can serve many
... Christophe, who, in his hard-working life, had hardly yet seen beyond
the limits of his little German town, could have no idea that this artistic
degradation, which showed so rawly in Paris, was common to nearly all the
great towns: and the hereditary prejudices of chaste Germany against Latin
immorality awoke in him once more. And yet Sylvain Kohn might easily have
pointed to what was going on by the banks of the Spree, and the impurity
of Imperial Germany, where brutality made shame and degradation even more
repulsive. But Sylvain Kohn never thought of it: he was no more shocked by
that than by the life of Paris. He thought ironically: "Every nation has
its little ways," and the ways of the world in which he lived seemed so
natural to him that Christophe could be excused for thinking it was in the
nature of the people. And so, like so many of his compatriots, he saw in
the secret sore which is eating away the intellectual aristocracies of
Europe the vice proper to French art, and the bankruptcy of the Latin
Christophe was hurt by his first encounter with French literature, and it
took him some time to get over it. And yet there were plenty of books which
were not solely occupied with what one of these writers has nobly called
"the taste for fundamental entertainments." But he never laid hands on
the best and finest of them. Such books were not written, for the like of
Sylvain Kohn and his friends: they did not bother about them, and certainly
Kohn and the rest never bothered about the better class of books: they
ignored each other. Sylvain Kohn would never have thought of mentioning
them to Christophe. He was quite sincerely convinced that his friends
and himself were the incarnation of French Art, and thought there was no
talent, no art, no France outside the men who had been consecrated as great
by their opinion and the press of the boulevards. Christophe knew nothing
about the poets who were the glory of French literature, the very crown of
France. Very few of the novelists reached him, or emerged from the ocean of
mediocre writers: a few books of Barres and Anatole France. But he was not
sufficiently familiar with the language to be able to enjoy the universal
dilettantism, and erudition, and irony of the one, or the unequal but
superior art of the other. He spent some time in watching the little
orange-trees in tubs growing in the hothouse of Anatole France, and the
delicate, perfect flowers clambering over the gravelike soul of Barres. He
stayed for a moment or two before the genius, part sublime, part silly, of
Maeterlinck: from that there issued a polite mysticism, monotonous, numbing
like some vague sorrow. He shook himself, and plunged into the heavy,
sluggish stream, the muddy romanticism of Zola, with whom he was already
acquainted, and when he emerged from that it was to sink back and drown in
a deluge of literature.
The submerged lands exhaled an _odor di femina_. The literature of the day
teemed with effeminate men and women. It is well that women should write if
they are sincere enough to describe what no man has yet seen: the depths
of the soul of a woman. But only very few dared do that: most of them only
wrote to attract the men: they were as untruthful in their books as in
their drawing-rooms: they jockeyed their facts and flirted with the reader.
Since they were no longer religious, and had no confessor to whom to tell
their little lapses, they told them to the public. There was a perfect
shower of novels, almost all scabrous, all affected, written in a sort of
lisping style, a style scented with flowers and fine perfumes--sometimes
too fine--sometimes not fine at all--and the eternal stale, warm, sweetish
smell. Their books reeked of it. Christophe thought, like Goethe: "Let
women do what they like with poetry and writing: but men must not write
like women! That I cannot stand." He could not help being disgusted by
their tricks, their sly coquetry, their sentimentality, which seemed to
expend itself by preference upon creatures hardly worthy of interest,
their style crammed with metaphor, their love-making and sensuality, their
hotch-potch of subtlety and brutality.
But Christophe was ready to admit that he was not in a position to judge.
He was deafened by the row of this babel of words. It was impossible to
hear the little fluting sounds that were drowned in it all. For even among
such books as these there were some, from the pages of which, behind all
the nonsense, there shone the limpid sky and the harmonious outline of the
hills of Attica--so much talent, so much grace, a sweet breath of life, and
charm of style, a thought like the voluptuous women or the languid boys of
Perugino and the young Raphael, smiling, with half-closed eyes, at their
dream of love. But Christophe was blind to that. Nothing could reveal
to him the dominant tendencies, the currents of public opinion. Even a
Frenchman would have been hard put to it to see them. And the only definite
impression that he had at this time was that of a flood of writing which
looked like a national disaster. It seemed as though everybody wrote: men,
women, children, officers, actors, society people, blackguards. It was an
For the time being Christophe gave it up. He felt that such a guide as
Sylvain Kohn must lead him hopelessly astray. His experience of a literary
coterie in Germany gave him very properly a profound distrust of the people
whom he met: it was impossible to know whether or no they only represented
the opinion of a few hundred idle people, or even, in certain cases,
whether or no the author was his own public. The theater gave a more exact
idea of the society of Paris. It played an enormous part in the daily life
of the city. It was an enormous kitchen, a Pantagruelesque restaurant,
which could not cope with the appetite of the two million inhabitants.
There were thirty leading theaters, without counting the local houses, cafe
concerts, all sorts of shows--a hundred halls, all giving performances
every evening, and, every evening, almost all full. A whole nation of
actors and officials. Vast sums were swallowed up in the gulf. The four
State-aided theaters gave work to three thousand people, and cost the
country ten million francs. The whole of Paris re-echoed with the glory
of the play-actors. It was impossible to go anywhere without seeing
innumerable photographs, drawings, caricatures, reproducing their features
and mannerisms, gramophones reproducing their voices, and the newspapers
their opinions on art and politics. They had special newspapers devoted
to them. They published their heroic and domestic Memoirs. These big
self-conscious children, who spent their time in aping each other, these
wonderful apes reigned and held sway over the Parisians: and the dramatic
authors were their chief ministers. Christophe asked Sylvain Kohn to
conduct him into the kingdom of shadows and reflections.
* * * * *
But Sylvain Kohn was no safer as a guide in that world than in the world
of books, and, thanks to him, Christophe's first impression was almost as
repulsive as that of his first essay in literature. It seemed that there
was everywhere the same spirit of mental prostitution.
The pleasure-mongers were divided into two schools. On the one hand there
was the good old way, the national way, of providing a coarse and unclean
pleasure, quite frankly; a delight in ugliness, strong meat, physical
deformities, a show of drawers, barrack-room jests, risky stories, red
pepper, high game, private rooms--"a manly frankness," as those people
say who try to reconcile looseness and morality by pointing out that,
after four acts of dubious fun, order is restored and the Code triumphs
by the fact that the wife is really with the husband whom she thinks
she is deceiving--(so long as the law is observed, then virtue is all
right):--that vicious sort of virtue which defends marriage by endowing it
with all the charm of lewdness:--the Gallic way.
The other school was in the modern style. It was much more subtle and much
more disgusting. The Parisianized Jews and the Judaicized Christians who
frequented the theater had introduced into it the usual hash of sentiment
which is the distinctive feature of a degenerate cosmopolitanism. Those
sons who blushed for their fathers set themselves to abnegate their racial
conscience: and they succeeded only too well. Having plucked out the soul
that was their birthright, all that was left them was a mixture of the
moral and intellectual values of other races: they made a _macedoine_ of
them, an _olla podrida_: it was their way of taking possession of them.
The men who who were at that time in control of the theaters in Paris were
extraordinarily skilful at beating up filth and sentiment, and giving
virtue a flavoring of vice, vice a flavoring of virtue, and turning upside
down every human relation of age, sex, the family, and the affections.
Their art, therefore, had an odor _sui generis_, which smelt both good and
bad at once--that is to say, it smelled very bad indeed: they called it
One of their favorite heroes at that time was the amorous old man. Their
theaters presented a rich gallery of portraits of the type: and in painting
it they introduced a thousand pretty touches. Sometimes the sexagenarian
hero would take his daughter into his confidence, and talk to her about
his mistress: and she would talk about her lovers: and they would give
each other friendly advice: the kindly father would aid his daughter in
her indiscretions: and the precious daughter would intervene with the
unfaithful mistress, beg her to return, and bring her back to the fold.
Sometimes the good old man would listen to the confidences of his
mistress: he would talk to her about her lovers, or, if nothing better
was forthcoming, he would listen to the tale of her gallantries, and even
take a delight in them. And there were portraits of lovers, distinguished
gentlemen, who presided in the houses of their former mistresses, and
helped them in their nefarious business. Society women were thieves. The
men were bawds, the girls were Lesbian. And all these things happened in
the highest society: the society of rich people--the only society that
mattered. For that made it possible to offer the patrons of the theater
damaged goods under cover of the delights of luxury. So tricked out, it was
displayed in the market, to the joy of old gentlemen and young women. And
it all reeked of death and the seraglio.
Their style was not less mixed than their sentiments. They had invented a
composite jargon of expressions from all classes of society and every
country under the sun--pedantic, slangy, classical, lyrical, precious,
prurient, and low--a mixture of bawdy jests, affectations, coarseness, and
wit, all of which seemed to have a foreign accent. Ironical, and gifted
with a certain clownish humor, they had not much natural wit: but they were
clever enough, and they manufactured their goods in imitation of Paris. If
the stone was not always of the first water, and if the setting was always
strange and overdone, at least it shone in artificial light, and that was
all it was meant to do. They were intelligent, keen, though short-sighted
observers--their eyes had been dulled by centuries of the life of the
counting-house--turning the magnifying-glass on human sentiments, enlarging
small things, not seeing big things. With a marked predilection for finery,
they were incapable of depicting anything but what seemed to their upstart
snobbishness the ideal of polite society: a little group of worn-out rakes
and adventurers, who quarreled among themselves for the possession of
certain stolen moneys and a few virtueless females.
And yet upon occasion the real nature of these Jewish writers would
suddenly awake, come to the surface from the depths of their being, in
response to some mysterious echo called forth by some vivid word or
sensation. Then there appeared a strange hotch-potch of ages and races, a
breath of wind from the Desert, bringing over the seas to their Parisian
rooms the musty smell of a Turkish bazaar, the dazzling shimmer of the
sands, the mirage, blind sensuality, savage invective, nervous disorder
only a hair's-breadth away from epilepsy, a destructive frenzy--Samson,
suddenly rising like a lion--after ages of squatting in the shade--and
savagely tearing down the columns of the Temple, which comes crashing down
on himself and on his enemies.
Christophe blew his nose and said to Sylvain Kohn:
"There's power in it: but it stinks. That's enough! Let's go and see
"What?" asked Sylvain Kohn.
"That's it!" said Kohn.
"Can't be," replied Christophe. "France isn't like that."
"It's France, and Germany, too."
"I don't believe it. A nation that was anything like that wouldn't last for
twenty years: why, it's decomposing already. There must be something else."
"There's nothing better."
"There must be something else," insisted Christophe.
"Oh, yes," said Sylvain Kohn. "We have fine people, of course, and theaters
for them, too. Is that what you want? We can give you that."
He took Christophe to the Theatre Francais.
* * * * *
That evening they happened to be playing a modern comedy, in prose, dealing
with some legal problem.
From the very beginning Christophe was baffled to make out in what sort of
world the action was taking place. The voices of the actors were out of all
reason, full, solemn, slow, formal: they rounded every syllable as though
they were giving a lesson in elocution, and they seemed always to be
scanning Alexandrines with tragic pauses. Their gestures were solemn and
almost hieratic. The heroine, who wore her gown as though it were a Greek
peplus, with arm uplifted, and head lowered, was nothing else but Antigone,
and she smiled with a smile of eternal sacrifice, carefully modulating
the lower notes of her beautiful contralto voice. The heavy father
walked about like a fencing-master, with automatic gestures, a funereal
dignity,--romanticism in a frock-coat. The juvenile lead gulped and gasped
and squeezed out a sob or two. The piece was written in the style of a
tragic serial story: abstract phrases, bureaucratic epithets, academic
periphrases. No movement, not a sound unrehearsed. From beginning to end it
was clockwork, a set problem, a scenario, the skeleton of a play, with not
a scrap of flesh, only literary phrases. Timid ideas lay behind discussions
that were meant to be bold: the whole spirit of the thing was hopelessly
middle-class and respectable.
The heroine had divorced an unworthy husband, by whom she had had a child,
and she had married a good man whom she loved. The point was, that even in
such a case as this divorce was condemned by Nature, as it is by prejudice.
Nothing could be easier than to prove it: the author contrived that the
woman should be surprised, for one occasion only, into yielding to the
first husband. After that, instead of a perfectly natural remorse, perhaps
a profound sense of shame, together with a greater desire to love and
honor the second and good husband, the author trotted out an heroic case
of conscience, altogether beyond Nature. French writers never seem to be
on good terms with virtue: they always force the note when they talk of
it: they make it quite incredible. They always seem to be dealing with
the heroes of Corneille, and tragedy Kings. And are they not Kings and
Queens, these millionaire heroes, and these heroines who would not be
interesting unless they had at least a mansion in Paris and two or three
country-houses? For such writers and such a public wealth itself is a
beauty, and almost a virtue.
The audience was even more amazing than the play. They were never bored
by all the tiresomely repeated improbabilities. They laughed at the good
points, when the actors said things that were _meant_ to be laughed at: it
was made obvious that they were coming, so that the audience could be ready
to laugh. They mopped their eyes and coughed, and were deeply moved when
the puppets gasped, and gulped, and roared, and fainted away in accordance
with the hallowed tragic ritual.
"And people say the French are gay!" exclaimed Christophe as they left the
"There's a time for everything," said Sylvain Kohn chaffingly. "You wanted
virtue. You see, there's still virtue in France."
"But that's not virtue!" cried Christophe. "That's rhetoric!"
"In France," said Sylvain Kohn. "Virtue in the theater is always
"A pretorium virtue," said Christophe, "and the prize goes to the best
talker. I hate lawyers. Have you no poets in France?"
Sylvain Kohn took him to the poetic drama.
* * * * *
There were poets in France. There were even great poets. But the theater
was not for them. It was for the versifiers. The theater is to poetry what
the opera is to music. As Berlioz said: _Sicut amori lupanar._
Christophe saw Princesses who were virtuously promiscuous, who prostituted
themselves for their honor, who were compared with Christ ascending
Calvary:--friends who deceived their friends out of devotion to
them:--glorified triangular relations:--heroic cuckoldry: (the cuckold,
like the blessed prostitute, had become a European commodity: the example
of King Mark had turned the heads of the poets: like the stag of Saint
Hubert, the cuckold never appeared without a halo.) And Christophe saw
also lovely damsels torn between passion and duty: their passion bade them
follow a new lover: duty bade them stay with the old one, an old man who
gave them money and was deceived by them. And in the end they plumped
heroically for Duty. Christophe could not see how Duty differed from sordid
interest: but the public was satisfied. The word Duty was enough for them:
they did not insist on having the thing itself; they took the author's word
The summit of art was reached and the greatest pleasure was given when,
most paradoxically, sexual immorality and Corneillian heroics could be
combined. In that way every need of the Parisian public was satisfied:
mind, senses, rhetoric. But it is only just to say that the public was
fonder even of words than of lewdness. Eloquence could send it into
ecstasies. It would have suffered anything for a fine tirade. Virtue or
vice, heroics hobnobbing with the basest prurience, there was no pill that
it would not swallow if it were gilded with sonorous rhymes and redundant
words. Anything that came to hand was ground into couplets, antitheses,
arguments: love, suffering, death. And when that was done, they thought
they had felt love, suffering, and death. Nothing but phrases. It was all
a game. When Hugo brought thunder on to the stage, at once (as one of
his disciples said) he muted it so as not to frighten even a child. (The
disciple fancied he was paying him a compliment.) It was never possible to
feel any of the forces of Nature in their art. They made everything polite.
Just as in music--and even more than in music, which was a younger art
in France, and therefore relatively more simple--they were terrified of
anything that had been "already said." The most gifted of them coldly
devoted themselves to working contrariwise. The process was childishly
simple: they pitched on some beautiful legend or fairy-story, and turned
it upside down. Thus, Bluebeard was beaten by his wives, or Polyphemus
was kind enough to pluck out his eye by way of sacrificing himself to the
happiness of Acis and Galatea. And they thought of nothing but form. And
once more it seemed to Christophe (though he was not a good judge) that
these masters of form were rather coxcombs and imitators than great writers
creating their own style and giving breadth and depth to their work.
They played at being artists. They played at being poets. Nowhere was the
poetic lie more insolently reared than in the heroic drama. They put up a
burlesque conception of a hero:
"_The great thing is to have a soul magnificent.
An eagel's eye; broad brow like portico; present
An air of strength, grave mien, most touchingly to show
A heart that throbs, eyes full of dreams of worlds they know._"
Verses like that were taken seriously. Behind the hocus-pocus of such
fine-sounding words, the bombast, the theatrical clash and clang of the
swords and pasteboard helmets, there was always the incurable futility of a
Sardou, the intrepid vaudevillist, playing Punch and Judy with history.
When in the world was the like of the heroism of Cyrano ever to be found?
These writers moved heaven and earth; they summoned from their tombs the
Emperor and his legions, the bandits of the Ligue, the _condottieri_ of
the Renaissance, called up the human cyclones that once devastated the
universe:--just to display a puppet, standing unmoved through frightful
massacres, surrounded by armies, soldiers, and whole hosts of captive
women, dying of a silly calfish love for a woman whom he had seen ten or
fifteen years before--or King Henri IV submitting to assassination because
his mistress no longer loved him.
So, and no otherwise, did these good people present their parlor Kings,
and _condottieri_, and heroic passion. They were worthy scions of the
illustrious nincompoops of the days of _Grand Cyrus_, those Gascons of the
ideal--Scudery, La Calprenede--an everlasting brood, the songsters of sham
heroism, impossible heroism, which is the enemy of truth. Christophe
observed to his amazement that the French, who are said to be so clever,
had no sense of the ridiculous.
He was lucky when religion was not dragged in to fit the fashion! Then,
during Lent, certain actors read the sermons of Bossuet at the Gaite
to the accompaniment of an organ. Jewish authors wrote tragedies about
Saint Theresa for Jewish actresses. The _Way of the Cross_ was acted at
the Bodiniere, the _Child Jesus_ at the Ambigu, the _Passion_ at the
Porte-Saint-Martin, _Jesus_ at the Odeon, orchestral suites on the subject
of _Christ_ at the Botanical Gardens. And a certain brilliant talker--a
poet who wrote passionate love-songs--gave a lecture on the _Redemption_
at the Chatelet. And, of course, the passages of the Gospel that were most
carefully preserved by these people were those relating to Pilate and
Mary Magdalene:--"_What is truth_?" and the story of the blessed foolish
virgin.--And their boulevard Christs were horribly loquacious and well up
in all the latest tricks of worldly casuistry.
"That is the worst yet. It is untruth incarnate. I'm stifling. Let's get
And yet there was a great classic art that held its ground among all these
modern industries, like the ruins of the splendid ancient temples among all
the pretentious buildings of modern Rome. But, outside Moliere, Christophe
was not yet able to appreciate it. He was not yet familiar enough with the
language, and, therefore, could not grasp the genius of the race. Nothing
baffled him so much as the tragedy of the seventeenth century--one of the
least accessible provinces of French art to foreigners, precisely because
it lies at the very heart of France. It bored him horribly; he found it
cold, dry, and revolting in its tricks and pedantry. The action was thin or
forced, the characters were rhetorical abstractions or as insipid as the
conversation of society women. They were caricatures of the ancient legends
and heroes: a display of reason, arguments, quibbling, and antiquated
psychology and archeology. Speeches, speeches, speeches; the eternal
loquacity of the French. Christophe ironically refused to say whether it
was beautiful or not: there was nothing to interest him in it: whatever the
arguments put forward in turn by the orators of _Cinna_, he did not care a
rap which of the talking-machines won in the end.
However, he had to admit that the French audience was not of his way of
thinking, and that they did applaud these plays that bored him. But that
did not help to dissipate his confusion: he saw the plays through the
audience: and he recognized in the modern French certain of the features,
distorted, of the classics. So might a critical eye see in the faded charms
of an old coquette the clear, pure features of her daughter:--(such a
discovery is not calculated to foster the illusion of love). Like the
members of a family who are used to seeing each other, the French could not
see the resemblance. But Christophe was struck by it, and exaggerated it:
he could see nothing else. Every work of art he saw seemed to him to be
full of old-fashioned caricatures of the great ancestors of the French;
and he saw these same great ancestors also in caricature. He could not see
any difference between Corneille and the long line of his followers, those
rhetorical poets whose mania it was to present nothing but sublime and
ridiculous cases of conscience. And Racine he confounded with his offspring
of pretentiously introspective Parisian psychologists.
None of these people had really broken free from the classics. The critics
were for ever discussing _Tartuffe_ and _Phedre_. They never wearied of
hearing the same plays over and over again. They delighted in the same old
words, and when they were old men they laughed at the same jokes which had
been their joy when they were children. And so it would be while the French
nation endured. No country in the world has so firmly rooted a cult of its
great-great-grandfathers. The rest of the universe did not interest them.
There were many, many men and women, even intelligent men and women, who
had never read anything, and never wanted to read anything outside the
works that had been written in France under the Great King! Their theaters
presented neither Goethe, nor Schiller, nor Kleist, nor Grillparzer,
nor Hebbel, nor any of the great dramatists of other nations, with the
exception of the ancient Greeks, whose heirs they declared themselves to
be--(like every other nation in Europe). Every now and then they felt they
ought to include Shakespeare. That was the touchstone. There were two
schools of Shakespearean interpreters: the one played _King Lear_, with
a commonplace realism, like a comedy of Emile Augier: the other turned
_Hamlet_ into an opera, with bravura airs and vocal exercises a la Victor
Hugo. It never occurred to them that reality could be poetic or that poetry
was the spontaneous language of hearts bursting with life. Shakespeare
seemed false. They very quickly went back to Rostand.
And yet, during the last twenty years, there had been sturdy efforts made
to vitalize the theater: the narrow circle of subjects drawn from Parisian
literature had been widened: the theater laid hands on everything with a
show of audacity. Two or three times even the outer world, public life, had
torn down the curtain of convention. But the theatrists made haste to piece
it together again. They lived in blinkers, and were afraid of seeing things
as they are. A sort of clannishness, a classical tradition, a routine
of form and spirit, and a lack of real seriousness, held them back from
pushing their audacity to its logical extremity. They turned the acutest
problems into ingenious games: and they always came back to the problem of
women--women of a certain class. And what a sorry figure did the phantoms
of great men cut on their boards: the heroic Anarchy of Ibsen, the Gospel
of Tolstoy, the Superman of Nietzsche!...
The literary men of Paris took a great deal of trouble to seem to be
advanced thinkers. But at heart they were all conservative. There was no
literature in Europe in which the past, the old, the "eternal yesterday,"
held a completer and more unconscious sway: in the great reviews, in the
great newspapers, in the State-aided theaters, in the Academy, Paris
was in literature what London was in Politics: the check on the mind of
Europe. The French Academy was a House of Lords. A certain number of the
institutions of the _Ancien Regime_ forced the spirit of the old days on
the new society. Every revolutionary element was rejected or promptly
assimilated. They asked nothing better. In vain did the Government pretend
to a socialistic polity. In art it truckled under to the Academies and the
Academic Schools. Against the Academies there was no opposition save from
a few coteries, and they put up a very poor fight. For as soon as a member
of a coterie could, he fell into line with an Academy, and became more
academic than the rest. And even if a writer were in the advance guard or
in the van of the army, he was almost always trammeled by his group and the
ideas of his group. Some of them were hidebound by their academic _Credo_,
others by their revolutionary _Credo_: and, when all was done, they both
amounted to the same thing.
* * * * *
By way of rousing Christophe, on whom academic art had acted as a
soporific, Sylvain Kohn proposed to take him to certain eclectic
theaters,--the very latest thing. There they saw murder, rape, madness,
torture, eyes plucked out, bellies gutted--anything to thrill the nerves,
and satisfy the barbarism lurking beneath a too civilized section of
the people. It had a great attraction for pretty women and men of the
world--the people who would go and spend whole afternoons in the stuffy
courts of the Palais de Justice, listening to scandalous cases, laughing,
talking, and eating chocolates. But Christophe indignantly refused. The
more closely he examined that sort of art, the more acutely he became
aware of the odor that from the very first he had detected, faintly in the
beginning, then more strongly, and finally it was suffocating: the odor of
Death: it was everywhere beneath all the luxury and uproar. Christophe
discovered the explanation of the feeling of repugnance with which certain
French plays had filled him. It was not their immorality that shocked him.
Morality, immorality, amorality,--all these words mean nothing. Christophe
had never invented any moral theory: he loved the great poets and great
musicians of the past, and they were no saints: when he came across a great
artist he did not inquire into his morality: he asked him rather:
"Are you healthy?"
To be healthy was the great thing. "If the poet is ill, let him first of
all cure himself," as Goethe says. "When he is cured, he will write."
The writers of Paris were unhealthy: or if one of them happened to be
healthy, the chances were that he was ashamed of it: he disguised it, and
did his best to catch some disease. Their sickness was not shown in any
particular feature of their art:--the love of pleasure, the extreme license
of mind, or the universal trick of criticism which examined and dissected
every idea that was expressed. All these things could be--and were, as the
case might be--healthy or unhealthy. If death was there, it did not come
from the material, but from the use that these people made of it; it was
in the people themselves. And Christophe himself loved pleasure. He, too,
loved liberty. He had drawn down upon himself the displeasure of his little
German town by his frankness in defending many things, which he found here,
promulgated by these Parisians, in such a way as to disgust him. And yet
they were the same things. But nothing sounded the same to the Parisians
and to himself. When Christophe impatiently shook off the yoke of the
great Masters of the past, when he waged war against the esthetics and the
morality of the Pharisees, it was not a game to him as it was to these men
of intellect: and his revolt was directed only towards life, the life of
fruitfulness, big with the centuries to come. With these people all tended
to sterile enjoyment. Sterile, Sterile, Sterile. That was the key to the
enigma. Mind and senses were fruitlessly debauched. A brilliant art, full
of wit and cleverness--a lovely form, in truth, a tradition of beauty,
impregnably seated, in spite of foreign alluvial deposits--a theater which
was a theater, a style which was a style, authors who knew their business,
writers who could write, the fine skeleton of an art, and a thought that
had been great. But a skeleton. Sonorous words, ringing phrases, the
metallic clang of ideas hurtling down the void, witticisms, minds haunted
by sensuality, and senses numbed with thought. It was all useless, save
for the sport of egoism. It led to death. It was a phenomenon analogous
to the frightful decline in the birth-rate of France, which Europe was
observing--and reckoning--in silence. So much wit, so much cleverness, so
many acute senses, all wasted and wasting in a sort of shameful onanism!
They had no notion of it, and wished to have none. They laughed. That was
the only thing that comforted Christophe a little: these people could still
laugh: all was not lost. He liked them even less when they tried to take
themselves seriously: and nothing hurt him more than to see writers, who
regarded art as no more than an instrument of pleasure, giving themselves
airs as priests of a disinterested religion:
"We are artists," said Sylvain Kohn once more complacently. "We follow art
for art's sake. Art is always pure: everything in art is chaste. We explore
life as tourists, who find everything amusing. We are amateurs of rare
sensations, lovers of beauty."
"You are hypocrites," replied Christophe bluntly. "Excuse my saying so. I
used to think my own country had a monopoly. In Germany our hypocrisy
consists in always talking about idealism while we think of nothing but
our interests, and we even believe that we are idealists while we think
of nothing but ourselves. But you are much worse: you cover your national
lewdness with the names of Art and Beauty (with capitals)--when you do not
shield your Moral Pilatism behind the names of Truth, Science, Intellectual
Duty, and you wash your hands of the possible consequences of your haughty
inquiry. Art for art's sake!... That's a fine faith! But it is the faith
of the strong. Art! To grasp life, as the eagle claws its prey, to bear it
up into the air, to rise with it into the serenity of space!... For that
you need talons, great wings, and a strong heart. But you are nothing but
sparrows who, when they find a piece of carrion, rend it here and there,
squabbling for it, and twittering ... Art for art's sake!... Oh! wretched
men! Art is no common ground for the feet of all who pass it by. Why, it is
a pleasure, it is the most intoxicating of all. But it is a pleasure which
is only won at the cost of a strenuous fight: it is the laurel-wreath that
crowns the victory of the strong. Art is life tamed. Art is the Emperor
of life. To be Caesar a man must have the soul of Caesar. But you are
only limelight Kings: you are playing a part, and do not even deceive
yourselves. And, like those actors, who turn to profit their deformities,
you manufacture literature out of your own deformities and those of your
public. Lovingly do you cultivate the diseases of your people, their fear
of effort, their love of pleasure, their sensual minds, their chimerical
humanitarianism, everything in them that drugs the will, everything in them
that saps their power for action. You deaden their minds with the fumes
of opium. Behind it all is death: you know it: but you will not admit it.
Well, I tell you: Where death is, there art is not. Art is the spring of
life. But even the most honest of your writers are so cowardly that even
when the bandage is removed from their eyes they pretend not to see: they
have the effrontery to say:
"'It is dangerous, I admit: it is poisonous: but it is full of talent.'
"It is as if a judge, sentencing a hooligan, were to say:
"'He's a blackguard, certainly: but he has so much talent!...'"
* * * * *
Christophe wondered what was the use of French criticism. There was no lack
of critics: they swarmed all over and about French art. It was impossible
to see the work of the artists: they were swamped by the critics.
Christophe was not indulgent towards criticism in general. He found it
difficult to admit the utility of these thousands of artists who formed a
Fourth or Fifth Estate in the modern community: he read in it the signs of
a worn-out generation which relegates to others the business of regarding
life--feeling vicariously. And, to go farther, it seemed to him not a
little shameful that they could not even see with their own eyes the
reflection of life, but must have yet more intermediaries, reflections
of the reflection--the critics. At least, they ought to have seen to it
that the reflections were true. But the critics reflected nothing but the
uncertainty of the mob that moved round them. They were like those trick
mirrors which reflect again and again the faces of the sightseers who gaze
into them against a painted background.
There had been a time when the critics had enjoyed a tremendous authority
in France. The public bowed down to their decrees: and they were not
far from regarding them as superior to the artists, as artists with
intelligence:--(apparently the two words do not go together naturally).
Then they had multiplied too rapidly: there were too many oracles: that
spoiled the trade. When there are so many people, each of whom declares
that he is the sole repository of truth, it is impossible to believe them:
and in the end they cease to believe it themselves. They were discouraged:
in the passage from night to day, according to the French custom, they
passed from one extreme to the other. Where they had before professed
to know everything, they now professed to know nothing. It was a point
of honor with them, quite fatuously. Renan had taught those milksop
generations that it is not correct to affirm anything without denying it at
once, or at least casting a doubt on it. He was one of those men of whom
St. Paul speaks: "For whom there is always Yes, Yes, and then No, No." All
the superior persons in France had wildly embraced this amphibious _Credo_.
It exactly suited their indolence of mind and weakness of character. They
no longer said of a work of art that it was good or bad, true or false,
intelligent or idiotic. They said:
"It may be so.... Nothing is impossible.... I don't know.... I wash my
hands of it."
If some objectionable piece were put up, they did not say:
"That is nasty rubbish!"
"Sir Sganarelle, please do not talk like that. Our philosophy bids us talk
of everything open-mindedly: and therefore you ought not to say: 'That is
nasty rubbish!' but: 'It seems to me that that is nasty rubbish.... But it
is not certain that it is so. It may be a masterpiece. Who can say that it
There was no danger of their being accused of tyranny over the arts.
Schiller once taught them a lesson when he reminded the petty tyrants of
the Press of his time of what he called bluntly:
"_The Duty of Servants.
"First, the house must be clean that the Queen is to enter. Bustle about,
then! Sweep the rooms. That is what you are there for, gentlemen!
"But as soon as She appears, out you go! Let not the serving-wench sit in
her lady's chair!_"
But, to be just to the critics of that time, it must be said that they
never did sit in their lady's chair. It was ordered that they should be
servants: and servants they were. But bad servants: they never took a broom
in their hands: the room was thick with dust. Instead of cleaning and
tidying, they folded their arms, and left the work to be done by the
master, the divinity of the day:--Universal Suffrage.
In fact, there had been for some time a wave of reaction passing through
the popular conscience. A few people had set out--feebly enough--on a
campaign of public health: but Christophe could see no sign of it among the
people with whom he lived. They gained no hearing, and were laughed at.
When every now and then some honest man did raise a protest against unclean
art, the authors replied haughtily that they were in the right, since the
public was satisfied. That was enough to silence every objection. The
public had spoken: that was the supreme law of art! It never occurred to
anybody to impeach the evidence of a debauched public in favor of those
who had debauched them, or that it was the artist's business to lead the
public, not the public the artist. A numerical religion--the number of the
audience, and the sum total of the receipts--dominated the artistic thought
of that commercialized democracy. Following the authors, the critics
docilely declared that the essential function of a work of art was to
please. Success is law: and when success endures, there is nothing to be
done but to bow to it. And so they devoted their energies to anticipating
the fluctuations of the Exchange of pleasure, in trying to find out what
the public thought of the various plays. The joke of it was that the public
was always trying frantically to find out what the critics thought. And so
there they were, looking at each, other: and in each other's eyes they saw
nothing but their own indecision.
And yet never had there been such crying need of a fearless critic. In an
anarchical Republic, fashion, which is all-powerful in art, very rarely
looks backward, as it does in a conservative State: it goes onwards always:
and there is a perpetual competition of libertinism which hardly anybody
dare resist. The mob is incapable of forming an opinion: at heart it is
shocked: but nobody dares to say what everybody secretly feels. If the
critics were strong, if they dared to be strong, what a power they would
have! A vigorous critic would in a few years become the Napoleon of public
taste, and sweep away all the diseases of art. But there is no Napoleon in
France, All the critics live in that vitiated atmosphere, and do not notice
it. And they dare not speak. They all know each other. They are a more or
less close company, and they have to consider each other: not one of them
is independent. To be so, they would have to renounce their social life,
and even their friendships. Who is there that would have the courage, in
such a knock-kneed time, when even the best critics doubt whether a just
notice is worth the annoyance it may cause to the writer and the object of
it? Who is there so devoted to duty that he would condemn himself to such a
hell on earth: dare to stand out against opinion, fight the imbecility of
the public, expose the mediocrity of the successes of the day, defend the
unknown artist who is alone and at the mercy of the beasts of prey, and
subject the minds of those who were born to obey to the dominion of the
master-mind? Christophe actually heard the critics at a first night in the
vestibule of the theater say: "H'm! Pretty bad, isn't it? Utter rot!" And
next day in their notices they talked of masterpieces, Shakespeare, the
wings of genius beating above their heads.
"It is not so much talent that your art lacks as character," said
Christophe to Sylvain Kohn. "You need a great critic, a Lessing, a ..."
"A Boileau?" said Sylvain quizzically.
"A Boileau, perhaps, more than these artists of genius."
"If we had a Boileau," said Sylvain Kohn, "no one would listen to him."
"If they did not listen to him," replied Christophe, "he would not be
a Boileau. I bet you that if I set out and told you the truth about
yourselves, quite bluntly, however clumsy I might be, you would have to
gulp it down."
"My dear good fellow!" laughed Sylvain Kohn.
That was all the reply he made.
He was so cocksure and so satisfied with the general flabbiness of the
French that suddenly it occurred to Christophe that Kohn was a thousand
times more of a foreigner in France than himself: and there was a catch at
"It is impossible," he said once more, as he had said that evening when he
had left the theater on the boulevards in disgust. "There must be something
"What more do you want?" asked Sylvain Kohn.
"We are France," said Sylvain Kohn, gurgling with laughter.
Christophe stared hard at him for a moment, then shook his head, and said
"There must be something else."
"Well, old man, you'd better look for it," said Sylvain Kohn, laughing
louder than ever.
Christophe had to look for it. It was well hidden.
The more clearly Christophe saw into the vat of ideas in which Parisian art
was fermenting, the more strongly he was impressed by the supremacy of
women in that cosmopolitan community. They had an absurdly disproportionate
importance. It was not enough for woman to be the helpmeet of man. It was
not even enough for her to be his equal. Her pleasure must be law both
for herself and for man. And man truckled to it. When a nation is growing
old, it renounces its will, its faith, the whole essence of its being,
in favor of the giver of pleasure. Men make works of art: but women make
men,--(except when they tamper with the work of the men, as happened in
France at that time):--and it would be more just to say that they unmake
what they make. No doubt the Eternal Feminine has been an uplifting
influence on the best of men: but for the ordinary men, in ages of
weariness and fatigue, there is, as some one has said, another Feminine,
just as eternal, who drags them down. This other Feminine was the mistress
of Parisian thought, the Queen of the Republic.
* * * * *
Christophe closely observed the Parisian women at the houses at which
Sylvain Kohn's introduction or his own skill at the piano had made him
welcome. Like most foreigners, he generalized freely and unsparingly about
French women from the two or three types he had met: young women, not very
tall, and not at all fresh, with neat figures, dyed hair, large hats on
their pretty heads that were a little too large for their bodies: they had
trim features, but their faces were just a little too fleshy: good noses,
vulgar sometimes, characterless always: quick eyes without any great depth,
which they tried to make as brilliant and large as possible: well-cut lips
that were perfectly under control: plump little chins; and the lower part
of their faces revealed their utter materialism; they were elegant little
creatures who, amid all their preoccupations with love and intrigue, never
lost sight of public opinion and their domestic affairs. They were pretty,
but they belonged to no race. In all these polite ladies there was the
savor of the respectable woman perverted, or wanting to be so, together
with all the traditions of her class; prudence, economy, coldness,
practical common sense, egoism. A poor sort of life. A desire for pleasure
emanating rather from a cerebral curiosity than from a need of the senses.
Their will was mediocre in quality, but firm. They were very well dressed,
and had little automatic gestures. They were always patting their hair
or their gowns with the backs or the palms of their hands, with little
delicate movements. And they always managed to sit so that they could
admire themselves--and watch other women--in a mirror, near or far, not to
mention, at tea or dinner, the spoons, knives, silver coffee-pots, polished
and shining, in which they always peeped at the reflections of their faces,
which were more interesting to them than anything or anybody else. At meals
they dieted sternly: drinking water and depriving themselves altogether of
any food that might stand in the way of their ideal of a complexion of a
There was a fairly large proportion of Jewesses among Christophe's
acquaintance: and he was always attracted by them, although, since his
encounter with Judith Mannheim, he had hardly any illusions about them.
Sylvain Kohn had introduced him to several Jewish houses where he was
received with the usual intelligence of the race, which loves intelligence.
Christophe met financiers there, engineers, newspaper proprietors,
international brokers, slave-dealers of a sort from Algiers--the men of
affairs of the Republic. They were clear-headed and energetic, indifferent
to other people, smiling, affable, and secretive. Christophe felt sometimes
that behind their hard faces was the knowledge of crime in the past, and
the future, of these men gathered round the sumptuous table laden with
food, flowers, and wine. They were almost all ugly. But the women, taken
as a whole, were quite brilliant, though it did not do to look at them too
closely: in most of them there was a want of subtlety in their coloring.
But brilliance there was, and a fair show of material life, beautiful
shoulders generously exposed to view, and a genius for making their beauty
and even their ugliness a lure for the men. An artist would have recognized
in some of them the old Roman type, the women of the time of Nero, down
to the time of Hadrian. And there were Palmaesque faces, with a sensual
expression, heavy chins solidly modeled with the neck, and not without a
certain bestial beauty. Some of them had thick curly hair, and bold, fiery
eyes: they seemed to be subtle, incisive, ready for everything, more virile
than other women. And also more feminine. Here and there a more spiritual
profile would stand out. Those pure features came from beyond Rome, from
the East, the country of Laban: there was expressed in them the poetry of
silence, of the Desert. But when Christophe went nearer, and listened to
the conversations between Rebecca and Faustina the Roman, or Saint Barbe
the Venetian, he found her to be just a Parisian Jewess, just like the
others, even more Parisian than the Parisian women, more artificial and
sophisticated, talking quietly, and maliciously stripping the assembled
company, body and soul, with her Madonna's eyes.
Christophe wandered from group to group, but could identify himself with
none of them. The men talked savagely of hunting, brutally of love, and
only of money with any sort of real appreciation. And that was cold and
cunning. They talked business in the smoking-room. Christophe heard some
one say of a certain fop who was sauntering from one lady to another, with
a buttonhole in his coat, oozing heavy compliments:
"So! He is free again?"
In a corner of the room two ladies were talking of the love-affairs of a
young actress and a society woman. There was occasional music. Christophe
was asked to play. Large women, breathless and heavily perspiring,
declaimed in an apocalyptic tone verses of Sully-Prudhomme or Auguste
Dorchain. A famous actor solemnly recited a _Mystic Ballad_ to the
accompaniment of an American organ. Words and music were so stupid that
they turned Christophe sick. But the Roman women were delighted, and
laughed heartily to show their magnificent teeth. Scenes from Ibsen were
performed. It was a fine epilogue to the struggle of a great man against
the Pillars of Society that it should be used for their diversion!
And then they all began, of course, to prattle about art. That was
horrible. The women especially began to talk of Ibsen, Wagner, Tolstoy,
flirtatiously, politely, boredly, or idiotically. Once the conversation had
started, there was no stopping it. The disease was contagious. Christophe
had to listen to the ideas of bankers, brokers, and slave-dealers on art.
In vain did he refuse to speak or try to turn the conversation: they
insisted on talking about music and poetry. As Berlioz said: "Such people
use the words quite coolly: just as though they were talking of wine,
women, or some such trash." An alienist physician recognized one of his
patients in an Ibsen heroine, though to his way of thinking she was
infinitely more silly. An engineer quite sincerely declared that the
husband was the sympathetic character in the _Doll's House_. The famous
actor--a well-known Comedian--brayed his profound ideas on Nietzsche
and Carlyle: he assured Christophe that he could not see a picture of
Velasquez--(the idol of the hour)--"without the tears coursing down his
cheeks." And he confided--still to Christophe's private ear--that, though
he esteemed art very highly, yet he esteemed still more highly the art of
living, acting, and that if he were asked to choose what part he would
play, it would be that of Bismarck.... Sometimes there would be of the
company a professed wit, but the level of the conversation was not
appreciably higher for that. Generally they said nothing; they confined
themselves to a jerky remark or an enigmatic smile: they lived on their
reputations, and were saved further trouble. But there were a few
professional talkers, generally from the South. They talked about anything
and everything. They had no sense of proportion: everything came alike
to them. One was a Shakespeare. Another a Moliere. Another a Pascal, if
not a Jesus Christ. They compared Ibsen with Dumas _fils_, Tolstoy with
George Sand: and the gist of it all was that everything came from France.
Generally they were ignorant of foreign languages. But that did not disturb
them. It mattered so little to their audience whether they told the truth
or not! What did matter was that they should say amusing things, things as
flattering as possible to national vanity. Foreigners had to put up with
a good deal--with the exception of the idol of the hour: for there was
always a fashionable idol: Grieg, or Wagner, or Nietzsche, or Gorki, or
D'Annunzio. It never lasted long, and the idol was certain one fine morning
to be thrown on to the rubbish-heap.
For the moment the idol was Beethoven. Beethoven--save the mark!--was in
the fashion: at least, among literary and polite persons: for musicians had
dropped him at once, in accordance with the see-saw system which is one of
the laws of artistic taste in France. A Frenchman needs to know what his
neighbor thinks before he knows what he thinks himself, so that he can
think the same thing or the opposite. Thus, when they saw Beethoven in
popular favor, the most distinguished musicians began to discover that he
was not distinguished enough for them: they claimed to lead opinion, not to
follow it: and rather than be in agreement with it they turned their backs
on it. They began to regard Beethoven as a man afflicted with deafness,
crying in a voice of bitterness: and some of them declared that he might be
an excellent moralist, but that he was certainly overpraised as a musician.
That sort of joke was not at all to Christophe's taste. Still less did he
like the enthusiasm of polite society. If Beethoven had come to Paris just
then, he would have been the lion of the hour: it was such a pity that he
had been dead for more than a century. His vogue grew not so much out of
his music as out of the more or less romantic circumstances of his life
which had been popularized by sentimental and virtuous biographies. His
rugged face and lion's mane had become a romantic figure. Ladies wept
for him: they hinted that if they had known him he should not have been
so unhappy: and in their greatness of heart they were the more ready to
sacrifice all for him, in that there was no danger of Beethoven taking them
at their word: the old fellow was beyond all need of anything. That was why
the virtuosi, the conductors, and the _impresarii_ bowed down in pious
worship before him: and, as the representatives of Beethoven, they gathered
the homage destined for him. There were sumptuous festivals at exorbitant
prices, which afforded society people an opportunity of showing their
generosity--and incidentally also of discovering Beethoven's symphonies.
There were committees of actors, men of the world, Bohemians, and
politicians, appointed by the Republic to preside over the destinies of
art, and they informed the world of their intention to erect a monument to
Beethoven: and on these committees, together with a few honest men whose
names guaranteed the rest, were all the riffraff who would have stoned
Beethoven if he had been alive, if Beethoven had not crushed the life out
of them. Christophe watched and listened. He ground his teeth to keep
himself from saying anything outrageous. He was on tenterhooks the whole
evening. He could not talk, nor could he keep silent. It seemed to him
humiliating and shameful to talk neither for pleasure nor from necessity,
but out of politeness, because he had to talk. He was not allowed to say
what he thought, and it was impossible for him to make conversation. And
he did not even know how to be polite without talking. If he looked at
anybody, he glared too fixedly and intently: in spite of himself he studied
that person, and that person was offended. If he spoke at all, he believed
too much in what he was saying; and that was disturbing for everybody, and
even for himself. He quite admitted that he was out of his element: and, as
he was clever enough to sound the general note of the company, in which his
presence was a discord, he was as upset by his manners as his hosts. He was
angry with himself and with them.
When, at last he stood in the street once more, very late at night, he was
so worn out with the boredom of it all that he could hardly drag himself
home: he wanted to lie down just where he was, in the street, as he had
done many times when he was returning as a boy from his performances at the
Palace of the Grand Duke. Although he had only five or six francs to take
him to the end of the week, he spent two of them on a cab. He flung himself
into it the more quickly to escape: and as he drove along he groaned aloud
from sheer exhaustion. When he reached home and got to bed, he groaned in
his sleep.... And then, suddenly, he roared with laughter as he remembered
some ridiculous saying. He woke up repeating it, and imitating the features
of the speaker. Next day, and for several days after, as he walked about,
he would suddenly bellow like a bull.... Why did he visit these people?
Why did he go on visiting them? Why force himself to gesticulate and make
faces, like the rest, and pretend to be interested in things that did not
appeal to him in the very least? Was it true that he was not in the least
interested? A year ago he would not have been able to put up with them for
a moment. Now, at heart, he was amused by it all, while at the same time it
exasperated him. Was a little of the indifference of the Parisians creeping
over him? He would sometimes wonder fearfully whether he had lost strength.
But, in truth, he had gained in strength. He was more free in mind in
strange surroundings. In spite of himself, his eyes were opened to the
great Comedy of the world.
Besides, whether he liked it or not, he had to go on with it if he wanted
his art to be recognized by Parisian society, which is only interested in
art in so far as it knows the artist. And he had to make himself known if
he were to find among these Philistines the pupils necessary to keep him
And, then, Christophe had a heart: his heart must have affection: wherever
he might be, there he would find food for his affections: without it he
could not live.
* * * * *
Among the few girls of that class of society--few enough--whom Christophe
taught, was the daughter of a rich motor-car manufacturer, Colette
Stevens. Her father was a Belgian, a naturalized Frenchman, the son
of an Anglo-American settled at Antwerp, and a Dutchwoman. Her mother
was an Italian. A regular Parisian family. To Christophe--and to many
others--Colette Stevens was the type of French girl.
She was eighteen, and had velvety, soft black eyes, which she used
skilfully upon young men--regular Spanish eyes, with enormous pupils; a
rather long and fantastic nose, which wrinkled up and moved at the tip as
she talked, with little fractious pouts and shrugs; rebellious hair; a
pretty little face, rather sallow complexion, dabbed with powder; heavy,
rather thick features: altogether she was like a plump kitten.
She was slight, very well dressed, attractive, provoking: she had sly,
affected, rather silly manners: her pose was that of a little girl, and she
would sit rocking her chair for hours at a time, and giving little
exclamations like: "No? Impossible...."
At meals she would clap her hands when there was a dish she loved: in the
drawing-room she would smoke cigarette after cigarette, and, when there
were men present, display an exuberant affection for her girl-friends,
flinging her arms round their necks, kissing their hands, whispering
in their ears, making ingenuous and naughty remarks, doing it most
brilliantly, in a soft, twittering voice; and in the lightest possible way
she would say improper things, without seeming to do more than hint at
them, and was even more skilful in provoking them from others; she had the
ingenuous air of a little girl, who knows perfectly well what she is about,
with her large brilliant eyes, slyly and voluptuously looking sidelong,
maliciously taking in all the gossip, and catching at all the dubious
remarks of the conversation, and all the time angling for hearts.
All these tricks and shows, and her sophisticated ingenuity, were not at
all to Christophe's liking. He had better things to do than to lend himself
to the practices of an artful little girl, and did not even care to look
on at them for his amusement. He had to earn his living, to keep his life
and ideas from death. He had no interest in these drawing-room parakeets
beyond the gaining of a livelihood. In return for their money, he gave them
lessons, conscientiously concentrating all his energies on the task, to
keep the boredom of it from mastering him, and his attention from being
distracted by the tricks of his pupils when they were coquettes, like
Colette Stevens. He paid no more attention to her than to Colette's little
cousin, a child of twelve, shy and silent, whom the Stevens had adopted, to
whom also Christophe gave lessons on the piano.
But Colette was too clever not to feel that all her charms were lost on
Christophe, and too adroit not to adapt herself at once to his character.
She did not even need to do so deliberately. It was a natural instinct with
her. She was a woman. She was like water, formless. The soul of every man
she met was a vessel, whose form she took immediately out of curiosity. It
was a law of her existence that she should always be some one else. Her
whole personality was for ever shifting. She was for ever changing her
Christophe attracted her for many reasons, the chief of which was that he
was not attracted by her. He attracted her also because he was different
from all the young men of her acquaintance: she had never tried to pour
herself into a vessel of such a rugged form. And, finally, he attracted
her, because, being naturally and by inheritance expert in the valuation at
the first glance of men and vessels, she knew perfectly well that what he
lacked in polish Christophe made up in a solidity of character which none
of her smart young Parisians could offer her.
She played as well and as badly as most idle young women. She played a
great deal and very little--that is to say, that she was always working at
it, but knew nothing at all about it. She strummed on her piano all day
long, for want of anything else to do, or from affectation, or because it
gave her pleasure. Sometimes she rattled along mechanically. Sometimes she
would play well, very well, with taste and soul--(it was almost as though
she had a soul: but, as a matter of fact, she only borrowed one). Before
she knew Christophe, she was capable of liking Massenet, Grieg, Thome. But
after she met Christophe she ceased to like them. Then she played Bach and
Beethoven very correctly--(which is not very high praise): but the great
thing was that she loved them. At bottom it was not Beethoven, nor Thome,
nor Bach, nor Grieg that she loved, but the notes, the sounds, the fingers
running over the keys, the thrills she got from the chords which tickled
her nerves and made her wriggle with pleasure.
In the drawing-room of the great house, decorated with faded tapestry, and
on an easel in the middle room, a portrait of the stout Madame Stevens by
a fashionable painter who had represented her in a languishing attitude,
like a flower dying for want of water, with a die-away expression in her
eyes, and her body draped in impossible curves, by way of expressing the
rare quality of her millionaire soul--in the great drawing-room, with
its bow-windows looking on to a clump of old trees powdered with snow,
Christophe would find Colette sitting at her piano, repeating the
same passage over and over again, delighting her ear with mellifluous
"Ah!" Christophe would say as he entered, "the cat is still purring!"
"How wicked of you!" she would laugh.... (And she would hold out her soft
"... Listen. Isn't it pretty?"
"Very pretty," he would say indifferently.
"You aren't listening!... Will you please listen?"
"I am listening.... It's the same thing over and over again."
"Ah! you are no musician," she would say pettishly.
"As if that were music or anything like it!"
"What! Not music!... What is it, then, if you please?"
"You know quite well: I won't tell you, because it would not be polite."
"All the more reason why you should say it."
"You want me to?... So much the worse for you!... Well, do you know what
you are doing with your piano?... You are flirting with it."
"Certainly. You say to it: 'Dear piano, dear piano, say pretty things to
me; kiss me; give me just one little kiss!'"
"You need not say any more," said Colette, half vexed, half laughing. "You
haven't the least idea of respect."
"Not the least."
"You are impertinent.... And then, even if it were so, isn't that the right
way to love music?"
"Oh, come, don't mix music up with that."
"But that is music! A beautiful chord is a kiss."
"I never told you that."
"But isn't it true?... Why do you shrug your shoulders and make faces?"
"Because it annoys me."
"So much the better."
"It annoys me to hear music spoken of as though it were a sort of
indulgence.... Oh, it isn't your fault. It's the fault of the world you
live in. The stale society in which you live regards music as a sort of
legitimate vice.... Come, sit down! Play me your sonata."
"No. Let us talk a little longer."
"I'm not here to talk. I'm here to teach you the piano.... Come, play
"You're so rude!" said Colette, rather vexed--but at heart delighted to be
handled so roughly.
She played her piece carefully: and, as she was clever, she succeeded
fairly well, and sometimes even very well. Christophe, who was not
deceived, laughed inwardly at the skill "of the little beast, who played
as though she felt what she was playing, while really she felt nothing
at all." And yet he had a sort of amused sympathy for her. Colette, on
her part, seized every excuse for going on with the conversation, which
interested her much more than her lesson. It was no good Christophe drawing
back on the excuse that he could not say what he thought without hurting
her feelings: she always wheedled it out of him: and the more insulting it
was, the less she was hurt by it: it was an amusement for her. But, as she
was quick enough to see that Christophe liked nothing so much as sincerity,
she would contradict him flatly, and argue tenaciously They would part very
However, Christophe would never have had the least illusion about their
friendship, and there would never have been the smallest intimacy between
them, had not Colette one day taken it into her head, out of sheer
instinctive coquetry, to confide in him.
The evening before her parents had given an At Home. She had laughed,
chattered, flirted outrageously: but next morning, when Christophe came for
her lesson, she was worn out, drawn-looking, gray-faced, and haggard. She
hardly spoke: she seemed utterly depressed. She sat at the piano, played
softly, made mistakes, tried to correct them, made them again, stopped
short, and said:
"I can't.... Please forgive me.... Please wait a little...."
He asked if she were unwell. She said: "No.... She was out of sorts.... She
had bouts of it.... It was absurd, but he must not mind."
He proposed to go away and come again another day: but she insisted on his
"Just a moment.... I shall be all right presently.... It's silly of me,
He felt that she was not her usual self: but he did not question her: and,
to turn the conversation, he said:
"That's what comes of having been so brilliant last night. You took too
much out of yourself."
She smiled a little ironically.
"One can't say the same of you," she replied.
"I don't believe you said a word," she went on.
"Not a word."
"But there were interesting people there."
"Oh yes. All sorts of lights and famous people, all talking at once. But
I'm lost among all your boneless Frenchmen who understand everything, and
explain everything, and excuse everything--and feel nothing at all. People
who talk for hours together about art and love! Isn't it revolting?"
"But you ought to be interested in art if not in love."
"One doesn't talk about these things: one does them."
"But when one cannot do them?" said Colette, pouting.
Christophe replied with a laugh:
"Well, leave it to others. Everybody is not fit for art."
"Nor for love?"
"Nor for love."
"How awful! What is left for us?"
"Thanks," said Colette, rather annoyed. She turned to the piano and began
again, made mistakes, thumped the keyboard, and moaned:
"I can't!... I'm no good at all. I believe you are right. Women aren't any
"It's something to be able to say so," said Christophe genially.
She looked at him rather sheepishly, like a little girl who has been
scolded, and said:
"Don't be so hard."
"I'm not saying anything hard about good women," replied Christophe gaily.
"A good woman is Paradise on earth. Only, Paradise on earth...."
"I know. No one has ever seen it."
"I'm not so pessimistic. I say only that I have never seen it: but that's
no reason why it should not exist. I'm determined to find it, if it does
exist. But it is not easy. A good woman and a man of genius are equally
"And all the other men and women don't count?"
"On the contrary, it is only they who count--for the world."
"But for you?"
"For me, they don't exist."
"You _are_ hard," repeated Colette.
"A little. Somebody has to be hard, if only in the interest of the
others!... If there weren't a few pebbles here and there in the world, the
whole thing would go to pulp."
"Yes. You are right. It is a good thing for you that you are strong," said
Colette sadly. "But you must not be too hard on men,--and especially on
women who aren't strong.... You don't know how terrible our weakness is to
us. Because you see us flirting, and laughing, and doing silly things, you
think we never dream of anything else, and you despise us. Ah! if you could
see all that goes on in the minds of the girls of from fifteen to eighteen
as they go out into society, and have the sort of success that comes
to their youth and freshness--when they have danced, and talked smart
nonsense, and said bitter things at which people laugh because they laugh,
when they have given themselves to imbeciles, and sought in vain in their
eyes the light that is nowhere to be found,--if you could see them in their
rooms at night, in silence, alone, kneeling in agony to pray!..."
"Is it possible?" said Christophe, altogether amazed. "What! you, too, have
Colette did not reply: but tears came to her eyes. She tried to smile and
held out her hand to Christophe: he grasped it warmly.
"What would you have us do? There is nothing to do. You men can free
yourselves and do what you like. But we are bound for ever and ever within
the narrow circle of the duties and pleasures of society: we cannot break
"There is nothing to prevent your freeing yourselves, finding some work you
like, and winning your independence just as we do."
"As you do? Poor Monsieur Krafft! Your work is not so very certain!... But
at least you like your work. But what sort of work can we do? There isn't
any that we could find interesting--for, I know, we dabble in all sorts
of things, and pretend to be interested in a heap of things that do not
concern us: we do so want to be interested in something! I do what the
others do. I do charitable work and sit on social work committees. I go
to lectures at the Sorbonne by Bergson and Jules Lemaitre, historical
concerts, classical matinees, and I take notes and notes.... I never know
what I am writing!... and I try to persuade myself that I am absorbed by
it, or at least that it is useful. Ah! but I know that it is not true.
I know that I don't care a bit, and that I am bored by it all!... Don't
despise me because I tell you frankly what everybody thinks in secret I'm
no sillier than the rest. But what use are philosophy, history, and science
to me? As for art,--you see,--I strum and daub and make messy little
water-color sketches;--but is that enough to fill a woman's life? There is
only one end to our life: marriage. But do you think there is much fun in
marrying this or that young man whom I know as well as you do? I see them
as they are. I am not fortunate enough to be like your German Gretchens,
who can always create an illusion for themselves.... That is terrible,
isn't it? To look around and see girls who have married and their husbands,
and to think that one will have to do as they have done, be cramped in body
and mind, and become dull like them!... One needs to be stoical, I tell
you, to accept such a life with such obligations. All women are not capable
of it.... And time passes, the years go by, youth fades: and yet there were
lovely things and good things in us--all useless, for day by day they die,
and one has to surrender them to the fools and people whom one despises,
people who will despise oneself!... And nobody understands! One would
think that we were sphinxes. One can forgive the men who find us dull and
strange! But the women ought to understand us! They have been like us: they
have only to look back and remember.... But no. There is no help from them.
Even our mothers ignore us, and actually try not to know what we are. They
only try to get us married. For the rest, they say, live, die, do as you
like! Society absolutely abandons us."
"Don't lose heart," said Christophe. "Every one has to face the experience
of life all over again. If you are brave, it will be all right. Look
outside your own circle. There must be a few honest men in France."
"There are. I know. But they are so tedious!... And then, I tell you, I
detest the circle in which I live: but I don't think I could live outside
it, now. It has become a habit. I need a certain degree of comfort, certain
refinements of luxury and comfort, which, no doubt, money alone cannot
provide, though it is an indispensable factor. That sounds pretty poor, I
know. But I know myself: I am weak.... Please, please, don't draw away from
me because I tell you of my cowardice. Be kind and listen to me. It helps
me so to talk to you! I feel that you are strong and sound: I have such
confidence in you. Will you be my friend?"
"Gladly," said Christophe. "But what can I do?"
"Listen to me, advise me, give me courage. I am often so depressed! And
then I don't know what to do. I say to myself: 'What is the good of
fighting? What's the good of tormenting myself? One way or the other, what
does it matter? Nothing and nobody matters!' That is a dreadful condition
to be in. I don't want to get like that. Help me. Help me."
She looked utterly downcast; she looked older by ten years: she looked at
Christophe with abject, imploring eyes. He promised what she asked. Then
she revived, smiled, and was gay once more.
And in the evening she was laughing and flirting as usual.
* * * * *
Thereafter they had many intimate conversations. They were alone together:
she confided in him: he tried hard to understand and advise her: she
listened to his advice, or, if necessary, to his remonstrances, gravely,
attentively, like a good little girl: it was a distraction, an interest,
even a support for her: she thanked him coquettishly with a depth of
feeling in her eyes.--But her life was changed in nothing: it was only a
distraction the more.
Her day was passed in a succession of metamorphoses. She got up very late,
about midday, after a sleepless night: for she rarely went to sleep before
dawn. All day long she did nothing. She would vaguely call to mind a poem,
an idea, a scrap of an idea, or a face that had pleased her. She was never
quite awake until about four or five in the afternoon. Till then her
eyelids were heavy, her face was puffy, and she was sulky and sleepy. She
would revive on the arrival of a few girl-friends as talkative as herself,
and all sharing the same interest in the gossip of Paris. They chattered
endlessly about love. The psychology of love: that was the unfailing topic,
mixed up with dress, the indiscretions of others, and scandal. She had also
a circle of idle young men to whom it was necessary to spend three hours a
day among skirts: they ought to have worn them really, for they had the
souls and the conversation of girls. Christophe had his hour as her
confessor. At once Colette would become serious and intense. She was like
the young Frenchwoman, of whom Bodley speaks, who, at the confessional,
"developed a calmly prepared essay, a model of clarity and order, in
which everything that was to be said was properly arranged in distinct
categories."--And after that she flung herself once more into the business
of amusement. As the day went on she grew younger. In the evening she went
to the theater: and there was the eternal pleasure of recognizing the same
eternal faces in the audience:--her pleasure lay not in the play that was
performed, but in the actors whom she knew, whose familiar mannerisms she
remarked once more. And she exchanged spiteful remarks with the people who
came to see her in her box about the people in the other boxes and about
the actresses. The _ingenue_ was said to have a thin voice "like sour
mayonnaise," or the great comedienne was dressed "like a lampshade."--Or
else she went out to a party: and there the pleasure, for a pretty girl
like Colette, lay in being seen:--(but there were bad days: nothing is
more capricious than good looks in Paris):--and she renewed her store of
criticisms of people, and their dresses, and their physical defects. There
was no conversation.--She would go home late, and take her time about going
to bed (that was the time when she was most awake). She would dawdle about
her dressing-table: skim through a book: laugh to herself at the memory of
something said or done. She was bored and very unhappy. She could not go to
sleep, and in the night there would come frightful moments of despair.
Christophe, who only saw Colette for a few hours at intervals, and could
only be present at a few of these transformations, found it difficult to
understand her at all. He wondered when she was sincere,--or if she were
always sincere--or if she were never sincere. Colette herself could not
have told him. Like most girls who are idle and circumscribed in their
desires, she was in darkness. She did not know what she was, because she
did not know what she wanted, because she could not know what she wanted
without having tried it. She would try it, after her fashion, with the
maximum of liberty and the minimum of risk, trying to copy the people about
her and to take their moral measure. She was in no hurry to choose. She
would have liked to try everything, and turn everything to account.
But that did not work with a friend like Christophe. He was perfectly
willing to allow her to prefer people whom he did not admire, even people
whom he despised: but he would not suffer her to put him on the same level
with them. Everybody to his own taste: but at least let everybody have his
He was the less inclined to be patient with Colette, as she seemed to take
a delight in gathering round herself all the young men who were most likely
to exasperate Christophe: disgusting little snobs, most of them wealthy,
all of them idle, or jobbed into a sinecure in some government
office--which amounts to the same thing. They all wrote--or pretended to
write. That was an itch of the Third Republic. It was a sort of indolent
vanity,--intellectual work being the hardest of all to control, and most
easily lending itself to the game of bluff. They never gave more than a
discreet, though respectful hint, of their great labors. They seemed to be
convinced of the importance of their work, staggering under the weight of
it. At first Christophe was a little embarrassed by the fact that he had
never heard of them or their works. He tried bashfully to ask about them:
he was especially anxious to know what one of them had written, a young
man who was declared by the others to be a master of the theater. He was
surprised to hear that this great dramatist had written a one-act play
taken from a novel, which had been pieced together from a number of short
stories, or, rather, sketches, which he had published in one of the
Reviews during the past ten years. The baggage of the others was not more
considerable: a few one-act plays, a few short stories, a few verses. Some
of them had won fame with an article, others with a book "which they were
going to write." They professed scorn for long-winded books. They seemed
to attach extreme importance to the handling of words. And yet the word
"thought" frequently occurred in their conversation: but it did not seem
to have the same meaning as is usually given to it: they applied it to the
details of style. However, there were among them great thinkers, and great
ironists, who, when they wrote, printed their subtle and profound remarks
in _italics_, so that there might be no mistake.
They all had the cult of the letter _I_: it was the only cult they had.
They tried to proselytize. But, unfortunately, other people were
subscribers to the cult. They were always conscious of their audience in
their way of speaking, walking, smoking, reading a paper, carrying their
heads, looking, bowing to each other.--Such players' tricks are natural to
young people, and the more insignificant--that is to say, unoccupied--they
are, the stronger hold do they have on them. They are more especially
paraded before women: for they covet women, and long--even more--to be
coveted by them. But even on a chance meeting they will trot out their bag
of tricks: even for a passer-by from whom they can expect only a glance of
amazement. Christophe often came across these young strutting peacocks:
budding painters, and musicians, art-students who modeled their appearance
on some famous portrait: Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Beethoven; or
fitted it to the parts they wish to play: painter, musician, workman, the
profound thinker, the jolly fellow, the Danubian peasant, the natural
man.... They were always on the lookout to see if they were attracting
attention. When Christophe met them in the street he took a malicious
pleasure in looking the other way and ignoring them. But their discomfiture
never lasted long: a yard or so farther on they would start strutting for
the next comer.--But the young men of Colette's little circle were rather
more subtle: their coxcombry was mental: they had two or three models, who
were not themselves original. Or else they would mimic an idea: Force, Joy,
Pity, Solidarity, Socialism, Anarchism, Faith, Liberty: all these were
parts for their playing. They were horribly clever in making the dearest
and rarest thoughts mere literary stuff, and in degrading the most heroic
impulses of the human soul to the level of drawing-room commodities,
But in love they were altogether in their element: that was their special
province. The casuistry of pleasure had no secrets for them: they were
so clever that they could invent new problems so as to have the honor
of solving them. That has always been the occupation of people who have
nothing else to do: in default of love, they "make love": above all, they
explain it. Their notes took up far more room than their text, which, as
a matter of fact, was very short. Sociology gave a relish to the most
scabrous thoughts: everything was sheltered beneath the flag of sociology:
though they might have had pleasure in indulging their vices, there would
have been something lacking if they had not persuaded themselves that they
were laboring in the cause of the new world. That was an eminently Parisian
sort of socialism: erotic socialism.
Among the problems that were then exercising the little Court of Love was
the equality of men and women in marriage, and their respective rights
in love. There had been young men, honest, protestant, and rather
ridiculous,--Scandinavians and Swiss--who had based equality on virtue:
saying that men should come to marriage as chaste as women. The Parisian
casuists looked for another sort of equality, an equality based on loss
of virtue, saying that women should come to marriage as besmirched as
men,--the right to take lovers. The Parisians had carried adultery, in
imagination and practice, to such a pitch that they were beginning to find
it rather insipid: and in the world of letters attempts were being made to
support it by a new invention: the prostitution of young girls,--I mean
regularized, universal, virtuous, decent, domestic, and, above all, social
prostitution.--There had just appeared a book on the question, full of
talent, which apparently said all there was to be said: through four
hundred pages of playful pedantry, "strictly in accordance with the rules
of the Baconian method," it dealt with the "best method of controlling
the relations of the sexes." It was a lecture on free love, full of talk
about manners, propriety, good taste, nobility, beauty, truth, modesty,
morality,--a regular Berquin for young girls who wanted to go wrong.--It
was, for the moment, the Gospel in which Colette's little court rejoiced,
while they paraphrased it. It goes without saying, that, like all
disciples, they discarded all the justice, observation, and even humanity
that lay behind the paradox, and only retained the evil in it. They
plucked all the most poisonous flowers from the little bed of sweetened
blossoms,--aphorisms of this sort: "The taste for pleasure can only sharpen
the taste for work":--"It is monstrous that a girl should become a mother
before she has tasted the sweets of life."--"To have had the love of a
worthy and pure-souled man as a girl is the natural preparation of a woman
for a wise and considered motherhood":--"Mothers," said this author,
"should organize the lives of their daughters with the same delicacy and
decency with which they control the liberty of their sons."--"The time
would come when girls would return as naturally from their lovers as now
they return from a walk or from taking tea with a friend."
Colette laughingly declared that such teaching was very reasonable.
Christophe had a horror of it. He exaggerated its importance and the evil
that it might do. The French are too clever to bring their literature into
practice. These Diderots in miniature are, in ordinary life, like the
genial Panurge of the encyclopedia, honest citizens, not really a whit less
timorous than the rest. It is precisely because they are so timid in action
that they amuse themselves with carrying action (in thought) to the limit
of possibility. It is a game without any risk.
But Christophe was not a French dilettante.
* * * * *
Among the young men of Colette's circle, there was one whom she seemed to
prefer, and, of course, he was the most objectionable of all to Christophe.
He was one of those young parvenus of the second generation who form an
aristocracy of letters, and are the patricians of the Third Republic. His
name was Lucien Levy-Coeur. He had quick eyes, set wide apart, an aquiline
nose, a fair Van Dyck beard clipped to a point: he was prematurely bald,
which did not become him: and he had a silky voice, elegant manners, and
fine soft hands, which he was always rubbing together. He always affected
an excessive politeness, an exaggerated courtesy, even with people he did
not like, and even when he was bent on snubbing them.
Christophe had met him before at the literary dinner, to which he was taken
by Sylvain Kohn: and though they had not spoken to each other, the sound of
Levy-Coeur's voice had been enough to rouse a dislike which he could not
explain, and he was not to discover the reason for it until much later.
There are sudden outbursts of love; and so there are of hate,--or--(to
avoid hurting those tender souls who are afraid of the word as of every
passion)--let us call it the instinct of health scenting the enemy, and
mounting guard against him.
Levy-Coeur was exactly the opposite of Christophe, and represented the
spirit of irony and decay which fastened gently, politely, inexorably,
on all the great things that were left of the dying society: the family,
marriage, religion, patriotism: in art, on everything that was manly, pure,
healthy, of the people: faith in ideas, feelings, great men, in Man. Behind
that mode of thought there was only the mechanical pleasure of analysis,
analysis pushed to extremes, a sort of animal desire to nibble at thought,
the instinct of a worm. And side by side with that ideal of intellectual
nibbling was a girlish sensuality, the sensuality of a blue-stocking: for
to Levy-Coeur everything became literature. Everything was literary copy
to him: his own adventures, his vices and the vices of his friends. He had
written novels and plays in which, with much talent, he described the
private life of his relations, and their most intimate adventures, and
those of his friends, his own, his _liaisons_, among others one with the
wife of his best friend: the portraits were well-drawn: everybody praised
them, the public, the wife, and his friend. It was impossible for him to
gain the confidence or the favors of a woman without putting them into a
book.--One would have thought that his indiscretions would have produced
strained relations with his "friends." But there Was nothing of the kind;
they were hardly more than a little embarrassed: they protested as a matter
of form: but at heart they were delighted at being held up to the public
gaze, _en deshabille_: so long as their faces were masked, their modesty
was undisturbed. But there was never any spirit of vengeance, or even of
scandal, in his tale-telling. He was no worse a man or lover than the
majority. In the very chapters in which he exposed his father and mother
and his mistress, he would write of them with a poetic tenderness and
charm. He was really extremely affectionate: but he was one of those men
who have no need to respect when they love: quite the contrary: they rather
love those whom they can despise a little: that makes the object of their
affection seem nearer to them and more human. Such men are of all the
least capable of understanding heroism and purity. They are not far from
considering them lies or weakness of mind. It goes without saying that such
men are convinced that they understand better than anybody else the heroes
of art whom they judge with a patronizing familiarity.
He got on excellently well with the young women of the rich, idle
middle-class. He was a companion for them, a sort of depraved servant, only
more free and confidential, who gave them instruction and roused their
envy. They had hardly any constraint with him: and, with the lamp of Psyche
in their hands, they made a careful study of the hermaphrodite, and he
Christophe could not understand how a girl like Colette, who seemed to have
so refined a nature and a touching eagerness to escape from the degrading
round of her life, could find pleasure in such company. Christophe was
no psychologist. Lucien Levy-Coeur could easily beat him on that score.
Christophe was Colette's confidant: but Colette was the confidante of
Lucien Levy-Coeur. That gave him a great advantage. It is very pleasant to
a woman to feel that she has to deal with a man weaker than herself. She
finds food in it at once for her lower and higher instincts: her maternal
instinct is touched by it. Lucien Levy-Coeur knew that perfectly: one of
the surest means of touching a woman's heart is to sound that mysterious
chord. But in addition, Colette felt that she was weak, and cowardly, and
possessed of instincts of which she was not proud, though she was not
inclined to deny them. It pleased her to allow herself to be persuaded by
the audacious and nicely calculated confessions of her friend that others
were just the same, and that human nature must be taken for what it is. And
so she gave herself the satisfaction of not resisting inclinations that
she found very agreeable, and the luxury of saying that it must be so,
and that it was wise not to rebel and to be indulgent with what one could
not--"alas!"--prevent. There was a wisdom in that, the practice of which
contained no element of pain.
For any one who can envisage life with serenity, there is a peculiar relish
in remarking the perpetual contrast which exists in the very bosom of
society between the extreme refinement of apparent civilization and its
fundamental animalism. In every gathering that does not consist only of
fossils and petrified souls, there are, as it were, two conversational
strata, one above the other: one--which everybody can hear--between mind
and mind: the other--of which very few are conscious, though it is the
greater of the two--between instinct and instinct, the beast in man and
woman. Often these two strata of conversation are contradictory. While mind
and mind are passing the small change of convention, body and body say:
Desire, Aversion, or, more often: Curiosity, Boredom, Disgust. The beast in
man and woman, though tamed by centuries of civilization, and as cowed as
the wretched lions in the tamer's cage, is always thinking of its food.
But Christophe had not yet reached that disinterestedness which comes only
with age and the death of the passions. He had taken himself very seriously
as adviser to Colette. She had asked for his help: and he saw her in the
lightness of her heart exposed to danger. So he made no effort to conceal
his dislike of Lucien Levy-Coeur, At first that gentleman maintained
towards Christophe an irreproachable and ironical politeness. He, too,
scented the enemy: but he thought he had nothing to fear from him: he made
fun of him without seeming to do so. If only he could have had Christophe's
admiration he would have been on quite good terms with him, but that he
never could obtain: he saw that clearly, for Christophe had not the art of
disguising his feelings. And so Lucien Levy-Coeur passed insensibly from
an abstract intellectual antagonism to a little, carefully veiled, war, of
which Colette was to be the prize.
She held the balance evenly between her two friends. She appreciated
Christophe's talent and moral superiority: but she also appreciated Lucien
Levy-Coeur's amusing immorality and wit: and, at bottom, she found more
pleasure in it. Christophe did not mince his protestations: she listened
to him with a touching humility which disarmed him. She was quite a good
creature, but she lacked frankness, partly from weakness, partly from
her very kindness. She was half play-acting: she pretended to think with
Christophe. As a matter of fact, she knew the worth of such a friend; but
she was not ready to make any sacrifice for a friendship: she was not
ready to sacrifice anything for anybody: she just wanted everything to go
smoothly and pleasantly, And so she concealed from Christophe the fact that
she went on receiving Lucien Levy-Coeur: she lied with the easy charm of
the young women of her class who, from their childhood, are expert in the
practice which is so necessary for those who wish to keep their friends
and please everybody. She excused herself by pretending that she wished to
avoid hurting Christophe: but in reality it was because she knew that he
was right and wanted to go on doing as she liked without quarreling with
him. Sometimes Christophe suspected her tricks: then he would scold her,
and wax indignant. She would go on playing the contrite little girl, and be
affectionate and sorry: and she would look tenderly at him--_feminae ultima
ratio_.--And really it did distress her to think of losing Christophe's
friendship: she would be charmingly serious and in that way succeed in
disarming Christophe for a little while longer. But sooner or later there
had to be an explosion. Christophe's irritation was fed unconsciously by a
little jealousy. And into Colette's coaxing tricks there crept a little, a
very little, love, all of which made the rupture only the more violent.
One day when Christophe had caught Colette out in a flagrant lie he gave
her a definite alternative: she must choose between Lucien Levy-Coeur and
himself. She tried to dodge the question: and, finally, she vindicated her
right to have whatever friends she liked. She was perfectly right: and
Christophe admitted that he had been absurd: but he knew also that he had
not been exacting from egoism: he had a sincere affection for Colette: he
wanted to save her even against her will. He insisted awkwardly. She
refused to answer. He said:
"Colette, do you want us not to be friends any more?"
"No, no. I should be sorry if you ceased to be my friend."
"But you will not sacrifice the smallest thing for our friendship."
"Sacrifice! What a silly word!" she said. "Why should one always be
sacrificing one thing for another? It's just a stupid Christian idea.
You're nothing but an old parson at heart."
"Maybe," he said. "I want one thing or another. I allow nothing between
good and evil, not so much as the breadth of a hair."
"Yes, I know," she said. "That is why I love you. For I do love you:
"But you love the other fellow too?"
She laughed, and said, with a soft look in her eyes and a tender note in
He was just about to give in once more when Lucien Levy-Coeur came in: and
he was welcomed with the same soft look in her eyes and the same tender
note in her voice. Christophe sat for some time in silence watching Colette