The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics) (9 page)

BOOK: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)
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The paradox by which Balzac could be financially wise in his fiction while losing all his money in life was duplicated in various other matters. For instance, the very women who had been drawn to him by the penetrating intuition of the female heart that he showed in his novels were appalled to discover how insensitive, naïve and awkward the real man could be. (The same contradiction has characterised many creative people: for example, Mozart in his operas composed what is perhaps the only music endowed with acute psychological perception—and yet he was notoriously inept at handling, or even at understanding, the most basic human relations in his life.)

Balzac presents one of the purest examples of the creative genius: “pure” in the sense that he was largely free of extraneous virtues. What enables great artists and writers to create is not intelligence (theirs can sometimes be average, or even mediocre: Balzac, for instance, often had ideas of startling absurdity; not only was he lacking in elementary common sense, but at times he verged on insanity). It is not sensitivity (many people can “feel” with utter intensity without being necessarily able to express themselves). It is not a matter of education and taste (in the
decor of his lodgings, Balzac displayed the aesthetic sense of a prosperous Caribbean pimp). The real source of all creation (as Baudelaire again pointed out) is imagination. Balzac’s fiction originally sprang from an intuition he first discovered as a wretched little schoolboy locked in a dark closet at his boarding school—an intuition to which he remained faithful until death, and which enabled him to enlarge immeasurably the world of countless readers: life is a prison, and only imagination can open its windows.

*
Review of Graham Robb:
Balzac: A Biography
(London: Picador, 1994).

VICTOR HUGO
*

Glory is like the bed of Louis XIV in Versailles; it is magnificent and there are bugs in it.

—V
ICTOR
H
UGO
[
1
]

E
ARLY
in his career, Henry James lived for some time in Paris. Since he needed money, he worked for a while as a correspondent for the
New York Tribune
.[
2
] In his dispatch of January 1876, he reported on Victor Hugo’s latest political activities. The old poet
cum
prophet had been pleading with the representatives of all the municipalities of France for the restoration of Paris as the national capital—a status which the city had lost after the bloody suppression of the Commune by the Versailles government five years earlier. James wrote:

The newspapers for the last fortnight have contained little else than addresses and programs from the candidates for the Senate and the Chambers. One of the most remarkable documents of this kind is a sort of
pronunciamento
from Victor Hugo . . . It seems incredible that Victor Hugo’s political vaticinations should have a particle of influence upon any human creature; but I have no doubt that they reverberate sonorously enough in some obscure
couches sociales
, and there is no reason indeed why the same influences which shaped Victor Hugo should not have produced a number of people who are like him in everything except in having genius. But in these matters genius does not
count, for it is certainly absent enough from his address to the delegates of the communes of France.
It might have been believed that he had already given the measure of the power of the human mind to delude itself with mere words and phrases, but his originality in this direction is quite unequalled, and perhaps I did wrong to say that there was no genius in it. There is at any rate a genius for pure verbosity
.

What he has to say to his brother delegates . . . is that “upon this Paris which merited all venerations has been heaped all affronts . . . In taking from her her diadem as the capital of France, her enemies have laid bare her brain as the capital of the world. This great forehead of Paris is now entirely visible, all the more radiant that it is discrowned. Henceforth the nations unanimously recognize Paris as the leading city of the human race.” M. Hugo proceeds to summon his electors “to decree the end of abuses by the advent of truths, to affirm France before Germanism, Paris before Rome, light before night.”[
3
] Whether or not as a nation the French are more conceited than their neighbours is a question that may be left undecided; a very good case on this charge might be made out against every nation.
But certainly France occasionally produces individuals who express the national conceit with a transcendent fatuity which is not elsewhere to be matched. A foreign resident in the country may speak upon this point with feeling; it makes him extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know how it affects people who dislike French things to see their fantastic claims for their spiritual mission in the world, but it is extremely disagreeable for those who like them
. Such persons desire to enjoy in a tranquil and rational manner the various succulent fruits of French civilization, but they have no fancy for being committed to perpetual genuflections and prostrations. They read Victor Hugo’s windy sublimities in the evening paper over their profanely well-cooked dinners, and probably on leaving the restaurant their course lies along the brilliantly illuminated boulevard. The aspect of the boulevards, on a fine mild evening, is as cheerful as you please,
but it exhibits a number of features which are not especially provocative of veneration . . .

(And more specifically, James continued, if the strolling foreigner were to watch one of the fashionable plays currently performed in the theatres of these same boulevards, he might ask himself “at what particular point of these compositions the brain of the capital of the world is laid bare. A good many other things are laid bare, but brain is not among them.”)

There is a certain piquancy in watching Henry James engaged in upbraiding another writer for his verbosity; but it is not merely for the idle enjoyment of this paradox that I have quoted his Paris dispatch at such length. His comments are in fact highly revealing of an enduring and typical attitude towards Hugo, which to this very day seems to remain prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon world. For instance, only a few months ago, the distinguished art critic Robert Hughes reviewed with his usual flair and vigour a remarkable exhibition of Hugo’s paintings in New York—but characteristically, the title given to his article was a straightforward translation into modern vernacular of James’s suave sarcasm: “Sublime Windbag.”[
4
]

Windbag? Hugo would not have disliked that word. Wind—Paraclete—breath—spirit—inspiration: the suggestive chain of etymologies and word associations that always fired and sustained his imagination would not have escaped him. Besides,
the wind
had inspired in him extraordinary pages (to find their match in the history of world literature, one would have to go back to the visionary writings of Zhuang Zi in China, 2,300 years ago). As regards Hugo’s “transcendent fatuity,” James was not the first to marvel at it: a number of French critics had already led the way. A fellow poet having said that Hugo was “as stupid as the Himalayas,” the great man sensibly replied that a Himalayan stupidity was to be preferred to the plain variety. (One is reminded of Muhammad Ali’s retort on failing the intelligence test in the army: “I have said that I am the greatest. Ain’t nobody ever heard me say I was the smartest.”)

Baudelaire—who sent fawning letters to Hugo and wrote adulatory reviews of his books—repeatedly disclosed in his private
correspondence his true opinion on the subject: “One can simultaneously possess a special genius and be a fool. Hugo provides us the best evidence of this.” And again (commenting on a newly published collection of Hugo’s poetry): “[These poems] are dreadfully heavy. In these things, I can only find further occasion to thank the Lord who did not give me such stupidity.” But the publication of Hugo’s greatest masterpiece,
Les Misérables
, incited Baudelaire’s most ferocious verve: the book with its angelic prostitutes and sentimental criminals redeemed by the power of kindness made him wince, and he even toyed with the idea of writing a satirical
Anti-misérables
.[
5
]

Yet, when you call a man a fool, the epithet acquires a very special dimension if you also happen to be his son and heir. Whereas the Jamesian irony on the same subject sounds merely flippant—and ultimately irrelevant—Baudelaire’s private outbursts have a
sacrilegious
quality and should illuminate rather than obscure the close filiation that links his poetry to that of Hugo. He himself knew all too well that, without the triumphant breakthrough of Hugo’s poetic revolution which opened the way and cleared the field, his own
Fleurs du mal
could not have found ground on which to blossom. It is true that today, the acute modernity of Baudelaire’s voice still vibrates in our lives, whereas the passing of time has cruelly battered the great monuments which Hugo built in verse, and few visitors still care to wander amid these ruins. It is the distance between the two poets that strikes us now; but if one is within the same tradition, one tends to be more aware of the differences; in this respect, the perspective of a sensitive outsider may sometimes be more penetrating. Thus, for instance, Joseph Brodsky, commenting on “the gaudiness and eloquence” of the two writers within the French poetical “tradition of pathos and urgent statement,” was right in his boldness: “Hugo, Baudelaire—for me these are the same poet with two different names.”[
6
] Some truths are simply better perceived from a distance.

What has contributed to obscure Hugo’s role as the decisive pioneer of modern French poetry—down to its most elitist and hermetic twentieth-century expressions—is the vulgar institutionalisation of his colossal fame that took place at the end of his life. In old age, he literally became the object of a popular cult. His white beard, his huge
forehead pregnant with unfathomable visions, easily lent themselves to use as some kind of substitute image of God the Father—a god for the new secularised masses to which he preached the universal brotherhood of mankind and the forthcoming advent of a World Republic. (Meanwhile we have seen famous writers serving worse causes.)

When he died, the funeral procession that carried his remains into the Pantheon—thus completing the deification process—was followed by a million mourners. The flamboyant bad taste of the ceremony presented a farcical mixture of melodrama and carnival—well summarised by the poisonous pen of Edmond de Goncourt, who noted in his diary entry for 2 June 1885:

The night before Hugo’s funeral—this night of desolate wake of the entire nation—was celebrated with a gigantic copulation: brothels having closed for the circumstance, their women went to participate in a huge priapic orgy on the lawns of the Champs-Elysées—and our good policemen refrained from disturbing these republican unions . . .. Another detail regarding the “f—ing” funeral of our great man—this information comes from police sources—for the last week, all the prostitutes have been performing their services with a black crêpe draped round their private parts— c—ts in mourning![
7
]

But the price of this popularity was a certain alienation from the intellectual and artistic elite. The intelligentsia usually leaves the frequenting of the National Monuments to country bumpkins, foreigners and tourists. Retired schoolteachers in the provinces may perhaps still be able to recite Hugo’s verses, but the arbiters of literary elegance frown when hearing his name. Gide’s notorious
bon mot
has remained memorable (I do not apologise for quoting it here once more; better than a long essay, it sums up the ambivalence of the critical Establishment on his subject). On being asked who was the greatest French poet, Gide replied: “Hugo, alas.”

Indeed, for the sophisticated connoisseur, the greatness of Hugo is a bitter paradox: France’s most famous writer is also the one who is most offensive to French taste. The French genius cultivates measure,
lucidity and perfection—and Hugo is excessive, mad and flawed. In a tradition that values order, harmony and a sense of proportion, Hugo came to pitch the gaudy tent of his freak show: a nightmarish circus full of hunchbacks and dwarves and monsters, and fights to the death with crocodiles and giant octopuses, against a backdrop of dark sewers, Gothic ruins, stormy nights, fires, floods and shipwrecks . . . And the madness that accompanied him in life (both his brother and his daughter had to be confined till death in a lunatic asylum) constantly lurks in his works. As Graham Robb points out perceptively, there is evidence that, at times, Hugo was afraid of the outpourings from his own imagination, and would append reassuring conclusions to his most frightening poems: “Everyone is a lunatic in the privacy of their own mind, and considering the treasures in Hugo’s unconscious, his apparent sanity is a far more remarkable phenomenon.” Only in his paintings—most of which were not meant to be shown to the public—did Hugo (who was one of the most original graphic artists of his century, and of ours as well) dare fully to pursue some of his most disturbing visions.

At the end of the Hugolian century, the painter Degas once confessed his frustration to Mallarmé: “I have so many ideas for poems—if only I could write them down!” “My dear Degas,” Mallarmé replied, “poems are not written with ideas, they are written with
words
.”[
8
]

Inasmuch as modern poetry can be characterised by this awareness that poems are generated by words rather than by ideas—that it is the “linguistic impulse” that drives the poet—it reflects an attitude that can be traced back directly to Hugo. “Any more or less serious poet knows that he is writing because language is dictating to him.” This statement is actually by Brodsky, but it could as aptly describe Hugo’s revolution.[
9
]

With Hugo, for the first time, language is consciously put in command. He said, “Words are The Word, and The Word is God.” He deliberately allowed himself to be led by words, for “words are the mysterious passers-by of the soul.”[
10
] Being the guardian of words, the poet is vested with prophetic powers: he is the guide who will take mankind to the Truth.

BOOK: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)
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