Pater on Amiel’s Journal Intime

AMIEL’S ” JOURNAL INTIME ” Amiel’s Journal. The Journal Intime of Henri Frederic Amiel. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mrs. Humphry Ward. Two vols. Macmillans. CERTAIN influential expressions of opinion have attracted much curiosity to Amiel’s Journal Intime, both in France, where the book has already made its mark, and in England, where Mrs. Humphry Ward’s translation is likely to make it widely known among all serious lovers of good literature. Easy, idiomatic, correct, this English version reads like an excellent original English work, and gives fresh proof that the work of translation, if it is to be done with effect, must be done by those who, possessing, like Mrs. Ward, original literary gifts, are willing to make a long act of self-denial or self effacement for the benefit of the public. In this case, indeed, the work is not wholly one of self effacement, for the accomplished translator has prefaced Amiel’s Journal by an able and interesting essay of seventy pages on Amiel’s life and intellectual position. And certainly there is much in the book, thus effectively presented to the English reader, to attract those who interest themselves in the study of the finer types of human nature, of literary expression, of metaphysical and practical philosophy; to attract, above all, those interested in such philosophy, at points where it touches upon questions of religion, and especially at the present day. Henri-Frederic Amiel was born at Geneva in 1821. Orphaned of both his parents at the age of twelve, his youth was necessarily ” a little bare and forlorn,” and a deep interest in religion became fixed in him early. His student days coming to an end, the years which followed, from 1842 to 1848 Wanderjahre, in which he visited Holland, Italy, Sicily, and the principal towns of Germany seem to have been the happiest of his life. In 1849 he became a Professor at Geneva, and there is little more to tell of him in the way of outward events. He published some volumes of verse; to the last apparently still only feeling after his true literary métier. Those last seven years were a long struggle against the disease which ended his life, consumption, at the age of fifty- three. The first entry in his Journal is in 1848. From that date to his death, a period of over twenty-five years, this Journal was the real object of all the energies of his richly- endowed nature: and from its voluminous sheets his literary executors have selected the deeply interesting volumes now presented in English. With all its gifts and opportunities it was a melancholy life melancholy with something not altogether explained by the somewhat pessimistic philosophy exposed in the Journal, nor by the consumptive tendency of Amiel’s physical constitution, causing him from a very early date to be much preoccupied with the effort to reconcile himself with the prospect of death, and reinforcing the far from sanguine temperament of one intellectually also a poitrinaire. You might think him at first sight only an admirable specimen of a thoroughly well- educated man, full, of course, of the modern spirit; stimulated and formed by the influences of the varied intellectual world around him; and competing, in his turn, with many very various types of contemporary ability. The use of his book to cultivated people might lie in its affording a kind of standard by which they might take measure of the maturity and producible quality of their own thoughts on a hundred important subjects. He will write a page or two, giving evidence of that accumulated power and attainment which with a more strenuous temperament, might have sufficed for an effective volume. Continually, in the Journal , we pause over things that would rank for beauties among widely differing models of the best French prose. He has said some things in Pascal’s vein not unworthy of Pascal. He had a right to compose ” Thoughts “: they have the force in them which makes up for their unavoidable want of continuity. But if, as Amiel himself challenges us to do, we look below the surface of a very equable and even smoothly accomplished literary manner, we discover, In high degree of development, that perplexity or complexity of soul, the expression of which, so it be with an adequate literary gift, has its legitimate, because inevitable, interest for the modern reader. Senancour and Maurice de Guerin in one, seem to have been supplemented here by a larger experience, a far greater education, than either of them had attained to. So multiplex is the result that minds of quite opposite type might well discover in these pages their own special thought or humour, happily expressed at last (they might think) in precisely that just shade of language themselves had searched for in vain. And with a writer so vivid and impressive as Amiel, those varieties of tendency are apt to present themselves as so many contending persons. The perplexed experience gets the apparent clearness, as it gets also the animation, of a long dialogue; only, the disputants never part company, and there is no real conclusion. ” This nature,” he observes, of one of the many phases of character he has discovered in himself, ” is, as it were, only one of the men which exist in me. It is one of my departments. It is not the whole of my territory, the whole of my inner kingdom “; and again, ” there are ten men in me, according to time, place, surrounding, and occasion; and, in my restless diversity, I am for ever escaping myself.” Yet, in truth, there are but two men in Amiel two sufficiently opposed personalities, which the attentive reader may define for himself; compare with, and try by each other as we think, correct also by each other. There is the man, in him and in these pages, who would be ” the man of disillusion,” only that he has never really been ” the man of desires “; and who seems, therefore, to have a double weariness about him. He is akin, of course, to Obermann, to Rene, even to Werther, and, on our first introduction to him, we might think that we had to do only with one more of the vague ” renunciants,” who in real life followed those creations of fiction, and who, however delicate, interesting as a study, and as it were picturesque on the stage of life, are themselves, after all, essentially passive, uncreative, and therefore necessarily not of first-rate importance in literature. Taken for what it is worth, the expression of this mood the culture of ennui for its own sake is certainly carried to its ideal of negation by Amiel. But the completer, the positive, soul, which will merely take that mood into its service (its proper service, as we hold, is in counteraction to the vulgarity of purely positive natures) is also certainly in evidence in Amiel’s “Thoughts” that other, and far stronger person, in the long dialogue; the man, in short, possessed of gifts, not for the renunciation, but for the reception and use, of all that is puissant, goodly, and effective in life, and for the varied and adequate literary reproduction of it; who, under favourable circumstances, or even without them, will become critic, or poet, and in either case a creative force; and if he be religious (as Amiel was deeply religious) will make the most of “evidence,” and almost certainly find a Church. The sort of purely poetic tendency in his mind, which made Amiel known in his own lifetime chiefly as a writer of verse, seems to be represented in these volumes by certain passages of natural description, always sincere, and sometimes rising to real distinction. In Switzerland it is easy to be pleased with scenery. But the record of such pleasure becomes really worth while when, as happens with Amiel, we feel that there has been, and with success, an intellectual effort to get at the secret, the precise motive, of the pleasure; to define feeling, in this matter. Here is a good description of an effect of fog, which we commend to foreigners resident in London: ” Fog has certainly a poetry of its own a grace, a dreamy charm. It does for the daylight what a lamp does for us at night; it turns the mind towards meditation; it throws the soul back on itself. The sun, as it were, sheds us abroad in nature, scatters and disperses us; mist draws us together and concentrates us it is cordial, homely, charged with feeling. The poetry of the sun has something of the epic in it; that of fog and mist is elegiac and religious. Pantheism is the child of light; mist engenders faith in near protectors. When the great world is shut off from us, the house becomes itself a small universe. Shrouded in perpetual mist, men love each other better; for the only reality then is the family, and, within the family, the heart; and the greatest thoughts come from the heart so says the moralist.” It is of Swiss fog, however, that he is speaking, as, in what follows, of Swiss frost: ” Three snowstorms this afternoon. Poor blossoming plum-trees and peach-trees ! What a difference from six years ago, when the cherrytrees, adorned in their green spring dress and laden with their bridal flowers, smiled at my departure along the Vaudois fields, and the lilacs of Burgundy threw great gusts of perfume into my face !” The weather is seldom talked of with so much real sensitiveness to it as in this: ” The weather is rainy, the whole atmosphere grey; it is a time favourable to thought and meditation. I have a liking for such days as these; they revive one’s converse with oneself and make it possible to live the inner life: they are quiet and peaceful, like a song in a minor key. We are nothing but thought, but we feel our life to its very centre. Our very sensations turn to reverie. It is a strange state of mind; it is like those silences in worship which are not the empty moments of devotion, but the full moments, and which are so because at such times the soul, instead of being polarized, dispersed, localized, in a single impression or thought, feels her own totality and is conscious of hersel” ” Every landscape,” he writes, ” is, as it were, a state of the soul “: and again, ” At bottom there is but one subject of study; the forms and metamorphoses of mind: all other subjects may be reduced to that; all other studies bring us back to this study.” And, in truth, if he was occupied with the aspects of nature to such an excellent literary result, still, it was with nature only as a phenomenon of the moral order. His interest, after all, is, consistently, that of the moralist (in no narrow sense) who deals, from predilection, with the sort of literary work which stirs men stirs their intellect through feeling; and with that literature, especially, as looked at through the means by which it became capable of thus commanding men. The powers, the culture, of the literary producer: there, is the centre of Amiel’s curiosity. And if we take Amiel at his own word, we must suppose that but for causes, the chief of which were bad health and a not long life, he too would have produced monumental work, whose scope and character he would wish us to conjecture from his “Thoughts.” Such indications there certainly are in them. He was meant we see it in the variety, the high level both of matter and style, the animation, the gravity, of one after another of these thoughts on religion, on poetry, on politics in the highest sense; on their most abstract principles, and on the authors who have given them a personal colour; on the genius of those authors, as well as on their concrete works; on outlying isolated subjects, such as music, and special musical composers he was meant, if people ever are meant for special lines of activity, for the best sort of criticism, the imaginative criticism; that criticism which is itself a kind of construction, or creation, as it penetrates, through the given literary or artistic product, into the mental and inner constitution of the producer, shaping his work. Of such critical skill, cultivated with all the resources of Geneva in the nineteenth century, he has given in this Journal abundant proofs. Corneille, Cherbuliez; Rousseau, Sismondi; Victor Hugo, and Joubert; Mozart and Wagner all who are interested in these men will find a value in what Amiel has to say of them. Often, as for instance in his excellent criticism of Quinet, he has to make large exceptions; limitations, skilfully effected by the way, in the course of a really appreciative estimate. Still, through all, what we feel is that we have to do with one who criticises in this fearlessly equitable manner only because he is convinced that his subject is of a real literary importance. A powerful, intellectual analysis of some wellmarked subject, in such form as makes literature enduring, is indeed what the world might have looked for from him: those institutes of aesthetics, for instance, which might exist, after Lessing and Hegel, but which certainly do not exist yet. ” Construction,” he says artistic or literary construction” rests upon feeling, instinct, and,” alas ! also, ” upon will.” The instinct, at all events, was certainly his. And over and above that he had possessed himself of the art of expressing, in quite natural language, very difficult thoughts; those abstract and metaphysical conceptions especially, in which German mind has been rich, which are bad masters, but very useful ministers towards the understanding, towards an analytical survey, of all that the intellect has produced. But something held him back: not so much a reluctancy of temperament, or of physical constitution (common enough cause why men of undeniable gifts fail of commensurate production) but a cause purely intellectual the presence in him, namely, of a certain vein of opinion; that other, constituent but contending, person, in his complex nature. “The relation of thought to action,” he writes, ” filled my mind on waking, and I found myself carried towards a bizarre formula, which seems to have something of the night still clinging about it. Action is but coarsened thought.” That is but an ingenious metaphysical point, as he goes on to show. But, including in ” action ” that literary production in which the line of his own proper activity lay, he followed followed often that fastidious utterance to a cynical and pessimistic conclusion. Maia, as he calls it, the empty “Absolute” of the Buddhist, the ” Infinite,” the ” All,” of which those German metaphysicians he loved only too well have had so much to say: this was for ever to give the go-by to all positive, finite, limited interests whatever. The vague pretensions of an abstract expression acted on him with all the force of a prejudice. “The ideal,” he admits, ” poisons for me all imperfect possession “; and again, ” The Buddhist tendency in me blunts the faculty of free self-government, and weakens the power of action. I feel a terror of action and am only at ease in the impersonal, disinterested, and objective line of thought.” But then, again, with him ” action” meant chiefly literary proaction. He quotes with approval those admirable words from Goethe, ” In der Beschrankung zeigt sich erst der Meister “; yet still always finds himself wavering between ” frittering myself away on the infinitely little, and longing after what is unknown and distant.” There is, doubtless, over and above the physical consumptive tendency, an instinctive turn of sentiment in this touching confession. Still, what strengthened both tendencies was that metaphysical prejudice for the “Absolute,” the false intellectual conscience. ” I have always avoided what attracted me, and turned my back upon the point where secretly I desired to be “; and, of course, that is not the way to a free and generous productivity, in literature, or in anything else; though in literature, with Amiel at all events, it meant the fastidiousness which is incompatible with any but the very best sort of production. And as that abstract condition of Maia, to the kind and quantity of concrete literary production we hold to have been originally possible for him; so was the religion he actually attained, to what might have been the development of his profoundly religious spirit, had he been able to see that the old-fashioned Christianity is itself but the proper historic development of the true ” essence ” of the New Testament. There, again, is the constitutional shrinking, through a kind of metaphysical prejudice, from the concrete that fear of the actual in this case, of the Church of history; to which the admissions, which form so large a part of these volumes, naturally lead. Assenting, on probable evidence, to so many of the judgments of the religious sense, he failed to see the equally probable evidence there is for the beliefs, the peculiar direction of men’s hopes, which complete those judgments harmoniously, and bring them into connection with the facts, the venerable institutions of the past with the lives of the saints. By failure, as we think, of that historic sense, of which he could speak so well, he got no further in this direction than the glacial condition of rationalistic Geneva. ” Philosophy,” he says, ” can never replace religion.” Only, one cannot see why it might not replace a religion such as his: a religion, after all, much like Seneca’s. ” I miss something,” he himself confesses, ” common worship, a positive religion, shared with other people. Ah ! when will the Church to which I belong in heart rise into being ?” To many at least of those who can detect the ideal through the disturbing circumstances which belong to all actual institutions in the world, it was’ already there. Pascal, from considerations to which Amiel was no stranger, came to the large hopes of the Catholic Church; Amiel stopped short at a faith almost hopeless; and by stopping short just there he really failed, as we think, of intellectual consistency, and missed that appeasing influence which his nature demanded as the condition of its full activity, as a force, an intellectual force, in the world in the special business of his life. ” Welcome the unforeseen,” he says again, by way of a counsel of perfection in the matter of culture, ” but give to your life unity, and bring the unforeseen within the lines of your plan.” Bring, we should add, the Great Possibility at least within the lines of your plan your plan of action or production; of morality; especially of your conceptions of religion. And still, Amiel too, be it remembered (we are not afraid to repeat it), has said some things in Pascal’s vein not unworthy of Pascal. And so we get only the Journal. Watching in it, in the way we have suggested, the contention of those two men, those two minds in him, and observing how the one might have ascertained and corrected the shortcomings of the other, we certainly understand, and can sympathize with Amiel’s despondency in the retrospect of a life which seemed to have been but imperfectly occupied. But, then, how excellent a literary product, after all, the journal is. And already we have found that it improves also on second reading. A book of ” thoughts ” should be a book that may be fairly dipped into, and yield good quotable sayings. Here are some of its random offerings: “Look twice, if what you want is a just conception; look once, if what you want is a sense of beauty.” “It is not history which teaches conscience; to be honest; it is the conscience which educates history. Fact is corrupting it is we who correct it by the persistence of our ideal.” “To do easily what is difficult for others is the mark of talent. To do what is impossible for talent is the mark of genius.” ” Duty has the virtue of making us feel the reality of a positive world, while at the same time detaching us from it.” “As it is impossible to be outside God, the best is consciously to dwell in Him.” “He also (the Son of Man), He above all, is the great Misunderstood, the least comprehended.” ” The pensée writer is to the philosopher what the dilettante is to the artist.” There are some, we know, who hold that genius cannot, in the nature of things, be ” sterile “; that there are no ” mute ” Miltons, or the like. Well ! genius, or only a very distinguished talent, the gift which Amiel nursed so jealously did come into evidence. And the reader, we hope, sees also already how well his English translator has done her work. She may justly feel, as part at least of the reward of a labour which must have occupied much time, so many of the freshest hours of mind and spirit, that she has done something to help her author in the achievement of his, however discouraged still irrepressible, desire, by giving additional currency to a book which the best sort of readers will recognize as an excellent and certainly very versatile companion, not to be forgotten.

Originally published in the Guardian — March 17, 1886