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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Paul Desjardins (1859–1940)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
NO nation of Modern Europe has known such rapid and startling developments in the course of a single century as France in the period stretching from the end of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth.  1
  From fierce class-hatred, an inheritance bequeathed by generations of selfish aristocrats, there was but one step to violent upheaval and revolution. Then followed hastily conceived, impractical reconstructions; a brilliant young Emperor with a no less brilliant career, reaching a sudden and tragic downfall; two futile attempts at re-establishing the old Monarchy, on a basis too much shaken by popular distrust and the incapacity or willfulness of former kings; and still another Emperor, carried to the throne on the waves of imperialistic enthusiasm; finally, a great national humiliation, military defeat at the hands of an enemy neighbor, made possible by discord in the heart of the nation, party strife, and administrative corruption and inefficiency.  2
  With defeat came first a deep sense of humiliation, a general feeling of discouragement and, for some years, of depression. M. de Vogüé, himself one of the apostles of the Reaction and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, has very aptly characterized this phase of French dejection. He says:—
          “The French children who were born just before 1870 grew up in an atmosphere of patriotic mourning and amidst the discouragement of defeat. National life, such as it became reconstituted after that terrible shock, revealed to them on all sides nothing but abortive hopes, paltry struggles of interest, and a society without any other hierarchy but that of money, and without other principle or ideal than the pursuit of material enjoyment. Literature … reflected these same tendencies; it was dejected or vile, and distressed the heart by its artistic dryness or disgusted it by its trivial realism. Science itself … began to appear to many what it is in reality, namely, a means, not an end; its prestige declined and its infallibility was questioned…. Above all, it was clear from too evident social symptoms that if science can satisfy some very distinguished minds, it can do nothing to moralize and discipline societies….
  “For a hundred years after the destruction of the religious and political dogmas of the past, France had lived as best she could on some few fragile dogmas, which had in their turn been consecrated by a naïve superstition; these dogmas were the principles of 1789—the almightiness of reason, the efficacy of absolute liberty, the sovereignty of the people—in a word, the whole credo of the revolution…. In order to shake that faith [in these principles] … it was necessary that human reason, proclaimed infallible, should turn its arms against itself. And that is what happened. Scientific criticism, after having ruined old dogmatism,… made as short work of the revolutionary legend as of the monarchical one, and showed itself as pitiless for the rights of man as it had been for the rights of God. All these causes combined, sufficiently explain the nihilism and pessimism which invaded the souls of the young during the past ten years…. Clear-sighted boys analyzed life with a vigor and a precision unknown to their predecessors; having analyzed it, they found it bad; they turned away from life with fear and horror. There was heard from the peaks of intelligence a great cry of discouragement:—‘Beware of deceitful nature; fear life, emancipate yourselves from life!’ This cry was first uttered by the masters of contemporary thought,—a Schopenhauer, a Taine, a Tolstoy; below them, thousands of humbler voices repeat it in chorus. According to each one’s turn of mind, the new philosophy assumed shades different in appearance—Buddhist nirvana, atheistic nihilism, mystic asceticism; but all these theories proceeded from the same sentiment, and all these doctrines may be reduced to the same formula:—‘Let us depreciate life, let us escape from its snares.’”
  3
  With a new generation, however, fresh hope was born. The wise outcome of humiliation was introspection and self-criticism and, born of the two, a new sense of duty towards the nation as a whole, a wide-hearted patriotism that learnt the lesson of misfortune in a renewed sense of responsibility and willingness to endure.  4
  It was at this point that literature and politics became very closely interrelated; poets and playwrights formed and expressed views on matters of political importance; while on the other hand diplomats, scientists, professors, began more and more to use literary forms and outlets as a means of spreading their ideas and increasing their influence. Paul Desjardins was one of the most inspired young writers of this group. Born in 1859 as the son of a prominent member of the ‘Institut’ and professor of Rhetoric at the Collège de France in Paris, he became in his turn professor of Rhetoric at the Collège Stanislas and at the Lycée Michelet. His career as professor may perhaps have been less brilliant than that of his father; he is best known as a contributor to the Journal des Débats, to the Revue Bleue, the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and other periodicals. In the history of his nation he will always be remembered as one whose noble convictions and admirable clearness of vision inspired Young France with new ideals and led public thought into wider channels.  5
  His was an active idealism, not content to dream, to plan and hope, but ready to suffer and sacrifice, and eager to awaken “luke-warm allies,” idealists of the dreamy type, and change them from mere believers into active workers for the betterment of human kind. In one of his earliest essays (‘Une Critique’), he has unconsciously expressed his rule of life in the following words:—
          “Whatever deserves to be, deserves the best attention of our intellect. Everything calls for interest, only it must be an interest divested of self-interest, and sincere. But above all we must labor—labor hard—to understand, respect, and tenderly love in others whatever contains one single grain of simple intrinsic Goodness. Believe me, this is everywhere, and it is everywhere to be found, if you will only look for it….
  “The supremacy of the truly Good!—here lies the root of the whole teaching—the whole new way of looking at things and judging men….
  “New views of the universality of our world, of poetry, of religion, of kindness (human kindness), of virtue, of worth!… Think it over; these are the objects on which our new generation is fixing its thoughts, and trying to awaken yours. This it is which is so new!”
Translation of Madame Blaze de Bury.    
  6
  Madame Blaze de Bury, his warm admirer and critic, testifies that these were not mere words, but principles firmly rooted in the author’s character. She says:—
          “One of the chief characteristics of Paul Desjardins’s utterances is their total disinterestedness, their absolute detachment from self. Nowhere else have you the same indescribable purity, the same boundless generosity of joy in other good, the same pervading altruism…. What is in other men the indirect and hidden source of their public acts, is in him the direct source of life itself—the life to be lived; and also of the mode in which that life is to be conceived and to be made apparent to the world. Sincerity is the prime virtue of life. Each leader proves his faith by his individual conduct, as by his judgments on events and men. The pure passion of abstract thought fires each to do the best that is his to do. His life is to be the word-for-word translation of his own spirit.”
  7
  Such a “Leader” Paul Desjardins became in 1892 after the publication of his pamphlet entitled ‘The Present Duty.’ Here he not only made clear his fervid convictions, but he used all the impressiveness at his command to awaken a real and active interest in the hearts of his readers. He made a broad division of the men of his day into “positives” and “negatives,” according to the answer they found in their hearts to the question whether we are mere playthings in the hands of a willful Destiny, or whether we have a real object in life. In his own mind there existed no doubt as to the reality of our duties as human beings. He did not go so far as to condemn, in so many words, the “negatives” whom he could even sometimes pronounce charming; he left them to their own way of living, happily thoughtless and irresponsible. But he tried to rally round a common aim all positive minds, whether Christian or Jew, Stoic or Kantian, in short, all those who felt themselves free, responsible human beings. To these he addressed his appeal for greater sincerity, for morality not merely as an outcome of convention, but as the result of conviction and purity of heart. Though surrounded by most discouraging signs of the low state of public morals, the idealist in him still clung to his belief in the Good inherent in all men.  8
  His own fervid hopes kindled the enthusiasm of some of his readers. A group of men, including members of most classes of society as well as adherents to various religious creeds and political parties, joined together and formed a ‘Union of Moral Action,’ the object of which was the gradual formation of a healthy public mind and the creation of a new standard of common morality. This led to more searching questions, to doubts, differences of opinion, and even attacks. Desjardins tried to follow up his first success by a series of articles published in the Journal des Débats under the title ‘The Conversion of the Church.’ His first and all-important commandment was: “Be sincere; follow the honest impulses of your conscience. All outward forms of Faith or Creed are of value only as long as they are the expression of your innermost convictions.” Basing his argument on this principle, he then proceeded to point out wherein lay the weakness of the Church and of similar institutions, namely in the over-cultivation of elaborate, but empty form, coupled with a lack of appreciation for the primitive need which had originally given a meaning to such form. Few of his early followers kept pace with him in this more radical advance, and, partly as a result of this, Desjardins withdrew from publicity and henceforward devoted most of his leisure to literary studies; amongst these, the appreciative essays on Corneille deserve notice.  9
  The current of thought started by Desjardins has been merged in a flood of similar agitation in which his personality has become much less prominent, but it should not be forgotten that he was one of the originators of a movement of great importance for France and therefore for the world at large. The appreciation accorded to his pamphlets at their appearance, and the esteem in which their author was held by his early contemporaries are well illustrated by the fact that Jules Lemaître, one of the foremost modern French critics, actually used Desjardins’s name to coin a new word, “Desjardinism,” by which he wishes to express “whatever is highest and purest and of most rare attainment in the Idealism of the present hour,—the ideal of spiritual life, absolute morality.”  10
 
 
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