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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Henri Frédéric Amiel (1821–1881)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Burton (1861–1940)
 
THE FRENCH have long been writers of what they call ‘Pensées,’—those detached thoughts or meditations which, for depth, illumination, and beauty, have a power of life, and come under the term “literature.” Their language lends itself to the expression of subjective ideas with lucidity, brilliance, charm. The French quality of mind allows that expression to be at once dignified and happily urbane. Sometimes these sayings take the form of the cynical epigrams of a La Rochefoucauld; are expanded into sententious aphorisms by a La Bruyère; or reveal more earnest and athletic souls, who pierce below the social surface froth to do battle with the demons of the intellect. To this class belong men like the seventeenth-century Pascal and the nineteenth-century Amiel.  1
  The career of Henri Frédéric Amiel illustrates the dubiety of too hasty judgment of a man’s place or power in the world. A Genevese by birth, of good parentage, early orphaned, well educated, much traveled, he was deemed, on his return in the springtime of his manhood to his native town as professor in the Academy of Geneva, to be a youth of great promise, destined to become distinguished. But the years slipped by, and his literary performance, consisting of desultory essays and several slight volumes of verse, was not enough to justify the prophecy. His life more and more became that of a bachelor recluse and valetudinarian. When he died, in 1881, at sixty years of age, after much suffering heroically borne, as pathetic entries in the last leaves of his Diary remain to show, there was a feeling that here was “one more faithful failure.” But the quiet, brooding teacher in the Swiss city which has at one time or another immured so many rare minds, had for years been jotting down his reflections in a private journal. It constitutes the story of his inner life, never told in his published writings. When a volume of the ‘Journal Intime’ appeared the year after his taking off, the world recognized in it not only an intellect of clarity and keenness, and a heart sensitive to the widest spiritual problems, but the revelation of a typical modern mood. The result was that Amiel, being dead, yet spoke to his generation, and his fame was quick and genuine. The apparent disadvantage point of Geneva proved, after all, the fittest abiding-place for the poet-philosopher. A second volume of extracts, two years later, found him in an assured place as a writer of ‘Pensées.’  2
  The ‘Journal’ of Amiel is symptomatic of his time,—perhaps one reason why it met with so sympathetic a response. It mirrors the intellectual doubtings, the spiritual yearnings and despairs of a strenuous and pure soul in a rationalistic atmosphere. In the day of scientific test and of skepticism, of the readjustment of conventions and the overthrow of sacrosanct traditions, one whose life is that of thought rather than of action finds much to perplex, to weary, and to sadden. So it was with the Swiss professor. He was always in the sanctum sanctorum of his spirit, striving to attain the truth; with Hamlet-like irresolution he poised in mind before the antinomies of the universe, alert to see around a subject, having the modern thinker’s inability to be partisan. This way of thought is obviously unhealthy, or at least has in it something of the morbid. It implies the undue introspection which is well-nigh the disease of this century. There is in it the failure to lose one’s life in objective incident and action, that one may find it again in regained balance of mind and bodily health. Amiel had the defect of his quality; but he is clearly to be separated from those shallow or exaggerated specimens of subjectivity illustrated by present-day women diarists, like Bashkirtseff and Kovalevsky. The Swiss poet-thinker had a vigor of thought and a broad culture; his aim was high, his desire pure, and his meditations were often touched with imaginative beauty. Again and again he flashes light into the darkest penetralia of the human soul. At times, too, there is in him a mystic fervor worthy of St. Augustine. If his dominant tone is melancholy, he is not to be called a pessimist. He believed in the Good at the central core of things. Hence is he a fascinating personality, a stimulative force. And these outpourings of an acute intellect, and a nature sensitive to the Ideal, are conveyed in a diction full of literary feeling and flavor. Subtlety, depth, tenderness, poetry, succeed each other; nor are the crisp, compressed sayings, the happy mots of the epigrammatist, entirely lacking. And pervading all is an impression of character.  3
  Like Pascal, Amiel was a thinker interested above all in the soul of man. He was a psychologist, seeking to know the secret of the Whence, the Why, and the Whither. Like Joubert, whose journal resembled his own in its posthumous publication, his reflections will live by their weight, their quality, their beauty of form. Nor are these earlier writers of “Pensées” likely to have a more permanent place among the seed-sowers of thought. Amiel himself declared that “the pensée-writer is to the philosopher what the dilettante is to the artist. He plays with thought, and makes it produce a crowd of pretty things of detail; but he is more anxious about truths than truth, and what is essential in thought, its sequence, its unity, escapes him…. In a word, the pensée-writer deals with what is superficial and fragmentary.” While these words show the fine critical sense of the man, they do an injustice to his own work. Fragmentary it is, but neither superficial nor petty. One recognizes in reading his wonderfully suggestive pages that here is a rare personality, indeed,—albeit “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”  4
  In 1889 an admirable English translation of Amiel by Mary Augusta Ward, the novelist, appeared in London. The introductory essay by Mrs. Ward is the best study of him in our language. The appended selections are taken from the Ward translation.  5
 
 
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