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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Critic’s Account of His Own Critical Method
By Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869)
 
From the ‘Nouveaux Lundis’

IT is understood then that to-day [July 22, 1862] you will allow me to enter into some details about the course and method that I have thought best to follow in studying books and talents. For me, literature—literary production—is not distinct, or at least not separable, from the rest of the man and from its environment. I can enjoy a work, but I can hardly judge it, independently of a knowledge of the man himself. “The tree is known by its fruits,” as I might say; and so literary study leads me quite naturally to the study of morals.  1
  A day will come of which I have caught glimpses in the course of my observations,—a day when the science [of criticism] will be established, when the great mental families and their principal divisions will be known and determined. Then, when the principal characteristic of a mind is given, we shall be able to deduce many others from it. With men, no doubt, one can never work exactly as with animals or plants. Man is ethically more complex. He has what we call liberty, and what in any case presupposes a great mobility of possible combinations. But however that may be, we shall succeed in time, I think, in establishing moral science on a broader basis. To-day it is at the point where botany was before Jussieu and comparative anatomy before Cuvier,—in the stage, so to speak, of anecdote. We for our part are making mere monographs, amassing detailed observations: but I catch glimpses of connections, relations; and a broader mind, more enlightened and yet keen in the perception of detail, will be able some day to discover the great natural divisions that represent the genera of minds.  2
  But even when mental science shall be organized as one may imagine it from afar, it will be always so delicate and so mobile that it will exist only for those who have a natural vocation and talent for observation. It will always be an art that will demand a skillful artist; just as medicine demands medical tact in him who practices it, as philosophy ought to demand philosophic tact from those who pretend to be philosophers, as poetry demands to be essayed only by a poet.  3
  Suppose we have under observation a superior man, or one merely noteworthy for his productions; an author whose works we have read, and who may be worth the trouble of a searching study. How shall we go about it if we wish to omit nothing important and essential, if we wish to shake off the old-fashioned rhetorical judgments,—to be as little as possible the dupes of phrases, words, conventional sentiments, and to attain the truth as in a study of nature?  4
  We shall surely recognize and rediscover the superior man, at least in part, in his parents, especially in the mother; in his sisters too, in his brothers, and even in his children. We shall find there essential characteristics that in the great man are often masked, because they are too condensed or too amalgamated. In others of his blood we shall find his character more in its simple, naked state. Nature herself has done the analysis for us.  5
  It is enough to indicate my thought. I will not abuse it. When you have informed yourself as far as possible about the origin, the immediate and near relations of an eminent writer, the essential point, after discussing his studies and his education, is his first environment,—the first group of friends and contemporaries in which he found himself at the moment when his talent was revealed, took material form and became adult. For be sure his talent will bear the mark of it, and whatever he may do later he will feel it always.  6
  The very great men depend on no group; they make centres themselves; people gather around them: but it is the group, association, alliance, and active exchange of ideas,—a perpetual emulation in presence of one’s equals and peers,—that gives to the man of talent all his productive energy, his development, and his value. There are talents that share at the same time in several groups, and never cease to pass through successive environments; perfecting, transforming, or deforming themselves. Then it is important to note, even in these variations and slow or sudden conversions, the hidden and unchanging impulse, the persistent force.  7
  Each work of an author examined in this way, in its place, after you have put it back into its framework and surrounded it with all the circumstances that marked its birth, acquires its full significance,—its historic, literary significance; it recovers its just degree of novelty, originality, or imitation: and you run no risk in your criticism of discovering beauties amiss, and admiring beside the mark, as is inevitable when you depend on rhetorical criticism alone.  8
  For the critic who is studying a talent, there is nothing like catching it in its first fire, its first outpouring; nothing like breathing it in its morning hour, in its efflorescence of soul and youth. The first proof of an engraved portrait has for the artist and the man of taste a price which nothing that follows can equal. I know no joy for the critic more exquisite than to comprehend and portray a young talent in its freshness, in its frank and primitive aspect, anticipating all the foreign and perhaps factitious elements that may mingle with it.  9
  O first and fruitful hour from which all takes its date! Ineffable moment! It is among men of the same age, and of the same hour almost, that talent loves to choose for the rest of its career, or for the longer half of it, its companions, its witnesses, its emulators,—its rivals too, and its adversaries. Each chooses his own opponent, his own point of view. There are such rivalries, challenges, piques, among equals or almost equals, that last a whole lifetime. But even though we should be a little inferior, let us never desire that a man of our generation should fall and disappear, even though he were a rival and though he should pass for an enemy. For if we have true worth, he too, at need and on occasion, will warn the coming ignorant generations and the insolence of youth, that in us they have to do with an old athlete whom they may not despise or dismiss with levity. His own self-esteem is interested in it. He has measured himself with us in the good old times. He has known us in our best days.—I will clothe my thought with illustrious names. It is still Cicero who renders the noblest homage to Hortensius. A phrase of Æschines remains the fairest eulogy of Demosthenes. And the Greek hero Diomedes, speaking of Æneas in Virgil, and wishing to give a lofty idea of him: “Trust him,” said he, “who has measured his own strength with him.”  10
  It is not only important to catch a talent at the moment of its first essay, at its first outburst, when it appears full-formed and more than adolescent, when it declares its own majority. There is a second period to note, not less decisive if one wishes to take in the whole man. It is the moment when he begins to spoil, to decay, to fail, or to err. Some stiffen and dry, some yield and lose their hold, some grow hard, some heavy, some bitter. The smile becomes a wrinkle. After the first moment when talent in its brilliant blossoming has become man,—the young man confident and proud,—one must note this second, sad moment when age unmakes and changes him.  11
  One cannot take too many ways to know a man, nor approach him from too many sides; for a man is something quite different from pure spirit. Until you have asked yourself a certain number of questions about an author, and answered them, though only to yourself and under your breath, you are not sure that you have him wholly, though those questions may seem most foreign to the nature of his writings: What did he think about religion? How was he affected by the spectacle of nature? How did he bear himself in regard to women, and to money? Was he rich? Was he poor? What was his regimen, his daily habit of life? And so on. In short, What was his vice or his foible? Everybody has one. None of these responses is indifferent to the judgment of the author of a book, and of the book itself, unless the book be a treatise on pure geometry; not if it is at all a literary work,—that is to say, a book into which he enters at all….  12
  Up to a certain point one can study talents in their moral posterity, in their disciples and natural admirers. That is a last easy and convenient means of observation. Such affinities either proclaim or betray themselves. Genius is a king who creates his people…. Tell me who loves, who admires you, and I will tell you who you are…. The disciples who imitate the manner and taste of their model in writing are very curious to follow, and best suited in their turn to cast light on him. The disciple usually exaggerates or parodies his master without suspecting it. In rhetorical schools he enfeebles, in picturesque and naturalistic schools he forces, heightens to excess, exaggerates. He is an enlarging mirror. When the master is negligent, and the disciple careful and dressed in Sunday clothes, they resemble one another. On days when Chateaubriand writes badly and Marchangy does his best, they have a deceptive resemblance. From a little further off, from behind, and by moonlight, you might mistake them for one another.  13
  If it is just to judge a talent by his friends and natural followers, it is not less legitimate to judge him and counter-judge him (for it is in fact a sort of counter-proof) by the enemies whom he rouses and unwittingly attracts; by his contraries, his antipathies; by those who instinctively cannot bear him. Nothing serves better to mark the limits of a talent, to circumscribe its sphere and domain, than to know the exact points where revolt against it begins. In its detail this even becomes piquant to watch. In literature people detest one another sometimes all their lives, and yet have never met. So the antagonism between mental genera grows clear. What would you have? It’s in the blood, in the temperament, in first prejudices which often do not depend on ourselves. When it is not low envy, it is racial hatred. How will you make Boileau enjoy Quinault, and Fontenelle think highly of Boileau, and Joseph de Maistre or Montalembert love Voltaire? But I have said enough to-day about the natural method in literature.  14
 
 
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