Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Eighteenth Century
By Edmond Henri Adolphe Schérer (1815–1889)
From Review of ‘Woman in the Eighteenth Century’ by the Goncourts:
Translation of Lucy Catlin Bull Robinson

I COULD have wished this book of the brothers Goncourt a little different: not abler, more instructive, better supported with facts, for no man ever had a firmer grasp on his eighteenth century than these authors; not juster in its appreciations, because, captivated as they were by the graces of that corrupt century, their judgment of it was none the less rigorous. I could only have wished that they had not proceeded so exclusively by means of description and enumeration; and that in the many pictures that pass before our eyes, the characteristic feature, the association, the anecdote, had not taken the form of simple allusions, had not so often been indicated by a simple reference to some book I had not under my hand, to some engraving I have no time to look up among the cartoons of the Imperial Library. In a word, I should have liked more narratives and more citations. With this reservation, I willingly recognize that the volume of the brothers Goncourt is one of those works that most fully enable us to understand the century of which it treats; which at least make us enter most fully into its innermost life, its intellectual character. An epoch is not wholly known when its literature is known; it does not even suffice us to read the memoirs of those who lived in it: there are, besides, endless details of manners, customs, dress; a thousand observations upon the different classes of society and their condition; a thousand nothings, unnoticed as the very air we breathe, yet having their value and making their contribution to the complete effect. Now the brothers Goncourt, with praiseworthy zeal and discretion, have brought all this together. They have done for the eighteenth century what learned pedants with fewer resources but with no more ability have done for past civilizations: they have reconstructed it by means of the monuments.  1
  This volume on the woman of the eighteenth century is to be followed by three others, dealing with man, the State, and Paris at the same epoch. To say truth, however, the woman is already the man, she is already the State itself, she is the whole century. The most striking characteristic of the period under consideration is, that it personifies itself in its women. This the brothers Goncourt have recognized. “The soul of this time,” say they in their somewhat exuberant style, “the centre of the world, the point whence everything radiates, the summit whence all descends, the image after which all things are modeled, is woman. Woman in the eighteenth century is the principle that governs, the reason that directs, the voice that commands. She is the universal and inevitable cause, the origin of events, the source of things. Nothing escapes her, and she holds everything in her hand: the king and France, the will of the sovereign and the power of opinion. She rules at court, she is mistress at the fireside. The revolutions of alliances and systems, peace, war, letters, arts, the fashions of the eighteenth century as well as its destinies,—all these she carries in her robe, she bends them to her caprice or her passions. She causes degradations and promotions. No catastrophes, no scandals, no great strokes, that cannot be traced to her, in this century that she fills up with prodigies, marvels, and adventures, in this history into which she works the surprises of a novel.” The book of the brothers Goncourt furnishes proof of these assertions on every page. It sets forth on a small scale, but in a complete way, that epoch of which they have so truly said that it is the French century par excellence, and that all our roots are found in it. This volume puts a finger on its meanness, its greatness, its vices and its virtues. It is the vices that are the most conspicuous. The corruption of the eighteenth century has become proverbial. To tell the truth, this corruption is the result of a historical situation. What is meant by the France of the eighteenth century is a particular class of society, the polite and brilliant world. The theme of history has always gone on enlarging. In old times there was no history save that of conquerors and lawgivers. Later we have that of the courts and of the nobility. After the French Revolution, it is the nations and their destinies who occupy the first plane. In the eighteenth century the middle class has already raised and enriched itself, the distinction of ranks is leveled; there is more than one plebeian name among those that adorn the salons: nevertheless, society is still essentially aristocratic; it is chiefly composed of people who have nothing to do in the world save to enjoy their hereditary privileges. The misfortune of the French nobility has always been thus to constitute a dignity without functions. It formed not so much an organic part of the State as a class of society. Confined within the limits of a narrow caste, it had reduced life to a matter of elegant and agreeable relations.  2
  Hence the French salon, and all those graces of conversation, all those refinements of mind and manners, that make up its inimitable character. Hence at the same time, something artificial and unwholesome. Life does not easily forego a serious aim. It offers this eternal contradiction: that, tending to happiness, it nevertheless cannot adopt that as its special object without in that very act destroying the conditions of it.  3
  These men, these women, who seemed to exist only for those things that appear most enviable,—grace and honor, love and intelligence,—these people had exhausted in themselves the sources of intelligence and love. This consummate epicurism defeated its own object. These virtues, limited to the virtues of good-fellowship, were manifestly insufficient to uphold society. This activity, in which duty, effort, sacrifice, had no place, consumed itself. Extinguish the soul, the conscience, as useless lights, and lo, all is utter darkness! The intellect was to have taken the place of everything; and the intellect has succeeded only in blighting everything, and in blighting itself before all. Only one demand was made of human destiny,—pleasure; and it was ennui that responded.  4
  That incurable evil of ennui—the eighteenth century betrays it everywhere. That was its essential element, I had almost said its principle. This explains its agitations, its antipathies, its furtive sadnesses, the boldness of its vices. It floats about, finding no object worth its constancy. It undertakes everything, always to fall back into a profounder disenchantment. Each fruit it gnaws can only leave a more bitter taste of ashes. It shakes itself in the vain effort to realize that it is alive. It is sorrowful, sorrowful as death, and has not even the dignity of melancholy. It finds all things spectacular; it watches itself live, and that experiment has ceased to interest it. Lassitude, spiritual barrenness, prostration of all the vital forces,—this is all that came of it. Then a well-known phenomenon makes its appearance. Man never pauses: he goes on digging, he scoops out the very void; no longer believing anything, he yet seeks an unknown good that escapes him. Dissipation, even, pursues a fleeting dream. It demands of the senses what they can never yield. Irritated by its miscalculations, it invents subtleties. It seasons libertinism with every kind of infamy. It becomes savage. It takes pleasure in bringing suffering upon the creatures it annihilates. It enjoys the remorse, the shame, of its victims. Its vanity is occupied with compromising women, with breaking their hearts, with corrupting them if it can. Thus gallantry is converted into a cynicism of immorality. Men make a boast of cruelty and of calculation in their cruelty. Good style advertises villainy. But even this is not enough. Insatiable appetites will demand of crime a certain savor that vice has lost for them. “There is,” as the brothers Goncourt truly say,—“there is an inexorable logic that compels the evil passions of humanity to go to the end of themselves, and to burst in a final and absolute horror. This logic assigned to the voluptuous immorality of the eighteenth century its monstrous coronation. The habit of cruelty had become too strong to remain in the head and not reach the senses. Man had played too long with the suffering heart of woman not to feel tempted to make her suffer more surely and more visibly. Why, after exhausting tortures for her soul, should he not try them upon her body? Why not seek grossly in her blood the delights her tears had given? The doctrine sprang up, it took shape: the whole century went over to it without knowing it; it was, in its last analysis, nothing more than the materialization of their appetites: and was it not inevitable that this last word should be said, that the erethism of ferocity should establish itself as a principle, as a revelation; and that at the end of this polished and courtly decadence, after all these approaches to the supreme torture of woman, M. de Sade, with the blood of the guillotines, should set up the Terror in Love?”  5
  This then is the eighteenth century: a century brilliant rather than delicate, pleasure-loving without passion, whose void forever goes on emptying itself, whose blunted vices seek a stimulus in crime, whose frivolity becomes in the end almost tragical; a century of impotence and of decline, a society that is sinking and putrefying.  6
  Let us not forget, however, that judgments made wholly from one point of view are like general ideas: they can never do more than furnish incomplete notions. Things can always be considered on two sides, the unfavorable and the favorable. The eighteenth century is like everything else: it has its right side as well as its wrong. I am sorry for those who see in it only matter for admiration: its feet slipped in the mire. I am sorry for those who do not speak of it without crossing themselves: the eighteenth century had its noble aspects, nay, its grand aspects.  7
  And in the first place, the eighteenth century is charming. Opinions may differ as to the worth of the elegance, but that its elegance was perfect cannot be denied. The inadequacy of the comme il faut, and of what is called good society, may be deplored; but there is no gainsaying that the epoch in question was the grand model of this good society. France became in those days its universal school, as it were its native country. It makes of fine manners a new ethics, composed of horror for what is common, the desire to find means of pleasing, the art of attention, of delicacy in beauty, of the refinements of language, of a conversation that does not commit itself to anything, of a discussion that never degenerates into a dispute, of a lightness that is in reality only moderation and grace. The good-breeding of the eighteenth century does not destroy egoism, but it dissimulates it. Nor does it in the least make up for the lost virtues, but it vouchsafes an image of them. It gives a rule for souls. It acquires the dignity of an institution. It is the religion of an epoch that has no other.  8
  This is not all. One feels a breath of art passing over this century. If it does not create, still it adorns. If it does not seek the beautiful, it finds the charming. Its character is not grand, but it has a character.  9
  It has set a seal upon all that it has produced: buildings, furniture, pictures. When, two or three years ago, an exhibition brought together the works of the principal painters of the French school in the eighteenth century, the canvases of Greuze, of Boucher, of Watteau, of Fragonard, of Chardin, great was the astonishment to find so much frankness under all that affectation, originality in that mannerism, vitality in that conventional school of art. We should never lose sight of one thing: the epoch under consideration had what was lacking in some other epochs,—in the Empire, for example,—an art and a literature. That is not enough to make a great century, but it can aid a century to make a figure in history.  10
  But observe what still better characterizes French society before the Revolution. That society is animated with intellectual curiosity. It has the taste for letters, and in letters the taste for new things, for adventures. It devours voyages, history, philosophy. It is concerned about the Chinese and the Hindus; it desires to know what Rome was, and what England is; it studies popular institutions and the faculties of the human understanding. The ladies have great quartos on their dressing-tables (that is the accepted size). Nothing discourages them. They read Raynal’s ‘Philosophic History,’ Hume’s ‘Stuarts’ [History of England], Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of Laws.’ But it is with the sciences that they are most smitten. It is there that their trouble of mind is best diverted. Fontenelle discourses to them on the worlds, and Galiani on political economy. The new arts, the progress of industry, excite their enthusiasm. They wish to see all, to know all. They follow courses, they frequent laboratories, they assist at experiments, they discuss systems, they read memoirs. Run after these charming young women,—they go to the Jardin des Plantes to see a theriac put together; to the Abbé Mical to hear an automaton speak; to Rouelle to witness the volatilization of the diamond; to Réveillon, there to salute Pilâtre de Rozier, before an ascension. This morning they have paid a visit to the great cactus that only blossoms once in fifty years, this afternoon they will attend experiments upon inflammable air or upon electricity. Nothing even in medicine or anatomy is without attraction for their unfettered curiosity: the Countess de Voisenon prescribes for her friends; the Countess de Coigny is only eighteen, and she dissects!  11
  This tendency to hyper-enthusiasm is a sign of mobility; and mobility is one of the distinguishing features of the eighteenth century. It has had a result that has not been fully noted. The eighteenth century had its crisis; or if you will, its conversion. A day came when it turned against itself. The change was perhaps not very profound, but it was very marked. From having the man of nature constantly preached to them, they wished to resemble him somewhat. The men gave up the French coat and ceased to carry the sword. The women laid down their hoops, they covered their bosoms, they substituted caps for towering head-dresses, low-heeled for high-heeled shoes, linen for brocade. Simplicity was pushed to pastoralism. Their dreams took the form of idyls. They had cottages, they played at keeping dairies, they made butter. But the true name of this new cult, whose prophet was Jean-Jacques, is sensibility. They talked now only of attraction, affinity, sympathy. It is the epoch of groups in bisque, symbols: hearts on fire, altars, doves. There are chains made of hair, bracelets with portraits. Madame de Blot wears upon her neck a miniature of the church where her brother is buried. Formerly beauty was piquant, now it aspires to be “touching.” Its triumph is to “leave an emotion.” The feelings should be expansive. Every woman is ambitious to love like Julie. Every mother will raise her son like Émile. And since it is the Genevese philosopher who has revealed to the world the gospel of sensibility, upon him most of all will that gift be lavished with which he seems all at once to have endowed French society. His handwriting is kissed: things that belonged to him are converted into relics. “There is not a truly sympathetic woman living,” exclaims the most virtuous of the beauties of those days, “who would not need an extraordinary virtue to keep her from consecrating her life to Rousseau, could she be certain of being passionately loved by him!”  12
  All this has the semblance of passion, but little depth. It would seem, in truth, that the eighteenth century was too frivolous ever to be truly moved. And nevertheless it has been moved, it has had a passion, perhaps the most noble of all—that of humanity. Pity, in the times that precede it, appears almost as foreign to polite society as the feeling for nature. Who, in the seventeenth century, was agitated if some poor devil of a villager was crushed by the taxes, if a Protestant was condemned to his Majesty’s galleys? Who troubled himself about the treatment of the insane, about the régime of prisons, the barbarities of the rack and the wheel? The eighteenth century, on the contrary, is seized with an immense compassion for all sufferings. It is kindled with generous ideas; it desires tolerance, justice, equality. Its heroes are useful men, agriculturists, benefactors of the people. It embraces all the nations in its reforms. It rises to the conception of human solidarity. It makes itself a golden age where the philosopher’s theories mingle with the reveries of the mere dreamer. Every one is caught by the glorious chimera. The author of ‘La Pucelle’ has his hours of philanthropy. Turgot finds support in the salons. Madame de Genlis speaks like Madame Roland or Madame de Staël. Utopia, a Utopia at once rational as geometry and blind as enthusiasm,—the whole of the French Revolution is there already.  13
  The eighteenth century has received the name of the philosophical century, and with good reason if an independent spirit of inquiry is the distinguishing feature of philosophy. It rejected everything in the nature of convention and tradition. It declared an implacable war on what is called prejudice. It desired truths that stand on their own legs. It sought in man, in the mere nature of things, the foundation of the true and the good. The doctrines of this epoch are not exalted, but they have that species of vigor that the absence of partiality gives. The problem of problems, for this century, is how to live; and to the solution of that problem it brings only natural methods. The men of those times, to use the expression of the brothers Goncourt, “keep themselves at the height of their own heart, without aid, by their own strength. Emancipated from all dogma and system of belief, they draw their lights from the recesses of their own hearts, and their powers from the same source.” There are some who “afford in this superficial century the grand spectacle of a conscience at equilibrium in the void, a spectacle forgotten of humanity since the Antonines.” The Countess de Boufflers, with whom M. Sainte-Beuve has lately made us acquainted, had maxims framed and hung in her chamber; among them might be read such words as the following: “In conduct, simplicity and sense. In methods, justice and generosity. In adversity, courage and self-respect. Sacrifice all for peace of mind. When an important duty is to be fulfilled, consider perils and death only as drawbacks, not as obstacles.” See what thoughts made up the daily meditations of a woman of the world. Adversity was supported with cheerful courage. Old age was accepted without pride or effort, without surprise or consternation. One detached oneself little by little, composed oneself, conformed to the changed condition, extinguished oneself, discreetly, quite simply, with decorum, and so to speak with spirit. Let us take care when we speak of the eighteenth century—let us take care not to forget the trials of the emigration and the prisons of the Terror!  14
  I have spoken of the greatness and the debasement of the epoch that the brothers Goncourt set themselves to interpret. If there is some contradiction between the two halves of the picture, I am not far from thinking that this very contradiction might well be a proof of correctness. Human judgments are true only on the condition of perpetually putting the yes by the side of the no. The truth is, one can say of the eighteenth century what our authors somewhere say of the Duchess of Mirepoix: in default of esteem it inspires sympathy. The French century above all others, it has our defects and our qualities. Endowed with more intelligence than firmness, argumentative rather than philosophic, didactic rather than moral, it has given lessons rather than examples to the world, examples rather than models. It was not entirely fixed, either in good or in evil. However low it fell, it was far from making an utter failure. Carried to extremes, it showed its strength most of all in extremity. It is an assemblage of contradictions where all happens without precedent, and it is safest to take nothing in it too literally. It will ever be a bad sign in France, when this century is underrated and when it is overrated; but it would be above all a sinister day if we should ever adopt its frivolity and corruption, and leave unappropriated its noble instincts and its capacity for enthusiasm.  15

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.