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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Étienne Pivert de Senancour (1770–1846)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
ONE work of Senancour’s has lived. The others—moral and philosophical treatises, and one feeble novel, ‘Isabelle,’ written in his old age as a sequel to his famous ‘Obermann’—are now forgotten. “But ‘Obermann,’” says Matthew Arnold, “has qualities which make it permanently valuable to kindred minds.” Arnold himself, while suffering the spiritual isolation there portrayed, did not go off alone to suffer; but did a great and practical work in the world of men. Other noble minds have sympathized with Obermann, among them George Sand and Sainte-Beuve; but for most people, such writing, however noble and eloquent, must needs be somewhat futile. It must after all be healthy instinct which guides men as well as children to turn from abstractions to accounts of positive achievement. Heroic action is far more thrilling than even its prompting impulse, unfulfilled. It is so much more satisfactory to receive some practical lesson in living, some stimulus to richer sensation, than to be disheartened by the wailings of failure.  1
  Senancour early showed a want of adaptability to existing social conditions. He was born at Paris in November 1770, of a noble family, to whom the Revolution brought ruin. Sickly from childhood, he was destined to the Church. Obliged by his father to enter St. Sulpice, he rebelled against the monastic constraint, and aided by his mother, escaped to Switzerland. There he married, and lived till toward the end of the century; when, after his wife’s death, he returned to Paris.  2
  ‘Obermann’ appeared in 1804. It is a treatise on disillusion and hopelessness, lacking in vitality; and although noble in tone, has not been widely appreciated. It is less a novel than an exposition, in a series of letters, of Senancour’s own point of view. Obermann, the hero, is Senancour in very slight disguise. He is “a man who does not know what he is, what he likes, what he wants; who sighs without cause; who desires without object; and who sees nothing except that he is not in his place: in short, who drags himself through empty space and in an infinite tumult of vexations.”  3
  ‘Obermann’ is valuable and interesting as a pathological study; as a reflection of the spirit of revolt and discouragement which swept over Europe, and spurred on Rousseau, Byron, and many others. Senancour strongly felt himself a product of his time. Voltairean cynicism struggled in him with Rousseauesque sensibility,—the latter augmenting a longing to believe, while the former made faith impossible. He had the terrible controlling self-consciousness which prevented a moment’s escape from his own unsatisfied desires. He was too noble, too much of an idealist, to enjoy what was petty and possible; but there are envious tones in Obermann, who sometimes seems half to despise himself that he cannot do and feel like other men.  4
  The strong note of Senancour’s character was an uncompromising need of sincerity. He detested hypocrisy in himself and others. He sought truth at the price of all pleasant illusion. His work evidences Rousseau’s influence; but unlike Rousseau, he never posed. His confidences are genuinely unreserved. His constant unhappiness—as George Sand pointed out in an appreciation which prefaces the later editions of ‘Obermann’—was caused by want of proportion between his power of conception and his capacity to perform. He had a lifelong realization of failure. He was akin to Amiel, but less scholarly; more emotional and less intellectual.  5
  In love of nature he found perhaps his keenest satisfaction. He is eloquent in description of the Alpine summits with their fair cold austerity, and the pleasant valleys, the mountain streams, and the green pastures, upon which he loved to look down.  6
  Senancour was always oppressed by poverty. Forced to write for his living for half a century, and unable to win favor, he fell into want in his old age. His friends’ efforts, especially those of Thiers and Villemain, obtained for him a small pension from Louis Philippe which rendered him comfortable until his death at St. Cloud in 1846.  7
 
 
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