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.
My Child’s Bible
By Anatole France (1844–1924)
A review of the second volume of Renan’s ‘History of Israel.’ From the second volume ‘On Life and Letters’: Translation of Arthur William Evans

MUST I endeavor to give you the impression I experienced in reading this second volume of the ‘History of Israel’? Must I show you the state of my soul as I reflected over its pages? It is a class of criticism for which, as you know, I have only too great a leaning. Almost always, when I have said what I felt, I cannot think of anything else to say, and all my art consists in scribbling on the margins of books. A page which I turn over is like a torch that is brought to me, and around which immediately twenty butterflies escaped from my brain set themselves a-dancing. These butterflies are indiscreet, but what am I to do with them? When I drive them away, others take their places. And there is quite a choir of little winged beings, fair and golden as the day, or blue and sombre as the night, light and frail but unwearied, who flit about vying with each other, and who seem to murmur in the beating of their wings: “We are little Psyches; friend, do not drive us away with too harsh a gesture. An immortal spirit animates our ephemeral forms. See: we seek Eros, Eros, who is never found, Eros, the great secret of life and death.” And, in fact, it is always one of these tiny Psyches who makes my article for me. Heaven knows how she does it, but without her I should do it even worse still.  1
  At this moment then, as I read in M. Renan’s admirable volume about the reigns of David and Solomon, the schism of the tribes, the victory of the prophets, the agony and death of the Kingdom of Israel, as with linguistic and archæological science, with the memories of his travels in his mind, and above all with a divinatory sense of very ancient things, the historian recreates and shows me the nomad shepherd seeing Elohim in every mirage of the desert and wrestling for a whole night with one of those mysterious beings; as he restores for me the temple of Solomon, with its gateway in the Egyptian style, and its two columns of bronze with their capitals shaped like lotus leaves, its golden cherubim as monstrous as the Sphinx of Memphis or the man-faced bulls of Khorsabad, and all around, erected in the hills or hidden in the groves, the impure idolatry of the Phœnician temples, he traces for me across the ages the evolution of the religious feeling, changing among this singular people from the adoration of a fierce and jealous god to the worship of that divine providence whose ideal it has finally imposed upon the world. During all this engaging and spirited history which interests me by its learning and enchants me by its exquisite art, what do you think my little winged hovering creatures, my little anxious Psyches, are doing? They are showing me my old Bible with its engravings, the Bible my mother gave me, the Bible which as a child I devoured even before I was able to read.  2
  It was a good old Bible. It dated from the beginning of the seventeenth century; the illustrations were by a Dutch artist who had represented the Garden of Eden under the aspect of a landscape in the neighborhood of Amsterdam. The animals one saw there—all domestic animals—gave the impression of a very well kept farm and poultry yard. There were oxen, sheep, rabbits, and also a fine Brabant horse, well clipt, well-groomed, ready to be harnessed to a burgomaster’s carriage. I don’t speak of Eve, who was a dazzling example of Flemish beauty. She was a treasure wasted on me.  3
  Noah’s ark interested me more. I still see its round and ample hull surmounted by a plank cabin. O marvel of tradition! I had among my playthings a Noah’s ark exactly similar, painted red, with all the animals in couples, and Noah and his family all extremely well made. That was to me a great proof of the truth of the Scriptures. Teste David cum Sibylla. Dating from the time of the Tower of Babel, the personages of my Bible were richly dressed according to their condition, the warriors in the style of the Romans of Trajan’s column, the princes with turbans, the women like Rubens’s women, the shepherds like brigands, and the angels in the fashion of those of the Jesuits. The tents of the soldiers resembled the rich pavilions that are seen in tapestries; the palaces were imitated from those of the Renaissance, the artist not having imagined it possible to conceive anything older of that kind. There were nymphs in the style of Jean Goujon in the fountain where Bathsheba was bathing. That is why those pictures gave me the idea of a profound antiquity. I doubted whether my grandfather himself—although he had received a wound at Waterloo, in remembrance of which he always wore a bouquet of violets in his buttonhole—could have known the Tower of Babel and the baths of Bathsheba. Oh, my old illustrated Bible! What joys I used to feel in turning over your pages in the evenings when my eyes already half swam in the delightful waves of childish slumber! How I used to see in you God with His white beard! And after all, perhaps that is the only fashion of seeing Him really. How I used to believe in Him!  4
  I thought Him, between ourselves, a little strange, violent, and wrathful; but I did not ask Him for any explanation of His actions; I was accustomed to see all grown-up people act in an incomprehensible manner. And, besides, I had at that time a philosophy; I believed in the universal infallibility of men and things. I was persuaded that all was reasonable in the world and that so great an undertaking was carried on seriously. I have laid aside that piece of wisdom with my old Bible. But I regret it deeply. Just think. To be quite little yourself and to be able to reach the end of the world at the end of a good walk. To believe that you have the secret of the universe in an old book, under the lamp, in the evening when the room is warm. To be troubled by nothing and yet to dream! For at that time I used to dream as soon as I was in bed, and all the personages of my old Bible used to come and defile before me. Yes, kings bearing crown and sceptre, prophets with long beards, draped under eternal clouds, passed with mingled majesty and good-nature before me as I slept. After the procession, they used to go and settle down of their own accord in a box of Nuremberg toys. That is the first idea I formed of David and Isaiah.  5
  We have all of us done something similar; we have all, in times gone by, turned over the pages of an old illustrated Bible. We have all formed some simple, naïve, and childish idea of the origin of the world.  6
  There is something that stirs one, I think, in comparing this childish idea with the reality as science shows it to us. In proportion as our understanding takes possession of itself and of the Universe, the past recoils indefinitely, and we recognize that we are prohibited from reaching back to the beginnings of man and of life. Yes, ere we attain to far-off times new perspectives and unexpected depths are continually opening up before us; we feel that there is an abysm beyond. We see the dark chasm, and fear seizes on the boldest of us. That nomad shepherd, who is pointed out to us, surrounded in the night of the desert by shades of the Elohim,—he was the son of a humanity even then old and, so to speak, as distant as we are from our common cradle. Modern man too has torn up his old illustrated Bible. He too has left in their old Nuremberg box the ten or twelve patriarchs who, by joining their hands, formed a chain which went backwards to creation. It is not only in our days, indeed, that exegesis has discovered the true sense of the Hebrew Bible. The old tenets on which the faith of so many ages rested have, for a hundred years, for two hundred years, been subjected to the free examination of science. I am unable to indicate precisely M. Renan’s place in Biblical criticism. But I am sure that he possesses the art by which to animate the distant past, to give us an understanding of the antique East whose soil and peoples he knows so well, a talent for painting landscapes and figures of which he has the acuteness of sight to discern what is probable and possible in the absence of certainties; in a word, the special gift of pleasing, charming, and bewitching. In his new work, if the style has not the abounding suavity which makes the ‘Origins of Christianity’ such delightful reading, we find, in compensation, a simplicity and naturalness of which this great writer has as yet given no better example. Those who have had the happiness of listening to his voice, will believe, as they read this book, that they are listening to it still. It is himself, his accent, his gesture. As I close the book, I feel tempted to say like the pilgrims at Emmaus: “We have just seen Him. He was at this table.” In this book, one thing among the rest is peculiarly individual to him and recalls his conversations—the pleasure he shows in historical comparisons. In one passage, for instance, so as to give a better comprehension of the spirit of an old nomad chief he will speak of Abd-el-Kader; in another, he will compare David to the Negus of Abyssinia. Sometimes the comparisons are more unexpected; he tells us, for instance, that Notre Dame de Lorette will give a fairly good idea of Solomon’s Temple.  7
  There are also charming and familiar touches, as when speaking of Jahve, he calls him “a most narrow-minded creature.” This is the whole passage:  8
  “There is no moral feeling in Jahve, as David knows him and worships him. This capricious god is favoritism itself; his fidelity is thoroughly material. He holds to his rights in a way that reaches the absurd. He is angry with people, without their knowing why. Then they offer him the smoke of a sacrifice to inhale and his anger is appeased. When a man swears abominable things by his name, he requires them to be executed to the letter. He is a most narrow-minded creature; he takes pleasure in unmerited punishments. Although the rite of human sacrifices was antipathetic to Israel, Jahve took pleasure in these spectacles. The execution of the sons of Saul at Gibeah was a true human sacrifice of seven persons, performed before Jahve, to appease him. The ‘wars of Jahve’ all end with frightful massacres in honor of this cruel god.”  9
  Where now is my old collection of sacred pictures in which this very Jahve walked with such majesty through a Dutch meadow in the midst of white sheep, tiny guinea pigs, and Brabant horses?  10

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