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.
Of Fashion
By Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696)
From the ‘Characters’: Translation of Henri Van Laun

IT is very foolish, and betrays what a small mind we have, to allow fashion to sway us in everything that regards taste; in our way of living, our health, and our conscience. Game is out of fashion, and therefore insipid; and fashion forbids to cure a fever by bleeding. This long while it has also not been fashionable to depart this life shriven by Theotimus; now none but the common people are saved by his pious exhortations, and he has already beheld his successor.  1
  To have a hobby is not to have a taste for what is good and beautiful, but for what is rare and singular and for what no one else can match; it is not to like things which are perfect, but those which are most sought after and fashionable. It is not an amusement, but a passion; and often so violent that in the meanness of its object it yields only to love and ambition. Neither is it a passion for everything scarce and in vogue, but only for some particular object which is rare and yet in fashion.  2
  The lover of flowers has a garden in the suburbs, where he spends all his time from sunrise till sunset. You see him standing there, and would think he had taken root in the midst of his tulips before his “Solitaire”: he opens his eyes wide, rubs his hands, stoops down and looks closer at it; it never before seemed to him so handsome; he is in an ecstasy of joy, and leaves it to go to the “Orient,” then to the “Veuve,” from thence to the “Cloth of Gold,” on to the “Agatha,” and at last returns to the “Solitaire,” where he remains, is tired out, sits down, and forgets his dinner; he looks at the tulip and admires its shade, shape, color, sheen, and edges,—its beautiful form and calyx: but God and Nature are not in his thoughts, for they do not go beyond the bulb of his tulips, which he would not sell for a thousand crowns, though he will give it to you for nothing when tulips are no longer in fashion, and carnations are all the rage. This rational being, who has a soul and professes some religion, comes home tired and half starved, but very much pleased with his day’s work: he has seen some tulips.  3
  Talk to another of the healthy look of the crops, of a plentiful harvest, of a good vintage, and you will find he only cares for fruit, and understands not a single word you say. Then turn to figs and melons; tell him that this year the pear-trees are so heavily laden with fruit that the branches almost break, that there is abundance of peaches: and you address him in a language he completely ignores, and he will not answer you, for his sole hobby is plum-trees. Do not even speak to him of your plum-trees, for he is only fond of a certain kind, and laughs and sneers at the mention of any others; he takes you to his tree and cautiously gathers this exquisite plum, divides it, gives you one half, keeps the other himself, and exclaims, “How delicious! do you like it? is it not heavenly? You cannot find its equal anywhere;” and then his nostrils dilate, and he can hardly contain his joy and pride under an appearance of modesty. What a wonderful person, never enough praised and admired, whose name will be handed down to future ages! Let me look at his mien and shape whilst he is still in the land of the living, that I may study the features and the countenance of a man who, alone amongst mortals, is the happy possessor of such a plum.  4
  Visit a third, and he will talk to you about his brother collectors, but especially of Diognetes. He admits that he admires him, but that he understands him less than ever. “Perhaps you imagine,” he continues, “that he endeavors to learn something of his medals, and considers them speaking evidences of certain facts that have happened,—fixed and unquestionable monuments of ancient history. If you do, you are wholly wrong. Perhaps you think that all the trouble he takes to become master of a medallion with a certain head on it is because he will be delighted to possess an uninterrupted series of emperors. If you do, you are more hopelessly wrong than ever. Diognetes knows when a coin is worn, when the edges are rougher than they ought to be, or when it looks as if it had been newly struck. All the drawers of his cabinet are full, and there is only room for one coin; this vacancy so shocks him that in reality he spends all his property and literally devotes his whole lifetime to fill it.”…  5
  Another man criticizes those people who make long voyages either through nervousness or to gratify their curiosity; who write no narrative or memoirs, and do not even keep a journal; who go to see, and see nothing, or forget what they have seen; who only wish to get a look at towers or steeples they never saw before, and to cross other rivers than the Seine or the Loire; who leave their own country merely to return again, and like to be absent, so that one day it may be said they have come from afar. So far this critic is right and is worth listening to.  6
  But when he adds that books are more instructive than traveling, and gives me to understand he has a library, I wish to see it. I call on this gentleman, and at the very foot of the stairs I almost faint with the smell of the russia-leather bindings of his books. In vain he shouts in my ears, to encourage me, that they are all with gilt edges and hand-tooled, that they are the best editions,—and he names some of them, one after another,—and that his library is full of them, except a few places painted so carefully that everybody takes them for shelves and real books and is deceived. He also informs me that he never reads, nor sets foot in this library, and now only accompanies me to oblige me. I thank him for his politeness, but feel as he does on the subject, and would not like to visit the tan-pit which he calls a library.  7
  Some people immoderately thirst after knowledge, and are unwilling to ignore any branch of it, so they study them all and master none; they are fonder of knowing much than of knowing some things well, and had rather be superficial smatterers in several sciences than be well and thoroughly acquainted with one. They everywhere meet with some person who enlightens and corrects them; they are deceived by their idle curiosity, and often, after very long and painful efforts, can but just extricate themselves from the grossest ignorance.  8
  Other people have a master-key to all sciences, but never enter there; they spend their lives in trying to decipher the Eastern and Northern languages, those of both the Indies, of the two Poles, nay, the language spoken in the moon itself. The most useless idioms, the oddest and most hieroglyphical-looking characters, are just those which awaken their passion and induce them to study; they pity those persons who ingenuously content themselves with knowing their own language, or at most the Greek and Latin tongues. Such men read all historians and know nothing of history; they run through all books, but are not the wiser for any; they are absolutely ignorant of all facts and principles, but they possess as abundant a store and garner-house of words and phrases as can well be imagined, which weighs them down, and with which they overload their memory, whilst their mind remains a blank….  9
  Who can describe all the different kinds of hobbies?…  10
  A fashionable person is like a certain blue flower which grows wild in the fields, chokes the corn, spoils the crops, and takes up the room of something better; it has no beauty nor value but what is owing to a momentary caprice, which dies out almost as soon as sprung up. To-day it is all the rage, and the ladies are decked with it; to-morrow it is neglected and left to the common herd.  11
  A person of merit, on the contrary, is a flower we do not describe by its color, but call by its name,—which we cultivate for its beauty or fragrance, such as a lily or a rose; one of the charms of nature: one of those things which beautify the world, belonging to all times, admired and popular for centuries, valued by our fathers, and by us in imitation of them, and not at all harmed by the dislike or antipathy of a few….  12
  Every hour in itself, and in respect to us, is unique; when once it is gone, it is entirely lost, and millions of ages will not bring it back again; days, months, and years are swallowed up and irrevocably lost in the abyss of time; time itself shall be destroyed; it is but a point in the immense space of eternity, and will be erased. There are several slight and frivolous periods of time which are unstable, pass away, and may be called fashions: such as grandeur, favor, riches, power, authority, independence, pleasure, joy, and superfluities. What will become of such fashions when time itself shall have disappeared? Virtue alone, now so little in fashion, will last longer than time.  13

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