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 Disenchantment of France
By Frederic William Henry Myers (1843–1901)
From ‘Science and a Future Life’

IT has fallen to the lot of the French people to point more morals, to emphasize more lessons from their own experience, than any other nation in modern history. Parties and creeds of the most conflicting types have appealed to Paris in turn for their brightest example, their most significant warning. The strength of monarchy and the risks of despotism; the nobility of faith and the cruel cowardice of bigotry; the ardor of republican fraternity and the terrors of anarchic disintegration—the most famous instance of any and every extreme is to be found in the long annals of France. And so long as the French mind, at once logical and mobile, continues to be the first to catch and focus the influences which are slowly beginning to tell on neighboring States, so long will its evolution possess for us the unique interest of a glimpse into stages of development through which our own national mind also may be destined ere long to pass.  1
  Yet there has of late been a kind of reluctance on the part of other civilized countries to take to themselves the lessons which French history still can teach. In Germany there has been a tone of reprobation, an opposition of French vice to Teuton virtue; and in England there has been some aloofness of feeling, some disposition to think that the French have fallen, through their own fault, into a decadence which our robuster nation need not fear.  2
  In the brief review, however, which this essay will contain of certain gloomy symptoms in the spiritual state of France, we shall keep entirely clear of any disparaging comparisons or insinuated blame. Rather, we shall regard France as the most sensitive organ of the European body politic; we shall feel that her dangers of to-day are ours of to-morrow, and that unless there still be salvation for her, our own prospects are dark indeed.  3
  But in the first place, it may be asked, what right have we to speak of France as decadent at all? The word, indeed, is so constantly employed by French authors of the day, that the foreigner may assume without impertinence that there is some fitness in its use. Yet have we here much more than a fashion of speaking? the humor of men who are “sad as night for very wantonness,” who play with the notion of national decline as a rich man in temporary embarrassment may play with the notion of ruin? France is richer and more populous than ever before; her soldiers still fight bravely; and the mass of her population, as judged by the statistics of crime, or by the colorless half-sheet which forms the only national newspaper, is at any rate tranquil and orderly. Compare the state of France now with her state just a century since, before the outbreak of the Revolution. Observers who noted that misgovernment and misery, those hordes of bandits prowling over the untilled fields, assumed it as manifest that not the French monarchy only, but France herself, was crumbling in irremediable decay. And yet a few years later, the very children reared as half slaves, half beggars, on black bread and ditch-water, were marching with banners flying into Vienna and Moscow. One must be wary in predicting the decline of a nation which holds in reserve a spring of energy such as this.  4
  Once more. Not physically alone but intellectually, France has never, perhaps, been stronger than she is now. She is lacking indeed in statesmen of the first order, in poets and artists of lofty achievement; and if our diagnosis be correct, she must inevitably lack such men as these. But on the other hand, her living savants probably form as wise, as disinterested a group of intellectual leaders as any epoch of her history has known. And she listens to them with a new deference; she receives respectfully even the bitter home-truths of M. Taine; she honors M. Renan instead of persecuting him; she makes M. Pasteur her national hero. These men and men like these are virtually at the head of France; and if the love of truth, the search for truth, fortifies a nation, then assuredly France should be stronger now than under any of her kings or her Cæsars.  5
  Yet here we come to the very crux of the whole inquiry. If we maintain that an increasing knowledge of truth is necessarily a strength or advantage to a nation or an individual, we are assuming an affirmative answer to two weighty questions: the first, whether the scheme of the universe is on the whole good rather than evil; the second, whether, even granting that the sum of things is good, each advancing step of our knowledge of the universe brings with it an increased realization of that ultimate goodness. Of course if we return to the first question the pessimistic answer,—if the world is a bad place, and cosmic suicide the only reasonable thing,—the present discussion may at once be closed. For in that case there is no such thing as progress, no such thing as recovery; and the moral discouragement of France does but indicate her advance upon the road which we must all inevitably travel.  6
  Let us assume, however, as is commonly assumed without too curious question, that the universe is good, and that to know the truth about it is on the whole an invigorating thing. Yet even thus, it is by no means clear that each onward step we make in learning that truth will in itself be felt as invigorating. All analogy is against such a supposition: whether we turn to the history of philosophy, and the depression repeatedly following on the collapse of specious but premature conceptions, or to the history of individual minds, and the despair of the beginner in every art or study when he recognizes that he has made a false start, that he knows almost nothing, that the problems are far more difficult than his ignorance had suspected.  7
  Now I think it is not hard to show that France, even on the most hopeful view of her, is at present passing through a moment of spiritual reaction such as this. In that country, where the pure dicta of science reign in the intellectual classes with less interference from custom, sentiment, tradition, than even in Germany itself, we shall find that science, at her present point, is a depressing, a disintegrating energy.  8
  And therefore, when we compare the present state of France with her state a century ago, we must not rank her dominant savants as a source of national strength. Rather, they are a source of disenchantment, of disillusionment, to use the phrase of commonest recurrence in modern French literature and speech. Personally indeed the class of savants includes many an example of unselfish diligence, of stoical candor; but their virtues are personal to themselves, and the upshot of their teaching affords no stable basis for virtue.  9
  We may say, then, that in 1888 France possesses everything except illusions; in 1788 she possessed illusions and nothing else. The Reign of Reason, the Return to Nature, the Social Contract, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—the whole air of that wild time buzzed with new-hatched Chimæras, while at the same time the old traditions of Catholicism, Loyalty, Honor, were still living in many an ardent heart.  10
  What then is, in effect, the disenchantment which France has undergone? What are the illusions—the so-called, so-judged illusions—which are fading now before the influence of science? How is a foreigner to analyze the confused changes in a great people’s spiritual life? Must not his own personal acquaintance with Frenchmen, which is sure to be slight and shallow, unduly influence his judgment of the nation? It seems to me that he must set aside his personal acquaintanceships, and form his opinion from current literature and current events; endeavoring so far as may be to elicit such general views of life as may be latent in the varying utterances of novelist, essayist, politician, philosopher, and poet. Thus reading and thus comparing, we shall discern a gradual atrophy of certain habits of thought, certain traditional notions; and if we class as illusions these old conceptions from which the French people seem gradually to be awakening, we find them reducible to four main heads: the religious, the political, the sexual, and the personal illusions.  11
  By the “religious illusion,”—speaking, it will be remembered, from the point of view of the Frenchman of the type now under discussion,—I mean a belief in the moral government of the world, generally involving a belief in man’s future life; in which life we may suppose virtue victorious, and earth’s injustices redressed. These cardinal beliefs, now everywhere on the defensive, are plainly losing ground in France more rapidly than elsewhere. And the strange thing is, that while Christianity thus declines, it seems to leave in France so little regret behind it that its disappearance is signalized only by loud battles between “Liberalism” and “Clericalism”; not, as in England, by sad attempts at reconciliation, by the regrets and appeals of slowly severing men. A book like Chateaubriand’s ‘Génie du Christianisme,’ nay, even a book like Lamennais’s ‘Paroles d’un Croyant,’ would now be felt to be an anachronism. Militant Catholicism seems almost to have died out with M. Veuillot’s article in the Univers; and an application to a high ecclesiastical authority for recent defenses of the faith brought to me only a recommendation to read the Bishops’ Charges, the mandements d’évêque. Paradox as it may seem, M. Renan is almost the only French writer of influence who believes that Christianity—of course a Christianity without miracles—will be in any sense the religion of the future; and his recent utterances show that pious sentiment, in his hands, is liable to sudden and unexpected transformations….  12
  Let us pass on to the second class of illusions from which France seems finally to have awakened. Under the title of the “political illusion” we may include two divergent yet not wholly disparate emotions,—the enthusiasm of loyalty and the enthusiasm of equality. Each of these enthusiasms has done in old times great things for France; each in turn has seemed to offer a self-evident, nay, a Divine organization of the perplexed affairs of men. But each in turn has lost its efficacy. There is now scarcely a name but General Boulanger’s in France which will raise a cheer; scarcely even a Socialistic Utopia for which a man would care to die. The younger nations, accustomed to look to France for inspiration, feel the dryness of that ancient source, “Ils ne croient à rien,” said a Russian of the Nihilists, “mais ils ont besoin du martyre” (They believe in nothing, but they must have martyrdom). The Nihilists, indeed, are like the lemmings, which swim out to sea in obedience to an instinct that bids them seek a continent long since sunk beneath the waves. Gentle anarchists, pious atheists, they follow the blind instinct of self-devotion which makes the force of a naïve, an unworldly people. But there is now no intelligible object of devotion left for them to seek; and they go to the mines and to the gibbet without grasping a single principle or formulating a single hope. These are the pupils of modern France; but in France herself the nihilistic disillusionment works itself out unhindered by the old impulse to die for an idea. The French have died for too many ideas already; and just as they have ceased to idealize man’s relationship to God, so have they ceased at last to idealize his relationship to his fellow-men.  13
  But the process of disillusionment can be traced deeper still. Closer to us, in one sense, than our relation to the universe as a whole, more intimate than our relation to our fellow-citizens, is the mutual relation between the sexes. An emotion such as love, at once vague, complex, and absorbing, is eminently open to fresh interpretation as the result of modern analysis. And on comparing what may be called the enchanted and disenchanted estimates of this passion,—the view of Plato, for instance, and the view of Schopenhauer,—we find that the discordance goes to the very root of the conception; that what in Plato’s view is the accident, is in Schopenhauer’s the essential; that what Plato esteemed as the very aim and essence is for Schopenhauer a delusive figment, a witchery cast over man’s young inexperience, from which adult reason should shake itself wholly free. For Plato the act of idealization which constitutes love is closely akin to the act of idealization which constitutes worship. The sudden passion which carries the lover beyond all thought of self is the result of a memory and a yearning which the beloved one’s presence stirs within him; a memory of ante-natal visions, a yearning towards the home of the soul. The true end of love is mutual ennoblement; its fruition lies in the unseen. Or if we look to its earthly issue, it is not children only who are born from such unions as these, but from that fusion of earnest spirits, great thoughts, just laws, noble institutions spring,—“a fairer progeny than any child of man.”  14
  Not one of the speculations of antiquity outdid in lofty originality this theme of Plato’s. And however deeply the changing conditions of civilization might modify the outward forms or setting of love, this far-reaching conception has been immanent in the poet’s mind, and has made of love an integral element in the spiritual scheme of things. “Love was given,” says Wordsworth, in a poem which strangely harmonizes the antique and the modern ideal,—
                  “Love was given,
  Encouraged, sanctioned, chiefly for that end:
For this the passion to excess was driven,—
That self might be annulled; her bondage prove
The fetters of a dream, opposed to Love.”
And even when the passion has not been thus directly linked with ethical aims, it has been credited with a heaven-sent, a mysterious charm; like the beauty and scent of flowers, it has been regarded as a joy given to us for the mere end of joy.
  In recent years, however, a wholly different aspect of the passion of love has been raised into prominence. This new theory—for it is hardly less—is something much deeper than the mere satirical depreciation, the mere ascetic horror, of the female sex. It recognizes the mystery, the illusion, the potency of love: but it urges that this dominating illusion is no heaven-descended charm of life, but the result of terrene evolution; and that, so far from being salutary to the individual, it is expressly designed to entrap him into subserving the ends of the race, even when death to himself (or herself) is the immediate consequence. It was in England that the facts in natural history which point to this conclusion were first set forth; it was in Germany that a philosophical theory was founded (even before most of those facts were known) upon these blind efforts of the race, working through the passions of the individual, yet often to his ruin: but it is in France that we witness the actual entry of this theory into the affairs of life,—the gradual dissipation of the “sexual illusion” which nature has so long been weaving with unconscious magic around the senses and the imagination of man.  16
  In the first place, then, human attractiveness has suffered something of the same loss of romance which has fallen upon the scent and color of flowers, since we have realized that these have been developed as an attraction to moths and other insects, whose visits to the flower are necessary to secure effective fertilization. Our own attractiveness in each other’s eyes seems no longer to point to some Divine reminiscence; rather, it is a character which natural and sexual selection must needs have developed, if our race was to persist at all: and it is paralleled by elaborate and often grotesque æsthetic allurements throughout the range of organized creatures of separate sex.  17
  Once more. The great Roman poet of “wheat and woodland, tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd,” insisted long ago on the divergence, throughout animated nature, of the promptings of amorous passion and of self-preservation. Passing beyond the facile optimism of pastoral singers, he showed the peace, the strength, the life of the animal creation at the mercy of an instinct which they can neither comprehend nor disobey. In furias ignemque ruunt. Advancing science has both confirmed and explained this profound observation. She has discovered instances where the instinct in question conducts not merely to a remote and contingent but to an immediate and inevitable death, and where yet it works itself out with unfailing punctuality. And she has demonstrated that in the race of races the individual must not pause for breath; his happiness, his length of days must be subordinated to the supreme purpose of leaving a progeny which can successfully prolong the endless struggle. And here the bitter philosophy of Schopenhauer steps in, and shows that as man rises from the savage state, the form of the illusive witchery changes, but the witchery is still the same. Nature is still prompting us to subserve the advantage of the race,—an advantage which is not our own,—though she uses now such delicate baits as artistic admiration, spiritual sympathy, the union of kindred souls. Behind and beneath all these is still her old unconscious striving; but she can scarcely any longer outwit us: we now desire neither the pangs of passion, nor the restraints of marriage, nor the burden of offspring; while for the race we need care nothing, or may even deem it best and most merciful that the race itself should lapse and pass away.  18
  The insensible advance of this sexual disenchantment will show itself first and most obviously in the imaginative literature of a nation. And the transition from romanticism to so-called naturalism in fiction, which is the conspicuous fact of the day in France, is ill understood if it be taken to be a mere change in literary fashion, a mere reaction against sentimental and stylistic extravagance. The naturalists claim—and the claim is just—that they seek at least a closer analogy with the methods of science herself; that they rest not on fantastic fancies, but on the documents humains which are furnished by the actual life of every day. But on the other hand, the very fact that this is all which they desire to do, is enough to prove that even this will scarcely be worth the doing. The fact that they thus shrink from idealizing bespeaks an epoch barren in ideal. Schopenhauer boasted that he had destroyed “die Dame,” the chivalrous conception of woman as a superior being; and such novels as those of Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, exhibit the world with this illusion gone. If, moreover, the relations between men and women are not kept, in a sense, above the relations between men and men, they will rapidly fall below them. We are led into a world of joyless vice from the sheer decay of the conception of virtue.  19
  And thus we are brought, by a natural transition, to the fourth and last illusion from which French thought is shaking itself free,—the illusion which pervades man more profoundly than any other: the dream of his own free-will, and of his psychical unity. It is in the analysis of this personal illusion that much of the acutest French work has lately been done; it is here that ordinary French opinion is perhaps furthest removed from the English type; and it is here, moreover, as I shall presently indicate,—it is on this field of experimental psychology,—that the decisive battles of the next century seem likely to be fought. In this essay, however, I must keep clear of detail, and must touch only on the general effect of the mass of teaching….  20
  As regards the freedom of the will, indeed, it might have been supposed that the controversy had now been waged too long to admit of much accession of novel argument. Nor, of course, can any theory which we hold as to human free-will reasonably influence our actions one way or the other. Yet we know that as a matter of actual observation, Mahommedan fatalism does influence conduct; and the determinism which is becoming definitely the creed of France may similarly be traced throughout their modern pictures of life and character, as a paralyzing influence in moments of decisive choice, of moral crisis….  21
  I have now, though in a very brief and imperfect way, accomplished the task which seemed to me to have some promise of instruction. I have tried to decompose into its constituent elements the vague but general sense of malaise or decadence which permeates so much of modern French literature and life. And after referring this disenchantment to the loss of certain beliefs and habits of thought which the majority of educated Frenchmen have come with more or less distinctness to class as illusions, I have endeavored—it may be thought with poor success—to suggest some possibility of the reconstitution of these illusions on a basis which can permanently resist scientific attack. In experimental psychology I have suggested, so to say, a nostrum, but without propounding it as a panacea; and I cannot avoid the conclusion that we are bound to be prepared for the worst. Yet by “the worst” I do not mean any catastrophe of despair, any cosmic suicide, any world-wide unchaining of the brute that lies pent in man. I mean merely the peaceful, progressive, orderly triumph of l’homme sensuel moyen [the average man]; the gradual adaptation of hopes and occupations to a purely terrestrial standard; the calculated pleasures of the cynic who is resolved to be a dupe no more.  22
  Such is the prospect from our tower of augury—the warning note from France, whose inward crises have so often prefigured the fates through which Western Europe was to pass ere long. Many times, indeed, have declining nations risen anew, when some fresh knowledge, some untried adventure, has added meaning and zest to life. Let those men speak to us, if any there be, who can strengthen our hearts with some prevision happier than mine. For if this vanward and eager people is never to be “begotten again unto a lively hope” by some energy still unfelt and unsuspected, then assuredly France will not suffer alone from her atrophy of higher life. No; in that case like causes elsewhere must produce like effects; and there are other great nations whose decline will not be long delayed.  23

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