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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Struggle against Environment
By Edgar Quinet (1803–1875)
From ‘The Story of My Thoughts’: Translation of Jane Grosvenor Cooke

MY peace was especially troubled when I listened to the inner voice which called me to letters; for I distrusted this voice, I regarded it as a tempting demon wishing to deceive me. Or if I yielded to it, I felt my powerlessness almost at once. I saw myself alone, with no guide, no model, whom I wished to follow. Everything hindered. I began in several ways at the same time, and could not tell upon which to decide.  1
  My age, my weakness, my ignorance, my isolation, counted for much in this grievous perplexity. The situation of France also had something to do with it. To understand the exhaustion of a poor mind like mine at this first awakening, one must figure to oneself that none of the traces which have been stamped upon the moral world by our generation were then visible. This generation which was to renew so many ideas, so many opinions, and the language itself, had as yet produced nothing.  2
  Not one of the new ideas, of the new forms, had as yet brilliantly burst forth. None of the new names which we have been accustomed to pronounce for forty years had then emerged from obscurity. Those who were to make them illustrious certainly were distrustful of themselves. Every year I spent several weeks with friends at Ouilly, on the other side of the valley of Saint-Point. Who knew that on the opposite side of the hill there was a great poet named Lamartine, hidden under those trees whose shadow reached even to where I was? Did he himself know it then?  3
  Whichever way I looked, I found a great void on the horizon. I felt this void in poetry, in history, in philosophy, in everything. I suffered from it, because I was incapable of filling it, and I did not know that others were suffering from the same ill. Each in his own obscurity was working to fill the voids of which I was at least conscious.  4
  In my first fever I attempted all the ways at once. Upon each I met the same aridity, the same sterility, through all the moral world, without any work to indicate what direction to follow, or any man to say authoritatively, “This is the way.”  5
  I was then sadly distressed at my own impotence, and I may say at the impotence of my time; since I did not see a guide in whom I could trust, or even a companion upon the way which I both trembled and burned to enter. I had a presentiment of an almost entire renewal of the things of the mind. And as I saw no one working at it, I believed myself alone. This solitude was crushing me just at the moment when so many imperishable works were being silently prepared and secretly brooded over.  6
  Although this suffering often became despair, there was nothing in it resembling spleen, weariness of life, all that brought on the wave of passions toward the end of the last century. It seems to me that it was in many ways the opposite of weariness and satiety. It was rather a blind impatience to live, a feverish expectation, a premature ambition for the future, a kind of intoxication of renascent thought, a frenzied thirst of the soul after the desert of the Empire. All that, joined to a consuming desire to produce, to create, to do something, in the midst of a world still empty.  7
  Those whom I questioned later upon those years told me they experienced something similar.  8
  Each one thought himself alone as I did; each one was musing as in a desert island. The renascent force of the century was stirring them all at once, and they were experiencing the pains of moral growth, piercing to the very bones. How many plaints were then exhaled! How many sincere tears were shed! Nature too laments when about to bring forth.  9
  The generation of which I am speaking did not understand itself as yet; that was why it was groaning: but it was about to do its work. At least the seeds were sown; they were beginning to sprout. France resembled the earth in the first days of March after a long winter. Not a leaf, not a flower. Nothing more than short grass piercing the last snows. The birds have not yet returned; all is silent, but all is in expectation of the new season; the good grain germinates silently in the furrow. The laborer has a sure presentiment that the corn is coming up.  10
  I too in my isolation felt—towards the autumn of 1820, in the midst of the forest of Seillon, on the borders of the ponds, in the company of teal and heron—that profound moral vegetating process which, obscurely, silently, was tormenting French brains from one frontier to the other. And this vegetating process, still hidden, intoxicated me with a mysterious irresistible breath.  11
  I was ignorant of all the names which were about to arise, I loved them in advance. I had a morbid desire to anticipate these minds that I was summoning; I experienced all the impatience of a bird at the moment of migration. Not that I wished to depart for a foreign land. I desired to emigrate toward that new moral world—toward those half-seen ideas which escaped me as I approached them. I rushed forward, I fell back almost at once; I had not wings for so great a flight.  12
  I rose again, however; and the idea which we were all then forming of France furnished me with a great resource against this first oppression. France, after her two downfalls, her two invasions, distressed, pierced to the heart, all bleeding, appeared to us so beautiful, so noble, so proud, in her calamities! Her disgraces did not count: they rendered her a hundred times more touching in our eyes. There was not then in the whole world a single man who did not believe her made for truth, for liberty, for all that honors human-kind. With what filial tenderness we looked at and counted her wounds! Who did not wish to cure them at the price of his life? Who did not wish to carry her as homage his work, his book, his sketch, his mite of ideas; or in default of these, a part of his heart?  13
  France was to be reborn,—I could not doubt it. And what prevented us from aiding this renascence? Why should not I too bring to it my grain of sand? Scarcely had this thought appeared to me than I felt myself transformed. What strength to endure everything! What a spur! At those moments I believed myself to be, and I was in truth, capable of something. I beheld as though it were accomplished what I so fervently desired.  14
  I applied myself again to the work. But alas! At once two minds which I found within me embarrassed me, and prevented me from advancing: that of the eighteenth century which desired to go on living, with which I had been reared, nourished; and that of the nineteenth, which claimed its birth. Which should I obey? which heed? There were indeed two spirits who took for their battle-ground the soul of every man of that time. I did not want to renounce either the one or the other; and I was too new, too unarmed as yet, to attempt to conciliate them. What then did I do? I yielded now to one, now to the other, at the risk of dissipating myself. This violent combat, which I was incapable of determining, was another cause of anguish and profound grief; it was like the torture of Brunehault.  15
  To direct us in this conflict of the two centuries which were enveloping us at the same time, we had two figures only,—those of Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël. But with them the combat, far from ceasing, recommenced. For they differed from each other as much as can be imagined: the one Catholic, the other Protestant; the one turned toward the Middle Ages, the other toward the uncertain regions of the future. In seeing them so opposed in ideas, in sentiments, even in hopes, one felt more astray, more deserted than ever. The choice between such diverse ways, far from being decided by their example, became practically impossible.  16
  By another contradiction, the language of Chateaubriand was emancipated while his thought did not seem to be. His colors dazzled without enlightening me, and his ideas repelled me. I followed them only with distrust, and scarcely admitted them to my mind. On the contrary, the genius of Madame de Staël was free while her expression seemed enchained. In the confused clearness of her oracles I said to myself, “This is the side for me to advance. Here is the century of life; here are all my expectations.” I expected the sunrise; but I saw nothing but a vague twilight, never penetrated by the full light of the new day.  17
  From these two figures, if I gazed upon what were then called the masses, I had uncertainty on one side and complete night on the other. On the latter was no apparent desire, no enthusiasm for other ideas than those they believed themselves to possess: on the contrary, doubt, sneers, mockery, at the least effort to leave the beaten paths; the old names opposed to the new like an invincible barrier; no expectation, no presentiment of something unknown; the language impoverished by silence, weakened, become so timid that all thought frightened it.  18
  If a literary philosophical revolution was in preparation, evidently it was to be accomplished not by the will of the greatest number, but by the ardor, the daring of a few solitary spirits who would undertake at their own risk and peril to reawaken the drowsy crowd. But who would dare begin? I sought far off, I listened, I cried inwardly with anguish, “Is there no one, then?”  19
  The astonishment, the incredulity of others, the anxiety of my mother, were my only answer. These sentiments won me in my turn.  20
  Who? I? Write? What madness! Had I well considered? Even if I could, dare I? Did I know even what an author was? Had I ever beheld one with my eyes? To follow the trail of ideas which existed nowhere in the air, to make one’s life and occupation of them, to embark one’s destiny on this plank,—was it not the vainest, most senseless of enterprises, perhaps even the most culpable, to judge by the dismay of all my friends?  21
  I awoke with a start as from a beautiful dream. All those vivid lights of our generation which had appeared to me suddenly went out. The premature glories of which I had caught sight disappeared one after another. All the hidden movement, developed in a solitary and inexperienced spirit, made way for reality. Of that expectation, of that presentiment, of that fever of hope, there remained a naked, despoiled land, gleams of will-o’the-wisps on great leaden lakes, and the eternal sighing of our forests.  22

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