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.
François the Field-Foundling
By George Sand (1804–1876)
Preface to ‘François le Champi’

THE MOON shed a dim silver light on the paths through the darkened fields as R—— and I were on our way home from a walk. It was a mild and softly clouded autumn evening; and we were noticing the sonority peculiar to the air, as well as the indefinable mystery pervading nature at that season. One might say that as the heavy winter sleep draws nigh, all things and creatures furtively endeavor to enjoy the last remnants of life and animation before the fatal coming on of benumbing frost; and as if they wanted to cheat the flight of time, and feared to be surprised and interrupted in the last gambols of their merry-making, gave themselves up silently and without apparent activity to their nocturnal ecstasies. Birds utter smothered cries instead of the joyous flourishes of summer days. The insect in the furrows lets us hear an indiscreet exclamation now and then; but interrupts itself at once, and quickly transfers its chirp or plaint to another rallying-point. Plants hasten to exhale their last perfume, all the sweeter for being subtler and long repressed. The fading leaves dare not quiver under the breath of the breeze; while the flocks graze in silence, without a sound of strife or love.  1
  Even we, my friend and I, walked cautiously; instinctive meditation holding us mute, and as it were, observant of nature’s softened beauty and the enchanting harmony of her last chords, now dying away in an imperceptible pianissimo. Autumn is a graceful and melancholy andante, admirably introducing the solemn adagio of winter.  2
  At length my friend, who had followed my thoughts as I had followed his, in spite of our silence, said: “All this is so calm, and seems absorbed in a revery so foreign and indifferent to the labors, foresight, and cares of man, that it makes me wonder what expression, what coloring, what manifestation of art and poetry human intelligence could give to the physiognomy of nature at this particular moment. And to make the aim of my inquiry clearer to you, I will compare this evening, this sky and this landscape,—all of them so dim yet so harmonious and complete,—to the soul of a wise and pious peasant who works and profits by his labor, enjoys his peculiar kind of life without feeling the need or the wish, and without having the means to manifest or express, his inner life. I try to set myself in the heart of this mystery of rustic and natural life,—I, the civilized creature, who do not know how to enjoy by instinct alone,—and am forever tormented by the desire to render an account, both to myself and others, of my contemplation or my meditation.”  3
  “And then,” continued my friend, “I am anxiously seeking what connection can be established between my too active intelligence, and the peasant’s which is not active enough; just as I was wondering a while ago what painting, music,—in short, what the description, the translation by art,—could add to the beauty of this autumn night, which reveals itself to me by its mysterious reticence, and penetrates me although I do not know by what magic communication.”  4
  “Let me see whether I fully understand how the question is stated,” I replied. “Let us take this October night, this colorless sky, this music without any marked or sequent melody, this calm of nature, and the peasant who by his simplicity comes nearer to enjoying and understanding, without describing it, than we do,—and putting all these together, let us call it primitive life, relatively to our developed and complicated existence, which I will call factitious life. You ask what the possible connection, the direct link, between these two opposite states of the existence of things and creatures may be; between the palace and the cottage, the artist and his creation, the poet and the plowman.”  5
  “Yes,” he resumed; “and to state it precisely,—between the language spoken by this nature, this primitive life, and these instincts, and that spoken by art, science,—in a word, by knowledge.”  6
  “To speak in the language you adopt, I should answer that the connection between knowledge and sensation is feeling.”  7
  “The definition of that feeling is precisely what I am questioning you about, while I am interrogating myself. The manifestation that so puzzles me is intrusted to it; this definition is the art—the artist, if you choose—commissioned to translate the candor, grace, and charm of primitive life for those who live the factitious life alone, and who are (permit me to say so) the greatest idiots in the world when they stand before nature and her divine secrets.”  8
  “You ask for nothing less than the very secret of art: seek that in the bosom of God, for no artist can reveal it to you. He does not know it himself, and could not give an account of either his inspiration or his impotence. How are we to express beauty, simplicity, and truth? Indeed, I do not know. And who could teach us? Not even the greatest artists could do it, for if they tried they would no longer be artists, but become critics; and as for criticism—!”  9
  “Criticism,” resumed my friend, “has been revolving around the mystery for centuries without understanding anything about it. But, pardon me, that is not precisely what I was asking. I am even more of a barbarian just now; I call the very power of art in question. I despise it; I annihilate it; I maintain that art is not born, that it does not exist, or if it has existed its time is past. It is worn out, it has no more forms, it has no more breath, it no longer has the means to sing the beauty of truth. Nature is a work of art; but God is the only existing artist, and man is but a tasteless compiler. Nature is beautiful; she exhales feeling at every pore: and with her, love and youth and beauty are undying. But man has only absurd means and miserable faculties for feeling and expressing them. He would do best if he let them alone,—were silent and absorbed in contemplation. Come, what do you say to this?”  10
  “That plan would suit me, and I should be quite content to follow it,” I answered.  11
  “Ah! you go too far,” he exclaimed, “and enter into my paradox too fully. I am pleading: put in a rejoinder.”  12
  “Then I will say that one of Petrarch’s sonnets has its own relative beauty equal to the beauty of the water at Vaucluse; that a Ruysdael landscape has a charm as great as that of such an evening as this; that Mozart sings as well in the language of men as Philomel in that of the birds; that Shakespeare presents passions, feelings, and instincts, just as the most primitive and truthful man can feel them. This is art, the connection,—feeling, in short.”  13
  “Yes, it is a work of transformation! But suppose it does not satisfy me? Even if you were right a thousand times over by all the decrees of taste and æsthetics, what if I find Petrarch’s verses less harmonious than the sound of the waterfall, and feel the same about the rest? If I maintained that there is a charm in this evening that no one could reveal to me unless I had enjoyed it myself, and that all Shakespeare’s passion is cold compared to what I can see blazing in a jealous peasant’s eyes when he beats his wife, what would you say? The point here is to persuade my ‘feeling.’ And what if it eludes your examples, resists your proofs? Then art would not be an invincible demonstrator, and feeling not always satisfied with the best of definitions.”  14
  “I see nothing to reply to this, indeed, except that art is a demonstration whose proof is in nature; that the pre-existing fact of this proof is ever present to justify or contradict the demonstration, and that one cannot make a good one unless the proof is examined with love and faith.”  15
  “Then the demonstration cannot do without the proof; but may the proof not get along without the demonstration?”  16
  “No doubt God could; but I am ready to wager that you, who are now talking as if you were not one of us, would not understand anything about the proof if you had not found the demonstration in a thousand forms in the tradition of art, and if you were not yourself a demonstration forever acting upon the proof.”  17
  “Ah! that’s just the fact I am finding fault with. I should like to get rid of this eternal demonstration that so irritates me; erase all forms and teachings of art from my memory; never think of painting when I look at a landscape, nor of music when I listen to the wind, nor of poetry when I admire and appreciate the whole effect. I should like to enjoy everything by instinct, because it seems to me that that cricket now chirping is more joyous and ecstatic than I.”  18
  “In short, you complain of being a man.”  19
  “No; but I complain of no longer being the primitive man.”  20
  “It remains to be proved whether he enjoyed, since he could not understand.”  21
  “I do not imagine him like the brutes. The moment he was a man he understood and felt differently. But I cannot form a clear idea of his emotions, and that torments me. Therefore I would like to be what present society permits a great many men to be from the cradle to the grave,—a peasant, and a peasant unable to read, but to whom God has given good instincts, a peaceful disposition, an honest conscience; and in that torpor of useless faculties and ignorance of depraved tastes, I believe I could be as happy as the primitive man dreamed of by Jean Jacques.”  22
  “I often have the same dream myself: who has not? But it would not make your argument win the day, for the simplest and most ingenuous peasant is an artist after all; and I claim that their art is superior to ours. It has another form, but it appeals to my soul more than all those of our civilization. Rustic songs, tales, and stories, paint in a few words what our literature merely knows how to amplify and disguise.”  23
  “Then I am right,” resumed my friend. “That art is purest and best because it goes to nature for inspiration; is in directer contact with it. I may have gone too far when I said that art was good for nothing; but I said too that I would like to feel as a peasant does, and I do not unsay that. There are some popular songs in Brittany, made by beggars, which in their three stanzas are worth all that Goethe or Byron ever wrote, and prove that the appreciation of the true and beautiful was more complete and spontaneous in those simple souls than in the most illustrious poets. And as for music? Have we not admirable melodies in our country? True, our peasants have no painting; but they have it in their speech, which is a hundred times more expressive, more energetic, and more logical than our literary language.”  24
  “I admit that,” I answered: “and the last point particularly is a cause of despair; because I am obliged to write in the language of the Academy, when there is another I know so much better, and which is so far superior for expressing a whole order of emotions, sentiments and thoughts.”  25
  “Yes, yes, the world devoid of art!” he said; “the unknown world, closed to our modern art, and that no amount of study will allow even you to express to yourself,—you, the peasant by nature,—if you wished to introduce it into the domain of civilized art, into the intellectual intercourse of artificial life.”  26
  “Alas!” I replied, “that fact has often been in my mind. Like all civilized beings, I have seen and felt that primitive life has been the dream, the ideal, of all men and all times. From the shepherds of Longus to those of Trianon, pastoral life has been a perfumed Eden, where souls tormented and wearied by the world’s tumult have tried to take refuge. Art, the great flatterer and obliging purveyor of consolation for all over-happy people, has gone through an uninterrupted series of pastorals. I have often wanted to write a learned and critical book entitled ‘The History of Pastorals,’ wherein all the various sylvan dreams so passionately cherished by the upper classes would have been reviewed. I should have followed their modifications, which were always in an inverse ratio to the depravity of morals, and grew purer and more sentimental in proportion as society became more shameless and corrupt. I wish I could order such a book from an author more capable of writing it than I am; and I should then read it with pleasure. It would be a complete treatise on art; for music, painting, architecture, literature in all its forms, the drama, poetry, novels, eclogue, songs, even fashions, gardens, and costumes, have had to submit to the infatuation of the pastoral dream…. I have often asked myself why there are no more shepherds; for we are not so impassioned for Truth in these latter days, that our arts and literature have the right to despise these conventional types in favor of those that fashion is now introducing. We are all given over to energy and atrocity at present, and are embroidering ornaments on the canvas of these passions, terrible enough to set our hair on end if we could but take them seriously.”  27
  “If we have no more shepherds,” returned my friend,—“if literature no longer has that false ideal, which was worth as much as to-day’s,—perhaps it is because art is making an unconscious attempt to level itself, to put itself within the reach of all classes of intelligence. Does not the dream of equality, flung into society, drive art to become brutal and impetuous, so as to awaken the instincts and passions common to all men, of whatsoever rank they may be? Truth has not yet been reached. It lies no more in disfigured reality than in over-ornamented ideality: but it is quite evident that it is being sought; and if it is not well sought, the seekers are none the less eager to find it. For instance, the drama, poetry, and the novel have dropped the crook and taken up the dagger; and when rustic life is put upon the scene they give it a certain realistic form, not found in the pastorals of former days. Yet there is but little poetry in it, and I find fault with this; still I do not see the means of elevating the rustic ideal without heightening its color or blackening it. You have often thought of doing it, I know; but will you succeed?”  28
  “I do not hope to,” I replied; “for I have no form to cast it in, and my feeling for rustic simplicity finds no language for its expression. If I make the rustic speak as he really does, the civilized reader would need a translation on the opposite page; and if I make him speak as we do, then I make an unnatural creature of him, and have to pretend that he has ideas he really has not.”  29
  “And even if you did make him speak as he does, your own language would make a disagreeable contrast every moment; and you have laid yourself open to that reproach, in my opinion. You portrayed a rustic maiden, called her Jeanne, and put words in her mouth which strictly speaking she might say. But you, the novelist, wishing to make your readers share the attraction you feel in delineating the type, compare her to a druidess, a Joan of Arc, and what not. Your feelings and your words alongside of hers have the same incongruous effect as the clash of harsh tones in a picture; and I cannot quite enter into nature thus, even when it is idealized. You have made a better study of truth since then, in ‘La Mare au Diable’ [The Devil’s Pool]. But I am not satisfied yet. The author still peeps out now and then; there are authors’ words in it…. You must try again, even though you do not succeed; masterpieces are only successful attempts. Provided you make conscientious attempts, you may console yourself for not making masterpieces.”  30
  “I am consoled on that point beforehand,” I replied, “and will begin again whenever you wish: advise me.”  31
  “Yesterday, for instance, we were at the rustic wake at the farm,” he said. “The hemp-breaker told stories up to two o’clock in the morning. The village priest’s servant helped or corrected him: she was a somewhat cultured peasant; he was ignorant, but happily endowed and very eloquent in his own way. These two persons jointly told us a rather long, true story, which appeared to be a familiar novel. Do you remember it?”  32
  “Perfectly, and I could repeat it literally in their very language.”  33
  “Their language would need a translation: you must write in French, and not allow yourself a single word which does not belong to the language, unless it be so intelligible that a footnote would be useless for the reader.”  34
  “I see you are setting me a task fit to make me lose my mind,—one I have never plunged into without coming out dissatisfied with myself, and penetrated by a sense of my weakness.”  35
  “Never mind! You will plunge into it again; I know the artist nature: nothing stimulates you as much as obstacles, and you do poorly what you do without suffering. Come, begin,—tell me the story of the ‘Champi’; but not as I heard it with you. It was a masterpiece for our minds and ears ‘to the manner born.’ Tell it as if there were a Parisian at your right speaking the modern language, and a peasant at your left before whom you would not wish to say a word or phrase he could not fathom. Thus you will have to speak plainly for the Parisian, simply for the peasant. One will rebuke you for absence of color, the other for that of elegance; but I shall be there too,—I, who am trying to find the conditions by which art, without ceasing to be art for every one, may enter into the mystery of primitive simplicity, and communicate to the mind the charm pervading nature.”  36
  “We are going to make a joint study, it seems.”  37
  “Yes; for I shall interfere when you stumble.”  38

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