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Villiers de L'Isle-Adam by Arthur Symons

From The symbolist movement in literature (1908)
By Arthur Symons

VILLIERS DE L'ISLE-ADAM

A chacun son infini

1

  COUNT PHILIPPE AUGUSTE MATHIAS DE VILLIERS DE L'ISLE-ADAM was born at St. Brieuc, in Brittany, November 28, 1838; he died at Paris, under the care of the Frères Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, August 19, 1889. Even before his death, his life had become a legend, and the legend is even now not to be disentangled from the actual occurrences of an existence so heroically visionary. The Don Quixote of idealism, it was not only in philosophical terms that life, to him, was the dream, and the spiritual world the reality; he lived his faith, enduring what others called reality with contempt, whenever, for a moment, he becomes conscious of it. The basis of the character of Villiers was pride, and it was pride which covered more than the universe. And this pride, first of all, was the pride of race.

  Descendant of the original Rodolphe le Bel, Seigneur de Villiers (1067), through Jean de Villiers and Maria de l'Isle and their son Pierre the first Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, a Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, born in 1384, had been Marshal of France under Jean-sans-Peur, Duke of Burgundy; he took Paris during the civil war, and after being imprisoned in the Bastille, reconquered Pontoise from the English, and helped to reconquer Paris. Another Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, born in 1464, Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, defended Rhodes against 200,000 Turks for a whole year, in one of the most famous sieges in history; it was he who obtained from Charles V. the concession of the isle of Malta for his Order, henceforth the Order of the Knights of Malta.

  For Villiers, to whom time, after all, was but a metaphysical abstraction, the age of the Crusaders had not passed. From a descendant of the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, the nineteenth century demanded precisely the virtues which the sixteenth century had demanded of that ancestor. And these virtues were all summed up in one word, which, in its double significance, single to him, covered the whole attitude of life: the word "nobility." No word returns oftener to the lips in speaking of what is most characteristic in his work, and to Villiers moral and spiritual nobility seemed but the inevitable consequence of that other kind of nobility by which he seemed to himself still a Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. It was his birthright.

  To the aristocratic conception of things, nobility of soul is indeed a birthright, and the pride with which this gift of nature is accepted is a pride of exactly the opposite kind to that democratic pride to which nobility of soul is a conquest, valuable in proportion to its difficulty. This duality, always essentially aristocratic and democratic, typically Eastern and Western also, finds its place in every theory of religion, philosophy, and the ideal life. The pride of being, the pride of becoming: these are the two ultimate contradictions set before every idealist. Villiers' choice, inevitable indeed, was significant. In this measure, it must always be the choice of the artist, to whom, in his contemplation of life, the means is often so much more important than the end. That nobility of soul which comes without effort, which comes only with an unrelaxed diligence over oneself, that I should be I: there can at least be no comparison of its beauty with the stained and dusty onslaught on a never quite conquered fort of the enemy, in a divided self. And, if it be permitted to choose among degrees of sanctity, that, surely, is the highest in which a natural genius for such things accepts its own attainment with the simplicity of a birthright.

  And the Catholicism of Villiers was also a part of his inheritance. His ancestors had fought for the Church, and Catholicism was still a pompous flag, under which it was possible to fight on behalf of the spirit, against that materialism which is always, in one way or another, atheist. Thus he dedicates one of his stories to the Pope, chooses ecclesiastical splendours by preference among the many splendours of the world which go to make up his stage-pictures, and is learned in the subtleties of the Fathers. The Church is his favourite symbol of austere intellectual beauty; one way, certainly, by which the temptations of external matter may be vanquished, and a way, also, by which the desire of worship may be satisfied.

   But there was also, in his attitude towards the mysteries of the spiritual world, that "forbidden " curiosity which had troubled the obedience of the Templars, and which came to him, too, as a kind of knightly quality. Whether or not he was actually a Cabbalist, questions of magic began, at an early age, to preoccupy him, and, from the first wild experiment of Isis to the deliberate summing up of Axël, the "occult" world finds its way into most of his pages.

   Fundamentally, the belief of Villiers is the belief common to all Eastern mystics.(1) "Know, once for all, that there is for thee no other universe than that conception thereof which is reflected at the bottom of thy thoughts." "What is knowledge but a recognition?" Therefore, "forgetting for ever that which was the illusion of thyself," hasten to become "an intelligence freed from the bonds and the desires of the present moment." "Become the flower of thyself! Thou art but what thou thinkest: therefore think thy- self eternal." "Man, if thou cease to limit in thyself a thing, that is, to desire it, if, so doing, thou withdraw thyself from it, it will follow thee, woman-like, as the water fills the place that is offered to it in the hollow of the hand. For thou possessest the real being of all things, in thy pure will, and thou art the God that thou art able to become."

  To have accepted the doctrine which thus finds expression in Axël, is to have accepted this among others of its consequences: "Science states, but does not explain: she is the oldest offspring of the chimeras; all the chimeras, then, on the same terms as the world (the oldest of them!), are something more than nothing!" And in Elën there is a fragment of conversation between two young students, which has its significance also:

  "Goetze. There's my philosopher in full flight to the regions of the sublime! Happily we have Science, which is a torch, dear mystic; we will analyse your sun, if the planet does not burst into pieces sooner than it has any right to!
   Samuel. Science will not suffice. Sooner or later you will end by coming to your knees.
   Goetze. Before what?
   Samuel. Before the darkness!"

  Such avowals of ignorance are possible only from the height of a great intellectual pride. Villiers' revolt against Science, so far as Science is materialistic, and his passionate curiosity in that chimera's flight towards the invisible, are one and the same impulse of a mind to which only mind is interesting. Toute cette vieille Extériorité, maligne, compliquée, inflexible, that illusion which Science accepts for the one reality: it must be the whole effort of one's consciousness to escape from its entanglements, to dominate it, or to ignore it, and one's art must be the building of an ideal world beyond its access, from which one may indeed sally out, now and again, in a desperate enough attack upon the illusions in the midst of which men live.

  And just that, we find, makes up the work of Villiers, work which divides itself roughly into two divisions: one, the ideal world, or the ideal in the world (Axël, Elën, Morgane, Isis, some of the contes, and, intermediary, La Révolte); the other, satire, the mockery of reality (L'Eve Future, the Contes Cruels, Tribulat Bonhomet). It is part of the originality of Villiers that the two divisions constantly flow into one another; the idealist being never more the idealist than in his buffooneries.

2

  Axël is the Symbolist drama, in all its uncompromising conflict with the "modesty" of Nature and the limitations of the stage. It is the drama of the soul, and at the same time it is the most pictorial of dramas; I should define its manner as a kind of spiritual romanticism. The earlier dramas, Elën, Morgane, are fixed at somewhat the same point in space; La Révolte, which seems to anticipate The Doll's House, shows us an aristorcratic Ibsen, touching reality with a certain disdain, certainly with far less skill, certainly with far more beauty. But Axël, meditated over during a lifetime, shows us Villiers' ideal of his own idealism.

  The action takes place, it is true, in this century, but it takes place in corners of the world into which the modern spirit has not yet passed; this Monastère de Religieuses-trinitaires, le cloître de Sainte Appolodora, situé sur les confins du littoral de l'ancienne Flandre française, and the très vieux chateau fort, le burg des margraves d'Auërsperg, isolé au milieu du Schwartzwald. The characters, Axël d'Auërsperg, Eve Sara Emmanuèle de Maupers, Maître Janus, the Archidiacre, the Commandeur Kaspar d'Auërsperg, are at once more and less than human beings: they are the types of different ideals, and they are clothed with just enough humanity to give form to what would otherwise remain disembodied spirit. The religious ideal, the occult ideal the worldly ideal, the passionate ideal, are all presented, one after the other, in these dazzling and profound pages; Axël is the disdainful choice from among them, the disdainful rejection of life itself, of the whole illusion of life, "since infinity alone is not a deception." And Sara? Sara is a superb part of that life which is rejected, which she herself comes, not without reluctance, to reject. In that motionless figure, during the whole of the first act silent but for a single "No," and leaping into a moment's violent action as the act closes, she is the haughtiest woman in literature. But she is a woman, and she desires life finding it in Axël. Pride, and the woman's devotion to the man, aid her to take the last cold step with Axël, in the transcendental giving up of life at the moment when life becomes ideal.

  And the play is written, throughout, with a curious solemnity, a particular kind of eloquence, which makes no attempt to imitate the level of the speech of every day, but which is a sort of ideal language in which beauty is aimed at as exclusively as if it were written in verse. The modern drama, under the democratic influence of Ibsen, the positive influence of Dumas fils, has limited itself to the expression of temperaments in the one case, of theoretic intelligences in the other, in as nearly as possible the words which the average man would use for the statement of his emotions and ideas. The form, that is, is degraded below the level of the characters whom it attempts to express; for it is evident that the average man can articulate only a small enough part of what he obscurely feels or thinks; and the theory of Realism is that his emotions and ideas are to be given only in so far as the words at his own command can give them. Villiers, choosing to concern himself only with exceptional characters, and with them only in the absolute, invents for them a more elaborate and a more magnificent speech than they would naturally employ, the speech of their thoughts, of their dreams.

  And it is a world thought or dreamt in some more fortunate atmosphere than that in which we live, that Villiers has created for the final achievement of his abstract ideas. I do not doubt that he himself always lived in it, through all the poverty of the precipitous Rue des Martyrs. But it is in Axël, and in Axël only, that he has made us also inhabitants of that world. Even in Elën we are spectators, watching a tragical fairy play (as if Fantasio became suddenly in deadly earnest), watching some one else's dreams. Axël envelops us in its own atmosphere; it is as if we found ourselves on a mountain top on the other side of the clouds, and without surprise at finding ourselves there.

  The ideal, to Villiers, being the real, spiritual beauty being the essential beauty, and material beauty its reflection, or its revelation, it is with a sort of fury that he attacks the materialising forces of the world: science, progress, the worldly emphasis on "facts," on what is "positive," "serious," "respectable." Satire, with him, is the revenge of beauty upon ugliness, the persecution of the ugly; it is not merely social satire, it is a satire on the material universe by one who believes in a spiritual universe. Thus it is the only laughter of our time which is fundamental, as fundamental as that of Swift or Rabelais. And this lacerating laughter of the idealist is never surer in its aim than when it turns the arms of science against itself, as in the vast buffoonery of L'Eve Future. A Parisian wit, sharpened to a fineness of irony such as only wit which is also philosophy can attain, brings in another method of attack; humour, which is almost English, another; while again satire becomes tragic, fantastic, macabre. In those enigmatic "tales of the grotesque and arabesque," in which Villiers rivals Poe on his own ground, there is, for the most part, a multiplicity of meaning which is, as it is meant to be, disconcerting. I should not like to say how far Villiers does not, sometimes, believe in his own magic.

  It is characteristic of him, at all events, that he employs what we call the supernatural alike in his works of pure idealism and in his works of sheer satire. The moment the world ceased to be the stable object, solidly encrusted with houses in brick and stone, which it is to most of its so temporary inhabitants, Villiers was at home. When he sought the absolute beauty, it was beyond the world that he found it; when he sought horror, it was a breath blowing from an invisible darkness which brought it to his nerves; when he desired to mock the pretensions of knowledge of or ignorance, it was always with the unseen that his tragic buffoonery made familiar.

  There is, in everything which Villiers wrote, a strangeness, certainly both instinctive and deliberate, which seems to me to be the natural consequence of that intellectual pride which, as I have pointed out, was at the basis of his character. He hated every kind of mediocrity: therefore he chose to analyse exceptional souls, to construct exceptional stories, to invent splendid names, and to evoke singular landscapes. It was part of his curiosity in souls to prefer the complex to the simple, the perverse to the straightforward, the ambiguous to either. His heroes are incarnations of spiritual pride, and their tragedies are the shock of spirit against matter, the invasion of spirit by matter, the temptation of spirit by spiritual evil. They seek the absolute, and find death; they seek wisdom, find love, and fall into spiritual decay; they seek reality, and find crime; they seek phantoms, and find themselves. They are on the borders of a wisdom too great for their capacity; they are haunted by dark powers, instincts of ambiguous passions; they are too lucid to be quite sane in their extravagances; they have not quite systematically transposed their dreams into action. And his heroines, when they are not, like L'Eve Future, the vitalised mechanism of an Edison, have the solemnity of dead people, and a hieratic speech. Songe, des cœurs condamnés à ce supplice, de ne pas m'aimer! says Sara, in Axël. Je ne l'aime pas, ce jeune homme. Qu'ai-je donc fait à Dieu? says Elën. And their voice is always like the voice of Elën: "I listened attentively to the sound of her voice; it was taciturn, subdued, like the murmur of the river Lethe, flowing through the region of shadows." They have the immortal weariness of beauty, they are enigmas to themselves, they desire, and know not why they refrain, they do good and evil with the lifting of an eyelid, and are innocent and guilty of all the sins of the earth.

  And these strange inhabitants move in as strange a world. They are the princes and châtelaines of ancient castles lost in the depths of the Black Forest; they are the last descendants of a great race about to come to an end; students of magic, who have the sharp and swift swords of the soldier; enigmatic courtesans, at the table of strange feasts; they find incalculable treasures, tonnantes et sonnantes cataractes d'or liquide, only to disdain them. All the pomp of the world approaches them, that they may the better abnegate it, or that it may ruin them to a deeper degree of their material hell. And we see them always at the moment of a crisis, before the two ways of a decision, hesitating in the entanglements of a great temptation. And this casuist of souls will drag forth some horribly stunted or horribly overgrown soul from under its obscure covering, setting it to dance naked before our eyes. He has no mercy on those who have no mercy on themselves.

  In the sense in which that word is ordinarily used, Villiers has no pathos. This is enough to explain why he can never, in the phrase he would have disliked so greatly, "touch the popular heart." His mind is too abstract to contain pity, and it is in his lack of pity that he seems to put himself outside humanity. A chacun son infini, he has said, and in the avidity of his search for the infinite he has no mercy for the blind weakness which goes stumbling over the earth, without so much as knowing that the sun and stars are overhead. He sees only the gross multitude, the multitude which has the contentment of the slave. He cannot pardon stupidity, for it is incomprehensible to him. He sees, rightly, that stupidity is more criminal than vice; if only because vice is curable, stupidity incurable. But he does not realise, as the great novelists have realised, that stupidity can be pathetic, and that there is not a peasant, nor even a self-satisfied bourgeois, in whom the soul has not its part, in whose existence it is not possible to be interested.

  Contempt, noble as it may be, anger, righteous though it may be, cannot be indulged in without a certain lack of sympathy; and lack of sympathy comes from a lack of patient understanding. It is certain that the destiny of the greater part of the human race is either infinitely pathetic or infinitely ridiculous. Under which aspect, then, shall that destiny, and those obscure fractions of humanity, be considered? Villiers was too sincere an idealist, too absolute in his idealism to hesitate. "As for living," he cries, in that splendid phrase of Axël, "our servants will do that for us!" And, in the Contes Cruels, there is this not less characteristic expression of what was always his mental attitude: "As at the play, in a central stall, one sits out, so as not to disturb one's neighbours--out of courtesy, in a word--some play written in a wearisome style and of which one does not like the subject, so I lived, out of politeness": je vivais par politesse. In this haughtiness towards life, in this disdain of ordinary human motives and ordinary human beings, there is at once the distinction and the weakness of Villiers. And he has himself pointed the moral against himself in these words of the story which forms the epilogue to the Contes Cruels: "When the forehead alone contains the existence of a man, that man is enlightened only from above his head; then his jealous shadow, prostrate under him, draws him by the feet, that it may drag him down into the invisible."

3

  All his life Villiers was a poor man; though, all his life, he was awaiting that fortune which he refused to anticipate by any mean employment. During most of his life, he was practically an unknown man. Greatly loved, ardently admired, by that inner circle of the men who have made modern French literature, from Verlaine to Mæterlinck, he was looked upon by most people as an amusing kind of madman, a little dangerous, whose ideas, as they floated freely over the café-table, it was at times highly profitable to steal. For Villiers talked his works before writing them, and sometimes he talked them instead of writing them, in his too royally spendthrift way. To those who knew him he seemed genius itself, and would have seemed so if he had never written a line; for he had the dangerous gift of a personality which seems to have already achieved all that it so energetically contemplates. But personality tells only within hands' reach; and Villiers failed even to startle, failed even to exasperate, the general reader. That his Premières Poésies, published at the age of nineteen, should have brought him fame was hardly to be expected, remarkable, especially in its ideas, as that book is. Nor was it to be expected of the enigmatic fragment of a romance, Isis (1862), anticipating, as it does, by so long a period, the esoteric and spiritualistic romances which were to have their vogue. But Elën (1864) and Morgane (1865), those two poetic dramas in prose, so full of distinction, of spiritual rarity; but two years later, Claire Lenoir (afterwards incorporated in one of his really great books, Tribulat Bonhomet), with its macabre horror; but La Révolte (1870), for Villiers so "actual," and which had its moments of success when it was revived in 1896 at the Odéon; but Le Nouveau Monde (1880), a drama which, by some extraordinary caprice, won a prize; but Les Contes Cruels (1880), that collection of masterpieces, in which the essentially French conte is outdone on its own ground! It was not till 1886 that Villiers ceased to be an unknown writer, with the publication of that phosphorescent buffoonery of science, that vast parody of humanity, L'Eve Future. Tribulat Bonhomet (which he himself defined as bouffonnerie énorme et sombre, couleur du siècle) was to come, in its final form, and the superb poem in prose Akëdysséril; and then, more and more indifferent collections of stories, in which Villiers, already dying, is but the shadow of himself: L'Amour Supreme (1886), Histoires Insolites (1888), Nouveaux Contes Cruels (1888). He was correcting the proofs of Axël when he died; the volume was published in 1890, followed by Propos d'audelà, and a series of articles, Chez les Passants. Once dead, the fame which had avoided him all his life began to follow him; he had une belle presse at his funeral.

  Meanwhile, he had been preparing the spiritual atmosphere of the new generation. Living among believers in the material world, he had been declaring, not in vain, his belief in the world of the spirit; living among Realists and Parnassians, he had been creating a new form of art, the art of the Symbolist drama, and of Symbolism in fiction. He had been lonely all his life, for he had been living in his own lifetime, the life of the next generation. There was but o ne man among his contemporaries to whom he could give, and from whom he could receive, perfect sympathy. That man was Wagner. Gradually the younger men came about him; at the end he was not lacking in disciples.

  And after all, the last word of Villiers is faith; faith against the evidence of the senses, against the negations of materialistic science against the monstrous paradox of progress, against his own pessimism in the face of these formidable enemies. He affirms; he "believes in soul, is very sure of God"; requires no witness to the spiritual world of which he is always the inhabitant; and is content to lose his way in the material world, brushing off its mud from time to time with a disdainful gesture, as he goes on his way (to apply a significant word of Pater) "like one on a secret errand."

(1) "I am far from sure," wrote Verlaine, "that the philosophy of Villiers will not one day become the formula of our century." <=== BACK

(End.)