Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Physiology of Art

Review of:
Physiologie des Ecrivains et des Artistes ou Essai de Critique Naturelle (by Emile Deschanel, 1864).

The Physiology of Authors and Artists is not a promising title, but it must be admitted that M. Deschanel has contrived to write a very amusing little book about it. The general object which he has in view is to describe the influence of physical causes, including the character and state of the author's own body, upon the production of works of art. He begins at the very beginning, with a discussion of the relations of the body and the soul, the object of which is to prove that they are reciprocally influenced by each other. It is odd that such a proposition should require the support of illustration or argument, but M. Deschanel has elaborately worked out his theory, and gives his readers the benefit of the whole of it, with a good faith which shows that he really has taken the trouble to think and observe on the subject. Every writer, he says, who writes upon anything but pure science, has his own peculiar style. The matter is common to all, but the form differs with every different person, inasmuch as the time in which he lives, the climate in which he writes, his race, sex, age, temperament, character, and profession, all affect to some extent the point of view from which he looks at his subject. M. Deschanel need not have excepted scientific books. There is a vast deal of difference between the style of different mathematicians. French mathematicians, for instance, differ widely from English writers on mathematics, and such books as Johnson's Dictionary and Cobbett's Grammar show how the driest and most technical subjects can be made to illustrate the character of their authors at every page. Would any one but Johnson have defined a lexicographer as a harmless drudge? or would any one but Cobbett have taken all his illustrations of bad grammar from King's Speeches and the despatches of Tory peers, with a special preference for those who were good classical scholars? Perhaps an even better illustration of Cobbett's ponderous untrained sturdiness is to be found in his recommendation for learning the French genders. Take a dictionary, he tells his pupil, and copy out all the nouns into a blank book, arranging them in two columns—the masculine on the right hand, the feminine on the left. Carry the little book about in your pocket, and keep constantly reading it over till you know it by heart. You will thus learn both the words and their genders. So dense was the sturdy old sergeant that, though he followed his own prescription, it never seems to have occurred to him that a large majority of French nouns are masculine, and that, by making out a list of the feminine nouns alone, he would materially reduce the clumsiness of his contrivance.

M. Deschanel pursues his subject through all the branches j mentioned above. He has chapters on the effect of the period, the climate, the race, sex, age, temperament, character, profession, hereditary disposition, and health of the writer on his works. The remarks have little in themselves that is novel, but the illustrations are very shrewd and often exceedingly amusing. To apply his own method, they are beyond all controversy the choice of a French journalist of the nineteenth century. Knowing the authors of the various passages which he cites, he asks, with an air of perfect good faith, whether they could possibly have been written by any one else than their authors. Does not this sentence show that Madame de Sevigné must have been born in Burgundy, and this other that Montaigne must have been an Anglo-Gascon? The result of this way of writing is that M. Deschanel manages to say a great number of very clever things, though it may be doubted whether he will succeed in convincing those who do not happen to begin by agreeing with him. Take, for instance, the following observation on the English cast of thought:—
‘The complicated turn of the English temperament, even when the leading principle is right, differs much from French clearness and rapidity. The latter is a charm and amusement for the reader; the former is at first fatiguing, and long continues to be laborious, until one is accustomed to it. What complications there are, what circuits! how the principal idea, crossed by all sorts of accessory ideas, encumbered with exceptions, restrictions, and modifications—by contraries, as they say in rhetoric—struggles to disengage and produce itself! What a Casarean operation is necessary for its birth! but when at last it is brought forth, what vigour, what familiar eloquence, what arguments from common life—how vigorously the idea behaves, how it kicks and hits, how it makes all fly! Even jokes among these vigorous people with their strong nerves are thrown, as it were, with a catapult.’
It is satisfactory to find out one Frenchman, at all events, who has discovered that Englishmen are, after all, capable of thinking, and even of reasoning, and that logic is not the exclusive property of the French. M. Deschanel, however, in his eagerness to make the most of temperament, does not seem to see that, if our English reflections are complicated, that may be the fault of the facts, as well as of the minds which describe the facts. If you want to see and to describe a thing as it is, the idée principale must be crossed and complicated with a number of qualifications and complications, because the thing itself is so in fact. It is only by a due attention to, and statement of, these qualifications and restrictions, that it is possible to attain the vigour with which we are credited. Without them, the principal idea is apt to be nothing more than the vaguest kind of generality. Bring almost any proposition into any real relation with actual life, and it instantly becomes complicated and intricate. For instance, it is easy to say "All men are born free and equal," but if the proposition is to be anything more than a platitude it must be thrown into some such form as this: —"A legislator who intends to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number will forward that object by so arranging the distribution of property, at a given time and place, as to make the largest number of shares reach such an amount as will support a family in what is there and then considered to be a state of comfort, and by so regulating the laws as to forbid no other actions than those which produce an amount of pain exceeding the sum of the pain produced, directly and indirectly, by the restraint from doing them and the punishment for having done them." If any one will take the trouble to understand this sentence, he will see that it expresses a definite meaning to which every part of it contributes, and he will also discover that it is nearly the only proximately true meaning which can be attached to the proposition that men are born free and equal. It is, in reality, the clearer of the two statements, for it is far more explicit than the other, and less ambiguous. It is also superior in point of rapidity, for, by reading it over carefully two or three times, you can see just what it means; whereas the proposition that men are born free and equal may mean any one of several very different things. Which of them it means no amount of study of the proposition itself will determine.

M. Deschanel takes a very candid view of the controversy about the French and English national character, on which so many people have something to say. His view of the matter is certainly so flattering to our own national prejudices that no Englishman would have ventured to put it forward:—
‘Nations have, like individuals, a primary temperament which they generally obey, and on which the greater part of their character depends. The Athenians and French are essentially nervous. The Romans and the English have sanguine and muscular temperaments. . . The Romans and English, muscular, square, and positive, seem like male nations; whilst Greece and France, nervous, enthusiastic, capricious, always in extremes, better or worse, always higher or lower than others, are more like female nations. Louis Pfau, the excellent art-critic, says very shrewdly, France holds amongst nations the place which woman occupies in society. She tames the rudeness of man by the delicacy of her sentiment, and communicates a benevolent warmth to masculine activity by the seductive vivacity and ready enthusiasm of her nature. Thus, France has all the virtues of women—devotion, amiability, practical good sense, and instinctive perception of what is becoming; also all feminine weaknesses—vanity, levity, versatility, and a passion for military glory.’
This is just one of those smart sayings which must not be pressed too far, but which have nevertheless a kind of truth about them. Many of the great French writers and politicians have had as little of the woman about them as any Englishman could have. Bossuet, Corneille, Descartes, Colbert, Mirabeau, Danton, Napoleon (though, to be sure, he was more of an Italian than a Frenchman), M. Guizot, and numerous others, have contributed in various forms, and in reference to many distinct subjects, as much of the "muscular, square, positive" element as could well be put into human beings. M. Deschanel has, of course, his little theory about several of these remarkable men, and about others who showed analogous qualities. He tells us little stories about them which are sometimes singularly happy. For instance, after analysing Corneille, and explaining how lie wrote as he did because he was a Norman by birth and had been an advocate by profession, he quotes the folio wing charming little poem addressed to a young lady who had not been quite civil to him. He says with truth—" Le sujet est léger, le rhythme court, mais on y retrouve la fierté de l’homine, et aussi l'ampleur du tragique." The verses are probably new to our readers. They are well worth reading:—

Le temps aux plus belles choses
Se plait à faire un affront,
Et saura faner vos roses
Comine il a ridé mon front. 
Le même cours des planètes
Régie nos jours et nos nuits;
On m'a vu ce que vous êtes,
Vous serez ce que je suis. 
Cependant j'ai quelques charmes
Qui sont assez éclatants
Pour n'avoir pas trop d'alarmes
De ces ravages du temps. 
Vous en avez qu'on adore,
Mais ceux que vous méprisez
Pourraient bien durer encore
Quand ceux-là seront usés. 
Ils pourront sauver la gloire
Des yeux qui me semblent doux,
Et dans mille ans faire croire
Ce qu'il me plaira de vous. 
Chez cette race nouvelle
Oil j'aurai quelque crédit,
Vous ne passerez pour belle
Qu'autant que je l'aurai dit. 
Pensez-y, belle Marquise,
Quoiqu'un grison fasse effroi,
Il vaut qu'on le courtise
Quand il est fait comme moi.’
The last four stanzas in particular are brimful of spirit, and the mixture of pride and vanity which they display is so remarkable that it seems impossible that it should have ever occurred in more than one person.

M. Deschanel does not himself inspire much confidence, but he is full of wit and shrewdness and entertaining illustrations. His great theory is, that the circumstances to which his different chapters relate affect a writer's literary works, and this may, we trust without offence, be called a truism. He seems also to labour under a fear of being considered a materialist, against which imputation he vindicates himself, according to the manner of French writers, by talking about l’idée, le droit, and so on. And all this is worked up into a good many pages of not merely harmless but laudable rhetoric, the general result of which appears to be that the world in which we live is composed of a great deal of matter, and more or less spirit, capable of making eloquent protests against its rival and partner when the occasion, requires it to do so. Whether all this is or is not philosophy, M. Deschanel has written an amusing little book and said many things worth remembering.

Saturday Review, July 23, 1864.

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