Monday, January 9, 2017

The romance of vice

M. Emile Montégut has published in the last number of the Revue des Deux Mondes a very sensible critique on Fanny, and on the class of literature to which it belongs. What he fastens on especially is the sham poetry, and the real prosaic vulgarity, both of the vice which seeks in such books to be romantic, and of those who admire these books because they like to believe that they, too, could be at once romantic and vicious. He asks his readers whether they have ever seen a gourmand of a type exclusively Parisian, who, having to spend eightpence on his dinner, will not satisfy his appetite on a good slice of roast beef, but has, at a bad restaurant, a dish of salmon, peas, and a meringue. He has an execrable dinner, but he procures himself the illusion of thinking he has had a good repast. Just so the personages in many French romances of the present day flatter themselves they have passions while they have only vices. And the success of the novel depends on its having this mixture of real vice and false sentiment. There is a considerable portion of society which likes to plate over its sensuality with a thin layer of tinsel passion. The hero of the romance and the hero of real life will like to fancy that, if they are as vicious, they are also as romantic as René. Now the public which chiefly supports these books is a public entirely out of the line of romance. It is a public of ordinary thought, and occupied with very ordinary kinds of business. The supposition that the romance of René can be repeated in a society utterly unlike that in which it was written, is a pure chimera. All this is expressed with great happiness and force by M. Montégut, and we may find the point worth thinking of in England. It is true that our illusions of immorality are very different from the French type. We have got rid of cockney Don Juans. But the influence of French literature on English society is very considerable; and so far as French novels do harm to persons who have any business at all to read them, they do so by throwing a tinsel plating over vice—by making the romance of vice seem a perfectly practicable arrangement, to be easily secured and enjoyed if the state of mind which gives the romance has been induced by an attentive study of the right models.

It is worth while, then, to think w at the romance of vice demands—what are the qualities, mental, moral, and social, which are indispensable, if the desired halo is to be spread over the area of self-gratification. Chateaubriand is the author of the finest type of romantic vice that has been turned out; and M. Montégut terms him epigrammatically, but not untruly, ma gentilhomme Breton catholique, athée et ennuyé’. At any rate, René exactly answers to t description. Now, the more we consider these epithets, the more we find ourselves removed from the field of vulgar immorality. A Catholic Atheist is a person so little akin to the ordinary thoughts of Englishmen, that many persons would be incline to doubt the possibility of his existence. And yet no expression could better convey the belief in everything, combined with the belief in nothing, which shine through René. The Catholic Atheist has open to him some of the most exciting and thrilling sensations which can fall to the lot of man. He worships God, and yet curses Him; he feels the rapture of a wild adoration, and the despondency of a reproachful despair. There are human minds—probably not a few—through which such thoughts pass, not as eccentricities noted down for literary purposes, but as the things which, for the time, naturally and really occupy them. It is easy to understand that a person under such an influence finds a harmony in the mental contemplation of unusual crime; and, however literally absurd, there is a sort of psychological consistency in René wandering about the woods of America thinking of incest. But René is romantic, not because he thinks about vice, but because he has a certain range of thought and feeling.

If again, we examine the real heroines of romantic vice, we see at once how different they are from the sham ones—how different, for instance, are Indiana and Valentine from Fanny. The difference lies in this, that in the characters of Indiana and Valentine there are elements which are unconnected with vice, and which are in themselves poetical. There is in Indiana an intensity of affection—a wild delight in the luxuriance of nature— a childlike concentration of all interest on a few objects. She is placed in a society where incidents are made to occur with tolerable probability, so as to illustrate and confirm certain views on the fundamental arrangements of social life accepted by the writer. The romantic element is the groundwork, and the vicious element is only the addition. It is not vice that is made romantic, but romance that is made vicious. It may be easy to imitate the vice, but the vice does not involve the romance——it has nothing to do with it. But it is very possible to bring to the vice the remembrance of the romance, and this is exactly what is done. It would be something if this were confessed to be a pure illusion, and if it were recognised that the romance accompanying vulgar vice under a peculiar system of training is a trick of the memory, and not a feeling really entertained, or a part of the character really existing. And we may observe that the confusion which hangs about the connexion of vice and romance is apt to distort literary and moral criticism, as well as to exercise a pernicious influence over action. When a writer of real power has thoughts that are uncommon, but genuine, and feelings that are spasmodic perhaps, and exaggerated, but the natural growth of a general state of mind, we may look at their expression as a study which is not at once to be set down as immoral because it leads us into the region of concomitant vices. But when, as in so many modern French novels, the vice is the main staple of the hook, and the romance is merely thrown over it as an alluring garment, decking the rottenness and hideousness that lie beneath, we are not to extend to creations of a character substantially different the indulgence we accord to fictions where a species of misdirected nobleness is the mainspring of the drama.

Against the sham romance of vice there is no doubt that cynicism is a powerful, and, in a certain sense, the most appropriate antidote. It is, indeed, one of the two great antidotes that literature has to offer. The creation and maintenance of a. sound moral sense is not properly to be looked for in a purely secular literature. But to higher and better instruments of good, literature can add her own subsidiary aids. Cynicism is unpopular, because it is often employed to strip off the illusions from virtue; but it should be credited with the possibility of being used to strip off the illusions of vice. Cynicism does away with romance; and the romance which it does away with most swiftly and surely is the mock romance laid on to gild the vulgarity of wrong-doing. The nation and the age that in Chateaubriand produced the greatest painter of romantic vice, produced in Balzac the greatest of cynics. Under the painful touch of the withering genius of Balzac, the edifices of artificial romance crumble into nothing. He shows vice, as he shows the whole of human life, reduced to its skeleton shape. There is plenty of vice in Balzac, and he had that love of stirring up dirty puddles which seems inseparable from all but a very few French minds. But in his novels life is painted in so true a miniature—the component arts of a vicious society are so minutely analysed—the irony of fortune is so remorselessly followed out to all its consequences, that artificial romance seems not so much a failure or an imposition as an impossibility. Given a character in which desire is real but passion is absent, Balzac will show, as by a mathematical demonstration, that romance is out of the question. Cynicism may be defended on other grounds. It may be urged that virtue gains by being deprived of some of her illusions, or she would be apt to grow too sentimental. But it is only in relation to vice that the true significance and the true function of cynicism become apparent. To estimate the moral position of a writer like Balzac, we must not take him by himself. We must view him with reference to opposite writers, like George Sand or Chateaubriand, and we shall see what is the function which tales such as his are capable of discharging.

The other great literary antidote, as M. Montégut points out, is the expression of the ludicrous. A heart laugh, if it can but be honestly raised, soon expels the poison from the mind. We are not speaking of ridicule aimed at a particular object, but of a general fund of humour, whether genial or stern—a sense of the comic, a quickness at catching the consequences of impossible data, a power of seeing the grotesque side of human waywardness and frailty. The dead-alive seriousness of a bad French novel is blown into thin air by the light breath of even jovial high spirits, and much more by that of measured and discriminative laughter. “Let us," M. Montégut says—"let us have some one to teach us what raillery is when we are overwhelmed with books like Fanny. If we cannot get the bold and deep laugh of Rabelais or Molière, let us be content with the ironical humour of Lesage." Happily, in England, the race of laughers has never died away. Byronism yielded rather to the fun than to the abuse it provoked. We may not otherwise have reason to be entirely satisfied with the kind of fun that shows itself so widely in the English literature of the day; but it certainly keeps us from some nonsense. If comic journalism and facetious novels have done even a little to keep us from an English counterpart of Fanny, let us pay them our debt of gratitude. As to the greater lights, there can be no doubt that the succession of real humorists in our literature has acted as a bulwark against the invasion into English thought of the pestilent combination of mock poetry and sensualism.

Saturday Review, November 13, 1858.

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