Saturday, May 21, 2016

`A Crowd of Pretty Things of Detail'

At least in the Anglophone world, Henri Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881) has been emphatically forgotten. It’s most convenient to call him a writer, with qualifications. He was Swiss, a descendent of Huguenots, an academic, a lonely, timid figure who knew little solace in life. He never married, never had children. The book we know him for, his Journal Intime, was published the year after his death, and Mrs. Humphry Ward’s two-volume English translation appeared in 1885. Amiel distrusted the temptation to indulge in self-pity. In his Feb. 27, 1851 entry he writes:

“The pensée-writer is to the philosopher what the dilettante is to the artist. He plays with thought, and makes it produce a crowd of pretty things of detail, but he is more anxious about truths than truth, and what is essential in thought—its sequence, its unity—escapes him. He handles his instrument agreeably, but he does not possess it. He is a gardener and not a geologist; he cultivates the earth only so much as is necessary to make it produce for him flowers and fruits; he does not dig deep enough into it to understand it.”

Amiel has a way with metaphor, a light but vivid touch. Here he charmingly defends his own modest, contemplative gifts as if to say, “I am no philosopher, nor do I wish to be one. I am an idler among my thoughts.” And yet the distinction he makes – between professional and amateur, we might say – is useful. The very words he uses, “pensée-writer,” bring to mind another problematical French thinker who arranged fragments, Pascal, who in turn brings to mind Montaigne, the progenitor of the most idling of forms, the essay. Sometimes the most interesting things we can know about a man are his random thoughts given literary, not systematic, form. John Simon calls the essay "this rare free form." Montaigne was no philosopher either, and that accounts for much of the reason we read him. Amiel and his ambitions, or distrust of his ambitions, lend his journals a poignant humanity. Consider his entry for July 30, 1877:

“To leave a monument behind, aere perennius [Horace’s boast: “more lasting than bronze”], an imperishable work which might stir the thoughts, the feelings, the dreams of men, generation after generation—that is the only glory which I could wish for, if I were not weaned even from this wish also. A book would be my ambition, if ambition were not vanity and vanity of vanities.” 

Amiel reminds me here of Philip Larkin, the foreword he wrote for the program of an Antiquarian Book Fair in 1972: “It may be that a writer’s attitude to books is always ambivalent, for one of the reasons one writes is that all existing books are somehow unsatisfactory, but it’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization.”

1 comment:

Cal Gough said...

It's gratifying to see you mention Amiel. I stumbled upon his Journal years ago in some book sale somewhere, and sampling a few entries knew I had to buy it. It's still unread, but it's there for me someday, and the occasional mention of him by others in the years since I first noticed his book makes me believe I will, in fact, get around to reading his unusual diary.