Saturday, March 16, 2019

Lofty idealism, artistic perfection

‘Midnight; I had dinner with young people; an hour in the cafe: lost time, nonsense, boredom. Is this nothing but an evening of life? I did not do more than mentally calculate the hours.’ This is a very rough (Google) translation of one extract from the diary of Sully Prudhomme, the French writer born 180 years ago. He is barely remember in the English-speaking world, yet was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for literature - for the ‘lofty idealism, artistic perfection’ of his poetry.

René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme was born in Paris on 16 March 1839 to a shopkeeper and his wife. He attended the Lycée Bonaparte (now Lycée Condorcet) one of the oldest and most prestigious high schools in the city. He was intent on becoming an engineer but eye trouble interrupted his studies. He worked for a while in the Creusot region for the Schneider steel foundry, but then took employment in a solicitor’s office.

In 1865, Prudhomme published a first volume of poems, Stances et Poèmes (Stanzas and Poems) which was well received in literary circles, and which contains his most famous poem, Le vase brisé (The Broken Vase). Further works followed, such as La Justice (1878) and Le Bonheur (1888), all considered to be in line with Parnassism though combined with his philosophic and scientific interests. He was elected to the French Academy in 1881.

During the late 1880s, Prudhomme turned away from poetry to write essays on aesthetics and philosophy, such as L’Expression dans les beaux-arts (1884) and Réflexions sur l’art des vers (1892), and La Psychologie du Libre-Arbitre (1906). In 1901, he was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.’ Subsequently, he funded the launch of a poetry prize administered by the Société des gens de lettres. He also cofounded, in 1902, the Société des poètes français. He suffered poor health for many years, and died in 1908. Further information in English is rather thin online, but some is available at Wikipedia, the Nobel Prize website, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Some years after his death, in 1922, Alphonse Lemerre published Prudhomme’s Journal intime - lettres - pensées as edited by Camille Hémon. The book, 
freely available at Internet Archive), contains extracts from Prudhomme’s diary for the years 1862-1864 and 1868-1869. Very little of Prudhomme’s work has been translated into English, as far as I can tell, and certainly none of his diaries or letters. However, I have used Google Translate to render (rather mechanically) one extract into English, so as, at least, to give a flavour of his diary writing.

17 June 1868
‘I have recently been asked why I do not write novels or plays. I did not dare to say it. The study of philosophy has reduced to me all human affairs. The variable is indifferent to me; to create a scene, to make live this or that individual, to make him take his cane, to dress him, to make him sit, I find that pitiful, miserable. I’d rather take the essence of a passion, a pain, regardless of any adventure, and look for the rhythm, the rhythm that is its eternal and necessary accompaniment. The contingent is odious to me. It has become impossible for me to read a novel, and I do not go to the theatre because we now substitute the plot for the character. The facts do not interest me, they are only the flowering of the only essential causes.

Go tell that to a gentleman you see for the first time!

I realise with regret that I have lost the sense of comedy. I laugh much harder than before, and I am quite surprised to see my friends laughing at certain things. I took care, two or three years ago, of the essence of laughter, of the causes that provoke it, I will resume this study.

It seems to me, by rule of thumb, that there are no laughable abstractions and that a form is always engaged in the reason for laughter. Perhaps the form alone is ridiculous, perhaps it is by a disconnection with the idea. It is to be examined.

Midnight; I had dinner with young people; an hour in the cafe: lost time, nonsense, boredom. Is this nothing but an evening of life? I did not do more than mentally calculate the hours.’

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