- The French Intelligence
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 291 The French Intelligence1 As the inspection of types of English irresistibly provoked a glance at two American critics, so the inspection of the latter leads our attention to the French. M. Julien Benda has the formal beauty which the American critics lack, and a close affinity to them in point of view.2 He restricts himself, perhaps, to a narrower field of ideas, but within that field he manipulates the ideas with a very exceptional cogency and clarity. To notice his last book (Belphégor: essai sur l’esthétique de la présente société française) would be to quote from it.3 M. Benda is not like Remy de Gourmont, the critical consciousness of a generation, he could not supply the conscious formulas of a sensibility in process of formation; he is rather the ideal scavenger of the rubbish of our time. Much of his analysis of the decadence of contemporary French society could be applied to London, although differences are observable from his diagnosis. Quant à la société en elle-même, on peut prévoir que ce soin qu’elle met à éprouver de l’émoi par l’art, devenant cause à son tour, y rendra la soif de ce plaisir de plus en plus intense, l’application à la satisfaire de plus en plus jalouse et plus perfectionnée. On entrevoit le jour où la bonne société française répudiera encore le peu qu’elle supporte aujourd’hui d’idées et d’organisation dans l’art, et ne se passionnera plus que pour des gestes de comédiens, pour des impressions de femmes ou d’enfants, pour des rugissements de lyriques, pour des extases de fanatiques . . .4 Almost the only person who has ever figured in England and attempted a task at all similar to that of M. Benda is Matthew Arnold. Matthew Arnold was intelligent, and by so much difference as the presence of one intelligent man makes, our age is inferior to that of Arnold. But what an advantage a man like M. Benda has over Arnold. It is not simply that he has a critical tradition behind him, and that Arnold is using a language which constantly tempts the user away from dispassionate exposition into sarcasm and diatribe , a language less fitted for criticism than the English of the eighteenth century. It is that the follies and stupidities of the French, no matter how base, express themselves in the form of ideas – Bergsonism itself is an intellectual construction, and the mondaines who attended lectures at the 1919 292 ] College de France were in a sense using their minds.5 A man of ideas needs ideas, or pseudo-ideas, to fight against. And Arnold lacked the active resistance which is necessary to keep a mind at its sharpest. A society in which a mind like M. Benda’s can exercise itself, and in which there are persons like M. Benda, is one which facilitates the task of the creative artist. M. Benda cannot be attached, like Gourmont, to any creative group. He does not wholly partake in that “conscious creation of the field of the present out of the past” which Mr. More considers to be part of the work of the critic.6 But in analysing the maladies of the secondrate or corrupt literature of the time he makes the labour of the creative artist lighter. The Charles Louis Philippes of English literature are never done with, because there is no one to kill their reputations; we still hear that George Meredith is a master of prose, or even a profound philosopher .7 The creative artist in England finds himself compelled, or at least tempted, to spend much of his time and energy in criticism that he might reserve for the perfecting of his proper work: simply because there is no one else to do it. Notes 1. Printed for the first time in SW as the final section of the five-part essay “Imperfect Critics,” three parts of which had been previously published; for a list of the contents of “Imperfect Critics,” see “Swinburne as Critic” (119, n. 1). 2. TSE was introduced to the work of Julien Benda by Ezra Pound, who sent him a copy of Belphégor in July 1920 and arranged for an English translation to appear serially in the Dial later that year. Benda himself sent TSE a copy of his Le Bergsonisme (1917), signed and dated 9 Jan 1921, for possible review. And...