restricted access The Idealism of Julien Benda. A second review of La Trahison des clercs, by Julien Benda
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[ 435 The Idealism of Julien Benda1 A second review of La Trahison des clercs, by Julien Benda Paris: Grasset, 1927. Pp. 306. The Cambridge Review, 49 (6 June 1928) 485-88 M. Julien Benda is a critic who does not write often or too much. His Belphégor, which some of us recognised as an almost final statement of the attitude of contemporary society to art and the artist, was published in 1918 or 1919. La Trahison des clercs is the first book of the same type that M. Benda has written since Belphégor; it represents some years of meditation and study; we expected a book of the same importance.2 We are not disappointed. And just as Belphégor, although based upon an examination of French society alone, applied to the relation of society to the arts in all Europe and America, so is La Trahison des clercs of general application. It is indeed more general; for M. Benda now draws his illustrations from England, Germany, Italy and America, as well as from France. In these illustrations I do not think that he has been altogether fair; and as he has cited William James and Kipling, we are entitled to cross-examine him on his examination. M. Benda’s thesis may be divided into two parts, upon which we may find that we give separate verdicts. The first part is a general criticism of the political passions of the present time. The second part is a scrutiny of the culpability of certain noted men of letters, and implies a rule of life which M. Benda would lay down for men of letters of our time. In the first general diagnosis, I am inclined to yield complete assent; in the second part, he does not seem to me to have carried his analysis of individuals far enough; and the ideal that he holds up to contemporary men of letters seems to me to be infected with romance. But he puts a problem which confronts every man of letters; the same problem which Mr. Wyndham Lewis has solved for himself in his own way by writing his recent books; the problem of the scope and direction which the activities of the artist and the man of letters should take to-day. With the first part of M. Benda’s thesis I cannot deal in this short space. No one can disagree with his statement of the “modern consummation of 1928 436 ] politicalpassions”;hisclassificationofpassionsofrace(e.g.theNordictheory and the Latin theory), passions of nation (e.g. fascism) and passions of class (e.g. communism). I say that no one can disagree with the statement, which is made with all M. Benda’s usual lucidity and concision, but the analysis could be carried much farther than M. Benda carries it. A new Remy de Gourmont could “dissociate” these ideas of Nationalism, of Class, of Race into their local components; and there is also the Religious Idea (not discussed by M. Benda) to be dissociated (with special reference to an actual controversy in England) into components such as conviction, piety, prejudice and politics. Each of these subjects would take a chapter by itself. Let us merely accept M. Benda’s general statement of the “perfection” of these passions in the modern world – in universality, in coherence, in homogeneity , in precision, in continuity and in condensation; and proceed to the question: what is the role of the man of letters; does he to-day involve himself in these passions, and if so why; and what is his proper function? M. Benda brings a grave accusation against the modern “man of letters,” whom he calls the “clerc.” The accusation is retrospective, for it applies to most of the 19th century. The “clerc,” instead of sticking to his business of pure thought or pure art, has descended into politics in the widest and sometimes the lowest sense. M. Benda’s instances are mostly contemporary and mostly French. For the sake of completeness, no doubt, he has added a few foreigners, such as D’Annunzio, Kipling and William James. Between these three “clercs” I can see nothing in common. D’Annunzio is a brilliant prose artist of pseudo-decadence, who took up with Italian nationalism as a newexcitement; Kipling (itseems tome)writesoftheEmpirebecausehe was born in India instead ofSussex(and, as Mr. Dobréehassaid,partof his interesting peculiarity is that he makes the deck of a P. & O. liner seem as much British soil as Sussex or Shropshire);3...


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