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The Wisdom of Anatole France

by J. Middleton Murry

How few are the wise writers who remain to us? They are so few that it seems, at moments, that wisdom, like justice of old, is withdrawing from the world, and that when their fullness of years is accomplished, as, alas! it soon must be, the wise men who will leave us will have been the last of their kind. It is true that something akin to wisdom, or rather a quality whose outward resemblance to wisdom can deceive all but the elect, will emerge from the ruins of war; but true wisdom is not created out of the catastrophic shock of disillusionment. An unexpected disaster is always held to be in some sort undeserved. Yet the impulse to rail at destiny, be it never so human, is not wise. Wisdom is not bitter; at worst it is bitter-sweet, and bitter-sweet is the most subtle and lingering savour of all.

Let us not say in our haste, that without wisdom we are lost. Wisdom is, after all, but one attitude to life among many. It happens to be the one which will stand the hardest wear, because it is prepared for all ill-usage. But hard wear is not the only purpose which an attitude may serve. We may demand of an attitude that it should enable us to exact the utmost from ourselves. To refuse to accommodate oneself to the angularities of life or to make provision beforehand for its catastrophes is, indeed, folly; but it may be a divine folly. It is, at all events, a folly to which poets incline. But poets are not wise; indeed, the poetry of true wisdom is a creation which can, at the best, be but dimly imagined. Perhaps, of them all, Lucretius had the largest inkling of what such poetry might be; but he disqualified himself by an aptitude for ecstasy, which made his poetry superb and his wisdom of no account. To acquiesce is wise; to be ecstatic in acquiescence is not to have acquiesced at all. It is to have identified oneself with an imagined power against whose manifestations, in those moments when no ecstasy remains, one rebels. It is a megalomania, a sublime self-deception, a heroic attempt to project the soul on to the side of destiny, and to believe ourselves the masters of those very powers which have overwhelmed us.

Whether the present generation will produce great poetry, we do not know. We are tolerably certain that it will not produce wise men. It is too conscious of defeat and too embittered to be wise. Some may seek that ecstasy of seeming acquiescence of which we have spoken; others, who do not endeavour to escape the pain by plunging the barb deeper, may try to shake the dust of life from off their feet. Neither will be wise. But precisely because they are not wise, they will seek the company of wise men. Their own attitude will not wear. The ecstasy will fail, the will to renunciation falter; the gray reality which permits no one to escape it altogether will filter like a mist into the vision and the cell. Then they will turn to the wise men. They will find comfort in the smile to which they could not frame their own lips, and discover in it more sympathy than they could hope for.

Among the wise men whom they will surely most frequent will be Anatole France. His company is constant; his attitude durable. There is no undertone of anguish in his work like that which gives such poignant and haunting beauty to Tchehov. He has never suffered himself to be so involved in life as to be maimed by it. But the price he has paid for his safety has been a renunciation of experience. Only by being involved in life, perhaps only by being maimed by it, could he have gained that bitterness of knowledge which is the enemy of wisdom. Not that Anatole France made a deliberate renunciation: no man of his humanity would of his own will turn aside. It was instinct which guided him into a sequestered path, which ran equably by the side of the road of alternate exaltation and catastrophe which other men of equal genius must travel. Therefore he has seen men as it were in profile against the sky, but never face to face. Their runnings, their stumblings and their gesticulations are a tumultuous portion of the landscape rather than symbols of an intimate and personal possibility. They lend a baroque enchantment to the scene.

So it is that in all the characters of Anatole France's work which are not closely modelled upon his own idiosyncrasy there is something of the marionette. They are not the less charming for that; nor do they lack a certain logic, but it is not the logic of personality. They are embodied comments upon life, but they do not live. And there is for Anatole France, while he creates them, and for us, while we read about them, no reason why they should live. For living, in the accepted sense, is an activity impossible without indulging many illusions; and fervently to sympathise with characters engaged in the activity demands that their author should participate in the illusions. He, too, must be surprised at the disaster which he himself has proved inevitable. It is not enough that he should pity them; he must share in their effort, and be discomfited at their discomfiture.

Such exercises of the soul are impossible to a real acquiescence, which cannot even permit itself the inspiration of the final illusion that the wreck of human hopes, being ordained, is beautiful. The man who acquiesces is condemned to stand apart and contemplate a puppet-show with which he can never really sympathise.

'De toutes les définitions de l'homme la plus mauvaise me paraît celle qui en fait un animal raisonnable. Je ne me vante pas excessivement en me donnant pour doué de plus de raison que la plupart de ceux de mes semblables que j'ai vus de près ou dont j'ai connu l'histoire. La raison habite rarement les âmes communes, et bien plus rarement encore les grands esprits…. J'appelle raisonnable celui qui accorde sa raison particulière avec la raison universelle, de manière à n'être jamais trop surpris de ce qui arrive et à s'y accommoder tant bien que mal; j'appelle raisonnable celui qui, observant le désordre de la nature et la folie humaine, ne s'obstine point à y voir de l'ordre et de la sagesse; j'appelle raisonnable enfin celui qui ne s'efforce pas de l'être.'

The chasm between living and being wise (which is to be raisonnable) is manifest. The condition of living is to be perpetually surprised, incessantly indignant or exultant, at what happens. To bridge the chasm there is for the wise man only one way. He must cast back in his memory to the time when he, too, was surprised and indignant. No man is, after all, born wise, though he may be born with an instinct for wisdom. Thus Anatole France touches us most nearly when he describes his childhood. The innocent, wayward, positive, romantic little Pierre Nozière[4] is a human being to a degree to which no other figures in the master's comedy of unreason are. And it is evident that Anatole France himself finds him by far the most attractive of them all. He can almost persuade himself, at moments, that he still is the child he was, as in the exquisite story of how, when he had been to a truly royal chocolate shop, he attempted to reproduce its splendours in play. At one point his invention and his memory failed him, and he turned to his mother to ask: 'Est-ce celui qui vend ou celui qui achète qui donne de l'argent?'

'Je ne devais jamais connaître le prix de l'argent. Tel j'étais à trois ans ou trois ans et demi dans le cabinet tapissé de boutons de roses, tel je restai jusqu'à la vieillesse, qui m'est légère, comme elle l'est à toutes les âmes exemptes d'avarice et d'orgueil. Non, maman, je n'ai jamais connu le prix de l'argent. Je ne le connais pas encore, ou plutôt je le connais trop bien.'

   [Footnote 4: Le Petit Pierre. Par Anatole France. (Paris:

To know a thing too well is by worlds removed from not to know it at all, and Anatole France does not elsewhere similarly attempt to indulge the illusion of unbroken innocence. He who refused to put a mark of interrogation after 'What is God,' in defiance of his mother, because he knew, now has to restrain himself from putting one after everything he writes or thinks. 'Ma pauvre mère, si elle vivait, me dirait peut-être que maintenant j'en mets trop.' Yes, Anatole France is wise, and far removed from childish follies. And, perhaps, it is precisely because of his wisdom that he can so exactly discern the enchantment of his childhood. So few men grow up. The majority remain hobbledehoys throughout life; all the disabilities and none of the unique capacities of childhood remain. There are a few who, in spite of all experience, retain both; they are the poets and the grands esprits. There are fewer still who learn utterly to renounce childish things; and they are the wise men.

'Je suis une autre personne que l'enfant dont je parle. Nous n'avons plus en commun, lui et moi, un atome de substance ni de pensée. Maintenant qu'il m'est devenu tout à fait étranger, je puis en sa compagnie me distraire de la mienne. Je l'aime, moi qui ne m'aime ni ne me haïs. Il m'est doux de vivre en pensée les jours qu'il vivait et je souffre de respirer l'air du temps où nous sommes.'

Not otherwise is it with us and Anatole France. We may have little in common with his thought—the community we often imagine comes of self-deception—but it is sweet for us to inhabit his mind for a while. His touch is potent to soothe our fitful fevers.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things