Mérimée is a fascinating figure. He was a master of the nouvelle, a government official and an inveterate traveler, an archaeologist and a historian, a man of the world who could barely endure the world, a bachelor addicted to affairs and “infernal coquetry,” yet wretched enough, or maudlin enough, to remark—and without the irony which made his name—that there is nothing sweeter in the world than “the society of an intelligent woman of whom you are not and cannot be the lover.” “For fear of being duped,” Taine tells us, Mérimée “was mistrustful in life, in love, in learning, in art, and he was duped by his own mistrustfulness.” Prompted no doubt by Mérimée’s ghost, he adds, sardonically, in the preface to the posthumously published Lettres à une Inconnue: “But one is always duped by something.”
Temperamentally, I suppose, Mérimée comes from a long line of French philosophers and savants who suffered what Montaigne calls a crise pyrrhoninenne. The skepticism of Montaigne and Descartes, Gassendi and Bayle, though, turned inward and led them to God. Bayle, for instance, in his Dictionnaire historique et critique, slyly subverting Christian tradition, hacking at superstitions and theories bulging with “contradictions and absurdity,” became overwhelmed by doubt and bowed before the Eternal. Mérimée, however, refusing the Roman Catholicism he mocked, sought consolation in the literature of Ancient Greece. What attracted him to legend and myth was that they left, so he thought, “first causes in what is perhaps a deliberate obscurity”; they did not attempt to interpret “mysteries above our understanding.”
In Colomba, Carmen, and his other tales, a tug of war—never far, really, from a pagan past—reverberates between the sexes, or between a sister and a brother, or between Papists and Huguenots, or between the opposed representatives of “nature” and “civilization.” The settings are Spain or Corsica or West Africa or France, the historical or local color there to dazzle us, but much more to heighten the catastrophes to come. Primitive excess and worldly detachment, the super-natural and the haut monde, the outrageous and morale laïque: of these possibilities Mérimée’s characters choose one or the other, or are done in by one or the other—never Mérimée. If as a stylist he seems perhaps closest to Diderot and Voltaire, especially the Voltaire of L’Ingénu and Candide, we know that the latter always regarded himself as a tutelary figure, an Aesopian: after the dust settles the standard bearers appear. In Mérimée, a genius of a coarser, more complex age, what you get are battles without victors.
A man had better always have enemies so he doesn’t fall on his own knife. Surely that was the law of the day among so many of the post-Napoleonic salons of the Bourbons and Louis-Philippe, salons full of bankers and merchants, boorish Republicans and liberal hommes de lettres, where self-love was usually one step from self-hate, culture was soured by ennui, and relations would dim or blaze in accordance with how …