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The French Complaint

The Horror of Life

by Roger L. Williams
University of Chicago Press, 381 pp., $22.50

This arresting title may lead the reader to expect some great Promethean outburst, but in fact what we have here is a book by a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wyoming, consisting of a preface followed by five chapters, each devoted to the medical-cum-psychological case history of a celebrated French writer of the nineteenth century. The physical and mental sufferings of these five men—Charles Baudelaire, Jules de Goncourt, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet—are very familiar to students of French literature. All five died comparatively young. Before death, Goncourt and Maupassant lapsed into imbecility. One of the most poignant phrases in literary history is the doctor’s comment on Maupassant during the last months of his life: “Monsieur de Maupassant s’animalise,” with its ironic contrast between the particle of nobility and the ignoble verb. Baudelaire, the greatest poet in the language according to some critics, became speechless during his last phase and could only give vent to the crude oath: “Cré Nom!” (Sacré Nom de Dieu). Although Flaubert and Daudet retained their powers of expression until the end, they suffered at times the tortures of the damned and had frequent recourse to drugs.

It has usually been assumed that all five were syphilitic, and that the appalling symptoms which afflicted them, migraines, swellings, stiffness, vomiting, vertigo, etc., corresponded to the primary, secondary, and tertiary stages of the disease. Syphilis was not completely understood in the nineteenth century, no effective treatment was available, and it may well be that the supposed cures or palliatives prescribed for these unhappy men only served to complicate their martyrdom with disastrous side effects.

What is more, their physical disabilities were closely interwoven with grave psychological problems. Consequently, it is not easy to disentangle the purely medical elements of their plight from the psychiatric or the psychosomatic. All five had troubled relations with their mothers and/or fathers, and perhaps never overcame the adverse conditioning of childhood and adolescence. None, with the possible exception of Daudet, can be said to have had a complete and satisfactory union with a woman, and indeed four of them can be classed as misogynists. Only Daudet founded a family. Maupassant had three illegitimate children, to whom he seems to have remained completely indifferent. As far as is known, Baudelaire, Goncourt, and Flaubert were childless; when there was a danger that Flaubert’s mistress, Louise Colet, might be pregnant, he wrote her vehement letters about the folly of passing on the curse of life. Again with the possible exception of Daudet, none of them was ever fully integrated into the society of his time, although Maupassant had a meteoric career and made a fortune from his short stories. Baudelaire was a Bohemian dropout, Flaubert a hermit, and Jules de Goncourt, with his brother Edmond, a convinced believer in the ivory tower. In short, in the case of four, if not five, of them, there appears to be a complete opposition between their literary eminence, whether immediate or posthumous, and their failure to lead even tolerable lives in an ordinary human way. It is not too much to say that, from one angle at least, these famous writers can be considered as physical and psychological cripples.

It is obviously this circumstance that has led Professor Williams to concentrate on their case histories. He is puzzled by the fact that diseased artists have achieved such authority, and he seems inclined to question its validity. His very short preface is not absolutely clear in its implications, and he provides no conclusion at the end of the volume, but his initial argument seems to run as follows.

Even in twentieth-century America, it has long been a commonplace for the writer to be alienated from “bourgeois capitalist” society, which he denounces as being both philistine and decadent. This attitude originated with some of the major writers of nineteenth-century France, who were revered as models during the American “renaissance” between 1910 and 1930. But was such a judgment on society not an effect of the personal problems of these writers? There was, to be sure, a recognizable psychological slump in France after the collapse of the Napoleonic adventure and the establishment of a materialistic, middle-class society, but this should not have blinded people to the fact that the nineteenth century was a period of enormous social progress. Besides, bourgeois capitalism, whatever can be said against it, still remains the only existing political form capable of ensuring a relatively free community. The rebellion against bourgeois concepts was also, in some respects, falsely humanistic, in Williams’s view.

The language of those recoiling from technology and capitalism was usually laced with radical political jargon which gave the impression of a profound concern for people, whereas the preoccupation with the supremacy of art over ordinary life with its plebeian concerns canceled out compassion. Indeed, the rightist and leftist solutions they were apt to espouse have converted much of the world into states little better than concentration camps: the more utopian, the more tyrannical.

Actually, the writers concerned show only sporadic and incoherent traces of left-wing feeling. Politically, they could more accurately be described as right-wing or anarchistic Nay-Sayers, who made a religion of art. It is this negative attitude toward society that most disturbs Professor Williams. Quoting Jules Romains, he argues that these writers’ alienation from the contemporary community was the result of a sort of collective schizophrenia, and amounted to “the most phenomenal misinterpretation ever committed by literature.” He recognizes a philosophical element in their pessimism, and says that they tended to link their private metaphysical anguish with the presumably inexorable laws of thermodynamics and evolution. But he is primarily interested in “the medical well-springs” of despair, which made them fail “in their literary duty to their fellow-men.” Their cult of art went hand in hand with a hatred of life, and this made them profoundly different, according to Professor Williams, from the upholders of the classical ideal, common to both the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, which had been a celebration of the completeness of man. Being individually sick, they presumably had a sick vision, which has unduly influenced later generations.

Given this starting point, one expects the book to have a polemical thrust. But, surprisingly enough, when Professor Williams moves on to discuss the particular authors, it is almost as if the person who composed the preface had had little or no hand in writing the bulk of the text. He does not, as one would suppose, keep in the foreground of his inquiry the question: how do the distorted sensibilities of these writers affect in detail the quality of their output? Had he dealt with this issue, he might have shown how one is to distinguish between “healthy” and “unhealthy” art, and what degree of truth there is in the classical ideal of the complete man and mens sana in corpore sano. He makes few, if any, critical comments on the actual works of these writers, and no specifically negative ones. He even, in passing, rejects without discussion the charge that Maupassant’s short stories were the product of a diseased mind, and he states categorically that Daudet’s novels, although not first-rate, are now less well known than they deserve to be. It is true that he refers incidentally, and as if it were an absolutely proven fact, to the “emotional immaturity” not only of Maupassant but also of Baudelaire and Flaubert, without however explaining how an emotionally immature artist can produce work which satisfies the demands of a presumably emotionally mature critic.

Nor does he address himself to the question of whether or not there might be such a thing as a recognizable syphilitic sensibility. The hypothesis would at least be worth discussing. Among nineteenth-century French writers, there was a belief, or a superstition, to the effect that a touch of the pox was essential for genius. There may be diseases which, in certain stages of their development, stimulate the nervous system and the creative itch. For instance, it is easy, in an amateurish way, to suggest parallels between tubercular artists—Watteau, Keats, Chopin, D.H. Lawrence, Chekhov, the young André Gide, etc.—and similar phenomena may be connected with syphilis. This is not to say that disease is necessary for the artist, although that too is a possible biological hypothesis, on the analogy of the oyster and the pearl; but certain diseases may cause talents to develop in certain ways, which then become inseparable from the positive achievement.

It was Enid Starkie, I think, who implied that if Baudelaire had had the advantages of a sound English public-school education, he might not have incurred some of his distressing disabilities. To this one can reply, first, that he might then have suffered from other stimulating handicaps, since there is, as it happens, a considerable English “public-school literature,” inspired by the cruelly creative effects of that particular conditioning and, secondly, that we are only interested in Baudelaire because he became Baudelaire. Had he been “cured” and led a healthy life, we might never have heard of him.

A similar remark might be made about Jean-Paul Sartre’s obsessive insistence on the fact that Flaubert would have been a better man had he taken an urgent and active interest in politics; maybe, but how can we be sure that, had he done so, he would ever have got round to writing Madame Bovary, let alone making it a better novel? Professor Williams, likewise, seems to be oblivious of the fact that certain artistic qualities, and even the urge to create, may be a function of characteristics that can be seen as negative in one sense but perhaps positive in another; and some of the physical manifestations of diseases such as syphilis may fall into this category.

One could, of course, go on to query the concept of illness in itself as being a simple opposition to health. Might there not be all-important physical peculiarities which never emerge about the surface as definable illnesses—phenomena similar to the medieval entities known as the humors—which govern our sensibilities and therefore condition our philosophical and artistic attitudes? If consciousness has nothing to do with an immortal soul, but is a phosphorescence on the surface of the human animal, an apparently abstract emanation of concrete biology, then this is presumably so; health and illness become very relative notions and the body/mind interchange, in all cases, takes on the character of an infinitely complex human meteorology.

Since Professor Williams doesn’t deal with either of the expected questions, what does he do? Well, he simply retells the stories of the lives in the traditional manner, making his own mosaic out of the great mass of existing evidence and conflicting judgments, and controlling it by wide reading in medical textbooks. The one issue to which he returns with some consistency is the problem of whether or not syphilis was the central factor in each instance, and his academic conscience allows him to be certain in the case of only two of the five writers: Goncourt and Daudet. These are the least important of the five, and with the three greater ones it is probably significant, although in a way paradoxical, that Professor Williams seems almost eager to prove that the presence of syphilis cannot be absolutely established.

Baudelaire thought he was infected with the disease at the age of eighteen, but he may have been unable to tell the difference between gonorrhea and the more deadly affliction. Those critics who have presented him as being horrified by his tainted body are probably wrong, since he could not know about the alternation of latency and eruption, or about the threat of the tertiary stage. In any case, he declared in a letter that he believed himself cured. He probably died of a stroke, brought on by the strains and stresses of his lamentable existence. Besides, his father, his mother, and his half-brother all died of strokes, accompanied by aphasia. Flaubert, undoubtedly, had various venereal infections of debatable kinds, but his basic trouble seems to have been a form of epilepsy; his final attack was not necessarily of syphilitic origin. Maupassant was, admittedly, an erotomaniac, but again syphilis cannot be absolutely proved in his case; both his brother and his mother displayed a similar softening of the brain before they died, so he may have been subject to a congenital weakness.

The trouble with these findings is that they really leave the question open; they are not a contribution to positive knowledge. At this distance in time, and because of the uncertain evidence and the inadequacies of nineteenth-century medicine, it may be impossible to prove that Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Maupassant were syphilitic, but it is equally impossible, on the basis of the arguments put forward by Professor Williams, to prove that they were not. In arriving at his conclusions, he is trusting his own hunch, and there is no reason why he should carry the reader with him. I myself am not at all convinced by a lot of what he says, particularly about Baudelaire. It has always seemed to me that, in the correspondence with Poulet-Malassis, Baudelaire was trying to argue himself into believing in the curability of syphilis, and that the psychological paralysis which afflicted him in later years might well have been caused by an unspoken sense of doom, of physical origin. Professor Williams presents him in one-sided fashion, as an antinaturistic dandy, but his writings also contain a nostalgia for health, for happy identification with Nature, and for simple, elemental pleasures. The intensity of the yearning which vibrates in some of his best poems would be perfectly consistent with a tragic feeling that his life had been poisoned at the center.

But the major disappointment of the book is that it fails to say anything coherent or compelling about any of these five writers as artists, or about the aesthetic or intellectual significance of illness in their lives. The argument could have been conducted more or less in the same fashion had they been five odd, sick persons unconnected with literature. If the title means that they all expressed an unmitigated horror of life, it is inaccurate, because Daudet remains the odd-man-out. In spite of his complaints about his disease, which in any case were mainly private, he maintained throughout his work a general interest in society and an average belief in the value of existence. He wrote only one near-masterpiece, the bitter love story Sappho; a notable defect in most of his other novels is optimistic sentimentality and, in his conversations with his son Léon, he claimed unashamedly to be un marchand de bonheur. Conversely, it seems illogical that Jules de Goncourt should have been included merely because he was syphilitic, while his brother Edmond, who held identical artistic and philosophical opinions, should have been omitted presumably on the grounds that he was not particularly ailing and lived on into his seventies.

In nineteenth-century France, there was no simple, obvious, and necessary connection between disease and pessimism, and if it was Professor Williams’s intention to establish such a connection, he has not succeeded in doing so. At no period in history has any great French writer been an easy believer in sweetness and light, not even in the eighteenth century, of which Professor Williams makes favorable mention. In their most representative works, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau are only marginally more reassuring than Choderlos de Laclos or the Marquis de Sade. But masterpieces can be wonderfully bracing, even when they are not reassuring.

I suspect Professor Williams of being a kind-hearted, frustrated optimist, who would like to think that there is some overt, definable correspondence between good art and progressive social thinking. He cannot bring himself consciously to accept the fact that all literature is ultimately about evil, and that all great literature is inevitably tragic, even at its soundest and its most robust. There is just no way of closing the gap between the demands of the human consciousness and the mystery of creation, and some temperaments are keenly aware of this from childhood or early adolescence. What art does is to ring the changes on the way the gap is expressed.

Because of the particular artist’s physical, psychological or social circumstances, his art may be subject to various strains or distortions that one could call aberrations from a true sense of the Absurd. This is especially clear in the case of Baudelaire and Flaubert, the two really great figures among these five, who were exceptionally handicapped, and therefore often wildly neurotic in their declamations against life. However, this simply means that their works cannot be taken on trust, like those of some more balanced writers, but have to be read critically, if one is to distinguish between the valid parts and the less valid. Nevertheless we can be sure that the best poems in Les Fleurs du Mal, like the best passages in Flaubert’s novels, are—to echo Professor Williams’s phrase—“celebrations of the completeness of man” in the sense that they represent a positive fusion of sensibility and intelligence in the expression of some universal human truth. In other words, when art is good, it can only be a healthy contribution to society, even when it comes from an unhealthy artist. The permanent and difficult critical problem, which this book unfortunately does not begin to tackle, is to decide how far the art is good, independently of the artist.

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