“Glory is like the bed of Louis XIV in Versailles. It is magnificent and there are bugs in it.”—Victor Hugo1
Early in his career, Henry James lived for some time in Paris. Since he needed money, he worked for a while as a correspondent for The New York Tribune.2 In his dispatch of January 1876, he reported on Victor Hugo’s latest political activities. The old poet-cum-prophet had been pleading with the representatives of all the municipalities of France for the restoration of Paris as the national capital—a status which the city had lost after the bloody suppression of the Commune by the Versailles government five years earlier. James wrote:
The newspapers for the last fortnight have contained little else than addresses and programs from candidates for the Senate and the Chambers. One of the most remarkable documents of this kind is a sort of pronunciamiento from Victor Hugo…. It seems incredible that Victor Hugo’s political vaticinations should have a particle of influence upon any human creature; but I have no doubt that they reverberate sonorously enough in some obscure couches sociales, and there is no reason indeed why the same influences which shaped Victor Hugo should not have produced a number of people who are like him in everything except in having genius. But in these matters genius does not count, for it is certainly absent enough from his address to the “delegates of the 36,000 communes of France.” It might have been believed that he had already given the measure of the power of the human mind to delude itself with mere words and phrases, but his originality in this direction is quite unequaled, and perhaps I did wrong to say that there was no genius in it. There is at any rate a genius for pure verbosity. What he has to say to his 36,000 brother delegates is…that “upon this Paris which merited all venerations have been heaped all affronts…. In taking from her her diadem as capital of France, her enemies have laid bare her brain as the capital of the world. This great forehead of Paris is now entirely visible, all the more radiant that it is discrowned. Henceforth the nations unanimously recognize Paris as the leading city of the human race.” M. Hugo proceeds to summon his electors “to decree the end of abuses by the advent of truths, to affirm France before Germanism, Paris before Rome, light before night.”3 Whether or not as a nation the French are more conceited than their neighbors is a question that may be left undecided; a very good case on this charge might be made out against every nation. But certainly France occasionally produces individuals who express the national conceit with a transcendent fatuity which is not elsewhere to be matched. A foreign resident in the country may speak upon this point with feeling; it makes him extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know how it affects people who dislike French things to…
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