Disorder in order. Untidy officials offhanded in manner. Travelers protesting against the rules and regulations, to which they submitted all the same. Christophe was in France. After having satisfied the curiosity of the customs, he took his seat again in the train for Paris. Night was over the fields that were soaked with the rain. The hard lights of the stations accentuated the sadness of the interminable plain buried in darkness. The trains, more and more numerous, that passed, rent the air with their shrieking whistles, which broke upon the torpor of the sleeping passengers. The train was nearing Paris.
Christophe was ready to get out an hour before they ran in; he had jammed his hat down on his head; he had buttoned his coat up to his neck for fear of the robbers, with whom he had been told Paris was infested; twenty times he had got up and sat down; twenty times he had moved his bag from the rack to the seat, from the seat to the rack, to the exasperation of his fellow-passengers, against whom he knocked, every time with his usual clumsiness.
Just as they were about to run into the station the train suddenly stopped in the darkness. Christophe flattened his nose against the window and tried vainly to look out. He turned towards his fellow-travelers, hoping to find a friendly glance which would encourage him to ask where they were. But they were all asleep or pretending to be so: they were bored and scowling: not one of them made any attempt to discover why they had stopped. Christophe was surprised by their indifference: these stiff, somnolent creatures were so utterly unlike the French of his imagination! At last he sat down, discouraged, on his bag, rocking with every jolt of the train, and in his turn he was just dozing off when he was roused by the noise of the doors being opened…. Paris!… His fellow-travelers were already getting out.
Jostling and jostled, he walked towards the exit of the station, refusing the porter who offered to carry his bag. With a peasant’s suspiciousness he thought every one was going to rob him. He lifted his precious bag on to his shoulder and walked straight ahead, indifferent to the curses of the people as he forced his way through them. At last he found himself in the greasy streets of Paris.
He was too much taken up with the business in hand, the finding of lodgings, and too weary of the whirl of carriages into which he was swept, to think of looking at anything. The first thing was to look for a room. There was no lack of hotels: the station was surrounded with them on all sides: their names were flaring in gas letters. Christophe wanted to find a less dazzling place than any of these: none of them seemed to him to be humble enough for his purse. At last in a side street he saw a dirty inn with a cheap eating-house on the ground floor. It was called Hôtel de la Civilisation. A fat man in his shirt-sleeves was sitting smoking at a table: he hurried forward as he saw Christophe enter. He could not understand a word of his jargon: but at the first glance he marked and judged the awkward childish German, who refused to let his bag out of his hands, and struggled hard to make himself understood in an incredible language. He took him up an evil-smelling staircase to an airless room which opened on to a closed court. He vaunted the quietness of the room, to which no noise from outside could penetrate: and he asked a good price for it. Christophe only half understood him; knowing nothing of the conditions of life in Paris, and with his shoulder aching with the weight of his bag, he accepted everything: he was, eager to be alone. But hardly was he left alone when he was struck by the dirtiness of it all: and to avoid succumbing to the melancholy which was creeping over him, he went out again very soon after having dipped his face in the dusty water, which was greasy to the touch. He tried hard not to see and not to feel, so as to escape disgust.
He went down into the street. The October mist was thick and keenly cold: it had that stale Parisian smell, in which are mingled the exhalations of the factories of the outskirts and the heavy breath of the town. He could not see ten yards in front of him. The light of the gas-jets flickered like a candle on the point of going out. In the semi-darkness there were crowds of people moving in all directions. Carriages moved in front of each other, collided, obstructed the road, stemming the flood of people like a dam. The oaths of the drivers, the horns and bells of the trams, made a deafening noise. The roar, the clamor, the smell of it all, struck fearfully on the mind and heart of Christophe. He stopped for a moment, but was at once swept on by the people behind him and borne on by the current. He went down the Boulevard de Strasbourg, seeing nothing, bumping awkwardly into the passers-by. He had eaten nothing since morning. The cafés, which he found at every turn, abashed and revolted him, for they were all so crowded. He applied to a policeman; but he was so slow in finding words that the man did not even take the trouble to hear him out, and turned his back on him in the middle of a sentence and shrugged his shoulders. He went on walking mechanically. There was a small crowd in front of a shop-window. He stopped mechanically. It was a photograph and picture-postcard shop: there were pictures of girls in chemises, or without them: illustrated papers displayed obscene jests. Children and young girls were looking at them calmly. There was a slim girl with red hair who saw Christophe lost in contemplation and accosted him. He looked at her and did not understand. She took his arm with a silly smile. He shook her off, and rushed away, blushing angrily. There were rows of café concerts: outside the doors were displayed grotesque pictures of the comedians. The crowd grew thicker and thicker. Christophe was struck by the number of vicious faces, prowling rascals, vile beggars, painted women sickeningly scented. He was frozen by it all. Weariness, weakness, and the horrible feeling of nausea, which more and more came over him, turned him sick and giddy. He set his teeth and walked on more quickly. The fog grew denser as he approached the Seine. The whirl of carriages became bewildering. A horse slipped and fell on its side: the driver flogged it to make it get up: the wretched beast, held down by its harness, struggled and fell down again, and lay still as though it were dead. The sight of it—common enough—was the last drop that made the wretchedness that filled the soul of Christophe flow over. The miserable struggles of the poor beast, surrounded by indifferent and careless faces, made him feel bitterly his own insignificance among these thousands of men and women—the feeling of revulsion, which for the last hour had been choking him, his disgust with all these human beasts, with the unclean atmosphere, with the morally repugnant people, burst forth in him with such violence that he could not breathe. He burst into tears. The passers-by looked in amazement at the tall young man whose face was twisted with grief. He strode along with the tears running down his cheeks, and made no attempt to dry them. People stopped to look at him for a moment: and if he had been able to read the soul of the mob, which seemed to him to be so hostile, perhaps in some of them he might have seen—mingled, no doubt, with a little of the ironic feeling of the Parisians for any sorrow so simple and ridiculous as to show itself—pity and brotherhood. But he saw nothing: his tears blinded him.
He found himself in a square, near a large fountain. He bathed his hands and dipped his face in it. A little news-vendor watched him curiously and passed comment on him, waggishly though not maliciously: and he picked up his hat for him—Christophe had let it fall. The icy coldness of the water revived Christophe. He plucked up courage again. He retraced his steps, but did not look about him: he did not even think of eating: it would have been impossible for him to speak to anybody: it needed the merest trifle to set him off weeping again. He was worn out. He lost his way, and wandered about aimlessly until he found himself in front of his hotel, just when he had made up his mind that he was lost. He had forgotten even the name of the street in which he lodged.
He went up to his horrible room. He was empty, and his eyes were burning: he was aching body and soul as he sank down into a chair in the corner of the room: he stayed like that for a couple of hours and could not stir. At last he wrenched himself out of his apathy and went to bed. He fell into a fevered slumber, from which he awoke every few minutes, feeling that he had been asleep for hours. The room was stifling: he was burning from head to foot: he was horribly thirsty: he suffered from ridiculous nightmares, which clung to him even after he had opened his eyes: sharp pains thudded in him like the blows of a hammer. In the middle of the night he awoke, overwhelmed by despair, so profound that he all but cried out: he stuffed the bedclothes into his mouth so as not to be heard: he felt that he was going mad. He sat up in bed, and struck a light. He was bathed in sweat. He got up, opened his bag to look for a handkerchief. He laid his hand on an old Bible, which his mother had hidden in his linen. Christophe had never read much of the Book: but it was a comfort beyond words for him to find it at that moment. The Bible had belonged to his grandfather and to his grandfather’s father. The heads of the family had inscribed on a blank page at the end their names and the important dates of their lives—births, marriages, deaths. His grandfather had written in pencil, in his large hand, the dates when he had read and re-read each chapter: the Book was full of tags of yellowed paper, on which the old man had jotted down his simple thoughts. The Book used to rest on a shelf above his bed, and he used often to take it down during the long, sleepless nights and hold converse with it rather than read it. It had been with him to the hour of his death, as it had been with his father. A century of the joys and sorrows of the family was breathed forth from the pages of the Book. Holding it in his hands, Christophe felt less lonely.
He opened it at the most somber words of all:
_Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? Are not his days also like the days of an hireling?
When I lie down, I say, When shall I arise and the night be gone? and I am full of tossings to and fro unto the dawn of the day.
When I say, My bed shall comfort me, my couch shall ease my complaint, then Thou searest me with dreams and terrifiest me through visions…. How long wilt Thou not depart from me, nor let me alone till I swallow down my spittle? I have sinned; what shall I do unto Thee, O Thou preserver of men?
Though He slay me yet will I trust in Him._
All greatness is good, and the height of sorrow tops deliverance. What casts down and overwhelms and blasts the soul beyond all hope is mediocrity in sorrow and joy, selfish and niggardly suffering that has not the strength to be rid of the lost pleasure, and in secret lends itself to every sort of degradation to steal pleasure anew. Christophe was braced up by the bitter savor that he found in the old Book: the wind of Sinai coming from vast and lonely spaces and the mighty sea to sweep away the steamy vapors. The fever in Christophe subsided. He was calm again, and lay down and slept peacefully until the morrow. When he opened his eyes again it was day. More acutely than ever he was conscious of the horror of his room: he felt his loneliness and wretchedness: but he faced them. He was no longer disheartened: he was left only with a sturdy melancholy. He read over now the words of Job:
Even though God slay me yet would I trust in Him.
He got up. He was ready calmly to face the fight.
He made up his mind there and then to set to work. He knew only two people in Paris: two young fellow-countrymen: his old friend Otto Diener, who was in the office of his uncle, a cloth merchant in the Mail quarter: and a young Jew from Mainz, Sylvain Kohn, who had a post in a great publishing house, the address of which Christophe did not know.
He had been very intimate with Diener when he was fourteen or fifteen. He had had for him one of those childish friendships which precede love, and are themselves a sort of love. [Footnote: See Jean-Christophe—I: “The Morning.”] Diener had loved him too. The shy, reserved boy had been attracted by Christophe’s gusty independence: he had tried hard to imitate him, quite ridiculously: that had both irritated and flattered Christophe. Then they had made plans for the overturning of the world. In the end Diener had gone abroad for his education in business, and they did not see each other again: but Christophe had news of him from time to time from the people in the town with whom Diener remained on friendly terms.
As for Sylvain Kohn, his relation with Christophe had been of another kind altogether. They had been at school together, where the young monkey had played many pranks on Christophe, who thrashed him for it when he saw the trap into which he had fallen. Kohn did not put up a fight: he let Christophe knock him down and rub his face in the dust, while he howled; but he would begin again at once with a malice that never tired—until the day when he became really afraid, Christophe having seriously threatened to kill him.
Christophe went out early. He stopped to breakfast at a café. In spite of his self-consciousness, he forced himself to lose no opportunity of speaking French. Since he had to live in Paris, perhaps for years, he had better adapt himself as quickly as possible to the conditions of life there, and overcome his repugnance. So he forced himself, although he suffered horribly, to take no notice of the sly looks of the waiter as he listened to his horrible lingo. He was not discouraged, and went on obstinately constructing ponderous, formless sentences and repeating them until he was understood.
He set out to look for Diener. As usual, when he had an idea in his head, he saw nothing of what was going on about him. During that first walk his only impression of Paris was that of an old and ill-kept town. Christophe was accustomed to the towns of the new German Empire, that were both very old and very young, towns in which there is expressed a new birth of pride: and he was unpleasantly surprised by the shabby streets, the muddy roads, the hustling people, the confused traffic—vehicles of every sort and shape: venerable horse omnibuses, steam trams, electric trams, all sorts of trams—booths on the pavements, merry-go-rounds of wooden horses (or monsters and gargoyles) in the squares that were choked up with statues of gentlemen in frock-coats: all sorts of relics of a town of the Middle Ages endowed with the privilege of universal suffrage, but quite incapable of breaking free from its old vagabond existence. The fog of the preceding day had turned to a light, soaking rain. In many of the shops the gas was lit, although it was past ten o’clock.
Christophe lost his way in the labyrinth of streets round the Place des Victoires, but eventually found the shop he was looking for in the Rue de la Banque. As he entered he thought he saw Diener at the back of the long, dark shop, arranging packages of goods, together with some of the assistants. But he was a little short-sighted, and could not trust his eyes, although it was very rarely that they deceived him. There was a general movement among the people at the back of the shop when Christophe gave his name to the clerk who approached him: and after a confabulation a young man stepped forward from the group, and said in German:
“Herr Diener is out.”
“Out? For long?”
“I think so. He has just gone.”
Christophe thought for a moment; then he said:
“Very well. I will wait.”
The clerk was taken aback, and hastened to add:
“But he won’t be back before two or three.”
“Oh! That’s nothing,” replied Christophe calmly. “I haven’t anything to do in Paris. I can wait all day if need be.”
The young man looked at him in amazement, and thought he was joking. But Christophe had forgotten him already. He sat down quietly in a corner, with his back turned towards the street: and it looked as though he intended to stay there.
The clerk went back to the end of the shop and whispered to his colleagues: they were most comically distressed, and cast about for some means of getting rid of the insistent Christophe.
After a few uneasy moments, the door of the office was opened and Herr Diener appeared. He had a large red face, marked with a purple scar down his cheek and chin, a fair mustache, smooth hair, parted on one side, a gold-rimmed eyeglass, gold studs in his shirt-front, and rings on his fat fingers. He had his hat and an umbrella in his hands. He came up to Christophe in a nonchalant manner. Christophe, who was dreaming as he sat, started with surprise. He seized Diener’s hands, and shouted with a noisy heartiness that made the assistants titter and Diener blush. That majestic personage had his reasons for not wishing to resume his former relationship with Christophe: and he had made up his mind from the first to keep him at a distance by a haughty manner. But he had no sooner come face to face with Christophe than he felt like a little boy again in his presence: he was furious and ashamed. He muttered hurriedly:
“In my office…. We shall be able to talk better there.”
Christophe recognized Diener’s habitual prudence.
But when they were in the office and the door was shut, Diener showed no eagerness to offer him a chair. He remained standing, making clumsy explanations:
“Very glad…. I was just going out…. They thought I had gone…. But I must go … I have only a minute … a pressing appointment….”
Christophe understood that the clerk had lied to him, and that the lie had been arranged by Diener to get rid of him. His blood boiled: but he controlled himself, and said dryly:
“There is no hurry.”
Diener drew himself up. He was shocked by such off-handedness.
“What!” he said. “No hurry! In business…” Christophe looked him in the face.
Diener looked away. He hated Christophe for having so put him to shame. He murmured irritably. Christophe cut him short:
“Come,” he said. “You know…”
(He used the “Du,” which maddened Diener, who from the first had been vainly trying to set up between Christophe and himself the barrier of the “Sie“)
“You know why I am here?”
“Yes,” said Diener. “I know.”
(He had heard of Christophe’s escapade, and the warrant out against him, from his friends.)
“Then,” Christophe went on, “you know that I am not here for fun. I have had to fly. I have nothing. I must live.”
Diener was waiting for that, for the request. He took it with a mixture of satisfaction—(for it made it possible for him to feel his superiority over Christophe)—and embarrassment—(for he dared not make Christophe feel his superiority as much as he would have liked).
“Ah!” he said pompously. “It is very tiresome, very tiresome. Life here is hard. Everything is so dear. We have enormous expenses. And all these assistants…”
Christophe cut him short contemptuously:
“I am not asking you for money.”
Diener was abashed. Christophe went on:
“Is your business doing well? Have you many customers?”
“Yes. Yes. Not bad, thank God!…” said Diener cautiously. (He was on his guard.)
Christophe darted a look of fury at him, and went on:
“You know many people in the German colony?”
“Very well: speak for me. They must be musical. They have children. I will give them lessons.”
Diener was embarrassed at that.
“What is it?” asked Christophe. “Do you think I’m not competent to do the work?”
He was asking a service as though it were he who was rendering it. Diener, who would not have done a thing for Christophe except for the sake of putting him under an obligation, was resolved not to stir a finger for him.
“It isn’t that. You’re a thousand times too good for it. Only…”
“Well, you see, it’s very difficult—very difficult—on account of your position.”
“Yes…. You see, that affair, the warrant…. If that were to be known….
It is difficult for me. It might do me harm.”
He stopped as he saw Christophe’s face go hot with anger: and he added quickly:
“Not on my own account…. I’m not afraid…. Ah! If I were alone!… But my uncle … you know, the business is his. I can do nothing without him….”
He grew more and more alarmed at Christophe’s expression, and at the thought of the gathering explosion he said hurriedly—(he was not a bad fellow at bottom: avarice and vanity were struggling in him: he would have liked to help Christophe, at a price):
“Can I lend you fifty francs?”
Christophe went crimson. He went up to Diener, who stepped back hurriedly to the door and opened it, and held himself in readiness to call for help, if necessary. But Christophe only thrust his face near his and bawled:
And he flung him aside and walked out through the little throng of assistants. At the door he spat in disgust.
* * * * *
He strode along down the street. He was blind with fury. The rain sobered him. Where was he going? He did not know. He did not know a soul. He stopped to think outside a book-shop, and he stared stupidly at the rows of books. He was struck by the name of a publisher on the cover of one of them. He wondered why. Then he remembered that it was the name of the house in which Sylvain Kohn was employed. He made a note of the address…. But what was the good? He would not go…. Why should he not go?… If that scoundrel Diener, who had been his friend, had given him such a welcome, what had he to expect from a rascal whom he had handled roughly, who had good cause to hate him? Vain humiliations! His blood boiled at the thought. But his native pessimism, derived perhaps from his Christian education, urged him on to probe to the depths of human baseness.
“I have no right to stand on ceremony. I must try everything before I give in.”
And an inward voice added:
“And I shall not give in.”
He made sure of the address, and went to hunt up Kohn He made up his mind to hit him in the eye at the first show of impertinence.
The publishing house was in the neighborhood of the Madeleine. Christophe went up to a room on the second floor, and asked for Sylvain Kohn. A man in livery told him that “Kohn was not known.” Christophe was taken aback, and thought his pronunciation must be at fault, and he repeated his question: but the man listened attentively, and repeated that no one of that name was known in the place. Quite out of countenance, Christophe begged pardon, and was turning to go when a door at the end of the corridor opened, and he saw Kohn himself showing a lady out. Still suffering from the affront put upon him by Diener, he was inclined to think that everybody was having a joke at his expense. His first thought was that Kohn had seen him, and had given orders to the man to say that he was not there. His gorge rose at the impudence of it. He was on the point of going in a huff, when he heard his name: Kohn, with his sharp eyes, had recognized him: and he ran up to him, with a smile on his lips, and his hands held out with every mark of extraordinary delight.
Sylvain Kohn was short, thick-set, clean-shaven, like an American; his complexion was too red, his hair too black; he had a heavy, massive face, coarse-featured; little darting, wrinkled eyes, a rather crooked mouth, a heavy, cunning smile. He was modishly dressed, trying to cover up the defects of his figure, high shoulders, and wide hips. That was the only thing that touched his vanity: he would gladly have put up with any insult if only he could have been a few inches taller and of a better figure. For the rest, he was very well pleased with himself: he thought himself irresistible, as indeed he was. The little German Jew, clod as he was, had made himself the chronicler and arbiter of Parisian fashion and smartness. He wrote insipid society paragraphs and articles in a delicately involved manner. He was the champion of French style, French smartness, French gallantry, French wit—Regency, red heels, Lauzun. People laughed at him: but that did not prevent his success. Those who say that in Paris ridicule kills do not know Paris: so far from dying of it, there are people who live on it: in Paris ridicule leads to everything, even to fame and fortune. Sylvain Kohn was far beyond any need to reckon the good-will that every day accumulated to him through his Frankfortian affectations.
He spoke with a thick accent through his nose.
“Ah! What a surprise!” he cried gaily, taking Christophe’s hands in his own clumsy paws, with their stubby fingers that looked as though they were crammed into too tight a skin. He could not let go of Christophe’s hands. It was as though, he were encountering his best friend. Christophe was so staggered that he wondered again if Kohn was not making fun of him. But Kohn was doing nothing of the kind—or, rather, if he was joking, it was no more than usual. There was no rancor about Kohn: he was too clever for that. He had long ago forgotten the rough treatment he had suffered at Christophe’s hands: and if ever he did remember it, it did not worry him. He was delighted to have the opportunity of showing his old schoolfellow his importance and his new duties, and the elegance of his Parisian manners. He was not lying in expressing his surprise: a visit from Christophe was the last thing in the world that he expected: and if he was too worldly-wise not to know that the visit was of set material purpose, he took it as a reason the more for welcoming him, as it was, in fact, a tribute to his power.
“And you have come from Germany? How is your mother?” he asked, with a familiarity which at any other time would have annoyed Christophe, but now gave him comfort in the strange city.
“But how was it,” asked Christophe, who was still inclined to be suspicious, “that they told me just now that Herr Kohn did not belong here?”
“Herr Kohn doesn’t belong here,” said Sylvain Kohn, laughing. “My name isn’t Kohn now. My name is Hamilton.”
He broke off.
“Excuse me,” he said.
He went and shook hands with a lady who was passing and smiled grimacingly. Then he came back. He explained that the lady was a writer famous for her voluptuous and passionate novels. The modern Sappho had a purple ribbon on her bosom, a full figure, bright golden hair round a painted face; she made a few pretentious remarks in a mannish fashion with the accent of Franche-Comté.
Kohn plied Christophe with questions. He asked about all the people at home, and what had become of so-and-so, pluming himself on the fact that he remembered everybody. Christophe had forgotten his antipathy; he replied cordially and gratefully, giving a mass of detail about which Kohn cared nothing at all, and presently he broke off again.
“Excuse me,” he said.
And he went to greet another lady who had come in.
“Dear me!” said Christophe. “Are there only women writers in France?”
Kohn began to laugh, and said fatuously:
“France is a woman, my dear fellow. If you want to succeed, make up to the women.”
Christophe did not listen to the explanation, and went on with his own story. To put a stop to it, Kohn asked:
“But how the devil do you come here?”
“Ah!” thought Christophe, “he doesn’t know. That is why he was so amiable.
He’ll be different when he knows.”
He made it a point of honor to tell everything against himself: the brawl with the soldiers, the warrant out against him, his flight from the country.
Kohn rocked with laughter.
“Bravo!” he cried. “Bravo! That’s a good story!”
He shook Christophe’s hand warmly. He was delighted by any smack in the eye of authority: and the story tickled him the more as he knew the heroes of it: he saw the funny side of it.
“I say,” he said, “it is past twelve. Will you give me the pleasure …?
Lunch with me?”
Christophe accepted gratefully. He thought:
“This is a good fellow—decidedly a good fellow. I was mistaken.”
They went out together. On the way Christophe put forward his request:
“You see how I am placed. I came here to look for work—music lessons—until I can make my name. Could you speak for me?”
“Certainly,” said Kohn. “To any one you like. I know everybody here. I’m at your service.”
He was glad to be able to show how important he was.
Christophe covered him with expressions of gratitude. He felt that he was relieved of a great weight of anxiety.
At lunch he gorged with the appetite of a man who has not broken fast for two days. He tucked his napkin round his neck, and ate with his knife. Kohn-Hamilton was horribly shocked by his voracity and his peasant manners. And he was, hurt, too, by the small amount of attention that his guest gave to his bragging. He tried to dazzle him by telling of his fine connections and his prosperity: but it was no good: Christophe did not listen, and bluntly interrupted him. His tongue was loosed, and he became familiar. His heart was full, and he overwhelmed Kohn with his simple confidences of his plans for the future. Above all, he exasperated him by insisting on taking his hand across the table and pressing it effusively. And he brought him to the pitch of irritation at last by wanting to clink glasses in the German fashion, and, with sentimental speeches, to drink to those at home and to Vater Rhein. Kohn saw, to his horror, that he was on the point of singing. The people at the next table were casting ironic glances in their direction. Kohn made some excuse on the score of pressing business, and got up. Christophe clung to him: he wanted to know when he could have a letter of introduction, and go and see some one, and begin giving lessons.
“I’ll see about it. To-day—this evening,” said Kohn. “I’ll talk about you at once. You can be easy on that score.”
“When shall I know?”
“To-morrow … to-morrow … or the day after.”
“Very well. I’ll come back to-morrow.”
“No, no!” said Kohn quickly. “I’ll let you know. Don’t you worry.”
“Oh! it’s no trouble. Quite the contrary. Eh? I’ve nothing else to do in
Paris in the meanwhile.”
“Good God!” thought Kohn…. “No,” he said aloud. “But I would rather write to you. You wouldn’t find me the next few days. Give me your address.”
Christophe dictated it.
“Good. I’ll write you to-morrow.”
“To-morrow. You can count on it”
He cut short Christophe’s hand-shaking and escaped.
“Ugh!” he thought. “What a bore!”
As he went into his office he told the boy that he would not be in when “the German” came to see him. Ten minutes later he had forgotten him.
Christophe went back to his lair. He was full of gentle thoughts.
“What a good fellow! What a good fellow!” he thought. “How unjust I was about him. And he bears me no ill-will!”
He was remorseful, and he was on the point of writing to tell Kohn how sorry he was to have misjudged him, and to beg his forgiveness for all the harm he had done him. The tears came to his eyes as he thought of it. But it was harder for him to write a letter than a score of music: and after he had cursed and cursed the pen and ink of the hotel—which were, in fact, horrible—after he had blotted, criss-crossed, and torn up five or six sheets of paper, he lost patience and dropped it.
The rest of the day dragged wearily: but Christophe was so worn out by his sleepless night and his excursions in the morning that at length he dozed off in his chair. He only woke up in the evening, and then he went to bed: and he slept for twelve hours on end.
* * * * *
Next day from eight o’clock on he sat waiting for the promised letter. He had no doubt of Kohn’s sincerity. He did not go out, telling himself that perhaps Kohn would come round by the hotel on his way to his office. So as not to be out, about midday he had his lunch sent up from the eating-house downstairs. Then he sat waiting again. He was sure Kohn would come on his way back from lunch. He paced up and down his room, sat down, paced up and down again, opened his door whenever he heard footsteps on the stairs. He had no desire to go walking about Paris to stay his anxiety. He lay down on his bed. His thoughts went back and back to his old mother, who was thinking of him too—she alone thought of him. He had an infinite tenderness for her, and he was remorseful at having left her. But he did not write to her. He was waiting until he could tell her that he had found work. In spite of the love they had for each other, it would never have occurred to either of them to write just to tell their love: letters were for things more definite than that. He lay on the bed with his hands locked behind his head, and dreamed. Although his room was away from the street, the roar of Paris invaded the silence: the house shook. Night came again, and brought no letter.
Came another day like unto the last.
On the third day, exasperated by his voluntary seclusion, Christophe decided to go out. But from the impression of his first evening he was instinctively in revolt against Paris. He had no desire to see anything: no curiosity: he was too much taken up with the problem of his own life to take any pleasure in watching the lives of others: and the memories of lives past, the monuments of a city, had always left him cold. And so, hardly had he set foot out of doors, than, although he had made up his mind not to go near Kohn for a week, he went straight to his office.
The boy obeyed his orders, and said that M. Hamilton had left Paris on business. It was a blow to Christophe. He gasped and asked when M. Hamilton would return. The boy replied at random:
“In ten days.”
Christophe went back utterly downcast, and buried himself in his room during the following days. He found it impossible to work. His heart sank as he saw that his small supply of money—the little sum that his mother had sent him, carefully wrapped up in a handkerchief at the bottom of his bag—was rapidly decreasing. He imposed a severe régime on himself. He only went down in the evening to dinner in the little pot-house, where he quickly became known to the frequenters of it as the “Prussian” or “Sauerkraut.” With frightful effort, he wrote two or three letters to French musicians whose names he knew hazily. One of them had been dead for ten years. He asked them to be so kind as to give him a hearing. His spelling was wild, and his style was complicated by those long inversions and ceremonious formulæ which are the custom in Germany. He addressed his letters: “To the Palace of the Academy of France.” The only man to read his gave it to his friends as a joke.
After a week Christophe went once more to the publisher’s office. This time he was in luck. He met Sylvain Kohn going out, on the doorstep. Kohn made a face as he saw that he was caught: but Christophe was so happy that he did not see that. He took his hands in his usual uncouth way, and asked gaily:
“You’ve been away? Did you have a good time?”
Kohn said that he had had a very good time, but he did not unbend.
Christophe went on:
“I came, you know…. They told you, I suppose?… Well, any news? You mentioned my name? What did they say?”
Kohn looked blank. Christophe was amazed at his frigid manner: he was not the same man.
“I mentioned you,” said Kohn: “but I haven’t heard yet. I haven’t had time. I have been very busy since I saw you—up to my ears in business. I don’t know how I can get through. It is appalling. I shall be ill with it all.”
“Aren’t you well?” asked Christophe anxiously and solicitously.
Kohn looked at him slyly, and replied:
“Not at all well. I don’t know what is the matter, the last few days. I’m very unwell.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Christophe, taking his arm. “Do be careful. You must rest. I’m so sorry to have been a bother to you. You should have told me. What is the matter with you, really?”
He took Kohn’s sham excuses so seriously that the little Jew was hard put to it to hide his amusement, and disarmed by his funny simplicity. Irony is so dear a pleasure to the Jews—(and a number of Christians in Paris are Jewish in this respect)—that they are indulgent with bores, and even with their enemies, if they give them the opportunity of tasting it at their expense. Besides, Kohn was touched by Christophe’s interest in himself. He felt inclined to help him.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said. “While you are waiting for lessons, would you care to do some work for a music publisher?”
Christophe accepted eagerly.
“I’ve got the very thing,” said Kohn. “I know one of the partners in a big firm of music publishers—Daniel Hecht. I’ll introduce you. You’ll see what there is to do. I don’t know anything about it, you know. But Hecht is a real musician. You’ll get on with him all right.”
They parted until the following day. Kohn was not sorry to be rid of
Christophe by doing him this service.
* * * * *
Next day Christophe fetched Kohn at his office. On his advice, he had brought several of his compositions to show to Hecht. They found him in his music-shop near the Opéra. Hecht did not put himself out when they went in: he coldly held out two fingers to take Kohn’s hand, did not reply to Christophe’s ceremonious bow, and at Kohn’s request he took them into the next room. He did not ask them to sit down. He stood with his back to the empty chimney-place, and stared at the wall.
Daniel Hecht was a man of forty, tall, cold, correctly dressed, a marked Phenician type; he looked clever and disagreeable: there was a scowl on his face: he had black hair and a beard like that of an Assyrian King, long and square-cut. He hardly ever looked straight forward, and he had an icy brutal way of talking which sounded insulting even when he only said “Good-day.” His insolence was more apparent than real. No doubt it emanated from a contemptuous strain in his character: but really it was more a part of the automatic and formal element in him. Jews of that sort are quite common: opinion is not kind towards them: that hard stiffness of theirs is looked upon as arrogance, while it is often in reality the outcome of an incurable boorishness in body and soul.
Sylvain Kohn introduced his protégé, in a bantering, pretentious voice, with exaggerated praises. Christophe was abashed by his reception, and stood shifting from one foot to the other, holding his manuscripts and his hat in his hand. When Kohn had finished, Hecht, who up to then had seemed to be unaware of Christophe’s existence, turned towards him disdainfully, and, without looking at him, said:
“Krafft … Christophe Krafft…. Never heard the name.”
To Christophe it was as though he had been struck, full in the chest. The blood rushed to his cheeks. He replied angrily:
“You’ll hear it later on.”
Hecht took no notice, and went on imperturbably, as though Christophe did not exist:
“Krafft … no, never heard it.”
He was one of those people for whom not to be known to them is a mark against a man.
He went on in German:
“And you come from the Rhine-land?… It’s wonderful how many people there are there who dabble in music! But I don’t think there is a man among them who has any claim to be a musician.”
He meant it as a joke, not as an insult: but Christophe did not take it so.
He would have replied in kind if Kohn had not anticipated him.
“Oh, come, come!” he said to Hecht. “You must do me the justice to admit that I know nothing at all about it.”
“That’s to your credit,” replied Hecht.
“If I am to be no musician in order to please you,” said Christophe dryly,
“I am sorry, but I’m not that.”
Hecht, still looking aside, went on, as indifferently as ever.
“You have written music? What have you written? Lieder, I suppose?”
“Lieder, two symphonies, symphonic poems, quartets, piano suites, theater music,” said Christophe, boiling.
“People write a great deal in Germany,” said Hecht, with scornful politeness.
It made him all the more suspicious of the newcomer to think that he had written so many works, and that he, Daniel Hecht, had not heard of them.
“Well,” he said, “I might perhaps find work for you as you are recommended by my friend Hamilton. At present we are making a collection, a ‘Library for Young People,’ in which we are publishing some easy pianoforte pieces. Could you ‘simplify’ the Carnival of Schumann, and arrange it for six and eight hands?”
Christophe was staggered.
“And you offer that to me, to me—me…?”
His naïve “Me” delighted Kohn: but Hecht was offended.
“I don’t see that there is anything surprising in that,” he said. “It is not such easy work as all that! If you think it too easy, so much the better. We’ll see about that later on. You tell me you are a good musician. I must believe you. But I’ve never heard of you.”
He thought to himself:
“If one were to believe all these young sparks, they would knock the stuffing out of Johannes Brahms himself.”
Christophe made no reply—(for he had vowed to hold himself in check)—clapped his hat on his head, and turned towards the door. Kohn stopped him, laughing:
“Wait, wait!” he said. And he turned to Hecht: “He has brought some of his work to give you an idea.”
“Ah!” said Hecht warily. “Very well, then: let us see them.”
Without a word Christophe held out his manuscripts. Hecht cast his eyes over them carelessly.
“What’s this? A suite for piano … (reading): A Day…. Ah! Always program music!…”
In spite of his apparent indifference he was reading carefully. He was an excellent musician, and knew his job: he knew nothing outside it: with the first bar or two he gauged his man. He was silent as he turned over the pages with a scornful air: he was struck by the talent revealed in them: but his natural reserve and his vanity, piqued by Christophe’s manner, kept him from showing anything. He went on to the end in silence, not missing a note.
“Yes,” he said, in a patronizing tone of voice, “they’re well enough.”
Violent criticism would have hurt Christophe less.
“I don’t need to be told that,” he said irritably.
“I fancy,” said Hecht, “that you showed me them for me to say what I thought.”
“Not at all.”
“Then,” said Hecht coldly, “I fail to see what you have come for.”
“I came to ask for work, and nothing else.”
“I have nothing to offer you for the time being, except what I told you.
And I’m not sure of that. I said it was possible, that’s all.”
“And you have no other work to offer a musician like myself?”
“A musician like you?” said Hecht ironically and cuttingly. “Other musicians at least as good as yourself have not thought the work beneath their dignity. There are men whose names I could give you, men who are now very well known in Paris, have been very grateful to me for it.”
“Then they must have been—swine!” bellowed Christophe.—(He had already learned certain of the most useful words in the French language)—”You are wrong if you think you have to do with a man of that kidney. Do you think you can take me in with looking anywhere but at me, and clipping your words? You didn’t even deign to acknowledge my bow when I came in…. But what the hell are you to treat me like that? Are you even a musician? Have you ever written anything?… And you pretend to teach me how to write—me, to whom writing is life!… And you can find nothing better to offer me, when you have read my music, than a hashing up of great musicians, a filthy scrabbling over their works to turn them into parlor tricks for little girls!… You go to your Parisians who are rotten enough to be taught their work by you! I’d rather die first!”
It was impossible to stem the torrent of his words.
Hecht said icily:
“Take it or leave it.”
Christophe went out and slammed the doors. Hecht shrugged, and said to
Sylvain Kohn, who was laughing:
“He will come to it like the rest.”
At heart he valued Christophe. He was clever enough to feel not only the worth of a piece of work, but also the worth of a man. Behind Christophe’s outburst he had marked a force. And he knew its rarity—in the world of art more than anywhere else. But his vanity was ruffled by it: nothing would ever induce him to admit himself in the wrong. He desired loyally to be just to Christophe, but he could not do it unless Christophe came and groveled to him. He expected Christophe to return: his melancholy skepticism and his experience of men had told him how inevitably the will is weakened and worn down by poverty.
* * * * *
Christophe went home. Anger had given place to despair. He felt that he was lost. The frail prop on which he had counted had failed him. He had no doubt but that he had made a deadly enemy, not only of Hecht, but of Kohn, who had introduced him. He was in absolute solitude in a hostile city. Outside Diener and Kohn he knew no one. His friend Corinne, the beautiful actress whom he had met in Germany, was not in Paris: she was still touring abroad, in America, this time on her own account: the papers published clamatory descriptions of her travels. As for the little French governess whom he had unwittingly robbed of her situation,—the thought of her had long filled him with remorse—how often had he vowed that he would find her when he reached Paris. [Footnote: See Jean-Christophe—I: “Revolt.”] But now that he was in Paris he found that he had forgotten one important thing: her name. He could not remember it. He could only recollect her Christian name: Antoinette. And then, even if he remembered, how was he to find a poor little governess in that ant-heap of human beings?
He had to set to work as soon as possible to find a livelihood. He had five francs left. In spite of his dislike of him, he forced himself to ask the innkeeper if he did not know of anybody in the neighborhood to whom he could give music-lessons. The innkeeper, who had no great opinion of a lodger who only ate once a day and spoke German, lost what respect he had for him when he heard that he was only a musician. He was a Frenchman of the old school, and music was to him an idler’s job. He scoffed:
“The piano!… I don’t know. You strum the piano! Congratulations!… But ’tis a queer thing to take to that trade as a matter of taste! When I hear music, it’s just for all the world like listening to the rain…. But perhaps you might teach me. What do you say, you fellows?” he cried, turning to some fellows who were drinking.
They laughed loudly.
“It’s a fine trade,” said one of them. “Not dirty work. And the ladies like it.”
Christophe did not rightly understand the French or the jest: he floundered for his words: he did not know whether to be angry or not. The innkeeper’s wife took pity on him:
“Come, come, Philippe, you’re not serious,” she said to her husband. “All the same,” she went on, turning to Christophe, “there is some one who might do for you.”
“Who?” asked her husband.
“The Grasset girl. You know, they’ve bought a piano.”
“Ah! Those stuck-up folk! So they have.”
They told Christophe that the girl in question was the daughter of a butcher: her parents were trying to make a lady of her; they would perhaps like her to have lessons, if only for the sake of making people talk. The innkeeper’s wife promised to see to it.
Next day she told Christophe that the butcher’s wife would like to see him. He went to her house, and found her in the shop, surrounded with great pieces of meat. She was a pretty, rather florid woman, and she smiled sweetly, but stood on her dignity when she heard why he had come. Quite abruptly she came to the question of payment, and said quickly that she did not wish to give much, because the piano is quite an agreeable thing, but not necessary: she offered him fifty centimes an hour. In any case, she would not pay more than four francs a week. After that she asked Christophe a little doubtfully if he knew much about music. She was reassured, and became more amiable when he told her that not only did he know about music, but wrote it into the bargain: that flattered her vanity: it would be a good thing to spread about the neighborhood that her daughter was taking lessons with a composer.
Next day, when Christophe found himself sitting by the piano—a horrible instrument, bought second-hand, which sounded like a guitar—with the butcher’s little daughter, whose short, stubby fingers fumbled with the keys; who was unable to tell one note from another; who was bored to tears; who began at once to yawn in his face; and he had to submit to the mother’s superintendence, and to her conversation, and to her ideas on music and the teaching of music—then he felt so miserable, so wretchedly humiliated, that he had not even the strength to be angry about it. He relapsed into a state of despair: there were evenings when he could not eat. If in a few weeks he had fallen so low, where would he end? What good was it to have rebelled against Hecht’s offer? The thing to which he had submitted was even more degrading.
One evening, as he sat in his room, he could not restrain his tears: he flung himself on his knees by his bed and prayed…. To whom did he pray? To whom could he pray? He did not believe in God; he believed that there was no God…. But he had to pray—he had to pray within his soul. Only the mean of spirit never need to pray. They never know the need that comes to the strong in spirit of taking refuge within the inner sanctuary of themselves. As he left behind him the humiliations of the day, in the vivid silence of his heart Christophe felt the presence of his eternal Being, of his God. The waters of his wretched life stirred and shifted above Him and never touched Him: what was there in common between that and Him? All the sorrows of the world rushing on to destruction dashed against that rock. Christophe heard the blood beating in his veins, beating like an inward voice, crying:
“Eternal … I am … I am….”
Well did he know that voice: as long as he could remember he had heard it. Sometimes he forgot it: often for months together he would lose consciousness of its mighty monotonous rhythm: but he knew that it was there, that it never ceased, like the ocean roaring in the night. In the music of it he found once more the same energy that he gained from it whenever he bathed in its waters. He rose to his feet. He was fortified. No: the hard life that he led contained nothing of which he need be ashamed: he could eat the bread he earned, and never blush for it: it was for those who made him earn it at such a price to blush and be ashamed. Patience! Patience! The time would come….
But next day he began to lose patience again: and, in spite of all his efforts, he did at last explode angrily, one day during a lesson, at the silly little ninny, who had been maddeningly impertinent and laughed at his accent, and had taken a malicious delight in doing exactly the opposite of what he told her. The girl screamed in response to Christophe’s angry shouts. She was frightened and enraged at a man whom she paid daring to show her no respect. She declared that he had struck her—(Christophe had shaken her arm rather roughly). Her mother bounced in on them like a Fury, and covered her daughter with kisses and Christophe with abuse. The butcher also appeared, and declared that he would not suffer any infernal Prussian to take upon himself to touch his daughter. Furious, pale with rage, itching to choke the life out of the butcher and his wife and daughter, Christophe rushed away. His host and hostess, seeing him come in in an abject condition, had no difficulty in worming the story out of him: and it fed the malevolence with which they regarded their neighbors. But by the evening the whole neighborhood was saying that the German was a brute and a child-beater.
* * * * *
Christophe made fresh advances to the music-vendors: but in vain. He found the French lacking in cordiality: and the whirl and confusion of their perpetual agitation crushed him. They seemed to him to live in a state of anarchy, directed by a cunning and despotic bureaucracy.
One evening, he was wandering along the boulevards, discouraged by the futility of his efforts, when he saw Sylvain Kohn coming from the opposite direction. He was convinced that they had quarreled irrevocably and looked away and tried to pass unnoticed. But Kohn called to him:
“What became of you after that great day?” he asked with a laugh. “I’ve been wanting to look you up, but I lost your address…. Good Lord, my dear fellow, I didn’t know you! You were epic: that’s what you were, epic!”
Christophe stared at him. He was surprised and a little ashamed.
“You’re not angry with me?”
“Angry? What an idea!”
So far from being angry, he had been delighted with the way in which Christophe had trounced Hecht: it had been a treat to him. It really mattered nothing to him whether Christophe or Hecht was right: he only regarded people as source of entertainment: and he saw in Christophe a spring of high comedy, which he intended to exploit to the full.
“You should have come to see me,” he went on. “I was expecting you. What are you doing this evening? Come to dinner. I won’t let you off. Quite informal: just a few artists: we meet once a fortnight. You should know these people. Come. I’ll introduce you.”
In vain did Christophe beg to be excused on the score of his clothes.
Sylvain Kohn carried him off.
They entered a restaurant on one of the boulevards, and went up to the second floor. Christophe found himself among about thirty young men, whose ages ranged from twenty to thirty-five, and they were all engaged in animated discussion. Kohn introduced him as a man who had just escaped from a German prison. They paid no attention to him and did not stop their passionate discussion, and Kohn plunged into it at once.
Christophe was shy in this select company, and said nothing: but he was all ears. He could not grasp—he had great difficulty in following the volubility of the French—what great artistic interests were in dispute. He listened attentively, but he could only make out words like “trust,” “monopoly,” “fall in prices,” “receipts,” mixed up with phrases like “the dignity of art,” and the “rights of the author.” And at last he saw that they were talking business. A certain number of authors, it appeared, belonged to a syndicate and were angry about certain attempts which had been made to float a rival concern, which, according to them, would dispute their monopoly of exploitation. The defection of certain of their members who had found it to their advantage to go over bag and baggage to the rival house had roused them, to the wildest fury. They talked of decapitation. “… Burked…. Treachery…. Shame…. Sold….”
Others did not worry about the living: they were incensed against the dead, whose sales without royalties choked up the market. It appeared that the works of De Musset had just become public property, and were selling far too well. And so they demanded that the State should give them rigorous protection, and heavily tax the masterpieces of the past so as to check their circulation at reduced prices, which, they declared, was unfair competition with the work of living artists.
They stopped each other to hear the takings of such and such a theater on the preceding evening. They all went into ecstasies over the fortune of a veteran dramatist, famous in two continents—a man whom they despised, though they envied him even more. From the incomes of authors they passed to those of the critics. They talked of the sum—(pure calumny, no doubt)—received by one of their colleagues for every first performance at one of the theaters on the boulevards, the consideration being that he should speak well of it. He was an honest man: having made his bargain he stuck to it: but his great secret lay—(so they said)—in so eulogizing the piece that it would be taken off as quickly as possible so that there might be many new plays. The tale—(or the account)—caused laughter, but nobody was surprised.
And mingled with all that talk they threw out fine phrases: they talked of “poetry” and “art for art’s sake.” But through it all there rang “art for money’s sake”; and this jobbing spirit, newly come into French literature, scandalized Christophe. As he understood nothing at all about their talk of money he had given it up. But then they began to talk of letters, or rather of men of letters.—Christophe pricked up his ears as he heard the name of Victor Hugo.
They were debating whether he had been cuckolded: they argued at length about the love of Sainte-Beuve and Madame Hugo. And then they turned to the lovers of George Sand and their respective merits. That was the chief occupation of criticism just then: when they had ransacked the houses of great men, rummaged through the closets, turned out the drawers, ransacked the cupboards, they burrowed down to their inmost lives. The attitude of Monsieur de Lauzun lying flat under the bed of the King and Madame de Montespan was the attitude of criticism in its cult of history and truth—(everybody just then, of course, made a cult of truth). These young men were subscribers to the cult: no detail was too small for them in their search for truth. They applied it to the art of the present as well as to that of the past: and they analyzed the private life of certain of the more notorious of their contemporaries with the same passion for exactness. It was a queer thing that they were possessed of the smallest details of scenes which are usually enacted without witnesses. It was really as though the persons concerned had been the first to give exact information to the public out of their great devotion to the truth.
Christophe was more and more embarrassed and tried to talk to his neighbors of something else; but nobody listened to him. At first they asked him a few vague questions about Germany—questions which, to his amazement, displayed the almost complete ignorance of these distinguished and apparently cultured young men concerning the most elementary things of their work—literature and art—outside Paris; at most they had heard of a few great names: Hauptmann, Sudermann, Liebermann, Strauss (David, Johann, Richard), and they picked their way gingerly among them for fear of getting mixed. If they had questioned Christophe it was from politeness rather than from curiosity: they had no curiosity: they hardly seemed to notice his replies: and they hurried back at once to the Parisian topics which were regaling the rest of the company.
Christophe timidly tried to talk of music. Not one of these men of letters was a musician. At heart they considered music an inferior art. But the growing success of music during the last few years had made them secretly uneasy: and since it was the fashion they pretended to be interested in it. They frothed especially about a new opera and declared that music dated from its performance, or at least the new era in music. This idea made things easy for their ignorance and snobbishness, for it relieved them of the necessity of knowing anything else. The author of the opera, a Parisian, whose name Christophe heard for the first time, had, said some, made a clean sweep of all that had gone before him, cleaned up, renovated, and recreated music. Christophe started at that. He asked nothing better than to believe in genius. But such a genius as that, a genius who had at one swoop wiped out the past…. Good heavens! He must be a lusty lad: how the devil had he done it? He asked for particulars. The others, who would have been hard put to it to give any explanation and were disconcerted by Christophe, referred him to the musician of the company, Théophile Goujart, the great musical critic, who began at once to talk of sevenths and ninths. Goujart knew music much as Sganarelle knew Latin….
“… You don’t know Latin?“
(With enthusiasm) “Cabricias, arci thuram, catalamus, singulariter … bonus, bona, bonum.”
Finding himself with a man who “understood Latin” he prudently took refuge in the chatter of esthetics. From that impregnable fortress he began to bombard Beethoven, Wagner, and classical art, which was not before the house (but in France it is impossible to praise an artist without making as an offering a holocaust of all those who are unlike him). He announced the advent of a new art which trampled under foot the conventions of the past. He spoke of a new musical language which had been discovered by the Christopher Columbus of Parisian music, and he said it made an end of the language of the classics: that was a dead language.
Christophe reserved his opinion of this reforming genius to wait until he had seen his work before he said anything: but in spite of himself he felt an instinctive distrust of this musical Baal to whom all music was sacrificed. He was scandalized to hear the Masters so spoken of: and he forgot that he had said much the same sort of thing in Germany. He who at home had thought himself a revolutionary in art, he who had scandalized others by the boldness of his judgments and the frankness of his expressions, felt, as soon as he heard these words spoken in France, that he was at heart a conservative. He tried to argue, and was tactless enough to speak, not like a man of culture, who advances arguments without exposition, but as a professional, bringing out disconcerting facts. He did not hesitate to plunge into technical explanations: and his voice, as he talked, struck a note which was well calculated to offend the ears of a company of superior persons to whom his arguments and the vigor with which he supported them were alike ridiculous. The critic tried to demolish him with an attempt at wit, and to end the discussion which had shown Christophe to his stupefaction that he had to deal with a man who did not in the least know what he was talking about. And so they came to the opinion that the German was pedantic and superannuated: and without knowing anything about it they decided that his music was detestable. But Christophe’s bizarre personality had made an impression on the company of young men, and with their quickness in seizing on the ridiculous they had marked the awkward, violent gestures of his thin arms with their enormous hands, and the furious glances that darted from his eyes as his voice rose to a falsetto. Sylvain Kohn saw to it that his friends were kept amused.
Conversation had deserted literature in favor of women. As a matter of fact they were only two aspects of the same subject: for their literature was concerned with nothing but women, and their women were concerned with nothing but literature, they were so much taken up with the affairs and men of letters.
They spoke of one good lady, well known in Parisian society, who had, it was said, just married her lover to her daughter, the better to keep him. Christophe squirmed in his chair, and tactlessly made a face of disgust. Kohn saw it, and nudged his neighbor and pointed out that the subject seemed to excite the German—that no doubt he was longing to know the lady. Christophe blushed, muttered angrily, and finally said hotly that such women ought to be whipped. His proposition was received with a shout of Homeric laughter: and Sylvain Kohn cooingly protested that no man should touch a woman, even with a flower, etc., etc. (In Paris he was the very Knight of Love.) Christophe replied that a woman of that sort was neither more nor less than a bitch, and that there was only one remedy for vicious dogs: the whip. They roared at him. Christophe said that their gallantry was hypocritical, and that those who talked most of their respect for women were those who possessed the least of it: and he protested against these scandalous tales. They replied that there was no scandal in it, and that it was only natural: and they were all agreed that the heroine of the story was not only a charming woman, but the Woman, par excellence. The German waxed indignant. Sylvain Kohn asked him slyly what he thought Woman was like. Christophe felt that they were pulling his leg and laying a trap for him: but he fell straight into it in the violent expression of his convictions. He began to explain his ideas on love to these bantering Parisians. He could not find his words, floundered about after them, and finally fished up from the phrases he remembered such impossible words, such enormities, that he had all his hearers rocking with laughter, while all the time he was perfectly and admirably serious, never bothered about them, and was touchingly impervious to their ridicule: for he could not help seeing that they were making fun of him. At last he tied himself up in a sentence, could not extricate himself, brought his fist down on the table, and was silent.
They tried to bring him back into the discussion: he scowled and did not flinch, but sat with his elbows on the table, ashamed and irritated. He did not open his lips again, except to eat and drink, until the dinner was over. He drank enormously, unlike the Frenchmen, who only sipped their wine. His neighbor wickedly encouraged him, and went on filling his glass, which he emptied absently. But, although he was not used to these excesses, especially after the weeks of privation through which he had passed, he took his liquor well, and did not cut so ridiculous a figure as the others hoped. He sat there lost in thought: they paid no attention to him: they thought he was made drowsy by the wine. He was exhausted by the effort of following the conversation in French, and tired of hearing about nothing but literature—actors, authors, publishers, the chatter of the coulisses and literary life: everything seemed to be reduced to that. Amid all these new faces and the buzz of words he could not fix a single face, nor a single thought. His short-sighted eyes, dim and dreamy, wandered slowly round the table, and they rested on one man after another without seeming to see them. And yet he saw them better than any one, though he himself was not conscious of it. He did not, like these Jews and Frenchmen, peck at the things he saw and dissect them, tear them to rags, and leave them in tiny, tiny pieces. Slowly, like a sponge, he sucked up the essence of men and women, and bore away their image in his soul. He seemed to have seen nothing and to remember nothing. It was only long afterwards—hours, often days—when he was alone, gazing in upon himself, that he saw that he had borne away a whole impression.
But for the moment he seemed to be just a German boor, stuffing himself with food, concerned only with not missing a mouthful. And he heard nothing clearly, except when he heard the others calling each other by name, and then, with a silly drunken insistency, he wondered why so many Frenchmen have foreign names: Flemish, German, Jewish, Levantine, Anglo- or Spanish-American.
He did not notice when they got up from the table. He went on sitting alone: and he dreamed of the Rhenish hills, the great woods, the tilled fields, the meadows by the waterside, his old mother. Most of the others had gone. At last he thought of going, and got up, too, without looking at anybody, and went and took down his hat and cloak, which were hanging by the door. When he had put them on he was turning away without saying good-night, when through a half-open door he saw an object which fascinated him: a piano. He had not touched a musical instrument for weeks. He went in and lovingly touched the keys, sat down just as he was, with his hat on his head and his cloak on his shoulders, and began to play. He had altogether forgotten where he was. He did not notice that two men crept into the room to listen to him. One was Sylvain Kohn, a passionate lover of music—God knows why! for he knew nothing at all about it, and he liked bad music just as well as good. The other was the musical critic, Théophile Goujart. He—it simplifies matters so much—neither understood nor loved music: but that did not keep him from talking about it. On the contrary: nobody is so free in mind as the man who knows nothing of what he is talking about: for to such a man it does not matter whether he says one thing more than another.
Théophile Goujart was tall, strong, and muscular: he had a black beard, thick curls on his forehead, which was lined with deep inexpressive wrinkles, short arms, short legs, a big chest: a type of woodman or porter of the Auvergne. He had common manners and an arrogant way of speaking. He had gone into music through politics, at that time the only road to success in France. He had attached himself to the fortunes of a Minister to whom he had discovered that he was distantly related—a son “of the bastard of his apothecary.” Ministers are not eternal, and when it seemed that the day of his Minister was over Théophile Goujart deserted the ship, taking with him all that he could lay his hands on, notably several orders: for he loved glory. Tired of politics, in which for some time past he had received various snubs, both on his own account and on that of his patron, he looked out for a shelter from the storm, a restful position in which he could annoy others without being himself annoyed. Everything pointed to criticism. Just at that moment there fell vacant the post of musical critic to one of the great Parisian papers. The previous holder of the post, a young and talented composer, had been dismissed because he insisted on saying what he thought of the authors and their work. Goujart had never taken any interest in music, and knew nothing at all about it: he was chosen without a moment’s hesitation. They had had enough of competent critics: with Goujart there was at least nothing to fear: he did not attach an absurd importance to his opinions: he was always at the editor’s orders, and ready to comply with a slashing article or enthusiastic approbation. That he was no musician was a secondary consideration. Everybody in France knows a little about music. Goujart quickly acquired the requisite knowledge. His method was quite simple: it consisted in sitting at every concert next to some good musician, a composer if possible, and getting him to say what he thought of the works performed. At the end of a few months of this apprenticeship, he knew his job: the fledgling could fly. He did not, it is true, soar like an eagle: and God knows what howlers Goujart committed with the greatest show of authority in his paper! He listened and read haphazard, stirred the mixture up well in his sluggish brains, and arrogantly laid down the law for others; he wrote in a pretentious style, interlarded with puns, and plastered over with an aggressive pedantry: he had the mind of a schoolmaster. Sometimes, every now and then, he drew down on himself cruel replies: then he shammed dead, and took good care not to answer them. He was a mixture of cunning and thick-headedness, insolent or groveling as circumstances demanded. He cringed to the masters who had an official position or an established fame (he had no other means of judging merit in music). He scorned everybody else, and exploited writers who were starving. He was no fool.
In spite of his reputation and the authority he had acquired, he knew in his heart of hearts that he knew nothing about music: and he recognized that Christophe knew a great deal about it. Nothing would have induced him to say so: but it was borne in upon him. And now he heard Christophe play: and he made great efforts to understand him, looking absorbed, profound, without a thought in his head: he could not see a yard ahead of him through the fog of sound, and he wagged his head solemnly as one who knew and adjusted the outward and visible signs of his approval to the fluttering of the eyelids of Sylvain Kohn, who found it hard to stand still.
At last Christophe, emerging to consciousness from the fumes of wine and music, became dimly aware of the pantomime going on behind his back: he turned and saw the two amateurs of music. They rushed at him and violently shook hands with him—Sylvain Kohn gurgling that he had played like a god, Goujart declaring solemnly that he had the left hand of Rubinstein and the right hand of Paderewski (or it might be the other way round). Both agreed that such talent ought not to be hid under a bushel, and they pledged themselves to reveal it. And, incidentally, they were both resolved to extract from it as much honor and profit as possible.
From that day on Sylvain Kohn took to inviting Christophe to his rooms, and put at his disposal his excellent piano, which he never used himself. Christophe, who was bursting with suppressed music, did not need to be urged, and accepted: and for a time he made good use of the invitation.
At first all went well. Christophe was only too happy to play: and Sylvain Kohn was tactful enough to leave him to play in peace. He enjoyed it thoroughly himself. By one of those queer phenomena which must be in everybody’s observation, the man, who was no musician, no artist, cold-hearted and devoid of all poetic feeling and real kindness, was enslaved sensually by Christophe’s music, which he did not understand, though he found in it a strongly voluptuous pleasure. Unfortunately, he could not hold his tongue. He had to talk, loudly, while Christophe was playing. He had to underline the music with affected exclamations, like a concert snob, or else he passed ridiculous comment on it. Then Christophe would thump the piano, and declare that he could not go on like that. Kohn would try hard to be silent: but he could not do it: at once he would begin again to sniffle, sigh, whistle, beat time, hum, imitate the various instruments. And when the piece was ended he would have burst if he had not given Christophe the benefit of his inept comment.
He was a queer mixture of German sentimentality, Parisian humbug, and intolerable fatuousness. Sometimes he expressed second-hand precious opinions; sometimes he made extravagant comparisons; and then he would make dirty, obscene remarks, or propound some insane nonsense. By way of praising Beethoven, he would point out some trickery, or read a lascivious sensuality into his music. The Quartet in C Minor seemed to him jolly spicy. The sublime Adagio of the Ninth Symphony made him think of Cherubino. After the three crashing chords at the opening of the Symphony in C Minor, he called out: “Don’t come in! I’ve some one here.” He admired the Battle of Heldenleben because he pretended that it was like the noise of a motor-car. And always he had some image to explain each piece, a puerile incongruous image. Really, it seemed impossible that he could have any love for music. However, there was no doubt about it: he really did love it: at certain passages to which he attached the most ridiculous meanings the tears would come into his eyes. But after having been moved by a scene from Wagner, he would strum out a gallop of Offenbach, or sing some music-hall ditty after the Ode to Joy. Then Christophe would bob about and roar with rage. But the worst of all to bear was not when Sylvain Kohn was absurd so much as when he was trying to be profound and subtle, when he was trying to impress Christophe, when it was Hamilton speaking, and not Sylvain Kohn. Then Christophe would scowl blackly at him, and squash him with cold contempt, which hurt Hamilton’s vanity: very often these musical evenings would end in a quarrel. But Kohn would forget it next day, and Christophe, sorry for his rudeness, would make a point of going back.
That would not have mattered much if Kohn had been able to refrain from inviting his friends to hear Christophe. But he could not help wanting to show off his musician. The first time Christophe found in Kohn’s rooms three or four little Jews and Kohn’s mistress—a large florid woman, all paint and powder, who repeated idiotic jokes and talked about her food, and thought herself a musician because she showed her legs every evening in the Revue of the Variétés—Christophe looked black. Next time he told Sylvain Kohn curtly that he would never again play in his rooms. Sylvain Kohn swore by all his gods that he would not invite anybody again. But he did so by stealth, and hid his guests in the next room. Naturally, Christophe found that out, and went away in a fury, and this time did not return.
And yet he had to accommodate Kohn, who had introduced him to various cosmopolitan families, and found him pupils.
* * * * *
A few days after Théophile Goujart hunted Christophe up in his lair. He did not seem to mind his being in such a horrible place. On the contrary, he was charming. He said:
“I thought perhaps you would like to hear a little music from time to time: and as I have tickets for everything, I came to ask if you would care to come with me.”
Christophe was delighted. He was glad of the kindly attention, and thanked him effusively. Goujart was a different man from what he had been at their first meeting. He had dropped his conceit, and, man to man, he was timid, docile, anxious to learn. It was only when they were with others that he resumed his superior manner and his blatant tone of voice. His eagerness to learn had a practical side to it. He had no curiosity about anything that was not actual. He wanted to know what Christophe thought of a score he had received which he would have been hard put to it to write about, for he could hardly read a note.
They went to a symphony concert. They had to go in by the entrance to a music-hall. They went down a winding passage to an ill-ventilated hall: the air was stifling: the seats were very narrow, and placed too close together: part of the audience was standing and blocking up every way out:—the uncomfortable French. A man who looked as though he were hopelessly bored was racing through a Beethoven symphony as though he were in a hurry to get to the end of it. The voluptuous strains of a stomach-dance coming from the music-hall next door were mingled with the funeral march of the Eroica. People kept coming in and taking their seats, and turning their glasses on the audience. As soon as the last person had arrived, they began to go out again. Christophe strained every nerve to try and follow the thread of the symphony through the babel; and he did manage to wrest some pleasure from it—(for the orchestra was skilful, and Christophe had been deprived of symphony music for a long time)—and then Goujart took his arm and, in the middle of the concert, said:
“Now let us go. We’ll go to another concert.”
Christophe frowned: but he made no reply and followed his guide. They went half across Paris, and then reached another hall, that smelled of stables, in which at other times fairy plays and popular pieces were given—(in Paris music is like those poor workingmen who share a lodging: when one of them leaves the bed, the other creeps into the warm sheets). No air, of course: since the reign of Louis XIV the French have considered air unhealthy: and the ventilation of the theaters, like that of old at Versailles, makes it impossible for people to breathe. A noble old man, waving his arms like a lion-tamer, was letting loose an act of Wagner: the wretched beast—the act—was like the lions of a menagerie, dazzled and cowed by the footlights, so that they have to be whipped to be reminded that they are lions. The audience consisted of female Pharisees and foolish women, smiling inanely. After the lion had gone through its performance, and the tamer had bowed, and they had both been rewarded by the applause of the audience, Goujart suggested that they should go to yet another concert. But this time Christophe gripped the arms of his stall, and declared that he would not budge: he had had enough of running from concert to concert, picking up the crumbs of a symphony and scraps of a concert on the way. In vain did Goujart try to explain to him that musical criticism in Paris was a trade in which it was more important to see than to hear. Christophe protested that music was not written to be heard in a cab, and needed more concentration. Such a hotch-potch of concerts was sickening to him: one at a time was enough for him.
He was much surprised at the extraordinary number of concerts in Paris. Like most Germans, he thought that music held a subordinate place in France: and he expected that it would be served up in small delicate portions. By way of a beginning, he was given fifteen concerts in seven days. There was one for every evening in the week, and often two or three an evening at the same time in different quarters of the city. On Sundays there were four, all at the same time. Christophe marveled at this appetite for music. And he was no less amazed at the length of the programs. Till then he had thought that his fellow-countrymen had a monopoly of these orgies of sound which had more than once disgusted him in Germany. He saw now that the Parisians could have given them points in the matter of gluttony. They were given full measure: two symphonies, a concerto, one or two overtures, an act from an opera. And they came from all sources: German, Russian, Scandinavian, French—beer, champagne, orgeat, wine—they gulped down everything without winking. Christophe was amazed that these indolent Parisians should have had such capacious stomachs. They did not suffer for it at all. It was the cask of the Danaïdes. It held nothing.
It was not long before Christophe perceived that this mass of music amounted to very little really. He saw the same faces and heard the same pieces at every concert. Their copious programs moved in a circle. Practically nothing earlier than Beethoven. Practically nothing later than Wagner. And what gaps between them! It seemed as though music were reduced to five or six great German names, three or four French names, and, since the Franco-Russian alliance, half a dozen Muscovites. None of the old French Masters. None of the great Italians. None of the German giants of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. No contemporary German music, with the single exception of Richard Strauss, who was more acute than the rest, and came once a year to plant his new works on the Parisian public. No Belgian music. No Tschek music. But, most surprising of all, practically no contemporary French music. And yet everybody was talking about it mysteriously as a thing that would revolutionize the world. Christophe was yearning for an opportunity of hearing it: he was very curious about it, and absolutely without prejudice: he was longing to hear new music, and to admire the works of genius. But he never succeeded in hearing any of it: for he did not count a few short pieces, quite cleverly written, but cold and brain-spun, to which he had not listened very attentively.
* * * * *
While he was waiting to form an opinion, Christophe tried to find out something about it from musical criticism.
That was not easy. It was like the Court of King Pétaud. Not only did the various papers lightly contradict each other: but they contradicted themselves in different articles—almost on different pages. To read them all was enough to drive a man crazy. Fortunately, the critics only read their own articles, and the public did not read any of them. But Christophe, who wanted to gain a clear idea about French musicians, labored hard to omit nothing: and he marveled at the agility of the critics, who darted about in a sea of contradictions like fish in water.
But amid all these divergent opinions one thing struck him: the pedantic manner of most of the critics. Who was it said that the French were amiable fantastics who believed in nothing? Those whom Christophe saw were more hag-ridden by the science of music—even when they knew nothing—than all the critics on the other side of the Rhine.
At that time the French musical critics had set about learning what music was. There were even a few who knew something about it: they were men of original thought, who had taken the trouble to think about their art, and to think for themselves. Naturally, they were not very well known: they were shelved in their little reviews: with only one or two exceptions, the newspapers were not for them. They were honest men—intelligent, interesting, sometimes driven by their isolation to paradox and the habit of thinking aloud, intolerance, and garrulity. The rest had hastily learned the rudiments of harmony: and they stood gaping in wonder at their newly acquired knowledge. Like Monsieur Jourdain when he learned the rules of grammar, they marvelled at their knowledge:
“D, a, Da; F, a, Fa; R, a, Ra…. Ah! How fine it is!… Ah! How splendid it is to know something!…“
They only babbled of theme and counter-theme, of harmonies and resultant sounds, of consecutive ninths and tierce major. When they had labeled the succeeding harmonies which made up a page of music, they proudly mopped their brows: they thought they had explained the music, and almost believed that they had written it. As a matter of fact, they had only repeated it in school language, like a boy making a grammatical analysis of a page of Cicero. But it was so difficult for the best of them to conceive music as a natural language of the soul that, when they did not make it an adjunct to painting, they dragged it into the outskirts of science, and reduced it to the level of a problem in harmonic construction. Some who were learned enough took upon themselves to show a thing or two to past musicians. They found fault with Beethoven, and rapped Wagner over the knuckles. They laughed openly at Berlioz and Gluck. Nothing existed for them just then but Johann Sebastian Bach, and Claude Debussy. And Bach, who had lately been roundly abused, was beginning to seem pedantic, a periwig, and in fine, a hack. Quite distinguished men extolled Rameau in mysterious terms—Rameau and Couperin, called the Great.
There were tremendous conflicts waged between these learned men. They were all musicians: but as they all affected different styles, each of them claimed that his was the only true style, and cried “Raca!” to that of their colleagues. They accused each other of sham writing and sham culture, and hurled at each other’s heads the words “idealism” and “materialism,” “symbolism” and “verism,” “subjectivism” and “objectivism.” Christophe thought it was hardly worth while leaving Germany to find the squabbles of the Germans in Paris. Instead of being grateful for having good music presented in so many different fashions, they would only tolerate their own particular fashion: and a new Lutrin, a fierce war, divided musicians into two hostile camps, the camp of counterpoint and the camp of harmony. Like the Gros-boutiens and the Petits-boutiens, one side maintained with acrimony that music should be read horizontally, and the other that it should be read vertically. One party would only hear of full-sounding chords, melting concatenations, succulent harmonies: they spoke of music as though it were a confectioner’s shop. The other party would not hear of the ear, that trumpery organ, being considered: music was for them a lecture, a Parliamentary assembly, in which all the orators spoke at once without bothering about their neighbors, and went on talking until they had done: if people could not hear, so much the worse for them! They could read their speeches next day in the Official Journal: music was made to be read, and not to be heard. When Christophe first heard of this quarrel between theHorizontalists and the Verticalists, he thought they were all mad. When he was summoned to join in the fight between the army of Succession and the army of Superposition, he replied, with his usual formula, which was very different from that of Sosia:
“Gentlemen, I am everybody’s enemy.”
And when they insisted, saying:
“Which matters most in music, harmony or counterpoint?”
“Music. Show me what you have done.”
They were all agreed about their own music. These intrepid warriors who, when they were not pummeling each other, were whacking away at some dead Master whose fame had endured too long, were reconciled by the one passion which was common to them all: an ardent musical patriotism. France was to them the great musical nation. They were perpetually proclaiming the decay of Germany. That did not hurt Christophe. He had declared so himself, and therefore was not in a position to contradict them. But he was a little surprised to hear of the supremacy of French music: there was, in fact, very little trace of it in the past. And yet French musicians maintained that their art had been admirable from the earliest period. By way of glorifying French music, they set to work to throw ridicule on the famous men of the last century, with the exception of one Master, who was very good and very pure—and a Belgian. Having done that amount of slaughter, they were free to admire the archaic Masters, who had been forgotten, while a certain number of them were absolutely unknown. Unlike the lay schools of France which date the world from the French Revolution, the musicians regarded it as a chain of mighty mountains, to be scaled before it could be possible to look back on the Golden Age of music, the Eldorado of art. After a long eclipse the Golden Age was to emerge again: the hard wall was to crumble away: a magician of sound was to call forth in full flower a marvelous spring: the old tree of music was to put forth young green leaves: in the bed of harmony thousands of flowers were to open their smiling eyes upon the new dawn: and silvery trickling springs were to bubble forth with the vernal sweet song of streams—a very idyl.
Christophe was delighted. But when he looked at the bills of the Parisian theaters, he saw the names of Meyerbeer, Gounod, Massenet, and Mascagni and Leoncavallo—names with which he was only too familiar: and he asked his friends if all this brazen music, with its girlish rapture, its artificial flowers, like nothing so much as a perfumery shop, was the garden of Armide that they had promised him. They were hurt and protested: if they were to be believed, these things were the last vestiges of a moribund age: no one attached any value to them. But the fact remained that Cavalleria Rusticana flourished at the Opéra Comique, and Pagliacci at the Opéra: Massenet and Gounod were more frequently performed than anybody else, and the musical trinity—Mignon, Les Huguenots, and Faust—had safely crossed the bar of the thousandth performance. But these were only trivial accidents: there was no need to go and see them. When some untoward fact upsets a theory, nothing is more simple than to ignore it. The French critics shut their eyes to these blatant works and to the public which applauded them: and only a very little more was needed to make them ignore the whole music-theater in France. The music-theater was to them a literary form, and therefore impure. (Being all literary men, they set a ban on literature.) Any music that was expressive, descriptive, suggestive—in short, any music with any meaning—was condemned as impure. In every Frenchman there is a Robespierre. He must be for ever chopping the head off something or somebody to purify it. The great French critics only recognized pure music: the rest they left to the rabble.
Christophe was rather mortified when he thought how vulgar his taste must be. But he found some comfort in the discovery that all these musicians who despised the theater spent their time in writing for it: there was not one of them who did not compose operas. But no doubt that was also a trivial accident. They were to be judged, as they desired, by their pure music. Christophe looked about for their pure music.
* * * * *
Théophile Goujart took him to the concerts of a Society dedicated to the national art. There the new glories of French music were elaborated and carefully hatched. It was a club, a little church, with several side-chapels. Each chapel had its saint, each saint his devotees, who blackguarded the saint in the next chapel. It was some time before Christophe could differentiate between the various saints. Naturally enough, being accustomed to a very different sort of art, he was at first baffled by the new music, and the more he thought he understood it, the farther was he from a real understanding.
It all seemed to him to be bathed in a perpetual twilight. It was a dull gray ground on which were drawn lines, shading off and blurring into each other, sometimes starting from the mist, and then sinking back into it again. Among all these lines there were stiff, crabbed, and cramped designs, as though they were drawn with a set-square—patterns with sharp corners, like the elbow of a skinny woman. There were patterns in curves floating and curling like the smoke of a cigar. But they were all enveloped in the gray light. Did the sun never shine in France? Christophe had only had rain and fog since his arrival, and was inclined to believe so; but it is the artist’s business to create sunshine when the sun fails. These men lit up their little lanterns, it is true: but they were like the glow-worm’s lamp, giving no warmth and very little light. The titles of their works were changed: they dealt with Spring, the South, Love, the Joy of Living, Country Walks; but the music never changed: it was uniformly soft, pale, enervated, anemic, wasting away. It was then the mode in France, among the fastidious, to whisper in music. And they were quite right: for as soon as they tried to talk aloud they shouted: there was no mean. There was no alternative but distinguished somnolence and melodramatic declamation.
Christophe shook off the drowsiness that was creeping over him, and looked at his program; and he was surprised to read that the little puffs of cloud floating across the gray sky claimed to represent certain definite things. For, in spite of theory, all their pure music was almost always program music, or at least music descriptive of a certain subject. It was in vain that they denounced literature: they needed the support of a literary crutch. Strange crutches they were, too, as a rule! Christophe observed the odd puerility of the subjects which they labored to depict—orchards, kitchen-gardens, farmyards, musical menageries, a whole Zoo. Some musicians transposed for orchestra or piano the pictures in the Louvre, or the frescoes of the Opéra: they turned into music Cuyp, Baudry, and Paul Potter: explanatory notes helped the hearer to recognize the apple of Paris, a Dutch inn, or the crupper of a white horse. To Christophe it was like the production of children obsessed by images, who, not knowing how to draw, scribble down in their exercise-books anything that comes into their heads, and naïvely write down under it in large letters an inscription to the effect that it is a house or a tree.
But besides these blind image-fanciers who saw with their ears, there were the philosophers: they discussed metaphysical problems in music: their symphonies were composed of the struggle between abstract principles and stated symbols or religions. And in their operas they affected to study the judicial and social questions of the day: the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen, elaborated by the metaphysicians of the Butte and the Palais-Bourbon. They did not shrink from bringing the question of divorce on to the platform together with the inquiry into the birth-rate and the separation of the Church and State. Among them were to be found lay symbolists and clerical symbolists. They introduced philosophic rag-pickers, sociological grisettes, prophetic bakers, and apostolic fishermen to the stage. Goethe spoke of the artists of his day, “who reproduced the ideas of Kant in allegorical pictures.” The artists of Christophe’s day wrote sociology in semi-quavers. Zola, Nietzsche, Maeterlinck, Barrès, Jaurès, Mendès, the Gospel, and the Moulin Rouge, all fed the cistern whence the writers of operas and symphonies drew their ideas. Many of them, intoxicated by the example of Wagner, cried: “And I, too, am a poet!” And with perfect assurance they tacked on to their music verses in rhyme, or unrhymed, written in the style of an elementary school or a decadent feuilleton.
All these thinkers and poets were partisans of pure music. But they preferred talking about it to writing it. And yet they did sometimes manage to write it. Then they wrote music that was not intended to say anything. Unfortunately, they often succeeded: their music was meaningless—at least, to Christophe. It is only fair to say that he had not the key to it.
In order to understand the music of a foreign nation a man must take the trouble to learn the language, and not make up his mind beforehand that he knows it. Christophe, like every good German, thought he knew it. That was excusable. Many Frenchmen did not understand it any more than he. Like the Germans of the time of Louis XIV, who tried so hard to speak French that in the end they forgot their own language, the French musicians of the nineteenth century had taken so much pains to unlearn their language that their music had become a foreign lingo. It was only of recent years that a movement had sprung up to speak French in France. They did not all succeed: the force of habit was very strong: and with a few exceptions their French was Belgian, or still smacked faintly of Germany. It was quite natural, therefore, that a German should be mistaken, and declare, with his usual assurance, that it was very bad German, and meant nothing, since he could make nothing of it.
Christophe was in exactly that case. The symphonies of the French seemed to him to be abstract, dialectic, and musical themes were opposed and superposed arithmetically in them: their combinations and permutations might just as well have been expressed in figures or the letters of the alphabet. One man would construct a symphony on the progressive development of a sonorous formula which did not seem to be complete until the last page of the last movement, so that for nine-tenths of the work it never advanced beyond the grub stage of its existence. Another would erect variations on a theme which was not stated until the end, so that the symphony gradually descended from the complex to the simple. They were very clever toys. But a man would need to be both very old and very young to be able to enjoy them. They had cost their inventors untold effort. They took years to write a fantasy. They worried their hair white in the search for new combinations of chords—to express …? No matter! New expressions. As the organ creates the need, they say, so the expression must in the end create the idea: the chief thing is that the expression should be novel. Novelty at all costs! They had a morbid horror of anything that “had been said.” The best of them were paralyzed by it all. They seemed always to be keeping a fearful guard on themselves, and crossing out what they had written, wondering: “Good Lord! Where did I read that?” … There are some musicians—especially in Germany—who spend their time in piecing together other people’s music. The musicians of France were always looking out at every bar to see that they had not included in their catalogues melodies that had already been used by others, and erasing, erasing, changing the shape of the note until it was like no known note, and even ceased to be like a note at all.
But they did not take Christophe in: in vain did they muffle themselves up in a complicated language, and make superhuman and prodigious efforts, go into orchestral fits, or cultivate inorganic harmonies, an obsessing monotony, declamations à la Sarah Bernhardt, beginning in a minor key, and going on for hours plodding along like mules, half asleep, along the edge of the slippery slope—always under the mask Christophe found the souls of these men, cold, weary, horribly scented, like Gounod and Massenet, but even less natural. And he repeated the unjust comment on the French of Gluck:
“Let them be: they always go back to their giddy-go-round.”
Only they did try so hard to be learned. They took popular songs as themes for learned symphonies, like dissertations for the Sorbonne. That was the great game at the time. All sorts and kinds of popular songs, songs of all nations, were pressed into the service. And they worked them up into things like the Ninth Symphony and the Quartet of César Franck, only much more difficult. A musician would conceive quite a simple air. At once he would mix it up with another, which meant nothing at all, though it jarred hideously with the first. And all these people were obviously so calm, so perfectly balanced!…
And there was a young conductor, properly haggard and dressed for the part, who produced these works: he flung himself about, darted lightnings, made Michael Angelesque gestures as though he were summoning up the armies of Beethoven or Wagner. The audience, which was composed of society people, was bored to tears, though nothing would have induced them to renounce the honor of paying a high price for such glorious boredom: and there were young tyros who were only too glad to bring their school knowledge into play as they picked up the threads of the music, and they applauded with an enthusiasm as frantic as the gestures of the conductor, and the fearful noise of the music….
“What rot!” said Christopher. (For he was well up in Parisian slang by now.)
* * * * *
But it is easier to penetrate the mystery of Parisian slang than the mystery of Parisian music. Christophe judged it with the passion which he brought to bear on everything, and the native incapacity of the Germans to understand French art. At least, he was sincere, and only asked to be put right if he was mistaken. And he did not regard himself as bound by his judgment, but left it open to any new impression that might alter it.
As matters stood, he readily admitted that there was much talent in the music he heard, interesting stuff, certain odd happy rhythms and harmonies, an assortment of fine materials, mellow and brilliant, glittering colors, a perpetual outpouring of invention and cleverness. Christophe was entertained by it, and learned a thing or two. All these small masters had infinitely more freedom of thought than the musicians of Germany: they bravely left the highroad and plunged through the woods. They did their best to lose themselves. But they were so clever that they could not manage it. Some of them found themselves on the road again in twenty yards. Others tired at once, and stopped wherever they might be. There were a few who almost discovered new paths, but instead of following them up they sat down at the edge of the wood and fell to musing under a tree. What they most lacked was will-power, force: they had all the gifts save one—vigor and life. And all their multifarious efforts were confusedly directed, and were lost on the road. It was only rarely that these artists became conscious of the nature of their efforts, and could join forces to a common and a given end. It was the usual result of French anarchy, which wastes the enormous wealth of talent and good intentions through the paralyzing influence of its uncertainty and contradictions. With hardly an exception, all the great French musicians, like Berlioz and Saint-Saens—to mention only the most recent—have been hopelessly muddled, self-destructive, and forsworn, for want of energy, want of faith, and, above all, for want of an inward guide.
Christophe, with the insolence and disdain of the latter-day German, thought:
“The French do no more than fritter away their energy in inventing things which they are incapable of using. They need a master of another race, a Gluck or a Napoleon, to turn their Revolutions to any account.”
And he smiled at the notion of an Eighteenth of Brumaire.
* * * * *
And yet, in the midst of all this anarchy, there was a group striving to restore order and discipline to the minds of artists and public. By way of a beginning, they had taken a Latin name reminiscent of a clerical institution which had flourished thirteen or fourteen centuries ago at the time of the great Invasion of the Goths and Vandals. Christophe was rather surprised at their going back so far. It was a good thing, certainly, to dominate one’s generation. But it looked as though a watch-tower fourteen centuries high might be, a little inconvenient, and more suitable perhaps for observing the movements of the stars than those of the men of the present day. But Christophe was soon reassured when he saw that the sons of St. Gregory spent very little time on their tower: they only went up it to ring the bells, and spent the rest of their time in the church below. It was some time before Christophe, who attended some of their services, saw that it was a Catholic cult: he had been sure at the outset that their rites were those of some little Protestant sect. The audience groveled: the disciples were pious, intolerant, aggressive on the smallest provocation: at their head was a man of a cold sort of purity, rather childish and wilful, maintaining the integrity of his doctrine, religious, moral, and artistic, explaining in abstract terms the Gospel of music to the small number of the Elect, and calmly damning Pride and Heresy. To these two states of mind he attributed every defect in art and every vice of humanity: the Renaissance, the Reformation, and present-day Judaism, which he lumped together in one category. The Jews of music were burned in effigy after being ignominiously dressed. The colossal Handel was soundly trounced. Only Johann Sebastian Bach attained salvation by the grace of the Lord, who recognized that he had been a Protestant by mistake.
The temple of the Rue Saint-Jacques fulfilled an apostolic function: souls and music found salvation there. The rules of genius were taught there most methodically. Laborious pupils applied the formulas with infinite pains and absolute certainty. It looked as though by their pious labors they were trying to regain the criminal levity of their ancestors: the Aubers, the Adams, and the trebly damned, the diabolical Berlioz, the devil himself, diabolus in musica. With laudable ardor and a sincere piety they spread the cult of the acknowledged masters. In ten years the work they had to show was considerable: French music was transformed. Not only the French critics, but the musicians themselves had learned something about music. There were now composers, and even virtuosi, who were acquainted with the works of Bach. And that was not so common even in Germany! But, above all, a great effort had been made to combat the stay-at-home spirit of the French, who will shut themselves up in their homes, and cannot be induced to go out. So their music lacks air: it is sealed-chamber music, sofa music, music with no sort of vigor. Think of Beethoven composing as he strode across country, rushing down the hillsides, swinging along through sun and rain, terrifying the cattle with his wild shouts and gestures! There was no danger of the musicians of Paris upsetting their neighbors with the noise of their inspiration, like the bear of Bonn. When they composed they muted the strings of their thought: and the heavy hangings of their rooms prevented any sound from outside breaking in upon them.
The Schola had tried to let in fresh air, and had opened the windows upon the past. But only on the past. The windows were opened upon a courtyard, not into the street. And it was not much use. Hardly had they opened the windows than they closed the shutters, like old women afraid of catching cold. And there came up a gust or two of the Middle Ages, Bach, Palestrina, popular songs. But what was the good of that? The room still smelt of stale air. But really that suited them very well: they were afraid of the great modern draughts of air. And if they knew more than other people, they also denied more in art. Their music took on a doctrinal character: there was no relaxation: their concerts were history lectures, or a string of edifying examples. Advanced ideas became academic. The great Bach, he whose music is like a torrent, was received into the bosom of the Church and then tamed. His music was submitted to a transformation in the minds of the Schola very like the transformation to which the savagely sensual Bible has been submitted in the minds of the English. As for modern music, the doctrine promulgated was aristocratic and eclectic, an attempt to compound the distinctive characteristics of the three or four great periods of music from the sixth to the twentieth century. If it had been possible to carry it out, the resulting music would have been like those hybrid structures raised by a Viceroy of India on his return from his travels, with rare materials collected in every corner of the earth. But the good sense of the French saved them from any such barbarically erudite excesses: they carefully avoided any application of their theories: they treated them as Molière treated his doctors: they took their prescriptions, but did not carry them out. The best of them went their own way. The rest of them contented themselves in practice with very intricate and difficult exercises in counterpoint: they called them sonatas, quartets, and symphonies…. “Sonata, what do you desire of me?” The poor thing desired nothing at all except to be a sonata. The idea behind it was abstract and anonymous, heavy and joyless. So might a lawyer conceive an art. Christophe, who had at first been by way of being pleased with the French for not liking Brahms, now thought that there were many, many little Brahms in France. These laborious, conscientious, honest journeymen had many qualities and virtues. Christophe left them edified, but bored to distraction. It was all very good, very good….
How fine it was outside!
* * * * *
And yet there were a few independent musicians in Paris, men belonging to no school; They alone were interesting to Christophe. It was only through them that he could gauge the vitality of the art. Schools and coteries only express some superficial fashion or manufactured theory. But the independent men who stand apart have more chance of really discovering the ideas of their race and time. It is true that that makes them all the more difficult for a foreigner to understand.
That was, in fact, what happened when Christophe first heard the famous work which the French had so extravagantly praised, while some of them were announcing the coming of the greatest musical revolution of the last ten centuries. (It was easy for them to talk about centuries: they knew hardly anything of any except their own.)
Théophile Goujart and Sylvain Kohn took Christophe to the Opéra Comique to hear Pelleas and Melisande. They were proud to display the opera to him—as proud as though they had written it themselves. They gave Christophe to understand that it would be the road to Damascus for him. And they went on eulogizing it even after the piece had begun. Christophe shut them up and listened intently. After the first act he turned to Sylvain Kohn, who asked him, with glittering eyes:
“Well, old man, what do you think of it?”
And he said:
“Is it like that all through?”
“But it’s nothing.”
Kohn protested loudly, and called him a Philistine.
“Nothing at all,” said Christophe. “No music. No development. No sequence.
No cohesion. Very nice harmony. Quite good orchestral effects, quite good.
But it’s nothing—nothing at all….”
He listened through the second act. Little by little the lantern gathered light and glowed: and he began to perceive something through the twilight. Yes: he could understand the sober-minded rebellion against the Wagnerian ideal which swamped the drama with floods of music; but he wondered a little ironically if the ideal of sacrifice did not mean the sacrifice of something which one does not happen to possess. He felt the easy fluency of the opera, the production of an effect with the minimum of trouble, the indolent renunciation of the sturdy effort shown in the vigorous Wagnerian structures. And he was quite struck by the unity of it, the simple, modest, rather dragging declamation, although it seemed monotonous to him, and, to his German ears, it sounded false:—(and it even seemed to him that the more it aimed at truth the more it showed how little the French language was suited to music: it is too logical, too precise, too definite,—a world perfect in itself, but hermetically sealed).—However, the attempt was interesting, and Christophe gladly sympathized with the spirit of revolt and reaction against the over-emphasis and violence of Wagnerian art. The French composer seemed to have devoted his attention discreetly and ironically to all the things that sentiment and passion only whisper. He showed love and death inarticulate. It was only by the imperceptible throbbing of a melody, a little thrill from the orchestra that was no more than a quivering of the corners of the lips, that the drama passing through the souls of the characters was brought home to the audience. It was as though the artist were fearful of letting himself go. He had the genius of taste—except at certain moments when the Massenet slumbering in the heart of every Frenchman awoke and waxed lyrical. Then there showed hair that was too golden, lips that were too red—the Lot’s wife of the Third Republic playing the lover. But such moments were the exception: they were a relaxation of the writer’s self-imposed restraint: throughout the rest of the opera there reigned a delicate simplicity, a simplicity which was not so very simple, a deliberate simplicity, the subtle flower of an ancient society. That young Barbarian, Christophe, only half liked it. The whole scheme of the play, the poem, worried him. He saw a middle-aged Parisienne posing childishly and having fairy-tales told to her. It was not the Wagnerian sickliness, sentimental and clumsy, like a girl from the Rhine provinces. But the Franco-Belgian sickliness was not much better, with its simpering parlor-tricks:—”the hair,” “the little father,” “the doves,”—and the whole trick of mystery for the delectation of society women. The soul of the Parisienne was mirrored in the little piece, which, like a flattering picture, showed the languid fatalism, the boudoir Nirvana, the soft, sweet melancholy. Nowhere a trace of will-power. No one knew what he wanted. No one knew what he was doing.
“It is not my fault! It is not my fault!” these grown-up children groaned. All through the five acts, which took place in a perpetual half-light—forests, caves, cellars, death-chambers—little sea-birds struggled: hardly even that. Poor little birds! Pretty birds, soft, pretty birds…. They were so afraid of too much light, of the brutality of deeds, words, passions—life! Life is not soft and pretty. Life is no kid-glove matter….
Christophe could hear in the distance the rumbling of cannon, coming to batter down that worn-out civilization, that perishing little Greece.
Was it that proud feeling of melancholy and pity that made him in spite of all sympathize with the opera? It interested him more than he would admit. Although he went on telling Sylvain Kohn, as they left the theater, that it was “very fine, very fine, but lacking in Schwung (impulse), and did not contain enough music for him,” he was careful not to confound Pelleas with the other music of the French. He was attracted by the lamp shining through the fog. And then he saw other lights, vivid and fantastic, flickering round it. His attention was caught by these will-o’-the-wisps: he would have liked to go near them to find out how it was that they shone: but they were not easy to catch. These independent musicians, whom Christophe did not understand, were not very approachable. They seemed to lack that great need of sympathy which possessed Christophe. With a few exceptions they seemed to read very little, know very little, desire very little. They almost all lived in retirement, some outside Paris, others in Paris, but isolated, by circumstances or purposely, shut up in a narrow circle—from pride, shyness, disgust, or apathy. There were very few of them, but they were split up into rival groups, and could not tolerate each other. They were extremely susceptible, and could not bear with their enemies, or their rivals, or even their friends, when they dared to admire any other musician than themselves, or when they admired too coldly, or too fervently, or in too commonplace or too eccentric a manner. It was extremely difficult to please them. Every one of them had actually sanctioned a critic, armed with letters patent, who kept a jealous watch at the foot of the statue. Visitors were requested not to touch. They did not gain any greater understanding from being understood only by their own little groups. They were deformed by the adulation and the opinion that their partisans and they themselves held of their work, and they lost grip of their art and their genius. Men with a pleasing fantasy thought themselves reformers, and Alexandrine artists posed as rivals of Wagner. They were almost all the victims of competition. Every day they had to leap a little higher than the day before, and, especially, higher than their rivals, These exercises in high jumping were not always successful, and were certainly not attractive except to professionals. They took no account of the public, and the public never bothered about them. Their art was out of touch with the people, music which was only fed from music. Now, Christophe was under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that there was no music that had a greater need of outside support than French music. That supple climbing plant needed a prop: it could not do without literature, but did not find in it enough of the breath of life. French music was breathless, bloodless, will-less. It was like a woman languishing for her lover. But, like a Byzantine Empress, slender and feeble in body, laden with precious stones, it was surrounded with eunuchs: snobs, esthetes, and critics. The nation was not musical: and the craze, so much talked of during the last twenty years, for Wagner, Beethoven, Bach, or Debussy, never reached farther than a certain class. The enormous increase in the number of concerts, the flowing tide of music at all costs, found no real response in the development of public taste. It was just a fashionable craze confined to the few, and leading them astray. There was only a handful of people who really loved music, and these were not the people who were most occupied with it, composers and critics. There are so few musicians in France who really love music!
So thought Christophe: but it did not occur to him that it is the same everywhere, that even in Germany there are not many more real musicians, and that the people who matter in art are not the thousands who understand nothing about it, but the few who love it and serve it in proud humility. Had he ever set eyes on them in France? Creators and critics—the best of them were working in silence, far from the racket, as César Franck had done, and the most gifted composers of the day were doing, and a number of artists who would live out their lives in obscurity, so that some day in the future some journalist might have the glory of discovering them and posing as their friend—and the little army of industrious and obscure men of learning who, without ambition and careless of their fame, were building stone by stone the greatness of the past history of France, or, being vowed to the musical education of the country, were preparing the greatness of the France of the future. There were minds there whose wealth and liberty and world-wide curiosity would have attracted Christophe if he had been able to discover them! But at most he only caught a cursory glimpse of two or three of them: he only made their acquaintance in the villainous caricatures of their ideas. He saw only their defects copied and exaggerated by the apish mimics of art and the bagmen of the Press.
But what most disgusted him with these vulgarians of music was their formalism. They never seemed to consider anything but form. Feeling, character, life—never a word of these! It never seemed to occur to them that every real musician lives in a world of sound, as other men live in a visible world, and that his days are lived in and borne onward by a flood of music. Music is the air he breathes, the sky above him. Nature wakes answering music in his soul. His soul itself is music: music is in all that it loves, hates, suffers, fears, hopes. And when the soul of a musician loves a beautiful body, it sees music in that, too. The beloved eyes are not blue, or brown, or gray: they are music: their tenderness is like caressing, notes, like a delicious chord. That inward music is a thousand times more rich than the music that finds expression, and the instrument is inferior to the player. Genius is measured by the power of life, by the power of evoking life through the imperfect instrument of art. But to how many men in France does that ever occur? To these chemists music seems to be no more than the art of resolving sounds. They mistake the alphabet for a book. Christophe shrugged his shoulders when he heard them say complacently that to understand art it must be abstracted from the man. They were extraordinarily pleased with this paradox: for by it they fancied they were proving their own musical quality. And even Goujart subscribed to it—Goujart, the idiot who had never been able to understand how people managed to learn by heart a piece of music—(he had tried to get Christophe to explain the mystery to him)—and had tried to prove to him that Beethoven’s greatness of soul and Wagner’s sensuality had no more to do with their music than a painter’s model has to do with his portraits.
Christophe lost patience with him, and said:
“That only proves that a beautiful body is of no more artistic value to you than a great passion. Poor fellow!… You have no notion of the beauty given to a portrait by the beauty of a perfect face, or of the glow of beauty given to music by the beauty of the great soul which is mirrored in it?… Poor fellow!… You are interested only in the handiwork? So long as it is well done you are not concerned with the meaning of a piece of work…. Poor fellow!… You are like those people who do not listen to what an orator says, but only to the sound of his voice, and watch his gestures without understanding them, and then say he speaks devilish well…. Poor fellow! Poor wretch!… Oh, you rotten swine!”
But it was not only a particular theory that irritated Christophe; it was all their theories. He was appalled by their unending arguments, their Byzantine discussions, the everlasting talk, talk, talk, of musicians about music, and nothing else. It was enough to make the best of musicians heartily sick of music. Like Moussorgski, Christophe thought that it would be as well for musicians every now and then to leave their counterpoint and harmony in favor of books or experience of life. Music is not enough for a present-day musician; not thus will he dominate his age and raise his head above the stream of time…. Life! All life! To see everything, to know everything, to feel everything. To love, to seek, to grasp Truth—the lovely Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, whose teeth bite in answer to a kiss!
Away with your musical discussion-societies, away with your chord-factories! Not all the twaddle of the harmonic kitchens would ever help him to find a new harmony that was alive, alive, and not a monstrous birth.
He turned his back on these Doctor Wagners, brooding on their alembics to hatch out some homunculus in bottle: and, running away from French music, he sought to enter literary circles and Parisian society. Like many millions of people in France, Christophe made his first acquaintance with modern French literature through the newspapers. He wanted to get the measure of Parisian thought as quickly as possible, and at the same time to perfect his knowledge of the language. And so he set himself conscientiously to read the papers which he was told were most Parisian. On the first day after a horrific chronicle of events, which filled several pages with paragraphs and snapshots, he read a story about a father and a daughter, a girl of fifteen: it was narrated as though it were a matter of course, and even rather moving. Next day, in the same paper, he read a story about a father and a son, a boy of twelve, and the girl was mixed up in it again. On the following day he read a story about a brother and a sister. Next day, the story was about two sisters. On the fifth day…. On the fifth day he hurled the paper away with a shudder, and said to Sylvain Kohn:
“But what’s the matter with you all? Are you ill?”
Sylvain Kohn began to laugh, and said:
“That is art.”
Christophe shrugged his shoulders:
“You’re pulling my leg.”
Kohn laughed once more:
“Not at all. Read a little more.”
And he pointed to the report of a recent inquiry into Art and Morality, which set out that “Love sanctified everything,” that “Sensuality was the leaven of Art,” that “Art could not be Immoral,” that “Morality was a convention of Jesuit education,” and that nothing mattered except “the greatness of Desire.” A number of letters from literary men witnessed the artistic purity of a novel depicting the life of bawds. Some of the signatories were among the greatest names in contemporary literature, or the most austere of critics. A domestic poet, bourgeois and a Catholic, gave his blessing as an artist to a detailed description of the decadence of the Greeks. There were enthusiastic praises of novels in which the course of Lewdness was followed through the ages: Rome, Alexandria, Byzantium, the Italian and French Renaissance, the Age of Greatness … Nothing was omitted. Another cycle of studies was devoted to the various countries of the world: conscientious writers had devoted their energies, with a monkish patience, to the study of the low quarters of the five continents. And it was no matter for surprise to discover among these geographers and historians of Pleasure distinguished poets and very excellent writers. They were only marked out from the rest by their erudition. In their most impeccable style they told archaic stories, highly spiced.
But what was most alarming was to see honest men and real artists, men who rightly enjoyed a high place in French literature, struggling in such a traffic, for which they were not at all suited. Some of them with great travail wrote, like the rest, the sort of trash that the newspapers serialize. They had to produce it by a fixed time, once or twice a week: and it had been going on for years. They went on producing and producing, long after they had ceased to have anything to say, racking their brains to find something new, something more sensational, more bizarre: for the public was surfeited and sick of everything, and soon wearied of even the most wanton imaginary pleasures: they had always to go one better—better than the rest, better than their own best—and they squeezed out their very life-blood, they squeezed out their guts: it was a pitiable sight, a grotesque spectacle.
Christophe, who did not know the ins and outs of that melancholy traffic, and if he had known them would not have been more indulgent; for in his eyes nothing in the world could excuse an artist for selling his art for thirty pieces of silver….
(Not even to assure the well-being of those whom he loves?
Not even then.
That is not human.
It is not a question of being human; it is a question of being a man…. Human!… May God have mercy on your white-livered humanitarianism, it is so bloodless!… No man loves twenty things at once, no man can serve many gods!…)
… Christophe, who, in his hard-working life, had hardly yet seen beyond the limits of his little German town, could have no idea that this artistic degradation, which showed so rawly in Paris, was common to nearly all the great towns: and the hereditary prejudices of chaste Germany against Latin immorality awoke in him once more. And yet Sylvain Kohn might easily have pointed to what was going on by the banks of the Spree, and the impurity of Imperial Germany, where brutality made shame and degradation even more repulsive. But Sylvain Kohn never thought of it: he was no more shocked by that than by the life of Paris. He thought ironically: “Every nation has its little ways,” and the ways of the world in which he lived seemed so natural to him that Christophe could be excused for thinking it was in the nature of the people. And so, like so many of his compatriots, he saw in the secret sore which is eating away the intellectual aristocracies of Europe the vice proper to French art, and the bankruptcy of the Latin races.
Christophe was hurt by his first encounter with French literature, and it took him some time to get over it. And yet there were plenty of books which were not solely occupied with what one of these writers has nobly called “the taste for fundamental entertainments.” But he never laid hands on the best and finest of them. Such books were not written, for the like of Sylvain Kohn and his friends: they did not bother about them, and certainly Kohn and the rest never bothered about the better class of books: they ignored each other. Sylvain Kohn would never have thought of mentioning them to Christophe. He was quite sincerely convinced that his friends and himself were the incarnation of French Art, and thought there was no talent, no art, no France outside the men who had been consecrated as great by their opinion and the press of the boulevards. Christophe knew nothing about the poets who were the glory of French literature, the very crown of France. Very few of the novelists reached him, or emerged from the ocean of mediocre writers: a few books of Barrès and Anatole France. But he was not sufficiently familiar with the language to be able to enjoy the universal dilettantism, and erudition, and irony of the one, or the unequal but superior art of the other. He spent some time in watching the little orange-trees in tubs growing in the hothouse of Anatole France, and the delicate, perfect flowers clambering over the gravelike soul of Barrès. He stayed for a moment or two before the genius, part sublime, part silly, of Maeterlinck: from that there issued a polite mysticism, monotonous, numbing like some vague sorrow. He shook himself, and plunged into the heavy, sluggish stream, the muddy romanticism of Zola, with whom he was already acquainted, and when he emerged from that it was to sink back and drown in a deluge of literature.
The submerged lands exhaled an odor di femina. The literature of the day teemed with effeminate men and women. It is well that women should write if they are sincere enough to describe what no man has yet seen: the depths of the soul of a woman. But only very few dared do that: most of them only wrote to attract the men: they were as untruthful in their books as in their drawing-rooms: they jockeyed their facts and flirted with the reader. Since they were no longer religious, and had no confessor to whom to tell their little lapses, they told them to the public. There was a perfect shower of novels, almost all scabrous, all affected, written in a sort of lisping style, a style scented with flowers and fine perfumes—sometimes too fine—sometimes not fine at all—and the eternal stale, warm, sweetish smell. Their books reeked of it. Christophe thought, like Goethe: “Let women do what they like with poetry and writing: but men must not write like women! That I cannot stand.” He could not help being disgusted by their tricks, their sly coquetry, their sentimentality, which seemed to expend itself by preference upon creatures hardly worthy of interest, their style crammed with metaphor, their love-making and sensuality, their hotch-potch of subtlety and brutality.
But Christophe was ready to admit that he was not in a position to judge. He was deafened by the row of this babel of words. It was impossible to hear the little fluting sounds that were drowned in it all. For even among such books as these there were some, from the pages of which, behind all the nonsense, there shone the limpid sky and the harmonious outline of the hills of Attica—so much talent, so much grace, a sweet breath of life, and charm of style, a thought like the voluptuous women or the languid boys of Perugino and the young Raphael, smiling, with half-closed eyes, at their dream of love. But Christophe was blind to that. Nothing could reveal to him the dominant tendencies, the currents of public opinion. Even a Frenchman would have been hard put to it to see them. And the only definite impression that he had at this time was that of a flood of writing which looked like a national disaster. It seemed as though everybody wrote: men, women, children, officers, actors, society people, blackguards. It was an epidemic.
For the time being Christophe gave it up. He felt that such a guide as Sylvain Kohn must lead him hopelessly astray. His experience of a literary coterie in Germany gave him very properly a profound distrust of the people whom he met: it was impossible to know whether or no they only represented the opinion of a few hundred idle people, or even, in certain cases, whether or no the author was his own public. The theater gave a more exact idea of the society of Paris. It played an enormous part in the daily life of the city. It was an enormous kitchen, a Pantagruelesque restaurant, which could not cope with the appetite of the two million inhabitants. There were thirty leading theaters, without counting the local houses, café concerts, all sorts of shows—a hundred halls, all giving performances every evening, and, every evening, almost all full. A whole nation of actors and officials. Vast sums were swallowed up in the gulf. The four State-aided theaters gave work to three thousand people, and cost the country ten million francs. The whole of Paris re-echoed with the glory of the play-actors. It was impossible to go anywhere without seeing innumerable photographs, drawings, caricatures, reproducing their features and mannerisms, gramophones reproducing their voices, and the newspapers their opinions on art and politics. They had special newspapers devoted to them. They published their heroic and domestic Memoirs. These big self-conscious children, who spent their time in aping each other, these wonderful apes reigned and held sway over the Parisians: and the dramatic authors were their chief ministers. Christophe asked Sylvain Kohn to conduct him into the kingdom of shadows and reflections.
* * * * *
But Sylvain Kohn was no safer as a guide in that world than in the world of books, and, thanks to him, Christophe’s first impression was almost as repulsive as that of his first essay in literature. It seemed that there was everywhere the same spirit of mental prostitution.
The pleasure-mongers were divided into two schools. On the one hand there was the good old way, the national way, of providing a coarse and unclean pleasure, quite frankly; a delight in ugliness, strong meat, physical deformities, a show of drawers, barrack-room jests, risky stories, red pepper, high game, private rooms—”a manly frankness,” as those people say who try to reconcile looseness and morality by pointing out that, after four acts of dubious fun, order is restored and the Code triumphs by the fact that the wife is really with the husband whom she thinks she is deceiving—(so long as the law is observed, then virtue is all right):—that vicious sort of virtue which defends marriage by endowing it with all the charm of lewdness:—the Gallic way.
The other school was in the modern style. It was much more subtle and much more disgusting. The Parisianized Jews and the Judaicized Christians who frequented the theater had introduced into it the usual hash of sentiment which is the distinctive feature of a degenerate cosmopolitanism. Those sons who blushed for their fathers set themselves to abnegate their racial conscience: and they succeeded only too well. Having plucked out the soul that was their birthright, all that was left them was a mixture of the moral and intellectual values of other races: they made a macédoine of them, an olla podrida: it was their way of taking possession of them. The men who who were at that time in control of the theaters in Paris were extraordinarily skilful at beating up filth and sentiment, and giving virtue a flavoring of vice, vice a flavoring of virtue, and turning upside down every human relation of age, sex, the family, and the affections. Their art, therefore, had an odor sui generis, which smelt both good and bad at once—that is to say, it smelled very bad indeed: they called it “amoralism.”
One of their favorite heroes at that time was the amorous old man. Their theaters presented a rich gallery of portraits of the type: and in painting it they introduced a thousand pretty touches. Sometimes the sexagenarian hero would take his daughter into his confidence, and talk to her about his mistress: and she would talk about her lovers: and they would give each other friendly advice: the kindly father would aid his daughter in her indiscretions: and the precious daughter would intervene with the unfaithful mistress, beg her to return, and bring her back to the fold. Sometimes the good old man would listen to the confidences of his mistress: he would talk to her about her lovers, or, if nothing better was forthcoming, he would listen to the tale of her gallantries, and even take a delight in them. And there were portraits of lovers, distinguished gentlemen, who presided in the houses of their former mistresses, and helped them in their nefarious business. Society women were thieves. The men were bawds, the girls were Lesbian. And all these things happened in the highest society: the society of rich people—the only society that mattered. For that made it possible to offer the patrons of the theater damaged goods under cover of the delights of luxury. So tricked out, it was displayed in the market, to the joy of old gentlemen and young women. And it all reeked of death and the seraglio.
Their style was not less mixed than their sentiments. They had invented a composite jargon of expressions from all classes of society and every country under the sun—pedantic, slangy, classical, lyrical, precious, prurient, and low—a mixture of bawdy jests, affectations, coarseness, and wit, all of which seemed to have a foreign accent. Ironical, and gifted with a certain clownish humor, they had not much natural wit: but they were clever enough, and they manufactured their goods in imitation of Paris. If the stone was not always of the first water, and if the setting was always strange and overdone, at least it shone in artificial light, and that was all it was meant to do. They were intelligent, keen, though short-sighted observers—their eyes had been dulled by centuries of the life of the counting-house—turning the magnifying-glass on human sentiments, enlarging small things, not seeing big things. With a marked predilection for finery, they were incapable of depicting anything but what seemed to their upstart snobbishness the ideal of polite society: a little group of worn-out rakes and adventurers, who quarreled among themselves for the possession of certain stolen moneys and a few virtueless females.
And yet upon occasion the real nature of these Jewish writers would suddenly awake, come to the surface from the depths of their being, in response to some mysterious echo called forth by some vivid word or sensation. Then there appeared a strange hotch-potch of ages and races, a breath of wind from the Desert, bringing over the seas to their Parisian rooms the musty smell of a Turkish bazaar, the dazzling shimmer of the sands, the mirage, blind sensuality, savage invective, nervous disorder only a hair’s-breadth away from epilepsy, a destructive frenzy—Samson, suddenly rising like a lion—after ages of squatting in the shade—and savagely tearing down the columns of the Temple, which comes crashing down on himself and on his enemies.
Christophe blew his nose and said to Sylvain Kohn:
“There’s power in it: but it stinks. That’s enough! Let’s go and see something else.”
“What?” asked Sylvain Kohn.
“That’s it!” said Kohn.
“Can’t be,” replied Christophe. “France isn’t like that.”
“It’s France, and Germany, too.”
“I don’t believe it. A nation that was anything like that wouldn’t last for twenty years: why, it’s decomposing already. There must be something else.”
“There’s nothing better.”
“There must be something else,” insisted Christophe.
“Oh, yes,” said Sylvain Kohn. “We have fine people, of course, and theaters for them, too. Is that what you want? We can give you that.”
He took Christophe to the Théâtre Français.
* * * * *
That evening they happened to be playing a modern comedy, in prose, dealing with some legal problem.
From the very beginning Christophe was baffled to make out in what sort of world the action was taking place. The voices of the actors were out of all reason, full, solemn, slow, formal: they rounded every syllable as though they were giving a lesson in elocution, and they seemed always to be scanning Alexandrines with tragic pauses. Their gestures were solemn and almost hieratic. The heroine, who wore her gown as though it were a Greek peplus, with arm uplifted, and head lowered, was nothing else but Antigone, and she smiled with a smile of eternal sacrifice, carefully modulating the lower notes of her beautiful contralto voice. The heavy father walked about like a fencing-master, with automatic gestures, a funereal dignity,—romanticism in a frock-coat. The juvenile lead gulped and gasped and squeezed out a sob or two. The piece was written in the style of a tragic serial story: abstract phrases, bureaucratic epithets, academic periphrases. No movement, not a sound unrehearsed. From beginning to end it was clockwork, a set problem, a scenario, the skeleton of a play, with not a scrap of flesh, only literary phrases. Timid ideas lay behind discussions that were meant to be bold: the whole spirit of the thing was hopelessly middle-class and respectable.
The heroine had divorced an unworthy husband, by whom she had had a child, and she had married a good man whom she loved. The point was, that even in such a case as this divorce was condemned by Nature, as it is by prejudice. Nothing could be easier than to prove it: the author contrived that the woman should be surprised, for one occasion only, into yielding to the first husband. After that, instead of a perfectly natural remorse, perhaps a profound sense of shame, together with a greater desire to love and honor the second and good husband, the author trotted out an heroic case of conscience, altogether beyond Nature. French writers never seem to be on good terms with virtue: they always force the note when they talk of it: they make it quite incredible. They always seem to be dealing with the heroes of Corneille, and tragedy Kings. And are they not Kings and Queens, these millionaire heroes, and these heroines who would not be interesting unless they had at least a mansion in Paris and two or three country-houses? For such writers and such a public wealth itself is a beauty, and almost a virtue.
The audience was even more amazing than the play. They were never bored by all the tiresomely repeated improbabilities. They laughed at the good points, when the actors said things that were meant to be laughed at: it was made obvious that they were coming, so that the audience could be ready to laugh. They mopped their eyes and coughed, and were deeply moved when the puppets gasped, and gulped, and roared, and fainted away in accordance with the hallowed tragic ritual.
“And people say the French are gay!” exclaimed Christophe as they left the theater.
“There’s a time for everything,” said Sylvain Kohn chaffingly. “You wanted virtue. You see, there’s still virtue in France.”
“But that’s not virtue!” cried Christophe. “That’s rhetoric!”
“In France,” said Sylvain Kohn. “Virtue in the theater is always rhetorical.”
“A pretorium virtue,” said Christophe, “and the prize goes to the best talker. I hate lawyers. Have you no poets in France?”
Sylvain Kohn took him to the poetic drama.
* * * * *
There were poets in France. There were even great poets. But the theater was not for them. It was for the versifiers. The theater is to poetry what the opera is to music. As Berlioz said: Sicut amori lupanar.
Christophe saw Princesses who were virtuously promiscuous, who prostituted themselves for their honor, who were compared with Christ ascending Calvary:—friends who deceived their friends out of devotion to them:—glorified triangular relations:—heroic cuckoldry: (the cuckold, like the blessed prostitute, had become a European commodity: the example of King Mark had turned the heads of the poets: like the stag of Saint Hubert, the cuckold never appeared without a halo.) And Christophe saw also lovely damsels torn between passion and duty: their passion bade them follow a new lover: duty bade them stay with the old one, an old man who gave them money and was deceived by them. And in the end they plumped heroically for Duty. Christophe could not see how Duty differed from sordid interest: but the public was satisfied. The word Duty was enough for them: they did not insist on having the thing itself; they took the author’s word for it.
The summit of art was reached and the greatest pleasure was given when, most paradoxically, sexual immorality and Corneillian heroics could be combined. In that way every need of the Parisian public was satisfied: mind, senses, rhetoric. But it is only just to say that the public was fonder even of words than of lewdness. Eloquence could send it into ecstasies. It would have suffered anything for a fine tirade. Virtue or vice, heroics hobnobbing with the basest prurience, there was no pill that it would not swallow if it were gilded with sonorous rhymes and redundant words. Anything that came to hand was ground into couplets, antitheses, arguments: love, suffering, death. And when that was done, they thought they had felt love, suffering, and death. Nothing but phrases. It was all a game. When Hugo brought thunder on to the stage, at once (as one of his disciples said) he muted it so as not to frighten even a child. (The disciple fancied he was paying him a compliment.) It was never possible to feel any of the forces of Nature in their art. They made everything polite. Just as in music—and even more than in music, which was a younger art in France, and therefore relatively more simple—they were terrified of anything that had been “already said.” The most gifted of them coldly devoted themselves to working contrariwise. The process was childishly simple: they pitched on some beautiful legend or fairy-story, and turned it upside down. Thus, Bluebeard was beaten by his wives, or Polyphemus was kind enough to pluck out his eye by way of sacrificing himself to the happiness of Acis and Galatea. And they thought of nothing but form. And once more it seemed to Christophe (though he was not a good judge) that these masters of form were rather coxcombs and imitators than great writers creating their own style and giving breadth and depth to their work.
They played at being artists. They played at being poets. Nowhere was the poetic lie more insolently reared than in the heroic drama. They put up a burlesque conception of a hero:
“The great thing is to have a soul magnificent.
An eagel’s eye; broad brow like portico; present
An air of strength, grave mien, most touchingly to show
A heart that throbs, eyes full of dreams of worlds they know.“
Verses like that were taken seriously. Behind the hocus-pocus of such fine-sounding words, the bombast, the theatrical clash and clang of the swords and pasteboard helmets, there was always the incurable futility of a Sardou, the intrepid vaudevillist, playing Punch and Judy with history. When in the world was the like of the heroism of Cyrano ever to be found? These writers moved heaven and earth; they summoned from their tombs the Emperor and his legions, the bandits of the Ligue, the condottieri of the Renaissance, called up the human cyclones that once devastated the universe:—just to display a puppet, standing unmoved through frightful massacres, surrounded by armies, soldiers, and whole hosts of captive women, dying of a silly calfish love for a woman whom he had seen ten or fifteen years before—or King Henri IV submitting to assassination because his mistress no longer loved him.
So, and no otherwise, did these good people present their parlor Kings, and condottieri, and heroic passion. They were worthy scions of the illustrious nincompoops of the days of Grand Cyrus, those Gascons of the ideal—Scudéry, La Calprenède—an everlasting brood, the songsters of sham heroism, impossible heroism, which is the enemy of truth. Christophe observed to his amazement that the French, who are said to be so clever, had no sense of the ridiculous.
He was lucky when religion was not dragged in to fit the fashion! Then, during Lent, certain actors read the sermons of Bossuet at the Gaîté to the accompaniment of an organ. Jewish authors wrote tragedies about Saint Theresa for Jewish actresses. The Way of the Cross was acted at the Bodinière, the Child Jesus at the Ambigu, the Passion at the Porte-Saint-Martin, Jesus at the Odéon, orchestral suites on the subject of Christ at the Botanical Gardens. And a certain brilliant talker—a poet who wrote passionate love-songs—gave a lecture on the Redemption at the Châtelet. And, of course, the passages of the Gospel that were most carefully preserved by these people were those relating to Pilate and Mary Magdalene:—”What is truth?” and the story of the blessed foolish virgin.—And their boulevard Christs were horribly loquacious and well up in all the latest tricks of worldly casuistry.
“That is the worst yet. It is untruth incarnate. I’m stifling. Let’s get out.”
And yet there was a great classic art that held its ground among all these modern industries, like the ruins of the splendid ancient temples among all the pretentious buildings of modern Rome. But, outside Molière, Christophe was not yet able to appreciate it. He was not yet familiar enough with the language, and, therefore, could not grasp the genius of the race. Nothing baffled him so much as the tragedy of the seventeenth century—one of the least accessible provinces of French art to foreigners, precisely because it lies at the very heart of France. It bored him horribly; he found it cold, dry, and revolting in its tricks and pedantry. The action was thin or forced, the characters were rhetorical abstractions or as insipid as the conversation of society women. They were caricatures of the ancient legends and heroes: a display of reason, arguments, quibbling, and antiquated psychology and archeology. Speeches, speeches, speeches; the eternal loquacity of the French. Christophe ironically refused to say whether it was beautiful or not: there was nothing to interest him in it: whatever the arguments put forward in turn by the orators of Cinna, he did not care a rap which of the talking-machines won in the end.
However, he had to admit that the French audience was not of his way of thinking, and that they did applaud these plays that bored him. But that did not help to dissipate his confusion: he saw the plays through the audience: and he recognized in the modern French certain of the features, distorted, of the classics. So might a critical eye see in the faded charms of an old coquette the clear, pure features of her daughter:—(such a discovery is not calculated to foster the illusion of love). Like the members of a family who are used to seeing each other, the French could not see the resemblance. But Christophe was struck by it, and exaggerated it: he could see nothing else. Every work of art he saw seemed to him to be full of old-fashioned caricatures of the great ancestors of the French; and he saw these same great ancestors also in caricature. He could not see any difference between Corneille and the long line of his followers, those rhetorical poets whose mania it was to present nothing but sublime and ridiculous cases of conscience. And Racine he confounded with his offspring of pretentiously introspective Parisian psychologists.
None of these people had really broken free from the classics. The critics were for ever discussing Tartuffe and Phèdre. They never wearied of hearing the same plays over and over again. They delighted in the same old words, and when they were old men they laughed at the same jokes which had been their joy when they were children. And so it would be while the French nation endured. No country in the world has so firmly rooted a cult of its great-great-grandfathers. The rest of the universe did not interest them. There were many, many men and women, even intelligent men and women, who had never read anything, and never wanted to read anything outside the works that had been written in France under the Great King! Their theaters presented neither Goethe, nor Schiller, nor Kleist, nor Grillparzer, nor Hebbel, nor any of the great dramatists of other nations, with the exception of the ancient Greeks, whose heirs they declared themselves to be—(like every other nation in Europe). Every now and then they felt they ought to include Shakespeare. That was the touchstone. There were two schools of Shakespearean interpreters: the one played King Lear, with a commonplace realism, like a comedy of Emile Augier: the other turned Hamlet into an opera, with bravura airs and vocal exercises à la Victor Hugo. It never occurred to them that reality could be poetic or that poetry was the spontaneous language of hearts bursting with life. Shakespeare seemed false. They very quickly went back to Rostand.
And yet, during the last twenty years, there had been sturdy efforts made to vitalize the theater: the narrow circle of subjects drawn from Parisian literature had been widened: the theater laid hands on everything with a show of audacity. Two or three times even the outer world, public life, had torn down the curtain of convention. But the theatrists made haste to piece it together again. They lived in blinkers, and were afraid of seeing things as they are. A sort of clannishness, a classical tradition, a routine of form and spirit, and a lack of real seriousness, held them back from pushing their audacity to its logical extremity. They turned the acutest problems into ingenious games: and they always came back to the problem of women—women of a certain class. And what a sorry figure did the phantoms of great men cut on their boards: the heroic Anarchy of Ibsen, the Gospel of Tolstoy, the Superman of Nietzsche!…
The literary men of Paris took a great deal of trouble to seem to be advanced thinkers. But at heart they were all conservative. There was no literature in Europe in which the past, the old, the “eternal yesterday,” held a completer and more unconscious sway: in the great reviews, in the great newspapers, in the State-aided theaters, in the Academy, Paris was in literature what London was in Politics: the check on the mind of Europe. The French Academy was a House of Lords. A certain number of the institutions of the Ancien Régime forced the spirit of the old days on the new society. Every revolutionary element was rejected or promptly assimilated. They asked nothing better. In vain did the Government pretend to a socialistic polity. In art it truckled under to the Academies and the Academic Schools. Against the Academies there was no opposition save from a few coteries, and they put up a very poor fight. For as soon as a member of a coterie could, he fell into line with an Academy, and became more academic than the rest. And even if a writer were in the advance guard or in the van of the army, he was almost always trammeled by his group and the ideas of his group. Some of them were hidebound by their academic Credo, others by their revolutionary Credo: and, when all was done, they both amounted to the same thing.
* * * * *
By way of rousing Christophe, on whom academic art had acted as a soporific, Sylvain Kohn proposed to take him to certain eclectic theaters,—the very latest thing. There they saw murder, rape, madness, torture, eyes plucked out, bellies gutted—anything to thrill the nerves, and satisfy the barbarism lurking beneath a too civilized section of the people. It had a great attraction for pretty women and men of the world—the people who would go and spend whole afternoons in the stuffy courts of the Palais de Justice, listening to scandalous cases, laughing, talking, and eating chocolates. But Christophe indignantly refused. The more closely he examined that sort of art, the more acutely he became aware of the odor that from the very first he had detected, faintly in the beginning, then more strongly, and finally it was suffocating: the odor of death.
Death: it was everywhere beneath all the luxury and uproar. Christophe discovered the explanation of the feeling of repugnance with which certain French plays had filled him. It was not their immorality that shocked him. Morality, immorality, amorality,—all these words mean nothing. Christophe had never invented any moral theory: he loved the great poets and great musicians of the past, and they were no saints: when he came across a great artist he did not inquire into his morality: he asked him rather:
“Are you healthy?”
To be healthy was the great thing. “If the poet is ill, let him first of all cure himself,” as Goethe says. “When he is cured, he will write.”
The writers of Paris were unhealthy: or if one of them happened to be healthy, the chances were that he was ashamed of it: he disguised it, and did his best to catch some disease. Their sickness was not shown in any particular feature of their art:—the love of pleasure, the extreme license of mind, or the universal trick of criticism which examined and dissected every idea that was expressed. All these things could be—and were, as the case might be—healthy or unhealthy. If death was there, it did not come from the material, but from the use that these people made of it; it was in the people themselves. And Christophe himself loved pleasure. He, too, loved liberty. He had drawn down upon himself the displeasure of his little German town by his frankness in defending many things, which he found here, promulgated by these Parisians, in such a way as to disgust him. And yet they were the same things. But nothing sounded the same to the Parisians and to himself. When Christophe impatiently shook off the yoke of the great Masters of the past, when he waged war against the esthetics and the morality of the Pharisees, it was not a game to him as it was to these men of intellect: and his revolt was directed only towards life, the life of fruitfulness, big with the centuries to come. With these people all tended to sterile enjoyment. Sterile, Sterile, Sterile. That was the key to the enigma. Mind and senses were fruitlessly debauched. A brilliant art, full of wit and cleverness—a lovely form, in truth, a tradition of beauty, impregnably seated, in spite of foreign alluvial deposits—a theater which was a theater, a style which was a style, authors who knew their business, writers who could write, the fine skeleton of an art, and a thought that had been great. But a skeleton. Sonorous words, ringing phrases, the metallic clang of ideas hurtling down the void, witticisms, minds haunted by sensuality, and senses numbed with thought. It was all useless, save for the sport of egoism. It led to death. It was a phenomenon analogous to the frightful decline in the birth-rate of France, which Europe was observing—and reckoning—in silence. So much wit, so much cleverness, so many acute senses, all wasted and wasting in a sort of shameful onanism! They had no notion of it, and wished to have none. They laughed. That was the only thing that comforted Christophe a little: these people could still laugh: all was not lost. He liked them even less when they tried to take themselves seriously: and nothing hurt him more than to see writers, who regarded art as no more than an instrument of pleasure, giving themselves airs as priests of a disinterested religion:
“We are artists,” said Sylvain Kohn once more complacently. “We follow art for art’s sake. Art is always pure: everything in art is chaste. We explore life as tourists, who find everything amusing. We are amateurs of rare sensations, lovers of beauty.”
“You are hypocrites,” replied Christophe bluntly. “Excuse my saying so. I used to think my own country had a monopoly. In Germany our hypocrisy consists in always talking about idealism while we think of nothing but our interests, and we even believe that we are idealists while we think of nothing but ourselves. But you are much worse: you cover your national lewdness with the names of Art and Beauty (with capitals)—when you do not shield your Moral Pilatism behind the names of Truth, Science, Intellectual Duty, and you wash your hands of the possible consequences of your haughty inquiry. Art for art’s sake!… That’s a fine faith! But it is the faith of the strong. Art! To grasp life, as the eagle claws its prey, to bear it up into the air, to rise with it into the serenity of space!… For that you need talons, great wings, and a strong heart. But you are nothing but sparrows who, when they find a piece of carrion, rend it here and there, squabbling for it, and twittering … Art for art’s sake!… Oh! wretched men! Art is no common ground for the feet of all who pass it by. Why, it is a pleasure, it is the most intoxicating of all. But it is a pleasure which is only won at the cost of a strenuous fight: it is the laurel-wreath that crowns the victory of the strong. Art is life tamed. Art is the Emperor of life. To be Cæsar a man must have the soul of Cæsar. But you are only limelight Kings: you are playing a part, and do not even deceive yourselves. And, like those actors, who turn to profit their deformities, you manufacture literature out of your own deformities and those of your public. Lovingly do you cultivate the diseases of your people, their fear of effort, their love of pleasure, their sensual minds, their chimerical humanitarianism, everything in them that drugs the will, everything in them that saps their power for action. You deaden their minds with the fumes of opium. Behind it all is death: you know it: but you will not admit it. Well, I tell you: Where death is, there art is not. Art is the spring of life. But even the most honest of your writers are so cowardly that even when the bandage is removed from their eyes they pretend not to see: they have the effrontery to say:
“‘It is dangerous, I admit: it is poisonous: but it is full of talent.’
“It is as if a judge, sentencing a hooligan, were to say:
“‘He’s a blackguard, certainly: but he has so much talent!…'”
* * * * *
Christophe wondered what was the use of French criticism. There was no lack of critics: they swarmed all over and about French art. It was impossible to see the work of the artists: they were swamped by the critics.
Christophe was not indulgent towards criticism in general. He found it difficult to admit the utility of these thousands of artists who formed a Fourth or Fifth Estate in the modern community: he read in it the signs of a worn-out generation which relegates to others the business of regarding life—feeling vicariously. And, to go farther, it seemed to him not a little shameful that they could not even see with their own eyes the reflection of life, but must have yet more intermediaries, reflections of the reflection—the critics. At least, they ought to have seen to it that the reflections were true. But the critics reflected nothing but the uncertainty of the mob that moved round them. They were like those trick mirrors which reflect again and again the faces of the sightseers who gaze into them against a painted background.
There had been a time when the critics had enjoyed a tremendous authority in France. The public bowed down to their decrees: and they were not far from regarding them as superior to the artists, as artists with intelligence:—(apparently the two words do not go together naturally). Then they had multiplied too rapidly: there were too many oracles: that spoiled the trade. When there are so many people, each of whom declares that he is the sole repository of truth, it is impossible to believe them: and in the end they cease to believe it themselves. They were discouraged: in the passage from night to day, according to the French custom, they passed from one extreme to the other. Where they had before professed to know everything, they now professed to know nothing. It was a point of honor with them, quite fatuously. Renan had taught those milksop generations that it is not correct to affirm anything without denying it at once, or at least casting a doubt on it. He was one of those men of whom St. Paul speaks: “For whom there is always Yes, Yes, and then No, No.” All the superior persons in France had wildly embraced this amphibious Credo. It exactly suited their indolence of mind and weakness of character. They no longer said of a work of art that it was good or bad, true or false, intelligent or idiotic. They said:
“It may be so…. Nothing is impossible…. I don’t know…. I wash my hands of it.”
If some objectionable piece were put up, they did not say:
“That is nasty rubbish!”
“Sir Sganarelle, please do not talk like that. Our philosophy bids us talk of everything open-mindedly: and therefore you ought not to say: ‘That is nasty rubbish!’ but: ‘It seems to me that that is nasty rubbish…. But it is not certain that it is so. It may be a masterpiece. Who can say that it is not?'”
There was no danger of their being accused of tyranny over the arts. Schiller once taught them a lesson when he reminded the petty tyrants of the Press of his time of what he called bluntly:
“_The Duty of Servants.
“First, the house must be clean that the Queen is to enter. Bustle about, then! Sweep the rooms. That is what you are there for, gentlemen!
“But as soon as She appears, out you go! Let not the serving-wench sit in her lady’s chair!_”
But, to be just to the critics of that time, it must be said that they never did sit in their lady’s chair. It was ordered that they should be servants: and servants they were. But bad servants: they never took a broom in their hands: the room was thick with dust. Instead of cleaning and tidying, they folded their arms, and left the work to be done by the master, the divinity of the day:—Universal Suffrage.
In fact, there had been for some time a wave of reaction passing through the popular conscience. A few people had set out—feebly enough—on a campaign of public health: but Christophe could see no sign of it among the people with whom he lived. They gained no hearing, and were laughed at. When every now and then some honest man did raise a protest against unclean art, the authors replied haughtily that they were in the right, since the public was satisfied. That was enough to silence every objection. The public had spoken: that was the supreme law of art! It never occurred to anybody to impeach the evidence of a debauched public in favor of those who had debauched them, or that it was the artist’s business to lead the public, not the public the artist. A numerical religion—the number of the audience, and the sum total of the receipts—dominated the artistic thought of that commercialized democracy. Following the authors, the critics docilely declared that the essential function of a work of art was to please. Success is law: and when success endures, there is nothing to be done but to bow to it. And so they devoted their energies to anticipating the fluctuations of the Exchange of pleasure, in trying to find out what the public thought of the various plays. The joke of it was that the public was always trying frantically to find out what the critics thought. And so there they were, looking at each, other: and in each other’s eyes they saw nothing but their own indecision.
And yet never had there been such crying need of a fearless critic. In an anarchical Republic, fashion, which is all-powerful in art, very rarely looks backward, as it does in a conservative State: it goes onwards always: and there is a perpetual competition of libertinism which hardly anybody dare resist. The mob is incapable of forming an opinion: at heart it is shocked: but nobody dares to say what everybody secretly feels. If the critics were strong, if they dared to be strong, what a power they would have! A vigorous critic would in a few years become the Napoleon of public taste, and sweep away all the diseases of art. But there is no Napoleon in France, All the critics live in that vitiated atmosphere, and do not notice it. And they dare not speak. They all know each other. They are a more or less close company, and they have to consider each other: not one of them is independent. To be so, they would have to renounce their social life, and even their friendships. Who is there that would have the courage, in such a knock-kneed time, when even the best critics doubt whether a just notice is worth the annoyance it may cause to the writer and the object of it? Who is there so devoted to duty that he would condemn himself to such a hell on earth: dare to stand out against opinion, fight the imbecility of the public, expose the mediocrity of the successes of the day, defend the unknown artist who is alone and at the mercy of the beasts of prey, and subject the minds of those who were born to obey to the dominion of the master-mind? Christophe actually heard the critics at a first night in the vestibule of the theater say: “H’m! Pretty bad, isn’t it? Utter rot!” And next day in their notices they talked of masterpieces, Shakespeare, the wings of genius beating above their heads.
“It is not so much talent that your art lacks as character,” said
Christophe to Sylvain Kohn. “You need a great critic, a Lessing, a …”
“A Boileau?” said Sylvain quizzically.
“A Boileau, perhaps, more than these artists of genius.”
“If we had a Boileau,” said Sylvain Kohn, “no one would listen to him.”
“If they did not listen to him,” replied Christophe, “he would not be a Boileau. I bet you that if I set out and told you the truth about yourselves, quite bluntly, however clumsy I might be, you would have to gulp it down.”
“My dear good fellow!” laughed Sylvain Kohn.
That was all the reply he made.
He was so cocksure and so satisfied with the general flabbiness of the French that suddenly it occurred to Christophe that Kohn was a thousand times more of a foreigner in France than himself: and there was a catch at his heart.
“It is impossible,” he said once more, as he had said that evening when he had left the theater on the boulevards in disgust. “There must be something else.”
“What more do you want?” asked Sylvain Kohn.
“We are France,” said Sylvain Kohn, gurgling with laughter.
Christophe stared hard at him for a moment, then shook his head, and said once more:
“There must be something else.”
“Well, old man, you’d better look for it,” said Sylvain Kohn, laughing louder than ever.
Christophe had to look for it. It was well hidden.
Categories: English Literature