Joseph Joubert (17541824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.
IN1 May 1824 there died in Paris a man who had in its perfection that rarest of all gifts, the gift for friendship. He was himself possessed of fine literary taste, of many thoughts, and a practised charm of style; but his work was and remains less than himself; and admirable and delightful as were the literary fragments he left behind himthe fragments of maxim and reflection which are known to us as the Pensées de Joubertthe man who produced them, as he moved among his friends, chatting, writing, kindling was not only more admirable and more delightful, but also of greater literary effect. Joubert was the counsellor and herald of Chateaubriandthat great Chateaubriand of whom M. de Vogüé has just said that henceforward any one well acquainted with French literature, and picking up a book without name and without date, will always be able to say: This was written before or after Chateaubriand. He was also the intimate friend and critic of some of the men who, after the boundless ruin and dislocation of the Terror, came together under the Consulate and the Empire for the re-building of institutions in a re-organised France. The old University of Paris, for instance, was no more. The new University, as Bonaparte designed and re-created it, had for its first grand master Fontanes, the intimate friend of Joubert, and Joubert belonged to its first Council. He took an eager interest in the University affairs, and there are letters of his extant on the re-organisation of studies and administration which breathe the very spirit of French cultureits delicacy and acuteness, its classical tradition, its prejudices and limitations.
But Joubert himself was never an official, nor a man of action, not even a man of letters in the professional sensefar from it. Inspirez et nécrivez pas! says a French writer speaking to women, and Joubert took these words to himself, and may almost be said to have made a rule of life from them. He did write indeed; there are the Penséessure of their modest but enduring place in French literature. But this writing of his was infinitely slow and scanty. It was the quiet, life-long deposit of himself. Drop by drop the thoughts fell, crystallising and taking shape in a gentle and tranquil obscurity. And, in general, he did not write them for writings sake. They came to him from friendship, from talk with Fontanes or Chauteaubriand, from the play of mind excited in him by a letter to Madame de Beaumont or Madame de Vintimillein short, from that delicate social art which was once the source and stimulus of half the great things in French literature, and is still, in spite of all drawbacks and destructions, more active and more exquisitely understood in France than elsewhere. He lived, he thought, he felt, through his friends. Though his life was often solitary, his mind was never alone. A man of very uncertain health, his physical weakness gave him the opportunity for many subtleties and perfections of sympathy that sound men have no time for. As Chateaubriand so finely said of him, His great aim was tranquillity, and no one was so troubled as he.Cétait un égoiste qui ne soccupait que des autres.
This short sketch will not attempt any fresh estimate of Joubert as a man of letters. In this respect the judgment which, for English readers, holds the field is the judgment of Matthew Arnold. The well-known study in the Essays in Criticism, from which a certain number of translations have been carried to the following pages by the permission of Mr. Arnolds representatives [represented by his initials, i.e., M.A.], made Jouberts place in English literary thought, and keeps him there. The impression which it left remains; and from one especially who not only derived from Matthew Arnold a literary impulse and joy never to be forgotten, but stood to him besides in the close and tender relations of kinship, a few supplemental and biographical pages, based here and there on recent books, are all that a reader will look for. A whole band, moreover, of competent French critics have dwelt on Jouberts merits and affinities as a French writer. So that although it will be necessary to recall a few literary data in the following pages, and I shall also allow myself to quote Amiels verdict on Joubert as a writer and thinkera verdict published long after the Essays in Criticismwhat I shall mainly dwell on will be the facts and relations of Jouberts personal history. Enough is known to us to show him in his habit as he lived, as a man, a friend, a correspondent. And the reader who takes with him the memory of these personal incidents and affections will find, as he turns to the Pensées, that it invests them with a new charm, that it neutralises that slight air of pedantry which perhaps such a book must always wear in the eyes of after-generations, and makes him docile and friendly towards the writer, even when he is most fine-spun, or most dogmatic.
Joseph Joubert was born in 1754, and he died in 1824. Those seventy years saw the disappearance of the old Europe, and the tragic birth of the new. Joubert was a child in southern France at the outbreak of the Seven Years War; he went up to Paris at four and twenty, in the death-year of Voltaire and Rousseau, when Diderot, to whom he attached himself, was still at the height of power; he saw the triumph of the salons and the appearance of the Confessions; he passed through the Revolution and the Terror; he helped Chateaubriand to give voice and expression to that new and stormy life of Europe which was nonetheless conscious of all that it had conquered because it returned so passionately, so remorsefully, to much that it had overthrown; and he outlived Napoleon, and died a few weeks after Byron.
Of this long life, the determining facts, intellectually, were no doubt Jouberts intercourse with Diderot in youth, and his later friendship with Chateaubriand, which began in 1800, when Joubert was forty-six.
The two are in reality closely connected. It was under the influence of the most varied and inventive genius of the eighteenth century that Joubert caught his first glimpses of a new literary age, that he developed his presentiment of a literary art, more penetrating, heartfelt, and profound, than the eighteenth century was able to realise; it was Diderot the experimenter, Diderot the daring and inexhaustible author of the Neveu de Rameau, who set the younger man on the alert, whose influence developed in a mind that might have easily turned to the affectations and trivialities of literature, those hardiesses,as his friends called themthat affinity for and prophecy of the Romantic spirit which emerges so curiously in Joubert, amid the classical culture and measure, the judgments, admirations and dislikes, that belong in the main to the France of his youth, the France of the philosophers.
But though he deeply felt the influence of Diderot, and never in his later days spoke ill of him, Joubert was no child of Liberalism. He reproaches himself in later life that he was for a time led away by the philosophers. In reality he must always have moved among them as an alien. It was not for nothing that he was brought up by the Pères de la Doctrine Chrétienne at Toulouse. He was on the side of faith both by temperament and training, and though his quick intellect felt the spur of Paris in those eager rushing years that preceded the Revolution, the deeper instincts of his fastidious, critical nature, his passion for measure, order, antiquity, and the subtler kinds of beauty, threw him inevitably into opposition, withdrew him from the crowd, and made him distrust the optimists of the moment, the champions of progress and perfectibility. What he felt and thought, however, during the first years of the Revolution there is little or no direct evidence to show. He married at Paris, in 1793, in the very midst of the Terror; and when the storm is over we see him first as the devoted friend and correspondent of Pauline de Beaumont; then as the herald of Chateaubriand and of a re-adorned Catholicism; and finally as the eager admirer of the First Consul and of that one-man power, in which, at its rise, and before the Empire, the delicate student and recluse saw the only hope for his country. From the return of the Bourbons onwards Joubert must be held to belong to the camp of reaction, so far at any rate as his friends and surroundings were concerned. It is clear enough that in the last years of his life his house in the Rue St. Honoré was the centre of many unwise people and many tyrannical opinions. As a sympathetic Frenchman puts it, he and his friends sought to restore and strengthen in the heart of man the feelings that preserve, instead of, like their predecessors, encouraging and spreading abroad the feelings that destroy. His cautious nephew and biographer, M. Paul de Raynal, admits that in his last years some of his old comrades visited him less frequently than before, because of the invasion of his house and salon by opinions that cared little for conciliation; and the key to Jouberts own inmost feelings and to his tolerance for men like the intolerant and ultramontane M. de Bonald may be found in sayings like these from the Pensées: We must oppose to liberal ideas the moral ideas of all times; orOur age has believed itself to be making progress, when it was merely marching towards precipices; orIt was from errors of the mind that all our woes sprang. And those most obstinately imbued with them have been the most criminal.
Nevertheless, Joubert can never have been in full sympathy with his reactionary circle. As soon as any opinion tended to violence his temperament rebelled. He would cut himself off at any rate from its active expressions, from the newspapers or the politics through which it worked; he would refuse to be its slave; he would make perpetual effort, lessening in strength no doubt as the years passed on, to recover or to retain his mental pliancy and freedom. It was to this mingled love for the old, and secret inborn jealousy for the new, that we may trace his recognition of Chateaubriand.
With all the later portion of Jouberts life, indeed, the career and success of Chateaubriand are no less significantly connected than the influence of Diderot with his earlier years. The novelty and poignancy of Chateaubriands talent laid hold on him, because behind his reserve, his moderation, his critical subtlety, he was all the time on the watch for novelty and poignancy. And when the new and all-conquering talent threw itself into the service of the old Church, and of the expelled faith, which was now flowing back upon France like some great river upon its ancient channels, Joubert made himself alternately the herald and the guardian of the new force. When Atala is on the point of appearing, he scolds Madame de Beaumonts anxieties, in a memorable passage, that belongs to the history of French literature:
I cannot share your fears, he says, for what is beautiful must please; and in this book there is a Venus, heavenly for some, earthly for others, but perceptible by all. It is not a book like other books. There is in it a charm, a talisman, which belongs to the fingers of the workman. He has scattered it everywhere, because his hand has been everywhere; and wherever this charm, this stamp, this character makes itself felt, there will be pleasure, and a pleasure that satisfies. The book is done, and therefore the critical moment is over. Succeed it must, because it comes from the enchanter.
And later, when, after the brilliant success of Atala, Chateaubriand and Madame de Beaumont were together at Savigny, bringing the Génie du Christianisme into final shape, Joubert, the learned and the critical, is tormented with one dread onlylest the poet should trust too little to his poetry, and too much to his authorities. For Heavens sake, he cries to Madame de Beaumont, dont let him read too much, or quote too much! Tell him the public will care very little for his quotations and a great deal for his thoughts; that people are much more curious about his genius than his learning; that they will look not for truth, but for beauty, in his book; that his gift alone, not his learning, will make the fortune of it; that in short he must depend on Chateaubriand to make the world love Christianity, and not upon Christianity to make the world love Chateaubriand.
Never, given the moment and the man, did friend or critic speak with a more penetrating insight. The advice was itself the fruit of long literary training, working on an exquisite literary sense. On the other hand, Jouberts experience of Chateaubriand, his reflections upon the nature of that strange inaugurative genius, and on the differences between his friend and himself, may be traced in many passages of the Pensées. He unfolds thought after thought, most suggestive, most modern, as to the power of mere personality, the uselessness of mere taking thought, the spell that belongs to the enchanter, and to the personal accent that none can acquire or imitate. And one feels that all the time he is thinking of Chateaubriand. Moreover, that he has in view all through that great French public, which is above all preoccupied with the secrets of expression, and of effect.
Far away, in Germany, a learning was growing up, at this very moment, on these very subjects, beside which the quotations and authorities of the Génie du Christianisme look poor indeed. But this learning has not yet crossed the French border. M. Taine, and his brilliant sketch of the invasion of the French mind by German science, are still in the distance; M. Renan is not yet born; and the prevailing French tone on matters of research is that expressed in a contemptuous sentence of Fontanes to Gueneau de Mussy:A German, at the end of thirty years, knows much, but knows it ill; a Frenchman, like you(the young gentleman, while unluckily ignorant of numismatics, is somehow to be fitted into a numismatical post)at the end of a few months knows a little less, but knows it well. Jouberts whole-hearted belief in Chateaubriand belongs, like Fontanes scorn for the Germans, to the pre-researching age in France. But it springs still more from the traditional French passion for form, touched by something peculiarly modern; informed by sympathies that belong to a new time; more intimate, passionate, interrogative, personal; searching ever wider horizons, and sinking ever deeper plummets into the human soul. Chateaubriand brought a new landscape, a new passion, a new thrill into French literature. In doing it he was often vain, extravagant, and false. His learning was hasty and borrowed, his pretensions enormous. The Ginguenés and Morellets of the timetrue sons of the Encyclopædia and the Enlightenmentthrew themselves upon his work, and found no difficulty whatever in tearing it to pieces. Joubert, as critical, as classical as any one else, knew better. The delicate invalid and recluse, who lived shut up with his Plato and Virgil, his Cicero and Plutarch, his La Bruyère and his Bossuet, for whom Racine was not pure enough, and Rousseau only a corrupting and poisonous forcethis subtlest and most concentrated of writers, tormented, as he tells us, with the desire to get a phrase into a word and a book into a phrase, did yet discern in the stormy gift of Chateaubriand, in his glowing, faulty abundance, the dawn of that great Romantic movement, at once so tender to the past and so infinitely curious of new experience, in which we moderns still stand. It is this critical perception in Joubert which assures him his place, his small but honoured place, in the history of French letters. For it is these intuitions which make the critic himself creative, which, in their degree, snatch him also from black Orcus and put him among the stars.
The relation to Diderot, then, and the relation to Chateaubriandthese are the two points to be remembered in Jouberts literary history. In his private and personal history the points of determining importance are his marriage, his devotion to Pauline de Beaumont, and the friendship of his later years for Madame de Vintimille. These indeed are its only incidents, unless we except his passing activity in the affairs of the new University under his friend Fontanes grand-mastership. After his marriage in 1793, during the great years when Europe was re-made, the Joubert family knew no external event more exciting than their spring migration to Paris, matched by their winter return to their home at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. And in his daily life Joubert was always protecting himself against emotions, keeping out the newspapers, refusing to read or discuss politics when politics became tormenting, withdrawing himself from all the persons and writings that did not yield him pleasure or edification. He would spend whole days in bed, clad in the pink silk spenser that his friends remembered, couched there like a horse in its stall, trying to feel nothing and think of nothing. And all the time, as Chateaubriand testifies, one of the most agitated and troubled of men!troubled by literary effort and the pains of literary production, but troubled above all by the efforts, ambitions, and sorrows of a small number of beloved human beings, and throwing into a letter, a suggestion, a criticism, the whole nervous energy of his fragile being. There is a picture of him still in the possession of his family which shows precisely the thin face and form, the sharp features, the bright yet dreamy eye that any reader of the letters and Pensées might have expected. A friend said of him that he had the air of a soul that has somehow met with a body, and is doing the best it can with it; and Jouberts half-feminine interest in his own peculiarities accepted the description and liked it.
From all his later troubles of health or feeling his marriage, which took place in his fortieth year, seems to have been his best and enduring defence. His happiness was there, though not his romance. Originally, his union with Mademoiselle Moreau de Bussy was brought about by that fine French sense for what is practical and profitable, which has so much to do with French marriage in its best aspects. Joubert had been accustomed to visit some relations at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, one of the grave, red-roofed Burgundian towns. There he met with Mademoiselle Moreau de Bussy, a lady no longer young, living with her old mother and her brothers, all like himselffor he was a doctors sonof a quiet professional type. Presently this little circle of relations and friends was broken by two deaths; and at last the eldest brother died. The active, managing daughter, a person of undemonstrative manners, but absorbed nevertheless in her family affections and domestic duties, was suddenly bewildered, thrown out of gear, by sorrow. Her breakdown under it seems to have astonished herself, and still more her old friend Joseph Joubert. He became her comforter; then all at once their relation and its possibilities appeared to him in a new light, and he wrote her the following letterhow characteristic both of the man and the milieu!
I am, alasand I groan over ityour oldest friend now that so many others are no more; the words rise to my pen from the very bottom of my heart. Think always how dear you are to me for many reasons; round you have gathered and concentrated all the feelings that were once inspired in me by a whole group and society. I love now, in you, both yourself and your brother, and your friendthe country which gave me so much pleasure, and the memories that my heart reveres.
You are a trust that your misfortunes have laid on me; a trust that I must keep and guard at all costs; a trust that I must have within reach, so that I may watch over it constantly. Yes, I must be near you, and you near me. What is the good of all that I say to you, and of all that I could say to you? It is like dropping good wine into a glass full of tears; one must first pour them away, and dry up the source of them; and no hand can do it, unless perhaps it be mine. To this use I devote it. It rests with you to make me waste my time, my health, my soul and body, in cares, efforts and prayers; or, on the other hand, to spare me all that, and to leave me what strength I have for other things, by consenting blindly to what must come if you live, and I live. Consent, then, at once: afterwards I will do whatever you like; consent, because you trust me: I will justify the trust: consent, in spite of yourself, and with repugnance,I care nothing now for all that; it is the wills turn. If I were only twenty-five, I would give you ten years to think, and to answer me. But I am just thirty-eight; I wont give you a day, an hour, a minute, and I will be as obstinate as a mule. Spare me then a sea of trouble, and in one word say to me: Very well! I consent to it, in the hope that some day I may wish it.
Mademoiselle Moreau de Bussy consented. Joubert, already the beloved friend of her mother and brothers, entered the Villeneuve household; there was some talk for a time of a separate ménage; then it died away, and the delicate, sweet-tempered, whimsical man of letters became the pride, almost the spoilt child of his adopted family, and lived with them to the end on terms of the most honourable and scrupulous affection. A number of the sayings in the Pensées must be interpreted in the light of the patriarchal customs, the fine frugal old-world manners, the sober generosities and reasonable faiths that seem to have prevailed in this large middle-class family of the most typical French stock, whereof Joubert had thus become a member. For his wife, she remained his guardian and best friend for thirty years; she had not much literature, nor many emotions; but she knew neither selfish passions nor small jealousies; and to move her to expression you had only to be ill and unhappy. In one of his later letters Joubert quietly says of her: I knew that she had merit, and some charms. The charms are gone; the merit remains. And again, to Madame de Beaumont: I count a great deal on your discernment to discover the feelings and the merit that she has the bad habit of not showing enough. In old days, when I met her among her people, she seemed to me a violet under a bush. And since then fate has come upon her; her griefs have trampled her under foot, and her leaves hide her from sight.
Sometime in the summer of 1794, either just before or just after the fall of Robespierre, it came to the Jouberts knowledge that a young lady, the married daughter of that ill-fated Minister of Foreign Affairs, M. de Montmorin, who had perished in the September massacres of 92, was in hiding at a vinedressers cottage, a few miles from Villeneuve, somewhere on the road between Passy-sur-Yonne and Sens. The account of what she had gone through took hold on Joubert; he went over at once to see what he could do for her. They met outside the cottage, and as he talked with Pauline de Beaumont, Joubert, the learned and meditative student, seems to have realised for the first time that particular heightening which birth and manner, and all the subtler arts of social charm, can add to the attractions of a woman who possesses besides heart and sweetness, that intelligence, rather receptive than original, which makes her the natural friend of distinguished menof men who seek in a woman just that degree of fine ability which evokes their own, and pass coldly by the rival and clamant genius of a Madame de Staël.
When Joubert first saw Pauline she was under the immediate shadow of calamities that had in truth exhausted the springs of being, and left her only a few years to live. It was not two years since her father had been hacked to pieces outside the Abbaye prison, and it was only a few months since her mother and her young brother Calixte had fallen under the guillotine, and her poor sister, the Vicomtesse de Luzerne, had died of fever and anguish in the horrible hospital of the Saint Lazare prison, in February or March, 94. When the agents of the Committee of Public Safety fell upon the château near Passy in which the Montmorins were gathered, they carried off the mother, son, and two daughters. But Pauline was so ill and thin that they thought her dying, and in order not to be troubled with her on the journey to Paris, they stopped the cart and dropped her on the snow-covered road. She crawled back to a cottage belonging to some peasants she knew. They took her in, and about the middle of May she heard that mother, sister, and brother had been put to death, while every weeks news, besides, told her of friend after friend thrown to the blood-thirst of Paris. From these blows she never recovered, though she lived for nine years afterwards. When Chateaubriand put up a monument to her in Rome, the sculptor under his direction imagined a tender and pathetic figure stretching her arms towards a throng of faces looking down upon her, and the sure instinct of the poet engraved below the cry of RachelQuia non sunt!
Her condition and her story took possession of Joubert and of his wife. They urged her to come to them at Villeneuve. Pauline, however, preferred to stay with the labourer who had sheltered her, but during the autumn and winter months the constant interchange of visits, books, and letters between her and the Villeneuve household laid the foundations of a friendship that was to mean a great deal to Madame de Beaumont, and still more to Joubert. Pauline de Beaumont was a person in whom the intellectual and aristocratic traditions of eighteenth century Paris were equally strong. As a girl in her fathers house we hear of her spending 7000 écus in a year on the purchase and binding of books; and when Joubert first saw her he found her buried in the study of philosophy, especially of Kant. The agony she had suffered and witnessed had produced two marked effects. Her religious faith was gone; the world in her eyes had neither God nor justice. On the other hand, her intelligence had revived with passionate force. One must love no more, believe no more, she seems to have said to herself; the world is too horrible; but in books and speculation one may at least forget it for a whiletill the end comes. She read, therefore, incessantlyliterature, history, philosophy. And what she read she discussed with Joubert. After her death, Joubert wrote to a friend:Madame de Beaumont understood everything. You and I will never find her like again . She was excellent to consult about ideas. She judged them admirably, and one might be sure that what had charmed her was exquisite indeedif not for the crowd, at least for the elect.
For six years, to comfort and cheer Pauline de Beaumont, to talk, read, and discuss with her, made the constant emotion, the daily innocent joy of Jouberts existence. His romance, profound as it came to be, was as harmless as himself. He was constantly contriving for this lonely woman small pleasures, gifts, and surprises; he tried to scold her back gently into health and happiness, as he had done with his wife, only in subtler and less homely ways.
I shall never be able to admire you at my ease, he writes to her in the early days of their friendship,and to respect you as much as I should like to do, until I discover in you the finest courage of all, the courage to be happy.
But to reach it, you must first of all have the courage to take care of yourself, the wish to get well, and the will to be cured. I shall only believe you capable of it when you have lost, once for all, your charming fancy for dying on a journey, in some village inn . In the name of intelligence, reason, humanity, and virtue, I conjure you, as soon as you get to Paris, to consult first of all a good doctor, and then to do what he tells you. You want not only to live quietly, and by rule; you want positive remedies . If you delay these precautions, you will have in the end to go far from home, and from us, and perhaps without gaining anything by it. That, you will say, will be best of all. It would be soonest ended. Soonest, yesbut not soon. Dying takes a long time, and if, brutally speaking, it is sometimes agreeable to be dead, it is frightful to be dying for centuries. In short, when one has life one must love it; it is a duty. As for the whys of this statement, they are innumerable; I confine myself to asserting it. Perhaps it will annoy you; but even to please you, I am not going to keep silence on such a truth.
All the lighter and more graceful sides of life, and the more exquisite forms of courtesy were no doubt largely developed in Joubert by his knowledge of Madame de Beaumont. She and her friends taught himthe doctors son, from a provincial milieuwhat they had to give. The class to which Pauline de Beaumont belonged has the leisure to be witty, to think out all the delicacies of social relation, to build up the little nothingsthe letters, talks, and walksof every day, into a many-coloured fabric of pleasure. Jouberts nephew and biographer rather pompously admits: It waswhy deny it?a happy circumstance in his life, this close friendship which chance brought about between himself and all that Paris could still supply of persons distinguished by birth, fortune, education, and good taste. Men assuredly are the sons of their works; but however gifted they may be, they owe nearly always a part of their ultimate worth to some accidental meeting or event. Certainly during the nine years of their friendship, above all during the six years before Chateaubriand intervened, Joubert, as his papers testified after his death, wrote more freely, more happily, more effectively than before. The Joubert family learnt at last to spend part of every year in Paris, in order, as it would seem, to be near Madame de Beaumont, and through her little salon in the Rue Neuve du Luxembourg Joubert found his way to a world where he belonged, a world of fastidious thought and feeling where he was amply at home.
From the letters of these years one might quote a number of delightful passages, passages that have the gentle humour, the affectionate lightness of Cowper, orhere and therepassages in direct relation with great men and great events, such as our English letter-writer cannot show.
Here is a letter of protest addressed to Madame de Beaumont at Theilto a lady tired of herself, her thoughts, and the country, and half inclined to go to Paris in search of friends, talk, and news. Joubert is indignant; he guesses that it is Madame de Staël, le tourbillon, as he liked to call the author of Corinne, who is drawing her back to the agitations of Paris. He is afraid for her health. And besides, while she is at Theil or at Passy she is his neighbour, and within his reach; letters and books pass between them perpetually, and Joubert is happy:
I commend you, he writes, to all the saints, male and female, of Theil, to its caverns of green, its lakes of air and sunshine, and that river of light which flows between you and Sens! I commend you also to those glassy pools, which reflect your weeds. Mr. Shandy thinks much of pools and ponds; he will have it that a healing virtue rises from them. If so, may their divine mist steal on yousteep your soul in it! Malediction on those whose society has put you out of love with solitude! They may be proud of it; I regard it as a crime. Why must you go and live with these restless spirits? They have at their head a whirlwind that is always hunting the clouds. They would like to ride the storm, of which all the time they are the mere playthings. The tumult in which they live has spoilt you;but you will come round!
Nothing in the world, he declares, is more fatal both to happiness and goodness than the passions of the mind, when they are continuous. Intellectual craving is the most tormenting and insatiable of all cravings. It can be satisfied so rarely that the mind in which it reigns is forever tormented by desire without possession, and voracity without a prey. As for the social passion, the passion for the public goodto which no doubt Madame de Staël has often appealedit is at this particular moment pure folly. Bonaparte was at this particular moment pursuing his victorious career in Italy; Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant were fighting for the defence of the Directory and constitutional liberty against the royalists on the one hand and the rising power of the young conqueror on the other. The forces that were to rule the future were still unrevealed, though the 18th Fructidor, the next great step in Bonapartes career, was just approaching. The world, cries Joubert, is given over to chance. Those who think they can stop its course by throwing into the waves the gravel and sand of their small intriguesa shot meant of course for Madame de Staël and her circleare ignorant of all and everything. I greatly prefer to them the modest gentleman who spends his harmless time in dropping stones into his well, and watching the rounds they make. He at least knows he is of no use, but these people think themselves important, and Heaven knows what time, brains, and merit they waste to become so! They are like children playing at disturbing crowns, and mending sceptres. They say they are anxious, and they are only restless. I beseech of you, on bended knees, love to be quiet! Admire, venerate repose! It is, I assure you, at this moment the only way to make few mistakes, and suffer few woes. I am so persuaded of it, that I have just sent orders to Paris that no more newspapers are to be sent to me, produced by people who can read and write. I will not be ignorant of what happens; but I will think about it, trouble about it no more.
But for all this petulance, when Bonaparte at last takes his place, when the hour and the man have met, Joubert has an admirable passage. He rejoices in returning order, and what seems to himthough not to the keener eyes of Madame de Staëlreturning liberty.
Bonaparte is an admirable vice-king, he writes in 1800. Cet homme nest point parvenu; il est arrivé à sa place. I love him. But for him one could feel no admiration any more for anything alive and powerful . I wish him constantly all the virtues, all the resources, all the enlightenment, all the perfections that he lacks, or that he has never had time to get. Through him enthusiasm, which was lost, idle, extinguished, annihilated, has sprung up again; and not only for him, but for all other great men, whom he too admires. His adventures have silenced the intellect, and kindled the imagination. Wonder is born again, for the delight of a saddened earth, where no excellence was left conspicuous enough to impose itself on the rest. May he keep all his success; may he be more and more worthy of it; may he remain master for long! He is master indeed; and he knows how to be. We had infinite need of him! But he is young, he is mortal, and I despise all his associates!
This was in 1800a year of infinite importance for Pauline de Beaumont, and through her for Joubert. Chateaubriand, newly returned from his eight years exile in England, was brought one day, in the spring of 1800, by Fontanes, his friend and Jouberts, to the little salon in the Rue Neuve du Luxembourg. Pauline de Beaumont was then just thirty, and in the height of her delicate and plaintive charm. She was about to free herself by divorce from the last links of a degrading marriagemarriage with a man who had probably played a small but hideous part in the massacre of all her kindred under the Terror. She was beginning to recover her cheerfulness, and apparently her health. Many friends surrounded her, of whom Joubert was the most intimate and the most devoted. But the deepest and happiest emotions of life poor Pauline herself had never known. The entrance of Chateaubriand, young, handsome, moody, absorbed in his own genius, steeped in the selfishness of the artist, yet capable at any moment of a childish spontaneity and charm which ravished his companions, was the stroke of destiny for a woman who craved to love, and was now, by giving her heart to Chateaubriand, to lose whatever faint last chance remained to her of happiness. Thenceforward Pauline de Beaumonts life was not her own. She lived for the writer of Atala, for his hopes, his fame, his success. Her fragile being consumed itself in efforts and ambitions for the man who had thus suddenly enchanted her.
But happiness was impossible. Chateaubriand was married, in the first place; although his wife at that moment meant little or nothing to him, and it was nearly ten years since he had seen her. In the next, he was absorbed in the passion for literary success, and it is perfectly clear that, until the last touching weeks in Rome, Pauline de Beaumont was mainly important to him because she greatly contributed to that success. He was her willing guest for seven months in a country home at Savigny, while she threw herself heart and soul into the completion of the Génie du Christianisme, listening, inspiring, criticising, copying for him in the morning, walking with him in the afternoon, writing letters to Joubert and others in quest of the books he wanted, and expressing to Joubert her trembling anxiety lest lack of knowledge or courage on her part should stand in the way of the due perfecting of the book, and the necessary correction of its faults. They were the happiest months of Paulines existence. But the book was finished at last, and Pauline was called back to Paris by the illness of a little niece. All in fact was over; and she knew it. In the course of the following year, after the enormous success of his book, and as the reward of it, Chateaubriand went to Rome as secretary to the embassy of Cardinal Fesch. Pauline de Beaumont was left behind to read the old books, to write the old letters to Joubert, and presently to recognise that she was very ill. She went to Auvergne to take a cure at Mont-Dore, and during the weeks of lonely suffering that she spent there, she wrote a few tragic fragments of a journal that still exist.
How can I desire to live? she writes.My past life has been a series of misfortunes; my present life is full of agitation and trouble: all repose of mind has fled me for ever.
This is the 10th of May, the anniversary of the deaths of my brother and my mother! Péris, la dernière et la plus misérable!Oh, why have I not the courage to die? This illness that I was almost weak enough to fear appears to have been arrested, and perhaps I am doomed to live long. It seems to me, however, that I should die with joy. Nobody has more cause to complain of nature than I. She has denied me all, and yet she has given me the power to feel, to realise all that I have missed.
She craves for letters from friends, especially from Joubert, but when they come they give her small pleasure. The restlessness of death is already upon her, and presently the desire to see Chateaubriand again at Rome becomes too strong to be resisted. She speaks vaguely at first to Joubert of going to the south; then she discloses the Roman project. He seems to have opposed it with energy. That fatal journey to Rome, he says later, and the desire to prevent it, absorbed all my thoughts, all my powers. But he could not prevent it. Madame de Beaumont arrived in Rome late in October. She drove in the Campagna with Chateaubriand, she felt the glow of the Italian sun, the breath of the Roman magic. For three weeks she struggled against death; then she died; and the incident which, as his friends feared, was to make Chateaubriand ridiculous, won him the sympathies of Rome, and smoothed away a number of difficulties with which his enormous vanity and his incalculable moods had already encumbered his path. In the Mémoires dOutre-tombe, he gives an account, touched with all the charm of his extraordinary literary gift, of Paulines death. During her last hours he seems to have given her full assurance of a devotion which could no longer embarrass either himself or her; and her poor heart was comforted. As she listened to me, he says, she seemed to die, désespérée et ravie. The phrase must have satisfied the artist; it still haunts the reader. But the Catholic also shows to advantage in these last scenes. The horrors of the Revolution, as we have seen, had robbed Madame de Beaumont of her faith. But as death approached, Chateaubriand prevailed upon her to send for a priest. A good French priest arrived, and heard her confession; afterwards Chateaubriand and her two old servants received the Sacrament with her. When it was all over, and Chateaubriand returned to her, she received him with a faint smile. Etes-vous content de moi? she asked him; and they were almost her last words. All her charm is in them, and all her fate.
During these three years of Chateaubriands ascendency, and during the weeks of her last illness, Jouberts affection for her must have been often sorely tried. He felt no jealousy; he resolutely refused to admit a breath of scandal. He showed and felt an interest in Chateaubriands success only second to hers; he was always ready to advise and to encourage; and when the great book appears, no one more generous and more triumphant than he. But the old response, the close and eager friendship, were his no longer; and as the emotions of these months wore away Paulines strength, Jouberts affection for her took a much deeper and more tumultuous note. My kindnesses, he says, in a letter to his friend M. Molé, have the tenderness and the fire of passionsapparently because, in him, mind and imagination mingled with all his feelings, took possession of them, were constantly employed in heightening them, searching them out, giving them vivid and subtle expression. This brooding introspective mood, he would seem to say, destroys passion: My passions have always lasted but a short time, and have left no trace; but it makes feeling infinitely more productive, expansive, and lasting than it commonly is. And certainly feelingthe sympathy of one human being for anotherhas seldom found more tender and profound expression than in the last letters of Joubert to Madame de Beaumont. They were written to her during her stay at Mont-Dore, and they show the increasing anxiety and dread with which his mind was filled, both as to her moral and physical health, with admirable force; they are a lasting witness to the character of the man who wrote them.
When you get no letters from us, it is at the most one little pleasure the less for you in the world; but when we get none from you, we suffer an unbearable torment . Fear implies with me an unnatural and abnormal state. Judge, then, to what a condition I have been reduced by the terrors of every sort that have shaken me this week, of which you were the subject. I was slow to take alarm; but when the utmost limit of expectation had passed, when the post, which comes three times a week, went by time after time without bringing anything from you; when, in short, the terrible no which always greeted my questionAre there any letters from Mme. de Beaumont?had made my ears burn by its obstinacy and monotony, a kind of trembling took possession of my heart, and I filled all the house with my complaints. At last, a letter that I received yesterday from Mme. de Vintimille tells me that you had written to her from Mont-Dore; that you were much bored, which is at least a sign of life; and that the waters sent you to sleep, which at any rate must rest you. I shall never see her writing again without a keen pleasure, not only on her own account, but still more on yours, and because of the extreme relief that her letter brought me. Now, let your letters arrive when they please, I am at rest. There will be nothing lost but pleasure, and after the trouble of mind I have gone through, everything seems to me rest and happiness.
This letter from Mme. de Vintimille was put into my hands when we were just getting into the carriage. I had not opened it before we set out, because it had taken me some time to growl and storm over the fact that there was nothing else for me than that. We were going sadly towards Bussy, when, as I read the letter by the light of one of the four windows of the carriage, I found and read aloud the mention that it made of you. The surprise of it put the whole carriageful in spirits in a moment, down to the children and the horse. So remind yourself sometimes with what incurable fidelity we all love you, in this little corner of the earth; and may that induce you to get well, and to let us know what it is that you are doing for that good end.
A little later, his language about her health takes a more serious, a more touching tone. He speaks once more of the care of health as a duty that it pleases Heaven to lay upon us; and then he remembers that Madame de Beaumont does not allow herself the comforts and restraints of religious hope. The thought distresses and bewilders him.
I have brought in Heaven (he says) as a necessary ingredient in this hotch-potch of advice. But if you will persist in getting rid of Heaven, in separating it from the earth which it surrounds, and from your ideas of existence, I dont know indeed what those who have no health are to make of the world and life,unless they have the support of some absorbing friendship . Alas, I feel that my pen wavers, and my mind sinks in discouragement. It wanders and stammers, it retreats abashed, when it speaks to you sojust as my tongue does whenever I see that some one does not understand me. I must watch and wait till some happy circumstance has revived in you that store of clear reason, which is not lost, which is always there. Whenever it gathers strength again, you will wish to live, you will live, and you will get well without thinking of it. Meanwhile, as to my particular maxim, take my prescription, and bear with it: life is a duty . I dare not oppose your plans for the South: you might cough less there; and nothing matters so much. I await your decision with anxious impatience, as one waits for the news of some great lawsuit in which all ones fortune is engaged. If the North carries the day, then you must come and pass the winter here. You should have a room to the south, Mme. St. Germain (her maid) beside you; a climate worse perhaps than that of Paris, but a repose that you will find nowhere else, and which is, in my belief, the remedy that you need most.
Write me short letters (it needs some self-control to give you that advice!), and take care of yourself. That is all I ask of you as long as you live, to pay me for all the torments that you inflict on me.
The anguish deepens. The Roman plan is disclosed to him, and he dreads everythingthe fatigue of the journey, the emotions of the meeting with Chateaubriand. At last he knows that Madame de Beaumont has left France for Italy, and he writes to her at Rome. The letter is dated the 12th of October, three weeks before her death, and there is nothing to show us whether it ever reached her:
If I have not written to you, it is from grief. Your departure in such a state of fatigue, and your immense distance from us have made me miserable. I do not think that I ever knew a sadder feeling than that which has been my bitter breakfast every morning lately, when at waking, ever since your last letter, I have said to myself: Now she is out of Franceor, Now she is far awayand so on .
By now you have arrived; but are you peaceful? Are you rested? Are you recovered? It would take me very long to be able to believe it. Your life whirls in a perpetual storm, and if you are only to be held up by the inevitable curiosity and excitement brought to bear upon you, that alone will do you injury. My God! My God!Make haste, if you wish me to be at peace, if you wish me to forgive you, if you wish that I should recover a little repose of mind, make haste to tell me that you are better, or I shall die in a dumb rage. In my sadness and ill humour I have broken off all communication with the whole world. The letters that people write me make a heap beside me; I cant even read them to the end. I write no more. Wrapped in my grief like a dark cloak, I hide myself in it, I bury myself in it, I live in it dumb and silent. The pleasure that I once had in talking is altogether lost for me. I make vows of silence. I shall stay here all the winter. My inner life will be known only to God and myself. My heart keeps all its old affections, but they bring me joy no longer. You beg me to love you always. Alas! can I do anything else?whatever you are, and whatever you may wish. There was between us a sympathy to which you have sometimes opposed many an obstacle and many a contradiction. But when my feelings are strong and deep, nothing can change them, weaken them, or interrupt them. No one has ever filled me with a more solid, a more faithful attachment than you.Write to us as often as you can. Among all your letters, perhaps there may be some that will console me. I have need of it, I shall long have need of it. Perhaps there would have been more prudence, more discretion, if I had said less; but I should have offended the truth too much, and I dare to believe that you will prefer my sincerity to a reserve which would have hidden from you the mortal pain you have inflicted upon me, but would, at the same time, have concealed from you this last and new expression of an affection that has no bounds, and that nothing can ever diminish in the least.Good-bye, cause of so many griefs, who have been for me so often the source of so many joys! Good-bye! Take care of yourself, watch over yourself, and come back some day to us, if it were only to give me for one instant the ineffable pleasure of seeing you again.
In the presence of feeling so true and so impassioned, one may well understand how it was that for twenty-one years afterwards, till Jouberts own death in 1824, the month of October was specially consecrated in the Joubert household to the memory of Pauline de Beaumont. They thought of her, they spoke of her, they prayed for her.
I will tell you nothing of my grief, writes Joubert to a common friend, after the fatal news had reached him. It is not extravagant, but it will be eternal . Chateaubriand no doubt regrets her as much as I, but he will not miss her so long. For nine years I have never had a thought in which she was not in some way or another concerned. This is one of those habits which is not undone, and I shall never again have an idea with which her memory and the grief of her absence will not mingle.
This is to be loved indeed, with a true and disinterested affection, over which it is salutary to linger. In these rushing days we moderns have small leisure even to feel, still less to know our own griefs, to be acquainted thus with our own soul. It is easy to dismiss, even to despise, these more expansive and articulate emotions of the past; but it is probably more human to let our sympathy with them tend to correct and enrich the present.
In the last twenty years of Jouberts life, the few letters that remain to us are almost equally divided between literary and university affairs and those devoted to another friendshipthat with Madame de Vintimille. For her Joubert retains to the end his old playfulness and charm; he shows once more his power and constancy of feeling. It is not the feeling which Pauline de Beaumont had commanded; that voice in Jouberts life is heard no more. But otherwise all his strong interests, whims, antagonisms remain. He reads passionately, yet always fastidiously. He shows a kind of old-maidish care at once of his health and of his peace of mind. At one moment he will throw himself with a fearless independence and energy into the forcing of his ideas of administration and reform upon his friend Fontanes, the Grand Master; at another he will retire to his bed for days together, to avoid the excitement of friends and conversation. One day he will live on milk, another day on mincemeat; at one time he has a mania for exercise, at another will hardly drive over the smoothest pavement. One thinks of Mr. Woodhouse, with his gruel. But all through he is what he is meant to befriend, talker, thinkerthe impulse and the critic of other mens lives. All who knew M. Joubert, says Chateaubriand after his death, will miss him eternally. His very whims and obstinacies increased his hold. They were all gentle, all of the mind. He hated the strife of politics, and would have nothing to do with it. But no book that he disliked, however famous, could pass the door of his library; and of many books that he admitted he would destroy portions, and leave them shivering in their half-empty covers. As time went on, no doubt, the freedom and originality of judgment which had led him to welcome the genius of Chateaubriand abated somewhat. He fell back upon the old French culture, and found it enough. The circle of men and ideas in which he lived has after all a cribbed and cloistered air, compared with other circles of the time. Joubert knows no English, no German. He reads Kant, in Latin, but only to exclaim against the formlessness of the German mind. He reads Richardson and Shakespeare in translations; but only, at last, to maintain that the Abbé Delilles translation of Paradise Lost is and must be better than the original. A certain primness and affectation invades his maxims and reflections; the great tide of modern criticism and modern poetry to which in his vigorous middle years he had found the courage to yield himself, seems in the end to pass him by. His philosophy, says Amiel of him in 1851, is merely literary and popular; his originality is only in detail and in execution . All that has to do with large views, with the whole of things, is very little at Jouberts command; he has no philosophy of history, no speculative intuition. But within his own limits, as Amiel confesses abundantly, Joubert is still among the first and choicest. Within the sphere of all that is subtle and delicate in imagination and feeling, within the circle of personal affection and pre-occupation, of social and educational interests, he abounds in ingenuity and sagacity, in fine criticisms, in exquisite touches. His letters are remarkable for grace, delicacy, atticism and precision, and he is one of those men who are superior to their works, and who have themselves the unity which these lack.
Beside this verdict of Amiels, with its praise and its depreciation, let us recall once more Matthew Arnolds generous sentences.Joubert is the most prepossessing and convincing of witnesses to the good of loving light. Because he sincerely loved light, and did not prefer to it any little private darkness of his own, he found light; his eye was single, and therefore his whole body was full of light. And because he was full of light, he was also full of happiness. In spite of his infirmities, in spite of his sufferings, in spite of his obscurity, he was the happiest man alive; his life was as charming as his thoughts. And then, before we enter the circle of the Pensées, and surrender ourselves to their measured grace, their old-world precision, their delicate and leisurely meditation, let us approach them finally through this lovely passage of Chateaubriands, written many years after Jouberts death, but still warm with memory and grief:
Where now, he asks himself, as he looks back from the days of Louis Philippe on the friends of 1803where now is all this circle? Ah! if you wish to prepare for yourself eternal mourning, make planssurround yourself with friends! Mme. de Beaumont is dead, Chênedollé is dead, Mme. de Vintimille is dead. In old days I used to visit M. Joubert at Villeneuve during the vintage: I used to walk with him on the hills above the Yonne; he would gather mushrooms under the plantations, and I autumn crocuses from the fields. We talked of all kinds of things, and particularly of our friend, Mme. de Beaumont, absent for ever: we recalled the memories of youth, and its hopes. The evening brought us back to Villeneuve, a town still surrounded with crumbling walls from the time of Philippe Augustewalls with ruined towers, whence rose the smoke of fires kindled in them by the vintagers. Far off on the hill Joubert would show me a sandy pathway leading through woods, the path which he used to take when he went to see Mme. de Beaumont, at the time that she was hiding in the château of Passy during the Terror.
Since the death of my dear host, I have crossed the Sens country four or five times. From the highroad I saw the hills: Joubert walked there no more; I recognised the fields, the vines, the little heaps of stones where we used to sit and rest. Passing through Villeneuve I looked down the deserted street, and at the closed house of my friend. The last time that this happened to me I was going as ambassador to Rome. Ah, if he had still been there, I would have carried him off with me to the tomb of Mme. de Beaumont! It pleased God, however, to open to M. Joubert a heavenly Rome, better fitted still to his Platonist and Christian soul. I shall meet him no more here below. I shall go to him; he will not return to me.
Note 1. The chief books to be consulted are: Pensées de J. Joubert, précédées de sa correspondance, etc., Paris, 1848; Les Correspondants de Joubert, par M. Paul de Raynal; Chateaubriand et son Groupe Littéraire, par Sainte Beuve; Pauline de Beaumont, par M. Bardoux; Chateaubriands Mémoires dOutre-tombe, 12 vols., Paris, 184950. [back]