The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 5, 2014

March 5, 1893

We discovered a database new to us, while  researching today's topic: Hippolyte Taine (April 21, 1828 to March 5, 1893). Their 'about' section said this:

Superficially...[NNDB] seems much like a "Who's Who" where a noted person's curriculum vitae is available (the usual information such as date of birth, a biography, and other essential facts.)...But it mostly exists to document the connections between people, many of which are not always obvious. A person's otherwise inexplicable behavior is often understood by examining the crowd that person has been associating with...

[And on their standards they say:]
If a submission cannot be verified, even if the information is correct we may not be able to use it. Our standard is correctness over verifiability (the reverse of Wikipedia), and in many cases where there are questions we include footnotes to elucidate inferences made.

Time will tell if they live up to their promise. Their description intrigued me, but I am by no means confident about the viability of the site. Below is a sample drawn from this source, which we excerpted to highlight the significance of Hippolyte Taine,  a French historian less well-remembered by the English today. We join this biography in progress:

.... [From] 1855 to 9th October 1856 he published in the Revue de l'Instruction Publique a series of articles on the French philosophers of the 19th century, which appeared in a volume at the beginning of 1857. In this volume he energetically attacked the principles which underlie the philosophy of Victor Cousin and his school with an irony which amounts at times to irreverence. The book closes with the sketch of a system in which the methods of the exact sciences are applied to psychological and metaphysical research. The work itself met with instantaneous success, and Taine became famous. .... Les Philosophes Français, .... show that from this moment he had taken a place in the front rank of the new generation of men of letters. Caro published an attack on Taine and Renan, called "L'Idée de Dieu dans une Jeune École", in the Revue Contemporaine of 15th June 1857. Taine answered all attacks by publishing new books. In 1858 appeared a volume of Essais de Critique et d'Histoire; in 1860 La Fontaine et ses Fables,.[H]e was in constant intercourse with Renan, Sainte-Beuve, .... Théophile Gautier, Gustave Flaubert, .... and the Goncourts, and gave up a little of his time to his friends and to the calls of society.... ...[In] October 1864 he succeeded Viollet-le-Duc as professor of the history of art and aesthetics at the École des Beaux Arts. ...In December 1863 his Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise was published, prefaced by an introduction in which Taine's determinist views were developed in the most uncompromising fashion.... In 1866 he received the Legion of Honor ...In 1868 he married Mademoiselle Denuelle, the daughter of a distinguished architect.

He had made a long stay in England in 1858, and had brought back copious notes, which, after a second journey in 1871, he published in 1872 under the title of
Notes sur l'Angleterre. ...He determined to trace in the Revolution of 1789 the reason of the political instability from which modern France was suffering. From the autumn of 1871 to the end of his life his great work, Les Origines de la France Contemporaine, occupied all his time, and in 1884 he gave up his professorship in order to devote himself wholly to his task; but he succumbed before it was finished, dying in Paris on 5th March 1893. In the portion of the work which remained to be finished Taine had intended to draw a picture of French society and of the French family, and to trace the development of science in the 19th century. He had also planned a complementary volume to his Théorie de l'Intelligence, to be entitled Un Traité de la Volonté....[Taine's books show his] investigation into human nature; and the historian checks and endorses the pessimism and misanthropy....[In his major work the] problem which Taine set himself was to inquire why the centralization of modern France is so great that all individual initiative is practically nonexistent, and why the central power, whether it be in the hands of a man or of an assembly, is the sole and only power; also to expose the error underlying two prevalent ideas: (1) That the Revolution destroyed absolutism and set up liberty; the Revolution, he points out, merely caused absolutism to change hands. (2) That the Revolution destroyed liberty instead of establishing it; that France was less centralized before 1789 than after 1800. This also he shows to be untrue. France was already a centralized country before 1789, and grew rapidly more and more so from the time of Louis XIV onwards. The Revolution merely gave it a new form.

...Taine was the philosopher of the epoch which succeeded the era of romanticism in France. The romantic era had lasted from 1820 to 1850. It had been the result of a reaction against the classical school, or rather against the conventionality and lifeless rules of this school in its decadence. The romantic school introduced the principle of individual liberty both as regards matter and style; it was a brilliant epoch, rich in men of genius and fruitful of beautiful work, but towards 1850 it had reached its decline, and a young generation, tired in turn of its conventions, its hollow rhetoric, its pose of melancholy, arose, armed with new principles and fresh ideals. Their ideal was truth; their watchword liberty; to get as near as possible to scientific truth became their object. Taine was the mouthpiece of this period, or rather one of its most authoritative spokesmen..... He had a passion for abstraction. "Every man and every book", he said, "can be summed up in three pages, and those three pages can be summed up in three lines." He considers everything as a mathematical problem, whether it be the universe or a work of art: "C'est beau comme un syllogisme", he said of a sonata of Beethoven. ...Taine's doctrine consisted in an inexorable determinism, a negation of metaphysics; as a philosopher he was a positivist. Enamored as he was of the precise and the definite, the spiritualist philosophy in vogue in 1845 positively maddened him. He returned to the philosophy of the 18th century, especially to Condillac .... Taine presented this philosophy in a vivid, vigorous and polemical form, and in concrete and colored language which made his works more accessible, and consequently more influential, than those of Auguste Comte. Hence to the men of 1860 Taine was the true representative of positivism....

Taine's critical work is considerable; but all his works of criticism are works of history. Hitherto history had been to criticism as the frame is to the picture; Taine reversed the process, and studied literary personages merely as specimens and productions of a certain epoch. He started with the axiom that the complete expression of a society is to be found in its literature, and that the way to obtain an idea of a society is to study its literature. The great writer is not an isolated being; he is the result of a thousand causes; firstly, of his race; secondly, of his environment; thirdly, of the circumstances in which he was placed while his talents were developing. Hence Race, Environment, Time
[the motif Taine publicized]....[D]uring the epoch in which he lived, ... a wave of pessimism was sweeping over French literature[;] he was the high priest of the cult of misanthropy, in which even science was held to be but an idol, worthy of respect and devotional service, but not of faith. ...Taine's school, ....was one of positivist doctrines, rigid systems and resigned hopelessness, ....[T]herefore, the tone which pervades the works of Zola...and Maupassant can be immediately attributed to the influence we call Taine's...

My plan is to give a specific example of Taine's theories by looking at his analysis of William Wordsworth.  We quote from his History of English Literature, translated by H. Van Laun and abridged by John Fiske (1900).

Wordsworth was a wise and happy man, a thinker and a dreamer, who read and walked. He was from the first in tolerably easy circumstances, and had a small fortune. Happily married, amidst the favors of government and the respect of the public, he lived peacefully on the margin of a beautiful lake, in sight of noble mountains, in the pleasant retirement of an elegant house, amidst the admiration and attentions of distinguished and chosen friends, engrossed by contemplations .... and by poetry, which was produced without any hindrance. In this deep calm he listens to his own thoughts; the peace was so great, within him and around him, that he could perceive the imperceptible. .... He saw a grandeur, a beauty, lessons in the trivial events which weave the woof of our most commonplace days.

....The dazzling glare of ... lamps, the pomp of the theatre, would have shocked him; his eyes are too delicate, accustomed to sweet and uniform tints. He was a poet of the twilight. Moral existence in common place existence, such was his object—the object of his preference. His paintings are cameos with a grey ground,... designedly he suppresses all which might please the senses, in order to speak solely to the heart.....

Meanwhile the web of imperceptible threads by which Wordsworth endeavors to bind together all sentiments and embrace all nature, breaks in my fingers; it is too fragile; it is a woof of woven spider-web, spun by a metaphysical imagination, and tearing as soon as a solid hand tries to touch it. Half of his pieces are childish, almost foolish....dull events described in a dull style, one nullity after another, and that on principle. All the poets in the world would not reconcile us to so much tedium. Certainly a cat playing with three dry leaves may furnish a philosophical reflection, and figure forth a wise man sporting with the fallen leaves of life; but eighty lines on such a subject make us yawn....At this rate you will find a lesson in an old tooth-brush....

Taine above is relying above on Wordsworth's poem: "The Kitten and Falling Leaves." Taine's analysis is graceful and perceptive. But Taine relies on the poetry of the Laureate Wordsworth. Today nobody thinks his late poetry is what makes him a great writer. Taine succeeds in identifying one of the very worst poems Wordsworth ever wrote: 
"The Kitten and Falling Leaves." While this reflects well on Taine's literary acuity, in fact, he is not fair to Wordsworth, and I think Taine's impatience with the poet's sentiments reflects a growing distrust of metaphysics in the 19th century, which story would take us way off course, even were it possible to tell.  Taine remains an important person to be aware of, for he pioneered historicism -- the methodological slant that emphasizes how each era has unique qualities.

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