As I understand criticism it is, like philosophy and history, a kind of novel for the use of discreet and curious minds. And every novel, rightly understood, is an autobiography. The good critic is he who relates the adventures of his soul among masterpieces.
There is no such thing as objective criticism any more than there is objective art, and all who flatter themselves that they put aught but themselves into their work are dupes of the most fallacious illusion. The truth is that one never gets out of oneself. That is one of our greatest miseries. What would we not give to see, if but for a minute, the sky and the earth with the many-faceted eye of a fly, or to understand nature with the rude and simple brain of an ape? But just that is forbidden us. We cannot, like Tiresias, be men and remember having been women. We are locked into our persons as into a lasting prison. The best we can do, it seems to me, is gracefully to recognize this terrible situation and to admit that we speak of ourselves every time that we have not the strength to be silent.
To be quite frank, the critic ought to say:
“Gentlemen, I am going to talk about myself on the subject of Shakespeare, or Racine, or Pascal, or Goethe subjects that offer me a beautiful opportunity.”
I had the honor of knowing M. Cuvillier-Fleury, who was a very earnest old critic. One day when I had come to see him in his little house in the Avenue Raphael, he showed me the modest library of which he was proud.
“Sir,” he said to me, “oratory, pure literature, philosophy, history, all the kinds are represented here, without counting criticism which embraces them all. Yes, the critic is by turn orator, philosopher, historian.”
M. Cuvillier-Fleury was right. The critic is all that or, at least, he ought to be. He has occasion to show the rarest, most diverse, most varied faculties of the intellect. And when he is a Sainte-Beuve, a Taine, a Jules Lemaître, a Ferdinand Brunetière, he does not fail to do so. Remaining definitely within himself he creates the intellectual history of man. Criticism is the youngest of all the literary forms: it will perhaps end by absorbing all the others. It is admirably suited to a very civilized society with rich memories and long traditions. It is particularly appropriate to a curious, learned and polite humanity. For its prosperity it demands more culture than any of the other literary forms. Its creators were Montaigne, Saint-Evremond, Bayle, Montesquieu. It proceeds simultaneously from philosophy and history. It has required, for its development, an epoch of absolute intellectual liberty. It has replaced theology and, if one were to seek the universal doctor, the Saint Thomas Aquinas of the nineteenth century, of whom would one be forced to think but of Sainte-Beuve?…
According to Littré a book is a bound bundle of paper sheets whether hand-written or printed. That definition does not satisfy me. I would define a book as a work of magic whence escape all kinds of images to trouble the souls and change the hearts of men. Or, better still, a book is a little magic apparatus which transports us among the images of the past or amidst supernatural shades. Those who read many books are like the eaters of hashish. They live in a dream. The subtle poison that penetrates their brain renders them insensible to the real world and makes them the prey of terrible or delightful phantoms. Books are the opium of the Occident. They devour us. A day is coming on which we shall all be keepers of libraries, and that will be the end.
Let us love books as the mistress of the poet loved her grief. Let us love them: they cost us dear enough. Yes, books kill us. You may believe me who adore them, who have long given myself to them without reserve. Books slay us. We have too many of them and too many kinds. Men lived for long ages without reading and precisely in those ages their actions were greatest and most useful, for it was then that they passed from barbarism to civilization. But because men were then without books they were not bare of poetry and morality: they knew songs by heart and little catechisms. In their childhood old women told them the stories of the Ass’s Skin and of Puss in Boots of which, much later, editions for bibliophiles have been made. The earliest books were great rocks covered with inscriptions in an administrative or religious style.
It is a long time since then. What frightful progress we have made in the interval! Books multiplied in a marvelous fashion in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Today their production has increased an hundredfold. In Paris alone fifty books are published daily without counting the newspapers. It is a monstrous orgy. We shall emerge from it quite mad. It is man’s fate to fall successively into contradictory extremes. In the Middle Ages ignorance bred fear. Thus maladies of the mind reigned then which we no longer know. To-day, through study, we are hastening toward general paralysis. Would it not be wiser and more elegant to keep some measure?
Let us be lovers of books and let us read them: but let us not gather them with indiscriminate hands: let us be delicate: let us choose, and, like that lord in one of Shakespeare’s comedies, let us say to our book-seller: “I would that they be well-bound and that they speak of love.”