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قراءة كتاب Letters to an Unknown

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‏اللغة: English
Letters to an Unknown

Letters to an Unknown

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 3

colossus to a pygmy. And that pride of yours is at bottom nothing but a kind of selfishness.”

All this ended in a warm and lasting friendship. But do you not consider admirable his delightful manner of love-making? They met in the Louvre, at Versailles, and in the adjoining woods; they took long walks, even in January, several times a week; he admired “a radiant physiognomy, a splendid bearing, a white hand, superb black hair”; a mind whose intelligence and attainments were worthy of his own, the charms of an unusual type of beauty, the attractions of a broad and miscellaneous culture, the fascinations of a toilet, and a coquetry cleverly directed and managed; he breathed the exquisite perfume of an education so well chosen, and of a “nature so refined, that it summed up for him an entire civilisation”; to sum it all up, he was under the charm. Then the spectator reappears and resumes his post. He disputed the purport of a reply, of a gesture; he dissociated himself from his feelings that he might form an unbiassed judgment; he expressed candidly and epigrammatically his views one day, to regret them the next.

Such was the man as we find him reflected in his books. As a dilettante he wrote and studied, passing from one subject to another, as suggested by the occasion or his own fancy, without devoting himself to one system of knowledge, without dedicating himself to the worship of one idea. This was owing to no lack of study or of natural endowment; few men, on the contrary, have enjoyed a broader mental training. Besides French he was master of six languages, including their literature and philology: Italian, Greek, Latin, English, Spanish, and Russian. I believe, also, that he read German. An occasional phrase, or a reference in his correspondence, shows the extent to which he had directed these studies.

Calo he spoke in such a manner as to astonish the Spanish gipsies. He was familiar with the various Spanish dialects, and was able to decipher the archaic title-deeds of Catalonia. He understood perfectly English versification. Those only who have studied an entire literature, both in print and in manuscript, during the several successive periods of its development, in style and in orthography, are able to appreciate the skill and perseverance necessary to know Spanish as the author of Don Pedro knew it, and Russian as the author of The Cossacks and of The False Demetrius knew it. With a natural gift for languages, he pursued their acquirement even after reaching maturity. During the latter part of his life he became interested in philology, and while living in Cannes devoted himself to the critical studies which compose the comparative grammar.

To this acquaintance with books he had added that of monuments, his reports proving that throughout France he was the acknowledged expert in this branch of learning. He understood not only the purpose, but the technique, of architecture. Each ancient church he visited in person, conducting his examinations with the aid of the best architects the country afforded. His memory of local affairs was excellent by nature and by careful training.

Born in a family of artists, he was clever in the use of the brush, and as a water-colourist was equally skilful. In short, in this, as in everything he did, he went to the very foundations of the subject. Evasive expression he detested, writing no word until he had reached definite and absolute conclusions. It would be difficult to find a historian whose head was so complete a store-house of information relating to the past, who was himself, indeed, a whole library, a whole museum of information.

He possessed, besides, the rarer gifts of a knowledge of life and a clear imagination, by the exercise of which those relics of the past were revivified and lived again. He had travelled widely, having made one journey to the Orient and two to Greece; he had visited England, Spain, and other countries twelve or fifteen times, and wherever he went he had been a close observer of the manners and customs not only of the best society, but of the peasantry also: “Many a time have I broken bread with people whom an Englishman would not notice for fear of losing his self-respect. I have even drunk from the same bottle with a convict.”

He had lived on familiar terms with Spanish gipsies and toreadors. Many an evening he had told stories for the entertainment of a group of peasant men and women of Ardèche. One of the places where he felt most at home was in a Spanish venta, with the “mule-drivers and peasant women of Andalusia.”

He sought out types perverted, and types unsullied, “through an inexhaustible curiosity for every variety of the human species,” and thus formed in his memory a gallery of living pictures inestimably more precious than any other kind; for those of books and of edifices are but empty shells, once tenanted, but whose structure may be known only by imagining the forms that dwelt therein, from the poems that have survived. By a sort of divination, keen, accurate, and swift, he made this mental reconstruction. In the Chronicle of Charles IX, in The Experiments of an Adventurer, and in the Theater of Clara Gazul it is evident that such was his involuntary method. His writings tend naturally to the demi-dreams of the artist, to scenic effect, and to romance which clothes the dead past with new life. With splendid acquirements and talents like these, he might have occupied in the field of history and of art a position of eminent importance and distinction; yet as a historian he has taken but a mediocre place, and as an artist, his rank, while a high one, is of narrow limit.

The bent of his mind led Mérimée to be suspicious, and suspicion carried to excess is harmful. To obtain from the study of any subject all that it is able to bestow, one must, I fancy, give oneself to it without reserve, be wedded to it, indeed, but not treat it as a mistress to whom one is devoted for two or three years, only to discard and take a new one. A man produces the best of which he is capable only when, after conceiving to himself some form of art, some method of science, in short some general idea of his subject, he becomes so enamoured that he finds it possessing attractions above all else—himself especially—and worships it as a goddess, whom he is happy only in serving.

Mérimée, also, was capable of cherishing this affection and adoration, but after a time the critic within him awoke, bringing the goddess to trial, only to discover that she was not entirely divine. All our methods of science, all our forms of art, all our general ideas, have some weak spot; the inadequate, the uncertain, the expedient, the artificial, abound therein; only the illusion of love can find them perfect, and a sceptic does not remain long in love. He put on his magnifying glasses, and in the enchanting statue discovered a lack of poise, a vagueness and insincerity of construction, a modernity of attitude. Becoming disgusted, he turned away, not without reason, to be sure, and these reasons he explains in passing. He sees in our philosophy of history an element of speculation, in our mania for erudition the futility, inutility; he sees extravagance in our taste for the picturesque, and insipidity in our paintings of realism. Let inventors and simpletons, through vanity or stupidity, accept, if they like, such a system, such a style; but as for himself, he rejects it, or, if he has not rejected, he regrets that he has not done so.

“About the year of grace 1827 I belonged to the Romantic school. We said to the Classicists, ‘Without local colour, there is no hope of salvation,’ meaning by local colour that which in the seventeenth century was known as manners and customs. But we were mighty proud of our word, and imagined that we had invented both the word and the thing for which it stood.” When, later, he wrote some Illyrian poems which were construed by the critics beyond the Rhine with the utmost seriousness, he was able