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Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve




Reading Books

WHAT IS A CLASSIC?

A delicate question, to which somewhat diverse solutions might be given according to times and seasons. An intelligent man suggests it to me, and I intend to try, if not to solve it, at least to examine and discuss it face to face with my readers, were it only to persuade them to answer it for themselves, and, if I can, to make their opinion and mine on the point clear. And why, in criticism, should we not, from time to time, venture to treat some of those subjects which are not personal, in which we no longer speak of some one but of some thing? Our neighbors, the English, have well succeeded in making of it a special division of literature under the modest title of `Essays.' It is true that in writing of such subjects always slightly abstract and moral it is advisable to speak of them in a season of quiet, to make sure of our own attention and of that of others, to seize one of those moments of calm moderation and leisure seldom granted our amiable France; even when she is desirous of being wise and is not making revolutions, her brilliant genius can scarcely tolerate them.

A classic, according to the usual definition, is an old author canonized by admiration, and an authority in his particular style. The word classic was first used in this sense by the Romans. With them not all the citizens of the different classes were properly called classici, but only those of the chief class, those who possessed an income of a certain fixed sum. Those who possessed a smaller income were described by the term infra classem, below the preeminent class. The word classicus was used in a figurative sense by Aulus Gellius, and applied to writers: a writer of worth and distinction, classicus assiduusque scriptor, a writer who is of account, has real property, and is not lost in the proletariate crowd. Such an expression implies an age sufficiently advanced to have already made some sort of valuation and classification of literature.

A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.

Such a classic may for a moment have been revolutionary; it may at least have seemed so, but it is not; it only lashed and subverted whatever prevented the restoration of the balance of order and beauty.

If it is desired,names maybe applied to this definition, which I wish to make purposely majestic and fluctuating, or in a word, all-embracing. I should first put there Corneille of the Polyeucte, Cinna, and Horaces. I should put Moliere there, the fullest and most complete poetic genius we have ever had in France. Goethe, the king of critics, said: `Moliere is so great that he astonishes us afresh every time we read him. He is a man apart; his plays border on the tragic, and no one has the courage to try and imitate him. His Avare, where vice destroys all affections between father and son, is one of the most sublime works, and dramatic in the highest degree. In a drama every action ought to be important in itself, and to lead to an action greater still. In this respect Tartufe is a model. What a piece of exposition the first scene is! From the beginning everything has an important meaning, and causes something much more important to be foreseen. The exposition in a certain play of Lessing that might be mentioned is very fine, but the world only sees that of Tartuffe once. It is the finest of the kind we possess. Every year I read a play of Moliere, just as from time to time I contemplate some engraving after the great Italian masters.'

I do not conceal from myself that the definition of the classic I have just given somewhat exceeds the notion usually ascribed to the term. It should, above all, include conditions of uniformity, wisdom, moderation, and reason, which dominate and contain all the others. Having to praise M. Royer-Collard, M. de Remusat said `If he derives purity of taste, propriety of terms, variety of expression, attentive care in suiting the diction to the thought, from our classics, he owes to himself alone the distinctive character he gives it all.' It is here evident that the part allotted to classical qualities seems mostly to depend on harmony and nuances of expression, on graceful and temperate style: such is also the most general opinion. In this sense the preeminent classics would be writers of a middling order, exact, sensible, elegant, always clear, yet of noble feeling and airily veiled strength.

The important point now seems to me to be to uphold, while extending, the idea and belief. There is no receipt for making classics; this point should be clearly recognized. To believe that an author will become a classic by imitating certain qualities of purity, moderation, ac-curacy, and elegance, independently of the style and inspiration, is to believe that after Racine the father there is a place for Racine the son; dull and estimable role, the worst in poetry. Further, it is hazardous to make too quickly and without opposition the place of a classic in the sight of one's contemporaries; in that case there is a good chance of not retaining the position with posterity.

There comes a time in life, when, all our journeys over, our experiences ended, there is no enjoyment more delightful than to study and thoroughly examine the things we know, to take pleasure in what we feel, and in seeing and seeing again the people we love: the pure joys of our maturity. Then it is that the word classic takes its true meaning, and is defined for every man of taste by an irresistible choice. Then taste is formed, it is shaped and definite; then good sense, if we are to possess it at all, is perfected in us. We have neither more time for experiments, nor a desire to go forth in search of pastures new. We cling to our friends, to those proved by a long intercourse. Old wine, old books, old friends. We say to ourselves with Voltaire in these delightful lines: `Let us enjoy, let us write, let us live, my dear Horace!... I have lived longer than you: my verse will not last so long. But on the brink of the tomb I shall make it my chief care to follow the lessons of your philosophy to despise death in enjoying life to read your writings full of charm and good sense as we drink an old wine which revives our senses.'



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