The precepts we are about to read bear the fruit of experience, with experience implying a certain amount of blunders. Everyone has made all or nearly all of these mistakes, so I hope that the experience of others will serve to verify my own.
In other words, said precepts have no other aim than that of a vade mecum, no other utility than that of puerile and honest politeness. An enormously useful aim! Imagine a code of etiquette written by a good-hearted and intelligent Madame de Warens, or a mother teaching us the art of dressing practically! This is why I wish to infuse with brotherly tenderness these precepts dedicated to the young literati.
ON GOOD AND BAD LUCK IN LITERARY DEBUTS
Young writers who, when speaking of a young colleague with tones admixed with envy, say "This was a fine debut, he really was in luck," do not consider that every debut has always had precursors, and that this debut is the effect of twenty other debuts unknown to these same young writers.
In terms of establishing a reputation, I do not know that there has ever been a bolt from the blue. Rather, I think that any success comes, in arithmetic and geometric proportion to the writer's power, as the result of prior successes often invisible to the naked eye. There is a slow aggregation of molecular successes, but never miraculous or spontaneous generations.
Those who say "I've had bad luck" are those who simply have not had enough success yet and do not know it.
Here I am taking into account the almost innumerable circumstances that envelop human desire, circumstances which have their own legitimate causes. They form a circumference in which our willpower is enclosed. But this circumference is moving, living, and turning; every day, every minute, every second it changes its circle and its center. In this way are all human desires therein cloistered; as these desires vary from moment to moment in their reciprocal game, there arise the elements of what constitutes freedom.
Freedom and destiny are two opposites; yet seen from far and near, they compose one desire.
This is why there is no such thing as bad luck. If you suffer misfortune, it is because you lack something: learn what this something is and study the interplay of neighboring desires and you may travel the circumference of this circle more easily.
One example from a thousand. Many writers whom I love and admire rage against current popular pulp – Eugène Sue, Paul Féval – logogriphs in action. But the talent of these people, however frivolous it may be, is not any less, and the anger of my friends does not exist, or rather, it exists to a lesser degree, because it is of lost time, the least precious thing in the world. The question is not whether the literature of the heart or of the form is superior to that which is currently popular; this is all too true, at least to me. Yet you would merely be half right until you demonstrate as much talent in the genre you wish to enter as Eugène Sue demonstrates in his own; until you ignite as much interest with new means; until you possess equal power and superior power in another sense; until you double, triple, and quadruple the dose up to an equal concentration, you no longer have the right to curse the bourgeois, because the bourgeois will be standing right next to you. Until then, vae victis! For nothing is real but that power which is supreme justice.
However beautiful a house may be it is, first and foremost, even before its beauty may be demonstrated, a certain number of meters high and a certain number of meters long. Of literature, which is the most invaluable of materials, the same can be said: literature is first and foremost a filling-out of columns. And the literary architect whose name alone does not guarantee any profit should sell at all costs.
There are young people who quip: "Since this of so little value, why should I put myself to so much trouble?" They could have indulged in the finest of works; and in such a case they would only have been cheated by actual necessity, by the law of nature. They cheated themselves. Badly paid, they could still have found some honor in such a pursuit; but badly paid, they were dishonored.
Everything I could possibly write on this subject may be summarized by this supreme maxim which I offer to all philosophers, all historians, and all businessmen for their contemplation: Beautiful sentiments do not a fortune make!
Those who say, "Why should I kill myself for so little?" are the same who, much later, once they have gained honor and respect, intend to sell their books for two hundred francs per story line, and who, once rejected, return the next day to offer them at a 100-franc loss.
The reasonable man is the one who says: "I believe it is worth so much because I am a genius; but one has to make a few concessions. I will make them, so as to have the honor to be one of your geniuses."
ON SYMPATHIES AND ANTIPATHIES
In love, like in literature, our sympathies are involuntary; nevertheless they must be verified, whereby reason also has a part to play.
True sympathies are excellent because they make two people into one; fake sympathies are detestable because they are only about one person, minus primitive indifference, which is better than hate, the necessary consequence of deception and disillusionment.
This is why I admit and admire camaraderie, provided that it is founded on the essential commonalities of reason and temperament. It is one of the healthy manifestations of nature, one of the numerous applications of that sacred proverb: United we stand, divided we fall.
The same law of straightforwardness and naïveté must regulate our antipathies. Nevertheless, there are people who fabricate hates as much as admirations, that is, to the point of giddiness. This is highly imprudent; this means making an enemy for yourself without advantage or profit. A blow without meaning harms the intended rival no less, not to mention the harm that may befall a witness on the left or right side of the combat scene.
One day, during a fencing lesson, a creditor came to harass me; I chased him back to the staircase with my foil. Upon my return, the master-at-arms, a peaceful giant who could have thrown me to the ground just by blowing on me, said: "How you pour out your antipathy! You, a poet! You, a philosopher! Ugh!" I had wasted time when I could have made two attacks; I was winded, ashamed, and, what is more, despised by a man – the creditor – to whom I had done nothing too horrible.
Indeed, hate is a precious liquid, a dearer and more costly poison than that of Borgia, because it is made with our own blood, our health, our sleep, and two thirds of our love! With it one should be stingy!
Invective should be employed only against the henchmen of error. If you are strong, attacking a strong man means losing yourself; if you are merely in disagreement on a few points, he will always be on your side on certain occasions.
There are two methods of invective: a curved line, or a straight line, which is the shorter route.
You will find a sufficient number of examples of the curved line in the sagas of Janin. The curved line plays to the gallery, doubtless, but does not teach it anything.
The straight line is now being successfully employed by several English journalists; in Paris, it has fallen into disuse. Even Granier de Cassagnac himself seems to have forgotten it. It involves saying, "Mr. X. is a dishonest man and, what is more, an imbecile; this is what I shall set out to prove" and, of course, proving it! Primo, secundo, tertio, and so forth. I recommend this method to all those who have faith in reason and hard knuckles.
A failed invective is a deplorable event; it is an arrow that returns, or at least skins your hand as it departs, a bullet whose ricochet may kill you.
ON METHODS OF COMPOSITION
Nowadays one is obliged to produce a lot. We have to go fast; we have to hurry slowly; we have to make sure that all our blows land, and that not a single stroke is wasted.
To write quickly, one needs to have pondered the matter a great deal, lugged around a subject in one's head while out for a walk, in the bath, in a restaurant, almost even at one's mistress's place.
Delacroix said to me once: "Art is a thing so ideal and so fleeting that the tools are never clean enough and the means never sufficiently expedient." The same can be said of literature; I am thus no proponent of erasing or crossing out: such an action troubles the mirror of our thoughts.
Some of us, those most distinguished and most conscientious – Édouard Ourliac, for example – begin by taking and filling up a lot of paper; they call this covering a canvas. The goal of this confused operation is to ensure that nothing is lost. Then, each time that they recopy their work, they prune and de-branch it. The result, even if excellent, is a waste of their time and talent. Covering a canvas does not mean loading it with colors, but sketching with charcoal, or having light and transparent masses at one's disposal. The canvas must be covered in the author's mind the moment that he takes up his pen to write the title.
They say that Balzac filled his manuscripts and proofs in a fantastic and disorganized manner. Consequently a novel passes through a series of geneses, in which not only the unity of the sentence is dispersed but also the unity of the work. It is undoubtedly this bad method which often imbues an author's style with an element of diffusion, of being jolted or hurried, of being still a draft, all of which composes the great chronicler's single flaw.
ON DAILY WORK AND INSPIRATION
Debauchery is hardly the sister of inspiration; we have finally smashed this corruptive kinship. Rapid enervation and the weakness of certain beautiful natures bear sufficient witness against this odious prejudice.
Very substantial but regular fare is the only thing needed by prolific writers. Inspiration is decidedly the sister of daily work. These two opposites do not exclude one another any more than all the opposites in nature. Inspiration obeys, like hunger, like digestion, like sleep. In the mind there doubtless exists some kind of celestial mechanism of which one should not be ashamed; instead it is from here that we should extract the most glorious part, like doctors remove things from the mechanism of the human body. If we wish to live in opinionated contemplation of the work of tomorrow, daily work will serve as an inspiration, like a legible piece of writing serves to elucidate our thoughts, and like calm and powerful thoughts allow us to write legibly. Because the period of bad writings is long gone.
As for those who successfully give themselves over or are given over to poetry, I advise them never to abandon it. Poetry is one of the arts that yield the most; but it is the type of investment whose dividends one receives very late on; that said, the dividends are very large.
I challenge the envious among you to quote me some verse which an editor may have destroyed.
Morally speaking, poetry establishes a demarcation between first-rate and second-rate minds, so that even the most bourgeois readers are not spared this despotic influence. I know people who only read Gautier's serials – often the most mediocre ones – because he wrote La Comédie de la Mort. Surely they cannot perceive all the nuances of this work; but they know that he is a poet.
Besides, what could be surprising seeing that every man in good health could go two days without eating, but never without poetry?
Art which satisfies the most imperious of needs will always be the most honored.
You will no doubt recall a comedy entitled "Disorder and Genius"! If disorder has sometimes accompanied genius, all this proves is that genius is magnificently strong; unfortunately, for many young people this title expressed not an accident but a necessity.
I highly doubt that Goethe had any creditors; Hoffmann, disorganized Hoffmann, beset by the most frequent of necessities, endlessly aspired to get himself out of such a situation; he died, as it were, at the moment when longer life permitted his genius to soar with even greater brilliance.
Never have any creditors; pretend to have some if you'd like, this is all that I can pass along to you.
If I wish to observe the law of contrasts which governs the moral order and the physical order of things, I am obliged to place in this class those women dangerous to all men of letters: the honest woman, the bluestocking, and the actress. The honest woman, because she necessarily belongs to two men, which makes her a mediocre pasture for a poet's despotic soul; the bluestocking, because she is a grown-up tomboy; and the actress, because she has been brushed by literature and speaks in jargon, in short, because she is not a woman in the full sense of the word: her public is more important to her than love.
Can you imagine a poet in love with his wife and obliged to see her play a role in travesty? I think he would do well to set fire to the theater.
Can you imagine that writer forced to write a part for his wife who has no talent?
Yet another sweating as she tries in epigrams to convey to the audience in the foreground all the sufferings which this same audience has caused her in this most precious existence, this existence which the Easterners would place under three locks before they would come study law in Paris? Because all true men of letters detest literature from time to time, I permit you – free and proud souls, exhausted minds who always need to rest on the seventh day – only two types of women: young women or silly women; love or beef stew. Brothers, must I explain these reasons to you?