Les Epreuves Françaises
Babbitt's French Masters
Il faut des mouvements de bassesse, non de nature, mais de
pénitence, non pour y demeurer, mais pour aller à la gran-
deur. Il faut des mouvements de grandeur, non de mérite,
mais de grace, et après avoir passé par la bassesse.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Chère amie, ne savez-vous pas que la vertu est un état de
guerre, et que, pour y vivre, on a toujours quelque combat à
rendre contre soi?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse
Irving Babbitt first visited France in July 1887, at the beginning of a year's tour of Europe with a high school friend. He stayed only five days in Paris and then walked to Madrid. Four years later he was back in Paris to study Sanskrit and Pali. A third visit extended over the summer months of 1896 when he browsed through bookstalls along the Boulevard St. Michel, purchasing some three hundred books in preparation for his course work as a French instructor at Harvard.
"The function of books is to teach us to despise them," remarked Babbitt in those early days. 1 Apart from a deeper philosophical application, this maxim was perhaps simply one more slighting commentary on the literary world, that is, Paris as he found it in the 1890s. It was the Paris of an ultra-aestheticism, of Mallarmé and Verlaine, of Lautrec, Debussy, and Rémy de Gourmont.
Having recovered from defeat in the 1870-71 war with Germany and the nightmarish exorcism of the Commune, France had become industrialized and prosperous at a high political price. Paris in the 1890s was an arena of sustained excitement and turbulence. The prolonged crisis of the Dreyfus affair, while polarizing French society over the question of a Jewish army captain's innocence or treason, exposed the dangerously fragmentary state of the Third Republic. Royalists, Jesuits, militarists, anti-Semites, socialists, anarchists, and libertarian artists formed tenuous, improbable alliances. Successive
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Publication information: Book title: Irving Babbitt: An Intellectual Study. Contributors: Thomas R. Nevin - Author. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication year: 1984. Page number: Not available.
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