Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Great minds are importunate; it is judicious to restrain them a little

Victor Hugo, writing William Shakespeare, fails to follow his own advice, which is only offered in jest.  He is another importunate genius, like

Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, - excessive.  They bring with them a style of art wild, howling, flaming, disheveled like the lion and the comet.  Oh, shocking!  (II.3.V.)

Who would want Hugo to restrain himself?  A literary diet of nothing but howling comets and flaming lions would be exhausting, unhealthy, even ruinous.  Hugo is to be imbibed in modest doses of no more  than 400 pages at a time.

Do I read Hugo simply to marvel at his vast range of extraordinary grimaces and poses?  No, no, he is, in fact, a substantive, if diffuse and discursive, writer.  I mean, his arguments take some wild, howling leaps of their own.  The ideas are intuitive, rhetorical, emotional.  Bullying, sometimes.

The heart of the book comes near the end, in a section titled “The Mind and the Masses” (II.5.) which I understand has been published separately (although surely not as this three page version?).  Hugo argues that art should be the foundation of civilization, and great artists the guides.  He pushes Shelley another step – poets should be the acknowledged legislators of the world, although not the actual legislators, or at least not that I can tell, although Hugo was himself an actual legislator before and after his exile.  He grazes against the idea that art could replace religion as a source of transcendent meaning, but looks away.  Hugo’s artists are concerned with earthly things:

Literature secretes civilization, poetry secretes the ideal [yuck!].  That is why literature is one of the wants of societies; that is why poetry is a hunger of the soul.

That is why poets are the first instructors of the people.

That is why Shakespeare must be translated in France…

That is why there must be a vast public literary domain.

That is why all the poets, all the philosophers, all the thinkers, all the producers of nobility of soul must be translated, commented on, published, printed, reprinted, stereotyped, distributed, hawked about, explained, recited, spread abroad, given to all, given cheaply, given at cost price, given for nothing. (II.5.ii.)

Hugo’s confusion becomes evident.  He follows this passage with an invocation of Ezekiel eating a book, which tastes like honey (Ezekiel 3:1-3), reinforcing Hugo’s “hunger” metaphor, presumably, but then leaps to a discussion of literacy and crime rates, of democracy and socialism and capital punishment.  Poets help with these problems by “permeating civilization with light” (II.5.iv.), which is just a little bit nebulous.

I see that Hugo’s problem is that he is fighting on too many fronts.  Or, his achievement is that he is able to take on so many opponents.  Napoleon Bonaparte, Robespierre, “art for art’s sake” (a phrase Hugo claims he coined), Thomas Carlyle, copyright laws  - Hugo is Porthos, fencing with five opponents at once.  Small wonder that his swordsmanship is sometimes inelegant.

The fact that his book titled William Shakespeare is entirely useless on the subject of William Shakespeare is a first-rate irony that is reinforced, in the edition I read, by the translator’s footnotes, reminding the English reader that Hugo always quotes from memory, and therefore misquotes, and that his French is often a little peculiar.  We are about two turns of the conceptual screw from Pale Fire, except Hugo, for better or worse, is sincere.


  1. Always enjoy your commentary on authors and their works.

  2. Thanks. At its best, Hugo's book is about the role of the author in the world - all still very much relevant.

  3. reminding the English reader that Hugo always quotes from memory, and therefore misquotes, and that his French is often a little peculiar

    Rather Fordian of him, n'est-ce pas?

    What a crazy and wonderful book this does sound like.

  4. Their rhetoric is completely different, but the quotation problem - feature, what have you - did remind me of The March of Literature.

    On the one hand, how extraordinarily that these men could do all of this from memory. On the other hand, consult with an editor!

    Crazy and wonderful - pretty much.