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By Rene Sully-Prudhomme
New York: Helvetica Press, Inc., 1971
40 pages (an excerpt)

Bob Corbett
November 2014

Sully-Prudhomme was the first Nobel Prize winner in Literature. He received his award in 1901. He was philosopher and poet. Very little of his work is available in English. This selection from the Nobel Prize Library was the only piece I was able to find.

However, I have been so taken with him that for readers of this web page I have decided to quote some of the things he writes and a few comments of mine about them. He views himself as a potential poet, but his is described, in later life, as a philosopher and poet. Much of what I was attracted to in his journals would more fit within the category of philosophical comments. There is no poetry in the journal selections.

It seems that there is a value of writing a journal for oneself (if it is ever really for oneself). For most of us I think it is or would be valuable because it is unlikely that others with ever read it, like this paragraph itself!

He is living with his sister at this time and enjoys her a great deal thinking she is one of the few people with whom he can really talk honestly.

The selections run from 1862 to 1868. He was 23 to 29 during that period. Early on he pens this reflection on happiness:

“. . . happiness therefore is not the satisfaction of our essence, but the exercise of our faculties; it is earthly."

Later he reflects on time:

“Shall I ever have done with the question of time? When somewhere the infinite shows a scrap of its dress, it casts its immense shadow over the problem; one starts to grope, one wastes one’s time.”

He’s definitely a young man in these journals, but even with that excuse I was a bit disappointed with his view of ordinary people:

“Of what use under the sun are these people?”

I find this a curious question. Of use to whom? He certainly must not have family in mind. It seems to me that tens of millions of people matter to family and friends, and most are not ‘globally or nationally’ ‘useful’ for sure. I think I have a more humble view of what it is to have a meaningful and useful life. Thank goodness for that or otherwise I wouldn’t much like myself!

Yet, while ambitious, he is very humble:

“The only thing in me of value is my curiosity. I search, and in the end I encounter.”

He comments on lovers:

“Lovers are just as happy with the sensual pleasure they give as that which they receive – love consists of an unending wish to make the loved one happy; in this lies all – perhaps its only – dignity.”

On talking:

“. . . one talks in order to be appreciated and one listens in order to flatter.”

Wheee, that’s a bit cynical for me! Again, he’s 23 at this time. He notes it was at that same age that Goethe wrote Faust. That must have been a bit humbling!

He talks a great deal about music and thinks it is the highest form of thought. He also knows a great deal about that classical music.

I simply LOVED this description of dreams:

“This is how some god takes possession of my faculties and plays about with them to suit his whim during my sleep; my brain harbors a guest who amuses himself like a child in a workshop, turning all the knobs haphazardly.”

On liberal education he says:

“The truly liberal principle which governs education is, in my view, as follows: to develop and strengthen the faculties independently of the their content; to impose knowledge only when it is acquired scientifically; in addition, to listen to the pupil’s heard searchings, provide for the natural needs of moral sensitivity and satisfy them by giving only nourishment indicated by the instincts; in a word, it is to teach that which is certain and suitable to convey knowledge of the uncertain. One must respect doubt, because it is not error. It is like the haven of intelligence in the ocean of doctrines.”

On the question of creation he takes the position of the inability of humans to conceive this supposed “God” of it.

There is an entry called “Subject for a poem.” I found this particularly interesting:

“. . . all the disasters, all the scourges, all the miracles of humanity as opposed to the living fountain of joy and sensual pleasure which never ceases to flow untainted from life. The smile of a little girl and the glare of a tiger are both the work of the same Being, in the theory of the Creation – is it not strange? All our ideas about good, kindness, and cruelty are turned upside down as soon as we try to apply them to the divine spirit. Creation, as seen from a human point of view, is a monstrous work which is neither revolting nor edifying, but inconceivable, contradictory, and absurd.”

Later he offers a sketch for two pieces he “should” write: one on sensuality and one on virtue. He seems to pit these as opposites. Of sensuality he says:

“. . . it reveals its baseness, the scorn of it inspires, its fits of remorse, but it is delicious and one abandons oneself to it in spite of everything.”

Virtue on the other hand:

“. . . it should never promise anything, it rejoices in its own action, it proposes every kind of suffering as a reward to courage and crowns life with the pure sensations of worthiness.”

My goodness I was startled with his sentence:

“One does not dare to take upon oneself a reform which might only be in vain and very painful, when one lives side-by-side with people who read The Imitation of Christ and become better.”

He was 25 when he wrote this. I was about 19 and in the seminary when I would spend at least an hour or so most days sitting alone in our dark chapel reading and meditating on this work of Thomas a’ Kempis. I was fairly sure then that it was a tool of my own “improvement.” In later years I moved far away from a’ Kempis’ views and created a much more politically active and social existence.

In one meditation he disappoints me and points to himself as certainly being a person of his time. He argues that in the home the man must rule and woman obey, excepting only what he takes to be the rare and abhorrent situation in which the man agrees to allow the woman to rule. In either case, he argues, there must be only one ‘ruler’ of the household.

I’d like to think that in my own parenting of my 7 children I fairly much followed his prescription:

“. . . the only way in which to teach the moral sense effectively to young people . . . Do not tell them to ‘Do something well,’ that is servitude; but them ‘Do something beautifully,’ that is art, that is liberty.”

In 98% of his journal one finds the most abstract and intellectual reflections. Thus I was startled by his short paragraph:

“Life without a woman becomes daily more intolerable. No aim, no resting place, no heaven – neither shade nor sunshine, the mists of boredom, the abyss of disgust, thoughts of death, and the terrible ‘What is the use of it all?’”

I have not the slightest objection to the thought of the paragraph, and feel much the same, but it just didn’t seem like anything he had prepared the reader to find in this work. (However, this “private journal” does seem like it was written to be published.)

I enjoyed the challenge of these short excerpts of his work and only regret that so very little of Sully-Prudhomme’s work has been translated into English.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett