Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Henri Frederic Amiel on the French Mind

22 December 1874. Written in the South of France. – Gioberti says that the French mind assumes only the form of truth and, by isolating this, exaggerates it, in such a way that it dissolves the realities with which it is concerned. I express the same thing by the word speciousness. It takes the shadow for the object, the word for the thing, the appearance for the reality and the abstract formula for the truth. It does not go beyond intellectual assignats. Its gold is pinch-beck, its diamond paste; the artificial and the conventional suffice for it. When one talks with a Frenchman about art, language, religion, the State, duty, the family, one feels from his way of talking that his thought remains outside the object, that it does not enter its substance, its marrow. He does not seek to understand it in its inwardness, but only to say something specious about it. This spirit is superficial and yet not comprehensive; it pricks the surface of things shrewdly enough, and yet it does not penetrate. It wishes to enjoy itself in relation to things; but it has not the respect, the disinterestedness, the patience and the self-forgetfulness that are necessary for contemplating things as they really are. Far from being the philosophic spirit, it is an abortive counterfeit of it, for it does not help to resolve any problem and it remains powerless to grasp that which is living, complex and concrete. Abstraction is it original vice, presumption its incurable eccentricity and speciousness its fatal limit.

The French language can express nothing that is budding or germinating; it depicts only effects, results the caput mortuum, and not the cause, the movement, the force, the becoming of any sort of phenomenon. It is analytical and descriptive, but it does not make one understand anything. . .

The thirst for truth is not a French passion. In everything, what appears is more relished than what is, the outside than the inside, the style than the stuff, the glittering than the useful, opinion than conscience. . . .

From The Private Journal of Henri Frederic Amiel, tr. Brooks and Brooks (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1935), pp. 428-429.