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Some thoughts on François de La Rochefoucauld and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

Sainte-Beuve writes: “There comes a moment in life when L. pleases us, and in which we think him more true than perhaps he really is.” He is true for the person, the circumstance, the hurt, the special experience or recollection of the experience which inspired the maxim. He is true for a particularity, that particularlity (whatever it is) being something that we have known or had in our own case.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “We cherish the secret insult; we suck the bitterness with pleasure. But this very excess has something reassuring. Enthusiasm for those thoughts is a sign that already we are passing beyond them and beginning a cure.” If we cannot escape amour-propre (self-regard), if self-interest is not only a given but a necessary of all human conduct, then we treat L. as an equal before we begin. But can we ever “pass beyond” in this way, can we ever “begin a cure”? L. gives no answer, he has no philosophy, and no philosophical guide to life – this is not his business.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “Maxims are things that cannot be taught; half a dozen persons before whom to recite them are too many; the maker of them will be admitted to be right only in a tête-à-tête.” It could be argued that that is even too many. A tête-à-tête with L. himself, perhaps. For does L. believe what he is saying? Or is what he is saying meant to shock and so make us think anew about the subject of the maxim – courage, fidelity, possessiveness, &c.? If L. is playing a game of wit with us then who is true and to what degree? How far can we push it? This reading of it as wit comes only with re-reading, when L. has become familiar, even a companion. Yes, we can agree about them with another, but the maxims are finally a matter of agreement or dissension solely between the reader and his understanding of L.’s meaning – its precision.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “His nature, without his then suspecting it, had an arrière-pensée in all enterprises, and that hidden thought was an instinct to reflect upon the enterprise when it was over. All adventures were to finish with him in maxims.” Hard to believe that this was ideal. One feels that L. thought and felt a very much greater world outside that of his maxims, we see it in Madame de Sévigné’s letters and elsewhere in the literature. Just as existentialists would stop writing if they were existentialists, so L. would have written nothing if he was completely bitter and disillusioned. The maxims were an art form, not just the result of his life adventures. However, it is one thing we can say, maxims are the end, the very end of one story, or the beginning, the barely discernible first beginnings of another story.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “The moralist in L. is stern, grand, simple, concise …” Unlike most literature, L. allows for no double meaning in his writing. There is no ambiguity, no space for colour, comparison, allusion. He reminds one of Simone Weil in her strictures to the task of making the point.     

Sainte-Beuve writes: “Segrais and Huet thought he had more sagacity than equity; and the latter even remarked, very acutely, that the author had brought certain accusations against mankind for the sole purpose of not losing some witty or ingenious expression he meant to apply to them.” Until we learn that L.’s practice is a developed game of sayings, we are still only being served leaden cynicism. The maxim is used precisely at the moment when its wit and ingenuity is seen to suit the case.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “L.’s maxims do not in any way contradict Christianity, although they do without it. His man is precisely the fallen man…” Self-regard is not the same as selfishness. But where does one become the other, and in what way are we meant to understand self-regard in L. other than in a perjorative sense?

Sainte-Beuve writes: “Some of the maxims he rewrote thirty times, until he reached the necessary expression; nevertheless, there seems no torturing effort.” The greatest part of the story is imagining him, quicksilver, in his retirement, testing the phraseology. One wonders about his surroundings, his gout. We see his hot face, his wry smile – and we feel the melanchology begin to move in, not the melancholy in the works, only its final, overall effect, which is its secret poetry.

Entry in Notebooks, 13-16th September 1989. These quotes from Sainte-Beuve and my responses were basis for a Reading Group session at the time on the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld.


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