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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

His encounter with the leper is so freshly and simply told


[Sidenote:

His illustrations on the lighter side of Sensibility.]

Looked at from a certain point of view, Xavier de Maistre illustrates the effect of the Sensibility theory on a thoroughly good-natured, cultivated, and well-bred man of no particular force or character or strength of emotion. He has not the least intention of taking Sensibility seriously, but it is the proper thing to take it somehow or other. So he sets himself to work to be a man of feeling and a humorist at the same time. His encounter with the leper is so freshly and simply told, there is such an air of genuineness about it, that it seems at first sight not merely harsh, but unappreciative, to compare it to Sterne's account of his proceedings with his monks and donkeys, his imaginary prisoners, and his fictitious ensigns. Yet there is a real contact between them. Both have the chief note of Sensibility, the taking an emotion as a thing to be savoured and degusted deliberately--to be dealt with on scientific principles and strictly according to the rules of the game. One result of this proceeding, when pursued for a considerable time, is unavoidably a certain amount of frivolity, especially in dealing with emotions directly affecting the player. Sympathy such as that displayed with the leper may be strong and genuine, because there is no danger about it; there is the _suave mari magno_ preservative from the risk of a too deep emotion. But in matters which directly affect the interest

of the individual it does not do to be too serious. The tear of Sensibility must not be dropped in a manner giving real pain to the dropper. Hence the humoristic attitude. When Xavier de Maistre informs us that "le grand art de l'homme de genie est de savoir bien elever sa bete," he means a great deal more than he supposes himself to mean. The great art of an easy-going person, who believes it to be his duty to be "sensible," is to arrange for a series of emotions which can be taken gently.

The author of the _Voyage_ takes his without any extravagance. He takes good care not to burn his fingers metaphorically in this matter, though he tells us that in a fit of absence he did so literally. His affection for Madame de Hautcastel is certainly not a very passionate kind of affection, for all his elaborately counted and described heartbeats as he is dusting her portrait. Indeed, with his usual candour, he leaves us in no doubt about the matter. "La froide raison," he says, "reprit bientot son empire." Of course it did; the intelligent, and in the other sense sensible, person who wishes to preserve his repose must take care of that. We do not even believe that he really dropped a tear of repentance on his left shoe when he had unreasonably rated his servant; it is out of keeping with his own part. He borrowed that tear, either ironically or by oversight, from Sterne, just as he did "Ma chere Jenny." He is much more in his element when he proves that a lover is to his mistress, when she is about to go to a ball, only a "decimal of a lover," a kind of amatory tailor or ninth part of man; or when, in the _Expedition_, he meditates on a lady's slipper in the balcony fathoms below his garret.

[Sidenote: A sign of decadence.]


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