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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Has affected Xavier de Maistre with a difference


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what may be called the attempt to get rid of Sensibility by the humorist gate of escape. Supposing no such attempt consciously to exist, it is, at any rate, the sign of an approaching downfall of Sensibility, of a feeling, on the part of those who have to do with it, that it is an edged tool, and an awkward one to handle. In comparing Xavier de Maistre with his master Sterne, it is very noticeable that while the one in disposition is thoroughly insincere, and the other thoroughly sincere, yet the insincere man is a true believer in Sensibility, and the sincere one evidently a semi-heretic. How far Sterne consciously simulated his droppings of warm tears, and how far he really meant them, may be a matter of dispute. But he was quite sincere in believing that they were very creditable things, and very admirable ones. Xavier de Maistre does not seem by any means so well convinced of this. He is, at times, not merely evidently pretending and making believe, but laughing at himself for pretending and making believe. He still thinks Sensibility a _gratissimus error_, a very pretty game for persons of refinement to play at, and he plays at it with a great deal of industry and with a most exquisite skill. But the spirit of Voltaire, who himself did his _sensibilite_ (in real life, if not in literature) as sincerely as Sterne, has affected Xavier de Maistre "with a difference." The Savoyard gentleman is entirely and unexceptionably orthodox in religion; it may be doubted whether a severe
inquisition in matters of Sensibility would let him off scatheless. It is not merely that he jests--as, for instance, that when he is imagining the scene at the Rape of the Sabines, he suddenly fancies that he hears a cry of despair from one of the visitors. "Dieux immortels! Pourquoi n'ai-je amene ma femme a la fete?" That is quite proper and allowable. It is the general tone of levity in the most sentimental moments, the undercurrent of mockery at his own feelings in this man of feeling, which is so shocking to Sensibility, and yet it was precisely this that was inevitable.

Sensibility, to carry it out properly, required, like other elaborate games, a very peculiar and elaborate arrangement of conditions. The parties must be in earnest so far as not to have the slightest suspicion that they were making themselves ridiculous, and yet not in earnest enough to make themselves really miserable. They must have plenty of time to spare, and not be distracted by business, serious study, political excitement, or other disturbing causes. On the other hand, to get too much absorbed, and arrive at Werther's end, was destructive not only to the individual player, but to the spirit of the game. As the century grew older, and this danger of absorption grew stronger, that game became more and more difficult to play seriously enough, and yet not too seriously. When the players did not blow their brains out, they often fell into the mere libertinism from which Sensibility, properly so called, is separated by a clear enough line. Two such examples in real life as Rousseau and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, one such demonstration of the same moral in fiction as _Werther_, were enough to discourage the man of feeling. Therefore, when he still exists, he takes to motley, the only wear for the human race in troublesome circumstances which beset it with unpleasant recurrence. When you cannot exactly believe anything in religion, in politics, in literature, in art, and yet neither wish nor know how to do without it, the safe way is to make a not too grotesque joke of it. This is a text on which a long sermon might be hung were it worth while. But as it is, it is sufficient to point out that Xavier de Maistre is an extremely remarkable illustration of the fact in the particular region of sentimental fiction.


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