The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.2 (Spring 2017)
Literate Values in Crisis
Change as Idolatry: A Very Ancient Cult
John R. Harris
French author Guy de Maupassant was a master of the nineteenth-century short story–but his essential outlook upon Western civilization and his moral estimate of humanity betray a contempt all too familiar in today’s academy.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared on the author’s personal blog: https://nilnoviblog.wordpress.com/.)
French author Guy de Maupassant’s view of the bourgeoisie would slide into the contemporary academy without any carpentry having to be done around its edges—which, by the way, are pretty sharp (not as in “cutting edge”, but as in “splintered”). A latter nineteenth-century man of letters who particularly excelled in the budding genre of the short story, Maupassant projects through his condescending disgust the value system that survives and thrives on twenty-first century campus. Many have labeled this mindset “progressivism”, and not without just cause: its essential component does indeed appear to be a quasi-religious (or, better yet, a cultic) faith in the transformative power of trampling down traditional institutions (without much regard for that which must replace them). The God of Change turns out to be a very, very old idol.
The specific short story which has started me down this path is titled “Adieu”. I could add other of the same author’s works to my witness list; but for now, I don’t have time to do much more than encapsulate the plot, throw in a few translated passages, and offer some disjointed comments at the end. Those who may wish to pursue the subject would do well to start with the novel Bel Ami or with the opening chapter of the author’s fascinating Algerian adventure, Au Soleil. (A novella titled Allouma, also set in Algeria, offers a journey of a different sort–a probe into this Man of the Left’s dark soul as he studies the forbidden and exquisite delights of keeping an Arab prostitute.)
Two men who have reached the mid-century mark in age are wiling away a Parisian afternoon in a sidewalk café. One of them is lamenting the deterioration of his body. The other, rather better preserved, offers a different complaint. He is dismayed that age can hurl her thunderbolt with such suddenness even upon the healthy—a danger especially observable in his relationships with women. He explains.
In his prime, he had always enjoyed the public beaches because of the advantages they afforded to observing feminine curves. The best vantage (he details) is one that allows the ladies to be studied just as they emerge from the waves on their way back to dry land.
Very little can withstand the trial of the dip. That’s where a final verdict is reached on everything from the calf to the bosom. The exit leaves the thin exposed, especially, although seawater can provide vital assistance to figures that have been allowed to slide.
The first time that I saw this young women in such a setting, I was ravished and seduced. She held up good and firm. There are certain figures whose charm suddenly transfixes us, invading us all of a sudden… and then it seems that we have found the woman that we were meant to love. I had that sensation and that shock just then.
An introduction is not difficult to secure, and one thing quickly leads to another. The lady is married, but her husband travels down from Paris only over weekends. A three-month affair ensues, at the end of which our narrator is called to parts far away. He journeys to America and spends years there, yet he never forgets the woman of his dreams. Always, she is as fresh in his memory as if he had seen her just yesterday.
Twelve years are of such little account in the life of a man! They follow one upon another, the years, gently but swiftly, slow yet hurried, each of them long but so soon finished! And they add up so abruptly, they leave so few traces behind—they evaporate so completely that, in turning around to contemplate times past, you no longer find anything, and you cannot understand how you happen to have grown old.
Of course, the specific occasion of these gloomy thoughts was a return to France. Our narrator did not seek out his favorite and most cherished conquest: fate, rather, intervened to re-introduce them.
At the moment when the train was departing, a fat matron climbed into my wagon, escorted by four young girls. I hardly spared a glance to this mother hen, overgrown and rotund, with a face like the full moon framed by a ribboned hat.
She was breathing heavily, winded by having to walk so fast. Her children began to babble. I opened my newspaper and started reading.
We had just passed Asnières when my neighbor said all of a sudden, “Excuse me, Monsieur. Aren’t you Mr. Carnier?”
She thereupon began to laugh—the hearty laugh of a spirited woman, yet a little sad.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
I hesitated. It struck me that I had in fact seen this face somewhere…. but where? When? I answered, “Well… yes and no. I do recognize you, but I don’t recall your name.”
She blushed slightly.
“Mme. Julie Lefèvre.”
Never have I received such a blow. It seemed to me at this instant that all was over with me. I felt that a veil had been snatched from before my eyes, and that I was going to make all kinds of horrible, nauseating discoveries.
It was she! This fat, common woman… this, then, was she? And she had hatched these four daughters since I had last seen her—they astonished me as much as their mother. They had come out of her. They were already big, had already claimed part of the living world’s space. As for her as she had been… that marvel of exquisite, coquettish grace no longer figured in reality. It seemed to me that I had seen her just yesterday… and now I found her like this! Was it possible?
A keen mournfulness seized my heart, as well as a revulsion at nature herself—an irrational indignation at this brutal, outrageous act of destruction.
What have I to say about the egotistical, repellently superior, implicitly hedonistic turn of this fictional character’s mentality (a very close approximation to his author’s, by all accounts)? More than I have space to say it. The “shopping the meat market” approach to beachcombing, the equation of an easy three-month adulterous fling with the romance of a lifetime, the instant reduction of the lover-turned-mother to a dumb beast (with beastly little fledglings surrounding her), the stupefaction at the female physique’s ability to bear children, the combination of all this into an indictment of nature’s horrid brutality… even, for that matter, the intermediate reflection on how quickly twelve years pass, as if tomorrow should always replicate today and the supply of tomorrows should be inexhaustible… how many times have I seen and heard it all among the people who came of age with me in the Seventies! Especially in the Ivory Tower: there to this day, and now deeply embedded in ideology. What childishness! And what an arrogant, spoiled-brat child!
Dr. John Harris (Ph.D. Comparative Literature, U. of Texas at Austin) is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.