A Taste for Imperfection: Selections from Remy de Gourmont

Translated by Fergus Cullen

“Clair de lune” by Félix Vallotton, c. 1895

If beauty promises happiness, it is always imperfection that keeps the promise.

Le Pas sur le sable (Paris, 1919), p. 19.


Remy de Gourmont rose to prominence as a Symboliste poet, and to preeminence as a critic. He is rarely called a philosopher; though that might change. His characteristic form is that of Nietzsche and E. M. Cioran: the single paragraph, too long to be an aphorism, too short—not to mention too imperious, insufficiently discursive—to be an essay.

His is too varied and extensive a work to submit to representative selection; and if such selection were possible, I would not be the one to make it. But I have chosen a few passages that touch upon a characteristic knot of themes: beauty and imperfection, the fine arts, and the female body.

One senses in de Gourmont many contrary drives: Nietzschean and Platonic; the invalid’s hypersensitivity and the aesthete’s voluptuousness; Weltschmerz and joie-de-vivre. Being contraries, these cannot resolve, but here sublime into a particular personality, a peculiar knot of idiosyncrasies.

And it is partly as the intense expression of that experience that de Gourmont’s prose is of interest. But that he was as important for Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot as he was for J.-K. Huysmans, Blaise Cendrars and Georges Bataille ought to encourage readers of English to seek out what is available of de Gourmont in that language. Pound’s translation of “Dust for Sparrows” is to be found in his Translations (London, 1970), pp. 361–97. See also Isaac Goldberg’s selection, Philosophic Nights in Paris (Boston, 1920); W. A. Bradley’s Decadence (London, 1922); and Pound’s Natural Philosophy of Love (New York, 1922).

Blue Sky

I rejoice in this pure and hard sky, in this sky so implacably blue: for it must be favourable for our armies; though the sight, or simply the idea, pains me. This blue generally coincides with the east wind; so I, in my impotent animosity, do not distinguish them. One of my friends, exiled to the provinces, claims to live well and think quickly only when the sky is immaculate and the wind comes from the orient. This has always amazed me: because under such circumstances, I myself lose even hope; and when I happen to see this milky blue, I feel myself fading and becoming as stupid as it is. On this subject, poets have offered banalities! Only Théophile Gautier has sensed what is tyrannical and inexpressive in uniform sky, the colour of the virgin communicant, sickly blanched, thoughts as innocently bleak as her dress without elegance. Not even the divine Mallarmé neglected to sing of the azure—that ideal of the washerwoman, for whom it has been solidified into little childish balls. I like a dappled sky, a shifting sky, a living sky. Azure is death, the immutable, the definitive, nothingness. What the simple call good weather, what’s more, is good for nothing besides harvest and haymaking. It is not disagreeable, I admit, at night, when it lets us admire the starry mantle; but this is quite the only moment, and comes, perhaps, at too high a price, having lived a whole day under its stupid beauty. The soft grace of Selene is never quite as sensible as when light clouds hurry across her face, and now veil, and now let shine her gently glow. In too clear a sky, she is a little stupid. But her brother, the sun, is atrocious. Clouds, clouds!

Dans la tourmente (Paris, 1916), pp. 66–8.

What is most irritating about this dry heat, this eternal good weather we have been suffering, is the colour of the sky. This implacable blue that unfurls itself daily over our heads is not profound, nor resplendent, nor sapphirine: it is a milk-blue, a lead-blue, a stupid blue, a shoddy blue. It seems that all the rain of times gone by has so washed and rewashed it that its colour has faded as from a cheap cloth. Oh! this washed-out blue, stretching interminably above! One sees how this would be the ideal of unhappy poets and Job-like dreamers, and that Zola had good reason to scoff at their somersaults through the blue. Who would really care to roll around in these bleached solitudes? Even children look twice. Pity that even Mallarmé sang of the azure. He never saw it: that is his excuse: he dreamed it. We, unhappy we, have seen it; and we will by no means try to dream it once it has gone. We are haunted by shifting clouds. O admirable clouds, merciful clouds, gentle clouds, luminous clouds, great flowers of heaven: when will you return to smile upon your miserable children, your children brutalised by azure? When will you give us the lovely enchantments of light and of form, for which you alone have the gift? Without the clouds there is no more joy, nor hope, nor ease, nor smiles, nor air. These are the clouds that cradle the wind which lets us feel ourselves breathing in a living atmosphere and participating in the rhythm of things. I love the clouds, even the grey, even the black and furious. Rather anything than a blue sky. A sky without clouds is an eye without eyelids.

Petits crayons (Paris, 1921), pp. 160–2.

Dance and Dancers

From when does the dancers’ uniform, become so profoundly ridiculous, date? And who imposed upon them, once and for all, this maillot, this tutu, this jupe de gaze? I’m sure I’ve no idea; but it cannot be very old, since the regimented and characterless dance—the administrative dance—is of recent date. Is it an Italian import? Quite probably, given that all that is baroque in art comes to us from Italy. Why has it lasted; and why is the dancer’s attitude fixed in this figure? A mystery, which alone explains the lack of interest we have always shown the dance—except, of course, for the patrons of the Opéra, who, when it comes to dance, enjoy the Foyer de la Danse above all. It is truly incomprehensible that every ballet, without exception, whatever the subject, whatever the century, whatever the location, is ruled by a regiment of women sworn to the pirouette and jetés-battus. We can support it no longer: we have seen too many ancient bas-reliefs; we have been too impressed by Isadora Duncan. This woman’s example, and that of the Greeks, by whom she is inspired, have taught us that dance is not gymnastics; that its principal element is not agility by grace, but character. Grace and character are unachievable in a maillot, and above all in a jupe de gaze. Dance will express itself better when it is freer. It must pull off this ridiculous attire, which, despite its pretensions to figure the sylphs, is an encumbrance on the body. The dancer must be more or less nude under a floating veil that now conceals, now accentuates the play of her limbs, the gentle roll of her muscle. But not just Greek dance: dance must be able to assume every costume and figure, every attitude. Little Javanese hieratic monsters, laden with idols, would be graceful and light as a damsel in a tutu, otherwise—even the best articulated.

Le Chat de misère (Paris, 1912), pp. 59–60.

Here, yesterday, we saw that the dancer Adorée Villany was recently prosecuted for having danced unveiled in public, and that her trial could not take place, the police being unable to find, among the nearly three thousand spectators, a single plaintiff. This occurred at Munich. If I return to this story, it is because I think it worth adding here some reflections and applying a little pressure to the tension we find between official and current morality and that which governs the more intelligent of society’s circles. There are today, and perhaps there always will be, even under the reign of the severest Christianity, a quantity of men who cannot be convinced that it is healthy and moral to contemplate a nude statue but unhealthy and immoral to regard, in a state of nature, said statue’s model. What’s more, they are absolutely convinced, whatever our preeminent moralists—supported, perhaps, by the worshipful companies of tailors and dressmakers—think, that the human being comes into the world quite nude, that the nude is thus his state of nature, that he cannot appear in the fullness of his beauty but in the nude, and, the sight of beauty being heartening, that there is nothing better for man than the sight of himself in the state of perfection: for I readily consent to the unveiling of only the perfect nude, or what gives the illusion of perfection. This was still understood three or four centuries ago; and at solemn festivals, the magistrates commanded the most beautiful women, in good will, to show themselves nude to the people. This is reported, for example, in the tale of the entrance of Charles the Fifth into Anvers. At that time, there was never yet any grant festival at Paris without the exhibition of lovely nude girls. The Middle Age, which was, in many respects—in its spectacles, games, public baths—the continuation of ancient mores, displayed no horror of the nude; and men had not yet the hypocrisy to protest against a spectacle which almost all desire in their heart. But, as the prudish know full well, upon this subject, mores are returning to old habits. The Munich anecdote alone proves it. We ourselves have seen the like.

Ibid., pp. 24 – 6.

Marble and Flesh

To the Master, Rodin

The sculpture-studio asserts the superiority of art over life, how sad flesh is beside the luminous joy of marble, how modest beside the glory of bronze. On first viewing, the impression of the feminine nude beside the marmoreal nude is rather painful: one is disturbed by the tone of the skin, that muddle of pink and yellow; by the mobility of the face and of all the body’s muscles, usually disarrayed in a graceless attitude; by the hair; by other shadows; by the absence of calm and of fixed lines; and as well by what one feels, amid the staid Academy, of the fugitive, of the personal in this being that stupidly stands, bared and bored, upon a table.

Truly, it is there that one sees quite how little there is, in itself, of individual and outward beauty; quite how incapable any creature, rock or stone, man or beast, is of realising itself by its only natural means, its life’s only means: in short, it only attains reality after having been manipulated, recreated, evoked by Art or by Desire (which we might therefore call Love).

Those little models one sees everywhere, polychrome in the streets, monochrome in the studios, those little Italians are quite trivial, of a mediocre charm, hardly pretty and usually heavy with the seriousness of Madonnas; but if they be desired by Artist or by Lover, lo, they become equals of divinities most high.

Material, created or born, is, beneath a formal appearance, beneath the illusion of a precise contour, essentially amorphous; it is for the intelligence to give it its true form—that is to say, its purpose and its place in the hierarchy of works of art and love.

Of all amorphous creatures, woman (with some exceptions in which the male soul ensconces itself in a female wrapper) is ideally the most malleable and the most inconsistent, that which best bears impressions, but also that which sustains them the least deeply: she blossoms into her real and definitive nature only under the incessant and imperious hold of Force. Statuary, which takes genius and brawn, fearlessness and endurance, is evidently the art that best dominates her and realises her with the most surety: in stone, in marble, in bronze she is truly eternal; she is truly the indestructible Idea.

Le Chemin de velours (Paris, 1911), pp. 307–9.

The Taste for Perfection

Mr. Paul Adam has reported interesting impressions of his voyage through America to the Exhibition at St. Louis. He notes very well, for example, what there is of the unfinished in this improvised civilisation. In everything the American disdains the end: he stops his work at precisely the point at which it becomes fully usable. Whether he busy himself with a bridge, a machine or a tool, he suspends his efforts as soon as the practical goal is attained. The metal will not be filed, the wood polished, except in those places where these finishes are strictly necessary; paintwork will never be used as beautification, but only as preservative. And in this latter instance, Americans know nothing of the art of presenting an extension of effort—in short, essentially useful—as an ornament. The French worker, covering a machine in paint to the practical end of preserving it from rust, nevertheless uses his paint according to harmonious tones and lines; the American worker slathers it on crudely, throwing onto the metal that uniform beef-blood colour so uneasy on our delicate eyes.

A very large number of agricultural machines are American-made. That much shows itself at a glance: the iron is pockmarked; the bolts are deformed; the general attitude of the machine is clumsy and cumbersome; its red colour, painful. Nonetheless, it works; it is practical and affordable. Us outsiders, aging infants, spoilt by art, we need something different: we have the taste for perfection.

No doubt this taste, since mechanisation, since international standardisation, since the democratisation of luxury, is noticeably dulled. But it still persists: it struggles against necessity; and it asserts itself whenever we give it the opportunity.

It is very ancient. It is an inheritance. Our masters, the Romans, possessed it, even if to a lesser extent than the Greeks, who loved completion in all things. It is not in the artistic, strictly speaking, that it is to be sought, the very aim of art being perfection. It will be seen in commonplace objects of an utterly practical purpose, and which are, nonetheless, at once very well adapted to their end and clothed in beauty. The hand of ancient artisans left upon the humblest of their works the trace of a caress.

In Gothic churches there are inaccessible and invisible stones which are sculpted with as much care as if they were meant for the eye’s level: this is the religious form of the taste for perfection. It surpassed taste—that is, proportion—and became mania, if we judge it according to our habits; but these obscure sculptors worked far less for man than for God, the angels and the saints; and they said that the invisible is not hidden from invisible powers.

The Middle Age and the sixteenth century left many everyday objects in which one senses the taste for perfection; but it was the following two centuries that truly realised this tendency, always alive in the French spirit. Throughout this period it manifested in what we call “style.” An object was then only called perfect if it realised a particular, clearly perceptible beauty, because developing within precise limits. There is a romantic beauty, which is of the unfinished, of the vague, of the “becoming.” This is not the Americans’ crude unfinishedness: it is an unfinishedness at once studied and tumultuous, imitating nature in her apparent caprice. Even here a certain taste for perfection is to be found, but one which seeks only transitory, mobile, infinitely variable forms, while the genuine taste for perfection strives to create, for every object, a perfectly fixed general form within which every particular form might inscribe itself.

Under this system, an object is finished only when it is stylised. A thing, be it a garden or a dress, a vase or a house, gives the idea of this general form, all while keeping its particular form of convenience and utility.

The taste for perfection, in short, is entangled in the taste for unity. In nature there are as many perfections as there are natural objects, inert or alive, of even fragments of objects. To copy from nature what it has of the unlimited is one way to conceive art; but it might not be a way to conceive nature. Transposed onto canvasses, the landscapes and flowers seen by Claude Monet leave us quite as disquieted as when they were natural spectacles; contrarily, stylised flowers or landscapes comfort us: they are tames, they are humanised.

But this idea of style, spotted en route, has led me a little astray. If there is no genuine perfection besides that limited by style, there is another, average and very accessible, which any object, and the humblest, may achieve. It suffices, for this, that the object be genuinely finished: that is, that its material and its form be given a degree of perfection compatible with that material or form. A Roman potter’s cellar was found in Tunisia in which were lying two or three hundred terracotta lamps, all of different form and attributes. Lo, the very height of the taste for perfection! In the state of decay in which France finds itself today, it would be content with an elegant and finished lamp reproduced in thousands of examples. The American is satisfied with the crude container. What’s more, he hardly uses anything but electric light: the roads, without pavements, muddy and ploughed up, are illuminated; and likewise the houses of the West and Midwest, fashioned from barely squared-off planks. The taste for the unfinished leads naturally to these incoherences.

Promenades philosophiques (Paris, 1913), pp. 202–6.