Remy de Gourmont – Steps Upon the Sand

Translated by Fergus Cullen

Les Pas sur le sable (Paris: Société Littéraire de France, 1919), like many of de Gourmont’s works, was published posthumously under the supervision of his brother, Jean. The booklet runs to only 61 pages, and is ornamented with woodcuts by Alexandre Noll.

Here we catch de Gourmont in a variety of moods. As perfect a romantic as he is (§§ 20, 22–5, 30–1, etc.), he exhibits every vice of the voluptuary: the sexually predacious (§ 66); the masturbatory (§ 73); the latently homosexual (§ 40); the solipsistic (§ 46).

The genre of the text wavers with its author’s mood. Consideration and prejudice intermingle for better and for worse. De Gourmont, at his best, can be as judicious a moralist as La Rochefoucauld (§§ 7, 39, 60, 69, etc.), or as lucid a madman as the late Cioran (§§ 12, 83, etc.). The limitations of the quip as a vehicle for philosophy are evident in, e.g., §§ 13, 17, 49–52, 65, 77 and 80, where what may have worked ex tempore seems, on paper, glib, pat, and thus falls flat. There is an unannounced and unrevisited outburst of anti-Indian sentiment in § 4. But the power of his genre is on display in, e.g., §§ 56, 71, and 100–20, where simple statements of existential convictions, of inner truths, achieve a happy marriage of form and content. The side-glances of §§ 29, 37, etc. are similar in tone to, and as effective as observational satire as certain of Ezra Pound’s epigrams in Lustra (1916) and Quia Pauper Amavi (1919). The micro-fictions of §§ 33, 35, 46, 55, etc., including the series on the mysterious “M…” (§§ 34, 38, 57 and 74), are of a genre all de Gourmont’s own.

Note the variety of work the term “criticism” (“critique”) is made to do. In § 39 it certainly indicates the work of a critic (which de Gourmont takes on in §§ 59–63, 87, 89, etc.). Elsewhere (e.g. 100–20) it means something more like critical philosophy (“Kritik”). Perhaps the leading idea of the whole work is the problem of the life of “the intelligent” (§ 119) or “serious” man (§ 6) who presumes to criticise the “movement of men around oneself.” In juxtaposition, §§ 53 and 117 evince an anxiety over the status of the intelligentsia as a class.

I never put my desired epigraph to this series of notes. Here it is, as taken from Robinson Crusoe* in Abbé Desfontaines’ translation: “One day, as I went to my canoe, I found, very distinctly upon the sand, the marks of a man’s bare foot. I never had so great a fright…” Two or three pages ought to be cited almost entire. This is exactly the impression one gets upon detecting the invisible movement of men around oneself. As soon as one sees steps upon the sand, one must return home and lock oneself in.

Average humanity loves scandal. The dazzling vices of others justify their own in their mediocrity.
Thought has no grandeur but in extreme opinions.
To every question of religion I respond with that phrase of Mark Twain’s: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”*
The wisdom of India? The Hindus? Pigs communing in cow dung.
Living is the art of bending to necessity.
Novels, literary biographies talk calmly of “ancestral influence,” of “moral heritage,” of “atavistic instinct.” Darwinian jargon has entered into general culture. Serious men ask themselves how it might be made to leave. That will be difficult.
Sacrifice is always made by those whom it profits.
Why wish to know the depth of beings? Is it not at the surface that things are loveliest: women, animals, flowers, fruits?
Besides scientific method, research into causes is not without analogy to our manner of reasoning in dreams. A break in the circulation, a crinkling in a certain part of our body, and imagination, in sleep, assigns the entirely independent image that occupies our mind as its cause. A fold of the pillow against the mouth becomes a kiss from the woman of whom we think; an inflation of the organs of love, that would be her hand; an obstruction of the heart becomes the anguish caused by her attitude. Likewise, in waking life, if, for example, we are preoccupied by the idea of survival, we will immediately find in it the justification for a latent idea, bearing no logical link with it: unjustified suffering, the death of loved ones—as if our personal aspirations should govern the eternal march of things. Popular religions and philosophies have much exploited this confluence of sentiment and idea.
It is curious that, after many centuries of philosophical analysis, men have still not understood that the moral exists no more than the caloric, the impermeable or the inert.
For some, books are milestones; for others, they are ladders.
To write with one’s life.
I read, concerning metaphysics: “Matter exists only in consciousness.” But if one were to say: “Consciousness exists only in matter,” would it be much more reasonable? How, indeed, to conceive consciousness in itself? It requires an object.
There comes a moment in life, sooner or later, at which one discovers the external world: that which resists, men, things. Then one must sit down before the obstacle or abandon idealism. My representation of the world is but one; and all but negligible, if I do not know it. To live, to continue upon my route, I must strive to discover others’.
Lovely, and so full of things, this line of Jules Laforgue’s: “Un âne plein de foi pâture” (“A donkey grazes, full of faith”).*
When Dumas père read Madame Bovary, he said: “If this is literature, all that I have written since 1830 is worth nothing.”
Mr. Bergson reasons upon the freedom of the will as astronomers before Copernicus reasoned upon the movements of the stars.
Books about love are far less disinterested psychologies than they are confessions. This is why they hardly become interesting until after the author’s death, once he has become famous.
If beauty promises happiness, it is always imperfection that keeps the promise.
The man of one woman is a very formidable lover.
To marry an airhead: that’s nothing—but to love her!
One can hardly judge those one loves. One fears too much lest the judgment be unfavourable; and, as it would not negate the sentiment, we would love them just as much, and we would suffer.
There is great joy when judgment accords with sentiment; but it is a great gamble, and a great risk to run.
The scent of intelligence in a woman always has something of the sexual, from which men take the wrong impression.
Jealousy, within tender companionship, causes much suffering, all the more when one dares not confess it.
Just as there are delicate skins, there are hearts quick to bleed.
That coldness one believes one has good reason to show: be sure it does not appear to be a bout of stupidity.
One does not rid oneself of a bad thought just like that, with a swipe. No, no, it has entered the flesh: it must be torn out: blood must flow.
Those women of made-up faces and made-up souls!
Love is a perpetual hazard. The strongest is never sure of anything, nor of himself.
Some women are mistresses; others, lovers; others, friends. Mistresses can be exchanged; lovers, rarely; friends, never.
To the degree that a life is accomplished, it is impoverished, constricted, desiccated. The “peau de chagrin”* is a great symbol.
Hardly had they met one another, before—already—they remembered one another.
M… said: “I have never found pleasure except in melancholy.”
I picture the God Who May Be as a humble personage. Homages do not move him; he does not feel loved; he has made too many unfortunates; and he suffers in his core on account of his impotence. “I am,” he says, with a pitiable smile, “the error of the infinite.”
The writer, the artist who creates beauty, never creates for himself. He lacks too much perspective to enjoy it.
Ladies’ toilette: what is the point? The beautiful are always so; the unbeautiful, likewise; and men are not fooled.
“Perhaps my value,” said M…, “is that I not only understand ideas, but I feel them; and that I not only experience sentiments, but I understand them.”
There is no criticism of the living. One sometimes criticises one’s enemies; others, never.
If I were a woman, perhaps I would have loved only women. Nevertheless, a man’s heart is something. The beauty of a man’s eyes, as well.
It is sometimes nice to lie to others. It is even nicer to lie to oneself.
Hypocrisy comes so easily to churchmen that they do not really deserve it.
To have what I call intelligence of emotion, or intellectual emotion: it all starts there. The only talent—that of the rhetorician—is of no interest.
Illness, aging, death: man’s three great humiliations.
On the nobility of courtesans. There are courtesans in every milieu: in every milieu, she is superior to her milieu. In other terms, the courtesan is always an aristocrat.
“Have you known many women?” “Yes: I have come to know myself through many women.”
Motives. Motives are of no value. One can be exchanged very compliantly for another. They are nothing but vain rationalisations.
A man was devoted to the King. Come the Revolution, he devoted himself to the Revolution; the Empire, he devoted himself to the Empire. One seeks the respective motives: he needed to devote himself: that is all. The same man and the same motive.
One ought never to seek the motives of the acts of history. This is a grand childishness.
Motives are nothing. Nevertheless, man cares more for the motives he ascribes to his actions than for those actions themselves.
Analysis of motives. The ensemble of our actions, enacted or considered, is a series without end. We divide them into sections to which we give the name “motive.” That is of no importance. On the series marches, and on it would march, at the same pace, if we were to interchange motives, which are nothing but arbitrary labels.
Example of arbitrary motives. Few dare ascribe to love its true motive. Soul, intelligence, spiritual qualities, devotion, a thousand other causes, may well be true, but are secondary. Let us therefore look clearly into ourselves: the motive of love—of all love—is sexual attraction.
1912. In France, only the working classes have a political life.
I love only those who enclose the infinite.
Don Juan: “You embrace me! So you love me?” Death: “More than anything, creator of life. You have done so much for me!”
There is much to be found in science. There is all the more not to be found.
M… said: “I never finish my sentences. Do you then claim to divine what I would go on to say? I don’t know that myself.”
Our fifties catch us making plans for the future. Indeed, why not?
Stendhalian reflections. A poor young man’s novel: who did it first and best if not Stendhal with Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole?*
Genius is not ridiculous when one knows how to wear it.
Stendhal saw clearly the variety of love in the world, and the smallness of its influence upon the tone of social relations.
The real world will always be the one in which we know how to be bored.
Le R. et le N. is perhaps the only novel that can have an influence upon the character of a young man, upon the mood of even a cold individual.
Love is to sexual need what taste is to hunger.
Truth is a representation and not a fact.
Maidenhood, roses, tears: all things exquisite to pluck as soon as they are formed.
Woman’s work is man’s idleness. In other words: when one sex works, the other rests. And again: a working woman, a parasite husband.
God is always something we create ourselves, with our own hands, with our own mind, and whom one knows to be true, and whom one loves on this account.
It takes a good deal of genius not to sink into popularity.
Christian discipline habituates man to judge actions only according to their utility. It disenchants.
Every believer is the slave of belief.
There are transferals of energy. There are also transferals of sensibility.
Happiness is personal. One must achieve it oneself, with one’s own hands, and not just wait for the hands of others.
M… said: “Life always ends with the discovery that there is nothing there and that everything is pointless. Only I got there a little soon.”
To desire only the impossible.
A head of Luini with a poorly-accentuated profile but a delectable face. Agreeable design of the mouth, arched like a child’s. Hands very white. Breasts flat, a bit long, still pretty. Gracile, a lombarde from Marseille. She said… And upon her lovely lips, the obscenity assumed I don’t know what innocent and quite natural air.
“Superman” may merely denote the man superior in spirit, in activity, in an admirable ensemble of human gifts. If it’s so, then fine. But if it is something else, if it means a being at once man and above man, this is absurd.
The abnormal takes root in the normal.
We have studied the abnormal in order to understand the normal. A bad method, which rather loses sight of the everyday fact, of which the exceptional fact is but the logical development.
Ancient habits of language, which were, in their time, great works of analysis, impose upon us a distinction between physical facts and moral facts, which it would be better to call spiritual, as pertaining more particularly to the spirit, to the imagination, to representation. In reality, there are only physical facts. There is no impulse of the spirit on account of which there could be a change of physical, chemical or mechanical state.
It is in boredom, profound boredom, that we may taste the best of our existence.
There is always something superior about the person who knows how to be bored.
Sooner boredom than a mediocre pleasure.
Some pleasures are profound, thrilling, harrowing. Only these are worth parting from boredom.
O delights of my boredom: what worth are the amusements of men beside you?
Perhaps the best way to live blithely is not to take life too seriously. It is true then that, if one diminish the severity of its pains, one will also diminish the density of its pleasures, and that life, in total, will fall in value. This was, it seems, the method of the eighteenth century, until the moment of Jean-Jacques’ influence, who taught the men of his day to let their sentiments weigh in their plenitude upon the mind, whereon they leave the imprint of their nature. Rousseau did not know how to play with life. The discovery of a periwinkle in the hedgerow sent him into palpitations, since he muddled thereupon the memories of Mme. de Warens and of one of her words. But when Mme. de Warens had said, while walking with him up a hillside: “Ah! look: a periwinkle!” she did not have a world of intentions. For her, this was a little late bloom. For Rousseau, it is a star, a memory, the sentiment, the very poetry that she impressed upon his heart.
Such are the two methods. One permits one to seize a pleasure, to undergo a pain in all its simplicity, in an almost animal and almost unconscious way. The other acquaints us so directly with the primitive sensation, makes it enter so profoundly the depths of our egoism, that it acquires there an incredible power over us. Whence these effusions à propos of nothing, these tears à propos of nothing, which are, perhaps, the foundation of modern poetry.
I cannot keep myself from understanding it so, from loving it so, though I know how unreasonable it is. It is difficult to do otherwise. Grand sentiments bore me, and grand words, and grand logical ratiocinations. I only enter into such things literarily, certainly never historically; and this bothers me.
If pushed, I would say that he who interpreted classical theatre the best is Daumier.
The romanticism of Rousseau and Chateaubriand has taught us to take far more from things than they contain. There is physical trickery in this which serious persons will not forgive them.
Une chaumière et un coeur” (“A cottage and a heart”).* This is not so ridiculous: there are pretty cottages! Unfortunately, hearts are rare.
“There isn’t so much separating women from men,” the ironical feminist Sixtus told me: there is only ever the difference between Sévigné and Corneille, Vigée-Lebrun and Michelangelo, Beethoven and Augusta Holmès.
Is it for good or ill that the laws regulating civil life be made by those who no longer live, by the aging, by those who no longer know what life is?
If Alexander, says Bossuet, sagely, had remained peacefully in Macedon, his heritage would not have interested anybody. And lo, what is called the philosophy of history. Let us continue: if Jesus had kept to his craft—which was the carpenter’s—say, he would have spared the world much disorder, much blood.
The religion that least repels reason is, without a doubt, philosophical paganism as the Ancients knew it. Its principle is that behind every act is a power.
Wind rises: it is the power of the wind. Water flows, it rains: it is the power of the water. Man is agitated by the urge to love: it is the power of love. And this is at once naïve and irrefutable.
There is always a degree of contempt in the love of a man for the woman who gives herself to him. Women exhibit it who instinctively delay the moment of abandon.
The dissociation of sentiments is very little advanced in woman, and perhaps, we may hope, impossible. With her, everything is physical: love, friendship, devotion. And how much more fraternal this is to our flesh, and more thrilling!
We cannot stand fast in the abstract. We end up believing the degrees of the thermometer to be found in nature.
On intelligence. Man possesses intelligence. And seeking a solution, he will often find many, among which he must choose. He generally chooses the least pleasant. In the same circumstance, the animal finds only one; but it is always the best.
All children are little prodigies of intelligence, before they become the dunderheads that populate the globe.
Intelligence is a faculty of maladaptation.
Animals live very well without intelligence, without reason, probably without consciousness, and even accomplish complicated operations in which man would run aground.
Intelligence has confidence in itself; but it very often fools itself by trying to assist vital instinct.
Consciousness of an action follows the action; intelligence likewise.
Sometimes, however, it intervenes critically before the action; but this only serves to pervert it. It never accompanies it: action is unintelligent.
When man, dominating instinct, wishes to apply only his intelligence to his actions, he only manages to reveal his ingenious ineptitude.
We labour, as to the importance of intelligence, under the same illusion as regards consciousness. We believe that without it no action would be accomplished. And yet it exercises over action only a critical and post-hoc influence.
Intelligence is the visible form of consciousness.
Intelligence serves only to criticise actions: not to determine them.
The majority of intelligent men behave like dunderheads.
Intelligence is a natural gift that must be cultivated, without illusions as to its utility, as a leisurely art.
Intelligence is an active faculty, lacking experience. Instinct alone is vital, an anciently accumulated intelligence.
For all his intelligence, man, had he not his animalistic instinct, would cut a very shoddy figure on the world stage.
When one is genuinely intelligent (the majority of writers are but cobblers), games of intelligence tire, since they proceed without upset.
The intellectual professions are full of men besotted by the notion of the “croix d’honneur”—so, full of dunderheads and bumpkins.*
But what class can call itself the “intellectual class”?
Intelligence is sporadic, like mushrooms.
Intelligent men have not been found to do better or to know better than others.
In summary, intelligence amounts to nothing in life but to criticise life.

Some glosses.

[Introduction] The citation from Robinson Crusoe in the introduction is a faithful rendition of Desfontaines’ version, and therefore differs from Defoe’s original.

[§ 3] The citation from Mark Twain is from the epigraph to chapter 12 of Following the Equator (1898).

[§ 15] The citation from Jules Laforgue is from “Cythère,” Des Fleurs de bonne volonté (1890).

[§ 32] Reference is made to Balzac’s Peau de chagrin (1831), at the centre of which is an enchanted piece of shagreen—oriental rawhide—that grants wishes but shrinks with each wish.

[§ 59] Sorel and Mme. de la Mole are characters in The Red and the Black.

[§ 91] The cottage and heart are, according to the proverb, all the simple man requires to be happy.

[§ 116] Reference is made to the “croix d’honneur,” a familiar term for the Légion d’honneur, the highest French order of merit, both military and civil.