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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XXII.

Of the Qualities of a Writer

[1]TO make a great singer, a great painter, a great musician, a great writer, there must be enthusiasm in the voice, in the colour, the sounds, the words; yet this enthusiasm must be hidden and almost imperceptible; from it springs what we call charm.

[2]Buffon says that genius is but the capacity for patience. The capacity for long and unwearied attention is in fact the genius of observation; but there is another genius, that of invention, which is the capacity for a lively, quick and constant insight.

[3]Without self-abandonment, or rather without rapture, there is no genius.

[4]Goodness is the beginning of beauty.

[5]The sublime has two manners, sublimity of thought or sublimity of feeling. In the second, a man has words that burn, penetrate, transport. In the first, he has but words of light; they give little heat, but they enchant.

[6]Over-emphasis spoils the pen of the young, just as high singing spoils their voice. To learn to husband force, voice, talent, and intellect—this is the use of art, and the only way to excel.

[7]Where there is no delicacy there is no literature. A work which contains nothing but vigour, and a kind of fire without brilliancy, reveals nothing but the character. Any one can do the like, if he have the nerve, gall, pride, and animal force.

[8]Be profound with clear terms, and not with obscure terms. What is difficult will at last become easy; but as one goes deep into things, one must still keep a charm, and one must carry into these dark depths of thought, into which speculation has only recently penetrated, the pure and antique clearness of centuries less learned than ours, but with more light in them.[M.A.]

[9]Affectation is chiefly a matter of expression; pretentiousness, of the vanity of the writer. By the one the author seems to say, ‘I want to be clear,’ or ‘I want to be exact’; and he does not annoy us; by the other he seems to say, ‘I want to shine’; and we hiss him. Here is the general rule:—whenever a writer is, thinking only of his readers he is excused. Whenever he is thinking only of himself, we make him suffer for it.

[10]Some writers are reproached that their style is far-fetched. As for myself, I seek far and wide in books for the exact expression, the simple expression, the expression best suited to the subject before me, to the thought in my head, the feeling in my heart, to what goes before, to what follows after, and to the place that is waiting for the word. We speak of what is natural, but there is the naturally vulgar and the naturally distinguished. The natural expression is not always the most hackneyed, but is the one that best harmonises with the essence of the meaning. Habit is not nature, and the best is not what presents itself first, but what will endure.

[11]Literary manner is to literary method what hypocrisy is to virtue: but it is a sincere hypocrisy; he who has it is its dupe.

[12]The natural gift!—it is but the material that art must use, the silk that it must spin and smooth.

[13]When any one writes with ease, he always believes himself to have more talent than he has. In order to write well there must be a natural ease, and an acquired difficulty.

[14]Facility is hostile to the sublime. Look at Cicero; he lacks nothing, but obstacle and spring.

[15]When a piece of work has been done, there still remains one very difficult thing to do, that is, to give it a varnish of ease and an air of pleasure, that may hide from the reader and spare him all the trouble that the author has taken.

[16]If a work show the marks of the file it has not been polished enough; if it smell of the lamp, your night-watches have been too short.

[17]Sagacity needs but a moment to see everything; precision needs years to express everything.

[18]Perfection is made up of minute details. It is not the use but the misplaced use of them that is ridiculous.

[19]Genius begins great works; but labour alone finishes them.

[20]Idleness is a necessity for the mind, as much as work. Talent is ruined by writing too much, and rusted by not writing at all.

[21]Ignorance, which in morals lessens the fault, in literature is itself a capital offence.

[22]Forgotten and neglected studies are not always the worst; sometimes even they are the best.

[23]We know nothing well till a long time after we have learnt it.

[24]It is impossible to become very well-informed if we read only what is agreeable.

[25]This is perhaps a not unimportant counsel to give to writers; write nothing that does not give you great pleasure; emotion passes easily from writer to reader.

[26]Young writers give their minds a great deal of exercise, and very little food.

[27]To make something agreeable that has never been so before, is a kind of creation.

[28]Commonplaces have an eternal interest. They are the unchanging material that the human mind, everywhere and always, must employ when it wishes to give pleasure. Circumstances give it variety. No music is more pleasing than variations on well-known airs.

[29]To try and do without the necessary, or make use of the useless; both sources of mischief in composition.

[30]It is well to write down our views, perceptions and ideas, but not our judgments. The man who always writes down his judgments is forever placing a Calpe and an Abila before his eyes. He makes of them a ne plus ultra, and goes no further.

[31]A writer should never give forth the whole of his thought, unless it be of a kind that it is well to be rid of. Breathe out all your anger, but not all your kindness; all your abuse, but not all your praise. Do not quench the mind’s fire; still more do not empty it. Keep back always a little of its produce, and leave something of its honey to the bee itself for nourishment.

[32]Those who do all that they can, are in danger of showing their limits. Neither talent, nor strength, nor expenditure should be carried to this extreme.

[33]The fine feelings and beautiful ideas that we wish to set forth successfully in our writings, ought to be very familiar to us, so that the ease and charm of habit may be felt in their expression.

[34]A good judge finds everywhere thoughts that interest him, even in the conversation of fools, and in the most commonplace writings. These thoughts circulate like gold pieces that all the world uses, without noticing their brightness, their intrinsic value, and their beauty. And yet jewels can be made of them; but the art lies in knowing how to work them up.

[35]We should only believe in our feelings, after the soul has been long at rest from them; and express ourselves, not as we feel, but as we remember.

[36]All that we say should take colour from ourselves, from our souls. This operation is slow, but it immortalises.

[37]A work of art must not give the impression of a reality, so much as of a thought. Our thought indeed is always nobler, finer, and more apt to touch the soul, than the objects it presents, even when it presents them well.

[38]Three things are necessary to make a good book: talent, art, and skill—that is to say, nature, industry, and habit.

[39]In writing, we ought to fancy ourselves in the presence of the lettered few; but it is not to them that we should speak.

[40]In the pure realm of art, illuminate your subject with one single ray of light, starting from one point.

[41]Because of the nature of our taste, because of the qualities that a real or fictitious subject must have, if it is to please the imagination, and interest the heart—in short, because of the given conditions and unchangeableness of human nature, there are not many epic subjects, not many tragic, not many comic; and in the combinations by which we try to create new ones, we often attempt the impossible.

[42]For an ordinary book you want nothing but a subject; but in a fine work there must be a germ that develops of itself in the mind like a plant. There are no fine works but those that have been long—if not laboured—at least dreamed over.

[43]A thought is perfect only when it is at disposal—that is to say, when it can be detached and placed where you will.

[44]In composing, one hardly knows what one meant to say, until one has said it. The word, in fact, is what completes the thought and gives it existence. By the word it springs into light—in lucem prodit.

[45]The end of a work should always recall the beginning.

[46]Let the last word be the last; it is like the last touch that gives the exact shade of colour; there is nothing to add to it. But then, what care we must take not to say the last word first!

[47]Many useless phrases come into the head, but the mind grinds its colours out of them.

[48]A man must say what he thinks, if he is to be satisfied with himself, and with what he says; but to be eloquent, fruitful, varied, abundant—in a word, to be an orator, it is perhaps necessary only to have to say what one thinks vaguely, has thought but a little while, or even thinks at the moment. The glow of thought, in fact, comes from its novelty and superabundance, from the very indecisions of the mind. The wise man, that is to say, he who only brings into the light of day what he has fully matured, may have the eloquence of the oracle, but he will never flow like Cicero. To make fine speeches with ease, a man must work upon himself as he wishes to work upon his hearers; he must, that is, persuade himself, as he speaks, of the truth of what he is saying.

[49]Men can only be persuaded to what they wish. So that, in order to dissuade them, you need only make them believe that what they wish is not in fact what they think they wish.

[50]There is a great charm in seeing facts through words, because then one sees them through a thought.

[51]You should only mix with historical narrative such reflections as the intelligence of a judicious reader would not be enough to suggest to him.

[52]History, like perspective, needs distance. Facts that are too abundantly attested cease, in some degree, to be malleable.

[53]Both the tragic and comic author should preserve a meditative habit of mind; the one that he may be equal; the other that he may be superior to his task.

[54]Comedy springs from the seriousness of the character represented; pathos from the patience or the calm of the sufferer. There is nothing comic without gravity, nothing pathetic without self-control. He who makes you laugh must forget that he is ridiculous, and he who weeps must disguise or keep back his tears.

[55]The truly comic excites not only gaiety, but delight. This is because in true comedy there is plenty of light and space; the characters appear whole and clear; the spectator can see all round them.

[56]Comedy should never present what is repulsive.

[57]The theatre should amuse worthily, but should only amuse. To try and make it a school of morals is to corrupt both morals and art. A heroic and poetic morality may have its use there; but ordinary morality, when it is taught upon the boards, catches from them a something comic, or tragic, which reduces it to an actor’s verbiage.

[58]With the fever of the senses, the delirium of the heart and the weakness of the spirit, with the storms of time and the great scourges of life, hunger, thirst, dishonour, sickness and death, authors may go on as long as they like weaving romances that make us weep, but the soul says, ‘You hurt me.’

[59]‘I hunger, I thirst—give.’ Here is the material for a fine deed, but not for a fine work.

[60]Does talent, then, need passion? Yes, a great deal of repressed passion.

[61]There need not be love in a book to charm a reader; but there must be a great deal of tenderness.

[62]Paint at least in the great, absorbing passions the cry of the nature that they torment, and the effort of the soul that they exhaust.

[63]There never was an age of literature whose dominant taste was not diseased. The triumph of the best artists is to make healthy work agreeable to diseased taste.

[64]In works of taste and genius of every kind, the form is the essential thing, and the matter only an accessory.

[65]Literary things belong to the intellectual domain; to talk of them with the passions of that domain is contrary to the fitness and proportion of things, as well as to intelligence and good sense. The bitter zeal of some critics for good taste, their indignation, vehemence, and heat are ridiculous; they write about words as it is only permissible to write about morals. The things of the mind must be dealt with by the mind, not by the impulses of passion and spleen.

[66]Where there is no charm and no serenity, there is no literature. There must be some amenity even in criticism. If it entirely lacks this, it ceases to be literary.

[67]Criticism without kindness troubles taste, and poisons the savour of things.

[68]The charm of criticism is to make us acquainted with minds; the maintenance of good rules is but its professional business, and the least of its uses.

[69]The critics by profession are seldom able to distinguish or appreciate uncut diamonds or gold in the bar. They are traders, and in literature they only recognise current coin. Their criticism has scales; but no crucible and no touchstone.

[70]In literature how many people have a correct ear, and sing out of tune!

[71]Good judgment in literature is a faculty of slow growth, which only reaches its full development very late.

[72]In literature it is the first flavours that make or unmake the taste.

[73]In moments of universal emotion there is not a single man that has not taste. Observe at the theatre how quick is the response, how exquisite the discernment, of stirred hearts!

[74]In books we take for eloquence not only all that strengthens our passions, but also whatever strengthens our opinions.

[75]The writers who have influence are the only men who express perfectly what others think, and who awaken in men’s minds feelings that were ready to blossom. In the depths of human minds all literatures lie dormant.

[76]The exception belongs to art as well as the rule. The one defends, the other extends its domain.

[77]The surprising surprises once; but the admirable is admired more and more.

[78]In the case of perfection, the first glance leaves us with nothing more to wish for; but with always some beauty, some charm, some merit still to discover.

[79]The books that we plan to re-read in our old age are something like the places where we should wish to grow old.

[80]The best literary work does not intoxicate—it enchants.

[81]From all good literary work there rises, as it were, a kind of spiritual form that easily fastens on the memory.

[82]There are some books in which we seem to breathe a delicate air.

[83]When you read a well-written book, the mind has one clear impression the more, if only by the idea or memory of it that remains with us.

[84]Few books give life-long pleasure. There are some for which, with the growth of time, wisdom, and good sense, we lose all taste.

[85]Talent follows the voice of praise; it is the siren that leads it astray.

[86]In literature, and in the accepted judgments upon authors, there is more conventional opinion than truth. How many books, whose reputation is made, would make none if it were still to win!

[87]The second-rate is excellence, for the second-rate.

[88]Of its own nature the intelligence abstains from judging what it does not know. It is vanity that forces it to pronounce, when it would otherwise keep silence.

[89]What is of doubtful or moderate merit, needs the praise of others to make it please the author; but what is perfect carries with it the conviction of its own beauty.

[90]There are many writings of which nothing remains—as from the sight of a stream flowing in clear ripples over small pebbles—but the memory of words that have fled.

[91]True scholars and true poets become such, more for pleasure than by labour. What impels them, and restrains them, in their studies is not their ambition but their genius.

[92]What some minds produce does not come from their soil, but from the enriching nutriment with which it has been covered.

[93]All men of talent are worth more than their books; men of genius and scholars are worth less, as the nightingale is worth less than her song, the silk-worm less than her industry; and as the instinct is greater than the animal.

[94]There are some phantom authors, and some phantom books.

[95]Literature, which M. de Bonald calls the expression of society, is often nothing but the expression of our studies, our temper, or our personality; and this last is the best. There are books so fine that literature in them is but the expression of those that write them.

[96]National literature begins with fables, and finishes with novels.

[97]Alas! it is books that give us our greatest pleasures, and men that cause us our deepest pains. Sometimes even, thoughts console us for things, and books for men.

[98]We find little in a book but what we put there. But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.

[99]A writer should be capable of excess, but never guilty of it; for though the paper be long-suffering, the reader is not, and his satiety is more to be feared than his hunger.

[100]To be prodigal of words and thoughts betrays a foolish mind. Richness lies in excellence, not in abundance. Economy in literature proclaims the great writer. Without order and sobriety, there is no wisdom; without wisdom no greatness.

[101]A few memorable words may be enough to reveal a great mind. A single thought may contain the essence of a whole book; a phrase may have the beauties of a vast work; the one may be worth the many; and there is a simplicity so finished and perfect, that it equals a great and glorious composition in merit and in excellence.

[102]Whether one is an eagle or an ant in the intellectual world seems to me not to matter much; the essential thing is to have one’s place marked there, one’s station assigned, and to belong decidedly to a regular and wholesome order. A small talent, if it keeps within its limits, and rightly fulfils its task, may reach the goal just as well as a greater one. To accustom mankind to pleasures which depend neither upon the bodily appetites nor upon money, by giving them a taste for the things of the mind, seems to me, in fact, the one proper result which nature has meant our literary productions to have. When they have other fruits, it is by accident, and, in general, not for good. Books which absorb our attention to such an extent that they rob us of all fancy for other books, are absolutely pernicious. In this way they only bring fresh crotchets and sects into the world; they multiply the great variety of weights, rules, and measures already existing; they are morally and politically a nuisance.[M.A.]

[103]Let us remember the phrase quoted by St. François de Sales, about the Imitation, ‘I have sought repose everywhere, and have only found it in a little corner, with a little book.’ Happy the writer who can make a beautiful little book.