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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Disarming of Character

By Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828–1893)

From ‘The Ancient Régime’: Translation of John Durand

WHEN the affections and the intellect combine their refinements, they produce masterpieces; and these, like the art, the refinements, and the society which surrounds them, possess a charm unsurpassed by anything except their own fragility.

The reason is, that the better adapted men are to a certain situation, the less prepared are they for the opposite situation. The habits and faculties which serve them in the previous condition become prejudicial to them in the new one. In acquiring talents adapted to tranquil times, they lose those suited to times of agitation; reaching the extreme of feebleness at the same time with the extreme of urbanity. The more polished an aristocracy becomes, the weaker it becomes; and when no longer possessing the power to please, it no longer possesses the strength to struggle. And yet in this world, we must struggle if we would live. In humanity as in nature, empire belongs to force. Every creature that loses the art and energy of self-defense becomes so much more certainly a prey, according as its brilliancy, imprudence, and even gentleness, deliver it over in advance to the gross appetites roaming around it. Where find resistance in characters formed by the habits we have just described? To defend ourselves, we must first of all look carefully around us, see and foresee, and provide for danger. How could they do this, living as they did? Their circle is too narrow and too carefully inclosed. Confined to their castles and mansions, they see only those of their own sphere, they hear only the echo of their own ideas, they imagine that there is nothing beyond: the public seems to consist of two hundred persons.

Moreover, disagreeable truths are not admitted into a drawing-room, especially when of personal import; an idle fancy there becoming a dogma because it becomes conventional. Here accordingly we find those who, already deceived by the limitations of their accustomed horizon, fortify their delusion still more by delusions about their fellow-men. They comprehend nothing of the vast world which envelops their little world: they are incapable of entering into the sentiments of a bourgeois, or of a villager; they have no conception of the peasant as he is, but as they would like him to be. The idyl is in fashion, and no one dares to dispute it: any other supposition would be false because it would be disagreeable; and as the drawing-rooms have decided that all will go well, all must go well. Never was a delusion more complete and more voluntary. The Duc d’Orléans offers to wager a hundred louis that the States-General will dissolve without accomplishing anything, not even abolishing the lettre-de-cachet. After the demolition has begun, and yet again after it is finished, they will form opinions no more accurate. They have no idea of social architecture: they know nothing about either its materials, its proportions, or its harmonious balance; they have had no hand in it, they have never worked at it. They are entirely ignorant of the old building in which they occupy the first story. They are not qualified to calculate either its pressure or its resistance. They conclude finally that it is better to let the thing tumble in, and that the restoration of the edifice in their behalf will follow its own course, and that they will return to their drawing-room, expressly rebuilt for them, and freshly gilded, to begin over again the pleasant conversation which an accident—some tumult in the street—had interrupted. Clear-sighted in society, they are obtuse in politics. They examine everything by the artificial light of candles; they are disturbed and bewildered in the powerful light of open day. The eyelid has grown stiff through age. The organ so long bent on the petty details of one refined life no longer takes in the popular life of the masses, and in the new sphere into which it is suddenly plunged its refinement becomes the source of its blindness.

Nevertheless action is necessary, for danger is seizing them by the throat. But the danger is of an ignoble species, while their education has provided them with no arms suitable for warding it off. They have learned how to fence but not how to box. They are still the sons of those at Fontenoy, who instead of being the first to fire, courteously raised their hats and addressed their English antagonists, “No, gentlemen: fire yourselves.” Being the slaves of good-breeding, they are not free in their movements. Numerous acts, and those the most important,—those of a sudden, vigorous, and rude stamp,—are opposed to the respect a well-bred man entertains for others, or at least to the respect which he owes to himself. They do not consider these allowable among themselves; they do not dream of their being allowed: and the higher their position, the more their rank fetters them. When the royal family sets out for Varennes, the accumulated delays by which they are lost are the result of etiquette. Madame de Touzel insists on her place in the carriage to which she is entitled as governess of the Children of France. The King, on arriving, is desirous of conferring the marshal’s baton on M. de Bouillé; and after running to and fro to obtain a baton, he is obliged to borrow that of the Duc de Choiseul. The Queen cannot dispense with a traveling dressing-case, and one has to be made large enough to contain every imaginable implement from a warming-pan to a silver porridge-dish, with other dishes besides; and as if there were no shifts to be had in Brussels, there had to be a complete outfit in this line for herself and her children….

A narrow fidelity, humanity in its own despite [quand même], the frivolity of the small literary spirit, graceful urbanity, profound ignorance, the nullity or rigidity of the understanding and of the will, are still greater with the princes than with the nobles. All are impotent against the wild and roaring outbreak. They have not the physical superiority that can master it, the vulgar charlatanism which can charm it away, the tricks of a Scapin to throw it off the scent, the bull’s neck, the mountebank’s gestures, the stentor’s lungs,—in short, the resources of the energetic temperament and of animal cunning, alone capable of diverting the rage of the unchained brute. To secure wrestlers of this stamp they seek for three or four men of a different race and education: men who have suffered and roamed about; a brutal plebeian like the Abbé Maury; a colossal and dirty satyr like Mirabeau, a bold and prompt adventurer like that Dumouriez, who at Cherbourg, when through the feebleness of the Duc de Beuvron the stores of grain were given up and the riot began, hooted at and nearly cut to pieces suddenly sees the keys of the storehouse in the hands of a Dutch sailor, and yelling to the mob that it was betrayed through a foreigner having got hold of the keys, himself jumps down from the railing, seizes the keys, and hands them to the officer of the guard, saying to the people: “I am your father,—I am the man to be responsible for the storehouse!”

To intrust oneself with porters and brawlers, to be collared by a political club, to improvise on the highways, to bark louder than the barkers, to fight with the fists or a cudgel, as with the gay youths of a later day, against brutes and lunatics incapable of employing other arguments, and who must be answered in the same vein, to mount guard over the Assembly, to act as volunteer constable, to spare neither one’s own hide nor that of others, to be one of the people to face the people,—are simple and effectual proceedings, but so vulgar as to appear to them disgusting. The idea of resorting to such means never enters their head: they neither know how, nor do they care, to make use of their hands in such business. They are skilled only in the duel; and almost immediately the brutality of opinion, by means of assaults, stops the way to polite combats. Their arms, the shafts of the drawing-room, epigrams, witticisms, songs, parodies, and other needle-thrusts, are impotent against the popular bull.

This character lacks both roots and resources; through super-refinement it has become etiolated; nature, impoverished by culture, is incapable of the transformations by which we are renewed and survive. An all-powerful education has repressed, mollified, enfeebled instinct itself. About to die, they experience none of the reactions of blood and rage, the universal and sudden restoration of the forces, the murderous spasm, the blind irresistible need of striking those who strike them. If a gentleman is arrested in his own house by a Jacobin, we never find him splitting his head open. They allow themselves to be taken, going quietly to prison: to make an uproar would be bad taste; it is necessary above all things to remain what they are,—well-bred people of society. In prison both men and women dress themselves with great care, pay each other visits, and keep up a drawing-room: it may be at the end of a corridor, in the light of three or four candles; but here they circulate jests, compose madrigals, sing songs, and pride themselves on being as gallant, as gay, and as gracious as ever: need people be morose and ill-behaved because accident has consigned them to a poor inn? They preserve their dignity and their smile before their judges and on the cart; the women, especially, mount the scaffold with the ease and serenity characteristic of an evening entertainment. It is the supreme characteristic of good-breeding, erected into a unique duty, and become to this aristocracy a second nature, which is found in its virtues as well as in its vices, in its faculties as well as in its impotencies, in its prosperity as at its fall, and which adorns it even in the death to which it conducts.