Ages ago, Lionel Trilling wrote in favor of the “little magazines.” The Partisan Review had put out an anthology after the Second World War, and Trilling’s introduction drew attention to a simple fact: There is not a large market for sophisticated literary and intellectual voices. Thank goodness, therefore, for the niche players, the small operations that put out sharply argued, well considered material that isn’t going to make its way into the glossy magazines or onto the bestseller lists.
We’d like to think our modest magazine addressing questions of religion, politics, and culture counts as one of those small operations that makes a large contribution to our collective intellectual life. There are, of course, others, and little publishers as well, such as TinHouseBooks, which has recently brought back into print a translation of selections from the very fine, very influential, but little known Journal of Jules Renard.
Renard was a French literary figure who flourished a century ago. He wrote novels of critical acclaim, and plays that brought him popular success. But his most lasting work was his journal, a collection of notes and reflections that he began as an aspiring writer in his twenties and continued for twenty years or so until his death in 1910. After it was published, Renard’s Journal quickly became a touchstone for modern French literary sensibilities: tart, self-critical, observant, skeptical, and, most of all, capable of a memorable image or phrase.
Renard was a writer by necessity, it seems. As a young man, he turned down a place at the elite Parisian training ground for high-level government officials, the Ecole normale supérieure, in order to follow his muse in the bubbling literary life of the day.
Renard’s Journal records exacting literary standards that doubtless contributed to his literary success: “Words must be nothing but clothing, carefully made to measure, of thought.” He was not in favor of rhetorical flourishes. “Words: the pieces of change in the currency of a sentence. They must not get in the way. There is always too much small change.” His writerly ambition: “To load my sentence well, aim well, and score a bull’s eye.”
He’s a good shot. Here’s a bull’s eye“Victor Hugo. His landslides of verse.” Here’s another terse literary judgment: “With men like Chateaubriand and Lamartine you travel in the air, but without direction.” Ouch.
Renard doesn’t only aim his arrows at others. He observes his own vanity as a writer. A reminder to himself“You may write as few books as you like: People will persist in not knowing them all.” And he judges himself a slacker: “I live in laziness as in a prison.” It’s the curse of all writers: Somebody else is always publishing. But Renard can be droll about himself, as in this observation: “Laziness: the habit of resting before fatigue sets in.” And he can be clever, making a bargain with time, that cruel taskmaster: “The sun rises before I do, but I go to bed after it does: We are even.” He can even outwit himself: “It’s many a day since I’ve felt ashamed of my vanity, or even tried to correct it. Of all my faults, it is the one that amuses me the most.”
As a writer’s writer, Renard’s Journal consistently turns up wonderful and vivid images of daily activities and the natural world. “Walks: The body advances, while the mind flutters around it like a bird.” “The day dream: the ivy of thought which it smoothers.” “Clouds pass across the moon like spiders on the ceiling.” “In the path, the caterpillar plays a soundless little tune on its accordion.”
“A beautiful style,” Renard writes, “should not be seen.” It’s a paradox, of course, because limpid, translucent prose stands out. After all, it’s so very rare. The imperative is clear: “Your page on autumn must give as much pleasure as a walk through the fallen leaves.” The words should activate the mind, so that one sees or smells or hears. This Renard can do: “On the horizon, the moon, like a balloon unencumbered by a basket, says: 'Let go!' It rises. All the cables are cut.” The metaphor serves rather than commands, and precisely it does so precisely because Renard allows it to take control of the sentences.
In the final year of his life, Renard made an arresting observation about the literary movement that best fit his own temperament: “Realism has conquered only in details.” The tone is rueful. What Renard cared about mostseeing and describing the world and our lives in it in an honest, truthful fashionseemed strangely out of reach. Perhaps it’s because of his circumstance of unbelief, which he shared with so many modern intellectuals.
At the end of the day, no matter how sharp our pens, no matter how perceptive our observations, we’re not just observers of life. We participate, and a true realism can’t stand at a distance. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “the desire for God is written in the human heart.” Realism needs to enter the fray and take a stand.
I have little doubt that Renard’s Journal appeals for more than literary reasons. He draws his readers into the predicament of desiring a God one does not believe inand of loving life that has no meaning.
Renard does not mock belief after the fashion of modern rationalists, but he is quite clear that faith is out of reach. The judgment is clear: “I do not know whether He exists, but it would be better, for His own credit, that He did not.” His mother falls into a well and dies under uncertain circumstances. Renard writes, “Whether she died by accident or committed suicide, what is the difference from a religious standpoint? In one case, it is she who did wrong, in the other case, it is God.” The world is too damnable to admit of a Creator.
How, then, should unbelief comport itself in the world? Certainly not with confidence. By Renard’s reckoning, “Who has not seen God has not seen anything.” What emerges is a diffident, ironic sensibility that is shot through with an honest ambivalence about life and death. “Irony,” he writes, “is an element of happiness.” And he is a master of self-irony: “I am not sincere, not even when I say that I am not.”
There can be a dyspeptic undercurrent in this ironic detachment: “Happy people have no right to be optimists: It is an insult to sorrow.” Reading Renard one feels a certain jealousy of sadness, loss, and emptiness: “I take joyous little excursions in my interior, on my lake of ennui.” Belief would disrupt life. Better to paddle gently, and observe the foibles of our common humanity: “Let us not forget that the world makes no sense.”
Yet, Renard is not a smug postmodern who has convinced himself that it's simply power and desire all the way down. He sees the way in which the vertical thrust of transcendence energizes. Without God, the very literary project he loves can easily fall into a flat, banal mood of nonchalance and inattention: “The void yields up nothing. You have to be a great poet to make it ring.” Indeed.
The problem, of course, is that few are great poets, and even they do not want to live in the constant tension of building and rebuilding the imaginary bridges across the emptiness of unbelief. In a perceptive anticipation of the coming culture of ironic detachment, Renard observes, “Nowadays we are less preoccupied with the void. We are getting used to it, and this evolution within our lives is a literary revolution.”
We live on the other side of this revolution. Not surprisingly, after a period of shrill secular millennialismJean-Paul Sartre’s Stalinism being the most obvious exampleour intellectual culture is now dominated by the politics of the void, which is largely devoted to liberating us from whatever remains of the old culture of belief so that we can seek our private pleasures. Our postmodern intellectuals are lifeguards for excursions on our lake of desire.
But the Journal of Jules Renard is not the place to make an argument of about our reclining age. He was not a theorist or a prophet, but a man with a discerning eye. Of those in his own day who were lost in abstract dreams of social revolution, he wrote, “Do not count too much on society to make reforms: Reform yourself!” The moralism of the past was still carbonated, at least for him: “If chastity is not a virtue, surely it is a force.”
Jules Renard has sour moments“Death is the normal state. We make too much of life”but he is quite capable of turning the wry, skeptical voice against itself“Yes, what death does is interesting, but it repeats itself too much.” He resists the triumph of the void, even as he concedes to its power: “I understand life less and less, and love it more and more.” This quiet, modest voice of resistance, it seems to me, represents soulful yet sober unbelief at its best. The folks at TinHouseBooks have done a great service in restoring Renard to readers.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.