Opinions: On M. Alphonse Daudet

   I know of only one portrait of M. Alphonse Daudet, that by Carrière, which is as beautiful as the hour when the shadows grow deeper. That is not enough for me, as, through this suffering and this long night, I begin to perceive, as if in the myth of Helios, the touching victory of daylight.
   Everything has been said about M. Daudet the artist, it seems to me that I have something to say about M. Daudet the work of art.
   In other works of art expressive power is achieved only at the cost of plasticity, the purity of their lines. The interior flame erases the effigy by melting down the metal: the intensity of suffering in M. Daudet's face has not impaired the perfection of its beauty. The glory of that brow, where the fluttering hair is parted as if into two light yet immense wings, is not merely that of a martyr, it is that of a god or of a king. For regal charm, a sovereign ease of attitude and form exists elsewhere than in the imagination of snobs and in the novels written for door-keepers.
   Less material than beauty, less spiritual than loftiness of thought or character, this visible nobility is, if you will, like the habit of interior nobility, that is, a nobility no longer aware of itself, following the beautiful lines of the face and the body, the sweeping yet simple movements of incarnate nobility. Only, the sobs deceive themselves in looking for it on thrones. In this sense kings are to be found as often among shepherds as among shepherds of men. M. Daudet is a king, a Moorish king, with a face as fine and energetic as a saracen's blade. A sovereign and a pretender come to mind at this moment, who are also endowed with truly regal grace. It is king Charles I as painted by Van Dyck and prince Hamlet as represented by Mounet-Sully.
   But if the face of M. Daudet is a noble poem of suffering and melancholy, full of courage and of faith, a heroic poem, I must now speak about its fortifying grandeur.
   I hardly dared raise my eyes to him the day I saw him for the first time. I knew that for ten years past the unremittingness of his terrible pains, the daily necessity of ever more dangerous sedatives, the suffering of his body every evening, as soon as he was seized by it, and it becoming intolerable to him, he had to swallow a bottle of chloral in order to sleep.
   I remember how often an ailment, so slight in comparison to his that he would have relished it as a respite, had isolated me from others, made me indifferent to anything that did not concern my suffering body, upon which my mind was obstinately fixed like a bed-ridden invalid, head turned to the wall. I could not understand how M. Daudet had been able to withstand these daily attacks of an incomparably crueller painfulness, but I felt that all the strength that exhaustion, suffering and dread had yet left him must have been to him the hope of a remedy against the pain, and that for him the sight of me must have been tiring, my good health an insult, my very existence an inhuman importunity.
   But then I saw that sublime thing which should put us to shame, cowards that we all of us are, or rather by the word of him by whom we learned that rather than sick men or serfs we are spirits and kings, making us rise, if we are rheumatic or paralyzed, bringing us to things of the mind, slaves to the pleasures or tortures of the flesh, giving ourselves to others if selfish, I saw that beautiful invalid made more beautiful still by his illness, that poet, as it drew close to whom further suffering became poetry, just as iron becomes magnetized by a magnet, indifferent to himself and given over entirely to us, preoccupied by my future and the future of others of his friends, smiled at us, celebrating happiness, celebrating love.
   He celebrated life too, putting it to better use moreover than so many of us, continuing to think, dictate, and when he was able to hold a pen, to write, as fervent as a young man for truth, passionate for courage, for beauty, talking to us without pause and braver still, listening to us.
   We talk about courage, and as he was upbraiding those who today denigrate courage and love, in order to impoverish, to enfeeble the ardent forces of life, he left the room for a moment, still throwing out blazing words from the doorway. When he returned, after a few moments, he took up the conversation from where he had left it, rekindling it with the same passion, a passion that spat out flames and which sang; because his crackling and gentle voice is like a musical instrument, for playing festive music in a land of sunshine.
   And yet I learned that, if he had left us for a moment, it was because the pain had become so acute that he had scarcely left the room when he was nearly sick.
   And I recall now that, when he came back, beads of sweat glistened on his brow. He seemed to be emerging from a struggle, but he breathed the calm of victory. On that fine brow, in his eyes where the flame of youth still was, as in Victor Hugo's beautiful words, the light of knowledge, I could see the combat of the light, Helios against the perfidious spirits of the night. Helios was victorious and drove them slowly back into the kingdom of shades.
   For several years, M. Daudet has been getting better, after his long passion we can all raise our voices in the Easter Sunday hymn: "He is risen".
   After a voyage to England, a last act of heroism which seemed must cost him his life, life was recovered. In body, it seemed that he no longer had the strength from which to draw so much hope. Well, not at all, a different strength, the strength of that energy which had stood up to the enemy in 1870, and which must have multiplied itself a hundredfold during that appalling, incessant combat, that combat waged sitting, in bed, against the enemy, it was his soul that had recreated hope and life. It is only through energy that life is bestowed. To bring Alcestis to Admetus, he must have been Herculean.
   And this time - see the divine Trésor d'Arlatan1 - Hercules married Eternal Youth, M. Daudet is better; the words which no one can hear without agitation; good news from a world that we do not know or that we barely know and which from time to time despatches an elegant fact, tells us that above the iron law of physical necessity there is a law of light, of grace and the soul.
   That is why I know and believe that any man would derive joy and spiritual gain from going frequently to the rue de Bellechase, in pilgrimage to the delicate and profound work of art that is M. Daudet.
   Nature, in a language more vital and expressive by far than our own, because she uses eyes more transparent and more profound than our symbols, of a skin more fine, more subtle in in its colouring than our images, and the rough and sinewy vocabulary of muscles creased by pain but made straight again by energy, animates us with the full meaning of beauty, will and pain.
   In this way everything from nature and every act of the soul is filled with poetry waiting for its poet, with meaning that demands an interpreter.
   The poet's mission, unquestionably less elevated, is, thus, as inexhaustible as the priest's, because if ever a new soul lay before the former some distress in need of healing, a new creature always gives to the latter an entire captive poetry that he is obliged to deliver, that it may then look down upon the spirits of men. Today, I simply wanted to show how, all around us, life offers us beautiful subjects for meditation, and, because a sacred expression is appropriate to a religious subject, for exaltation.

La Presse, 11 August 1897. An alternate manuscript version of this article was printed in Essais et articles and Textes retrouvés.

1. Le Trésor d'Arlatan, by Alphonse Daudet, was published the year of his death.


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