Prize-giving Speech by Adrien Proust
at Illiers Upper Elemental School1

   On Monday 27 July in the vast school gymnasium, hardly large enough to contain the numerous multitude, there took place the prize-giving ceremony to the pupils of the boys' upper elementary school in the town of Illiers.
   The ceremony was presided over by a person brought up in the town, M. professor Proust, member of the Académie de Médecine, Commander of the Légion d'honneur, professor of hygiene at the Faculté de médecine de Paris, inspector general of sanitary services.
   Joining him on the stage: M. Chapet, mayor; Drs Denlau and Chapron, deputies; MM. Lamirault, Legrand, Manceau, Martin, Drs Rondeau, Tresaunay, municipal councillors, and the greater part of the town's functionaries.
   The band, under the able direction of M. Durrieu, provided, as always, its gracious assistance.
   After the presentation performed in excellent style by M. Chapet, M. professor Proust began his speech with these words:

   My young friends and dear compatriots,
   It was not without emotion that yesterday I followed the route which I used to follow every day sixty years ago to take me to the old school, carrying my little lunch basket and my little book bag like the schoolboys described by Horace:

   Laevo suspensi loculos tabulamque lacerto
  Aut octonis referentes Idibus aera.

   At that time I was six years old: everything which today is in my past life and which opened my mind to so many things but has also whitened my hair, all of that, instead of being behind me, was still in front of me, in a future that seemed infinite to me because it was still not yet defined.
   The emotion that I felt coming here after sixty years, you may not be able to fully understand perhaps, not that I think anyone is less intelligent at fifteen than at sixty, or that one is less able to understand a lot of things. But there is one thing to which youth is closed, or which it cannot enter other than by a sort of presentiment, and that is poetry, the melancholy of remembrance. It is quite natural. The state of mind described by the poet and which was my own on my arrival at Illiers:

   He wanted to welcome everything, the pond by the spring,
   He sought out the garden, the lonely house,
   The railing through which the eye dives into an oblique avenue,
      Sloping orchards.
   Pale he walks, to the sound of his grave and sombre pace,
   He sees at every step, alas, the ghosts rise up
     Of the days that are no more.3

   It would be very rare for a young man to have felt this. It is a poetry that has as its price an ordinarily long life such as I hope you will have, rather than one you are already looking back upon.
   I will not hide it from you that I have found this road to the school house quite changed. It was another poet who said:

   The features of a town
Change more quickly, alas, than the mortal heart.4

   But I do not wish to complain about the changes that have taken place in your pretty town. The necessities of industry, of modern civilization, the creation of an electricity plant, and above all the necessities of hygiene demand them.
   I cannot forget that had I not been a professor at the Faculty of Medicine where I specifically teach hygiene, you would not have thought to ask me to come and preside over this prize-giving. It is a great pleasure that I owe to hygiene and to which I am grateful. And teaching it throughout the school year, I could not come to this prize-giving day and speak against it.
   Yet I have rarely felt with as much conviction that if towns have to be transformed under pain of death for their inhabitants on account of principles of hygiene, their aesthetic charm, the beauty of their streets and houses are often made to suffer because of it.

   I do not like new houses,
They have an indifferent air.5

   You all know these lines from Sully Prudhom; but the hygienist must not hesitate to reply that old houses are generally unhealthy and that if new houses have an indifferent air, that air is deceptive, because they are generally conducive to the health of those who live in them, and bathe them in billows of air and light which are the two most powerful tonics and antiseptics known. But even if the hygienist is duty bound to appeal for the demolition of old houses, he is also permitted to feel some regrets on their behalf. It is a difficult problem, as you will all realize one day, when in the future you might be artists, scholars, merchants, persons of independent means or municipal councillors, but how do we reconcile beauty which represents the past and memory, with healthiness, with progress which represent the future? It is often the case that what is most healthy, I cannot deny, is not the most beautiful. I will not conceal from you that yesterday I went to look at your delightful Loire, which is one of the prettiest rivers in France, and the hygienist that I am by profession was most shocked to see here and there its course blocked with vegetation that had become stagnant and marshy. It seemed to me that something should be done about it, even though a dam has already improved the situation. But then again is there anything as beautiful as this marvellously variegated tapestry, with the large leaves of the aquatic plants, the radiant flowers of the water-lilies, irises the colour of amethyst, gorse and gladioli bending over the water and joining together both banks of the river, adorned with buttercups and grasses from one shore to the other. What a wonderful natural tapestry we would be destroying the day we clean up our exquisite river.
   Wanting to talk to you about hygiene, I now want to go on to tell you about an austere divinity who demands sacrifices, the goddess Hygia, daughter of Ascelpius to whom the ancients erected temples. But at that time she was only a divinity of the second order. And in our day and age when we have witnessed the downfall of so many gods we restore to her, or rather we give to her, a place of honour that she never had in the past. Humble officiating minister as I am to the goddess, it is my duty to celebrate her with you.  I do not wish to imitate the priest of old, who, having the sole privilege of looking upon the statue of the goddess, also claimed, it is said, to be the only individual who had the right to appeal to the gods on behalf of the health of the citizens and the entire State. Today hygiene represents not a divine cult but a set of rules and precepts that are valuable to all and accessible to all. Understanding of the rules of hygiene has become one of the most indispensable branches of education. The future of our country depends on it. The rudiments of hygiene are beneficial to young boys, but not only during their time at school, but for their entire life and in whatever position they might take up. Because it is by means of hygiene that they can render the greatest service to themselves and to their fellow citizens. The number of avoidable illnesses increases with the progress of science and civilization and the means of preservation from them never ceases to grow in number and effectiveness. The power belongs not only to those that have been instructed but to those people who are robust and strong.
   There are certain principles and certain rules of hygiene that no child should ignore: the advantages of cleanliness, the evils of alcoholism, the dangers presented by dust, when they carry the germs of contagious diseases, like tuberculosis.
   Hygiene must play its part in the programme of primary education, above all at a moment when we are engaged in the struggle against alcoholism and tuberculosis. Anti-alcohol leagues make efforts, which are perhaps most effective, to produce results in school education. This is the time when we must try to reform morals and habits. We must never tire of saying that without temperance no one can answer for himself, because it alone is the measure in humanity of the full possession of one's faculties, and that it is this full possession that makes one master of one's fate.
   The teaching of hygiene in schools is all the more important since education and hygiene can amend inherited characteristics in certain respects, and fight against deadly consequences.
   There is no doubt that education and hygiene are not all-powerful, but they can often mitigate, moderate and check the consequences of inherited characteristics. Thanks to hygiene, thanks to its inspired application of the rules for daily life and habitation, clad in overalls or smock, lodged beneath the most modest roof, the artisan is guaranteed better health, offers greater chances for resistance to death, finds in all life's circumstances more comfort than the great king himself with his wig and his breeches in which are locked infectious dust or under his gilded plaster ceilings that allow no release of foul air. So much so that when we compare the two epochs it is not enough to repeat with Horace:

   Mors aequo pede pulsat
   Pauperum tabernas regumque turres.

   It is not enough to repeat with Malherbe:

   "And the guard who watches the palace gates cannot protect our kings."

   It must be said that today, if the poor man, as entirely sober and temperate as he can be, cannot escape from physical distress and encroaching death, which have struck down ancestors of royal blood, it is not that he has been any less armed for the struggle than they were. It is the case however that in spite of much better conditions for resistance, better supplied as he is with a defensive and exclusive arsenal, that for some the evils of humanity will always be irreducible.
   In short, my children, cleanliness and sobriety. You will be energetic and wholesome men, with a cheerful bearing, which is the prerogative of good health.
   In the Louvre, which some of you have no doubt visited, there is a famous painting by Léopold Robert depicting the return of the harvesters. In it you can see a proud labourer lying on a cart, surrounded by his beautiful wife and his beautiful children, who represents strength and vitality, and who is returning gladly to his home after his day's work. In him I see the image of each and every one of you.
   Gentlemen, you live in a part of the country that perhaps appears less beautiful to you than to a stranger who was visiting it, quite simply because you are too familiar with it, but even because of that one day you will love it more than those who have not spent their childhoods there, because between it and yourselves will be woven without you knowing those mysterious threads that poets speak about which bind our hearts indissolubly to the places we have lived. It has long been thought that flat countryside is less beautiful than hilly countryside. Today flat countryside is all the fashion, if we can put it like that. And in fact, it is not so absurd that certain aspects of nature are in fashion at certain times. It can happen when a great artist, or a great school of artists, has revealed to us certain fresh aspects of nature that our hearts had been closed to up until then. In the age of Romanticism it was only torrential rivers flowing irregularly between high peaks, bizarrely crowned with ruined castles that were thought beautiful. Today it is vast spaces whose monotony provides the impetus for the landscape painter to travel there willingly to seek out a more hidden but also more profound emotion in endless fields of corn, that change like the sea, according to the caprices of sunlight and shadow, of the breeze and the swell:

   Alone, swathes of ripened corn, like a golden sea,
   Roll out into the distance, disdainful of sleep
   Peaceful children of the sacred earth
   They consume without fear from the chalice of the sun.7

   This earth, fruitful for the harvest, gentlemen, is no longer an enemy to works of genius.
   You need not travel far distant from Illiers to see, dominating the skyline, cloudy or clear, and the endless plains of the Beauce, the twin steeples of Chartres cathedral, which is one of the greatest masterpieces of human art, of the human mind, of human emotion, of everything that Greek civilization produced to perfection in art and architecture.
   And not far from these places, for ever consecrated by the genius of art, by scientific genius, which is like the other beacon of our country, and which illuminates the world far and wide and shows it the way, one of its most wonderful discoveries was made. It was on these very plains of the Beauce that Pasteur made a discovery the truth of which was in some ways greater than the object to which it was applied, extending immediately from those animals affected by anthrax that were the preoccupation only of farmers, to all suffering humanity, which is not to say, alas!, that humanity has become cured, but that each day at least humanity is spared more and more. If the doctrine that was so much in favour in the middle of the XIXth century and according to which the inhabitants of a land were almost of necessity what its soil, its past and its history had made them, you can see that you have only to imbibe from the double heritage of science and art, which more than one of you who are listening today, and do not yet know it, is destined perhaps to enrich.
   For that to happen the intelligence is without doubt not enough,  it takes courage, willpower, giving oneself up completely to unselfish ideas, and, as much as a love of science, to the creed of patriotism; it is a creed that the sons of Eure-et-Loire understand as well as the creed of truth and beauty. And in your own province it is not only incomparable sculptures that have been erected and everlasting discoveries that have been made. As you know, heroic resistance has been fought against invaders. To such an extent that one day the artist from the Beauce became the soldier from the Beauce. You have no need to seek out a cold tradition from books, the memory of your fathers at arms still thrill at the recollection of it. In the homes of more than one of you, on the walls of the family home decorated with photographs that show you the famous towns of the region, next to Chartres cathedral, next to the sculpted, ransacked, chiselled walls of Chartres cathedral which, in their innumerable beauty seem to be covered in flowers, often seeming more touching perhaps, more eloquent still in their own way, more beautiful in their heroic ugliness, you see the walls of Châteaudun all in flames.

   M. Poulais, the very devoted head of the school, gives his thanks in a few words and begins to read out the list of honours demonstrating the regular success of the school, as much in examinations for the certificate of attainment to examinations for the diploma of ability and the certificate of upper elementary studies.

1. This speech, given 27 July 1903, embellished with quotations and poetic observations, carries, much more than his previous speech, the imprint of the son as the father. The quotations from Horace could well be by Dr Proust, but those of the French XIXth century poets, apparently quoted from memory, as usual, fit admirably with the material of the speech, and seem to express the choice of Marcel: Hugo's Tristesse d'Olympio; Baudelaire's Le Cygne (Tableaux parisiens, LXXXIX); Sully Prudhomme's Les vieilles maisons (Poésies, 1866-1872); Leconte de Lisle's Midi. Besides, the divergent opinions of the father and the son confront each other on the subject of the aquatic plants on the Loire; Marcel marvelled at the beauty of the place, whereas Dr Proust, as a good hygienist, wanted to clean it up. For us it is already the Vivonne.

2. Would go with slate and satchel at their sides, And copper stipend paid per monthly Ides.

3. Il voulut tout revoir, l'étang près de la source,
Il chercha le jardin, la maisin isolée,
La grille d'où l'oeil plonge dans une oblique allée,
Les vergers en talus.
Pâle il marchait, au bruit de son pas grave et sombre,
Il voyait à chaque pas, hélas! se dresser l'ombre
Des jours qui ne sont plus.

Victor Hugo, Tristesse d'Olympio.

4. La forme d'une ville
Change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d'un mortel.

Baudelaire, Le Cygne.

5. Je n'aime pas les maisons neuves,
Elles ont l'air indiff
Sully Prudhom, Les vieilles maisons.

6. Pale death, with impartial step,
Knocks at the cottages of the poor and the palaces of kings.

7. Seuls, les grands blés mûris, tels qu'une mer dorée
Se déroulent au loin, dédaigneux du sommeil
Pacifiques enfants de la terre sacrée
Ils épuisent sans peur la coupe du soleil.

Leconte de Lisle, Midi.


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Created 21.06.17