Charles Du Bos

Du Bos Charles

Du Bos, Charles

French, 1882.-1939

Educated in France, England, and Germany in the most select schools, Charles Du Bos was an avid reader, who considered that encountering an author was meant to transform one’s life. A man who valued spiritual life above ail else, he points out that he was born in 1889, the year Henri Bergson published the Essay sur les donnees immediates de la conscience (Essay on the immediate givens of the conscience; translated as Time and Free Will). He wrote that he owed to Bergson “what in me is myself,” according to the type of spiritual expression also found in Paul Claudel. This spiritual bent led Du Bos to convert from theism to Catholicism in 1927.

At the time of his death, Du Bos had published only a small part of his writings; most readers knew him for his Approximations (1921-37), a seven-volume collection of critical essays and lectures. In 1929 he also published a collection of extracts from his journal, as well as passages in various scholarly magazines. Today readers know him because of his dialogues with Andre Gide.

Most of Du Bos’ publication is posthumous. Nevertheless, in 1939 he was well received in England, where he represented a new kind of French criticism, less attached to reason and lucidity, and more sincerely emotional, according to Charles Morgan. On the continent he had a limited following: Albert Bcguin, Georges Poulet, and the brilliant Jean Starobinski may be cited as inheritors of his critical tradition. Du Bos met numerous authors, including Marcel Proust, Bernard Berenson, Ernst Robert Curtius, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Simmel, Andre Maurois, Herbert Dieckmann, Stephane Mallarme, Paul Valery, Edith Wharton, Percy Lubbock, and Marguerite Yourcenar; he became close friends with Gidc. Du Bos admired Gide as an author, and shared his spiritual concerns, though he eventually rejected his evangelical leanings. Their friendship is somewhat reminiscent of that of Montaigne and La Boctic: Du Bos felt that he was engaged in a dialogue with Gide “in the margins” of his writings. In 1931, when their friendship declined, Du Bos’ assessment was that Gidc’s “rigorous” and sober literary style displayed a lack of imagination, and an “intricacy” devoid of “complexity.”

Du Bos’ written production is threefold: literary and aesthetic analysis (Approximations); his autobiographical Journal (composed 1901-39, published in complete form 1946-61); and literary theory with What Is Uteraturef (1940), a piece composed in English and made up of four lectures on Keats and Shelley, delivered in 1938 at the University of Notre Dame, where he briefly taught. There is much debate as to which of his works is most important, but in 1918 Gide told Du Bos not to abandon his Journal, for this would be his completed oeuvre. As did many of his friends, Gide considered Du Bos essentially a man of dialogue.

One of the major themes of Dubosian criticism stems from a reaction against the 1913-14 popular conviction that literature is divorced from life. Du Bos repeats that literature and life are one: in Approximations, he declares that 44life owes more to literature than literature to life,” for literature survives life. He lives through the authors he selects, gathering his essays and critical reflections in Approximations and his Journal. His manner of composing agreed with his method of literary perception, exploring the musical “tempo’’ of an author and the harmonics (or Baudelaircan “correspondences’4) resulting from it. Francois Mauriac pointed out that Du Bos was criticized for being so biographical that “one would forget the authors he studied ever wrote.” The method of “approximation” relates to an exploration of the author’s essential identity, defined not so much by what is said, but rather by what the author cannot refrain from repeating – the monotony inherent to individual genius. *I*he Approximations have been compared to an encyclopedia of Du Bos’ favorite European authors, such as Browning, Carlyle, and Keats, from whom he borrowed: “I have relapsed into those abstractions which are my only life.”

Compared to the volumes of Approximations, the Journal is at once more intimate and more fragmentary. The contingencies of daily life are often points of departure for literary essays – for instance, bright insights into the creative psychology of Flaubert and Degas. Sometimes a sentence begun in French ends in English. An occasional day will be recorded entirely in English. The fragmentary aspect allowed by the diary form suits Du Bos. He thus avoids the unified coherence of the thesis essay and the task of forcibly organizing materials within a given frame (in 192.1 he had already refused to give cohesion to his collection of Approximations).

Marie-Anne Gouhier (1951) notes Du Bos’ frequent use of parentheses and inserted propositions in Approximations. The same could be observed in his Journal. She finds that he needed to integrate ideas complementary or external to the main thrust of his thought without compromising the linearity of his expression. She believes this facet corresponds to a necessity’ for temporal simultaneity’, when a new explanation, a pause for reflection, traverses the text without interrupting it. This method of writing parallels Bergson’s conversational style with Du Bos. The philosopher said to him that “Genius consists in … keeping in contact with an internal current,” and Du Bos observed that “Bergson thinks aloud in front of you, approves your answer, and continues his thought, without ever an exchange, properly speaking” (Journal, 19**)- Du Bos’ friends described him as a great conversationalist, who always penetrated his interlocutor’s thoughts and showed great receptiveness; but his parenthetical style in Approximations and the Journal resembles an internal Bcrgsonian-Dubosian dialogue which the readers are invited to witness. A common point between his oral and written expression may have been that he used both to think, explore, and weigh, as in Montaigne’s “balance perenne” (eternal movement of the scales!. Yet passages from his journal explain why Du Bos preferred Pascal to Montaigne: Pascal proceeded by a series of provisory* certainties, proving to be a resolute, decisive genius inherently necessitating the “parti pris” (Journal, 1923). It is in this spirit that one may understand Du Bos’ certainties.

According to his wife’s testimony, in 1911 Du Bos began dictating the Journal to save time. But in 19×8 he was taking as much care with it as with any of his writings. During the last ten years of his life, he apparently dictated (and occasionally wrote) his Journal in a masterful deliver}’ exempt from hesitations. In his effort to pinpoint the essential qualities of the authors he studied, Du Bos focused on the “soul* his intuition pursued.

This idea was developed fully in “Literature and the Spirit,” the first part of What Is Literature?. In it, the conversation tends to become a catechism. Questions about literature must be answered by the scriptures, which clearly state the meaning of life. The text proceeds by a series of metaphysical equations: “Intellects are God”; they arc souls which become theselves by means of the heart; life reaches self-consciousness in creating; literary creation is God’s Creation; creation is emotion; the Creator gives himself and receives the artist’s joy. Thus, Marcelin Pleynet and Michele Leleu (in Charles Du Bos, edited by Dominique Bourel and Hubert Join, 1985) find that Du Bos was somewhat foreign to skepticism. It is difficult to pinpoint the cause of this change of tone. Ian D. McFarlanc (1981) notes a “puzzling lack of reference to Montaigne,” whom Du Bos had saluted for his “heroism of non-heroism” in 193}. Du Bos seems to have shied away from Montaigne’s “prudence and moderation” for the sake of “warmth and audacity,” preferring the “pathetic spirituality” of Pascal, Baudelaire, and Peguy.

In “What Is Literaturei Du Bos advocates a “creative reading” equal to writing, whereby literature becomes consubstantial to its readers. “Literature and Light” shows that culture is a study in perfection, with each literary piece the meeting point of two souls, initiated in wordless communication in the spiritual world. “Literature and Beauty” demonstrates that beauty is order, mathematical and moral, and humans’ raison d’etre. “Literature and the Word” criticises Hamlet’s “words, words, words” to describe books, and Faust’s transformation of “In the beginning was the word” into “was the action” – Du Bos would have preferred “was the act” because the word is active. It is the Word made flesh. In his conclusion to What Is Literature? Du Bos called for the advent of a true Catholic literature to the world.

Du Bos intended to reach a plenitude that the journal form could not reach, because, as he observed during a 1914 discussion with Gidc, Goethe once wrote to Lavatcr that a journal was composed predominantly during moments of emptiness and depression, thus under-representing the moments of possession and joy. Perhaps, then, the four lectures from Notre Dame form the complementary counterpart to Du Bos’ Journal.


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