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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Touchatout, c'est moi

Continuing from yesterday:

Berenice’s Gardens begins with the narrator, Philippe, a thinly disguised version of Maurice Barres, overhearing a conversation between Renan and Charles Chincholle. Chincholle is an obscure personage who supported General Boulanger, the rightist leader who was trying to overthrow the French Republic. Philippe hears them speak after the ‘celebrated election of General Boulanger in Paris’.

Renan, of course, is the author of The life of Jesus and a man who, at that time, had a reputation as the purest French stylist. He much impressed Henry James, for instance – although not Nietzsche, who found him vapid and saccharine.

Chincholle begins by asking the cher maitre if he is pro or anti Boulanger. Renan’s answer anticipates Chou Enlai’s famous comment about the French Revolution: that it is too early to tell what to think about it. This is what Renan says:

"Have you leafed thorugh Sorel, Thureau-Dangin, my eminent friend M. Taine? At the bottom of each page you will find thousands of small notes. Ah! According to recent methods there are so many sources to consult, so many contradictory documents, to do history! You have to gather together all the testimonies and then subject them to your critique. I haven’t undertaken that considerable task. I can’t claim to have a clear and documented idea of the revisionist party… The Jews, my dear monsieur, didn’t have universal suffrage, which gives to each his opinion, nor the printing press that receives everything, and yet I am having a devil of a time untangling their quarrels, which I have studied each morning for the past ten years. Would M. Reinach [an anti-boulangist] himself want to turn me away from the monument I am erecting to his ancestors? and where I am at least a little competent, and collaborate on his politics, where I would bear scruples to which he would have no answer?”

Then Renan makes a little point about being a boulangist or an anti-boulangist:

”It is the faith that I lack. That a true priest could have himself impaled in order to prove to the Chinese watching about him the truth of the catholic rudiments, this only half astonishes me. He is sustained by his great knowledge of roman martyrology: ‘so may pious confessors, he might tell himself, since 33 A.D. could not have suffered such varied torments for a vain cause. I might have a few reservations about the logic of the saintly gentleman (and I’d gladly discuss them with you one of these mornings) but in the end it is very human. I understand the martyr of today; the astonishing thing is that there was a first martyr.”

And then Renan says something very cute, which is why I am translating this. He says that in himself, as in his dear interlocutor, General Boulanger inspires curiosity. He links that curiosity (and it is curiosity to see not only if the General will succeed, but obviously, what can be done by an intellectual, a think tanker, with access to such power) to scholarship and says:
“Curiosity! It is the source of the world, it continually creates it: from curiosity is born both science and love… I have seen with some displeasure a children’s book where curiosity is disparaged: maybe you know this vividly illustrated opuscule called “The Misadventures of Touchatout? [Touchatout – touch everything]. It is the most dangerous of libels, a veritable pamphlet against the superior human spirit. But such is the force of a true idea that the author of that culpable text makes us see, on the last page, Touchatout tasting yeast and floating away out of his father’s window! Let the vulgar laugh – it is an exaggerated but striking image: Touchatout floating above the world. Touchatout is Goethe; Touchatout is Leonardo de Vinci; Touchatout is you, too, monsieur!”

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