Paul Bourget and the Intellectual as Villain

While at the city library I was surprised to find an interesting older volume of literary criticism that had not yet been purged from the shelves—The Intellectual Hero: Studies in the French Novel, 1880-1955 by Victor Brombert (Lippincott, 1961). Perusing its slightly yellowed but otherwise well preserved pages I found a chapter on the writer Paul Bourget.

Bourget (1852-1935) was an old acquaintance of mine. Having studied the “Catholic Literary Revival” after college I was familiar with two of his novels: Cosmopolis, set in late-nineteenth-century Rome, and The Disciple, which is his best remembered work and one discussed at length by Brombert. The Disciple caused quite a sensation when published in 1889. It is the story of the fictional philosopher Adrien Sixte (clearly modeled on the real life savant Hippolyte Taine), who lives a quiet, unassuming life in Paris. The professor’s works, advocating a rather cold-blooded materialism, exert a terrible influence over an admiring but unstable student whose actions, in turn, lead to the tragic death of a young woman whom he seduces intellectually and emotionally. The moral of Bourget’s book is that every author is accountable for what he writes: “No man of letters, however insignificant he may be, but should tremble at the responsibility….”

To what degree this is true is a point discussed in all its nuances by Brombert. I imagine that the literary critic does not share Bourget’s “reactionary” convictions, yet his assessment is often sympathetic. I agree that Bourget’s artistry is not of the first rank. At times his dialogue is stilted and his characterization redounds in caricature. What is compelling, however, are the ideas behind the story which can be taken as an interesting fictional assessment of the cultural and philosophical issues that afflicted France during La Belle Époque.

Bourget was one of many authors across the political spectrum who inveighed against the worship of “science” which had reached its apogee under the tutelage of popularizing thinkers like Renan and Taine. What they were protesting against was not so much science, but scientism, an intellectual construct that haunts us still.  The other trend which Bourget warned against was the rise of a self-promoting, self-perpetuating déraciné intellectual class. As Brombert explains

Bourget’s hostility to this “intellectualism” is in fact a double hostility. On the abstract, philosophical level, it is a reaction to the arrogant claims of the positivist and deterministic methods. On the social level… it is the concern over the growing social group of… “intellectuels” who represent… one of the deplorable consequences of the university bureaucracy set up by the Revolution and the Napoleonic regime. These universitaires républicains, with their maladjustment, uprootedness, ferocious anti-clericalism and utopian naiveté, constitute for [Bourget] a direct threat to the health of France.

For related comments on “intellectualism,” see Why Revolutions Happen and Idiot Savants: When Knowledge Isn’t Enough.

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