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||Rémy de Gourmont (1858-1915)|
French essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher, a prominent figure of the French Symbolist movement. Gourmont's some 50 published volumes are mainly collections of essays. During his lifetime Gourmount enjoyed considerable fame both in France and in English-speaking countries. His views on literature affected such writers as Ezra Pound, John Middleton Murray, and T.S. Eliot, who praised him as "the perfect critic." In 1921 Aldous Huxley published Gourmont's A Virgin Heart, his translation of Un cœur virginal (1907).
"Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer's capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated. He must create his own aesthetics - and we must admit as many aesthetics as there are original spirits and judge them for what they are, not for what they aren't." (Gourmont in his introduction to the first Book of Masks, 1896-98)
Rémy de Gourmont was born in Bazoches-en-Houlme, Orne, in Normandy, into an old aristocratic family. His mother Marie, née de Montfort, was a descendant of the poet François de Malherbe (1555-1628). After studies at a lycée in Countances from 1868 to 1876, he entered the University of Caen, where he studied law. From 1881 to 1891 he worked as an assistant librarian at Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Although Gourmont detested his job, the endless rows of books provided him means to devote himself to his esoteric studies and multidisciplinary interests, such as writing a text for an illustrated book on the eruption of a volcano. His first book of criticism, Le Latin mystique (1892), was about medieval hymnology.
From the early 1880s Gourmont contributed to many periodicals. In 1887 he started a liaison with Berthe de Courrière, who had been a model for the sculptor Auguste Clésinger and who became his sole beneficiary. She inspired the novels Sixtine (1890) and Le Fantôme (1893), in which the heroine says to her lover: "Damase, your perverse lips sicken my sight, when I see them – afterwards!"
Gourmont's literary friends included Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Huysmans. With Alfred Vallette and other symbolist he cofounded Mercure de France, a highly influential magazine, and was its major contributor from 1890. With Alfred Jarry, whom he met in the offices of the paper, he collaborated in L'Ymagier (1894-95), an art magazine. He was also cofounder of La Revue des Idées in 1904.
Gourmont was dismissed from his post at the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1891 for publishing in the Mercure de France an "unpatriotic" article, 'Le joujou patriotisme', which attacked French chauvinism and criticized government's policy toward Germany. Due to a tubercular skin disease (lupus erythrematosus) which disfigured his face, he retreated into a semi-recluse in his Paris apartment on the fourth floor of a house in the Rue de Saints-Péres. Those he wished to meet he greeted dressed in a monk's robe and a grey felt cap. "Of all sexual aberrations, perhaps the most peculiar is chastity," he once said. Perhaps the nature of the illnes was a reason why his erotic poems have been characterized as cold and distant. It was not a fatal desease, but there was no effective treatment for it. A misogynist with a broken heart, he wrote in Un cœur virginal (1907): "Women are ruminants: they can live for months, for years it may be, on a voluptuous memory. That is what explains the apparent virtue of certain women; one lovely sin, like a beautiful flower with an immortal perfume, is enough to bless the days of their life."
In The Natural Philosophy of Love (1904) Gourmont claimed that "love" is no more than a primitive instinct. "There is no abyss between man and animal; the two domains are separated by a tiny rivulet which a baby could step over. We are animals, we live on animals, and animals live on us. We both have and are parasites. We are predatory, and we are the living prey of the predatory. And when we follow the love act, it is truly, in the idiom of theologians, more bestiarum. Love is profoundly animal; therein is its beauty."
In the United States Gourmont's work became first known through the essays of James Huneker, whose study on him was published in the New York Sun in June 1900. "My generation needed Remy de Gourmont," concluded later Ezra Pound. In spite of having a profound influence on English and American writers, in his own country Gourmont did not have a similar stature. André Gide attacked in Corydon (1924) Gourmont's sexual theories – he considered Gourmont as "one of the spirits I detest most." Against all expectations, the tanslation of Une nuit au Luxembourg (1906, A Night in the Luxembourg) did not give rise to charges of incecency; the book went unnoticed, even by readers of "naughty French novels."
Gourmont's fame started to decline after Le Problème du style (1902) which was marked the peak of his career and was widely commented. In this work he emphasized image – an idea that influenced the literary movement known as Imaginism. Poetry makes us see the world in the literal sense, not just realize. Gourmont defined style mainly in terms of its visual qualities and notes that Flaubert understood that the art of description is the art of seeing.
During the last years of his life, Gourmont was often visited by the American writer Natalie Clifford Barney, a pioneer of lesbian writing, whom he called l'Amazone (the Amazon). "Devasted of flesh, in revolt against God, resisting all belief systems, he at last found in friendship, that religion of intimacy, a compromise between love and religion," Barney later wrote. Gourmont was deeply moved by her poems she had written on the death of Renée Vivien, and published them in Mercure de France. His letters to Barney were published in Lettres à l'Amazone (1914) and Lettres intimes à l'Amazone (1926). Gourmount died in Paris, on September 27, 1915. He had a stroke while he was writing an article condemning the Germans for shelling of Rheims Cathedral. Gourmont's younger brother Jean (1877-1928), who was also a writer, took charge of his estate.
The Book of Masks (1896-98) portrayed a number of leading writers of the time. It was one of the first studies to define symbolist aesthetics. Gourmont was a strong opponent of Naturalism and its major representative, Emile Zola. "Literature in fact is nothing less than the artistic development of an idea, the symbolizing of the idea by means of the imaginary hero. The heroes, or these men (for every man is a hero in his own sphere) are only sketched out by life; it is art which completes them by giving them, in exchange for their poor sick souls, the treasure of an immortal idea, and the most humble of men can be called to this participation, if he is chosen by a great poet." (in Book of Masks, 1896-98)
As an essayist Gourmont wrote on a wide range of subjects, though his attention was mostly focused on sex in his fiction. Gourmont's collections of essays are mostly drawn from articles originally published in Mercure de France. Gourmont believed in the autonomous value of critical writings, and like Montaigne, he argued with personal, conversationalist tone. He did not offer definitive answers, but preferred "dissociation of ideas" to fixed truths. Gourmont saw that style above all was the most important thing in the craft of writing: "the criticism of style would suffice as literary criticism; it contains all the others." Often Gourmont crystallized his ideas aphoristically and ironically: "Posterity is like a schoolchild condemned to learn by heart a hundred lines of verse. He remembers ten, and stammers a few syllables of the rest. Ten lines are the fame; the rest is literary history."
Epilogues (1903-1913) was a commentary on contemporary events and persons, Promenades littéraires (1904-27) and Promenades philosophiques (1905-09) were literary and philosophical essays. In addition, Gourmont published works on style, language, and aesthetics. His intellectual attitude and concern with the artistic arrangement of musical words marked his novels, which include Sixtine (1890), a "novel of cerebral life," as Gourmont himself described, Les Chevaux de Diomède (1897), Le Songe d'une femme (1899), and Un cœur virginal (1907). From his love for words, their savor and music, also originated L'Esthétique de la langue française (1899).
For further reading: Aspects and Impressions by Edmund Gosse (1922); Rémy de Gourmont. son œuvre by Legrand-Chabrier (1925); Rémy de Gourmont: A Modern Man of Letters by Richard Aldrington (1928); Rémy de Gourmont by P.E. Jacob (1931); Rémy de Gourmont: essai da biographie intellectuelle by G. Rees (1940); Rémy de Gourmont, Literary Critic by Glenn S. Burne (1956); Rémy de Gourmont, His Ideas and Influence in England and America by Gelnn S. Burne ( 1963); Instigations: Ezra Pound and Rémy de Gourmont by Richard Sieburth (1978); Remy de Gourmont: cher vieux Daim! by Charles Dantzig (1990); 'Rémy de Gourmont: How I Became His Amazon' by Natalie Clifford Barney, in A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. by Anna Livia (1992); A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, vol. 8, by René Wellek (1992, p. 23-25); Remy de Gourmont, ed. by Thierry Gillyboeuf and Bernard Bois (2003) - Note: the American writer Ben Hecht selected Gourmont's Natural Philosophy of Love for his list of 50 books he would keep in his library.