*Du Bos, Charles

Charles Du Bos

Charles Du Bos



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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 all else, he points out that he was born in 1889, the year Henri Bergson published the Essai sur les données immédiates 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 (1922–37), 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 André 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 Béguin, 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, André Maurois, Herbert Dieckmann, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Edith Wharton, Percy Lubbock, and Marguerite Yourcenar; he became close friends with Gide. 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 Boétie: 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 Gide’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 Literature? (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.
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, 1922). 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 Bergsonian-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 pérenne” (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.
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 “life 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 harmonies (or Baudelairean “correspondences”) resulting from it. François 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. The 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 1922 he had already refused to give cohesion to his collection of Approximations).
According to his wife’s testimony, in 1921 Du Bos began dictating the Journal to save time. But in 1928 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 delivery 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 are souls which become themselves 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.McFarlane (1981) notes a “puzzling lack of reference to Montaigne,” whom Du Bos had saluted for his “heroism of non-heroism” in 1933. 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 Péguy.
In What Is Literature? 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’être.
“Literature and the Word” criticizes 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 Gide, Goethe once wrote to Lavater that a journal was composed predominantly during moments of emptiness and depression, thus underrepresenting the moments of possession and joy. Perhaps, then, the four lectures from Notre Dame form the complementary counterpart to Du Bos’ Journal.

Born 27 October 1882. in Paris. Studied at Lycée Janson de Sailly, from 1895; Balliol College, Oxford, 1901–02. Military service at Évreux, 1901–03. Traveled in Italy, Germany, and England, 1903–05. Contributor to various periodicals, including the Nouvelle Revue Française (New French Review) and the Gazette des BeauxArts.
Married Juliette Siry: one daughter. Became friends with André Gide during World War I, founding the Foyer Franco-Belge to host people fleeing the German invasion. –Suffered from a spiritual crisis, 1918–27, then converted to Catholicism. Organizer, with Paul Desjardin, “The Decades of Pontigny” intellectual debates, 1922–34. Founder, with François Mauriac, Vigile (Vigil), 1930. Taught at Saint Mary’s College, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, 1937–38 and 1938–39. Died in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, 5 August
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Notes sur Merimée, 1920
Approximations, 7 vols., 1922–37; in 1 vol., 1965
Extrait d’un journal, 1908–1928, 1929; enlarged edition, 1931
Le Dialogue avec André Gide, 1929
Byron et le besoin de la fatalité, 1929; as Byron and the Need of Fatality, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne, 1932
François Mauriac et le problème du romancier catholique, 1933
What Is Literature?, 1940
Commentaires, 1946
Grandeur et misère de Benjamin Constant, 1946
Journal, 9 vols., 1946–61; the years 1902–20 published in Cahiers Charles Du Bos 10– 25 (1966–81)
Goethe, 1949
La Comtesse de Noailles et le climat du génie, 1949
Du spirituel dans l’ordre littéraire, 1967
Robert et Elizabeth Browning, ou, La Plénitude de l’amour humain, 1982
Other writings: letters to and dialogues with André Gide.
Bourel, Dominique, and Hubert Juin, editors, Charles Du Bos, inédits de Charles Du Bos et d’André Gide, Paris: FAC, 1985: 16–18
Resurrection: Cahiers de Culture Chrétienne issue on Du Bos, 4, no. 13 (1946)
Further Reading
Angles, Auguste, “Charles Du Bos ou l’esthétique d’une belle âme,” Bulletin des Amis d’André Gide 12, no. 17 (January 1984):7–10, 61
Bertocci, Angelo, Charles Du Bos and English Literature, New York: King’s Crown Press, 1949
Bodart, Roger, À la rencontre de Charles Du Bos, n.p.: La Sixaine, 1946
Bossière, Jacques, Perception critique et sentiment de vivre chez Charles Du Bos, Paris: Nizet, 1969
Bourel, Dominique, and Hubert Juin, editors, Charles Du Bos, inédits de Charles Du Bos et d’André Gide, Paris: FAC, 1985
Crépu, Michel, Charles Du Bos ou la tentation de l’irréprochable, Paris: Félin, 1990
Dédéyan, Charles, Le Cosmopolitisme littéraire de Charles Du Bos, 6 vols., Paris: Société d’Enseignement Supérieur, 1965–71
Devaux, André A., “Charles Du Bos, Jacques Maritain et Gabriel Marcel, ou, Peut-on aller de Bergson à Saint Thomas d’Aquin,” Cahiers Charles Du Bos 18 (May 1974):87–103
Didier, Béatrice, Un dialogue à distance: Gide et Du Bos, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1976
Gouhier, Marie-Anne, Charles Du Bos, Paris: Vrin, 1951
Halda, Bernard, Charles Du Bos, Paris: Wesmael-Charlier, 1966
Jodogne, Pierre, “Charles Du Bos à Florence: Le Dossier de Carlo Placci,” Studi Francesi 25, no. 3 (September–December 1981): 472–78
Leleu, Michèle, Charles Du Bos, Approximations et certitude, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1976
McFarlane, Ian D., “Charles Du Bos and Montaigne,” in Columbia Montaigne Conference Papers, edited by Donald M.Frame and Mary B.McKinley, Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1981: 70–83
Mertens, Cornelis Joseph, Émotion et critique chez Charles Du Bos, Nijmegen: Janssen, 1967
Mouton, Jean, Charles Du Bos: Sa relation avec la vie et avec la mort, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1954
O’Rourke, Maire, L’Article de Charles Du Bos sur Proust: L’Idée de l’exaltation, Berne: Lang, 1979
Poulet, Georges, and others, editors, Permanence de Charles Du Bos: Colloque de Cerisy, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1976

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