*Gourmont, Remy de

Rémy de Gourmont

Rémy de Gourmont



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Gourmont, Remy de

French, 1858–1915
Aptly described by Richard Aldington as “one of France’s most able and industrious journeymen of letters,” Remy de Gourmont enjoyed considerable popularity and esteem both in France and in English-speaking countries during his lifetime. Today he is no doubt best remembered for his crucial role in founding the highly influential Mercure de France in January 1890, and for his influence on such writers as T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, and John Middleton Murry. A prolific writer who worked in many genres, he made his greatest contribution in the area of the essay, writing on a broad range of topics, from literature and art to science and philosophy.
For Gourmont, the subject matter was far from being the most important aspect either of creative or of critical writing: like Charles Baudelaire before him, he believed that criticism should be impassioned and personal, and unlike such contemporaries as Hippolyte Taine, he was convinced that critical writing was valuable for itself, as a means of expression comparable to more traditional vehicles. As he remarks in La Culture des idées (1900; “The Culture of Ideas”), “the craft of writing is a craft, but style is not a science.” All human expression, for him, from literature and art to philosophy and science, depends, like intelligence itself, on the senses. A man for whom the external world clearly existed and whose physical drives were all the stronger for being frequently suppressed, Gourmont used his wide-ranging interests and his polymath curiosity and knowledge to create a vision of culture where the high value placed on the aesthetic, far from being effete, is always at least on the verge of being erotic. As a literary critic he was eager not to offer judgments, but rather to note his impressions as he read. Above all he focused on style, convinced, as he maintains in the fifth series of Promenades littéraires (1913; Literary promenades), that “the criticism of style would suffice as literary criticism; it contains all the others.”
His Le Livre des masques (1896–98; The Book of Masks), which is one of the first studies to define and delimit symbolism as a school, enters into the imagination of the writers he discusses, reveals the physical and intellectual pleasures of reading and writing, and encapsulates them in heightened visual images. The Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren, for instance, is presented in the following, highly characteristic, terms: “This poet lives in an old Italian palace, on whose walls emblems and words are inscribed. He dreams, passing from room to room, and toward evening he goes down the marble staircase and wanders into the gardens, which are paved like courtyards, and there he dreams his life amidst the pools and fountains, while black swans nervously protect their nests and a peacock, as solitary as a king, seems beautifully to imbibe the dying pride of a golden dusk.”
If Gourmont possessed the art of the complex and appro priate image, he also knew how to turn a pungent aphorism: “You have to kill many loves to arrive at love,” “Hope is a great hindrance,” “One never goes to bed with anyone but oneself,” “University degrees were invented in order to people France with persons looking as if they had studied.” Such aphorisms are frequently imbued with skepticism, especially in his Physique de l’amour (1903; The Natural Philosophy of Love), which presents a purely materialistic and Darwinian view of existence, but he also reveals a healthy refusal to take himself (or anyone else) too seriously. Thus, in Promenades littéraires he asserts:
“Genius is almost always accompanied by a strong propensity to play.”
Among his finest essays are those included in the Lettres à l’Amazone (1914; Letters to the Amazon), written for Natalie Clifford Barney. The easy intimacy between writer and reader, the polished but informal style, and the culturally sophisticated frame of reference suggest the extent to which Montaigne has inspired Gourmont’s concept of the essay, and evoke the image of a somewhat avuncular conversationalist taking delight in forging a smoothly articulate response to whatever topic his listener suggests to him. It is this openness to the best in human thought and creation, this conviction that “the intellectual domain is a limitless landscape and not a series of little gardens enclosed in walls of suspicion and disdain” (Esthétique de la langue française [1899; The aesthetics of the French language]) that is most appealing in Gourmont’s writing, but it is also fraught with a certain danger, the temptation of multiple possibilities rather than the determination to focus on and deepen specific areas. Crippled, like many of his time, by the prevalent misogyny, Gourmont’s writing has aged most in the area of human relationships. On literature, style, and culture he is better for the broad view than the particular.
One last aphorism can serve both to sum up Gourmont’s gifts and to account for his fall from favor: “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. The ten lines are fame; the rest is literary history.”


Remy Marie Charles de Gourmont. Born 4 April 1858 in Bazochesau-Houlme. Studied at a lycée in Coutances, 1868–76; law at the University of Caen, 1876–79. Assistant librarian, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1881–91: dismissed for article critical of government policy toward Germany. Contributor to many periodicals, from early 1880s.
Liaison with Berthe de Courrière, 1887–90. Cofounder, coeditor, and major contributor, Mercure de France (Mercury of France), from 1890. Facially disfigured by skin disease, 1891, resulting in seclusion and an identity crisis. Cofounder, L’Ymagier, 1894–96, and La Revue des Idées (The review of ideas), 1904. Died (of a stroke) in Paris, 27 September 1915.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Le Latin mystique, 1892; reprinted 1981
L’Idéalisme, 1893
La Poésie populaire, 1896
Le Livre des masques: Portraits symbolistes, 2 vols., 1896–98; as The Book of Masks, translated by Jack Lewis, 1921
Esthétique de la langue française, 1899
La Culture des idées, 1900; as “The Culture of Ideas,” translated by William A.Bradley, in Decadence, and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas, 1921
Le Problème du style, 1902
Le Chemin de velours, 1902
Physique de l’amour: Essai sur l’instinct sexuel, 1903; as The Natural Philosophy of Love, translated by Ezra Pound, 1922
Épilogues: Réflexions sur la vie, 6 vols., 1903–13
Promenades littéraires, 7 vols., 1904–27
Promenades philosophiques, 3 vols., 1905–09; selection as Philosophic Nights in Paris, translated by Isaac Goldberg, 1920
Dante, Béatrice, et la poésie amoureuse, 1908
Le Chat de misère: Idées et images, 1912
Lettres d’un satyre, 1913
Lettres à l’Amazone, 1914; as Letters to the Amazon, translated by Richard Aldington, 1931
La Belgique littéraire, 1915
Pendant l’orage, 1915
La Petite Ville; Paysages, 1916
Dans la tourmente, 1916
Pendant la guerre: Lettres pour l’Argentine, 1917
Les Idées du jour, 2 vols., 1917–18
Monsieur Croquant, 1918
Trois Légendes du Moyen Âge, 1919
Les Pas sur le sable, 1919
Huit aphoristnes, 1920
Le Livret de l’imagier, 1920
Pensées inédites, 1920
La Patience de Griseledis, 1920
Petits crayons, 1921
Decadence, and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas, translated by William A.Bradley, 1921
Le Puits de la vérité, 1922
Le Vase magique, 1923
Dernières pensées inédites, 1924
Dissociations, 1925
Nouvelles dissociations, 1925
Les Femmes et le langage, 1925
La Fin de l’art, 1925
Deux poètes de la nature: Bryant et Emerson, 1925
Le Joujou, et trois autres essais, 1926
Lettres intimes à l’Amazone, 1927
Selections, edited and translated by Richard Aldington, 2 vols., 1928
Selected Writings, edited and translated by Glenn S.Burne, 1966
Le Joujou patriotisme; La Fête nationale, edited by Jean-Pierre Rioux, 1967
Other writings: six novels (including Sixtine [Very Woman], 1890; Un cceur virginal [A Virgin Heart], 1907), tales, poetry, five plays, and correspondence.
Collected works edition: OEuvres, 6 vols., 1925–32.

Gourmont, Jean de, and Robert D.Donne, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Remy de Gourmont, Paris: Leclerc, 1922

Further Reading
Aldington, Richard, Remy de Gourmont: A Modern Man of Letters, Seattle: University of Washington Chapbook, 1928
Burne, Glenn S., Remy de Gourmont, Literary Critic (dissertation), Seattle: University of Washington, 1956
Burne, Glenn S., Remy de Gourmont: His Ideas and Influence in England and America, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963
Gosse, Edmund, Aspects and Impressions, London and New York: Cassell, 1922:203–23
Powys, John Cowper, Essays on De Gourmont and Byron, Girard, Kansas: Haldeman- Julius, 1923; reprinted in Suspended Judgments: Essays on Books and Sensations, Norwood, Pennsylvania: Norwood, 1977
Sieburth, Richard, Instigations: Ezra Pound and Remy de Gourmont, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978

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