Born a century later, Taine would have been a university professor, though given the extent of his interests—philosophy, psychology, literature, art, sociology, history—it is hard to know in which discipline: “Theory,” perhaps, or “Cultural Studies.” He was a brilliant student at the École Normale Supérieure, taught philosophy for a year at a collège, and wrote a doctoral thesis on La Fontaine. But his anti-clericalism, his hostility to the dominant spiritualiste school of French philosophy, his adherence to the views of Spinoza, and his interest in Hegel made him anathema to the university establishment. At the age of 24 he took the decision to become an outlaw (he uses the English word): he would leave the university and live from his pen as a journalist and essayist.
He began with review articles for the Revue de l’Instruction Publique (Review of public education), on French writers—classical (La Bruyère) or contemporary (Michelet). Soon he was writing for the more prestigious Revue des Deux Mondes (Review of two worlds) and the Journal des Débats (Journal of debates). All of his books were made up from articles first published in these journals or in the lighter Vie Parisienne (Parisian life), so that, while he gave the specific title Essais to the three volumes of collected articles (and to the monographs on La Fontaine and Livy), there is a sense in which all his work is that of an essayist.
His Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863–64; History of English Literature), for example, began life as essays on particular authors (first Macaulay, then Dickens, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Thackeray, Milton, and others). In the History, the essays are considerably revised and become chapters, ordered chronologically. For the collection Taine writes his famous introduction, claiming that literature is the best source for the historian, and gives the book unity by treating English literature as a case study demonstrating his claim. Even in his major work, Les Origines de la France contemporaine (1875–93; The Origins of Contemporary France), he often proceeds by set-piece portraits such as those on the Jacobins or Napoleon Bonaparte.
Those essays that were not organized into works like the History of English Literature or Les Philosophes classiques du XlXe siècle (1857, 1868; Classical philosophers of the 19th century) were collected under the title (borrowed from Macaulay) of Essais de critique et d’histoire (Critical and historical essays). The first of these collections appeared in 1858 with a preface describing and defending his “scientific” theory of criticism. Most of the essays in these three volumes (Essais; Nouveaux essais, 1865;
Derniers essais, 1894) are devoted to one author. A typical Taine essay attempts to explain an individual in terms of one dominant theme, or faculté maîtresse, which structures the life and the work. It also places the subject within a social and historical context (derived, he says, from the individual’s race, milieu, and moment). Taine is a structuralist avant la lettre, with the structuralist’s tendency to downplay randomness, contradiction, and flux. His essays are brilliant demonstrations: one idea is developed, sometimes overdeveloped, and everything hangs together—in the life and in the work in the essay. The early article on La Bruyère is a good example: in portraying him Taine uses the discrepancy between his social status and the aristocratic milieu in which he lived, to explain his acerbity.
But there are two levels to Taine: one is this structuralist emphasis on system, evident in the prefaces and the unifying “key” he provides for each subject. The other is his own deeply felt and lived experience of contradiction—his Romanticism at odds with his positivism. The great pleasure of reading Taine’s essays comes from reading between (or above) the lines, of glimpsing the subjective behind the “scientific” objectivity, the conflicts and dilemmas behind the claims of unity. Taine was a highly emotional man who disliked displaying his emotions directly in public writing. And yet his essays are full of discreet personal “confessions”—either clear statements of fundamental preference (“I prefer De Musset to Tennyson”) or statements about his subject which are in fact statements about himself. The essay on Balzac (1858) is certainly a brilliant and influential account of a controversial contemporary, but it is also a depiction of Taine’s own experience of stress and financial struggle as a writer and of his own divided feelings about modernity. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Taine writes about different authors in order to explore different aspects of his own experience; and his experience is of conflict and tension rather than of resolution.
This restrained self-disclosure is most affecting in the last essays, which are deeply felt meditations on how posterity remembers the achievements of a lifetime. They are a kind of testament about death and the inevitability of failure. At this period, Taine is of the age when funerals begin—of his fatherin-law, old friends such as Édouard de Suckau and Anatole Prévost-Paradol—above all of his mother (his father had died when Taine was 13). The theme is Ubi sunt?—What is left of those who lived, struggled, and died? For the vast majority the answer is, he says, nothing save a name on a tombstone. Even writers leave little more. These late essays are elegiac obituaries of minor figures: Louis de Loménie, the historian whom he succeeded at the French Academy; Marcelin (Émile Planat), his school friend and editor of the Vie Parisienne; Frantz Woepke the orientalist, another friend; Ernest Bertin, editor of the Débats; George Sand; Sainte-Beuve himself, who claimed to have left a portrait of himself in 50 volumes of essays devoted to others.
Of Marcelin Taine writes that the 25 volumes of his Vie Parisienne “only show the lesser part of his thoughts; this is the fate of most men; very few fulfill their nature completely.” Will Marcelin be remembered? The newspaper, together with a book of essays, “is all that remains of him together with his memory in the minds of four or five friends who will not live long. Woepke, who most deserved to live, was the first to die.
We walk close behind them on the path which vanished beneath their feet. It is collapsing beneath us; each day we sink deeper and we are already up to our knees in the same earth which covers them.”
When he writes these essays Taine is, along with Ernest Renan, the most famous intellectual in France, but he knows that writers who are not creative artists have their modest afterlife only in encyclopedias. And he is resigned to that fate.
Hippolyte Adolphe Taine. Born 21 April 1828 in Vouziers, the Ardennes. Studied at the Collège Bourbon, Paris, 1841–48, baccalaureat, 1848; École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1848–51, doctorate in letters, 1853. Taught at a collège in Nevers and a lycée in Poitiers, 1851–52, then private tutor. Contributor to various periodicals, from 1850s, including the Revue de I’lnstruction Publique, Revue des Deux Mondes, and Journal des Débats.
Suffered often from fatigue, from 1857. Admissions examiner in history and German, Military Academy of Saint-Cyr, 1863–66; professor of aesthetics and art history, École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1864–84. Married Thérèse Denuelle, 1868: one daughter and one son. Lectured at Oxford University, 1871. Elected to the French Academy, 1878.
Awards: French Academy Prize, for essay, 1855; honorary degree from Oxford University. Member, Legion of Honor, 1866. Died in Paris, 5 March 1893.
Essays and Related Prose
Essai sur les Fables de La Fontaine, 1853; as La Fontaine et ses fables, 1861
Essai sur Tite-Live, 1856
Les Philosophes français du XlXe siècle, 1857; as Les Philosophes classiques du XlXe siècle, 1868
Essais de critique et d’histoire, 1858
Histoire de la littérature anglaise, 4 vols., 1863–64; definitive edition, 5 vols., 1872; as
History of English Literature, translated by Henri Van Laun, 2 vols., 1871
Philosophie de I’art, 1865; as Lectures on Art, translated by John Durand, 2 vols., 1875
Nouveaux essais de critique et d’histoire, 1865; one essay as Balzac: A Critical Study, translated by Lorenzo O’Rourke, 1906
Notes sur Paris: Vie et opinions de M.Frédéric-Thomas Graindorge, 1867; as Notes on Paris, translated by J.A.Stevens, 1875
Notes sur I’Angleterre, 1872; as Notes on England, translated by W. Fraser Rae, 1872, and Edward Hyams, 1957
Derniers essais de critique et d’histoire, 1894
Other writings: Les Origines de la France contemporaine (6 vols., 1875–93; The Origins of Contemporary France), works on the history of art, travel books on the Pyrenees and Italy, studies on John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Carlyle, and volumes of correspondence.
Giraud, Victor, Bibliographie critique de Taine, Paris: Hachette, 1902
Smith, H., “The Taine Centennial: Comment and Bibliography,” MLN 44 (1929):437–45
Thieme, Hugo P., “The Development of Taine Criticism Since 1893,” MLN 17 (1902):71–82, 140–53
Charlton, D.G., Positivist Thought in France During the Second Empire, 1852–1870, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959
Evans, Colin, Taine: Essai de biographie intérieure, Paris: Nizet, 1975: especiaily 173– 308
Evans, Colin, “Taine and His Fate,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 6, nos. 1–2 (Fall- Winter 1977–78):118–28
Léger, François, Monsieur Taine, Paris: Critérion, 1993
Nordmann, Jean-Thomas, Taine et la critique scientifique, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992
Weinstein, Leo, Hippolyte Taine, New York: Twayne, 1972
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