Landmarks in French Literature eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 149 pages of information about Landmarks in French Literature.
of men.  Two great themes compose his argument:  the miserable insignificance of all that is human—­human reason, human knowledge, human ambition; and the transcendent glory of God.  Never was the wretchedness of mankind painted with a more passionate power.  The whole infinitude of the physical universe is invoked in his sweeping sentences to crush the presumption of man.  Man’s intellectual greatness itself he seizes upon to point the moral of an innate contradiction, an essential imbecility.  ‘Quelle chimere,’ he exclaims, ’est-ce donc que l’homme! quelle nouveaute, quel monstre, quel chaos, quel sujet de contradiction, quel prodige!  Juge de toutes choses, imbecile ver de terre, depositaire du vrai, cloaque d’incertitude et d’erreur, gloire et rebut de l’univers!’ In words of imperishable intensity, he dwells upon the omnipotence of Death:  ’Nous sommes plaisants de nous reposer dans la societe de nos semblables.  Miserables comme nous, impuissants comme nous, ils ne nous aideront pas; on mourra seul.’  Or he summons up in one ghastly sentence the vision of the inevitable end:  ’Le dernier acte est sanglant, quelque belle que soit la comedie en tout le reste.  On jette enfin de la terre sur la tete, et en voila pour jamais.’  And so follows the conclusion of the whole:  ’Connaissez donc, superbe, quel paradoxe vous etes a vous-meme.  Humiliez-vous, raison impuissante; taisez-vous, nature imbecile ... et entendez de votre maitre votre condition veritable que vous ignorez.  Ecoutez Dieu.’

Modern as the style of Pascal’s writing is, his thought is deeply impregnated with the spirit of the Middle Ages.  He belonged, almost equally, to the future and to the past.  He was a distinguished man of science, a brilliant mathematician; yet he shrank from a consideration of the theory of Copernicus:  it was more important, he declared, to think of the immortal soul.  In the last years of his short life he sank into a torpor of superstition—­ascetic, self-mortified, and rapt in a strange exaltation, like a medieval monk.  Thus there is a tragic antithesis in his character—­an unresolved discord which shows itself again and again in his Pensees.  ‘Condition de l’homme,’ he notes, ‘inconstance, ennui, inquietude.’  It is the description of his own state.  A profound inquietude did indeed devour him.  He turned desperately from the pride of his intellect to the consolations of his religion.  But even there—?  Beneath him, as he sat or as he walked, a great gulf seemed to open darkly, into an impenetrable abyss.  He looked upward into heaven, and the familiar horror faced him still:  ’Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie!’

CHAPTER IV

THE AGE OF LOUIS XIV

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Landmarks in French Literature from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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