|NUMBER 236. — October 5, 1977|
|Dear Unknown Friends:
My title for this TRO brings up the question whether there is something essentially different in the beauty of prose from the beauty had by the heroine of the noted French novel I discuss today, Manon Lescaut. According to Aesthetic Realism, beauty may be wherever reality may be—and that means anywhere. Furthermore, there is a likeness between the beauty of a leaf and the possible beauty of a cathedral.
Aesthetic Realism believes that the less antagonism is seen between reality and beauty, the more sensible things are. Today there will be some consideration of one of the most famous girls in the novel (also in two operas, at least) and a consideration of prose.
1. Prose and Conflict
All good prose has conflict in it, seen well by the author. Every girl who is not only beautiful but can see, will have some conflict in her. Girls are as much affected by the problem of handsomeness and good will as a man might be, however much he emulates a wolf of the Forest of Ardennes.
Manon Lescaut is about the conflict between ecstasy and ethics. In good prose, the Abbé Prévost, author of Manon Lescaut, writes about this conflict and wonders at it, as we all should. The cause of the conflict in the noted novel of Prévost is the French lass Manon Lescaut. It is clear, however, that Mlle. Lescaut has a conflict herself. Beauty, as I have said, is not spared that fierce and subtle and wide test of man, conflict as to what kind of person one wants to be, conflict every day as to what it is best to do.
Well, here is Abbé Prévost in his "Avis de l'auteur." I give the French and translate:
This sentence is well made; and is about that in mind seemingly ill made.
The presence of order and disorder as one in the novel of Prévost is a mighty thing. My words are sustained by two statements of French critics. That the style of Manon Lescaut is beautifully accurate is to be observed in these words of Ferdinand Brunetière (Études critiques sur l'histoire de la littérature française. III, p. 231). Brunetière says:
Stendhal, it is well known, went for the kind of prose Brunetière mentions. Ornament and the absence of ornament can both do well in prose, as they can in the garb of a woman. Prévost leaves out ornament masterfully.
This also is said of Manon Lescaut: "It is without doubt the masterpiece of passionate literature" (Lanson, Tuffrau: Manuel illustré d'histoire de la littérature française, p. 370).
2. Manon Is Considered
Well, the 18th-century girl Manon Lescaut went after those qualities mentioned by three French literary critics. Manon wanted to be demure, unperturbed, with the repose of the everlasting in her. She also adored passion. A good style is a mingling of coolness and ardor. A girl goes after coolness and ardor at once, in whatever century she may be living. The beauty, then, of Manon Lescaut as the Chevalier des Grieux saw it, had in it the beauty of good prose. Art is always a oneness of repose and intensity, quiet and involvement. Manon Lescaut is a refutation of psychoanalysis, for she makes tremendous carnal lure akin to the qualities one can see in art. Art or literature is not a sublimation of Manon Lescaut; they are colleagues.
There is one famous statement of Manon which goes vividly along with Marx and Engels and is against the main idea of psychoanalysis—at least, as it was. It is known to novel readers that Manon loved adorably and constantly; but as soon as poverty or lack of money or lack of good food was around, her fidelity became secondary. Manon at one point in the novel says passionately and thoughtfully:
The desire to eat is here made by a French girl of the 18th century as important as the desire to have one's body close to another.
3. One Demur
Prévost makes the important conflict in the mind of the Chevalier des Grieux—and of himself too, it is said—the conflict between fulfilment and abstinence of a bodily kind. This conflict certainly exists, with frightening and interesting consequences. Yet Aesthetic Realism sees the greatest conflict in man as the passion for contempt in conflict with the passion—also in man—for respect. The passion for contempt can take a spectacular, body driving form. Respect is most often quieter, deeper, wider. Nevertheless, both passions exist. Des Grieux tries now and then to have successful contempt for Manon. Yet what he needed to have contempt for is the tendency to contempt had by the 18th century, too. Manon was endowed with it, as was the chevalier's father and as was, even, the sedate friend of des Grieux, Tiberge.
Novels of 18th-century France—that is, works of Le Sage, Voltaire, Marivaux, Rousseau, Diderot—are studies in the unseen flourishing of contempt. The likelihood of denigrating reality is in the works of the authors I have mentioned. Aesthetic Realism does see the passion for contempt as the greatest in man: for one thing, because it is so quiet; and for the second thing, contempt is often seen as necessary for the simple, bearable presence of self.
4. Manon Says Things of Prose
At the beginning of the novel, Manon is on her way to Louisiana, for she has, it seems, not been in accord with French law of the 1720s or so. As she is about to go on shipboard, her dress is not so elegant. Prévost writes:
Prévost is here tackling the reason why girls in recent years in America wore jeans not impeccable in their looks. We have here the relation, great in art, of roughness, untidiness, to smoothness and propriety.
From various sentences of Prévost, we can gather that des Grieux saw a wonder, a welcome remoteness in the face and body of Manon—as in the sentence of Bacon, so often quoted by Poe, All beauty has some strangeness in it. When one likes the face of a girl tremendously, one is affected by familiarity and also the mystery and distance of reality. In this sentence of Prévost at the beginning of the book (it is without any chapters), an officer in charge of Manon is talking:
A good deal of the novel of Prévost is what could be called in cinematic California, "close-up." We feel the nearness of Manon and des Grieux, although the language is as chaste as that of Trollope. But Prévost needed distance. Louisiana came into the story as an offset to closeness. Closeness and distance are in a good sentence of prose. They are in the sentence I have, a moment ago, quoted.
And as readers in France and elsewhere know, Manon has humiliated des Gríeux terribly.
Pity and condemnation are often felt as one thing in the novel. Prose sentences can take care of Manon as a being to be pitied at the same moment that she is chided, condemned. And des Grieux is pitied and condemned too, in frequent good French sentences.
Early in the book, des Grieux says to the general narrator of the novel:
Emotions do merge in the novel, with aesthetics looking on.
Occasionally, with Manon participating, a great deal of swift life and planning in life is told of economically. Here is the English of two sentences:
Manon is strategic and pretty at once; so are some sentences in English and French literature.
The way another sentence goes along, with its conclusion in the word "flight" (la fuite in French), has in it a going from complex inner life to a long straight line outside:
Reflections and flight make a pair in prose.
Another sentence with swiftness and the inner life is:
The dying of Manon as the conclusion of the novel is one of the renowned places in French literature. I translate one sentence concerned with des Grieux's solitary burial of Manon in Louisiana:
The sedate Tiberge is the critic of Manon. One can feel that Tiberge and Manon jointly make up the unseen soul of man. Tiberge is constant, more unquestionably constant than Manon. He arrives in Louisiana when Manon has died and des Grieux has the past to look at. Tiberge seems to come out of the space the cinema has tried to show now and then:
The placing of these words in the French should be looked at. This placing tends to sustain the high notion Brunetière had of the accurate, passionate style of Prévost.
World and self are present in Manon Lescaut. Manon Lescaut, like all girls, is world and self. So is the Chevalier des Grieux. World and self are often in sentences of Prévost. Perhaps the sentence which contrasts one self with the whole world, and does so most beautifully is this:
In the large territory of Louisiana, at the time of the birth of Washington, world and self are represented by Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux. The novel of Prévost dates from 1731, a year before the birth of Washington; the year of the birth of William Cowper, a poet who had great trouble with the sadness and triumph of loneliness.
World and self, then, are in this often reprinted French novel. They were in the persons of the 18th century who don't get into the novel. There are many. World and self are in this century. Certainly, they are in us. They should be found there.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
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