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TRUTH IN ART

The study of social progress is to-day not less needed in literature than
is the analysis of the human heart. We live in an age of universal
investigation, and of exploration of the sources of all movements.
France, for example, loves at the same time history and the drama,
because the one explores the vast destinies of humanity, and the other
the individual lot of man. These embrace the whole of life. But it is the
province of religion, of philosophy, of pure poetry only, to go beyond
life, beyond time, into eternity.

Of late years (perhaps as a result of our political changes) art has
borrowed from history more than ever. All of us have our eyes fixed on
our chronicles, as though, having reached manhood while going on toward
greater things, we had stopped a moment to cast up the account of our
youth and its errors. We have had to double the interest by adding to it
recollection.

As France has carried farther than other nations this love of facts, and
as I had chosen a recent and well-remembered epoch, it seemed to me that
I ought not to imitate those foreigners who in their pictures barely show
in the horizon the men who dominate their history. I placed ours in the
foreground of the scene; I made them leading actors in this tragedy,
wherever I endeavored to represent the three kinds of ambition by which
we are influenced, and with them the beauty of self-sacrifice to a noble
ideal. A treatise on the fall of the feudal system; on the position, at
home and abroad, of France in the seventeenth century; on foreign
alliances; on the justice of parliaments or of secret commissions, or on
accusations of sorcery, would not perhaps have been read. But the romance
was read.

I do not mean to defend this last form of historical composition, being
convinced that the real greatness of a work lies in the substance of the
author's ideas and sentiments, and not in the literary form in which they
are dressed. The choice of a certain epoch necessitates a certain
treatment--to another epoch it would be unsuitable; these are mere
secrets of the workshop of thought which there is no need of disclosing.
What is the use of theorizing as to wherein lies the charm that moves us?
We hear the tones of the harp, but its graceful form conceals from us its
frame of iron. Nevertheless, since I have been convinced that this book
possesses vitality, I can not help throwing out some reflections on the
liberty which the imagination should employ in weaving into its tapestry
all the leading figures of an age, and, to give more consistency to their
acts, in making the reality of fact give way to the idea which each of
them should represent in the eyes of posterity; in short, on the
difference which I find between Truth in art and the True in fact.

Just as we descend into our consciences to judge of actions which our
minds can not weigh, can we not also search in ourselves for the feeling
which gives birth to forms of thought, always vague and cloudy? We shall
find in our troubled hearts, where discord reigns, two needs which seem
at variance, but which merge, as I think, in a common source--the love of
the true, and the love of the fabulous.

On the day when man told the story of his life to man, history was born.
Of what use is the memory of facts, if not to serve as an example of good
or of evil? But the examples which the slow train of events presents to
us are scattered and incomplete. They lack always a tangible and visible
coherence leading straight on to a moral conclusion. The acts of the
human race on the world's stage have doubtless a coherent unity, but the
meaning of the vast tragedy enacted will be visible only to the eye of
God, until the end, which will reveal it perhaps to the last man. All
systems of philosophy have sought in vain to explain it, ceaselessly
rolling up their rock, which, never reaching the top, falls back upon
them--each raising its frail structure on the ruins of the others, only
to see it fall in its turn.

I think, then, that man, after having satisfied his first longing for
facts, wanted something fuller--some grouping, some adaptation to his
capacity and experience, of the links of this vast chain of events which
his sight could not take in. Thus he hoped to find in the historic
recital examples which might support the moral truths of which he was
conscious. Few single careers could satisfy this longing, being only
incomplete parts of the elusive whole of the history of the world; one
was a quarter, as it were, the other a half of the proof; imagination did
the rest and completed them. From this, without doubt, sprang the fable.
Man created it thus, because it was not given him to see more than
himself and nature, which surrounds him; but he created it true with a
truth all its own.

This Truth, so beautiful, so intellectual, which I feel, I see, and long
to define, the name of which I here venture to distinguish from that of
the True, that I may the better make myself understood, is the soul of
all the arts. It is the selection of the characteristic token in all the
beauties and the grandeurs of the visible True; but it is not the thing
itself, it is something better: it is an ideal combination of its
principal forms, a luminous tint made up of its brightest colors, an
intoxicating balm of its purest perfumes, a delicious elixir of its best
juices, a perfect harmony of its sweetest sounds--in short, it is a
concentration of all its good qualities. For this Truth, and nothing
else, should strive those works of art which are a moral representation
of life-dramatic works. To attain it, the first step is undoubtedly to
learn all that is true in fact of every period, to become deeply imbued
with its general character and with its details; this involves only a
cheap tribute of attention, of patience, and of memory: But then one must
fix upon some chosen centre, and group everything around it; this is the
work of imagination, and of that sublime common-sense which is genius
itself.

Of what use were the arts if they were only the reproduction and the
imitation of life? Good heavens! we see only too clearly about us the sad
and disenchanting reality--the insupportable lukewarmness of feeble
characters, of shallow virtues and vices, of irresolute loves, of
tempered hates, of wavering friendships, of unsettled beliefs, of
constancy which has its height and its depth, of opinions which
evaporate. Let us dream that once upon a time have lived men stronger and
greater, who were more determined for good or for evil; that does us
good. If the paleness of your True is to follow us into art, we shall
close at once the theatre and the book, to avoid meeting it a second
time. What is wanted of works which revive the ghosts of human beings is,
I repeat, the philosophical spectacle of man deeply wrought upon by the
passions of his character and of his epoch; it is, in short, the artistic
Truth of that man and that epoch, but both raised to a higher and ideal
power, which concentrates all their forces. You recognize this Truth in
works of the imagination just as you cry out at the resemblance of a
portrait of which you have never seen the original; for true talent
paints life rather than the living.

To banish finally the scruples on this point of the consciences of some
persons, timorous in literary matters, whom I have seen affected with a
personal sorrow on viewing the rashness with which the imagination sports
with the most weighty characters of history, I will hazard the assertion
that, not throughout this work, I dare not say that, but in many of these
pages, and those perhaps not of the least merit, history is a romance of
which the people are the authors. The human mind, I believe, cares for
the True only in the general character of an epoch. What it values most
of all is the sum total of events and the advance of civilization, which
carries individuals along with it; but, indifferent to details, it cares
less to have them real than noble or, rather, grand and complete.

Examine closely the origin of certain deeds, of certain heroic
expressions, which are born one knows not how; you will see them leap out
ready-made from hearsay and the murmurs of the crowd, without having in
themselves more than a shadow of truth, and, nevertheless, they will
remain historical forever. As if by way of pleasantry, and to put a joke
upon posterity, the public voice invents sublime utterances to mark,
during their lives and under their very eyes, men who, confused, avow
themselves as best they may, as not deserving of so much glory--

   [In our time has not a Russian General denied the fire of Moscow,
   which we have made heroic, and which will remain so? Has not a
   French General denied that utterance on the field of Waterloo which
   will immortalize it? And if I were not withheld by my respect for a
   sacred event, I might recall that a priest has felt it to be his
   duty to disavow in public a sublime speech which will remain the
   noblest that has ever been pronounced on a scaffold: "Son of Saint
   Louis, rise to heaven!" When I learned not long ago its real
   author, I was overcome by the destruction of my illusion, but before
   long I was consoled by a thought that does honor to humanity in my
   eyes. I feel that France has consecrated this speech, because she
   felt the need of reestablishing herself in her own eyes, of blinding
   herself to her awful error, and of believing that then and there an
   honest man was found who dared to speak aloud.]

and as not being able to support so high renown. In vain; their
disclaimers are not received. Let them cry out, let them write, let them
print, let them sign--they are not listened to. These utterances are
inscribed in bronze; the poor fellows remain historical and sublime in
spite of themselves. And I do not find that all this is done in the ages
of barbarism alone; it is still going on, and it molds the history of
yesterday to the taste of public opinion--a Muse tyrannical and
capricious, which preserves the general purport and scorns detail.

Which of you knows not of such transformation? Do you not see with your
own eyes the chrysalis fact assume by degrees the wings of fiction? Half
formed by the necessities of the time, a fact is hidden in the ground
obscure and incomplete, rough, misshapen, like a block of marble not yet
rough-hewn. The first who unearth it, and take it in hand, would wish it
differently shaped, and pass it, already a little rounded, into other
hands; others polish it as they pass it along; in a short time it is
exhibited transformed into an immortal statue. We disclaim it; witnesses
who have seen and heard pile refutations upon explanations; the learned
investigate, pore over books, and write. No one listens to them any more
than to the humble heroes who disown it; the torrent rolls on and bears
with it the whole thing under the form which it has pleased it to give to
these individual actions. What was needed for all this work? A nothing, a
word; sometimes the caprice of a journalist out of work. And are we the
losers by it? No. The adopted fact is always better composed than the
real one, and it is even adopted only because it is better. The human
race feels a need that its destinies should afford it a series of
lessons; more careless than we think of the reality of facts, it strives
to perfect the event in order to give it a great moral significance,
feeling sure that the succession of scenes which it plays upon earth is
not a comedy, and that since it advances, it marches toward an end, of
which the explanation must be sought beyond what is visible.

For my part, I acknowledge my gratitude to the voice of the people for
this achievement; for often in the finest life are found strange
blemishes and inconsistencies which pain me when I see them. If a man
seems to me a perfect model of a grand and noble character, and if some
one comes and tells me of a mean trait which disfigures him, I am
saddened by it, even though I do not know him, as by a misfortune which
affects me in person; and I could almost wish that he had died before the
change in his character.

Thus, when the Muse (and I give that name to art as a whole, to
everything which belongs to the domain of imagination, almost in the same
way as the ancients gave the name of Music to all education), when the
Muse has related, in her impassioned manner, the adventures of a
character whom I know to have lived; and when she reshapes his
experiences into conformity with the strongest idea of vice or virtue
which can be conceived of him--filling the gaps, veiling the
incongruities of his life, and giving him that perfect unity of conduct
which we like to see represented even in evil--if, in addition to this,
she preserves the only thing essential to the instruction of the world,
the spirit of the epoch, I know no reason why we should be more exacting
with her than with this voice of the people which every day makes every
fact undergo so great changes.

The ancients carried this liberty even into history; they wanted to see
in it only the general march, and broad movements of peoples and nations;
and on these great movements, brought to view in courses very distinct
and very clear, they placed a few colossal figures--symbols of noble
character and of lofty purpose.

One might almost reckon mathematically that, having undergone the double
composition of public opinion and of the author, their history reaches us
at third hand and is thus separated by two stages from the original fact.

It is because in their eyes history too was a work of art; and in
consequence of not having realized that such is its real nature, the
whole Christian world still lacks an historical monument like those which
dominate antiquity and consecrate the memory of its destinies--as its
pyramids, its obelisks, its pylons, and its porticos still dominate the
earth which was known to them, and thereby commemorate the grandeur of
antiquity.

If, then, we find everywhere evidence of this inclination to desert the
positive, to bring the ideal even into historic annals, I believe that
with greater reason we should be completely indifferent to historical
reality in judging the dramatic works, whether poems, romances, or
tragedies, which borrow from history celebrated characters. Art ought
never to be considered except in its relations with its ideal beauty. Let
it be said that what is true in fact is secondary merely; it is only an
illusion the more with which it adorns itself--one of our prejudices
which it respects. It can do without it, for the Truth by which it must
live is the truth of observation of human nature, and not authenticity of
fact. The names of the characters have nothing to do with the matter. The
idea is everything; the proper name is only the example and the proof of
the idea.

So much the better for the memory of those who are chosen to represent
philosophical or moral ideas; but, once again, that is not the question.
The imagination can produce just as fine things without them; it is a
power wholly creative; the imaginary beings which it animates are endowed
with life as truly as the real beings which it brings to life again. We
believe in Othello as we do in Richard III., whose tomb is in
Westminster; in Lovelace and Clarissa as in Paul and Virginia, whose
tombs are in the Isle of France. It is with the same eye that we must
watch the performance of its characters, and demand of the Muse only her
artistic Truth, more lofty than the True--whether collecting the traits
of a character dispersed among a thousand entire individuals, she
composes from them a type whose name alone is imaginary; or whether she
goes to their tomb to seek and to touch with her galvanic current the
dead whose great deeds are known, forces them to arise again, and drags
them dazzled to the light of day, where, in the circle which this fairy
has traced, they re-assume unwillingly their passions of other days, and
begin again in the sight of their descendants the sad drama of life.
ALFRED DE VIGNY.
1827.