Le Figaro 10 février 1924 (Michelet 02)


Michelet and Italy
Michelet will have loved Italy as he knew how to love, that is to say with a deep passion, drawn from the very sources of his being, developed by all the strengths of his mature age and blossoming at certain times in a sort of sacred delirium.
“Of all the French people,” wrote Gabriel Monod, « who, in the nineteenth century, adored Italy, sympathized with its suffering, applauded its recovery, none felt, expressed, symbolized the deep solidarity which unites the France and Italy in a manner as complete as Jules Michelet. »
In truth, was the author of The Insect and the Bird doing anything other than paying the tribute of his gratitude to the old classical land on this occasion? Did he not owe him both physical and moral health??
Physical health, since, three or four times, overworked by work, exhausted, destroyed, he owes the recovery of his strength and salvation only to the marvelous sun of this incomparable country to which he returned as to the source of all life and beauty. Moral health, because his two great masters, those whom he recognized as his two great educators, one from his childhood, the other from his mature age. were two writers from the peninsula: Virgil and Vico.
Virgil was among his first readings: From my childhood, he said, Virgil was adopted by me and was a Bible to me. Soon he knew it by heart and he no longer needed to take it with him on his solitary walks, through the fields, the woods and the thickets where he liked to get lost while dreaming. This sublime educator had taught him both the sense of nature and the sense of history: Michelet was to be marked for life.
Vico was no less necessary to him. He revealed to him the hidden action of ideas on men and the masses, he unfolded before his enlightened eyes the perspectives of law and justice, he finally helped him to definitively reveal his personality.
Through Virgil and Vico, Michelet loved the Italian land, but it was above all through travel that he was conquered forever. In 1830, exhausted by excessive work, condemned by doctors to absolute rest, he thought of putting a truce to his life of work and left for Rome via Genoa, Pisa and Florence. His stay was enchanting. His imagination, evocative of the past, did not abandon him for a minute and, in front of these famous cities, these historic landscapes, constantly mixed reminders of yesteryear with the vivacity of present sensations. Almost all of his Rome diary could be cited from this point of view.
He contemplates the city from one of its hills, and, immediately, in the most moving of parallels, he compares it to Paris: same hills, same situation, same topographical development. But he concludes: « Paris is the city of the future, Rome the city of the past. » He evokes the sublime spectacle of the Colosseum with its hundred thousand spectators, its Christians delivered to the beasts, its impassive gladiators, « teaching their masters to die. » He wanders through all the ruins, he feels the breath of death everywhere and he shudders, he, the greatest of the worshipers of life. But, all the same, the horror of this spectacle is so exciting that it transports him, despite the protests of his whole being: « Rome is nothing more than a tomb, but in this tomb has come to be buried a world  »
Finally, he studies the people as a curious history enthusiast, and he notes curious impressions. He unravels the sensuality that remains in the Roman, he lets himself be taken in by Italian indolence, this appearance which so singularly deceives busy travelers, and he writes: «It is almost Byzantine indolence.» But, deep down, he cannot really believe in the definitive ruin of Italy. With an almost religious fervor, he dreams of his rebirth and he calls for his resurrection with all his wishes: « Ah! this old Italic land, he wrote to a friend, wherever you touch, quivering life springs from it and eternal youth! If you are told again that she is dead, don't believe it. Death is only an appearance here. He who carries within himself a loving force eternally cannot die. »
Michelet was able to relive these first impressions and control them a few years later, in 1838, when, for the second time, he set foot on Italian soil. It is through the Saint-Gothard that he enters there, and, immediately, it is a profound sensation which shakes him completely “From Lugano,” he writes, “I felt in my hair, in my face, a mysterious breath like a breath of love, that of the great mother Italy, always young and rejuvenating, eternally loving. » He runs to Venice with an ardor equal to that which carried him towards Rome. The sumptuousness of the city, its churches, its palaces throws him into an incredible transport. Here again he cannot admit that life has disappeared forever, he believes in the resurrection of this second homeland, and, with a sort of fever, he accumulates all the reasons which make the Italic land immortal, just as he seeks ways by which we could revive this dead city. Then, returning to Paris, he devoted almost all his work to Italy, studying the history of the Italian Renaissance in his courses at the Collège de France, composing his chapters on Savonarola and Michelangelo, never tiring of probing the future in light of the past.
In 1852-53, another journey beyond the Alps. Shaken by political events, very tired, Michelet leaves to seek health from the Italian sun and settles on the coasts of Liguria. Unfortunately the times are not very favorable. In Genoa, he suffers from the bad. time:
“I was studying in my coat, wrapped up like a bivouac. Winter had come. I thought to ask for a fire, to inquire about the chimneys. Great astonishment of the Genoese. They proudly replied that in Italy they do not heat themselves; the fireplace is unknown in Genoa. Even it would be dangerous there, they say, given the dry climate: the fire would irritate the chest! »
- As the cold increases, he goes to Nervi where he rents a palazzetto, at the end of the village. Pretty painted house on the outside, mud on the inside. Only one beautiful room: the immense kitchen, but very dark, damp, with an underground humidity. The rooms are without furniture. Only the second floor is delightful with its boudoir and ballroom from which you can see the distant sea.
It was there that he stayed for five months with his courageous wife who carried out, alone, all the tasks, even the toughest, in a town without resources and almost without merchants.
However, despite everything, he suffered the irresistible charm of the marvelous nature that surrounded him, especially the sea, the eternal sleeper, the gray of light and beauty. "Of my new friendships," he recounts, "it was by far the most talkative, the most inviting, the most eager. I never saw her as being very mean, but always amusing, always varied and infinitely diversified. »
The harsh and harsh mountain, inhabited by poor wretches, incites his pity. Everything around him is a teaching, a mark of beauty, a sign of greatness or an example to meditate on. And he soon regains his lost health, hastening his recovery, he admits, by the spectacle of the ills which surround him, in this miserable village populated by unfortunate fishermen, better feeling the strength of his feeble body in the face of so many misery, so much mediocrity, so much pain.
This view of misfortune suggests to him some of his most beautiful pages on the Italian homeland. It also allows it to rise from the particular example of Italy to the more general example of all European homelands. And, with a feverish pen, he cries to his Italian friends in the Banquet:
“We will only save ourselves together. The heart of France is for the Italian unitary party. The unity of the Italian soul was achieved, from the fourteenth century, through the unity of the literary language, of art, of music, of legislation. If the Italians remain non-centralized they will be inferior: they will only save themselves through sacrifice and great friendship. »
What a cry of joy he uttered at the announcement of the Franco-Italian War, and what disillusionment, too, on the day of Villa Franca!
Alas! a more poignant sentence awaited him on the beloved land of his dear Italy. This is where he is when he learns of our disasters of 1870. Nailed once again by illness in the land of sunshine and joy, he witnesses, helplessly, the agony of France. In Pisa, where he wanders miserably, it is the announcement of the Commune, of the homeland torn apart by its children. He could not resist it: on April 30, he suffered a stroke. Devoted care brings him back to himself, he can return to complete his recovery in Switzerland, but the image of Italy does not leave him. To the end it haunts him, to the end he associates it with that of his dear France and he repeats these words of a grateful little child
" Italy! My nanny Italy! ".... Jules Bertaut.
Around Michelet
Arsène Houssaye and, after him, all those who wrote on the forty-first chair of the French Academy, were surprised that Michelet was not part of this Academy: Lecturer, head of the section history in the National Archives, professor at the Collège de France, he had no shortage of titles. The truth is that, unlike certain academicians and candidates today, Michelet was not a supporter of what we can call “academic accumulation”.
He never wanted to be one of the Forty, and was content to sit on the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. “I am from the Institute, that is enough,” he said, at each vacancy, recommending the candidacy of Edgar Quinet, who, moreover, was never elected by the French Academy. We must therefore consider Michelet as a voluntary forty-first chair.
Sainte-Beuve had a mediocre taste for Balzac, de Vigny and Michelet. On the other hand, the illustrious historian had the full admiration of Flaubert, to whom he sometimes visited. In the summer of 1865, Flaubert thanked Michelet for sending him the Bible of Humanity “The passage on Aeschylus is very beautiful. But what is not beautiful in your work? On November 13, 1867, new thanks from Flaubert about the Eighteenth Century. The good giant of Choisset, during this letter, agrees with Michelet on Rousseau: “Your judgment on Rousseau charms me... Although I am in the flock of his grandsons, this man displeases me. I believe he had a disastrous influence. It is the generator of envious and tyrannical democracy. The mists of his melancholy have obscured in French brains the idea of law..." These two great writers had foreseen the excesses of certain unions.
Although he rarely read novelists, Michelet thought highly of the author of Madame Bovary and did not fail to offer him all his books. In 1869, Flaubert received the preface to the volume devoted to the Terror. Here again, both are of the same opinion, but this time, they settle Robespierre's score. On February 2, Flaubert replied "I hate like you the Jacobin priesthood, Robespierre and his sons whom I know from having read and frequented them..." In each of his letters, Flaubert did not fail to pray to his "dear master” to recall him to the memory of Mrs. Michelet.
Madame Michelet is believed, rightly or wrongly, to have helped her husband in his so-called imaginative works. It seems, however, that French and foreign literature, so vast for curious minds, has not fanaticized it. “I have nothing to read!” » she said readily. She forgot that one of the greatest pleasures is to reread the gods.
One day the Goncourts were visiting the historian in his apartment on the street. d'Assas, they heard Madame Michelet ask for something new. And Michelet exclaims, turning towards his. visitors: “I nevertheless said to him: “Take my Aeschylus, take my Dante, take my Shakespeare, finally take my most beautiful things!” »
Jules Clarelie left us a curious volume entitled La Canne de M. Michelet. Michelet's cane never supported his approach as during his stays in Hyères. Michelet loved walking, and we still remember his city tours in the charming city of palm trees and azure skies. However, although everywhere praised and honored, the author of the Mountain was never popular among the hairdressers of Hyères. The reason is that he only gave six sous per beard to the person who shaved it. Michelet started from the principle that such clean work deserved no more. According to him, his six cents. amounted to an act of justice, not greed.
The Cedar of Michelet

As Taine had his tree in Paris, a beautiful plane tree, which, if we are to believe Barrès, he “never tired of admiring and understanding”, a tree which was “the friend and advisor of his recent years" and who "spoke to him about everything he had loved", Michelet, during his stay in Nantes, had as his confidant and master a large cedar about which, on several occasions, he talks to us in his books and in his letters. Several years, this cedar survived him; now he is dead; but its features have been preserved to us and by the descriptions that Michelet gave us and even by a drawing that, thanks to the kind instructions of the learned librarian of Nantes, Mr. Giraud-Mangin, I was able to find in the memories of an old Nantes resident that, without putting his name, a local searcher, Léon Brunschvicg, published in Nantes in 1888.
In a chapter that Brunschvicg devotes to Michelet's visit to Nantes, he tells us that, on this cedar, which was not yet dead at the time when this study was born, Michelet's owner had affixed a plaque whose text was thus conceived: “Cèdre de Michelet; stay in Haute-Forêt from June 21, 1852 to October 16, 1853. »«Is my cedar still alive? I do not know. Architects hate trees these days.” (L'Oiseau, by J. Michelet, p. XLII. Librairie Hachette et Cie, 1856.). The inscription disappeared with the cedar, but, Mr. Giraud-Mangin told me, on the walls of the property, some admirers of Michelet had a bronze plaque affixed with the effigy of the historian due to the sculptor Barrau.
It was following Prince Napoleon's coup d'état that Michelet, who had been dismissed from his post at the Collège de France (Quinet had had to go into exile in Belgium) deemed it prudent to leave Paris to go to Brittany continue his History of the Revolution. “Here I am uprooted, dear,” he wrote to Quinet on May 14, 1852, “and still not really knowing where I will establish my new roots in a few days. I might go near Nantes. » On June 5, he wrote again: “I refused the oath the day before yesterday, dear friend, and on the 11th I leave for Nantes where I intend to work six months in the most complete solitude, within reach of the Vendée which enters into my last volume, » It seems, to tell the truth, that it was above all this hope of encountering documents there which would be interesting for his work which had decided him to head in that direction. But other reasons also came into play. Unsure of tomorrow, Michelet was forced to be thrifty and Brittany was, at that time, one of the countries where people lived more cheaply. In 1831, moreover, when he was preparing his Picture of France, Michelet had visited Brittany, he had visited Brest, Auray, Quiberon, Tréguier (where he had met Father Système of whom Renan was to speak again), Morlaix, Quimperlé, Batz (1) and the Celtic race “the most obstinate in the world”, as he wrote then, had made a great impression on him.
His first intention, according to Brunschvicg, was not to establish himself exactly in Nantes, but in Pouliguen; he even went there, but had, it seems, to retreat before the intransigence of a priest who, already distressed to see his village degenerate into a seaside resort, did not care to harbor in his parish a character also unorthodox. In Nantes, on the other hand, liberal circles treated him like a great man and Michelet was very flattered by their attention. He left traces of his satisfaction in volume VI of his History of the Revolution in the chapter on the siege of Nantes: “We can, he said, knowingly, give this testimony to the men of the West; they are thrifty, they are generous. The ancient simplicity of morals, the habitual sobriety, the very parsimony which is their character allows them in great circumstances a heroic munificence, a noble prodigality, when the heart opens, the hand also opens, wide and large. » And he adds in a note: “Such they were then, such I found them when in this great shipwreck I came to place my mobile home here. » A Vendéen, he says, offered him when he arrived in Nantes to take him by car to all the localities that had become historic. This same man placed his house in Nantes at the disposal of the historian. Michelet did not want to accept anything from the people of the West. “But,” he said, “the strong and sacred bond of ancient hospitality is no less formed between them and me. Those of sympathy have existed for a long time. The first pages of my description of France. sufficiently demonstrate this. » Private collections and the departmental archives were widely opened to him. “What would I have done,” he wrote, “even in Paris, if I had not been aware of the collection of Mr. Dugast-Malifenx, unique in history of the Revolution in the West? Also see in what terms he speaks of Nantes, during the revolutionary period: “Nantes... becomes the home of all those who no longer had one; the great city opened maternal arms to this poor herd fugitive from the civil war. It was on a hillside, near the Saint-Félix chapel, that he lived, his owner Mr. Pironneau, who professed true veneration for him; It is he who affixed the plaque on the cedar and who bequeathed to the Archaeological Society of Nantes the lease that Michelet had signed. When the weather permitted, the historian, at daybreak, set up in the orchard to write there that Mme Michelet, helped by her maid, a wild Breton girl, went about raising her chickens. ; In the evening, again in the orchard, Michelet, to defend his vegetables, devoted himself to snail hunting. Ideal orchard, a sort of Paradou in which, he said, the nights, less sparkling than those of the South, were lightly gassed with a warm mist through which the stars, discreetly, cast gentle glances.
It was above this orchard that the famous cedar stood with, around it, a few less majestic trees. “We could see him,” says Michelet, “from three leagues, from the opposite countryside, from the banks of the Sèvre Nantaise and the woods of Vendée. Our asylum, low and crouched next to this giant, was no less marked by him in an immense radiance and perhaps it owed its name to it: the Haute-Forêt... These beautiful trees incessantly swaying in the wind of the sea, beaten by the opposing winds which follow the currents of the great river and its two rivers, moaned from this fight and, day and night, enlivened the deep silence of the place with a melancholy harmony. Sometimes we thought we were at sea; they imitated the noise of the waves, that of the ebb and flow" (2).
In this company, Michelet, passionately, wrote Quatre-ving-treize; he relived the whole era; he felt “bad for his France”, to use one of his expressions which dates, it is true, from another period; he felt the blood rush to his mouth, just as Flaubert, in front of the poisoned Madame Bovary, felt the taste of arsenic rising to his lips. “Robespierre,” he wrote from Nantes, “eats my marrow and my bones” (See E. Noël, Michelet and his children.) To Quinet, he said “It would be interesting if the historian of 93 were added to the list of his victims. It is an era capable of dispatching the one who told it. In an old transparent house pierced by the heavy rains in January 1853, notes Michelet in his 1868 preface to the History of the Revolution, I wrote on the same month corresponding to the Terror: “I plunge with my subject into the night and in the winter. The fierce storm winds that have been beating my windows for two months on these hills of Nantes accompany with their sometimes serious, sometimes heartbreaking voices, my Dies Irae of 1793. Legitimate harmonies! I have to thank them. What they. often told me in their apparent fury, in their bitter hissing, in the sinisterly cheerful clanking with which the hail struck my windows, it was the good and strong thing, that all these semblances of death were in no way death, but life on the contrary, the future renewal. »
And it was not just history that the voices of the wind in the cedar spoke to him. In pages which he entitled "How the author was led to the study of nature" - pages which serve as a preface to L'Oiseau - Michelet, evoking this garden, recalled how it was in the shadow of the cedar that he understood the splendor of nature and that he thought of abandoning history to examine more closely the animal and plant world. “The link,” he said, “remained sacred to me in thought. Seeing the grass growing hour by hour and all animal life multiplying around me, shouldn't I, too, germinate and live again with this new feeling? In the evening, Madame Michelet and he, abandoning Danton and Robespierre, read Les Oiseaux de France, by Toussenel, “happy and charming transition from national thought to that of nature”. “What our flowers of Paris had prepared,” he said again, “our birds of Nantes did. »
It therefore seems that we cannot give too great a place to this garden of Nantes in the spiritual life of Michelet; there he experienced both the most violent and the sweetest sensations. A few months before his death, he passed through Nantes again, going to Pornic where he hoped to regain his health. I would like Madame Michelet to have told us if he then tried to see again, even from afar, the cedar dominating the enchanted orchard.

Charles Chassé.
Michelet and Renan

Today we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Michelet's death. Barely a few months have passed since the universal and profound tribute that French letters paid to the memory of Renan.
These two names have often been compared, often opposed. Both experienced the same glories and the same hatreds. These two men each had the merit of an original method. They both, by different processes, renovated history; both had similar pity, similar admirations, similar reversals, similar careers, and posterity gave them an identical welcome.
Their qualities as historians are the subject of criticism with varying grounds, but whose conclusions differ little. We wanted to take away their title of scholar and grant them that of novelists. The young student who blasphemes the old masters, in the Luxembourg garden; a few steps from Silvestre Bonnard, almost joins, in his appreciations of Michelet, Mr. Maurice Barrès for whom the Life of Jesus was only a faded novel... Yet their work is essentially different. It seems that they are separated by this crevasse, of which Michelet speaks, so narrow that one can converse from one side to the other, and which nevertheless is lost within the globe. Initially, we find in both a similar orientation towards Christianity, then the same change. Love of the people, respect for the humble, of progress and freedom, animate them with the same flame.