GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Antoine de Rivarol — journalist-moralist and the genius of the fragment
Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
It is difficult to define a talented person, especially when trying to discuss one of the brilliant minds of France, Antoine de Rivarol (1753-1801), who believed that «there are many more clever people in the world than talented ones» and society is «swarmed with clever people, completely without talent».
Rivarol himself, not lacking either intellectual data or literary ability, went down in the history of French literature as a «lazy genius» who left behind not a single finished work.
Like Socrates, he favored oral speech and conversation, and when he sat down at the table and wrote, he made excessive demands on himself, as he believed that «if the book is supported, it means that it does not stand on its feet well». The desire to find the most successful wording and find the most accurate phrase took him a lot of effort and time.
Rivarol is a jeweler of words, honing his skills in the manufacture of fragments, turning each aphorism into a diamond and a collection of thoughts — in precious mines.
A witty journalist who received for his bold political views nicknamed «Tacitus of the Revolution», he was not afraid to enter into polemics with authoritative writers of the time. He created bold pamphlets, which caused public outrage and increased the number of enemies.
Rivarol did not try to please anyone; he was honest as a moralist and ruthless as a journalist, but that is the beauty of his reflections and the longevity of his creative heritage.
To achieve nothing in life is a tremendous advantage; just don’t overuse it
Antoine de Rivarol
HISTORY OF THE LIFE AND WORK OF ANTOINE DE RIVAROL
Only a courageous man is able to call himself a count and add to the change to the French surname noble prefix «de», and then spend his whole life with the advantage of imaginary aristocratic origin.
Just such a man was born June 28, 1753, in the family of an Italian innkeeper named Rivaroli, owner of the inn «Three Pigeons» in Piedmont, a future student of Voltaire, writer and translator, scandalist and monarchist, wit and sharp-tongued, lazy and polemicist, pamphleteer and moralist — Antoine de Rivarol.
A man-encyclopedia, a man of great literary talent and philosophical mind, a master at writing fragments, a ruthless critic of social transformations and an analyst of cultural news, a journalist who wrote under a dozen pseudonyms — this is how contemporaries saw Antoine de Rivarol.
Today, we will see the image of this extraordinary man and unique thinker up close, plunge for a few minutes into the dizzying vortex of his miraculously surviving words, and enjoy the poetic language admired by Pushkin and Vyazemsky, Sainte-Beuve and Junger.
The eldest son of a family of 16 children, Antoine de Rivarol, could not rely on proper material support to obtain an education. Nevertheless, he managed to graduate from the seminary in Avignon. But, as befits a man of the Age of Enlightenment, the majority of general knowledge the young man acquired through self-education and continuous reading. Among his favorite authors are Dante, Pascal, and Augustine. His love for Dante confirmed the Italian origin of the writer, and his knowledge of two languages came in handy when he translated the «Inferno» of the «Divine Comedy.»
Some time, Rivarol served as a priest in Lyon, but in 1776, he decided to devote himself to journalism and moved to Paris. There, he is introduced into the social circle of Voltaire — the central figure of intellectual life in France at that time. Endless conversations on all sorts of topics quickly consolidate Rivarol’s fame as a witty and erudite interlocutor, giving him the opportunity to build the necessary social ties and freely rotate in the aristocratic circles of Paris.
Ernst Junger, in his book about Rivarol, writes: «The newcomer is found cute, charming, adorable, inventive, immensely captivating, dazzling, mesmerizing his charms. Included in the conversation and soon became its center, Rivarol established his fame first in a narrow, then in a wider circle, and finally became that unquestionable arbiter elegantiarum («judge in matters of elegance»), as which he became a legend».
Rivarol’s intellectual wealth more than outweighs his material problems and nobility. Thanks to his ability to conduct a conversation, the writer gets acquainted with Diderot, D’Alembert, and Buffon and begins to cooperate with the magazine «Mercure de France».
His literary works at that time are predominantly publicistic forms: essays, tiny fragments, journalistic notes, reviews and remarks on books by famous contemporaries, notes on occasion, improvisations, and anecdotes. Rivarol’s popularity is so high that publishers go out of their way to order literary news reviews from him, even though they know of his unpunctuality and tendency to disrupt the agreed-upon submission time.
Laziness is a disadvantage that Rivarol had to struggle with throughout his life. Composed by his epitaph, although with a certain degree of self-irony, as accurately as possible, conveys the essence of this problem of the writer: «Laziness took him from us before death.
Despite the tendency to laziness, Rivarol still skillfully uses it (in Nietzsche’s phrase) as an «instrument of indomitable energy», which brings results. In 1783, answering the question posed by the Berlin Academy, «What can explain the universality of the French language?» the writer was not only awarded the main prize but also elected to the Academy. He received a flattering letter from Frederick the Great, and Louis XVI assigned Rivarol a pension.
However, there comes an event that abruptly changed not only the life of Rivarol but the whole of France — the Great French Revolution — and here it is fair to note that, unlike Nicolas de Chamfort, the hero of our story acts as an ardent monarchist, ridiculing the uprising of the masses and the leaders of the Revolution. He writes caustic articles for the «Political and National Newspaper», which publishes literary critic Antoine Sabatier. For his negative assessment of revolutionary ideas, Rivarol received the nickname «Tacitus of the Revolution», and in 1792, he was forced to emigrate from France due to possible repressions.
Staying in emigration (Berlin, London, Amsterdam), Rivarol continues literary activity and even plans to return to Paris, but suddenly falls ill with a cold and, on April 11, 1801, unexpectedly dies.
In the preface to the edition of Rivarol’s book, French writer Paul Le Cour wrote: «Rivarol does not belong to our literary men of the first rank. He aspired to attain it and possessed the proper abilities, but he was prevented from rising to that height by the Revolution, which pushed him back into the field of political struggle. Having died prematurely in exile at the age of forty-seven, he did not have time to fully develop his powers».
But one cannot but agree with the German writer and translator of Rivarol, Ernst Junger, who fairly notes:
«Rivarol’s fame outlived him. Rivarol’s maxims are abbreviations, germ cells of all his work; in them, we find in a concentrated form all that he did in extenso. In them, his pen comes closest to that field in which he was truly strong, the sphere of conversation. They were never published during his lifetime and are the result of later selection. The spiritual character of the author and his preferences are reflected in them as in a rounded polished mirror».
There are enough followers of Rivarol’s style, and in the mid-20th century, foreign authors writing in French were awarded the Rivarol Literary Prize, and among the famous laureates is the Romanian writer Emil Michel Cioran, who received it in 1950. And this is no coincidence, for in the way of philosophizing and the manner of writing, Cioran can well be attributed to followers of the literary style of Antoine de Rivarol. But, as Jorge Luis Borges liked to say, «Great writers create their own predecessors», and his remark is more than fair.
RIVAROL’S MAXIMS ON POLITICS
«Royal power cannot be spilled by accident».
«Despotic states wither from lack of despotism, just as cultured people wither from lack of culture».
«In a state, the arithmetical majority must be clearly distinguished from the political majority».
«Tired of order, the French began to slaughter each other; tired of slaughtering each other, they surrendered to Bonaparte’s yoke, slaughtering them now on the field of abuse».
«Bonaparte has no luck either in hatred or friendship. Revolutionaries and kingslayers will bring trouble upon him if he brings them near him. He has more power than dignity, more brilliance than greatness, more audacity than intelligence, and it would be more correctly to congratulate rather than praise him».
«The allies were always one year late, and the army one idea behind».
RIVAROL’S MAXIMS ON LITERATURE
«Language is outward-looking thinking; thinking is an inner conversation».
«The work of language should proceed unheard».
«In languages, history mints its true commemorative coins».
«Words are like coins, having their own value even before the value of everything else is expressed in them».
«Dictionaries are graveyards of weathered words waiting for a great author to let them rise to full luster».
«Great authors dominate through the power of their language».
«Genius destroys the predecessors whose legacy it utilizes».
«The art of printing is the artillery of ideas».
RIVAROL’S MAXIMS ON LIFE
«Young men in their relations with women are shameful rich men and old men are shameless beggars».
«Why do parents prefer to marry off their daughter to a fool with rank and name rather than to a clever man? Because the former can share his goods, and the latter cannot: a duke makes his wife a duchess, and a clever man does not make his wife a clever woman».
«Out of intimate acquaintance is born both the greatest tenderness and the strongest hatred».
«Out of ten people discussing us, nine will say bad things, and the one person who says good things is probably going to do it badly».
ANECDOTES FROM RIVAROLE
To an author asked to compose an epigraph for his book, Rivarol said: «Unfortunately for you, I can only offer you an epitaph».
To the man who read him his couplet, he replied, «It’s all right, but there are some lengths».
One day, Rivarol was talking to D’Alembre about Buffon.
D’Alembert said: «Leave me alone with this chatterbox who begins with phrases like ‘The noblest victory ever won by man is the conquest of this proud and swift-footed beast». Why doesn’t he write simply: a horse!
«Yes», replied Rivarol, «here he is competing with Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, who writes thus: ‘From the shores where the Aurora rises to the coasts where the night flames,’ instead of simply saying: from east to west».
— Why did he kill himself? — Rivarol was asked.
And he replied, «To live, you need good reasons, and suicide does not require any good reasons».