Philosophe Alain

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

A Library

When I see the announcement of a Library of General Culture, I hurry to the volumes, thinking to find beautiful texts, valuable translations, all the treasures of poets, politicians, moralists, thinkers. Not at all; it is, rather, well-educated men, and apparently cultivated, who are sharing their culture with me. Now culture is not transmitted or summarised. To be cultivated is, in every field, to go back to the source and drink from the hollow of one’s hand, not from a borrowed cup. It’s always to grasp an idea as its inventor formed it; obscure rather than mediocre; and always preferring the beautiful over the true; it’s always taste that throws a light on judgement. But, better still, prefer the oldest beauty, the most tested, for we shouldn’t torment our judgement, but rather exercise it. Beauty is a sign of the true and the first existence of the true in each of us, so it’s in Moliere, Shakespeare, Balzac that I will recognise the human being and not in some psychological summary. Nor do I want anyone to give me a ten page summary of what Balzac thought about the passions; his genius saw and described a semi-obscure world, which I don’t want to dissect; for this passage from clarity to obscurity is precisely where I enter in; I only have to follow the movement of the poet or novelist; human movement, truthful movement. So always return to the great texts; don’t ask for extracts; they only serve to return us to the work. And I also say, the  work without notes. A note is the attachment of the mediocre to the beautiful. Humanity shakes off these vermin.


Faraday Experiment


The same for the sciences. I don’t want the latest discoveries. That doesn’t cultivate; that’s not ripe for human meditation. General culture rejects exclusives and novelties. I see our amateurs throwing themselves upon the latest idea as upon the most recent symphony. Your compass, my friends, would soon be all over the place. A man of the trade has too many advantages over me. He astonishes me, troubles me and puts me out of joint by the odd noises he incorporates into the modern orchestra, already overloaded, already self-indulgent. Young musicians are rather like up to the minute physicists who throw paradoxes on time and speed at us. For, they say, time is not something unique or absolute; that’s true for certain speeds ; but it’s no longer the case when the speeds in question are of the order of the speed of light. As a result, it’s no longer obvious that when two points meet, the meeting takes place at the same time for the two points. It’s like the cry of a duck in a Scythian symphony; it surprises like a strange sound.

Similarly, the symphonists of physics would like to astonish me; but I block my ears. This is the moment to reread the lectures of Tyndall on heat, or Faraday on electro-magnetic phenomena. That’s been tested; it holds up well. The library I mentioned should put such works in our hands.  And my advice, if you seriously want to understand physics for yourself, is to open up a work of that kind on a large table and carry out the experiments described there, with your own hands. One after the other. Yes, these are old experiments of which it’s said, ‘That’s well known’ – precisely without having carried them out. A thankless task which won’t allow you to shine at some scholarly dinner. But patience. Leave me to carry out my rustic labours and my unfashionable reading for ten years, and the Sorbonne pedants will be far behind.

Libres Propos 18/5/21; Pleiade I

English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

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