Prière sur l’Acropole, by Ernest Renan, is a well-carved jewel. The profession of faith—part prayer, part manifesto—is no longer very familiar to us as a form, but I think that it still made a great deal of sense when this was published in 1876. Some of W.E.B. du Bois’s texts, actually, sound quite similar. Probably this is not coincidental. The text is available from gallica, in a remarkable 1899 illustrated edition which deserves a commentary of its own as an art object and a commentary on its time—I wish I could hold a copy in my hands, the images don’t come out well online.
It seems to me that I have read a great deal recently about paradoxes, or constitutive ambiguities, inscribed at the center of republican ideology. Renan, agonized and weary, but still deeply engaged, is clearly articulating, and even self-consciously claiming, several irreconcilable positions here.
Let me try to summarize. There are three long paragraphs of introduction, or preface, in which Renan says that he was never much given to thinking about his own past. At first, “L’impérieux devoir qui m’obligea, durant les années de ma jeunesse, à résoudre pour mon compte, non avec le laisser aller du spéculatif, mais avec la fièvre de celui qui lutte pour la vie, les plus hauts problèmes de la philosophie et de la religion, ne me laissait pas un quart d’heure pour regarder en arrière.” And then, “jeté ensuite dans le courant de mon siècle, que j’ignorais totalement...” he became deeply engaged with scholarship, committed, as it were, especially in his trips to the Levant, to the historical recreation of the biblical past. Then, in 1865 (as a point of reference, a few years after the publication of his enormously popular Vie de Jésus), he comes to
He finds that
Interestingly, Renan described this perfect world in terms of a perfect public—already, always, again, this is classical republicanism—“un public tout entier composé de connaisseurs, une démocratie qui a saisi des nuances d’art tellement fines que nos raffinés les aperçoivent à peine.” This is the very picture of republican fantasy.
The final lines of the preface, though, cast all this typical adoration of classicism in a more problematic light. He says, “Les heurs que je passai sur la colline sacrée étaient des heurs de prière. Toute ma vie repassait comme une confession générale devant mes yeux. Mais ce qu’il y avait de plus singulier, c’est qu’en confessant mes péchés, j’en venais à les aimer ; mes résolutions de devenir classique finissaient par me précipiter plus que jamais au pôle opposé.” That is, the very greatness of the classical pushes him back to what he has known, and to the greatness of his roots—indeed, of
Henriette Psichari, whose CNRS-published monograph from the 1950s is an excellent and ‘genetic’ treatment of the Prière, argues that it was finished, at the very least heavily edited, after the 1870 war. Renan notoriously wrote things and left them in his desk publishing them years later (indeed, with L’Avenir de science, nearly 50 years later).
Psichari has some very useful commentary on the text, not all of which I have read. For instance, she points out that the “laid petit Juif, parlant le grec des Syriens” is
I’m interested in the historical relativism Renan deploys here. It manifests throughout the text. The goddess of reason can never understand, Renan writes to her, the magic that barbarians have made with their cantiques, their hymns.
Along the way, as part of a series of supplications, we get the essential republican goal: “Démocratie, toi dont le dogme fondamental est que tout bien vient du peuple, et que, partout où il n’y a pas de peuple pour nourrir et inspirer le génie, il n’y a rien, apprends-nous à extraire le diamant des foules impures.” It is a matter of faith that everything good comes from the people, and a matter of fact that they are impure. A god of some sort must intervene and extract the diamond from the impure foules—a loaded word at this time, I should think. This is a crucial republican ‘moment,’ to follow Nord and more recently Spitz’s way of talking. I wonder how far one would need to go to find similar knots of democracy, religious morality, mysticism, and sociology? Probably not far.
I’d like to quote the last several paragraphs of the thing in full, but I will refrain. Suffice it to say that Renan expresses the impossibility of escaping a relativism that borders on fin-de-siècle decadence. The terms in which he does this would bear scrutiny, I think, but here is the conclusion: “Une littérature qui, comme la tienne, serait saine en tout point n’exciterait plus maintenant que l’ennui.”
Remarkably, it is the size of the world, its great diversity, which ultimately defeats the classical goddess of reason. He says, “Le monde est plus grand que tu ne crois. Si tu avais vu les neiges du pôle et les mystères du ciel austral, ton front, ô déesse toujours calme, ne serait pas si serein ; ta tête, plus large, embrasserait divers genres de beauté.” Now, one often reads that the philosophes of the previous century were driven into philosophical crisis by the spectacle of human diversity presented to them (through print) by the new world. Michèle Duchet has a wonderfully nuanced account of the modes in which this happened. So I wonder what it means that here, Renan does not mention other people. The northern ice and the southern sky—suitably sublime images?—are his reference points here. Why? It may seem a leap, but I wonder if this is 19th century racism rearing its head. When we’re talking about universal beauty, it isn’t even worth discussing non-Europeans.
I’ve written too much here already, but this is a wonderfully dense text. I will leave the final lines, much in need of interpretation, largely to speak for themselves. I will point only to the remarkable indecision and uncertainty that they reveal. The next step, which I may take, will be to do some reception work, at least of a preliminary sort, and see how wide my reading is from that of the 1870s.
“Un immense fleuve d’oubli nous entraîne dans un gouffre sans nom. O AMIBE, tu es le Dieu unique. Les larmes de tous les peuples sont de vraies larmes ; les rêves de tous les sages renferment une part de vérité. Tout n’est ici-bas que symbole et que songe. Les dieux passent comme les hommes, et il ne serait pas bon qu’ils fussent éternels. La foi qu’on a eue ne doit jamais être une chaîne. On est quitte envers elle quand on l’a soigneusement roulée dans le linceul de pourpre où dorment les dieux morts.”