[Henri Frédéric Amiel]

The New York Times Saturday Review of Books

July 31, 1909, p. 469

The New York Times Saturday Review of Books:

IN answering a correspondent in last week’s issue of The Review you say that some admirers of Henri Frédéric Amiel have called him the “Thoreau of Switzerland.” No more absurd comparison, in my opinion, is conceivable than one between Amiel and Thoreau. The latter was rightly optimistic, at bottom a dogmatist, a man to whom—like Emerson—evil scarcely existed. Amiel, on the other hand, was the saddest skeptic the European world has known. He bit the apple that fell to him from the Tree of Knowledge, Good, and Evil, and found a worm at the core. Thoreau ate his apple and knocked off another with a club.

The philosopher of Geneva was the lordliest victim that that great Moloch, the Ideal, ever claimed. His was a regal soul felled by Thought. He had a brain that was as subtle as light, an interior eye that pierced all the veils of Maya, the god of illusion. He lived a solitary god of futile dreams. Thoreau’s life could hardly be called “futile.”

There is no book in the world like the “Journal Intime.” It is the recorded minutiae of a soul in hell. Montaigne, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Maurice de Guérin pale their fires before this feat of introspective surgery. The “Journal Intime” is the confession of a modern Prometheus chained to the granite wall of Necessity, his vitals picked by the vultures of Doubt.

Amiel was a Hindu Yogi, who had once reached Nirvana, but who had again fallen into flesh. He was like a spectator who stood on the bank of the River of Time and watched the hurried flow of all the baubles of earth over the troubled surface. He was petrified by a vision of the Infinite. Half his soul lay mobile in eternity; the other half trailed through the sewers of matter.

He saw all sides of all problems. He knew that an opinion on any subject excluded an opposite opinion. Hegel had said that all opinion was guilt. Amiel wrote a book to prove it. To Amiel to live was a kind of sin. And it was not the sour pessimism of worldly failure that uttered this, but it was wisdom’s last word, the calm conclusion of one of the intellectual giants of the age. And in this was he not at one with the Hindu philosophers, with Sophocles, the author of Ecclesiastes, Aeschylus, Buddha, Lucretius, Plato, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Leopardi, Thomas Hardy? Like Pascal, Amiel suffered all things, groped through all the varying phases of his mind—to find no exit. Pain alone was real to him; all else was illusion. He could no jest with Renan or Anatole France, nor mock like Flaubert, nor hate like Nietzsche. He was too religious—that is, he doubted too much—to find the solaces of these other men. He picked all things to pieces and strewed the wreckage over the literary world, tossing his own heart and brain and bone into the débris. But he wept as he destroyed; he lashed himself anew at each denial. His infidelity was a prayer. His denials were flagellations.

Born in a scientific, a utilitarian era, Amiel saw about him thousands of men setting forth on voyages of discovery. But he knew there was nothing to discover. There are only change, illusion, endless motion. His great, sad soul was a hermit in an alien universe—a hermit tortured by dreams of the Infinite, a hermit who finally committed spiritual hari-kari. 


New York, July 25.


The original letter was untitled.