Pierre Loti

Benjamin De Casseres

IT may be said of Pierre Loti, as of Lafcadio Hearn, that he phantomized a universe. He is the Prospero of Impressionism. His world is the baseless fabric of a vision and his adventures nothing but the insubstantial pageant of his own mind. His books are an aromatic hasheesh. His creations—Aziyadé, Madame Chrysanthème, Ramuncho—file by like wraiths who have a swift passion to be buried.

The difference between Pierre Loti and the modern world is the difference between the Orient and the Occident, a difference fundamental and eternal, and one that can only be settled at the Armageddon of races. The Impressionist is Oriental. The soul of Loti has its roots in India, where life is a mirage invented by Maya, the Evil One. Impressionism cages the world in the brain. Only images and sensations are real. Matter is a myth. Resistance is a legend of touch. The external universe is a superstition of the senses.

Guy de Maupassant invented a being called Horla, a creature of some unimaginable world. It absorbed into itself whatever it touched. In all of Loti’s works there is a Horla. Phantasmagoria and Terror are the protagonists of all his books—and Mystery, that sense of mystery that overcomes one in Gothic glooms and tropic distances.

Read Fantôme d’Orient. There is no book just like it in existence. It is nightmare; it is life; it is the psychology of illusion. Loti seeks the tomb of his sweetheart in Constantinople. That is the theme, as simple as a fairy story, and as true. It is all atmosphere built up of pity, tenderness and the unreal.

Flaubert has been called the “Colossus of Ennui.” Pierre Loti is Ennui itself. Like the Proserpina of Swinburne, Loti has gathered “all things mortal with cold, immortal hands.” An unconquerable nostalgia for the Néant wells from every page he has written. For him to discover the spectre Ennui it is only necessary to rend a shadow—that is, act. He yawns behind each gesture. Pleasure is, to Loti, only the glittering scabbard [370] of Ennui. His thoughts are the sad, ironic dreams of the demon Ennui. All gods and demigods and humans will gray and pass through the twilight of senescence into the Nothing—except one, that reigns from everlasting to everlasting. It is Ennui.

The incurable melancholy of Pierre Loti is the purple mantle that robes his genius. He has fallen in love with the reflection of his own nothingness in the monstrous mirror of Time. The black Cup of Despair from which he has drunk has become his Holy Grail.

But it is as the supreme literary Impressionist of his time that Pierre Loti will be known to the future. He never comes into contact with things. He has never seen the real, only effigies of the real. He has not pursued “subjects,” only the reflection of subjects. He does not possess things, but only the sentiment that things inspire. Images and thoughts being the very pulp of his consciousness, it follows that Loti’s impressionism is Impressionism itself. The universe of sense-contact has passed through the spectrum of his mind and only color and vibration remain.

Loti’s hatred of the practical and his bitter antagonism to the most practical people in the world, the English, is rooted in his metaphysical romanticism. He is the enemy of the Ugly—that is, of the real, the practical. There is a kind of mind that grows more beautiful and more delicate the closer it comes into contact with the ugly and the mean. It is the kind of mind that grows in direct contrast with its physical and economic environment. It becomes stronger through an unkernelled principle of revolt and dissent as it comes into contact with the things that tend to weaken it. In Pierre Loti there has been since his birth a continuous reaction of his personality against the age and the world he lives in. Hence, in his literary life there has been no “evolution.” There is no “early Logi,” no “later Loti.” From his first book The Daughter of Heaven the style and the implied dissent are the same. Loti cannot change. His is the Eternal Vision. Only the beautiful and the transitory have value. All else is a lie.

“Spectators of life” are in reality spectators of their own emotions. Amiel—who was the Loti of philosophy—cried that [371] he was doomed forever to stand motionless on the bank of Time and watch the triremes, the vikings and galleons go by. But Amiel did not see the stream, but millions of shadows which he projected on the stream. It is so with Loti. He has foisted himself upon things. It is Loti’s desert; Loti’s Stamboul; Loti’s Japan; Loti’s Roumania; Loti’s sunset; Loti’s Egypt; Loti’s China; Loti’s Pyrenees. And they are immortal because no other being has ever seen those things in that way before. It is the miracle of isolation; a miracle worked by Théophile Gautier and Lafcadio Hearn and “faked” by the Goncourt brothers.

Pierre Loti is the Spirit of the Exotic. Whatever is foreign is poetic. Whatever is near is ugly. It is a beautiful illusion—those Blessed Isles that we call Abroad. The hunger for Elsewhere has driven Loti all over the world. To be in the place where one is not, if not physically, then mentally, that is the psychic base of the love for the exotic. Add to this the “call of the wild,” the beckoning of a perpetually retreating Unknown, the perfume of impossible paradises that haunts the nostrils, and the love of adventure.

When Loti describes a “bock” that he is sipping he gives us the impression that the “bock” is ten thousand miles away. His passion for the exotic caused him to change his European attire for that of a Moslem and espouse the cause of the Crescent. All of us, some in lesser, some in greater ways, have this passion for the exotic. Some feed the craving with alcohol, others with the blasting dreams of religious mysticism. The pirate of the South Seas and the hermit of the Thebaid, Balzac dressed as a monk, Tolstoy masquerading as a moujik, Loti in Moslem attire—all are moved by the same impulse, love of the novel, the strange, the exotic, the Elsewhere. In Loti and Poe the exotic is a life-principle. In Wilde and the Goncourt brothers it is pure attitude.

The passion of distance is the original sin. Distance, psychological or real, is the mother of desire, and its unattainable horizons the cause of all pessimism. Loti is a distance-drunkard. He invents distances that were never in air or sea or firmament. He is distance-mad. The Hindu seer travelling his up[372]ward Path rises from prospect to prospect with a rapt joy blazoned on his soul, indulging that passion of distance, the frenetic desire to be lost in the Infinite, to be the hub of a million perspectives. It is something of this divine intoxication which has taken possession of Loti of late years. The Infinite has petrified him and he creates like a man in a dream.

Loti is the enemy of the familiar. The average person holds fast to the limited; the boundaries of the territory in which he strolls are as clearly marked for him as the streets of his native place. He ambles through life the smiling prisoner of use and wont, chilled by the unfamiliar, a scarcely manumitted automaton of instinct. He feels well housed, safe in the concrete, in the very real walls of his mental abode, surrounded by his lares and penates, his unchanging God of Sundries back of it all.

To Loti only the spectral is real. He bears about him the air of one sent on a strange, perplexing errand, and his life, as much as his books, has been a Search. Whatever he has touched he has transfigured. He has put the glamour of dream and mystery on the most commonplace objects. Like Blake and Whitman, like every artist of the first rank, he has restored the world to the magic and wonder of the First Morning. Nautch girl or Sphinx, Jerusalem or the sea, catacomb or sunset, desert or hovel—all dissolve and becomes fugacious and inexplicable as they pass through the spectrum of that strange temperament.


Source: The Forum, September 1912, pp. 369-372