3 May 2013

A Coveted and Honourable Distinction

Jules Janin, L'Amour des livres [The Love of Books] (Paris: J. Miard, 1866), pp. 23-25. My liberal translation:
Athens and Rome are, in fact, mankind's two great teachers. They have left imperishable masterpieces which have become the most perfect models for modern art and intellect. For three centuries the spirits of Athens and Rome have reigned supreme over France. Their divine spark has animated the poets, orators, philosophers, and historians of our great age. Today it is only the prigs who, in their barbarous language, insist on heaping insults upon these elect men, men without whom this great nation would not exist, and they wanted to have these classical works placed on the index of forbidden books [1]. The public conscience was appalled, and while the Church itself -- the heads of western and eastern Christendom -- pointed out the merits of these great ancients, the most illiterate of men took the side of those who would profane eloquence. A glorious accomplishment! Still, we acknowledge that, in these evil days, the study and admiration of the classics have fallen off terribly. This is due to the invasion of all kinds of sciences, each of which requires its own special language, as well as to the abominable bifurcation of the French educational system (a shame and a dishonour). And then too there is the influence of foreign languages. We have borrowed all kinds of words and adopted the jargon of travelling salesmen.
But for minds that are noble and naturally refined, for those who honestly aspire to the beautiful, this lack of respect for the ancients must be an irresistible encouragement to the serious study and contemplation of these masterpieces. Before long, if the fatal bifurcation remains in effect (you must forgive me for using this barbarous term; it comes from the University itself, the same one that educated that nasty writer Mr. Fortoul) [2], it will soon be rare to find learned men capable of reading the languages of Homer and Virgil -- and this in the nation of Racine and Voltaire, Molière and Bossuet! Alas, in the degenerate days which are not far off you can be sure that, among the men La Bruyère called "honest people", it will be a coveted and honourable distinction to be able to read the Iliad and Aeneid in the original, as the great minds of old once did.
  1. I'm not sure what Janin is talking about here, although I haven't spent much time trying to find out. Presumably some contemporary group wanted to have certain classical works (Plato? Catullus? Who knows.) placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, but I'm not sure which French group was agitating in the mid 1800s, or which works they wanted banned. Perhaps Janin was only speaking in general terms.
  2. The "bifurcation" refers to the French educational reforms of 1850, which required students to choose between two streams of study; classical (arts) and modern (sciences). I believe Mr. Fortoul authored a report recommending the system.
For a time I toyed with translating L'Amour des livres, but much of it is just a discussion of the specific books and editions that Janin believed every learned person should have. It's all sound advice, I'm sure, but if someone is interested in collecting fine copies of French classics, I imagine he or she would be able (and prefer) to read the book in French.

Englishing Janin is good fun, but there's not much point in translating a book that nobody would want or need. So, I've decided to post some of the more amusing bits over the next few weeks and forget the rest. Anyone who'd like to read the original can download a copy from Gallica.

Some previous excerpts:

Update: Mike Gilleland writes with a link to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for note #1 above, and points out that classical authors sometimes appeared on it, e.g. Lucian in the 1559 index