Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) has this to say about La Rochefoucauld in his essay "Books for the Journey," Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist (London: Chatto & Windus, 1925; rpt. 1948), pp. 63-71 (at 65-67):
Equally well adapted, with poetry, to the traveller's need, are collections of aphorisms or maxims. If they are good—and they must be very good indeed; for there is nothing more dismal than a Great Thought enunciated by an author who has not himself the elements of greatness—maxims make the best of all reading. They take a minute to read and provide matter upon which thought can ruminate for hours. None are to be preferred to La Rochefoucauld's. Myself, I always reserve my upper left-hand waist-coat pocket for a small sexto-decimo reprint of the Maximes. It is a book to which there is no bottom or end. For with every month that one lives, with every accession to one's knowledge, both of oneself and of others, it means something more. For La Rochefoucauld knew almost everything about the human soul, so that practically every discovery one can make oneself, as one advances through life, has been anticipated by him and formulated in the briefest and most elegant phrases. I say advisedly that La Rochefoucauld knew almost everything about the human soul; for it is obvious that he did not know all. He knew everything about the souls of human beings in so far as they are social animals.I don't have access to Huxley's Along the Road. Thanks to Eric Thomson for sending me a transcription of the essay "Books for the Journey."
Of the soul of man in solitude—of man when he is no more interested in the social pleasures and successes which were, to La Rochefoucauld, so all-important—he knows little or nothing. If we desire to know something about the human soul in solitude—in its relations, not to man, but to God—we must go elsewhere: to the Gospels, to the novels of Dostoievsky, for example. But man in his social relationships has never been more accurately described, and his motives never more delicately analysed than by La Rochefoucauld. The aphorisms vary considerably in value; but the best of them—and their number is surprisingly large—are astonishingly profound and pregnant. They resume a vast experience. In a sentence La Rochefoucauld compresses as much material as would serve a novelist for a long story, Conversely, it would not surprise me to learn that many novelists turn to the Maximes for suggestions for plots and characters. It is impossible, for example, to read Proust without being reminded of the Maximes, or the Maximes without being reminded of Proust. 'Le plaisir de l'amour est d'aimer, et l'on est plus heureux par la passion que l'on a que par celle que l'on donne.' 'Il y a des gens si remplis d'eux-mêmes, que, lorsqu'ils sont amoureux, ils trouvent moyen d'être occupés de leur passion sans l'être de la personne qu'ils aiment.' What are all the love stories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu but enormous amplifications of these aphorisms? Proust is La Rochefoucauld magnified ten thousand times.