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Notes on Life and Letters

3. Alphonse Daudet—1898
It is sweet to talk decorously of the dead who are part of our past, our
indisputable possession. One must admit regretfully that to-day is but a
scramble, that to-morrow may never come; it is only the precious yesterday that
cannot be taken away from us. A gift from the dead, great and little, it makes life
supportable, it almost makes one believe in a benevolent scheme of creation.
And some kind of belief is very necessary. But the real knowledge of matters
infinitely more profound than any conceivable scheme of creation is with the
dead alone. That is why our talk about them should be as decorous as their
silence. Their generosity and their discretion deserve nothing less at our hands;
and they, who belong already to the unchangeable, would probably disdain to
claim more than this from a mankind that changes its loves and its hates about
every twenty-five years--at the coming of every new and wiser generation.
One of the most generous of the dead is Daudet, who, with a prodigality
approaching magnificence, gave himself up to us without reserve in his work,
with all his qualities and all his faults. Neither his qualities nor his faults were
great, though they were by no means imperceptible. It is only his generosity that
is out of the common. What strikes one most in his work is the disinterestedness
of the toiler. With more talent than many bigger men, he did not preach about
himself, he did not attempt to persuade mankind into a belief of his own
greatness. He never posed as a scientist or as a seer, not even as a prophet;
and he neglected his interests to the point of never propounding a theory for the
purpose of giving a tremendous significance to his art, alone of all things, in a
world that, by some strange oversight, has not been supplied with an obvious
meaning. Neither did he affect a passive attitude before the spectacle of life, an
attitude which in gods--and in a rare mortal here and there--may appear godlike,
but assumed by some men, causes one, very unwillingly, to think of the
melancholy quietude of an ape. He was not the wearisome expounder of this or
that theory, here to-day and spurned to-morrow. He was not a great artist, he
was not an artist at all, if you like--but he was Alphonse Daudet, a man as naively
clear, honest, and vibrating as the sunshine of his native land; that regrettably
undiscriminating sunshine which matures grapes and pumpkins alike, and
cannot, of course, obtain the commendation of the very select who look at life
from under a parasol.
Naturally, being a man from the South, he had a rather outspoken belief in
himself, but his small distinction, worth many a greater, was in not being in
bondage to some vanishing creed. He was a worker who could not compel the
admiration of the few, but who deserved the affection of the many; and he may
be spoken of with tenderness and regret, for he is not immortal--he is only dead.
During his life the simple man whose business it ought to have been to climb, in
the name of Art, some elevation or other, was content to remain below, on the
plain, amongst his creations, and take an eager part in those disasters,
weaknesses, and joys which are tragic enough in their droll way, but are by no
means so momentous and profound as some writers--probably for the sake of