Romain Rolland: The Colour of His Mind




Romain Rolland was incomparable. Ranging up and down the ague and vast territory of ideas he encountered cerebral adventures–the most dangerous of all. The latch was always lifted on the front door of his ivory tower. As personal as Maurice Barres, with out his egoism, as subtle as Anatole France, Rolland saw life steadier and broader than all his contemporaries. He was one who said “vast things simply”. He was profounder than Shaw, and never exhibited a trace of the dilettante as in Gide or Proust. He never missed the consoling function of Religion, the poetry of the poor.


The Rolland art is cerebral comedy par excellence. He played his intellectual instrument to perfection. He was a portraitist doubled by a psychologist. His soul was not a solitary pool, but an unruffled lake–sun-smitten, whose depths have a moving mass of exquisite living things. His pages reverberate with the under hum of humanity. His swans are not “swans of the cesspool”, to quote Landor. There is never an odour of leaking gas in his premises, as Henry James remarked of the D’Annunzio fiction. He had the cosmopolitan soul. There is no slouch in his spiritual gait. He does not always dot the “i’s” of his irony, a subrisive irony. But the spiritual antennae which he puts forth, so tentatively always touch real things, not conjectural. He peeps into the glowing core of emotion, but seldom describes it. His ears were for overtones, not the brassy harmonies of the obvious, of truths, flat and flexible. Better than Turgenev and Huysmans, he rendered surfaces into such impeccable truth with such implacable ferocity. Fustian and thunder form no part of his novels as in Flaubert. His women are women, neither neurasthenic, nor did they out-golf all creation. His handling of love-episodes has not the blaring brass quality of old-fashioned Italian opera. He never twanged the strings of sloppy sentiment–like Zola, Balzac and Gautier, which evoke not music, but mush and moonshine. He was never obscure, never recondite–but he sent a veritable multiplex of ideas along a single wire. As a psychologist he stands midway between Stendhal and Turgenev. He interpreted feeling, and also fact.


He was not all frosty intellect. But he held in horror the facile expression of the sentiments. In the large, generous curve of his temperament there was room for all life, but not for a lean or lush statement of life. The artist in Rolland banished confusion. De Gourmont has told us that, because of the diversity of his aptitudes, man is distinguished from his fellow animals, and the variety in Rolland’s labours is a proof positive of his superiority to such French critics as the mentally constipated Brunetiere, the impressionistic Anatole France, the agile Lamaitre, and the pedantic philistine, Faguet. He wrote of such widely diverging talents as Gandhi, Goethe, and Michrel Angelo–here his swans remained swans and did not degenerate into tame geese.


His best fiction is Jean Christophe. It deals with the adventures of a masculine brain. Ideas are the hero. He could never have said that woman is the desolation of the just; for his woman was often an obsession, yet, captain of his instincts, he saw her justly; he was not subdued by sex. In Summer, Annette and Silvi, and Above the Battle we touch earth, fleshly and spiritually. Rolland dissociated such conventional grouping of ideas as Glory, Justice, Decadence. The shining ribs of disillusion shine through his psychology: a psychology of nuance and finesse. Not to be put in any philosophical pigeon-hole, he was far more removed from the verbal jugglery and metaphysical murmuring of Henri Bergson. The world was his dream; but it was a tangible dream, charged with meaning, order logic. He pictured the future domain of art as a fair and shining landscape, no longer a series of little gardens with high walls. The portraits of certain artists in Musicians of To-day and Musicians of Former Days recite the history of the critic’s acuteness and clairvoyance. He was a string that vibrated and sang in response to music–we get in his essays a distinctly original and very valuable contribution to the world’s tiny musical literature.


Rolland’s prose is like the complicated score of some modern composer, and his art, like music, is a solvent. The sharp savour of character is omnipresent. His very pauses are eloquent. He evokes. His harmonic tissue melts into remoter harmonic perspectives. He composed in every tonality. With few exceptions most modern fiction is thin, papery, artificial, compared with Rolland’s rich-red-blooded genius.


The loss of R. Rolland was passably chronicled. Time rights such critical wrongs. Consider the case of Stendhal, Joyce, Proust. The fiction of R. Rolland is for the future. He was a subtle breath on the waters of creation.


This spiritual cosmopolitan, an ardent patriot, a moral hero–has been viewed askance by the plodding crowd of college professors. But his erudition could not be challenged. And I have only skimmed the surface of his accomplishments. R. Rolland is the Admirable Crichton of French letters.