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William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book 3: Art and Science
Chapter 3

Among human things, and inasmuch as it is a human thing, art is a strange exception.

The beauty of everything here below lies in the power of reaching perfection. Everything is endowed with that property. To increase, to augment, to win strength, to march forward, to be worth more to-day than yesterday,-- that is at once glory and life. The beauty of art lies in not being susceptible of improvement.

Let us insist on these essential ideas, already touched on in some of the preceding pages.

A chef-d'œuvre exists once for all. The first poet who arrives, arrives at the summit. You will ascend after him, as high, not higher. Ah, you call yourself Dante! well; but that one calls himself Homer.

Progress, goal constantly displaced, halting-place forever varying, has a shifting horizon. Not so with the ideal.

Now, progress is the motive power of science; the ideal is the generator of art.

Thus is explained why perfection is the characteristic of science, and not of art.

A savant may outlustre a savant; a poet never throws a poet into the shade.

Art progresses after its own fashion. It shifts its ground like science; but its successive creations, containing the immutable, live, while the admirable attempts of science, which are, and can be nothing but combinations of the contigent, obliterate each other.

The relative is in science; the positive is in art. The chef-d'œuvre of to-day will be the chef-d'œuvre of to-morrow. Does Shakespeare interfere in any way with Sophocles? Does Molière take anything away from Plautus? Does Cordelia suppress Antigone? No. Poets do not climb over each other. The one is not the stepping-stone of the other. They rise up alone, without any other lever than themselves. They do not tread their equal under foot. Those who are first in the field respect the old ones. They succeed, they do not replace each other. The beautiful does not drive away the beautiful. Neither wolves nor chefs d'œuvre devour each other.

Saint-Simon says (I quote from memory): "There has been through the whole winter but one cry of admiration for M. de Cambray's book, when suddenly appeared M. de Meaux's book, which devoured it." If Fénélon's book had been Saint-Simon's, the book of Bossuet would not have devoured it.

Shakespeare is not above Dante, Molière is not above Aristophanes, Calderon is not above Euripides, the Divine Comedy is not above Genesis, the Romancero is not above the Odyssey, Sirius is not above Arcturus. Sublimity is equality.

The human mind is the infinite possible. The chefs-dœuvre, immense worlds, are hatched within it unceasingly, and last forever. No pushing one against the other; no recoil. The occlusions, when there are any, are but apparent, and quickly cease. The expanse of the boundless admits all creations.

Art, taken as art, and in itself, goes neither forward nor backward. The transformations of poetry are but the undulations of the Beautiful, useful to human movement. Human movement,-- another side of the question that we certainly do not overlook, and that we shall attentively examine farther on. Art is not susceptible of intrinsic progress. From Phidias to Rembrandt there is onward movement, but not progress. The frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are absolutely nothing to the metopes of the Parthenon. Retrace your steps as much as you like, from the palace of Versailles to the castle of Heidelberg, from the castle of Heidelberg to Notre Dame de Paris, from Notre Dame de Paris to the Alhambra, from the Alhambra to St. Sophia, from St. Sophia to the Coliseum, from the Coliseum to the Propylæons, from the Propylæons to the Pyramids; you may recede into ages, you do not reced in art. The Pyramids and the Iliad stand on teh fore plan.

Masterpieces have a level, the same for all,-- the absolute.

Once the absolute reached, all is said. That cannot be excelled. The eye can not bear but a certain quantity of dazzling light.

Thence comes the assurance of poets. They lean on posterity with a lofty confidence. "Exegi Monumentum," says Horace. And on that occasion he insults bronze. "Plaudite, cives," says Plautus. Corneille, at sixty-five years, wins the love (a tradition in the Escoubleau family) of the very young Marquise de Contades by promising her to send her name down to posterity:--

"Chez cette race nouvelle,
Où j'aurai quelque crédit,
Vous ne passerez pour belle
Qu'autant que je l'aural dit."

In the poet and the artist there is the infinite. It is this ingredient, the infinite, which gives to this kind of genius the irreducible grandeur.

This amount of the infinite in art is not inherent to progress. It may have, and it certainly has, duties to fulfil toward progress, but it is not dependent on it. It is dependent on no perfections which may result from the future, on no transformation of language, on no death or birth of idioms. It has within itself the immeasurable and the innumerable; it cannot be subdued by any occurrence; it is as pure, as complete, as sidereal, as divine in the heart of barbarism as in the heart of civilization. it is the Beautiful, diverse according to the men of genius, but always equal to itself. Supreme.

Such is the law, scarcely known, of Art.

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