Encyclopedia of the essay
Alain French, 1868-1951
Alain’s career was closely connected with the educational system in France, since he served as professor of rhetoric at the Lycée Henri IV from 1909 until 1933, and had a profound influence on the thinking of a generation of French intellectuals. In his essays he often adopted a professorial position, providing insights and stimulating thought in a concise, meditative prose style. As with so many French essayists, Alain was a philosopher in the style of Montaigne rather than of Descartes. He did not leave a systematic philosophy, nor a major opus, but a large and disparate collection of personal observations that are both penetrating and amusing. The substance of his thought, however, was profoundly influenced by rigorous Cartesian logic.
Starting in 1906 he began writing daily articles, under the pseudonym Alain (in homage to the 15th-century Norman poet Alain Chartier), for La Dépêche de Rouen (The Rouen dispatch), which he entitled « Propos d’un Normand » (Remarks of a Norman ). These propos had a set length (two small pages of handwritten script) due to journalistic constraints, and focused on a specific issue in an unpretentious style. In the course of the next eight years over 3000 propos appeared, written on a wide variety of topics, including politics, society, and psychology. The first series of propos ended in 1914, but was followed by two other periods (1921-24 and 1927-36). His writings on specific topics were collected and published, from 1908 until the 1930s, and enjoyed great success. Although in later years Alain wrote more fully developed works, it is the propos that remain synonymous with his name.
Alain once considered becoming a novelist, but rejected both the length of the form and the fictionality of its content. Being a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, he favored the short, fleeting images of the storyteller, who is more free to blend diverse materials and examine the paradoxes of actual, everyday events. Alain preferred to give his thought and imagination the liberty to follow their own course, and develop their own associations, without the constraints of traditional generic conventions. In each propos , the progression is usually thematic rather than argumentative, since ideas and images spiral around a central point, providing different, unexpected perspectives on the main issue. Capable of rigorous thought, as seen in many passages of his work, Alain nonetheless presented his ideas as an interruption in the daily routine, a reexamination of common beliefs. Usually each piece ends with a memorable final statement, which may summarize the preceding ideas with a fresh insight or indicate a practical lesson or action to take. In short, his brief prose pieces are each highly crafted artifacts which are both artistically pleasing and pragmatically useful.
In the Propos sur le bonheur (1925, 1928 ; Alain on Happiness), Alain contended in general that passions are the major cause of unhappiness, which affects us physically as well as emotionally. Willpower plays a central role in these propos , as in so many others, but Alain was quick to recognize that while we are not able to control our thoughts or emotions, control of the physical body and movement can modify or alleviate causes of unhappiness. It is not through accident that we are happy or unhappy, and happiness must be cultivated, since it is only through individual efforts that we can attain our own bonheur . The physical and mental faculties cannot be separated. The wise and happy person should strive for a healthy mind and body, which will serve for both reflective thought and judicious action. Happiness is equated with virtue, liberty, and justice, as revealed in the wisdom of the classical writers of antiquity, of whose work Alain was a passionate and happy admirer.
A contemporary of Freud , Alain disagreed with the founder of psychoanalysis on the importance of sexuality in human conduct, as well as with Freud’s views concerning the composition and role of the unconscious in mental activity. The basis for Alain’s disagreement can be found in his belief that the soul, and by extension consciousness and thought, are not states of being, nor entities apart, but functions of an integrated self. For him, there can be no unconscious which exists separately, or which contains material hidden from the self. But rather than attempt to refute what he considered « Freud’s ingenious system » with logical arguments, he chose instead to refuse it, claiming that Freud’s views on psychic activity were vague and ultimately useless.
According to Alain, consciousness, thought, judgment, and reflection are all interconnected, so that critical reasoning and examination are elementary to all conscious states. By opposition, the unconscious, including sleep, is merely an absence of functionality and rationality. Alain applied his theories on states of consciousness in his observations ( Les Arts et les dieux [ 1958 ; The arts and the gods]) on Paul Valéry’s La Jeune Parque (1917 ; The young fate), a poem describing the transitional states of mind. Consciousness is characterized as reflection and light, which allows no partial states, but either is, or is not. Alain also commented on Proust, who « speaks of the unconscious, but doesn’t need to in order to account for human actions and passions » ( Propos de littérature [ 1922 ; Remarks on literature]). As for thought, which reveals consciousness, it is considered to be primarily a critical, negating activity. Alain’s style of writing is aphoristic in nature ; one of his better-known sayings is « Thought is saying no, and it is to itself that thought says no » ( Propos sur la religion [ 1924 ; Remarks on religion]). By these negations consciousness is highly moral in its workings, frequently contrasting an ideal self with the real self. It is the morality of the human will that Alain placed in opposition to Freud’s model of the unconscious.
Alain’s concept of the interconnection between body and mind was primarily Cartesian, with its emphasis on the role of physical, corporeal determinants. He believed that Freud misinterpreted the symptoms and signs of human behavior, and attributed motives incorrectly to an autonomous and murky unconscious. Physiology plays a more important role in behavior than Freud allowed, and this led him to create an unruly unconscious to explain what are often, in fact, physical causes. As for dreams, they are not the messengers of a hidden spirit, but the weakened, distorted perceptions of a drowsy mind. Finally, Alain did not trust the complicated mechanisms of Freud’s concepts, preferring a simpler, more practical, natural explanation of mental phenomena. He saw in psychoanalysis an overly pessimistic view of humankind, which emphasized misery and depravity rather than encouraging nobility of action and the exercise of the will.
With regard to another major influence on modern thought, Marx, the writings of Alain again reveal criticism and reservation. Although he can be considered a socialist, Alain espoused a dialectic which was more specific, emphasizing the individual and each person’s role within the class struggle. He was also much less of a dogmatic absolutist than Marx, and his views of politics and history do not reveal the same systematic approach or the inevitability of social revolution. As for war, whose horrors he witnessed firsthand between 1914 and 1917 and which occupied his later thought, he also disagreed with Marxist ideology. He criticized the Marxists for oversimplifying historical and social causes ; they blamed capitalists and their greed for causing war when in fact the causes were far more complex, and involved in addition a kind of collective madness of a people intent on war. In Mars (1921) the importance of passion, both individual and collective, and its relationship to war, a « crime of passion, » are explored at length. Alain, a determined pacifist, believed that a Marxist state would be just as militaristic as a capitalistic one, since all governing groups have a will to power which tends to be expressed in warfare. Each individual is tempted by the moral perversions of war and violence, which are so often justified by false claims of a transcendent or ultimate justice.
Whatever the content of his writing, Alain often used concrete and innovative images to capture his reader’s attention or make a point. These images are often taken from everyday life : a crying baby, a loaf of bread, or a farmer resting in his field. Besides these arresting, poetic images, he formulated his thought in striking phrases, which comprise a stockpile of maxims . He saw ideas as instruments which allow us to grasp reality and to conduct our life with dignity and morality. The issues he discussed were often quite complex, but stated in a simple prose, without philosophical terms or jargon. Although his writing often opposed prevailing thought, the freshness of his style and the rigor of his thought earned him a great reputation. During the first half of the 20th century, a period marked by global atrocities, his propos indicated a path for humankind’s secular salvation through reflective thought and moral action. ALLEN G. WOOD
Born Émile Auguste Chartier, 3 March 1868 in Mortagne-surHuisne (now Mortagne-au-Perche), Normandy . Studied at lycées in Alençon, 1881-86, and Vanves, 1886-89 ; École Normale Supérieure, Paris , 1889-92, agrégation in philosophy, 1892. Taught at lycées in Pontivy, 1889-93, Lorient, 1893-1900, Rouen, 1900-02, Lycée Condorcet, Paris, 1903-06, Lycée Michelet, Vanves, 1906-09, Lycée Henri IV (where he taught Simone Weil, Henri Massis, and Jean Prévost), Paris, 1909-33, and Collige Sévignê, Paris, 1917-33. Columnist of propos , occasionally, 1903-06, and daily (called « Propos d’un Normand, » 1906-14), from 1906, which he signed « Alain » and which appeared in La Dépêhe de Rouen , 1903-14, Libres Propos, 1921-24 and 1927-36, and L’Émancipation, 1924-27. Served in the French Army, 1914-17. Married Gabrielle Landormy, 1945. Awards : National Grand Prize for Literature, 1951. Died in Le Vésinet, 2 June 1951.
Essays and Related Prose
Les cent un Propos, séries 1-5, 1908-28
Vingt et un Propos d’Alain : Méditations pour les non-combattants, 1915
Quatre-vingt-un Chapitres sur l’esprit et les passions, 1915 ; revised edition, as Éléments de philosophie, 1941
Les Marchands de sommeil, 1919
Système des beaux-arts, 1920
Mars ; ou, La Guerre jugée, 1921 ; as Mars ; or, The Truth About War, translated by Doris Mudie and Elizabeth Hill, 1930
Propos sur l’esthétique, 1923
Propos sur le christianisme, 1924
Propos sur le bonheur, 1925 ; enlarged edition, 1928 ; as Alain on Happiness, translated by Robert D. and Jane E. Cottrell, 1973
Jeanne d’Arc , 1925
Éléments d’une doctrine radicale, 1925
Le Citoyen contre les pouvoirs, 1926
Sentiments, passions, et signes , 1926
Visite au musicien, 1927
Esquisses de l’homme, 1927 ; revised, enlarged edition, 1938
Les Idées et les âges, 1927
Onze Chapitres sur Platon, 1928
Étude sur Descartes, 1928
Vingt Leçons sur les beaux-arts, 1931
Préliminaires à la mythologie, 1932
Propos sur l’éducation, 1932
Propos de littérature, 1933
Les Dieux, 1934 ; as The Gods, translated by Richard Pevear, 1974
Propos de politique, 1934
Propos d’économie, 1935
En lisant Balzac, 1935 ; enlarged edition, as Avec Balzac, 1937
Histoire de rues perishes, 1936
Entretiens chez le sculpteur, 1937
Les Saisons de l’esprit, 1937
Propos sur la religion, 1938
Minerve ; ou, De la sagesse, 1939
Préliminaires à l’esthétique, 1939
Suite à Mars, 2 vols., 1939
Vigiles de l’esprit, 1942
En lisant Dickens, 1945
Humanités, 1946 ; revised, enlarged edition, 1960
Politique , 1952
Propos d’un Normand , 1906-1914, 5 vols., 1952-60
Propos (Pléiade Edition), edited by Maurice Savin, 1956
Les Arts et les dieux, 1958
Propos sur des philosophes, 1961
Other writings : works on literature and writers.
Dewit, Suzanne, « Alain : Essai de bibliographie, » Bibliographia Belgica 62 (1961)
Drevit, A., « Bio-Bibliographie d’Alain, » Association des Amis d’Alain : Annuaire (1966)
Assoun, P. L., and others, Main-Freud : Essai pour mesurer un déplacement anthropologique, Le Vésinet : Institut Alain, 1992
Bénézé, Georges, Généreux Alain, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1962
Bourgeois, B., « Alain, lecteur de Hegel, » Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 2 (April-June 1987) : 238-56
Bourgne, Robert, editor, Main, lecteur des philosophes, Paris : Bordas , 1987
Bulletin de l’Association des Amis d’Alain : Annuaire (1954-)
Gil, Didier, Alain, la République ou le matérialisme, Paris : Klincksieck, 1990
Halda, Bernard, Alain, Paris : Éditions Universitaires, 1965
Maurois, André, Alain , Paris : Domat, 1950
Miquel, Jean, Les « Propos » d’Alain , Paris : La Pensée Moderne, 1967
Mondor, Henri, Alain , Paris : Gallimard, 1953
Pascal, Georges, Pour connaître la pensée d’Alain, Paris : Bordas, 1946
Pascal, Georges, Alain éducateur, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1964
Pascal, Georges, L’Idée de philosophie chez Alain, Paris : Bordas, 1970
Reboul, Olivier, L’Homme et ses passions d’après Alain , Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2 vols., 1968
Sernin, André, Alain : Un Sage dans la cité , 1868-1951, Paris : Laffont, 1985