Minister plenipotentiary of the Republic of San-Salvador
We are going to present a sketch of a bizarre and independent type who, through the adventures of his cosmopolitan life and especially the singularity of his ideas, might have obtained and maintained a great vogue in British society. Among us, his way of life passed unnoticed. That difference in taste between the two nations arises, as we have said elsewhere, from the breakdown of individual originality by the weight of a leveling unity. So we have different sorts. In England, they favor bizarre natures with a gracious and even admiring welcome; in France, public indifference disdainfully turns its back. That is why Bellegarrigue, the present representative of the little republic of San-Salvador at Paris, has not been the object of a single biographical sketch by his fellow citizens. Across the Channel, every writer would have craved the patriotic honor of composing a review of his exceptional organization. Perhaps these encouragements would have made our character like the curious and interesting figure of the Earl of Chesterfield. We could find more than one analogy between the ambassador of Georges II to The Hague and the current consul of San-Salvador. What allows us to compare them, in certain respects, is a great appetite in both for sensation and applause, a perfect courtesy compensating for a great egoism, their common skill sharpening ironic sallies, the reduction of the most extravagant sophisms into philosophical formulas, artificial thought substituted by habit for the natural spirit, the need to legitimate by a specious logic all irrational things, and finally their enmity for tradition and their intolerance towards opponents. What distinguishes these two men is that the role of the British diplomat was lofty and brilliant, while that of our Gascon has so far been humble and obscure. The first was privileged with a colossal fortune, while the second was only endowed with destitution. The first was a Don Juan in the aristocratic world, while the other was only a tamer of coarse virtues. In their respective spheres of gallantry, both manifested an excessive boldness. Chesterfield was always considered the highest expression of outward elegance. Bellegarrigue showed great audacity in his costumes. During his stay in Paris, he came from the Rue Royale, St.-Honoré, to the Latin Quarter to visit me in footed trousers and a dressing gown. I will not try today to justify the parallel of which I have just given a rough sketch. I will content myself with writing, as my memory dictates, what it wants to furnish me about the humorist of the Gers.
The little village of Monfort, already known for having been the birthplace of the father of the two Chéniers, also saw the birth of Bellegarrigue. His birth can be traced back to about 1810. I measure his age without the help of the civil state, according to a simple physiognomic deduction. When he had completed his classical studies, he opted for the thankless career of letters and began his apprenticeship by some sessions of [poetic] improvisation. Eclipsed by [Eugene] Pradel, he gave up poetry and opened a prose workshop which took the name of Mosaïque du Midi. That review was compromised by its lack of historical scruples, by its irreverence with regard to authenticity. The speculation collapsing, Bellegarrigue sold his publication to Paya, Toulousain editor, for a sum of around three thousand francs. The new proprietor did not show great diligence paying off the old; he always gave him a thousand reasons and never the thousand crowns. The seller, to avenge himself for the tergiversations of his debtor, published in l’Epingle, a little satirical journal that he had also created, an article under the title: Paya ne paya pas (“Paya Did Not Pay”).
His little charivaric paper having been hounded and suppressed, our subject emigrated voluntarily to North America, where he held several jobs in turn, among them, journalist and merchant of mules. But weary of wandering from market to market and from hope to hope, he resolved to try the ecclesiastical profession, which gave him some guarantee of stability. He entered the Jesuit monastery founded in the vicinity of New York by P. Boulanger, the old antagonist of Mr. Thiers. In this confined existence, as much as in liberty, he found the dregs at the bottom of the cup and the ashes mixed with the bread. He heard the voice of the passions speak even more terribly to him in the silence of his cell.
One morning, having listened to that wicked internal advisor, he escaped out the door and went to meet a lovely Irish woman, whom he brought with him to pick wild flowers in the thickets of the isle of Manhattan. Returning to France, a little while before the February Revolution, he sought the votes of the citizens of the Gers, who were indifferent to his appeal. Some time later, he founded, in Toulouse, in partnership with Barrousse, former commission of the provisional government in our department, the journal La Civilisation, where he developed the ideas of self government and negation of authority. A rupture with his partner made him return to Paris. A literary and political corporation, formed to publish inexpensive popular works, received him among its members. The only brochure signed with his name that saw the light of day was Jean Mouton et le Percepteur. This group of writers was not long in being dissolved by the postal laws. Bellegarrigue published the program of a collection which died of starvation at the end of two issues. The first number began with this scarcely spiritualist phrase and sentiment: I have trained my enthusiasm to only leap in the space of a number or in the exergue of an écu. Our compatriot juggled with paradox in matchless fashion. It was he who defined the mind: The electricity that comes from a good digestion. We have reached 1850.
At that time, Etex called and commissioned him to write his biography, promising him a suitable compensation. A manuscript volume of the notice was conveyed to the one who was its object and subject. The sculptor was satisfied; but the writer was not satisfied as to the wage. I was charged by Bellegarrigue to carry his ultimatum to the member of the Institute. There was nothing heroic, the content of the note was roughly this: To Monsieur Etex, of the Academy. I am astonished but not surprised by your practice, the vulgar artists can never present themselves nobly; so you need not fear that I will demand of you the impossible.
I was unaware of the contents of the message; and attributing to it a chivalrous character, I did not hesitate to deliver it. I have always regretted having known too late the terms of the note, for certainly I would not have consented to be its bearer. I entered the workshop of the author of the bas-relief of the Arc de Triomphe with the reverent fear of a novice who sets foot for the first time in the sanctuary. My imagination, idealizing in advance the famous sculptor, had lent him a distinctive physiognomy, radiant with glints of genius. My optimism was profoundly sobered in seeing a fellow with a face marked by small pox and a brow covered by a grecque bourgeoise from which swung a tassel. He told me some of the obstacles which had halted his good will towards his biographer. His failure to keep his word was motivated by some genuine reasons:—accommodations at the Palais Mazarin taken from him; the government was not very anxious to give work to a man accused of having more enthusiasm for revolutionary ugliness than plastic beauty.—That confidence wounded me: I left with feelings very different those preceding my entry, for my admiration had been succeeded by compassion.
Mr. Amédée Jacques, fallen from his professorial chair and silenced, had just founded a bi-monthly review: La Liberté de penser. That independent organ welcomed Bellegarrigue’s Femmes d’Amérique. Our writer, in that study, bringing to light feminine education and the domestic role of the wife and mother in the United States. That article was sanctioned by public favor, and later converted into a volume. The idea was powerful and full of potential, but the form, harsh and angular, like a cluster of crystals, especially inspired indigestion in the readers rendered dull by the sweets of the literary confectioners. That category of minds, more straight-laced than epicurean, did not prevent the success of the book. The author, emboldened by the kindness of serious critics, submitted another work to the Révue des Deux-Mondes. In the first part, the Mississipi River, allegorized in the ancient manner, was nonchalantly leaning on his elbow and half-extended on a mat of aquatic plants. The great humanized river proudly displayed its virile nudity and titanic musculature beneath the rays of the sun and the watchful eyes of the riverain nymphs. Mr. Buloz restored the manuscript to the descriptor, charging him with immorality. Having no success in that genre, the Gascon man of letters attempted the exploitation of another; he became a collaborator in the Palais de Cristal, a collection similar to the l’Illustration, and especially intended to showcase the industrial and artistic products which abounded at the British exposition. Although prior examination was necessary to undertake such an analysis, the critic was never allowed to make the Channel crossing. When someone ironically praised his intuitive qualities and his telescopic powers, he replied that he was too wrapped up in Paris with the account of the English exhibition to have the time to go all the way to London.
His realism was unbridled; he declared that all the noble faculties should be the vassals of the stomach, that the development of well-being was the only concern allowed to humanity. He also completely denied politics, which he considered as unhealthy from the social point of view. According to him, activity alone, spurred by interest, could redeem men. He refused, on the grounds of dignity, every governmental protectorate; let each, he said, work their individual redemption, and the redemption of all will be accomplished. As a consequence of these principles, he anathematized the struggle of parties, and accused them of sucking the strength and vitality from the nation, of being detrimental to both collective and private fortunes. Once, while he preached this doctrine, he was questioned by a clubist who declared his maxims strange and incomprehensible. I will be more comprehensible and more demonstrative, Bellegarrigue went on solemnly, I reject politics because it has no influence on the growth of artichokes, or on the flowering of lentils.
In the manner of Plato, he expelled the poets from the republic, without even giving them, like the Greek philosopher, a crown of flowers. He had, besides, a sort of rabid reaction to books he considered parasites invading his individual ideas. He claimed that a man must pull everything from himself, like a spider that spins its webs in its head. According to him, reading dulls and bastardizes the potential. One never saw even a booklet on his work-table After the publication of my Tropicales, I sent him a copy. He responded: My dear Noulens, your volume must be perfect. However, I have not assured myself of it. You know I can not bring myself to arm myself with a wooden knife to cut the leaves of any work, I am always afraid of violating other people’s property. A mind so utilitarian must one day necessarily find its place in the materialist societies of North America.
That robust and fertile intelligence, capable of large conceptions, as a result of some unknown fatality, produced, in all, only some stillborn productions in the literary order. Then, passing from the theory of positivism to the practice, he put down his pen without and took up the caduceus. He bought some parcels of land around Paris, which he parceled out and then sold; he combined this industry with a monopoly on billposting in the Salle Musard. He had divided the walls into little squares which as frames for advertisements glorifying certain trades in the capital. When he had supplied himself with a little pile, he made a second transatlantic voyage, and went to offer the assistance of his experience to the little republic of San Salvador, which, appreciating his merits, has quite recently sent him to Paris with the title of minister plenipotentiary. Our compatriot is today the representative of that state, and also the agent of a house on the shores of the Pacific which conducts with Europe a great commerce in pineapples.
Revue d’Aquitaine et du Languedoc, 6 (1862) 40-47.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur. Revised 2/17/12]