Ernest Renan

Works


Life
1823-92; b. Tréguier, Brittany; son of Breton parents, his father dying when he was five; ed. local ecclesiatical college; sent to Paris by his mother to become a priest and attended Saint Sulpice, 1843-45; led by his Hebrew philological studies to question divine revelation and revealed religion and left the seminary; pupil-teacher in private school; endured hardships before grad. agrégé in Ecole Norm. Sup., 1848; travelled widely and marvelled at historical remains; trans. Averroes; wrote “la Poésie des race celtiques” (1854); contributed early essays to numerous journals, Revue des Deux Mondes, and Journal des debats, collected as Etudes d’histoire religieuse (1857), Essais de morale et de critique (1859);
 
his Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse (1882) [var. 1883] autobiographical reminiscence of early years; Averroes et l’Averroisme (1852), doctoral thesis, written in Rome, from 1849; visited Athens, 1852; appointed to MSS Dept of Bibl. nationale, 1851; headed government expedition to Phoenicia and Palesine, 1860-61; Ma Soeur Henriette, published later (1895), on the death of his sister at that time; Professor of Hebrew, College de France, 1861; chair suppressed after the publ. of Vie de Jésus (1863), being the first volume of Les Origines du Christianisme (1863-82) [var. 83], sold 50,000 in six months;
 
sent by Napoleon III to find Phoenician remains in Middle East; experienced vision of the Greek ideal of human beauty, reason, and divinity at the Parthenon, 1865; other volumes were Les Apôtres (1866), La Vie de saint Paul (1869); reinstated in College de France after defeat of France, 1870, later becoming Administrator, 1883; L’Antéchrist (1873), L’Evangiles (1877), L’Eglise chretienne (1879), Marc-Aurele (1881). Histoire du peuple d’Israël, 5 vols. (1887-89); his intellectual framework combined a romantic spiritualism associated with his Celtic origins; a materialism which recognised that the future lay in science;
 

evinced a reluctance to deny a place to the ideal in the universe; issues essays expounding his attitude incl. L’Avenir de la science (1890), Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876); Examen de conscience philosophique (1888); Drames philosophique (1878-86). His correspondence with his sister Henriette from 1842 to 1845, and also with Marcelin Berthelot, 1847-92, of great interest; His Oevres complêtes, ed. H. Psichari [gd-dg.], 10 vols. 1949-1958. OCFL FDA OCIL

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Works
The Poetry of the Celtic Races [1854], and Other Studies, trans. with intro. and notes William G. Hutchison (London: Walter Scott [1896]).

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Criticism
David C. J. Lee, Ernest Renan: In the Shadow of Faith (London: Duckworth 1997), 328pp. [reviewed in TLS 28 March, 1997]; ‘Ernest Renan: The Statue and the Calvary’, in Hubert Butler, ‘Lament for Archaeology’, in Roy Foster, ed., Butler, The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press; Dublin: Lilliput 1990), pp.113-19.

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Commentary

Oscar Wilde: ‘The nineteenth century is a turning point in history simply on acount of the work of two men, Darwin and Renan, the one the critic of the Book of Nature, the other the critic of the books of God.’ (Gilbert, in The Artist as Critic; rep. in The Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Isobel Murray, OUP 1989, 296; quoted in John Wilson Foster, ‘Against Nature? Science and Oscar Wilde’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture, Dublin: IAP 2009, p.38.)

Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972): ‘With Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold the Celt emerges in full glory. Renan’s essay on Celtic poetry is a tender elegy for a once powerful race “now concentrated on the very confines of the world,” who, turned inward by defeat, had solaced themselves “in taking dreams for realities and in pursuing visions.” The essay proved to be unusually popular in the English-speaking world as well as in France, and earned its fraction of an inch in President Eliot’s “Five-Foot Shelf”’ of the Harvard Classics. Renan has been criticized as being a romancer rather than a scholar, and such he admitted himself to be. The Essais de morale et de critique (1859), in which the study appeared, constituted a search for an ideal past. “In a time like ours,” he wrote, “when every personality of distinction has so little room to move around in, dreaming of an ideal past has become a necessary diversion.” In his recent study of the essays, Richard M. Chadbourne has characterized Renan as “an Idealist in the Age of Lead and Tin,” whose pessimism was a creative search for a way of life. / Himself of Breton extraction, Renan found these people blessed with the gracious gifts of imagination, chivalry, and religious feeling. “Nowhere has the eternal illusion clad itself in more seductive hues,” he exclaimed, and in poetry “no race equals this for penetrative notes that go to the very heart.”’ (p.43.)

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Joseph Th. Leerssen, Mere Irish & Fíor Ghael (Amsterdam: John Benjamins 1986) notices Ernest Renan,’Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?’, in Discours et Conférences (Paris 1887), pp.277-310.

Terence Brown, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, gen. ed. Seamus Deane (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2, p.516:‘French scholars Ernest Renan (1823-92) and Marie Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville (1827-1910) had given intellectual weight to the idea of the Celt which had been popularised by Matthew Arnold’s derivative though influential essay of 1867, On the Study of Celtic Literature … [&c.]’.

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2, p.9: ‘Helped by Standish O’Grady and ably seconded by the writings of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold on the Celtic spirit, a heroic vision of Ireland emerged, evoking the legendary past, the contemporary folk-culture and the military revolutionary spirit.’

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Hubert Butler, ‘Lament for Archaeology’, in Roy Foster, ed., Butler, The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press; Dublin: Lilliput 1990), pp.113-19: ‘[Renan] thought that man, through advancing knowledge, would acquire the power to extricate himself from the difficulties in which his too great confidence might plunge him. In one of his lasting writing he foretold how Caliban might turn Prospero out of his kingdom, and wisdom and goodness would have to be cherished in exile and secret. But he thought that it would be better to endure Caliban for a space than to have Prospero restored by the forces of clerical reaction. “Far from being a Renaissance”, he said, “that would be in our circumstances annihilation. Let us keep Caliban”. These words were quoted by Anatole France at the unveiling of the statue [at Tréguier]. I am sorry that he did not quote further, for Renan believe that Ariel, the spirit of religion, would survive all these vicissitudes and adapt himself to changed circumstances.’ Further: ‘What would Renan have thought of Breton separatism? I think, like Matthew Arnold, another philo-Celt, he would have regretted that it was the lowest gifts of the Celtic peoples and not the highest, for which the modern world could find a use. Political revolt would have seemed to him merely the physicial symptoms of a spiritual disequilibrium. There was no place today in the world for those excellences which the Celt had once contributed to European civilisation, their gifts of imagination and of poetry, their defiance of the orthodox in thought and feeling. It would be natural that the Celts should wish to rebel against a civilisation which claimed to be able to dispense with these qualities. I think here too Renan would have proved a prophet of reconciliation. For he himself had found no conflict between his love of France and his loyalty to his native land.’ (End; p.119.)

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Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Locating Irish Folklore: Tradition, Modernity, Identity (Cork UP 2000): ‘Ernest Renan’s essay, “la Poésie des race celtiques” – published in 1854 – was a key influence for the Romanticisation of the Celts and directly, as well as by extension, the Gaels. It expressed notions that later became familiar in the influential writings of W. B. Yeats, Robin Flower and Séamus Ó Duilearga on Irish folklore. Renan wrote of “an ancient race living, until our days and almost under our eyes, its own life in some obscure {25} islands and peninsulas in the West”. This race had been increasingly subject to external influences, but was “still faithful to its own tongue, to its own memories, to its own customs, and to its own genius”. This “little people, now concentrated on the very confines of the world, in the midst of rocks and mountains whence its enemies have been powerless to force it” possesses a literature which in the Middle Ages “changed the current of European civilisation, and imposed its poetical motives on nearly the whole of Christendom”. The Gaels had their “own original manner of feeling and thinking”. Nowhere “has the eternal illusion clad itself in more seductive hues” and “no race equals this for penetrative notes that go to the very heart”. But it is “doomed to disappear, this emerald set in the Western seas”. [Quotes further:] “Arthur will return no more from his isle of faery, and St. Patrick was right when he said to Ossian, ‘The heroes that thou weepest are dead; can they be born again?’ It is high time to note, before they shall have passed away, the divine tones thus expiring on the horizon before the growing tumult of uniform civilisation.” (The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies, London: Walter Scott [1896]), p.2-3.) / The surviving Celts are distinguished by “the purity of their blood and the inviolability of their national character”; “[n]ever has a human family lived more apart from the world, and been purer from all alien admixture”. The Celtic race “has worn itself out in resistance to its time, and in the defence of desperate causes”. Indeed, the Celtic peoples are not “by themselves susceptible to progress”.’ (Renan, ibid., pp.4, 5-6; here pp.25-26.)

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Quotations
Poésie des Races Celtiques
(1897) [trans. edn.]: ‘Every one who travels through the Armorican peninsula experiences a change of the most abrupt description … A cold wind arises full of vague sadness, and carries the soul to other thoughts; the tree tops are bare and twisted … a sea that is almost always sombre girdles the horizon with eternal moaning. The same contrast is manifest in the people, to Norman vulgarity, to a plump and prosperous population … succeeds a timed and reserved race living altogether with itself, heavy in appearance but capable of profound feeling, and of an adorable delicacy in its religious instincts. A like change is apparent, I am told … when one buries oneself in the districts of Ireland where the race has remained pure from all admixture of alien blood. It seems like entering on the subterranean strata of another world, and one experiences in some measure the impression given us by Dante when he leads us from one circle of his Inferno to another. […] If it be permitted us to assign sex to nations as to individuals, we should have to say without hesitance that the Celtic race … is an essentially feminine race. No other has conceived with more delicacy the ideal of woman, or been more fully dominated by it. It is a sort of intoxication, a madness, a vertigo.’ (Renan, Poetry of the Celtic Race and Other Essays, trans. W. G. Hutchinson, London [1896], pp.1-2; quoted in W. J. McCormack, in ‘Varieties of Celticism’, From Burke to Beckett, Cork UP, 1985, p.226.)

Vie de Jesus:Qui sait si le dernier term du progrès, dans les millions de siècles, n’amenera pas la conscience absolue de l’univers, et dans cette conscience le reveil de tou ce qui a veçu? Un sommeil d’un million d’années n’est pas plus long qu’un sommeil d’une heure.’ (p.126; quoted in Bruce Stewart, “Excomologosis”, BS PhD Diss. on James Joyce, TCD 1979.)

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Origin of nations: ‘Nations … are something fairly new in history. Antiquity was unfamiliar with them; Egypt, Chinda and ancient Chaldea were in no way nations. They were flocks led by a Son of the Sun or by a Son of Heaven. Neither in Egypt nor in China were there citizens as such. Classical Antiquity had republics, municipal kingdoms, conferderations of local republics and empires, yet it can hardly be said to have had nations in our understanding of the term.’ (Quoted in Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration, 1990, p.9; cited in Bill Ashcroft, et al., Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge 2000, p.149.)

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Remembering and Forgetting: ‘Or, l’essence d’une nation est que tous les individus aient beacoup de choses en commun et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses [ ] Tout citoyens français doit avoir oublié la Saint-Barthélemy, les massacres du Midi au XIIIe siècle. Il n’y a pas en France dix familles qui puissent fournir la preuve d’une origine franque … [Now, the essence of a nation is that all the individuals who comprise it have many things in common and have also forgotten many things […] All French citizens need to have forgotten St. Barthomew’s Day, the mid-18th c. massacres [of Protestants]. There are not in the whole of France ten families who can show evidence of having French origin …]’ (Oeuvre Complète, I, p.892; quoted in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [rev. edn.] London: Verso  1983, 224pp p.199.)

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The Celtic race (I): ‘This ancient race, living … its own life in some obscure islands and peninsulas in the West … still faithful to its own tongue, to its own memories, to its own genius … is in possession of a literature which, in the Middle Ages, exercised an immense influence, changed the current of European civilisation and imposed its poetical motives on nearly the whole of Christendom’ (p.2). [Renan Contrasts the] imaginative compositions of the Teutons and Celts, defining the former as marked with ‘all the horror of disgusting and blood-embued barbarism, the disinterested taste … for destruction and death’, whereas the latter exhibited ‘not only a profound sense of justice, but also a great capacity for devotion, an exquisite loyalty’ (pp.14-15.) ‘If at times [they] seem[s] to be cheerful a tear is not slow to glisten behind its smile’ (p.7); he invoked categories of sex to underpin his argument, ‘If it be permitted us to assign sex to nations as to individuals we should have to say without hesitance that the Celtic race … is an essentially feminine race’. (All quoted in Cairns & Richards, Writing Ireland, 1988, pp.45-46, with remarks as above. Also: ‘Renan’s Celts were emotional and melancholic […]’.)

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The Celtic race (II): ‘[W]e should have to say without hesitance that the Celtic race …. is an essentially feminine race. No human family, I believe, carried so much mystery into love. No other has conceived with more delicacy the ideal of woman, or been more fully dominated by it. It is a sort of intoxication, a madness, a vertigo.’ (Poetry of the Celtic Races and Other Studies, trans. & ed. William G. Hutchinson, London: Walter Scott, 1896, p.8; quoted in Marjorie Howes, Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class, and Irishness, Cambridge UP 1996, p.22.)

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Celtic Imagination: ‘[C]ompared with the classical imagination, the Celtic imagination is indeed the infinite contrasted with the finite’; ‘the Celtic race has worn itself out in resistance to its time, and in the defence of desperate causes … it does not seem as though in any epoch it had any aptitude for political life’; ‘the hand that arose from the mere, when the sword of Arthur fell therein, that seized it, and brandished it twice, is the hope of the Celtic races. It is thus that little peoples dowered with imagination revenge themselves on their conquerors. Feeling themselves to be strong inwardly and week outwardly, they protest, they exult; and such a strike unloosing their might renders them capable of miracles … Israel in humiliation dreamed of the spiritual conquest of the world, and the dream has come to pass …’ (The Poetry of the Celtic Races, in Mark Story, ed., Poetry and Ireland Since 1800, Routledge 1989, pp.57-59; quoted in Richard Haslam, ‘Oscar Wilde and the Imagination of the Celt’, ‘Oscar Wilde Special’, Irish Studies Review, 11, Summer 1995, p.2-3.)

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La Réforme intellectualle et morale (q.d.): ‘The regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races by the superior races is part of the providential order of things for humanity. With us, the common man is nearly always a déclassé nobleman, his heavy hand is better suited to handling the sword than the menial tool. Rather than work, he chooses to fight, that is, he returns to his first estate. Regere imperio populos, that is our vocation. Pour forth this all-consuming activity onto countries which, like China, are crying aloud for foreign conquest. Turn the adventurers who disturb European society into a ver sacrum, a horde like those of the Franks, the Lombards, or the Normans, and every man will be in his right role. Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese race, who have wonderful manual dexterity and almost no sense of honour; govern them with justice, levying from them, in return for the blessing of such a government, an ample allowance for the conquering race, and they will be satisfied; a race of tillers of the soil, the Negro; treat him with kindness and humanity, and all will be as it should; a race of masters and soldiers, the European race. Reduce this noble race to working in the ergastulum like Negroes and Chinese, and they rebel. In Europe, every rebel is, more or less, a soldier who has missed his calling, a creature made for the heroic life, before whom you are setting a task that is contrary to his race - a poor worker, too good a soldier. But the life at which our workers rebel would make a Chinese or a fellah happy, as they are not military creatures in the least. Let each one do what he is made for, and all will be well.’ (Quoted [with strong disapprobation] in Aimé Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism, NY: Monthly Review Press 1972, pp.9-25; rep. in in Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman, ed., & intro., Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf 1993, pp.172-80; here p. 175.)

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Me [] at the centre: ‘Me, being there at the centre, inhaling the perfume of everything, judging, comparing combining, inducing - in this way I shall arrive at the very system of things.’ (Quoted [or paraphrased] in Edward Said in Orientalism, 1978, p.132; cited in Chris Morash, et al., ‘The Triple Play of Irish History’, Irish Review, Winter-Spring 1997, pp.29-36.)

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References
Mark Storey, Poetry and Ireland since 1800, A Source Book (1988), reprints extract from The Poetry of the Celtic Races (1859), trans. S. Hutchison (1896), a “springboard” for Yeats’s ‘The Celtic Element in Literature’ [no. 10, op. cit., infra].

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 3: remarks that his five vol. History of the people of Israel (1887-83) was based on the premise that ‘national distress raises up prophets, by compelling ardent minds to fall back on the pleasures of imagination, which are the real ones.’ (Ibid. [3rd. edn. London: Chapman & Hall, 1891, p.xii.); further refs at 61, 563, 1348n.]

Belfast Public Library holds The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies [trans.] [n.d.].

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Notes
W. B. Yeats summons Renan extensively at the beginning of his essay on ‘The Celtic Element in Literature’ and draws upon him for the assertion that the Celtic account of the Pilgrimage of Lough Derg provided Europe with the framework for the Divine Comedy (in Ideas of Good and Evil, reprinted in Essays and Introductions, p.185). Further, Yeats quoted him as saying that the Celtic imagination compared with the classical was as ‘the infinite contrasted with the finite.’ ‘The Celtic Element in Literature’, 1897; rep. in Essays and Introductions, p.173).

James Joyce: Stephen Dedalus reads Renan’s Vie de Jésus, in James Joyce’s Stephen Hero [1944].

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Henri Martin: The remark that the Celt shows a disinclination to ‘bow to the despotism of fact’, echoed by Matthew Arnold (1866, p.543) and often ascribed to Renan, was actually Henri Martin’s; see Terence Brown, W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography, Gill & Macmillan 1999, p.63.)

Getting it wrong: ‘Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation’, said Ernest Renan; quoted in Irish Times, Kevin Myers [review] (Sat 3 Oct 1992).

 

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