Memories of Georges Palante

By Louis Guilloux

Source: Louis Guilloux, Souvenirs sur G. Palante. Paris, Calligrammes, 1980;
First published: 1931;
Translated: by Mitch Abidor for;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

The novelist Louis Guilloux was a student and friend of Palante’s. Apart from this “Souvenirs sur G. Palante,” from which the following is excerpted, he left the most vivid portrait we have of the philosopher in his novel “Le Sang Noir.”

Georges Palante killed himself August 5, 1925, with a bullet in his right temple. This tragic rupture with a world in which he knew nothing but suffering seemed to impose silence on us. We knew Palante well enough to understand the meaning of his suicide. But it couldn’t prevent two things outside of his oeuvre from surviving: the meaning of his life and our faithful friendship.

What would have seemed to some people to be an immediate reason to speak was for me at first an obstacle. Whoever knew Palante knows how “secret” friendship was for him. To speak of a friend like him, so strange in certain ways, means risking wounding and betraying him at every moment.

He hated useless noise and lived in a solitude he succeeded in rendering complete. At the time of his death we had been separated for three years.

Finally, how can I speak of him without implicating myself? He played such a role in my life, meeting him was so important an event, and I have borne his mark for so long that I can’t, when I think back to those years during which we were connected, imagine my personality separately from his.

These memories thus have an intimate character. At the same time that they are my memories of Georges Palante, they are my memories of myself, of the young man who I was between the years 1917-1922. And I wonder to what extent they can interest others than myself, aside from Georges Palante’s friends and mine.

* * *

My oldest memory of Georges Palante goes back to my childhood. I was maybe six or eight when one morning I happened to pass by the gate of the high school where he taught philosophy. Palante was walking along the fence, his already heavy body weighing down his too long legs that bent with every step, his tiny head lightly tilted back. Under his arm he was carrying a briefcase and a cane. It must have been about ten o’clock. I can clearly see his image. But I had to wait till I was in my first year of high school before I was to learn that he was a “great philosopher.”

I owed this revelation to Madame X..., whose house I often went to with my sisters. Her husband knew Palante and owned a few of his books, among which I discovered “La Sensibilité Individualiste.”

I soon learned that he was famous. Those I asked about him told me that he was out of place in a city as small and petty as ours. Everyone had a profound respect for his intelligence and his knowledge, and had compassion for his deformity. But behind this praise and compassion I felt at a certain reticence that I later understood: a small town has more than one face.

In my second year of high school I was Palante’s student. A class in morality was imposed on him for our grade. This class caused him much suffering. He was defenseless against the permanent cruelty of the children, who found much pleasure in his too long hands and feet. A thousand supplementary worries were caused by these “fowl,” as he called them. But he never did anything to have the class canceled, whose uselessness he was not the only one to feel.

Around this time I met him one afternoon at the home of Madame X... But our real relationship only started a year and a half later, at the end of the 1916-17 school year, in May or June. It was born one evening when he found me in a class reading the last volume of “Jean Christophe.” He had just discovered this book but didn’t yet know “La Fin du Voyage” which I had in my hands, and he was impatient to read this book. I loaned it to him.

My reading of the time centered around Romain Rolland’s “Jean-Christophe,” Jules Vallès’ “Jacques Vingtras,” and “Combat pour l’Individu” by Georges Palante. In these three dissimilar works I found the echo I needed for my adolescent impatience and revolt. When we met in the courtyard of the high school I had already been living for some time in communion with Georges Palante.

I loved him for the passionate honesty of his spirit, for his pained sensibility, for all I sensed in him of the trembling and the heroic. I dreamt of becoming his friend, and for the moment it sufficed to dream of it. He soon returned to me the book I’d loaned him, and from that day forward we would exchange a few words when we met in the high school courtyard.

He demonstrated an excessive politeness that I took for formalism. I thought that he acted based on a system, and I suffered thinking that he confused me with those we suffered from[1] and who we despised in common. But when I got to know him better I learned that that politeness was not what I thought; that far from being a method of defense, an a priori mark of hostility or a determination to reduce relations to their correct social measure, on the contrary it came from a mass of complicated sentiments and that it should be attributed to a natural generosity, to timidity, to a delicacy and a shame that were so sharp that they almost resembled a sickness.

Except when angry (his anger excited compassion: it resembled the anger of a child and he suffered even more for knowing that he was weak. His sick imagination pushed him, in a great effort to be wicked, to speak the most wounding words, losing possession of himself. But the excessiveness of his insults, even in his anger, bore witness to his astonishing goodness.) I don’t think Palante ever willfully offended anyone. On the contrary, he treated everyone with the greatest respect; he gave everyone the most credit possible. I often was astonished by his patience.

I steeled my nerve enough to ask for one of his books, which seemed to irritate him. He answered me evasively and let me understand that he attached no importance to his writings.

A few days later, finding myself in his house for the first time, and speaking of his books, I noticed that he didn’t have a single one of them.

* * *

He lived with his wife outside town, in Croix-Perron, a tiny worker’s house. Behind the house a garden looked down on the valley. The heights of Brézillet were just a couple of steps away, and he often crossed them when he went hunting. He enjoyed there the solitude that he always sought.

When I saw how he lived I thought that I had been able to guess certain sides of him that he liked to keep secret. I felt that there was a secret tie between the way his office was set up, the way the kitchen was laid out, and this or that phrase he has said to me the day before, and if I had been able to grasp it it would reveal to me the total rhythm of his being. His revelation could just as well have come to me from a word or a gesture as from sight of a crate of books abandoned in his corridor for months, and which you had no choice but to bump into when you entered his office.

What was striking when you entered his office was the appearance of disorder. The grayish tint of a sad light mixed together all the objects. The lone window, with its white curtains, was only opened on sunny days, which are quite rare in Brittany. The long table, above which hung a lamp with its green globe, was nothing but a mass of papers. It alone occupied half the room, and left between it and the fireplace a passage so narrow that Palante appeared to have difficulties in reaching his chair. On the walls were nothing but books, unbound, piled up in no order on shelves made of unfinished planks. Near the door with its half window that led to the kitchen, and which he always left open so that the heat of the stove could reach him, there were even more books piled up in two crates of white wood that he had purchased from the grocer.

He told me how he had once lived when he was a bachelor in Gouédic. A bare room, furnished with a table of white wood, a bed and shelving that he had made himself; all of this was more than he needed: “I was happy there,” he said. “It was the period when I was a gambler and I blew my salary in one night playing poker. But the next day I’d go walking in the valley and I would forget everything.”

This love of poverty was one of the forms – perhaps even obscure to himself – of his love of independence. But I imagine that if it wasn’t completely innocent that he had named his dog Tartuffe, this love of poverty could very well have hidden some ulterior motives.

He received no one. He never paid visits except in those cases when he was forced to by his functions, and these chores horrified him. His frankness, his love of independence and honesty found nothing more repugnant than these humiliating comedies which functionaries are such masters of. He didn’t know how to lie. This inferiority caused him many problems. He intended to live according to his own lights, but “more than genius, an original soul causes scandal” (Suares, Trois Hommes). “What difference does it make,” he’d say. But deep down he suffered. This strange man had amazing confidence in men, a naïve faith. And so, more than others, he was wounded, and in more cruel a fashion.

1. At eighteen everything is excess or it is nothing.