In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence there is a M. Rivière, a minor character, a plain-looking man at that, who was tutor to the nephew of the Archers’ London dinner hosts. Despite M. Rivière’s lowly material and social stature, Leland Archer was impressed by the enthusiastic tutor, “who thought the life of ideas the only one worth living… and to whom good conversation appeared to be the only necessity.”
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Hugh Lane, 1906
In fact, Archer realized he envied how M. Rivière is unburdened by wealth and the tethers of upper crust society.
He had obviously always been desperately poor and anxious… and it was apparent that his literary ambitions had failed. [But] he had lived in a world in which, as he said, no one who loved ideas need hunger mentally… Archer looked with a sort of vicarious envy at this eager impecunious young man who had fared so richly in his poverty.
More than this, Archer was struck by M. Rivière’s independence of mind, and his stoic resolve to protect this at all cost, even by taking on such dull work as the instruction of the delicate children of the wealthy.
“You see, Monsieur, it’s worth everything, isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty, not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence? It was because of that that I abandoned journalism, and took to so much duller work: tutoring and private secretaryship. There is a good deal of drudgery, of course; but one preserves one’s moral freedom, what we call in French one’s quant à soi.”
M. Rivière then reveals his reason for such severe self-denial: the love of good conversations. He staunchly guards his intellectual liberty in order to be able to present his authentic self when speaking an opinion.
“And when one hears good talk one can join in it without compromising any opinions but one’s own; or one can listen, and answer it inwardly. Ah, good conversation–there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing. And so I have never regretted giving up either diplomacy or journalism–two different forms of the same self-abdication.”
It is quite strange to live for a good conversation, but M. Rivière exhibits the same passion as the Romantics who are prepared to starve, even die, for their art, to remain uncompromisingly authentic to themselves.
He fixed his vivid eyes on Archer as he lit another cigarette. “Voyez-vous, Monsieur, to be able to look life in the face: that’s worth living in a garret for, isn’t it? But, after all, one must earn enough to pay for the garret…”
Is it after all that strange? Isn’t it in the back-and-forth of conversations that we are able to test our ideas, to authenticate, so to speak, our selves? In its give-and-take of affirmations and refutations, aren’t we rescued from the illusions of our solipsism, and “be able to look life in the face?”
M. Rivière’s unconstrained pursuit of a passion is what Leland Archer was unable to do, as he succumbed to the constricting conformity of New York society. That’s why he felt a “vicarious envy” of this poor French tutor, who renounced everything to preserve foremost his quant à soi that he might live for good conversations.