It is a duty incumbent upon upright and credible men of all ranks, who have performed anything noble or praiseworthy, to truthfully record, in their own writing, the principal events of their lives.
“The man who is thoroughly interested in himself is interesting to other people,” Wendell Phillips once said.
Good healthy egotism in literature is the red corpuscle that makes the thing live. Cupid naked and unashamed is always beautiful; we turn away only when some very proper person perceives he is naked and attempts to better the situation by supplying him a coat of mud. The Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff, wherein are many morbid musings and information as to the development of her mind and anatomy, is intensely interesting; Amiel’s Journal holds us with a tireless grasp; the Confessions of Saint Augustine can never die; Jean Jacques Rousseau’s book was the favorite of such a trinity of opposites as Emerson, George Eliot and Walt Whitman; Pepys’ Diary is so dull it is entertaining; and the Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini have made a mediocre man immortal.
Cellini had an intense personality; he was skilful as a workman; he told the truth as he saw it, and if he ever prevaricated it was simply by failing to mention certain things that he considered were no credit to anybody. But his friendships were shallow; those he respected most, say Michelangelo and Raphael, treated him as Prince Henry finally did Falstaff, never allowing him to come within half a mile of their person on penalty. He was intimate with so many women that he apologized for not remembering them; he had no interest in his children, and most of his plans and purposes were of a pattypan order. Yet he wrote two valuable treatises: one on the art of the goldsmith and the other on the casting of bronze; there is also an essay on architecture that contains some good ideas; and courtier that he was, of course wrote some poetry, which is not so bad as it might be. But the book upon which his reputation rests is the “Memoirs,” and a great book it is. All these things seem to show that a man can be a great author and yet have a small soul. Haven’t we overrated this precious gift of authorship just a trifle?
Taine said that educated Englishmen all write alike–they are all equally stupid. And John Addington Symonds, an educated Englishman, and the best translator of Cellini, wrote, “Happily Cellini was unspoiled by literary training.” Goethe translated Cellini’s book into German and paid the doughty Italian the compliment of saying that he did the task out of pure enjoyment, and incidentally to improve his literary style.
Cellini is not exactly like us, and when we read his book we all give thanks that we are not like him, but every trait that he had large, we have in little. Cellini was sincere; he never doubted his own infallibility, but he points out untiringly the fallibilities in various popes and everybody else. When Cellini goes out and kills a man before breakfast, he absolves himself by showing that the man richly deserved his fate. The braggart and bully are really cowards at the last. A man who is wholly brave would not think to brag of it. He would be as brave in his calm moments as in moments of frenzy–take old John Brown, for instance. But when Cellini had a job on hand he first worked himself into a torrent of righteous wrath. He poses as the injured one, the victim of double, deep-dyed conspiracies, and so he goes through life afraid of every one, and is one of whom all men are afraid.
Every artist has occasional attacks of Artistic Jealousy, and happy is the man who contents himself with the varioloid variety. Cellini had three kinds: acute, virulent and chronic.