In a Woman the Flesh Must Be Like Marble; In a Statue the Marble Must Be Like Flesh

Victor Hugo? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am authoring a book that discusses marble, and I’ve found an apposite quotation ascribed to the French literary titan Victor Hugo author of “Les Misérables” and “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”. He employed antimetabole while comparing marble to human flesh. I have not been able to find solid citations in French or English. Would you be willing to help?

Quote Investigator: When Victor Hugo died in 1885 he left his heirs with a bulky copy-book entitled “Post-Scriptum de Ma Vie” (“A Postscript to My Life”). In 1901 a posthumous book emerged, and one section contained a collection of brief miscellaneous thoughts. Here were four in the original French. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Eh mon Dieu! la beauté est diverse. Selon la nature et selon l’art. Si c’est une femme, que la chair soit du marbre, si c’est une statue, que le marbre soit de la chair.

Les méchants envient et haïssent; c’est leur manière d’admirer.

Le savant sait qu’il ignore.

En poussant l’aiguille du cadran vous ne ferez pas avancer l’heure.

Publication of an English translation occurred in 1907 under the title “Victor Hugo’s Intellectual Autobiography: Being the Last of the Unpublished Works and Embodying the Author’s Ideas on Literature, Philosophy and Religion”. Here were the four thoughts above rendered in English: 2

Dear God! how beauty varies in nature and art. In a woman the flesh must be like marble; in a statue the marble must be like flesh.

The wicked envy and hate; it is their way of admiring.

The learned man knows that he is ignorant.

By putting forward the hands of the clock you shall not advance the hour.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1906 Hugo’s remark about marble was selected to appear in “Chrestomathie Française du XIXe Siècle” (“French Chrestomathy of the 19th Century”) compiled by Henri Sensine. 3

In 1908 “The Writer: A Monthly Magazine to Interest and Help All Literary Workers” reviewed “Victor Hugo’s Intellectual Autobiography” and several of the sayings were reprinted including the following three: 4

“The literate, the erudite, the learned mount by means of ladders; poets and artists are birds.”

“Dear God! how beauty varies in nature and art. In a woman the flesh must be like marble; in a statue the marble must be like flesh.”

“One is never too concise. Concision is the marrow. There is in Tacitus an august obscurity.”

In conclusion, Victor Hugo may be credited with the statement about marble printed in the 1901 citation. He penned the words in a notebook many years earlier.

Image Notes: Photo of the statue Amour and Psyché by Auguste Rodin; photo by Antoine Taveneaux; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Portrait of Victor Hugo published in the serial publication Galerie contemporaine, littéraire, artistique. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Michael Higgins whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1901, Post-Scriptum de Ma Vie by Victor Hugo, Quote Page 30, Calmann Lévy, Paris. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1907, Victor Hugo’s Intellectual Autobiography (Postscriptum de Ma Vie): Being the Last of the Unpublished Works and Embodying the Author’s Ideas on Literature, Philosophy and Religion, Translated by Lorenzo O’Rourke, Chapter: Thoughts, Quote Page 359 and 360, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1906, Chrestomathie Française du XIXe Siècle (Prosateurs) by Henri Sensine, Third Edition, Quote Page 111, Payot & Cie, Lausanne, France. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1908 January, The Writer: A Monthly Magazine to Interest and Help All Literary Workers, Volume 20, Number 1, Book Review of “Victor Hugo’s Intellectual Autobiography”, Start Page 15, Quote Page 14 and 15, The Writer Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link