Address of Victor Hugo to the International Literary Congress

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Brian Fitzgerald and John Gilchrist (eds.)Copyright Perspectives10.1007/978-3-319-15913-3_1

1. Address of Victor Hugo to the International Literary Congress

Benedict Atkinson 

Thomas More Academy of Law, Australian Catholic University, 8-20 Napier Street, North Sydney, NSW, 2060, Australia



Benedict Atkinson

Victor Hugo (1802–1885), one of France’s greatest poets and writers, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables, addressed the International Literary Congress in 1878 to rapturous acclaim. The Congress adopted resolutions including the principle of perpetual copyright, and called on the French Government to host an international conference to establish a convention to regulate use of literary property. The French Government did not respond but the call for a convention was a decisive step towards agreement of the Berne Convention. Hugo believed that literary property ought to extinguish on the author’s death (with publishers entitled to publish the author’s works post mortem subject to paying small royalties to direct heirs). He considered that authors’ rights must not be allowed to restrict the public domain. He thought, however, that the grant of literary property assisted development of the public domain. This speech is only in part directly concerned with the question of literary property. In total, it is a triumphant statement of Hugo’s belief in principles of freedom and emancipation, and his love of France. It is also a tender reflection on the feelings of the outcast and exile. Hugo lived in exile from France between 1852 and 1870.

Translation copyright Mary Atkinson and Ben Atkinson

1.1 Paris

1.1.1 Wednesday 17 June 1878

What makes this year so wonderful, so memorable, is that above the noise and clamour, to our astonishment, brooking no controversy, we hear the voice of civilization. This is a defining year. What should be done is being done. The old order is giving way to the new. Progress takes the place of war. Opposition is crumbling. Threats rumble around us but the friendship of nations makes us smile.

The achievements of 1878 will prove indestructible. They aren’t temporary. We feel purpose in everything. This marvellous year announces, through the Paris Exhibition,1 unity of industry; in the centenary of Voltaire, philosophical unity; and in this Congress gathered today, literary unity. A vast federation of labour in all its forms. An awe-inspiring realization of human brotherhood, founded on the peasant and working man, and governed by thinkers.

Industry looks for what is useful, philosophy for what is true, and literature for the beautiful. This is the triple purpose of all human effort, the useful, the truthful and the beautiful; and the triumph of this sublime effort, gentleman, is civilization among peoples and peace among men.

You have gathered from all points in the civilized world to bear witness to this triumph. Yours are the elevated minds universally admired and respected, the talents everywhere recognised, the generous voices, yours the souls labouring for progress. You struggle for peace. You are men of fame and influence. You are ambassadors for the human spirit in this great city of Paris. We welcome you, authors, orators, poets, philosophers, thinkers, fighters. France salutes you.

Together, we are fellow citizens of a universal city. Together, hand in hand, let us reiterate our unity and allegiance. Together, let us enter the serene and noble realm of the absolute, which is justice, and of the ideal, which is truth. You are not here out of self-interest or necessity. You have come here to benefit others.

What is literature? It is the march of the human spirit. What is civilisation? It is an eternal discovery accompanying every step along the way, hence the term progress. We might say that progress and civilization are identical. People are judged by their literature. An army of two million men lives and dies, the Illiad remains. Xerxes’ army lacks an epic and Xerxes vanishes, yet Greece, so small in size, is made immortal by Aeschylus. Rome is merely a town but through Tacitus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal, Rome becomes the world. If you mention Spain, Cervantes springs to mind. Speak of Italy and we think of Dante, of England, and behold, Shakespeare stands before us. France herself has her moments of genius, where the splendor of Paris is distilled in the sharp wit of a Voltaire.

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