The Goncourt Journal part II
Monday 22 October 1866
This evening at Magny's, the conversation started at an exalted level with the question of other worlds and hypotheses as to whether or not the planets were inhabited. Like a half-filled balloon, it touched upon infinity. From infinity, it was naturally led to God. Definitions of the Deity rained upon the table. Against us who, with our plastic imagination, could picture God, is He existed at all, only as a person, a figurative creature, a kindly bearded deity in the Michelangelo manner, Taine and Renan ad Berthelot countered with Hegelian definitions, showing him as a vast, vague diffusion whose worlds were just so many globules or crab-lice. And launching out into a respectful description of a living whole, Renan ended up by comparing God, his particular God, with all possible piety and seriousness, to an oyster. At this comparison, an enormous gust of laughter swept the table, in which Renan himself eventually joined.
I don not know whether it was on account of this Homeric laughter or not, but in any case wee went on to talk about Homer. And straight away all these destroyers of faith, all these critics of God burst into the most disgusting song of praise: these partisans of progress proclaimed that there was a time and a country, at the beginning of humanity, when a work as written in which everything was divine, above all discussion and even all examination. They began to swoon with admiration over individual phrases.
'The long-tailed birds!' Taine cried out enthusiastically.
'The unharvestable sea!' exclaimed Sainte-Beuve, raising his little voice. 'A sea where there are no grapes! What could be more beautiful than that?'
'An unharvestable sea doesn't make sense', said Renan. 'But there's a German society which has found another meaning for the words.'
'And what is it?' asked Sainte-Beuve.
'I can't remember', replied Renan. 'But it's wonderful.'