Honoré De Balzac
No adequate biography of Honoré de Balzac has yet been written ; a fact somewhat strange, considering the interest and attractiveness of the subject and the abundance of the material available. Of sketches and collections of anecdotes concerning him there are plenty, but for the most part they are trivial. The world has been informed so fully upon his peculiarities, his personal habits, his extravagances, that it may easily have exaggerated the importance of all these details, and have come to judge the character and mind of the writer by them. When Balzac is mentioned, probably most people remember him as the author who drank inordinate quantities of black coffee ; who worked with extraordinary persistence and energy ; who wore a white monk’s frock when at his desk; who was regarded by his literary friends as a kind of Pantagruelian oddity, full of visionary ideas, given to romantic inventions, such as the establishment of the order of the Cheval Rouge ; who alternated long periods of rigid seclusion and furious composition with brief outbursts of Tourangian jollity and festivity ; who was a large-hearted, coarse, vigorous boon companion among his fellows ; and who wrote the Comédie Humaine, a work concerning which the general ideas are probably somewhat vague.
Viewed in the light of his correspondence and his books, however, the life of Balzac takes on a very different aspect. It appears tragical, in fact. Nothing in his childhood or youth suggested the power he was to display in his maturity. At college, indeed, he developed a strong memory and an omnivorous taste in reading. But the receptivity of his mind seemed at this period greater than its power of assimilation. The flood of new ideas pouring in upon his brain stupefied him. A lethargic condition resulted, which alarmed his teachers and friends, and he was taken home. Yet there is evidence that even at college his genius had begun to manifest itself, for it was there that he meditated and composed the Theory of the Will, which (as related in Louis Lambert many years later) a stupid teacher confiscated, and the loss of which he often regretted subsequently. Now it is to be remarked that in this Theory of the Will Balzac spoke, however unconsciously, with the kind of authority belonging to the possession, in an unusual degree, of the property analyzed. The power of the human will has seldom been more strikingly displayed than in his own career; and if the prodigal exercise of an abnormal power of volition did not in his case result in success until the capacity to enjoy the fruition of his hopes and ambitions had been exhausted, it was because he contended against difficulties which would have crushed a weaker man at the outset.
He was a mere boy when the yearning for literary fame came upon him. His parents desired him to be a notary, and he passed three years in a law office, acquiring there a mass of knowledge which he turned to good account afterwards. But the life was insupportable, and at length he was humored by his family, who allowed him two years to make the experiment in Paris, but, not to encourage him in what they thought a foolish whim, put him upon so short an allowance that no student in the Latin Quarter ever lived the life of the garret more thoroughly. There he encountered his first check. He found that he could not write anything but trash. Confident from the first in his genius, its expression was slow, laborious, and painful. His experience resembled that of no other great writer. For years he produced novels which contain scarcely an indication of his powers. He knew his work was bad, but at all events these poor stories had a certain commercial value as " pot-boilers,” and his necessities were then, as always, urgent. He wrote forty novels before he caught and held his public. This fact shows the part his tremendous will power played in his career. Such a man could not be discouraged. He knew the capacities that were in him, and he would work until they obtained the mastery over their stubborn and intractable vehicle. But he was impatient. He was convinced that if fame brought money, money helped fame. He would become rich, then, by some enterprise which did not absorb all his mind. He embarked in a publishing scheme. He conceived the idea of printing the French classics in a compact form and issuing them at a low rate. The idea was good, for later it succeeded, but the time was not then ripe, and Balzac’s undertaking failed. He left the publishing business heavily in debt. From that time to his death, almost, he was the slave of his obligations, and no man ever toiled more strenuously to discharge them. The agonies of César Birotteau are assuredly not imaginary. The author who described them looked into his own heart and wrote. The sense of commercial honor which sustained the perfumer was one of Balzac’s most marked characteristics. It is true that the desire of fame spurred him on in his labors, but primarily they were undertaken to pay his debts ; and it was the endless struggle with these that incited him to the continuous, exhausting fecundity which killed him in what should have been his prime of life.
The extent of his powers can be realized only by observation of his work. Here was a man who for ten years staved off disaster by issuing notes of hand, the payment of which and the interest on which maintained a constant demand for money, and it all had to be earned by his pen. To secure the sums required from month to month, incessant toil was necessary. He met the exigency by working sixteen, eighteen, hours in the twenty-four; and this for months together. It has been said that his letters during this period are colorless. They are indeed sad. They indicate a mind and body strained to the utmost limit of endurance, a resolution of iron, and at the same time a pathetic sense of deprivation and isolation. He writes to his sister Laure that he yearns for Fame and Love. “ Ah, Laure, Laure,” he cries, “shall I live to attain my desire?” He was to die with the cup at his lips. But nothing less than death could interrupt his labors. While working as no galleyslave ever worked, having always two, three, sometimes four, books in hand at once, he found time to read prodigiously, to observe with care and precision, to make social studies in all directions, to acquire and dispense an encyclopædic knowledge. In Facino Cane he relates how he used to follow people in the street, workingmen, peasant women, all sorts of odd characters, to learn how they talked and on what subjects, and to obtain knowledge of their life and motives. In the same way he would wander for hours through the streets of Paris seeking good names for his creations. Like Dickens and Hugo, he attached much importance to names, He held that what he called a “ dead name,” that is an invented name, was objectionable. He always sought the names of living people for his uses, and was fastidious in his selection. With all the strenuousness and persistence of his work, he never hurried in finishing it. The most elaborate care was given to the perfection of everything he wrote. He had all his proofs pasted on broad sheets of cardboard, and in reading them he made so many changes that sometimes the cost of correction was more than that of composing the work originally. He would demand six, ten, a dozen, proofs, and over these he toiled as hard as over the first draft. His conscientiousness was great, and it was shown in the smallest details. He would make a journey of several hundred miles to write a description of a landscape, a town, a house, and his portraits of places are as minute and complete as his portraits of persons. He was assisted by a memory which must have resembled Macaulay’s in scope and retentiveness. He possessed the same faculty of seizing the pith of a book while glancing over the pages with rapidity. He was upheld in his incessant and exhausting labors by a constitution of remarkable strength and endurance, and a temperament of the South, reacting naturally against all that is dismal and sorrowful in life, grasping at every opportunity for joyousness, repairing the waste of mental and bodily tissue by thoroughgoing recreation whenever possible.
Nevertheless, Balzac’s letters are painful. They not only indicate the stress of his unintermitted toil, but they show how the sordid, pecuniary anxieties of his situation weighed upon him. I cannot agree with the critics who see in his constant references to money only a greed of gain. It seems to me that Balzac is not chargeable with that fault. He wished, no doubt, to be out of debt and to be rich, but he cared more for his work, especially in his later years, than for what it brought him. His chief anxiety was to be independent, but the unthrifty methods of raising money which his poverty compelled him to employ continually retarded him by raising up fresh liabilities in the shape of interest, and so the Sisyphean labor was prolonged. In his correspondence the bitterness of his lot is plainly revealed. His letters to his sister and his mother, both of whom he cherished with a most constant and unselfish love, a love testifying to the unspoiled freshness of his heart even to the last, are full of plaints mingled with words of encouragement. He is killing himself; he is working eighteen hours a day; he goes to bed at seven, rises at one, works till eight in the morning, takes a cup of coffee, and goes on again until four in the afternoon. But, courage ! such and such a sum will be earned soon, and then such and such a payment can be made. It has been questioned whether he was really so heavily in debt as he represented himself to be, but there is apparently no warrant for doubt as to this. For a long time his literary earnings were small, and though he received comparatively large sums for his books during the last ten years of his life, he gives ample proof that the bulk of his income was absorbed in meeting his liabilities. No man so chained to the oar could have given his best thought to correspondence. It is in his books that one must look for that. But his letters to the lady whom he eventually married, the Countess de Hanska, and to his old friend Madame Zulma Carraud, and to the Duchesse de Castries, are full of fine reflection and often graceful and tender expression. To his sister especially he confided his hopes, ambitions, and difficulties. To her he shows his innocent literary vanity, his opinions of his own books, his views of the place they will take, and, too often, the chagrin caused by his over-sanguine previsions of the public judgment. There is no doubt that he was vain, that he believed in his own powers, that he was prone to regard all his books as masterpieces, that when he took up a new subject he thought his treatment of it would enlighten the. world. But it is equally true that this self-confidence counted for much in his ultimate success, and that it was better justified by the actual extent of his powers than is often the case.
The plan of the Comédie Humaine came to Balzac after he had established his reputation. He was a long time in discovering his vocation, but he had been educating himself for the great work of his life during his dreary apprenticeship. He would become the analyst of society. He would do for the human family what Geoffroy SaintHilaire had done for the brute creation. The Comédie Humaine was to be a philosophical dissection of society, a description of contemporary life and manners from top to bottom, and embracing all ranks, classes, and occupations. The conception was gigantic, and, when all the defects of the work are allowed for, it will have to be admitted that the execution is marvelous. Nor could it have been even partially accomplished save by the method Balzac adopted. A series of separate and unconnected stories would not have admitted of the subtle working out of complicated and far-reaching sequences of events such as real life presents. In the ordinary novel it is necessary either to represent a section of life cut off abruptly, without beginning or end, or fidelity to truth must be sacrificed to the exigencies of the plot. Balzac, by carrying his characters through a whole series of stories, was enabled to present them in many different aspects, and at the same time to work out those side-plots and ramifications of human relationship with which real existence abounds. His method enlarged his canvas enormously, and also gave an entirely new interest and emphasis to his situations. But only a master could have accomplished so great an undertaking with the measure of success he has achieved, or could have avoided the difficulties inherent in the scheme. In considering the qualifications demanded for the work, some of the faults charged upon Balzac are at least explained. To do what he attempted,— that is, to paint human nature as it existed in his time and country, — a mind as many-sided as nature is needed. But to paint human nature as manifested in the social organization, a catholicity of view is required which excludes optimism. It is one thing to describe the world as it ought to be, or as one would have it, but quite another to describe it as it is. In most novels we find bad men repenting and becoming good, virtuous men rewarded by material prosperity, the villains punished and the heroes triumphing. But how far is this from what actually happens! As John Stuart Mill observes, “ The general tendency of evil is towards further evil. Bodily illness renders the body more susceptible of disease; it produces incapacity of exertion, sometimes debility of mind, and often the loss of means of subsistence. Poverty is the parent of a thousand mental and moral evils. What is still worse, to be injured or oppressed, when habitual, lowers the whole tone of the character. One bad action leads to others, in the agent himself, in the bystanders, and in the sufferers. All bad qualities are strengthened by habit, and all vices and follies tend to spread. Intellectual defects generate moral, and moral intellectual ; and every intellectual or moral defect generates others, and so on without end.” This, of course, is but one side of the case, but it is precisely the side which fiction usually ignores, to the detriment alike of art and verisimilitude. But Balzac did not ignore it, and his recognition and full representation of it constitute one of his strongest claims upon posterity. In him, indeed, we see a resemblance to Nature, who distributes good and evil impartially, indifferently; elaborating the hideous and venomous tarantula as carefully as the gentle dove or the fragrant rose, and not seldom seeming, as in the tiger, to lavish her most splendid ornamentation upon incarnations of ferocity and savage power. Balzac took society as he found it. He did not attempt to improve it, unless showing it its own image might have an elevating tendency. He regarded his mission as that of a scientific social historian. And he undertook not only to describe society in its external aspects, but to analyze the springs of its various activities, to explain and characterize the motives that inspired it, and to dissect away the conventional tissues which concealed its true desires and intents.
In applying his analytical methods he was deterred by no sentimental restraints. He looked everywhere, and set down what he saw, — vice or virtue, honor or infamy, as the case might be. That he should have been a cause of offense to many was inevitable, and equally so that the frank intrepidity of his analysis should be denounced as insufferable coarseness. He is coarse. There is no need to deny it, and his coarseness is often an injury to his work. But the question is whether, with a more delicate temperament, he could have done the work before him; and if the answer to this question is in the negative, as I think it must be, it will perhaps be considered well that he did it, even with the drawbacks attached to it. For so powerful a work has never been accomplished by another, nor is likely to be. And even in his most audacious moods, when, as his critics have said, he seems to take special delight in the analysis of some monstrous vice, some hideously deformed character, the marvelous insight which exhibits the inmost workings of a depraved human soul, the equally marvelous truth of touch which shows the gradual obscuration and extinction of the good principles and tendencies, assuredly produce upon the reader no seductive or demoralizing effect, but rather the emotion caused by the spectacle of an implacable destiny urging the lost creature to its doom.
Take as an illustration the shameful career of General Hulot, in La Cousine Bette. In all fiction there is nothing at once so appalling and so true as the study of that character. Beginning with a vice, he proceeds to the establishment of a habit. The habit masters him. To it are sacrificed, in succession, his domestic happiness, his fortune, his friends, and finally his honor. Ruined, expelled from the society of his equals, humiliated, and broken-spirited, he becomes the mere thrall of a base appetite which has absorbed all his vital energies. In the end the appetite grows into a temperament, and the wretched victim disappears in an abyss of ridicule and imbecility, having broken the heart of his noble wife for the sake of a servant wench whom he makes her successor. The remorseless manner in which the career of General Hulot is traced, as though he were a curious disease rather than a man, undoubtedly adds to the impressiveness of the narrative. Every new symptom is faithfully recorded. The growth of the vicious habit proceeds steadily, pitilessly. One by one all the barriers between the victim and ruin are thrown down. As he sinks lower we observe the degradation of his mind. With each relapse the recuperative power diminishes, and when the terrible end arrives we feel that nothing else was possible in the circumstances.
Take, again, the career of Lucien de Rubempré, in the Illusions Perdues. There the key - note is struck in the first chapter. We have before us two young men : the one, simple, upright, patient, confiding, humble; the other, brilliant, gifted, fickle, unstable, selfish. Lucien is the second, and he works out his destiny in strict accordance with evolutionary law. His career in Paris is strikingly presented. Going there as a poet, from the provinces, with lofty ideals and ambitions, he is plunged into indigence. Temptation falls in his way. He has the choice between the companionship of a Spartan band of young philosophers and patriots, and affiliation with a circle of journalists, unscrupulous, selfish, malignant, corrupt. The journalistic employment offers him some material advantages. He is dazzled, and yields. Once in the downward way, everything tends to hasten his fall. His scruples are easily overcome, and he learns to lampoon his friends, to dupe his employers, to play a base and double game. The description of the Paris journalism of the period in this book is one of Balzac’s revenges, and it is a terrible revenge. He had been the target of the feuilletonistes for years. They had denied his genius, laughed at his pretensions, ridiculed the seriousness of his purpose, refused to see any but the frivolous side of him. In the Illusions Perdues he gave them their answer. There is no reason to suppose that he rendered them less than justice. Certainly his representations, though attacked, have never been refuted. The French journalism of the time was undoubtedly very corrupt, and he exposed that corruption with unequaled force and courage. Lucien de Rubempré joins this band of press brigands, and for a time prospers exceedingly; but having been foolish enough to desert the liberal for the administration journals, he is furiously assailed by all his former friends, and this is the beginning of the end for him. He has many adventures, but his feeble character carries him steadily downward, in spite of all opportunities to recover lost ground, and at last, having exhausted the possibilities, he dies by his own hand. Now the capacities and course of Lucien de Rubempré are in perfect accord. There is no error of judgment on the author’s part. .The young man marches straight, as by the necessity of his nature, to a given goal, and it is impossible to conceive of his avoiding the disasters which are at once his fault and his misfortune.
One of the most terrible of Balzac’s characters is Philippe Bridau. In him we see a man who, beginning life fortunately, and having acquired honors and reputation in the army under Napoleon, falls into habits of debauchery. At first his faults are peccadilloes. But he has no real principle. He is thrown among scoundrels, and they quicken his degradation. One vice facilitates another. He proceeds from bad to worse, and presently he appears a full-fledged villain, a thief, an assassin, a wife-murderer, a parricide. As he descends, his character hardens. His speech indicates the growth of infamy within, as his actions show his increasing familiarity with the externals of vice and crime. The picture is revolting, it is horrifying, but it is not monstrous. Philippe Bridau grows into the ruffian and scoundrel he is before our eyes. Each change for the worse is registered, and springs naturally from antecedent causes. It is thus that evil really tends to extend and increase evil. It is thus that the evolution of the bad in human nature proceeds. The subtlety and fidelity of the analysis, moreover, constitute an irresistible attraction. We appear to be witnessing one of those sombre dramas the Greeks affected. We feel that the Fates are presiding over the action, and that the evil must work itself out despite all opposition to its influence.
The tendency of weak humanity to take the line of least resistance, so often observed in real life, has been freely illustrated by Balzac. Thus the young Rastignac, in Le Père Goriot, on his introduction to the Parisian world plumes himself on resisting the bold and undisguised criminal propositions of Vautrin, but falls with scarcely a struggle into the net spread for him by Madame Nucingen. The fate of old Goriot makes a strong impression on him for the moment, but he goes from the grave of the miserable father to the house of his mistress. He has made his choice, and having parted with his scruples, and being endowed with audacity and perseverance, he mounts, prospers, becomes wealthy and distinguished. Is not this also in harmony with nature ? Society does not punish the vice that respects conventions. It rewards courage and success without any regard to the morality of the applicant. Many of Balzac’s characters are reprehensible, and flourish. Many are virtuous, and suffer.
We find virtue oppressed and vice triumphing, in his pages. We find dull greed often outstripping brilliant parts. We find malice joined with energy stronger than amiability linked with infirmity of purpose. But in all of this the writer has been entirely true to nature, and has fulfilled his function of analyst loyally and without bias.
The force of dominant ideas upon human character has seldom been more strongly exhibited than in Father Grandet and Balthazar Claes. The first is the type of the miser. Having passed his best years in amassing money, having become enormously wealthy, he develops a parsimony and a greed which would be merely disgusting if not relieved by a force of character which makes him, if not less a miser, at least a remarkable one. Here, too, the gradual growth of the vice maintains the interest, while the cunning of the crafty old man in compelling his sycophantic relatives to do his work and bear his expenses proceeds naturally from his lust of gold. In Balzac’s hands the most odious of vices acquires a certain sombre grandeur, and in revolting from Grandet’s meanness a regret is felt that a man of so much intelligence should become the victim of so degrading and dehumanizing a passion. What Grandet is, however, his character and environment have made him, and the trick by which he forestalls the market for his vintage is not more natural than the gesture of cupidity with which, when dying, he seeks to grasp the silver crucifix.
In La Recherche de L’Absolu the same study is varied. Balthazar Claes is a rich Fleming, who dabbles in chemistry until he thinks he has discovered the universal solvent. To this idea he becomes a prey, and by degrees is so absorbed by it that he forgets his obligations as a husband and father, and dissipates his fortune in the pursuit of his experiments. His neglect, abstraction, and reckless expenditure break his wife’s heart. For a time he returns to himself, and promises to renounce the quest of “ The Absolute.” But the dominant idea is too strong for him, and with the infatuation and obstinacy of the chronic drunkard he at last seizes every opportunity to procure fresh means for his favorite pursuit, hesitating at nothing to obtain what he wants. After doing all in his power to ruin his children, he dies at last in the belief that he has grasped the secret; but strength and life fail him before he can impart it to any one. So, it might be said, Balzac himself toiled through a long career to find the secret of happiness, and died at length in the bitterness of realizing that it had come to him too late to be enjoyed.
That Balzac was specially attracted by the eccentric and the sinister in human nature is certain, and M. Gabriel Ferry, in one of a series of papers recently published in a Paris journal, on Balzac and his Friends, has given an illustration of this in the author’s own words. In a conversation with George Sand, Balzac thus defined the difference in their method. “You,” he said, “seek man as he should be ; I take him as he is. Believe me, we are both right. These two paths lead to the same end. I am also fond of exceptional beings ; I am one of them. I am obliged to bring forward my vulgar characters, and I never sacrifice them unnecessarily. But these vulgar characters interest me more than they do you. I magnify them ; I idealize them, in an inverted sense, in their ugliness or their stupidity. I give to their deformities startling or grotesque proportions. You do not know how to do this ; you do not want to see the people and the things which give you the nightmare. You idealize in the pretty and the beautiful; it is a woman’s work.”
The dramatic instinct was strong in Balzac, and he could not sacrifice the larger opportunities for the display of his analytic and graphic powers which the exploitation of the seamy side of life afforded. Yet there is more of reality than of imagination in many of the scenes and characters in his books which have been most criticised. M. Ferry gives an example of this in relating George Sand’s remarks upon the scene in La Cousine Bette, where Madame Hulot, distracted by the threatened ruin of her family, offers herself to Crevel. George Sand protested that this was monstrous, incredible. Balzac replied, “ The history is real, the fact happened. I have conveyed into my romance an example of human baseness, — that is all.” In the same way, when taxed with exaggeration in describing the wealth of old Grandet, he at once named half a score of living men in the provinces still more wealthy, and specified one who was in the habit of keeping always in his house a sum of several millions of francs in money. The part played by money in Balzac’s works has been much commented on. Certainly he did ascribe to it a potent influence in society, but the only important question is whether he was justified in his position. He is not alone in maintaining that the cult of the Golden Calf is the dominant religion, and as much has been asserted of other countries than France. The view he presents of a society moved and controlled mainly by selfishness is no doubt humiliating. The almost illimitable power he attributes to wealth is not less so. But the charge brought against him, of taking an unnecessarily low view of society, seems not altogether clear. If the facts are not as he represented them, the indictment will hold. But inasmuch as he never pretended to depict life from the idealist point of view, confining himself strictly, or as strictly as he could, to describing things as they were, it is necessary to prove his infidelity to the actual before he can be justly arraigned.
His bad people stand out from the canvas with startling vividness. There is an energy about them which makes them seem to be more a work of love with their author than they really were. This energy, however, is the most remarkable fact in all Balzac’s work. The creative imagination has never been stronger than in him. Explanation of this gift, in the present backward state of psychology, is almost hopeless. All his biographers and critics have attempted it, and all have failed. Chasles and Gautier come nearest to the truth in saying that he was a seer. He himself could not define his power, but several times he has essayed fragmentary outlines of it. Thus in Facino Cane he says, “ Observation had already become intuitive with me, or, rather, it seized external details so thoroughly that it proceeded beyond them instantly ; it gave me the faculty of living the life of the individual upon whom it was exercised, by putting myself in his place.” And he says, further on, “ To what do I owe this gift? A second sight? Is it one of those faculties the abuse of which leads to madness ? I have never investigated the causes of this power. I only know that I possess and make use of it.” All masters of fiction have this creative and substitutive power more or less. It was strong in Dickens and in Thackeray. But it has never been manifested at the same height as in Balzac. The tremendous energy which informs all his work, and which lends such significance to his speculations on the will, given in Louis Lambert, — that essence, as he puts it, which is subtler and more powerful than electricity, — endowed the creatures of his imagination with a vitality not less real and vivid than that which animates material beings. It did more than this. The fiery heat at which his brain worked not only impressed upon his characters a bodily distinctness and individuality, but it forced to the front and kept in evidence everything which belonged to that individuality. Balzac’s men and women appear so real because we are made to enter into the most intimate relations with them. It is not merely their physical portraits that are drawn for us with a master’s touch; it is their mental habits and characteristics, their foibles, their virtues, their thousand-and-one petty ways, and their habitations, from garret to cellar. Taine says that Balzac first describes the town, then the house, and then the person who lives in it. He does so, but not exactly for the reason given by Taine. It is because this knowledge is really essential to the comprehension of men and women. All of us speak to our contemporaries as plainly through our personal habits, our domestic arrangements, our furniture, books, pictures, bricabrac, music, and whatever goes to make up the sum of our intimate manifestations, as through our intercourse, business, and politics. Balzac knew this intuitively : hence the prodigious elaboration and pains with which he completes his picture ; hence the importance he ascribes to inanimate things, and especially to houses, rooms, and furniture.
There is in the profusion of his details not seldom something oppressive. The reader, if he be accustomed only to thin and colorless fiction, is made giddy by this crowd of images, and rendered uneasy by the earnestness of the narrator. Balzac said of himself, “ Ideas flow incessantly to my brain. I am like a tree loaded down with too heavy a crop of fruit.” There is truth in the figure. His fecundity was so great that while it did not confuse him, it no doubt often prevented him from making a selection among the swarming ideas which surged through his mind. But through all and over all the power of that mind is manifested. Sainte-Beuve says that Balzac’s energy almost makes the page tremble as you are reading. It pervades all his works as the throbbing of the engine pervades an ocean steamer at sea. And next to his energy is his flexibility. The Nasmith steam hammer, which can gently crack an egg, or fall with fifty tons’ weight upon a heated mass of iron, is a not inapt symbol of this versatile genius, which could descend into the mud with a Marneffe, or rise with a Seraphita into an atmosphere too rarefied, almost, for mortal lungs ; which could enter one day into all the scoundrelism of a Philippe Bridau, and on the next could paint a Benassis, a David Sechard, a Cesar Birotteau, a Colonel Chabert, a Cousin Pons. If, as has been alleged, Balzac’s good people are all more or less imperfect, the fact itself is a proof of the fidelity of his art. For in real life imperfection is the rule. It is only in idealistic fiction that wholly upright, pure, impeccable characters are found, and the further they are removed from the weakness of our common humanity the less they impress us. There is only one such character in Balzac, and that has been singularly misunderstood. Seraphita is not a romance, but a mystical poem, and a noble one. The central figure, Seraphitus-Seraphita, is emblematic of the spiritual condition in which, all the frailties of incarnated existence having been overcome, sex ceases ; for pure spirit can have no sex. Reality is left behind in this book, which is not a story, but a didactic work, and which contains not only the Swedenborgianism Balzac got from his mother’s library, but a mass of occult doctrine, the origins of which must be sought in the theosophy of India. Balzac was deeply disappointed because Seraphita did not acquire the popularity he had anticipated. Few men would have hoped to obtain any vogue for such a book; but he lived so much in the ideal that it was even more interesting to him than what the world calls the real. To Balzac his creations were the most real things he knew. When Jules Sandeau was once telling him about the sickness of his sister, he interrupted him : “ That is all very well, but let us return to reality; let us discuss Eugénie Grandet.” Nor was there any affectation in this. He had called into existence a world of his own. He had peopled it with his own creations. They were endued with the vibrating energy of the brain from which they sprang. If they lived for the world, how much more did they live for him! When he went on a journey he would say, “ I am going so-and-so; it is where M. Benassis, or Madame de Mortsauf, live.” He always thought of his characters as of the people whom in all the world he knew best.
If he yielded too much to his predilection for the bizarre and exceptional, if his dramatic instinct led him to put his evil characters in too strong relief, it must not be ignored that he dealt conscientiously with his virtuous men and women, that he has described the beauties of nature with exquisite delicacy and insight, that he has written scenes of pathos not excelled in literature. If in some of his novels of Parisian life the atmosphere is close and malodorous ; if in his pictures of the sordid scramble for wealth he has introduced us to too many Gobsecks, and Claparons, and Molineuxes, and Fraisiers, and Kellers, and Nucingens, and Du Tillets, in such stories as Le Médecin de Campagne he has led us into the most pure and stimulating of country air; in the Lys dans la Vallée he has given us charming rural sketches. Taine quotes with admiration one of his descriptions of a country garden on a spring morning. There is no odor of the lamp about it. It breathes all the freshness and fragrance of free nature, and it is elaborated with the unfailing patience and scrupulousness which Balzac brought to all his work.
His good men are thoroughly human, and therefore not free from faults. But where are there to be found more inspiring examples, more thrilling and moving representations? César Birotteau would not be half the man he is were it not for his weaknesses. As he stands, feeble, narrow, ignorant, vain, gullible, there is a grandeur and a nobility about him which draw all our sympathies to him. The Père Goriot, is he not a foolish, indulgent old man, of loose morals and a single idea ? But as we follow the tragedy of his life, and stand at last beside his wretched death-bed, the greatness of his love and sacrifice transfigures him before us, and we uncover before a majesty of calamity which compels our respect. The Médecin de Campagne is a larger canvas, less thronged, and less saturated with passion. The feeling that breathes through it is of steadfast beneficence, not born of, but incited by, deep personal grief. It is not an ideal picture, for Balzac knew the original, and has named him in his letters. In the Illusions Perdues David Sechard stands nobly out as the type of an honest man. In the Parents Pauvres appears one of the most touching of the author’s creations, — the friendship of Pons and Schmucke. Both these are wonderfully drawn characters, but the latter is perhaps unique in its simplicity, tenderness, loyalty, and affection. Humanity is the better for such studies, even when they end tragically, and Balzac, though often bringing his good people to sorrow and death, so subtly employs his art that the material success of brazen vice, however flourishing and triumphant, appears sordid and shameful by the side of the martyred virtue.
Many of Balzac’s young men are endowed with energy, audacity, unscrupulousness, self-love ; in short, all the qualities fitted to advance adventurers in the turbulent Paris world. They succeed often by fraud and treason, duplicity, mendacity, and chicane. They tread under foot better but less hardy people. They make ladders of their friends, and kick them down when they are no longer useful. They are immoral, cynical, heartless. But their success only renders them more odious. In no case is it so represented as to be seductive. Rather, the inference drawn is that by such methods worldly success can be attained, but at the sacrifice of all that makes life worth living to any being above the level of a brute. These fashionable parasites, these neophytes of the Bourse, these haunters of the coulisses, are after all but convicts and criminals in masquerade. They inspire loathing and contempt, both they and the women with whom they are related. All this reverse side of Paris life, however, — we have the word of Balzac’s contemporaries for it, — has been faithfully described by him. Sainte-Beuve, who disliked him heartily, has admitted this circumstantially. Gautier, Gozlan, Werdet, Desnoirterres, Baschet, Taine, all have declared the work of the social historian lifelike and true. It is ugly, hideous, if you will, but it is not imagined. Sainte-Beuve, indeed, says that Balzac sometimes confounded the realities of life with his own creations, and no doubt this is true. A man who brought into existence between two and three thousand people, each and all vitalized from head to foot, and who could not thenceforth rid himself of this swarm of characters, might easily commit such errors occasionally. But much of what has been called exaggeration in Balzac arises from the intensity and force of his creative faculty, which threw everything into the strongest relief, and which infused into the veins of all his personages an activity so preternatural as to make their behavior at times appear strained to the reader unfamiliar with his style. Also, as Gautier has said, his artistic tendency to present striking pictures caused him to arrange his scenes and figures with a view to realizing the full value of contrasts, of high and low light. Thus, in the Ménage d’un Garçon, he employs the virtues of Joseph Bridau as foils to the vices of his brother Philippe. Thus D’Arthrez and Christian are contrasted with the Du Tillets, the Rastignacs, the De Marsays, the Maxime du Trailles.
In the exploitation of the life of youthful genius in poverty Balzac has shown that profound knowledge which comes from personal experience. He had lived it, and in the struggles of Lucien de Rubempré, of Raphael, and others of his characters he reproduced his own trials and griefs. Goethe’s
Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte
Auf seinem Bette weinend sass,
Ber kennt euch liicfit, ilir himmlischen Miichte,”
did not apply to him. He had eaten the bread and drunk the water of affliction, and his inner vision had been enlightened. In the Peau de Chagrin, indeed, as in Facino Cane and Louis Lambert, he has given many autobiographical fragments. He never hesitated to utilize his own experiences or his own possessions in this way. It is said that the famous gallery of pictures collected by Cousin Pons contains an accurate catalogue of his own paintings, and there is no doubt that he arranged a room in his house, in the Rue des Batailles, for the express purpose of testing the accuracy of a tragic scene he had conceived between Henry de Marsay and Paquita. It is to be noted that few of his young men are poets ; in fact, in the whole Comédie Humaine there are only two, Canalis and Lucien de Rubempré. Balzac neither wrote verse, nor cared for it. In the Grand Homme de Province à Paris there are some sonnets. These were written by his friends. Gautier composed one, Madame Emile de Girardin another. It would be a mistake to conclude that Balzac had no poetry in him. His works prove the contrary abundantly. But he certainly had not the gift of verse.
Little has been said so far concerning his female characters. It is as impossible to render an intelligent judgment upon them in a few words as it would be to define the intellectual, moral, and social status of the population of a city in a sentence. Balzac’s aim was to sound the heights and depths of the society of his time. He excluded no types and he softened no characteristic marks. He meant to put on his vast canvas the best, the worst, and all the many intervening classes. Accordingly, his range of study is as wide as civilized humanity. For a time there was a disposition, especially among foreign critics, to question the fidelity of his studies of great ladies ; but since his letters have been published it is apparent that he not only had ample opportunity to observe this class of women, but that he took advantage of his friendships with several of them to obtain their judgment upon his conceptions, and that his Madame de Mortsauf, Duchesse de Langeais, Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, Princesse de Cadignan, Duchesse de Beauseant, and the whole list of aristocratic women that sweep through his pages underwent the jealous criticism of noble friends of the author, whose position and experience were guarantees for the soundness of their judgments on social questions belonging to their own order. But the fact that the women were the first to recognize Balzac’s powers speaks for itself. “ Who,” says Sainte-Beuve, “ has better painted the belles of the Empire ? Who has drawn more delightfully the duchesses and viscountesses of the end of the Restoration ? — those women of thirty, who awaited their artist with a vague anxiety, so that when he and they met there was, so to speak, an electric shock of recognition.” It was in the Femme de Trente Ans that this part of Balzac’s mission was first clearly revealed. There is in that work a marvelous depth of analysis. The writer penetrates into the innermost soul of his heroine, and lays bare her mental processes with a precision and fullness which may well have astonished his generation. From that time the woman of the period realized that she had found her historian, her painter. Certainly, the portraits which issued from Balzac’s studio were often anything but flattering. To a Madame de Mortsauf or a Baronne Hulot succeeded a Marneffe, a Sylvie Rogron, a Madame Nourrisson, even, that epitome of depraved womanhood. The evil pictures were not less careful, striking, lifelike, than the good ones. Sorrow went hand in hand with Virtue. Nothing can be more pathetic than the situation of that beautiful victim, Madame de Mortsauf, in the Lys dans la Vallée. Placed between a brutal husband and an ardent lover, she maintains her honor and purity at the expense of her life. It is a battle, but without its sustaining excitement; a sombre, prolonged, deadly contest, in which at every turn the outrages and cruelties of the husband plead the cause of the lover. The death of Madame de Mortsauf is profoundly touching, and conceived with great power. Yet it is in the trials of women in the middle class that Balzac, perhaps, has produced his strongest effects. The history of Agatha Bridau and the Widow Descoings, for example, the history of Eugénie Grandet, that of the wife and daughter of César Birotteau, that of Margaret Claes and her mother, are full of a knowledge of life which seems more thorough and familiar than that displayed in the scenes from a higher social sphere. Balzac affected a cynicism about women which is largely contradicted by his own creations, and almost wholly by his own life. The Rabelaisian wit and grossièreté which he exhibited when with his artist and literary friends, and which took form in the Contes Drolatiques, were hardly real manifestations of character. The man who had but two strong desires in life, — “ to be famous and to be loved ; ” who deliberately renounced all the pleasures of Parisian existence, and led the life of an ascetic, of an anchorite, in order to attain freedom from debt and celebrity ; who held that the writer must mortify the body in order to give full vigor and lucidity to the spirit, and acted for twenty years upon his own theory; who to the close of his life showed such tenderness of affection to his mother and sister; who loved but one woman, and married her, cannot, without introducing hopeless confusion into any study of his character, be regarded as the coarse, sensual creature Balzac has sometimes been represented, Few, indeed, of his contemporaries lived as pure a life as he. In his writings the vivid description of immorality must not be confounded with what is not to be found there, namely, the display of a fondness for the vice described. It is true that Balzac often painted evil with a certain scientific enthusiasm, but it was a scientific enthusiasm, — the enthusiasm, for example, of a physician for a new disease, and not the passion of a sensualist or a lover of evil for evil’s sake. The distinction here is important, and cannot be safely disregarded. The creator of the Marneffe, had he been what some seem to have thought him, could never have been the creator of Madame de Mortsauf, of Pierrette, of Eve Sechard, of Seraphita.
He has portrayed many noble women. He has lavished an unequaled analytic and descriptive power upon them. He has delighted to show them in the family relation, unselfish, patient, tolerant, confiding, always ready to sacrifice themselves — nay, to crucify themselves — for those they love. He has shown them loyal, affectionate, prudent, wise, far-seeing, pure, innocent. His women are not, indeed,
For human nature’s daily food.”
They are natural, with the defects of their characters as well as with the virtues. But they are thoroughly real. We all know many like them. It is human nature that Balzac lays before us, and with a fullness and completeness no other writer has approached, if we except Shakespeare. If in the ethics of the female world he describes there is sometimes that which jars upon the Anglo-Saxon mind, fault must be found with the state of society rather than with its historian. Balzac assuredly drew with a faithful and exact pencil the manners and morals of his time and country. In so doing he reproduced of necessity the local color, the national characteristics. We must accept these if we wish to avail ourselves of the immense magazine of facts concerning human nature which the Comédie Humaine constitutes.
Something has been said incidentally of his mystical writings, but they deserve a closer examination than can be given them here. In the first place, it must be observed that all men of strong creative force, all great writers of fiction especially, naturally and indeed inevitably lean toward the preternatural. This tendency was strong in Dickens and Thackeray and Bulwer. It must be so in those who possess the faculty of peopling “ the void inane ” with creatures of fancy, and of imparting to them all the traits and characteristics of living humanity. The idea of another sphere of existence is perfectly simple to the man who daily and hourly enters into and acts in such a sphere, and who knows that the creations of his brain have for him a reality often as objective as that of the desk he writes upon. Balzac, being thus gifted and thus prepared, inheriting also from his mother a liking for the occult, read widely in the literature of mysticism, and assimilated his studies easily. He knew the extent, antiquity, and uninterrupted descent of the occult sciences. The researches into mesmerism and clairvoyance which were made in his time were followed by him with deep interest. He knew and had experimented with the Didier brothers, whose clairvoyant feats a generation ago were the talk of Paris; nay, of Europe. He was as familiar with Herder as with Swedenborg. He had studied the Cabala and the mediæval alchemists as well as the sparse fragments of Oriental occultism and theosophy then open to the Western world. In his sketch of the Theory of the Will, given in Louis Lambert, he has summed up a philosophy which certainly was not his own invention, but many of the inductions of which he, with characteristic boldness, carried farther than his predecessors had ventured. In his speculation on the base of thought, he has postulated the existence of a force almost completely one with the Akasa of Hindu occultism, that subtle world essence, the matrix of electricity and magnetism, which some modern men of science have almost recognized in terms. In Louis Lambert and Seraphita, however, two distinct lines of thought are traceable. In writing the latter book he was under the influence mainly of Swedenborg. The framework and the salient outlines are from the seer’s doctrine. In the strange discourse delivered by Seraphita before her ascent into the mountains an older mysticism than that of Swedenborg may be perceived, and an infusion, always luminous, of Balzac’s own thought. In the extension given by him to the conceptions or revelations of previous writers, the keenness of his spiritual insight and the robustness of his reasoning power are exhibited strikingly. In Louis Lambert he has dealt more with the doctrines of the cabalistic writers, and here also are found many theories curiously in accord with the speculations which have recently been introduced from Asia to the West. It was not to be expected that these works should be received with the welcome given to his studies of society, though he himself was chagrined at their comparative failure. Even now there are relatively few readers who are prepared by previous study to appreciate or comprehend them. They indicate, however, the grasp of Balzac’s mind, and they refute the criticism which would deny him the possession of power or capacity in the higher regions of thought and imagination.
That he was thoroughly at home in those higher regions is too much to say. He could breathe at a great altitude, and he did not lose his self-poise or his perceptive faculties there. But the great work of his life was on a lower plane, among the toils and strifes of mundane existence; and the philosophy which pervades his writings is that of a man of the world. In politics he was an absolutist, and this position was a natural result of his observation and his limitations. He saw vividly and comprehensively the life of his own period. He had concerned himself little with the past. Democracy as revealed to him was full of evil. Absolutism in action he had not familiarized himself with, and therefore he regarded it as a remedy for and refuge from the license, the lawlessness, the iniquity, which he encountered. Being an absolutist, he was also in favor of a strong ecclesiastical system, and for the same general reasons. These theories, founded upon a too restricted view of human progress, are unworthy of him, but we should no more judge him by them than we should judge those English men of science of the present day whose strange views of politics have recently been put forward. It is when he has to do with the affairs of his own world, with questions of social moment, the laws of commerce, criminal jurisprudence, art, music, manners and customs, architecture, etc., that he exhibits his reflective and critical power most brilliantly. As Taine says, he reasons, and his characters reason, about everything, and almost all that is said deserves to be studied.
Balzac’s style is peculiar. He took infinite pains with it, but he could not make it light or graceful. It is a closely woven, compact, altogether unique style, representing the abundance and the energetic emission of his ideas. With him the difficulty always was to find room for the thoughts which crowded incessantly upon him. There was never any barrenness in his brain. On the contrary, the profusion of his ideas, the clearness of his impressions, the completeness, to the smallest accessories, of the mental pictures which his mind evoked, compelled in him so strong a habit of elaboration that the reader is often almost overwhelmed by the prodigality of his descriptions, and for those who demand only the story the frequent delays resulting appear vexatious and unnecessary. This packed, pregnant style would indeed be injurious to the reputation of any author less heavily freighted with important matter. But in Balzac, if there is at times a plethora of description, there is nothing that can be called padding. If he may be thought sometimes to expend too much labor upon the details of a picture, the relevancy of the details is incontestable, and the finish of the picture marvelous. Everything, too, with him, has a distinct bearing upon the end to be attained, and everything contributes to the impressiveness of that end. The description of the Maison Vauquer, in the Père Goriot, for instance, is a necessary introduction to the story. The key-note of the action is there struck. The tragedy is fairly opened by the scene which exhibits that sordid dining-room and its mistress. So, too, with the description of the Claes house, in the Recherche de L’Absolu, and also of the northern scenery in Seraphita. It is all necessary to the thorough working out of the author’s plot. But what relieves Balzac’s manner of the heaviness which is its peril is the singular energy of expression which pervades it. This has been referred to before, but it counts for a great deal in every point of view from which Balzac can be examined. There is a life, a suppressed passion, in all his writings, which differentiates them from those of any other author, and which imparts to them a seriousness and an interest perhaps incapable of a more exact and lucid explanation. The intense absorption of the author in his own creations, the attitude of sober historical narration which even compels the acceptance of occasional extravagances and discords, doubtless contribute to this result. When a writer is convinced of the reality of what he is describing, something of the same faith passes into the mind of the reader ; and when the creative energy of the writer is what Balzac’s was, the impression produced is almost irresistible. It has been said that he employed strange and uncouth language ; that his style was wanting in restraint and purity; that, as SainteBeuve intimates, Bonald could have given him useful lessons. Perhaps so, but Balzac is and always will be a much more important figure in literature than Bonald, and for sufficient reasons. He has taken for the expression of his thought whatever words, whatever phrases, were best adapted to give it force and impressiveness. He has rummaged the vocabularies of art, of science, of philosophy. He has not hesitated to use dialect or slang when the occasion called for it. The result is the most varied, rich, and comprehensive of styles, if not the most elegant. Classicism he had necessarily discarded. He was a man essentially of his own time. But he had taken all society for his province, and in writing its memories he employed all the Babel of languages which it comprises. And he was at home in them all, from the argot of the Bagne to the patois of Touraine; from the terminology of the cabalists to the slang of the studios.
Like many men of genius, he aspired to something foreign to his capacity. He believed that he could write good acting plays, whereas his dramatic ability, when cast in that form, was paralyzed. He wrote bad or poor plays repeatedly, put never one which could keep the stage. The necessity of succinctness in the drama, and of omitting all the details with which he was wont to crowd his pictures, embarrassed him fatally and caused his failure in this métier, which, moreover, he only attempted seriously when his style was fully formed and his literary habits were fixed.
The dramatic instinct was strong in him, nevertheless, and it is answerable for certain of his more serious faults. He was carried away by the situations he conceived, and not seldom sacrificed fidelity to nature to the love of picturesque and moving effects. No doubt, too, he inherited from his Tourangean ancestry a certain tendency to the florid. Thus color was sometimes more regarded by him than justness of composition. In dealing with the more delicate emotions he showed frequently a clumsiness which many writers not endowed with a tithe of his grasp or power have escaped. in the pursuit of his psychologic studies, in the dissection of society, he displayed an indifference to the effect of his investigations upon the public mind which has been charged against him as immorality. Such an accusation, however, implies a failure to realize the true nature of Balzac’s undertaking. Only when he misrepresents what he saw is he chargeable with infidelity to his engagement.
When the immensity of his labors is considered, the scope of his enterprise, the profundity of his analysis, the vividness of his description, the lifelikeness of his portraiture, the complexity of his plots, the skill with which he conducts the various movements of his characters, their distinctness and individuality, the realism of their reasoning and action, and finally the marvelous force with which all this mechanism is invested, and which urges it on inexorably to the appointed ends, it will perhaps be conceded that a good many faults and shortcomings are required to counterbalance such qualities, gifts, and performances.
Paul Albert says that Balzac has shown the highest point the human intellect can attain to when destitute of an ideal. That Balzac was not altogether destitute of an ideal his mystical works demonstrate ; but since the labor of his life was devoted to an undertaking the accomplishment of which necessarily excluded idealism, it seems rather hard measure to use against him offensively that which was a primary condition of his work. One does not think of reproaching a physiologist for not having an ideal. One perceives that an ideal is wholly irrelevant to his function. Yet Balzac was a physiologist in a very literal sense. It was his business to set down what he saw, not what he would have liked to see. Had he pursued any other course than that which he followed so persistently and to such astonishing lengths, it would not have been possible for Taine to say, as he did, that Balzac, with Shakespeare and Saint Simon, is the greatest magazine of documents on human nature the world possesses. He is much more than that. He is far too great a writer to be summed up in an epigram, however smart, or labeled with a definition, however neat. As the historiographer of society, his importance and interest are certainly great; but what reinforces and gives solidity and permanence to his work is the penetration — the saturation, rather — of all his writings with that genuine human feeling, human passion, and sense of human weakness which lend to his creations a reality and a life such as will be sought in vain, outside of his pages, in the literature of fiction.
George Frederic Parsons.