CONFESSION OF A CHILD OF THE CENTURY
(Confession d'un Enfant du Siecle)
By ALFRED DE MUSSET
With a Preface by HENRI DE BORNIER, of the French Academy
ALFRED DE MUSSET
A poet has no right to play fast and loose with his genius. It does not belong to him, it belongs to the Almighty; it belongs to the world and to a coming generation. At thirty De Musset was already an old man, seeking in artificial stimuli the youth that would not spring again. Coming from a literary family the zeal of his house had eaten him up; his passion had burned itself out and his heart with it. He had done his work; it mattered little to him or to literature whether the curtain fell on his life's drama in 1841 or in 1857.
Alfred de Musset, by virtue of his genial, ironical temperament, eminently clear brain, and undying achievements, belongs to the great poets of the ages. We to-day do not approve the timbre of his epoch: that impertinent, somewhat irritant mask, that redundant rhetoric, that occasional disdain for the metre. Yet he remains the greatest poete de l'amour, the most spontaneous, the most sincere, the most emotional singer of the tender passion that modern times has produced.
Born of noble parentage on December 11, 1810—his full name being Louis Charles Alfred de Musset—the son of De Musset-Pathai, he received his education at the College Henri IV, where, among others, the Duke of Orleans was his schoolmate. When only eighteen he was introduced into the Romantic 'cenacle' at Nodier's. His first work, 'Les Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie' (1829), shows reckless daring in the choice of subjects quite in the spirit of Le Sage, with a dash of the dandified impertinence that mocked the foibles of the old Romanticists. However, he presently abandoned this style for the more subjective strain of 'Les Voeux Steyiles, Octave, Les Secretes Pensees de Rafael, Namouna, and Rolla', the last two being very eloquent at times, though immature. Rolla (1833) is one of the strongest and most depressing of his works; the sceptic regrets the faith he has lost the power to regain, and realizes in lurid flashes the desolate emptiness of his own heart. At this period the crisis of his life was reached. He accompanied George Sand to Italy, a rupture between them occurred, and De Musset returned to Paris alone in 1834.
More subdued sadness is found in 'Les Nuits' (1832-1837), and in 'Espoir en Dieu' (1838), etc., and his 'Lettre a Lamartine' belongs to the most beautiful pages of French literature. But henceforth his production grows more sparing and in form less romantic, although 'Le Rhin Allemand', for example, shows that at times he can still gather up all his powers. The poet becomes lazy and morose, his will is sapped by a wild and reckless life, and one is more than once tempted to wish that his lyre had ceased to sing.
De Musset's prose is more abundant than his lyrics or his dramas. It is of immense value, and owes its chief significance to the clearness with which it exhibits the progress of his ethical disintegration. In 'Emmeline (1837) we have a rather dangerous juggling with the psychology of love. Then follows a study of simultaneous love, 'Les Deux Mattresses' (1838), quite in the spirit of Jean Paul. He then wrote three sympathetic depictions of Parisian Bohemia: 'Frederic et Bernadette, Mimi Pinson, and Le Secret de Javotte', all in 1838. 'Le Fils de Titien (1838) and Croiselles' (1839) are carefully elaborated historical novelettes; the latter is considered one of his best works, overflowing with romantic spirit, and contrasting in this respect strangely with 'La Mouche' (1853), one of the last flickerings of his imagination. 'Maggot' (1838) bears marks of the influence of George Sand; 'Le Merle Blanc' (1842) is a sort of allegory dealing with their quarrel. 'Pierre et Camille' is a pretty but slight tale of a deaf-mute's love. His greatest work, 'Confession d'un Enfant du Siecle', crowned with acclaim by the French Academy, and classic for all time, was written in 1836, when the poet, somewhat recovered from the shock, relates his unhappy Italian experience. It is an ambitious and deeply interesting work, and shows whither his dread of all moral compulsion and self-control was leading him.
De Musset also wrote some critical essays, witty and satirical in tone, in which his genius appears in another light. It is not generally known that he was the translator into French of De Quincey's 'Confessions of an Opium Eater' (1828). He was also a prominent contributor to the 'Revue des Deux Mondes.' In 1852 he was elected to the French Academy, but hardly ever appeared at the sessions. A confrere once made the remark: "De Musset frequently absents himself," whereupon it is said another Immortal answered, "And frequently absinthe's himself!"
While Brunetiere, Lemattre, and others consider De Musset a great dramatist, Sainte-Beuve, singularly enough, does not appreciate him as a playwright. Theophile Gautier says about 'Un Caprice' (1847): "Since the days of Marivaux nothing has been produced in 'La Comedie Francaise' so fine, so delicate, so dainty, than this tender piece, this chef-d'oeuvre, long buried within the pages of a review; and we are greatly indebted to the Russians of St. Petersburg, that snow-covered Athens, for having dug up and revived it." Nevertheless, his bluette, 'La Nuit Venetienne', was outrageously treated at the Odeon. The opposition was exasperated by the recent success of Hugo's 'Hernani.' Musset was then in complete accord with the fundamental romantic conception that tragedy must mingle with comedy on the stage as well as in life, but he had too delicate a taste to yield to the extravagance of Dumas and the lesser romanticists. All his plays, by the way, were written for the 'Revue des Deux Mondes' between 1833 and 1850, and they did not win a definite place on the stage till the later years of the Second Empire. In some comedies the dialogue is unequalled by any writer since the days of Beaumarchais. Taine says that De Musset has more real originality in some respects than Hugo, and possesses truer dramatic genius. Two or three of his comedies will probably hold the stage longer than any dramatic work of the romantic school. They contain the quintessence of romantic imaginative art; they show in full flow that unchecked freedom of fancy which, joined to the spirit of realistic comedy, produces the modern French drama. Yet De Musset's prose has in greater measure the qualities that endure.
The Duke of Orleans created De Musset Librarian in the Department of the Interior. It was sometimes stated that there was no library at all. It is certain that it was a sinecure, though the pay, 3,000 francs, was small. In 1848 the Duke had the bad taste to ask for his resignation, but the Empire repaired the injury. Alfred de Musset died in Paris, May 2, 1857.
HENRI DE BORNIER de l'Academie Francaise.
THE CONFESSIONS OF A CHILD OF THE CENTURY
TO THE READER
Before the history of any life can be written, that life must be lived; so that it is not my life that I am now writing. Attacked in early youth by an abominable moral malady, I here narrate what happened to me during the space of three years. Were I the only victim of that disease, I would say nothing, but as many others suffer from the same evil, I write for them, although I am not sure that they will give heed to me. Should my warning be unheeded, I shall still have reaped the fruit of my agonizing in having cured myself, and, like the fox caught in a trap, shall have gnawed off my captive foot.
During the wars of the Empire, while husbands and brothers were in Germany, anxious mothers gave birth to an ardent, pale, and neurotic generation. Conceived between battles, reared amid the noises of war, thousands of children looked about them with dull eyes while testing their limp muscles. From time to time their blood-stained fathers would appear, raise them to their gold-laced bosoms, then place them on the ground and remount their horses.
The life of Europe centred in one man; men tried to fill their lungs with the air which he had breathed. Yearly France presented that man with three hundred thousand of her youth; it was the tax to Caesar; without that troop behind him, he could not follow his fortune. It was the escort he needed that he might scour the world, and then fall in a little valley on a deserted island, under weeping willows.
Never had there been so many sleepless nights as in the time of that man; never had there been seen, hanging over the ramparts of the cities, such a nation of desolate mothers; never was there such a silence about those who spoke of death. And yet there was never such joy, such life, such fanfares of war, in all hearts. Never was there such pure sunlight as that which dried all this blood. God made the sun for this man, men said; and they called it the Sun of Austerlitz. But he made this sunlight himself with his ever-booming guns that left no clouds but those which succeed the day of battle.
It was this air of the spotless sky, where shone so much glory, where glistened so many swords, that the youth of the time breathed. They well knew that they were destined to the slaughter; but they believed that Murat was invulnerable, and the Emperor had been seen to cross a bridge where so many bullets whistled that they wondered if he were mortal. And even if one must die, what did it matter? Death itself was so beautiful, so noble, so illustrious, in its battle-scarred purple! It borrowed the color of hope, it reaped so many immature harvests that it became young, and there was no more old age. All the cradles of France, as indeed all its tombs, were armed with bucklers; there were no more graybeards, there were only corpses or demi-gods.
Nevertheless the immortal Emperor stood one day on a hill watching seven nations engaged in mutual slaughter, not knowing whether he would be master of all the world or only half. Azrael passed, touched the warrior with the tip of his wing, and hurled him into the ocean. At the noise of his fall, the dying Powers sat up in their beds of pain; and stealthily advancing with furtive tread, the royal spiders made partition of Europe, and the purple of Caesar became the motley of Harlequin.
Just as the traveller, certain of his way, hastes night and day through rain and sunlight, careless of vigils or of dangers, but, safe at home and seated before the fire, is seized by extreme lassitude and can hardly drag himself to bed, so France, the widow of Caesar, suddenly felt her wound. She fell through sheer exhaustion, and lapsed into a coma so profound that her old kings, believing her dead, wrapped about her a burial shroud. The veterans, their hair whitened in service, returned exhausted, and the hearths of deserted castles sadly flickered into life.
Then the men of the Empire, who had been through so much, who had lived in such carnage, kissed their emaciated wives and spoke of their first love. They looked into the fountains of their native fields and found themselves so old, so mutilated, that they bethought themselves of their sons, in order that these might close the paternal eyes in peace. They asked where they were; the children came from the schools, and, seeing neither sabres, nor cuirasses, neither infantry nor cavalry, asked in turn where were their fathers. They were told that the war was ended, that Caesar was dead, and that the portraits of Wellington and of Blucher were suspended in the ante-chambers of the consulates and the embassies, with this legend beneath: 'Salvatoribus mundi'.
Then came upon a world in ruins an anxious youth. The children were drops of burning blood which had inundated the earth; they were born in the bosom of war, for war. For fifteen years they had dreamed of the snows of Moscow and of the sun of the Pyramids.
They had not gone beyond their native towns; but had been told that through each gateway of these towns lay the road to a capital of Europe. They had in their heads a world; they saw the earth, the sky, the streets and the highways; but these were empty, and the bells of parish churches resounded faintly in the distance.
Pale phantoms, shrouded in black robes, slowly traversed the countryside; some knocked at the doors of houses, and, when admitted, drew from their pockets large, well-worn documents with which they evicted the tenants. From every direction came men still trembling with the fear that had seized them when they had fled twenty years before. All began to urge their claims, disputing loudly and crying for help; strange that a single death should attract so many buzzards.
The King of France was on his throne, looking here and there to see if he could perchance find a bee [symbol of Napoleon D.W.] in the royal tapestry. Some men held out their hats, and he gave them money; others extended a crucifix and he kissed it; others contented themselves with pronouncing in his ear great names of powerful families, and he replied to these by inviting them into his grand salle, where the echoes were more sonorous; still others showed him their old cloaks, when they had carefully effaced the bees, and to these he gave new robes.
The children saw all this, thinking that the spirit of Caesar would soon land at Cannes and breathe upon this larva; but the silence was unbroken, and they saw floating in the sky only the paleness of the lily. When these children spoke of glory, they met the answer:
"Become priests;" when they spoke of hope, of love, of power, of life: "Become priests."
And yet upon the rostrum came a man who held in his hand a contract between king and people. He began by saying that glory was a beautiful thing, and ambition and war as well; but there was something still more beautiful, and it was called liberty.
The children raised their heads and remembered that thus their grandfathers had spoken. They remembered having seen in certain obscure corners of the paternal home mysterious busts with long marble hair and a Latin inscription; they remembered how their grandsires shook their heads and spoke of streams of blood more terrible than those of the Empire. Something in that word liberty made their hearts beat with the memory of a terrible past and the hope of a glorious future.
They trembled at the word; but returning to their homes they encountered in the street three coffins which were being borne to Clamart; within were three young men who had pronounced that word liberty too distinctly.
A strange smile hovered on their lips at that sad sight; but other speakers, mounted on the rostrum, began publicly to estimate what ambition had cost and how very dear was glory; they pointed out the horror of war and called the battle-losses butcheries. They spoke so often and so long that all human illusions, like the trees in autumn, fell leaf by leaf about them, and those who listened passed their hands over their foreheads as if awakening from a feverish dream.
Some said: "The Emperor has fallen because the people wished no more of him;" others added: "The people wished the king; no, liberty; no, reason; no, religion; no, the English constitution; no, absolutism;" and the last one said: "No, none of these things, but simply peace."
Three elements entered into the life which offered itself to these children: behind them a past forever destroyed, still quivering on its ruins with all the fossils of centuries of absolutism; before them the aurora of an immense horizon, the first gleams of the future; and between these two worlds—like the ocean which separates the Old World from the New—something vague and floating, a troubled sea filled with wreckage, traversed from time to time by some distant sail or some ship trailing thick clouds of smoke; the present, in a word, which separates the past from the future, which is neither the one nor the other, which resembles both, and where one can not know whether, at each step, one treads on living matter or on dead refuse.
It was in such chaos that choice had to be made; this was the aspect presented to children full of spirit and of audacity, sons of the Empire and grandsons of the Revolution.
As for the past, they would none of it, they had no faith in it; the future, they loved it, but how? As Pygmalion before Galatea, it was for them a lover in marble, and they waited for the breath of life to animate that breast, for blood to color those veins.
There remained then the present, the spirit of the time, angel of the dawn which is neither night nor day; they found him seated on a lime-sack filled with bones, clad in the mantle of egoism, and shivering in terrible cold. The anguish of death entered into the soul at the sight of that spectre, half mummy and half foetus; they approached it as does the traveller who is shown at Strasburg the daughter of an old count of Sarvenden, embalmed in her bride's dress: that childish skeleton makes one shudder, for her slender and livid hand wears the wedding-ring and her head decays enwreathed in orange-blossoms.
As on the approach of a tempest there passes through the forests a terrible gust of wind which makes the trees shudder, to which profound silence succeeds, so had Napoleon, in passing, shaken the world; kings felt their crowns oscillate in the storm, and, raising hands to steady them, found only their hair, bristling with terror. The Pope had travelled three hundred leagues to bless him in the name of God and to crown him with the diadem; but Napoleon had taken it from his hands. Thus everything trembled in that dismal forest of old Europe; then silence succeeded.
It is said that when you meet a mad dog, if you keep quietly on your way without turning, the dog will merely follow you a short distance growling and showing his teeth; but if you allow yourself to be frightened into a movement of terror, if you but make a sudden step, he will leap at your throat and devour you; that when the first bite has been taken there is no escaping him.
In European history it has often happened that a sovereign has made such a movement of terror and his people have devoured him; but if one had done it, all had not done it at the same time—that is to say, one king had disappeared, but not all royal majesty. Before the sword of Napoleon majesty made this movement, this gesture which ruins everything, not only majesty but religion, nobility, all power both human and divine.
Napoleon dead, human and divine power were reestablished, but belief in them no longer existed. A terrible danger lurks in the knowledge of what is possible, for the mind always goes farther. It is one thing to say: "That may be" and another thing to say: "That has been;" it is the first bite of the dog.
The fall of Napoleon was the last flicker of the lamp of despotism; it destroyed and it parodied kings as Voltaire the Holy Scripture. And after him was heard a great noise: it was the stone of St. Helena which had just fallen on the ancient world. Immediately there appeared in the heavens the cold star of reason, and its rays, like those of the goddess of the night, shedding light without heat, enveloped the world in a livid shroud.
There had been those who hated the nobles, who cried out against priests, who conspired against kings; abuses and prejudices had been attacked; but all that was not so great a novelty as to see a smiling people. If a noble or a priest or a sovereign passed, the peasants who had made war possible began to shake their heads and say: "Ah! when we saw this man in such a time and place he wore a different face." And when the throne and altar were mentioned, they replied: "They are made of four planks of wood; we have nailed them together and torn them apart." And when some one said: "People, you have recovered from the errors which led you astray; you have recalled your kings and your priests," they replied: "We have nothing to do with those prattlers." And when some one said "People, forget the past, work and obey," they arose from their seats and a dull jangling could be heard. It was the rusty and notched sabre in the corner of the cottage chimney. Then they hastened to add: "Then keep quiet, at least; if no one harms you, do not seek to harm." Alas! they were content with that.
But youth was not content. It is certain that there are in man two occult powers engaged in a death-struggle: the one, clear-sighted and cold, is concerned with reality, calculation, weight, and judges the past; the other is athirst for the future and eager for the unknown. When passion sways man, reason follows him weeping and warning, him of his danger; but when man listens to the voice of reason, when he stops at her request and says: "What a fool I am; where am I going?" passion calls to him: "Ah, must I die?"
A feeling of extreme uneasiness began to ferment in all young hearts. Condemned to inaction by the powers which governed the world, delivered to vulgar pedants of every kind, to idleness and to ennui, the youth saw the foaming billows which they had prepared to meet, subside. All these gladiators glistening with oil felt in the bottom of their souls an insupportable wretchedness. The richest became libertines; those of moderate fortune followed some profession and resigned themselves to the sword or to the church. The poorest gave themselves up with cold enthusiasm to great thoughts, plunged into the frightful sea of aimless effort. As human weakness seeks association and as men are gregarious by nature, politics became mingled with it. There were struggles with the 'garde du corps' on the steps of the legislative assembly; at the theatre Talma wore a wig which made him resemble Caesar; every one flocked to the burial of a Liberal deputy.
But of the members of the two parties there was not one who, upon returning home, did not bitterly realize the emptiness of his life and the feebleness of his hands.
While life outside was so colorless and so mean, the inner life of society assumed a sombre aspect of silence; hypocrisy ruled in all departments of conduct; English ideas, combining gayety with devotion, had disappeared. Perhaps Providence was already preparing new ways, perhaps the herald angel of future society was already sowing in the hearts of women the seeds of human independence. But it is certain that a strange thing suddenly happened: in all the salons of Paris the men passed on one side and the women on the other; and thus, the one clad in white like brides, and the other in black like orphans, began to take measure of one another with the eye.
Let us not be deceived: that vestment of black which the men of our time wear is a terrible symbol; before coming to this, the armor must have fallen piece by piece and the embroidery flower by flower. Human reason has overthrown all illusions; but it bears in itself sorrow, in order that it may be consoled.
The customs of students and artists, those customs so free, so beautiful, so full of youth, began to experience the universal change. Men in taking leave of women whispered the word which wounds to the death: contempt. They plunged into the dissipation of wine and courtesans. Students and artists did the same; love was treated as were glory and religion: it was an old illusion. The grisette, that woman so dreamy, so romantic, so tender, and so sweet in love, abandoned herself to the counting-house and to the shop. She was poor and no one loved her; she needed gowns and hats and she sold herself. Oh! misery! the young man who ought to love her, whom she loved, who used to take her to the woods of Verrieres and Romainville, to the dances on the lawn, to the suppers under the trees; he who used to talk with her as she sat near the lamp in the rear of the shop on the long winter evenings; he who shared her crust of bread moistened with the sweat of her brow, and her love at once sublime and poor; he, that same man, after abandoning her, finds her after a night of orgy, pale and leaden, forever lost, with hunger on her lips and prostitution in her heart.
About this time two poets, whose genius was second only to that of Napoleon, consecrated their lives to the work of collecting the elements of anguish and of grief scattered over the universe. Goethe, the patriarch of a new literature, after painting in his Weyther the passion which leads to suicide, traced in his Faust the most sombre human character which has ever represented evil and unhappiness. His writings began to pass from Germany into France. From his studio, surrounded by pictures and statues, rich, happy, and at ease, he watched with a paternal smile his gloomy creations marching in dismal procession across the frontiers of France. Byron replied to him in a cry of grief which made Greece tremble, and hung Manfred over the abyss, as if oblivion were the solution of the hideous enigma with which he enveloped him.
Pardon, great poets! who are now but ashes and who sleep in peace! Pardon, ye demigods, for I am only a child who suffers. But while I write all this I can not but curse you. Why did you not sing of the perfume of flowers, of the voices of nature, of hope and of love, of the vine and the sun, of the azure heavens and of beauty? You must have understood life, you must have suffered; the world was crumbling to pieces about you; you wept on its ruins and you despaired; your mistresses were false; your friends calumniated, your compatriots misunderstood; your heart was empty; death was in your eyes, and you were the Colossi of grief. But tell me, noble Goethe, was there no more consoling voice in the religious murmur of your old German forests? You, for whom beautiful poesy was the sister of science, could not they find in immortal nature a healing plant for the heart of their favorite? You, who were a pantheist, and antique poet of Greece, a lover of sacred forms, could you not put a little honey in the beautiful vases you made; you who had only to smile and allow the bees to come to your lips? And thou, Byron, hadst thou not near Ravenna, under the orange-trees of Italy, under thy beautiful Venetian sky, near thy Adriatic, hadst thou not thy well-beloved? Oh, God! I who speak to you, who am only a feeble child, have perhaps known sorrows that you have never suffered, and yet I believe and hope, and still bless God.
When English and German ideas had passed thus over our heads there ensued disgust and mournful silence, followed by a terrible convulsion. For to formulate general ideas is to change saltpetre into powder, and the Homeric brain of the great Goethe had sucked up, as an alembic, all the juice of the forbidden fruit. Those who did not read him, did not believe it, knew nothing of it. Poor creatures! The explosion carried them away like grains of dust into the abyss of universal doubt.
It was a denial of all heavenly and earthly facts that might be termed disenchantment, or if you will, despair; as if humanity in lethargy had been pronounced dead by those who felt its pulse. Like a soldier who is asked: "In what do you believe?" and who replies: "In myself," so the youth of France, hearing that question, replied: "In nothing."
Then formed two camps: on one side the exalted spirits, sufferers, all the expansive souls who yearned toward the infinite, bowed their heads and wept; they wrapped themselves in unhealthful dreams and nothing could be seen but broken reeds in an ocean of bitterness. On the other side the materialists remained erect, inflexible, in the midst of positive joys, and cared for nothing except to count the money they had acquired. It was but a sob and a burst of laughter, the one coming from the soul, the other from the body.
This is what the soul said:
"Alas! Alas! religion has departed; the clouds of heaven fall in rain; we have no longer either hope or expectation, not even two little pieces of black wood in the shape of a cross before which to clasp our hands. The star of the future is loath to appear; it can not rise above the horizon; it is enveloped in clouds, and like the sun in winter its disc is the color of blood, as in '93. There is no more love, no more glory. What heavy darkness over all the earth! And death will come ere the day breaks."
This is what the body said:
"Man is here below to satisfy his senses; he has more or less of white or yellow metal, by which he merits more or less esteem. To eat, to drink, and to sleep, that is life. As for the bonds which exist between men, friendship consists in loaning money; but one rarely has a friend whom he loves enough for that. Kinship determines inheritance; love is an exercise of the body; the only intellectual joy is vanity."
Like the Asiatic plague exhaled from the vapors of the Ganges, frightful despair stalked over the earth. Already Chateaubriand, prince of poesy, wrapping the horrible idol in his pilgrim's mantle, had placed it on a marble altar in the midst of perfumes and holy incense. Already the children were clenching idle hands and drinking in a bitter cup the poisoned brewage of doubt. Already things were drifting toward the abyss, when the jackals suddenly emerged from the earth. A deathly and infected literature, which had no form but that of ugliness, began to sprinkle with fetid blood all the monsters of nature.
Who will dare to recount what was passing in the colleges? Men doubted everything: the young men denied everything. The poets sang of despair; the youth came from the schools with serene brow, their faces glowing with health, and blasphemy in their mouths. Moreover, the French character, being by nature gay and open, readily assimilated English and German ideas; but hearts too light to struggle and to suffer withered like crushed flowers. Thus the seed of death descended slowly and without shock from the head to the bowels. Instead of having the enthusiasm of evil we had only the negation of the good; instead of despair, insensibility. Children of fifteen, seated listlessly under flowering shrubs, conversed for pastime on subjects which would have made shudder with terror the still thickets of Versailles. The Communion of Christ, the Host, those wafers that stand as the eternal symbol of divine love, were used to seal letters; the children spit upon the Bread of God.
Happy they who escaped those times! Happy they who passed over the abyss while looking up to Heaven. There are such, doubtless, and they will pity us.
It is unfortunately true that there is in blasphemy a certain outlet which solaces the burdened heart. When an atheist, drawing his watch, gave God a quarter of an hour in which to strike him dead, it is certain that it was a quarter of an hour of wrath and of atrocious joy. It was the paroxysm of despair, a nameless appeal to all celestial powers; it was a poor, wretched creature squirming under the foot that was crushing him; it was a loud cry of pain. Who knows? In the eyes of Him who sees all things, it was perhaps a prayer.
Thus these youth found employment for their idle powers in a fondness for despair. To scoff at glory, at religion, at love, at all the world, is a great consolation for those who do not know what to do; they mock at themselves, and in doing so prove the correctness of their view. And then it is pleasant to believe one's self unhappy when one is only idle and tired. Debauchery, moreover, the first result of the principles of death, is a terrible millstone for grinding the energies.
The rich said: "There is nothing real but riches, all else is a dream; let us enjoy and then let us die." Those of moderate fortune said: "There is nothing real but oblivion, all else is a dream; let us forget and let us die." And the poor said: "There is nothing real but unhappiness, all else is a dream; let us blaspheme and die."
Is this too black? Is it exaggerated? What do you think of it? Am I a misanthrope? Allow me to make a reflection.
In reading the history of the fall of the Roman Empire, it is impossible to overlook the evil that the Christians, so admirable when in the desert, did to the State when they were in power. "When I think," said Montesquieu, "of the profound ignorance into which the Greek clergy plunged the laity, I am obliged to compare them to the Scythians of whom Herodotus speaks, who put out the eyes of their slaves in order that nothing might distract their attention from their work . . . . No affair of State, no peace, no truce, no negotiations, no marriage could be transacted by any one but the clergy. The evils of this system were beyond belief."
Montesquieu might have added: Christianity destroyed the emperors but it saved the people. It opened to the barbarians the palaces of Constantinople, but it opened the doors of cottages to the ministering angels of Christ. It had much to do with the great ones of earth. And what is more interesting than the death-rattle of an empire corrupt to the very marrow of its bones, than the sombre galvanism under the influence of which the skeleton of tyranny danced upon the tombs of Heliogabalus and Caracalla? How beautiful that mummy of Rome, embalmed in the perfumes of Nero and swathed in the shroud of Tiberius! It had to do, my friends the politicians, with finding the poor and giving them life and peace; it had to do with allowing the worms and tumors to destroy the monuments of shame, while drawing from the ribs of this mummy a virgin as beautiful as the mother of the Redeemer, Hope, the friend of the oppressed.
That is what Christianity did; and now, after many years, what have they done who destroyed it? They saw that the poor allowed themselves to be oppressed by the rich, the feeble by the strong, because of that saying: "The rich and the strong will oppress me on earth; but when they wish to enter paradise, I shall be at the door and I will accuse them before the tribunal of God." And so, alas! they were patient.
The antagonists of Christ therefore said to the poor: "You wait patiently for the day of justice: there is no justice; you wait for the life eternal to achieve your vengeance: there is no life eternal; you gather up your tears and those of your family, the cries of children and the sobs of women, to place them at the feet of God at the hour of death: there is no God."
Then it is certain that the poor man dried his tears, that he told his wife to check her sobs, his children to come with him, and that he stood erect upon the soil with the power of a bull. He said to the rich: "Thou who oppressest me, thou art only man," and to the priest: "Thou who hast consoled me, thou hast lied." That was just what the antagonists of Christ desired. Perhaps they thought this was the way to achieve man's happiness, sending him out to the conquest of liberty.
But, if the poor man, once satisfied that the priests deceive him, that the rich rob him, that all men have rights, that all good is of this world, and that misery is impiety; if the poor man, believing in himself and in his two arms, says to himself some fine day: "War on the rich! For me, happiness here in this life, since there is no other! for me, the earth, since heaven is empty! for me and for all, since all are equal." Oh! reasoners sublime, who have led him to this, what will you say to him if he is conquered?
Doubtless you are philanthropists, doubtless you are right about the future, and the day will come when you will be blessed; but thus far, we have not blessed you. When the oppressor said: "This world for me!" the oppressed replied: "Heaven for me!" Now what can he say?
All the evils of the present come from two causes: the people who have passed through 1793 and 1814 nurse wounds in their hearts. That which was is no more; what will be, is not yet. Do not seek elsewhere the cause of our malady.
Here is a man whose house falls in ruins; he has torn it down in order to build another. The rubbish encumbers the spot, and he waits for new materials for his new home. At the moment he has prepared to cut the stone and mix the cement, while standing pick in hand with sleeves rolled up, he is informed that there is no more stone, and is advised to whiten the old material and make the best possible use of that. What can you expect this man to do who is unwilling to build his nest out of ruins? The quarry is deep, the tools too weak to hew out the stones. "Wait!" they say to him, "we will draw out the stones one by one; hope, work, advance, withdraw." What do they not tell him? And in the mean time he has lost his old house, and has not yet built the new; he does not know where to protect himself from the rain, or how to prepare his evening meal, nor where to work, nor where to sleep, nor where to die; and his children are newly born.
I am much deceived if we do not resemble that man. Oh! people of the future! when on a warm summer day you bend over your plows in the green fields of your native land; when you see in the pure sunlight, under a spotless sky, the earth, your fruitful mother, smiling in her matutinal robe on the workman, her well-beloved child; when drying on your brow the holy baptism of sweat, you cast your eye over the vast horizon, where there will not be one blade higher than another in the human harvest, but only violets and marguerites in the midst of ripening ears; oh! free men! when you thank God that you were born for that harvest, think of those who are no more, tell yourself that we have dearly purchased the repose which you enjoy; pity us more than all your fathers, for we have suffered the evil which entitled them to pity and we have lost that which consoled them.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CONFESSIONS
I have to explain how I was first taken with the malady of the age.
I was at table, at a great supper, after a masquerade. About me were my friends, richly costumed, on all sides young men and women, all sparkling with beauty and joy; on the right and on the left exquisite dishes, flagons, splendor, flowers; above my head was an obstreperous orchestra, and before me my loved one, whom I idolized.
I was then nineteen; I had passed through no great misfortune, I had suffered from no disease; my character was at once haughty and frank, my heart full of the hopes of youth. The fumes of wine fermented in my head; it was one of those moments of intoxication when all that one sees and hears speaks to one of the well-beloved. All nature appeared a beautiful stone with a thousand facets, on which was engraven the mysterious name. One would willingly embrace all who smile, and feel that he is brother of all who live. My mistress had granted me a rendezvous, and I was gently raising my glass to my lips while my eyes were fixed on her.
As I turned to take a napkin, my fork fell. I stooped to pick it up, and not finding it at first I raised the table cloth to see where it had rolled. I then saw under the table my mistress's foot; it touched that of a young man seated beside her; from time to time they exchanged a gentle pressure.
Perfectly calm, I asked for another fork and continued my supper. My mistress and her neighbor, on their side, were very quiet, talking but little and never looking at each other. The young man had his elbows on the table and was chatting with another woman, who was showing him her necklace and bracelets. My mistress sat motionless, her eyes fixed and swimming with languor. I watched both of them during the entire supper, and I saw nothing either in their gestures or in their faces that could betray them. Finally, at dessert, I dropped my napkin, and stooping down saw that they were still in the same position.
I had promised to escort my mistress to her home that night. She was a widow and therefore free, living alone with an old relative who served as chaperon. As I was crossing the hall she called to me:
"Come, Octave!" she said, "let us go; here I am."
I laughed, and passed out without replying. After walking a short distance I sat down on a stone projecting from a wall. I do not know what my thoughts were; I sat as if stupefied by the unfaithfulness of one of whom I had never been jealous, whom I had never had cause to suspect. What I had seen left no room for doubt; I was felled as if by a stroke from a club. The only thing I remember doing as I sat there, was looking mechanically up at the sky, and, seeing a star shoot across the heavens, I saluted that fugitive gleam, in which poets see a worn-out world, and gravely took off my hat to it.
I returned to my home very quietly, experiencing nothing, as if deprived of all sensation and reflection. I undressed and retired; hardly had my head touched the pillow when the spirit of vengeance seized me with such force that I suddenly sat bolt upright against the wall as if all my muscles were made of wood. I then jumped from my bed with a cry of pain; I could walk only on my heels, the nerves in my toes were so irritated. I passed an hour in this way, completely beside myself, and stiff as a skeleton. It was the first burst of passion I had ever experienced.
The man I had surprised with my mistress was one of my most intimate friends. I went to his house the next day, in company with a young lawyer named Desgenais; we took pistols, another witness, and repaired to the woods of Vincennes. On the way I avoided speaking to my adversary or even approaching him; thus I resisted the temptation to insult or strike him, a useless form of violence at a time when the law recognized the code. But I could not remove my eyes from him. He was the companion of my childhood, and we had lived in the closest intimacy for many years. He understood perfectly my love for my mistress, and had several times intimated that bonds of this kind were sacred to a friend, and that he would be incapable of an attempt to supplant me, even if he loved the same woman. In short, I had perfect confidence in him and I had perhaps never pressed the hand of any human creature more cordially than his.
Eagerly and curiously I scrutinized this man whom I had heard speak of love like an antique hero and whom yet I had caught caressing my mistress. It was the first time in my life I had seen a monster; I measured him with a haggard eye to see what manner of man was this. He whom I had known since he was ten years old, with whom I had lived in the most perfect friendship, it seemed to me I had never seen him. Allow me a comparison.
There is a Spanish play, familiar to all the world, in which a stone statue comes to sup with a profligate, sent thither by divine justice. The profligate puts a good face on the matter and forces himself to affect indifference; but the statue asks for his hand, and when he has extended it he feels himself seized by a mortal chill and falls in convulsions.
Whenever I have loved and confided in any one, either friend or mistress, and suddenly discover that I have been deceived, I can only describe the effect produced on me by comparing it to the clasp of that marble hand. It is the actual impression of marble, it is as if a man of stone had embraced me. Alas! this horrible apparition has knocked more than once at my door; more than once we have supped together.
When the arrangements were all made we placed ourselves in line, facing each other and slowly advancing. My adversary fired the first shot, wounding me in the right arm. I immediately seized my pistol in the other hand; but my strength failed, I could not raise it; I fell on one knee.
Then I saw my enemy running up to me with an expression of great anxiety on his face, and very pale. Seeing that I was wounded, my seconds hastened to my side, but he pushed them aside and seized my wounded arm. His teeth were set, and I could see that he was suffering intense anguish. His agony was as frightful as man can experience.
"Go!" he cried; "go, stanch your wound at the house of——-"
He choked, and so did I.
I was placed in a cab, where I found a physician. My wound was not dangerous, the bone being untouched, but I was in such a state of excitation that it was impossible properly to dress my wound. As they were about to drive from the field I saw a trembling hand at the door of my cab; it was that of my adversary. I shook my head in reply; I was in such a rage that I could not pardon him, although I felt that his repentance was sincere.
By the time I reached home I had lost much blood and felt relieved, for feebleness saved me from the anger which was doing me more harm than my wound. I willingly retired to my bed and called for a glass of water, which I gulped down with relish.
But I was soon attacked by fever. It was then I began to shed tears. I could understand that my mistress had ceased to love me, but not that she could deceive me. I could not comprehend why a woman, who was forced to it by neither duty nor interest, could lie to one man when she loved another. Twenty times a day I asked my friend Desgenais how that could be possible.
"If I were her husband," I said, "or if I supported her, I could easily understand how she might be tempted to deceive me; but if she no longer loves me, why deceive me?"
I did not understand how any one could lie for love; I was but a child, then, but I confess that I do not understand it yet. Every time I have loved a woman I have told her of it, and when I ceased to love her I have confessed it with the same sincerity, having always thought that in matters of this kind the will was not concerned and that there was no crime but falsehood.
To all this Desgenais replied:
"She is unworthy; promise me that you will never see her again."
I solemnly promised. He advised me, moreover, not to write to her, not even to reproach her, and if she wrote to me not to reply. I promised all, with some surprise that he should consider it necessary to exact such a pledge.
Nevertheless, the first thing I did when I was able to leave my room was to visit my mistress. I found her alone, seated in the corner of her room, with an expression of sorrow on her face and an appearance of general disorder in her surroundings. I overwhelmed her with violent reproaches; I was intoxicated with despair. In a paroxysm of grief I fell on the bed and gave free course to my tears.
"Ah! faithless one! wretch!" I cried between my sobs, "you knew that it would kill me. Did the prospect please you? What have I done to you?"
She threw her arms around my neck, saying that she had been tempted, that my rival had intoxicated her at that fatal supper, but that she had never been his; that she had abandoned herself in a moment of forgetfulness; that she had committed a fault but not a crime; but that if I would not pardon her, she, too, would die. All that sincere repentance has of tears, all that sorrow has of eloquence, she exhausted in order to console me; pale and distraught, her dress deranged, her hair falling over her shoulders, she kneeled in the middle of her chamber; never have I seen anything so beautiful, and I shuddered with horror as my senses revolted at the sight.
I went away crushed, scarcely able to direct my tottering steps. I wished never to see her again; but in a quarter of an hour I returned. I do not know what desperate resolve I had formed; I experienced a full desire to know her mine once more, to drain the cup of tears and bitterness to the dregs, and then to die with her. In short I abhorred her, yet I idolized her; I felt that her love was ruin, but that to live without her was impossible. I mounted the stairs like a flash; I spoke to none of the servants, but, familiar with the house, opened the door of her chamber.
I found her seated calmly before her toilette-table, covered with jewels; she held in her hand a piece of red crepe which she passed gently over her cheeks. I thought I was dreaming; it did not seem possible that this was the woman I had left, just fifteen minutes before, overwhelmed with grief, abased to the floor; I was as motionless as a statue. She, hearing the door open, turned her head and smiled:
"Is it you?" she said.
She was going to a ball and was expecting my rival. As she recognized me, she compressed her lips and frowned.
I started to leave the room. I looked at her bare neck, lithe and perfumed, on which rested her knotted hair confined by a jewelled comb; that neck, the seat of vital force, was blacker than hell; two shining tresses had fallen there and some light silvern hairs balanced above it. Her shoulders and neck, whiter than milk, displayed a heavy growth of down. There was in that knotted mass of hair something maddeningly lovely, which seemed to mock me when I thought of the sorrowful abandon in which I had seen her a moment before. I suddenly stepped up to her and struck that neck with the back of my hand. My mistress gave vent to a cry of terror, and fell on her hands, while I hastened from the room.
When I reached my room I was again attacked by fever and was obliged to take to my bed. My wound had reopened and I suffered great pain. Desgenais came to see me and I told him what had happened. He listened in silence, then paced up and down the room as if undecided as to his next course. Finally he stopped before my bed and burst out laughing.
"Is she your first love?" he asked.
"No!" I replied, "she is my last."
Toward midnight, while sleeping restlessly, I seemed to hear in my dreams a profound sigh. I opened my eyes and saw my mistress standing near my bed with arms crossed, looking like a spectre. I could not restrain a cry of fright, believing it to be an apparition conjured up by my diseased brain. I leaped from my bed and fled to the farther end of the room; but she followed me.
"It is I!" said she; putting her arms around me, she drew me to her.
"What do you want of me?" I cried. "Leave, me! I fear I shall kill you!"
"Very well, kill me!" she said. "I have deceived you, I have lied to you, I am an infamous wretch and I am miserable; but I love you, and I can not live without you."
I looked at her; how beautiful she was! Her body was quivering; her eyes were languid with love and moist with voluptuousness; her bosom was bare, her lips were burning. I raised her in my arms.
"Very well," I said, "but before God who sees us, by the soul of my father, I swear that I will kill you and that I will die with you."
I took a knife from the table and placed it under the pillow.
"Come, Octave," she said, smiling and kissing me, "do not be foolish. Come, my dear, all these horrors have unsettled your mind; you are feverish. Give me that knife."
I saw that she wished to take it.
"Listen to me," I then said; "I do not know what comedy you are playing, but as for me I am in earnest. I have loved you as only man can love, and to my sorrow I love you still. You have just told me that you love me, and I hope it is true; but, by all that is sacred, if I am your lover to-night, no one shall take my place tomorrow. Before God, before God," I repeated, "I would not take you back as my mistress, for I hate you as much as I love you. Before God, if you wish to stay here to-night I will kill you in the morning."
When I had spoken these words I fell into a delirium. She threw her cloak over her shoulders and fled from the room.
When I told Desgenais about it he said:
"Why did you do that? You must be very much disgusted, for she is a beautiful woman."
"Are you joking?" I asked. "Do you think such a woman could be my mistress? Do you think I would ever consent to share her with another? Do you know that she confesses that another attracts her, and do you expect me, loving her as I do, to share my love? If that is the way you love, I pity you."
Desgenais replied that he was not so particular.
"My dear Octave," he added, "you are very young. You want many things, beautiful things, which do not exist. You believe in a singular sort of love; perhaps you are capable of it; I believe you are, but I do not envy you. You will have other mistresses, my friend, and you will live to regret what happened last night. If that woman came to you it is certain that she loved you; perhaps she does not love you at this moment—indeed, she may be in the arms of another; but she loved you last night in that room; and what should you care for the rest? You will regret it, believe me, for she will not come again. A woman pardons everything except such a slight. Her love for you must have been something terrible when she came to you knowing and confessing herself guilty, risking rebuff and contempt at your hands. Believe me, you will regret it, for I am satisfied that you will soon be cured."
There was such an air of simple conviction about my friend's words, such a despairing certainty based on experience, that I shuddered as I listened. While he was speaking I felt a strong desire to go to my mistress, or to write to her to come to me. I was so weak that I could not leave my bed, and that saved me from the shame of finding her waiting for my rival or perhaps in his company. But I could write to her; in spite of myself I doubted whether she would come if I should write.
When Desgenais left me I became so desperate that I resolved to put an end to my trouble. After a terrible struggle, horror got the better of love. I wrote my mistress that I would never see her again, and begged her not to try to see me unless she wished to be exposed to the shame of being refused admittance. I called a servant and ordered him to deliver the letter at once. He had hardly closed the door when I called him back. He did not hear me; I did not dare call again; covering my face with my hands, I yielded to an overwhelming sense of despair.
THE PATH OF DESPAIR
The next morning the first question that occurred to my mind was: "What shall I do?"
I had no occupation. I had studied medicine and law without being able to decide on either of the two careers; I had worked for a banker for six months, and my services were so unsatisfactory that I was obliged to resign to avoid being discharged. My studies had been varied but superficial; my memory was active but not retentive.
My only treasure, after love, was reserve. In my childhood I had devoted myself to a solitary way of life, and had, so to speak, consecrated my heart to it. One day my father, solicitous about my future, spoke to me of several careers among which he allowed me to choose. I was leaning on the window-sill, looking at a solitary poplar-tree that was swaying in the breeze down in the garden. I thought over all the various occupations and wondered which one I should choose. I turned them all over, one after another, in my mind, and then, not feeling inclined to any of them, I allowed my thoughts to wander. Suddenly it seemed to me that I felt the earth move, and that a secret, invisible force was slowly dragging me into space and becoming tangible to my senses. I saw it mount into the sky; I seemed to be on a ship; the poplar near my window resembled a mast; I arose, stretched out my arms, and cried:
"It is little enough to be a passenger for one day on this ship floating through space; it is little enough to be a man, a black point on that ship; I will be a man, but not any particular kind of man."
Such was the first vow that, at the age of fourteen, I pronounced in the face of nature, and since then I have done nothing, except in obedience to my father, never being able to overcome my repugnance.
I was therefore free, not through indolence but by choice; loving, moreover, all that God had made and very little that man had made. Of life I knew nothing but love, of the world only my mistress, and I did not care to know anything more. So, falling in love upon leaving college, I sincerely believed that it was for life, and every other thought disappeared.
My life was indolent. I was accustomed to pass the day with my mistress; my greatest pleasure was to take her through the fields on beautiful summer days, the sight of nature in her splendor having ever been for me the most powerful incentive to love. In winter, as she enjoyed society, we attended numerous balls and masquerades, and because I thought of no one but her I fondly imagined her equally true to me.
To give you an idea of my state of mind I can not do better than compare it to one of those rooms we see nowadays in which are collected and mingled the furniture of all times and countries. Our age has no impress of its own. We have impressed the seal of our time neither on our houses nor our gardens, nor on anything that is ours. On the street may be seen men who have their beards trimmed as in the time of Henry III, others who are clean-shaven, others who have their hair arranged as in the time of Raphael, others as in the time of Christ. So the homes of the rich are cabinets of curiosities: the antique, the gothic, the style of the Renaissance, that of Louis XIII, all pell-mell. In short, we have every century except our own—a thing which has never been seen at any other epoch: eclecticism is our taste; we take everything we find, this for beauty, that for utility, another for antiquity, still another for its ugliness even, so that we live surrounded by debris, as if the end of the world were at hand.
Such was the state of my mind; I had read much; moreover I had learned to paint. I knew by heart a great many things, but nothing in order, so that my head was like a sponge, swollen but empty. I fell in love with all the poets one after another; but being of an impressionable nature the last acquaintance disgusted me with the rest. I had made of myself a great warehouse of odds and ends, so that having no more thirst after drinking of the novel and the unknown, I became an oddity myself.
Nevertheless, about me there was still something of youth: it was the hope of my heart, which was still childlike.
That hope, which nothing had withered or corrupted and which love had exalted to excess, had now received a mortal wound. The perfidy of my mistress had struck deep, and when I thought of it, I felt in my soul a swooning away, the convulsive flutter of a wounded bird in agony.
Society, which works so much evil, is like that serpent of the Indies whose habitat is under a shrub, the leaves of which afford the antidote to its venom; in nearly every case it brings the remedy with the wound it causes. For example, the man whose life is one of routine, who has his business cares to claim his attention upon rising, visits at one hour, loves at another, can lose his mistress and suffer no evil effects. His occupations and his thoughts are like impassive soldiers ranged in line of battle; a single shot strikes one down, his neighbors close the gap and the line is intact.
I had not that resource, since I was alone: nature, the kind mother, seemed, on the contrary, vaster and more empty than before. Had I been able to forget my mistress, I should have been saved. How many there are who can be cured with even less than that. Such men are incapable of loving a faithless woman, and their conduct, under the circumstances, is admirable in its firmness. But is it thus one loves at nineteen when, knowing nothing of the world, desiring everything, one feels, within, the germ of all the passions? Everywhere some voice appeals to him. All is desire, all is revery. There is no reality which holds him when the heart is young; there is no oak so gnarled that it may not give birth to a dryad; and if one had a hundred arms one need not fear to open them; one has but to clasp his mistress and all is well.
As for me, I did not understand what else there was to do but love, and when any one spoke to me of other occupations I did not reply. My passion for my mistress had something fierce about it, for all my life had been severely monachal. Let me cite a single instance. She gave me her miniature in a medallion. I wore it over my heart, a practice much affected by men; but one day, while idly rummaging about a shop filled with curiosities, I found an iron "discipline whip" such as was used by the mediaeval flagellants. At the end of this whip was a metal plate bristling with sharp iron points; I had the medallion riveted to this plate and then returned it to its place over my heart. The sharp points pierced my bosom with every movement and caused such strange, voluptuous anguish that I sometimes pressed it down with my hand in order to intensify the sensation. I knew very well that I was committing a folly; love is responsible for many such idiocies.
But since this woman deceived me I loathed the cruel medallion. I can not tell with what sadness I removed that iron circlet, and what a sigh escaped me when it was gone.
"Ah! poor wounds!" I said, "you will soon heal, but what balm is there for that other deeper wound?"
I had reason to hate this woman; she was, so to speak, mingled with the blood of my veins; I cursed her, but I dreamed of her. What could I do with a dream? By what effort of the will could I drown a memory of flesh and blood? Lady Macbeth, having killed Duncan, saw that the ocean would not wash her hands clean again; it would not have washed away my wounds. I said to Desgenais: "When I sleep, her head is on my pillow."
My life had been wrapped up in this woman; to doubt her was to doubt all; to deny her, to curse all; to lose her, to renounce all. I no longer went out; the world seemed peopled with monsters, with horned deer and crocodiles. To all that was said to distract my mind, I replied:
"Yes, that is all very well, but you may rest assured I shall do nothing of the kind."
I sat in my window and said:
"She will come, I am sure of it; she is coming, she is turning the corner at this moment, I can feel her approach. She can no more live without me than I without her. What shall I say? How shall I receive her?"
Then the thought of her perfidy occurred to me.
"Ah! let her come! I will kill her!"
Since my last letter I had heard nothing of her.
"What is she doing?" I asked myself. "She loves another? Then I will love another also. Whom shall I love?"
While thinking, I heard a far distant voice crying:
"Thou, love another? Two beings who love, who embrace, and who are not thou and I! Is such a thing possible? Are you a fool?"
"Coward!" said Desgenais, "when will you forget that woman? Is she such a great loss? Take the first comer and console yourself."
"No," I replied, "it is not such a great loss. Have I not done what I ought? Have I not driven her away from here? What have you to say to that? The rest concerns me; the bull wounded in the arena can lie down in a corner with the sword of the matador 'twixt his shoulders, and die in peace. What can I do, tell me? What do you mean by first comer? You will show me a cloudless sky, trees and houses, men who talk, drink, sing, women who dance and horses that gallop. All that is not life, it is the noise of life. Go, go, leave me in peace."
A PHILOSOPHER'S ADVICE
Desgenais saw that my despair was incurable, that I would neither listen to any advice nor leave my room, he took the thing seriously. I saw him enter one evening with an expression of gravity on his face; he spoke of my mistress and continued in his tone of persiflage, saying all manner of evil of women. While he was speaking I was leaning on my elbow, and, rising in my bed, I listened attentively.
It was one of those sombre evenings when the sighing of the wind recalls the moaning of a dying man. A fitful storm was brewing, and between the plashes of rain on the windows there was the silence of death. All nature suffers in such moments, the trees writhe in pain and hide their heads; the birds of the fields cower under the bushes; the streets of cities are deserted. I was suffering from my wound. But a short time before I had a mistress and a friend. The mistress had deceived me and the friend had stretched me on a bed of pain. I could not clearly distinguish what was passing in my head; it seemed to me that I was under the influence of a horrible dream and that I had but to awake to find myself cured; at times it seemed that my entire life had been a dream, ridiculous and puerile, the falseness of which had just been disclosed. Desgenais was seated near the lamp at my side; he was firm and serious, although a smile hovered about his lips. He was a man of heart, but as dry as a pumice-stone. An early experience had made him bald before his time; he knew life and had suffered; but his grief was a cuirass; he was a materialist and he waited for death.
"Octave," he said, "after what has happened to you, I see that you believe in love such as the poets and romancers have represented; in a word, you believe in what is said here below and not in what is done. That is because you do not reason soundly, and it may lead you into great misfortune.
"Poets represent love as sculptors design beauty, as musicians create melody; that is to say, endowed with an exquisite nervous organization, they gather up with discerning ardor the purest elements of life, the most beautiful lines of matter, and the most harmonious voices of nature. There lived, it is said, at Athens a great number of beautiful girls; Praxiteles drew them all one after another; then from these diverse types of beauty, each one of which had its defects, he formed a single faultless beauty and created Venus. The man who first created a musical instrument, and who gave to harmony its rules and its laws, had for a long time listened to the murmuring of reeds and the singing of birds. Thus the poets, who understand life, after knowing much of love, more or less transitory, after feeling that sublime exaltation which real passion can for the moment inspire, eliminating from human nature all that degrades it, created the mysterious names which through the ages fly from lip to lip: Daphnis and Chloe, Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe.
"To try to find in real life such love as this, eternal and absolute, is but to seek on public squares a woman such as Venus, or to expect nightingales to sing the symphonies of Beethoven.
"Perfection does not exist; to comprehend it is the triumph of human intelligence; to desire to possess it, the most dangerous of follies. Open your window, Octave; do you not see the infinite? You try to form some idea of a thing that has no limits, you who were born yesterday and who will die to-morrow! This spectacle of immensity in every country in the world produces the wildest illusions. Religions are born of it; it was to possess the infinite that Cato cut his throat, that the Christians delivered themselves to lions, the Huguenots to the Catholics; all the people of the earth have stretched out their hands to that immensity and have longed to plunge into it. The fool wishes to possess heaven; the sage admires it, kneels before it, but does not desire it.
"Perfection, my friend, is no more made for us than immensity. We must seek for nothing in it, demand nothing of it, neither love nor beauty, happiness nor virtue; but we must love it if we would be virtuous, if we would attain the greatest happiness of which man is capable.
"Let us suppose you have in your study a picture by Raphael that you consider perfect. Let us say that upon a close examination you discover in one of the figures a gross defect of design, a limb distorted, or a muscle that belies nature, such as has been discovered, they say, in one of the arms of an antique gladiator. You would experience a feeling of displeasure, but you would not throw that picture in the fire; you would merely say that it is not perfect, but that it has qualities that are worthy of admiration.
"There are women whose natural singleness of heart and sincerity are such that they could not have two lovers at the same time. You believed your mistress such an one; that is best, I admit. You have discovered that she has deceived you; does that oblige you to depose and to abuse her, to believe her deserving of your hatred?
"Even if your mistress had never deceived you, even if at this moment she loved none other than you, think, Octave, how far her love would still be from perfection, how human it would be, how small, how restrained by the hypocrisies and conventions of the world; remember that another man possessed her before you, that many others will possess her after you.
"Reflect: what drives you at this moment to despair is the idea of perfection in your mistress, the idea that has been shattered. But when you understand that the primal idea itself was human, small and restricted, you will see that it is little more than a rung in the rotten ladder of human imperfection.
"I think you will readily admit that your mistress has had other admirers, and that she will have still others in the future; you will doubtless reply that it matters little, so long as she loved you. But I ask you, since she has had others, what difference does it make whether it was yesterday or two years since? Since she loves but one at a time, what does it matter whether it is during an interval of two years or in the course of a single night? Are you a man, Octave? Do you see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun rising and setting? Do you hear the ticking of the horologe of time with each pulsation of your heart? Is there, then, such a difference between the love of a year and the love of an hour? I challenge you to answer that, you fool, as you sit there looking out at the infinite through a window not larger than your hand.
"You consider that woman faithful who loves you two years; you must have an almanac that will indicate just how long it takes for an honest man's kisses to dry on a woman's lips. You make a distinction between the woman who sells herself for money and the one who gives herself for pleasure; between the one who gives herself through pride and the one who gives herself through devotion. Among women who are for sale, some cost more than others; among those who are sought for pleasure some inspire more confidence than others; and among those who are worthy of devotion there are some who receive a third of a man's heart, others a quarter, others a half, depending upon her education, her manner, her name, her birth, her beauty, her temperament, according to the occasion, according to what is said, according to the time, according to what you have drunk at dinner.
"You love women, Octave, because you are young, ardent, because your features are regular, and your hair dark and glossy, but you do not, for all that, understand woman.
"Nature, having all, desires the reproduction of beings; everywhere, from the summit of the mountain to the bottom of the sea, life is opposed to death. God, to conserve the work of His hands, has established this law-that the greatest pleasure of all sentient beings shall be to procreate.
"Oh! my friend, when you feel bursting on your lips the vow of eternal love, do not be afraid to yield, but do not confound wine with intoxication; do not think of the cup divine because the draught is of celestial flavor; do not be astonished to find it broken and empty in the evening. It is but woman, but a fragile vase, made of earth by a potter.
"Thank God for giving you a glimpse of heaven, but do not imagine yourself a bird because you can flap your wings. The birds themselves can not escape the clouds; there is a region where air fails them and the lark, rising with its song into the morning fog, sometimes falls back dead in the field.
"Take love as a sober man takes wine; do not become a drunkard. If your mistress is sincere and faithful, love her for that; but if she is not, if she is merely young and beautiful, love her for that; if she is agreeable and spirituelle, love her for that; if she is none of these things but merely loves you, love her for that. Love does not come to us every day.
"Do not tear your hair and stab yourself because you have a rival. You say that your mistress deceives you for another; it is your pride that suffers; but change the words, say that it is for you that she deceives him, and behold, you are happy!
"Do not make a rule of conduct, and do not say that you wish to be loved exclusively, for in saying that, as you are a man and inconstant yourself, you are forced to add tacitly: 'As far as possible.'
"Take time as it comes, the wind as it blows, woman as she is. The Spaniards, first among women, love faithfully; their hearts are sincere and violent, but they wear a dagger just above them. Italian women are lascivious. The English are exalted and melancholy, cold and unnatural. The German women are tender and sweet, but colorless and monotonous. The French are spirituelle, elegant, and voluptuous, but are false at heart.
"Above all, do not accuse women of being what they are; we have made them thus, undoing the work of nature.
"Nature, who thinks of everything, made the virgin for love; but with the first child her bosom loses form, her beauty its freshness. Woman is made for motherhood. Man would perhaps abandon her, disgusted by the loss of beauty; but his child clings to him and weeps. Behold the family, the human law; everything that departs from this law is monstrous.
"Civilization thwarts the ends of nature. In our cities, according to our customs, the virgin destined by nature for the open air, made to run in the sunlight; to admire the nude wrestlers, as in Lacedemonia, to choose and to love, is shut up in close confinement and bolted in. Meanwhile she hides romance under her cross; pale and idle, she fades away and loses, in the silence of the nights, that beauty which oppresses her and needs the open air. Then she is suddenly snatched from this solitude, knowing nothing, loving nothing, desiring everything; an old woman instructs her, a mysterious word is whispered in her ear, and she is thrown into the arms of a stranger. There you have marriage, that is to say, the civilized family.
"A child is born. This poor creature has lost her beauty and she has never loved. The child is brought to her with the words: 'You are a mother.' She replies: 'I am not a mother; take that child to some woman who can nurse it. I can not.' Her husband tells her that she is right, that her child would be disgusted with her. She receives careful attention and is soon cured of the disease of maternity. A month later she may be seen at the Tuileries, at the ball, at the opera; her child is at Chaillot, at Auxerre; her husband with another woman. Then young men speak to her of love, of devotion, of sympathy, of all that is in the heart. She takes one, draws him to her bosom; he dishonors her and returns to the Bourse. She cries all night, but discovers that tears make her eyes red. She takes a consoler, for the loss of whom another consoles her; thus up to the age of thirty or more. Then, blase and corrupted, with no human sentiment, not even disgust, she meets a fine youth with raven locks, ardent eye and hopeful heart; she recalls her own youth, she remembers what she has suffered, and telling him the story of her life, she teaches him to eschew love.
"That is woman as we have made her; such are your mistresses. But you say they are women and that there is something good in them!
"But if your character is formed, if you are truly a man, sure of yourself and confident of your strength, you may taste of life without fear and without reserve; you may be sad or joyous, deceived or respected; but be sure you are loved, for what matters the rest?
"If you are mediocre and ordinary, I advise you to consider your course very carefully before deciding, but do not expect too much of your mistress.
"If you are weak, dependent upon others, inclined to allow yourself to be dominated by opinion, to take root wherever you see a little soil, make for yourself a shield that will resist everything, for if you yield to your weaker nature you will not grow, you will dry up like a dead plant, and you will bear neither fruit nor flowers. The sap of your life will dissipate into the formation of useless bark; all your actions will be as colorless as the leaves of the willow; you will have no tears to water you, but those from your own eyes; to nourish you, no heart but your own.
"But if you are of an exalted nature, believing in dreams and wishing to realize them, I say to you plainly: Love does not exist.
"For to love is to give body and soul, or better, it is to make a single being of two; it is to walk in the sunlight, in the open air through the boundless prairies with a body having four arms, two heads, and two hearts. Love is faith, it is the religion of terrestrial happiness, it is a luminous triangle suspended in the temple of the world. To love is to walk freely through that temple, at your side a being capable of understanding why a thought, a word, a flower makes you pause and raise your eyes to that celestial triangle. To exercise the noble faculties of man is a great good—that is why genius is glorious; but to double those faculties, to place a heart and an intelligence upon a heart and an intelligence—that is supreme happiness. God has nothing better for man; that is why love is better than genius.
"But tell me, is that the love of our women? No, no, it must be admitted. Love, for them, is another thing; it is to go out veiled, to write in secret, to make trembling advances, to heave chaste sighs under starched and unnatural robes, then to draw bolts and throw them aside, to humiliate a rival, to deceive a husband, to render a lover desolate. To love, for our women, is to play at lying, as children play at hide and seek, a hideous orgy of the heart, worse than the lubricity of the Romans, or the Saturnalia of Priapus; a bastard parody of vice itself, as well as of virtue; a loathsome comedy where all is whispering and sidelong glances, where all is small, elegant, and deformed, like those porcelain monsters brought from China; a lamentable satire on all that is beautiful and ugly, divine and infernal; a shadow without a body, a skeleton of all that God has made."
Thus spoke Desgenais; and the shadows of night began to fall.
The following morning I rode through the Bois de Boulogne; the weather was dark and threatening. At the Porte Maillot I dropped the reins on my horse's back and abandoned myself to revery, revolving in my mind the words spoken by Desgenais the evening before.
Suddenly I heard my name called. Turning my head I spied one of my inamorata's most intimate friends in an open carriage. She bade me stop, and, holding out her hand with a friendly air, invited me to dine with her if I had no other engagement.
This woman, Madame Levasseur by name, was small, stout, and decidedly blonde; I had never liked her, and my attitude toward her had always been one of studied politeness. But I could not resist a desire to accept her invitation; I pressed her hand and thanked her; I was sure that we should talk of my mistress.
She sent a servant to lead my horse and I entered her carriage; she was alone, and we at once took the road to Paris. Rain began to fall, and the carriage curtains were drawn; thus shut up together we rode on in silence. I looked at her with inexpressible sadness; she was not only the friend of my faithless one but her confidante. She had often formed one of our party when I called on my mistress in the evening. With what impatience had I endured her presence! How often I counted the minutes that must elapse before she would leave! That was probably the cause of my aversion to her. I knew that she approved of our love; she even went so far as to defend me in our quarrels. In spite of the services she had rendered me, I considered her ugly and tiresome. Alas! now I found her beautiful! I looked at her hands, her clothes; every gesture went straight to my heart; all the past was associated with her. She noticed the change in manner and understood that I was oppressed by sad memories of the past. Thus we sped on our way, I looking at her, she smiling at me. When we reached Paris she took my hand:
"Well?" she said.
"Well?" I replied, sobbing, "tell her if you wish." Tears rushed from my eyes.
After dinner we sat before the fire.
"But tell me," she said, "is it irrevocable? Can nothing be done?"
"Alas! Madame," I replied, "there is nothing irrevocable except the grief that is killing me. My condition can be expressed in a few words: I can not love her, I can not love another, and I can not cease loving."
At these words she moved uneasily in her chair, and I could see an expression of compassion on her face.
For some time she appeared to be reflecting, as if pondering over my fate and seeking some remedy for my sorrow. Her eyes were closed and she appeared lost in revery. She extended her hand and I took it in mine.
"And I, too," she murmured, "that is just my experience." She stopped, overcome by emotion.
Of all the sisters of love, the most beautiful is pity. I held Madame Levasseur's hand as she began to speak of my mistress, saying all she could think of in her favor. My sadness increased. What could I reply? Finally she came to speak of herself.
Not long since, she said, a man who loved her abandoned her. She had made great sacrifices for him; her fortune was compromised, as well as her honor and her name. Her husband, whom she knew to be vindictive, had made threats. Her tears flowed as she continued, and I began to forget my own sorrow in my sympathy for her. She had been married against her will; she struggled a long time; but she regretted nothing except that she had not been able to inspire a more sincere affection. I believe she even accused herself because she had not been able to hold her lover's heart, and because she had been guilty of apparent indifference.
When she had unburdened her heart she became silent.
"Madame," I said, "it was not chance that brought about our meeting in the Bois de Boulogne. I believe that human sorrows are but wandering sisters and that some good angel unites the trembling hands that are stretched out for aid. Do not repent having told me your sorrow. The secret you have confided to me is only a tear which has fallen from your eye, but has rested on my heart. Permit me to come again and let us suffer together."
Such lively sympathy took possession of me that without reflection I kissed her; it did not occur to my mind that it could offend her, and she did not appear even to notice it.
Our conversation continued in this tone of expansive friendship. She told me her sorrows, I told her mine, and between these two experiences which touched each other, I felt arise a sweetness, a celestial accord born of two voices in anguish. All this time I had seen nothing but her face. Suddenly I noticed that her dress was in disorder. It appeared singular to me that, seeing my embarrassment, she did not rearrange it, and I turned my head to give her an opportunity. She did nothing. Finally, meeting her eyes and seeing that she was perfectly aware of the state she was in, I felt as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt, for I now clearly understood that I was the plaything of her monstrous effrontery, that grief itself was for her but a means of seducing the senses. I took my hat without a word, bowed profoundly, and left the room.
THE WISDOM OF SIRACH
Upon returning to my apartments I found a large box in the centre of the room. One of my aunts had died, and I was one of the heirs to her fortune, which was not large.
The box contained, among other things, a number of musty old books. Not knowing what to do, and being afflicted with ennui, I began to read one of them. They were for the most part romances of the time of Louis XV; my pious aunt had probably inherited them herself and never read them, for they were, so to speak, catechisms of vice.
I was singularly disposed to reflect on everything that came to my notice, to give everything a mental and moral significance; I treated events as pearls in a necklace which I tried to string together.
It struck me that there was something significant about the arrival of these books at this time. I devoured them with a bitterness and a sadness born of despair. "Yes, you are right," I said to myself, "you alone possess the secret of life, you alone dare to say that nothing is true and real but debauchery, hypocrisy, and corruption. Be my friends, throw on the wound in my soul your corrosive poisons, teach me to believe in you."