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Honore De Balzac - Louis Lampert (1832)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



This work, in which Balzac said he endeavored "to strive with Goethe and Byron, with Faust and Manfred," was written and published in 1832. It first appeared in a book called Nouveaux Contes Philosophiques, and in 1833 was issued alone as Histoire Intellectuelle de Louis Lambert. In 1846, it was classified with the Etudes Philosophiques in the Comedie Humaine. Much of Louis Lambert is autobiographical. For seven years Balzac attended a school in Vendome, where he met with little sympathy and endured the hardships he describes so vividly. He preferred omnivorous reading to the prescribed studies; and here he wrote a Treatise on the Will, which one of the masters burned. It may be noted that Balzac places Pauline de Villenoix in his list of irreproachable women included in his Author's Introduction to The Human Comedy. Louis Lambert may be said to form a kind of trilogy with The Magic Skin and Seraphita. It was published between these other two metaphysical and mystical works.

LOUIS LAMBERT was born in 1797 at Montoire in the Vendomois, where his father was a small tanner. His parents, who adored their only child, never contradicted him in anything. At the age of five his passion for reading began with the Bible; and from that, till the age of ten, he went over the village begging for books and obtaining them by winning ways peculiar to children. At that period substitutes for the army were scarce; rich people secured them in advance for their sons when the lots should be drawn; but the tanner was not wealthy enough to purchase a substitute for his son, and the only legal means of evading the conscription was to make him a priest; so, in 1807, he was sent to his maternal uncle, the parish priest of Mer, not far from Blois. After a stay of three years with his uncle, an old and not uncultured Oratorian, Louis left him in 1811 to enter the college at Vendome. He was accustomed to spend at home the time that his uncle allowed him for his holidays, setting out every morning with part of a loaf and his books and going to read and meditate in the woods, to escape his mother's remonstrances; for she believed such persistent study injurious. Reading was in Louis an appetite which nothing could satisfy; he devoured books of every kind. The cure of Mer had two or three thousand volumes, and in three years Louis assimilated the contents of all the books that were worth reading. His memory was prodigious. He remembered with equal exactitude the ideas he had derived from reading and those which had occurred to him in the course of meditation or conversation. He had every form of memory—for places, names, words, things, and faces. He not only recalled any object at will, but he saw it in his mind, situated, lighted, and colored as he had originally seen it; and this power he could exert with equal effect with regard to the most abstract efforts of the intellect.

A strong predilection for mystical studies was due to the influence of the first books he read at his uncle's. Saint Theresa and Madame Guyon were a sequel to the Bible; they accustomed him to those swift reactions of the soul of which ecstasy is at once the result and the means.

Madame de Stael, forbidden by Napoleon to approach Paris within forty leagues, spent a part of her exile near Vendome. One day, while walking in the park, she chanced upon the ragged tanner's son absorbed in a translation of Heaven and Hell. At that time Swedenborg was known to very few writers even, and the lady in astonishment asked Louis in her rough way:

"Do you understand all this?"

"Do you pray to God?" he asked in reply.

"Why, yes."

"And do you understand Him?"

Madame de Stael was reduced to silence for a moment, and then began to question him. On her return home, she said : "He is a real seer." She determined to save Louis from serving the Emperor or the Church, and to preserve him for the glorious destiny which she thought awaited him. Before leaving the neighborhood, therefore, she instructed a friend of hers, Monsieur de Corbigny, to send her Moses in due course to the high school at Vendome. Then she probably forgot him. A hundred louis which she placed in the hands of M. de Corbigny, who died in 1812, was not sufficient to leave lasting memories in Madame de Stael.

Louis entered the college in 1811 at the age of fourteen. When he left it, three years later, he was too poor to go in search of a patroness who was traveling over Europe. However, he went on foot from Blois to Paris in the hope of seeing her, and arrived, unluckily, on the very day of her death.

When Louis arrived at the college, I was twelve years of age and was passionately addicted to reading. My father, who was ambitious to see me in the Ecole Polytechnique, paid for me to have a special course of private lessons in mathematics. My mathematical master was the librarian of the college, and allowed me to help myself to books without much caring what I chose to take from the library, a quiet spot where I went to him during play-hours to have my lesson. Either he was no great mathematician, or he was absorbed in some grand scheme, for he very willingly left me to read when I ought to have been learning, while he worked at I knew not what. So, by a tacit understanding between us, I made no complaints of being taught nothing, and he said nothing of the books I borrowed.

I neglected my studies to compose poems. In derision of such attempts, I was nicknamed the Poet; but mockery did not cure me. I became the least emulous, the idlest, the most dreamy of "little boys"; and, consequently, the most frequently punished. . . . I felt sympathy from the first for the boy whose temperament had some points of likeness to my own.

After three months at school, Louis was looked upon as an ordinary scholar. I alone was allowed really to know that sublime soul. The similarity of our tastes made us friends and chums; our intimacy was so brotherly that our school-fellows joined our names; one was never spoken without the other, and to call either they always shouted "Poet-and-Pythagoras."

Louis never earned the rest of playtime; he always had impositions to write. The imposition consisted at Vendome of a certain number of lines to be written out in play-hours. .Lambert and I were so overpowered with impositions that we had not six free days during the two years of our school friendship. We incurred the infliction in a thousand ways. Our memories were so good that we never learned a lesson. It was enough for either of us to hear our class-fellows repeat the task in French, Latin, or grammar, and we could say it when our turn came; but if the master, unfortunately, took it into his head to reverse the usual order and call upon us first, we very often did not even know what the lesson was.

Our independence, our illicit amusements, our apparent waste of time, our persistent indifference, our frequent punishments and aversion for our exercises and impositions, earned us a reputation, which no one cared to controvert, for being an idle and incorrigible pair, Our masters treated us with con-tempt, and we fell into utter disgrace with our companions, from whom we concealed our secret studies for fear of being laughed at. We could neither play ball, nor run races, nor walk on stilts. On exceptional holidays, when amnesty was proclaimed and we got a few hours of freedom, we shared in none of the popular diversions of the school. Aliens from the pleasures enjoyed by the others, we were outcasts, sitting forlorn under a tree in the playground.

Louis was a spiritualist. His considerations on the sub-stance of the mind led to his accepting with a certain pride the life of privation to which we were condemned. His passion for mystery often led us to discuss Heaven and Hell. Then Louis, by expounding Swedenborg, would try to make me share his beliefs concerning angels. To him pure love was the coalescence of two angelic natures. Nothing could exceed the fervency with which he longed to meet a woman angel. And who better than he could inspire love or feel it? If anything could give an impression of an exquisite nature, was it not the amiability and kindliness that marked his feelings, words, actions, and slightest gestures?

On one occasion, after discussing man's twofold nature, he announced his intention of studying the chemistry of the Will. The treatise that he wrote on the subject was confiscated and destroyed as rubbish by a malicious tutor.

When I subsequently read the observations made by Bichat on the duality of our external senses, I was bewildered at recognizing the startling coincidences between the views of that celebrated physiologist and those of Louis. If Lambert had no other title to fame than the fact of his having formulated, in his sixteenth year, such a physiological dictum as this, "The events which bear witness to the action of the human race and are the outcome of its intellect have causes by which they are preconceived—as our action are accomplished in our minds before they are reproduced by the outer man; presentiments or predictions are the perception of these causes," I think we may deplore in him the loss of a genius equal to Pascal, Lavoisier, or Laplace. His notions about angels perhaps over-ruled his work too long; but was it not in trying to make gold that the alchemists unconsciously created chemistry?

Six months after the confiscation of the treatise, I left school; my mother, alarmed by a fever, carried me home at a few hours' notice, and the announcement of my departure reduced Lambert to dreadful dejection.

I had seen nothing of the first phase of his brain development—up to his thirteenth year. I was so fortunate as to witness the first stage of the second period. Lambert was cast into all the miseries of school-life—and that, perhaps, was his salvation, for it absorbed the superabundance of his thoughts. After passing from concrete ideas to their purest expression, front words to their ideal import, and from that import to principles, after reducing everything to the abstract, to enable him to live he yearned for still other intellectual creations. Quelled by the woes of school and the critical development of his physical constitution, he became thoughtful, dreamed of feeling, and caught a glimpse of new sciences—positively masses of ideas. Checked in his career, and not yet strong enough to contemplate the higher spheres, he contemplated his inmost self. I then perceived in him the struggle of the Mind reacting on itself, and trying to detect the secrets of its own nature, like a physician who watches the course of his own disease.

The third phase I was not destined to see. It began when Lambert and I were parted, for he did not leave college till he was eighteen, in the summer of1815. He had at that time lost his father and mother about six months before. Finding no member of his family with whom his soul could sympathize, expansive still, but, since our parting, thrown back on himself, he made his home with his uncle, who was also his guardian, and who, having been turned out of his benefice as a priest who had taken the oaths, had come to settle at Blois. There Louis lived for some time; but, consumed by the desire to finish his incomplete studies, he came to Paris to see Madame de Stael, and to drink of science at its highest fount. The old priest, being very fond of his nephew, left Louis free to spend his whole little inheritance in his three years' stay in Paris, though he lived very poorly.

Lambert returned to Blois at the beginning of 1820, driven from Paris by the sufferings to which struggling genius is ex-posed there. Judging by the letters his uncle received, he was often a victim to the secret storms and terrible mental anguish by which artists are racked. His feelings, perpetually wounded in the Parisian whirlpool of self-interest, were constantly lacerated. He had no friend to comfort him, no enemy to give tone to his life. Compelled to live in himself alone, having no one to share his subtle raptures, he hoped to solve the problem of his destiny by a life of ecstasy, adopting an almost vegetative attitude, like an anchorite of the early Church.

In the longest of these letters, he complains to his uncle that his long and patient study of Parisian society has brought him to melancholy conclusions. "Here money is the mainspring of everything. . . . But though that dross is necessary to any-one who wishes to think in peace, I have not courage enough to make it the sole motive power of my thoughts. I am absolutely devoid of the constant attention indispensable to the making of a fortune. The man who gives his life to the achievement of great things in the sphere of intellect needs very little; still; though twenty sous a day would be enough, I do not possess that small income for my laborious idleness. When I wish to cogitate, want drives me out of the sanctuary where my mind has its being. . . . Everything here checks the flight of a spirit that strives toward the future. . . . The poet's sensitive nerves are perpetually shocked, and what should be his glory becomes his torment; his imagination is his cruelest enemy. The injured workman, the poor mother in childbed, the prostitute who has fallen ill, the foundling, the infirm and aged—even vice and crime here find a refuge and a charity; but the world is merciless to the inventor, to the man who thinks. Fruitless attempts are mocked at, though they may lead to the greatest discoveries; the deep and untiring study that demands long concentration of every faculty is not valued here. The State might pay talent as it pays the bayonet... . Ah, my dear uncle, when monastic solitude was destroyed, up-rooted from its home at the foot of mountains, under green and silent shade, asylums ought to have been provided for those suffering souls who, by an idea, promote the progress of nations, or prepare some new and fruitful development of science."

Louis proceeded to animadvert on the methods of the Institute and the condition of science, art, politics, and religion. He was troubled by the problems of philosophical science; the roots of the past and their inseparability from the future; deism and atheism; and the transmission of animal faculties. He concluded : "Any man who plunges into those religious waters, of which the sources are not all known, will find proofs that Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, and Swedenborg had identical principles and aimed at identical ends. . . . The last of them all, Swedenborg, will perhaps be the Buddha of the north. His theocracy is sublime, and his creed is the only acceptable one to superior souls. He alone brings man into immediate communion with God; he gives a thirst for God; he has freed the majesty of God from the trap-pings in which other human dogmas have disguised Him. Swedenborg has absolved God from the reproach attaching to Him in the estimation of tender souls for the perpetuity of revenge to punish the sin of a moment. Each man may know for himself what hope he has of life eternal, and whether this world has any rational sense. I mean to make the attempt, and this attempt may save the world just as much as the cross at Jerusalem or the sword at Mecca. These were both the offspring of the desert. And I, too, crave for the desert!"

When Louis returned to Blois, his uncle was eager to pro-cure him some amusement; but in that godly town the revolutionary priest who had taken the oaths of allegiance was almost a social leper. His only acquaintances were those of liberal, patriotic, or constitutional opinions, on whom he occasionally called for a rubber of whist.

The first household into which Louis was introduced was presided over by the beautiful Mademoiselle Pauline de Villenoix, sole heiress to a Jew, who, in his old age, had married a Roman Catholic, As soon as Louis saw the lovely young Jewess, he discerned the angel within, With the rich powers of his soul and his tendency to ecstatic reverie, every faculty within him was at once concentrated in boundless love, the first love of a young man, When an accident threw me in the way of his uncle, the good man showed we into the room in which Lambert had at that time lived.

Among his papers I found five letters. He had probably written his love-letters twice over. In these each line was evidently the result of a reverie, and each word the subject of long cogitation, while the most unrestrained passion shone through all. The last paragraphs of the final letter read as follows:

"Tomorrow, then, our love is to be made known ! Oh, Pauline! the eyes of others, the curiosity of strangers, weigh on my soul, Let us go to Villenoix, and stay there far from everyone, I should like no creature in human form to intrude into the sanctuary where you are to be mine; I could even wish that, when we are dead, it should cease to exist—should be destroyed. Yes, I would fain hide from all nature a happiness which we alone can understand, alone can feel, which is so stupendous that I throw myself into it only to die—it is a gulf ! Do not be alarmed by the tears that have wetted this page; they are tears of joy. My only blessing, we need never part again "

In 1823 I traveled from Paris to Touraine by diligence. At Mer we took up a passenger for Blois, . . . On hearing the name (Monsieur Lefebvre) and seeing a white-haired old man, who appeared to be eighty at least, I naturally thought of Lambert's uncle, and I discovered that I was not mistaken. I then asked for some news of my old chum.

"Then you have not heard his story," said he, "My poor nephew was to be married to the richest heiress in Blois; but the day before his wedding he went mad,"

From M. Lefebvre's account, Lambert had betrayed some symptoms of madness before marriage, but they were such as are common to men who love passionately, and seemed to me less startling when I knew how vehement his love had been and when I saw Mademoiselle de Villenoix.

The most serious symptom had supervened a day or two before the marriage. Louis had had some well-marked attacks of catalepsy. He had office remained motionless fifty-nine hours, with his eyes staring; a purely nervous affection, to which persons under the influence of violent passion are liable. What was really extraordinary was that Louis should not have had several previous attacks, since his habits of rapt thought and the character of his mind would predispose him to them. Time was when Lambert and I had admired this phenomenon of the human mind, in Which he saw the fortuitous separation of our two natures, and the signs of a total removal of the inner man using its unknown faculties under the operation of an unknown cause.

"When this attack had passed off," said M. Lefebvre, "my nephew sank into a state of extreme terror, a dejection that nothing could overcome: He thought himself unfit for marriage. I at once carried him off to Paris. All through our journey, Louis was sunk in almost unbroken torpor. The Paris physicians pronounced him incurable and advised his being left in perfect solitude with nothing to break the silence that was needful for his very improbable recovery, and that he should always live in a cool room with a subdued light. Mademoiselle de Villenoix went to Paris and heard what the doctors had pronounced. She immediately begged to see my nephew, who hardly recognized her; then, like the noble soul she is, she insisted oh devoting herself to giving him such care as might tend to his recovery: She would have been obliged to do so if he had been her husband, she said, and could she do less for him as her lover? She removed Louis to Villenoix, where they have been living for two years."

So, instead of continuing my journey, I stopped at Blois to see Louis.

When I saw the tall turrets of the chateau, remembering how often poor Lambert must have thrilled at the sight of them, my heart beat anxiously. The marble-floored room was so dark that at first I saw Mademoiselle de Villenoix and Lambert only as two black masses against the gloomy background. To het remark that I Was his old school-friend, he made no reply. He was standing, his elbows resting oh the cornice of the low wainscot, which threw his body forward, so that it seemed bowed under the weight of his bent head. His hair was as long as a woman's, falling over his shoulders and hanging about his face. His face was perfectly white. Near him was a bed of moss on boards.

"He very rarely lies down," said Mademoiselle de Villenoix, "but whenever he does he sleeps for several days."

Louis stood, as I beheld him, day and night, with a fixed gaze, never winking his eyelids. Having asked whether a little more light would hurt our friend, I opened the shutters a little way, and could see the expression of Lambert's countenance. Alas! he was wrinkled, white-headed, his eyes dull and lifeless as those of the blind. I made several attempts to talk to him, but he did not hear me. I stayed about an hour, sunk in unaccountable dreams and lost in painful thought. I listened to Mademoiselle de Villenoix, who told me every detail of his life. This woman, this angel, always was with him, seated at her embroidery-frame; and each time she drew the needle out she gazed at Lambert with sad and tender feeling. Unable to endure this terrible sight, I went out, and she came with me to walk for a few minutes and talk of herself and of Lambert. She said :

"To others he seems insane; to me, living as I do in his mind, his ideas are quite lucid. I follow the road his spirit travels; and, though I do not know every turning, I can reach the goal with him. Louis is always in this state; he soars perpetually through the spaces of thought: I can follow him in his flight. I am content to hear his heart beat, and all my happiness is to be with him. Is he not wholly mine? I can live on memory."

After going in to see Louis once more, I took leave. I was afraid to place myself again in that heavy atmosphere where ecstasy was contagious. I was conscious of strange disturbances, transcending the most fantastic results of taking tea, coffee, or opium, of dreams, or of fever—mysterious agents, whose terrible action often sets our brains on fire.

Louis Lambert died at the age of twenty-eight, September 25, 1824, in his true love's arms. He was buried by her desire on an island in the park at Villenoix. His tombstone is a plain stone cross, without name or date. Like a flower that has blossomed on the margin of a precipice, and drops into it, its colors and fragrance all unknown, it was fitting that he, too, should fall. Like many another misprized soul, he had often yearned to dive haughtily into the void, and abandon there the secrets of his own life.

Mademoiselle de Villenoix would have been justified in recording his name on that cross with her own. Since her partner's death, reunion has been her constant hourly hope. But the vanities of woe are foreign to faithful souls.

Villenoix is falling into ruin. She no longer resides there; to the end, no doubt, that she may the better picture herself there as she used to be. She had said long ago :

"His heart was mine; his genius is with God."



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