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Honore De Balzac - Seraphita (1835)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Seraphita first appeared in Le Livre Mystique, with Louis Lambert and Les Proscrits (Paris, 1835). A portion of it had already been published in the Revue de Paris in 1834. In 1840 it appeared in Le Livre des Douleurs; in 1842 it was republished with Louis Lambert. Since 1846 it has been included in the Comedic in the Etudes Philosophiques. Balzac's personal estimate of this work is very high. In his dedication to Madame de Hanska he said: "If I should be accused of incapacity after trying to extract from the depths of mysticism this book, which demanded the glowing poetry of the East under the transparency of our beautiful language, the blame be yours! Did you not compel me to the effort—such an effort as Jacob's—by telling me that even the most imperfect outline of the figure dreamed of by you, as it has been by me from my infancy, would still be something in your eyes? Here, then, is that something. Why cannot this book be set apart exclusively for those lofty spirits who, like you, are preserved from worldly pettiness by solitude!" In his Introduction to the Comedy (1842), Balzac thus explains his aim: "Some persons, seeing me collect such a mass of facts and paint them as they are, with passion for their motive power, have supposed, but wrongly, that I must belong to the school of Sensualism and Materialism—two aspects of the same thing—Pantheism. But their misapprehension was perhaps justified—or inevitable. I do not share the belief in indefinite progress for society as a whole; I believe in man's improvement in himself. Those who insist in reading in me the intention to consider man as a finished creation are strangely mistaken. Seraphita, the doctrine in action of the Christian Buddha, seems to me an ample answer to this rather heedless accusation. . . . The wonders of animal magnetism, with which I have been familiar since 182o; the beautiful experiments of Gall, Lavater's successor; all the men who have studied mind as opticians have studied light—two not dissimilar things—point to a conclusion in favor of the mystics, the disciples of St. John, and of those great thinkers who have established the spiritual world—the sphere in which are revealed the relations of God and man."

IN May, 1800, the mountainous amphitheater en-closing the Stromfiord between Drontheim and Christiania was still covered with snow and ice; the falls of the Sieg even had not yet melted. It was a daring thing, therefore, for two human beings to mount the shelves of the Falberg to the summit on their skis. Finally they paused, and she whose name was Minna, looking down into the abyss, was fascinated and overwhelmed with the spectacle at her feet, and was about to throw herself down the precipice in her vertigo, crying, "I am dying, my Seraphitus, having loved no one but you!"

Seraphitus breathed softly on her brow and eyes, and immediately she was calmed.

"Who and what are you?" she cried; "but I know, you are my life."

Without replying, Seraphitus left her side and stood on the very edge of the precipice, looking calmly into the gulf. Minna called him back in agony and asked the source of such super-human strength of mind. The strange being, raising his hand toward the blue patch between the clouds, replied:

"You can look into far greater space without a qualm." "But what a difference," she said, smiling.

"You are right," he replied. "We are born to aspire sky-ward. Our native home, like a mother's face, never frightens its children."

They proceeded till they reached a beautiful little meadow full of alpine plants. In Minna's delight in his presence and talk, she exclaimed that she never had seen Seraphitus so beautiful. Seraphitus had a complexion like the internal glow of an. alabaster vase, and eyes that seemed to give out light rather than receive it, a frame slight and fragile as a woman's, but of wonderful strength, and hair with light curls.

Seraphitus repelled Minna's proffered embrace, and said kindly : "Come!" To her gentle reproaches, Seraphitus re-plied by exhorting her to a celestial love, when she would love all creatures, and added: "Some day, perhaps, we may meet in the world where love never dies."

Then he said: "I can give nothing that you want. Why do you not love Wilfrid? He will be your lover, your husband. I wanted a companion to go with me to the realm of light. I thought to show her this ball of clay, and I find that you still cling to it. Adieu! Remain as you are, enjoy through your senses, obey your nature; turn pale with pale men, blush with women, play with children, pray with sinners, look up to heaven when you are stricken; tremble, hope, yearn; you will have a comrade, you still may laugh and weep, give and receive. For me—I am an exile far from heaven; like a monster, far from earth! My heart beats for none; I live in my-self, for myself alone. I feel through my spirit, I breathe by my brain, I see by my mind, I am dying of impatience and

longing. No one here below can satisfy my wishes or soothe my eagerness; and I have forgotten how to weep. I am alone --I am resigned, and can wait."

They returned to the valley.

"Make haste, pretty one, the night is falling," said Seraphitus.

The voice startled Minna : it was as clear as a girl's. Manly strength seemed leaving Seraphitus. They hurried through the village of Jarvis to the parsonage, where Pastor Becker sat reading. He affectionately welcomed the pair; and Seraphitus invited Minna and her father to tea two days later.

When Seraphitus arrived at the old Swedish castle, David, a man of eighty, came out to welcome the owner. Seraphitus declined refreshment, and lay down to sleep, while the old man lingered in loving contemplation of the strange being the question of whose sex was so puzzling. He wept as he thought: " She is suffering and will not tell me."

In the evening David came into the drawing-room. "I know who is coming," said Seraphita; "Wilfrid may come in."

Wilfrid had come to urge her to accept his undying devotion; but she reasoned with him as she had reasoned with Minna. Among other things, she said:

"You know full well that I can never be yours. Two feelings rule the love that attracts the women of this earth: either they devote themselves to suffering creatures, degraded and guilty, whom they desire to comfort, to raise, to redeem, or they give themselves wholly to superior beings, sublime and strong, whom they are fain to worship and understand—by whom they are too often crushed. You have been degraded, but you have purified yourself in the fires of repentance, and you now are great; I feel myself too small to be your equal, and I am too religious to humble myself to any power but that of the Most High."

Seraphita told him that she loved him truly, and Minna also, but to her they were one being. She begged him to marry Minna, so that she might see them happy before quitting this sphere forever.

"Yes, I should be sorry to see you married to Minna, but promise me to make her your wife when you see me no more,

Heaven intends you for each other. . . . I torture you, and you come to this wild country to find rest—you who are racked by the fierce throes of misunderstood genius, worn out by the patient labors of science, who have almost stained your hands by crime and worn the chains of human justice."

Wilfrid fell to the floor in agony. Seraphita breathed on his brow, and he fell asleep. Laying her hand on his brow, she explained to him her feelings and mystical love, exhorting him to rise to the rank of those who are in the circle of love and wisdom and who aspire to celestial illumination. She concluded:

"Now gaze at me for a moment, for you will henceforth see me but darkly, as you behold me by the light of the dull sun of the earth."

She gazed at him with her head gently bent on one side, her hair flowing about her in the airy grace which the sublimest painters have attributed to messengers from heaven; and the folds of her dress had the indescribable grace which makes the artist stop to gaze at the exquisite flowing veil of the antique statue of Polyhymnia. When Wilfrid awoke, Seraphita, lying on her bearskin, with calm face and shining eyes, dismissed him with an invitation to come to tea with the Beckers.

Outside he gazed up at the lights in the windows of the castle and asked himself whether he was awake or sleeping. To recover his mental balance, he went to the manse to spend the evening.

Pastor Becker was seated in his large armchair near the stove and in front of a table on which were books, one of which he was reading, and for extra comfort he had his feet in a foot-muff. A beer-jug and a glass were on his right, while on his left stood a smoky lamp. He was of about sixty years, with a noble Rembrandtesque face and head, and as he smoked his long pipe, he occasionally watched the spirals of smoke with a speculative eye while digesting what he was reading. Minna was sitting opposite him, sewing. Her fresh young face, delicately pure in outline, harmonized with the innocence that shone on her white brow and in her bright eyes. Her attitude as she sat forward on her chair leaning slightly toward the light, showed the grace of her figure. She presented the most complete and typical image of woman born to earthly duties, whose eye might pierce the clouds of the sanctuary, while a mind at once humble and charitable kept her on the level of man.

Until the silence was broken by Wilfrid, the only sound was the heavy step of the kitchen-maid and the sizzle of the dried fish in the frying-pan in the next room.

Wilfrid asked the Pastor for information about the strange being who dwelt at the Castle. He had been six months in the village, and he found that the chains that were binding him were likely to make his stay permanent. On the very first day he fell under Seraphita's enchantment. The Pastor asked, "Are enchantments possible?" and Wilfrid replied that the man who at that moment was so conscientiously studying Jean Wier's Incantations would understand his own sensations. After describing Seraphita's mysterious influence over him, he concluded: "I have for the past few days been wandering round this abyss of madness too helplessly to keep silence any longer. I have, therefore, seized a moment when I find courage enough to resist the monster that drags me to her presence without asking whether I have strength enough to keep up with his flight. Who is she? Did you know her as a child? Was she ever born? Had she parents? Was she conceived by the union of sun and ice? She freezes and she burns; she comes forth, and then vanishes like some coy truth; she attracts and repels one; she alternately kills and vivifies me; I love her, and I hate her! I cannot live thus. I must be either in heaven altogether, or in hell."

The Pastor listened with a mysterious expression, glancing occasionally at his daughter, who seemed to understand Wilfrid's words.

"My dear guest," he said, "to explain her birth it will be necessary to disentangle the obscurest of all Christian creeds," and he proceeded to give a detailed description of Swedenborg's life, writings, beliefs, and teachings.

Swedenborg was especially attached to Baron Seraphitus, his most zealous disciple, who was in search of a woman with the angelic spirit, and Swedenborg revealed her in a vision, saying the life of heaven shone brightly in her and she had gone through the first tests. She was the daughter of a London shoemaker. After the prophet was translated, the Baron came here to Jarvis to solemnize his heavenly nuptials in the practise of prayer. The earthly life of the couple was undoubtedly that of the saints whose virtues are the glory of the Roman Church. They were extremely charitable; they were never angry or impatient, but invariably gentle and beneficent, full of amiability, graciousness, and true kindness. Their marriage was the harmony of two souls in constant union. The wife was simple in manner, sweetly dignified, and lovely in face and form.

In 1783 Seraphita was born. Previously her parents had lived in the greatest retirement in perpetual prayer. They hoped to see Swedenborg. At Seraphita's birth Swedenborg appeared and filled the room with light. He said: "The work is accomplished; the heavens rejoice." The servants heard strange sounds of music, brought, they declared, by the four winds. Swedenborg led the Baron out to the fiord and left him in ecstasy.

"I met him on my way to the Castle. His face was radiant, and his whole appearance inspired. He said: `Your ministrations are superfluous; our child is to be nameless on earth. You will not baptize with earthly waters one who has been bathed in fires from heaven. This child will always be a flower; you will not see it grow old ; you will see it pass away. You have existence, it has life; you have external senses, it has not; it is wholly inward.'

"He told me he had just parted with Swedenborg and felt the glory of heavenly love. I went with him to see the child. As I entered the room, Seraphita raised her head and looked at me. Her eyes already saw and understood. . She never was seen nude; she lay spotless on her mother's breast, and never cried; no other hand ever touched her. At the age of nine, she began to be absorbed in prayer, which is her life. In church she is set apart from the other worshipers; if space is not left about her she is ill. She spends most of her time indoors—her faculties and feelings are essentially in-ward. She is commonly in a state of mystical contemplation. Her understanding, soul, body, everything about her is as virginal as the snow on our mountains. When she was nine, her parents died at the same instant, painlessly and without any visible malady, after naming the hour at which they should die. She looked at them calmly, displaying neither grief nor pain, neither joy nor curiosity. Her parents smiled upon her. When we went to carry them away she said: `Take them away.' When I asked her whether she were not grieved at their death, she said: `Dead! No; they are still in me. This is nothing!'

"Poor girl! she has inherited the fatal enthusiasm of her parents. She fasts in a way that drives poor old David to despair. His mistress, whose incomprehensible language he has adopted, is to him the breeze and sunshine; to him her feet are diamonds; her forehead crowned with stars; she moves environed by a white and luminous halo; her voice has an accompaniment of music; she has the gift of becoming invisible. ... The fishermen declare they have seen her plunge into the fiord and reappear as an eider-duck and walk on the waves in a storm. The herdsmen say the sky in rainy weather is always clear over the Castle, and always blue over her head when she goes out."

Wilfrid asked to look at Swedenborg's works, and began to read. After supper, the men read, while Minna sewed and dreamed over her recollections.

At midnight the outer door was suddenly pushed open and heavy, hasty steps of a terrified man were heard in the vestibule. David burst into the room, crying : "Violence ! Come ! The devils are unchained ! They wear miters of flame—Adonis, Vertumnus, the Sirens—they are tempting her! Come, and drive them away!" The Pastor laughed at the old man's terror; but Wilfrid and Minna were deeply affected. David said that for nearly five hours she had been standing with eyes raised and arms uplifted in torment, calling upon God. David could not cross the line; the devils had raised an iron barrier between him and her. His despair was terrible.

They all hastened to the Castle, Wilfrid and Minna in advance.

"What a blaze of light!" cried Minna, as they reached the parlor window. "There he is ! Great God ! and how beautiful! Oh, my Seraphitus, take me to thee!" She saw Seraphitus standing in an opal-tinted mist, which was diffused all round the phosphorescent body.

"How lovely she is!" exclaimed Wilfrid. The Pastor now came up, and looked in : "Well, David, she is saying her prayers!" Suddenly all was dark. They walked home in silence. Pastor Becker felt doubt; Minna, adoration; Wilfrid, desire.

Wilfrid was thirty-six: he was of middle height and well-proportioned, and he had thick black hair and brown eyes, with strong features. Intellectually, he was truly balanced. He had been a student and kept late hours in European capitals, seen active service, and traveled extensively. He had studied matter and spirit and had the longing for the Beyond which comes to most men of knowledge, power, and will. Coming by chance to Jarvis, he saw Seraphita one day, and all memories of his past were wiped out. He did not offer her the ordinary idealization of lovers, but really believed in her divinity. From the first moment, when he suspected the ethereal nature of this sorceress who had told him the secret of his life in harmonious dreams, he resolved to try to subjugate her and steal her from heaven. He would be the representative of humanity, of this earth, recapturing their prey.

The next day, therefore, on the pretext of inquiring for news of Seraphita, he went to cross-examine David. The old man explained in ecstatic language how the devils tempted, while the archangels stood afar and looked on. Mammon, Lucifer, the Prince of Serpents, the Queen of the Covetous, the Sea in her mantle of green, the Animal with the talons of an eagle, the legs of a lion, the head of a woman, and the body of a horse, the Child with its plaints, Song with its music, the Kings of the East with its luxury, the wounded clamoring for help, the wretched, crying, "Do not leave us," Flowers with their perfumes, the Giant Anakim bringing Gold; their comrades and all the Spirits of the Astral Worlds who had followed them, Death promising obedience, and Life saying, "I will not desert thee!" They all cried: "We have fed thee; thou art our child ! Do not forsake us!" The angelic spirits marveled at her constancy, and chorused "Courage!" At last she triumphed over Desire, unchained to rend her, in every shape and species.

Wilfrid went back to the manse and discussed the affair with the Pastor, who thought that Seraphita was merely mad. Wilfrid could not understand her vast knowledge, when she never had been beyond the fiord, nor ever read a book, except Swedenborg's writings. When Minna came in, and her father asked her how her spirit-friend was, she replied: "He is suffering, father. The passions of humanity, tricked out in their false splendor, tortured him in the night and spread incredible pomp before his eyes."

Wilfrid asked her whether she believed in the reality of these apparitions. She replied:

"Who can doubt, that hears him tell of them?"

"Him? Who?" asked Wilfrid. "You speak of Seraphita?" She hung her head and replied : "Yes, you too take pleasure in confusing my mind. What is your idea of her?"

"What I feel is inexplicable."

"You are both mad," said the Pastor.

The next evening was to them what the supper at Emmaus was to the three travelers. The aspects of the world were to be revealed, veils rent, and doubts dispelled.

On being shown in by old David, they found Seraphita standing by the tea-table. She greeted them affectionately, and told the Pastor that he did well to come, because he was seeing her, perhaps, for the last time, for the winter had killed her. He replied that he wanted more of her than the dainties of her tea-table, and would like her to clear up some of their doubts. Seraphita at great length then gave them her ideas on Spirit and Matter, Skepticism and Belief, Number and Motion, Finite and Infinite, Affinities and Similarities. In conclusion she said: "All your sciences of to-day, which make you so great in your own eyes, are a mere trifle compared with the light that floods the Seer. Cease to question me: we speak a different language. I have used yours for once to throw a flash of faith upon your souls, to cast a corner of my mantle over you and tempt you away to the glorious regions of prayer. Is it God's part to stoop to you? Is it not yours rather to rise to Him? The Seer and the believer have within themselves eyes more piercing than are those eyes which are bent on things of earth, and they discern a dawn. Your most exact sciences, your boldest speculations, your brightest flashes of light are but clouds. Above them all is the sanctuary whence the true Light is shed."

The subject then dropped, and during the general conversation, Wilfrid asked her why she did not marry. She said she had been betrothed from her birth, and she would invite them to her wedding. She privately told Wilfrid that she had divined his wishes, and begged him to cease to cherish evil thoughts whose triumph would be a torment to endure. To Minna, Seraphita said : If you could not look into the gulf without destruction, keep your powers for him who will love you. Go, poor child, I am betrothed, as you know."

On their way home, the Pastor said he began to think she was a spirit veiled in human form; Wilfrid was calmed, convinced and defeated; Minna said to herself: "Why will he not allow me to love him?"

Several days passed, during which Seraphita remained in seclusion. When Minna was admitted, she noticed that Seraphita's voice was hollow, and her complexion wan. "We shall lose him," said Minna, when she met Wilfrid outside. "Yes, I love him; why should I not be free to declare my affection? In the presence of Death we may all confess our attachment, and Seraphitus is dying." Wilfrid could not disabuse her mind. of this idea.

One day they met Seraphita coming out of the Castle, followed by David, and she invited them to accompany her to the Sieg, which was now falling in a silvery veil. They were all silent for a time in contemplation of the exquisite beauty of spring.

While Minna was climbing a crag for some blue saxifrages, Wilfrid made a passionate appeal to Seraphita to join him in furthering his ambitious schemes, which contemplated the overthrow of the English rule in Asia. He was chilled by her reply that she had reigned already: beings more powerful than he had offered her more; she was loved with a boundless love. Minna returned with a nosegay, telling her that she was more beautiful to her than this lovely scenery and she only wished she could suffer instead of Seraphita. Seraphita took a last farewell of the sublime landscape, and to all humanity, and had to be helped back to the Castle.

The next day Wilfrid and Minna went to see her, lying on her couch of furs. David was weeping, and refused to listen to her consolations. She refused the Pastor's urgent insistence that she should take any remedies. Minna at last learned that the being that Seraphitus loved above all others was God. Minna knelt and begged to be led to Him. Wilfrid also cried: "Lead us, Seraphita, you have made me thirst for the Light and for the Word. If I may not win you, I will treasure every feeling that you can infuse, as part of you." With a look that enfolded them both, the incomprehensible being cried: "Angel! Heaven is thine inheritance!" She then instructed them how God must be sought, through rough ways, for His own sake, and showed how efficacious were the means of entering on the road by silence, meditation, and prayer, and uttered her last dying hymn to the Almighty. Like a white dove, the soul hovered for a moment above this body, of which the exhausted materials were about to dissever. The aspiration of this soul to Heaven was so infectious that Wilfrid and Minna failed to discern Death, and were inspired by the ecstasy of Seraphitus. They could not tell how they found themselves on the border-line of the visible and the invisible, nor how they had lost sight of the visible and perceived only the invisible. They saw the Spirit knock at the sacred gate, and heard the questioning of the choir within. They heard the soul's reply: "I have conquered the flesh by abstinence; I have vanquished false speech by silence, false knowledge by humility, pride by charity, and the earth by love. I have paid my tribute of suffering. I am purified, by burning for the faith. I have striven for life by prayer; I wait, adoring, and I am resigned."

When no reply came, the Spirit cried: "The Lord be praised!" His tears flowed, and fell on the kneeling witnesses. Then suddenly the trumpet sounded for the victory of the Angel in this last test. The veils were rent, and from an immeasurable height they saw the messenger bearing the good tidings. With a palm he touched the Spirit, and its white wings spread. The watchers then saw the Seraph rise through blinding lights and melodies into the infinite space. Wilfrid and Minna in their vision understood some of the mysterious words of the being who on earth had appeared to them under the form which was intelligible to each—Seraphitus to one; Seraphita to the other. On their way back to earth from their vision of the higher mysteries, they leaned on each other for love and strength. They took each other by the hand. "Whither are you going?" asked Pastor Becker. "To God!" said they. "Come with us, Father."



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