Part 1 out of 2
This etext was produced by David Widger
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the
file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an
entire meal of them. D.W.]
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
While buried in these shadows, I allowed my favorite poets and text-books
to accumulate dust. I even ground them under my feet in excess of wrath.
"You wretched dreamers!" I said to them; "you who teach me only
suffering, miserable shufflers of words, charlatans, if you know the
truth, fools, if you speak in good faith, liars in either case, who make
fairy-tales of the woes of the human heart. I will burn the last one of
Then tears came to my aid and I perceived that there was nothing real but
my grief. "Very well," I cried, in my delirium, "tell me, good and bad
genii, counselors for good or evil, tell me what to do! Choose an
arbiter and let him speak."
I seized an old Bible which lay on my table, and read the first passage
that caught my eye.
"Reply to me, thou book of God!" I said, "what word hast thou for me?"
My eye fell on this passage in Ecclesiastes, Chapter IX:
For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this,
that the righteous and the wise, and their works, are in the hand
of God; no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before
All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous,
and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean;
to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the
good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an
This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that
there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men
is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and
after that they go to the dead.
When I read these words I was astounded; I did not know that there was
such a sentiment in the Bible. "And thou, too, as all others, thou book
What do the astronomers think when they predict, at a given hour and
place, the passage of a comet, that most eccentric of celestial
travellers? What do the naturalists think when they reveal the myriad
forms of life concealed in a drop of water? Do they think they have
invented what they see and that their lenses and microscopes make the law
of nature? What did the first law-giver think when, seeking for the
corner-stone in the social edifice, angered doubtless by some idle
importunity, he struck the tables of brass and felt in his bowels the
yearning for a law of retaliation? Did he, then, invent justice? And
the first who plucked the fruit planted by his neighbor and who fled
cowering under his mantle, did he invent shame? And he who, having
overtaken that same thief who had robbed him of the product of his toil,
forgave him his sin, and, instead of raising his hand to smite him, said,
"Sit thou down and eat thy fill;" when, after thus returning good for
evil, he raised his eyes toward Heaven and felt his heart quivering,
tears welling from his eyes, and his knees bending to the earth, did he
invent virtue? Oh, Heaven! here is a woman who speaks of love and who
deceives me; here is a man who speaks of friendship and counsels me to
seek consolation in debauchery; here is another woman who weeps and would
console me with the flesh; here is a Bible that speaks of God and says:
"Perhaps; but nothing is of any real importance."
I ran to the open window: "Is it true that you are empty?" I cried,
looking up at the pale expanse of sky which spread above me. "Reply,
reply! Before I die, grant that I may clasp in these arms of mine
something more than a dream!"
Profound silence reigned. As I stood with arms outstretched, eyes lost
in space, a swallow uttered a plaintive cry; in spite of myself I
followed it with my eyes; while the swallow disappeared from sight like a
flash, a little girl passed singing.
THE SEARCH FOR HEALING
Yet I was unwilling to yield.
Before taking life on its pleasant side--a side which to me seemed rather
sinister--I resolved to test everything. I remained thus for some time,
a prey to countless sorrows, tormented by terrible dreams.
The great obstacle to my cure was my youth. Wherever I happened to be,
whatever my occupation, I could think of nothing but women; the sight of
a woman made me tremble.
It had been my fate--a fate as rare as happy--to give to love my
unsullied youth. But the result of this was that all my senses united
in idealizing love; there was the cause of my unhappiness. For not being
able to think of anything but women, I could not help turning over in my
head, day and night, all the ideas of debauchery, of false love and of
feminine treason, with which my mind was filled. For me to possess a
woman was to love her; I thought of nothing but women, but I believed no
more in the possibility of true love.
All this suffering inspired me with a sort of rage. At times I was
tempted to imitate the monks and starve my body in order to conquer my
senses; at times I felt like rushing out into the street to throw myself
at the feet of the first woman I met and vow to her eternal love.
God is my witness that I did all in my power to cure myself. Preoccupied
from the first with the idea that the society of men was the haunt of
vice and hypocrisy, where all were like my mistress, I resolved to
separate myself from them and live in complete isolation. I resumed my
neglected studies, and plunged into history, poetry, and anatomy. There
happened to be on the fourth floor of the same house an old and learned
German. I determined to learn his language; the German was poor and
friendless, and willingly accepted the task of instructing me. My
perpetual state of distraction worried him. How many times he waited in
patient astonishment while I, seated near him with a smoking lamp between
us, sat with my arms crossed on my book, lost in revery, oblivious of his
presence and of his pity.
"My dear sir," said I to him one day, "all this is useless, but you are
the best of men. What a task you have undertaken! You must leave me to
my fate; we can do nothing, neither you nor I."
I do not know that he understood my meaning, but he grasped my hand and
there was no more talk of German.
I soon realized that solitude, instead of curing me, was doing me harm,
and so I completely changed my system. I went into the country, and
galloped through the woods with the huntsmen; I would ride until I was
out of breath, trying to cure myself with fatigue, and when, after a day
of sweat in the fields, I reached my bed in the evening smelling of
powder and the stable, I would bury my head in the pillow, roll about
under the covers and cry: "Phantom, phantom! are you not satiated? Will
you not leave me for one single night?"
But why these vain efforts? Solitude sent me to nature, and nature to
love. Standing in the street of Mental Observation, I saw myself pale
and wan, surrounded by corpses, and, drying my hands on my bloody apron,
stifled by the odor of putrefaction, I turned my head in spite of myself,
and saw floating before my eyes green harvests, balmy fields, and the
pensive harmony of the evening. "No," said I, "science can not console
me; rather will I plunge into this sea of irresponsive nature and die
there myself by drowning. I will not war against my youth; I will live
where there is life, or at least die in the sunlight." I began to mingle
with the throngs at Sevres and Chaville, and stretch myself on flowery
swards in secluded groves. Alas! all the forests and fields cried to
"What do you seek here? We are young, poor child! We wear the colors of
Then I returned to the city; I lost myself in its obscure streets; I
looked up at the lights in its windows, into those mysterious family
nests; I watched the passing carriages; I saw man jostling against man.
Oh, what solitude! How sad the smoke on those roofs! What sorrow in
those tortuous streets where all are hurrying hither and thither, working
and sweating, where thousands of strangers rub against your elbows; a
sewer where society is of bodies only, while souls are solitary and
alone, where all who hold out a hand to you are prostitutes! "Become
corrupt, corrupt, and you will cease to suffer!" This has been the cry
of all cities unto man; it is written with charcoal on the walls, on the
streets with mud, on men's faces with extravasated blood.
At times, when seated in the corner of some salon I watched the women as
they danced, some rosy, some blue, and others white, their arms bare and
their hair gathered gracefully about their shapely heads, looking like
cherubim drunk with light, floating in spheres of harmony and beauty,
I would think: "Ah, what a garden, what flowers to gather, to breathe!
Ah! Marguerites, Marguerites! What will your last petal say to him who
plucks it? A little, a little, but not all. That is the moral of the
world, that is the end of your smiles. It is over this terrible abyss
that you are walking in your spangled gauze; it is on this hideous
reality you run like gazelles on the tips of your little toes!"
"But why take things so seriously?" said Desgenais. "That is something
that is never seen. You complain because bottles become empty? There
are many casks in the vaults, and many vaults in the hills. Give me a
dainty fish-hook gilded with sweet words, a drop of honey for bait, and
quick! catch in the stream of oblivion a pretty consoler, as fresh and
slippery as an eel; you will still have the hook when the fish shall have
glided from your hands. Youth must pass away, and if I were you I would
carry off the queen of Portugal rather than study anatomy."
Such was the advice of Desgenais. I made my way home with swollen heart,
my face concealed under my cloak. I kneeled at the side of my bed and my
poor heart dissolved in tears. What vows! what prayers! Galileo struck
the earth, crying: "Nevertheless it moves!" Thus I struck my heart.
BACCHUS, THE CONSOLER
Suddenly, in the midst of black despair, youth and chance led me to
commit an act that decided my fate.
I had written my mistress that I wished never to see her again; I kept my
word, but I passed the nights under her window, seated on a bench before
her door. I could see the lights in her room, I could hear the sound of
her piano, at times I saw something that looked like a shadow through the
partially drawn curtains.
One night as I was seated on the bench, plunged in frightful melancholy,
I saw a belated workman staggering along the street. He muttered a few
words in a dazed manner and then began to sing. So much was he under the
influence of liquor that he walked at times on one side of the gutter and
then on the other. Finally he fell upon a bench facing another house
opposite me. There he lay still, supported on his elbows, and slept
The street was deserted, a dry wind stirred the dust here and there; the
moon shone through a rift in the clouds and lighted the spot where the
man slept. So I found myself tete-a-tete with this boor, who, not
suspecting my presence, was sleeping on that stone bench as peacefully as
if in his own bed.
The man served to divert my grief; I arose to leave him in full
possession, but returned and resumed my seat. I could not leave that
fateful door, at which I would not have knocked for an empire. Finally,
after walking up and down a few times, I stopped before the sleeper.
"What sleep!" I said. "Surely this man does not dream. His clothes are
in tatters, his cheeks are wrinkled, his hands hardened with toil; he is
some unfortunate who does not have a meal every day. A thousand gnawing
cares, a thousand mortal sorrows await his return to consciousness;
nevertheless, this evening he had money in his pocket, and entered a
tavern where he purchased oblivion. He has earned enough in a week to
enjoy a night of slumber, and perhaps has purchased it at the expense of
his children's supper. Now his mistress can betray him, his friend can
glide like a thief into his hut; I could shake him by the shoulder and
tell him that he is being murdered, that his house is on fire; he would
turn over and continue to sleep."
"And I--I do not sleep," I continued, pacing up and down the street,
"I do not sleep, I who have enough in my pocket at this moment to
purchase sleep for a year. I am so proud and so foolish that I dare not
enter a tavern, and it seems I do not understand that if unfortunates
enter there, it is to come out happy. O God! grapes crushed beneath the
foot suffice to dissipate the deepest sorrow and to break the invisible
threads that the fates weave about our pathway. We weep like women,
we suffer like martyrs; in our despair it seems that the world is
crumbling under our feet, and we sit down in tears as did Adam at Eden's
gate. And to cure our griefs we have but to make a movement of the hand
and moisten our throats. How contemptible our sorrow since it can be
thus assuaged! We are surprised that Providence does not send angels to
grant our prayers; it need not take the trouble, for it has seen our
woes, it knows our desires, our pride and bitterness, the ocean of evil
that surrounds us, and is content to hang a small black fruit along our
paths. Since that man sleeps so soundly on his bench, why do not I sleep
on mine? My rival is doubtless passing the night with my mistress;
he will leave her at daybreak; she will accompany him to the door and
they will see me asleep on my bench. Their kisses will not awaken me,
and they will shake me by the shoulder; I will turn over on the other
side and sleep on."
Thus, inspired by fierce joy, I set out in quest of a tavern. As it was
past midnight some were closed; this put me in a fury. "What!" I cried,
"even that consolation is refused me!" I ran hither and thither knocking
at the doors of taverns, crying: "Wine! Wine!"
At last I found one open; I called for a bottle, and without caring
whether it was good or bad, I gulped it down; a second followed, and then
a third. I dosed myself as with medicine, and forced the wine down as if
it had been prescribed by some physician to save my life.
The heavy fumes of the liquor, doubtless adulterated, mounted to my head.
As I had gulped it down at a breath, drunkenness seized me promptly; I
felt that I was becoming muddled, then I experienced a lucid moment, then
confusion followed. Then consciousness left me, I leaned my elbows on
the table and said adieu to myself.
But I had a confused idea that I was not alone in the tavern. At the
other end of the room stood a hideous group with haggard faces and harsh
voices. Their dress indicated that they belonged to the poorer class,
but were not bourgeois; in short, they belonged to that ambiguous class,
the vilest of all, which has neither fortune nor occupation, which never
works except at some criminal plot, a class which, neither poor nor rich,
combines the vices of one with the misery of the other.
They were quarrelling over a dirty pack of cards. Among them was a girl
who appeared to be very young and very pretty, was decently clad, and
resembled her companions in no way, except in the harshness of her voice,
which was as rough and broken as if it had performed the office of public
crier. She looked at me closely, as if astonished to see me in such a
bad place, for I was elegantly attired. Little by little she approached
my table and seeing that all the bottles were empty, smiled. I saw that
she had fine teeth of brilliant whiteness; I took her hand and begged her
to be seated; she consented with good grace and asked what we should have
I looked at her without saying a word, while my eyes began to fill with
tears; she observed my emotion and inquired the cause. I could not
reply. She understood that I had some secret sorrow and forebore any
attempt to learn the cause; with her handkerchief she dried my tears from
time to time as we dined.
There was something about this girl at once repulsive and sweet,
a singular boldness mingled with pity, that I could not understand.
If she had taken my hand in the street she would have inspired a feeling
of horror in me; but it seemed so strange that a creature I had never
seen should come to me, and, without a word, proceed to order supper and
dry my tears with her handkerchief, that I was rendered speechless;
it revolted, yet charmed me. What I had done had been done so quickly
that I seemed to have obeyed some impulse of despair. Perhaps I was a
fool, or the victim of some supernatural caprice.
"Who are you?" I suddenly cried out; "what do you want of me? How do
you know who I am? Who told you to dry my tears? Is this your vocation
and do you think I desire you? I would not touch you with the tip of my
finger. What are you doing here? Reply at once. Is it money you want?
What price do you put on your pity?"
I arose and tried to go out, but my feet refused to support me. At the
same time my eyes failed me, a mortal weakness took possession of me and
I fell over a stool.
"You are not well," she said, taking me by the arm, "you have drunk, like
the child that you are, without knowing what you were doing. Sit down in
this chair and wait until a cab passes. You will tell me where you live
and I will order the driver to take you home to your mother, since," she
added, "you really find me ugly."
As she spoke I raised my eyes. Perhaps my drunkenness deceived me, or
perhaps I had not seen her face clearly before, but suddenly I detected
in that unfortunate girl a fatal resemblance to my mistress. I shuddered
at the sight. There is a certain shudder that affects the hair; some say
it is death passing over the head, but it was not death that passed over
It was the malady of the age, or rather was it that girl herself; and it
was she who, with her pale, halfmocking features and rasping voice, came
and sat with me at the end of the tavern room.
The moment I perceived her resemblance to my mistress a frightful idea
occurred to me; it took irresistible possession of my muddled mind, and I
put it into execution at once.
I escorted that girl to my home; and I arranged my room just as I had
been wont to do when my mistress was with me, for I was dominated by a
certain recollection of past joys.
Having arranged my room to my satisfaction, I gave myself up to the
intoxication of despair. I probed my heart to the bottom in order to
sound its depths. A Tyrolean song that my loved one used to sing began
to run through my head:
Altra volta gieri biele,
Blanch' a rossa com' un flore,
Ma ora no. Non son piu biele
Consumatis dal' amore.
[Once I was beautiful, white and rosy as a flower; but now I am not.
I am no longer beautiful, consumed by the fire of love.]
I listened to the echo of that song as it reverberated through the desert
of my heart. I said: "Behold the happiness of man; behold my little
Paradise; behold my queen Mab, a girl from the streets. My mistress is
no better. Behold what is found at the bottom of the glass when the
nectar of the gods has been drained; behold the corpse of love."
The unfortunate creature heard me singing and began to sing herself.
I turned pale; for that harsh and rasping voice, coming from the lips
of one who resembled my mistress, seemed a symbol of my experience.
It sounded like a gurgle in the throat of debauchery. It seemed to me
that my mistress, having been unfaithful, must have such a voice. I was
reminded of Faust who, dancing at the Brocken with a young sorceress,
saw a red mouse emerge from her throat.
"Stop!" I cried. I arose and approached her.
Let me ask you, O men of the time, bent upon pleasure, who attend the
balls and the opera and who, upon retiring this night, will seek slumber
with the aid of some threadbare blasphemy of old Voltaire, some sensible
satire by Paul Louis Courier, or some essay on economics, you who dally
with the cold substance of that monstrous water-lily that Reason has
planted in the hearts of our cities-let me ask, if by some chance this
obscure book falls into your hands, not to smile with noble disdain or
shrug your shoulders. Be not too sure that I complain of an imaginary
evil; be not too sure that human reason is the most beautiful of
faculties, that there is nothing real here below but quotations on the
Bourse, gambling in the salon, wine on the table, the glow of health,
indifference toward others, and the pleasures of the night.
For some day, across your stagnant life, a gust of wind will blow. Those
beautiful trees, that you water with the stream of oblivion, Providence
will destroy; despair will overtake you, heedless ones, and tears will
dim your eyes. I will not say that your mistresses will deceive you--
that would not grieve you so much as the loss of a horse--but you can
lose on the Bourse. For the first plunge is not the last, and even if
you do not gamble, bethink you that your moneyed tranquillity, your
golden happiness, are in the care of a banker who may fail. In short,
I tell you, frozen as you are, you are capable of loving something; some
fibre of your being can be torn and you can give vent to cries that will
resemble a moan of pain. Some day, wandering about the muddy streets,
when daily material joys shall have failed, you will find yourself seated
disconsolately on a deserted bench at midnight.
O men of marble! sublime egoists, inimitable reasoners, who have never
given way to despair or made a mistake in arithmetic, if this ever
happens to you, at the hour of your ruin you will remember Abelard when
he lost Heloise. For he loved her more than you love your horses, your
money, or your mistresses; and in losing her he lost more than your
monarch Satan would lose in falling again from the battlements of Heaven.
He loved her with a love of which the gazettes do not speak, the shadow
of which your wives and your daughters do not perceive in our theatres
and in our books. He passed half of his life kissing her white forehead,
teaching her to sing the psalms of David and the canticles of Saul; he
had but her on earth alone; and God consoled him.
Believe me, when in your distress you think of Abelard you will not look
with the same eye upon the rich blasphemy of Voltaire and the badinage of
Courier; you will feel that human reason can cure illusions but can not
heal sorrows; that God has use for Reason but that He has not made her a
sister of Charity. You will find that when the heart of man said:
"I believe in nothing, for I see nothing," it did not speak the last word
on the subject. You will look about you for something like hope, you
will shake the doors of churches to see if they still swing, but you will
find them walled up; you will think of becoming Trappists, and destiny
will mock at you, and for reply will give you a bottle of wine and a
And if you drink the wine, and take the courtesan, you will learn how
such things come to pass.
AT THE CROSSWAYS