Part 1 out of 3
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
by Honore de Balzac
Translated by Clara Bell and James Waring
"Et nunc et semper dilectoe dicatum."
Louis Lambert was born at Montoire, a little town in the Vendomois,
where his father owned a tannery of no great magnitude, and intended
that his son should succeed him; but his precocious bent for study
modified the paternal decision. For, indeed, the tanner and his wife
adored Louis, their only child, and never contradicted him in
At the age of five Louis had begun by reading the Old and New
Testaments; and these two Books, including so many books, had sealed
his fate. Could that childish imagination understand the mystical
depths of the Scriptures? Could it so early follow the flight of the
Holy Spirit across the worlds? Or was it merely attracted by the
romantic touches which abound in those Oriental poems! Our narrative
will answer these questions to some readers.
One thing resulted from this first reading of the Bible: Louis went
all over Montoire begging for books, and he obtained them by those
winning ways peculiar to children, which no one can resist. While
devoting himself to these studies under no sort of guidance, he
reached the age of ten.
At that period substitutes for the army were scarce; rich families
secured them long beforehand to have them ready when the lots were
drawn. The poor tanner's modest fortune did not allow of their
purchasing a substitute for their son, and they saw no means allowed
by law for evading the conscription but that of making him a priest;
so, in 1807, they sent him to his maternal uncle, the parish priest of
Mer, another small town on the Loire, not far from Blois. This
arrangement at once satisfied Louis' passion for knowledge, and his
parents' wish not to expose him to the dreadful chances of war; and,
indeed, his taste for study and precocious intelligence gave grounds
for hoping that he might rise to high fortunes in the Church.
After remaining for about three years with his uncle, an old and not
uncultured Oratorian, Louis left him early in 1811 to enter the
college at Vendome, where he was maintained at the cost of Madame de
Lambert owed the favor and patronage of this celebrated lady to
chance, or shall we not say to Providence, who can smooth the path of
forlorn genius? To us, indeed, who do not see below the surface of
human things, such vicissitudes, of which we find many examples in the
lives of great men, appear to be merely the result of physical
phenomena; to most biographers the head of a man of genius rises above
the herd as some noble plant in the fields attracts the eye of a
botanist in its splendor. This comparison may well be applied to Louis
Lambert's adventure; he was accustomed to spend the time allowed him
by his uncle for holidays at his father's house; but instead of
indulging, after the manner of schoolboys, in the sweets of the
delightful /far niente/ that tempts us at every age, he set out every
morning with part of a loaf and his books, and went to read and
meditate in the woods, to escape his mother's remonstrances, for she
believed such persistent study to be injurious. How admirable is a
mother's instinct! From that time reading was in Louis a sort of
appetite which nothing could satisfy; he devoured books of every kind,
feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history, philosophy, and
physics. He has told me that he found indescribable delight in reading
dictionaries for lack of other books, and I readily believed him. What
scholar has not many a time found pleasure in seeking the probable
meaning of some unknown word? The analysis of a word, its physiognomy
and history, would be to Lambert matter for long dreaming. But these
were not the instinctive dreams by which a boy accustoms himself to
the phenomena of life, steels himself to every moral or physical
perception--an involuntary education which subsequently brings forth
fruit both in the understanding and character of a man; no, Louis
mastered the facts, and he accounted for them after seeking out both
the principle and the end with the mother wit of a savage. Indeed,
from the age of fourteen, by one of those startling freaks in which
nature sometimes indulges, and which proved how anomalous was his
temperament, he would utter quite simply ideas of which the depth was
not revealed to me till a long time after.
"Often," he has said to me when speaking of his studies, "often
have I made the most delightful voyage, floating on a word down
the abyss of the past, like an insect embarked on a blade of
grass tossing on the ripples of a stream. Starting from Greece, I
would get to Rome, and traverse the whole extent of modern ages.
What a fine book might be written of the life and adventures of a
word! It has, of course, received various stamps from the
occasions on which it has served its purpose; it has conveyed
different ideas in different places; but is it not still grander
to think of it under the three aspects of soul, body, and motion?
Merely to regard it in the abstract, apart from its functions,
its effects, and its influence, is enough to cast one into an
ocean of meditations? Are not most words colored by the idea they
represent? Then, to whose genius are they due? If it takes great
intelligence to create a word, how old may human speech be? The
combination of letters, their shapes, and the look they give to
the word, are the exact reflection, in accordance with the
character of each nation, of the unknown beings whose traces
survive in us.
"Who can philosophically explain the transition from sensation to
thought, from thought to word, from the word to its hieroglyphic
presentment, from hieroglyphics to the alphabet, from the alphabet to
written language, of which the eloquent beauty resides in a series of
images, classified by rhetoric, and forming, in a sense, the
hieroglyphics of thought? Was it not the ancient mode of representing
human ideas as embodied in the forms of animals that gave rise to the
shapes of the first signs used in the East for writing down language?
Then has it not left its traces by tradition on our modern languages,
which have all seized some remnant of the primitive speech of nations,
a majestic and solemn tongue whose grandeur and solemnity decrease as
communities grow old; whose sonorous tones ring in the Hebrew Bible,
and still are noble in Greece, but grow weaker under the progress of
successive phases of civilization?
"Is it to this time-honored spirit that we owe the mysteries lying
buried in every human word? In the word /True/ do we not discern a
certain imaginary rectitude? Does not the compact brevity of its sound
suggest a vague image of chaste nudity and the simplicity of Truth in
all things? The syllable seems to me singularly crisp and fresh.
"I chose the formula of an abstract idea on purpose, not wishing to
illustrate the case by a word which should make it too obvious to the
apprehension, as the word /Flight/ for instance, which is a direct
appeal to the senses.
"But is it not so with every root word? They are all stamped with a
living power that comes from the soul, and which they restore to the
soul through the mysterious and wonderful action and reaction between
thought and speech. Might we not speak of it as a lover who finds on
his mistress' lips as much love as he gives? Thus, by their mere
physiognomy, words call to life in our brain the beings which they
serve to clothe. Like all beings, there is but one place where their
properties are at full liberty to act and develop. But the subject
demands a science to itself perhaps!"
And he would shrug his shoulders as much as to say, "But we are too
high and too low!"
Louis' passion for reading had on the whole been very well satisfied.
The cure of Mer had two or three thousand volumes. This treasure had
been derived from the plunder committed during the Revolution in the
neighboring chateaux and abbeys. As a priest who had taken the oath,
the worthy man had been able to choose the best books from among these
precious libraries, which were sold by the pound. In three years Louis
Lambert had assimilated the contents of all the books in his uncle's
library that were worth reading. The process of absorbing ideas by
means of reading had become in him a very strange phenomenon. His eye
took in six or seven lines at once, and his mind grasped the sense
with a swiftness as remarkable as that of his eye; sometimes even one
word in a sentence was enough to enable him to seize the gist of the
His memory was prodigious. He remembered with equal exactitude the
ideas he had derived from reading, and those which had occurred to him
in the course of meditation or conversation. Indeed, he had every form
of memory--for places, for names, for words, things, and faces. He not
only recalled any object at will, but he saw them in his mind,
situated, lighted, and colored as he had originally seen them. And
this power he could exert with equal effect with regard to the most
abstract efforts of the intellect. He could remember, as he said, not
merely the position of a sentence in the book where he had met with
it, but the frame of mind he had been in at remote dates. Thus his was
the singular privilege of being able to retrace in memory the whole
life and progress of his mind, from the ideas he had first acquired to
the last thought evolved in it, from the most obscure to the clearest.
His brain, accustomed in early youth to the mysterious mechanism by
which human faculties are concentrated, drew from this rich treasury
endless images full of life and freshness, on which he fed his spirit
during those lucid spells of contemplation.
"Whenever I wish it," said he to me in his own language, to which a
fund of remembrance gave precocious originality, "I can draw a veil
over my eyes. Then I suddenly see within me a camera obscura, where
natural objects are reproduced in purer forms than those under which
they first appeared to my external sense."
At the age of twelve his imagination, stimulated by the perpetual
exercise of his faculties, had developed to a point which permitted
him to have such precise concepts of things which he knew only from
reading about them, that the image stamped on his mind could not have
been clearer if he had actually seen them, whether this was by a
process of analogy or that he was gifted with a sort of second sight
by which he could command all nature.
"When I read the story of the battle of Austerlitz," said he to me one
day, "I saw every incident. The roar of the cannon, the cries of the
fighting men rang in my ears, and made my inmost self quiver; I could
smell the powder; I heard the clatter of horses and the voices of men;
I looked down on the plain where armed nations were in collision, just
as if I had been on the heights of Santon. The scene was as terrifying
as a passage from the Apocalypse." On the occasions when he brought
all his powers into play, and in some degree lost consciousness of his
physical existence, and lived on only by the remarkable energy of his
mental powers, whose sphere was enormously expanded, he left space
behind him, to use his own words.
But I will not here anticipate the intellectual phases of his life.
Already, in spite of myself, I have reversed the order in which I
ought to tell the history of this man, who transferred all his
activities to thinking, as others throw all their life into action.
A strong bias drew his mind into mystical studies.
"/Abyssus abyssum/," he would say. "Our spirit is abysmal and loves
the abyss. In childhood, manhood, and old age we are always eager for
mysteries in whatever form they present themselves."
This predilection was disastrous; if indeed his life can be measured
by ordinary standards, or if we may gauge another's happiness by our
own or by social notions. This taste for the "things of heaven,"
another phrase he was fond of using, this /mens divinior/, was due
perhaps to the influence produced on his mind by the first books he
read at his uncle's. Saint Theresa and Madame Guyon were a sequel to
the Bible; they had the first-fruits of his manly intelligence, and
accustomed him to those swift reactions of the soul of which ecstasy
is at once the result and the means. This line of study, this peculiar
taste, elevated his heart, purified, ennobled it, gave him an appetite
for the divine nature, and suggested to him the almost womanly
refinement of feeling which is instinctive in great men; perhaps their
sublime superiority is no more than the desire to devote themselves
which characterizes woman, only transferred to the greatest things.
As a result of these early impressions, Louis passed immaculate
through his school life; this beautiful virginity of the senses
naturally resulted in the richer fervor of his blood, and in increased
faculties of mind.
The Baroness de Stael, forbidden to come within forty leagues of
Paris, spent several months of her banishment on an estate near
Vendome. One day, when out walking, she met on the skirts of the park
the tanner's son, almost in rags, and absorbed in reading. The book
was a translation of /Heaven and Hell/. At that time Monsieur Saint-
Martin, Monsieur de Gence, and a few other French or half German
writers were almost the only persons in the French Empire to whom the
name of Swedenborg was known. Madame de Stael, greatly surprised, took
the book from him with the roughness she affected in her questions,
looks, and manners, and with a keen glance at Lambert,--
"Do you understand all this?" she asked.
"Do you pray to God?" said the child.
"And do you understand Him?"
The Baroness was silent for a moment; then she sat down by Lambert,
and began to talk to him. Unfortunately, my memory, though retentive,
is far from being so trustworthy as my friend's, and I have forgotten
the whole of the dialogue excepting those first words.
Such a meeting was of a kind to strike Madame de Stael very greatly;
on her return home she said but little about it, notwithstanding an
effusiveness which in her became mere loquacity; but it evidently
occupied her thoughts.
The only person now living who preserves any recollection of the
incident, and whom I catechised to be informed of what few words
Madame de Stael had let drop, could with difficulty recall these words
spoken by the Baroness as describing Lambert, "He is a real seer."
Louis failed to justify in the eyes of the world the high hopes he had
inspired in his protectress. The transient favor she showed him was
regarded as a feminine caprice, one of the fancies characteristic of
artist souls. Madame de Stael determined to save Louis Lambert alike
from serving the Emperor or the Church, and to preserve him for the
glorious destiny which, she thought, awaited him; for she made him out
to be a second Moses snatched from the waters. Before her departure
she instructed a friend of hers, Monsieur de Corbigny, to send her
Moses in due course to the High School at Vendome; then she probably
Having entered this college at the age of fourteen, early in 1811,
Lambert would leave it at the end of 1814, when he had finished the
course of Philosophy. I doubt whether during the whole time he ever
heard a word of his benefactress--if indeed it was the act of a
benefactress to pay for a lad's schooling for three years without a
thought of his future prospects, after diverting him from a career in
which he might have found happiness. The circumstances of the time,
and Louis Lambert's character, may to a great extent absolve Madame de
Stael for her thoughtlessness and her generosity. The gentleman who
was to have kept up communications between her and the boy left Blois
just at the time when Louis passed out of the college. The political
events that ensued were then a sufficient excuse for this gentleman's
neglect of the Baroness' protege. The authoress of /Corinne/ heard no
more of her little Moses.
A hundred louis, which she placed in the hands of Monsieur de
Corbigny, who died, I believe, in 1812, was not a sufficiently large
sum to leave lasting memories in Madame de Stael, whose excitable
nature found ample pasture during the vicissitudes of 1814 and 1815,
which absorbed all her interest.
At this time Louis Lambert was at once too proud and too poor to go in
search of a patroness who was traveling all over Europe. However, he
went on foot from Blois to Paris in the hope of seeing her, and
arrived, unluckily, on the very day of her death. Two letters from
Lambert to the Baroness remained unanswered. The memory of Madame de
Stael's good intentions with regard to Louis remains, therefore, only
in some few young minds, struck, as mine was, by the strangeness of
No one who had not gone through the training at our college could
understand the effect usually made on our minds by the announcement
that a "new boy" had arrived, or the impression that such an adventure
as Louis Lambert's was calculated to produce.
And here a little information must be given as to the primitive
administration of this institution, originally half-military and half-
monastic, to explain the new life which there awaited Lambert. Before
the Revolution, the Oratorians, devoted, like the Society of Jesus, to
the education of youth--succeeding the Jesuits, in fact, in certain of
their establishments--the colleges of Vendome, of Tournon, of la
Fleche, Pont-Levoy, Sorreze, and Juilly. That at Vendome, like the
others, I believe, turned out a certain number of cadets for the army.
The abolition of educational bodies, decreed by the convention, had
but little effect on the college at Vendome. When the first crisis had
blown over, the authorities recovered possession of their buildings;
certain Oratorians, scattered about the country, came back to the
college and re-opened it under the old rules, with the habits,
practices, and customs which gave this school a character with which I
have seen nothing at all comparable in any that I have visited since I
left that establishment.
Standing in the heart of the town, on the little river Loire which
flows under its walls, the college possesses extensive precincts,
carefully enclosed by walls, and including all the buildings necessary
for an institution on that scale: a chapel, a theatre, an infirmary, a
bakehouse, gardens, and water supply. This college is the most
celebrated home of learning in all the central provinces, and receives
pupils from them and from the colonies. Distance prohibits any
frequent visits from parents to their children.
The rule of the House forbids holidays away from it. Once entered
there, a pupil never leaves till his studies are finished. With the
exception of walks taken under the guidance of the Fathers, everything
is calculated to give the School the benefit of conventual discipline;
in my day the tawse was still a living memory, and the classical
leather strap played its terrible part with all the honors. The
punishment originally invented by the Society of Jesus, as alarming to
the moral as to the physical man, was still in force in all the
integrity of the original code.
Letters to parents were obligatory on certain days, so was confession.
Thus our sins and our sentiments were all according to pattern.
Everything bore the stamp of monastic rule. I well remember, among
other relics of the ancient order, the inspection we went through
every Sunday. We were all in our best, placed in file like soldiers to
await the arrival of the two inspectors who, attended by the tutors
and the tradesmen, examined us from the three points of view of dress,
health, and morals.
The two or three hundred pupils lodged in the establishment were
divided, according to ancient custom, into the /minimes/ (the
smallest), the little boys, the middle boys, and the big boys. The
division of the /minimes/ included the eighth and seventh classes; the
little boys formed the sixth, fifth, and fourth; the middle boys were
classed as third and second; and the first class comprised the senior
students--of philosophy, rhetoric, the higher mathematics, and
chemistry. Each of these divisions had its own building, classrooms,
and play-ground, in the large common precincts on to which the
classrooms opened, and beyond which was the refectory.
This dining-hall, worthy of an ancient religious Order, accommodated
all the school. Contrary to the usual practice in educational
institutions, we were allowed to talk at our meals, a tolerant
Oratorian rule which enabled us to exchange plates according to our
taste. This gastronomical barter was always one of the chief pleasures
of our college life. If one of the "middle" boys at the head of his
table wished for a helping of lentils instead of dessert--for we had
dessert--the offer was passed down from one to another: "Dessert for
lentils!" till some other epicure had accepted; then the plate of
lentils was passed up to the bidder from hand to hand, and the plate
of dessert returned by the same road. Mistakes were never made. If
several identical offers were made, they were taken in order, and the
formula would be, "Lentils number one for dessert number one." The
tables were very long; our incessant barter kept everything moving; we
transacted it with amazing eagerness; and the chatter of three hundred
lads, the bustling to and fro of the servants employed in changing the
plates, setting down the dishes, handing the bread, with the tours of
inspection of the masters, made this refectory at Vendome a scene
unique in its way, and the amazement of visitors.
To make our life more tolerable, deprived as we were of all
communication with the outer world and of family affection, we were
allowed to keep pigeons and to have gardens. Our two or three hundred
pigeon-houses, with a thousand birds nesting all round the outer wall,
and above thirty garden plots, were a sight even stranger than our
meals. But a full account of the peculiarities which made the college
at Vendome a place unique in itself and fertile in reminiscences to
those who spent their boyhood there, would be weariness to the reader.
Which of us all but remembers with delight, notwithstanding the
bitterness of learning, the eccentric pleasures of that cloistered
life? The sweetmeats purchased by stealth in the course of our walks,
permission obtained to play cards and devise theatrical performances
during the holidays, such tricks and freedom as were necessitated by
our seclusion; then, again, our military band, a relic of the cadets;
our academy, our chaplain, our Father professors, and all our games
permitted or prohibited, as the case might be; the cavalry charges on
stilts, the long slides made in winter, the clatter of our clogs; and,
above all, the trading transactions with "the shop" set up in the
This shop was kept by a sort of cheap-jack, of whom big and little
boys could procure--according to his prospectus--boxes, stilts, tools,
Jacobin pigeons, and Nuns, Mass-books--an article in small demand--
penknives, paper, pens, pencils, ink of all colors, balls and marbles;
in short, the whole catalogue of the most treasured possessions of
boys, including everything from sauce for the pigeons we were obliged
to kill off, to the earthenware pots in which we set aside the rice
from supper to be eaten at next morning's breakfast. Which of us was
so unhappy as to have forgotten how his heart beat at the sight of
this booth, open periodically during play-hours on Sundays, to which
we went, each in his turn, to spend his little pocket-money; while the
smallness of the sum allowed by our parents for these minor pleasures
required us to make a choice among all the objects that appealed so
strongly to our desires? Did ever a young wife, to whom her husband,
during the first days of happiness, hands, twelve times a year, a
purse of gold, the budget of her personal fancies, dream of so many
different purchases, each of which would absorb the whole sum, as we
imagined possible on the eve of the first Sunday in each month? For
six francs during one night we owned every delight of that
inexhaustible shop! and during Mass every response we chanted was
mixed up in our minds with our secret calculations. Which of us all
can recollect ever having had a sou left to spend on the Sunday
following? And which of us but obeyed the instinctive law of social
existence by pitying, helping, and despising those pariahs who, by the
avarice or poverty of their parents, found themselves penniless?
Any one who forms a clear idea of this huge college, with its monastic
buildings in the heart of a little town, and the four plots in which
we were distributed as by a monastic rule, will easily conceive of the
excitement that we felt at the arrival of a new boy, a passenger
suddenly embarked on the ship. No young duchess, on her first
appearance at Court, was ever more spitefully criticised than the new
boy by the youths in his division. Usually during the evening play-
hour before prayers, those sycophants who were accustomed to
ingratiate themselves with the Fathers who took it in turns two and
two for a week to keep an eye on us, would be the first to hear on
trustworthy authority: "There will be a new boy to-morrow!" and then
suddenly the shout, "A New Boy!--A New Boy!" rang through the courts.
We hurried up to crowd round the superintendent and pester him with
"Where was he coming from? What was his name? Which class would he be
in?" and so forth.
Louis Lambert's advent was the subject of a romance worthy of the
/Arabian Nights/. I was in the fourth class at the time--among the
little boys. Our housemasters were two men whom we called Fathers from
habit and tradition, though they were not priests. In my time there
were indeed but three genuine Oratorians to whom this title
legitimately belonged; in 1814 they all left the college, which had
gradually become secularized, to find occupation about the altar in
various country parishes, like the cure of Mer.
Father Haugoult, the master for the week, was not a bad man, but of
very moderate attainments, and he lacked the tact which is
indispensable for discerning the different characters of children, and
graduating their punishment to their powers of resistance. Father
Haugoult, then, began very obligingly to communicate to his pupils the
wonderful events which were to end on the morrow in the advent of the
most singular of "new boys." Games were at an end. All the children
came round in silence to hear the story of Louis Lambert, discovered,
like an aerolite, by Madame de Stael, in a corner of the wood.
Monsieur Haugoult had to tell us all about Madame de Stael; that
evening she seemed to me ten feet high; I saw at a later time the
picture of Corinne, in which Gerard represents her as so tall and
handsome; and, alas! the woman painted by my imagination so far
transcended this, that the real Madame de Stael fell at once in my
estimation, even after I read her book of really masculine power, /De
But Lambert at that time was an even greater wonder. Monsieur
Mareschal, the headmaster, after examining him, had thought of placing
him among the senior boys. It was Louis' ignorance of Latin that
placed him so low as the fourth class, but he would certainly leap up
a class every year; and, as a remarkable exception, he was to be one
of the "Academy." /Proh pudor/! we were to have the honor of counting
among the "little boys" one whose coat was adorned with the red ribbon
displayed by the "Academicians" of Vendome. These Academicians enjoyed
distinguished privileges; they often dined at the director's table,
and held two literary meetings annually, at which we were all present
to hear their elucubrations. An Academician was a great man in embryo.
And if every Vendome scholar would speak the truth, he would confess
that, in later life, an Academician of the great French Academy seemed
to him far less remarkable than the stupendous boy who wore the cross
and the imposing red ribbon which were the insignia of our "Academy."
It was very unusual to be one of that illustrious body before
attaining to the second class, for the Academicians were expected to
hold public meetings every Thursday during the holidays, and to read
tales in verse or prose, epistles, essays, tragedies, dramas--
compositions far above the intelligence of the lower classes. I long
treasured the memory of a story called the "Green Ass," which was, I
think, the masterpiece of this unknown Society. In the fourth, and an
Academician! This boy of fourteen, a poet already, the protege of
Madame de Stael, a coming genius, said Father Haugoult, was to be one
of us! a wizard, a youth capable of writing a composition or a
translation while we were being called into lessons, and of learning
his lessons by reading them through but once. Louis Lambert bewildered
all our ideas. And Father Haugoult's curiosity and impatience to see
this new boy added fuel to our excited fancy.
"If he has pigeons, he can have no pigeon-house; there is not room for
another. Well, it cannot be helped," said one boy, since famous as an
"Who will sit next to him?" said another.
"Oh, I wish I might be his chum!" cried an enthusiast.
In school language, the word here rendered chum--/faisant/, or in some
schools, /copin/--expressed a fraternal sharing of the joys and evils
of your childish existence, a community of interests that was fruitful
of squabbling and making friends again, a treaty of alliance offensive
and defensive. It is strange, but never in my time did I know brothers
who were chums. If man lives by his feelings, he thinks perhaps that
he will make his life the poorer if he merges an affection of his own
choosing in a natural tie.
The impression made upon me by Father Haugoult's harangue that evening
is one of the most vivid reminiscences of my childhood; I can compare
it with nothing but my first reading of /Robinson Crusoe/. Indeed, I
owe to my recollection of these prodigious impressions an observation
that may perhaps be new as to the different sense attached to words by
each hearer. The word in itself has no final meaning; we affect a word
more than it affects us; its value is in relation to the images we
have assimilated and grouped round it; but a study of this fact would
require considerable elaboration, and lead us too far from our
Not being able to sleep, I had a long discussion with my next neighbor
in the dormitory as to the remarkable being who on the morrow was to
be one of us. This neighbor, who became an officer, and is now a
writer with lofty philosophical views, Barchou de Penhoen, has not
been false to his pre-destination, nor to the hazard of fortune by
which the only two scholars of Vendome, of whose fame Vendome ever
hears, were brought together in the same classroom, on the same form,
and under the same roof. Our comrade Dufaure had not, when this book
was published, made his appearance in public life as a lawyer. The
translator of Fichte, the expositor and friend of Ballanche, was
already interested, as I myself was, in metaphysical questions; we
often talked nonsense together about God, ourselves, and nature. He at
that time affected pyrrhonism. Jealous of his place as leader, he
doubted Lambert's precocious gifts; while I, having lately read /Les
Enfants celebres/, overwhelmed him with evidence, quoting young
Montcalm, Pico della Mirandola, Pascal--in short, a score of early
developed brains, anomalies that are famous in the history of the
human mind, and Lambert's predecessors.
I was at the time passionately addicted to reading. My father, who was
ambitious to see me in the Ecole Polytechnique, paid for me to have a
special course of private lessons in mathematics. My mathematical
master was the librarian of the college, and allowed me to help myself
to books without much caring what I chose to take from the library, a
quiet spot where I went to him during play-hours to have my lesson.
Either he was no great mathematician, or he was absorbed in some grand
scheme, for he very willingly left me to read when I ought to have
been learning, while he worked at I knew not what. So, by a tacit
understanding between us, I made no complaints of being taught
nothing, and he said nothing of the books I borrowed.
Carried away by this ill-timed mania, I neglected my studies to
compose poems, which certainly can have shown no great promise, to
judge by a line of too many feet which became famous among my
companions--the beginning of an epic on the Incas:
"O Inca! O roi infortune et malheureux!"
In derision of such attempts, I was nicknamed the Poet, but mockery
did not cure me. I was always rhyming, in spite of good advice from
Monsieur Mareschal, the headmaster, who tried to cure me of an
unfortunately inveterate passion by telling me the fable of a linnet
that fell out of the nest because it tried to fly before its wings
were grown. I persisted in my reading; I became the least emulous, the
idlest, the most dreamy of all the division of "little boys," and
consequently the most frequently punished.
This autobiographical digression may give some idea of the reflections
I was led to make in anticipation of Lambert's arrival. I was then
twelve years old. I felt sympathy from the first for the boy whose
temperament had some points of likeness to my own. I was at last to
have a companion in daydreams and meditations. Though I knew not yet
what glory meant, I thought it glory to be the familiar friend of a
child whose immortality was foreseen by Madame de Stael. To me Louis
Lambert was as a giant.
The looked-for morrow came at last. A minute before breakfast we heard
the steps of Monsieur Mareschal and of the new boy in the quiet
courtyard. Every head was turned at once to the door of the classroom.
Father Haugoult, who participated in our torments of curiosity, did
not sound the whistle he used to reduce our mutterings to silence and
bring us back to our tasks. We then saw this famous new boy, whom
Monsieur Mareschal was leading by the hand. The superintendent
descended from his desk, and the headmaster said to him solemnly,
according to etiquette: "Monsieur, I have brought you Monsieur Louis
Lambert; will you place him in the fourth class? He will begin work
Then, after speaking a few words in an undertone to the class-master,
"Where can he sit?"
It would have been unfair to displace one of us for a newcomer; so as
there was but one desk vacant, Louis Lambert came to fill it, next to
me, for I had last joined the class. Though we still had some time to
wait before lessons were over, we all stood up to look at Louis
Lambert. Monsieur Mareschal heard our mutterings, saw how eager we
were, and said, with the kindness that endeared him to us all:
"Well, well, but make no noise; do not disturb the other classes."
These words set us free to play some little time before breakfast, and
we all gathered round Lambert while Monsieur Mareschal walked up and
down the courtyard with Father Haugoult.
There were about eighty of us little demons, as bold as birds of prey.
Though we ourselves had all gone through this cruel novitiate, we
showed no mercy on a newcomer, never sparing him the mockery, the
catechism, the impertinence, which were inexhaustible on such
occasions, to the discomfiture of the neophyte, whose manners,
strength, and temper were thus tested. Lambert, whether he was stoical
or dumfounded, made no reply to any questions. One of us thereupon
remarked that he was no doubt of the school of Pythagoras, and there
was a shout of laughter. The new boy was thenceforth Pythagoras
through all his life at the college. At the same time, Lambert's
piercing eye, the scorn expressed in his face for our childishness, so
far removed from the stamp of his own nature, the easy attitude he
assumed, and his evident strength in proportion to his years, infused
a certain respect into the veriest scamps among us. For my part, I
kept near him, absorbed in studying him in silence.
Louis Lambert was slightly built, nearly five feet in height; his face
was tanned, and his hands were burnt brown by the sun, giving him an
appearance of manly vigor, which, in fact, he did not possess. Indeed,
two months after he came to the college, when studying in the
classroom had faded his vivid, so to speak, vegetable coloring, he
became as pale and white as a woman.
His head was unusually large. His hair, of a fine, bright black in
masses of curls, gave wonderful beauty to his brow, of which the
proportions were extraordinary even to us heedless boys, knowing
nothing, as may be supposed, of the auguries of phrenology, a science
still in its cradle. The distinction of this prophetic brow lay
principally in the exquisitely chiseled shape of the arches under
which his black eyes sparkled, and which had the transparency of
alabaster, the line having the unusual beauty of being perfectly level
to where it met the top of the nose. But when you saw his eyes it was
difficult to think of the rest of his face, which was indeed plain
enough, for their look was full of a wonderful variety of expression;
they seemed to have a soul in their depths. At one moment
astonishingly clear and piercing, at another full of heavenly
sweetness, those eyes became dull, almost colorless, as it seemed,
when he was lost in meditation. They then looked like a window from
which the sun had suddenly vanished after lighting it up. His strength
and his voice were no less variable; equally rigid, equally
unexpected. His tone could be as sweet as that of a woman compelled to
own her love; at other times it was labored, rough, rugged, if I may
use such words in a new sense. As to his strength, he was habitually
incapable of enduring the fatigue of any game, and seemed weakly,
almost infirm. But during the early days of his school-life, one of
our little bullies having made game of this sickliness, which rendered
him unfit for the violent exercise in vogue among his fellows, Lambert
took hold with both hands of one of the class-tables, consisting of
twelve large desks, face to face and sloping from the middle; he
leaned back against the class-master's desk, steadying the table with
his feet on the cross-bar below, and said:
"Now, ten of you try to move it!"
I was present, and can vouch for this strange display of strength; it
was impossible to move the table.
Lambert had the gift of summoning to his aid at certain times the most
extraordinary powers, and of concentrating all his forces on a given
point. But children, like men, are wont to judge of everything by
first impressions, and after the first few days we ceased to study
Louis; he entirely belied Madame de Stael's prognostications, and
displayed none of the prodigies we looked for in him.
After three months at school, Louis was looked upon as a quite
ordinary scholar. I alone was allowed really to know that sublime--why
should I not say divine?--soul, for what is nearer to God than genius
in the heart of a child? The similarity of our tastes and ideas made
us friends and chums; our intimacy was so brotherly that our school-
fellows joined our two names; one was never spoken without the other,
and to call either they always shouted "Poet-and-Pythagoras!" Some
other names had been known coupled in a like manner. Thus for two
years I was the school friend of poor Louis Lambert; and during that
time my life was so identified with his, that I am enabled now to
write his intellectual biography.
It was long before I fully knew the poetry and the wealth of ideas
that lay hidden in my companion's heart and brain. It was not till I
was thirty years of age, till my experience was matured and condensed,
till the flash of an intense illumination had thrown a fresh light
upon it, that I was capable of understanding all the bearings of the
phenomena which I witnessed at that early time. I benefited by them
without understanding their greatness or their processes; indeed, I
have forgotten some, or remember only the most conspicuous facts;
still, my memory is now able to co-ordinate them, and I have mastered
the secrets of that fertile brain by looking back to the delightful
days of our boyish affection. So it was time alone that initiated me
into the meaning of the events and facts that were crowded into that
obscure life, as into that of many another man who is lost to science.
Indeed, this narrative, so far as the expression and appreciation of
many things is concerned, will be found full of what may be termed
moral anachronisms, which perhaps will not detract from its peculiar
In the course of the first few months after coming to Vendome, Louis
became the victim of a malady which, though the symptoms were
invisible to the eye of our superiors, considerably interfered with
the exercise of his remarkable gifts. Accustomed to live in the open
air, and to the freedom of a purely haphazard education, happy in the
tender care of an old man who was devoted to him, used to meditating
in the sunshine, he found it very hard to submit to college rules, to
walk in the ranks, to live within the four walls of a room where
eighty boys were sitting in silence on wooden forms each in front of
his desk. His senses were developed to such perfection as gave them
the most sensitive keenness, and every part of him suffered from this
life in common.
The effluvia that vitiated the air, mingled with the odors of a
classroom that was never clean, nor free from the fragments of our
breakfasts or snacks, affected his sense of smell, the sense which,
being more immediately connected than the others with the nerve-
centers of the brain, must, when shocked, cause invisible disturbance
to the organs of thought.
Besides these elements of impurity in the atmosphere, there were
lockers in the classrooms in which the boys kept their miscellaneous
plunder--pigeons killed for fete days, or tidbits filched from the
dinner-table. In each classroom, too, there was a large stone slab, on
which two pails full of water were kept standing, a sort of sink,
where we every morning washed our faces and hands, one after another,
in the master's presence. We then passed on to a table, where women
combed and powdered our hair. Thus the place, being cleaned but once a
day before we were up, was always more or less dirty. In spite of
numerous windows and lofty doors, the air was constantly fouled by the
smells from the washing-place, the hairdressing, the lockers, and the
thousand messes made by the boys, to say nothing of their eighty
closely packed bodies. And this sort of /humus/, mingling with the mud
we brought in from the playing-yard, produced a suffocatingly
The loss of the fresh and fragrant country air in which he had
hitherto lived, the change of habits and strict discipline, combined
to depress Lambert. With his elbow on his desk and his head supported
on his left hand, he spent the hours of study gazing at the trees in
the court or the clouds in the sky; he seemed to be thinking of his
lessons; but the master, seeing his pen motionless, or the sheet
before him still a blank, would call out:
"Lambert, you are doing nothing!"
This "/you are doing nothing/!" was a pin-thrust that wounded Louis to
the quick. And then he never earned the rest of the play-time; he
always had impositions to write. The imposition, a punishment which
varies according to the practice of different schools, consisted at
Vendome of a certain number of lines to be written out in play hours.
Lambert and I were so overpowered with impositions, that we had not
six free days during the two years of our school friendship. But for
the books we took out of the library, which maintained some vitality
in our brains, this system of discipline would have reduced us to
idiotcy. Want of exercise is fatal to children. The habit of
preserving a dignified appearance, begun in tender infancy, has, it is
said, a visible effect on the constitution of royal personages when
the faults of such an education are not counteracted by the life of
the battle-field or the laborious sport of hunting. And if the laws of
etiquette and Court manners can act on the spinal marrow to such an
extent as to affect the pelvis of kings, to soften their cerebral
tissue, and so degenerate the race, what deep-seated mischief,
physical and moral, must result in schoolboys from the constant lack
of air, exercise, and cheerfulness!
Indeed, the rules of punishment carried out in schools deserve the
attention of the Office of Public Instruction when any thinkers are to
be found there who do not think exclusively of themselves.
We incurred the infliction of an imposition in a thousand ways. Our
memory was so good that we never learned a lesson. It was enough for
either of us to hear our class-fellows repeat the task in French,
Latin, or grammar, and we could say it when our turn came; but if the
master, unfortunately, took it into his head to reverse the usual
order and call upon us first, we very often did not even know what the
lesson was; then the imposition fell in spite of our most ingenious
excuses. Then we always put off writing our exercises till the last
moment; if there were a book to be finished, or if we were lost in
thought, the task was forgotten--again an imposition. How often have
we scribbled an exercise during the time when the head-boy, whose
business it was to collect them when we came into school, was
gathering them from the others!
In addition to the moral misery which Lambert went through in trying
to acclimatize himself to college life, there was a scarcely less
cruel apprenticeship through which every boy had to pass: to those
bodily sufferings which seemed infinitely varied. The tenderness of a
child's skin needs extreme care, especially in winter, when a school-
boy is constantly exchanging the frozen air of the muddy playing-yard
for the stuffy atmosphere of the classroom. The "little boys" and the
smallest of all, for lack of a mother's care, were martyrs to
chilblains and chaps so severe that they had to be regularly dressed
during the breakfast hour; but this could only be very indifferently
done to so many damaged hands, toes, and heels. A good many of the
boys indeed were obliged to prefer the evil to the remedy; the choice
constantly lay between their lessons waiting to be finished or the
joys of a slide, and waiting for a bandage carelessly put on, and
still more carelessly cast off again. Also it was the fashion in the
school to gibe at the poor, feeble creatures who went to be doctored;
the bullies vied with each other in snatching off the rags which the
infirmary nurse had tied on. Hence, in winter, many of us, with half-
dead feet and fingers, sick with pain, were incapable of work, and
punished for not working. The Fathers, too often deluded by shammed
ailments, would not believe in real suffering.
The price paid for our schooling and board also covered the cost of
clothing. The committee contracted for the shoes and clothes supplied
to the boys; hence the weekly inspection of which I have spoken. This
plan, though admirable for the manager, is always disastrous to the
managed. Woe to the boy who indulged in the bad habit of treading his
shoes down at heel, of cracking the shoe-leather, or wearing out the
soles too fast, whether from a defect in his gait, or by fidgeting
during lessons in obedience to the instinctive need of movement common
to all children. That boy did not get through the winter without great
suffering. In the first place, his chilblains would ache and shot as
badly as a fit of the gout; then the rivets and pack-thread intended
to repair the shoes would give way, or the broken heels would prevent
the wretched shoes from keeping on his feet; he was obliged to drag
them wearily along the frozen roads, or sometimes to dispute their
possession with the clay soil of the district; the water and snow got
in through some unnoticed crack or ill-sewn patch, and the foot would
Out of sixty boys, not ten perhaps could walk without some special
form of torture; and yet they all kept up with the body of the troop,
dragged on by the general movement, as men are driven through life by
life itself. Many a time some proud-tempered boy would shed tears of
rage while summoning his remaining energy to run ahead and get home
again in spite of pain, so sensitively afraid of laughter or of pity--
two forms of scorn--is the still tender soul at that age.
At school, as in social life, the strong despise the feeble without
knowing in what true strength consists.
Nor was this all. No gloves. If by good hap a boy's parents, the
infirmary nurse, or the headmaster gave gloves to a particularly
delicate lad, the wags or the big boys of the class would put them on
the stove, amused to see them dry and shrivel; or if the gloves
escaped the marauders, after getting wet they shrunk as they dried for
want of care. No, gloves were impossible. Gloves were a privilege, and
boys insist on equality.
Louis Lambert fell a victim to all these varieties of torment. Like
many contemplative men, who, when lost in thought, acquire a habit of
mechanical motion, he had a mania for fidgeting with his shoes, and
destroyed them very quickly. His girlish complexion, the skin of his
ears and lips, cracked with the least cold. His soft, white hands grew
red and swollen. He had perpetual colds. Thus he was a constant
sufferer till he became inured to school-life. Taught at last by cruel
experience, he was obliged to "look after his things," to use the
school phrase. He was forced to take care of his locker, his desk, his
clothes, his shoes; to protect his ink, his books, his copy-paper, and
his pens from pilferers; in short, to give his mind to the thousand
details of our trivial life, to which more selfish and commonplace
minds devoted such strict attention--thus infallibly securing prizes
for "proficiency" and "good conduct"--while they were overlooked by a
boy of the highest promise, who, under the hand of an almost divine
imagination, gave himself up with rapture to the flow of his ideas.
This was not all. There is a perpetual struggle going on between the
masters and the boys, a struggle without truce, to be compared with
nothing else in the social world, unless it be the resistance of the
opposition to the ministry in a representative government. But
journalists and opposition speakers are probably less prompt to take
advantage of a weak point, less extreme in resenting an injury, and
less merciless in their mockery than boys are in regard to those who
rule over them. It is a task to put angels out of patience. An unhappy
class-master must then not be too severely blamed, ill-paid as he is,
and consequently not too competent, if he is occasionally unjust or
out of temper. Perpetually watched by a hundred mocking eyes, and
surrounded with snares, he sometimes revenges himself for his own
blunders on the boys who are only too ready to detect them.
Unless for serious misdemeanors, for which there were other forms of
punishment, the strap was regarded at Vendome as the /ultima ratio
Patrum/. Exercises forgotten, lessons ill learned, common ill behavior
were sufficiently punished by an imposition, but offended dignity
spoke in the master through the strap. Of all the physical torments to
which we were exposed, certainly the most acute was that inflicted by
this leathern instrument, about two fingers wide, applied to our poor
little hands with all the strength and all the fury of the
administrator. To endure this classical form of correction, the victim
knelt in the middle of the room. He had to leave his form and go to
kneel down near the master's desk under the curious and generally
merciless eyes of his fellows. To sensitive natures these
preliminaries were an introductory torture, like the journey from the
Palais de Justice to the Place de Greve which the condemned used to
make to the scaffold.
Some boys cried out and shed bitter tears before or after the
application of the strap; others accepted the infliction with stoic
calm; it was a question of nature; but few could control an expression
of anguish in anticipation.
Louis Lambert was constantly enduring the strap, and owed it to a
peculiarity of his physiognomy of which he was for a long time quite
unconscious. Whenever he was suddenly roused from a fit of abstraction
by the master's cry, "You are doing nothing!" it often happened that,
without knowing it, he flashed at his teacher a look full of fierce
contempt, and charged with thought, as a Leyden jar is charged with
electricity. This look, no doubt, discomfited the master, who,
indignant at this unspoken retort, wished to cure his scholar of that
The first time the Father took offence at this ray of scorn, which
struck him like a lightning-flash, he made this speech, as I well
"If you look at me again in that way, Lambert, you will get the
At these words every nose was in the air, every eye looked alternately
at the master and at Louis. The observation was so utterly foolish,
that the boy again looked at the Father, overwhelming him with another
flash. From this arose a standing feud between Lambert and his master,
resulting in a certain amount of "strap." Thus did he first discover
the power of his eye.
The hapless poet, so full of nerves, as sensitive as a woman, under
the sway of chronic melancholy, and as sick with genius as a girl with
love that she pines for, knowing nothing of it;--this boy, at once so
powerful and so weak, transplanted by "Corinne" from the country he
loved, to be squeezed in the mould of a collegiate routine to which
every spirit and every body must yield, whatever their range or
temperament, accepting its rule and its uniform as gold is crushed
into round coin under the press; Louis Lambert suffered in every spot
where pain can touch the soul or the flesh. Stuck on a form,
restricted to the acreage of his desk, a victim of the strap and to a
sickly frame, tortured in every sense, environed by distress--
everything compelled him to give his body up to the myriad tyrannies
of school life; and, like the martyrs who smiled in the midst of
suffering, he took refuge in heaven, which lay open to his mind.
Perhaps this life of purely inward emotions helped him to see
something of the mysteries he so entirely believed in!
Our independence, our illicit amusements, our apparent waste of time,
our persistent indifference, our frequent punishments and aversion for
our exercises and impositions, earned us a reputation, which no one
cared to controvert, for being an idle and incorrigible pair. Our
masters treated us with contempt, and we fell into utter disgrace with
our companions, from whom we concealed our secret studies for fear of
being laughed at. This hard judgment, which was injustice in the
masters, was but natural in our schoolfellows. We could neither play
ball, nor run races, nor walk on stilts. On exceptional holidays, when
amnesty was proclaimed and we got a few hours of freedom, we shared in
none of the popular diversions of the school. Aliens from the
pleasures enjoyed by the others, we were outcasts, sitting forlorn
under a tree in the playing-ground. The Poet-and-Pythagoras formed an
exception and led a life apart from the life of the rest.
The penetrating instinct and unerring conceit of schoolboys made them
feel that we were of a nature either far above or far beneath their
own; hence some simply hated our aristocratic reserve, others merely
scorned our ineptitude. These feelings were equally shared by us
without our knowing it; perhaps I have but now divined them. We lived
exactly like two rats, huddled into the corner of the room where our
desks were, sitting there alike during lesson time and play hours.
This strange state of affairs inevitably and in fact placed us on a
footing of war with all the other boys in our division. Forgotten for
the most part, we sat there very contentedly; half happy, like two
plants, two images who would have been missed from the furniture of
the room. But the most aggressive of our schoolfellows would sometimes
torment us, just to show their malignant power, and we responded with
stolid contempt, which brought many a thrashing down on the Poet-and-
Lambert's home-sickness lasted for many months. I know no words to
describe the dejection to which he was a prey. Louis has taken the
glory off many a masterpiece for me. We had both played the part of
the "Leper of Aosta," and had both experienced the feelings described
in Monsieur de Maistre's story, before we read them as expressed by
his eloquent pen. A book may, indeed, revive the memories of our
childhood, but it can never compete with them successfully. Lambert's
woes had taught me many a chant of sorrow far more appealing than the
finest passages in "Werther." And, indeed, there is no possible
comparison between the pangs of a passion condemned, whether rightly
or wrongly, by every law, and the grief of a poor child pining for the
glorious sunshine, the dews of the valley, and liberty. Werther is the
slave of desire; Louis Lambert was an enslaved soul. Given equal
talent, the more pathetic sorrow, founded on desires which, being
purer, are the more genuine, must transcend the wail even of genius.
After sitting for a long time with his eyes fixed on a lime-tree in
the playground, Louis would say just a word; but that word would
reveal an infinite speculation.
"Happily for me," he exclaimed one day, "there are hours of comfort
when I feel as though the walls of the room had fallen and I were
away--away in the fields! What a pleasure it is to let oneself go on
the stream of one's thoughts as a bird is borne up on its wings!"
"Why is green a color so largely diffused throughout creation?" he
would ask me. "Why are there so few straight lines in nature? Why is
it that man, in his structures, rarely introduces curves? Why is it
that he alone, of all creatures, has a sense of straightness?"
These queries revealed long excursions in space. He had, I am sure,
seen vast landscapes, fragrant with the scent of woods. He was always
silent and resigned, a living elegy, always suffering but unable to
complain of suffering. An eagle that needed the world to feed him,
shut in between four narrow, dirty walls; and thus this life became an
ideal life in the strictest meaning of the words. Filled as he was
with contempt of the almost useless studies to which we were
harnessed, Louis went on his skyward way absolutely unconscious of the
things about us.
I, obeying the imitative instinct that is so strong in childhood,
tired to regulate my life in conformity with his. And Louis the more
easily infected me with the sort of torpor in which deep contemplation
leaves the body, because I was younger and more impressionable than
he. Like two lovers, we got into the habit of thinking together in a
common reverie. His intuitions had already acquired that acuteness
which must surely characterize the intellectual perceptiveness of
great poets and often bring them to the verge of madness.
"Do you ever feel," said he to me one day, "as though imagined
suffering affected you in spite of yourself? If, for instance, I think
with concentration of the effect that the blade of my penknife would
have in piercing my flesh, I feel an acute pain as if I had really cut
myself; only the blood is wanting. But the pain comes suddenly, and
startles me like a sharp noise breaking profound silence. Can an idea
cause physical pain?--What do you say to that, eh?"
When he gave utterance to such subtle reflections, we both fell into
artless meditation; we set to work to detect in ourselves the
inscrutable phenomena of the origin of thoughts, which Lambert hoped
to discover in their earliest germ, so as to describe some day the
unknown process. Then, after much discussion, often mixed up with
childish notions, a look would flash from Lambert's eager eyes; he
would grasp my hand, and a word from the depths of his soul would show
the current of his mind.
"Thinking is seeing," said he one day, carried away by some objection
raised as to the first principles of our organization. "Every human
science is based on deduction, which is a slow process of seeing by
which we work up from the effect to the cause; or, in a wider sense,
all poetry, like every work of art, proceeds from a swift vision of
He was a spiritualist (as opposed to materialism); but I would venture
to contradict him, using his own arguments to consider the intellect
as a purely physical phenomenon. We both were right. Perhaps the words
materialism and spiritualism express the two faces of the same fact.
His considerations on the substance of the mind led to his accepting,
with a certain pride, the life of privation to which we were condemned
in consequence of our idleness and our indifference to learning. He
had a certain consciousness of his own powers which bore him up
through his spiritual cogitations. How delightful it was to me to feel
his soul acting on my own! Many a time have we remained sitting on our
form, both buried in one book, having quite forgotten each other's
existence, and yet not apart; each conscious of the other's presence,
and bathing in an ocean of thought, like two fish swimming in the same
Our life, apparently, was merely vegetating; but we lived through our
heart and brain.
Lambert's influence over my imagination left traces that still abide.
I used to listen hungrily to his tales, full of the marvels which make
men, as well as children, rapturously devour stories in which truth
assumes the most grotesque forms. His passion for mystery, and the
credulity natural to the young, often led us to discuss Heaven and
Hell. Then Louis, by expounding Swedenborg, would try to make me share
in his beliefs concerning angels. In his least logical arguments there
were still amazing observations as to the powers of man, which gave
his words that color of truth without which nothing can be done in any
art. The romantic end he foresaw as the destiny of man was calculated
to flatter the yearning which tempts blameless imaginations to give
themselves up to beliefs. Is it not during the youth of a nation that
its dogmas and idols are conceived? And are not the supernatural
beings before whom the people tremble the personification of their
feelings and their magnified desires?
All that I can now remember of the poetical conversations we held
together concerning the Swedish prophet, whose works I have since had
the curiosity to read, may be told in a few paragraphs.
In each of us there are two distinct beings. According to Swedenborg,
the angel is an individual in whom the inner being conquers the
external being. If a man desires to earn his call to be an angel, as
soon as his mind reveals to him his twofold existence, he must strive
to foster the delicate angelic essence that exists within him. If, for
lack of a lucid appreciation of his destiny, he allows bodily action
to predominate, instead of confirming his intellectual being, all his
powers will be absorbed in the use of his external senses, and the
angel will slowly perish by the materialization of both natures. In
the contrary case, if he nourishes his inner being with the aliment
needful to it, the soul triumphs over matter and strives to get free.
When they separate by the act of what we call death, the angel, strong
enough then to cast off its wrappings, survives and begins its real
life. The infinite variety which differentiates individual men can
only be explained by this twofold existence, which, again, is proved
and made intelligible by that variety.
In point of fact, the wide distance between a man whose torpid
intelligence condemns him to evident stupidity, and one who, by the
exercise of his inner life, has acquired the gift of some power,
allows us to suppose that there is as great a difference between men
of genius and other beings as there is between the blind and those who
see. This hypothesis, since it extends creation beyond all limits,
gives us, as it were, the clue to heaven. The beings who, here on
earth, are apparently mingled without distinction, are there
distributed, according to their inner perfection, in distinct spheres
whose speech and manners have nothing in common. In the invisible
world, as in the real world, if some native of the lower spheres
comes, all unworthy, into a higher sphere, not only can he never
understand the customs and language there, but his mere presence
paralyzes the voice and hearts of those who dwell therein.
Dante, in his /Divine Comedy/, had perhaps some slight intuition of
those spheres which begin in the world of torment, and rise, circle on
circle, to the highest heaven. Thus Swedenborg's doctrine is the
product of a lucid spirit noting down the innumerable signs by which
the angels manifest their presence among men.
This doctrine, which I have endeavored to sum up in a more or less
consistent form, was set before me by Lambert with all the fascination
of mysticism, swathed in the wrappings of the phraseology affected by
mystical writers: an obscure language full of abstractions, and taking
such effect on the brain, that there are books by Jacob Boehm,
Swedenborg, and Madame Guyon, so strangely powerful that they give
rise to phantasies as various as the dreams of the opium-eater.
Lambert told me of mystical facts so extraordinary, he so acted on my
imagination, that he made my brain reel. Still, I loved to plunge into
that realm of mystery, invisible to the senses, in which every one
likes to dwell, whether he pictures it to himself under the indefinite
ideal of the Future, or clothes it in the more solid guise of romance.
These violent revulsions of the mind on itself gave me, without my
knowing it, a comprehension of its power, and accustomed me to the
workings of the mind.
Lambert himself explained everything by his theory of the angels. To
him pure love--love as we dream of it in youth--was the coalescence of
two angelic natures. Nothing could exceed the fervency with which he
longed to meet a woman angel. And who better than he could inspire or
feel love? If anything could give an impression of an exquisite
nature, was it not the amiability and kindliness that marked his
feelings, his words, his actions, his slightest gestures, the conjugal
regard that united us as boys, and that we expressed when we called
There was no distinction for us between my ideas and his. We imitated
each other's handwriting, so that one might write the tasks of both.
Thus, if one of us had a book to finish and to return to the
mathematical master, he could read on without interruption while the
other scribbled off his exercise and imposition. We did our tasks as
though paying a task on our peace of mind. If my memory does not play
me false, they were sometimes of remarkable merit when Lambert did
them. But on the foregone conclusion that we were both of us idiots,
the master always went through them under a rooted prejudice, and even
kept them to read to be laughed at by our schoolfellows.
I remember one afternoon, at the end of the lesson, which lasted from
two till four, the master took possession of a page of translation by
Lambert. The passage began with /Caius Gracchus, vir nobilis/; Lambert
had construed this by "Caius Gracchus had a noble heart."
"Where do you find 'heart' in /nobilis/?" said the Father sharply.
And there was a roar of laughter, while Lambert looked at the master
in some bewilderment.
"What would Madame la Baronne de Stael say if she could know that you
make such nonsense of a word that means noble family, of patrician
"She would say that you were an ass!" said I in a muttered tone.
"Master Poet, you will stay in for a week," replied the master, who
unfortunately overheard me.
Lambert simply repeated, looking at me with inexpressible affection,
Madame de Stael was, in fact, partly the cause of Lambert's troubles.
On every pretext masters and pupils threw the name in his teeth,
either in irony or in reproof.
Louis lost no time in getting himself "kept in" to share my
imprisonment. Freer thus than in any other circumstances, we could
talk the whole day long in the silence of the dormitories, where each
boy had a cubicle six feet square, the partitions consisting at the
top of open bars. The doors, fitted with gratings, were locked at
night and opened in the morning under the eye of the Father whose duty
it was to superintend our rising and going to bed. The creak of these
gates, which the college servants unlocked with remarkable expedition,
was a sound peculiar to that college. These little cells were our
prison, and boys were sometimes shut up there for a month at a time.
The boys in these coops were under the stern eye of the prefect, a
sort of censor who stole up at certain hours, or at unexpected
moments, with a silent step, to hear if we were talking instead of
writing our impositions. But a few walnut shells dropped on the
stairs, or the sharpness of our hearing, almost always enabled us to
beware of his coming, so we could give ourselves up without anxiety to
our favorite studies. However, as books were prohibited, our prison
hours were chiefly filled up with metaphysical discussions, or with
relating singular facts connected with the phenomena of mind.
One of the most extraordinary of these incidents beyond question is
this, which I will here record, not only because it concerns Lambert,
but because it perhaps was the turning-point of his scientific career.
By the law of custom in all schools, Thursday and Sunday were
holidays; but the services, which we were made to attend very
regularly, so completely filled up Sunday, that we considered Thursday
our only real day of freedom. After once attending Mass, we had a long
day before us to spend in walks in the country round the town of
Vendome. The manor of Rochambeau was the most interesting object of
our excursions, perhaps by reason of its distance; the smaller boys
were very seldom taken on so fatiguing an expedition. However, once or
twice a year the class-masters would hold out Rochambeau as a reward
In 1812, towards the end of the spring, we were to go there for the
first time. Our anxiety to see this famous chateau of Rochambeau,
where the owner sometimes treated the boys to milk, made us all very
good, and nothing hindered the outing. Neither Lambert nor I had ever
seen the pretty valley of the Loire where the house stood. So his
imagination and mine were much excited by the prospect of this
excursion, which filled the school with traditional glee. We talked of
it all the evening, planning to spend in fruit or milk such money as
we had saved, against all the habits of school-life.
After dinner next day, we set out at half-past twelve, each provided
with a square hunch of bread, given to us for our afternoon snack. And
off we went, as gay as swallows, marching in a body on the famous
chateau with an eagerness which would at first allow of no fatigue.
When we reached the hill, whence we looked down on the house standing
half-way down the slope, on the devious valley through which the river
winds and sparkles between meadows in graceful curves--a beautiful
landscape, one of those scenes to which the keen emotions of early
youth or of love lend such a charm, that it is wise never to see them
again in later years--Louis Lambert said to me, "Why, I saw this last
night in a dream."
He recognized the clump of trees under which we were standing, the
grouping of the woods, the color of the water, the turrets of the
chateau, the details, the distance, in fact every part of the prospect
which we looked on for the first time. We were mere children; I, at
any rate, who was but thirteen; Louis, at fifteen, might have the
precocity of genius, but at that time we were incapable of falsehood
in the most trivial matters of our life as friends. Indeed, if
Lambert's powerful mind had any presentiment of the importance of such
facts, he was far from appreciating their whole bearing; and he was
quite astonished by this incident. I asked him if he had not perhaps
been brought to Rochambeau in his infancy, and my question struck him;
but after thinking it over, he answered in the negative. This
incident, analogous to what may be known of the phenomena of sleep in
several persons, will illustrate the beginnings of Lambert's line of
talent; he took it, in fact, as the basis of a whole system, using a
fragment--as Cuvier did in another branch of inquiry--as a clue to the
reconstruction of a complete system.
At this moment we were sitting together on an old oak-stump, and after
a few minutes' reflection, Louis said to me:
"If the landscape did not come to me--which it is absurd to imagine--I
must have come here. If I was here while I was asleep in my cubicle,
does not that constitute a complete severance of my body and my inner
being? Does it not prove some inscrutable locomotive faculty in the
spirit with effects resembling those of locomotion in the body? Well,
then, if my spirit and my body can be severed during sleep, why should
I not insist on their separating in the same way while I am awake? I
see no half-way mean between the two propositions.
"But if we go further into details: either the facts are due to the
action of a faculty which brings out a second being to whom my body is
merely a husk, since I was in my cell, and yet I saw the landscape--
and this upsets many systems; or the facts took place either in some
nerve centre, of which the name is yet to be discovered, where our
feelings dwell and move; or else in the cerebral centre, where ideas
are formed. This last hypothesis gives rise to some strange questions.
I walked, I saw, I heard. Motion is inconceivable but in space, sound
acts only at certain angles or on surfaces, color is caused only by
light. If, in the dark, with my eyes shut, I saw, in myself, colored
objects; if I heard sounds in the most perfect silence and without the
conditions requisite for the production of sound; if without stirring
I traversed wide tracts of space, there must be inner faculties
independent of the external laws of physics. Material nature must be
penetrable by the spirit.
"How is it that men have hitherto given so little thought to the
phenomena of sleep, which seem to prove that man has a double life?
May there not be a new science lying beneath them?" he added, striking
his brow with his hand. "If not the elements of a science, at any rate
the revelation of stupendous powers in man; at least they prove a
frequent severance of our two natures, the fact I have been thinking
out for a very long time. At last, then, I have hit on evidence to
show the superiority that distinguishes our latent senses from our
corporeal senses! /Homo duplex/!
"And yet," he went on, after a pause, with a doubtful shrug, "perhaps
we have not two natures; perhaps we are merely gifted with personal
and perfectible qualities, of which the development within us produces
certain unobserved phenomena of activity, penetration, and vision. In
our love of the marvelous, a passion begotten of our pride, we have
translated these effects into poetical inventions, because we did not
understand them. It is so convenient to deify the incomprehensible!
"I should, I own, lament over the loss of my illusions. I so much
wished to believe in our twofold nature and in Swedenborg's angels.
Must this new science destroy them? Yes; for the study of our unknown
properties involves us in a science that appears to be materialistic,
for the Spirit uses, divides, and animates the Substance; but it does
not destroy it."
He remained pensive, almost sad. Perhaps he saw the dreams of his
youth as swaddling clothes that he must soon shake off.
"Sight and hearing are, no doubt, the sheaths for a very marvelous
instrument," said he, laughing at his own figure of speech.
Always when he was talking to me of Heaven and Hell, he was wont to
treat of Nature as being master; but now, as he pronounced these last
words, big with prescience, he seemed to soar more boldly than ever
above the landscape, and his forehead seemed ready to burst with the
afflatus of genius. His powers--mental powers we must call them till
some new term is found--seemed to flash from the organs intended to
express them. His eyes shot out thoughts; his uplifted hand, his
silent but tremulous lips were eloquent; his burning glance was
radiant; at last his head, as though too heavy, or exhausted by too
eager a flight, fell on his breast. This boy--this giant--bent his
head, took my hand and clasped it in his own, which was damp, so
fevered was he for the search for truth; then, after a pause, he said:
"I shall be famous!--And you, too," he added after a pause. "We will
both study the Chemistry of the Will."
Noble soul! I recognized his superiority, though he took great care
never to make me feel it. He shared with me all the treasures of his
mind, and regarded me as instrumental in his discoveries, leaving me
the credit of my insignificant contributions. He was always as
gracious as a woman in love; he had all the bashful feeling, the
delicacy of soul which make life happy and pleasant to endure.
On the following day he began writing what he called a /Treatise on
the Will/; his subsequent reflections led to many changes in its plan
and method; but the incident of that day was certainly the germ of the
work, just as the electric shock always felt by Mesmer at the approach
of a particular manservant was the starting-point of his discoveries
in magnetism, a science till then interred under the mysteries of
Isis, of Delphi, of the cave of Trophonius, and rediscovered by that
prodigious genius, close on Lavater, and the precursor of Gall.
Lambert's ideas, suddenly illuminated by this flash of light, assumed
vaster proportions; he disentangled certain truths from his many
acquisitions and brought them into order; then, like a founder, he
cast the model of his work. At the end of six months' indefatigable
labor, Lambert's writings excited the curiosity of our companions, and
became the object of cruel practical jokes which led to a fatal issue.
One day one of the masters, who was bent on seeing the manuscripts,
enlisted the aid of our tyrants, and came to seize, by force, a box
that contained the precious papers. Lambert and I defended it with
incredible courage. The trunk was locked, our aggressors could not
open it, but they tried to smash it in the struggle, a stroke of
malignity at which we shrieked with rage. Some of the boys, with a
sense of justice, or struck perhaps by our heroic defence, advised the
attacking party to leave us in peace, crushing us with insulting
contempt. But suddenly, brought to the spot by the noise of a battle,
Father Haugoult roughly intervened, inquiring as to the cause of the
fight. Our enemies had interrupted us in writing our impositions, and
the class-master came to protect his slaves. The foe, in self-defence,
betrayed the existence of the manuscript. The dreadful Haugoult
insisted on our giving up the box; if we should resist, he would have
it broken open. Lambert gave him the key; the master took out the
papers, glanced through them, and said, as he confiscated them:
"And it is for such rubbish as this that you neglect your lessons!"
Large tears fell from Lambert's eyes, wrung from him as much by a
sense of his offended moral superiority as by the gratuitous insult
and betrayal that he had suffered. We gave the accusers a glance of
stern reproach: had they not delivered us over to the common enemy? If
the common law of school entitled them to thrash us, did it not
require them to keep silence as to our misdeeds?
In a moment they were no doubt ashamed of their baseness.
Father Haugoult probably sold the /Treatise on the Will/ to a local
grocer, unconscious of the scientific treasure, of which the germs
thus fell into unworthy hands.
Six months later I left the school, and I do not know whether Lambert
ever recommenced his labors. Our parting threw him into a mood of the
It was in memory of the disaster that befell Louis' book that, in the
tale which comes first in these /Etudes/, I adopted the title invented
by Lambert for a work of fiction, and gave the name of a woman who was
dear to him to a girl characterized by her self-devotion; but this is
not all I have borrowed from him: his character and occupations were
of great value to me in writing that book, and the subject arose from
some reminiscences of our youthful meditations. This present volume is
intended as a modest monument, a broken column, to commemorate the
life of the man who bequeathed to me all he had to leave--his
In that boyish effort Lambert had enshrined the ideas of a man. Ten
years later, when I met some learned men who were devoting serious
attention to the phenomena that had struck us and that Lambert had so
marvelously analyzed, I understood the value of his work, then already
forgotten as childish. I at once spent several months in recalling the
principal theories discovered by my poor schoolmate. Having collected
my reminiscences, I can boldly state that, by 1812, he had proved,
divined, and set forth in his Treatise several important facts of
which, as he had declared, evidence was certain to come sooner or
later. His philosophical speculations ought undoubtedly to gain him
recognition as one of the great thinkers who have appeared at wide
intervals among men, to reveal to them the bare skeleton of some
science to come, of which the roots spread slowly, but which, in due
time, bring forth fair fruit in the intellectual sphere. Thus a humble
artisan, Bernard Palissy, searching the soil to find minerals for
glazing pottery, proclaimed, in the sixteenth century, with the
infallible intuition of genius, geological facts which it is now the
glory of Cuvier and Buffon to have demonstrated.
I can, I believe, give some idea of Lambert's Treatise by stating the
chief propositions on which it was based; but, in spite of myself, I
shall strip them of the ideas in which they were clothed, and which
were indeed their indispensable accompaniment. I started on a
different path, and only made use of those of his researches which
answered the purpose of my scheme. I know not, therefore, whether as
his disciple I can faithfully expound his views, having assimilated
them in the first instance so as to color them with my own.
New ideas require new words, or a new and expanded use of old words,
extended and defined in their meaning. Thus Lambert, to set forth the
basis of his system, had adopted certain common words that answered to
his notions. The word Will he used to connote the medium in which the
mind moves, or to use a less abstract expression, the mass of power by
which man can reproduce, outside himself, the actions constituting his
external life. Volition--a word due to Locke--expressed the act by
which a man exerts his will. The word Mind, or Thought, which he
regarded as the quintessential product of the Will, also represented
the medium in which the ideas originate to which thought gives
substance. The Idea, a name common to every creation of the brain,
constituted the act by which man uses his mind. Thus the Will and the
Mind were the two generating forces; the Volition and the Idea were
the two products. Volition, he thought, was the Idea evolved from the
abstract state to a concrete state, from its generative fluid to a
solid expression, so to speak, if such words may be taken to formulate
notions so difficult of definition. According to him, the Mind and
Ideas are the motion and the outcome of our inner organization, just
as the Will and Volition are of our external activity.
He gave the Will precedence over the Mind.
"You must will before you can think," he said. "Many beings live in a
condition of Willing without ever attaining to the condition of
Thinking. In the North, life is long; in the South, it is shorter; but
in the North we see torpor, in the South a constant excitability of
the Will, up to the point where from an excess of cold or of heat the
organs are almost nullified."
The use of the word "medium" was suggested to him by an observation he
had made in his childhood, though, to be sure, he had no suspicion
then of its importance, but its singularity naturally struck his
delicately alert imagination. His mother, a fragile, nervous woman,
all sensitiveness and affection, was one of those beings created to
represent womanhood in all the perfection of her attributes, but
relegated by a mistaken fate to too low a place in the social scale.
Wholly loving, and consequently wholly suffering, she died young,
having thrown all her energies into her motherly love. Lambert, a
child of six, lying, but not always sleeping, in a cot by his mother's
bed, saw the electric sparks from her hair when she combed it. The man
of fifteen made scientific application of this fact which had amused
the child, a fact beyond dispute, of which there is ample evidence in
many instances, especially of women who by a sad fatality are doomed
to let unappreciated feelings evaporate in the air, or some
superabundant power run to waste.
In support of his definitions, Lambert propounded a variety of
problems to be solved, challenges flung out to science, though he
proposed to seek the solution for himself. He inquired, for instance,
whether the element that constitutes electricity does not enter as a
base into the specific fluid whence our Ideas and Volitions proceed?
Whether the hair, which loses its color, turns white, falls out, or
disappears, in proportion to the decay or crystallization of our
thoughts, may not be in fact a capillary system, either absorbent or
diffusive, and wholly electrical? Whether the fluid phenomena of the
Will, a matter generated within us, and spontaneously reacting under
the impress of conditions as yet unobserved, were at all more
extraordinary than those of the invisible and intangible fluid
produced by a voltaic pile, and applied to the nervous system of a
dead man? Whether the formation of Ideas and their constant diffusion
was less incomprehensible than evaporation of the atoms, imperceptible
indeed, but so violent in their effects, that are given off from a
grain of musk without any loss of weight. Whether, granting that the
function of the skin is purely protective, absorbent, excretive, and
tactile, the circulation of the blood and all its mechanism would not
correspond with the transsubstantiation of our Will, as the
circulation of the nerve fluid corresponds to that of the Mind?
Finally, whether the more or less rapid affluence of these two real
substances may not be the result of a certain perfection or
imperfection of organs whose conditions require investigation in every
Having set forth these principles, he proposed to class the phenomena
of human life in two series of distinct results, demanding, with the
ardent insistency of conviction, a special analysis for each. In fact,
having observed in almost every type of created thing two separate
motions, he assumed, nay, he asserted, their existence in our human
nature, and designated this vital antithesis Action and Reaction.
"A desire," he said, "is a fact completely accomplished in our will
before it is accomplished externally."
Hence the sum-total of our Volitions and our Ideas constitutes Action,
and the sum-total of our external acts he called Reaction.
When I subsequently read the observations made by Bichat on the
duality of our external senses, I was really bewildered by my
recollections, recognizing the startling coincidences between the
views of that celebrated physiologist and those of Louis Lambert. They
both died young, and they had with equal steps arrived at the same
strange truths. Nature has in every case been pleased to give a
twofold purpose to the various apparatus that constitute her
creatures; and the twofold action of the human organism, which is now
ascertained beyond dispute, proves by a mass of evidence in daily life
how true were Lambert's deductions as to Action and Reaction.
The inner Being, the Being of Action--the word he used to designate an
unknown specialization--the mysterious nexus of fibrils to which we
owe the inadequately investigated powers of thought and will--in
short, the nameless entity which sees, acts, foresees the end, and
accomplishes everything before expressing itself in any physical
phenomenon--must, in conformity with its nature, be free from the
physical conditions by which the external Being of Reaction, the
visible man, is fettered in its manifestation. From this followed a
multitude of logical explanation as to those results of our twofold
nature which appear the strangest, and a rectification of various
systems in which truth and falsehood are mingled.
Certain men, having had a glimpse of some phenomena of the natural
working of the Being of Action, were, like Swedenborg, carried away
above this world by their ardent soul, thirsting for poetry, and
filled with the Divine Spirit. Thus, in their ignorance of the causes
and their admiration of the facts, they pleased their fancy by
regarding that inner man as divine, and constructing a mystical
universe. Hence we have angels! A lovely illusion which Lambert would
never abandon, cherishing it even when the sword of his logic was
cutting off their dazzling wings.
"Heaven," he would say, "must, after all, be the survival of our
perfected faculties, and hell the void into which our unperfected
faculties are cast away."
But how, then, in the ages when the understanding had preserved the
religious and spiritualist impressions, which prevailed from the time
of Christ till that of Descartes, between faith and doubt, how could
men help accounting for the mysteries of our nature otherwise than by
divine interposition? Of whom but of God Himself could sages demand an
account of an invisible creature so actively and so reactively
sensitive, gifted with faculties so extensive, so improvable by use,
and so powerful under certain occult influences, that they could
sometimes see it annihilate, by some phenomenon of sight or movement,
space in its two manifestations--Time and Distance--of which the
former is the space of the intellect, the latter is physical space?
Sometimes they found it reconstructing the past, either by the power
of retrospective vision, or by the mystery of a palingenesis not
unlike the power a man might have of detecting in the form,
integument, and embryo in a seed, the flowers of the past, and the
numberless variations of their color, scent, and shape; and sometimes,
again, it could be seen vaguely foreseeing the future, either by its
apprehension of final causes, or by some phenomenon of physical
Other men, less poetically religious, cold, and argumentative--quacks
perhaps, but enthusiasts in brain at least, if not in heart--
recognizing some isolated examples of such phenomena, admitted their
truth while refusing to consider them as radiating from a common
centre. Each of these was, then, bent on constructing a science out of
a simple fact. Hence arose demonology, judicial astrology, the black
arts, in short, every form of divination founded on circumstances that
were essentially transient, because they varied according to men's
temperament, and to conditions that are still completely unknown.
But from these errors of the learned, and from the ecclesiastical
trials under which fell so many martyrs to their own powers, startling
evidence was derived of the prodigious faculties at the command of the
Being of Action, which, according to Lambert, can abstract itself
completely from the Being of Reaction, bursting its envelope, and
piercing walls by its potent vision; a phenomenon known to the
Hindoos, as missionaries tell us, by the name of /Tokeiad/; or again,
by another faculty, can grasp in the brain, in spite of its closest
convolutions, the ideas which are formed or forming there, and the
whole of past consciousness.
"If apparitions are not impossible," said Lambert, "they must be due
to a faculty of discerning the ideas which represent man in his purest
essence, whose life, imperishable perhaps, escapes our grosser senses,
though they may become perceptible to the inner being when it has
reached a high degree of ecstasy, or a great perfection of vision."
I know--though my remembrance is now vague--that Lambert, by following
the results of Mind and Will step by step, after he had established
their laws, accounted for a multitude of phenomena which, till then,
had been regarded with reason as incomprehensible. Thus wizards, men
possessed with second sight, and demoniacs of every degree--the
victims of the Middle Ages--became the subject of explanations so
natural, that their very simplicity often seemed to me the seal of
their truth. The marvelous gifts which the Church of Rome, jealous of
all mysteries, punished with the stake, were, in Louis' opinion, the
result of certain affinities between the constituent elements of
matter and those of mind, which proceed from the same source. The man
holding a hazel rod when he found a spring of water was guided by some
antipathy or sympathy of which he was unconscious; nothing but the
eccentricity of these phenomena could have availed to give some of
them historic certainty.
Sympathies have rarely been proved; they afford a kind of pleasure
which those who are so happy as to possess them rarely speak of unless
they are abnormally singular, and even then only in the privacy of
intimate intercourse, where everything is buried. But the antipathies
that arise from the inversion of affinities have, very happily, been
recorded when developed by famous men. Thus, Bayle had hysterics when
he heard water splashing, Scaliger turned pale at the sight of water-
cress, Erasmus was thrown into a fever by the smell of fish. These
three antipathies were connected with water. The Duc d'Epernon fainted
at the sight of a hare, Tycho-Brahe at that of a fox, Henri III. at
the presence of a cat, the Marechal d'Albret at the sight of a wild
hog; these antipathies were produced by animal emanations, and often
took effect at a great distance. The Chevalier de Guise, Marie de
Medici, and many other persons have felt faint at seeing a rose even
in a painting. Lord Bacon, whether he were forewarned or no of an
eclipse of the moon, always fell into a syncope while it lasted; and
his vitality, suspended while the phenomenon lasted was restored as
soon as it was over without his feeling any further inconvenience.
These effects of antipathy, all well authenticated, and chosen from
among many which history has happened to preserve, are enough to give
a clue to the sympathies which remain unknown.
This fragment of Lambert's investigations, which I remember from among
his essays, will throw a light on the method on which he worked. I
need not emphasize the obvious connection between this theory and the
collateral sciences projected by Gall and Lavater; they were its
natural corollary; and every more or less scientific brain will
discern the ramifications by which it is inevitably connected with the
phrenological observations of one and the speculations on physiognomy
of the other.
Mesmer's discovery, so important, though as yet so little appreciated,
was also embodied in a single section of this treatise, though Louis
did not know the Swiss doctor's writings--which are few and brief.
A simple and logical inference from these principles led him to
perceive that the will might be accumulated by a contractile effort of
the inner man, and then, by another effort, projected, or even
imparted, to material objects. Thus the whole force of a man must have
the property of reacting on other men, and of infusing into them an
essence foreign to their own, if they could not protect themselves
against such an aggression. The evidence of this theorem of the
science of humanity is, of course, very multifarious; but there is
nothing to establish it beyond question. We have only the notorious
disaster of Marius and his harangue to the Cimbrian commanded to kill
him, or the august injunction of a mother to the Lion of Florence, in
historic proof of instances of such lightning flashes of mind. To
Lambert, then, Will and Thought were /living forces/; and he spoke of
them in such a way as to impress his belief on the hearer. To him
these two forces were, in a way, visible, tangible. Thought was slow
or alert, heavy or nimble, light or dark; he ascribed to it all the
attributes of an active agent, and thought of it as rising, resting,
waking, expanding, growing old, shrinking, becoming atrophied, or
resuscitating; he described its life, and specified all its actions by
the strangest words in our language, speaking of its spontaneity, its
strength, and all its qualities with a kind of intuition which enabled
him to recognize all the manifestations of its substantial existence.
"Often," said he, "in the midst of quiet and silence, when our inner
faculties are dormant, when a sort of darkness reigns within us, and
we are lost in the contemplation of things outside us, an idea
suddenly flies forth, and rushes with the swiftness of lightning
across the infinite space which our inner vision allows us to
perceive. This radiant idea, springing into existence like a will-o'-
the-wisp, dies out never to return; an ephemeral life, like that of
babes who give their parents such infinite joy and sorrow; a sort of
still-born blossom in the fields of the mind. Sometimes an idea,
instead of springing forcibly into life and dying unembodied, dawns
gradually, hovers in the unknown limbo of the organs where it has its
birth; exhausts us by long gestation, develops, is itself fruitful,
grows outwardly in all the grace of youth and the promising attributes
of a long life; it can endure the closest inspection, invites it, and
never tires the sight; the investigation it undergoes commands the
admiration we give to works slowly elaborated. Sometimes ideas are
evolved in a swarm; one brings another; they come linked together;
they vie with each other; they fly in clouds, wild and headlong.
Again, they rise up pallid and misty, and perish for want of strength
or of nutrition; the vital force is lacking. Or again, on certain
days, they rush down into the depths to light up that immense
obscurity; they terrify us and leave the soul dejected.
"Ideas are a complete system within us, resembling a natural kingdom,
a sort of flora, of which the iconography will one day be outlined by
some man who will perhaps be accounted a madman.
"Yes, within us and without, everything testifies to the livingness of
those exquisite creations, which I compare with flowers in obedience
to some unutterable revelation of their true nature!
"Their being produced as the final cause of man is, after all, not
more amazing than the production of perfume and color in a plant.
Perfumes /are/ ideas, perhaps!
"When we consider the line where flesh ends and the nail begins
contains the invisible and inexplicable mystery of the constant
transformation of a fluid into horn, we must confess that nothing is
impossible in the marvelous modifications of human tissue.
"And are there not in our inner nature phenomena of weight and motion
comparable to those of physical nature? Suspense, to choose an example
vividly familiar to everybody, is painful only as a result of the law
in virtue of which the weight of a body is multiplied by its velocity.
The weight of the feeling produced by suspense increases by the
constant addition of past pain to the pain of the moment.
"And then, to what, unless it be to the electric fluid, are we to
attribute the magic by which the Will enthrones itself so imperiously
in the eye to demolish obstacles at the behest of genius, thunders in
the voice, or filters, in spite of dissimulation, through the human
frame? The current of that sovereign fluid, which, in obedience to the
high pressure of thought or of feeling, flows in a torrent or is
reduced to a mere thread, and collects to flash in lightnings, is the
occult agent to which are due the evil or the beneficent efforts of
Art and Passion--intonation of voice, whether harsh or suave,
terrible, lascivious, horrifying or seductive by turns, thrilling the
heart, the nerves, or the brain at our will; the marvels of the touch,
the instrument of the mental transfusions of a myriad artists, whose
creative fingers are able, after passionate study, to reproduce the
forms of nature; or, again, the infinite gradations of the eye from
dull inertia to the emission of the most terrifying gleams.
"By this system God is bereft of none of His rights. Mind, as a form
of matter, has brought me a new conviction of His greatness."
After hearing him discourse thus, after receiving into my soul his
look like a ray of light, it was difficult not to be dazzled by his
conviction and carried away by his arguments. The Mind appeared to me
as a purely physical power, surrounded by its innumerable progeny. It
was a new conception of humanity under a new form.
This brief sketch of the laws which, as Lambert maintained, constitute
the formula of our intellect, must suffice to give a notion of the
prodigious activity of his spirit feeding on itself. Louis had sought
for proofs of his theories in the history of great men, whose lives,
as set forth by their biographers, supply very curious particulars as
to the operation of their understanding. His memory allowed him to
recall such facts as might serve to support his statements; he had
appended them to each chapter in the form of demonstrations, so as to
give to many of his theories an almost mathematical certainty. The
works of Cardan, a man gifted with singular powers of insight,
supplied him with valuable materials. He had not forgotten that
Apollonius of Tyana had, in Asia, announced the death of a tyrant with
every detail of his execution, at the very hour when it was taking
place in Rome; nor that Plotinus, when far away from Porphyrius, was
aware of his friend's intention to kill himself, and flew to dissuade
him; nor the incident in the last century, proved in the face of the
most incredulous mockery ever known--an incident most surprising to
men who were accustomed to regard doubt as a weapon against the fact
alone, but simple enough to believers--the fact that Alphonzo-Maria di
Liguori, Bishop of Saint-Agatha, administered consolations to Pope
Ganganelli, who saw him, heard him, and answered him, while the Bishop
himself, at a great distance from Rome, was in a trance at home, in
the chair where he commonly sat on his return from Mass. On recovering
consciousness, he saw all his attendants kneeling beside him,
believing him to be dead: "My friends," said he, "the Holy Father is
just dead." Two days later a letter confirmed the news. The hour of
the Pope's death coincided with that when the Bishop had been restored
to his natural state.
Nor had Lambert omitted the yet more recent adventure of an English
girl who was passionately attached to a sailor, and set out from
London to seek him. She found him, without a guide, making her way
alone in the North American wilderness, reaching him just in time to
save his life.
Louis had found confirmatory evidence in the mysteries of the
ancients, in the acts of the martyrs--in which glorious instances may
be found of the triumph of human will, in the demonology of the Middle
Ages, in criminal trials and medical researches; always selecting the
real fact, the probable phenomenon, with admirable sagacity.
All this rich collection of scientific anecdotes, culled from so many
books, most of them worthy of credit, served no doubt to wrap parcels
in; and this work, which was curious, to say the least of it, as the
outcome of a most extraordinary memory, was doomed to destruction.
Among the various cases which added to the value of Lambert's
/Treatise/ was an incident that had taken place in his own family, of
which he had told me before he wrote his essay. This fact, bearing on
the post-existence of the inner man, if I may be allowed to coin a new
word for a phenomenon hitherto nameless, struck me so forcibly that I
have never forgotten it. His father and mother were being forced into
a lawsuit, of which the loss would leave them with a stain on their
good name, the only thing they had in the world. Hence their anxiety
was very great when the question first arose as to whether they should
yield to the plaintiff's unjust demands, or should defend themselves
against him. The matter came under discussion one autumn evening,
before a turf fire in the room used by the tanner and his wife. Two or
three relations were invited to this family council, and among others
Louis' maternal great-grandfather, an old laborer, much bent, but with
a venerable and dignified countenance, bright eyes, and a bald, yellow
head, on which grew a few locks of thin, white hair. Like the Obi of
the Negroes, or the Sagamore of the Indian savages, he was a sort of
oracle, consulted on important occasions. His land was tilled by his
grandchildren, who fed and served him; he predicted rain and fine
weather, and told them when to mow the hay and gather the crops. The
barometric exactitude of his forecasts was quite famous, and added to
the confidence and respect he inspired. For whole days he would sit
immovable in his armchair. This state of rapt meditation often came
upon him since his wife's death; he had been attached to her in the
truest and most faithful affection.
This discussion was held in his presence, but he did not seem to give
much heed to it.
"My children," said he, when he was asked for his opinion, "this is
too serious a matter for me to decide on alone. I must go and consult
The old man rose, took his stick, and went out, to the great
astonishment of the others, who thought him daft. He presently came
back and said:
"I did not have to go so far as the graveyard; your mother came to
meet me; I found her by the brook. She tells me that you will find
some receipts in the hands of a notary at Blois, which will enable you
to gain your suit."
The words were spoken in a firm tone; the old man's demeanor and
countenance showed that such an apparition was habitual with him. In
fact, the disputed receipts were found, and the lawsuit was not
This event, under his father's roof and to his own knowledge, when
Louis was nine years old, contributed largely to his belief in
Swedenborg's miraculous visions, for in the course of that
philosopher's life he repeatedly gave proof of the power of sight
developed in his Inner Being. As he grew older, and as his
intelligence was developed, Lambert was naturally led to seek in the
laws of nature for the causes of the miracle which, in his childhood,
had captivated his attention. What name can be given to the chance
which brought within his ken so many facts and books bearing on such
phenomena, and made him the principal subject and actor in such
marvelous manifestations of mind?
If Lambert had no other title to fame than the fact of his having
formulated, in his sixteenth year, such a psychological dictum as
this:--"The events which bear witness to the action of the human race,
and are the outcome of its intellect, have causes by which they are
preconceived, as our actions are accomplished in our minds before they
are reproduced by the outer man; presentiments or predictions are the
perception of these causes"--I think we may deplore in him a genius
equal to Pascal, Lavoisier, or Laplace. His chimerical notions about
angels perhaps overruled his work too long; but was it not in trying
to make gold that the alchemists unconsciously created chemistry? At
the same time, Lambert, at a later period, studied comparative
anatomy, physics, geometry, and other sciences bearing on his
discoveries, and this was undoubtedly with the purpose of collecting
facts and submitting them to analysis--the only torch that can guide
us through the dark places of the most inscrutable work of nature. He
had too much good sense to dwell among the clouds of theories which
can all be expressed in a few words. In our day, is not the simplest
demonstration based on facts more highly esteemed than the most
specious system though defended by more or less ingenious inductions?
But as I did not know him at the period of his life when his
cogitations were, no doubt, the most productive of results, I can only
conjecture that the bent of his work must have been from that of his
first efforts of thought.
It is easy to see where his /Treatise on the Will/ was faulty. Though
gifted already with the powers which characterize superior men, he was
but a boy. His brain, though endowed with a great faculty for
abstractions, was still full of the delightful beliefs that hover
around youth. Thus his conception, while at some points it touched the
ripest fruits of his genius, still, by many more, clung to the smaller
elements of its germs. To certain readers, lovers of poetry, what he
chiefly lacked must have been a certain vein of interest.
But his work bore the stamp of the struggle that was going on in that
noble Spirit between the two great principles of Spiritualism and
Materialism, round which so many a fine genius has beaten its way
without ever daring to amalgamate them. Louis, at first purely
Spiritualist, had been irresistibly led to recognize the Material
conditions of Mind. Confounded by the facts of analysis at the moment
when his heart still gazed with yearning at the clouds which floated
in Swedenborg's heaven, he had not yet acquired the necessary powers
to produce a coherent system, compactly cast in a piece, as it were.
Hence certain inconsistencies that have left their stamp even on the
sketch here given of his first attempts. Still, incomplete as his work
may have been, was it not the rough copy of a science of which he
would have investigated the secrets at a later time, have secured the
foundations, have examined, deduced, and connected the logical
Six months after the confiscation of the /Treatise on the Will/ I left
school. Our parting was unexpected. My mother, alarmed by a feverish
attack which for some months I had been unable to shake off, while my
inactive life induced symptoms of /coma/, carried me off at four or
five hours' notice. The announcement of my departure reduced Lambert
to dreadful dejection.
"Shall I ever seen you again?" said he in his gentle voice, as he
clasped me in his arms. "You will live," he went on, "but I shall die.
If I can, I will come back to you."
Only the young can utter such words with the accent of conviction that
gives them the impressiveness of prophecy, of a pledge, leaving a
terror of its fulfilment. For a long time indeed I vaguely looked for
the promised apparition. Even now there are days of depression, of
doubt, alarm, and loneliness, when I am forced to repel the intrusion
of that sad parting, though it was not fated to be the last.
When I crossed the yard by which we left, Lambert was at one of the
refectory windows to see me pass. By my request my mother obtained
leave for him to dine with us at the inn, and in the evening I
escorted him back to the fatal gate of the college. No lover and his
mistress ever shed more tears at parting.
"Well, good-bye; I shall be left alone in this desert!" said he,
pointing to the playground where two hundred boys were disporting
themselves and shouting. "When I come back half dead with fatigue from
my long excursions through the fields of thought, on whose heart can I
rest? I could tell you everything in a look. Who will understand me
now?--Good-bye! I could wish I had never met you; I should not know
all I am losing."
"And what is to become of me?" said I. "Is not my position a dreadful
one? /I/ have nothing here to uphold me!" and I slapped my forehead.
He shook his head with a gentle gesture, gracious and sad, and we
At that time Louis Lambert was about five feet five inches in height;
he grew no more. His countenance, which was full of expression,
revealed his sweet nature. Divine patience, developed by harsh usage,
and the constant concentration needed for his meditative life, had
bereft his eyes of the audacious pride which is so attractive in some
faces, and which had so shocked our masters. Peaceful mildness gave
charm to his face, an exquisite serenity that was never marred by a
tinge of irony or satire; for his natural kindliness tempered his
conscious strength and superiority. He had pretty hands, very slender,
and almost always moist. His frame was a marvel, a model for a
sculptor; but our iron-gray uniform, with gilt buttons and knee-
breeches, gave us such an ungainly appearance that Lambert's fine
proportions and firm muscles could only be appreciated in the bath.
When we swam in our pool in the Loire, Louis was conspicuous by the
whiteness of his skin, which was unlike the different shades of our
schoolfellows' bodies mottled by the cold, or blue from the water.