Balzac, by Frederick Lawton

Chapter XVII

Conclusion: The Man and His Portraits

It may be affirmed, without thereby disparaging the Comedie Humaine, that Balzac’s personality is even more interesting than his work; and this is a sufficient excuse for returning to it in a last chapter and trying, at the risk of repetition, to make its presentment completer by way of supplement and summary.

The interest does not arise alone from the contrasts of his foibles, which, forsooth, are nearly always comic — when they are not tragic. We are just as much attracted by the contrasts of his qualities, and by the interplay of the former with the latter — the victories and defeats, the glimpses of immense possibility, the struggles between temperament and environment, all these having a fullness of display rarely found in human nature.

Besides the portraits in painting or sculpture executed of the novelist by Deveria, Boulanger, David d’Angers, and others, some mention of which has already been made, there was one begun by Meissonier, who unfortunately did not finish it. Monsieur Jules Claretie states that the canvas on which it was drawn was subsequently covered by the artist’s Man choosing a Sword, to-day in the Van Prael collection at Brussels. About Boulanger’s picture Theophile Gautier has a good deal to tell us in his article of 1837, published in the Beaux Arts de la Presse; and it scarcely agrees with Balzac’s condemnation of the portrait as a daub, when he saw the canvas some years later in Russia. Remarking on the difficulty of rendering the novelist’s physiognomy, on account of its mobility and strange aspect, Gautier gives it as his opinion that Boulanger succeeded perfectly in seizing the complex expression which seemed to escape all efforts of the brush. The description is a long one; and any one desirous of comparing with each other the impressions received by Balzac’s contemporaries who came into close contact with him would do well to read it after this description by Lamartine. In the tenth of his lectures on Literature during the year 1856, the author of Jocelyn, speaking of what he had observed, said:—

“His exterior was as uncultivated as his genius. It was the shape of an element: big head, hair scattered over his collar and cheeks like a mane that scissors never trimmed, lips thick, eyes soft but of flame; costume clashing with every elegance; clothes too small for his colossal body; waistcoat unbuttoned; linen coarse; blue stockings; shoes that made holes in the carpet; an appearance as of a schoolboy on holiday, who has grown during the year and whose stature has burst his garments. Such was the man that by himself wrote a whole library about his century, the Walter Scott of France, not the Walter Scott of landscape and adventure, but what is much more prodigious, the Walter Scott of characters, the Dante of the infinite circles of human life, the Moliere of read comedy, less perfect but more fertile than the Moliere of played comedy. Why does not his style equal his conception? France would then have two Molieres, and the greater would not be he who lived first.”

Returning to the same subject in his hundred and sixth lecture, eight years later, Lamartine continued:—

“He bore his genius so simply that he did not feel it. He was not tall, and, however, the lighting up of his face and the mobility of his body prevented his small stature from being noticed; but this height swayed like his thought. Between the ground and him there appeared to be a certain margin; now, he stooped down to pick up a sheaf of ideas; now, he stood on tiptoe to follow the soaring of his thought into the infinite. He was big, thick-set, square-shouldered-and-hipped. His neck, chest, body, thighs, and limbs were mighty. There was much of the ampleness of Mirabeau, but no heaviness; there was so much soul that this carried that lightly. The weight seemed to give him force and not to take it from him. His short arms gesticulated with ease; he talked as an orator speaks. His voice resounded with the somewhat savage energy of his lungs, but it had neither roughness nor irony nor anger. His legs, on which he waddled a little, carried his bust smartly; his hands, plump and broad, expressed his whole thought by their waving movements. Such was the man in his stalwart frame. But, in front of the face, one forgot the framework. The speaking countenance, from which it was impossible to detach one’s gaze, both charmed and fascinated the beholder. His hair floated over the forehead in large locks; his black eyes pierced like arrows blunted by benevolence; they entered yours confidently as if they were friends; his cheeks were full, rosy, and strongly coloured; the nose was well modelled, yet a trifle long; his lips, gracefully limned, ample and raised at the corners; his teeth, unequal, broken, and blackened by cigar-smoke; his head often inclining towards the neck, then proudly raised during speech. But the dominating trait of his face, even more than intelligence, was communicative kindness. He charmed your mind when he spoke, and, when not speaking, he charmed your heart. No passion of hatred or envy could have been expressed by this physiognomy; it would have been impossible for him not to be kind. Yet it was not a kindness of indifference or nonchalance, as in the epicurean face of a La Fontaine; it was a loving kindness, intelligent with regard to itself and others, which inspired gratitude and the outpouring of the heart, and defied a person not to love him. A gay childishness was the characteristic of this figure, a soul on holiday when he laid down his pen to forget himself with his friends. . . . But, when I saw him some years later, what gravity did that which was serious not inspire in him? what repulsion did his conscience not evince towards evil? What difficult virtues did his apparent joviality not conceal?”

This tribute of an intimate, as generous as that of Hugo and perhaps more sincere, may pass without comment in so far as it concerns the outer man. On the moral side its exactitude may be questioned, both for what it omits and what it asserts. The omissions are considerable. The assertions deal too exclusively with that conduct which people generally exhibit in their most amicable relations with each other. Balzac’s kindness of heart came out in not a few experiences of his life; but deeper than these ephemeral bursts of generosity were selfishnesses that were enormous and persistent. The impulsive energy, the huge boyishness, the appetites physical and mental that age never trained nor chastened were phenomena that all his friends noted, though the manifestations differed.

Some lines of Gozlan’s in his Balzac in Slippers, form a good sequel to Werdet’s account of the Gargantuan dinner. “Balzac drank nothing but water,” says Gozlan, but this must have been on Fridays; “and ate but little meat. On the other hand, he consumed great quantities of fruit. . . . His lips palpitated, his eyes lit up with happiness, at the sight of a pyramid of pears or fine peaches. Not one remained to go and relate the rout of the others. He devoured them all. He was superb in vegetable Pantagruelism, with his cravat taken off, his shirt unbuttoned at the neck, his fruit-knife in hand, laughing, drinking water, carving into the pulp of a doyenne pear. I should like to add — and talking. But Balzac talked only little. He let others talk, laughed at intervals, silently, in the savage manner of Leather-stocking, or else, he burst out like a bomb, if the sentence pleased him. It needed to be pretty broad, and was never too broad. He melted with pleasure, especially at a silly pun inspired by his wines, which were delicious.”

Another portrait drawn of the novelist by a contemporary, interpreting the inner man, but less flattering to the great delineator of character, is not free from satire and narrowness; but some of the traits it outlines are closely and accurately observed. In his Histoire du Quarante et Unieme (Academy) Fauteuil, Arsene Houssaye wrote: “Monsieur de Balzac — that haughty rebel who would fain have been a founder, that refined Rabelais who discovered a woman where Rabelais had discovered only a bottle — Monsieur de Balzac dreamed of the gigantic, yet without being an architect of Cyclopean times. Consequently, when he tried to build his temple of Solomon, he had neither marble nor gold enough to his hand. For his human comedy he often lacked actors, and had to resign himself frequently to making the understudies play. It is the fashion to-day to raise Balzac to the level of the dominating geniuses of the world, such as Homer, Saint Augustine, Shakespeare and Moliere; but for the mind that has accurate vision, how many rocks are overturned on this Enceladus, what staircases are forgotten in his Tower of Babel, as in his Jardies house! Balzac was half a woman, as George Sand was half a man. He had a woman’s curiosities, he had also her contradictions. Balzac believed himself religious; but his church was the witches’ sabbath, and his priest was not Saint Paul but Swedenborg, if not Mesmer; his Gospel was the conjuror’s book, perhaps that of Pope Honorius — Honorius de Balzac. He believed himself a politician, and endeavoured to continue de Maistre; he fancied he was glorifying authority, whereas he realized the perpetual apotheosis of force; his heroes were named indifferently Moses or Attila, Charlemagne or Tamerlane, Ricci, the General of the Jesuits, or Robespierre, the profaner of the sanctuary, Napoleon or Vautrin. The History of the Thirteen will remain as the grandiose and monstrous defence of personal force defying the social. But will it not remain also, by the side of Hegel’s philosophy, as an eloquent codicil to those testaments of individual sovereignty signed by Aristophanes, Montaigne, and Voltaire? He believed himself a spiritualist, and, sublime sawbones, he studied only in the medical amphitheatre. He entered a drawing-room only through the kitchen and the dressing-room. He was always ignorant of that fine saying of Hemsterhuys: ‘This world is not a machine but a poem.’ He believed himself a painter of manners, and he invented the manners. His women who are so vividly alive, Madame de Langeais or La Torpille, have never been intimate with any other company than that of Monsieur de Balzac. As other great artists, he created his world, a strange world which has consoled and welcomed all the outcasts of the real world, an impossible world which has more than once painted the actual one in its likeness. What charming women of the provinces have since developed into a Eugenie Grandet, a Madame de Mortsauf, a Madame Claes! . . . What was wanting to Balzac in the hell of life, whose every spiral he descended, was virginity in love and ingenuousness in poetry. He always lost himself in the difficult places of style; and himself wept over the lack. When he wrote the Search for the Absolute, he was in quest of the ideal; but the ideal is that which one had inside one’s self, just as love is. The studies of the chemist and alchemist, of the doctor and jurist, do not light the flame of Prometheus.”

The quotations do not exhaust the list of portraits emanating from Balzac’s fellows, but they adequately illustrate the varying views, which were many. Indeed, like the sculptor who produces several studies of the same model and shows a different interpretation each time, critics have presented us, in more than one instance, with descriptions of the novelist, at an earlier and a later date, that contain important discrepancies.

Balzac was an enigma because he was not always the same personality to himself. Both his energies and his desires carried him outside the limits in which a man’s individuality is usually manifested. Despite Monsieur Houssaye, one may even sympathize, though incredulous, with admirers that would have him to be a universal genius, unfortunately thwarted by fate — one who else might have opened up all the avenues of knowledge that humanity can ever penetrate. This persuasion was undoubtedly his own; and it partly explains his Faustus curiosities leading him now and again into illegitimate and unwholesome experiments, of which we get some glimpse in his books and correspondence.

That he could have succeeded in other careers, the medical one, for example, the painter’s or sculptor’s perhaps, or the mechanical inventor’s, seems likely; but his impulsiveness, his exuberance, and his poor financial ability would have been hindrances in directions where success depends largely on exact calculation, method, and detail. In political life, his brilliance would assuredly have sufficed to procure him prominence in opposition. As a minister he would have inevitably fallen a victim to the inconsistencies of his own attitude — inconsistencies due to the fact that his judgments were intuitional and instinctive, with prejudices reacting on them, too numerous and too strong to allow him to weigh things fairly and deliberately. Moreover, his mind was too much engrossed by the sole picturesqueness of phenomena to delve deep enough beneath them for their essential relations. This is why it happens that his arguments are often worse than his convictions, the latter being inherited, in general, and at least having the residuary wisdom of tradition together with the additional force of his common sense. Thus, on the eve of giving the ignorant man a power equal to that of the intelligent one, and of handing over the supreme decision in the vital concerns of a country to unsafeguarded majorities less qualified for the task than ancient oligarchy or autocracy. But he had nothing of worth to suggest, no alternative save the return to abuses of the grossest kind which experience had proved to lead to revolution.

His ponderous declaration: “I write by the light of two eternal truths, religion and the monarchy,” was a sort of cheap-jack recommendation of the so-called philosophy in his Comedie Humaine. His Catholic orthodoxy, if orthodoxy it were, savoured more of politics than religion. He did not wish the old ecclesiastical organization and faith of France to be changed, because he saw in it a useful police agency for restraining the masses. As for his Royalism, which had a smack of Frondism in it, he stuck to it because it accorded with his conservative, eclectic tastes, and not because he had worked it out as the best theory of government. Such dissertations as appear in his writings, on either the one or the other subject, have nothing more original about them than can be found in the most ordinary election speech or pulpit discourse.

And in the realm of pure speculative thought he was not great. Beyond the limits of the visible, his intuition failed him; so that he floundered helplessly when not upheld by the doctrines of others, which, since he did not understand them, he adapted to his purpose but awkwardly. Whether there were latent faculties in him that might have developed with training, it is impossible to affirm or deny; however, we may be forgiven the doubt. From a mind so forceful, the native perception, though uncultured, should have issued in something better than Lambert or Seraphita. Still, there is this to be said, that a man whose eyes were so constantly bent on facts, whose gaze was always spying out details which escaped the common observation, was embracing a plane parallel, if inferior to that which was covered by a Plato.

The title of the author of the Comedy to be called a philosopher can be defended only on the ground of his adding a new domain to the rule of science. He was not the discoverer of the law of cause and effect. Nor was he the one in his own country who did the most towards demonstrating the interdependence of the various branches of knowledge, this honour being reserved to Comte. But the transference of the minute causalities of life into fiction was systematized by him. He made the thing an artistic method, using it with the same power, though not the same chasteness, as George Eliot after him. His employment was not very logical — how could it be when the guiding mind was in chronic fermentation? He gives us this contradiction that human thought is at once the grandeur and destruction of life — an opinion imbued with ecclesiasticism, confusing thought with passion. It is passion alone which disintegrates; and, in the Comedie Humaine, such monomaniacs as Grandet, Claes, and Hulot are destroyed not by their thought but their desire.

Balzac’s pessimism is not philosophic. In him it was not the despair of an intellect that had worn itself out in vainly seeking for the solution of the riddle of the universe, vainly striving after a theory that should reconcile nature’s brute law with the human demand for justice and immanent goodness. By original temperament an optimist, he changed and grew pessimistic with the untoward happenings of his agitated career, and under the fostering of his native self-esteem. Possibly too, as Le Breton asserts, a secondary cause was his having imbibed the pretentious doctrines of the Romantic school, the disdains of the young artistic bloods of 1830, who held their clan composed the loftier, super-human race, the only one that counted. Berlioz carried this folly of pride to its highest pitch. In his Memoirs, he declared that the public (of course excluding himself) were an infamous tag-rag-and-bob-tail. The people of Paris, he protested, were more stupid and a hundred times more ferocious, in their caperings and revolutionary grimaces, than the baboons and orang-outangs of Borneo. Balzac at times adopted and expressed similar opinions. Gozlan relates that one day the owner of Les Jardies said to him in the attic of his hermitage: “Come, let us spit upon Paris.” The novelist imagined that talents of the kind he possessed ought to be admitted to every honour; and his hatred of the Revolution and Republicanism was more because he believed they were inimical to art — and his art — than because they had cast down a throne. His bitterness was to some extent excusable, for he was exploited much during his lifetime, and had, even to the end, to bend his neck to the yoke. But he also belonged to the class of exploiters by his mental constitution. Could he have had his way, all the men of letters around him would have been in his pay, writing for their bare living and contributing to his fame. In this connection there is an anecdote narrated by Baudelaire, in the Echo des Theatres of the 25th of August 1846, and referable to the year 1839.

The Jardies hermit had a bill of twelve hundred francs to meet; and for this reason he was sad as he walked up and down the double passage of the Opera — he, the hardest commercial and literary head of the nineteenth century; he, the poetic brain upholstered with figures like a financier’s office; he, the man of mythologic failures, of hyperbolic and phantasmagoric enterprises, the lanterns of which he always forgot to light; he, the great pursuer of dreams for ever in quest of the absolute; he, the funniest, most attractive as well as the vainest character of the Comedie Humaine; he, the original, as unbearable in private life as he was delightful in his writings; the big baby swollen with genius and conceit, who had so many qualities and so many failings that one feared to attack the latter for fear of injuring the former, and thus spoiling this incorrigible and fatal monstrosity.

At length, however, his forehead grew serene and he went towards the Rue de Richelieu with sublime and cadenced step. There he entered the den of a rich man (Curmer), who received him with due honour.

“Would you like,” quoth he, “the day after to-morrow to have in the Siecle and the Debats two smart articles on the French depicted by themselves, the articles to be signed by me? I must have fifteen hundred francs. The affair is a grand one for you.”

The editor, unlike his confreres, found the proposal reasonable, and the bargain was concluded on the spot, with the stipulation that the money should be paid on the delivery of the first article. Leaving the office, the visitor returned to the passage of the Opera; and there he met a diminutive young man of shrewish, witty countenance (Edouard Ourliac), known among the journalists for his clownish verve.

“Edouard, will you earn a hundred and fifty francs to-morrow?”

“Won’t I, if I get the chance!” answered the latter.

“Then come and drink a cup of coffee.”

“To-morrow,” explained his principal, “I must have three big columns on the French depicted by themselves, and I must have them early, for I have to copy and sign them.”

Edouard hastened away to his task, while the novelist went and ordered a second article in the rue de Navarin.

The first article appeared two days later in the Siecle, and was signed, strangely enough, neither by the little man nor by the great man, but by a third person known in Bohemia for his tom-cat and opera-comique amours (Gerard de Nerval). The second friend was big, idle, and lymphatic. Moreover, he had no ideas; he knew only how to thread words together like pearls; and, as it takes longer to heap up three long columns of words than to make a volume of ideas, his article appeared only several days later in the Presse.

The twelve-hundred-francs debt was paid. Each one was perfectly satisfied, except the editor, who was not quite. And this was how a man of genius discharged his liabilities.

Balzac’s individuality is one of those that inevitably raise the question as to how far genius and creative imagination are made up of will-power, how far what is produced by great talent is sub-conscious inspiration virtually independent of effort. Although Shelley confines his assertions on the subject to poetry, he nevertheless seems to imply that creation of any kind has little to do with the will. “The mind in creation,” he says, “is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the ocnsciuso portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but, when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.” The case of Balzac suggests that the sort of genius Shelley had in his thought is the exception rather than the rule. The author of the Comedy himself asserts that great talents do not exist without great will. “You have ideas in your brain?” he says. “Just so. I also. . . . What is the use of that which one has in one’s soul if no use is made of it?” . . . “To conceive is to enjoy; it is to smoke enchanted cigarettes; but, without the execution, everything goes away in dream and smoke.” . . . “Constant work is the law of art as it is that of life; for art is creation idealized. Consequently, great artists and poets do not wait for orders or customers; they bring forth to-day, to-morrow, continually.”

It may be, after all, that the difference is one of those verbal ones to which Locke draws attention in his Essay on the Human Understanding. Will-power is partly an inheritance and partly an acquisition. And acquired qualities are always less puissantly exercised, less effective in the results obtained. Even in poetry it would appear that, without will to unlock the door, fine faculties that are dormant may never make their existence known. Balzac gives us an example of a native will that was for ever rushing through his being and arousing to activity first one and then another of his native powers. And, if the total accomplishment was not conform to the tremendous liberation of force, it was because there was circumstance harder than will and the intershock of energies that ran counter to each other.

In fine, alas! there is something absent from the man which would have both beautified himself and added a saner beauty to his work — the pursuit of those finer ideals which mean consistent devotion to duty and broad sympathy with human nature, irrespective of nation, colour, and position, in its yearnings and in its fate. Fascinated by material aims, worshipping the Napoleonic epopee to the extent of framing his conduct by it, measuring the happiness of existence rather by its honours and furniture than by its moral attainments, he missed the first poetry of love as he missed the last wisdom of age. This limitation of the man makes itself sorely felt in his writings, where we, more often than not, tread a Dane’s Inferno, unrelieved by the brighter glimpses and kindlier impulses that still are found in our world of self-seeking and suffering.

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