The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Madame Sand and the new Apocalypse

I don’t know an impression more curious than that which is formed in a foreigner’s mind, who has been absent from this place for two or three years, returns to it, and beholds the change which has taken place, in the meantime, in French fashions and ways of thinking. Two years ago, for instance, when I left the capital, I left the young gentlemen of France with their hair brushed en toupet in front, and the toes of their boots round; now the boot-toes are pointed, and the hair combed flat, and, parted in the middle, falls in ringlets on the fashionable shoulders; and, in like manner, with books as with boots, the fashion has changed considerably, and it is not a little curious to contrast the old modes with the new. Absurd as was the literary dandyism of those days, it is not a whit less absurd now: only the manner is changed, and our versatile Frenchmen have passed from one caricature to another.

The revolution may be called a caricature of freedom, as the empire was of glory; and what they borrow from foreigners undergoes the same process. They take top-boots and mackintoshes from across the water, and caricature our fashions; they read a little, very little, Shakespeare, and caricature our poetry: and while in David’s time art and religion were only a caricature of Heathenism, now, on the contrary, these two commodities are imported from Germany; and distorted caricatures originally, are still farther distorted on passing the frontier.

I trust in heaven that German art and religion will take no hold in our country (where there is a fund of roast-beef that will expel any such humbug in the end); but these sprightly Frenchmen have relished the mystical doctrines mightily; and having watched the Germans, with their sanctified looks, and quaint imitations of the old times, and mysterious transcendental talk, are aping many of their fashions; as well and solemnly as they can: not very solemnly, God wot; for I think one should always prepare to grin when a Frenchman looks particularly grave, being sure that there is something false and ridiculous lurking under the owl-like solemnity.

When last in Paris, we were in the midst of what was called a Catholic reaction. Artists talked of faith in poems and pictures; churches were built here and there; old missals were copied and purchased; and numberless portraits of saints, with as much gilding about them as ever was used in the fifteenth century, appeared in churches, ladies’ boudoirs, and picture-shops. One or two fashionable preachers rose, and were eagerly followed; the very youth of the schools gave up their pipes and billiards for some time, and flocked in crowds to Notre Dame, to sit under the feet of Lacordaire. I went to visit the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette yesterday, which was finished in the heat of this Catholic rage, and was not a little struck by the similarity of the place to the worship celebrated in it, and the admirable manner in which the architect has caused his work to express the public feeling of the moment. It is a pretty little bijou of a church: it is supported by sham marble pillars; it has a gaudy ceiling of blue and gold, which will look very well for some time; and is filled with gaudy pictures and carvings, in the very pink of the mode. The congregation did not offer a bad illustration of the present state of Catholic reaction. Two or three stray people were at prayers; there was no service; a few countrymen and idlers were staring about at the pictures; and the Swiss, the paid guardian of the place, was comfortably and appropriately asleep on his bench at the door. I am inclined to think the famous reaction is over: the students have taken to their Sunday pipes and billiards again; and one or two cafés have been established, within the last year, that are ten times handsomer than Notre Dame de Lorette.

However, if the immortal Görres and the German mystics have had their day, there is the immortal Göthe, and the Pantheists; and I incline to think that the fashion has set very strongly in their favor. Voltaire and the Encyclopaedians are voted, now, barbares, and there is no term of reprobation strong enough for heartless Humes and Helvetiuses, who lived but to destroy, and who only thought to doubt. Wretched as Voltaire’s sneers and puns are, I think there is something more manly and earnest even in them, than in the present muddy French transcendentalism. Pantheism is the word now; one and all have begun to éprouver the besoin of a religious sentiment; and we are deluged with a host of gods accordingly. Monsieur de Balzac feels himself to be inspired; Victor Hugo is a god; Madame Sand is a god; that tawdry man of genius, Jules Janin, who writes theatrical reviews for the Débats, has divine intimations; and there is scarce a beggarly, beardless scribbler of poems and prose, but tells you, in his preface, of the sainteté of the sacerdoce littéraire; or a dirty student, sucking tobacco and beer, and reeling home with a grisette from the chaumière, who is not convinced of the necessity of a new “Messianism,” and will hiccup, to such as will listen, chapters of his own drunken Apocalypse. Surely, the negatives of the old days were far less dangerous than the assertions of the present; and you may fancy what a religion that must be, which has such high priests.

There is no reason to trouble the reader with details of the lives of many of these prophets and expounders of new revelations. Madame Sand, for instance, I do not know personally, and can only speak of her from report. True or false, the history, at any rate, is not very edifying; and so may be passed over: but, as a certain great philosopher told us, in very humble and simple words, that we are not to expect to gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles, we may, at least, demand, in all persons assuming the character of moralist or philosopher — order, soberness, and regularity of life; for we are apt to distrust the intellect that we fancy can be swayed by circumstance or passion; and we know how circumstance and passion WILL sway the intellect: how mortified vanity will form excuses for itself; and how temper turns angrily upon conscience, that reproves it. How often have we called our judge our enemy, because he has given sentence against us! — How often have we called the right wrong, because the right condemns us! And in the lives of many of the bitter foes of the Christian doctrine, can we find no personal reason for their hostility? The men in Athens said it was out of regard for religion that they murdered Socrates; but we have had time, since then, to reconsider the verdict; and Socrates’ character is pretty pure now, in spite of the sentence and the jury of those days.

The Parisian philosophers will attempt to explain to you the changes through which Madame Sand’s mind has passed — the initiatory trials, labors, and sufferings which she has had to go through — before she reached her present happy state of mental illumination. She teaches her wisdom in parables, that are, mostly, a couple of volumes long; and began, first, by an eloquent attack on marriage, in the charming novel of “Indiana.” “Pity,” cried she, “for the poor woman who, united to a being whose brute force makes him her superior, should venture to break the bondage which is imposed on her, and allow her heart to be free.”

In support of this claim of pity, she writes two volumes of the most exquisite prose. What a tender, suffering creature is Indiana; how little her husband appreciates that gentleness which he is crushing by his tyranny and brutal scorn; how natural it is that, in the absence of his sympathy, she, poor clinging confiding creature, should seek elsewhere for shelter; how cautious should we be, to call criminal — to visit with too heavy a censure — an act which is one of the natural impulses of a tender heart, that seeks but for a worthy object of love. But why attempt to tell the tale of beautiful Indiana? Madame Sand has written it so well, that not the hardest-hearted husband in Christendom can fail to be touched by her sorrows, though he may refuse to listen to her argument. Let us grant, for argument’s sake, that the laws of marriage, especially the French laws of marriage, press very cruelly upon unfortunate women.

But if one wants to have a question of this, or any nature, honestly argued, it is, better, surely, to apply to an indifferent person for an umpire. For instance, the stealing of pocket-handkerchiefs or snuff-boxes may or may not be vicious; but if we, who have not the wit, or will not take the trouble to decide the question ourselves, want to hear the real rights of the matter, we should not, surely, apply to a pickpocket to know what he thought on the point. It might naturally be presumed that he would be rather a prejudiced person — particularly as his reasoning, if successful, might get him OUT OF GAOL. This is a homely illustration, no doubt; all we would urge by it is, that Madame Sand having, according to the French newspapers, had a stern husband, and also having, according to the newspapers, sought “sympathy” elsewhere, her arguments may be considered to be somewhat partial, and received with some little caution.

And tell us who have been the social reformers? — the haters, that is, of the present system, according to which we live, love, marry, have children, educate them, and endow them — ARE THEY PURE THEMSELVES? I do believe not one; and directly a man begins to quarrel with the world and its ways, and to lift up, as he calls it, the voice of his despair, and preach passionately to mankind about this tyranny of faith, customs, laws; if we examine what the personal character of the preacher is, we begin pretty clearly to understand the value of the doctrine. Any one can see why Rousseau should be such a whimpering reformer, and Byron such a free and easy misanthropist, and why our accomplished Madame Sand, who has a genius and eloquence inferior to neither, should take the present condition of mankind (French-kind) so much to heart, and labor so hotly to set it right.

After “Indiana” (which, we presume, contains the lady’s notions upon wives and husbands) came “Valentine,” which may be said to exhibit her doctrine, in regard of young men and maidens, to whom the author would accord, as we fancy, the same tender license. “Valentine” was followed by “Lelia,” a wonderful book indeed, gorgeous in eloquence, and rich in magnificent poetry: a regular topsyturvyfication of morality, a thieves’ and prostitutes’ apotheosis. This book has received some late enlargements and emendations by the writer; it contains her notions on morals, which, as we have said, are so peculiar, that, alas! they only can be mentioned here, not particularized: but of “Spiridion” we may write a few pages, as it is her religious manifesto.

In this work, the lady asserts her pantheistical doctrine, and openly attacks the received Christian creed. She declares it to be useless now, and unfitted to the exigencies and the degree of culture of the actual world; and, though it would be hardly worth while to combat her opinions in due form, it is, at least, worth while to notice them, not merely from the extraordinary eloquence and genius of the woman herself, but because they express the opinions of a great number of people besides: for she not only produces her own thoughts, but imitates those of others very eagerly; and one finds in her writings so much similarity with others, or, in others, so much resemblance to her, that the book before us may pass for the expression of the sentiments of a certain French party.

“Dieu est mort,” says another writer of the same class, and of great genius too. —“Dieu est mort,” writes Mr. Henry Heine, speaking of the Christian God; and he adds, in a daring figure of speech; —“N’entendez-vous pas sonner la Clochette? — on porte les sacremens à un Dieu qui se meurt!” Another of the pantheist poetical philosophers, Mr. Edgar Quinet, has a poem, in which Christ and the Virgin Mary are made to die similarly, and the former is classed with Prometheus. This book of “Spiridion” is a continuation of the theme, and perhaps you will listen to some of the author’s expositions of it.

It must be confessed that the controversialists of the present day have an eminent advantage over their predecessors in the days of folios; it required some learning then to write a book, and some time, at least — for the very labor of writing out a thousand such vast pages would demand a considerable period. But now, in the age of duodecimos, the system is reformed altogether: a male or female controversialist draws upon his imagination, and not his learning; makes a story instead of an argument, and, in the course of 150 pages (where the preacher has it all his own way) will prove or disprove you anything. And, to our shame be it said, we Protestants have set the example of this kind of proselytism — those detestable mixtures of truth, lies, false sentiment, false reasoning, bad grammar, correct and genuine philanthropy and piety — I mean our religious tracts, which any woman or man, be he ever so silly, can take upon himself to write, and sell for a penny, as if religious instruction were the easiest thing in the world. We, I say, have set the example in this kind of composition, and all the sects of the earth will, doubtless, speedily follow it. I can point you out blasphemies in famous pious tracts that are as dreadful as those above mentioned; but this is no place for such discussions, and we had better return to Madame Sand. As Mrs. Sherwood expounds, by means of many touching histories and anecdotes of little boys and girls, her notions of church history, church catechism, church doctrine; — as the author of “Father Clement, a Roman Catholic Story,” demolishes the stately structure of eighteen centuries, the mighty and beautiful Roman Catholic faith, in whose bosom repose so many saints and sages — by the means of a three-and-sixpenny duodecimo volume, which tumbles over the vast fabric, as David’s pebble-stone did Goliath; — as, again, the Roman Catholic author of “Geraldine” falls foul of Luther and Calvin, and drowns the awful echoes of their tremendous protest by the sounds of her little half-crown trumpet: in like manner, by means of pretty sentimental tales, and cheap apologues, Mrs. Sand proclaims HER truth — that we need a new Messiah, and that the Christian religion is no more! O awful, awful name of God! Light unbearable! Mystery unfathomable! Vastness immeasurable! — Who are these who come forward to explain the mystery, and gaze unblinking into the depths of the light, and measure the immeasurable vastness to a hair? O name, that God’s people of old did fear to utter! O light, that God’s prophet would have perished had he seen! Who are these that are now so familiar with it? — Women, truly; for the most part weak women — weak in intellect, weak mayhap in spelling and grammar, but marvellously strong in faith:— women, who step down to the people with stately step and voice of authority, and deliver their twopenny tablets, as if there were some Divine authority for the wretched nonsense recorded there!

With regard to the spelling and grammar, our Parisian Pythoness stands, in the goodly fellowship, remarkable. Her style is a noble, and, as far as a foreigner can judge, a strange tongue, beautifully rich and pure. She has a very exuberant imagination, and, with it, a very chaste style of expression. She never scarcely indulges in declamation, as other modern prophets do, and yet her sentences are exquisitely melodious and full. She seldom runs a thought to death (after the manner of some prophets, who, when they catch a little one, toy with it until they kill it), but she leaves you at the end of one of her brief, rich, melancholy sentences, with plenty of food for future cogitation. I can’t express to you the charm of them; they seem to me like the sound of country bells — provoking I don’t know what vein of musing and meditation, and falling sweetly and sadly on the ear.

This wonderful power of language must have been felt by most people who read Madame Sand’s first books, “Valentine” and “Indiana”: in “Spiridion” it is greater, I think, than ever; and for those who are not afraid of the matter of the novel, the manner will be found most delightful. The author’s intention, I presume, is to describe, in a parable, her notions of the downfall of the Catholic church; and, indeed, of the whole Christian scheme: she places her hero in a monastery in Italy, where, among the characters about him, and the events which occur, the particular tenets of Madame Dudevant’s doctrine are not inaptly laid down. Innocent, faithful, tender-hearted, a young monk, by name Angel, finds himself, when he has pronounced his vows, an object of aversion and hatred to the godly men whose lives he so much respects, and whose love he would make any sacrifice to win. After enduring much, he flings himself at the feet of his confessor, and begs for his sympathy and counsel; but the confessor spurns him away, and accuses him, fiercely, of some unknown and terrible crime — bids him never return to the confessional until contrition has touched his heart, and the stains which sully his spirit are, by sincere repentance, washed away.

“Thus speaking,” says Angel, “Father Hegesippus tore away his robe, which I was holding in my supplicating hands. In a sort of wildness I still grasped it tighter; he pushed me fiercely from him, and I fell with my face towards the ground. He quitted me, closing violently after him the door of the sacristy, in which this scene had passed. I was left alone in the darkness. Either from the violence of my fall, or the excess of my grief, a vein had burst in my throat, and a haemorrhage ensued. I had not the force to rise; I felt my senses rapidly sinking, and, presently, I lay stretched on the pavement, unconscious, and bathed in my blood.”

[Now the wonderful part of the story begins.]

“I know not how much time I passed in this way. As I came to myself I felt an agreeable coolness. It seemed as if some harmonious air was playing round about me, stirring gently in my hair, and drying the drops of perspiration on my brow. It seemed to approach, and then again to withdraw, breathing now softly and sweetly in the distance, and now returning, as if to give me strength and courage to rise.

“I would not, however, do so as yet; for I felt myself, as I lay, under the influence of a pleasure quite new to me; and listened, in a kind of peaceful aberration, to the gentle murmurs of the summer wind, as it breathed on me through the closed window-blinds above me. Then I fancied I heard a voice that spoke to me from the end of the sacristy: it whispered so low that I could not catch the words. I remained motionless, and gave it my whole attention. At last I heard, distinctly, the following sentence:—‘Spirit of Truth, raise up these victims of ignorance and imposture.’ ‘Father Hegesippus,’ said I, in a weak voice, ‘is that you who are returning to me?’ But no one answered. I lifted myself on my hands and knees, I listened again, but I heard nothing. I got up completely, and looked about me: I had fallen so near to the only door in this little room, that none, after the departure of the confessor, could have entered it without passing over me; besides, the door was shut, and only opened from the inside by a strong lock of the ancient shape. I touched it, and assured myself that it was closed. I was seized with terror, and, for some moments, did not dare to move. Leaning against the door, I looked round, and endeavored to see into the gloom in which the angles of the room were enveloped. A pale light, which came from an upper window, half closed, was seen to be trembling in the midst of the apartment. The wind beat the shutter to and fro, and enlarged or diminished the space through which the light issued. The objects which were in this half light — the praying-desk, surmounted by its skull — a few books lying on the benches — a surplice hanging against the wall — seemed to move with the shadow of the foliage that the air agitated behind the window. When I thought I was alone, I felt ashamed of my former timidity; I made the sign of the cross, and was about to move forward in order to open the shutter altogether, but a deep sigh came from the praying-desk, and kept me nailed to my place. And yet I saw the desk distinctly enough to be sure that no person was near it. Then I had an idea which gave me courage. Some person, I thought, is behind the shutter, and has been saying his prayers outside without thinking of me. But who would be so bold as to express such wishes and utter such a prayer as I had just heard?

“Curiosity, the only passion and amusement permitted in a cloister, now entirely possessed me, and I advanced towards the window. But I had not made a step when a black shadow, as it seemed to me, detaching itself from the praying-desk, traversed the room, directing itself towards the window, and passed swiftly by me. The movement was so rapid that I had not time to avoid what seemed a body advancing towards me, and my fright was so great that I thought I should faint a second time. But I felt nothing, and, as if the shadow had passed through me, I saw it suddenly disappear to my left.

“I rushed to the window, I pushed back the blind with precipitation, and looked round the sacristy: I was there, entirely alone. I looked into the garden — it was deserted, and the mid-day wind was wandering among the flowers. I took courage, I examined all the corners of the room; I looked behind the praying-desk, which was very large, and I shook all the sacerdotal vestments which were hanging on the walls, everything was in its natural condition, and could give me no explanation of what had just occurred. The sight of all the blood I had lost led me to fancy that my brain had, probably, been weakened by the haemorrhage, and that I had been a prey to some delusion. I retired to my cell, and remained shut up there until the next day.”

I don’t know whether the reader has been as much struck with the above mysterious scene as the writer has; but the fancy of it strikes me as very fine; and the natural SUPERNATURALNESS is kept up in the best style. The shutter swaying to and fro, the fitful LIGHT APPEARING over the furniture of the room, and giving it an air of strange motion — the awful shadow which passed through the body of the timid young novice — are surely very finely painted. “I rushed to the shutter, and flung it back: there was no one in the sacristy. I looked into the garden; it was deserted, and the mid-day wind was roaming among the flowers.” The dreariness is wonderfully described: only the poor pale boy looking eagerly out from the window of the sacristy, and the hot mid-day wind walking in the solitary garden. How skilfully is each of these little strokes dashed in, and how well do all together combine to make a picture! But we must have a little more about Spiridion’s wonderful visitant.

“As I entered into the garden, I stepped a little on one side, to make way for a person whom I saw before me. He was a young man of surprising beauty, and attired in a foreign costume. Although dressed in the large black robe which the superiors of our order wear, he had, underneath, a short jacket of fine cloth, fastened round the waist by a leathern belt, and a buckle of silver, after the manner of the old German students. Like them, he wore, instead of the sandals of our monks, short tight boots; and over the collar of his shirt, which fell on his shoulders, and was as white as snow, hung, in rich golden curls, the most beautiful hair I ever saw. He was tall, and his elegant posture seemed to reveal to me that he was in the habit of commanding. With much respect, and yet uncertain, I half saluted him. He did not return my salute; but he smiled on me with so benevolent an air, and at the same time, his eyes severe and blue, looked towards me with an expression of such compassionate tenderness, that his features have never since then passed away from my recollection. I stopped, hoping he would speak to me, and persuading myself, from the majesty of his aspect, that he had the power to protect me; but the monk, who was walking behind me, and who did not seem to remark him in the least, forced him brutally to step aside from the walk, and pushed me so rudely as almost to cause me to fall. Not wishing to engage in a quarrel with this coarse monk, I moved away; but, after having taken a few steps in the garden, I looked back, and saw the unknown still gazing on me with looks of the tenderest solicitude. The sun shone full upon him, and made his hair look radiant. He sighed, and lifted his fine eyes to heaven, as if to invoke its justice in my favor, and to call it to bear witness to my misery; he turned slowly towards the sanctuary, entered into the quire, and was lost, presently, in the shade. I longed to return, spite of the monk, to follow this noble stranger, and to tell him my afflictions; but who was he, that I imagined he would listen to them, and cause them to cease? I felt, even while his softness drew me towards him, that he still inspired me with a kind of fear; for I saw in his physiognomy as much austerity as sweetness.”

Who was he? — we shall see that. He was somebody very mysterious indeed; but our author has taken care, after the manner of her sex, to make a very pretty fellow of him, and to dress him in the most becoming costumes possible.

The individual in tight boots and a rolling collar, with the copious golden locks, and the solemn blue eyes, who had just gazed on Spiridion, and inspired him with such a feeling of tender awe, is a much more important personage than the reader might suppose at first sight. This beautiful, mysterious, dandy ghost, whose costume, with a true woman’s coquetry, Madame Dudevant has so rejoiced to describe — is her religious type, a mystical representation of Faith struggling up towards Truth, through superstition, doubt, fear, reason — in tight inexpressibles, with “a belt such as is worn by the old German students.” You will pardon me for treating such an awful person as this somewhat lightly; but there is always, I think, such a dash of the ridiculous in the French sublime, that the critic should try and do justice to both, or he may fail in giving a fair account of either. This character of Hebronius, the type of Mrs. Sand’s convictions — if convictions they may be called — or, at least, the allegory under which her doubts are represented, is, in parts, very finely drawn; contains many passages of truth, very deep and touching, by the side of others so entirely absurd and unreasonable, that the reader’s feelings are continually swaying between admiration and something very like contempt — always in a kind of wonder at the strange mixture before him. But let us hear Madame Sand:—

“Peter Hebronius,” says our author, “was not originally so named. His real name was Samuel. He was a Jew, and born in a little village in the neighborhood of Innsprück. His family, which possessed a considerable fortune, left him, in his early youth, completely free to his own pursuits. From infancy he had shown that these were serious. He loved to be alone and passed his days, and sometimes his nights, wandering among the mountains and valleys in the neighborhood of his birthplace. He would often sit by the brink of torrents, listening to the voice of their waters, and endeavoring to penetrate the meaning which Nature had hidden in those sounds. As he advanced in years, his inquiries became more curious and more grave. It was necessary that he should receive a solid education, and his parents sent him to study in the German universities. Luther had been dead only a century, and his words and his memory still lived in the enthusiasm of his disciples. The new faith was strengthening the conquests it had made; the Reformers were as ardent as in the first days, but their ardor was more enlightened and more measured. Proselytism was still carried on with zeal, and new converts were made every day. In listening to the morality and to the dogmas which Lutheranism had taken from Catholicism, Samuel was filled with admiration. His bold and sincere spirit instantly compared the doctrines which were now submitted to him, with those in the belief of which he had been bred; and, enlightened by the comparison, was not slow to acknowledge the inferiority of Judaism. He said to himself, that a religion made for a single people, to the exclusion of all others — which only offered a barbarous justice for rule of conduct — which neither rendered the present intelligible nor satisfactory, and left the future uncertain — could not be that of noble souls and lofty intellects; and that he could not be the God of truth who had dictated, in the midst of thunder, his vacillating will, and had called to the performance of his narrow wishes the slaves of a vulgar terror. Always conversant with himself, Samuel, who had spoken what he thought, now performed what he had spoken; and, a year after his arrival in Germany, solemnly abjured Judaism, and entered into the bosom of the Reformed Church. As he did not wish to do things by halves, and desired as much as was in him to put off the old man and lead a new life, he changed his name of Samuel to that of Peter. Some time passed, during which he strengthened and instructed himself in his new religion. Very soon he arrived at the point of searching for objections to refute, and adversaries to overthrow. Bold and enterprising, he went at once to the strongest, and Bossuet was the first Catholic author that he set himself to read. He commenced with a kind of disdain; believing that the faith which he had just embraced contained the pure truth. He despised all the attacks which could be made against it, and laughed already at the irresistible arguments which he was to find in the works of the Eagle of Meaux. But his mistrust and irony soon gave place to wonder first, and then to admiration: he thought that the cause pleaded by such an advocate must, at least, be respectable; and, by a natural transition, came to think that great geniuses would only devote themselves to that which was great. He then studied Catholicism with the same ardor and impartiality which he had bestowed on Lutheranism. He went into France to gain instruction from the professors of the Mother Church, as he had from the Doctors of the reformed creed in Germany. He saw Arnauld Fénélon, that second Gregory of Nazianzen, and Bossuet himself. Guided by these masters, whose virtues made him appreciate their talents the more, he rapidly penetrated to the depth of the mysteries of the Catholic doctrine and morality. He found, in this religion, all that had for him constituted the grandeur and beauty of Protestantism — the dogmas of the Unity and Eternity of God, which the two religions had borrowed from Judaism; and, what seemed the natural consequence of the last doctrine — a doctrine, however, to which the Jews had not arrived — the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; free will in this life; in the next, recompense for the good, and punishment for the evil. He found, more pure, perhaps, and more elevated in Catholicism than in Protestantism, that sublime morality which preaches equality to man, fraternity, love, charity, renouncement of self, devotion to your neighbor; Catholicism, in a word, seemed to possess that vast formula, and that vigorous unity, which Lutheranism wanted. The latter had, indeed, in its favor, the liberty of inquiry, which is also a want of the human mind; and had proclaimed the authority of individual reason: but it had so lost that which is the necessary basis and vital condition of all revealed religion — the principle of infallibility; because nothing can live except in virtue of the laws that presided at its birth; and, in consequence, one revelation cannot be continued and confirmed without another. Now, infallibility is nothing but revelation continued by God, or the Word, in the person of his vicars.

“At last, after much reflection, Hebronius acknowledged himself entirely and sincerely convinced, and received baptism from the hands of Bossuet. He added the name of Spiridion to that of Peter, to signify that he had been twice enlightened by the Spirit. Resolved thenceforward to consecrate his life to the worship of the new God who had called him to Him, and to the study of His doctrines, he passed into Italy, and, with the aid of a large fortune, which one of his uncles, a Catholic like himself, had left to him, he built this convent where we now are.”

A friend of mine, who has just come from Italy, says that he has there left Messrs. Sp — r, P— l, and W. Dr — d, who were the lights of the great church in Newman Street, who were themselves apostles, and declared and believed that every word of nonsense which fell from their lips was a direct spiritual intervention. These gentlemen have become Puseyites already, and are, my friend states, in the high way to Catholicism. Madame Sand herself was a Catholic some time since: having been converted to that faith along with M. N — of the Academy of Music; Mr. L — the pianoforte player; and one or two other chosen individuals, by the famous Abbé de la M—. Abbé de la M— (so told me in the Diligence, a priest, who read his breviary and gossiped alternately very curiously and pleasantly) is himself an âme perdue: the man spoke of his brother clergyman with actual horror; and it certainly appears that the Abbé‘s works of conversion have not prospered; for Madame Sand, having brought her hero (and herself, as we may presume) to the point of Catholicism, proceeds directly to dispose of that as she has done of Judaism and Protestantism, and will not leave, of the whole fabric of Christianity, a single stone standing.

I think the fate of our English Newman Street apostles, and of M. de la M — the mad priest, and his congregation of mad converts, should be a warning to such of us as are inclined to dabble in religious speculations; for, in them, as in all others, our flighty brains soon lose themselves, and we find our reason speedily lying prostrated at the mercy of our passions; and I think that Madame Sand’s novel of Spiridion may do a vast deal of good, and bears a good moral with it; though not such an one, perhaps, as our fair philosopher intended. For anything he learned, Samuel-Peter-Spiridion-Hebronius might have remained a Jew from the beginning to the end. Wherefore be in such a hurry to set up new faiths? Wherefore, Madame Sand, try and be so preternaturally wise? Wherefore be so eager to jump out of one religion, for the purpose of jumping into another? See what good this philosophical friskiness has done you, and on what sort of ground you are come at last. You are so wonderfully sagacious, that you flounder in mud at every step; so amazingly clear-sighted, that your eyes cannot see an inch before you, having put out, with that extinguishing genius of yours, every one of the lights that are sufficient for the conduct of common men. And for what? Let our friend Spiridion speak for himself. After setting up his convent, and filling it with monks, who entertain an immense respect for his wealth and genius, Father Hebronius, unanimously elected prior, gives himself up to further studies, and leaves his monks to themselves. Industrious and sober as they were, originally, they grow quickly intemperate and idle; and Hebronius, who does not appear among his flock until he has freed himself of the Catholic religion, as he has of the Jewish and the Protestant, sees, with dismay, the evil condition of his disciples, and regrets, too late, the precipitancy by which he renounced, then and for ever, Christianity. “But, as he had no new religion to adopt in its place, and as, grown more prudent and calm, he did not wish to accuse himself unnecessarily, once more, of inconstancy and apostasy, he still maintained all the exterior forms of the worship which inwardly he had abjured. But it was not enough for him to have quitted error, it was necessary to discover truth. But Hebronius had well looked round to discover it; he could not find anything that resembled it. Then commenced for him a series of sufferings, unknown and terrible. Placed face to face with doubt, this sincere and religious spirit was frightened at its own solitude; and as it had no other desire nor aim on earth than truth, and nothing else here below interested it, he lived absorbed in his own sad contemplations, looked ceaselessly into the vague that surrounded him like an ocean without bounds, and seeing the horizon retreat and retreat as ever he wished to near it. Lost in this immense uncertainty, he felt as if attacked by vertigo, and his thoughts whirled within his brain. Then, fatigued with his vain toils and hopeless endeavors, he would sink down depressed, unmanned, life-wearied, only living in the sensation of that silent grief which he felt and could not comprehend.”

It is a pity that this hapless Spiridion, so eager in his passage from one creed to another, and so loud in his profession of the truth, wherever he fancied that he had found it, had not waited a little, before he avowed himself either Catholic or Protestant, and implicated others in errors and follies which might, at least, have been confined to his own bosom, and there have lain comparatively harmless. In what a pretty state, for instance, will Messrs. Dr — d and P— l have left their Newman Street congregation, who are still plunged in their old superstitions, from which their spiritual pastors and masters have been set free! In what a state, too, do Mrs. Sand and her brother and sister philosophers, Templars, Saint Simonians, Fourierites, Lerouxites, or whatever the sect may be, leave the unfortunate people who have listened to their doctrines, and who have not the opportunity, or the fiery versatility of belief, which carries their teachers from one creed to another, leaving only exploded lies and useless recantations behind them! I wish the state would make a law that one individual should not be allowed to preach more than one doctrine in his life, or, at any rate, should be soundly corrected for every change of creed. How many charlatans would have been silenced — how much conceit would have been kept within bounds — how many fools, who are dazzled by fine sentences, and made drunk by declamation, would have remained, quiet and sober, in that quiet and sober way of faith which their fathers held before them. However, the reader will be glad to learn that, after all his doubts and sorrows, Spiridion does discover the truth (THE truth, what a wise Spiridion!) and some discretion with it; for, having found among his monks, who are dissolute, superstitious — and all hate him — one only being, Fulgentius, who is loving, candid, and pious, he says to him, “If you were like myself, if the first want of your nature were, like mine, to know, I would, without hesitation, lay bare to you my entire thoughts. I would make you drink the cup of truth, which I myself have filled with so many tears, at the risk of intoxicating you with the draught. But it is not so, alas! you are made to love rather than to know, and your heart is stronger than your intellect. You are attached to Catholicism — I believe so, at least — by bonds of sentiment which you could not break without pain, and which, if you were to break, the truth which I could lay bare to you in return would not repay you for what you had sacrificed. Instead of exalting, it would crush you, very likely. It is a food too strong for ordinary men, and which, when it does not revivify, smothers. I will not, then, reveal to you this doctrine, which is the triumph of my life, and the consolation of my last days; because it might, perhaps, be for you only a cause of mourning and despair. . . . . Of all the works which my long studies have produced, there is one alone which I have not given to the flames; for it alone is complete. In that you will find me entire, and there LIES THE TRUTH. And, as the sage has said you must not bury your treasures in a well, I will not confide mine to the brutal stupidity of these monks. But as this volume should only pass into hands worthy to touch it, and be laid open for eyes that are capable of comprehending its mysteries, I shall exact from the reader one condition, which, at the same time, shall be a proof: I shall carry it with me to the tomb, in order that he who one day shall read it, may have courage enough to brave the vain terrors of the grave, in searching for it amid the dust of my sepulchre. As soon as I am dead, therefore, place this writing on my breast. . . . . Ah! when the time comes for reading it, I think my withered heart will spring up again, as the frozen grass at the return of the sun, and that, from the midst of its infinite transformations, my spirit will enter into immediate communication with thine!”

Does not the reader long to be at this precious manuscript, which contains THE TRUTH; and ought he not to be very much obliged to Mrs. Sand, for being so good as to print it for him? We leave all the story aside: how Fulgentius had not the spirit to read the manuscript, but left the secret to Alexis; how Alexis, a stern old philosophical unbelieving monk as ever was, tried in vain to lift up the gravestone, but was taken with fever, and obliged to forego the discovery; and how, finally, Angel, his disciple, a youth amiable and innocent as his name, was the destined person who brought the long-buried treasure to light. Trembling and delighted, the pair read this tremendous MANUSCRIPT OF SPIRIDION.

Will it be believed, that of all the dull, vague, windy documents that mortal ever set eyes on, this is the dullest? If this be absolute truth, à quoi bon search for it, since we have long, long had the jewel in our possession, or since, at least, it has been held up as such by every sham philosopher who has had a mind to pass off his wares on the public? Hear Spiridion:—

“How much have I wept, how much have I suffered, how much have I prayed, how much have I labored, before I understood the cause and the aim of my passage on this earth! After many incertitudes, after much remorse, after many scruples, I HAVE COMPREHENDED THAT I WAS A MARTYR! — But why my martyrdom? said I; what crimne did I commit before I was born, thus to be condemned to labor and groaning, from the hour when I first saw the day up to that when I am about to enter into the night of the tomb?

“At last, by dint of imploring God — by dint of inquiry into the history of man, a ray of the truth has descended on my brow, and the shadows of the past have melted from before my eyes. I have lifted a corner of the curtain: I have seen enough to know that my life, like that of the rest of the human race, has been a series of necessary errors, yet, to speak more correctly, of incomplete truths, conducting, more or less slowly and directly, to absolute truth and ideal perfection. But when will they rise on the face of the earth — when will they issue from the bosom of the Divinity — those generations who shall salute the august countenance of Truth, and proclaim the reign of the ideal on earth? I see well how humanity marches, but I neither can see its cradle nor its apotheosis. Man seems to me a transitory race, between the beast and the angel; but I know not how many centuries have been required, that he might pass from the state of brute to the state of man, and I cannot tell how many ages are necessary that he may pass from the state of man to the state of angel!

“Yet I hope, and I feel within me, at the approach of death, that which warns me that great destinies await humanity. In this life all is over for me. Much have I striven, to advance but little: I have labored without ceasing, and have done almost nothing. Yet, after pains immeasurable, I die content, for I know that I have done all I could, and am sure that the little I have done will not be lost.

“What, then, have I done? this wilt thou demand of me, man of a future age, who will seek for truth in the testaments of the past. Thou who wilt be no more Catholic — no more Christian, thou wilt ask of the poor monk, lying in the dust, an account of his life and death. Thou wouldst know wherefore were his vows, why his austerities, his labors, his retreat, his prayers?

“You who turn back to me, in order that I may guide you on your road, and that you may arrive more quickly at the goal which it has not been my lot to attain, pause, yet, for a moment, and look upon the past history of humanity. You will see that its fate has been ever to choose between the least of two evils, and ever to commit great faults in order to avoid others still greater. You will see . . . . on one side, the heathen mythology, that debased the spirit, in its efforts to deify the flesh; on the other, the austere Christian principle, that debased the flesh too much, in order to raise the worship of the spirit. You will see, afterwards, how the religion of Christ embodies itself in a church, and raises itself a generous democratic power against the tyranny of princes. Later still, you will see how that power has attained its end, and passed beyond it. You will see it, having chained and conquered princes, league itself with them, in order to oppress the people, and seize on temporal power. Schism, then, raises up against it the standard of revolt, and preaches the bold and legitimate principle of liberty of conscience: but, also, you will see how this liberty of conscience brings religious anarchy in its train; or, worse still, religious indifference and disgust. And if your soul, shattered in the tempestuous changes which you behold humanity undergoing, would strike out for itself a passage through the rocks, amidst which, like a frail bark, lies tossing trembling truth, you will be embarrassed to choose between the new philosophers — who, in preaching tolerance, destroy religious and social unity — and the last Christians, who, to preserve society, that is, religion and philosophy, are obliged to brave the principle of toleration. Man of truth! to whom I address, at once, my instruction and my justification, at the time when you shall live, the science of truth no doubt will have advanced a step. Think, then, of all your fathers have suffered, as, bending beneath the weight of their ignorance and uncertainty, they have traversed the desert across which, with so much pain, they have conducted thee! And if the pride of thy young learning shall make thee contemplate the petty strifes in which our life has been consumed, pause and tremble, as you think of that which is still unknown to yourself, and of the judgment that your descendants will pass on you. Think of this, and learn to respect all those who, seeking their way in all sincerity, have wandered from the path, frightened by the storm, and sorely tried by the severe hand of the All-Powerful. Think of this, and prostrate yourself; for all these, even the most mistaken among them, are saints and martyrs.

“Without their conquests and their defeats, thou wert in darkness still. Yes, their failures, their errors even, have a right to your respect; for man is weak. . . . . Weep then, for us obscure travellers — unknown victims, who, by our mortal sufferings and unheard-of labors, have prepared the way before you. Pity me, who have passionately loved justice, and perseveringly sought for truth, only opened my eyes to shut them again for ever, and saw that I had been in vain endeavoring to support a ruin, to take refuge in a vault of which the foundations were worn away.” . . . .

The rest of the book of Spiridion is made up of a history of the rise, progress, and (what our philosopher is pleased to call) decay of Christianity — of an assertion, that the “doctrine of Christ is incomplete;” that “Christ may, nevertheless, take his place in the Pantheon of divine men!” and of a long, disgusting, absurd, and impious vision, in which the Saviour, Moses, David, and Elijah are represented, and in which Christ is made to say —“WE ARE ALL MESSIAHS, when we wish to bring the reign of truth upon earth; we are all Christs, when we suffer for it!”

And this is the ultimatum, the supreme secret, the absolute truth! and it has been published by Mrs. Sand, for so many napoleons per sheet, in the Revue des Deux Mondes: and the Deux Mondes are to abide by it for the future. After having attained it, are we a whit wiser? “Man is between an angel and a beast: I don’t know how long it is since he was a brute — I can’t say how long it will be before he is an angel.” Think of people living by their wits, and living by such a wit as this! Think of the state of mental debauch and disease which must have been passed through, ere such words could be written, and could be popular!

When a man leaves our dismal, smoky London atmosphere, and breathes, instead of coal-smoke and yellow fog, this bright, clear, French air, he is quite intoxicated by it at first, and feels a glow in his blood, and a joy in his spirits, which scarcely thrice a year, and then only at a distance from London, he can attain in England. Is the intoxication, I wonder, permanent among the natives? and may we not account for the ten thousand frantic freaks of these people by the peculiar influence of French air and sun? The philosophers are from night to morning drunk, the politicians are drunk, the literary men reel and stagger from one absurdity to another, and how shall we understand their vagaries? Let us suppose, charitably, that Madame Sand had inhaled a more than ordinary quantity of this laughing gas when she wrote for us this precious manuscript of Spiridion. That great destinies are in prospect for the human race we may fancy, without her ladyship’s word for it: but more liberal than she, and having a little retrospective charity, as well as that easy prospective benevolence which Mrs. Sand adopts, let us try and think there is some hope for our fathers (who were nearer brutality than ourselves, according to the Sandean creed), or else there is a very poor chance for us, who, great philosophers as we are, are yet, alas! far removed from that angelic consummation which all must wish for so devoutly. She cannot say — is it not extraordinary? — how many centuries have been necessary before man could pass from the brutal state to his present condition, or how many ages will be required ere we may pass from the state of man to the state of angels? What the deuce is the use of chronology or philosophy? We were beasts, and we can’t tell when our tails dropped off: we shall be angels; but when our wings are to begin to sprout, who knows? In the meantime, O man of genius, follow our counsel: lead an easy life, don’t stick at trifles; never mind about DUTY, it is only made for slaves; if the world reproach you, reproach the world in return, you have a good loud tongue in your head: if your straight-laced morals injure your mental respiration, fling off the old-fashioned stays, and leave your free limbs to rise and fall as Nature pleases; and when you have grown pretty sick of your liberty, and yet unfit to return to restraint, curse the world, and scorn it, and be miserable, like my Lord Byron and other philosophers of his kidney; or else mount a step higher, and, with conceit still more monstrous, and mental vision still more wretchedly debauched and weak, begin suddenly to find yourself afflicted with a maudlin compassion for the human race, and a desire to set them right after your own fashion. There is the quarrelsome stage of drunkenness, when a man can as yet walk and speak, when he can call names, and fling plates and wine-glasses at his neighbor’s head with a pretty good aim; after this comes the pathetic stage, when the patient becomes wondrous philanthropic, and weeps wildly, as he lies in the gutter, and fancies he is at home in bed — where he ought to be; but this is an allegory.

I don’t wish to carry this any farther, or to say a word in defence of the doctrine which Mrs. Dudevant has found “incomplete”; — here, at least, is not the place for discussing its merits, any more than Mrs. Sand’s book was the place for exposing, forsooth, its errors: our business is only with the day and the new novels, and the clever or silly people who write them. Oh! if they but knew their places, and would keep to them, and drop their absurd philosophical jargon! Not all the big words in the world can make Mrs. Sand talk like a philosopher: when will she go back to her old trade, of which she was the very ablest practitioner in France?

I should have been glad to give some extracts from the dramatic and descriptive parts of the novel, that cannot, in point of style and beauty, be praised too highly. One must suffice — it is the descent of Alexis to seek that unlucky manuscript, Spiridion.

“It seemed to me,” he begins, “that the descent was eternal; and that I was burying myself in the depths of Erebus: at last, I reached a level place — and I heard a mournful voice deliver these words, as it were, to the secret centre of the earth —‘He will mount that ascent no more!’— Immediately I heard arise towards me, from the depth of invisible abysses, a myriad of formidable voices united in a strange chant —‘Let us destroy him! Let him be destroyed! What does he here among the dead? Let him be delivered back to torture! Let him be given again to life!’

“Then a feeble light began to pierce the darkness, and I perceived that I stood on the lowest step of a staircase, vast as the foot of a mountain. Behind me were thousands of steps of lurid iron; before me, nothing but a void — an abyss, and ether; the blue gloom of midnight beneath my feet, as above my head. I became delirious, and quitting that staircase, which methought it was impossible for me to reascend, I sprung forth into the void with an execration. But, immediately, when I had uttered the curse, the void began to be filled with forms and colors, and I presently perceived that I was in a vast gallery, along which I advanced, trembling. There was still darkness round me; but the hollows of the vaults gleamed with a red light, and showed me the strange and hideous forms of their building. . . . . I did not distinguish the nearest objects; but those towards which I advanced assumed an appearance more and more ominous, and my terror increased with every step I took. The enormous pillars which supported the vault, and the tracery thereof itself, were figures of men, of supernatural stature, delivered to tortures without a name. Some hung by their feet, and, locked in the coils of monstrous serpents, clenched their teeth in the marble of the pavement; others, fastened by their waists, were dragged upwards, these by their feet, those by their heads, towards capitals, where other figures stooped towards them, eager to torment them. Other pillars, again, represented a struggling mass of figures devouring one another; each of which only offered a trunk severed to the knees or to the shoulders, the fierce heads whereof retained life enough to seize and devour that which was near them. There were some who, half hanging down, agonized themselves by attempting, with their upper limbs, to flay the lower moiety of their bodies, which drooped from the columns, or were attached to the pedestals; and others, who, in their fight with each other, were dragged along by morsels of flesh — grasping which, they clung to each other with a countenance of unspeakable hate and agony. Along, or rather in place of, the frieze, there were on either side a range of unclean beings, wearing the human form, but of a loathsome ugliness, busied in tearing human corpses to pieces — in feasting upon their limbs and entrails. From the vault, instead of bosses and pendants, hung the crushed and wounded forms of children; as if to escape these eaters of man’s flesh, they would throw themselves downwards, and be dashed to pieces on the pavement. . . . . The silence and motionlessness of the whole added to its awfulness. I became so faint with terror, that I stopped, and would fain have returned. But at that moment I heard, from the depths of the gloom through which I had passed, confused noises, like those of a multitude on its march. And the sounds soon became more distinct, and the clamor fiercer, and the steps came hurrying on tumultuously — at every new burst nearer, more violent, more threatening. I thought that I was pursued by this disorderly crowd; and I strove to advance, hurrying into the midst of those dismal sculptures. Then it seemed as if those figures began to heave — and to sweat blood — and their beady eyes to move in their sockets. At once I beheld that they were all looking upon me, that they were all leaning towards me — some with frightful derision, others with furious aversion. Every arm was raised against me, and they made as though they would crush me with the quivering limbs they had torn one from the other.” . . . .

It is, indeed, a pity that the poor fellow gave himself the trouble to go down into damp, unwholesome graves, for the purpose of fetching up a few trumpery sheets of manuscript; and if the public has been rather tired with their contents, and is disposed to ask why Mrs. Sand’s religious or irreligious notions are to be brought forward to people who are quite satisfied with their own, we can only say that this lady is the representative of a vast class of her countrymen, whom the wits and philosophers of the eighteenth century have brought to this condition. The leaves of the Diderot and Rousseau tree have produced this goodly fruit: here it is, ripe, bursting, and ready to fall; — and how to fall? Heaven send that it may drop easily, for all can see that the time is come.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/paris/chapter15.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07