Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



This visit of the great surgeon was the event of the day, and it left a luminous trace in Modeste’s soul. The young enthusiast ardently admired the man whose life belonged to others, and in whom the habit of studying physical suffering had destroyed the manifestations of egoism. That evening, when Gobenheim, the Latournelles, and Butscha, Canalis, Ernest, and the Duc d’Herouville were gathered in the salon, they all congratulated the Mignon family on the hopes which Desplein encouraged. The conversation, in which the Modeste of her letters was once more in the ascendant, turned naturally on the man whose genius, unfortunately for his fame, was appreciable only by the faculty and men of science. Gobenheim contributed a phrase which is the sacred chrism of genius as interpreted in these days by public economists and bankers —

“He makes a mint of money.”

“They say he is very grasping,” added Canalis.

The praises which Modeste showered on Desplein had annoyed the poet. Vanity acts like a woman — they both think they are defrauded when love or praise is bestowed on others. Voltaire was jealous of the wit of a roue whom Paris admired for two days; and even a duchess takes offence at a look bestowed upon her maid. The avarice excited by these two sentiments is such that a fraction of them given to the poor is thought robbery.

“Do you think, monsieur,” said Modeste, smiling, “that we should judge genius by ordinary standards?”

“Perhaps we ought first of all to define the man of genius,” replied Canalis. “One of the conditions of genius is invention — invention of a form, a system, a force. Napoleon was an inventor, apart from his other conditions of genius. He invented his method of making war. Walter Scott is an inventor, Linnaeus is an inventor, Geoffrey Saint–Hilaire and Cuvier are inventors. Such men are men of genius of the first rank. They renew, increase, or modify both science and art. But Desplein is merely a man whose vast talent consists in properly applying laws already known; in observing, by means of a natural gift, the limits laid down for each temperament, and the time appointed by Nature for an operation. He has not founded, like Hippocrates, the science itself. He has invented no system, as did Galen, Broussais, and Rasori. He is merely an executive genius, like Moscheles on the piano, Paganini on the violin, or Farinelli on his own larynx — men who have developed enormous faculties, but who have not created music. You must permit me to discriminate between Beethoven and la Catalani: to one belongs the immortal crown of genius and of martyrdom, to the other innumerable five-franc pieces; one we can pay in coin, but the world remains throughout all time a debtor to the other. Each day increases our debt to Moliere, but Baron’s comedies have been overpaid.”

“I think you make the prerogative of ideas too exclusive,” said Ernest de La Briere, in a quiet and melodious voice, which formed a sudden contrast to the peremptory tones of the poet, whose flexible organ had abandoned its caressing notes for the strident and magisterial voice of the rostrum. “Genius must be estimated according to its utility; and Parmentier, who brought potatoes into general use, Jacquart, the inventor of silk looms; Papin, who first discovered the elastic quality of steam, are men of genius, to whom statues will some day be erected. They have changed, or they will change in a certain sense, the face of the State. It is in that sense that Desplein will always be considered a man of genius by thinkers; they see him attended by a generation of sufferers whose pains are stifled by his hand.”

That Ernest should give utterance to this opinion was enough to make Modeste oppose it.

“If that be so, monsieur,” she said, “then the man who could discover a way to mow wheat without injuring the straw, by a machine that could do the work of ten men, would be a man of genius.”

“Yes, my daughter,” said Madame Mignon; “and the poor would bless him for cheaper bread — he that is blessed by the poor is blessed of God.”

“That is putting utility above art,” said Modeste, shaking her head.

“Without utility what would become of art?” said Charles Mignon. “What would it rest on? what would it live on? Where would you lodge, and how would you pay the poet?”

“Oh! my dear papa, such opinions are fearfully flat and antediluvian! I am not surprised that Gobenheim and Monsieur de La Briere, who are interested in the solution of social problems should think so; but you, whose life has been the most useless poetry of the century, — useless because the blood you shed all over Europe, and the horrible sufferings exacted by your colossus, did not prevent France from losing ten departments acquired under the Revolution — how can you give in to such excessively pig-tail notions, as the idealists say? It is plain you’ve just come from China.”

The impertinence of Modeste’s speech was heightened by a little air of contemptuous disdain which she purposely put on, and which fairly astounded Madame Mignon, Madame Latournelle, and Dumay. As for Madame Latournelle, she opened her eyes so wide she no longer saw anything. Butscha, whose alert attention was comparable to that of a spy, looked at Monsieur Mignon, expecting to see him flush with sudden and violent indignation.

“A little more, young lady, and you will be wanting in respect for your father,” said the colonel, smiling, and noticing Butscha’s look. “See what it is to spoil one’s children!”

“I am your only child,” she said saucily.

“Child, indeed,” remarked the notary, significantly.

“Monsieur,” said Modeste, turning upon him, “my father is delighted to have me for his governess; he gave me life and I give him knowledge; he will soon owe me something.”

“There seems occasion for it,” said Madame Mignon.

“But mademoiselle is right,” said Canalis, rising and standing before the fireplace in one of the finest attitudes of his collection. “God, in his providence, has given food and clothing to man, but he has not directly given him art. He says to man: ‘To live, thou must bow thyself to earth; to think, thou shalt lift thyself to Me.’ We have as much need of the life of the soul as of the life of the body — hence, there are two utilities. It is true we cannot be shod by books or clothed by poems. An epic song is not, if you take the utilitarian view, as useful as the broth of a charity kitchen. The noblest ideas will not sail a vessel in place of canvas. It is quite true that the cotton-gin gives us calicoes for thirty sous a yard less than we ever paid before; but that machine and all other industrial perfections will not breathe the breath of life into a people, will not tell futurity of a civilization that once existed. Art, on the contrary, Egyptian, Mexican, Grecian, Roman art, with their masterpieces — now called useless! — reveal the existence of races back in the vague immense of time, beyond where the great intermediary nations, denuded of men of genius, have disappeared, leaving not a line nor a trace behind them! The works of genius are the ‘summum’ of civilization, and presuppose utility. Surely a pair of boots are not as agreeable to your eyes as a fine play at the theatre; and you don’t prefer a windmill to the church of Saint–Ouen, do you? Well then, nations are imbued with the same feelings as the individual man, and the man’s cherished desire is to survive himself morally just as he propagates himself physically. The survival of a people is the work of its men of genius. At this very moment France is proving, energetically, the truth of that theory. She is, undoubtedly, excelled by England in commerce, industry, and navigation, and yet she is, I believe, at the head of the world — by reason of her artists, her men of talent, and the good taste of her products. There is no artist and no superior intellect that does not come to Paris for a diploma. There is no school of painting at this moment but that of France; and we shall reign far longer and perhaps more securely by our books than by our swords. In La Briere’s system, on the other hand, all that is glorious and lovely must be suppressed — woman’s beauty, music, painting, poetry. Society will not be overthrown, that is true, but, I ask you, who would willingly accept such a life? All useful things are ugly and forbidding. A kitchen is indispensable, but you take care not to sit there; you live in the salon, which you adorn, like this, with superfluous things. Of what use, let me ask you, are these charming wall-paintings, this carved wood-work? There is nothing beautiful but that which seems to us useless. We called the sixteenth century the Renascence with admirable truth of language. That century was the dawn of a new era. Men will continue to speak of it when all remembrance of anterior centuries had passed away — their only merit being that they once existed, like the million beings who count as the rubbish of a generation.”

“Rubbish! yes, that may be, but my rubbish is dear to me,” said the Duc d’Herouville, laughing, during the silent pause which followed the poet’s pompous oration.

“Let me ask,” said Butscha, attacking Canalis, “does art, the sphere in which, according to you, genius is required to evolve itself, exist at all? Is it not a splendid lie, a delusion, of the social man? Do I want a landscape scene of Normandy in my bedroom when I can look out and see a better one done by God himself? Our dreams make poems more glorious than Iliads. For an insignificant sum of money I can find at Valogne, at Carentan, in Provence, at Arles, many a Venus as beautiful as those of Titian. The police gazette publishes tales, differing somewhat from those of Walter Scott, but ending tragically with blood, not ink. Happiness and virtue exist above and beyond both art and genius.”

“Bravo, Butscha!” cried Madame Latournelle.

“What did he say?” asked Canalis of La Briere, failing to gather from the eyes and attitude of Mademoiselle Mignon the usual signs of artless admiration.

The contemptuous indifference which Modeste had exhibited toward La Briere, and above all, her disrespectful speeches to her father, so depressed the young man that he made no answer to Canalis; his eyes, fixed sorrowfully on Modeste, were full of deep meditation. The Duc d’Herouville took up Butscha’s argument and reproduced it with much intelligence, saying finally that the ecstasies of Saint–Theresa were far superior to the creations of Lord Byron.

“Oh, Monsieur le duc,” exclaimed Modeste, “hers was a purely personal poetry, whereas the genius of Lord Byron and Moliere benefit the world.”

“How do you square that opinion with those of Monsieur le baron?” cried Charles Mignon, quickly. “Now you are insisting that genius must be useful, and benefit the world as though it were cotton — but perhaps you think logic as antediluvian as your poor old father.”

Butscha, La Briere, and Madame Latournelle exchanged glances that were more than half derisive, and drove Modeste to a pitch of irritation that kept her silent for a moment.

“Mademoiselle, do not mind them,” said Canalis, smiling upon her, “we are neither beaten, nor caught in a contradiction. Every work of art, let it be in literature, music, painting, sculpture, or architecture, implies a positive social utility, equal to that of all other commercial products. Art is pre-eminently commerce; presupposes it, in short. An author pockets ten thousand francs for his book; the making of books means the manufactory of paper, a foundry, a printing-office, a bookseller — in other words, the employment of thousands of men. The execution of a symphony of Beethoven or an opera by Rossini requires human arms and machinery and manufactures. The cost of a monument is an almost brutal case in point. In short, I may say that the works of genius have an extremely costly basis and are, necessarily, useful to the workingman.”

Astride of that theme, Canalis spoke for some minutes with a fine luxury of metaphor, and much inward complacency as to his phrases; but it happened with him, as with many another great speaker, that he found himself at last at the point from which the conversation started, and in full agreement with La Briere without perceiving it.

“I see with much pleasure, my dear baron,” said the little duke, slyly, “that you will make an admirable constitutional minister.”

“Oh!” said Canalis, with the gesture of a great man, “what is the use of all these discussions? What do they prove? — the eternal verity of one axiom: All things are true, all things are false. Moral truths as well as human beings change their aspect according to their surroundings, to the point of being actually unrecognizable.”

“Society exists through settled opinions,” said the Duc d’Herouville.

“What laxity!” whispered Madame Latournelle to her husband.

“He is a poet,” said Gobenheim, who overheard her.

Canalis, who was ten leagues above the heads of his audience, and who may have been right in his last philosophical remark, took the sort of coldness which now overspread the surrounding faces of a symptom of provincial ignorance; but seeing that Modeste understood him, he was content, being wholly unaware that monologue is particularly disagreeable to country-folk, whose principal desire it is to exhibit the manner of life and the wit and wisdom of the provinces to Parisians.

“It is long since you have seen the Duchesse de Chaulieu?” asked the duke, addressing Canalis, as if to change the conversation.

“I left her about six days ago.”

“Is she well?” persisted the duke.

“Perfectly well.”

“Have the kindness to remember me to her when you write.”

“They say she is charming,” remarked Modeste, addressing the duke.

“Monsieur le baron can speak more confidently than I,” replied the grand equerry.

“More than charming,” said Canalis, making the best of the duke’s perfidy; “but I am partial, mademoiselle; she has been a friend to me for the last ten years; I owe all that is good in me to her; she has saved me from the dangers of the world. Moreover, Monsieur le Duc de Chaulieu launched me in my present career. Without the influence of that family the king and the princesses would have forgotten a poor poet like me; therefore my affection for the duchess must always be full of gratitude.”

His voice quivered.

“We ought to love the woman who has led you to write those sublime poems, and who inspires you with such noble feelings,” said Modeste, quite affected. “Who can think of a poet without a muse!”

“He would be without a heart,” replied Canalis. “He would write barren verses like Voltaire, who never loved any one but Voltaire.”

“I thought you did me the honor to say, in Paris,” interrupted Dumay, “that you never felt the sentiments you expressed.”

“The shoe fits, my soldier,” replied the poet, smiling; “but let me tell you that it is quite possible to have a great deal of feeling both in the intellectual life and in real life. My good friend here, La Briere, is madly in love,” continued Canalis, with a fine show of generosity, looking at Modeste. “I, who certainly love as much as he, — that is, I think so unless I delude myself — well, I can give to my love a literary form in harmony with its character. But I dare not say, mademoiselle,” he added, turning to Modeste with too studied a grace, “that tomorrow I may not be without inspiration.”

Thus the poet triumphed over all obstacles. In honor of his love he rode a-tilt at the hindrances that were thrown in his way, and Modeste remained wonder-struck at the Parisian wit that scintillated in his declamatory discourse, of which she had hitherto known little or nothing.

“What an acrobat!” whispered Butscha to Latournelle, after listening to a magnificent tirade on the Catholic religion and the happiness of having a pious wife — served up in response to a remark by Madame Mignon.

Modeste’s eyes were blindfolded as it were; Canalis’s elocution and the close attention which she was predetermined to pay to him prevented her from seeing that Butscha was carefully noting the declamation, the want of simplicity, the emphasis that took the place of feeling, and the curious incoherencies in the poet’s speech which led the dwarf to make his rather cruel comment. At certain points of Canalis’s discourse, when Monsieur Mignon, Dumay, Butscha, and Latournelle wondered at the man’s utter want of logic, Modeste admired his suppleness, and said to herself, as she dragged him after her through the labyrinth of fancy, “He loves me!” Butscha, in common with the other spectators of what we must call a stage scene, was struck with the radiant defect of all egoists, which Canalis, like many men accustomed to perorate, allowed to be too plainly seen. Whether he understood beforehand what the person he was speaking to meant to say, whether he was not listening, or whether he had the faculty of listening when he was thinking of something else, it is certain that Melchior’s face wore an absent-minded look in conversation, which disconcerted the ideas of others and wounded their vanity. Not to listen is not merely a want of politeness, it is a mark of disrespect. Canalis pushed this habit too far; for he often forgot to answer a speech which required an answer, and passed, without the ordinary transitions of courtesy, to the subject, whatever it was, that preoccupied him. Though such impertinence is accepted without protest from a man of marked distinction, it stirs a leaven of hatred and vengeance in many hearts; in those of equals it even goes so far as to destroy a friendship. If by chance Melchior was forced to listen, he fell into another fault; he merely lent his attention, and never gave it. Though this may not be so mortifying, it shows a kind of semi-concession which is almost as unsatisfactory to the hearer and leaves him dissatisfied. Nothing brings more profit in the commerce of society than the small change of attention. He that heareth let him hear, is not only a gospel precept, it is an excellent speculation; follow it, and all will be forgiven you, even vice. Canalis took a great deal of trouble in his anxiety to please Modeste; but though he was compliant enough with her, he fell back into his natural self with the others.

Modeste, pitiless for the ten martyrs she was making, begged Canalis to read some of his poems; she wanted, she said, a specimen of his gift for reading, of which she had heard so much. Canalis took the volume which she gave him, and cooed (for that is the proper word) a poem which is generally considered his finest — an imitation of Moore’s “Loves of the Angels,” entitled “Vitalis,” which Monsieur and Madame Dumay, Madame Latournelle, and Gobenheim welcomed with a few yawns.

“If you are a good whist-player, monsieur,” said Gobenheim, flourishing five cards held like a fan, “I must say I have never met a man as accomplished as you.”

The remark raised a laugh, for it was the translation of everybody’s thought.

“I play it sufficiently well to live in the provinces for the rest of my days,” replied Canalis. “That, I think, is enough, and more than enough literature and conversation for whist-players,” he added, throwing the volume impatiently on a table.

This little incident serves to show what dangers environ a drawing-room hero when he steps, like Canalis, out of his sphere; he is like the favorite actor of a second-rate audience, whose talent is lost when he leaves his own boards and steps upon those of an upper-class theatre.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51