Armance, by Stendhal


O conoscenza-t non è senna il suo perché

ché il fedel prête ti chiamo: il più gran dei mali.

Egli era tutto disturbato, e pero non dubi-tava ancora,

al più al più, dubitava di esser presto sul punto

di dubitare. O conoscenza! tu sei fatale a quelli, nei quali

l’oprar segue da vicino il credo.


Need it be said that Octave was faithful to his promise? He abandoned the pleasures proscribed by Armance.

The need for action and the desire to acquire novel experiences had driven him to frequent bad company, often less tedious than good. Now that he was happy, a sort of instinct led him to mix with men; he wished to dominate them.

For the first time, Octave had caught a glimpse of the tedium of too perfect manners and of the excess of cold politeness: bad tone allows a man to talk about himself, in and out of season, and he feels less isolated. After punch had been served in those brilliant saloons at the end of the Rue de Richelieu, which foreigners mistake for good company, one no longer has the sensation: “I am alone in a wilderness of people.” On the contrary, he can imagine that he has a score of intimate friends, whose names are unknown to him. May we venture to say, at the risk of compromising at one and the same time both our hero and ourself: Octave thought with regret of several of his supper companions.

The part of his life that had elapsed before his intimacy with the inhabitants of the Hôtel de Bonnivet was beginning to strike him as foolish and marred by misunderstanding. “It rained,” he would say to himself in his original and vivid manner; “instead of taking an umbrella, I used foolishly to lose my temper with the state of the sky, and in moments of enthusiasm for what was beautiful and right, which were after all nothing but fits of madness, I used to imagine that the rain was falling on purpose to do me an ill turn.”

Charmed with the possibility of talking to Mademoiselle de Zohiloff of the observations he had made, like a second Philibert, in certain highly elegant ballrooms: “I found it a little unexpected,” he would say to her. “I no longer find such pleasure in that preeminently good society, of which I was once so fond. It seems to me that beneath a cloak of clever talk it proscribes all energy, all originality. If you are not a copy, people accuse you of being ill-mannered. And besides, good society usurps its privileges. It had in the past the privilege of judging what was proper, but now that it supposes itself to be attacked, it condemns not what is coarse and disagreeable without compensation, but what it thinks harmful to its interests.”

Armance listened coldly to her cousin, and said to him finally: “From what you think today, it is only a step to Jacobinism.” “I should be in despair,” Octave sharply retorted. “In despair at what? At knowing the truth,” said Armance. “For obviously you would not let yourself be converted by a doctrine that was marred by falsehood.” Throughout the rest of the evening, Octave could not help seeming lost in meditation.

Now that he saw society in a rather truer light, Octave was beginning to suspect that Madame de Bon-nivet, for all her supreme pretension of never thinking about the world and of despising success, was the slave of an ambition which made her long for an unbounded success in society.

Certain calumnies uttered by the Marquise’s enemies, which chance had brought to his hearing, and which had seemed to him unspeakably horrible a few months earlier, were now nothing more in his eyes than exaggerations, treacherous or in bad taste. “My fair cousin is not satisfied,” he said to himself, “with illustrious birth, an immense fortune. The splendid existence which her irreproachable conduct, her prudent mind, her wise benevolence assure her is perhaps only a means to her and not an end.

“Madame de Bonnivet requires power. But she is very particular as to the nature of that power. The respect which one obtains from a great position in society, from a welcome at court, from all the advantages that are to be enjoyed under a monarchy no longer means anything to her, she has enjoyed it too long. When one is King, what more can one want? To be God.

“She is satiated with the pleasure that comes from calculated respect, she needs a respect from the heart. She requires the sensation which Mahomet feels when he talks to Seïde, and it seems to me that I have come very near to the honour of being Seide.

[A slave of Mahomet in Voltaire’s tragedy.]

“My fair cousin cannot fill her life with the sensibility that she lacks. She needs, not touching or sublime illusions, not the devotion and passion of one man alone, but to see herself regarded as a Prophetess by a crowd of initiates, and above all, if one of them rebels, to be able to crush him immediately. She has too positive a nature to be content with illusions; she requires the reality of power, and, if I continue to talk to her with an open heart about various things, one day that absolute power may be brought into action against me.

“It is inevitable that she must soon be besieged by anonymous letters; people will reproach her with the frequency of my visits. The Duchesse d’Ancre, irritated by my neglect of her own drawing-room, will perhaps allow herself to make a direct charge. My position is not strong enough to withstand this twofold danger. Very soon, while scrupulously maintaining all the outward forms of the closest friendship, and heaping reproaches on me for the infrequency of my visits, Madame de Bonnivet would put me under the obligation to make them very infrequent indeed.

“For instance, I give the impression of being half converted to this German mysticism; she will ask me to make some public and utterly ridiculous exhibition. If I submit to that, out of friendship for Armance, very soon she will suggest to me something that is quite impossible.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00