As to the scope of his vision, this /Repertory/ alone will suffice to show. Turn over the leaves at random and estimate the number of fictitious deeds going to make up these two thousand biographies, each individual, each distinct, and most of them complete--that is to say, taking the character at his birth and leaving him only at his death. Balzac not only knows the date of birth or of death, he knows as well the local coloring of the time and the country and profession to which the man belongs. He is thoroughly conversant with questions of taxation and income and the agricultural conditions. He is not ignorant of the fact that Grandet cannot make his fortune by the same methods employed by Gobseck, his rival in avarice; nor Ferdinand du Tillet, that jackal, with the same magnitude of operations worked out by that elephant of a Nucingen. He has outlined and measured the exact relation of each character to his environment in the same way he has outlined and measured the bonds uniting the various characters; so well that each individual is defined separately as to his personal and his social side, and in the same manner each family is defined. It is the skeleton of these individuals and of these families that is laid bare for your contemplation in these notes of Messieurs Cerfberr and Christophe. But this structure of facts, dependent one upon another by a logic equal to that of life itself, is the smallest effort of Balzac's genius. Does a birth-certificate, a marriage-contract or an inventory of wealth represent a person? Certainly not. There is still lacking, for a bone covering, the flesh, the blood, the muscles and the nerves. A glance from Balzac, and all these tabulated facts become imbued with life; to this circumstantial view of the conditions of existence with certain beings is added as full a view of the beings themselves.
And first of all he knows them physiologically. The inner workings of their corporeal mechanism is no mystery for him. Whether it is Birotteau's gout, or Mortsauf's nervousness, or Fraisier's skin trouble, or the secret reason for Rouget's subjugation by Flore, or Louis Lambert's catalepsy, he is as conversant with the case as though he were a physician; and he is as well informed, also, as a confessor concerning the spiritual mechanism which this animal machine supports. The slightest frailties of conscience are perceptible to him. From the portress Cibot to the Marquise d'Espard, not one of his women has an
evil thought that he does not fathom. With what art, comparable to that of Stendhal, or Laclos, or the most subtle analysts, does he note --in /The Secrets of a Princess/--the transition from comedy to sincerity! He knows when a sentiment is simple and when it is complex, when the heart is a dupe of the mind and when of the senses. And through it all he hears his characters speak, he distinguishes their voices, and we ourselves distinguish them in the dialogue. The growling of Vautrin, the hissing of La Gamard, the melodious tones of Madame de Mortsauf still linger in our ears. For such intensity of evocation is as contagious as an enthusiasm or a panic.
There is abundant testimony going to show that with Balzac this evocation is accomplished, as in the mystic arts by releasing it, so to speak, from the ordinary laws of life. Pray note in what terms M. le Docteur Fournier, the real mayor of Tours, relates incidents of the novelist's method of work, according to the report of a servant employed at the chateau of Sache: "Sometimes he would shut himself up in his room and stay there several days. Then it was that, plunged into a sort of ecstasy and armed with a crow quill, he would write night and day, abstaining from all food and merely contenting himself with decoctions of coffee which he himself prepared." [Brochure of M. le Docteur Fournier in regard to the statue of Balzac, that statue a piece of work to which M. Henry Renault--another devotee who had established /Le Balzac/--had given himself so ardently. In this brochure is found a very curious portrait of Balzac, after a sepia by Louis Boulanger belonging to M. le Baron Larrey.]
In the opening pages of /Facino Cane/ this phenomenon is thus described: "With me observation had become intuitive from early youth. It penetrated the soul without neglecting the body, or rather it seized so completely the external details that it went beyond them. It gave me the faculty of living the life of the individual over whom it obtained control, and allowed me to substitute myself for him like the dervish in /Arabian Nights/ assumed the soul and the body of persons over whom he pronounced certain words." And he adds, after describing how he followed a workman and his wife along the street: "I could espouse their very life, I felt their rags on my back. I trod in their tattered shoes. Their desires, their needs, all passed into my soul, or my soul passed into them. It was the dream of a man awakened." One day while he and a friend of his were watching a beggar pass by, the friend was so astonished to see Balzac touch his own sleeve; he seemed to feel the rent which gaped at the elbow of the beggar.
Am I wrong in connecting this sort of imagination with that which one witnesses in fanatics of religious faith? With such a faculty Balzac could not be, like Edgar Poe, merely a narrator of nightmares. He was preserved from the fantastic by another gift which seems contradictory to the first. This visionary was in reality a philosopher, that is to say, an experimenter and a manipulator of general ideas. Proof of this may be found in his biography, which shows him to us, during his college days at Vendome, plunged into a whirl of abstract reading. The entire theological and occult library which he discovered in the old Oratorian institution was absorbed by the child, till he had to quit school sick, his brain benumbed by this strange opium. The story of Louis Lambert is a monograph of his own mind. During his youth and in the moments snatched from his profession, to what did he turn his attention? Still to general ideas. We find him an interested onlooker at the quarrel of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier, troubling himself about the hypothesis of the unity of creation, and still dealing with mysticism; and, in fact, his romances abound in theories. There is not one of his works from which you cannot obtain abstract thoughts by the hundreds. If he describes, as in /The Vicar of Tours/, the woes of an old priest, he profits by the opportunity to exploit a theory concerning the development of sensibility, and a treatise on the future of Catholicism. If he describes, as in /The Firm of Nucingen/, a supper given to Parisian /blases/, he introduces a system of credit, reports of the Bank and Bureau of Finance, and--any number of other things! Speaking of Daniel d'Arthez, that one of his heroes who, with Albert Savarus and Raphael, most nearly resembles himself, he writes: "Daniel would not admit the existence of talent without profound metaphysical knowledge. At this moment he was in the act of despoiling both ancient and modern philosophy of all their wealth in order to assimilate it. He desired, like Moliere, to become a profound philosopher first of all, a writer of comedies afterwards." Some readers there are, indeed, who think that philosophy superabounds with Balzac, that the surplus of general hypotheses overflows at times, and that the novels are too prone to digressions. Be that as it may, it seems incontestible that this was his master faculty, the virtue and vice of his thought. Let us see, however, by what singular detour this power of generalization--the antithesis, one might say, of the creative power--increased in him the faculty of the poetic visionary.
It is important, first of all, to note that this power of the visionary could not be put directly into play. Balzac had not long enough to live. The list of his works, year by year, prepared by his sister, shows that from the moment he achieved his reputation till the day of his death he never took time for rest or observation or the study of mankind by daily and close contact, like Moliere or Saint- Simon. He cut his life in two, writing by night, sleeping by day, and after sparing not a single hour for calling, promenades or sentiment. Indeed, he would not admit this troublesome factor of sentiment, except at a distance and through letters--"because it forms one's style"! At any rate, that is the kind of love he most willingly admitted--unless an exception be made of the mysterious intimacies of which his correspondence has left traces. During his youth he had followed this same habit of heavy labor, and as a result the experience of this master of exact literature was reduced to a minimum; but this minimum sufficed for him, precisely because of the philosophical insight which he possessed to so high a degree. To this meagre number of positive faculties furnished by observation, he applied an analysis so intuitive that he discovered, behind the small facts amassed by him in no unusual quantity, the profound forces, the generative influences, so to speak.
He himself describes--once more in connection with Daniel d'Arthez-- the method pursued in this analytical and generalizing work. He calls it a "retrospective penetration." Probably he lays hold of the elements of experience and casts them into a seeming retort of reveries. Thanks to an alchemy somewhat analogous to that of Cuvier, he was enabled to reconstruct an entire temperament from the smallest detail, and an entire class from a single individual; but that which guided him in his work of reconstruction was always and everywhere the habitual process of philosophers: the quest and investigation of causes.