Read The Girl With the Golden Eyes Online

Authors: Honore de Balzac,Charlotte Mandell

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The Girl With the Golden Eyes

BOOK: The Girl With the Golden Eyes
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Balzac, Honoré de, 1799-1850.
  [Fille aux yeux d’or. English]
  The girl with the golden eyes / Honoré de Balzac ; translated by Charlotte Mandell.
      p. cm. — [The art of the novella]
  eISBN: 978-1-61219-085-3
  I. Mandell, Charlotte. II. Title. III. Series.
  PQ2167.F5E5 2005





One of the most appalling spectacles that exists is undoubtedly the general appearance of the Parisian population, a people horrible to see, gaunt, sallow, weather-beaten. Isn’t Paris a vast field constantly whirled around by a hurricane of vested interests beneath which a monsoon of humans swirls about, whom death reaps more frequently than it does elsewhere? And aren’t these humans always reborn just as tense as before, their faces contorted and twisted, divulging from every pore the thoughts, desires, and poisons their brains are obsessed with? Not faces, but masks—masks of weakness, masks of strength, masks of misery, masks of joy, masks of hypocrisy, all of them exhausted, all imprinted
with the indelible signs of a panting greed. What do they want? Gold? Or pleasure?

Some observations about the soul of Paris might explain the causes for its cadaverous physiognomy that has only two ages—youth or caducity: a pallid, colorless youth, or a feeble decrepitude caked with makeup that tries to look young. Seeing this disinterred population, foreigners, if not enjoined to reflect, first of all experience a feeling of disgust for this capital, this immense workshop of sensual pleasures, which they themselves will soon no longer be able to leave, and where they will willingly remain to deform themselves. Few words suffice to give a physiological explanation for the almost hellish complexion of Parisian faces, for it isn’t only in jest that Paris has been called a hell. Take this word literally. Here, everything smokes, burns, gleams, boils, blazes, evaporates, goes out, catches fire again, scatters sparks, crackles, and is consumed. Never before has life in any country been more fiery, or more ardent. The nature of this society that is always melting and reforming seems to say to itself after every work is finished, “Now on to the next one!”—just as Nature tells herself. Like Nature, this social nature concerns itself with insects, flowers of a day, trifles, ephemera, and also hurls fire and flames out from its eternal crater. Perhaps before we analyze the causes that produce a physiognomy
peculiar to each tribe of this intelligent and mobile nation, we should point out the general cause that stains, blemishes, bruises, and darkens individuals more or less accordingly.

By dint of taking an interest in everything, the Parisian ends up being interested in nothing. Since no emotion predominates on his worn-out face, it turns grey as the walls of the houses, which have accumulated every kind of dust and smoke. In fact, indifferent today to what will intoxicate him tomorrow, the Parisian lives as a child does, no matter how old he is. He complains about everything, consoles himself for everything, makes fun of everything, forgets everything, wants everything, samples everything, takes everything with passion, abandons everything without concern—his kings, his conquests, his fame, or his idol, bronze or glass alike—in just the same way that he discards his stockings, his hats, and his fortune. In Paris, no sentimental attachment keeps things from being thrown away, and their constant movement makes for a struggle that relaxes passions: Here love becomes desire, and hatred a vague impulse. Here one has no relatives except the thousand-franc note, and no other friend but the pawnbroker. This general lack of concern bears fruit accordingly: Thus in the drawing room or in the street, no one is superfluous, no one is absolutely useful or absolutely harmful—idiots and
rogues as well as men of wit and integrity. Here everything is tolerated, the government and the guillotine, religion and cholera. You can always fit into this world, you can never disappoint it. What is it, then, that rules in this world without customs, without beliefs, without sentiment, but where all sentiments, all beliefs, and all customs originate and terminate? Gold and pleasure. Take these two words as your lamp and travel all through this great plaster cage, this black-streaming beehive, and follow the serpentine twists of the thoughts that agitate it, lift it up, shape it. Look. First of all examine the people who have nothing.

The worker, the proletarian, the man who uses his feet, his hands, his tongue, his back, his arm alone, his five fingers in order to live. This one more than anyone else should economize on his vital principle, but instead exceeds his strength, yokes his wife to some machine, wears out his child and harnesses him to a wheel. His boss, the manufacturer, a sort of subsidiary string whose jerks move the workers, who with their dirty hands shape and gild porcelain, sew suits and dresses, temper iron, cut timber, forge steel, spin hemp and yarn, polish bronze, etch crystal, trace flowers, embroider wool, tame horses, plait harnesses and braids, trim copper, paint carriages, pollard old elms, steam cotton, treat cloth with sulfur, cut diamonds,
buff metals, slice marble into slabs, polish stones, fashion thoughts, color, bleach, and dye everything—well, this subsidiary power has come to promise to this world of sweat, willpower, study, and patience, a high salary, either for the sake of the city’s fashions, or on behalf of the monster named
. So these primates have set themselves to keeping watch, suffering, working, swearing, fasting, walking; all of them have gone beyond their own abilities, to earn this gold that bewitches them. Then, heedless of the future, greedy for pleasure, relying on their arms as the painter does on his palette, great lords for a day, they throw their Monday’s earnings into cabarets, which form a belt of mud around the city; a girdle of the most shameless of Venuses, continually put on and taken off, where the periodic wealth of this people is lost as at gambling, a population as fierce in pleasure as it is calm at work. For five days, then, no rest for this active part of Paris! It gives itself up to impulses that warp it, make it gain weight, lose weight, turn pale, burst into a thousand spurts of creative willpower. Then its pleasure, its repose is a wearying debauchery, sallow of skin, black and blue from slaps, pallid from drunkenness, or yellow from indigestion, which lasts only two days, but which steals the future’s bread, the week’s soup, the wife’s dresses, the baby’s swaddling clothes,
all in rags. These men, undoubtedly born to be handsome, for every living creature has his relative beauty, have enlisted, from early childhood, in the army of strength, the reign of the hammer, shears, spinning-machines, and have quickly vulcanized themselves. Vulcan, with his ugliness and his strength, is indeed the emblem of this ugly, strong nation, unequalled in mechanical intelligence, patient during working hours, terrible one day a century, inflammable as powder-shot, and prepared for the blaze of the revolution by brandy, spirited enough to catch fire from a specious word that, for this nation, always means: gold and pleasure! And including all those who hold out their hands for alms, for legitimate salaries, or for the five francs spent on all the various species of Parisian prostitution, or in fact for any rightly or ill-earned money, this people numbers three hundred thousand individuals. Without the cabarets, wouldn’t the government be overthrown every Tuesday? Fortunately, on Tuesday, this people is dulled, has slept off its pleasure, has not a penny left, and returns to work, to dry bread, stimulated by a need for material reproduction that has become a habit for it. Nonetheless this people has its virtuous qualities, its Renaissance men, its unknown Napoleons, who are the classic examples of its strength carried to its highest expression, and who embody its social
possibilities in an existence where thought and movement are combined less to imbue it with joy than to limit the effects of its suffering.

Fate made the workman thrifty, favored him with thought, which enabled him to set his mind towards the future; he meets a woman, finds he has become a father, and after several years of severe hardships starts a little dry goods store, rents a shop. If neither sickness nor vice stops him dead in his tracks, if he has prospered, this is an outline of his normal life.

Let us first of all salute this king of Parisian activity, who has mastered time and space. Yes, hail this creature composed of saltpeter and gas, who gives children to France during his laborious nights, and during the day multiplies his person for the service, glory, and pleasure of his fellow citizens. This man has solved the problem of being sufficient all at the same time for a loveable wife, his household, the paper
Le Constitutionnel
, his office, the National Guard, the Opéra, and God; but he is sufficient so that he can turn all of them into money
—Le Constitutionnel
, the office, the Opéra, the National Guard, his wife, and God. Let us salute this irreproachable multi-salaried worker. Awakened every day at five o’clock in the morning, like a bird he has crossed the space that separates his home from the Rue Montmartre. Despite thunder
or wind, whether it’s raining or snowing, he is at the
and waiting for the load of papers whose distribution is his responsibility. He receives this political bread with eagerness, takes it and carries it away. At nine o’clock in the morning, he is back home, joking with his wife; he steals a big kiss from her, swallows a cup of coffee or scolds his children. At quarter till ten, he is at the town hall. There, seated on his desk chair like a parrot on his perch, kept warm by the city of Paris, he inscribes the deaths and births of the whole arrondissement, without sparing a tear or a smile for them, until four o’clock in the afternoon. The happiness and unhappiness of the neighborhood pass under the nib of his pen, just as the spirit of the
had traveled earlier on his shoulders. Nothing weighs him down! He always goes straight in front of him, picks out his patriotism ready-made from the paper, contradicts no one, shouts or applauds with everyone, and lives like a swallow. Just a stone’s throw from his parish, he can, in the event of an important ceremony, yield his desk to a supernumerary, and go sing a requiem under the pulpit of the church, where he is, on Sunday and feast days, the finest ornament, the most imposing voice, and where he energetically twists his wide mouth as he booms out a joyous
. He is a precentor. Freed at four o’clock from his official service,
he appears in the heart of the most famous shop in the city to spread joy and cheer. Happy is his wife, since he doesn’t have time to be jealous; he is rather a man of action than of sentiment. So as soon as he arrives, he teases the girls at the register, whose lively looks attract many a customer; delights at the finery, the scarves, the chiffon tailored by these skilful workers; or, even more often, before having dinner, he serves a customer, copies out a page of his cashbook, or sends the process-server to harass a delinquent debtor. At six o’clock every other day he is faithful to his role: A steady bass-baritone in the chorus, he can be found at the Opéra, ready to become a soldier, an Arab, a prisoner, a savage, a farmer, a ghost, the hoof of a camel, a lion, a devil, a genie, a slave, a black or white eunuch, always expert at showing joy, pain, pity, surprise, at letting out the requisite cries, at being quiet, at hunting, fighting, at representing Rome or Egypt; but always, to himself, he is just a haberdasher. At midnight, he once again becomes a good husband and man, a tender father, he slips into the conjugal bed, his imagination still preoccupied by the seductive forms of the nymphs at the Opéra, so that the world’s depravities and La Taglioni’s voluptuous dances all work for the benefit of conjugal love. Finally, if he sleeps, he sleeps quickly, and hurries his sleep just as he has hurried
his life. Isn’t it movement that makes man, man who is space embodied, the Proteus of civilization? This man sums up everything: history, literature, politics, government, religion, military arts. Isn’t he a living encyclopedia, a huge atlas, continually at work, just like Paris, which never rests? He is all legs.

BOOK: The Girl With the Golden Eyes
11.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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