Louis Lambert

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac XVIth volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1877)

Philosophical studies

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Louis Lambert


This tome contains three works to which Balzac attached great importance: Louis Lambert, Séraphita and an unfinished essay entitled Les Martyrs ignorés. These are difficult works. They reveal powers of the human brain and systems of connection between man and Creation that modern science cannot explain, yet which were known to ancient civilizations. They link them to an organization of the universe, of which Sigier de Brabant’s speech in Les Proscrits provided an initial summary. Although presented as works of imagination, they are in fact essays in which Balzac sketches out a philosophical system. He regarded these works, principally Louis Lambert and Séraphita, as the major works in his great Etudes philosophiques series. This “esoteric” part of Balzac’s work is little known and still incompletely explored. It is, however, a very curious and, in some ways, very modern section of La Comédie humaine.

LOUIS LAMBERT (1832) Et nunc et semper dilectae dicatum This novel by Honoré de Balzac was published by Gosselin in 1832 and 1836. Following in the footsteps of Etudes philosophiques , Werdet published Séraphita shortly afterwards. These works were included in La Comédie humaine published by Furne in 1845.

Analysis of the work It’s the biography of a child prodigy overwhelmed by his gifts and by the power of his thought: a great love gives him a glimpse of such fulfillment and such an intoxicating “ascent” to happiness that he can’t bear the overload, the surge of feelings, his brain giving way under the crushing weight. It is,” says Balzac, “the thought that kills the thinker. The novel is the “intellectual biography” of this young prodigy, from his early teens to this period of high voltage. Although he presents it as the story of one of his classmates from the Collège de Vendôme, Balzac built his character on certain gifts he himself had, certain sensations he himself had experienced, and readings that had guided his thinking. It is, in part, an imaginary autobiography, in which Balzac is both witness and, in some places, the object of testimony. Naturally, it’s this last aspect of Louis Lambert that has lent itself most readily to Balzacian research. They had no trouble finding milestones in Balzac’s youth and early literary endeavors that mirrored Louis Lambert’s itinerary. What we know of his neglected childhood, his contemplative mood, the daydreams for which he was criticized – his disappointing studies with the Vendôme oratorians, his distraction, his punishments, a coma The unexplained death of his fourteenth year, which led to his return to his family – these traits already bear a certain resemblance to Louis Lambert’s childhood, which Balzac transposed to other circumstances.

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Honoré de Balzac

The first drafts of his youth, his “philosophical notes” and above all the two unfinished works to which he gave the title of Falthurne bear witness to his early curiosity both for the miracles of thaumaturges and for mysticism. One of these sketches describes the powers of a magician who, in the 10th century, fights alongside the Normans in Naples against Byzantine troops. The other is a prose poem describing a mystical triumph, the ascension of a young girl among the angels: almost twenty years later, Balzac would define the significance of this manuscript when he offered it to Madame Hanska, bound with the manuscript of Seraphitaas a first sketch of the definitive work he was offering her. Later, in his youthful novels, Balzac portrayed a scientist, heir to the science of the magicians of India and Tibet, showing the miracles of magnetism and the oddities of somnambulism; in one place, he already placed one of those “lightning strikes” by thought that would later provide him with the denouement ofFarewell. Throughout this period, when the real Balzac was still invisible, one senses that thought was already a “living force” for him, as he shyly puts it in his first major work, the The physiology of marriageas he will show in Louis Lambert but in his early works, he prudently confined himself to an ironic expression of his thoughts. The idea of giving an image of himself in a kind of “biography” of the author came to him a little later, when he was writing the first of the novels he would collect in La Comédie humaine, Le Dernier Chouan (now Les Chouans), which he entitled in his manuscript Le Gars. The preface to Le Gars, in which Balzac introduces himself as an autodidact named Victor Morillo, has been recognized by all Balzac critics as an early sketch of his Louis Lambert. A tanner’s son like little Louis Lambert, he devoured the books in his rich library at random, was a solitary dreamer, and “lived, so to speak, by the sole forces of those inner senses which, according to him, constitute a double being in man”. He had the gift of reconstructing in his mind, as if he had lived them himself, the scenes he read about in his books, with all their detail and color. This is Balzac’s very gift, as he describes himself when talking about his youth. And at the end of this portrait, Balzac defines this Victor Morillon with a word that would apply admirably to little Louis Lambert: “He is,” he says, “in the words of Leibnitz, a concentric mirror of the universe.” This page, written in 1829, is the first draft of the novel Balzac would publish three years later, in 1832, under the title Notice biographique sur Louis Lambert. Under this modest title, Balzac’s novel is still no more than a short story, significantly different in scope from the definitive Louis Lambert. The original manuscript of the Notice biographique, in the Lovenjoul collection in Chantilly, provides a “copy” of 133,000 characters, while the novel in its final form in 1836 contains 300,000 characters. This comparison gives an idea of the fine-tuning work Balzac carried out over four years in six successive editions. He wanted to create a work that fully reflected his thoughts and that could not be reproached in any way. Comparing this starting point with the final text gave two eminent Balzacians, Marcel Bouteron and Jean Pommier, the opportunity to publish one of the most meticulous studies ever devoted to a Balzac novel. Despite the different scope of Louis Lambert‘s two texts, the one in manuscript and the one we read today, the themes and most important parts of the novel are almost all already to be found, more or less developed, in the original manuscript. The story begins with little Louis Lambert’s vegetative childhood, his Victor Morillon-like daydreams, a meeting with Mme de Staël (why Mme de Staël? no one has been able to explain) and a surprising conversation between the child and the famous stroller about a writer as difficult and little-known as Swedenborg. This is followed by a delightful description of the Collège de Vendôme where Mme de Staël sent her little protégé, and the story of the narrator’s friendship with little Louis Lambert. This is followed by an account of the child’s singular gifts and powers, the reflections he entrusts to his little friend and which are gradually being organized in his mind, and finally the summary of what he has learned. A treatise on the will which was seized and destroyed by the study’s regent and which contained the theory that Louis Lambert had drawn from his experiments, an authentic episode, it seems, from Balzac’s student years at Vendôme. Then comes the separation of the two friends when the narrator is forced to leave the college following the coma that ended Balzac’s stay there. Then, as in the final text, a second part begins. A few years later, the narrator meets Lambert’s uncle by chance, who tells him the story of how Louis and Mlle de Villenoix met, of their engagement, of Louis’s letters to his fiancée, then of his crisis a few days before the wedding, and of the state of prostration in which Louis Lambert found himself from that day on, a kind of perpetual contemplation or ecstasy. Mlle de Villenoix has not abandoned him, and watches over him during his long hours of silence and apparent daze. It’s the last image the narrator has of the child prodigy he had admired so much.

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Collège de Vendôme

In later revisions, Balzac added important developments to the description of the Collège de Vendôme and the ideas contained in the Traité de la volonté. Two foreign additions to the manuscript were inserted later. The first is the long letter in several fragments in which Louis Lambert describes his life in Paris, showing how the infusion of thought that explains the different reigns of animality also explains the different zones of society. This addition was published separately in the Revue de Paris in 1835 in a “Weinheim” near Vienna, while Balzac was waiting to be received by Prince Schwartzemberg, and was taken up again and completed for Louis Lambert ‘s first complete edition, published in 1836. These additions don’t change the main idea. Above all, they show its application to the social system and the philosophical consequences that can be drawn from it. Balzac’s intention in Louis Lambert is to use a living example to demonstrate one of the “borderline cases” of how thought works, and to derive from it a theory of thought and the power of thought, which in his language he calls a theory of the will. It starts with a simple observation, already expressed in Victor Morillon’s biography. One of Louis Lambert’s essential traits is his gift for visually transcribing everything he reads. The first attribute of thought is therefore to produce the visual. But Balzac goes further. Louis Lambert and Victor Morillon already have a gift for intuition: they don’t just reconstruct, they guess, they understand immediately through vision, and even grasp the essence beneath the appearance, at a single glance they see everything, grasping the present, embracing the past, glimpsing the future at the mere sight of a face, from a gesture, a moment. Just as Cuvier reconstructs an animal from a bone. Balzac calls this gift of intuition, which is a direct, instinctive vision, a projection of thought through beings, the gift of specialty, and regards it as one of the attributes of genius. It’s due to a violent projection of thought that pierces, sees the invisible like a ray: we’d say like a kind of laser. That’s the starting point, a point anyone can make, it’s simply an instinctive and exceptional insight. But what is the nature of this thought that functions in us like an instinct? It’s important to remember that Balzac uses the term “pensée” to refer to both ideas and feelings. Thought, Balzac believes, exists and circulates within us like a fluid: this is the first discovery Louis Lambert makes about himself. This fluid can be accumulated and concentrated voluntarily. First experiment: Lambert is able to hold on to a heavy table, even though ten students are working together to wrest it away from him: concentration of the particular form of thought known as willpower. Second observation: thought is creative. Lambert strongly believes that he has cut himself with his knife: he suffers exactly as if he had actually cut himself. Third observation: thought has emanations. Lambert stares at the study supervisor: his gaze contains so much and has so much force that it immediately draws a pensive look from him. Question: Is thought in us like a battery that emits a more or less violent discharge? Can you influence others or yourself by directing this fluid at will? Are thoughts, ideas, feelings and willpower emitters of corpuscles, more or less intense, more or less dangerous? This is what Balzac calls the materiality of thought, a central thesis of his Traité de la volonté. Picture 4 This thesis of the concentration and projection of thought goes a long way, and is central to Lambert’s work. This projection is not an image. Thought is such a fluid, a “discharge”, that it acts like the discharge of an electric battery, like a projectile, striking and radiating. Lambert’s observation as a child: his mother produces sparks when she paints herself. Every thought, feeling or idea produces an emanation, a similar sparkle. It acts: hence fanaticism and the power of fanaticism. Thought gives its sender strength and powers that seem exorbitant. But, at the same time, it protects: gathering all inner strength on a single point, it mobilizes it, folds it in on itself, retracts fluid, and consequently withdraws it from anything that might hurt or exploit it. Examples taken from the martyrology at the time. The fearlessness of the martyr in his torments comes from the fact that his thoughts are entirely absorbed in the idea of his sacrifice, or in the expectation of forthcoming felicities: by this retraction of thought, he evades suffering. For Balzac, is the Christian martyrology the origin of his thinking or the proof of his system? We don’t know. In any case, in Louis Lambert, he’s an example and an argument. Second series of observations: there can be a mysterious, seemingly inexplicable agreement between the thought that arises in us and a reality that our thought doesn’t know. A momentous experience: the Rochambeau manor house, where Lambert had never been, glimpsed in a dream the day before the students went there for the first time. How do you explain this déjà vu phenomenon? Additional documentation: Apollonius of Tyana, then in Asia, announcing the death of Denys, tyrant of Syracuse, just as it was taking place; the philosopher Plotinus rushing to his friend Porphyry, who wanted to commit suicide; Bishop Alphonse de Liguori seeing the death of Pope Ganganelli from a distance and announcing it just as he was dying. Thought transmission phenomenon similar to déjà vu. Same question about premonitions. Numerous examples can be found among the esotericists of antiquity, such as Cardan and Apollonius of Tyana. Handout: communicating with the dead, e.g. Lambert’s grandfather goes to the cemetery and consults his wife, who tells him where he can find lost credentials. How can we explain these connections, which assume that time and space have been abolished? Should we believe, as Swedenborg asserts, in the existence within us of an inner being, which would be our true self, freed from time and space, a traveler and seer in its own right? Or should we assume that there are internal organs within us, like those of certain animals, which receive messages and perceive waves that our senses are unaware of? Hence Louis Lambert’s question: “Aren’t sight and hearing the sheaths of a marvellous tool?” i.e. a case, a frame that replaces our internal organs and prevents them from functioning? Louis Lambert hesitates between these two explanations, one purely spiritualist, as presented by Swedenborg, and the other materialist, using a “spiritualist” approach.

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Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), 18th-century Swedish scientist, theologian and philosopher.

physiological hypothesis. He still hesitates when he expresses its corollary, his doctrine of correspondences, which explains instinctive sympathies and antipathies, as well as divination and astrology. Are we at the center of a communication network that connects us to, or opposes us to, all created things that particularly trained internal senses can surprise and perceive – that’s the physiological explanation? Or are we to believe, like Swedenborg, that the universe is divided into “spheres” of equal spiritual intensity, and that the inner being in us, belonging to one of these “spheres”, is immediately connected and informed by what emanates from the spheres in which it bathes, an immediate communication that enables it to feel and know what remains unknown to those who are strangers to this spiritual homeland? Balzac vacillated right up to the end between these two explanatory systems, between which Louis Lambert’s “thoughts” quoted in the appendix are still divided. Finally, at the end of his novel, dedicated to the love of Louis Lambert, the Swedenborgian version prevails. Louis and Pauline de Villenoix recognize each other because their inner selves belong to the same homeland. They find themselves at a certain level of purity and delicacy of feeling, of joie de vivre, in the magnificent interplay of the radiance of souls. But this overload of joy is too much for Louis Lambert. He is killed by this joy, just as the heroine ofAdieu is struck down by the happiness she feels at finding herself on the brink of death and madness, at the very moment when misfortune is still a thing of the past. Louis Lambert is destroyed like her, or rather her brain, not her body, but by the same congestion of glimpsed happiness: as at the end of César Birotteau. Louis Lambert’s letter to his uncle during his stay in Paris completes his physiological system with a number of reflections that are not specific to the character himself, but which inform the entire Comédie humaine. It should be seen as a sort of preface-relais by Balzac, who was already preparing the presentation he would make of his work in the famous Foreword of 1842, which defined for his readers the meaning Balzac wanted to give to La Comédie humaine. As soon as he arrives in Paris, Louis Lambert is reminded of the speech and words that Vautrin addresses to Rastignac at the beginning of Père Goriot, when he explains the laws of the Parisian world to him under the bower of “maman Vauquer”. There’s also the despair of Raphaël in La Peau de chagrin, describing the loneliness and despair of the poor intellectual lost in Restoration Paris. But Louis Lambert doesn’t stop there. In his assessment of society, he notes the three great failures of his time: the failure of science to come up with a unitary explanation, the failure of politics to lead people, and the failure of civilization to halt decadence. “Force is still the only law (of the world), success its only wisdom…”. Society is always “a contract between the strong and the weak”. The failure of philosophy is no less great. Louis Lambert’s reasoning on the contradiction that will always exist between the coexistence of God and substance, or the dogma of the Creation of substance, the one amputating God’s omnipotence, the other making every created thing a part of God, is reproduced here by Seraphita. Theology is unable to overcome this difficulty. All religions find themselves in the same impasse, unwittingly leading to a syncretism whose course can be traced throughout the history of mankind. How can we get out of this intellectual impotence? Balzac merely sidesteps this difficulty, dodging it when he returns to the uneven infusion of thought into all the kingdoms of Creation. From this principle, which is the conclusion of his physiological system, Louis Lambert proposes to draw the explanation of society. The secret of the different moral zones through which man passes will be found,” he asserts, “in Animality as a whole. The social zoology proclaimed in this letter is the link that unites Louis Lambert and the other Etudes philosophiques to the entire descriptive system of La Comédie humaine. The development of “material faculties” explains, in Animality as in Humanity, the passage from one sphere of sensibility to another. The materiality of thought is inscribed in the forms and actions described in the history of mores. Familiar objects, costumes and homes are signs on which each sensibility puts its stamp, and thus shows not only a character or a trait of morals, but also how a certain degree of advancement in the spiritual life is expressed and exteriorized. The actions of the characters not only define a plot, they also indicate a path to good or evil, and determine a certain classification of beings. This shows that they not only belong to a certain social species, but also, at the same time, to a certain family of spirituality. By explaining the origin and essence of feelings, the Mystical Book is a kind of prologue to the collective drama played out between men throughout The Human Comedy. At the end, Louis Lambert even announces the mystical poem that will accompany it. “I’ve come back to Swedenborg,” he says, and announces his project of asceticism and purification: “Every man can know if it is reserved for him to enter another life, and if this world has a meaning: this experience I’m going to try.” The day after Louis Lambert will be Seraphita.

The story The author recounts his friendship with fellow student Louis Lambert at the Collège de Vendôme. Balzac was impressed by the arrival of Madame de Staël’s little protégé, who soon proved to be a gifted child. Louis Lambert’s solitary nature and his philosophical research into the power of thought soon set him apart from his peers. He was rejected and mocked by them – bullied and misunderstood by his teachers, he was regularly punished – and his treatise on the will, the fruit of his research into thought and the power of thought, was confiscated and destroyed by the regent. He left his colleague at the age of 18. With his parents deceased, he took refuge for a time with his uncle Lefebvre in Blois. Eager to complete his studies, he began a 3-year stay in Paris, during which he ate the few thousand francs of his inheritance.

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Good and Evil

With his money gone, Louis Lambert returned to his uncle in Blois. While at the theater, he meets Mlle de Villenoix, with whom he falls head over heels in love. Essentially cerebral, full of new thoughts and dominated by an ecstatic system, Louis is struck by the intensity of the amorous thoughts that assail him. This misfortune occurred just a few days before his marriage to Mlle de Villenoix. Despite the doctors’ care, his case was hopeless and incurable: from catalepsy to catalepsy, the life of the soul had taken precedence over the life of the body. Following the custom of beautiful souls, Mlle de Villenoix devoted herself to giving Louis the care and attention he needed. Louis Lambert died at the age of 28.

The characters Lambert: Tanner in Montoire, married a Lefebvre, resulting in a son, Louis, born in 1797, a pupil at the Collège de Vendôme, then a thinker. Louis’ fiancée is Pauline Salomon de Villenoix. He died in 1824. Lefebvre: Priest, sworn priest, parish priest of Mer, born around 1740 and uncle of Louis Lambert. One of her sisters married Louis Lambert’s father. Picture 7 Villenoix: Jewish family represented by : Joseph, A brother who married X..; hence a son Joseph, baron Salomon de Villenoix; who has a daughter Pauline, born in 1800, engaged to Louis Lambert.  

1) Source analysis/history: Preface from the 26th volume of La Comédie Humaine published by France Loisirs in 1987, based on the full text published under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac, 45, rue de l’Abbé-Grégoire – 75006 Paris.

2) Character genealogy source: Félicien Marceau: “Balzac et son monde de chez Gallimard” (Balzac and his world at Gallimard).

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