Sur Catherine de Médicis: Les Deux Rêves
About Catherine de’ Medici: The Two Dreams
We’ve come to the end of Balzac’s Catherine de’ Medici with this intriguing short section.
Two hundred years have passed. It is 1786, during the last years of the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. There is a soiree at the home of Bodard de Saint-James, treasurer of the French Navy.
There is a narrator who is not identified and the playwright/spy Beaumarchais, author of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville (upon which Mozart’s and Rossini’s operas were based).
Also present are two very out-of-place provincials, a surgeon and a lawyer. In the course of conversation, both of them describe a dream or vision they have experienced.
The lawyer tells of seeing Catherine de’ Medici and discussing the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre with her. Catherine shrugs and says she did not do a thorough enough job of ridding France of its Huguenot population: the whole job was merely badly managed. She continues:
Writers have been more unjust to me than my contemporaries were. No one undertakes my defense. I am accused of ambition–I who was so rich and a queen. I am taxed with cruelty–I who have but two decapitations on my conscience. And to the most impartial minds I am still, no doubt, a great riddle. Do you really believe that I was governed by feelings of hatred, that I breathed only vengeance and fury? . . . I was as calm and cold as Reason itself. I condemned the Huguenots without pity, but without anger; they were the rotten oranges in my basket.
She asks the lawyer:
Can the superior men of your age still think that religion had really anything to do with that great trial [i.e., the Reformation], the most tremendous of those that Europe has been required to decide–a vast revolution retarded by trivial causes, which will not hinder it from overflowing the whole world, since I failed to stop it. –A Revolution . . . which is still progressing, and which you may achieve. –Yes, YOU, who hear me!
The other dream, by the provincial surgeon: He is cutting into a patient’s gangrenous thigh, when he suddenly encounters a whole miniature civilization in that diseased leg. In short, there was a universe in my patient. When I inserted my lancet in his gangrened leg, I destroyed a thousand such beings.
Now we come to the real punch line: The lawyer was none other than Maximilien Robespierre, who sent thousands to the guillotine during the Terror just seven years later. And the surgeon was none other than the notorious publicist of the Terror, Marat, whose lancet was his pen.
Here Balzac sees the real politik of Catherine as a precursor of the horrors of the French Revolution.
This flawed, but at times brilliant work, shows that our author had some definite ideas
Summary by Jim, January 2008