Louis Lambert by Honoré de Balzac

Louis Lambert

This story opens with a dedication which translates to “Dedicated to the woman cherished now and always.” Louis Lambert is narrated by a college school mate of Louis’.

Louis was born in 1797 in the little town of Montoire, about 150 miles south of Paris. Louis’ father owned a small tannery and hoped Louis would grow up in the business. However, from an early age Louis was different. “At the age of five Louis had begun by reading the Old and New Testaments; and these two Books, including so many books, had sealed his fate.” He was lost in the world of words, the world of the interior, and he had a passion for knowledge. He was sent to his uncle, a parish priest in neighboring Mer, to be educated for the church and thus avoid conscription into the army. Mer opened up new vistas for Louis because his uncle, an Oratorian (a religious order similar to the Jesuits), had acquired two or three thousand books by picking over the best books from the surrounding chateaux and abbeys after the Revolution. The narrator seems to think the early introduction to the Bible and Louis’ exposure to his uncle’s books was his undoing, but really it is clear that he had a passion for such absorption unrivaled from the earliest age. Louis apparently had what we would call a photographic memory and devoured his uncle’s entire library in the three years he spent with him. When he could find nothing else, he delighted in reading dictionaries.

Often …when have I made the most delightful voyage, floating on a word down the abyss of the past, like an insect embarked on a blade of grass tossing on the ripples of a stream. Starting from Greece, I would get to Rome, and traverse the whole extent of modern ages. What a fine book might be written of the life and adventures of a word!?

Louis speculates on the intelligence needed to create a word and human speech.

Towards the end of his time with his uncle, Louis was as usual walking in the woods and reading, upon this occasion a translation of Heaven and Hell. He came upon the noted Madame de Stael, a prominent author (Corinne, etc.) who had been banished from Paris due to conflicts with Napoleon. Madame de Stael was amazed at his reading–he was only a boy of perhaps 13–and asked him if he understood what he read. Louis asked her if she prayed to God and if so if she understood Him. Madame de Stael was so impressed with Louis that she left instructions and funds with her friend Monsieur de Corbigny to see that he was educated. “He is a real seer”, she said, and she thought by providing him a college education she was saving Louis from serving the Emperor or the Church and preparing him for a glorious destiny. Louis never saw Madame de Stael again, though he was known as her prodigy at his school. He wrote her twice but the letters went unanswered. Some time after his education he walked from Blois to Paris to seek her out but arrived on the day of her death.

As schools have a way of being at times, Louis’ High School at Vendome (a college) was a bit harsh, though not as bad as some. For the three years of his education, the students were never allowed to go home on holiday. The boys in the school mostly adapted to their conditions. They raised pigeons and had gardens, and they had a complex food swapping system, a “gastronomical barter” during meals. They would announce possible trades at the long tables, such as “lentils for dessert”, as if they were buying and selling stock, and it made for an entertaining and exciting time at meals. They had a small store where they could buy treasures, theatrical performances, card playing, etc. But the lessons were rigid, health care and discipline generically dispensed, and social pressures among the boys difficult.

Although his fellow pupils awaited the new student who was Madame de Stael’s prodigy with anticipation, Louis did not easily integrate with the other students. He had no physical talents, and his mind was far advanced of the others in his form except for the narrator, who had similar though not as exceptional attributes. He suffered from being indoors all the time–he was used to studying mostly outdoors. He was not physically strong and suffered from ill treated skin conditions. His absorption in his internal pursuits got him accused constantly: “You are doing nothing!” The punishment for this and other infringements such as the unconscious looks of anger Louis often expressed was to kneel in the middle of the room near the master’s desk and have his hands beaten with a leather strap. “To sensitive natures these preliminaries [of kneeling in front of the class] were an introductory torture, like the journey from the Palais de Justice to the Place de Greve which the condemned used to make to the scaffold.”

The only bright spot was his friendship with the narrator, who also was isolated for his intellectual and non-physical nature. On the first day of school the students crowded around Louis and questioned him curiously, but Louis–either stoical or dumbfounded–made no reply to any questions. One of the students then remarked that he was no doubt of the school of Pythagoras, and from that point on he was called Pythagoras. (The Pythagoreans observed a rule of silence called echemythia, the breaking of which was punishable by death. This was because the Pythagoreans believed that a man’s words were usually careless and misrepresented him and that when someone was “in doubt as to what he should say, he should always remain silent”.) The narrator was dubbed the Poet due to his persistence in writing mostly bad poetry in spite of the advice of the headmaster Monsieur Mareschal. Together the narrator and Louis began to be called the Poet-and-Pythagoras as if they were one entity. They would suffer their punishments together, often deliberately getting sentenced to solitude together so they could discuss ideas.

So full of nerves, as sensitive as a woman, under the sway of chronic melancholy, and as sick with genius as a girl with love that she pines for, knowing nothing of it;–this boy, at once so powerful and so weak, transplanted by “Corinne” from the country he loved, to be squeezed in the mould of a collegiate routine to which every spirit and every body must yield, whatever their range of temperament, accepting its rule and its uniform as gold is crushed into round coin under the press; Louis Lambert suffered in every spot where pain can touch the soul or the flesh….and, like the martyrs who smiled in the midst of suffering, he took refuge in heaven, which lay open to his mind.

He began among other ideas to discuss from Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell. Swedenborg believed that in each of us are two distinct beings. The first is the angel, the inner being. The second is the physical or external being. If the angel is not nourished, it will be extinguished by the external. But if nourished, the soul triumphs over matter and strives to get free. If the angel is strong enough at death, it survives and begins its real life. In heaven beings are distributed according to their inner perfection in distinct spheres.

One day on a day trip to the manor of Rochambeau Louis was struck by the fact he had seen the area the night before in a dream. He was quite astonished and began to think what this could mean. He felt he must have come here in his sleep and thus saw a complete severance of his body and inner being. Perhaps the body is merely a husk. Or maybe the feelings dwell in some undiscovered nerve center. “Material nature must be penetrable by the spirit.” He begins to think he has hit on evidence that shows the superiority that distinguishes latent senses from corporeal senses. Or maybe “we are merely gifted with personal and perfectible qualities, of which the development within us produces certain unobserved phenomena of activity, penetration, and vision. In our love of the marvelous, a passion begotten of our pride, we have translated these effects into poetical inventions, because we did not understand them. It is so convenient to deify the incomprehensible!” Upon pondering this for awhile, Louis declared that he and the narrator shall be famous by studying the Chemistry of the Will.

Louis and his friend the narrator (“the poet”) work on the paper “The Treatise of the Will”. Actually, Louis does most of the work and his friend listens to and discusses his ideas with him. The narrator isn’t quite sure he understands what Louis is saying, but he feels he is a man of genius ahead of his time. Alas, not long after work started in earnest on the paper it was confiscated by the school officials, Louis and his friend were chastised for working on such rot instead of applying themselves to their school work, and the paper was thrown away. A few months later the narrator was pulled out of the school by his parents for health reasons and thus was separated from his dear friend Louis. (A biographical aside: Balzac was known as the (bad) “poet” in his school days.)

Most of this part of the story is taken up attempting to explain Louis’ philosophy, that philosophy partly triggered by his vision of a real place he’d never seen. At the end of this part Balzac says “it would be almost impossible to make the second part of his intellectual history intelligible”.

Lambert starts with definitions. The Will is the mass of power by which man can reproduce, outside himself, the actions making up his external life. Volition expresses the act by which man exerts his will. The Mind or Thought is a product of the Will and is the medium in which “the ideas originate to which thought gives substance.” The Idea is the act by which man uses his mind. The Will and the Mind are generating forces, and the Volition and the Idea are products. ” . . . the Mind and Ideas are the motion and the outcome of our inner organization, just as the Will and Volition are of our external activity.” Somehow Louis takes these definitions and applies them to a variety of scientific experiments. Get this scientific question: “Whether the fluid phenomena of the Will, a matter generated within us, and spontaneously reacting under the impress of conditions as yet unobserved, were at all more extraordinary than those of the invisible and intangible fluid produced by a voltaic pile, and applied to the nervous system of a dead man.” And much more.

He talks about our Volitions and our Ideas making up Action, and the total of our external acts Reaction. Somehow he goes from here to talking about a mystical inner universe as complexly constructed as our physical universe. He returns to the idea that heaven would be the perfection of our inner faculties, and hell the void of our unperfected faculties. The Being of Action can abstract itself completely from the Being of Reaction and pierce the walls–-transcend?-–our physical reality. This accounts for the experience of what we would now call psychics. Louis’ own grandfather had psychic powers that, witnessed by him as a young child, left a strong impression upon him. He talked about his father’s giving “proof of the power of sight developed in his Inner Being.” Will and Thought are living forces, and Louis speaks of its spontaneity and strength. “Ideas are a complete system within us, resembling a natural kingdom, a sort of flora, of which the iconography will one day be outlined by some man who will perhaps be accounted a madman.”

The narrator says that if Louis had left no other mark, he would be remembered for having formulated at age sixteen the following psychological dictum: “The events which bear witness to the action of the human race, and are the outcome of its intellect, have causes by which they are preconceived, as our actions are accomplished in our mind before they are reproduced by the outer man; presentiments or predictions are the perception of these causes”.

Louis graduated from his school at age eighteen and went to Paris to think and live frugally on a small inheritance. He remained a man of the interior–-he was even “averse to any exertion that made a demand on his strength; his movements were few and simple, like those of Orientals or of savages, with whom gravity seems a condition of nature.” He thought about the religions of the world and concluded they were all one religion. He was immensely talented, the narrator assures us. He could have written Candide’s Zadig or Montesque’s dialogues. The narrator observes that Louis’ intellectual life seemed to be in three marked phases. First his powers were concentrated on the functions of the inner senses and a superabundant flow of nerve-fluid. This was his massive reading period. The second period was his passing from assimilating the knowledge of the world to moving in the world of ideas, as his development of “The Treatise of the Will” indicates. The third phase began with his Paris experience, where he studies until he has to flee in poverty (he is unwilling to work, being occupied with things of the mind). He sees the futility of civilization: “The most subtle genius can discover no common bond between great social facts. No political theory has ever lasted. Governments pass away, as men do, without handing down any lesson, and no system gives birth to a system better than that which came before it.”

Louis says he came to Paris because he had axioms that needed developing. But he questions why does he have such faculties to develop without being able to use them? He gives “birth to ideas that no one can grasp.” He asks many of the God questions man asks which may have no answers. Louis says “Each man may know for himself what hope he has of life eternal, and whether this world has any rational sense. I mean to make the attempt. And this attempt may save the world, just as much as the cross at Jerusalem or the sword at Mecca.”

There is a good summary of Louis’ (and Balzac’s) philosophy in Prometheus: The Life of Balzac by Andre Maurois.

Louis leaves Paris and returns to Blois and his uncle, where he leads the simple life of the uncle who was not fitted for high society. He soon meets a rich Jewish heiress, Mademoiselle Pauline de Villenoix, and falls head over heels in love. Pauline apparently truly understands Louis and his philosophy. We see the progress of their courtship through fragments of letters the narrator (the “poet”) has reconstructed from drafts found in Louis’ room in his uncle’s house. Louis is in ecstasy, he probably never imagines he will meet a soul mate. In spite of the objections of her guardian, Louis and Pauline are to be married.

But Louis apparently goes mad, staying much of the time in a seemingly catatonic state. “He thought himself unfit for marriage [says his uncle]. I watched him with the care of a mother for her child, and found him preparing to perform on himself the operation to which Origen believed he owed his talents.” (Origen was an early Christian scholar.)

Pauline discovers Louis’ condition and carries him off to be cared for by her at Villenoix. The narrator speculates that perhaps Louis’ passion has caused his condition.

His studies and his mode of life had strung his powers and faculties to a degree of energy beyond which the least further strain was too much for nature; Love was enough to crack them, or to raise them to a new form of expression which we are maligning perhaps, by ticketing it without due knowledge. In fact, he may perhaps have regarded the joys of marriage as an obstacle to the perfection of his inner man and his flight towards spiritual spheres.

But Pauline doesn’t think Louis mad. Perhaps, as the narrator speculates, “she in the course of time [has] been infected with her lover’s madness, or had she so completely entered into his soul that she could understand all its thoughts, even the most perplexed. . . If she were herself almost crazy, it was splendid; but if she had understood and entered into his madness, she combined with the beauty of a noble heart a crowning effort of passion worthy to be studied and honored.”

The narrator finds Louis truly withdrawn from his body. “Alas! He was wrinkled, white-headed, his eyes dull and lifeless as those of the blind. His features seemed all drawn upwards to the top of his head. . . . He was a wreck snatched from the grave, a conquest of life from death–-or of death from life.” Louis speaks a small truth while the narrator is there: “The angels are white.” ” . . . the sweetness of his tone, which seemed to reveal heavenly happiness, gave his speech an amazing effect. These words, the incomplete revelation of an unknown world, rang in our souls like some glorious distant bells in the depth of a dark night. I was no longer surprised that Mademoiselle de Villenoix considered Lambert to be perfectly sane. The life of the soul had perhaps subdued that of the body.” Pauline explains that Louis has succeeded in detaching himself from his body and views them under some other aspect. Pauline can relate to much of this state and her soul is with him. She has recorded some of his phrases he speaks. They seem profound to the narrator.

Louis died at age twenty-eight in Pauline’s arms. He was buried with a plain stone cross without name or date.

Since his death Pauline has long hoped for reunion with him. “His heart was mine; his genius is with God.”


Read it here

Summary by Pamela, April 2007


4 comments on “Louis Lambert by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    According to Wikipedia, “Balzac was fiercely proud of Louis Lambert and believed that it elegantly represented his diverse interests in philosophy, mysticism, religion, and occultism.” The novel is definitely autobiographical but quite a puzzle and, as Saintsbury said, “rather dreary and repellent stuff” to a typical reader like me. I wrote the above summary and four years later find even my own summary hard to follow.


  2. I didn’t care for this novel at all the first time I read it. It fared better for me on a second reading in that I didn’t dislike it as much as I remembered, lol. Parts of it I actually really liked.


  3. Balzac wrote to his sister Laure:
    “this fourth volume of Philosophic Tales ought to be a final reply to my enemies, and ought to show my incontestable superiority.”


  4. Charles Brown says:

    Just to clarify things: “The operation of Origen” was self-castration. Maybe Balzac didn’t want to be that blunt and used an indirect reference that educated readers would catch.


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