Chapter 1: Seraphitus
Balzac begins with a travelogue of the fiords of Norway, concentrating ultimately on one isolated valley that is isolated by the roaring waters of the Sieg River which rises in Sweden and by the forbidding mountains of Jarvis.
We begin with two figures cross-country skiing UP a mountain, past unimaginable abysses. One of them is Minna Becker, daughter of the village pastor. The other is apparently (why I say this will itself become apparent soon) a pale young male named Seraphitus, who expertly guides Minna up the slope to an Alpine meadow.
It is evident that Minna is in love with Seraphitus, but the latter urges her to consider marrying a young man named Wilfrid. But first, let’s get a short description of Seraphitus:
“His complexion was of marvellous whiteness, which brought out vividly the coral lips, the brown eyebrows, and the silken lashes, the only colors that trenched upon the paleness of that face, whose perfect regularity did not detract from the grandeur of the sentiments expressed in it; nay, thought and emotion were reflected there, without hindrance or violence, with the majestic and natural gravity which we delight in attributing to superior beings. That face of purest marble expressed in all things strength and peace.”
It is useful to remember that the name Seraphitus reminds one of the Seraphim, one of the highest orders of angels in Christian belief.
At the alpine meadow, Seraphitus gives Minna some rare flowers which have pushed up through the snows and requests that she wear them in her bosom. Then he guides her down the slope back to the village, where they call on the girl’s father, Pastor Becker.
One of the first clues we get to the strange nature of Seraphitus is that Becker addresses him/her as mademoiselle. To Minna, Seraphitus is a he; to Becker, a she.
Seraphitus returns to his house, the only stone house in the village, which is referred to by locals as “The Swedish Castle,” even though it is but a house. His/her servant is an old man named David, who sees his employer as Seraphita:
“Wrapped as he was in a formless garment, which resembled equally a woman’s robe and a man’s mantle, it was impossible not to fancy that the slender feet which hung at the side of the couch were those of a woman, and equally impossible not to note how the forehead and the outlines of the head gave evidence of power brought to its highest pitch.
“‘She suffers, and she will not tell me,’ thought the old man. ‘She is dying, like a flower wilted by the burning sun.’
“And the old man wept.”
Chapter 2: Seraphita
Seraphitus/-a is ensconced in his/her “Swedish Castle” in the small almost inaccessible Norwegian village, when the servant, David, announces a visitor: It is none other than the Wilfrid that Seraphitus wants Minna Becker to marry.
Except it seems that Wilfrid is in love with Seraphita. (I am starting to lose myself in all the gender tagging.) Where Minna sees Seraphit[x] as a male, Wilfrid sees her as a female.
Seraphit[x] tells Wilfrid about the skiing trip up the mountain, to the latter’s consternation.
Wilfrid tells S: “What can I tell you that you do not know? Besides, the request is ironical. You allow yourself no intercourse with social life; you trample on its conventions, its laws, its customs, sentiments, and sciences; you reduce them all to the proportions such things take when viewed by you beyond this universe.”
S’s answer: “Therefore you see, my friend, that I am not a woman. You do wrong to love me. What! am I to leave the ethereal regions of my pretended strength, make myself humbly small, cringe like the hapless female of all species, that you may lift me up? and then, when I, helpless and broken, ask you for help, when I need your arm, you will repulse me! No, we can never come to terms.”
Nonetheless, Wilfred loves S. Minna loves S. S wants Wilfrid and Minna to love each other. What a stand-off! It becomes evident that S is some sort of supernatural being who is above mixing carnally with mere mortals:
“Speed thy way through the luminous spheres; behold, admire, hasten! Flying thus thou canst pause or advance without weariness. Like other men, thou wouldst fain be plunged forever in these spheres of light and perfume where now thou art, free of thy swooning body, and where thy thought alone has utterance. Fly! enjoy for a fleeting moment the wings thou shalt surely win when Love has grown so perfect in thee that thou hast no senses left; when thy whole being is all mind, all love. The higher thy flight the less canst thou see the abysses. There are none in heaven. Look at the friend who speaks to thee; she who holds thee above this earth in which are all abysses. Look, behold, contemplate me yet a moment longer, for never again wilt thou see me, save imperfectly as the pale twilight of this world may show me to thee.”
Sounds pretty high-flown. In any case, Wilfrid is totally flummoxed and decides to visit Pastor Becker and his daughter Minna. Wilfrid is confused by S:
“These phenomena are within us, not without us,” Wilfrid went on. “The being whom we call Seraphita seems to me one of those rare and terrible spirits to whom power is given to bind men, to crush nature, to enter into participation of the occult power of God. The course of her enchantments over me began on that first day, when silence as to her was imposed upon me against my will. Each time that I have wished to question you it seemed as though I were about to reveal a secret of which I ought to be the incorruptible guardian. Whenever I have tried to speak, a burning seal has been laid upon my lips, and I myself have become the involuntary minister of these mysteries. You see me here to-night, for the hundredth time, bruised, defeated, broken, after leaving the hallucinating sphere which surrounds that young girl, so gentle, so fragile to both of you, but to me the cruellest of magicians! Yes, to me she is like a sorcerer holding in her right hand the invisible wand that moves the globe, and in her left the thunderbolt that rends asunder all things at her will. No longer can I look upon her brow; the light of it is insupportable. I skirt the borders of the abyss of madness too closely to be longer silent. I must speak. I seize this moment, when courage comes to me, to resist the power which drags me onward without inquiring whether or not I have the force to follow. Who is she? Did you know her young? What of her birth? Had she father and mother, or was she born of the conjunction of ice and sun? She burns and yet she freeze; she shows herself and then withdraws; she attracts me and repulses me; she brings me life, she gives me death; I love her and yet I hate her! I cannot live thus; let me be wholly in heaven or in hell!”
The course of love never did run smooth.
Chapter 3: Seraphitus/Seraphita
In this chapter, we begin by Pastor Becker explaining to Minna and Wilfrid all about Emanuel Swedenborg, the prolific Swedish scientist, philosopher, and prophet who was born in Sweden in 1688 and died in London in 1772. It just so happens that Becker, who does not altogether believe in Swedenborg’s prolix thinking, nonetheless is impressed by his work.
He talks of a Baron Seraphitus, friend of Swedenborg, who lived in the “Swedish Castle” of Jarvis. He and his wife gave birth to a daughter, who is called Seraphita. The apparent gender confusion is due to whether the Spirit of Love or the Spirit of Wisdom is uppermost:
“The Spirit of Love has acquired strength, the result of all vanquished terrestrial passions; it loves God blindly. But the Spirit of Wisdom has risen to understanding and knows why it loves. The wings of the one are spread and bear the spirit to God; the wings of the other are held down by the awe that comes of understanding: the spirit knows God. The one longs incessantly to see God and to fly to Him; the other attains to Him and trembles. The union effected between the Spirit of Love and the Spirit of Wisdom carries the human being into a Divine state during which time his soul is woman and his body man, the last human manifestation in which the Spirit conquers Form, or Form still struggles against the Spirit,—for Form, that is, the flesh, is ignorant, rebels, and desires to continue gross. This supreme trial creates untold sufferings seen by Heaven alone,—the agony of Christ in the Garden of Olives.”
Wilfrid begins reading one of Swedenborg’s books which Becker hands to him. Their evening is interrupted by S’s old servant David, who cries out:
“For the last five hours she has stood erect, her eyes raised to heaven and her arms extended; she suffers, she cries to God. I cannot cross the barrier; Hell has posted the Vertumni as sentinels. They have set up an iron wall between her and her old David. She wants me, but what can I do? Oh, help me! help me! Come and pray!”
Okay, I’m not going to explain all this as it’s rather involved, and Balzac is not terribly convincing (as always whenever he goes too deeply into philosophy), but suffice it to say that S manages to fend off the demonic tempters who have attacked her.
The rest of the chapter consists of separate conversations of S with Minna and Wilfrid — all of uncertain purpose. As before, it is the male side of S that talks with Minna and the female side with Wilfrid.
Chapter 4: The Clouds of the Sanctuary
Clouds is right. In essence, this chapter contains a long conversation in “The Swedish Castle” between Seraphitus/Seraphita and Pastor Becker, his daughter Minna, and Wilfrid. Although I will attempt (and probably fail) to convey Balzac’s summary about the spirit, matter, number, and all those other ineffable things, I can tell you that I find it downright strange for an angelic being to be talking so far over the heads of these poor mortals when a quiet half-smile and silence would have been more effective. But you know Balzac: you-know-who rushes in where angels fear to tread.
To return to the effable, tea is served to the visitors; and the old servant, David, is also present.
S begins announcing that this is probably the last time they will see him/her because “this winter has killed me.” The conflict referred to briefly in the Chapter 3 summary has gladdened S and resolved him/her to leave this life:
“Do you think that you have conquered?” asked Minna.
“I do not know,” she said, “perhaps I have only taken a step in the path.”
At this point, S enters into a very long disquisition on the relationship between God, matter, and the spirit. I will not attempt to summarize Balzac’s own summary of the Complete Works of Emanuel Swedenborg — nor, trust me, do you want to read such a summary. S did make an interesting point on the subject of faith:
“To believe,” continued Seraphita, in her Woman’s voice, for the Man had finished speaking, “to believe is a gift. To believe is to feel. To believe in God we must feel God. This feeling is a possession slowly acquired by the human being, just as other astonishing powers which you admire in great men, warriors, artists, scholars, those who know and those who act, are acquired. Thought, that budget of the relations which you perceive among created things, is an intellectual language which can be learned, is it not? Belief, the budget of celestial truths, is also a language as superior to thought as thought is to
instinct. This language also can be learned. The Believer answers with a single cry, a single gesture; Faith puts within his hand a flaming sword with which he pierces and illumines all. The Seer attains to heaven and descends not. But there are beings who believe and see, who know and will, who love and pray and wait. Submissive, yet aspiring to the kingdom of light, they have neither the aloofness of the Believer nor the silence of the Seer; they listen and reply. To them the doubt of the twilight ages is not a murderous weapon, but a divining rod; they accept the contest under every form; they train their tongues to every language; they are never angered, though they groan; the acrimony of the aggressor is not in them, but rather the softness and tenuity of light, which penetrates and warms and illumines. To their eyes Doubt is neither an impiety, nor a blasphemy, nor a crime, but a transition through which men return upon their steps in the Darkness, or advance into the Light.
Finally, after many more paragraphs along the same line, S stops. Wilfrid asks the rather singular question as to why S does not marry, to which he/she answers that indeed he/she is already betrothed:
“Ask not my secret,” she said; “I will promise, if our father permits it, to invite you to these mysterious nuptials.”
S throws open a window and indicates that Spring is coming, while everyone is more or less flabbergasted. (That includes me, too, dear reader.)
Chapter 5: Farewell
It is now time for S to make good on his/her promise to die soon. While Wilfrid and Minna are arguing whether the divine creature is male or female, S comes down to them and asks to go to the falls of the Sieg. Balzac paints a picture of natural power and glory while S weakens and dies, but not without some energetic deathbed speeches that I am sure would be well beyond me if I were in a similar situation. The servant David comes and, as if he were young again, lifts the body of S and carries it to the Swedish Castle.
Chapter 6: The Path to Heaven
Odds bodkins! Seraphitus/Seraphita is not only still alive, but takes the next two chapters to die. Here I was opening for a wild Norwegian wake where herring and akvavit are consumed in vast quantities, but such is not to be. No, no, S still has a lot to say; and both Wilfrid and Minna still do not have copious amounts of blood issuing from their ears. That is to come.
This post is not so much of a summary, because I think what S is talking about is mostly beans. I am talking about lines such as:
“Who can tell how many times the human being lives in the sphere of Instinct before he is prepared to enter the sphere of Abstractions, where thought expends itself on erring science, where mind wearies at last of human language? for, when Matter is exhausted, Spirit enters. Who knows how many fleshly forms the heir of heaven occupies before he can be brought to understand the value of that silence and solitude whose starry plains are but the vestibule of Spiritual Worlds? He feels his way amid the void, makes trial of nothingness, and then at last his eyes revert upon the Path. Then follow other existences,—all to be lived to reach the place where Light effulgent shines. Death is the post-house of the journey. A lifetime may be needed merely to gain the virtues which annul the errors of man’s preceding life. First comes the life of suffering, whose tortures create a thirst for love. Next the life of love and devotion to the creature, teaching devotion to the Creator,—a life where the virtues of love, its martyrdoms, its joys followed by sorrows, its angelic hopes, its patience, its resignation, excite an appetite for things divine. Then follows the life which seeks in silence the traces of the Word; in which the soul grows humble and charitable. Next the life of longing; and lastly, the life of prayer. In that is the noonday sun; there are the flowers, there the harvest!”
While S is “dying” of excessive talk, I would like to make a point. There is something about how profundity is conveyed in fiction of the time which doesn’t work today. I found the same problem with Ossian, whom I found unreadable. And I have not been kind to Balzac’s other philosophical studies. It was to take a few decades before writers like Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche could write about ultimate things without launching into the Ultimate Boredom of the Spheres in which Abstractions transcend Matter and Spirit, not to mention Word and Number and the Square Root of Minus One.
If you cotton to this kind of writing, please forgive me. That would show a tolerance to blather that would arouse my deepest sympathies. I’ll send you a card…
Chapter 7: The Assumption
I’m not quite sure at this point whether S has shuffled off his/her mortal coil — or not. Whenever a creature so epicene buys the farm, there is considerable room for doubt:
“The aspiration of the Soul toward heaven was so contagious that Wilfrid and Minna, beholding those radiant scintillations of Life, perceived not Death.
“They had fallen on their knees when he had turned toward his Orient, and they shared his ecstasy.
“The fear of the Lord, which creates man a second time, purging away his dross, mastered their hearts.
“Their eyes, veiled to the things of Earth, were opened to the Brightness of Heaven.
“Though, like the Seers of old called Prophets by men, they were filled with the terror of the Most High, yet like them they continued firm when they found themselves within the radiance where the Glory of the Spirit shone.
“The veil of flesh, which, until now, had hidden that glory from their eyes, dissolved imperceptibly away, and left them free to behold the Divine substance.
“They stood in the twilight of the Coming Dawn, whose feeble rays prepared them to look upon the True Light, to hear the Living Word, and yet not die.
“In this state they began to perceive the immeasurable differences which separate the things of earth from the things of Heaven.”
Among those differences is the overuse of certain words, such as “veil” or “Spirit.”
There follows some mummery during which S enters the afterlife in plain view of Minna and Wilfrid and becomes, surprise, a seraph.
This whole experience sobers Minna and Wilfrid up so considerably that they decide to speak in abstract nouns with initial caps for ever after. And they decide to go to heaven together.
Read it here
Summarized by Jim, April 2012