Honoré de Balzac.

The Atheist's Mass online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe Atheist's Mass → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Dagny


By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Clara Bell

This is dedicated to Auguste Borget by his friend De Balzac


Bianchon, a physician to whom science owes a fine system of theoretical
physiology, and who, while still young, made himself a celebrity in the
medical school of Paris, that central luminary to which European doctors
do homage, practised surgery for a long time before he took up medicine.
His earliest studies were guided by one of the greatest of French
surgeons, the illustrious Desplein, who flashed across science like a
meteor. By the consensus even of his enemies, he took with him to the
tomb an incommunicable method. Like all men of genius, he had no heirs;
he carried everything in him, and carried it away with him. The glory of
a surgeon is like that of an actor: they live only so long as they are
alive, and their talent leaves no trace when they are gone. Actors
and surgeons, like great singers too, like the executants who by their
performance increase the power of music tenfold, are all the heroes of a

Desplein is a case in proof of this resemblance in the destinies of
such transient genius. His name, yesterday so famous, to-day almost
forgotten, will survive in his special department without crossing its
limits. For must there not be some extraordinary circumstances to exalt
the name of a professor from the history of Science to the general
history of the human race? Had Desplein that universal command of
knowledge which makes a man the living word, the great figure of his
age? Desplein had a godlike eye; he saw into the sufferer and his malady
by an intuition, natural or acquired, which enabled him to grasp the
diagnostics peculiar to the individual, to determine the very time,
the hour, the minute when an operation should be performed, making due
allowance for atmospheric conditions and peculiarities of individual
temperament. To proceed thus, hand in hand with nature, had he then
studied the constant assimilation by living beings, of the elements
contained in the atmosphere, or yielded by the earth to man who absorbs
them, deriving from them a particular expression of life? Did he work
it all out by the power of deduction and analogy, to which we owe the
genius of Cuvier? Be this as it may, this man was in all the secrets of
the human frame; he knew it in the past and in the future, emphasizing
the present.

But did he epitomize all science in his own person as Hippocrates did
and Galen and Aristotle? Did he guide a whole school towards new worlds?
No. Though it is impossible to deny that this persistent observer of
human chemistry possessed that antique science of the Mages, that is
to say, knowledge of the elements in fusion, the causes of life, life
antecedent to life, and what it must be in its incubation or ever it
_is_, it must be confessed that, unfortunately, everything in him was
purely personal. Isolated during his life by his egoism, that egoism is
now suicidal of his glory. On his tomb there is no proclaiming statue
to repeat to posterity the mysteries which genius seeks out at its own

But perhaps Desplein's genius was answerable for his beliefs, and for
that reason mortal. To him the terrestrial atmosphere was a generative
envelope; he saw the earth as an egg within its shell; and not being
able to determine whether the egg or the hen first was, he would
not recognize either the cock or the egg. He believed neither in the
antecedent animal nor the surviving spirit of man. Desplein had no
doubts; he was positive. His bold and unqualified atheism was like
that of many scientific men, the best men in the world, but invincible
atheists - atheists such as religious people declare to be impossible.
This opinion could scarcely exist otherwise in a man who was accustomed
from his youth to dissect the creature above all others - before, during,
and after life; to hunt through all his organs without ever finding the
individual soul, which is indispensable to religious theory. When he
detected a cerebral centre, a nervous centre, and a centre for aerating
the blood - the first two so perfectly complementary that in the latter
years of his life he came to a conviction that the sense of hearing is
not absolutely necessary for hearing, nor the sense of sight for
seeing, and that the solar plexus could supply their place without any
possibility of doubt - Desplein, thus finding two souls in man, confirmed
his atheism by this fact, though it is no evidence against God. This man
died, it is said, in final impenitence, as do, unfortunately, many noble
geniuses, whom God may forgive.

The life of this man, great as he was, was marred by many meannesses, to
use the expression employed by his enemies, who were anxious to
diminish his glory, but which it would be more proper to call apparent
contradictions. Envious people and fools, having no knowledge of the
determinations by which superior spirits are moved, seize at once on
superficial inconsistencies, to formulate an accusation and so to pass
sentence on them. If, subsequently, the proceedings thus attacked are
crowned with success, showing the correlations of the preliminaries and
the results, a few of the vanguard of calumnies always survive. In our
day, for instance, Napoleon was condemned by our contemporaries when he
spread his eagle's wings to alight in England: only 1822 could explain
1804 and the flatboats at Boulogne.

As, in Desplein, his glory and science were invulnerable, his enemies
attacked his odd moods and his temper, whereas, in fact, he was simply
characterized by what the English call eccentricity. Sometimes very
handsomely dressed, like Crebillon the tragical, he would suddenly
affect extreme indifference as to what he wore; he was sometimes seen
in a carriage, and sometimes on foot. By turns rough and kind, harsh and
covetous on the surface, but capable of offering his whole fortune to
his exiled masters - who did him the honor of accepting it for a few
days - no man ever gave rise to such contradictory judgements. Although
to obtain a black ribbon, which physicians ought not to intrigue for, he
was capable of dropping a prayer-book out of his pocket at Court, in
his heart he mocked at everything; he had a deep contempt for men,
after studying them from above and below, after detecting their genuine
expression when performing the most solemn and the meanest acts of their

The qualities of a great man are often federative. If among these
colossal spirits one has more talent than wit, his wit is still superior
to that of a man of whom it is simply stated that "he is witty." Genius
always presupposes moral insight. This insight may be applied to a
special subject; but he who can see a flower must be able to see the
sun. The man who on hearing a diplomate he has saved ask, "How is the
Emperor?" could say, "The courtier is alive; the man will follow!" - that
man is not merely a surgeon or a physician, he is prodigiously witty
also. Hence a patient and diligent student of human nature will
admit Desplein's exorbitant pretensions, and believe - as he himself
believed - that he might have been no less great as a minister than he
was as a surgeon.

Among the riddles which Desplein's life presents to many of his
contemporaries, we have chosen one of the most interesting, because the
answer is to be found at the end of the narrative, and will avenge him
for some foolish charges.

Of all the students in Desplein's hospital, Horace Bianchon was one
of those to whom he most warmly attached himself. Before being a house
surgeon at the Hotel-Dieu, Horace Bianchon had been a medical student
lodging in a squalid boarding house in the _Quartier Latin_, known as
the Maison Vauquer. This poor young man had felt there the gnawing
of that burning poverty which is a sort of crucible from which great
talents are to emerge as pure and incorruptible as diamonds, which may
be subjected to any shock without being crushed. In the fierce fire of
their unbridled passions they acquire the most impeccable honesty, and
get into the habit of fighting the battles which await genius with the
constant work by which they coerce their cheated appetites.

Horace was an upright young fellow, incapable of tergiversation on a
matter of honor, going to the point without waste of words, and as ready
to pledge his cloak for a friend as to give him his time and his night
hours. Horace, in short, was one of those friends who are never anxious
as to what they may get in return for what they give, feeling sure that
they will in their turn get more than they give. Most of his
friends felt for him that deeply-seated respect which is inspired by
unostentatious virtue, and many of them dreaded his censure. But Horace
made no pedantic display of his qualities. He was neither a puritan nor
a preacher; he could swear with a grace as he gave his advice, and
was always ready for a jollification when occasion offered. A jolly
companion, not more prudish than a trooper, as frank and outspoken - not
as a sailor, for nowadays sailors are wily diplomates - but as an honest
man who has nothing in his life to hide, he walked with his head erect,
and a mind content. In short, to put the facts into a word, Horace was
the Pylades of more than one Orestes - creditors being regarded as the
nearest modern equivalent to the Furies of the ancients.

He carried his poverty with the cheerfulness which is perhaps one of
the chief elements of courage, and, like all people who have nothing,
he made very few debts. As sober as a camel and active as a stag, he was
steadfast in his ideas and his conduct.

The happy phase of Bianchon's life began on the day when the famous
surgeon had proof of the qualities and the defects which, these no less
than those, make Doctor Horace Bianchon doubly dear to his friends. When
a leading clinical practitioner takes a young man to his bosom, that
young man has, as they say, his foot in the stirrup. Desplein did not
fail to take Bianchon as his assistant to wealthy houses, where some
complimentary fee almost always found its way into the student's pocket,
and where the mysteries of Paris life were insensibly revealed to the
young provincial; he kept him at his side when a consultation was to
be held, and gave him occupation; sometimes he would send him to a
watering-place with a rich patient; in fact, he was making a practice
for him. The consequence was that in the course of time the Tyrant of
surgery had a devoted ally. These two men - one at the summit of
honor and of his science, enjoying an immense fortune and an immense
reputation; the other a humble Omega, having neither fortune nor
fame - became intimate friends.

The great Desplein told his house surgeon everything; the disciple knew
whether such or such a woman had sat on a chair near the master, or on
the famous couch in Desplein's surgery, on which he slept. Bianchon knew
the mysteries of that temperament, a compound of the lion and the bull,
which at last expanded and enlarged beyond measure the great man's
torso, and caused his death by degeneration of the heart. He studied the
eccentricities of that busy life, the schemes of that sordid avarice,
the hopes of the politician who lurked behind the man of science; he was
able to foresee the mortifications that awaited the only sentiment that
lay hid in a heart that was steeled, but not of steel.

One day Bianchon spoke to Desplein of a poor water-carrier of the
Saint-Jacques district, who had a horrible disease caused by fatigue and
want; this wretched Auvergnat had had nothing but potatoes to eat during
the dreadful winter of 1821. Desplein left all his visits, and at the
risk of killing his horse, he rushed off, followed by Bianchon, to the
poor man's dwelling, and saw, himself, to his being removed to a sick
house, founded by the famous Dubois in the Faubourg Saint-Denis. Then
he went to attend the man, and when he had cured him he gave him
the necessary sum to buy a horse and a water-barrel. This Auvergnat
distinguished himself by an amusing action. One of his friends fell ill,
and he took him at once to Desplein, saying to his benefactor, "I could
not have borne to let him go to any one else!"

Rough customer as he was, Desplein grasped the water-carrier's hand, and
said, "Bring them all to me."

He got the native of Cantal into the Hotel-Dieu, where he took the
greatest care of him. Bianchon had already observed in his chief a
predilection for Auvergnats, and especially for water carriers; but as
Desplein took a sort of pride in his cures at the Hotel-Dieu, the pupil
saw nothing very strange in that.

One day, as he crossed the Place Saint-Sulpice, Bianchon caught sight of
his master going into the church at about nine in the morning. Desplein,
who at that time never went a step without his cab, was on foot, and
slipped in by the door in the Rue du Petit-Lion, as if he were stealing
into some house of ill fame. The house surgeon, naturally possessed
by curiosity, knowing his master's opinions, and being himself a rabid
follower of Cabanis (_Cabaniste en dyable_, with the _y_, which in
Rabelais seems to convey an intensity of devilry) - Bianchon stole into
the church, and was not a little astonished to see the great Desplein,
the atheist, who had no mercy on the angels - who give no work to the
lancet, and cannot suffer from fistula or gastritis - in short, this
audacious scoffer kneeling humbly, and where? In the Lady Chapel,
where he remained through the mass, giving alms for the expenses of the
service, alms for the poor, and looking as serious as though he were
superintending an operation.

"He has certainly not come here to clear up the question of the Virgin's
delivery," said Bianchon to himself, astonished beyond measure. "If I
had caught him holding one of the ropes of the canopy on Corpus Christi
day, it would be a thing to laugh at; but at this hour, alone, with no
one to see - it is surely a thing to marvel at!"

Bianchon did not wish to seem as though he were spying the head surgeon
of the Hotel-Dieu; he went away. As it happened, Desplein asked him to
dine with him that day, not at his own house, but at a restaurant. At
dessert Bianchon skilfully contrived to talk of the mass, speaking of it
as mummery and a farce.

"A farce," said Desplein, "which has cost Christendom more blood than
all Napoleon's battles and all Broussais' leeches. The mass is a papal
invention, not older than the sixth century, and based on the _Hoc est
corpus_. What floods of blood were shed to establish the Fete-Dieu, the
Festival of Corpus Christi - the institution by which Rome established
her triumph in the question of the Real Presence, a schism which rent
the Church during three centuries! The wars of the Count of Toulouse
against the Albigenses were the tail end of that dispute. The Vaudois
and the Albigenses refused to recognize this innovation."

In short, Desplein was delighted to disport himself in his most
atheistical vein; a flow of Voltairean satire, or, to be accurate, a
vile imitation of the _Citateur_.

"Hallo! where is my worshiper of this morning?" said Bianchon to

He said nothing; he began to doubt whether he had really seen his chief
at Saint-Sulpice. Desplein would not have troubled himself to tell
Bianchon a lie, they knew each other too well; they had already
exchanged thoughts on quite equally serious subjects, and discussed
systems de natura rerum, probing or dissecting them with the knife and
scalpel of incredulity.

Three months went by. Bianchon did not attempt to follow the matter up,
though it remained stamped on his memory. One day that year, one of the
physicians of the Hotel-Dieu took Desplein by the arm, as if to question
him, in Bianchon's presence.

"What were you doing at Saint-Sulpice, my dear master?" said he.

"I went to see a priest who has a diseased knee-bone, and to whom the
Duchesse d'Angouleme did me the honor to recommend me," said Desplein.

The questioner took this defeat for an answer; not so Bianchon.

"Oh, he goes to see damaged knees in church! - He went to mass," said the
young man to himself.

Bianchon resolved to watch Desplein. He remembered the day and hour when
he had detected him going into Saint-Sulpice, and resolved to be there
again next year on the same day and at the same hour, to see if he
should find him there again. In that case the periodicity of his
devotion would justify a scientific investigation; for in such a man
there ought to be no direct antagonism of thought and action.

Next year, on the said day and hour, Bianchon, who had already ceased
to be Desplein's house surgeon, saw the great man's cab standing at
the corner of the Rue de Tournon and the Rue du Petit-Lion, whence his
friend jesuitically crept along by the wall of Saint-Sulpice, and once
more attended mass in front of the Virgin's altar. It was Desplein,
sure enough! The master-surgeon, the atheist at heart, the worshiper
by chance. The mystery was greater than ever; the regularity of the
phenomenon complicated it. When Desplein had left, Bianchon went to
the sacristan, who took charge of the chapel, and asked him whether the
gentleman were a constant worshiper.

"For twenty years that I have been here," replied the man, "M. Desplein
has come four times a year to attend this mass. He founded it."

"A mass founded by him!" said Bianchon, as he went away. "This is as
great a mystery as the Immaculate Conception - an article which alone is
enough to make a physician an unbeliever."

Some time elapsed before Doctor Bianchon, though so much his friend,
found an opportunity of speaking to Desplein of this incident of his
life. Though they met in consultation, or in society, it was difficult
to find an hour of confidential solitude when, sitting with their feet
on the fire-dogs and their head resting on the back of an armchair, two
men tell each other their secrets. At last, seven years later, after
the Revolution of 1830, when the mob invaded the Archbishop's residence,
when Republican agitators spurred them on to destroy the gilt crosses
which flashed like streaks of lightning in the immensity of the ocean
of houses; when Incredulity flaunted itself in the streets, side by
side with Rebellion, Bianchon once more detected Desplein going into
Saint-Sulpice. The doctor followed him, and knelt down by him without
the slightest notice or demonstration of surprise from his friend. They
both attended this mass of his founding.

"Will you tell me, my dear fellow," said Bianchon, as they left the
church, "the reason for your fit of monkishness? I have caught you three
times going to mass - - You! You must account to me for this mystery,
explain such a flagrant disagreement between your opinions and your
conduct. You do not believe in God, and yet you attend mass? My dear
master, you are bound to give me an answer."

"I am like a great many devout people, men who on the surface are deeply
religious, but quite as much atheists as you or I can be."

And he poured out a torrent of epigrams on certain political personages,
of whom the best known gives us, in this century, a new edition of
Moliere's _Tartufe_.

"All that has nothing to do with my question," retorted Bianchon. "I
want to know the reason for what you have just been doing, and why you
founded this mass."

"Faith! my dear boy," said Desplein, "I am on the verge of the tomb; I
may safely tell you about the beginning of my life."

At this moment Bianchon and the great man were in the Rue des
Quatre-Vents, one of the worst streets in Paris. Desplein pointed to
the sixth floor of one of the houses looking like obelisks, of which the
narrow door opens into a passage with a winding staircase at the end,
with windows appropriately termed "borrowed lights" - or, in French,
_jours de souffrance_. It was a greenish structure; the ground floor
occupied by a furniture-dealer, while each floor seemed to shelter a
different and independent form of misery. Throwing up his arm with a
vehement gesture, Desplein exclaimed:

"I lived up there for two years."

"I know; Arthez lived there; I went up there almost every day during my
first youth; we used to call it then the pickle-jar of great men! What

"The mass I have just attended is connected with some events which took
place at the time when I lived in the garret where you say Arthez lived;
the one with the window where the clothes line is hanging with linen
over a pot of flowers. My early life was so hard, my dear Bianchon, that
I may dispute the palm of Paris suffering with any man living. I have
endured everything: hunger and thirst, want of money, want of clothes,
of shoes, of linen, every cruelty that penury can inflict. I have blown
on my frozen fingers in that _pickle-jar of great men_, which I should
like to see again, now, with you. I worked through a whole winter,
seeing my head steam, and perceiving the atmosphere of my own moisture
as we see that of horses on a frosty day. I do not know where a man
finds the fulcrum that enables him to hold out against such a life.

"I was alone, with no one to help me, no money to buy books or to pay
the expenses of my medical training; I had not a friend; my irascible,
touchy, restless temper was against me. No one understood that this
irritability was the distress and toil of a man who, at the bottom of
the social scale, is struggling to reach the surface. Still, I had, as
I may say to you, before whom I need wear no draperies, I had that
ground-bed of good feeling and keen sensitiveness which must always be
the birthright of any man who is strong enough to climb to any height
whatever, after having long trampled in the bogs of poverty. I could
obtain nothing from my family, nor from my home, beyond my inadequate
allowance. In short, at that time, I breakfasted off a roll which the
baker in the Rue du Petit-Lion sold me cheap because it was left from
yesterday or the day before, and I crumbled it into milk; thus my
morning meal cost me but two sous. I dined only every other day in a
boarding-house where the meal cost me sixteen sous. You know as well
as I what care I must have taken of my clothes and shoes. I hardly know
whether in later life we feel grief so deep when a colleague plays us
false as we have known, you and I, on detecting the mocking smile of a
gaping seam in a shoe, or hearing the armhole of a coat split, I drank
nothing but water; I regarded a cafe with distant respect. Zoppi's
seemed to me a promised land where none but the Lucullus of the _pays
Latin_ had a right of entry. 'Shall I ever take a cup of coffee there
with milk in it?' said I to myself, 'or play a game of dominoes?'

"I threw into my work the fury I felt at my misery. I tried to master
positive knowledge so as to acquire the greatest personal value,
and merit the position I should hold as soon as I could escape from
nothingness. I consumed more oil than bread; the light I burned during
these endless nights cost me more than food. It was a long duel,
obstinate, with no sort of consolation. I found no sympathy anywhere.
To have friends, must we not form connections with young men, have a
few sous so as to be able to go tippling with them, and meet them
where students congregate? And I had nothing! And no one in Paris
can understand that nothing means _nothing_. When I even thought of
revealing my beggary, I had that nervous contraction of the throat which
makes a sick man believe that a ball rises up from the oesophagus into
the larynx.

"In later life I have met people born to wealth who, never having wanted
for anything, had never even heard this problem in the rule of three:
A young man is to crime as a five-franc piece is to X. - These gilded
idiots say to me, 'Why did you get into debt? Why did you involve
yourself in such onerous obligations?' They remind me of the princess
who, on hearing that the people lacked bread, said, 'Why do not they buy
cakes?' I should like to see one of these rich men, who complain that I
charge too much for an operation, - yes, I should like to see him alone
in Paris without a sou, without a friend, without credit, and forced to
work with his five fingers to live at all! What would he do? Where would
he go to satisfy his hunger?

"Bianchon, if you have sometimes seen me hard and bitter, it was
because I was adding my early sufferings on to the insensibility, the
selfishness of which I have seen thousands of instances in the highest
circles; or, perhaps, I was thinking of the obstacles which hatred,


Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe Atheist's Mass → online text (page 1 of 2)