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The Young Balzac: Disordered Knowledge, Strange Student

I'd like to share with you some biographies of great writers, artists, maybe some inventors—people who represent the other life ethos—people who have produced great work from the fringes, or in weird niches they carved out for themselves in life.

There are so many examples of this in history, so I'd like to show you what I mean. I have a few lined up, in no particular order. This one isn't the most important or anything, just something I came across most recently.

Today, I'm sending you a passage from a biography of the French novelist Balzac, Prométhée: ou, La vie de Balzac (1965) by André Maurois. I've translated it to English, of course.

This is a story about reading books, childhood, the productive benefits of disordered knowledge, unjustified presumption, an obsession with printed paper, ecstasy as a motivator and a product, and a kind of hunger that nothing can ever satisfy.

The passage below paints a fascinating picture of education in France in the early 19th century. But it's also an inspiring vignette about something we see in the early lives of many great writers, which is...

Here we have a strange, disaffected, aloof child who just seems a bit absurd or confused or even dumb—his teachers and classmates literally thought he was just stupid—but his appetite for wonder and knowledge drives him, from an early age, to just totally withdraw from society, into a life of the mind. That's the other life.

If you prefer, you can listen to this on the podcast, where I just uploaded it.

Vendôme College, where young Balzac entered at the age of eight in 1807, was one of the most original educational establishments in France. It had been founded by the Oratorians who, like the Jesuits, devoted themselves to education, and were known for being liberal, which must have pleased Bernard-François.

In fact, the two men who, at the time of Balzac, were directing the college, Mareschal and Dessaignes, had both accepted to swear allegiance to the nation. Both were married. But these married priests kept their Catholic faith and maintained, in the college, an almost convent-like discipline. The children did not leave the establishment until the end of their studies.

"Our students never go on vacation," the directors wrote to the rector of Orleans. They never leave the town. Parents are asked not to call their children. A censor unsealed all letters, upon entry and departure. Families abdicated.

The Oratorians of Vendôme taught respect for the Emperor, without which their establishment would not have survived, but they resisted the military spirit of the lycées of the Empire. The bell, not the drum, marked the works and days.

The school regulations prescribed reading out loud during meals as a precaution against excitement. The Oratorian Fathers, however, allowed conversation in the refectory. When it was reproached to them for this laxity, “What then?” they replied, “for good manners, for discipline, for the good work accomplished during the year, we do not grant holidays, we deny ourselves the rest they would bring and the economy that would result. And we are accused of the amusements we allow to our pupils!”

What were these meagre amusements? “A few trips to the countryside, organized like this: one leader, three teachers and forty-four pupils. The advanced ones left at four in the morning, walked four leagues to visit a forge, a glassworks or an observatory, frugally dined on the grass, and returned home tired out…”

One must admit that these distractions seem manly and rustic. The college led an austere life. One can see, in the library of Vendôme, a drawing depicting the mathematics class. Despite a poor stove, the professor teaches with his head covered and the collar of his coat turned up. As for punishments, they consisted of corrections applied on the fingers of the guilty with a leather ruler (ultima ratio Patrum), which caused sharp pains, innumerable assignments and long stays in a kind of dungeon, placed under the stairs and called by the pupils “the alcove”, or the “wooden trousers”, cells of six square feet allocated in each dormitory to the rebellious.

Honoré Balzac, when he entered Vendôme, was a plump boy, red-faced, melancholy and silent. He had sad memories of his family life. For a long time he would describe guilty mothers who loved an illegitimate child but persecuted a legitimate son. He brought to the college the painful mistrust of a beaten dog. He felt neither grace nor boldness.

Did he find affection among his teachers, which his parents had not given him? One of them, Father Lefebvre, had a great place in the child's life. This teacher showed, according to his notes at the novitiate, "talent, wit, memory, more imagination than judgment, and a taste for wonders and systems.” In this, he was close to his strange student who too had an appetite for wonders.

Feeling exiled on earth, young Balzac waited for a miracle from Heaven. One of the tasks of Father Lefebvre was to classify the immense library of the college, which came in part from the pillaging of the castles during the Revolution. He gave mathematics reviews to Honoré, whom his father dreamed of entering one day into the Polytechnic Institute, but as Honoré was more of a poet than a mathematician, Father Lefebvre willingly allowed his student to read during the review period.

"So in accordance with an implicitly agreed pact between the two of us, I would not complain about a lack of learning, and he would not mention my books." It was a vast number of loans, and the father did not check the titles of the books chosen by the young Balzac, who read during recesses, under a tree, while his classmates played.

Collège de Vendôme, engraving by A. Queyroy

He often got himself locked in the punishment cell to read in peace. Thus he developed a real hunger for reading. Thus he began to acquire a considerable amount of disordered knowledge which, by its very disorder, gave his thought a precocious originality.

“Since my childhood, I had struck my forehead, saying like André de Chénier: There is something there! I felt a thought to be expressed, a system to be established, a science to be explained…”

He was the only one to imagine a great future for himself. In the eyes of his teachers and peers, he remained an ordinary student, remarkable only for his appetite for printed paper and a presumption that nothing seemed to justify.

Like André Chénier, he also tried to write verses. [In Balzac’s words:]

“…I was nicknamed the Poet in ridicule of my attempts; but the mockery did not correct me. I rhymed always, despite the wise advice of M. Mareschal, our director, who tried to cure me of an unhappily inveterate mania, telling me of the misfortunes of a warbler fallen from its nest for having wanted to fly before its wings were pushed. I continued my reading, I became the least active, most lazy, most contemplative student of the small division, and as a result was often punished... ”

In fact, his vocation then called him neither to poetry nor to science, but to seek an obscure and naive philosophy. Wounded by the ferule, hurt in his affections, "he took refuge in the skies opened to him by his thought.” He may have been less precocious than Louis Lambert but, like him, he read mystical writers who "accustomed him to these intense reactions of the soul, where ecstasy is both the means and the result".

From childhood, reading had become for him "a kind of hunger that nothing could satisfy: he devoured books of all kinds, and indiscriminately feasted on religious works, history, philosophy and physics… His eye embraced seven or eight lines at a time, and his mind appreciated the sense with a velocity equal to that of his gaze; often even one word in the sentence was enough for him to know its flavor. He remembered with the same loyalty the thoughts acquired by reading and those suggested to him by reflection or conversation.”

At the age of twelve, his imagination, stimulated by the perpetual exercise of his faculties, had developed to the point of giving him such exact notions of things that he perceived only by reading that the image imprinted in his soul might not have been more vivid if he had actually seen them, whether he proceeded by analogy or whether he was gifted with a kind of second sight…

The word "seer" early became part of his vocabulary. A seer contemplates the past, the present and the future in his thought simultaneously. Why should this be impossible? In my dreams, lying on my bed, I travel through space and time. So space and time are wholly present in my brain. On the other hand, since the spirit can thus travel, since thought acts at a distance, thought-reading is possible, as is second sight, which contemplates objects from a distance in imagination.

The will can be gathered and projected beyond one's self, allowing one to act on others at a distance by magnetic force, and he, Honoré Balzac of the college of Vendôme, possesses this force. Thus he reached the second class. The abuse of reading, the visions it awakened in him, his days of solitude in the dungeon had plunged him into a strange "absent" state, a kind of coma that was all the more alarming to his teachers because they could not see the causes.

Honoré de Balzac

In fact, he seemed "absent" because his mind was "elsewhere,” in the worlds evoked by his readings. In the eyes of the Oratorians of Vendôme, the young Balzac was a lazy student who, working little, could not bear cerebral fatigue. Becoming thin and puny, Honoré looked like the somnambulists who sleep with their eyes open; he did not hear most of the questions that were addressed to him and did not know what to answer when asked abruptly:

"What are you thinking about? Where are you?"

This surprising state, he later realized, was due to a kind of congestion of ideas. At the age of puberty, when the physical forces, in abundance, should be expended, he lived only through the spirit and had the appearance of stupor. The good Mareschal was frightened, called Mrs. Balzac, and on April 22, 1813, in the middle of the school year, the student was returned to Tours, to his family. His father and sisters were horrified by the state in which he returned from Vendôme.

"So there," said Grandmother Sallambier sadly, "is how the college returns the lovely children we send it!"