The Physiology of Marriage/Part 1/Med 1

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The Physiology of Marriage
by Honoré de Balzac
First Part, Meditation I

Meditation I: The Subject[edit]

Physiology, what must I consider your meaning?

Is not your object to prove that marriage unites for life two beings who do not know each other?

That life consists in passion, and that no passion survives marriage?

That marriage is an institution necessary for the preservation of society, but that it is contrary to the laws of nature?

That divorce, this admirable release from the misfortunes of marriage, should with one voice be reinstated?

That, in spite of all its inconveniences, marriage is the foundation on which property is based?

That it furnishes invaluable pledges for the security of government?

That there is something touching in the association of two human beings for the purpose of supporting the pains of life?

That there is something ridiculous in the wish that one and the same thoughts should control two wills?

That the wife is treated as a slave?

That there has never been a marriage entirely happy?

That marriage is filled with crimes and that the known murders are not the worst?

That fidelity is impossible, at least to the man?

That an investigation if it could be undertaken would prove that in the transmission of patrimonial property there was more risk than security?

That adultery does more harm than marriage does good?

That infidelity in a woman may be traced back to the earliest ages of society, and that marriage still survives this perpetuation of treachery?

That the laws of love so strongly link together two human beings that no human law can put them asunder?

That while there are marriages recorded on the public registers, there are others over which nature herself has presided, and they have been dictated either by the mutual memory of thought, or by an utter difference of mental disposition, or by corporeal affinity in the parties named; that it is thus that heaven and earth are constantly at variance?

That there are many husbands fine in figure and of superior intellect whose wives have lovers exceedingly ugly, insignificant in appearance or stupid in mind?

All these questions furnish material for books; but the books have been written and the questions are constantly reappearing.

Physiology, what must I take you to mean?

Do you reveal new principles? Would you pretend that it is the right thing that woman should be made common? Lycurgus and certain Greek peoples as well as Tartars and savages have tried this.

Can it possibly be right to confine women? The Ottomans once did so, and nowadays they give them their liberty.

Would it be right to marry young women without providing a dowry and yet exclude them from the right of succeeding to property? Some English authors and some moralists have proved that this with the admission of divorce is the surest method of rendering marriage happy.

Should there be a little Hagar in each marriage establishment? There is no need to pass a law for that. The provision of the code which makes an unfaithful wife liable to a penalty in whatever place the crime be committed, and that other article which does not punish the erring husband unless his concubine dwells beneath the conjugal roof, implicitly admits the existence of mistresses in the city.

Sanchez has written a dissertation on the penal cases incident to marriage; he has even argued on the illegitimacy and the opportuneness of each form of indulgence; he has outlined all the duties, moral, religious and corporeal, of the married couple; in short his work would form twelve volumes in octavo if the huge folio entitled De Matrimonio were thus represented.

Clouds of lawyers have flung clouds of treatises over the legal difficulties which are born of marriage. There exist several works on the judicial investigation of impotency.

Legions of doctors have marshaled their legions of books on the subject of marriage in its relation to medicine and surgery.

In the nineteenth century the Physiology of Marriage is either an insignificant compilation or the work of a fool written for other fools; old priests have taken their balances of gold and have weighed the most trifling scruples of the marriage consciences; old lawyers have put on their spectacles and have distinguished between every kind of married transgression; old doctors have seized the scalpel and drawn it over all the wounds of the subject; old judges have mounted to the bench and have decided all the cases of marriage dissolution; whole generations have passed unuttered cries of joy or of grief on the subject, each age has cast its vote into the urn; the Holy Spirit, poets and writers have recounted everything from the days of Eve to the Trojan war, from Helen to Madame de Maintenon, from the mistress of Louis XIV to the woman of their own day.

Physiology, what must I consider your meaning?

Shall I say that you intend to publish pictures more or less skillfully drawn, for the purpose of convincing us that a man marries:

From ambition--that is well known;

From kindness, in order to deliver a girl from the tyranny of her mother;

From rage, in order to disinherit his relations;

From scorn of a faithless mistress;

From weariness of a pleasant bachelor life;

From folly, for each man always commits one;

In consequence of a wager, which was the case with Lord Byron;

From interest, which is almost always the case;

From youthfulness on leaving college, like a blockhead;

From ugliness,--fear of some day failing to secure a wife;

Through Machiavelism, in order to be the heir of some old woman at an early date;

From necessity, in order to secure the standing to our son;

From obligation, the damsel having shown herself weak;

From passion, in order to become more surely cured of it;

On account of a quarrel, in order to put an end to a lawsuit;

From gratitude, by which he gives more than he has received;

From goodness, which is the fate of doctrinaires;

From the condition of a will when a dead uncle attaches his legacy to some girl, marriage with whom is the condition of succession;

From custom, in imitation of his ancestors;

From old age, in order to make an end of life;

From yatidi, that is the hour of going to bed and signifies amongst the Turks all bodily needs;

From religious zeal, like the Duke of Saint-Aignan, who did not wish to commit sin?[*]

[*] The foregoing queries came in (untranslatable) alphabetic order in

   the original.--Editor

But these incidents of marriage have furnished matter for thirty thousand comedies and a hundred thousand romances.

Physiology, for the third and last time I ask you—What is your meaning?

So far everything is commonplace as the pavement of the street, familiar as a crossway. Marriage is better known than the Barabbas of the Passion. All the ancient ideas which it calls to light permeate literature since the world is the world, and there is not a single opinion which might serve to the advantage of the world, nor a ridiculous project which could not find an author to write it up, a printer to print it, a bookseller to sell it and a reader to read it.

Allow me to say to you like Rabelais, who is in every sense our master:

"Gentlemen, God save and guard you! Where are you? I cannot see you; wait until I put on my spectacles. Ah! I see you now; you, your wives, your children. Are you in good health? I am glad to hear it."

But it is not for you that I am writing. Since you have grown-up children that ends the matter.

Ah! it is you, illustrious tipplers, pampered and gouty, and you, tireless pie-cutters, favorites who come dear; day-long pantagruellists who keep your private birds, gay and gallant, and who go to tierce, to sexts, to nones, and also to vespers and compline and never tire of going.

It is not for you that the Physiology of Marriage is addressed, for you are not married and may you never be married. You herd of bigots, snails, hypocrites, dotards, lechers, booted for pilgrimage to Rome, disguised and marked, as it were, to deceive the world. Go back, you scoundrels, out of my sight! Gallows birds are ye all—now in the devil's name will you not begone? There are none left now but the good souls who love to laugh; not the snivelers who burst into tears in prose or verse, whatever their subject be, who make people sick with their odes, their sonnets, their meditation; none of these dreamers, but certain old-fashioned pantagruellists who don't think twice about it when they are invited to join a banquet or provoked to make a repartee, who can take pleasure in a book like Pease and the Lard with commentary of Rabelais, or in the one entitled The Dignity of Breeches, and who esteem highly the fair books of high degree, a quarry hard to run down and redoubtable to wrestle with.

It no longer does to laugh at a government, my friend, since it has invented means to raise fifteen hundred millions by taxation. High ecclesiastics, monks and nuns are no longer so rich that we can drink with them; but let St. Michael come, he who chased the devil from heaven, and we shall perhaps see the good time come back again! There is only one thing in France at the present moment which remains a laughing matter, and that is marriage. Disciples of Panurge, ye are the only readers I desire. You know how seasonably to take up and lay down a book, how to get the most pleasure out of it, to understand the hint in a half word—how to suck nourishment from a marrow-bone.

The men of the microscope who see nothing but a speck, the census-mongers—have they reviewed the whole matter? Have they pronounced without appeal that it is as impossible to write a book on marriage as to make new again a broken pot?

Yes, master fool. If you begin to squeeze the marriage question you squirt out nothing but fun for the bachelors and weariness for the married men. It is everlasting morality. A million printed pages would have no other matter in them.

In spite of this, here is my first proposition: marriage is a fight to the death, before which the wedded couple ask a blessing from heaven, because it is the rashest of all undertakings to swear eternal love; the fight at once commences and victory, that is to say liberty, remains in the hands of the cleverer of the two.

Undoubtedly. But do you see in this a fresh idea?

Well, I address myself to the married men of yesterday and of to-day; to those who on leaving the Church or the registration office indulge the hope of keeping their wives for themselves alone; to those whom some form or other of egotism or some indefinable sentiment induces to say when they see the marital troubles of another, "This will never happen to me."

I address myself to those sailors who after witnessing the foundering of other ships still put to sea; to those bachelors who after witnessing the shipwreck of virtue in a marriage of another venture upon wedlock. And this is my subject, eternally now, yet eternally old!

A young man, or it may be an old one, in love or not in love, has obtained possession by a contract duly recorded at the registration office in heaven and on the rolls of the nation, of a young girl with long hair, with black liquid eyes, with small feet, with dainty tapering fingers, with red lips, with teeth of ivory, finely formed, trembling with life, tempting and plump, white as a lily, loaded with the most charming wealth of beauty. Her drooping eyelashes seem like the points of the iron crown; her skin, which is as fresh as the calyx of a white camelia, is streaked with the purple of the red camelia; over her virginal complexion one seems to see the bloom of young fruit and the delicate down of a young peach; the azure veins spread a kindling warmth over this transparent surface; she asks for life and she gives it; she is all joy and love, all tenderness and candor; she loves her husband, or at least believes she loves him.

The husband who is in love says in the bottom of his heart: "Those eyes will see no one but me, that mouth will tremble with love for me alone, that gentle hand will lavish the caressing treasures of delight on me alone, that bosom will heave at no voice but mine, that slumbering soul will awake at my will alone; I only will entangle my fingers in those shining tresses; I alone will indulge myself in dreamily caressing that sensitive head. I will make death the guardian of my pillow if only I may ward off from the nuptial couch the stranger who would violate it; that throne of love shall swim in the blood of the rash or of my own. Tranquillity, honor, happiness, the ties of home, the fortune of my children, all are at stake there; I would defend them as a lioness defends her cubs. Woe unto him who shall set foot in my lair!"

Well now, courageous athlete, we applaud your intention. Up to the present moment no geographer has ventured to trace the lines of longitude and latitude in the ocean of marriage. Old husbands have been ashamed to point out the sand banks, the reefs, the shallows, the breakers, the monsoons, the coasts and currents which have wrecked their ships, for their shipwrecks brought them shame. There was no pilot, no compass for those pilgrims of marriage. This work is intended to supply the desideratum.

Without mentioning grocers and drapers, there are so many people occupied in discovering the secret motives of women, that it is really a work of charity to classify for them, by chapter and verse, all the secret situations of marriage; a good table of contents will enable them to put their finger on each movement of their wives' heart, as a table of logarithms tells them the product of a given multiplication.

And now what do you think about that? Is not this a novel undertaking, and one which no philosopher has as yet approached, I mean this attempt to show how a woman may be prevented from deceiving her husband? Is not this the comedy of comedies? Is it not a second speculum vitae humanae. We are not now dealing with the abstract questions which we have done justice to already in this Meditation. At the present day in ethics as in exact science, the world asks for facts for the results of observation. These we shall furnish.

Let us begin then by examining the true condition of things, by analyzing the forces which exist on either side. Before arming our imaginary champion let us reckon up the number of his enemies. Let us count the Cossacks who intend to invade his little domain.

All who wish may embark with us on this voyage, all who can may laugh. Weigh anchor; hoist sail! You know exactly the point from which you start. You have this advantage over a great many books that are written.

As for our fancy of laughing while we weep, and of weeping while we laugh, as the divine Rabelais drank while he ate and ate while he drank; as for our humor, to put Heraclitus and Democritus on the same page and to discard style or premeditated phrase—if any of the crew mutiny, overboard with the doting cranks, the infamous classicists, the dead and buried romanticists, and steer for the blue water!

Everybody perhaps will jeeringly remark that we are like those who say with smiling faces, "I am going to tell you a story that will make you laugh!" But it is the proper thing to joke when speaking of marriage! In short, can you not understand that we consider marriage as a trifling ailment to which all of us are subject and upon which this volume is a monograph?

"But you, your bark or your work starts off like those postilions who crack their whips because their passengers are English. You will not have galloped at full speed for half a league before you dismount to mend a trace or to breathe your horses. What is the good of blowing the trumpet before victory?"

Ah! my dear pantagruellists, nowadays to claim success is to obtain it, and since, after all, great works are only due to the expansion of little ideas, I do not see why I should not pluck the laurels, if only for the purpose of crowning those dirty bacon faces who join us in swallowing a dram. One moment, pilot, let us not start without making one little definition.

Reader, if from time to time you meet in this work the terms virtue or virtuous, let us understand that virtue means a certain labored facility by which a wife keeps her heart for her husband; at any rate, that the word is not used in a general sense, and I leave this distinction to the natural sagacity of all.