The Physiology of Marriage/Part 1/Med 8

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

Meditation VIII: Of the First Symptoms[edit]

When your wife reaches that crisis in which we have left her, you yourself are wrapped in a pleasant and unsuspicious security. You have so often seen the sun that you begin to think it is shining over everybody. You therefore give no longer that attention to the least action of your wife, which was impelled by your first outburst of passion.

This indolence prevents many husbands from perceiving the symptoms which, in their wives, herald the first storm; and this disposition of mind has resulted in the minotaurization of more husbands than have either opportunity, carriages, sofas and apartments in town.

The feeling of indifference in the presence of danger is to some degree justified by the apparent tranquillity which surrounds you. The conspiracy which is formed against you by our million of hungry celibates seems to be unanimous in its advance. Although all are enemies of each other and know each other well, a sort of instinct forces them into co-operation.

Two persons are married. The myrmidons of the Minotaur, young and old, have usually the politeness to leave the bride and bridegroom entirely to themselves at first. They look upon the husband as an artisan, whose business it is to trim, polish, cut into facets and mount the diamond, which is to pass from hand to hand in order to be admired all around. Moreover, the aspect of a young married couple much taken with each other always rejoices the heart of those among the celibates who are known as roués; they take good care not to disturb the excitement by which society is to be profited; they also know that heavy showers to not last long. They therefore keep quiet; they watch, and wait, with incredible vigilance, for the moment when bride and groom begin to weary of the seventh heaven.

The tact with which celibates discover the moment when the breeze begins to rise in a new home can only be compared to the indifference of those husbands for whom the Red-moon rises. There is, even in intrigue, a moment of ripeness which must be waited for. The great man is he who anticipates the outcome of certain circumstances. Men of fifty-two, whom we have represented as being so dangerous, know very well, for example, that any man who offers himself as lover to a woman and is haughtily rejected, will be received with open arms three months afterwards. But it may be truly said that in general married people in betraying their indifference towards each other show the same naivete with which they first betrayed their love. At the time when you are traversing with madame the ravishing fields of the seventh heaven--where according to their temperament, newly married people remain encamped for a longer or shorter time, as the preceding Meditation has proved--you go little or not at all into society. Happy as you are in your home, if you do go abroad, it will be for the purpose of making up a choice party and visiting the theatre, the country, etc. From the moment you the newly wedded make your appearance in the world again, you and your bride together, or separately, and are seen to be attentive to each other at balls, at parties, at all the empty amusements created to escape the void of an unsatisfied heart, the celibates discern that your wife comes there in search of distraction; her home, her husband are therefore wearisome to her.

At this point the celibate knows that half of the journey is accomplished. At this point you are on the eve of being minotaurized, and your wife is likely to become inconsistent; which means that she is on the contrary likely to prove very consistent in her conduct, that she has reasoned it out with astonishing sagacity and that you are likely very soon to smell fire. From that moment she will not in appearance fail in any of her duties, and will put on the colors of that virtue in which she is most lacking. Said Crebillon:

"Alas!
Is it right to be heir of the man who we slay?"

Never has she seemed more anxious to please you. She will seek, as much as possible, to allay the secret wounds which she thinks about inflicting upon your married bliss, she will do so by those little attentions which induce you to believe in the eternity of her love; hence the proverb, "Happy as a fool." But in accordance with the character of women, they either despise their own husbands from the very fact that they find no difficulty in deceiving them; or they hate them when they find themselves circumvented by them; or they fall into a condition of indifference towards them, which is a thousand times worse than hatred. In this emergency, the first thing which may be diagnosed in a woman is a decided oddness of behavior. A woman loves to be saved from herself, to escape her conscience, but without the eagerness shown in this connection by wives who are thoroughly unhappy. She dresses herself with especial care, in order, she will tell you, to flatter your amour-propre by drawing all eyes upon her in the midst of parties and public entertainments.

When she returns to the bosom of her stupid home you will see that, at times, she is gloomy and thoughtful, then suddenly laughing and gay as if beside herself; or assuming the serious expression of a German when he advances to the fight. Such varying moods always indicate the terrible doubt and hesitation to which we have already referred. There are women who read romances in order to feast upon the images of love cleverly depicted and always varied, of love crowned yet triumphant; or in order to familiarize themselves in thought with the perils of an intrigue.

She will profess the highest esteem for you, she will tell you that she loves you as a sister; and that such reasonable friendship is the only true, the only durable friendship, the only tie which it is the aim of marriage to establish between man and wife.

She will adroitly distinguish between the duties which are all she has to perform and the rights which she can demand to exercise.

She views with indifference, appreciated by you alone, all the details of married happiness. This sort of happiness, perhaps, has never been very agreeable to her and moreover it is always with her. She knows it well, she has analyzed it; and what slight but terrible evidence comes from these circumstances to prove to an intelligent husband that this frail creature argues and reasons, instead of being carried away on the tempest of passion.


LX.

The more a man judges the less he loves.


And now will burst forth from her those pleasantries at which you will be the first to laugh and those reflections which will startle you by their profundity; now you will see sudden changes of mood and the caprices of a mind which hesitates. At times she will exhibit extreme tenderness, as if she repented of her thoughts and her projects; sometimes she will be sullen and at cross-purposes with you; in a word, she will fulfill the varium et mutabile femina which we hitherto have had the folly to attribute to the feminine temperament. Diderot, in his desire to explain the mutations almost atmospheric in the behavior of women, has even gone so far as to make them the offspring of what he calls la bête feroce; but we never see these whims in a woman who is happy.

These symptoms, light as gossamer, resemble the clouds which scarcely break the azure surface of the sky and which they call flowers of the storm. But soon their colors take a deeper intensity.

In the midst of this solemn premeditation, which tends, as Madame de Stael says, to bring more poetry into life, some women, in whom virtuous mothers either from considerations of worldly advantage of duty or sentiment, or through sheer hypocrisy, have inculcated steadfast principles, take the overwhelming fancies by which they are assailed for suggestions of the devil; and you will see them therefore trotting regularly to mass, to midday offices, even to vespers. This false devotion exhibits itself, first of all in the shape of pretty books of devotion in a costly binding, by the aid of which these dear sinners attempt in vain to fulfill the duties imposed by religion, and long neglected for the pleasures of marriage.

Now here we will lay down a principle, and you must engrave it on your memory in letters of fire.

When a young woman suddenly takes up religious practices which she has before abandoned, this new order of life always conceals a motive highly significant, in view of her husband's happiness. In the case of at least seventy-nine women out of a hundred this return to God proves that they have been inconsistent, or that they intend to become so.

But a symptom more significant still and more decisive, and one that every husband should recognize under pain of being considered a fool, is this:

At the time when both of you are immersed in the illusive delights of the honeymoon, your wife, as one devoted to you, would constantly carry out your will. She was happy in the power of showing the ready will, which both of you mistook for love, and she would have liked for you to have asked her to walk on the edge of the roof, and immediately, nimble as a squirrel, she would have run over the tiles. In a word, she found an ineffable delight in sacrificing to you that ego which made her a being distinct from yours. She had identified herself with your nature and was obedient to that vow of the heart, Una caro.

All this delightful promptness of an earlier day gradually faded away. Wounded to find her will counted as nothing, your wife will attempt, nevertheless, to reassert it by means of a system developed gradually, and from day to day, with increased energy.

This system is founded upon what we may call the dignity of the married woman. The first effect of this system is to mingle with your pleasures a certain reserve and a certain lukewarmness, of which you are the sole judge.

According to the greater or lesser violence of your sensual passion, you have perhaps discerned some of those twenty-two pleasures which in other times created in Greece twenty-two kinds of courtesans, devoted especially to these delicate branches of the same art. Ignorant and simple, curious and full of hope, your young wife may have taken some degrees in this science as rare as it is unknown, and which we especially commend to the attention of the future author of Physiology of Pleasure.

Lacking all these different kinds of pleasure, all these caprices of soul, all these arrows of love, you are reduced to the most common of love fashions, of that primitive and innocent wedding gait, the calm homage which the innocent Adam rendered to our common Mother and which doubtless suggested to the Serpent the idea of taking them in. But a symptom so complete is not frequent. Most married couples are too good Christians to follow the usages of pagan Greece, so we have ranged, among the last symptoms, the appearance in the calm nuptial couch of those shameless pleasures which spring generally from lawless passion. In their proper time and place we will treat more fully of this fascinating diagnostic; at this point, things are reduced to a listlessness and conjugal repugnance which you alone are in a condition to appreciate.

At the same time that she is ennobling by her dignity the objects of marriage, your wife will pretend that she ought to have her opinion and you yours. "In marrying," she will say, "a woman does not vow that she will abdicate the throne of reason. Are women then really slaves? Human laws can fetter the body; but the mind!—ah! God has placed it so near Himself that no human hand can touch it."

These ideas necessarily proceed either from the too liberal teachings which you have allowed her to receive, or from some reflections which you have permitted her to make. A whole Meditation has been devoted to Home Instruction.

Then your wife begins to say, "My chamber, my bed, my apartment." To many of your questions she will reply, "But, my dear, this is no business of yours!" Or: "Men have their part in the direction of the house, and women have theirs." Or, laughing at men who meddle in household affairs, she will affirm that "men do not understand some things."

The number of things which you do not understand increases day by day.

One fine morning, you will see in your little church two altars, where before you never worshiped but at one. The altar of your wife and your own altar have become distinct, and this distinction will go on increasing, always in accordance with the system founded upon the dignity of woman.

Then the following ideas will appear, and they will be inculcated in you whether you like it or not, by means of a living force very ancient in origin and little known. Steam-power, horse-power, man-power, and water-power are good inventions, but nature has provided women with a moral power, in comparison with which all other powers are nothing; we may call it rattle-power. This force consists in a continuance of the same sound, in an exact repetition of the same words, in a reversion, over and over again, to the same ideas, and this so unvaried, that from hearing them over and over again you will admit them, in order to be delivered from the discussion. Thus the power of the rattle will prove to you:

That you are very fortunate to have such an excellent wife;

That she has done you too much honor in marrying you;

That women often see clearer than men;

That you ought to take the advice of your wife in everything, and almost always ought to follow it;

That you ought to respect the mother of your children, to honor her and have confidence in her;

That the best way to escape being deceived, is to rely upon a wife's refinement, for according to certain old ideas which we have had the weakness to give credit, it is impossible for a man to prevent his wife from minotaurizing him;

That a lawful wife is a man's best friend;

That a woman is mistress in her own house and queen in her drawing-room, etc.

Those who wish to oppose a firm resistance to a woman's conquest, effected by means of her dignity over man's power, fall into the category of the predestined.

At first, quarrels arise which in the eye of wives give an air of tyranny to husbands. The tyranny of a husband is always a terrible excuse for inconsistency in a wife. Then, in their frivolous discussions they are enabled to prove to their families and to ours, to everybody and to ourselves, that we are in the wrong. If, for the sake of peace, or from love, you acknowledge the pretended rights of women, you yield an advantage to your wife by which she will profit eternally. A husband, like a government, ought never to acknowledge a mistake. In case you do so, your power will be outflanked by the subtle artifices of feminine dignity; then all will be lost; from that moment she will advance from concession to concession until she has driven you from her bed.

The woman being shrewd, intelligent, sarcastic and having leisure to meditate over an ironical phrase, can easily turn you into ridicule during a momentary clash of opinions. The day on which she turns you into ridicule, sees the end of your happiness. Your power has expired. A woman who has laughed at her husband cannot henceforth love him. A man should be, to the woman who is in love with him, a being full of power, of greatness, and always imposing. A family cannot exist without despotism. Think of that, ye nations!

Now the difficult course which a man has to steer in presence of such serious incidents as these, is what we may call the haute politique of marriage, and is the subject of the second and third parts of our book. That breviary of marital Machiavelism will teach you the manner in which you may grow to greatness within that frivolous mind, within that soul of lacework, to use Napoleon's phrase. You may learn how a man may exhibit a soul of steel, may enter upon this little domestic war without ever yielding the empire of his will, and may do so without compromising his happiness. For if you exhibit any tendency to abdication, your wife will despise you, for the sole reason that she has discovered you to be destitute of mental vigor; you are no longer a man to her.

But we have not yet reached the point at which are to be developed those theories and principles, by means of which a man may unite elegance of manners with severity of measures; let it suffice us, for the moment, to point out the importance of impending events and let us pursue our theme.

At this fatal epoch, you will see that she is adroitly setting up a right to go out alone.

You were at one time her god, her idol. She has now reached that height of devotion at which it is permitted to see holes in the garments of the saints.

"Oh, mon Dieu! My dear," said Madame de la Valliere to her husband, "how badly you wear your sword! M. de Richelieu has a way of making it hang straight at his side, which you ought to try to imitate; it is in much better taste."

"My dear, you could not tell me in a more tactful manner that we have been married five months!" replied the Duke, whose repartee made his fortune in the reign of Louis XV.

She will study your character in order to find weapons against you. Such a study, which love would hold in horror, reveals itself in the thousand little traps which she lays purposely to make you scold her; when a woman has no excuse for minotaurizing her husband she sets to work to make one.

She will perhaps begin dinner without waiting for you.

If you drive through the middle of the town, she will point out certain objects which escaped your notice; she will sing before you without feeling afraid; she will interrupt you, sometimes vouchsafe no reply to you, and will prove to you, in a thousand different ways, that she is enjoying at your side the use of all her faculties and exercising her private judgment.

She will try to abolish entirely your influence in the management of the house and to become sole mistress of your fortune. At first this struggle will serve as a distraction for her soul, whether it be empty or in too violent commotion; next, she will find in your opposition a new motive for ridicule. Slang expressions will not fail her, and in France we are so quickly vanquished by the ironical smile of another!

At other times headaches and nervous attacks make their appearance; but these symptoms furnish matter for a whole future Meditation. In the world she will speak of you without blushing, and will gaze at you with assurance. She will begin to blame your least actions because they are at variance with her ideas, or her secret intentions. She will take no care of what pertains to you, she will not even know whether you have all you need. You are no longer her paragon.

In imitation of Louis XIV, who carried to his mistresses the bouquets of orange blossoms which the head gardener of Versailles put on his table every morning, M. de Vivonne used almost every day to give his wife choice flowers during the early period of his marriage. One morning he found the bouquet lying on the side table without having been placed, as usual, in a vase of water.

"Oh! Oh!" said he, "if I am not a cuckold, I shall very soon be one."

You go on a journey for eight days and you receive no letters, or you receive one, three pages of which are blank.—Symptom.

You come home mounted on a valuable horse which you like very much, and between her kisses your wife shows her uneasiness about the horse and his fodder.—Symptom.

To these features of the case, you will be able to add others. We shall endeavor in the present volume always to paint things in bold fresco style and leave the miniatures to you. According to the characters concerned, the indications which we are describing, veiled under the incidents of ordinary life, are of infinite variety. One man may discover a symptom in the way a shawl is put on, while another needs to receive a fillip to his intellect, in order to notice the indifference of his mate.

Some fine spring morning, the day after a ball, or the eve of a country party, this situation reaches its last phase; your wife is listless and the happiness within her reach has no more attractions for her. Her mind, her imagination, perhaps her natural caprices call for a lover. Nevertheless, she dare not yet embark upon an intrigue whose consequences and details fill her with dread. You are still there for some purpose or other; you are a weight in the balance, although a very light one. On the other hand, the lover presents himself arrayed in all the graces of novelty and all the charms of mystery. The conflict which has arisen in the heart of your wife becomes, in presence of the enemy, more real and more full of peril than before. Very soon the more dangers and risks there are to be run, the more she burns to plunge into that delicious gulf of fear, enjoyment, anguish and delight. Her imagination kindles and sparkles, her future life rises before her eyes, colored with romantic and mysterious hues. Her soul discovers that existence has already taken its tone from this struggle which to a woman has so much solemnity in it. All is agitation, all is fire, all is commotion within her. She lives with three times as much intensity as before, and judges the future by the present. The little pleasure which you have lavished upon her bears witness against you; for she is not excited as much by the pleasures which she has received, as by those which she is yet to enjoy; does not imagination show her that her happiness will be keener with this lover, whom the laws deny her, than with you? And then, she finds enjoyment even in her terror and terror in her enjoyment. Then she falls in love with this imminent danger, this sword of Damocles hung over her head by you yourself, thus preferring the delirious agonies of such a passion, to that conjugal inanity which is worse to her than death, to that indifference which is less a sentiment than the absence of all sentiment.

You, who must go to pay your respects to the Minister of Finance, to write memorandums at the bank, to make your reports at the Bourse, or to speak in the Chamber; you, young men, who have repeated with many others in our first Meditation the oath that you will defend your happiness in defending your wife, what can you oppose to these desires of hers which are so natural? For, with these creatures of fire, to live is to feel; the moment they cease to experience emotion they are dead. The law in virtue of which you take your position produces in her this involuntary act of minotaurism. "There is one sequel," said D'Alembert, "to the laws of movement." Well, then, where are your means of defence?— Where, indeed?

Alas! if your wife has not yet kissed the apple of the Serpent, the Serpent stands before her; you sleep, we are awake, and our book begins.

Without inquiring how many husbands, among the five hundred thousand which this book concerns, will be left with the predestined; how many have contracted unfortunate marriages; how many have made a bad beginning with their wives; and without wishing to ask if there be many or few of this numerous band who can satisfy the conditions required for struggling against the danger which is impending, we intend to expound in the second and third part of this work the methods of fighting the Minotaur and keeping intact the virtue of wives. But if fate, the devil, the celibate, opportunity, desire your ruin, in recognizing the progress of all intrigues, in joining in the battles which are fought by every home, you will possibly be able to find some consolation. Many people have such a happy disposition, that on showing to them the condition of things and explaining to them the why and the wherefore, they scratch their foreheads, rub their hands, stamp on the ground, and are satisfied.