Recollections of My Youth/First Steps Outside St. Sulpice/Part II

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First Steps Outside St. Sulpice/Part II[edit]

Constituted as I am to find my own company quite sufficient, the humble dwelling in the Rue des Deux Eglises (now the Rue de l'Abbe de l'Epee) would have been a paradise for me had it not been for the terrible crisis which my conscience was passing through, and the altered direction which I was compelled to give to my existence. The fish in Lake Baikal have, it is said, taken thousands of years in their transformation from salt to fresh water fish. I had to effect my transition in a few weeks. Catholicism, like a fairy circle, casts such a powerful spell upon one's whole life, that when one is deprived of it everything seems aimless and gloomy. I felt terribly out of my element. The whole universe seemed to me like an arid and chilly desert. With Christianity untrue, everything else appeared to me indifferent, frivolous, and undeserving of interest. The shattering of my career left me with a sense of aching void, like what may be felt by one who has had an attack of fever or a blighted affection. The struggle which had engrossed my whole soul had been so ardent that all the rest appeared to me petty and frivolous. The world discovered itself to me as mean and deficient in virtue. I seemed to have lost caste, and to have fallen upon a nest of pigmies.

My sorrow was much increased by the grief which I had been compelled to inflict upon my mother. I resorted, perhaps wrongly, to certain artifices with the view, as I hoped, of sparing her pain. Her letters went to my heart. She supposed my position to be even more painful than it was in reality, and as she had, despite our poverty, rather spoilt me, she thought that I should never be able to withstand any hardship. "When I remember how a poor little mouse kept you from sleeping, I am at a loss to know how you will get on," she wrote to me. She passed her time singing the Marseilles hymns,[1] of which she was so fond, especially the hymn of Joseph, beginning--

"O Joseph, o mon aimable
Fils affable."

When she wrote to me in this strain, my heart was fit to break. As a child, I was in the habit of asking her ten times over in the course of the day--"Mother, have I been good?" The idea of a rupture between us was most cruel. I accordingly resorted to various devices in order to prove to her that I was still the same tender son that I had been in the past. In time the wound healed, and when she saw that I was as tender and loving towards her as ever, she readily agreed that there might be more than one way of being a priest, and that nothing was changed in me except the dress, which was the literal truth.

My ignorance of the world was thorough-paced. I knew nothing except of literary matters, and as my only real knowledge was that which I gained at St. Sulpice, I have always been like a child in all worldly matters. I did not therefore make any effort to render my material position as good as the circumstances admitted. The one object of life seemed to me to be thought. The educational profession being the one which comes nearest to the clerical one, I selected it almost without reflection. It was hard, no doubt, after having reached the maximum of intellectual culture, and having held a post of some honour, to descend to the lowest rank. I was better versed than any living Frenchman, with the exception of M. Le Hir, in the comparative theory of the Semitic languages, and my position was no better than that of an under-master; I was a savant, and I had not taken a degree. But the inward contentment of my own conscience was enough for me. I never felt a shadow of regret at the decision which I had come to in October, 1845.

I had my reward, moreover, the day after I entered the humble school in which I was to occupy for three years and a-half such a lowly position. Among the pupils was one who, owing to his successes and rapid progress, held a place of his own in the school. He was eighteen years old, and even at that early age the philosophical spirit, the concentrated ardour, the passionate love of truth, and the inventive sagacity which have since made his name celebrated were apparent to those who knew him. I refer to M. Berthelot, whose room was next to mine. From the day that we knew each other, we became fast friends. Our eagerness to learn was equally great, and we had both had very different kinds of culture. We accordingly threw all that we knew into the same seething cauldron which served to boil joints of very different kinds. Berthelot taught me what was not to be learnt in the seminary, while I taught him theology and Hebrew. Berthelot purchased a Hebrew Bible, which, I believe, is still in his library with its leaves uncut. He did not get much beyond the Shevas, the counter attractions of the laboratory being too great. Our mutual honesty and straightforwardness brought us closer together. Berthelot introduced me to his father, one of those gifted doctors such as may be found in Paris. The father was a Galilean of the old school, and very advanced in his political views. He was the first Republican I had ever seen, and it took me some time to familiarize myself with the idea. But he was something more than that: he was a model of charity and self-devotion. He assured the scientific career of his son by enabling him to devote himself up to the age of thirty to his speculative researches without having to obtain any remunerative post which would have interfered with his studies. In politics, Berthelot remained true to the principles of his father. This is the only point upon which we have not always been agreed. For my part I should willingly resign myself, if the opportunity arose (I must say that it seems to grow more distant every day), to serve, for the greater good of humanity now so sadly out of gear, a tyrant who was philanthropic, well-instructed, intelligent, and liberal.

Our discussions were interminable, and we were always resuming the same subject. We passed part of the night in searching out together the topics upon which we were engaged. After some little time, M. Berthelot, having completed his special mathematical studies at the Lycee Henri IV., went back to his father, who lived at the foot of the Tour Saint Jacques de la Boucherie. When he came to see me in the evening at the Rue de l'Abbe de l'Epee, we used to converse for hours, and then I used to walk back with him to the Tour Saint Jacques. But as our conversation was rarely concluded when we got back to his door, he returned with me, and then I went back with him, this game of battledore and shuttlecock being renewed several times. Social and philosophical questions must be very hard to solve, seeing that we could not with all our energy settle them. The crisis of 1848 had a very great effect upon us. This fateful year was not more successful than we had been in solving the problems which it had set itself, but it demonstrated the fragility of many things which were supposed to be solid, and to young and active minds it seemed like the lowering of a curtain of clouds upon the horizon.

The profound affection which thus bound M. Berthelot and myself together was unquestionably of a very rare and singular kind. It so happened that we were both of an essentially objective nature; a nature, that is to say, perfectly free from the narrow whirlwind which converts most consciences into an egotistical gulf like the conical cavity of the formica-leo. Accustomed each to pay very little attention to himself, we paid very little attention to one another. Our friendship consisted in what we mutually learnt, in a sort of common fermentation which a remarkable conformity of intellectual organization produced in us in regard to the same objects. Anything which we had both seen in the same light seemed to us a certainty. When we first became acquainted, I still retained a tender attachment for Christianity. Berthelot also inherited from his father a remnant of Christian belief. A few months sufficed to relegate these vestiges of faith to that part of our souls reserved for memory. The statement that everything in the world is of the same colour, that there is no special supernatural or momentary revelation, impressed itself upon our minds as unanswerable. The scientific purview of a universe in which there is no appreciable trace of any free will superior to that of man became, from the first months of 1846, the immovable anchor from which we never shifted. We shall never move from this position until we shall have encountered in nature some one specially intentional fact having its cause outside the free will of man or the spontaneous action of the animal.

Thus our friendship was somewhat analogous to that of two eyes when they look steadily at the same object, and when from two images the brain receives one and the same perception. Our intellectual growth was like the phenomenon which occurs through a sort of action due to close contact and to passive complicity. M. Berthelot looked as favourably upon what I did as myself; I liked his ways as much as he could have done himself. There was never so much as a trivial vulgarity--I will not say a moral slackening of affection--between us. We were invariably upon the same terms with each other that people are with a woman for whom they feel respect. When I want to typify what an unexampled pair of friends we were, I always represent two priests in their surplices walking arm in arm. This dress does not debar them from discussing elevated subjects; but it would never occur to them in such a dress to smoke a cigar, to talk about trifles, or to satisfy the most legitimate requirements of the body. Flaubert, the novelist, could never understand that, as Sainte-Beuve relates, the recluses of Port Royal lived for years in the same house and addressed each other as Monsieur to the day of their death. The fact of the matter is that Flaubert had no sort of idea as to what abstract natures are. Not only did nothing approaching to a familiarity ever pass between us, but we should have hesitated to ask each other for help, or almost for advice. To ask a service would, in our view, be an act of corruption, an injustice towards the rest of the human race; it would, at all events, be tantamount to acknowledging that there was something to which we attached a value. But we are so well aware that the temporal order of things is vain, empty, hollow, and frivolous, that we hesitate at giving a tangible shape even to friendship. We have too much regard for each other to be guilty of a weakness towards each other. Both alike convinced of the insignificance of human affairs, and possessed of the same aspirations for what is eternal, we could not bring ourselves to admit having of a set purpose concentrated our thoughts upon what is casual and accidental. For there can be no doubt that ordinary friendship presupposes the conviction that all things are not vain and empty.

Later in life an intimacy of this kind may at times cease to be felt as a necessity. It recovers all its force whenever the globe of this world, which is ever changing, brings round some new aspect with regard to which we want to consult each other. Whichever of us dies first will leave a great void in the existence of the other. Our friendship reminds me of that of Francois de Sales and President Favre: "They pass away these years of time, my brother, their months are reduced to weeks, their weeks to days, their days to hours, and their hours to moments, which latter alone we possess, and these only as they fleet." The conviction of the existence of an eternal object embraced in youth, gives a peculiar stability to life. All this is anything but human or natural, you may say! No doubt, but strength is only manifested by running counter to nature. The natural tree does not bear good fruit. The fruit is not good until the tree is trained; that is to say, until it has ceased to be a tree.


  1. A collection of hymns of the sixteenth century, touching in their simplicity. I have my mother's old copy; I may perhaps write something about them hereafter.