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He hoped the work would "produce an effect of incontestable superiority". The novel was first published as part of the Nouveaux contes philosophiques in late , but by the start of the following year he declared it to be "a wretched miscarriage" and began rewriting it. Once he had returned home, the author "cried with despair and with that rage that takes hold of you when you recognize your faults after working so hard".
A vastly expanded and revised novel, Histoire intellectuelle de L. Balzac, still unsatisfied, continued reworking the text — as he often did between editions — and included a series of letters written by the boy genius, as well as a detailed description of his metaphysical theories. The novel begins with an overview of the main character's background.
Louis Lambert, the only child of a tanner and his wife, is born in and begins reading at an early age. There he meets the narrator, a classmate named "the Poet" who later identifies himself in the text as Balzac; they quickly become friends.
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Soon afterwards, a serious illness forces the narrator to leave the school. In , Lambert graduates at the age of eighteen and lives for three years in Paris. After returning to his uncle's home in Blois , he meets a woman named Pauline de Villenoix and falls passionately in love with her.
On the day before their wedding, however, he suffers a mental breakdown and attempts to castrate himself. Declared "incurable" by doctors, Lambert is ordered into solitude and rest. The narrator, ignorant of these events, meets Lambert's uncle by chance, and is given a series of letters. Written by Lambert while in Paris and Blois, they continue his philosophical musings and describe his love for Pauline. The actual events of Louis Lambert are secondary to extended discussions of philosophy especially metaphysics and human emotion.
Because the novel does not employ the same sort of realism for which Balzac became famous, it has been called one of "the most diffuse and least valuable of his works". The first part of the novel is replete with details about the school, describing how quarters were inspected and the complex social rules for exchanging dishes at dinnertime. Of all the physical torments to which we were exposed, certainly the most acute was that inflicted by this leathern instrument, about two fingers wide, applied to our poor little hands with all the strength and all the fury of the administrator. To endure this classical form of correction, the victim knelt in the middle of the room.
He had to leave his form and go to kneel down near the master's desk under the curious and generally merciless eyes of his fellows Some boys cried out and shed bitter tears before or after the application of the strap; others accepted the infliction with stoic calm Further signs of Balzac's realism appear when Lambert describes his ability to vicariously experience events through thought alone.
In one extended passage, he describes reading about the Battle of Austerlitz and seeing "every incident". In another he imagines the physical pain of a knife cutting his skin. Biographers and critics agree that Louis Lambert is a thinly veiled version of the author, evidenced by numerous similarities between them.
Balzac wrote the essay himself as a boy, and — as in the novel — it was confiscated by an angry teacher. Similarly, some critics and biographers have suggested that Lambert's madness reflects consciously or not Balzac's own unsteady mental state. His plans to run for parliament and other non-literary ambitions led observers at the time to suspect his sanity.
The many letters in the novel written by Lambert are also based on Balzac's life. After finishing the first version of the book, Balzac tried to win the heart of the Marquise de Castries by sending her a fragmented love letter from the book. Primary among these is the division of the human into an "inward" and "outward" being. The outward being, subject to the forces of nature and studied by science, manifests itself in Lambert as the frail, frequently sick boy.
The inward being, meanwhile, contains what Lambert calls "the material substance of thought", and serves as the true life into which he gradually moves throughout the novel. Swedenborg's concepts are explored with relation to language, pain, memory, and dreams. Believing his spirit visited the place while his body slept, he ascribes the experience to "a complete severance of my body and my inner being" and "some inscrutable locomotive faculty in the spirit with effects resembling those of locomotion in the body". Like his heroes Swedenborg and Saint-Martin, Balzac attempts in Louis Lambert to construct a viable theory to unify spirit and matter.
The word Will he used to connote The word Mind, or Thought, which he regarded as the quintessential product of the Will, also represented the medium in which the ideas originate to which thought gives substance Thus the Will and the Mind were the two generating forces; the Volition and the Idea were the two products. For my part, I kept near him, absorbed in studying him in silence. Louis Lambert was slightly built, nearly five feet in height; his face was tanned, and his hands were burnt brown by the sun, giving him an appearance of manly vigor, which, in fact, he did not possess.
Indeed, two months after he came to the college, when studying in the classroom had faded his vivid, so to speak, vegetable coloring, he became as pale and white as a woman. His head was unusually large. His hair, of a fine, bright black in masses of curls, gave wonderful beauty to his brow, of which the proportions were extraordinary even to us heedless boys, knowing nothing, as may be supposed, of the auguries of phrenology, a science still in its cradle.
The distinction of this prophetic brow lay principally in the exquisitely chiseled shape of the arches under which his black eyes sparkled, and which had the transparency of alabaster, the line having the unusual beauty of being perfectly level to where it met the top of the nose. But when you saw his eyes it was difficult to think of the rest of his face, which was indeed plain enough, for their look was full of a wonderful variety of expression; they seemed to have a soul in their depths. At one moment astonishingly clear and piercing, at another full of heavenly sweetness, those eyes became dull, almost colorless, as it seemed, when he was lost in meditation.
They then looked like a window from which the sun had suddenly vanished after lighting it up. His strength and his voice were no less variable; equally rigid, equally unexpected. His tone could be as sweet as that of a woman compelled to own her love; at other times it was labored, rough, rugged, if I may use such words in a new sense.
As to his strength, he was habitually incapable of enduring the fatigue of any game, and seemed weakly, almost infirm. But during the early days of his school-life, one of our little bullies having made game of this sickliness, which rendered him unfit for the violent exercise in vogue among his fellows, Lambert took hold with both hands of one of the class-tables, consisting of twelve large desks, face to face and sloping from the middle; he leaned back against the class-master's desk, steadying the table with his feet on the cross-bar below, and said:.
I was present, and can vouch for this strange display of strength; it was impossible to move the table. Lambert had the gift of summoning to his aid at certain times the most extraordinary powers, and of concentrating all his forces on a given point. But children, like men, are wont to judge of everything by first impressions, and after the first few days we ceased to study Louis; he entirely belied Madame de Stael's prognostications, and displayed none of the prodigies we looked for in him.
After three months at school, Louis was looked upon as a quite ordinary scholar.
I alone was allowed really to know that sublime—why should I not say divine? The similarity of our tastes and ideas made us friends and chums; our intimacy was so brotherly that our school-fellows joined our two names; one was never spoken without the other, and to call either they always shouted "Poet-and-Pythagoras! Thus for two years I was the school friend of poor Louis Lambert; and during that time my life was so identified with his, that I am enabled now to write his intellectual biography.
It was long before I fully knew the poetry and the wealth of ideas that lay hidden in my companion's heart and brain. It was not till I was thirty years of age, till my experience was matured and condensed, till the flash of an intense illumination had thrown a fresh light upon it, that I was capable of understanding all the bearings of the phenomena which I witnessed at that early time. I benefited by them without understanding their greatness or their processes; indeed, I have forgotten some, or remember only the most conspicuous facts; still, my memory is now able to co-ordinate them, and I have mastered the secrets of that fertile brain by looking back to the delightful days of our boyish affection.
So it was time alone that initiated me into the meaning of the events and facts that were crowded into that obscure life, as into that of many another man who is lost to science. Indeed, this narrative, so far as the expression and appreciation of many things is concerned, will be found full of what may be termed moral anachronisms, which perhaps will not detract from its peculiar interest.
In the course of the first few months after coming to Vendome, Louis became the victim of a malady which, though the symptoms were invisible to the eye of our superiors, considerably interfered with the exercise of his remarkable gifts.
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Accustomed to live in the open air, and to the freedom of a purely haphazard education, happy in the tender care of an old man who was devoted to him, used to meditating in the sunshine, he found it very hard to submit to college rules, to walk in the ranks, to live within the four walls of a room where eighty boys were sitting in silence on wooden forms each in front of his desk. His senses were developed to such perfection as gave them the most sensitive keenness, and every part of him suffered from this life in common.
The effluvia that vitiated the air, mingled with the odors of a classroom that was never clean, nor free from the fragments of our breakfasts or snacks, affected his sense of smell, the sense which, being more immediately connected than the others with the nerve-centers of the brain, must, when shocked, cause invisible disturbance to the organs of thought.
Besides these elements of impurity in the atmosphere, there were lockers in the classrooms in which the boys kept their miscellaneous plunder—pigeons killed for fete days, or tidbits filched from the dinner-table. In each classroom, too, there was a large stone slab, on which two pails full of water were kept standing, a sort of sink, where we every morning washed our faces and hands, one after another, in the master's presence.
We then passed on to a table, where women combed and powdered our hair.