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Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
1838 -1889


The Desire to be a Man

by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

Translated by Hamish Miles



...that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man!"

Midnight struck at the Bourse, beneath a sky crowded with stars. At this period the demands of martial law were still pressing on the citizens, and the waiters of the establishments still illuminated were hurrying to close down in accordance with the curfew regulations.

Along the boulevards, inside the great café, the gaslight butterflies of the chandeliers took quick flight, one by one, into the darkness. From without came the din of chairs being piled in fours on top of the marble tables; it was the psychological moment when every café-proprietor deems it fitting to point, with an arm ending in a napkin, the Caudine Forks of the low door to the last lingering clients.

On that Sunday, the melancholy wind of October was whistling. A few yellow leaves, dusky and rustling, sped past in the gusts, striking the stones, gliding along the asphalt, and then, like bats, vanished into the gloom, evoking as they did so the image of dreary days past beyond recall.

The theatres of the Boulevard du Crime, where during the evening all the Medicis, all the Salviatis, and all the Montefeltres had stabbed each other to their hearts’ content, rose up like caverns of Silence, their dumb doors guarded by caryatides. Carriages and pedestrians became fewer as each minute passed. Here and there, the sceptical lantern of a ragpicker was already gleaming, like a phosphorescence given off by the piles of filth over which the creatures wandered.

Beneath a lamp-post at the Rue Hauteville, where the corner is occupied by a café of fairly pretentious appearance, stood a solitary passer-by, tall and of saturnine expression. His chin was clean-shaven, his movements recalled a man walking in his sleep, and on his long hair, turning grey, was set a felt hat of the Louis XIII style. His black gloves rested on an ivory-topped cane, and he was wrapped in an old royal-blue cloak, befurred with doubtful astrakhan. He had stopped, as if in mechanical hesitation to cross the causeway separating him from the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle.

Was this belated personage returning to his abode? Had he been brought to this street corner simply by the chance of a nocturnal stroll? It would have been hard to determine from his appearance. But suddenly, to his right, he caught sight of one of those mirrors, narrow and long as his own figure—the sort of public mirrors sometimes attached to the fronts of conspicuous taverns. He halted abruptly, placed himself directly opposite his reflection, and eyed himself with great deliberation from top to toe. Then, suddenly raising his hat with a sweep that recalled its antique mode, he saluted himself with marked courtesy.

His head, thus unexpectedly made visible, allowed one to recognize the famous tragedian Chaudval, originally Lepeinteur, styled Monanteuil, the scion of a very worthy family of St. Malo pilots, whom the mysterious ways of Destiny had led to become a great leading man of the provinces, a top-line name abroad, and a rival (frequently well-matched) of our Frédéric Lemaître.

Whilst he was thus contemplating himself with a sort of stupefaction, the waiters of the café hard by were helping on the overcoats of the last clients and reaching down their hats from the pegs; others were noisily turning out the contents of the nickel money-box and piling a circular heap of the day’s coppers on a tray. This startled haste sprang from the ominous presence of two police officers who had suddenly appeared on the threshold and, with folded arms, were intimidating the dilatory proprietor with a cold stare.

Soon the shutters were bolted into their iron rests, with the exception of the mirrored panel, which, by a strange oversight, was omitted in the midst of the general flurry.

Then a deep silence fell over the boulevard. Chaudval alone, heedless of all this desolation, had stayed in his attitude of ecstasy on the pavement at the corner of the Rue Hauteville, in front of the public glass.

This livid, moon-like mirror apparently gave the artist the sensation which he would have experienced had he been bathing in a pond: for Chaudval was shivering.

Alas! we must face it! in this ruthless and mournful crystal, the actor had just unmistakably seen that age was creeping over him.

He observed that his hair, which yesterday had still been only sprinkled with grey, was now turning to silver. So that was the end of it! Farewell to curtain calls and floral tributes! Farewell to the roses of Thalia, to the laurels of Melpomene! There must be an end now, and for ever, with many a handshake and tear, to the Ellevious and the Laruettes, to the great style and the easy manners, to Dugazons and ingénues!

He must climb hurriedly down from the chariot of Thespis, and watch it pass on into the distance, carrying away his companions. And then—to see the tinsel and the streamers waving from it in the morning sun, even from the wheels, sports of the gladsome winds of Hope, and to watch them disappearing at the distant bend of the road, away into the dusk.

Abruptly aware of his fifty years (he was an excellent fellow), Chaudval sighed. A mist passed before his eyes; a kind of wintry fever seized him, and hallucination dilated the pupils of his eyes.

In the end, the haggard fixity of gaze wherewith he plumbed the depths of the providential mirror gave his pupils the faculty of magnifying objects and infusing them with solemnity—a state which physiologists have observed in persons affected by emotion of great intensity.

And so, beneath his eyes with their load of troubled and toneless ideas, the long mirror changed its aspect. Memories of childhood, of the beach and silvery tides, danced in his brain; and the mirror, doubtless on account of the stars, which lent a sense of depth to its surface, gave him at first the feeling of the calm waters of a land-locked bay. Then, expanding further, thanks to the old man’s sighs, the glass took on the aspect of the sea and of night, those two ancient friends of hearts stricken by loneliness.

For a time he drugged himself with the vision. But the street lamp overhead, shining red behind him through the cold fog, seemed to him, when it was cast back to the depths of this fearsome glass, like the blood-coloured gleam of a lighthouse, pointing the track of shipwreck to the lost vessel of his future.

He shook off this nightmare, drew himself to the full height of his tall figure, and gave vent to a burst of false and bitter laughter which made the two policemen start, over there under the trees. Fortunately for the artist, the latter imagined it must be some stray drunkard, or some deceived lover perhaps, and continued their official progress without attributing any further importance to the unhappy Chaudval.

‘Well, we must face it!’ he said simply, in a low voice, like the condemned man, suddenly roused from sleep, who says to the hangman: “I am at your service sir!’

And straightway the old actor ventured forth into a monologue, with the stupefaction of mental prostration.

‘I have acted prudently enough,’ he went on, ‘for I asked my good friend Mlle. Pinson (who has access to the Minister, and to his pillow as well) to obtain for me, between two passionate avowals, that post as lighthouse-keeper which my father enjoyed on the ocean coast. And stop! I see now the strange effect that street lamp produced on me in the mirror! It was my underlying thought.—The Pinson will be sending me my authorization, there’s no doubt. And then I shall retreat into my lighthouse like a rat in a cheese. I shall light the way for vessels afar off, away at sea. A lighthouse! It always strikes the note for a good background. I am alone in the world: decidedly, it is the most fitting asylum for my declining days.’

Suddenly Chaudval broke off his reverie.

‘Ah, wait a moment!’ he said, one hand feeling his chest beneath his cloak. ‘That letter the postman brought just as I was coming out—it’s the answer, no doubt? Why, I was just going into the café to read it, and I forgot!—Really, I am breaking up!—Good! Here it is.’

Chaudval had just drawn a large envelope from his pocket.

He opened it, and there fell out a ministerial note which he picked up with feverish haste. He ran his eye through it under the red flame of the lamp-post.

‘My lighthouse! My warrant!’ he exclaimed. And ‘Saved, ye gods above!’ he added mechanically, as if from old habit, and in a falsetto so sudden, so different from his own, that he looked all round, imagining there must be some third party at hand.

‘Come, keep calm, and … be a man!’ he went on, after a moment.

But at those words, Esprit Chaudval, originally Lepeinteur, styled Monanteuil, stopped. It was as if he had been turned to a pillar of salt. The word seemed to have paralysed him.

‘Eh?’ he continued after a silence. ‘What was that wish just now?—To be a Man?—And after all, why not?’

He folded his arms, plunged in reflection.

‘For nearly half a century now I have been representing, I have been playing, the passions of others without even experiencing them. For, at bottom, I myself have never experienced anything. I am the likeness of these “others”, but only in play, never in earnest! So I’m no more than a shadow? Passion—emotions—real acts—real—these are what constitute a Man properly so-called! Well, age forces me to return into Humanity, so I must needs obtain passions for myself, or some real emotion…since that’s the sine qua non of any claim to the title of Man. There’s honest logic for you: it’s crammed full of sound sense!—So we must choose to experience something which will best accord with the nature I have at last brought back to life.’

He meditated awhile, and then went on in melancholy tones:

‘Love? Too late.—Fame? I’ve known it.—Ambition? Leave that trumpery stuff to the politicians!’

Suddenly a cry broke from him:

‘I’ve got it!’ he said. ‘Remorse! That is something to go with my dramatic temperament.’

He looked at himself in the glass, assuming a face convulsed and contracted as if by some unearthly horror.

‘That’s it!’ he concluded. ‘Nero! Macbeth! Orestes! Hamlet! Herostratus! Ghosts—yes! I want to see true ghosts! My time’s come! Just like all those people who had the luck never to be able to take one step without ghosts beside them.’

He struck his brow.

‘But how? I’m as innocent as an unborn lamb.’

And, again pausing, he went on:

‘Ah! Don’t let that stand in the way! Where there’s a will there’s a way. I’ve ample right to become what I ought to be, and at any price. I’ve a right to my Humanity!—To experience remorse, you must have committed crimes? Well, a fig for crimes! What do they matter, so long as it’s … in a good cause?—Yes.… Very good!’ (And he falls into a dialogue.) ‘When?—At once. No putting off till to-morrow!—What crimes?—One only! But a great one, an extravagant, atrocious crime! One to bring all the Furies forth from Hell!—Which shall it be?—The most startling, by heaven! Bravo! I’ve got it! A fire! Then I’ll just have time to start my fire—pack my trunks—come back, duly cowering behind the window of a cab—enjoy my triumph amid the horrified crowds—overhear the maledictions of the dying—and catch my westward train with remorse at my heels for the rest of my days! And then I shall be off to hide myself in my lighthouse! Up there in the light! Away out at sea! And consequently the police will never contrive to find me—my crime being disinterested! And I shall breathe my last there, alone.’ Here Chaudval drew himself up, improvising a line of Corneille-like splendour:

Safe from suspicion by the crime’s huge gleam!

‘’Tis said.—And now,’ concluded the great artist, picking up a cobblestone, and looking round to assure himself that he was alone, ‘and now, you shall never reflect any other person!’

And he hurled the stone against the glass, which shivered into a thousand glittering fragments.

This first duty accomplished, Chaudval made off hurriedly—as if satisfied with this preliminary but energetic deed of daring. He hastened towards the boulevards. There, a few minutes later, a carriage stopped at his hail. He jumped into it, and disappeared.

A couple of hours later the leaping flames of an immense conflagration, bursting from great storehouses of petroleum, oils, and matches, were reflected from all the windows of the Temple quarter. Soon the detachments of firemen, rolling and pushing their apparatus, were rushing together from all directions, and the doleful blasts of their trumpets roused with a start all the inhabitants of this populous quarter. Countless hurrying footsteps were clattering on the pavements; the crowd was blocking the great square of the Château-d’Eau and the adjoining streets. In less than a quarter of an hour a body of troops was forming a cordon round the scene of the conflagration. By the blood-red glow of torches, policemen were controlling the floods of humanity in the neighbourhood.

Carriages were caught up, and could move no farther. Every one was shouting. In amongst the terrible crackling of the fire, distant cries could be distinguished. The victims caught in this inferno were screaming, and the roofs of the houses were crashing in upon them. A hundred families, those of workmen belonging to the blazing factories, were made, alas! penniless and homeless.

But over there, a solitary cab, laden with two large trunks, was standing stationary behind the crowd halted in the square. Inside it was Esprit Chaudval, originally Lepeinteur, styled Monanteuil. And from time to time he drew aside the blind and contemplated his handiwork.

‘Oh!’ he whispered to himself, ‘I feel myself a horror to God and to men!—Yes, that’s it, that really is the touch of a reprobate!’

The good old actor’s face was glowing.

‘Wretch that I am!’ he grumbled. ‘What vengeful nights of waking shall I know, beset by the phantoms of my victims! I can feel rising within me the soul of a Nero, burning Rome in an artist’s frenzy! Of a Herostratus, burning the temple of Ephesus for love of fame! Of a Rostopchin, burning Moscow for love of country! Of an Alexander, burning Persepolis for the pleasing of his deathless Thaïs!—And I, I am burning for the sake of Duty, having no other means of existence!—I start a fire because I owe myself to myself! I acquit myself! What a Man I shall be! How I shall taste life! Yes, at last I am going to know what one feels when one is put to the torture!—And those nights I shall pass, nights of delight, of magnificent horror!—Ah!—I breathe again! I am born anew! I exist! And to think I have been an actor! Now, we must make off, with the speed of the lightning: in the gross eyes of mankind, I am no more than food for the gallows! Come, we must lock ourselves into our lighthouse, and enjoy remorse in peace!’

Two days later, in the evening, Chaudval had arrived at his destination and taken possession of his old and deserted lighthouse situated on our western coast: a flame long unused, on a ruined building, which ministerial compassion had brought back to life for him.

The light itself could hardly be of any use whatever: it was a work of supererogation, a sinecure, a dwelling with a flame on top of it, with which everybody, save for the solitary exception of Chaudval, could dispense.

So the worthy tragedian, having brought thither his bed, some food, and a great mirror in which to study his facial effects, immediately shut himself up in it, away from the threat of any human suspicion.

Around him moaned the ocean, wherein the ancient abyss of the heavens bathed all its starry clarity. He watched the tides flinging themselves against his tower before the gusts of wind, rather as the Stylite could contemplate the sands swirling against his column before the breath of the desert wind.

With every moment that passed, the dreamer forgot his conflagration.—He climbed up and down the stone staircase.

On the evening of the third day, Lepeinteur was seated in his room, sixty feet above the waves, reading once again a Paris newspaper which recounted the story of the great catastrophe of the night before. ‘An unknown malefactor had flung a few matches into the petroleum vaults. A phenomenal conflagration, which had kept up the firemen and residents of the neighbouring districts all through the night, had manifested itself in the Temple quarter.’

Close on one hundred victims had perished. Hapless families had been plunged into the direst necessity.

The whole of the square was in mourning, and still smoking.

Nothing was known of the identify of the criminal who had committed this crime; and still less could be imagined as to his motive.

As he read, Chaudval leapt for joy, and rubbed his hands excitedly, exclaiming:

‘What a success! What a marvellous criminal I am! Shall I ever be haunted enough? What ghosts I shall see! I knew well that I should become a Man! Ah, the method was a hard one, I’ll admit—but it had to be done! It had to be done!’

And looking again at the Paris paper, Chaudval saw mention of a benefit performance to be given on behalf of the sufferers.

‘Ah!’ he murmured, ‘I ought to have lent the assistance of my talent for the benefit of my victims! That would have been my farewell performance! I would have declaimed Orestes. I’d have been very convincing.…

Thereupon, Chaudval began life in his lighthouse.

And the evenings fell, came one upon the other; and the nights.

One thing happened which stupefied the artist. Something atrocious!

Contrary to all his hopes and anticipations, his conscience gave no murmur of remorse. Not one ghost showed itself! He experienced nothing—absolutely nothing!

He could not believe the silence. He could not get over it.

And from time to time he looked in the mirror, but his head had not altered its complacent aspect! In a fury, he rushed to his lantern, and falsified its lights in a glowing hope of sinking some far-off vessel, so as to help, to quicken, to stimulate this mutinous remorse, to awaken the ghost!

Useless toil!

Fruitless attempts! Vain efforts! He experienced nothing. Not one menacing phantom did he behold. He no longer slept so heavily did despair and shame weigh him down.—So much so that one night he was stricken in his light-giving solitude by a cerebral congestion, and fell into a fit, wherein he cried aloud, to the sound of the sea, and with the great ocean winds smiting his tower lost there in the infinite:

‘Ghosts—for the love of God, ghosts! Let me see just one ghost! I’ve well deserved it!

The God whom he invoked did not vouchsafe him this grace. And the old actor expired, still proclaiming with all its futile emphasis his great desire to set eyes on the ghosts, and never once seeing that what he was seeking was simply—himself.



Last updated:
December 29, 2003
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