The Counterfeiters V : Edouard’s Journal: Conversation with Sophroniska

C’est ce qui arrive de presque toutes les maladies de l’esprit humain qu’on se flatte d’avoir guéries. On les répercute seulement, comme on dit en médecine, et on leur en substitue d’autres.

SAINTE-BEUVE (Lundis, 1, p. 19).

I am beginning to catch sight of what I might call the “deep-lying subject” of my book. It is—it will be—no doubt, the rivalry between the real world and the representation of it which we make to ourselves. The manner in which the world of appearances imposes itself upon us, and the manner in which we try to impose on the outside world our own interpretation—this is the drama of our lives. The resistance of facts invites us to transport our ideal construction into the realm of dreams, of hope, of belief in a future life, which is fed by all the disappointments and disillusions of our present one. Realists start from facts—fit their ideas to suit the facts. Bernard is a realist. I am afraid we shall never understand each other.

How could I agree when Sophroniska told me I had nothing of the mystic in me? I am quite ready to recognize, as she does, that without mysticism man can achieve nothing great. But is it not precisely my mysticism which Laura incriminates when I speak of my book?… Well, let them settle the argument as they please.

Sophroniska has been speaking to me again about Boris, from whom she thinks she has succeeded in obtaining a full confession. The poor child has not got the smallest covert, the smallest tuft left in him, where he can take shelter from the doctor’s scrutiny. He has been driven into the open. Sophroniska takes to bits the innermost wheels of his mental organism and spreads them out in the broad daylight, like a watchmaker cleaning the works of a clock. If after that he does not keep good time, it’s a hopeless job. This is what Sophroniska told me:

When Boris was about nine years old, he was sent to school at Warsaw. He there made friends with a schoolfellow one or two years older than himself—one Baptistin Kraft, who initiated him into certain clandestine practices, which the children in their ignorance and astonishment believed to be “magic.” This is the name they bestowed upon their vice, from having heard or read that magic enables one in some mysterious way to gain possession of what one wishes for, that it gives unlimited powers and so forth.… They believed in all good faith that they had discovered a secret which made up for real absence by illusory presence, and they freely put themselves in a state of hallucination and ecstasy, gloating over an empty void, which their heated imagination, stimulated by their desire for pleasure, filled to overflowing with marvels. Needless to say, Sophroniska did not make use of these terms; I should have liked her to repeat exactly what Boris said, but she declares she only succeeded in making out the above—though she certified its accuracy—through a tangle of pretences, reticence and vagueness.

“I have at last found out the explanation of something I have been trying to discover for a long time past,” she added, “—of a bit of parchment which Boris used always to wear hanging round his neck in a little sachet, along with the religious medallions his mother forces him to wear. There were six words on it, written in capital letters in a childish, painstaking hand—six words whose meaning he never would tell me.



“ ‘But it means nothing—it’s magic,’ he used always to answer whenever I pressed him. That was all I could get out of him. I know now that these enigmatic words are in young Baptistin’s handwriting—the grand master and professor of magic—and that these six words were the boys’ formula of incantation—the ‘Open Sesame’ of the shameful Paradise, into which their pleasure plunged them. Boris called this bit of parchment, his talisman. I had great difficulty in persuading him to let me see it and still greater in persuading him to give it up (it was at the beginning of our stay here); for I wanted him to give it up, as I know now that he had already given up his bad habits. I had hopes that the tics and manias from which he suffers would disappear with the talisman. But he clung to it and his illness clung to it as to a last refuge.”

“But you said he had already given up his bad habits.… ”

“His nervous illness only began after that. It arose no doubt from the constraint Boris was obliged to exercise in order to get free from them. I have just learnt from him that his mother caught him one day in the act of ‘doing magic,’ as he says. Why did she never tell me?… out of false shame? …”

“And no doubt because she knew he was cured.”

“Absurd!… And that is why I have been in the dark so long. I told you that I thought Boris was perfectly pure.”

“You even told me that you were embarrassed by it.”

“You see how right I was!… The mother ought to have warned me. Boris would be cured already if I had known this from the beginning.”

“You said these troubles only began later on.… ”

“I said they arose as a protestation. His mother, I imagine, scolded, begged, preached. Then his father died. Boris was convinced that this was the punishment of these secret practices he had been told were so wicked; he held himself responsible for his father’s death; he thought himself criminal, damned. He took fright; and it was then that his weakly organism, like a tracked animal, invented all these little subterfuges, by means of which he works off his secret sense of guilt, and which are so many avowals.”

“If I understand you rightly, you think it would have been less prejudicial to Boris if he had gone quietly on with his ‘magic’?”

“I think he might have been cured without being frightened. The change of life which was made necessary by his father’s death would have been enough, no doubt, to distract his attention, and when they left Warsaw he would have been removed from his friend’s influence. No good result is to be arrived at by terror. Once I knew the facts, I talked the whole thing over with him, and made him ashamed of having preferred the possession of imaginary goods to the real goods which are, I told him, the reward of effort. Far from attempting to blacken his vice, I represented it to him simply as one of the forms of laziness; and I really believe it is—the most subtle—the most perfidious.”

These words brought back to my mind some lines of La Rochefoucauld, which I thought I should like to show her, and, though I might have quoted them by heart, I went to fetch the little book of Maxims, without which I never travel. I read her the following:

“Of all the passions, the one about which we ourselves know least is laziness, the fiercest and the most evil of them all, though its violence goes unperceived and the havoc it causes lies hidden.… The repose of laziness has a secret charm for the soul, suddenly suspending its most ardent pursuits and most obstinate resolutions. To give, in fine, some idea of this passion, it should be said that laziness is like a state of beatitude, in which the soul is consoled for all its losses, and which stands in lieu to it of all its possessions.” 1“Do you mean to say,” said Sophroniska then, “that La Rochefoucauld was hinting at what we have been speaking of, when he wrote that?”

“Possibly; but I don’t think so. Our classical authors have a right to all the interpretations they allow of. That is why they are so rich. Their precision is all the more admirable in that it does not claim to be exclusive.”

I asked her to show me this wonderful talisman of Boris’s. She told me it was no longer in her possession, as she had given it to a person who was interested in Boris and who had asked her for it as a souvenir. “A certain M. Strouvilhou, whom I met here some time before your arrival.”

I told Sophroniska then, that I had seen the name in the visitors’ book, and that as I had formerly known a Strouvilhou, I was curious to learn whether it was the same. From the description she gave of him it was impossible to doubt it. But she could tell me nothing that satisfied my curiosity. I merely learnt that he was very polite, very attentive, that he seemed to her exceedingly intelligent, but a little lazy, “if I dare still use the word,” she added, laughing. In my turn I told her all I knew of Strouvilhou, and that led me to speak of the boarding school where we had first met, of Laura’s parents (she too had been confiding in her), and finally of old La Pérouse, of his relationship with Boris, and of the promise I had made him to bring the child back to Paris. As Sophroniska had previously said that it was not desirable Boris should live with his mother, “Why don’t you send him to Azaïs’s school?” I asked. In suggesting this, I was thinking especially of his grandfather’s immense joy at having him so near, and staying with friends where he could see him whenever he liked. Sophroniska said she would think it over; extremely interested by everything I told her.

Sophroniska goes on repeating that little Boris is cured—a cure which is supposed to corroborate her method; but I am afraid she is anticipating a little. Of course I don’t want to set my opinion against hers, and I admit that his tics, his way of contradicting himself, his hesitations of speech have almost entirely disappeared; but, to my mind, the malady has simply taken refuge in some deeper recess of his being, as though to escape the doctor’s inquisitorial glance, and now it is his soul itself which is the seat of mischief. Just as onanism was succeeded by nervous movements, so these movements have given place to some strange undefinable, invisible state of terror. Sophroniska, it is true, is uneasy at seeing Boris, following upon Bronja’s lead, fling himself into a sort of puerile mysticism; she is too intelligent not to understand that this new “beatitude” which Boris is now seeking, is not very different after all from the one he at first provoked by artifice, and that though it may be less wasteful, less ruinous to the organism, it turns him aside quite as much from effort and realization. But when I say this she replies that creatures like Boris and Bronja cannot do without some idealistic food, and that if they were deprived of it, they would succumb—Bronja to despair, and Boris to a vulgar materialism; she thinks she has no right to destroy the children’s confidence, and though she thinks their belief is untrue, she must needs see in it a sublimation of low instincts, a higher postulation, an incitement, a safeguard, a what-not.… Without herself believing in the dogmas of the Church, she believes in the efficacy of faith. She speaks with emotion of the two children’s piety, of how they read the Apocalypse together, of their fervour, their talk with angels, their white-robed souls. Like all women, she is full of contradictions. But she was right—I am decidedly not a mystic … any more than I am lazy. I rely on the atmosphere of Azaïs’s school to turn Boris into a worker; to cure him in a word of seeking after imaginary goods. That is where his salvation lies. Sophroniska, I think, is coming round to the idea of confiding him to my care; but she will no doubt accompany him to Paris so as to be able to settle him into the school herself, and so reassure his mother, whose consent she makes sure of obtaining.

1 De toutes les passions, celle qui est la plus inconnue à nous-mêmes, c’est la paresse; elle est la plus ardente et la plus maligne de toutes, quoique sa violence soit insensible et que les dommages qu’elle cause soient très-cachés … Le repos de la paresse est un charme secret de l’âme qui suspend soudainement les plus ardentes poursuites et les plus opiniâtres résolutions. Pour donner enfin la véritable idée de cette passion, il faut dire que la paresse est comme une béatitude de l’âme, qui la console de toutes ses pertes et qui lui tient lieu de tous ses biens.