Balzac’s Master Criminal: The Great Vitalist – Vautrin


Who will ever forget the moment in Pere Goriot when that great criminal vitalist and a central character in three novels and a play by that indefatigable author of The Human Comedy Honoré de Balzac, Vautrin is caught out:

“Mlle. Michonneau was talking the day before yesterday about a gentleman called Trompe-la-Mort [Death-Dodger],” said Bianchon; “and, upon my word, that name would do very well for you.”

Vautrin seemed thunderstruck. He turned pale, and staggered back. He turned his magnetic glance, like a ray of vivid light, on Mlle. Michonneau; the old maid shrank and trembled under the influence of that strong will, and collapsed into a chair. The mask of good nature had dropped from the convict’s face; from the unmistakable ferocity of that sinister look, Poiret felt that the old maid was in danger, and hastily stepped between them. None of the lodgers understood this scene in the least; they looked on in mute amazement. There was a pause. Just then there was a sound of tramping feet outside; there were soldiers there, it seemed, for there was a ring of several rifles on the cobble-stones stones of the street. Collin was mechanically looking round the walls for away of escape, when four men entered by way of the sitting-room.

“In the name of the king and the law!” said an officer, but the words were almost lost in a murmur of astonishment.

Silence fell on the room. The lodgers made way for three of the men, who had each a hand on a cocked pistol in a side pocket. Two policemen, who followed the detectives, kept the entrance to the sitting-room, and two more appeared in the doorway that gave access to the staircase. A sound of footsteps came from the garden, and again the rifles of several soldiers rang on the cobble-stones under the window. All hope of flight was cut off from Death-Dodger, on whom every eye instinctively turned. The chief walked straight up to him, and commenced  operations by giving him a sharp blow on the head, so that the wig fell off, and Collin’s face was revealed in all its ugliness. There was a terrible suggestion of strength mingled with cunning in the short, brick-red crop of hair, the whole head was in harmony with his powerful frame, and at that moment the fires of hell seemed to gleam from his eyes. In that flash the real Vautrin shone forth, revealed at once before them all; they understood his past, his present, and future, his pitiless doctrines, his actions, the religion of his own good pleasure, the majesty with which his cynicism and contempt for mankind invested hint, the physical strength of an organization proof against all trials. The blood flew to his face, and his eyes glared like the eyes of a wild cat. He started back with savage energy and a fierce growl that drew exclamations of alarm from the lodgers. At that leonine start the police caught at their pistols under cover of the general clamor. Collin saw the gleaming muzzles of the weapons, saw his danger, and instantly gave proof of a power of the highest order. There was something horrible and majestic in the spectacle of the sudden transformation in his face; he could only be compared to a cauldron full of dense steam that can upheave mountains, a terrific force dispelled in a moment by a drop of cold water. The drop of water that cooled his wrathful fury was a reflection that flashed across his brain like lightning. He began to smile, and looked down at his wig.

In this almost Byronic grotesquerie of sovereign will and intellect, the singular force of the Parisian underworld and its leader, this great outlaw and outcast of society, at once a vitalist of absolute will and a creature in full control of his intellect and cunning practicality, forms that magnificent epiphany of almost occult power and unnatural daemonism we see above. W.B. Yeats would admire Louis Lambert for its occult and visionary energetics, yet it is in the novels (Pere Goriot, Lost Illusions, and A Harlot High and Low) and the play by that name (Vautrin) that we see Balzac’s vitalism incarnated in this titanic creature who ironically he would in his final novel place at the very center of authority and make Vautrin the head of Paris Sûreté (Police).

Balzac would always play the anarchist, yet would ultimately see the benefit of protecting his life’s work so that his alter ego and criminal mastermind would absolve himself of his dark natural proclivities and renter the symbolic order of society and become one of its prodigal sons and benefactors. Just like Dickens’s world of misfits, mountebanks, madmen, criminals, scoundrels, and socialites, politicians, bankers, prelates, etc., Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine gives us the depths and heights of life lived. Something always pulled him into that realm where the opposites seem forever at war, and yet he would step back from time to time to encircle this dark terrain with the humane wisdom of a man who’d seen every gambit in life thrown at him. Always on the edge of poverty he wrote to the point of exhaustion and hallucination, his mind fevered by the characters that inhabit his world, their lives the shape of his own uncanny mind. One imagines the “savage energy and a fierce growl” of Vautrin as Balzac’s own as he felt the force of his own uncanny power and daemon urging him onward through those trying years till the voyage was completed and the world he built could be inhabited by that great and terrible vitalist, the daemon Vautrin who as Chief of the police would oversee that world and keep its integrity safe through the ages. This was the genius of Balzac: he constructed a vessel within which he could place his own energetic spirit, his daemonic self – the Comedie Humaine.

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