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PORTRAIT OF A LADY

A FRAGMENT
...He said that the intelligence of this fair lady was like a diamond in a handsome setting. – LA BRUYÈRE.
I

     "SHE is beautiful," he said, "with that beauty which the years most slowly change. They transform it without diminishing it and in order to replace too fragile graces by charms that appear a little more grave and a little less touching only because we feel them to be more lasting. Her body promises to retain for long, until the first shock of old age, the pure and supple lines that dignify desire; and, without knowing why, we are sure that it will keep its promise. Her flesh, intelligent as a glance, is incessantly renewed by the mind that quickens it and dares not assume a wrinkle, displace a flower nor disturb a curve admired by love.

II

     "It was not enough that she should be the one virile friend, the equal comrade, the nearest and deepest companion of the life which she had linked to her own. The star which would have her perfect and which she had learnt not to resist would also have her remain the lover of whom one wearies not. Friendship without love, like love without friendship, is but a half-happiness that makes men sad. They enjoy the one only to regret the other; and, finding but a mutilated joy on life's two fairest hill-tops, they persuade themselves that the human soul can never be perfectly happy.

III

     "Around her summit, reason, the purest that can illumine a being, keeps watch; but it displays only the grace and not the effort of light. Nothing appeared to me colder than reason, until I had seen it thus play around the brow of a young woman like the lamp of the sanctuary in the hands of a laughing, innocent child. The lamp leaves nothing in the shade; but the harshness of its rays does not pass the inner circle of life, whereas their smiles beautify all that they touch without.

     "Her conscience is so natural and so sound that we do not hear it breathe and that she appears unaware of its existence. She is inflexible towards the activity which she directs, but with such ease that she seems to be stopping to rest or to bend over a flower when she is with all her strength resisting an unjust feeling or thought. A movement, an ingenuous and sprightly phrase, a tear that laughs, dissembles the secret of the deep struggle. All that she has acquired has the grace of instinct; and all that is instinctive has become innocent. Of all the feminine passions, none has perished, none is a prisoner, for all are needed, the humblest and most futile and the greatest and most dangerous alike, to form the perfume that love loves to breathe. But, although not held in bondage, they live in a sort of enchanted garden, whence they do not dream of escaping, where they lose the desire to do harm and where the smaller and more useless, unable to remain inactive, amuse and divert the greater.

IV

     "She has, therefore, by way of an adornment, all the passions and all the weaknesses of womankind; and, thanks to the gods, she does not present that still-born perfection which possesses all the virtues without being vivified by a single fault. In what imaginary world do we find a virtue that is not grafted upon a defect? A virtue is but a vice that raises instead of lowering itself; and a good quality is but a defect that has turned itself to use.

     "How should she have the necessary energy if she were deprived of ambition and pride? How could she thrust aside unjust obstacles if she did not possess a reserve of selfishness proportionate to the lawful exigencies of her life? How should she be ardent and fond if she were not sensual? How should she be kind if she were not a little weak? How should she be trustful if she were not often too credulous? How should she be beautiful if she knew not mirrors and did not seek to please? How should she preserve her feminine grace if she had no innocent vanities? How should she be generous if she were not a little improvident? How should she be just if she were unable to he hard, how brave if she were not rash? How should she be devoted and capable of sacrifice if she never escaped from the control of icy reason? What we call virtues and vices are the same forces passing along a life. They change their name, according to the direction in which they go: to the left, they fall into the shallows of ugliness, selfishness and folly; to the right, they climb to the high lands of nobleness, generosity and intelligence. They are good or bad according to what they do and not according to the title which they bear.

V

     "When a man's virtues are depicted for us, they are represented in the effort of action; but those which are admired in a woman always infer a model as motionless as a beautiful statue in a marble gallery. She is an inconsistent image, a tissue of vices quiescent, of inert qualities, of slumbering epithets, of passive movements, of negative forces. She is chaste because she has no senses, she is kind because she does harm to none, she is just because she does not act, she is patient and resigned because she is devoid of energy, she is indulgent because none offends her or forgiving because she has not the courage to resist, she is charitable because she allows herself to be stripped or because her charity deprives her of nothing, she is faithful, she is loyal, she is submissive, she is devoted because all these virtues can live in emptiness and can blossom on a dead woman's body. But what shall happen if the image takes life and comes forth from her retreat to enter upon an existence in which all that does not take part in the movement that surrounds it becomes a pitiful or dangerous wreck? Is it still a virtue to keep faithful to an ill-chosen or morally extinguished love, or to remain subject to an unintelligent or unjust master? Is to refrain from harming enough to make one kind, to refrain from lying enough to make one true? There is the morality of those who keep to the banks of the great river and the morality of those who ascend the stream. There is the morality of sleep and that of action, the morality of shadow and that of light; and the virtues of the first, which may be described as concave virtues, must needs arise, stand up and become virtues in relief, if they are to remain virtues in the second. The matter and the lines perhaps remain identical, but the values are exactly reversed. Patience, mildness, submissiveness, confidence, renunciation, resignation, devotion, sacrifice, all fruits of passive goodness, become, if we remove them, such as they are, into the stern outer life, no more than weakness, servility, indifference, unconsciousness, indolence, unconstraint, folly or cowardice and must, in order to keep at the necessary level the source of goodness from which they spring, be able to develop into energy, firmness, obstinacy, prudence, indignation and revolt. Loyalty, which has scarce anything to fear so long as it does not stir, must be careful lest it be duped and surrender its arms to the enemy. Chastity, which sat waiting with eyes closed and hands folded, has the right to change into passion, which shall decide and settle destiny. And the same consecutively with all the virtues which have a name as with those which are as yet unnamed. Next, it is a problem to know which is preferable, active or passive life, that which mingles with men and events or that which shuns them. Is there a moral law that imposes the one or the other, or has each the right to make his choice according to his tastes, his character, his aptitudes? Is it better or worse that the active or the passive virtues should stand in the foreground? It may, I think, be declared that the former always imply the second, but that the converse is not true. Thus, the woman of whom I speak is the more capable of devotion and sacrifice in that she has the strength to ward off their overwhelming necessity longer than any others. She will not cultivate sadness or suffering vaguely, as a means of expiation or purification; but she is able to accept and go in search of them with ingenuous ardour in order to save those whom she loves a small affliction or a great sorrow which she feels herself strong enough to face alone and to overcome in silence in her secret heart. How often have I not seen her force back tears ready to gush forth under unjust reproaches, while her lips, on which flickered a fevered smile, held back, with almost invisible courage, the word which would have justified her, but which would have crushed him who misjudged her. For, like all just and good beings, she had naturally to undergo the petty injustice and the petty wickedness of those who hover indeterminately between good and evil and who hasten to abuse the indulgence or forgiveness too frequently obtained. There you have that which, better than any slack and weeping acquiescence, shows an ardent and potent reserve of love.

VI

    "Iphigenia, Antigone or sister of charity, like every woman, if need be, she will not ask Fate to wound her to the death, as though in order to be able at last, in the final struggle, to weigh the perhaps wonderful powers of an unexplored heart. She has learnt to know their number and their weight in the peace and certainty of her conscience. Apart from one of those tests in which life brings us to a standstill at the relentless barriers of a fatality or an inexorable natural law, she will instinctively take another road to reach the end pointed out by duty. In any case, her devotion and sacrifice will never be resigned, will never abandon themselves to the perfidious sweetness of sorrow. Ever upon the watch, upon the defensive, and full of strenuous confidence, she will to the last moment seek the weak spot in the event that is crushing her. Her tears will be as pure, as gentle as the tears of those who do not resist the insults of chance; but, instead of dimming her gaze, they will summon to it and multiply in it the light that consoles or saves.

VII

     "For the rest," he added, in conclusion, "the Arténice whom I have endeavoured to depict to you will, under the features which I have given her, appear either perfectly hateful or perfectly beautiful according to the ideal which each of you carries within himself or believes himself to have met. There is no agreeing except on passive virtues. These have, from the point of view of painting, an advantage which the others do not enjoy. It is easy to evoke resignation, abnegation, submissiveness, virginal modesty, humility, piety, renunciation, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, simplicity, ingenuousness, candour, the whole silent and often desolate group of woman's powers scared away into life's dim corners. The eye recognizes with emotion the familiar colours faded by the centuries; and the picture is always full of a plaintive grace. It would seem as if those virtues could not be mistaken, and their very excesses make them more touching. But what an unusual and ungrateful face is worn by those which stand out, which assert themselves and which struggle without the gates! A mere nothing, a stray lock, a fold of a garment that is not in its customary place, a tense muscle, makes them unpleasing or suspicious, pretentious or hard. Woman has so long lived kneeling in the shadow that our prejudiced eyes find it difficult to seize the harmony of the first movements which she risks when rising to her feet in the light of day. But all that one can say when striving to paint the intimate portrait of a being bears but a very imperfect resemblance to the more precise image which our thoughts form in our minds at the moment when we are speaking of him; and this last image, in its turn, is but a sketch of the great likeness, living, profound, but incommunicable, which his presence has imprinted in our heart, like the light on the sensitized plate. Compare the last proof with the first two: however exact, however well impressed we may think these to be, they no longer offer more than the garlands and arabesques of frames more or less appropriate to the subject which they await; but the genuine face, the authentic and integral being, with the only real good and evil which he contains beneath his apparently real vices and virtues, emerges from the shadow only at the immediate contact of two lives. The finest energies and the worst weaknesses add hardly anything to the mysterious entity that asserts itself, take hardly anything from it; and what is revealed is the very quality of its destiny. We then become aware that the existence which we have before us, all the hidden possibilities of which only pass through our eyes to reach our soul, is really that which it would wish to become, or will never be that which it loyally strives not to remain.

VIII

     "If it matters much to friendship and love, it matters but little to our instinctive sympathy that some one should be good or bad, do good or ill, provided that we accept the secret force that animates him. That secret force often reveals itself at the first meeting; sometimes also we learn to know it only after long habit. It has scarce anything in common with the outward acts or even with the thoughts of the real person, who does not seem to be its exact representative, but its chance interpreter, by means of whom it manifests itself as best it may. Thus we have all of us, among those whom the see-saw of our days mingles with our existence, friends or associates whom we scarcely esteem, who have done us more than one ill office and in whom we know that we can have no confidence. Nevertheless, we do not bring ourselves to despise them as they deserve and to thrust them from our path. Across and in spite of all that separates us and all that disfigures them, an averment in which we place a more solid and more organic belief than in all the experience and all the arguments of reason, an obscure but invincible averment testifies to us that that man, were he to precipitate us into the most real and most grave misfortunes, is not our enemy in the general and eternal plan of life. It may be that there is no sanction for these sympathies and antipathies, and that nothing answers to them either among the visible or invisible phenomena of which our existence is made up, or among the known or unknown fluids that form and maintain our physical or moral health, our feelings of joy or sadness and the mobile and most impressionable medium in which our destiny floats. The fact none the less remains that there is here an undeniable force which plays a decisive part in the accomplishment of our happiness, both in friendship and in love. This third power has regard to neither age nor sex, neither beauty nor ugliness; it is independent of physical or sexual attraction and of affinities of mind and character. It is, as it were, the beneficent and generous atmosphere in which that attraction and those affinities bathe. To the absence of this third power, this vivifying atmosphere, from love are due all the misunderstandings, all the griefs, all the deceptions that disunite two beings who esteem, understand and passionately love each other. Since the nature of this power is unknown, it is given various obscure names. It is called the soul, the instinct, the unconscious or the subconscious, the divine even. It probably emanates from the undefined organ that binds us to all that does not directly concern our individuality, to all that extends beyond it in time and space, in the past and in the future."

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