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"The Magic Skin", by Honoré De Balzac

Dernière mise à jour : 23 mai 2023

Extract from :

Honore De Balzac

The Magic Skin


[Translation: Ellen Marriage]


"Then the old man went on thus :

“Without compelling you to entreat me, without making you blush for it, and withoutgiving you so much as a French centime, a para from the Levant, a German heller, a Russian kopeck, a Scottish farthing, a single obolus or sestertius from the ancient world,or one piastre from the new, without offering you anything whatever in gold, silver, orcopper, notes or drafts, I will make you richer, more powerful, and of more consequencethan a constitutional king.”

The young man thought that the older was in his dotage, and waited in bewilderment without venturing to reply.

“Turn round,” said the merchant, suddenly catching up the lamp in order to light up the opposite wall.

“Look at that leathern skin,” he went on.


He held the lamp close to the talisman, which the young man held towards him, and pointed out some characters in laid in the surface of the wonderful skin, as if they had grown on the animal to which it once belonged.

“I must admit,” said the stranger, “that I have no idea how the letters could be engraved so deeply on the skin of a wild ass.”

And he turned quickly to the tables strewn with curiosities and seemed to look for something.

“What is it that you want ?” asked the old man.

“Something that will cut the leather, so that I can see whether the letters are printed or inlaid.”

The old man held out his stiletto. The stranger took it and tried to cut the skin above the lettering; but when he had removed a thin shaving of leather from them, the characters still appeared below, so clear and so exactly like the surface impression, that for a moment he was not sure that he had cut anything away after all.

“The craftsmen of the Levant have secrets known only to themselves,” he said, half in vexation, as he eyed the characters of this Oriental sentence. “Yes,” said the old man, “it is better to attribute it to man’s agency than to God’s.”

The mysterious words were thus arranged :












“So you read Sanskrit fluently,” said the old man. “You have been in Persia perhaps, or in Bengal ?”

“No, sir,” said the stranger, as he felt the emblematical skin curiously. It was almost as rigid as a sheet of metal. The old merchant set the lamp back again upon the column, giving the other a look as he did so.

“He has given up the notion of dying already,” the glance said with phlegmatic irony.

“Is it a jest, or is it an enigma ?” asked the younger man.

The other shook his head and said soberly:

“I don’t know how to answer you. I have offered this talisman with its terrible powers to men with more energy in them than you seem to me to have; but though they laughed at the questionable power it might exert over their futures, not one of them was ready to venture to conclude the fateful contract proposed by an unknown force. I am of their opinion, I have doubted and refrained, and ...”

“Have you never even tried its power ?” interrupted the young stranger.

“Tried it !” exclaimed the old man. “Suppose that you were on the column in the Place Vendome, would you try flinging yourself into space ? Is it possible to stay the course of life ? Has a man ever been known to die by halves ? Before you came here, you had made up your mind to kill yourself, but all at once a mystery fills your mind, and you think no more about death. You child ! Does not any one day of your life afford mysteries more absorbing ?

Listen to me. I saw the licentious days of Regency. I was like you, then, in poverty; I have begged my bread; but for all that, I am now a centenarian with a couple of years to spare, and a millionaire to boot. Misery was the making of me, ignorance has made me learned. I will tell you in a few words the great secret of human life. By two instinctive processes man exhausts the springs of life within him. Two verbs cover all the forms which these two causes of death may take — To Will and To have your Will. Between these two limits of human activity the wise have discovered an intermediate formula, to which I owe my good fortune and long life. To Will consumes us, and To have our Will destroys us, but To Know steeps our feeble organisms in perpetual calm.

In me Thought has destroyed Will, so that Power is relegated to the ordinary functions of my economy. In a word, it is not in the heart which can be broken, or in the senses that become deadened, but it is in the brain that cannot waste away and survives everything else, that I have set my life. Moderation has kept mind and body unruffled. Yet, I have seen the whole world. I have learned all languages, lived after every manner. I have lent a Chinaman money, taking his father’s corpse as a pledge, slept in an Arab’s tent on the security of his bare word, signed contracts in every capital of Europe, and left my gold without hesitation in savage wigwams. I have attained everything, because I have known how to despise all things.

My one ambition has been to see. Is not Sight in a manner Insight ? And to have knowledge or insight, is not that to have instinctive possession ? To be able to discover the very substance of fact and to unite its essence to our essence ? Of material possession what

abides with you but an idea ? Think, then, how glorious must be the life of a man who can stamp all realities upon his thought, place the springs of happiness within himself, and draw thence uncounted pleasures in idea, unspoiled by earthly stains. Thought is a key to all treasures; the miser’s gains are ours without his cares. Thus I have soared above this world, where my enjoyments have been intellectual joys.

I have reveled in the contemplation of seas, peoples, forests, and mountains ! I have seen all things, calmly, and without weariness; I have set my desires on nothing; I have waited in expectation of everything. I have walked to and fro in the world as in a garden round about my own dwelling. Troubles, loves, ambitions, losses, and sorrows, as men call them, are for me ideas, which I transmute into waking dreams; I express and transpose instead of feeling them; instead of permitting them to prey upon my life, I dramatize and expand them; I divert myself with them as if they were romances which I could read by the power of vision within me.

As I have never overtaxed my constitution, I still enjoy robust health; and as my mind is endowed with all the force that I have not wasted, this head of mine is even better furnished than my galleries. "The true millions lie here,” he said, striking his forehead. “I spend delicious days in communings with the past; I summon before me whole countries, places, extents of sea, the fair faces of history. In my imaginary seraglio I have all the women that I have never possessed. Your wars and revolutions come up before me for judgment.

What is a feverish fugitive admiration for some more or less brightly colored piece of flesh and blood; some more or less rounded human form; what are all the disasters that wait on your erratic whims, compared with the magnificent power of conjuring up the whole world within your soul, compared with the immeasurable joys of movement, unstrangled by the cords of time, unclogged by the fetters of space; the joys of beholding all things, of comprehending all things, of leaning over the parapet of the world to question the other spheres, to hearken to the voice of God ?

"There,” he burst out, vehemently, “there are To Will and To have your Will, both together,” he pointed to the bit of shagreen; “there are your social ideas, your immoderate desires, your excesses, your pleasures that end in death, your sorrows that quicken the pace of life, for pain is perhaps but a violent pleasure. Who could determine the point where pleasure becomes pain, where pain is still a pleasure ? Is not the utmost brightness of the ideal world soothing to us, while the lightest shadows of the physical world annoy ? Is not knowledge the secret of wisdom ? And what is folly but a riotous expenditure of Will or Power ?”

“Very good then, a life of riotous excess for me !” said the stranger, pouncing upon the piece of shagreen."


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