Read MEDITATION II - INSTRUCTION IN THE HOME of The Physiology of Marriage‚ Part II., free online book, by Honore de Balzac, on ReadCentral.com.

Whether wives should or should not be put under instruction ­such is the question before us.  Of all those which we have discussed this is the only one which has two extremes and admits of no compromise.  Knowledge and ignorance, such are the two irreconcilable terms of this problem.  Between these two abysses we seem to see Louis XVIII reckoning up the felicities of the eighteenth century, and the unhappiness of the nineteenth.  Seated in the centre of the seesaw, which he knew so well how to balance by his own weight, he contemplates at one end of it the fanatic ignorance of a lay brother, the apathy of a serf, the shining armor on the horses of a banneret; he thinks he hears the cry, “France and Montjoie-Saint-Denis!” But he turns round, he smiles as he sees the haughty look of a manufacturer, who is captain in the national guard; the elegant carriage of a stock broker; the simple costume of a peer of France turned journalist and sending his son to the Polytechnique; then he notices the costly stuffs, the newspapers, the steam engines; and he drinks his coffee from a cup of Sèvres, at the bottom of which still glitters the “N” surmounted by a crown.

“Away with civilization!  Away with thought!” ­That is your cry.  You ought to hold in horror the education of women for the reason so well realized in Spain, that it is easier to govern a nation of idiots than a nation of scholars.  A nation degraded is happy:  if she has not the sentiment of liberty, neither has she the storms and disturbances which it begets; she lives as polyps live; she can be cut up into two or three pieces and each piece is still a nation, complete and living, and ready to be governed by the first blind man who arms himself with the pastoral staff.

What is it that produces this wonderful characteristic of humanity?  Ignorance; ignorance is the sole support of despotism, which lives on darkness and silence.  Now happiness in the domestic establishment as in a political state is a negative happiness.  The affection of a people for a king, in an absolute monarchy, is perhaps less contrary to nature than the fidelity of a wife towards her husband, when love between them no longer exists.  Now we know that, in your house, love at this moment has one foot on the window-sill.  It is necessary for you, therefore, to put into practice that salutary rigor by which M. de Metternich prolongs his statu quo; but we would advise you to do so with more tact and with still more tenderness; for your wife is more crafty than all the Germans put together, and as voluptuous as the Italians.

You should, therefore, try to put off as long as possible the fatal moment when your wife asks you for a book.  This will be easy.  You will first of all pronounce in a tone of disdain the phrase “Blue stocking;” and, on her request being repeated, you will tell her what ridicule attaches, among the neighbors, to pedantic women.

You will then repeat to her, very frequently, that the most lovable and the wittiest women in the world are found at Paris, where women never read;

That women are like people of quality who, according to Mascarillo, know everything without having learned anything; that a woman while she is dancing, or while she is playing cards, without even having the appearance of listening, ought to know how to pick up from the conversation of talented men the ready-made phrases out of which fools manufacture their wit at Paris;

That in this country decisive judgments on men and affairs are passed round from hand to hand; and that the little cutting phrase with which a woman criticises an author, demolishes a work, or heaps contempt on a picture, has more power in the world than a court decision;

That women are beautiful mirrors, which naturally reflect the most brilliant ideas;

That natural wit is everything, and the best education is gained rather from what we learn in the world than by what we read in books;

That, above all, reading ends in making the eyes dull, etc.

To think of leaving a woman at liberty to read the books which her character of mind may prompt her to choose!  This is to drop a spark in a powder magazine; it is worse than that, it is to teach your wife to separate herself from you; to live in an imaginary world, in a Paradise.  For what do women read?  Works of passion, the Confessions of Rousseau, romances, and all those compositions which work most powerfully on their sensibility.  They like neither argument nor the ripe fruits of knowledge.  Now have you ever considered the results which follow these poetical readings?

Romances, and indeed all works of imagination, paint sentiments and events with colors of a very different brilliancy from those presented by nature.  The fascination of such works springs less from the desire which each author feels to show his skill in putting forth choice and delicate ideas than from the mysterious working of the human intellect.  It is characteristic of man to purify and refine everything that he lays up in the treasury of his thoughts.  What human faces, what monuments of the dead are not made more beautiful than actual nature in the artistic representation?  The soul of the reader assists in this conspiracy against the truth, either by means of the profound silence which it enjoys in reading or by the fire of mental conception with which it is agitated or by the clearness with which imagery is reflected in the mirror of the understanding.  Who has not seen on reading the Confessions of Jean-Jacques, that Madame de Warens is described as much prettier than she ever was in actual life?  It might almost be said that our souls dwell with delight upon the figures which they had met in a former existence, under fairer skies; that they accept the creations of another soul only as wings on which they may soar into space; features the most delicate they bring to perfection by making them their own; and the most poetic expression which appears in the imagery of an author brings forth still more ethereal imagery in the mind of a reader.  To read is to join with the writer in a creative act.  The mystery of the transubstantiation of ideas, originates perhaps in the instinctive consciousness that we have of a vocation loftier than our present destiny.  Or, is it based on the lost tradition of a former life?  What must that life have been, if this slight residuum of memory offers us such volumes of delight?

Moreover, in reading plays and romances, woman, a creature much more susceptible than we are to excitement, experiences the most violent transport.  She creates for herself an ideal existence beside which all reality grows pale; she at once attempts to realize this voluptuous life, to take to herself the magic which she sees in it.  And, without knowing it, she passes from spirit to letter and from soul to sense.

And would you be simple enough to believe that the manners, the sentiments of a man like you, who usually dress and undress before your wife, can counterbalance the influence of these books and outshine the glory of their fictitious lovers, in whose garments the fair reader sees neither hole nor stain? ­Poor fool! too late, alas! for her happiness and for yours, your wife will find out that the heroes of poetry are as rare in real life as the Apollos of sculpture!

Very many husbands will find themselves embarrassed in trying to prevent their wives from reading, yet there are certain people who allege that reading has this advantage, that men know what their wives are about when they have a book in hand.  In the first place you will see, in the next Meditation, what a tendency the sedentary life has to make a woman quarrelsome; but have you never met those beings without poetry, who succeed in petrifying their unhappy companions by reducing life to its most mechanical elements?  Study great men in their conversation and learn by heart the admirable arguments by which they condemn poetry and the pleasures of imagination.

But if, after all your efforts, your wife persists in wishing to read, put at her disposal at once all possible books from the A B C of her little boy to René, a book more dangerous to you when in her hands than Therese Philosophe.  You might create in her an utter disgust for reading by giving her tedious books; and plunge her into utter idiocy with Marie Alacoque, The Brosse de Penitence, or with the chansons which were so fashionable in the time of Louis XV; but later on you will find, in the present volume, the means of so thoroughly employing your wife’s time, that any kind of reading will be quite out of the question.

And first of all, consider the immense resources which the education of women has prepared for you in your efforts to turn your wife from her fleeting taste for science.  Just see with what admirable stupidity girls lend themselves to reap the benefit of the education which is imposed upon them in France; we give them in charge to nursery maids, to companions, to governesses who teach them twenty tricks of coquetry and false modesty, for every single noble and true idea which they impart to them.  Girls are brought up as slaves, and are accustomed to the idea that they are sent into the world to imitate their grandmothers, to breed canary birds, to make herbals, to water little Bengal rose-bushes, to fill in worsted work, or to put on collars.  Moreover, if a little girl in her tenth year has more refinement than a boy of twenty, she is timid and awkward.  She is frightened at a spider, chatters nonsense, thinks of dress, talks about the fashions and has not the courage to be either a watchful mother or a chaste wife.

Notice what progress she had made; she has been shown how to paint roses, and to embroider ties in such a way as to earn eight sous a day.  She has learned the history of France in Ragois and chronology in the Tables du Citoyen Chantreau, and her young imagination has been set free in the realm of geography; all without any aim, excepting that of keeping away all that might be dangerous to her heart; but at the same time her mother and her teachers repeat with unwearied voice the lesson, that the whole science of a woman lies in knowing how to arrange the fig leaf which our Mother Eve wore.  “She does not hear for fifteen years,” says Diderot, “anything else but ’my daughter, your fig leaf is on badly; my daughter, your fig leaf is on well; my daughter, would it not look better so?’”

Keep your wife then within this fine and noble circle of knowledge.  If by chance your wife wishes to have a library, buy for her Florian, Malte-Brun, The Cabinet des Fees, The Arabian Nights, Redoute’s Roses, The Customs of China, The Pigeons, by Madame Knip, the great work on Egypt, etc.  Carry out, in short, the clever suggestion of that princess who, when she was told of a riot occasioned by the dearness of bread, said, “Why don’t they eat cake?”

Perhaps, one evening, your wife will reproach you for being sullen and not speaking to her; perhaps she will say that you are ridiculous, when you have just made a pun; but this is one of the slight annoyances incident to our system; and, moreover, what does it matter to you that the education of women in France is the most pleasant of absurdities, and that your marital obscurantism has brought a doll to your arms?  As you have not sufficient courage to undertake a fairer task, would it not be better to lead your wife along the beaten track of married life in safety, than to run the risk of making her scale the steep precipices of love?  She is likely to be a mother:  you must not exactly expect to have Gracchi for sons, but to be really pater quem nuptiae demonstrant; now, in order to aid you in reaching this consummation, we must make this book an arsenal from which each one, in accordance with his wife’s character and his own, may choose weapons fit to employ against the terrible genius of evil, which is always ready to rise up in the soul of a wife; and since it may fairly be considered that the ignorant are the most cruel opponents of feminine education, this Meditation will serve as a breviary for the majority of husbands.

If a woman has received a man’s education, she possesses in very truth the most brilliant and most fertile sources of happiness both to herself and to her husband; but this kind of woman is as rare as happiness itself; and if you do not possess her for your wife, your best course is to confine the one you do possess, for the sake of your common felicity, to the region of ideas she was born in, for you must not forget that one moment of pride in her might destroy you, by setting on the throne a slave who would immediately be tempted to abuse her power.

After all, by following the system prescribed in this Meditation, a man of superiority will be relieved from the necessity of putting his thoughts into small change, when he wishes to be understood by his wife, if indeed this man of superiority has been guilty of the folly of marrying one of those poor creatures who cannot understand him, instead of choosing for his wife a young girl whose mind and heart he has tested and studied for a considerable time.

Our aim in this last matrimonial observation has not been to advise all men of superiority to seek for women of superiority and we do not wish each one to expound our principles after the manner of Madame de Stael, who attempted in the most indelicate manner to effect a union between herself and Napoleon.  These two beings would have been very unhappy in their domestic life; and Josephine was a wife accomplished in a very different sense from this virago of the nineteenth century.

And, indeed, when we praise those undiscoverable girls so happily educated by chance, so well endowed by nature, whose delicate souls endure so well the rude contact of the great soul of him we call a man, we mean to speak of those rare and noble creatures of whom Goethe has given us a model in his Claire of Egmont; we are thinking of those women who seek no other glory than that of playing their part well; who adapt themselves with amazing pliancy to the will and pleasure of those whom nature has given them for masters; soaring at one time into the boundless sphere of their thought and in turn stooping to the simple task of amusing them as if they were children; understanding well the inconsistencies of masculine and violent souls, understanding also their slightest word, their most puzzling looks; happy in silence, happy also in the midst of loquacity; and well aware that the pleasures, the ideas and the moral instincts of a Lord Byron cannot be those of a bonnet-maker.  But we must stop; this fair picture has led us too far from our subject; we are treating of marriage and not of love.