The Desire to be a Man
by Comte P. H. Villiers de L'isle Adam
Nature might stand up and say to all the world: 'This was a man.'
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar
The Stock Exchange clock struck midnight, under a starry sky. At
that time the citizens were still subject to military law, and, in
accordance with the curfew regulations, the waiters of those
establishments which were still lit up were hurriedly closing their
Inside the boulevard cafés the gas butterflies of the chandeliers
fluttered quickly away, one by one, into the darkness. Outside could
be heard the noise of the chairs being arranged in quartets on the
marble-topped tables; it was the psychological moment when every cafe
proprietor thinks fit to show the last customers, with an arm ending
in a napkin, the Caudine Forks of the back door.
That Sunday the sad October wind was whistling through the streets.
A few yellow leaves, dusty and rustling, were blown along by the
squalls, touching the stones and skimming the asphalt, and then, like
bats, disappeared into the shadows, arousing the idea of commonplace
days lived through once for all. The theatres of the Boulevard du
Crime where, during the evening, all the Medicis, Salviatis, and
Montefeltres had been stabbing one another with the utmost fervour,
stood silent, their mute portals guarded by their caryatids. Carriages
and pedestrians became fewer from one moment to the next; here and
there, the sceptical lanterns of rag-pickers gleamed already,
phosphorescent glows given off by the rubbish-heaps over which they
Under a street lamp level with the Rue Hauteville, at the corner of
a fairly luxurious-looking cafe, a tall passer-by had come to a stop,
as if automatically hesitating to cross the roadway separating him
from the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle. He had a saturnine face, a smooth
chin, a somnambulist's walk, long greying hair under a Louis Treize
hat, black gloves holding an ivory-headed stick, and an old greatcoat
in royal blue, trimmed with dubious astrakhan.
Was this tardy stroller on his way home? Had the mere chance of a
walk late at night brought him to that street-corner? It would have
been difficult to decide from his appearance. However, the fact
remains that, suddenly noticing on his right one of those mirrors—as
tall and narrow as himself—which sometimes stand like public
looking-glasses outside leading cafés, he halted abruptly, planted
himself opposite his reflection, and deliberately looked himself up and
down, from his boots to his hat. Then, all of a sudden, raising his
hat with an old-world gesture, he greeted himself with a certain
His head, thus unexpectedly bared, then revealed him as none other
than the famous tragedian Esprit Chaudval, born Lepeinteur and known
as Monanteuil, the scion of a worthy family of Saint-Malo pilots, and
whom the mysteries of Providence had induced to become a leading man
in the provinces, a star abroad, and the often fortunate rival of
While he was considering himself with this sort of stupor, the
waiters in the nearby café were helping their last customers into
their overcoats and fetching their hats, others were noisily emptying
the contents of the nickel money boxes and piling the day's takings on
a tray. This haste and bustle was due to the ominous presence of two
policemen who had suddenly appeared The Desire to be a Man By Comte
P. H. Villiers de L'isle Adam Nature might stand up and say to all the
world: 'This was a man.'.at the door and were standing there with
folded arms, harrying the laggardly landlord with their cold gaze.
Soon the shutters were bolted into their iron frames, apart from
the one over the mirror, which by a strange oversight was forgotten in
the general hurry.
Then silence descended on the boulevard. Only Chaudval, heedless of
everybody's departure, had remained in his ecstatic posture on the
corner of the Rue Hauteville, on the pavement in front of the
This pale, moonlit looking-glass seemed to give the actor the
feeling he would have had bathing in a pond. Chaudval shivered.
Alas, the fact is that in that cruel, dark crystal, the actor had
just seen himself growing old.
He noticed that his hair, which only yesterday had still been
grizzly, was turning silver; he was finished! It was goodbye to
curtains and crowns, goodbye to the roses of Thalia and the laurels of
Melpomene. It was time to take leave for ever, with handshakes and
tears, of the Ellevious and the Laruettes, of the grand liveries and
the soft curves of the Dugazons and the ingénues!
It was time to get down in a hurry from the chariot of Thespis and
watch it drive away with his colleagues; to see the baubles and
streamers which, that morning, had fluttered from the wind of Hope,
disappear in the twilight round a distant bend in the road.
Chaudval, suddenly conscious of his fifty years (he was a good
fellow), heaved a sigh. A mist passed in from of his eyes; a sort of
wintry fever took hold of him and a hallucination dilated his pupils.
The haggard fixity with which he was gazing into the providential
mirror ended up by giving his eyes that ability to enlarge objects and
endow them with importance which physiologists have observed in
individuals under the stress of intense emotion.
The long mirror was accordingly deformed under the gaze of his
eyes, which were filled with dim, murky ideas. Childhood memories of
beaches and silvery waves danced about in his brain.
And the mirror, doubtless because of the stars deepening its
surface, reminded him at first of the sleeping waters of a gulf. Then,
billowing out even more, thanks to the old man's sighs, the mirror
took on the appearance of the sea and the night, those two old friends
of lonely hearts.
He revelled for some time in his vision, but then the street lamp
which was reddening the cold drizzle behind him, above his head,
struck him, reflected as it was in the depths of the dreadful mirror,
as like the glow of a blood-red lighthouse, luring the doomed vessel of
his future to shipwreck.
He shook off his hallucination and drew himself up to his full
height, with a nervous burst of bitter, cynical laughter which
startled the two policeman under the trees. Luckily for the actor, the
latter, taking him for some drunkard or jilted lover, continued their
official stroll without paying any attention to the wretched Chaudval.
'Very well, let us give up!' he said simply in an undertone, like
the condemned man who, suddenly roused from sleep, says to the
executioner: 'I am at your service.'
The old actor then launched into a dazed monologue. 'I acted
prudently the other evening,' he went on, 'when I asked my good
comrade Mademoiselle Pinson (who shares the Minister's confidence and
even his bed) to obtain for me, between two ardent confessions, that
post as lighthouse-keeper which my ancestors occupied on the Atlantic
coast. Ah! Now I understand the weird effect the reflection of this
street lamp in this mirror had I on me! It was that idea at the back
of my mind. Pinson will send me my letter of appointment, that's
certain. And then I shall retire into my lighthouse like a rat into a
cheese. I shall guide the ships in the distance, across the.sea. A
lighthouse always gives the impression of a stage-set. I am alone in
the world: without a doubt it is the perfect refuge for my old age.'
All of a sudden Chaudval interrupted his reverie.
'Good Lord!' he said, feeling inside his greatcoat. 'But . . . that
letter the postman delivered just as I was coming out must be the
reply . . . I was going into this cafe to read it, and I forgot all
about it! I'm losing my grip, and no mistake! . . . Good, here it is!'
Chaudval had just taken out of his pocket a large envelope from
which, as soon as he broke the seal, a ministerial letter fell to the
ground. He feverishly picked it up and read it at a single glance, in
the red glow of the street lamp.
'My lighthouse! My letter of appointment!' he exclaimed. 'Saved,
thank God!' he added, as if out of force of habit and in a falsetto
voice so sudden and so different from his own that he looked around,
thinking that somebody else had spoken.
'Come, now,' he said, 'calm down . . . and be a man!'
But at these words Esprit Chaudval, born Lepeinteur and known as
Monanteuil, stopped as if changed into a statue of salt; this remark
seemed to have petrified him.
'Eh?' he went on after a pause. 'What did I tell myself just then?
To be a Man? . . . After all, why not?'
He folded his arms reflectively.
'For nearly half a century now I have been acting and playing other
men's passions without ever feeling them—for at bottom I have never
felt anything. So I am like those other men just for fun! So I am
nothing but a shadow! Passions, feelings, real actions—that is what
makes a genuine Man. Consequently, since my age forces me to rejoin
Mankind, I must find myself some passions or real feelings—seeing
that that is the sine qua non without which nobody can call himself a
'There's a piece of good reasoning for you; it's positively
bursting with common sense. So now to choose the passion most in
keeping with my resuscitated nature.'
He meditated, then went on sadly:
'Love? . . . too late . . . Glory? . . . I have tasted it . . .
Ambition? . . . let us leave that nonsense to the politicians!'
All of a sudden he gave a cry.
'I have it!' he said. 'Remorse! There's a passion that suits my
He looked at himself in the mirror, assuming an expression which
was drawn and convulsed as if by some supernatural horror.
'That's it!' he concluded. 'Nero! Macbeth! Orestes! Hamlet!
Erostratus! The ghosts! Oh, yes, I want to see some real ghosts too!
Like all those lucky fellows who could not take a single step without
meeting a ghost.'
He struck his forehead.
'But how? ... I'm as innocent as a lamb unwilling to be born.'
And after another pause he went on:
'But that doesn't matter! Where there's a will there's a way! I'm
entitled to become what I ought to be, whatever the cost. I'm entitled
to be a man. Do I have to commit crimes in order to feel remorse? All
right, so be it: what does it matter, provided it is in a good cause?
Yes indeed, so be it!'
At this point he began to improvise a dialogue.
'I shall perpetrate some dreadful crimes . . . When? . . . Straight
away. I cannot wait until tomorrow . . . What crimes? . . . A single
one! But a grandiose crime, of extraordinary cruelty,.calculated to
rouse all the Furies from the Underworld! . . . And what crime is that?
. . . Why, the most impressive of all! I have it! A fire! I just have
time to start a fire, pack my bags, come back, duly hidden behind the
window of a cab, to enjoy my victory in the midst of the horrified
crowd, collect the curses of the dying—and catch the train for the
north-west with enough remorse put by to last me the rest of my days.
Then I shall go and hide in my brightly-lit eyrie on the shores of the
Ocean—where the police will never find me, for the simple reason that
my crime is disinterested. And there I shall die alone.'
Here Chaudval drew himself up and improvised this positively
'Saved from suspicion by the grandeur of the crime.'
The great artist looked around to make sure he was alone, picked up
a stone, and concluded:
'Well, that's settled. And from now on you won't reflect anybody
And he threw the stone at the mirror which shattered into a
thousand shining pieces.
Having performed this duty, Chaudval made off in a hurry—as if
satisfied with this first energetic feat—and rushed towards the
boulevards, where, a few minutes later, he hailed a cab, jumped into
it, and disappeared.
Two hours later, the flames of a huge fire, coming from some big
warehouses stocked with petroleum, oil, and matches, were reflected in
every window-pane in the Faubourg du Temple.
Soon squads of firemen, rolling and pushing their pumps, came
running up from all sides, the mournful wail of their horns rousing
the inhabitants of that populous district from their sleep.
Countless hurried steps rang out on the pavement: the Place du
Château-d'Eau and the adjoining streets were crowded with people.
Already human chains were being hurriedly organized. Within less than
a quarter of an hour a cordon of troops had been formed round the fire.
In the blood-red light of the torches, policemen were holding the
The carriages, trapped in the crowds, had come to a standstill.
Everybody was shouting.
Distant screams could be made out amidst the dreadful crackling of
the flames. The victims of the fire, caught in the inferno, were
howling, and the roofs of the houses falling in on them.
About a hundred families, those of the workers employed in the
burning buildings, were left penniless and homeless.
In the distance, a solitary cab, loaded with two bulky trunks, was
standing behind the crowd at the Château-d'Eau. And in that cab sat
Esprit Chaudval, born Lepeinteur and known as Monanteuil, drawing
aside the blind from time to time and contemplating his handiwork.
'Oh!' he whispered to himself. 'How loathsome I feel in the eyes of
God and men! Yes, that's the work of a criminal, sure enough!'
The kindly old actor's face lit up.
'0 wretched man!' he muttered. 'What sleepless nights I'm going to
enjoy among the ghosts of my victims! I can feel burgeoning within me
the soul of Nero, burning Rome out of artistic fervour, of Erostratus,
burning the temple of Ephesus out of a desire for glory, of Rostopchin,
burning Moscow out of patriotism, of Alexander, burning Persepolis out
of love for his immortal Tha˜s! . . . I for m y part burn out of duty,
having no other means of existence. I burn because I owe it to myself.
I burn to fulfil an obligation. What a man I'm going to be! How I'm
going to live! Yes, at last I'm going to find out what if's like to be
tortured by remorse. What wonderful nights of delicious horror I'm
going to spend! Ah, I breathe again! I'm born again! I exist! When I
think that I was an actor! Now, as I'm nothing in the coarse eyes of
mankind but a gallows-bird, let us fly like the wind! Let us hide in
our lighthouse, to enjoy our remorse there in peace.'.In the evening,
two days later, Chaudval, reaching his destination safely, took
possession of his lonely old lighthouse on the north coast: a ruined
building with an antiquated beacon which ministerial compassion had
rekindled for his sake.
The light was of scarcely any use: it was just an excrescence, a
sinecure. A dwelling with a lamp on top, which nobody needed except
So the worthy tragedian, having moved his bed into the lighthouse,
together with stocks of food and a tall mirror in which to study his
facial expressions, promptly shut himself up there, secure from all
Around him moaned the sea, in which the ancient abyss of the
heavens bathed the light of its stars. He watched the waves attacking
his tower under the shifts of the winds, much as the Stylite must have
gazed at the sands being hurled against his column by the shimiel.
In the distance he followed with unthinking eyes the smoke of
steamships or the sails of fishing boats.
As he went up and down the stone staircase, the dreamer kept
forgetting his fire.
On the evening of the third day, sitting in his room, sixty feet
above the waves, he was re-reading a Paris newspaper which told the
story of the catastrophe which had taken place two days before.
An unknown malefactor had thrown some matches into the petroleum
cellars. A colossal fire, which had kept the firemen and the people
out in the Faubourg du Temple.
Nearly a hundred victims had died; unfortunate families had been
plunged into the direst poverty.
The whole place was in mourning and still smoking.
The name of the person who had committed this heinous crime was
unknown, and so above all was the criminal's motive.
When he read this, Chaudval jumped for joy and, feverishly rubbing
his hands, exclaimed:
'What a triumph! What a wonderful scoundrel I am! How I'm going to
be haunted! How many ghosts I'm going to see! I knew that I should
become a Man! Oh, I admit that the means I used was drastic, but it
had to be, it had to be!'
Reading the Paris newspaper again, Chaudval noticed that a special
performance was being given in aid of those who had suffered from the
fire, and murmured:
'Well, well! I ought to have put my talent at the service of my
victims. It would have been my farewell performance. I would have
declaimed Orestes, I would have been marvellously true to life . . .'
Thereupon Chaudval began living in his lighthouse.
And the evenings and the nights fell, and followed one after
Something happened which astounded the actor. Something horrifying!
Contrary to his hopes and expectations, his conscience failed to
torment him. Not a single ghost appeared. He felt nothing, absolutely
He could not believe the Silence. He could not get over it.
Sometimes, looking at himself in the mirror, he noticed that his
debonair expression had not changed. Then he would hurl himself in a
fury on his signals, altering them in the radiant hope of sinking some
far-off ship, so as to rouse, quicken, stimulate his rebellious
remorse, and awaken the longed-for ghosts.
It was all to no purpose.
His attempted crimes came to nothing. His efforts were in vain. He
felt nothing. His efforts were in vain. He felt nothing. He did not
see a single threatening phantom. He found it.impossible to sleep any
more, he was so stifled by shame and despair. The result was that when,
one night, he suffered a stroke in his luminous eyrie, he had a
death-agony in which—amid the noise of the ocean, with the sea-winds
buffeting his tower lost in infinity—he cried out:
'Ghosts! . . . For the love of God! . . . Let me see one ghost at
least! . . . I've earned it!'
But the God he was invoking did not grant him this favour—and the
old actor died, still expressing, in his vain rhetoric, his ardent
longing to see some ghosts . . . without realizing that he himself was
what he was looking for.