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Gentlemen: The man who now goes down into this tomb is one of those to whom public grief pays homage.
In one day all fictions have vanished. The eye is fixed not only on the heads that reign, but on heads that think, and the whole country is moved when one of those heads disappears. To-day we have a people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.
Gentlemen, the name of Balzac will be mingled in the luminous trace our epoch will leave across the future.
Balzac was one of that powerful generation of writers of the nineteenth century who came after Napoleon, as the illustrious Pleiad of the seventeenth century came after Richelieu,—as if in the development of civilization there were a law which gives conquerors by the intellect as successors to conquerors by the sword.
Balzac was one of the first among the greatest, one of the highest among the best. This is not the place to tell all that constituted this splendid and sovereign intelligence. All his books form but one book,—a book living, luminous, profound, where one sees coming and going and marching and moving, with I know not what of the formidable and terrible, mixed with the real, all our contemporary civilization;—a marvelous book which the poet entitled "a comedy" and which he could have called history; which takes all forms and all style, which surpasses Tacitus and Suetonius; which traverses Beaumarchais and reaches Rabelais;—a book which realizes observation and imagination, which lavishes the true, the esoteric, the commonplace, the trivial, the material, and which at times through all realities, swiftly and grandly rent away, allows us all at once a glimpse of a most sombre and tragic ideal. Unknown to himself, whether he wished it or not, whether he consented or not, the author of this immense and strange work is one of the strong race of Revolutionist writers. Balzac goes straight to the goal.
Body to body he seizes modern society; from all he wrests something, from these an illusion, from those a hope; from one a catch-word, from another a mask. He ransacked vice, he dissected passion. He searched out and sounded man, soul, heart, entrails, brain,—the abyss that each one has within himself. And by grace of his free and vigorous nature; by a privilege of the intellect of our time, which, having seen revolutions face to face, can see more clearly the destiny of humanity and comprehend Providence better,—Balzac redeemed himself smiling and severe from those formidable studies which produced melancholy in Moliere and misanthropy in Rousseau.
This is what he has accomplished among us, this is the work which he has left us,—a work lofty and solid,—a monument robustly piled in layers of granite, from the height of which hereafter his renown shall shine in splendor. Great men make their own pedestal, the future will be answerable for the statue.
His death stupefied Paris! Only a few months ago he had come back to France. Feeling that he was dying, he wished to see his country again, as one who would embrace his mother on the eve of a distant voyage. His life was short, but full, more filled with deeds than days.
Alas! this powerful worker, never fatigued, this philosopher, this thinker, this poet, this genius, has lived among us that life of storm, of strife, of quarrels and combats, common in all times to all great men. To-day he is at peace. He escapes contention and hatred. On the same day he enters into glory and the tomb. Thereafter beyond the clouds, which are above our heads, he will shine among the stars of his country. All you who are here, are you not tempted to envy him?
Whatever may be our grief in presence of such a loss, let us accept these catastrophes with resignation! Let us accept in it whatever is distressing and severe; it is good perhaps, it is necessary perhaps, in an epoch like ours, that from time to time the great dead shall communicate to spirits devoured with skepticism and doubt, a religious fervor. Providence knows what it does when it puts the people face to face with the supreme mystery and when it gives them death to reflect on,—death which is supreme equality, as it is also supreme liberty. Providence knows what it does, since it is the greatest of all instructors.
There can be but austere and serious thoughts in all hearts when a sublime spirit makes its majestic entrance into another life, when one of those beings who have long soared above the crowd on the visible wings of genius, spreading all at once other wings which we did not see, plunges swiftly into the unknown.
No, it is not the unknown; no, I have said it on another sad occasion and I shall repeat it to-day, it is not night, it is light. It is not the end, it is the beginning! It is not extinction, it is eternity! Is it not true, my hearers, such tombs as this demonstrate immortality? In presence of the illustrious dead, we feel more distinctly the divine destiny of that intelligence which traverses the earth to suffer and to purify itself,—which we call man.
From: The Art of Public Speaking by J. Berg Esenwein and Dale Carnagey. 1915.