19th Century Pickup Artists

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…Among the young people of my own age I met a group of swaggerers who strutted along with head erect, uttered meaningless phrases, and would sit down at a woman’s side without any feeling of constraint.  These were the ones who impressed me most—with the outrageous things they said, the way they nibbled the knobs of their canes, their whole affected babble.  In their conversation they prostituted the prettiest women, asserting that they had slept with every one of them or at least acting as if they had, yet at the same time they gave themselves superior airs and pretended that such pleasures really meant nothing to them.  In their eyes the most virtuous, the most chaste woman was an easy prey, to be vanquished by a simple word, by a daring little gesture, by the first bold look.

Balzac, La peau de chagrin, quoted in Stefan Zweig’s biography.

While Zweig writes that Balzac possessed such a force of imagination, such a force of will, that he could “see a Helen in every woman, even in Hecuba,” this gift evidently did not help him so much in his early years, when dandies who were “a thousand times more stupid” could seduce any of these women “with supple phrases”, whether they were Helens or Hecubas. Earlier in the book Zweig compares Balzac to an erupting volcano of artistic energy, but here the white-hot magma was unable to burst free to the surface, weighed down instead by an oppressive crust of endless fears and rationalizations.

At this moment I feel myself overcome with a desperate desire similar to Balzac’s, but the magnet can find no iron.  My inner mantle of magma shakes and strains to break loose, but there is no one here to ignite these blinding infernos, or urge them free—neither Hecubas to transform, nor Helens to admire.

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