Seraphita by Balzac: A Swedenborgian Novel About the Life of an Angel

Honoré de Balzac’s primarily novels were studies of French society in the nineteenth century. But on a few occasions he branched out into something more personal, and meant for the few, when he delved into short novels based on the writings of the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. Séraphîta was first published in a literary magazine in 1834 and a year later in the Livre Mystique, along with Les Proscrits (The Exiles) and Louis Lambert, two other of his mystically themed novellas. Seraphita is a transcendental story of angels, temptation by devils, and ascensions to Heaven.

Balzac’s Angel: Seraphitus/Seraphita

BalzacThe setting of Seraphita is May 1800, when the snows still cover the mountains of Jarvis in an enclave by a fjord in Norway. Minna, Pastor Becker’s daughter, is in love with her friend Seraphitus. His beauty and noble soul completely mesmerizes her, and he’s capable of great feats, such as flitting her up mountains as they ski to remote heights. The title character can be confusing at first, because to their friend Wilfrid, who is equally captivated, the same magical person appears to be a beautiful woman, Seraphita. For most of the novel, no one notices that to Minna, Seraphita appears to be a man while everyone else sees her as a woman. It’s quite a love triangle—a man and woman in love with the same person they each view as a member of the opposite sex, and Seraphita keeps saying that Minna and Wilfred should be married.

Minna’s romantic advances to Seraphitus are always rebuffed. He exhorts her to a celestial love in which she will love all creatures and says, “Some day, perhaps, we may meet in the world where love never dies.” He had hoped for a companion in life who would go with him to the realm of light: “I thought to show her this ball of clay, and I find that you still cling to it.” It’s obvious that Seraphitus has otherworldly goals. When Minna begins weeping and inquires why he doesn’t, he replies that those who are “all spirit” do not weep”:

I see no longer human wretchedness. Here, Good appears in all its majesty. Below is supplications and wailings; here is harps harmonious. Below is hope; here is faith.

The name Seraphita is quite similar to the Seraphim, the choir of angels in Briah, associated with Kether on the Tree of Life.

Balzac on the Life and Thought of Swedenborg

BalzacWilfrid goes to Seraphita’s stone house, called the “Swedish castle,” and declares his love for her. She extols him also to rise to a mystical love and aspire to celestial illumination. Distressed, he goes to visit Pastor Becker, who says to explain her birth he must give the whole chronicle of Swedenborg’s life and work. This is a boon for the reader who is interested in Swedenborg’s thought, as Seraphita serves as a great general introduction to his ideas.

Swedenborg was born about 1688. He was said to be chosen by God to explain to man the meaning of His Word and Creation—thus, Swedenborg’s inner sight was opened so he could see the heavens, the world of spirits, and even hell. He recorded all of his astral journeys and said his treatises were dictated by angels. Swedenborg, the pastor relates, never closed his doors but never had anything stolen from him—he said there was a guardian protecting his house. And important to the story of Seraphita, some angels live on earth in human form and others are born into the world to be prepared for heaven where they become angels. To do so, they must pass through the three natures of love: the love of self, the supreme expression of which is human genius, whose works are worshipped; love of life, which produces prophets—great men the world accepts as guides and proclaims as divine; and love of heaven, which creates the Spiritual Angel. Just as man is wholly external, the Angelic Spirit wholly internal. And Love is very important in this esoteric Christian doctrine:

When the man lives in Love he has shed all evil passions: Hope, Charity, Faith, and Prayer have, in the words of Isaiah, purged the dross of his inner being, which can never more be polluted by earthly affections.

The Clouds of the Sanctuary

BalzacBack to the novel: Balzac tells us that Seraphita’s father was Swedenborg’s most zealous disciple and was searching for a woman with the angelic spirit. He finds her in the daughter of a London shoemaker and their marriage was one of perfect harmony: “Those who lived with them in constant intercourse never saw them show a sign of anger or impatience; they were constantly beneficent and gentle, full of courtesy and loving-kindness; their marriage was the harmony of two souls indissolubly united.”

Seraphita was born in 1783, seemingly an angel born in human form after her parents spent a long retirement in perpetual prayer. Her father told Pastor Becker that he would never see her grow old or pass away: “You have existence, it has life; you have external senses, it has not; it is wholly inward.” At the age of nine, Seraphita became absorbed in prayer and the same year her parents died suddenly, at the same apparently planned time, with no visible malady. “She is commonly in a state of mystical contemplation. Her understanding, soul, body, everything about her is as virginal as the snow on our mountains,” the pastor says. Yet, he thinks she does so because of inheriting “the fatal enthusiasm of her parents.”

BalzacThe same night the pastor explained her history to Minna and Wilfred, Seraphita’s servant bursts into the house entreating them to come in a hurry: for the devils were tempting her. The pastor laughs it off, but Minna peers out the parlor window and sees Seraphitus standing “in an opal-tinted mist, which was diffused all round the phosphorescent body.” The servant later explains how Seraphita was tempted by devils—such as Mammon, Lucifer, the Queen of the Covetous, the Child with its plaints, Song with its music, the Kings of the East with its luxury, Flowers with their perfumes, and even the wounded clamoring for help and the wretched crying “Do not leave us,”—as the archangels stood and looked on. The angels cried out “Courage!” and “at last she triumphed over Desire.” Pastor Becker hears the story, and claims that Seraphita is merely mad.

They visit Seraphita at the “Swedish castle” where she expounds on Spirit and Matter, Number and Motion, Finite and Infinite, and the like—Balzac’s own interpretation of much of Swedenborg’s thought. She echoes the beliefs of all great mystics:

All your sciences of to-day, which make you so great in your own eyes, are a mere trifle compared with the light that floods the Seer. Cease to question me: we speak a different language. . . . Is it God’s part to stoop to you? Is it not yours rather to rise to Him? The Seer and the believer have within themselves eyes more piercing than are those eyes which are bent on things of earth, and they discern a dawn.

The pastor starts to believe that Seraphita is a spirit veiled in human form.

At one point in the novel, Seraphita expounds a doctrine very similar to Scientific Illuminism and the Western esoteric tradition, that spiritual adeptship can be learned just like any other skill:

To believe is a gift. To believe is to feel. To believe in God we must feel God. This feeling is a possession slowly acquired by the human being, just as other astonishing powers which you admire in great men, warriors, artists scholars, those who know and those who act, are acquired. Thought, that budget of the relations which you perceive among created things, is an intellectual language which can be learned, is it not? Belief, the budget of celestial truths, is also a language as superior to thought as thought is to instinct. This language also can be learned.

Minna and Wilfrid finally realize that Seraphita loves God above all others. They beg to be led to Him. Wilfrid cries, “Lead us, Seraphita, you have made me thirst for the Light and for the Word. If I may not win you, I will treasure every feeling that you can infuse, as part of you.” She instructs them on how to seek God and explains the efficacy of silence, meditation, and prayer. Minna and Wilfrid are transported beyond the visible and glimpse the world of the invisible—the trumpet sounding for the triumph of the Angel in his last test, and wings spread, saw Seraphita rising through the light to infinite space. The ending of the novel is beautiful, and well worth reading just for the account of the ascension to heaven.

There are so many beautiful passages in Seraphita that it’s hard to select only a few to highlight. This one speaks of the relationship between the devotee and the Beloved:

Minna, can we love two beings at once? Would our beloved be indeed our beloved if he did not fill our hearts? Must he not be the first, the last, the only one? She who is all love, must she not leave the world for her beloved? Human ties are but a memory, she has no ties except to him! Her soul is hers no longer; it is his. If she keeps within her soul anything that is not his, does she love? No, she loves not. To love feebly, is that to love at all? The voice of her beloved makes her joyful; it flows through her veins in a crimson tide more glowing far than blood; his glance is the light that penetrates her; her being melts into his being. He is warm to her soul. He is the light that lightens; near to him there is neither cold nor darkness. He is never absent, he is always with us; we think in him, to him, by him!

This passage discusses the devotion that we should give to the Beloved:

Do for God what you do for your ambitious projects, what you do in consecrating yourself to Art, what you have done when you loved a human creature or sought some secret of human science. Is not God the whole of science, the all of love, the source of poetry? Surely His riches are worthy of being coveted! His treasure is inexhaustible, His poem infinite, His love immutable, His science sure and darkened by no mysteries. Be anxious for nothing, He will give you all. Yes, in His heart are treasures with which the petty joys you lose on earth are not to be compared.

This passage speaks of the boldness we can have in seeking the Beloved:

Be one of those brave souls! God welcomes boldness. He loves to be taken by violence; He will never reject those who force their way to Him. Know this! desire, the torrent of your will, is so all-powerful that a single emission of it, made with force, can obtain all; a single cry, uttered under the pressure of Faith, suffices. Be one of such beings, full of force, of will, of love! Be conquerors on the earth! Let the hunger and thirst of God possess you. . . . God reveals Himself, unfailingly, to the solitary, thoughtful seeker.

I’ve read Seraphita several times now, and every time I return to it I find it an engaging and inspiring story. It’s full of esoteric doctrine and Balzac’s lovely language and characters. There are some beautiful older editions available, or you can read it for free on Kindle.

You might also like my review of another novel dealing with angels, Anatole France’s The Revolt of the Angels.