The illustrious gaudissart, by honore de balzac


The commercial traveller, a personage unknown to antiquity, is one of
The striking figures created by the manners and customs of our present
Epoch. May he not, in some conceivable order of things, be destined to
Mark for coming philosophers the great transition which welds a period
Of material enterprise to the period of intellectual strength? Our
Century will bind the realm of isolated power, abounding as it does in
Creative genius, to the realm of universal but levelling might;
Equalizing all products, spreading them broadcast among the masses,
And being itself controlled by the principle of unity, – the final
Expression of all societies. Do we not find the dead level of
Barbarism succeeding the saturnalia of popular thought and the last
Struggles of those civilizations which accumulated the treasures of
The world in one direction?

The commercial traveller! Is he not to the realm of

ideas what our
Stage-coaches are to men and things? He is their vehicle; he sets them
Going, carries them along, rubs them up with one another. He takes
From the luminous centre a handful of light, and scatters it broadcast
Among the drowsy populations of the duller regions. This human
Pyrotechnic is a scholar without learning, a juggler hoaxed by
Himself, an unbelieving priest of mysteries and dogmas, which he
Expounds all the better for his want of faith. Curious being! He has
Seen everything, known everything, and is up in all the ways of the
World. Soaked in the vices of Paris, he affects to be the fellow-well-
Met of the provinces. He is the link which connects the village with
The capital; though essentially he is neither Parisian nor provincial,
– he is a traveller. He sees nothing to the core: men and places he
Knows by their names; as for things, he looks merely at their surface,
And he has his own little tape-line with which to measure them. His
Glance shoots over all things and penetrates none. He occupies himself
With a great deal, yet nothing occupies him.

Jester and jolly fellow, he keeps on good terms with all political
Opinions, and is patriotic to the bottom of his soul. A capital mimic,
He knows how to put on, turn and turn about, the smiles of persuasion,
Satisfaction, and good-nature, or drop them for the normal expression
Of his natural man. He is compelled to be an observer of a certain
Sort in the interests of his trade. He must probe men with a glance
And guess their habits, wants, and above all their solvency. To
Economize time he must come to quick decisions as to his chances of
Success, – a practice that makes him more or less a man of judgment; on
The strength of which he sets up as a judge of theatres, and
Discourses about those of Paris and the provinces.

He knows all the good and bad haunts in France, “de actu et visu.” He
Can pilot you, on occasion, to vice or virtue with equal assurance.
Blest with the eloquence of a hot-water spigot turned on at will, he
Can check or let run, without floundering, the collection of phrases
Which he keeps on tap, and which produce upon his victims the effect
Of a moral shower-bath. Loquacious as a cricket, he smokes, drinks,
Wears a profusion of trinkets, overawes the common people, passes for
A lord in the villages, and never permits himself to be “stumped,” – a
Slang expression all his own. He knows how to slap his pockets at the
Right time, and make his money jingle if he thinks the servants of the
Second-class houses which he wants to enter (always eminently
Suspicious) are likely to take him for a thief.

The illustrious gaudissart, by honore de balzac