Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, "The Abodes of Beauty and of the Je Ne Sais Quoi," from Le Cabinet du philosophe, IIe feuille, 1734. Translated by yours truly.
Only rarely can beauty and the je ne sais quoi be found together.
By the Je ne sais quoi I mean: that charm spread across someone’s face and figure, and which makes a person lovable, without our being able to tell what it owes its effects to [á quoi il tient].
I have read somewhere on this subject a quite interesting tale; it was written by a man who pretended to have found the abodes of Beauty and of the Je ne sais quoi.
Here is more or less what he said. It’s short, as I will only offer a summary of his tale.
One day—he said—as I was walking in the country, I was lost in thoughts about one of the most beautiful women in the world, whom I had visited for each of the last eight days out there in the countryside where I was staying. The first time I had seen her I had looked on her admiringly; I’d been less touched by her the second time; and I had finally ended up looking at her with indifference, no matter how beautiful I still found her to be, no matter how beautiful she truly was. I wondered why such beauty so worthy of admiration had grown so uninteresting to me, why Beauty in general, even, didn’t inspire longer-lasting feelings.
I was seeking out the reasons for such things when I noticed I was standing between two gardens, of which one seemed superb, and the other pleasant [riant].
The gates to these two gardens were right across from one another.
On that of the superb garden, these words could be read in golden letters: THE ABODE OF BEAUTY.
On that of the pleasant garden was written, in characters in which all sorts of colors were melded together, making a single one that could not be defined: THE ABODE OF THE JE NE SAIS QUOI.
The abode of Beauty! I first said to myself; oh, I must see it; for whoever says “Beauty” says something much more impressive than the “Je ne sais quoi,” something much worthier of being seen.
And so, carried along by the strength of the word, I didn’t hesitate to choose the garden of Beauty, and to leave behind that of the Je ne sais quoi, which I would return to enjoy later.
As determined as I was in preferring the former, I nevertheless threw another glance at the latter which seemed to me so pleasant, and wished it were possible to see them both at the same time. But apparently no side-by-side comparison could be drawn between the two; so one had to start with the most intriguing [curieux] one, which is what I did.
As I entered the garden of Beauty, I noticed the footsteps of several people who had walked in, but I also noticed as many belonging to people who’d walked out.
I walk on, and the more I observe, the more I admire.
I will not retell all the beautiful things I saw; the description of those sites is beyond my abilities; but I was astonished, I was struck. Imagine everything grand, superb and magnificent that can be placed in a garden; everything extraordinary that the most exact symmetry and the best thought-out arrangement can create; and you’ll barely picture what I saw.
But how can I describe to you what the palace that I found after walking for a while looked like? I couldn’t even try.
If I had to say something about it, I would tell you about the person I saw there seated on some kind of throne, around which stood several men who, according to what they told me, had only preceded me there by an hour, and who all seemed to be frozen in place, as if in ecstasy upon seeing the woman on the throne.
You be the judge of whether they were wrong: that was Beauty herself, in person, who, every once in a while and as if by chance [négligemment] cast on each of them, as well as on me, glances that made us all cry out: Oh! such beautiful eyes!, then, a moment later, oh! such a beautiful mouth! oh! such a beautiful face! oh! such a beautiful waist!
Upon hearing these exclamations, Beauty smiled and lowered her eyes somewhat, more out of modesty than out of embarrassment; and, without answering, started looking at us again, as if to reinforce [nous confirmer dans] the feelings of admiration we held for her. Now and then she also raised her head with a certain haughty air, which seemed to tell us: your admiration must be accompanied by respect. That was all she had to say for herself.
For the first quarter of an hour, the pleasure of contemplating her made us forget her silence; by the end of it, however, I began to notice it, and so did the others.
What! we all said, nothing but smiles, nothing but turns of the head, not a single word; that’s hardly enough. Will only our eyes be gratified? Are there no pleasures but the pleasure of sight?
Thereupon, one of us stepped forward to present her with a piece of fruit he’d picked in the garden. She accepted it while smiling all the while, and with the most beautiful hand in the world, but without opening her mouth; and her gesture was the only thanks she offered; we had to content ourselves with watching her.
Apprarently each one of us got tired of this, for, little by little, our group got smaller; I could see my companions walk away; and soon, of all the admirers amongst whom I had found myself, I was the only one left, and I took my leave as well.
As I crossed an alleyway heading back, I met a woman who seemed exceedingly proud, and before whom, as I passed her, I took a deep bow.
Where are you going? she asked me with with an air both disdainful and displeased. I have just admired BEAUTY, I answered, and now I am leaving. Now, now, why leave? she replied. Shouldn’t you be frozen in place before Beauty? What is there left for you to see, after having seen her?
You are doubtlessly right, I told her; but I have seen her long enough; I know her features by heart: they are always the same. It is always the same beautiful visage, over and over again, saying nothing to the spirit, speaking only to the eyes, and always telling them the same thing; thus, I had nothing left to learn from it. If only Beauty engaged her admirers in conversation a little, if only her soul played about her face somewhat, that would render that face less uniform, and more touching; it would please the heart as much as the eyes; but we only see it as beautiful, and don’t feel it to be so. Beauty should take the trouble to speak for herself, and to display her spirit [esprit]; for I don’t think she’s lacking in it.
Now, now! What does it matter to you whether she has or hasn’t any? asked me that woman then; does she need any, looking as she does? Go on, you don’t understand a thing; were you dealing with an ordinary visage, I would agree with you; it would be to its advantage that spirit animate it; that would enhance it, and make up for the graces that it lacked. But to wish that spirit play across a beautiful face is to wish for the alteration of that face’s charms; spirit may add something to unformed features, but it could only hurt features that are perfectly shaped; it could do nothing but disturb them. A beautiful face is as complete as it can be; it can do no better than to stay just as it is; whatever the movements of the spirit were to add to it would throw it off balance [en troublerait l’économie], for it is precisely in the state it is supposed to be in, and could not come out of it but to its own detriment. Thus, you criticize without thinking; it is I who tell you so, I who am the unmoved Pride of beautiful people, and the helpmate of Beauty. I never leave her side, and take great care to keep her spirit cold and tranquil, so that her face may stay at rest, and that her noble propriety be not lessened. It is fortunately true that it is not hard for me to temper Beauty’s spirit, which is generally quite peaceful of its own accord, or at least it’s perfectly aware how important it is for it to maintain gravity, and that it cause no disorder in that beautiful visage, whose interests it respects too much to think of its own.
Thus spoke to me the woman; and her words seemed to me so peculiar, that I only answered with a bow and took my leave, then quickly made for the abode of the Je ne sais quoi, where I caught up with all those who had left me behind in Beauty's dwelling.
There was nothing astonishing in this place, and, what is more, nothing that was purposefully arranged; everything looked as if it had been thrown down haphazardly; disorder, even, reigned there, and yet a disorder in the very best taste, creating a charming effect, and whose cause one could neither have understood [démêler] nor shown.
In short, nothing was left to be desired, there; and yet it must have been that nothing had been finished, or that not everything that one would have wanted to place there had indeed been placed, for at every moment we could see something new being added.
And, despite the tale that counts only three Graces, there were an infinity of them there, which, as they crossed the grounds, reworked them, retouching them everywhere. I say, "as they crossed," for they did nothing but come and go, but pass before us in quick succession, without allowing us the time to know them well; they were there, but barely could one see them that they disappeared, and that others took their place then passed by in their turn, making space for others yet. In one word, they were all over, and yet settled nowhere; and it was never just one, but a thousand of them, that could be seen.
Well then, gentlemen, said I to those who were with me, this place is charming; I'd willingly spend here my entire life; but he who inhabits it, the JE NE SAIS QUOI, where is he? Lead me to him, I pray you; for you must have seen him?
Not yet, they answered; and ever since we have been here, we have been seeking him without yet being able to find him; it is true that we seek him at our leisure; for, though we have the greatest desire in the world to lay our eyes on him, we are not in the least impatient to find his whereabouts; and even were we never to find him, we are resolved to seek him out forever.
And yet he must be here, I answered; and barely had I uttered these words, that we heard a voice telling us: Here I am.
We all turned around then, for we perceived nothing before us; and, as much as we kept turning, we still saw nothing.
Where are you then, kindly JE NE SAIS QUOI? we all asked as one.
Here I am, I tell you, answered the voice again.
And we kept looking around, expecting to see him, and seeing nothing still.
You tell us: here I am, I continued, but you shun our sight.
And yet you see nothing but me, he answered. In this infinite number of graces that pass ceaselessly before your eyes, coming and going, all different and yet all equally lovable, of which some are more virile and some more tender, watch them well, there I am; it's me you see there, always me. In these sights you love so much, in these objects of all kinds that hold for you so many pleasing touches, in the entire extent of the grounds, in all that you perceive here that is simple, fancy-free, unruly even, ornate or not ornate: there I am, I show myself in them, I constitute all their charm, I surround you. In the guise of these graces, I am the Je ne sais quoi that moves you in both sexes; there, the Je ne sais quoi that pleases in architecture, in furnishings, in gardens, in all that can be an object of taste. And yet don't seek me in one form, I have thousands, and yet not one of them that stays ever fixed; that is why one sees me without knowing me, without being able to either grasp me or define me; in seeing me, one loses me from sight, one can sense me and yet not understand [démêle] me; in short, you see me, and you seek me, and you'll never find me in any other way; therefore you'll never tire of seeing me.