It was true that in Mlle Vinteuil’s habits the appearance of evil was so absolute that it would have been hard to find it exhibited to such a degree of perfection save in a convinced sadist; it is behind the footlights of a Paris theatre and not under the homely lamp of an actual country house that one expects to see a girl encouraging a friend to spit upon the portrait of a father who has lived and died for her alone; and when we find in real life a desire for melodramatic effect, it is generally sadism that is responsible for it. It is possible that, without being in the least inclined towards sadism, a daughter might be guilty of equally cruel offenses of those of Mlle Vinteuil against the memory and the wishes of her dead father, but she would not give them deliberate expression in an act so crude in its symbolism, so lacking in subtlety; the criminal element in her behavior would be less evident to other people, and even to herself, since she would not admit to herself that she was doing wrong.
But, appearance apart, In Mlle Vinteuil’s soul, at least in the earlier stages, the evil element was probably not unmixed. A sadist of her kind is an artist in evil, which a wholly wicked person could not be, for in that case the evil would not have been external, it would have seemed quite natural to her, and would not even have been distinguishable from herself; and as for virtue, respect for the dead, filial affection, since she would never have practiced these things, she would take no delight in profaning them.
Sadists of Mlle Vinteuil’s sort are creatures so purely sentimental, so naturally virtuous, that even sensual pleasure appears to them as something bad, the prerogative of the wicked. And when they allow themselves for a moment to enjoy it they endeavor to impersonate, to identify with, the wicked, and to make their partner’s do likewise, in order to gain the momentary illusion of having escaped beyond control of their own gentle and scrupulous natures into the inhuman world of pleasure. And I could understand how she must have longed for such an escape when I saw how impossible it was for her to effect it.
At the moment when she wished to be thought the very antithesis of her father, what she at once suggested to me were mannerisms in thought and speech, of the poor old piano-teacher. Far more than his photograph, what she really desecrated, what she subordinated to her pleasures though it remained between them, was the likeness between her face and his, his mother’s blue eyes which he had handed down to her like a family jewel, those gestures of courtesy and kindness which interposed between her vice and herself a phraseology, a mentality which were not designed for vice and which prevented her from recognizing it as something very different from the numberless little social duties and courtesies to which she must devote herself every day.
It was not evil that gave her the idea of pleasure, it was pleasure, rather, that seemed evil. And as, each time she indulged in it, it was accompanied by evil thoughts such as ordinarily had no place in her virtuous mind, she came at length to see in pleasure itself something diabolical, to identify with Evil.
Perhaps Mlle Vinteuil felt that at heart her friend was not altogether bad, nor really sincere when she gave vent to those blasphemous utterances. At any rate, she had the pleasure of receiving and returning those kisses, those smiles, those glances, all feigned, perhaps, but akin in their base and vicious mode of expression to those which would have been evinced not by an ordinarily kind, suffering person but by a cruel and wanton one. She could delude herself for a moment into believing that she was indeed enjoying the pleasures which, with so perverted an accomplice, a girl might enjoy who really did harbor such barbarous feelings towards her father’s memory. Perhaps she would not have thought of evil as a state so rare, so abnormal, so exotic, one in which it was so refreshing to sojourn, had she been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives to it, is the most terrible and lasting cruelty.