Saturday, February 06, 2016

Honore de Balzac, The Wild Ass's Skin; and The Quest of the Absolute

Introduction

Opening Passage: From The Wild Ass's Skin:

Toward the end of the month of October, 1829, a young man entered the Palais-Royal just as the gaming-houses opened, agreeably to the law which protects a passion by its very nature easily excisable. He mounted the staircase of one of the gambling hells distinguished by the number 36, without too much deliberation.

From The Question of the Absolute:

There is in Douai, in the Rue de Paris, a house that may be singled out from all the others in the city; for in every respect, in its outward appearance, in its interior arrangements, and in every detail, it is a perfect example of an old Flemish building, and preserves all the characteristics of a quaint style of domestic architecture thoroughly in keeping with the patriarchal manners of the good folk in the Low Countries

Summary: In Le Peau de Chagrin, Raphael de Valentin makes a last desperate attempt with his last bit of money and, the gamble failing, prepares to commit suicide by jumping in the river. Having a somewhat poetical temperament, he decides to drop into a sort of antique shop before he does so, to fill his mind with interesting sights. And the shop does not disappoint. When he meets the ancient owner of the shop, the owner shows him a piece of shagreen, which he claims has an extraordinary power to fulfill wishes. The catch is that when it does so, it shrinks, and so, too, does your life. Raphael, not really believing it, wishes for a wild party. He gets accosted by old acquaintances as soon as he leaves the shop, and they whisk him off to a wild party. Due to a wish he comes into an immense amount of money, and discovers that the shagreen is in fact shrinking, which sobers him up greatly. As a result, he does everything in his power to avoid wishing anymore, but it is inevitable that here and there he wishes for something, and the skin shrinks yet again; and inevitably, the skin, the wishes, and his life will run out.

Balzac has a reputation for writing works that are simultaneously brilliant and flawed, and I think we get something of this with Le Peau de Chagrin. Almost every individual passage is excellently written, and some of it is virtually perfect. The description of the strange shop, for instance, is a bit of workmanship that is genuinely indicative of literary genius. But at the same time, the whole fits somewhat oddly together, and despite the fact that any particular passage tends to be quite good, I found that getting through Part II of the work was a bit of a chore. The pacing is weird. Part of this is that we get so much of the story indirectly, and only a few things actually happen in the story as it is on the page. Despite brilliant description and dialogue, the middle portion of the story seemed to bog down in places.

The shagreen itself is interesting. There is no doubt whatsoever that it is miraculous; there is an amusing sequence of episodes in which Raphael goes to various scientists to try to stretch it, to no avail. But none of the wish-fulfilling that comes about because of it is actually outside the realm of natural possibility; in many ways, you could have this story without the shagreen at all, and chalk up everything to luck the way we actually would in real life. What the shagreen does, though, is make the inevitable end visible and tangible throughout the course of the events that lead to the end. The shagreen is a visible representation of human life as it is consumed by human desire. The inability of the scientists to stretch the shagreen parallels the inability of the doctors to stretch out life. We human beings are very bad at measuring out our desires according to the limits of the life we have in us; we desire so much so easily, and getting what we'd like to have, we nonetheless discover that time is still running out on us.

While not as brilliantly executed, in some ways I liked La Recherche de l'Absolu better. There is certainly more of a story to it, as we follow the life of Balthazar Claes, a genius of a chemist, and especially his family as they attempt not to be pulled down into utter destitution by Claes's monomaniacal passion, to find the Absolute, the one thing common to all substances that in combination with the right forces explains all phenomena. This would, of course, be a great discovery, and would be guaranteed to bring extraordinary wealth, and Claes is always ever almost to the point of discovering. Immense fortunes pour into his experiments, a money-sink that can never be exhausted (for what can exhaust the ingenious mind's ability to come up with one more possibility?). It will eventually fall to his daughter Marguerite to discover how to work around this insatiable drain while still maintaining her responsibilities to her father. Ironically, the promise of endless wealth from the Absolute simply drains everyone's resources, while something else entirely is continually finding new resources to keep the family from collapse. And that is family love and loyalty: the love and loyalty of a wife toward her husband, of a daughter toward her parents and her siblings, of a young man toward a young woman and a young woman toward a young man. It does not do this easily, or without suffering, as the Philosopher's Stone promises to do, but it is in reality more of a Philosopher's Stone than the Philosopher's Stone itself.

Both tales explore the destructive side of human desire. Even harmless desires may burn away our lives. Even noble ambitions may bring suffering to others. But, on the other hand, not all our sober prudence and ingenuity can entirely prevent them from doing so, either.

Favorite Passage: From The Wild Ass's Skin:

Assemble a collection of schoolboys together. That will give you a society in miniature, a miniature which represents life more truly, because it is so frank and artless; and in it you will always find poor isolated beings, relegated to some place in the general estimation between pity and contempt, on account of their weakness and suffering. To these the Evangel promises heaven hereafter. Go lower yet in the scale of organized creation. If some bird among its fellows in the courtyard sickens, the others fall upon it with their beaks, pluck out its feathers, and kill it. The whole world, in accordance with its charter of egotism, brings all its severity to bear upon wretchedness that has the hardihood to spoil its festivities, and to trouble its joys.

From The Question of the Absolute:

"Ah!" said Martha, "there is Mlle. Marguerite crying. Her old wizard of a father would gobble down the house without saying grace. In my country they would have burned him alive for a sorcerer long before this; but they have no more religion here than Moorish infidels."

Recommendation: Both are Highly Recommended.

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