Sunday, November 4, 2007

Balzac Mania

Last Christmas holiday when I visited my parents, I found an old copy of Balzac short stories that I had read while I was in college. My sophomore year in college, I had taken a French Literature in Translation class which introduced me to the novels of Zola, Balzac along with some other French novelists of the nineteenth century. And since then, while I had read a few more Zola novels, I hadn't read much of Balzac. To be honest, I think I was too naive and idealistic to appreciate Balzac's sharply honed observation of society. Reading Balzac over a decade later, I was amazed by the thickness of his description of life in nineteenth century Paris, his ability to skewer vanity, sanctimony and other obnoxious behavior with one quick turn of the phrase, as well as the immenseness of his plots.

Since that Christmas holiday, I've gone on to read Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Dark Side of Paris, Eugenie Grandet, and, most recently, Cousin Bette.

In Cousin Bette, I was struck by Balzac's different descriptions of the two courtesans, the middle-class sanctimonious Madame Marneffe and the singer Josepha. The most telling difference is in their treatment of Baroness Hulot, the wife of the man to whom they were mistresses, Josepha being Hulot's former mistress and Marneffe the current mistress.

As Hulot becomes increasingly entrenched in financial woes due to spending all his money on one mistress after another, he also brings his family down with him. At one point, Baroness Hulot appeals to Hulot's former-friend-now-enemy, Crevel, to lend her money. Moved by Baroness Hulot's goodness and saintliness, Crevel casts aside thoughts of vengeance against Hulot and agrees; however, on his way to get the money, he visits his mistress, Valerie Marneffe (who keeps four different lovers simultaneously) who mocks Crevel for being taken in by an act by Baroness Hulot.

In contrast, when Baroness Hulot comes to appeal to Josepha to help her find Baron Hulot (Hulot left his family when he realized that his lenders were in pursuit of him), Josepha dresses in her finest clothes to meet the great lady:

"She pushed forward an easy-chair for the Baroness, and herself took a folding-chair. She saw that this woman had been beautiful, and was moved by profound pity as she watched her nervous shaking, that the least agitation made convulsive. She could read in a single glance the saintly life that Hulot and Crevel had long ago described for her; and she not only lost all idea of matching herself against this woman, but bowed before a greatness that she could recognize. The sublime artist admired what the courtesan might have mocked."

This scene points to one of the greatest differences between contemporary culture and Balzac's period. While Balzac's ironic mode is in fine form today, who would dare to write so easily of sentiment in the same way that Balzac could?

I have a friend who says that the downfall of literature these days is the lack of courage on writers parts to express feelings, to even allow themselves to feel fully. Irony and cynicisim can be easily done as it brings down everything around them. Granted, it takes a sharp wit and cleverness to do such. However, isn't part of Balzac's greatness that he could differentiate between different vices and virtues?

Yes, it's sentimentality, and sentimentality was much in favor during Balzac's era. However, is it enough to say it's sentimentality?

I find it interesting that Balzac posits Josepha's ability to distinguish a woman of virtue due to Josepha being a great and "sublime" artist. The Online Etymology Dictionary entry for sublime originates the word sublime from the Latin sublimis for "uplifted, high, lofty" and also denotes a 1586 definition "expressing lofty ideas in an elevated manner." In Elaine Scarry's brief but important book, On Beauty, Scarry argues that beauty is important because it lifts one outside of one's self, and therefore beauty is one of the agents of compassion: we are lifted outside of one's self, we think of something outside our self, we think of someone outside our self, and to think of the other is an exercise of compassion.

This has been an expressed aim of Sentimental Culture, to make the reader be pulled along by their very sentiments for a character. Yet, one hesitates to go along blindly with many of the novels written in the nineteenth century which expressedly tried to reform society with sentimental novels. However, should one condemn the use of sentiment completely because it had been ill-used by novelists? How are we to distinguish between vice and virtue?

Even the act of distinguishing between vice and virtue seems fussy and old-fashioned. However, do we not practise it in our everyday lives? Do we not say: this person does not have the same values as me? Fine for them, but we don't have to be friends.

We might no longer use the words vice and virtue but we do so distinguish. We say things like: that person is shallow. He's into appearances. He's a man-whore. On and on in a mocking tone that is meant to express our own sophistication, our secular beliefs, and our worldliness.

Balzac makes me question all such contemporary poses. After all, here is one of the worldliest, most sophisticated and urbane novelists, and he dared to express his belief in virtue even while he noted the ways in which virtue could be disdainful, naive, or could ultimately fail. Yet, he does not question the worth of virtue itself.

I suppose I am wondering what the value of goodness is in contemporary society. In Balzac's period, goodness/virtue can be expressed through the troupe of religion. All his virtuous women are religious. They are otherworldly. We live in a secular period. Goodness is those who are aligned with our political beliefs, our mores that are unexpressed, our niggardly mannerisms. In the face of that, Balzac's scene where the virtuous Baroness meets the courtesan singer Josepha has a grandeur that seems inexpressible, nay, even inexplicable in our times.

Is Balzac being self-referential when he talks of Josepha as a sublime artist? Or at least pointing to a function of the artist? I think he must be. In considering the function of art in my life, be it visual art, music, novels, poetry, architecture, or films, I do want the recognition of something worthwhile in life. I find art as that which is most worthwhile in living. To see the luminous paintings by Gerhard Richter, to hear a lofty aria in an be moved by human expression, to hear a human sentiment worth sympathizing with. That which is worthwhile to be lifted.

It's not to say that human beings should be saints in the mode of Baroness Hulot. But it's to recognize that compassion, forgiveness, charity, self-sacrifice are still worthy traits. No one is Baronnes Hulot. She's a character in a novel. But in the midst of human flaws, in the midst of contemporary cynicism and irony, can we still find a way to express worthy traits? Can we express the complexity of expressing these contradictory modes together or does irony have to negate sentiment these days?

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