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Honoré de Balzac 1799-1850

French short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of Balzac's short fiction works from 1990 to 1997. For discussion of Balzac's short fiction career prior to 1990, see SSC, Volume 5.

Balzac is generally considered to be the greatest nineteenth-century French...

(The entire section contains 58007 words.)

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Honoré de Balzac 1799-1850

French short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of Balzac's short fiction works from 1990 to 1997. For discussion of Balzac's short fiction career prior to 1990, see SSC, Volume 5.

Balzac is generally considered to be the greatest nineteenth-century French novelist. His importance rests on his vast work La comédie humaine (1842-53; The Human Comedy), which consists of more than ninety novellas and stories. Critics generally concur that his genius lies in his accurate use of observation and detail, his inexhaustible imagination, and his authentic portraits of men, women, and their physical environments. Considered an early exponent of realism, Balzac is praised for providing a comprehensive portrait of the French society of his day.

Biographical Information

Born on May 20, 1799, Balzac led a solitary childhood and received little attention from his parents. He lived with a wet nurse until the age of three, and at eight he was sent to board at the Oratorian College at Vendôme. Later, his family moved from Tours to Paris, where Balzac completed his studies. He received his law degree in 1819; however, to his parents' disappointment, he announced that he intended to become a writer. From 1819 to 1825 Balzac experimented with literary forms, including verse tragedy and sensational novels and stories, which he wrote under various pseudonyms. He considered these works to be stylistic exercises; they were conscious efforts to learn his craft, as well as his only means of support. At one point in his career he abandoned writing to become involved in a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Balzac returned to writing, but despite eventual renown, money problems continued to haunt him throughout his life.

Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 (1829; The Chouans) was Balzac's first critically successful work and the first to appear under his own name. The novel La Physiologie du mariage; ou, Méditations de philosophie éclectique (The Physiology of Marriage) and the collection of short stories Scènes de la vie privée, both published in 1830, further enhanced his reputation. These works also appealed to female readers, who valued his realistic and sympathetic portraits of women as vital members of society. In 1832 Balzac received a letter from one of his female admirers signed l'Étrangère (the Stranger). The writer expressed her admiration for Scènes de la vie privée and chided Balzac for the ironic tone in his newest work, La peau de chagrin (1831; The Magic Skin). Later she revealed her identity as Madame Hanska, the wife of a wealthy Polish count. Balzac and Madame Hanska carried on an extended liaison through letters and infrequent visits. For nine years after her husband's death in 1841, she refused to remarry; her eventual marriage to Balzac just five months before his death came too late to ease the author's financial troubles.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although Balzac wrote what he intended to be short stories, most of these short pieces eventually became part of a longer work. Because of this, it is difficult to make clear distinctions between his longer and short works. Eventually, they all became part of La comédie humaine, written between 1830 and 1850 and considered to be Balzac's finest achievement. His preface to the 1842 collection outlines the goal of his writings. He refers to himself as “secretary to French society” and expresses his desire to describe and interpret his era. Balzac considered it possible to classify social species as the naturalists had classified zoological species. By organizing his stories into groups that depict the varied classes and their milieu, his work reveals his belief that environment determines an individual's development. La comédie humaine includes three main sections: the Etudes analytiques, Etudes philosophiques, and the bulk of his work, the Etudes de moeurs, which he further divided into the Scènes de la vie de province, Scènes de la vie parisienne, Scènes de la vie politique, Scènes de la vie militaire, Scènes de la vie de compagne, and Scènes de la vie privée, a title he had previously used for a collection of short stories. Balzac attempted to portray all levels of contemporary French society, but he did not live long enough to complete the work.

Critical Reception

Many of Balzac's most discussed works, such as La fille aux yeux d'or (1834) and Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (1831; The Unknown Masterpiece), are variously categorized as novels, novellas, and short stories by critics. In his effort to achieve a complete representation of society, Balzac included in his work not only virtue, faithfulness, and happiness, but also squalor, misery, chicanery, sexual perfidy, and greed. Many nineteenth century readers and critics found his work to be depressing and, more frequently, they considered his representation of life immoral. Others contended that Balzac was a realist and merely depicted society as he witnessed it. Modern critical interest in Balzac attests to his enduring importance. Much of the recent criticism on his fiction focuses on intertextuality in his fiction and in the works of others that have followed. There is also interest in examining sexuality and gender in Balzac's writings. His ability to blend realistic detail, acute observation, and visionary imagination is still considered to be the author's greatest artistic gift. Balzac's popularity continues unabated, as successive generations look to his fiction for a universal as well as personal view of human existence.

Principal Works

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Scènes de la vie privée 1830

Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu [The Unknown Masterpiece] 1831

Romans et contes philosophiques 1831

Le Colonel Chabert 1832

Contes bruns [with Philarète Chasles and Charles Rabou] 1832

Nouveaux contes philosophiques 1832

Les Salmigondis: Contes de toutes les coleurs 1832

Les cent contes drolatiques. 3 vols. 1832-37

La fille aux yeux d'or 1834

Séraphita 1835

Une passion dans le désert [A Passion in the Desert] 1837

La comédie humaine. 20 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1842-53

The Human Comedy. 40 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1895-98

Oeuvres complètes. 40 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, plays, letters, and essays) 1912-40

La comédie humaine. 11 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1951-59; revised edition, 1976–81

Selected Short Stories 1977

Collected Short Stories 1979

Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 [The Chouans] (novel) 1829

La Physiologie du mariage; ou, Méditations de philosophie éclectique [The Physiology of Marriage] (novel) 1829

Le peau de chagrin [The Magic Skin; also translated as The Wild Ass's Skin] (novel) 1831

Le Médecin de campagne (novel) 1833

Etudes de moeurs au XIXe siècle. 12 vols. (novels) 1833-37

Le Livre mystique (novel) 1835

Le Père Goriot [Old Goriot] (novel) 1835

Etudes philosophiques. 20 vols. (novels) 1835-40

Le Lys dans la vallée [The Lily of the Valley] (novel) 1836

Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau [History of the Grandeur and Downfall of Cesar Birotteau; also translated as The Bankrupt] (novel) 1838

Beatrix; ou, Les Amours forcées [Beatrix] (novel) 1839

Vautrin (play) 1840

Ursule Mirouët [Ursula] (novel) 1842

Petites misères de la vie conjugale [The Petty Annoyances of Married Life] (novel) 1845-46

Les Parents pauvres [Poor Relations] (novel) 1847-48

La Marâtre [The Stepmother] (play) 1848

Lettres à l'étrangèr. 4 vols. [with Mme. Hanska] (letters) 1899-1950

Joyce O. Lowrie (essay date May 1990)

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SOURCE: Lowrie, Joyce O. “Works Sighted in a Frame Narrative by Balzac: Facino Cane.French Forum 15, no. 2 (May 1990): 149-67.

[In the following essay, Lowrie provides a stylistic analysis of “Facino Cane,” focusing on the structure of the frame story.]

Parmy tant d'emprunts, je suis bien aise d'en pouvoir desrober quelqu'un, les desguisant et difformant à nouveau service.

Montaigne, Essais1

Links that exist between the “frame” and the “framed” in embedded narratives are multifarious and complex. Works sighted in Balzac's “Facino Cane” reveal how authors, real and implied, and narrators use intra- and intertexts to build bridges between basic segments of frame stories. The orchestration of these elements also shows that the narratives themselves are frequently homologous, in their dialogic structures, to the very texts to which they allude. Balzac's (and his narrator's) direct and indirect references to libraries, books, 1,001 Nights, the Divine Comedy, the Odyssey, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and Diderot's Lettre sur les aveugles build bridges between the two parts of “Facino Cane” and foreground, as well, acts of narrating and decoding texts.

“Facino Cane” is a short story that was written by Balzac in one night. It was published for the first time on 17 March 1836 in the Chronique de Paris. It is thirteen pages long in the Pléiade edition, and its final resting place is with the other Scènes de la vie parisienne. The initial part of the frame, told by Narrator I, as I shall call him since he is given no name, occupies the first five pages. Two pages are then devoted to dialogue between the first and the second narrator, and to a description of the latter. Facino Cane, who is Narrator II, takes up five pages with his embedded narrative, and one page of commentary and dialogue rounds (or squares) off the frame. The transitional dialogue and description is in a chiastic relationship to the final description and dialogue. The structure is a strikingly balanced one.

The two stories exist in such a way that works sighted in them participate in the reflexive aspects of the narratives themselves. The process of analyzing the layers upon layers of allusions is not only vertiginous but spellbinding. Due to the complexity of these narratives, a summary of them is in order.

In the frame, or the histoire enchâssante, as Tzvetan Todorov calls it,2 Narrator I describes the poor section of Paris in which he lives, as well as his love of la science.3 He has a veritable passion for observing the customs and lives of others, and while taking breaks from the Royal library where he studies, he follows people and “substitutes” himself for them, participating, second-hand, in their lives. He follows a couple and their child down the street, listening to their discussions. They talk about the play they have just seen at the Ambigu-Comique, and about their finances, their wages, the high price of food. The Narrator then analyzes his own capacity to empathize with others to the point of identifying himself with them.

While attending the wedding of his housekeeper's daughter, Narrator I becomes fascinated by one of the three blind musicians hired to play for the assembled crowd, and engages him in dialogue. The extraordinary old man is Marco Facino Cane, a Venetian from the royal house of Varese. The blind man becomes aware of a mutual affinity he has with Narrator I, and after finishing his playing, he tells the young man his story.

In this embedded narrative, Facino Cane describes how, at the age of twenty (which is also Narrator I's age at the time of the events he has been describing thus far), he fell in love with a young married Venetian woman. Found with her, he is attacked by the husband, and in self-defense, kills the older man. Bianca refuses to flee with her lover to Milan, where he goes to escape his pursuers. Returning to Venice when his funds run out, Bianca then hides him in her house where they live together happily for six months. Because a Provéditeur (a public officer) becomes interested in Bianca, he discovers Facino Cane, captures him, and throws him into a dark prison dungeon. Deciphering a message cut into a stone, Cane finds an escape route that the previous occupant had begun to dig. A broken piece of his sword helps Cane carve his way out of the passageway, and it happens to lead into the room of the palace where the treasures of Venice are stored. He buys off his jailer and they escape, taking with them as much of the treasure as they can carry. The jailer dies; Cane goes blind. He ends up in London, where “I'amie de Mme du Barry,” with whom he had become involved, robs him and abandons him. Finally making his way to Paris, penniless, he spends his days with other blind men from the Quinze-Vingts (a home for the blind), telling his story to whoever will listen. His intention is to entice someone into taking him back to Venice, where he is sure to find the treasure by intuiting its location, by sniffing it out, by “smelling it,” as he says of his monomania for gold.

At the end, in the histoire enchâssante's dialogue between both narrators, Narrator I agrees to lead Facino Cane back to Venice. But the old man dies, not long after, of a catarrh.


References of import appear immediately in the first two sentences of the text. Narrator I is the encoded implied author who most resembles Balzac in his work. He lives on the rue de Lesdiguières, near a library. The signifier “Lesdiguières,” having to do with dams or dikes, is a bridge leading toward Narrative II, for Venice is the principal locus of Facino Cane's narration. The signified also relates to the real author because Balzac had lived at no. 9, rue Lesdiguières, in 1819 and 1820. Narrator I spends many hours during the day working “dans une bibliothèque voisine, celle de MONSIEUR.”4 This became the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in which Balzac, too, had worked. In this intratextual referent, the books in the “bibliothèque,” a royal library, are in relation to the Livre d' or in which the “real” historical figure, Bonifacio Facino Cane,5 the fictive Marco Facino Cane's ancestor, had had his name inscribed in order to protect himself from the Visconti (1024). The Golden Book was the register, destroyed in 1797, in which noble families of Italy had their name written. This was done in golden letters, which explains the title of the book (Raitt n238). The words “Facino Cane” must have fascinated Balzac, whose delight in onomastics is evident throughout his work: Facino is close, in sound, to the Italian word fascino (fascination), and cane (dog) may have inspired Balzac to endow his character with the ability to smell, to sniff out gold. “Une cane” is also associated with a blind man's walking stick.

According to André Lorant, the name “Cane” was that of an Irish family with whom the Balzacs had shared a house in Tours. The English name was pronounced “Canet” in the Touraine, and Balzac may have transformed it, says Lorant, into an Italian one (1013). But this explanation does not, in any way, account for the Marco or the Facino in Marco Facino Cane's name. The fictive first name Marco is obvious, for Balzac's character is Venitian, and Facino, is “real.” Marco also evokes the thirteenth-century paradigmatic Venitian traveler and gold seeker, Marco Polo. He too was an author, having narrated descriptions of the East that were, throughout the Renaissance, the principal if not the only source for the exotic lands he describes.6 Not only is the inscription of a proper name in a book a mise en abyme of the text, but the “real” and the “fictive” are confounded in the referent. The bibliothèque de MONSIEUR was “real”; Bonifacio Facino Cane was “real”; the livre d' or was “real.” The geographic and topographic semes in the text are “real,” in the main, even though Balzac had not yet seen Venice when he wrote the short narrative.7 Referential signs are thus used to highlight the fictive. Facino Cane is doubly fictional in serving as title to the short story that the real author wrote, and in becoming a narrator in his own right. He reflects the real author and Narrator I as well. Relationships between “reality” and fiction, between libraries, books and reading, between the structure of this text and its “conversations” with other texts are established from the start and continue throughout.

In his discussion of the opening paragraph of Le Père Goriot, Victor Brombert calls attention to the references that are “structured around contradictory signals of surface realism and of simultaneous subversions of the realistic discourse.”8 I would say that rather than undermining surface realism, “Facino Cane”'s “reality effect” is in tension with the fictive. Balzac, in fact, had some hesitation when it came to the title he was to give his short narrative.9 The original edition, published in 1837 under Etudes philosophiques, bore the royal name, “Facino Cane.” In the Souverain edition of Mystères de Province, the text became plebeian (i.e., “realistic” in title): it was called “Le Père Canet.” In the Furne edition of 1844, the royal lineage was recovered, and “Facino Cane,” from then on, has figured in Scènes de la vie parisienne.

The implied reader is encoded in the first sentence of the frame, and for a practical reason: “Je demeurais alors dans une petite rue que vous ne connaissez sans doute pas.”10 Because the street indicates the quarters of the poor, the implied reader is thought to be above living in such an area. He or she is required to be literate, or, to say the least, to be sufficiently endowed with knowledge to understand the literary allusions in the text (1022). Literacy seems to be related to financial means (despite the poverty of both narrators), and to the ability to live in an area other than the one beginning with “la rue Saint-Antoine.” The first sentence distances readers, on the one hand, but succeeds in “instructing” them, on the other, about how another part of the world lives. Consequently, there is pedagogical and moral value placed on narrative.

In her study of the history and theory of the frame narrative, Katharine Slater Gittes states that certain organizing devices are constant throughout the genre's development. As she traces the history of the genre (that frame narrative is a genre is only one theory among others)11 Gittes observes that over and above the obvious motifs of a “controlling narrator or a pervading travel or wisdom theme,” organizing devices include: intelligence as a means of survival in the world; tension between the framing story and the enclosed tale; the rebirth theme, and the open-endedness of the framing story.12 All of these are present in “Facino Cane.”

Narrators I and II are both intelligent, even though the “lesson” of the story undermines this gift. Learning is not rewarded, at least in monetary terms: Narrator II goes blind, loses his fortune, and dies, while Narrator I continues to expend “la puissance destructrice de la pensée” by telling tales.

As he describes his intuitive powers at the end of the first paragraph, Narrator I says: “[l'observation] était déjà devenue intuitive, elle pénétrait l'âme sans négliger le corps; ou plutôt elle saisissait si bien les détails extérieurs, qu'elle allait sur-le-champ au-delà; elle me donnait la faculté de vivre de la vie de l'individu sur laquelle elle s'exerçait, en me permettant de me substituer à lui comme le derviche des Mille et Une Nuits prenait le corps et l'âme des personnes sur lesquelles il prononçait certaines paroles” (1019).

The simile Narrator I uses in his literary allusion is significant: he has recourse to the exotic, to the realm of fantasy, when he compares himself to the dervish in 1,001 Nights (the “Chinese box” narrative par excellence) at the point where the dervish absorbs both body and soul of those persons upon whom he pronounces magic words. This reference builds a bridge from Narrative I to II in regard to the exotic elements of the latter. Palaces, bridges, prisons, vast fortunes, excessive monomanias for gold, cloak-and-dagger details, symbolic aspects of blindness versus sight (and insight), narrative repetition, all relate to the sign that is deliberately encoded in the text by the reference made to the Oriental stories told by Scheherazade to her husband, Schariar, legendary king of Samarkand. A further link is established, as well, between Parts I and II, for Facino Cane himself will also mention 1,001 Nights.

By citing this work, Balzac mirrors his own activity: he, a narrator, has created Narrator I, who leads us to Narrator II, who will return us to Narrator I. But the dialogic function of the frame is almost subverted by Narrator I when he announces that he is something of a succubus; he imbibes the identity of the other, substituting the other for himself. Dialogic tension between the frame and the embedded narrative would be reduced to a univocal account if both were to become one, and the dynamism of the tale's double structure would be rendered less powerful in that case. This is only a latent temptation in “Facino Cane,” and yet it signals the empathy that exists when meaningful dialogue occurs in the act of reading.

In his introduction to “Facino Cane,” Lorant reminds us that the idea of intuitive observation was one in which Balzac's contemporaries were acutely interested: “Lecteur de la série des Hermites de Victor-Joseph Etienne, dit de Jouy, Balzac a pu être frappé par certaines remarques du physiologiste des mœurs et usages parisiens sous la Restauration: ‘Je pénètre ce que je regarde; je suis doué d'un coup d'œil intrusif qui me montre les gens intus et in cute; je démêle jusque dans leur repos le mobile de leurs notions, j'entends le langage du regard, du geste, et même du silence’” (1011). What might be called, today, the interpretation of “body language” and expression was already a matter that deeply concerned Balzac and his generation. This interest was not only due to the influences of Lavater, Gall, and others, but came about with nineteenth-century developments in urban conditions of life. It became necessary and desirable to be able to classify those one did not know when one met them on the street. Balzac's own interest in street encounters results from their being a source for his creative imagination.

Another source sighted for Balzac's ideas about identification with others, according to Lorant, was Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, published in 1822. De Quincey's statements (which had been translated by Alfred de Musset in 1828) refer to a couple who have one or two children. After having “experienced” an opera under the influence of opium, De Quincey describes sharing the concerns of the poor with them: “Plus d'une famille consistant en un seul homme avec sa femme, quelquefois un ou deux de leurs enfants, se consultait sur l'emploi de la journée, sur ses plaisirs, sur ses peines, parlait du prix des choses de ménage. Peu à peu je me familiarisais avec leurs désirs, leurs embarras et leurs opinions” (1011). This quotation resembles the description of the family that Narrator I follows down the boulevard after they had attended a performance at the Ambigu-Comique. Facino Cane, too, will “follow the traces” that lead to gold. Identification leads to narration and to interpretation in all of these cases: De Quincey's, the real and the implied authors', and those of Narrators I and II.

Since ambigu alludes to “double” and signifies “ambiguity,” the name of the theater mentioned by Narrator I foregrounds the binary tensions and bridges that exist between the “plebeian” and the “royal” dimensions of the text, the “realistic” and its simultaneously fictive elements, and the characters of Narrators I and II. Both are young, in their twenties, at the time of the adventures they relate, yet one is young and the other old at the time of the diegeses themselves. Both have a passion, or a monomania; both want to “lose themselves” in the passion they have for the other, whether it be persons, gold, or the narrative act. Both allude to other texts, yet Narrator I is the more learned of the two.

Narrator I further enhances the tension between the poor and the elite (the Ambigu-Comique being a boulevard theater specializing in vaudevilles and light comedy) when he says that he follows the couple down the Pont-aux-Choux to the Beaumarchais boulevard. In the publication préoriginale of “Facino Cane” in the Chronique de Paris, the story was “précédé d'une chronique consacrée à l'adaptation de Gil Blas, due à Sauvage et de Lurieu” (1030n1). Once again, the mundane leads towards and incorporates the “literary.” The boulevard that begins with cabbages (Pont-aux-Choux) ends with the name of a writer who had criticized kings (Beaumarchais).

While describing his adventures, Narrator I's intertextual usage of one of Dante's phrases becomes another link between Paris and Venice (or Italy). Narrator I calls Paris “cette ville de douleur” (1020), thus referring to the Inferno: “Per me si va nella città dolente” (“Through me you enter into the city of grief”) (III, 1; cf. Pléiade 1020n2). Since Facino Cane experiences all manner of douleurs, Paris and Venice are in relation with each other in the text by intra- and intertextual means. The città dolente motif also brings to mind the famous opening pages of La Fille aux yeux d'or in which the physiognomy of Parisians is called “presque infernale,” and Paris “un enfer.” As the two travelers in the Divina Commedia move towards the Inferno, they approach the gate and read the words inscribed upon it. The words depict what lies within, pain eternal and beings who have lost all hope. The last line of the third terza rima of Part III is the best known line of the Inferno: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate” (“Abandon all hope, you who enter here”). The loss of hope and its renewal characterize Facino Cane. The renewal occurs when he meets Narrator I (or any virtual guide). In fact, the goal of his tale is to “fascinate” Narrator I into traveling back with him to Venice in order to find the gold hidden in the Doges' Palace. He wishes to re-enact his narrative, to repeat it, as it were. But Cane's death in the realist mode (“Le pauvre homme avait un catarrhe” [1032]) puts an end to all hope, and to this particular narrative as well.

There is open-endedness, or lack of closure, however, in the finale, for Narrator I states that he possesses many more tales in his bag of tricks. What could be interpreted as another intertextual reference to Scheherazade's telling of stories in order to save her life (Balzac also told stories for a living) is the meta-narrative statement Narrator I makes: “[l' histoire] fait partie de ces récits curieux restés dans le sac d'où la mémoire les tire capricieusement comme des numéros de loterie: j'en ai bien d'autres, aussi singuliers que celui-ci, également enfouis [like the treasure Facino Cane finds buried in the subterranean vaults of the palace], mais ils auront leur tour, croyez-le” (1020-21). The comment about taking narrations, as it were, “out of a sack” is suggestive of the magical or dervish-like quality of the narrator.

Narrator I creates a dichotomy between elevated and mundane music just as he had between social ranks when he describes the tunes the blind men play at the wedding. Because they were paid a flat fee of seven francs per night, the blind men played popular music: “sur ce prix-là, certes, ils ne donnaient ni du Rossini, ni du Beethoven, ils jouaient ce qu'ils voulaient et ce qu'ils pouvaient” (1022). These mentions of Rossini and Beethoven contrasting with popular music are placed in the text for several reasons. They emphasize the discussion in which Balzac was engaged concerning the value of Italian vs. German music. They also prepare the readers for comparisons of Facino Cane to names of such import as Dante and Homer. In the 1837 Delloye et Lecou edition, Balzac confounded the reference to Homer with the previously noted intertextual statement from Dante (la città dolente). He called Facino Cane “ce vieil Homère des douleurs” (1539). By conflating Homer with “la ville des douleurs,” his “Homère des douleurs” became a metonymic signal of the entire Greek and Roman (or Italianate) body of literature. But perhaps Balzac found this excessive, and he excised it from later editions.13

As he begins to describe Facino Cane, Narrator I asks the implied reader to imagine what one of these “phénomènes qui arrêtent tout court l'artiste et le philosophe” would look like: “Figurez-vous le masque en plâtre de Dante, éclairé par la lueur rouge du quinquet et surmonté d'une forêt de cheveux d'un blanc argenté” (1022). He goes on to compare the old man to the writer of epic: “Quelque chose de grand et de despotique se rencontrait dans ce vieil Homère qui gardait en lui-même une Odyssée condamnée à l'oubli” (1023).

Narrator I contradicts the diachronicity of his narrative in making this negative proleptic statement. Facino Cane had not kept his Odyssey to himself in the past, and will not in the future. And neither will Narrator I. Balzac would use Narrator I to “penetrate” ce vieil Homère, and he would have recourse to all manner of frame narrative devices (double narrators, implied readers, implied listeners, double narratees, different levels of narrative, dichotomies, contrasts, bridges, tensions, links, specular themes) i.e., the entire spectrum of literary ingenuity and artifice so that Facino Cane's story would not be “condemned to oblivion.” It would, in fact, come to form part of Balzac's own “epic,” The Human Comedy, which is “in dialogue” with Dante's Divine Comedy. Each small part of the human comedy, including “Facino Cane,” stands in a synecdochic relationship to the whole of Balzac's opus, and to all of the works sighted (and uncited), including the Odyssey. We recall that in the Odyssey, Ulysses became a narrator in his own right in no less than four books (IX to XII) when he presented his own account to the Phaiákians. The frame narrative is thus linked to the epic genre.

The fact that Balzac had not seen Venice at the time he wrote “Facino Cane” did not keep him (1) from creating it in his mind, and (2) from learning about it in visual representations and in literary texts. After describing the blind old man, Narrator I “sees” Venice and the Adriatic: “Je voyais Venise et l'Adriatique, je la voyais en ruines sur cette figure ruinée” (1025). Since he has the capability of looking into the souls of others, he will also “see” into the inner recesses of a city, in a way similar to Facino Cane's being able to “see” gold even after having gone blind, or so he believes, from having spent so much time in the darkness of a prison cell.

The repetition of the verb “voir” (Je voyais Venise et l'Adriatique, je la voyais …) foregrounds the visionary talents of Narrator I, his identification with Narrator II, and Facino Cane's own abilities to “see” hidden treasure. Balzac himself is also “seeing” into another text, which his own text will echo, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which had been published in 1818. Balzac would allude directly to Childe Harold in Massimilla Doni, which was revised in 1837. There he states: “… un grand poète anglais était venu s'abbatre sur Venise comme un corbeau sur un cadavre, pour lui coasser en poésie lyrique, dans ce premier et dernier langage des sociétés, les stances d'un De Profundis.14 Byron has Childe Harold begin the fourth Canto with these words:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand.(15)

Here, we, the readers, see Facino Cane's palace and his prison “on each hand.” We also see “the stroke of the enchanter's wand,” that of a dervish from 1,001 Nights who brings persons, cities, and visions of all types into “sight.” The magical quality of writing, reading, and perceiving is mirrored in “Facino Cane”'s intertext.

In stanza II of Childe Harold, the poetic persona depicts the gold, the jewels, the riches of Venice that become Facino Cane's monomania:

From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Pour'd in her lap all gems in sparkling showers.
In purple was she robed, and of her feast
Monarchs partook, and deem'd their dignity increased.

In the third stanza, the ruined, decadent Venice will appear. Although stated negatively, the literary allusion to Tasso creates “echoes” between Byron and a literary figure of the past. Music is also intermittently “present” in stanza III:

In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear.

The ruins make their unequivocal and repetitive appearance in stanza 25:

But my soul wanders; I demand it back
To meditate amongst decay, and stand
A ruin amidst ruins.

(Emphasis added)

Balzac's own phrase is eminently poetic, and may be rendered in poetic form:

Je voyais Venise et l'Adriatique,
Je la voyais en ruines sur cette figure ruinée.

In the anaphora (the repetition of the first person je and of the verb voir in the imperfect at the beginning of the successive clauses), in the repetition, or substitution, in the second clause of the pronoun la for Venise, in the repetition of the noun ruines in its adjectival form ruinée, in the alliteration of “voyais Venise,” we see how Balzac poeticized his phrase, echoed Byron's verse, and created a microtext of the whole frame narrative at the very heart of his macrotext through his uses of repetition and substitution.

In Childe Harold, the poetic persona is the “ruin amidst the ruins” of Venice; in Balzac's text, the ruins of Venice are imprinted upon Facino Cane's face and are envisioned by Narrator I. The Balzacian credo whereby the exterior is a mirror of that which lies within is doubly reified in the poetic expression. The frame of the narrative is also linked to the embedded narrative because Narrator I, who had called Paris a Dantesque “ville de douleur,” now “sees” an Italian city in ruins upon the face of Narrator II. When the blind man leads Narrator I outside to tell him his story, begging the latter to take him to Venice, he entices him with the promise of an enormous fortune: “vous serez plus riche … que les Rothschild, enfin riche comme Les Mille et Une Nuits” (1025). Gérard Genette shows how metadiegetic narratives can be connected to the diegesis, the principal narrative, through analogy, contrast, etc.16 As we enter into Cane's own luring incipit, we begin to see the frame in another light, for it seems to undergo metamorphosis: the border begins to mirror its own “picture.” The metadiegesis repeats the diegesis. Narrator I had referred to 1,001 Nights. One cannot help observing that “1,001,” in Arabic numbers, is a chiasmus, a frame seme, and that “nuits” not only recalls Narrator I's nightly pilgrimages but is also a metaphor of Cane's incarceration and blindness. Narrator II refers to 1,001 Nights with no prompting, with no connection whatsoever being established between Narrators I and II. It is left to the reader to see how one reflects the other. It is the reader who creates the bridge that will link both allusions. It is the reader, as well, who recalls that Marco Polo's Book of Marvels was commonly referred to as Il Milione.

Intratextuality is as demanding as intertextuality in requiring participation, or dialogue, between the reader and the text. The implied reader must not only recognize Beaumarchais, Beethoven, Rossini, Dante, and Homer, but he or she must also look at the mirror in the text in order to see what lies behind the looking glass. To realize that the Divine Comedy, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the Odyssey are all “voyages” forms part of the “pleasure of the text.” Epic “voyages” are reflected in Narrator I's passion for Bianca and for gold, which takes him from Venice to Milan, then back to Venice, and then on to Smyrna, London, and Paris. The pleasure of reading is enhanced when one remembers that Homer was purportedly blind, that the libretto to Rossini's Barber of Seville came from Beaumarchais's play, and that both The Barber and The Marriage of Figaro poke fun at the aristocracy. Literary allusion has been defined by Ziva Ben-Porat as “the simultaneous activation of two texts.”17 One could extend that definition to say that it is the simultaneous activation of multiple texts.


Moving on to references sighted in the embedded narrative, Cane begins his tale with “que je meure sans confession … si ce que je vais vous dire n'est pas vrai. J'ai eu vingt ans comme vous les avez en ce moment …” (1026). One hears echoes of the first paragraph of Le Père Goriot, in which the narrator makes this statement: “Sachez-le: ce drame n'est ni une fiction, ni un roman. All is true.” While discussing the beginning paragraphs of Le Père Goriot, Victor Brombert reminds us that on 10 August 1831, Philarète Chasles informed his public, the readers of the Revue de Paris, that Shakespeare's Henry VIII had been called All is True when it was first produced. “The extreme signal of realism (all is true),” says Brombert (21), “thus places the elaborate disclaimer of literarity under the sign of literature.” In Le Père Goriot and in “Facino Cane,” Balzac is mirroring the authentications used by eighteenth-century authors to disclaim (and reclaim) “literarity.” Prévost, Diderot, Laclos and others used the notion that Magritte illustrated so well in his painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe to say “ceci n'est pas un conte” (“ni une lettre, ni un roman.”) Facino Cane, a fictive narrator, is doing the same thing. But instead of saying ceci n'est est pas un récit in order to purport “truth,” he is saying, directly and positively, que je meure si ceci n'est pas vrai. The nineteenth-century narrator is repeating, in a chiastic, or mirror-like image, the eighteenth-century dictum that prompted plausibility.

The same interplay between mimetic and fictive with which Narrator I began his tale is repeated in the metadiegesis by Narrator II. “Ceci est vrai,” he says. The insistence upon fictionalized “realism” or “truth,” in his case, may have something to do with what comes next: his monomania is made more plausible if we know that he himself is aware of it. After all, it is not Narrator I who tells us about it. Facino Cane himself is telling it viva voce (or so we read). He even takes time out from his narrative to explain what might be interpreted as a superstition. When a woman is pregnant, he says, her “fantasies” influence her foetus. “Il est certain,” he insists, that his mother had a passion for gold during her pregnancy (1026). At this juncture the word or (gold) is repeated six times in five sentences (or eight times, if one includes the deux ducats he takes out of his pocket as proof of his own passion), making of the recurrent signifier a syntactic, tactile, and initiatory obsession. As Lorant states, the word or appears 17 times in the story, and the word trésor six times. Many other semes containing the phonemes or appear throughout the narrative (1016).

Diderot's Lettre sur les aveugles is another among many works of import sighted in the embedded narrative.18 When Diderot reedited his works in 1782, he reread his Lettre sur les aveugles (1749) and remembered the criticism that had been addressed to him by Sophie Volland's niece, Mélanie de Salignac, when the work first came out. She was blind. Instead of revising his main text, he added a series of notes to it entitled Phénomènes, and called the whole Additions à la Lettre sur les aveugles.19 In his introduction, the implied author excuses himself for not redoing La Lettre itself, “de peur que la page du jeune homme n'en devînt pas meilleure que la retouche du vieillard.” (The jeune homme vs. le vieillard theme is carefully elaborated in “Facino Cane.”)

Diderot's Phénomène no. 2 states: “On m'a parlé d'un aveugle qui connaissait au toucher quelle était la couleur des étoffes” (152). The idea of correspondances in the sense given the word by Swedenborg, Balzac, Nerval, and Baudelaire is evoked here. Diderot, in fact, goes on to use the word after a conversation the implied author reports having had with Mlle de Salignac about geometry. He asks himself: “S'étaitil établi à la longue une sorte de correspondance entre deux sens divers?” (161).

The number of rapports between “Facino Cane” and Diderot's Additions are numerous:

  1. Correspondences
  2. Diderot: “Un aveugle … connaissait au toucher … la couleur des étoffes” (152); “Quand elle entendait chanter, elle distinguait des voix brunes des voix blondes” (156).

  3. Balzac: “Je sens l'or” (1027).

  4. Reading as deciphering or decoding
  5. Diderot: Mlle de Salignac learns how to read (and write) by using a pin to puncture a certain écriture upon paper. She decodes this writing “en promenant le bout de son doigt sur les petites inégalités que l'épingle ou l'aiguille avait pratiquées au verso du papier” (161).

  6. Although Louis Braille, the inventor of braille, lived from 1809 to 1852, the idea of decoding writing with one's fingers was already present in the eighteenth century. Mlle de Salignac, for example, “lisait un livre qu'on n'avait tiré que d'un côté. Prault en avait imprimé de cette manière à son usage” (162).

  7. Balzac: Facino Cane deciphers, with his fingers, the message inscribed in Arabic upon a stone in his dark prison cell: “Je parvins à déchiffrer, en tâtant du bout des doigts la superficie d'une pierre, une inscription arabe par laquelle l'auteur de ce travail avertissait ses successeurs qu'il avait détaché deux pierres de la dernière assise, et creusé onze pieds de souterrain” (1028).

  8. Blind animals that see
  9. Diderot: Mlle de Salignac says: “Je me figure quelquefois qu'il y a des animaux qui sont aveugles, et qui n'en sont pas moins clairvoyants” (164).

  10. Balzac: Facino Cane compares himself to a mole (a blind animal) as he works in his underground cave (1028).

  11. Fate
  12. Diderot: Sophie Volland's niece believed that the energy expended in trying to escape “destiny” simply leads one, magnetically, into its clutches: “Elle était fataliste; elle pensait que les efforts que nous faisons pour échapper à notre destinée ne servaient qu'à nous y conduire” (163). (La Peau de chagrin resounds in the wings).

  13. Balzac: the theme of abusing passions (or expending energy) is Balzacian to the core. Facino Cane's monomania reflects this notion. Narrator II believes he becomes blind either from having spent too much time in a dark prison cell, or as a punishment for abusing his visual capacity to see gold. He wonders “si ma faculté de voir l'or n'emportait pas un abus de la puissance visuelle qui me prédestinait à perdre les yeux” (1030).

  14. Mirrors
  15. Diderot: Mlle de Salignac says that were the interlocutor to draw, upon her hand, any representation, she would recognize it: “ma main deviendrait pour moi un miroir sensible” (163). And yet the eye is superior to the hand: “Si la peau de ma main,” she says, “égalait la délicatesse de vos yeux, je verrais par ma main comme vous voyez par les yeux” (164).

  16. Balzac: while he does not use the word mirror itself, Balzac employs doubles and the number two (as well as their multiples) throughout “Facino Cane.” Uneven numbers are rare in the short story. Balzac creates mirrors through his use of doubles and through mirroring structures, vocabulary, rhetoric, and syntax. There are, of course, two narrators, two narratives. In Narrative I there are: “deux boulevards” (1019); “deux époux,” “vingt manières différentes,” “une seconde vue” (1020); “quarante sous,” “dix sous,” “quatre francs,” “dix sous,” “dix francs,” “quatre-vingts personnes” (1021); “Quinze-vingts,” “deux compositeurs,” “l'embrasure d'une croisée,” “tous deux,” “l'artiste et le philosophe” (1022).

In Narrative II there is a series of binary contrasts: “grandeur” vs. “abjection,” “despotisme” vs. “pauvreté,” “bien” vs. “mal,” “forçat” vs. “héros,” “ombre” vs. “lumière,” “incendie” vs. “lave refroidie,” “chaudes” vs. “froides” (1023). And then doubles and multiples of two appear again: “quatre-vingt-deux ans” (1024); “vingt ans” (1025); “millions,” “mille maux,” “vingt ans,” “dix-huit ans,” “deux chérubins”, “deux mains,” “deux cents ducats” (1026); “deux ducats,” “vingt-deux ans” (1027); “deux pierres” (1028); “quatre tomes,” “deux tas,” “deux mille livres,” “six voyages,” “deux gondoliers,” “vingt millions,” “plusieurs millions” (1029); “six millions,” “Bianca et l'amie de Mme du Barry,” “Quinze-Vingts,” “deux ans” (1030); “millionaires,” “Quinze-Vingts,” “deux ans” (1031); “deux mois” (1032).

That Lavater influenced Balzac's theories of physiognomy is unquestionable, and that his ideas were in the background of the author's description of Facino Cane's Dantesque face is more than likely. Lavater believed that “second sight” and the ability to perceive gold through “the eyes of the soul” are part of the same phenomenon. They have their source in the physiological and psychological “fluids” that nourish the mind. Excessive use of these “fluids” can lead to psychic and physical deterioration (cf. Lorant's Introd. 1015-16). Narrator I wonders whether his talent contains dangers: “A quoi doisje ce don? Est-ce une seconde vue? Est-ce une des qualités dont l'abus mènerait à la folie?” (1020).

Une seconde vue: the expression has hermeneutic structural resonances. Narrator I can “see,” second hand, as it were, into the psyche of another. In the structure of the text the term acquires an embedded as well as a reflexive presence: Narrator I = Narrator II < Narrator I.


Narrator I “sees into” Narrator II, who can “see” gold through the eyes of his soul, and, in the end, Narrator I sheds tears after having been momentarily reduced to silence by Cane's narrative and by the final tune he plays on his clarinet, Super flumina Babylonis. The first words of Psalm 137, a lament of the Jews in exile, are: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept, when we remembered Zion” (Raitt 239). The “rivers of Babylon” are related (1) to the frame (the men are seated on stones from the Bastille near the place where, later, the bridge was built joining the Canal Saint-Martin to the Seine); (2) to the embedded narrative (the Bridge of Sighs joined the prison to the Doges' Palace); and (3) to the exile motif. After the moment of silence, the dialogic element prevails, “difference” is ascertained, and the young man cries out, “Nous irons à Venise” (1031), since the narrative, in his mind, had taken on “les proportions d'un poème” (the Odyssey? Childe Harold?). “Second sight” means perceiving “second hand,” or vicariously, the literary motifs within the paradigmatic structure of the text. Narrator I is ready to embark upon an epic voyage. The narrative has enchanted him, as the sirens had enchanted Odysseus with their song.

In La Seconde Main Antoine Compagnon states that quotations bring together two texts, two discourses. A given énoncé is displaced from an original source and located in a second one. The displacement creates a bridge, a dialogue (to use Bakhtine's word), a relation between the two.20 The “seconde main” is a constant factor employed in “Facino Cane.” Texts cited (and uncited) mirror other texts that reflect the narrative's tensions between visibility and invisibility, mimesis and the fictive, sight and blindness, imprisonment and freedom, realism and fantasy. They also reflect the dialogic structure of the frame narrative per se.

A dialogue is established not only between the narrators, but also between them and the reader (real and implied). Reading thematizes and foregrounds the literary. Since Balzac himself had read some of the same works as his Narrators and readers, the references sighted offer insight into the real author's own views of explicit and hidden texts.

The act of narrating in “Facino Cane” is reflexive. It emphasizes, twice, the importance of the power there is in the telling of tales, be they “verbal” or written. Angela S. Moger states that “Like most people, I am held hostage by narrative.”21 Narrator I is “held hostage” by Narrator II, just as the various readers of “Facino Cane” are “held hostage” by both. The only encoded person who claims to escape from being taken hostage by Facino Cane is one of the blind men who is metonymically called le violon. He says to Narrator I: “Ne lui parlez pas de Venise … ou notre doge va commencer son train; avec ça qu'il y a déjà deux bouteilles dans le bocal, le prince!” (1024). But le violon protests too much. Were he not blind, he, too, might have yielded to the temptation to lead Facino back to Venice.

Because Venice's gold was embedded in the recesses of the Doges' Palace, there is a link between reading, deciphering, and “finding hidden treasure.” The knowledge and effort that it took to decode the Arabic inscription and to dig through the passageway that led to the gold is mirrored, in many ways, in the initiatory quest motifs that come into play in allusions made to the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Facino Cane's monomania is symbolic of the creation of relations between embedded narratives and their frames, of the act of reading and decoding, of establishing bridges and rapports between binary structures, of finding (“sniffing out”) and deciphering the significance of intra- and intertexts in literature. Like the Doges' Palace, “Facino Cane” is replete with treasures, and there are, no doubt, many more still hidden in that châsse, waiting to be discovered.


  1. Michel de Montaigne, Œuvres complètes, ed. Albert Thibaudet and Maurice Rat (Paris: Gallimard-Pléiade, 1962), III, 12, 1034.

  2. Tzvetan Todorov, Poétique de la prose (Paris: Seuil, 1971) 82.

  3. Albert Béguin, among others, does not view “Facino Cane” as an embedded text. He identifies Narrator I with the real author, Balzac, and calls the histoire enchâssante a prologue. Cf. Balzac lu et relu (Paris: Seuil, 1965) 154.

  4. Honoré de Balzac, La Comédie humaine, ed. André Lorant (Paris: Gallimard-Pléiade, 1977) 6: 1019.

  5. Bonifacio Facino Cane was a flesh-and-blood Piedmontese who was a leader of mercenary troops in the thirteenth century. He wrested Genoa from the French and died, shortly thereafter, in 1412. Cf. A. W. Raitt, Balzac Short Stories (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964 n238). Unless otherwise noted, references to textual commentary and notes are found in the Pléiade edition.

  6. I am grateful to one of the French Forum readers of this article for this “sightation.” Readings and suggestions made by both anonymous readers, which were made with utmost care, are greatly appreciated.

  7. Cf. 1539n2: “Ces indications topographiques imprécises révèlent que Balzac ne connaissait pas Venise avant la rédaction de sa nouvelle.” But he had read Venezia la Bella (Renduel, 1834) by Alphonse Royer, who also collaborated in L'Italie pittoresque (1835). In a letter to Mme Hanska (15 July 1834), Balzac made a disparaging remark about Royer: “Pauvre Royer qui a fait Venezia la Bella et qui, en 2 volumes, n'a pas su m'en dire autant que vous m'en dites sur Venise en 2 pages” (1027n2).

  8. Victor Brombert, The Hidden Reader. Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988) 20.

  9. Cf. “Histoire du texte” in the Pléiade ed. 1535-36.

  10. All emphases in the quotations are added unless otherwise noted.

  11. Cf. David Ullrich's dissertation on the theory of the frame narrative, which includes a taxonomy of the “genre”: “‘Organic Harps Diversely Fram'd’: A Theory of the Frame and the Frame Narrative, Including a Taxonomy of Its Application to Nineteenth-Century British Literature” (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986).

  12. Katharine Slater Gittes, “The Frame Narrative: History and Theory” (diss. Univ. of California-San Diego, 1983) 122 and 18-89.

  13. Cf. the Pléiade note: “Dans la dédicace des Parents pauvres (1846), Balzac associe également Dante à Homère” (1539).

  14. Honoré de Balzac, Œuvres complètes, ed. René Guise (Paris: Gallimard-Pléiade, 1979) 10: 553.

  15. George Gordon Byron, The Poetical Works of Byron, ed. Robert F. Gleckner (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975) 4: 1.

  16. Gérard Genette, Figures II (Paris: Seuil, 1969) 202; Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972) 241-43.

  17. Ziva Ben-Porat, “The Poetics of Literary Allusion,” PTL 1 (1976): 107.

  18. Cf. Lorant 1027n1: “Balzac, lecteur de la Lettre sur les aveugles, se souvient vraisemblablement des observations faites par Diderot, d'après lesquelles l'aveugle, capable de reconnaître au toucher la couleur des étoffes et de discerner les vraies médailles d'avec les fausses, voit par la peau. Dans l'addition à sa Lettre, Diderot rapporte les propos d'une jeune aveugle selon qui ‘l'or, l'argent, le fer, le cuivre polis, deviennent propres à réfléchir l'air.’ Ce phénomène de la réflexion de l'air peut donner une explication rationnelle à la faculté de ‘voir’ l'or chez le passionné Facino Cane.”

  19. Cf. Introduction to Diderot's Additions à la Lettre sur les aveugles in Œuvres philosophiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Garnier, 1956).

  20. Antoine Compagnon, La Seconde Main ou le travail de la citation (Paris: Seuil, 1979) 56.

  21. Angela S. Moger, “Working Out (of) Frame(d) Works: A Study of the Structural Frame in Stories by Maupassant, Balzac, Barbey, and Conrad” (diss. Yale Univ., 1980) 2.

Maryann Weber (essay date November 1990)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4272

SOURCE: Weber, Maryann. “How to Do Things with Dreams: Dream Power in Balzac and Nerval.” Romance Quarterly 37, no. 4 (November 1990): 409-17.

[In the following essay, Weber examines the function of dreams in Balzac's “L'Auberge rouge” and “Sur Catherine de Médicis,” and Gérard de Nerval's Aurélia.]

Dreams escape the confines of reason and reality. Although Freudian psychologists find dreams to be deeply motivated and overdetermined, recounting a dream would appear to have no purpose except a therapeutic one or, in certain cultures, the foretelling of events to come. But dream discourse as a framed narrative within a literary text can have an intended perlocutionary effect in the social sphere and create a double hesitation—the hesitation between the real and the imaginary which characterizes the fantastic as a genre and a second hesitation between an iconic fixation at the level of the dream tableaux and a goal-oriented use of the dream. The work of two major nineteenth-century French writers lends itself particularly well to investigating the use of dream discourse because the selected texts display both of these hesitation, despite the fact that they are not usually included in the canon of fantastic literature. Dreams are the core experiences of Honoré de Balzac's “L'Auberge rouge” (1831) and another text written the previous year, “Les deux rêves” (1830), which Balzac later grouped with two other short stories under the collective title “Sur Catherine de Médicis,” and of Gérard de Nerval's Aurélia (1855).1 These three texts suggest that dream discourse, in addition to any possible therapeutic function or cluster of symbolic images, is an action, a provocation, a power ploy.

Most critics have analyzed the dreams and hallucinations in Aurélia from the viewpoint of psychology or psychiatry. Jeanneret has studied the relation of insanity to problems of language; Chambers has compared Nerval's text to the récits of another mental patient; and several Jungian studies have been produced.2 Other scholars have deciphered the esoteric or cabbalistic elements and the archetypes (Richer), the basic themes of the voyage (Vierne) or of the search for order in the midst of chaos (Tritsmans).3 On the other hand, dreams in La Comédie humaine have been regarded primarily as examples of Balzac's interest in the materiality of thought.4 But little attention has been paid to the fact that a dream discourse within a literary text is a form of embedded narrative, retold within its specific context for a particular reason and with a predetermined pragmatic effect.

There are, of course, important differences among these three texts both in the dream content and the source of the dreams. Balzac's stories make no claim that the dream discourse is anything but fiction, whereas the narrator of Aurélia asserts that he is reporting lived experience. Although what we know of the life of Gérard Labrunie does indicate that the author experienced dream-hallucinations which probably resemble those recounted in the text, it is extremely difficult to separate clinical material, intertextuality, and literary elaboration. But since our focus is on how dreams are retold within a narrative context and not their real or fictional origin, both the Nerval and the Balzac dreams will be discussed only in their published forms and treated as literary discourse.

The term “dream” must be understood here in a rather broad sense because in all three texts it designates an indeterminate semi-conscious state rather than the nocturnal period of deep sleep characterized by rapid-eye movement. The narrator of “L'Auberge rouge” recounts that Prosper Magnan “resta éveillé” (p. 101), but focuses on the character's state of mind in the instant before falling asleep, describing his dozing off in nearly Proustian vocabulary: “pendant le moment qui précède notre sommeil, cette heure où les images naissent confuses dans notre entendement, et où souvent, par le silence de la nuit, la pensée acquiert une puissance magique” (p. 102). Prosper's detailed plan for the brutal murder of Walhenfer is a powerful image conceived in a state of semi-consciousness on the threshold between sleep and wakefulness, between the conscious and the unconscious states. Although Magnan accuses himself of having lost the virginity of his conscience by contemplating the crime (p. 108), the narrator takes pains to underscore the ambiguity of Magnan's half-awake, half-asleep mental condition at the moment he first envisioned the murder.

Unlike the narrator of “L'Auberge rouge,” who provides a detailed description of Prosper Magnan's dozing off, the narrator of “Sur Catherine de Médicis” gives no detailed analysis of Robespierre's state of consciousness. Robespierre claims that as soon as his head touched the pillow he began conversing with the dead queen. Was her appearance a dream, a vision, a reverie, or a remarkably clever invention of the man who has been snubbed by the other guests? Robespierre says cagily, “je [suis] porté à croire que ce ne soit qu'un rêve” (p. 448).

Since the narrator of Aurélia gives a much more detailed account of his own state of mind, the reader might mistakenly expect that this explanation would be the most clear of the three. Nerval's text begins with a description of falling asleep which is even more precise than that of Balzac. “Les premiers instants du sommeil sont l'image de la mort; un engourdissement nébuleux saisit notre pensée, et nous ne pouvons déterminer l'instant précis où le moi, sous une autre forme, continue l'œuvre de l'existence” (p. 753). But within the first two paragraphs the narrator has passed without transition or apology from references to dream, reverie, the unconscious (“un souterrain vague,”) the world of spirits, and models of poetic imagination to mental illness. Dream, hallucination, mysticism, and imagination are all facets of a single experience for the narrator of Aurélia; he acknowledges only two distinct states, that of prosaic reality and the “invisible world.” The liminal sentence formulates it: “Dream is a second life” (p. 753). Although the “je” of Aurélia introduces his text by describing the moment of falling asleep, his dream experiences are not produced by a physiological state, but by “l'épanchement du songe dans la vie réelle” (p. 760).

In addition to the indeterminacy of the dream states, all three texts share another common feature: all equate dream with action. Balzac regarded thought as a form of energy, interchangeable with physical energy and limited in quantity; expending either mental or physical effort would diminish the supply of energy and shorten the life of the person.5 When Prosper Magnan imagines the assassination of Walhenfer, his murderous thoughts acquire a “puissance magique,” and the deed is accomplished precisely as Magnan had plotted it. The text suggests that the thoughts of Magnan may have been transmitted by telepathy and contaminated his companion, who not only killed Walhenfer but executed the crime exactly as Magnan had envisioned it. In “L'Auberge rouge” the dream is the murder; the dream prophesies the murder, plans it, and causes it in a quasi-physical way. Although Magnan toys with the possibility that he may have committed the crime while sleepwalking, he later rejects that hypothesis on the basis of dream proof. His dreams had been about playing games in the schoolyard with his childhood friends; how could he murder in his sleep if his dreams were so innocent? (p. 108).

Robespierre dreams about political theory and his dream discourse is itself a political action. Catherine de Médicis argues away any scruples the future revolutionary leader may have and provides him with ideological justification for violence through a pre-Marxist argument for the necessity of eliminating potentially dangerous political elements in order to insure a homogenous ideology in the nation. Robespierre's recounting of the dream is both a prophecy and a drawing-room revolution which gives the lower-middle-class notary momentary ascendancy over the upper classes and reduces them to silence.

Dream is physical, material action in the Balzac short stories; it is mental action, a quest for knowledge, in the Nerval text. The oneiric state becomes a “descente aux enfers” (p. 824) for the narrator, a painful but privileged form of suffering. He structures his description of the descent into a ritual initiation leading to enlightenment as in Dante's Divine Comedy, Apuleius's Golden Ass and Swedenborg's Memorabilia (pp. 753-54).

The indeterminate state of semi-consciousness assigned to the core dream experience and the equation of dream with physical action or spiritual experience in the three texts of Balzac and Nerval constitute an ambiguity consistent with the fundamental moment of hesitation, the seesaw effect characteristic of the fantastic as a genre. But dream discourse, the act of retelling a dream narrative, does not function in these texts as a therapeutic experience for the dreamer, as a poetic embellishment of the encompassing text, nor as an intratextual prolapse (all of which are possible functions for dream narratives). Instead, dream discourse is used as a way of achieving a specific purpose of the speaker, and the dream is told in order to produce a direct effect on the listener.

“L'Auberge rouge” is a text with many layers of embedded narration; if we analyze the dream discourse from the core layer outward, we find that the purpose in narrating the dream changes with each successive retelling.6 Magnan induces his fellow prisoner to recount the entire story to Mme Magnan to reassure her of her son's innocence. Hermann never has the chance to speak to Magnan's mother during her lifetime, but he does tell the tale years later to his hosts at a banquet because the host's beautiful daughter wants a thriller after dessert. So the visitor obliges her with a murder story calculated to send pleasurable shivers down the elegant spines of the guests. Finally the narrator repeats the story to his personally selected “Sanhedrin of pure consciences,” ostensibly to ask their advice but actually to persuade them to lend moral credence to his desire to marry Mlle Taillefer and to enjoy her fortune. Each of the successive tellers of the dream seeks an interpersonal power over his listeners: to persuade the listener to agree with the speaker, to act on the speaker's behalf, or, in the banquet scene, simply to experience the emotions the speaker wants to induce. In each case the illocutionary force of the narrative discourse has an intended perlocutionary effect in the social order.7

Robespierre and Marat relate their dreams in the lavish home of an upwardly mobile bourgeois couple. After an evening in which both Robespierre and Marat have been socially rejected by the other guests and sneered at by the beautiful women and by the clever men who have made the notary and the surgeon the butt of their wit, and at the end of a dinner party (the same moment Hermann chose to relate his narrative), Robespierre retaliates with a dream narrative. His dream discourse is clearly calculated to shock those who have been taunting him and to challenge them with a complete reversal of the social order. Marat's more violent image of the surgeon's knife also effects a verbal thrust into the pompous self-assurance of the upper middle class and the frivolous aristocracy. These upper classes may still hold power in the socio-political sphere, but the dream discourse threatens to cut them off like the gangrenous leg of Marat's patient. The dream tale becomes a provocatively indigestible discourse at the supper table in both Balzac stories.

Nerval's text differs from the two short stories of Balzac because dream discourse is the very substance of Aurélia, and because the intended pragmatic effect is not the same as the narrator's avowed purpose. The narrator claims to relate his dream-hallucinations in order to enable his readers to understand what passes through the minds of the mentally ill: “Je vais essayer … de transcrire les impressions d'une longue maladie qui s'est passée tout entière dans les mystères de mon esprit” (p. 753). But the tone and tactics that the narrator uses belie his apparent objectivity. He admits that his dream experiences brought him “des délices infinies” (p. 754) and questions whether recovering reason was worth losing the intense pleasures of his dream state. As the narration proceeds, the narrator blurs the distance he had originally interposed between the supposedly cured self who writes and the earlier self who experienced the dream-hallucinations.8 He triumphantly recounts the final vision of the Woman who is Isis-the Virgin Mary-Aurélia as if the vision were a reward received for his generous care of Saturnin, and he inscribes on the garden wall of his clinic the words, “Tu m'as visité cette nuit” (p. 817). Despite all his disclaimers, the narrator rejoices in the secret knowledge he has acquired. The tone of regret, the forceful images, and the rhetorical devices all attempt to persuade the reader that the narrator has indeed acquired a mystical knowledge, has experienced an esoteric initiation rite, and is a superior individual precisely because of his hallucinatory visions.

The ambiguous attitude toward hallucination which critics have perceived in Nerval's text can be reformulated as a contradiction between the semantics (his disclaimers) and the pragmatics (the entire rhetorical structuring of the discourse in order to persuade and convince the reader). The narrator attempts to gain both the reader's admiration and his cooperation in valuing the dream experiences over mundane reason, “ce que les hommes appellent la raison” (p. 754).

In these three texts, therefore, dream discourse becomes a power ploy. In the Balzac short stories, the dream narrative is used to gain interpersonal power either by winning the listener over to the side of the speaker (in “L'Auberge rouge”) or by shocking the audience in order to avenge the wounded pride of the speaker (in “Sur Catherine de Médicis”). In Aurélia the power ploy is a split-level technique which purports to recount the dreams objectively, but simultaneously seduces the narratee.9

A complex form of dialogism is operative in dream narrative. As Bakhtine has pointed out, the speaker posits the person spoken to, and his speech is always shaped by the absent partner in the dialogue.10 Moreover, dream discourse is already a dialogue between the unconscious (a plurality of voices that Lacan describes as “Baltimore in the morning”), which furnishes the dream matter, and the conscious mind, which shapes the dream in the act of retelling it to an audience accustomed to coherent narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. Because the dream discourse is embedded in a literary text, it assumes a dialogic relationship with the voice of other speakers in the narrative and with the voice of the implied author. Consequently, dream discourse participates in the triple set of relationships that exist in every text (narrator-narratee, narrator-character, narrator-implied author) and an additional internal dialogue between the speaker and his unconscious.

Although the dream is retold as a way of gaining power over others, the act of retelling the dream unleashes a boomerang force in each of the three texts, and the dream destroys the dreamer. Magnan's semi-conscious dream is his undoing. He convinces himself that he was “morally inebriated” and that his “deliberation was already undoubtedly a crime” (p. 102). While dreaming, he dipped his hands into the victim's blood, “mes mains y ont fatalement trempé pendant que je dormais, car mon sommeil est toujours très agité” (p. 109), and the bloodstains gave the people of the town the evidence they wanted. Overwhelmed with guilt at the scarlet proof of his wish fulfillment, Magnan accepts responsibility for his dream and fails to defend himself against the charge of murder. He goes to his execution, the second death directly traceable to the dream, with a confused sense of simultaneous justice and injustice. Hermann, the German merchant who retells the central dream, shocks his listeners, ruins the dinner party, and provokes the onset of a fatal illness in the guest Taillefer. Even the young woman who had originally requested the story begs the speaker to stop. The narrator of “L'Auberge rouge” repeats the story and dream to his Sanhedrin, intending to win their approval for his marriage. Instead, their judgment goes against him and he loses both a fortune and a wife. Each successive teller of the dream has been destroyed by the force he attempted to manipulate but which turned against him.

Robespierre's dream of revolution also unleashes a force which will engulf Robespierre. The dream contains a prediction of Robespierre's own fate from the lips of Catherine de Médicis: “Tant que tu promèneras ton niveau sur les têtes, tu seras applaudi; puis quand tu voudras prendre la truelle, on te tuera” (pp. 453-54). The reader knows that, in an extratextual moment, both Robespierre and Marat will be swept away in the bloodbath they envisioned.

Whereas retelling a dream in Balzac's two stories is deadly for the speaker, narrating dreams in Aurélia provokes destabilizing consequences at the discourse level. Despite what may at first appear to be an episodic structure, Aurélia is actually a carefully patterned, coherent whole. The text has a parabolic form, in which each section of the first part, representing a gradual descent into the hell of insanity, culminates in chapter nine of part one, the mathematical center of the text, in the terrifying encounter with the double dressed as an oriental prince. But nine is also a symbolic number for Nerval, and the narrator of Aurélia claims an intellectual filiation with the Vita Nuova of Dante in which the number nine pervades the text and has mystical significance. In fact, Dante's beloved is synonymous with the number nine: “She herself was this number nine.”11 Despite setbacks and relapses, the second half of Aurélia (with chapter nine of part one considered the structural turning point) parallels and repeats in an upward movement the descent of the first half. Striking correspondences can be discovered between chapters which are juxtaposed in this way.12

This meticulous structural pattern based on the esoteric theories of the narrator finally disintegrates, and the perfectly symmetrical structure of Aurélia collapses in the disconnected snippets of dream matter collected in the “Mémorables,” that strange addendum to Aurélia. The dream matter itself, a powerful centrifugal force the narrator controls only with difficulty throughout his beautifully engineered text, finally overwhelms pattern, discipline, and logic; and the semantic openness of the dream unravels the restricting narrative schema. Even more dangerous to the narrator is his own ambiguous relationship to the dream matter he recounts. He becomes so caught up in the beauty of his dream-hallucinations, so convinced of their spiritual significance, that he prizes them over rational thought. Regretting his return to the mundane, he seriously undercuts the alleged purpose of the text, which is to show the reader the illusions of the mentally ill. To the narrator, the ritual purgation he has endured did indeed lead to enlightenment and to a vision of Isis-Aurélia.13 His final resolve to dominate and master dream itself, to deliberately penetrate its secret, is immediately subverted by identifying the dream state with life after death and by expressing a wistful desire to participate in establishing that link (pp. 822-23). The contemporary reader is also aware that the author Gérard Labrunie died from a self-inflicted accident or suicide shortly after completing the manuscript and before he was able to correct the page proofs. Was he also a victim of the dream?

In each of the three texts examined, “L'Auberge rouge,” “Sur Catherine de Médicis,” and Aurélia, a dream discourse has been contextualized within a narrative schema, equated with action in the physical or spiritual world, and used pragmatically as a power ploy to persuade, convince, shock, or seduce an audience. But even when the pragmatic force of the dream discourse achieves the desired effect, the dream matter destroys each person who retells the dream. Either the semantic and symbolic force of the images overwhelms the teller of the tale, as in Aurélia, and carries the narrator to discourse conclusions which contradict his explicit statements to the narratee, or the unleashed power of the unconscious proves destructive to the dreamer. These nineteenth-century texts present dream matter as framed narratives, subject to the semiotic conventions of the narrative form. At the same time, the symbolic functions and the power they convey do not merely embellish the story; they turn against the speaker, exceed the narrative, and engulf the surrounding text. The narrators of the Balzac and Nerval texts know how to do things with dreams; yet, in the end, the dream matter deflects the dream, destroys the dreamer, and unravels the discourse.


  1. Honoré de Balzac, “L'Auberge rouge,” and “Sur Catherine de Médicis,” ed. P. G. Castex, La Comédie humaine (Paris: Gallimard “Pléiade,” 1976-81), 11, 75-457, and Gérard de Nerval, Œuvres (Paris: Garnier, 1958), 1, 747-824. Citations from Balzac and Nerval are taken from these respective editions. Introducing an issue devoted to “Theories of the Fantastic,” Laurence Porter muses on the exclusion of Aurélia, “the masterpiece of visionary Romanticism,” from the canon of the fantastic (L'Esprit créateur 28, No. 3 [1988]: 3).

  2. Michel Jeanneret, La Lettre perdue: Ecriture et folie dans l'œuvre de Nerval (Paris: Flammarion, 1978); and Ross Chambers, “Récits d'aliénés, récits aliénés. Nerval et John Perceval,” Poétique, 53 (1983): 72-90. An excellent study which takes a psychoanalytic approach to the dreams in Aurélia can be found in Laurence Porter, The Literary Dream in French Romanticism: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (Wayne State University Press, 1979), pp. 144-73.

  3. Jean Richer, Gérard de Nerval et les doctrines ésotériques (Paris: Ed. du Griffon d'or, 1947) and Nerval au royaume des archétypes. Octave, Sylvie, Aurélia (Paris: Archives des lettres modernes, 1971); Simone Vierne, “Le Voyage initiatique,” Romantisme, 4 (1972): 37-44; and Bruno Tritsmans, “Ordre et dispersion. Les dynamiques d'Aurélia,” in Le Rêve et la vie: Aurélia, Sylvie, Les Chimères de Gérard de Nerval, Colloque du 19 janvier 1986 (Paris: CDU/SEDES, 1986), pp. 213-31. Two other recent and important studies of “la folie” in Aurélia are those of Shoshana Felman, La Folie et la chose littéraire (Paris: Flammarion, 1978) and Marie-France Etienne, Gérard de Nerval: Janus multiplié (New York and Bern: Lang, 1987).

  4. The Balzac bibliography is, of course, much too extensive to reproduce here. Balzac's theory of the materiality of thought is discussed in Per Nykrog, La Pensée de Balzac dans “La Comédie humaine” (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965), pp. 81-121.

  5. According to Madeleine Ambrière, who traces Balzac's concept of energy through the Comédie humaine (“Balzac et l'énergie,” Romantisme 46 [1984]: 43-48), energy is: “la force vitale, force innée qui se dissipe et se consomme ou se rassemble et se concentre. Point essentiel, elle ne saurait en aucun cas s'accroître mais peut se réparer. Capitaliste, individuelle et inégalitaire, car la quantité que chacun de nous possède n'est pas la même et tout homme la ‘distribue à sa fantaisie’, l'énergie balzacienne, qui ‘accourt là où l'homme l'appelle’ (IX, 1027), se situe tant dans sa conception que dans son expression, du côté de la science, entre les mouvantes frontières des sciences naturelles, de la médecine, des sciences occultes, de l'illuminisme et du mysticisme” (44). This vital fluid is projected into thought. See also Arlette Michel's article, “La Poétique balzacienne de l'énergie,” Romantisme 46 (1984), 49-59. Max Andréoli has a useful diagram illustrating the relationships among related Balzacian terms in Le système balzacien, vol. 1 (University of Lille III, 1984), 332. Michel Delon studies the concept of energy in the decades immediately preceding Balzac and his work in L'idée d'énergie au tournant des Lumières (1770-1820) (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1988).

  6. The successive layers of framed narrative in “L'Auberge rouge” are treated from a structuralist point of view in Thong Vuong-Riddick's article, “La Main blanche et ‘L'Auberge rouge’: le processus narratif dans ‘L'Auberge rouge,’” L'Année balzacienne 1978, pp. 123-36.

  7. John Lyons defines these terms as follows: “By the illocutionary force of an utterance is to be understood its status as a promise, a threat, a request, a statement, an exhortation, etc. By its perlocutionary effect is meant its effect upon the beliefs, attitudes or behavior of the addressee and, in certain cases, its consequential effect upon some state-of-affairs within the control of the addressee” (Semantics, 2 [Cambridge University Press, 1977], 731). In analyzing a literary text, we are, of course, considering only the intended perlocutionary effect as it is revealed to the reader and not the actual perlocutionary effect.

  8. The “I” of Aurélia designates three separate instances: the actor-protagonist, the narrator who relates in the past tense what has happened to him and interprets his experience, and the narrator of the present tense commentary who sometimes reverses the previous judgments. See Gabrielle Malandin, Nerval ou l'incendie du théâtre (Paris: Corti, 1986), p. 156.

  9. Chambers, “Récits,” p. 75.

  10. Mikhail Bakhtine, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 280-81.

  11. La Vita nuova, tr. Barbara Reynolds, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 80.

  12. For a more detailed analysis of the structural pattern in Aurélia, see Maryann Weber, S.N.D. “Le Lecteur virtuel dans trois textes narratifs français du dix-neuvième siècle: structures, stratégies, idéologies,” Diss. Middlebury College, 1985 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms Incorporated, 1986), pp. 146-56 and 329-32. Numerous critics have attempted to discover a pattern in Aurélia. Jean Richer, for instance, identifies three rising and falling patterns (Nerval au royaume, pp. 5-6), and Ross Chambers discusses a different ternary division in Gérard de Nerval et la Poétique du voyage (Paris: Corti, 1969), p. 363.

  13. Tritsmans speaks of the successive states of precarious equilibrium in Aurélia and underscores the fact that the narrator never definitively renounces his mental illness, but rather gives meaning to his alienation (pp. 214, 219).

Margaret-Anne Hutton (essay date January 1991)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4538

SOURCE: Hutton, Margaret-Anne. “Know Thyself vs. Common Knowledge: Bleich's Epistemology Seen through Two Short Stories by Balzac.” Modern Language Review 86, no. 1 (January 1991): 49-56.

[In the following essay, Hutton explores the concept of community in “Le Colonel Chabert” and “Adieu” and employs David Bleich's epistemology to gain insight into the two stories.]

Reader-response theorists, still haunted by the spectre of the ‘affective fallacy’, yet equally aware of the dangers of an objectivist stance, are faced with a problem of authority: who or what is the ultimate source of meaning? At one end of the spectrum, authority may be invested in the actual author of the text, as in the theory of E. D. Hirsch; at the other, meaning may be a function of the individual reader's identity, an approach favoured by Norman Holland.1 Other works, such as Wolfgang Iser's The Act of Reading, or Stanley Fish's Affective Stylistics, grant the written text a measure of authority by claiming that the reader's response is guided and limited by specific objective textual structures.2

Epistemologies may shift authority from the subjective to the intersubjective: meaning is a function not of the individual reader but of intersubjective communities. The later work of Stanley Fish, introducing the notion of ‘interpretive communities’, falls into this category.3 David Bleich's Subjective Criticism, whilst appearing to favour the subjective end of the spectrum, also has something of the ‘community spirit’. As will emerge, the relationship posited between individual subject and community is a problematic one.4

Reading the theory ‘through’ Balzac's “Le Colonel Chabert” and “Adieu,” I shall explore a number of problems surrounding Bleich's epistemology, and consider some of the wider implications arising from the concept of community.5


According to Bleich, paradigms or world-views are set up to meet the epistemological needs of the present. The objective paradigm which he challenges is no exception: ‘The notion of objective truth has the epistemological status of God: it is an invented frame of reference aimed at maintaining prevailing social practices.’6 This paradigm, claims Bleich, has outlived its usefulness. Its epistemological presuppositions must be revised in the light of work carried out by figures such as Einstein, Heisenberg, and Gombrich. ‘Facts’ or ‘knowledge’ do not exist independent of the investigator: they are a function of his motives and the means of investigation. ‘Facts’ are not found, but made.

Bleich's ‘subjective paradigm’ is intended to supersede the objective approach. How does this new epistemology operate in the field of reader-response? According to Bleich, though the literary text has physical properties, its meaning depends entirely on a process which he calls ‘symbolization’. Symbolization, the reader's initial response, can be defined as a peremptory perception and evaluation of the text. It is an imaginative interiorization which is differentiated from a purely sensorimotor response.

Interpretation of the text is referred to as motivated ‘resymbolization’, where resymbolization is defined as the mentation involved in a conscious response to the symbolization. It is a reframing of the symbolization which occurs when the present adaptive needs of the individual demand an act of explanation or interpretation. The interpretation should not be considered in terms of a true/false polarity, but rather in terms of validity or conviction. It is not concerned with a recovery of ‘fact’ or ‘truth’: its success depends upon its meeting of present demands or adaptive needs: ‘The logic of interpretation is that its resymbolising activity is motivated and organised by the conscious desires created by disharmonious feelings or self-images; the goal of these desires is increasing the individual's sense of psychological and social adaptability’ (Subjective Criticism, p. 83).

Central to Bleich's epistemology is the individual's capacity for reflective thought. Bleich refers to a ‘subjective dialectic’, the individual's ability (for example, when hearing a story) to ask himself questions and receive answers. This activity is a sign that symbolization (imaginative response), and not just a sensorimotor activity (registering the visual stimuli of print), has taken place. In the context of the reading act, Bleich introduces a valuable hermeneutic tool: the ‘response statement’. This is a recording by the reader of his subjective responses as he reads. The ‘response statement’ is used alongside the subject's ‘meaning statement’ or interpretation of a text, with a view to bringing to reflective attention the subjective stratum of response, and thereby acknowledging its influence on the apparently objective ‘meaning statement’. The reading subject is, we might say, answerable to and for himself; he is responsible for his reading. The important thing is to know that you know.

Knowledge, however, does not stop with the individual subject and his reflective powers: it must be ‘negotiated’ in a community: ‘To know anything at all is to have assigned a part of one's self to a group of others who claim to know the same thing. … The degree to which knowledge is not part of a community is the degree to which it is not knowledge at all’ (Subjective Criticism, p. 296). The community is also deemed to have reflective powers, to be conscious of, and able to articulate its own motivation for knowledge-seeking. It, too, is answerable to and for itself; it, too, is responsible. Bleich considers this new epistemology to be ethically superior to its objective counterpart: operating according to the rules of the latter, the subjective stratum of any knowledge-seeking act goes unnoted and probably unnoticed. Interpretation operating under the objective paradigm has no authority: authority requires a hermeneutic moment which reveals the interests or motivations of the seeker of knowledge or explanation.


Both “Le Colonel Chabert” and “Adieu” represent characters prompted by their present adaptive needs to engage in knowledge-seeking acts, and to form some kind of intersubjective or community relationship. Both texts, to a certain extent, play out or dramatize some of Bleich's ideas. Tompkins has noted that Bleich's privileging of self-knowledge, manifested in the ‘subjective dialectic’ and ‘response statement’, marks an inconsistency in his epistemology.7 I shall show that “Le Colonel Chabert” dramatizes the very epistemological issues at stake. Both short stories, in fact, not only ‘stage’ some of the theoretical concepts; they also serve to challenge the theory and to reveal some of the implications which arise from the relationship between individual subject and intersubjective community.

“Le Colonel Chabert” tells the tale of a Napoleonic colonel injured and left for dead after the battle of Eylau. Suffering from a severe head-wound, the colonel digs his way out of a mass grave, recovers his health and memory, and returns to what is, by then, Restoration Paris. There he enlists the help of the solicitor Derville, in an attempt to regain public recognition. After a crucial meeting with Chabert, his wife, since remarried, realizes that his physical appearance has so altered as to render him unrecognizable to the public. After a series of manoeuvrings, she successfully thwarts Chabert's attempts, and the colonel fades into obscurity.

“Le Colonel Chabert” prompts several questions about the nature of self-knowledge. For example, can the individual's grasp of self-identity be challenged by an external authority? Early in the short story, one of Derville's clerks vouches for the authority of the subject: ‘—Je l'appelle pour lui demander s'il est colonel ou portier, il doit savoir, lui’ (p. 31, my italics). As far as Chabert is concerned, his self-knowledge, his knowledge of who he is, is, quite literally, self-evident. There can be no question of intersubjective negotiation:

—Il faudrait peut-être transiger, dit l'avoué.

—Transiger, répéta le colonel Chabert. Suis-je mort ou suis-je vivant?

(p. 58)

To this extent, Bleich's privileging of knowledge of self seems to find literary support. However, Chabert's self-knowledge is challenged and indeed denied by the ‘comtesse’, a representative of the community which is Restoration society. As Chabert discovers, even self-knowledge is negotiable: ‘tout se plaide’ (p. 72). Derville, using terms which would not be out of place in Bleich's own work, makes the point that self-knowledge becomes knowledge only if and when negotiated in a motivated community: ‘Vous êtes le comte Chabert, je le veux bien, mais il s'agit de le prouver juridiciairement, à des gens qui vont avoir intérêt à nier votre existence’ (p. 70, my italics). This raises a number of points which are inadequately covered by Bleich. Exactly how does his epistemology reconcile self and community? On the one hand, it seems impossible to deny the privileged nature of self-knowledge, specifically, of the reflective ego: to do so would be to deny the basic ontological structure of the self. The ‘comtesse’ sees only a part of the problem when she tells Chabert that ‘renoncer à vous-même’ would mean ‘commettre un mensonge à toute heure du jour’ (p. 107). To deny the reflective ego is, ultimately, to deny life itself. Chabert himself touches on the problem when he expresses a desire for the ontologically impossible: ‘Je voudrais n'être pas moi.’8 In the closing pages of the text, his attempted self-renunciation hints at the fact that to abolish the reflective ego is to cease to be a human subject: ‘Pas Chabert! pas Chabert! … Je ne suis plus un homme, je suis le numéro 164, septième salle’ (p. 121).

If self-knowledge is an ontological necessity, how can it be integrated into an epistemology such as Bleich's, which insists on the intersubjective negotiation of all knowledge? Self-knowledge is by definition solipsistic. If ‘tout se plaide’, how can proof be offered to a third party? How can Chabert's reflective awareness of himself become material which is accessible to intersubjective negotiation?

This problematic relationship between transcendent subject and community is briefly raised by Tompkins, who compares Bleich's concept of community to that of Stanley Fish:

Both statements suggest that individual or subjective knowledge exists prior to the formulation of publicly shared assumptions and that membership in an interpretive community is a conscious act entered into freely by each individual. … This description [of the interpretive community] stands Fish's concept on its head. Instead of the individual's being constituted by the assumptions of the group, the group is formed by individuals who then negotiate its assumptions into existence.

(p. 1073)

The conflict appears to be irreconcilable. One can adopt Fish's stance, whereby the subject is constituted by group assumptions and correlatively loses the freedom of the self-reflective, transcendent self. In this case we can no longer talk of authority or responsibility: the subject is not answerable to or for himself. Alternatively, one can seek to preserve, as Bleich does, the freedom of the transcendent self, in which case we cannot accept that all knowledge is negotiated in a community.9

“Le Colonel Chabert” plays out this epistemological conflict to perfection. In Chabert's case, joining the community represented by the ‘comtesse’ would mean denying his own existence; it results in an ontological impasse. Extending this, and taking Chabert's case as exemplary, we might ask how can individuals be convinced to join a particular community? Thomas Kuhn, referring to paradigm switches and communities of scientists, suggests that persuasion can go only so far: ‘The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.’10 Richard Norman, considering a similar problem in terms of seeing ‘gestalt’ figures (duck/rabbit; old/young woman), states: ‘I cannot “choose” or “decide” to see the figure in a certain way. If I am able to see it as a picture of an old woman, this is because that way of seeing forces itself upon me. We can speak of the dawning of an aspect.’11 Proffered ‘proof’ about the ‘gestalt’ figure (‘here is the nose, here the chin’, etc.) is proof only to one who is already in-context: ‘The “evidence” each gives will be understood in the relevant way only by one who is already convinced’ (p. 335). Neither Fish, who takes the same line (the subject is always-already in context), nor Bleich considers in sufficient detail the processes of joining and leaving communities.

The conflict between Chabert and the ‘comtesse’, a spokeswoman for the Restoration community, extends the issue into the domain of ethics: what happens when there is a conflict of interests between communities? How are differences settled? How, exactly, does communication and negotiation take place? In the case of Chabert, the innocent victim seems to fall prey to an anonymous corporate body.12

Bleich notes: ‘If there is no external standard, collective interests are the highest authority, and knowledge depends ultimately on how individuals form groups and circumscribe the existence of other groups' (Subjective Criticism, p. 264). But how exactly does this circumscription take place? Freedom of the individual seems to be threatened by the concept of community in one of two ways. First, on a more fundamental theoretical level, freedom is denied if, as is the case in Fish's theory, the individual is said to be constituted by the group, to be always-already in context. Secondly, freedom is threatened if the group chooses to ‘circumscribe’ by violent means. In both cases authority is put above liberty, becoming, by definition, authoritarianism.

To return to “Le Colonel Chabert”: the character Derville raises another question which is inadequately dealt with by the theory: that of commensurability. How many communities can one belong to, and how is membership to be established or defined? Derville is lawyer to both Chabert and the ‘comtesse’, he is in what Sivert refers to as ‘an unsavory legal situation’ (p. 224). One of the solicitor's interlocutors comments on this capacity to move freely between communities: ‘Vous avez l'esprit juste, vous autres avoués, quoiqu'on vous accuse de le fausser en plaidant aussi bien le Pour que le Contre’ (p. 62).

Derville joins his particular communities freely, and out of self-interest (monetary gain and an enhanced reputation). He is not already in-context. This raises once again the issue of how membership is established.

Bleich suggests that the members of the group articulate their motivations, but need these be genuine? Is there not room for duplicity and manipulation? Is the group really answerable to and responsible for its members and their apparent motivations? The ‘comtesse’ conceals her knowledge of Chabert's identity (‘C'est lui, se dit en elle-même la comtesse’ (p. 97)), and follows a personal, unacknowledged motivation.

The reader is aware that an injustice is being perpetrated. Bleich does not consider the possibility of an abuse of authority via a skilful deployment of language. Motives can be hidden or falsely displayed by the use of rhetoric which, with the abolition of external authority, becomes a vital commodity and weapon. In the case of Chabert, rhetorical powers of conviction, ominously, lead to actual conviction: his attempts to defend his self-knowledge are overwhelmed by the ‘comtesse’, and the innocent individual is marginalized in jails and asylums.13

The fact that motives can be hidden, and individuals manipulated, is dramatized more forcefully in the second of Balzac's short stories, “Adieu.” Philippe and his companion come across an isolated property in which they find a young woman, devoid of speech, more animal than human. Philippe recognizes with horror that the woman is Stéphanie, his lover of old whose life he had saved during the Bérésina crossing. Philippe displaces Stéphanie's uncle, a doctor, in his attempts to restore Stéphanie's sanity. After a period of failure, during which Stéphanie neither recognizes Philippe nor recalls anything of her past, Philippe attempts a final cure by organizing a re-enactment of the crossing of the Bérésina. Stéphanie appears momentarily to return to normality, only to fall dead a few minutes later. Her death is shortly followed by Philippe's suicide.

Philippe's motivation for negotiating knowledge, for attempting to persuade Stéphanie to recognize him and the past as ‘facts’, may be seen to be other than his stated altruistic intention. His motivation may be purely sexual. A certain physical preoccupation emerges symptomatically on several occasions: for example, in his rather incongruous reaction to his companion's sighting of what is apparently a ghostly figure. Rather than express disbelief or alarm, Philippe merely asks: ‘Est-elle jolie?’ (p. 157). His unreciprocated advances to Stéphanie also suggest a physical motivation: ‘Mais elle lui laissait passer les mains dans sa chevelure, lui permettait de la prendre dans ses bras, et recevait sans plaisir ses baisers ardents’ (p. 204).

Stéphanie's uncle/doctor may also be seen to be driven by unstated motives. His articulated intention is to effect a cure, but the reader might well feel that he too exploits his ‘patient’ and follows purely self-interested motivation. Notice, for example, the unsettling description of his reaction to the death of his niece: ‘Le vieux médecin reçut le corps inanimé de sa nièce, l'embrassa comme l'eût fait un jeune homme, l'emporta et s'assit avec elle sur un tas de bois’ (p. 214). His attentions have something of the voyeuristic about them: ‘Je comprends sa folie, j'épie ses gestes, je suis dans ses secrets’ (p. 209). If we look to the etymology of ‘comprendre’, we are returned to the notion of circumscription, and the suggestion that manipulation and exploitation, the abuse of authority, are not far off. In both these cases articulated motives for knowledge-seeking (an apparently altruistic desire to restore Stéphanie to sanity) appear to be secondary to unacknowledged, self-gratificatory motivation.

I suggested above that when overarching sources of authority are absent, rhetoric becomes a valuable resource. Language may be employed not only for straightforward ‘negotiation’ but as a weapon in a power struggle. The doctor employs rhetoric to suggest that communities have been established. Although Stéphanie cannot respond, or perhaps even understand him, his use of the first person plural implies that negotiation has been linguistically established, and that the community members are in agreement: ‘Nous lui pardonnons, n'est-ce pas?’ (p. 206).

The use of rhetoric in the attempt to establish communities can be extended to the relationship between the narrator and reader of the two short stories. To read the doctor/uncle's intentions or motivation as I have done means resisting the narrator's impassive description; it means refusing to join his community. In “Le Colonel Chabert,” the play of narratorial rhetoric is more revealing. We have, after all, no ‘proof’ that Chabert is who he says he is, and the famous Balzacian narrator initially sets aside his omniscience and withholds knowledge. Early in the text, he refers to Chabert as ‘l'inconnu’ (pp. 27, 29), ‘le vieil homme’ (p. 29), ‘le prétendu colonel Chabert’ (p. 36). It is surely no coincidence that at the point where the narrator does commit himself and seek to establish the identity of Chabert, his use of rhetoric increases. He first refers to the mysterious character as ‘le colonel Chabert’ on page 37, backing up his acknowledgement (or suggestion) of identity with a reference to ‘le vieux soldat’ on the following page. Significantly, this is accompanied by the use of the second-person pronoun, which invites the reader to assume the role of addressee: ‘Vous eussiez dit de la nacre. …’ The attempt to establish a community with the reader is strengthened by the deployment of the first-person singular, again appealing to a second-person interlocutor whose role can be filled by the reader: ‘pour faire de cette figure je ne sais quoi de funeste …’ (p. 39).

Bearing in mind what I have said about rhetoric and manipulation, the attentive reader should perhaps be aware of devices such as first-person and second-person pronouns, the impersonal ‘on’, gnomics and demonstratives, all of which imply shared assumptions and values.

The fact that language, the medium of intersubjective negotiation, is potentially duplicitous, emerges from a careful reading of both texts. Two passages in “Le Colonel Chabert” take on a completely different force retrospectively or during a subsequent reading. Early in the text: ‘Accoutumé sans doute à juger les hommes, il s'adressa fort poliment au saute-ruisseau, en espérant que ce Pâtiras lui répondrait avec douceur’ (p. 28). The ‘saute-ruisseau’ has already been seen by the reader to be the ringleader of those mocking Chabert. The phrase ‘accoutumé sans doute à juger les hommes’ is therefore read as irony. Manipulated by the use of rhetoric, in the form of irony, the reader is invited into a relationship of complicity with the narrator. He is encouraged to believe that the stranger is a poor judge of character, and consequently, that he is unlikely to be the ‘colonel’.14

We see the manipulative potential of language at work shortly after this incident. One of the clerks in Derville's office remarks of the unknown figure: ‘—Il a l'air d'un déterré’ (p. 30). During a first reading of the text, the metaphor is taken at face value: that is, as no more than metaphorical. Its literal reading (Chabert is, precisely, a ‘déterré’) can be activated only retrospectively or during a subsequent reading. Again, a form of rhetoric has been deployed: the very fact that Chabert is described as like a disinterred cadaver masks the possibility that he might literally have been just that. The truth about Chabert's real identity is thereby obfuscated. Language has once more been used to manipulate.

A similar process occurs in “Adieu.” In the opening pages Philippe's companion refers to the estate before him as ‘le palais de la Belle au Bois Dormant’ (p. 156). The ironic reading emerges only when the closing pages of the text have been read. Only then does the reader realize that far from following the pattern of the encoded fairy-tale ‘happy ending’, Balzac's tale ends in tragedy: Stéphanie is awakened by her ‘Prince Charming’, Philippe, only to die. Language can mask truth and knowledge.

I have said that the negotiation of knowledge may be complicated by a deliberate manipulation of one's interlocutors. Language, the medium of intersubjective negotiation, can become a tool of deception when rhetoric is deployed, and true motives can be kept hidden. But motives may not only be disguised intentionally; they may be inaccessible to the conscious mind of the subject himself. By emphasizing the role of the individual's reflective capacity, Bleich neglects the part played by the unconscious as a powerful source of motivation.

The possibility of unconscious motivation is raised by Balzac's “Adieu.” Ostensibly, Philippe's motivation for the negotiation of knowledge, his need, for example, to re-enact the Bérésina crossing, is his articulated desire to cure Stéphanie. However, the text points to the possibility of non-linguistic forces being at play:

Quoiqu'un souvenir d'une affreuse amertume crispât tous ses traits, il ne pleura pas. Semblable aux hommes puissants, il savait refouler ses émotions au fond de son coeur, et trouvait peut-être, comme beaucoup de caractères purs, une sorte d'impudeur à dévoiler ses peines quand aucune parole humaine n'en peut rendre la profondeur.

(p. 152, my italics)

During the Bérésina crossing Philippe was witness to potentially traumatizing scenes: ‘Et le grenadier de la garde poussa les chevaux sur les hommes, ensanglanta les roues, renversa les bivouacs, en traçant un double sillon de morts à travers ce champ de têtes.’ (p. 187) Could it be that the full horror of this event is being repressed by Philippe, and that the true motivation for his re-enactment or repetition has deeper sources? If motivation can be unconscious, and therefore inaccessible to the individual and his self-knowledge, then Bleich's theory suffers a setback. Subjects may articulate their motives and set out their subjective responses in ‘response statements’, and they may negotiate knowledge in acts of apparent self-reflectivity, but other forces, equally a part of the subject, may be operating which are unknown to them. The subject's self-reflective capacity can only extend so far. He is answerable only to and for his conscious mind; he can know only that he knows to a certain extent.

Problems of authority are central to all reader-response theories. Bleich, in seeking to preserve the freedom of the subject, perhaps over-emphasizes the capacity for reflective thought (we might say self-authorization). However, whilst granting the subject freedom with one hand, he seems to take it away with the other by claiming that knowledge is a function of standards negotiated within a community.

Theories which deal largely in abstract terms run the risk not only of internal inconsistency but also of a certain blindness to the implications they bear with them. The concept of the community is one such area treated inadequately by the theorists. It may be that literary texts still have something to teach the theoreticians.


  1. E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, Connecticut, and London, 1967). In the later The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago and London, 1976), Hirsch modifies his position, but maintains the author as the rightful origin of meaning (Norman Holland, 5 Readers Reading (New Haven, Connecticut, 1975)).

  2. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore, Maryland, and London, 1978); Stanley Fish, ‘Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics’, New Literary History, 2 (1970), 123-62.

  3. Fish, ‘Interpreting the Variorum’, Critical Inquiry, 2 (Spring 1976). See also Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980) for a collection of Fish's essays prefaced by the author's description of his change of direction from the earlier ‘Affective Stylistics’.

  4. David Bleich, Subjective Criticism (Baltimore, Maryland, 1978).

  5. All references to Balzac are to Le Colonel Chabert suivi de trois nouvelles, edited by P. Berthier (Paris, 1974).

  6. Bleich, ‘The Subjective Paradigm in Science, Psychology, and Criticism, New Literary History, 7 (1976), 313-34 (p. 317).

  7. Jane Tompkins, review of Bleich's Subjective Criticism, Modern Language Notes, 93 (December 1978), 1073.

  8. Chabert expresses a similar ontological twist when he apparently acknowledges his own death (p. 32): ‘—Est-ce le colonel mort à Eylau? demanda Huré … ❙—Lui-même, monsieur, répondit le bonhomme.’

  9. The same problem emerges in theories which seek not to contextualize (place in a community), but to textualize the subject. It is no longer the subject, but language which speaks: ‘But once the conscious subject is deprived of its role as a source of meaning—once meaning is explained in terms of conventional systems which may escape the grasp of the conscious subject—the self can no longer be identified with consciousness’ (Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (London, 1975), p. 28).

  10. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second, expanded version (Chicago, 1970), p. 151.

  11. Richard Norman, ‘On Seeing Things Differently’, in The Philosophy of Society, edited by R. Beehler and A. Drengson (London, 1978), 316-44 (p. 334).

  12. Eileen Sivert, approaching the same short story from the perspective of feminist views of identity, states that Chabert's story of his identity cannot exist, as it has already been written ‘by the most powerful institutions of society’: ‘Who's Who: Non-Characters in Le Colonel Chabert’, French Forum, 13, no. 2 (May 1988), 217-28 (p. 224). When we realize that these ‘institutions’ are the military and the legal profession, the potentially sinister implications of community start to become clear.

  13. Derville, as a representative of the legal profession, is paradigmatic of the replacement of a true/false polarity by conviction. In a court of law, ‘evidence’ is evidence only if the case wins; the evidence offered by the defeated party is no longer evidence if the rhetoric of the opposing advocate prevails.

  14. The relationship between irony and authority also emerges here: whose irony is it? The narrator's? The author's? Barthes comments on the loss of source or authority in true irony: ‘Un texte multivalent n'accomplit jusqu'au bout sa duplicité constitutive que s'il subvertit l'opposition du vrai et du faux, s'il n'attribue pas ses énoncés (même dans l'intention de les discréditer) à des autorités explicites, s'il déjoue tout respect de l'origine, de la paternité, de la propriété’ (S/Z (Paris, 1970), p. 51).

Henry F. Majewski (essay date spring 1991)

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SOURCE: Majewski, Henry F. “Painting as Intertext in Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or.Symposium 45, no. 1 (spring 1991): 370-84.

[In the following essay, Majewski analyzes the influence of Delacroix's paintings on Balzac's novella La fille aux yeux d'or.]

La Duchesse de Langeais andLa Fille aux yeux d'or are dedicated respectively to Lîszt and Delacroix. These two novels, from the trilogy L'Histoire des Treize, can be considered experimental novels in which Balzac shows his skill at developing interartistic parallels as musician and painter. La Duchesse includes a conscious attempt to reproduce musical structures in fiction; La Fille aux yeux d'or is almost a romantic “transposition d'art.” Balzac endeavors to produce aesthetic effects similar to those of Delacroix's paintings: a strange beauty elicited by images of violent passion. Through the use of pictorial description, color symbolism, and structural devices related to painting, he creates exotic “oriental” scenes in the midst of modern Paris, calculated to rival works like Hugo's Orientales and Delacroix's La Mort de Sardanapale.

Olivier Bonard has studied the role of painting in Balzac's early works, including Le Père Goriot.1 He finds specific paintings (real or imagined) to be the point of departure of the narrative in texts like La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, Sarrazine and Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu. Characters and narrative situations develop from a picture named and described rather than from “realistic” or “objective” social observation. Examples are Girodet's Endymion for Sarrazine, Gros's La Bataille d'Eylau for “Le Colonel Chabert,” and the Flemish realists for other works. Balzac's narrator, for example, introduces Paquita Valdès, the girl with the golden eyes, as the incarnation of a figure from an ancient vase painting, the woman caressing her chimera. Georges Hirschell has minutely examined the relationships between Balzac and Delacroix as persons and artists as well as the color symbolism found in Delacroix's paintings and its analog in Balzac's stylistic technique in La Fille aux yeux d'or.2

This article attempts to analyze the function of Delacroix's paintings as intertexts: the ways in which specific paintings give structure and suggest meaning to the novel, and the narrative techniques used by Balzac that are apparently borrowed from painting, and, more specifically, from Delacroix's works. Any discussion of the intertextuality of painting in this novel must first examine the entire pattern of intertextual references that might appear to the reader to be unnecessarily copious and even contradictory.

Balzac's famous description of Paris as hell, in which he compares the spherical social structure of the city to the circles of Dante's Inferno, provides the novel with its organizing principle. A city dominated by “l'or et le plaisir” whose ascending movement from proletariat to aristocracy is degraded by the relentless pursuit of money is the setting for the tragic, corrupted love of Paquita, Henri de Marsay, and his sister, Euphemia. In a hellish city dominated by degraded values—human energy and potential wasted in the pursuit of money and sensual pleasure—life without a spiritual dimension produces a hellish love.

The role of Dante's Inferno as intertext is, however, more subtle and complex than has been established by previous critics. Balzac's narrator mentions only four circles of hell, or five, if we include the place of the artists. He does not mention the seventh circle in which are found those who have betrayed loved ones. Francesca da Rimini, who deceived her husband in favor of his brother, was relegated to this outer circle, and her story must be considered the original model of the triangle in this novel. Paquita betrays her lover, Euphémie, in favor of her brother, Henri de Marsay, thus creating an ironic modern version of Dante's triangle. The circular unity of the novel is complete; the tragic conclusion of betrayal and murder brings the reader back to the beginning of the text. Paquita's story can be situated in the secret center of Paris as hell, where the city's violence and cruelty are paradoxically the most acute.

Balzac uses intertextual reference to literature and myth in order to lure the reader; he suggests a variety of possible interpretations in order to surprise and astonish him with the impact of the final scenes. Reference to Delacroix's paintings arguably provides the reader with the clues required to make a more coherent and profound reading of La Fille aux yeux d'or.

Balzac's narrator compares his story to “une vieille comédie,” referring specifically to the “Barbier de Séville.” The reader is led to believe that De Marsay is struggling to attract the beautiful and innocent young Paquita away from the elderly gentleman who has raised and educated her for himself. The allusion to the plot of L'Ecole des femmes, with its traditional comic triangle, is reinforced by a reference to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. The exquisite Paquita seems to have been “created” for the special pleasure of an aging Marquis. A comic and cynical tone is thus maintained throughout most of the main section of the novel; but certain references disconcert the reader. The first meeting of the lovers is compared to a scene from a Gothic novel of Ann Radcliffe. Its macabre setting hints at a tragic outcome. Paquita and her monstrous mother are compared to a “sirène” and her “chimère,” suggesting the destructive illusions of love. Near the end of the novel, Sade's Justine and Les Liaisons dangereuses are invoked as textual signs of perversion and cruelty.

De Marsay is compared to Adonis, but also to a serpent from the lost paradise. He is likened to a lion and a centaur but also to Othello, suggesting jealousy and betrayal. In an effort to give the fiction a philosophical dimension, Balzac describes De Marsay as Don Juan, Manfred, and above all, as a new Faust who is seeking the absolute in the form of perfect feminine sensuality and beauty. The myth of Faust is the most resonant textual allusion, suggesting the deepest meanings of the fiction. De Marsay's quest for the absolute leads to death and destruction because he has placed his ideal in a degraded mode: the search for “l'or et le plaisir,” infinite sensual pleasure without a spiritual dimension, hellish love in a hellish city.

With the Parisian dandy De Marsay as a modern Faust, the novel begins to resemble the series of Etudes philosophiques that Balzac was publishing at the same time, each (e.g., “La Peau de chagrin”) presenting a variation on the theme of human energy engaged in a death struggle against the limitations imposed on man by his physical and temporal condition.

An examination of the meanings suggested by the numerous textual and mythological references (far from exhausted in this account) thus suggests that the basically comic plot of La Fille [La Fille aux yeux d'or] is gradually transformed into a tragic one. Figaro is transformed into Faust, and the traditional love triangle is inverted to produce an almost Greek-like family tragedy replete with suggestions of incest and homosexuality.3

Delacroix's well-known works, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1834), painted the same year as La Fille was published and La Mort de Sardanapale (1828) are the specific works that play the role of intertext in this novel. Various sketches and paintings of animals being hunted or attacked by other animals, done even before Delacroix's trip to Morocco, are also represented in the fiction. In his lengthy prologue to the action of the novel, Balzac's narrator refers to the “petites peuplades heureuses qui vivent à l'orientale,”4 enclaves of beautiful women who somehow escape from the corrupting economic and social dynamics of the city to live in an intimate feminine refuge. In preserving their beauty they constitute an exception to the general degradation of the Parisian people Balzac has described in caricatural detail. Paquita's hotel is closed like a “harem oriental” (352) and she, the captive woman, is “un sérail” (336). Certainly conscious of Delacroix's trip to North Africa, Balzac suggests that it is not necessary to leave Paris to find scenes of extravagant luxury and sensuous beauty. He clearly intends his carefully composed descriptions of Paquita's boudoir to rival Delacroix's depiction of the exotic setting of the Algerian women.

The scenes in the harem-like atmosphere of the secret bedrooms are presented through the narrative distance of “scènes-tableaux.” This technique of pictorial description in which a scene is composed as if it were already a painting is characteristic of romantic writing from Chateaubriand to Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Balzac uses a painter's antithesis and violent contrast to distinguish between the first setting of the lovers' meeting, a sordid room resembling an abandoned bordello, dominated by harsh reds, greens, and yellows, and the elegant gilded boudoir where the lovers finally consumate their passion.

The second boudoir scene, elaborately detailed, is the best example of Balzac's particular kind of “transposition d'art” and illustrates his techniques with a virtuoso richness surpassing any similar attempts in his other novels.5 Lines, contours and forms are presented with an almost geometric precision; half the boudoir “décrivait une ligne circulaire mollement gracieuse, qui s'opposait à l'autre partie parfaitement carrée” (372). Curved and straight lines thus function as signifiers of the feminine and masculine principles that will confront each other here. In the ensuing description the forms are repeated and reinforced. The horseshoe curved frame behind the immense Turkish bed is surmounted by a red tapestry decorated with Indian muslin “cannelée comme l'est une colonne corinthienne” (372). The effect of straight columns is achieved by “des tuyaux alternativement creux et ronds” molded into the cloth upon which were designed the curved lines of “des arabesques noires” (372). The repetition and interplay of these forms suggests the careful composition of a painting and serves also as a signifying code for the lovers' encounter. Balzac pays close attention to the spatial arrangement of objects, and the source of light that illuminates their oriental richness, is carefully indicated: “Le plafond, au milieu duquel pendait un lustre en vermeil mat, étincelait de blancheur, et la corniche était dorée” (372). The point of view throughout the scene is that of the observer De Marsay who is aware that every element of the “tableau” has been calculated to produce desire.

The narrator indicates the play of light and shadow that seems to reproduce certain shimmering effects (almost preimpressionist) of Delacroix's color scheme: “Les chatoiements de la tenture, dont la couleur changeait suivant la direction du regard, en devenant ou toute blanche, ou toute rose, s'accordaient avec les effets de la lumière qui s'infusait dans les diaphanes tuyaux de la mousseline, en produisant de nuageuses apparences” (372). Balzac insists above all, on a pattern of color that dominates the composition, giving it its form and possible meanings. A prevalent scheme of white, gold, and red is established in the objects and flowers of the boudoir, and intensified almost to excess through the repetition of words indicating the presence of these colors and their variants, “rose,” “ponceau.” The word “rouge” is used nine times in a single paragraph, as if Balzac considered the repetition to constitute a series of “taches” or brush strokes on the canvas. Although Balzac attempts to focalize on De Marsay as direct witness of this “scène-tableau,” his narrator interprets the color symbolism and concludes the description with the kind of musical metaphor that Baudelaire will later apply to the paintings of Delacroix: “Il y avait dans cette harmonie parfaite un concert de couleurs auquel l'âme répondait par des idées voluptueuses, indécises, flottantes” (pp. 372-3).

There is thus a profound correspondence between color and human desire; the highly colored pictorial impression of the boudoir is intended to suggest unexpressed or even inexpressible needs and desires. In Balzac's view, the language of color is perhaps superior to that of words because its meanings are less restricted by conventional signifieds or denotations. Balzac's narrator concludes:

L'âme a je ne sais quel attachement pour le blanc, l'amour se plaît dans le rouge, et l'or flatte les passions, il a la puissance de réaliser leurs fantaisies. Ainsi tout ce que l'homme a de vague et de mystérieux en lui-même, toutes ses affinités inexpliquées se trouvaient caressées dans leurs sympathies involontaires.


The dominant color pattern—white, red, and gold—can therefore correspond to ideas and evoke qualities and desires both physical and spiritual. Colors as signifiers can attach themselves to multiple signifieds, thus producing complex, ambiguous signs, and potentially even expressing the most hidden inner world of the reader. When this boudoir scene is considered in the context of the entire novel, it is clear once again that its meanings are ambivalent. White stands for purity, red for love, and gold flatters the passions. The narrator, however, has neglected to analyze the fourth color in the scheme, named five times in the same passage—black. The vivid presence of black certainly foreshadows death and the tragedy to come; and the reader will soon discover that red connotes blood as well as passion.

The predominance of red, often identified with Delacroix's coloristic innovations, suggests the ambiguity at the center of the text. Red signifies passion and blood; or rather, passion is blood because “la volupté mène à la férocité” (382), as Balzac's narrator declares in the stated moral of the fiction. Sexuality and sensuality are inextricably linked to violence and cruelty in a world without spiritual values, where white suggests only an illusion of purity (Paquita is deceived but she is not innocent), and gold represents the degraded economic value of money as well as men's fantasies of fortune.

The pictorial description of the boudoir reveals the hidden meanings of the text to the reader contemplating the “tableau.” The conflict between the sexes is encoded in the formal pattern of objects, and the color scheme contains major themes common to Balzac's fiction and to Delacroix's painting: an exotic captive woman in a golden oriental setting; luxuriance of objects and of rich color evoking sensual passion, and the potential for violence and cruelty. At the end of the description of the boudoir, the narrator can convincingly introduce Paquita as “le chef-d'oeuvre de la création” (373), whose complexion is “chaudement coloré,” her beautiful skin “dorée par les reflets du rouge et par l'effusion de je ne sais quelle vapeur d'amour” (373).

Although Les Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement is arguably the intertext for the boudoir scenes in the novel, one cannot claim that Balzac is “imitating” the painting. The composition of Balzac's “scène-tableau” clearly differs from that of the picture (architectural details are not as prominent in the painting, and a group of women is present); and Balzac's color scheme is far more contrastive than the muted, warm tones of Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger. The color scheme that Balzac proposes—variations of white, red, gold, and black—corresponds more specifically to La Mort de Sardanapale, the other major “transposed” painting in the novel. Just as Les Femmes d'Alger situates and explains the role of Paquita, La Mort de Sardanapale develops the psychology of Henri de Marsay and gives him a legendary, archetypal resonance. Elements of this great painting are reproduced not by a specific scene, but by a series of allusions—themes, characters, metaphors—suggesting the importance of this intertextual reference.

During the melancholy initial encounter between De Marsay and Paquita, Balzac begins transforming his superficial Parisian dandy into a splenetic and disenchanted romantic hero. Totally bored with the facile pleasures of the city, he is “affamé de voluptés nouvelles,” and compared to “ce roi d'orient qui demandait qu'on lui créât un plaisir, soif horrible dont les grandes âmes sont saisies” (366). The ideal beauty of Paquita becomes in his imagination “l'infini rendu palpable” (366); his desire to possess her is presented as a Faustian quest for an absolute that alone would give Henri's existence a meaning.

According to the legend of Sardanapalus, the Assyrian despot realized the futility of defending his lands against invading hordes and ordered that his goods, his servants, and his women be burned with him on a funeral pyre. The legend was reinterpreted by the romantics,6 especially Byron, Delacroix, and Berlioz who found in it a contemporary image of despair or “mal du siècle.” As seen by the romantics, Sardanapalus is overcome with spleen before the tragic imperfections and limitations of the real world and dreams of pleasures and beauty beyond the mediocrity of existence. In spite of his power and great wealth, he chooses death and creates an extraordinary spectacle of destruction which, for a moment at least, will relieve him from a paralyzing boredom. Like Baudelaire's poet-narrator in “Au lecteur” and “Le Voyage,” prelude and conclusion to Les Fleurs du mal, he dreams of death in order to find “du nouveau.”7

Allusions to Sardanapalus and to aspects of Delacroix's painting that reinforce this reading of the legend are repeated throughout the rest of Balzac's text. During the initial encounter with Henri, Paquita is already seen as his potential victim, “absorbée comme une femme faible devant la hache du bourreau et tuée d'avance par une crainte …” (366). This phrase suggests the scene of carnage in the foreground of Delacroix's painting, especially the beautiful female figure who has abandoned herself to the King's assassin. De Marsay is described by the narrator as a man of great energy whose potential strength has been stimulated by his sexual desire for Paquita. Confidence in his sexuality appears to lead him to a sense of extraordinary power: “De Marsay exerçait le pouvoir autocratique du despote oriental” who “pouvait ce qu'il voulait dans l'intérêt de ses plaisirs et de ses vanités. Cette invisible action sur le monde social l'avait revêtu d'une majesté réelle” (369). Endowed now with a “conscience léonine” (369), de Marsay's character is magnified and generalized by the narrator who gives him a mythical dimension:

Les femmes aiment prodigieusement ces gens qui se nomment pachas eux-mêmes, qui semblent accompagnés de lions, de bourreaux, et marchent dans un appareil de terreur. Il en résulte chez ces hommes une sécurité d'action, une certitude de pouvoir, une fierté de regard, une conscience léonine qui réalise pour les femmes le type de force qu'elle rêvent toutes. Ainsi était de Marsay.


There is an obvious link between eroticism and death in Delacroix's painting, which made it disturbing to contemporary viewers. The sadistic killing of beautiful women on the immense bed of an indifferent king was a forceful and disturbing subject for a salon painting in 1828.8 Balzac understood, surely, the essential message of the picture, and in a series of boudoir scenes he, too, presents sexuality as a violently aggressive act. The final encounter between Paquita and De Marsay's sister, in which Paquita is brutally murdered, the red of her blood spattering the white furnishings of the secret room, is calculated to shock the reader as much as the Sardanapale was intended to shock the contemporary viewer.

In the third of the four boudoir scenes, when Paquita dresses Henri as a woman and calls him “Mariquita,” thus emasculating him and revealing his impotence, a violent struggle to the death occurs between the two lovers. This love-death combat is abruptly ended, however, by the faithful servant, Christemio the Moor. (His powerful figure seems to echo the imposing presence of the Moor in the foreground of Delacroix's painting where he is both assassin and doomed slave.) Ironically, the confrontation foreshadows the final love-death scene of the two women that Balzac's narrator will compare to a violent combat between two animals.

Both scenes contain several allusions to La Mort de Sardanapale and also to the numerous sketches and paintings of animal hunts that Delacroix painted throughout his career9. The frightened horse, who is being led to the funeral pyre in the left part of the foreground in the Sardanapale, is a constant motif in Delacroix's works. The figure of the strong animal, horse, lion, or tiger, as symbols of energy and passion falling victim to fate, is echoed by Balzac's numerous animal metaphors in the novel. De Marsay is often compared to animals of strength and prowess—lions, tigers, eagles—but also to animals with more negative connotations: he is clever as a monkey and resembles the serpent in a garden. Paquita is compared to a cat, her duegna to a hyena, and Christemio to a bird of prey. The animal imagery contributes to the “oriental” exoticism of the text and signals, as it does in most romantic writing, the baser nature of the Parisian lovers. When De Marsay is outraged by suspicion of Paquita's motives, the narrator declares: “il laissa éclater le rugissement du tigre dont une gazelle se serait moquée, le cri d'un tigre qui joignait à la force de la bête l'intelligence du démon” (381). The image of a tiger pursuing a gazelle accurately characterizes the plot of La Fille and evokes the cruel ironies of Delacroix's dramatic animal sketches in which he so masterfully portrays the tragic fate of the trapped animal.

In the final boudoir scene, De Marsay's sister brutally murders Paquita, whose body is “déchiqueté à coups de poignard” (392). Balzac represents the bloody end of the struggle through the eyes of De Marsay, who has arrived too late to prevent it. His sister has replaced the “bourreau” of Delacroix's painting, Balzac's narrator describing her as “sublime” when transported by an ecstasy of violence. Although covered with blood and bleeding herself, “Sa tête avide et furieuse respirait l'odeur du sang. Sa bouche haletante restait entrouverte, et ses narines ne suffisaient pas à ses aspirations. Certains animaux, mis en fureur, fondent sur leur ennemi, le mettent à mort, et, tranquilles dans leur victoire, semblent avoir tout oublié. Il en est d'autres, qui tournent autour de leur victime, qui la gardent en craignant qu'on ne la leur vienne enlever …” (392).

The irony of this final scene is enriched by reference to Delacroix's Sardanapale. De Marsay is a passive witness to the brutal murder that he has provoked. The act is committed not by Delacroix's moor (or Christemio in the novel), but by De Marsay's sister, thus emphasizing his own impotence. The paradox of the painting underlies that of the novel as well: De Marsay's apparent strength, his “leonine” prowess, conceals a profound weakness. Sardanapalus organized an elaborate suicide when confronted with the powerlessness of his situation. De Marsay does not even succeed in taking the “manly” vengeance he had planned on Paquita for her betraying him. By murdering her, his feminine double eliminates the sign of his weakness; his sister's sadistic love had a force he could never produce. This bloody, “oriental” denouement evokes the violence of a Delacroix animal hunt, and suggests Baudelaire's attraction for the beauty of evil. Not only does Balzac's narrator compare Euphémie (in her bloodthirst) to a ferocious animal; she is also like Homer's Achilles, who insisted on dragging his dead enemy nine times around Troy. Balzac admires the grandeur of her crime just as Baudelaire cites the strange beauty of extravagant criminal acts in the opening poem of Les Fleurs du mal.

The Parisian comedy has become a Greek tragedy of betrayal and vengeance acted out more or less “en famille.” After the murder, Euphémie takes final leave of her brother, whom she resembles both physically and morally: “Adieu, dit-elle, rien ne console d'avoir perdu ce qui nous a paru être l'infini” (394). Her words point to the deepest level of the tragedy in the context Balzac has created. De Marsay and his sister have placed the quest for the absolute in a degraded mode. The desire for an infinite of physical pleasure and beauty has replaced the quest for spiritual wisdom, artistic perfection, or scientific knowledge, those goals of Balzac's protagonists in the Etudes Philosophiques. Before the tragic end, the narrator has already characterized De Marsay as a modern Faust with the sexual drives of a Don Juan:

il trouva dans la Fille aux yeux d'or ce sérail que sait créer la femme aimante et à laquelle un homme ne renonce jamais. Paquita répondait à cette passion que sentent tous le hommes vraiment grands pour l'infini, passion mystérieuse si dramatiquement exprimée dans Faust, si poétiquement traduite dans Manfred, et qui poussait Don Juan à fouiller le coeur des femmes, en espérant y trouver cette pensée sans bornes à la recherche de laquelle se mettent tant de chasseurs de spectres, que les savants croient entrevoir dans la science, que les mystiques trouvent en Dieu seul. L'espérance d'avoir enfin l'Etre idéal avec lequel la lutte pouvait être constante sans fatigue, ravit de Marsay qui, pour la première fois, depuis longtemps, ouvrit son coeur.


De Marsay's particular kind of “mal du siècle” can largely be explained in La Fille aux yeux d'or by the corrupting influence of the modern city. The organizing principle of the text, “l'or et le plaisir” (as the narrator states in the prologue), determines De Marsay as well as the Parisians for whom he seems to be an exception. Paquita is both “or” and “plaisir” for him; the goal of his quest is not spiritual love but the inexhaustible riches of sensuality. His search is permeated by a deep materialism, and the luxury of the dandy's self-created image is the tool of seduction. Balzac's De Marsay is the necessary product of a city whose degraded values, money and pleasure, have replaced an authentic spiritual life. The “hellish” loves of De Marsay and his sister for the golden victim are played out not in an oriental harem but in the hell of modern Paris, where human energy is perverted and dissipated in the economic spiral of social mobility.

Balzac's rich and complex use of color imagery is found throughout the text and constitutes a kind of tribute to Delacroix, whose painting was both praised and criticized for its innovative color schemes. The color red, associated particularly with Delacroix, is an ambiguous sign in the novel and situated at the center of its meanings, a symbol of passion, blood, and suffering. Gold is also laden with multiple meanings: the mysterious richness promised by Paquita's eyes, oriental sensuality, and the supreme value of modern Paris, an ambiguous sign, connoting pleasure as well as money and moral decay. Balzac utilizes strong color contrasts and the dramatic play of light and darkness, important elements of Delacroix's technique. Paquita's golden richness is contrasted with the dark (noire) beauty of De Marsay's sister. In spite of her brilliance, Paquita has lived in the darkness (les ténèbres) waiting for the light (lumière) Henri can bring.

A special use of color is also found in the Prologue of the novel to describe the city and its hierarchical spiral of inhabitants. Although the novel is appropriately dedicated to Delacroix, the prologue more clearly suggests Daumier, who was the real painter of Parisian life during the years of the July Monarchy. Rather than the bright colors associated with Delacroix's paintings, Balzac's narrator uses grays, blue, and brown to caricature his Parisians. The Parisian face has become “grise comme le plâtre des maisons” (326), and the unique struggle for money “décolore, blêmit, bleuit, et brunit plus ou moins les individus” (326). Determined by the profound materialism of his life, the Parisian's physiognomy reveals a “teinte presque infernale” (326). The populace is a “peuple horrible à voir, hâve, jaune, tanné” (325). Balzac repeats colors, or verbs suggesting color, to evoke brush strokes or a dominant color scheme on the canvas. Thus, the worker in the outer circle of hell who uses his energy to prepare objects for the rich

dore les porcelaines, coud les habits et les robes, amincit le fer, amenuise le bois, tisse l'acier, solidifie le chanvre et le fil, satine les bronzes, festonne le cristal, imite les fleurs, brode la laine, dresse les chevaux, tresse les harnais et les galons, découpe le cuivre, peint les voitures, arrondit les vieux ormeaux, vaporise le coton, souffle les tuls, corrode le diamant, polit les métaux, transforme en feuilles le marbre, lèche les cailloux, toilette la pensée, colore, blanchit et noircit tout.


In the Prologue, activities are enumerated, color symbols superabound, and verbs of action and color seem self-generating. This verbal excess suggests the harsh dark lines in a Daumier caricature. When he takes his pleasure, for example, the worker does so in a “lassante débauche brune de peau, noire de tapes, blême d'ivresse, ou jaune d'indigestion …” (327). For each class in the social spiral, Balzac creates a caricature, a generalized portrait of its typical representatives, emphasizing with comic intensity the negative effects of social and economic pressure. The petit bourgeois “persiste à vivre et vit, mais crétinisé: vous le rencontrez à face usée, plate, vieille, sans lueur aux yeux, sans fermeté dans la jambe, se trainant d'un air hébété sur le boulevard” (330). Balzac's harshest picture is reserved for the grand bourgeois, lawyer, doctor, or judge, the major subjects of Daumier's cartoons: “leurs figures s'arrondissent, s'aplatissent, se rougissent” (332). When they have achieved social standing “leurs figures offrent … cette pâleur aigre, ces colorations fausses, ses yeux ternis, cernés, ces bouches bavardes et sensuelles où l'observateur reconnaît les symptômes de l'abâtardissement de la pensée …” (333).

La Fille aux yeux d'or, like La Duchesse de Langeais might be read as important experiments in the interrelation of the arts. Balzac attempted to create with words an impact resembling that of painting—the negative impact of Daumier's satirical drawings, the exotic beauty of Delacroix's colored images of violence and passion. The use of “scènes-tableaux” forces the reader to be a viewer, to contemplate and “decode” the meanings found in the formal patterns. The scene transformed into a picture prepares for the drama to follow through a description of the décor, and contains a complex, constructed signifying system. Pictorial description, color symbolism and intertextual references to paintings and sketches are, in the last analysis, more important than the subject matter of the novel.

Seen in the context of nineteenth-century fascination with possible “correspondances,” Balzac's “oriental” novel is a major contribution to the long and controversial history of interants comparisons.10 In spite of the fundamental limitations inherent in any attempt to transpose one medium into another, in this case fixed visual imagery into a text evolving in time, La Fille aux yeux d'or is perhaps the best and most successful example of a romantic “transposition d'art” in novelistic form. It richly complements Hugo's exotic picture-poems in the Orientales, Delacroix's highly literary paintings and illustrations from Shakespeare and Faust, and Berlioz's many transcriptions of fictional works, including the regrettably lost music for the death of Sardanapalus.


  1. La Peinture dans la création balzacienne: Invention et vision picturales de la Maison du Chat-qui-pelote au Père Goriot (Geneva: Droz, 1969). A partial refutation of Bonard's book is found in Jean-Loup Bourget's article, “Balzac et le pictural,” Romantic Review 64.4 (1973): 286-295.

  2. Georges Hirschell, Balzac und Delacroix, Streiflichter auf den Roman, La Fille aux yeux d'or, Bâle, 1946.

  3. Shoshanna Felman has subtly analyzed the novel's complex psychological significance for the modern reader in “Rereading Feminity,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 19-44.

  4. Balzac, La Fille aux yeux d'or, in Oeuvres complètes, 28 vols. (Paris: Guy le Prat, 1961) 9: 337. Subsequent references to the novel will be to this edition and cited in the text.

  5. The description of Frenhofer's studio, for example, in Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, which is calculated to evoke the same effects as Rembrandt's chiaroscuro, or the realistic Flemish painting by Sommervieux in La Maison du chat-qui-pelote.

  6. Jack J. Spector discusses the sources for Delacroix's painting as well as Byronic romanticism and the psychological background in general (Delacroix: The Death of Sardanapalus [New York: Viking Press, 1974]). Byron's play Sardanapalus (1821) impressed the French romantics, including Berlioz, who composed a cantata on the subject in 1831, entitled La dernière Nuit de Sardanapale.

  7. It has been suggested that Baudelaire's introductory poem was, in part, inspired by Delacroix's painting. “Au lecteur” presents the portrait of those whose corrosive “ennui” leads to dreams of violence and destruction: “Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris / Et dans un baillement avalerait le monde.”

  8. Jack J. Spector analyzes the painting as a projection of Delacroix's own sadistic sexual fantasies and situates it in the context of romantic imagery (Delacroix: The Death of Sardanapalus).

  9. Delacroix painted most of his scenes of lion and tiger hunts after his trip to North Africa in 1832, thus after the publication of La Fille aux yeux d'or (1834). Under the influence of Géricault and George Stubbs, however, he had already produced violent drawings of animals, especially horses during the 1820's. Balzac was probably acquainted with some of these works, such as the lithographs of the “Wild Horse” and the “Horse attacked by a Tiger” (1828), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  10. Wendy Steiner's The Colors of Rhetoric (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1982) begins with a detailed examination of the history of the interarts comparison from Antiquity to the present. It includes an illuminating structuralist analysis of William Carlos Williams's Pictures from Breughel.

Alain Toumayan (essay date January 1994)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4031

SOURCE: Toumayan, Alain. “Barbey d'Aurevilly, Balzac, and ‘La Vengeance d'une femme.’” French Forum 19, no. 1 (January 1994): 35-43.

[In the following essay, Toumayan establishes thematic and “intertextual connections” among Barbey d'Aurevilly's “La Vengeance d'une femme” and Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or.]

Barbey d'Aurevilly's profound admiration for Balzac has provided well-attested keys to understanding Barbey's thematic and narrative universe, especially as concerns Les Diaboliques. Jacques Petit's and Herman Hofer's useful documentation of statements by Barbey and their identification of texts by Balzac which serve as sources or models of Barbey's stories have established clearly and concisely the literary landscape against which Barbey's stories have been understood.1 Yet all too often, Barbey's numerous references to Balzac or, for that matter, to other authors, once identified as such, are merely labeled “sources” warranting no further commentary; rarely do these references provide a basis for reading Barbey's texts.2 In other words, in many readings of Barbey's stories and novels it is assumed that Barbey gleaned narrative and thematic ingredients from his extensive readings of Balzac and of other authors and assimilated these within his own personal narrative, moral, or psychological esthetic agenda. Rarely are these two actions associated within an interpretive strategy. But considered strictly as sources, rather than as interpretive cues, it seems that the potential of these references remains largely unrealized. In a recent study of one of Les Diaboliques, Timothy Unwin, for example, notes “important divergences” and an “act of subversion” in Barbey's reference to Balzac. While Unwin's essay is extremely useful in many respects, it does not seek to exploit fully the interpretive possibilities of the connection it identifies, a limitation which is clearly indicated in Unwin's subtitle, “A Possible Source of ‘A un dîner d'Athées.’”3

My purpose in this essay is to identify a network of intertextual connections between Barbey's “La Vengeance d'une femme” and Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or and to analyze the thematic possibilities of this connection in reading Barbey's story. Such an approach to “La Vengeance d'une femme” is particularly appropriate as the story begins with a brief statement criticizing modern literature for its timidity, a prefatory statement which is unique in Les Diaboliques and which would seem more appropriate in Barbey's critical works although, I shall argue, it provides one of the keys to understanding the relation Barbey's text establishes with Balzac's. Thus the “opening signals,” to borrow Victor Brombert's phrase, already orient the reader towards an intertextual understanding of the story.

The system of references to La Fille aux yeux d'or in “La Vengeance d'une femme” is a vast and complex one. Certain elements of it include the characterizations of the two dandies, Tressignes and de Marsay, the basic plot lines of each dandy's adventures since each one ultimately meets his match in a woman, and the rather heavy-handed espagnolisme of Barbey's text. But these elements, particularly the two questions of dandyism and espagnolisme, comprise a rather formulaic network of references. However, one element of Barbey's narrative alluding to La Fille aux yeux d'or appears qualitatively quite different. It is the situation in which Tressignes, in the midst of his sexual encounter with the prostitute, and both confident and proud of his conquest and total mastery of her, notices her contemplating another man's portrait. Tressignes thus realizes that, like de Marsay, “il posait pour un autre.4 These are words which Barbey appropriates almost verbatim from Balzac's text (in de Marsay's case, “tout lui prouva qu'il avait posé pour une autre personne”)5 and which Barbey has italicized. Perhaps more important than the reference itself, which is quite obvious and which has been noted recently by two well-known critics of Barbey,6 is where it occurs in the narrative. The very situation—indeed the very words—so overtly appropriated from Balzac's story serve to introduce the secondary narrative of the duchess d'Arcos de Sierra-Leone since Tressignes, outraged, demands to know for whom he is posing: “Montre-moi ce portrait!” “Où as-tu pris cela?” “Qui lui? ton amant sans doute?” (2: 241-42). The scene also serves to characterize Tressignes's expectations regarding the narrative which he anticipates in answer to his questions: “Elle va me faire un conte. Elle va me débiter la séduction d'usage, le roman du premier, l'histoire connue qu'elles débitent toutes …” (2: 242). The subsequent narrative will of course surpass Tressignes's expectations and contradict the stereotypical melodrama which the cynical and blasé dandy has imagined. Thus the situation resulting from Tressignes's realization quite literally sets up the duchess's narrative of her lover's murder and the explanation of her revenge on her husband in which Tressignes is an unwitting participant: “Voulez-vous savoir mon histoire? Le voulez-vous? … Moi je voudrais la raconter à toute la terre!” (2: 245). The subsequent narrative, which explains the story's title, occurs, then, with Barbey's overt and explicit acknowledgment of Balzac's sponsorship or patronage, as it were. Why?

It should first be noted that La Fille aux yeux d'or can be read as the story of a woman's revenge since the character of Margarita usurps Henri de Marsay's revenge by herself killing Paquita for her betrayal; as de Marsay himself notes: “cette femme [Margarita] m'aura pris jusqu'à ma vengeance!” (327). Moreover, de Marsay meditates on the specifically feminine elements of Margarita's crime: “La marquise était femme: elle avait calculé sa vengeance avec cette perfection de perfidie qui distingue les animaux faibles” (328). And what distinguishes the specifically “feminine” quality of this crime is its perverse violence and its cruelty which are expressed in the remarkable incidence of references to blood. Indeed, Balzac's story, which is dedicated to Eugène Delacroix, plays quite explicitly on the symbolism of colors, principally white and red; the latter color and its contrast with the former are heavily emphasized in the description of the murder scene that de Marsay, intending to kill Paquita himself, happens upon:

Quand il … ouvrit la porte; il eut le frissonnement involontaire que cause à l'homme le plus déterminé la vue du sang répandu. … La Fille aux yeux d'or expirait noyée dans le sang. … Cet appartement blanc, où le sang paraissait si bien trahissait un long combat. Les mains de Paquita étaient empreintes sur les coussins. … Des lambeaux entiers de la tenture cannelée étaient arrachés par ses mains ensanglantées, qui sans doute avaient lutté longtemps. … Ses pieds nus étaient marqués le long du dossier du divan, sur lequel elle avait sans doute couru. Son corps déchiqueté à coups de poignard par son bourreau, disait avec quel acharnement elle avait disputé une vie qu'Henri lui rendait si chère. Elle gisait à terre, et avait, en mourant, mordu les muscles du coup-de-pied de madame de San Réal, qui gardait à la main son poignard trempé de sang. La marquise avait les cheveux arrachés, elle était couverte de morsures, dont plusieurs saignaient, et sa robe déchirée la laissait voir à demi-nue, les seins égratignés. Elle était sublime ainsi. Sa tête avide et furieuse respirait l'odeur du sang … elle se savait trop bien seule pour craindre les témoins; puis, elle était trop enivrée de sang chaud. …


This lengthy description of the murder scene is interrupted by a brief reflection on criminal violence:

Certains animaux, mis en fureur, fondent sur leur ennemi, le mettent à mort, et, tranquilles dans leur victoire, semblent avoir tout oublié. Il en est d'autres qui tournent autour de leur victime, qui la gardent en craignant qu'on ne la leur vienne enlever, et qui, semblables à l'Achille d'Homère, font neuf fois le tour de Troie en traînant leur ennemi par les pieds. Ainsi était la marquise.


In his prefatory statement, Barbey also incorporates such a meditation on the nature of criminal violence but he emphasizes the intellectual or abstract character of a crime or a violence in which, he twice notes, there is no bloodletting at all:

Cependant les crimes de l'extrême civilisation sont, certainement, plus atroces que ceux de l'extrême barbarie par le fait de leur raffinement, de la corruption qu'ils supposent, et leur degré supérieur d'intellectualité. … Il y a donc, pour le romancier, tout un genre de tragique inconnu à tirer de ces crimes, plus intellectuels que physiques, qui semblent moins des crimes à la superficialité des vieilles sociétés matérialistes, parce que le sang n'y coule pas et que le massacre ne s'y fait que dans l'ordre des sentiments et des moeurs … C'est ce genre de tragique dont on a voulu donner ici un échantillon, en racontant l'histoire d'une vengeance de la plus épouvantable originalité, dans laquelle le sang n'a pas coulé et où il n'y a eu ni fer ni poison; un crime civilisé enfin. …

(2: 231, my emphasis with the exception of the word civilisé)

Hence, it is with respect to Balzac's story that Barbey outlines the principal thematic scenario of “La Vengeance d'une femme” for if Tressignes is himself “un libertin fortement intellectualisé” (2: 233), he will ultimately be shocked by the degree of abstraction and of intellectualization of the duchess's revenge on her husband which consists in attacking his name through her own prostitution, through the narrative to her clients of the motives for her prostitution, and through her resolution to die at the Salpêtrière of the venereal diseases which afflict Parisian prostitutes. The esthetic language used by Tressignes to characterize the duchess, “ce sublime horrible … le sublime de l'enfer” (2: 254), and “ce sublime à la renverse, … ce sublime infernal” (2: 259), echoes Balzac's description of Margarita holding her bloody murder weapon, “Elle était sublime ainsi.” But it is interesting to note the extent to which Barbey qualifies the word “sublime” with both moral and esthetic predicates that contradict it (“de l'enfer,” “infernal,” and “horrible,” “à la renverse”) for it clarifies Barbey's relation to Balzac's story. What Barbey has done is to bring the rather straightforward Balzacian scenario of revenge into an explicitly paradoxical formulation or, rather, to exploit the paradox implicit in Balzac's story and make it explicit. Thus the sublime criminal in Balzac's text becomes “sublime horrible” in Barbey's, the violent perversity of the revenge crime becomes an intellectual or moral perversity, a “crime civilisé” (2: 231, Barbey's italics) in “La Vengeance d'une femme.”

In a remarkable and, in many ways groundbreaking analysis of Les Diaboliques, Michel Crouzet has identified the oxymoron as the fundamental rhetorical, narrative, and thematic figure in these stories and in Barbey's fiction in general (Crouzet 83-98). One of the principal merits of Crouzet's analysis is to show that the great amount of paradoxical formulations in Barbey's fiction, far from being a stylistic affectation, corresponds to a fundamental element of a coherent but complex esthetic and philosophical vision. While Crouzet notes only the crudest of the paradoxes in “La Vengeance d'une femme” (“la ‘duchesse putain’ ou l'‘humilité vindicative,’ ou ‘l'abaissement triomphale’” [89]), the notion of crime civilisé describes and organizes a paradox that the duchess's narrative will clarify. Barbey's story analyzes the esthetic and philosophical possibilities of an abstract form of violence (the duchess attacks her husband's name, not the person) and a violence that is achieved in a morally complex manner.

The moral complexity of the duchess's crime arises from her appropriation of a code of conduct which evokes religious devotion—the total sacrifice of self and the mortification of the flesh—in the service of first a secular act and second of an act of revenge so contrary to a Christian ethic of forgiveness.8 That the mortification of the flesh is achieved through prostitution and that the motives for the duchess's revenge appear to be legitimate only further deepen this paradox. Barbey is particularly interested in the moral complexity which results from this confusion of religious and secular methods and motives; this is why so many of his characters are priests (whose motives are either ambiguous or evil) Riculf, Croix-Jugan, Reniant, Sombreval—even the title Un Prêtre marié attests to this confusion. Moreover, Sombreval is another of Barbey's protagonists who is qualified in terms of “sublime horrible”9 and he is so qualified at the moment that Néel becomes aware of Sombreval's imposture, that is when Néel realizes that Sombreval has feigned his (re)conversion because he saw it as the only way to save Calixte's life. Like the duchess in “La Vengeance d'une femme,” Sombreval has mobilized a religious code in the service of an all-consuming secular passion and, as in the case of the duchess, it is an act of total self-sacrifice.10 It is through this ethical oxymoron as it were, the complexity of the dynamic and intense proximity of morality and immorality, of moral form and of immoral content, that the duchess's revenge thematizes an abstract violence, the intellectualized, civilized criminality that Barbey has discussed in the introductory critical discussion of “La Vengeance d'une femme.” And it is in the abstract and morally complex nature of the duchess's revenge that one can observe the relation that Barbey's text establishes with Balzac's. In placing the duchess's narrative so plainly under the auspices of La Fille aux yeux d'or, Barbey indicates Margarita's violent and gory revenge as the object of a reflection which is both critical and creative.11 From the basic elements of Balzac's scenario, Barbey seeks to refine, as it were, the violence of the crime; he attempts to thematize a purer, more abstract type of violence which is all the more violent in that it does not manifest itself in a body count nor in the quantity of spilled blood. While the idea of an intellectualized crime or a refined or abstract type of violence is not uncommon in nineteenth-century letters (in addition to Barbey, both Baudelaire and Huysmans—especially in their writings on dandyism—have treated the issue),12 “La Vengeance d'une femme” thematizes with the most clarity a form of violence which is remarkably congruent with the concept of cruelty that Antonin Artaud has elaborated in his writings.13

Barbey's fiction in general is rife with allusions, references, and quotes. Like other interpretive cues and clues in his fictional universe, these are both direct and indirect, explicit and implicit; their logic is one of concealment and revealment. This is particularly true of Les Diaboliques, Barbey's most self-conscious and literary work. That La Fille aux yeux d'or provides interpretive cues for reading “La Vengeance d'une femme” would seem to be confirmed by the factors noted above—the overtness of the reference since the phrase is in italics, and its position serving as an obvious catalyst14 for the duchess's narrative. Yet the very phrase that so clearly signals Balzac's story as a subtext provides one of the principal elements of a Freudian interpretation of the story by Charles Bernheimer, who has been attentive only to the Freudian resonances of Tressignes's situation (“il posait pour un autre”) and has ignored its Balzacian resonances. While ingenious, Bernheimer's reading of the situation in Oedipal terms leads him quite naturally to analyze the character of Tressignes at the expense of the character of the duchess—the story's title and the collection's title notwithstanding—and to conclude, quite inappropriately, in my view, that “La Vengeance d'une femme … is really that of a man.”15 Bernheimer's confusion is instructive though in understanding why Barbey's texts which lend themselves so readily to psychoanalytic readings ultimately sustain them so poorly.16 A consistent feature of Barbey's fictional universe (a universe in which there is no dearth of incestuous scenarios) is that the fundamental conflicts that animate Barbey's characters are moral, not psychological. More specifically, the psychological stresses and conflicts experienced by Barbey's characters tend to be the symptoms of deeper moral conflicts and not vice versa; it is the soul ultimately, not the psyche, that is the principal theater of conflict in Barbey's fiction.17 The connection to Balzac can orient the reader towards the ethical paradoxes that Barbey defines and animates in his texts and thus towards conclusions more consistent with the thematic concerns of his stories.

In his analysis of Balzac's influence on Barbey, Hofer notes: “C'est en découvrant Balzac que Barbey se trouve …” (94). “La Vengeance d'une femme” certainly confirms Hofer's statement and brings a measure of precision to it. It illustrates first that what Balzac supplies to Barbey is less a ready-made model to imitate or adapt than the basic elements of an argument that Barbey will elaborate in a creative process that involves a critical component; it is, to return to Hofer's term, less a “source” than a “catalyst.” The intertextual relation that Hofer describes with this term is specified by Frank Paul Bowman. Concluding a remarkable series of essays on French Romanticism, Bowman notes several general characteristics of the period, one of which is the tendency of Romantics to rewrite texts, literary and non-literary alike, with the author's originality lying in the manner of rewriting or in the manner in which the model text is appropriated and “transformed” to use Bowman's word.18 Bowman's thesis is supported in the case of Barbey; indeed, Bowman's intertextual approach to Romantic literature provides, in my opinion, the most convincing and the most reliable general approach to Barbey's stories, especially to Les Diaboliques. More specifically, what Bowman's notion of transformation permits is to make the important step from an intertextual reading which consists simply of the identification of sources to a reading in which intertextual elements become the essential component of an interpretive approach. The relation sketched between Barbey and Balzac in “La Vengeance d'une femme” offers, I think, a particularly salient illustration and confirmation of the phenomenon that Bowman has described.


  1. See in particular, Jacques Petit, Barbey d'Aurevilly critique (Paris: “Les Belles Lettres,” 1963) and Essais de lectures des “Diaboliques” de Barbey d'Aurevilly, Coll. Lettres Modernes (Paris: Minard, 1974) and the preface of the Pléiade edition of Barbey's Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1964, Vol. 1 and 1966, Vol. 2). See also Herman Hofer, “Présence de Balzac,” Revue des Lettres Modernes: Barbey d'Aurevilly 5 234-35 (1970) 81-119.

  2. An exception would be Allan Pasco, “A Study of Allusion: Barbey's Stendhal in ‘Le Rideau cramoisi,’” PMLA 88 (1973) 461-71.

  3. “Barbey d'Aurevilly and Balzac: A Possible Source of ‘A un dîner d'Athées,’” Romance Notes 26 (1986) 237-40. Hofer, too, in the study mentioned above, has explored the link made by Unwin. Unwin also explores Barbey's relation to Balzac's fiction in another study, “Barbey d'Aurevilly conteur: discours et narration dans Les Diaboliques,Neophilologus 72 (1988) 353-65.

  4. Barbey d'Aurevilly, Œuvres complètes, ed. Jacques Petit, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1966) 2: 241. All subsequent references to Barbey's works will indicate the volume number and page reference in this edition.

  5. Honoré de Balzac, La Duchesse de Langeais suivi de La Fille aux yeux d'or (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1972) 315. Subsequent references to La Fille aux yeux d'or are to this edition.

  6. Jean Semolue, “Je, tu, il (Ou: parole et silence) dans Les Diaboliques,” in L'Ensorcelée et Les Diaboliques: la chose sans nom, Actes du Colloque du 16 janvier 1988 (Paris: SEDES, 1988) 124n15, and Michel Crouzet, “Barbey d'Aurevilly et l'oxymore: ou la rhétorique du diable,” in L'Ensorcelée et Les Diaboliques: la chose sans nom 94.

  7. The imagery of blood in this murder scene functions on several distinct levels. It signals first, as noted, the extreme violence and cruelty of the murder. But it also serves to signal Paquita's first heterosexual encounter, as Margarita tells the dying Paquita: “pour le sang que tu lui as donné, tu me dois tout le tien!” (329). It also signals the fact that Paquita was simultaneously the lover of the two siblings Henri and Margarita: “elle était fidèle au sang” (330), as Henri laconically puts it having recognized Margarita as his half-sister.

  8. The duchess's act also mobilizes an aristocratic code which Barbey, in L'Ensorcelée, has also characterized as sublime: “le mot sublime du duc de Guise à son fils: ‘Il faut que les fils des grandes races sachent se bâtir des renommées sur les ruines de leur propre corps!’” (1: 727). The duchess's act reverses this assertion while maintaining its logic since the duchess seeks to destroy her name—and thus her husband's name—through the destruction of her own body. The association of aristocratic and religious values is also a common feature in Barbey's fiction.

  9. See Gérard Peylet, “Entre la mythologie romantique et la mythologie ‘fin de siècle,’ le satanisme,” in Barbey d'Aurevilly cent ans après (1889-1989), ed. Philippe Berthier (Geneva: Droz, 1990) 91.

  10. As Sombreval explains to Néel: “Croyez-vous que je n'aie pas souffert! Croyez-vous que la résolution que j'aie prise ne m'a pas été cruelle? Un mensonge qui ne finira qu'avec moi! Mais il fallait sauver Calixte, et à ce prix je la sauve! Il fallait cela pour que la bassesse d'un mensonge ne répugnât pas au vieux Sombreval! Croyez-vous, vous qui me connaissez, que je sois fait pour le mensonge, que je sois taillé pour l'hypocrisie?” (1: 1109).

  11. I have proposed an analysis of “Le Bonheur dans le crime” in terms of a similar configuration of Barbey's creative and critical endeavors. See “Barbey d'Aurevilly and Flaubert: Engendering a Diabolique,” in Literary Generations: A Festschrift in Honor of Edward D. Sullivan by His Friends, Colleagues, and Former Students, ed. Alain Toumayan French Forum Monographs 78 (Lexington, KY: French Forum, 1992) 141-49.

  12. Usually in terms which owe much to Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses.

  13. Artaud similarly will reject the identification of cruelty with vast quantities of blood: “Il ne s'agit dans cette cruauté ni de sadisme ni de sang, du moins pas de façon exclusive” (Première lettre sur la cruauté 13 septembre 1932). And, like Barbey, Artaud will tend to articulate his concept of cruelty through a series of paradoxes. Among the many similarities between Artaud and Barbey that one could mention is their common fascination with the theme of incest. This thematic convergence is no doubt a factor in Artaud's interest in Barbey and specifically in Les Diaboliques (see his letter to Yvonne Allendy in which he describes his intention to write a film script of “Le Rideau cramoisi,” 10 mars 1929). Letter cited by Pascaline Mourier-Casile, in “‘Cher Vieux Crotté d'Aurevilly’: Barbey dans le Surréalisme …,” in Barbey d'Aurevilly cent ans après 48.

  14. For this term, which is particularly appropriate in this case (and in general to describe Balzac's influence on Barbey), I am indebted to Hofer: “Qu'en reste-t-il en définitive? Peut-être une demi-vérité qui, une fois reconnue comme telle, nous incitera à détecter d'autres textes balzaciens qui ont eu dans l'esprit de Barbey la fonction de véritables catalyseurs” (96).

  15. Charles Bernheimer, Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France (London and Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989) 81. Or see, also by Bernheimer, “Female Sexuality and Narrative Closure: Barbey's ‘La Vengeance d'une femme’ and ‘A un dîner d'Athées,’” Romanic Review 74 (1983) 330-41.

  16. See a provocative essay by Paul Pelckmans which tries to elaborate a psychoanalytic approach to Barbey according to a Girardian rather than a Freudian model: “Pour une préhistoire littéraire de la psychanalyse: l'Oedipe glorieux de Néel de Néhou,” in Barbey d'Aurevilly cent ans après 213-30.

  17. This is not by any means to deny the psychological and the physiological complexity of Barbey's characters. Max Milner has framed this question quite well although he has done so in terms which oversimplify the ethical dimension of Barbey's characters and thus I cannot fully agree with his assessment: “Rien ne serait plus ridicule que de réduire le riche domaine de la transgression aurevillienne, avec ses composantes métaphysiques et religieuses, à une mécanique des pulsions qui même dans les perversions les plus banales et les plus stéréotypées, intègre tant bien que mal une quantité d'éléments apportés au sujet par son histoire. Mais c'est, inversement, se condamner à ne pas comprendre la charge pulsionnelle dont sont lestées les scènes les plus troublantes des Diaboliques que de considérer que tout se joue au niveau du débat moral ou de l'affrontement entre la postulation vers Dieu et la postulation vers Satan” (“Identification psychanalytique de la perversion dans Les Diaboliques,” in Barbey d'Aurevilly cent ans après 320). The example of “La Vengeance d'une femme” would tend to suggest that Barbey's interest lies in the possibility of a paradoxical coincidence of the “postulation vers Dieu” and of the “postulation vers Satan” to use Milner's—or rather Baudelaire's—words.

  18. Frank Paul Bowman, French Romanticism: Intertextual and Interdisciplinary Readings (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990), esp. 203-205.

Adam Bresnick (essay date July 1994)

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SOURCE: Bresnick, Adam. “Absolute Fetishism: Genius and Identification in Balzac's ‘Unknown Masterpiece.’” Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory 17, no. 2 (July 1994): 134-52.

[In the following essay, Bresnick investigates the role of genius in The Unknown Masterpiece and considers how it impacts Balzac's aesthetics in the novella.]


For the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like the gentle sleep itself into his workshop labour. About it he draws a charmed circle of fragments ‘Genius is application.’


It is no secret that Balzac was obsessed with the problem of genius. In a letter to his sister written in 1819, Balzac confides, ‘I have no other concern than the desire to elevate myself, and all of my worries come from the small amount of talent that I believe myself to have. For … all the work in the world does not produce one speck of genius.’ According to the logic of this statement, genius has little or nothing to do with application; genius is not a matter of labour, but one of being. In another letter to his sister from the same year, Balzac's tone is more frantic: ‘If by chance they sell Genius at Villeparisis, buy me as much of it as you can, but unfortunately it is not for sale, nor is it for the giving, nor can one buy it, and I need it awfully’ (Besser, 1969; 63). For Balzac, genius is the most precious of commodities, the one whose means of production cannot be predicted or predicated. Genius is the gift that keeps on giving, but in a wholly aleatory fashion; it is the transcendental subject responding to an autotelic law beyond the constraints of any closed economy. In an age in which the scientific categorization of empirical phenomena is becoming the dominant mode of knowledge in the West, providing the very matrix of Balzac's taxonomic catalogue of French society in La Comédie humaine, the mysterious ontological question of the genius surges forth as that which threatens to overturn the confident claims of science, while at the same time it enables human beings to allay their creeping suspicions that they too may be nothing more than empirical phenomena. It is no accident that genius should appear as a kind of earthly link to the divine: when God dies, the genius resurrects the dream of transcendance in his place.

As these considerations suggest, Balzac's conception of genius is tributary to the Romantic formulation of genius whose greatest theoretical elaboration is to be found in Kant's Critique of Judgement.1 As it does for Kant, the notion of genius works as the paradoxical clinch pin that holds Balzac's aesthetic system together, explaining art's gestation via recourse to a notion of its ultimate inexplicability. Genius, writes Kant, is ‘the talent for producing something for which no definite rule can be given … and consequently originality is its primary property’ (1952 § 46). Because Kant knows well that ‘there may also be original nonsense’, he tempers his first definition by claiming that the products of genius must be exemplary, must be standards of and for imitation. All the same, genius ‘cannot indicate scientifically how it brings about its product, but rather gives the rule as nature’ (§ 46). Just as Balzac believes in the autotelic, aleatory arrival of genius, so Kant suggests that genius cannot be learned or acquired by means of a concept, and insists that the gift arrives at expression without the subject's being able to tie it to any specific rules of production. The difference between science and fine art, then, has to do with what can be taught and learned and what cannot be so imparted, and though Kant tries to temper his apparent disparagement of science by claiming that its teleology (the knowledge and domination of nature) sets it above art (each and every artwork is an end in itself), it is clear that for Kant the genius is necessarily artistic in nature, or more precisely, nature presenting itself in the guise of art. As one of Kant's paragraph titles programmatically has it, ‘Fine art is an art, so far as it has the appearance of being nature’ (§ 45). In Kant's scheme, the genius is the conduit of nature into human affairs and would proleptically return humanity to the natural condition from which it is estranged.

What must strike the listener as strange in this formulation is the apparent contradiction between Kant's suggestion that genius must be exemplary and his insistence that it cannot be learned, but rather must be given, and given at birth. We may surmise that if genius is exemplary, it must be susceptible of imitation, but Kant strikes this possibility by insisting that genius cannot be imitated, or at least not simply imitated: ‘Everyone is agreed on the point of the complete opposition between genius and the spirit of imitation’ (§ 47). Kant is left with a logical contradiction, for which he supplies a cannily paradoxical solution that will allow him to make of this apparent breach the place of his most powerful aesthetic originality. Kant accounts for this contradiction by making a categorical distinction between what he calls ‘servile imitation’ (Nachmachung) and what he calls ‘following’ (Nachfolge). Nachmachung is the imitation of the artistic object itself, a merely formal or stylistic imitation verging on plagiarism that is constitutively unable to recapture the spirit that informs the original object. Mimesis in the strong sense of Nachfolge must be construed not as a copy of any given model, but rather as the restitution of the very process by which those objects came into being, which is to say, a re-presentation of the genius that brought the work into existence, genius here construed as the primal creative force of nature.2 In the Etudes philosophiques, Balzac's presentation of the genius as a mimetician in the strong sense of Nachfolge largely parallels Kant's theorization of genius in the Critique of Judgement, for genius in Balzac is always the genius of pure production itself. Why is it that Balzac's presentation of the genius must end in catastrophe?

In order to answer this question, we must return to the problems of genius and mimesis. In Kant's schematic presentation of the two trails of imitation, the strong mimetician is paradoxically figured as a passive vehicle through which art can present itself as the pure auto-production of nature. The genius remains essentially detached from the representation itself. As Diderot, whose conception of mimesis has remarkable similarities with that of Kant, writes in his Paradox of Acting:

Great poets, great actors, and, I may add, all great imitators of nature in general, whoever they may be, beings gifted with fine imagination, with broad judgement, a fine tact, a sure taste, are the least sensitive of all creatures. They are equally apt at too many things, too busy with observing, considering and imitating, to have their inmost hearts affected with any liveliness.

(1957; 17-18)

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe comments that Diderot's musings announce a kind of ‘law of impropriety’, for only ‘the man without qualities, the being without property or specificity, the subject without subject … is ready to present or to produce in general’ (1989; 258-59). Following this paradoxical logic, we might say that the genius is gifted with the ability to be nothing at birth, and that it is only by virtue of this marvellous capacity for nothing that he can produce everything. Throughout his productive life the genius is able to lend an empty self to his work, thus insuring the re-presentation of nature in the form of art. There is a powerful paradox at play in this formulation, for genius is at once the summa of nineteenth-century subjectivity, the most fully realized, self-sufficient subject of Enlightenment, and a formally empty subject-position that passively allows the natural order to present itself. It is precisely this paradoxical formulation of the genius as simultaneously the fullest and the emptiest of subjects that produces its discursive power as a nineteenth-century philosophical category.

Now Balzac repeatedly insists that this utopian emptying out of the subject is an impossibility, for the desire of the genius necessarily gets in the way, and this desire subjects him both to himself and to that which he desires. Through a close reading of The Unknown Masterpiece, I shall argue that in his presentation of the genius, Balzac confronts the seduction of the aesthetic, by which I mean the manner in which aesthetic products and aesthetic production solicit a powerful cathexis on the part of the genius-artist, and doom him to an intractable, ineluctable fascination. Balzac's fictions anxiously register the wholesale incursion of the aesthetic into and over the real, a usurpation which troubles the very epistemological distinction upon which a realistic literary practice such as that of Balzac is ostensibly based. In Kantian terms, we might say that whereas the aesthetic ought to work as a bridge between the realms of reason and understanding, what Balzac's texts register is the very impossibility of exiting from the bridge itself, which ends up usurping the terrain of the two realms it ostensibly links: in Balzac, there is, so to speak, no off-ramp from the aesthetic. If it is the case, as Balzac puts it, that ‘Great works endure by their passionate dimension’, and that ‘passion is excess, and is evil’, it will be the task of Balzac's Etudes philosophiques—and of The Unknown Masterpiece in particular—to effect a wholly paradoxical manoeuvre by which the aesthetic becomes the vehicle for its own evacuation, just as it declaims the impossibility of such a thing. By closely examining both the genius at the centre of The Unknown Masterpiece and the narrative that enframes him, we shall be able to witness the elaboration of Balzac's aesthetics, not so much in the manner of a static object ready to be taken apart by dispassionate scrutiny, but rather as the performative solicitation of libidinal investment both on the part of the writer and the reader. We shall see that the madness of The Unknown Masterpiece is the madness of literary affect itself. Might it be the case that, in typically paradoxical form, what Balzac presents in The Unknown Masterpiece amounts to a cathartic treatment of catharsis itself, that what Balzac's narratives purge is precisely the very possibility of aesthetic purgation?


… (one might say that painting is a struggle to escape vision) …


It's more than a woman; it's a masterpiece.


In The Unknown Masterpiece, the great painter, Frenhofer, fails to create his masterpiece and, upon recognizing his painterly miscarriage, burns to death in the night after torching all of his canvases. Though the tale is set in the early seventeenth century, Balzac pays no heed to the problem of anachronism, for throughout the story Frenhofer's aesthetic pronouncements read like aphorisms plucked from a fragmentary Romantic manifesto. In a discussion with François Porbus and the young Nicolas Poussin, two historical personages that Balzac inserts into his narrative by way of raising the ante on the aesthetic bets offered by The Unknown Masterpiece, Frenhofer declaims: ‘The mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it! You're a poet, not some lowly copyist! … We have to seize the spirit, the soul, the physiognomy of things and beings’ (1988; 13). Whether or not Frenhofer has managed successfully to paint Catherine Lescault, the masterpiece upon which he has secretly worked for ten years, Poussin cannot resist the painter's libidinal appeal and naively exclaims, ‘God in heaven, I am in the house of the god of painting!’ (18). In Poussin's dazzled imagination, Frenhofer takes on the sheen of a supernatural being ‘beyond the limits of human nature.’ Indeed, the great painter is hyperbolically described as ‘a complete image of the nature of artists’, even as ‘Art itself’ (20). Poussin, who is still only a ‘would-be painter’ finds that he wants nothing more than to have the great master open the portal of artistic creation for him. The Unknown Masterpiece offers an account of the failure of this aesthetic education, for Frenhofer's very greatness as a painter will cause his demise, and the lesson learned by the young Poussin will be a wholly negative one. Like the rest of the Etudes philosophiques, this tale will suggest that when it comes to aesthetic education, there can be no such thing as a Bildungsroman, but rather something that we might call an Entbildungsroman, for rather than presenting an emulable account of the successful fabrication of images (Bilder), The Unknown Masterpiece dramatizes the impossibility of aesthetic pedagogy and insists that genius cannot be learned, but only given. Here, once again, we touch on the paradoxes of aesthetic transmission elaborated above through Kant, and the paradoxical Balzacian twist by which the genius is consistently threatened with dissolution by virtue of the very desire that allows the artwork of genius to come into being.

When Frenhofer finally shows Catherine Lescault to Poussin and Porbus in exchange for Poussin's having arranged for his girlfriend Gillette to pose nude so that the painter might complete his masterwork, his ecstatic description of the canvas is rich in symptoms of his aesthetic malaise:

A woman is facing you and you are looking for a picture. There is so much depth to that canvas, the air in there is so true that you cannot distinguish it from the air which surrounds us. Where is the art? Lost, vanished! Those are the real curves of a young woman. Have I not caught to perfection the colour, the quick of the line which seems to encircle her body? … She breathed, I'm sure! See, her breast! Ah, who would not fall to his knees breathless with adoration? Her flesh is palpitating. She is about to stand up. Just wait and see.


Frenhofer so wholly conflates his painting with the woman therein fantasized that he is able to claim that it is no longer a painting, that all of the marks of its artifice have magically disappeared while the painting has usurped the very reality it ostensibly represents. The work of art effaces itself, and one is left with an object fantasmatically alive and able to partake of the economy of human desire in a full-fledged way, a painting endowed with will that becomes the object of Frenhofer's libidinal cathexis and, in the delirium of this investment, fantasmatically returns it. Frenhofer's quasi-religious rhetoric indicates the transubstantial, transcendental fantasy that drives the entire project, with Frenhofer occupying the position of demiurgic artificer able to negotiate the transfer of the metaphorical and the literal at will. Indeed, the rhetoric of Frenhofer's pronouncements here signifies his ‘mad’ genius precisely by virtue of the fact that it so insistently pushes beyond the comfortable metaphorics of the living artwork to make the claim that his painting is literally alive, resulting in the uncanny blurring of artistic and logical boundaries that is at the very center of the tale. Though Balzac's story is built out of a philosophical armature that separates the aesthetic object from the real object it ostensibly represents, everything in the plot of the tale works against this distinction and demonstrates the fundamental imbrication of the painted object and its real support within the mind of the painter. At the level of affect, which for Balzac is the ultimate product as well as the prime motivator of the artistic process, any naive mimeticism is consigned to the junkheap, for insofar as a given artwork is able to solicit a libidinal investment on the part of its creator or perceiver, it becomes ‘real’ and necessarily participates in the closed libidinal economy of Balzac's representational world. Rather than reinforce the phenomenologically impossible version of realism as ‘a copy of the real’, Balzac's stories of aesthetic fascination insistently declare realism to be a matter of affect produced by a copy of a copy ad infinitum, with the human body itself seen as temporally secondary to the aesthetic models that inform its very perception. We might say, then, that successful realism for Balzac would be not so much a mimetically adequate art in the conventional sense of the term, but rather that art which best reveals the mechanisms of affect and identification as the motors of aesthetic experience.

But what of the painting? When Frenhofer unveils Catherine Lescault, the two painters in attendance ‘looked for the promised portrait, but could not find it anywhere’ (29). Unlike the ecstatic Frenhofer, who is wholly absorbed in his contemplation of the painting, Poussin and Porbus find themselves wholly befuddled, for they are literally unable to perceive the figure that Frenhofer has described to them:

‘Can you see anything?’ Poussin asked Porbus.

‘No. And you?’

‘Nothing at all.’


There is of course a logical paradox lurking under this most everyday of expressions, for to see nothing is an impossibility, the eye being only able to see things, whether it is closed or not. ‘Nothing’ here connotes the failure of Frenhofer's painted figure to present itself to the eyes of the two painters, for whereas they hoped to see a figure, all they can see is the materiality of the painting itself. As they examine the canvas to make sure that it isn't merely a matter of the light in the studio playing tricks on their eyes, Frenhofer betrays his anxiety by insistently pointing to the material supports of his work, as if a solid perception of these would enhance or perhaps even guarantee the passage to the figural perception he wishes his visitors to achieve. ‘Yes, yes, it's a canvas all right. … See, here are the canvas frame, the easel, here my colors and brushes’ (30). This prodding doesn't change their perception, and in a wholly uncanny moment, Poussin utters the ghastly truth about the unknown masterpiece: ‘I see nothing there but confused masses of color contained by a multitude of strange lines forming a high wall of paint’ (30). Rather than offer a window on a depicted world that would allow for the spectator's fantasmatic absorption in the space of the represented image, Frenhofer has presented a wall of colour that blocks the spectator's eye while at the same time prohibiting the kind of fantasmatic libidinal investment in the figure that so stringently drives his painterly enterprise. The space of the spectator's fantasy has been foreclosed, while the sheer materiality of the painting's support is revealed to the startled onlookers.3 At the same time, by prohibiting the spectator's imaginary absorption in the painted image, Frenhofer has paradoxically succeeded in his self-appointed task of keeping Catherine Lescault out of circulation, of removing it from the ‘prostitution’ of visual commerce. Whereas Poussin and Porbus can only read the painting as a catastrophic aesthetic failure, within the defensive, narcissistic economy of Frenhofer's desire, the painting may be considered a success, for it allows the painter to experience a powerfully regressive absorption that binds his libido in aesthetic pleasure while aggressively shutting everyone else out of the picture.4 Meanwhile, within the shocking morass of colors and lines Porbus is able to discern the outlines of a properly fetishistic object, indeed, of a fetish par excellence:

Moving closer they noticed in the corner of the canvas the tip of a bare foot emerging from the chaos of colors, tones and vague hues, a shapeless fog; but it was a delicious foot, a living foot! They stood petrified with admiration before this fragment which had somehow managed to escape from an unbelievable, slow and progressive destruction. This foot seemed to them like the torso of some Venus in Parian marble rising from the ruins of a city destroyed by fire. ‘There's a woman underneath!’ exclaimed Porbus …


This is the most uncanny moment in the tale, a moment in which both the painting and the rhetoric that describes its affect play out Freud's tandem theories of fetishism and castration within the affective register of the return of the repressed. Here we are face to face—or perhaps, more literally, eye to foot—with the aesthetic fetishism that underlies Frenhofer's painterly project, itself allegorical for Balzac's project.5

In The Unknown Masterpiece it is the aesthetic object itself that solicits the libidinal investment granted to the fetish and stands in as the corrective to a disavowed lack, offering the illusory plenitude of the Lacanian imaginary. But what is most salient here is that whereas Catherine Lescault allows Frenhofer the fetishistic absorption he sees as constitutive of the aesthetic experience, for Poussin and Porbus the botch of colours on the canvas absolutely prohibits such imaginary absorption. One man's fetish is, so to speak, another man's (or perhaps better, another woman's) foot. Amid the chaos of abstract forms and colors, the ‘living foot’ stands as a reminder of the fantasmatic desire for an absorptive wholeness and for the transformation of the absolute into a successfully presented object that drives Frenhofer's creation and allows him to speak of his painting in the Pygmalionesque terms quoted above. Yet at the same time, the foot is surrounded by a ‘kind of shapeless fog’ that leaves the two painters ‘petrified with admiration.’6 This is the mark of the incapacity of the figure to attain an aesthetic form that would overcome or merely repress the lack on which it is built. To the contrary, in the failure of its representation, which may simultaneously be its success within the aggressively narcissistic economy of Frenhofer's painterly desire, what this canvas presents to the two young painters is the very lack or incompletion that they now come to see as fundamentally inscribed in all artistic endeavor. Thus Porbus touches Frenhofer's painting and ruefully declares, ‘Here … here is the end our art on earth,’ to which Poussin replies, ‘Henceforth it will lose itself in the heavenly spheres’ (31): a properly sublime end of art.

The destruction of the fetish is the end of art; above and beyond the figurativity of representational painting we find the unrepresentable sublimity of an absolute that will not allow itself to be presented except in the guise of the failure of the fetish. This is what Kant calls ‘negative presentation’ (negative Darstellung), the paradoxical sublime moment at which a given aesthetic object admits its incapacity before the absolute, and in so doing points to a rational power which would step in to recuperate an imaginative failure. Kant presents a two-step schema in which imaginative displeasure is metamorphosed into the occasion of a rational pleasure as the supersensual destiny of man is revealed as that which prospectively outstrips the grandeur and mystery of the sublime object. Thus the absolute will fall under the purview of the faculty of reason, though it is the aesthetic object that opens the breach that reason will now secondarily attempt to occupy. Now whereas for Kant, whose Critique of Judgement works as a kind of hinge from the confident era of the Enlightenment (with its professed faith in the supersensual destiny of mankind, revealed through reason) to the more paradoxical period of Romanticism (with its obsessive concern for the vicissitudes of subversive desire), the giant step from imaginative incapacity to recuperative reason (from the sublime to sublimation) ought to be an occasion for ascetic celebration, Balzac cannot bring himself to believe in the sustainability of that negative cognition, and thus presents what amounts to a kind of relapse into aesthetic absorption, even when the object of that absorption is fundamentally illegible as such to anyone other than its creator. Once again it is given to the aesthetic fetish to indicate the absolute in the guise of its incapacity and fundamental negativity, only insofar as it is itself a ‘fragment which had somehow managed to escape from an unbelievable, slow and progressive destruction.’ The key term here is ‘unbelievable’, for it indicates that even in the face of this knowledge, itself so painstakingly gleaned from the catastrophe that is Catherine Lescault, there is for Balzac something in the mind that resolutely refuses, or is constitutively unable to deal with the critical negativity such as recognition demands, and thus the mind incessantly returns from the difficult terrain of uncanny recognition to the imaginary realm of absorption in the fetish. To put this otherwise, we might say that the iconoclastic moment during which the sublime ideational destiny of humanity is revealed as its imaginary idols fall away in a charged atmosphere of critical negativity, cannot but be followed by a relapse into the desire for a particular fetishistic embodiment that would imaginarily repress the lack upon which human signification and human desire erect themselves. Balzac's tale adumbrates the theory of fetishism only to suggest that this theory must give way to the fetishistic practice of narrative, in all its seductive particularity. Whether in theory or in practice, the fetish always returns as a singular embodiment in Balzac. Frenhofer's self-removal from the conventional symbolic realm, which is simultaneously his great aesthetic failure (his painting fails to be beautiful) and his great aesthetic success (his painting succeeds in producing a sublime affect), is registered by the tale as a disaster for which there is no possible remedy other than death. So it is that Frenhofer, who is forced by Porbus to admit that what he sees is ‘Nothing, nothing!’ (the fact of castration, of lack, of aesthetic incapacity), immediately turns from this declaration and declares ‘I can see her! … She is marvelously beautiful’ (32), once again pathetically embracing his painted mistress, fully reinvesting his affective energies in his painted fetish object. It must be stressed that were Frenhofer capable of reading this painting within the context of the theory of the sublime, or were his viewers capable of such a reading, it would be conceivable to recuperate its ostensible aesthetic failure into another instance of reason's success, while at the same time a tiny cell of the avant-garde would have coalesced around Catherine Lescault. But Frenhofer is incapable of such dialectical manoeuvres—or perhaps he is simply unwilling to perform them—and there is no possibility of complicity with his onlookers, who are mortified by what they can only see as the painting's failure, and so the only release from the ineluctable ruses and disappointments of the aesthetic is his death later that night, as he burns alive after setting fire to all of his paintings.

As this account indicates, from its Pygmalionesque rhetoric all the way down to its protruding foot, The Unknown Masterpiece is astonishingly straightforward in its presentation of the pathos of aesthetic fetishism, even if, due to the structure of Verleugnung it presents, that pathos remains incredible, caught in the double gesture of acknowledgement and denial that causes Frenhofer's spiralling demise at the end of the tale. Thus the tale confesses its own fetishism without ever naming it, and includes its own criticism without ever unearthing it. It remains for the reader to perform the act of critical sublimation by which Balzac's Romantic sublime may once again become legible, or at least fleetingly legible as part of a continually collapsing fetishistic performance of what Balzac elsewhere calls ‘The Search for the Absolute’. Within the context of the psychoanalytic theory of castration, in both its Freudian and Lacanian guises, the very brusqueness of Balzac's tale is stupefying, for the reader cannot but be consistently struck by the story's extraordinary thematic and formal overdetermination, as if Balzac had written The Unknown Masterpiece merely to dramatize the psychoanalytic theory it predates by over half a century, or, at the other extreme, as if Balzac were the victim of a stunning naivete as regards the dynamics of representation. Whereas we might suppose that Catherine Lescault would be the occasion of sublimation to its creator, Frenhofer's artwork remains unreadable, except as symptoms of the abyssal desire that drives him, a desire whose token is the aesthetic fetish that testifies to the absolute impossibility of its own representational task. Yet if we wish to bring out the sublime in sublimation, we must say, in keeping with the theory of sexuality Freud put forward in the epochal Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), that the aim of sublimation is only secondarily one of cultural production, for what is primarily at stake in sublimation is the re-experiencing of a prior jouissance. Freud repeatedly insists that this pleasure is masochistic, bringing about the shattering of the self at the moment of its incursion. As Leo Bersani has argued, ‘A sublimation is only secondarily (and not even necessarily) an ennobling, or making sublime; it is, most profoundly, a burning away of the occasion, or at least the dream of purely burning’ (1990; 37). Elsewhere, Bersani recalls the etymological meaning of sublimation: ‘a transformation by fire of a solid into a gas’ (1981; 161). We might say that Balzac literalizes Freudian sublimation by having Frenhofer burn all of his canvases before dying in the night after his traumatic separation from and charged reunion with his painting. From this final sublimation, there is, so to speak, no return, no coagulated object left behind as a secondary testament to Frenhofer's passion: all that is left is the narrative that tells his tragic tale.


In The Unknown Masterpiece, Balzac offers an allegory of the affective stakes of his own corpus. In Balzac's writings, we might say that affect is the experience of the desire of art, in both the objective and subjective genitive senses of the phrase. Jean-Luc Nancy has argued that affect is ‘inaccessible to a direct apprehension’, while being at the same time ‘the only manifestation of the drives’ (1982;62). Playing on Lacan's well-known dictum that the unconscious is structured like a language, Nancy suggests that ‘the unconscious is destructured as affect’, arguing that it is through the conscious registering of affect that we can perceive the effects of unconscious processes. In a similar vein, Michel de Certeau has argued that ‘affects are the form which the return of the passions take in Freud's work’ (1986; 25). In terms of the aesthetic, the realm of affect is the realm of identification, which, at least since Aristotle, has been central to the experience of western cultural artifacts. According to Aristotle's dramatic theory in the Poetics, the spectator identifies with a given protagonist both for the pleasure of the ersatz experience and for the properly pedagogical lesson he will glean from the experience of the story at hand. So it is that following Aristotle, we can speak of the aesthetic experience not so much as an Erlebnis, as something confined to the memorial past, but as an Erfahrung, as something that must be continually passed through in the present. According to the Poetics, the culmination of the spectator's identificatory experience arrives with his catharsis, that spectacular purgative moment in which the passions that have built throughout the play come to expression via the spectator's body, in the shivers and swoons that accompany the plot's turning point or peripeteia. Within Aristotle's productive, teleological framework, catharsis is the very telos of aesthetic affect and brings about a moment of cleansing in which passion is stirred up and then purged both from the body of the spectator, and by extension, from the social body itself. Balzac's Unknown Masterpiece [The Unknown Masterpiece] offers a wholly paradoxical treatment of this purgation, for at the level of the plot this tale confronts an aesthetic affect so powerful that it cannot be purged, and so the artist dissolves at the very moment of the plot's climax. Paradoxically, the reader's catharsis arrives precisely at the same moment in which the impossibility of an aesthetic catharsis is presented in the story proper, producing a vertiginous effect which is at the same time a registration of the vertigo of affect itself. Balzac's story gives one to surmise that in the long run the reader may well be subject to the same kind of cathartic impossibility that dogs Frenhofer, for though The Unknown Masterpiece comes to a formal catharsis, its plot fundamentally problematizes its practicability. In either case, this tale gives us to understand that identification is a dangerous business. But what does it mean to identify with a protagonist, or for that matter, with a deuteragonist of a given tale?

‘Identification’, writes Freud, ‘is known to psycho-analysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person’ (1921; 105). The words ‘emotional tie’ in this sentence translate Freud's German neologism, ‘Gefühlsbindung’, a term which we might retranslate as ‘affective tie’, for what is at stake in this early identification is affect as I have defined it here, and not some loosely connotative notion of ‘emotion’, as one might surmise from the English translation. Basing his account on the theory of the Oedipus Complex and its ostensible passing, Freud is able to ferret out two distinct modes of identification. The first is a relation of ‘having’ (the boy wishes to possess the object of his identification), while the second is a relation of ‘being’ (the boy wishes to occupy the place of his father, and so identifies with him as a subject and not as an object). This secondary identification with the father is of course an identification with a certain disengagement, for in identifying with the father the boy must renounce his immediate object choice of the mother. In the case of the little girl things are somewhat different, for in Freud's heterosexual (or perhaps better, heterosexist) family romance, the girl also first identifies with the mother, yet unlike the boy, who renounces the mother to identify with the place and function of the father, the girl will continue to identify with the mother as an object of the father's desire, even after the incursion of the father's negating presence. Thus whereas the boy will take up an active position by identifying with the father as subject, the girl will take on the paradoxical position of an active passivity by identifying with the mother as an object for the father. Lacan punningly calls the identification with the father the instance of the ‘Nom du Père’. This instance entails a symbolic identification with the Father's name (le ‘Nom’ du Père), and thus the subject's inscription into the signifying order, while at the same time it marks the inauguration of negativity (le ‘Non’ du Père), and hence of desire itself into psychic life. Desire arrives under the ambivalent sign of the ‘Nom du Père’, which offers the simultaneous injunctions ‘be like me’ (desire the mother) and ‘don't be like me’ (admit that you cannot have her). The first is an invitation to imaginary identification in which the effects of castration are fantasmatically ignored, while the second insists on a symbolic identification that would effectuate itself by paying the price of castration. As such, the boy's relation to the father is marked by a radical instability and prospective violence, for though the father represents the ego-ideal in all its renunciatory grandeur, at the same time, the imaginary spectacle of the father's satisfaction brings about the Oedipal desire to displace him in order to enjoy the very pleasure which the ‘Nom du Père’ immediately disallows. The girl's relation to the mother, on the other hand, will be marked by a certain inextricability, for, as we have seen, the girl identifies with the mother both in the mode of having and of being, that is, both primarily and secondarily, both imaginarily and symbolically.

In the wake of Freud and Lacan, Slavoj Zizek has offered an unusually sharp account of the two trails of identification I have been recapitulating here:

The relation between imaginary and symbolic identification—between the ideal ego [Idealich] and the ego-ideal [Ich-Ideal]—is … that between ‘constituted’ and ‘constitutive’ identification: to put it simply, imaginary identification is the identification with the image in which we appear likeable to ourselves, with the image representing ‘what we would like to be,’ and symbolic identification, identification with the very place from where we are being observed, from where we look at ourselves so that we appear to ourselves likeable, worthy of love.

(1989; 105)

Whereas imaginary identification allows for identification with a figure, or image, symbolic identification entails identifying with a function, or discursive position. Symbolic identification, then, would presuppose an interior split in the subject, who no longer identifies in the mode of an absorption, but in that of an internal distantiation. Imaginary identification, in this account, entails the fantasmatic overcoming of that split in a kind of regression to the illusory absorptive wholeness of the Lacanian mirror stage, which, though it is structurally marked by division, is fantasmatically experienced by the infant as absorptive plenitude. Of central importance for our purposes here is the persistence of imaginary identification alongside symbolic identification, for though one might expect that the charm of the imaginary would be superseded by the rigours of the symbolic as the subject accedes to language, Balzac's tales and the psychoanalytic theory they anticipate repeatedly show that the subject of desire spirals between these two modes of identification, simultaneously experiencing the pull of each to greater or lesser degrees. What matters is not so much the object of cathexis in and of itself but how the subject invests that object, for as Edmond Ortigues has remarked, ‘The same term may be considered Imaginary if taken absolutely, and Symbolic if taken as a differential value correlative of other terms which limit it reciprocally’ (quoted in Jameson, 1980; 194). For the purposes of our reading of Balzac here, we might say somewhat schematically—that symbolic identification would be the mode of irony, whereas imaginary identification would be the mode of pathos.

If it is the case that the ‘passing’ of the Oedipus Complex necessitates the movement from primary, imaginary identification to secondary, symbolic identification, The Unknown Masterpiece insistently plays out a gloriously regressive scenario in which the artist/protagonist, via the libidinal lures of his own creation, slips back into the absorptive bliss of imaginary identification with the artwork itself. Frenhofer is marked by his extraordinary capacities to register and render affect in his artistic and philosophical creations, yet at the same time he is constitutively unable to regain the necessary distance or negativity to maintain himself as a functional subject in the face of his work, which seems irrevocably to engulf its creator. Thrall to a prodigious capacity for libidinal investment, Frenhofer is incapable of effecting the kind of secondary divestment that would insure his coherence as a subject. He is under the sway of such a powerfully compulsive imaginary identification with his own creation that it ends up paradoxically taking leave of the conventional symbolic realm. Frenhofer constructs a work whose language is entirely unappropriable by the other perceiving subjects around him, a language that I have characterized as being fundamentally ambiguous, for in the long run there is no deciding whether his painting is a work of sublime power or merely a garbled failure. Though there is madness in this tale, it is not so much the madness of the protagonist that is ultimately at stake here, but the madness of literary and artistic affect as Balzac presents it. The uncanny power of this story has to do with its extreme staging of a repetitive, compulsive pleasure to which we as readers are also thrall, though we would like to believe ourselves capable of the kind of extrication that eludes the doomed geniuses of the Etudes philosophiques. An easy psychologization of Frenhofer as somehow crazy or merely debilitated gets us nowhere, for his affective madness is continuous with the affect that ‘normal’ spectators/readers feel when in contact with successful artworks. By presenting and inciting a rapid shift in identificatory modes, Balzac creates an extreme affective oscillation in which the characters in the tale and, prospectively, the reader of the tale experience a kind of psychological unravelling. Balzac's Unknown Masterpiece may thus be said to play out what I have called a catharsis of catharsis itself, for in paradoxically dramatizing the fundamental libidinal inextricability of the genius and his creation, it plays out a scenario in which aesthetic affect is shown to be so ineluctably powerful that the artistic subject is ripped apart by his investment in his own creations. Catharsis always involves a post-traumatic restitution of the ego which takes place in the time of a given work's dénouement. Balzac's Unknown Masterpiece, by contrast, presents nothing less than the ego's fundamental destitution in the face of an irrecuperably sublime aesthetic affect; a dénouement, or unravelling, in short, both of the plot's complications and of the artistic subject itself.


  1. Though in the strict sense of the term, Kant is not a Romantic, I shall be arguing here that his formulation of the sublime as the paradoxical negative presentation of the unrepresentable is a determining aspect of the Romantic aesthetic ideology which comes in his train. While the Schlegels of the Athaeneum put a crimp in the Kantian system by focussing on the notion of the fragment in a manner that Kant could not have foreseen, it is also true that their wholehearted privileging of the aesthetic within a teleological framework is fundamentally indebted to the Kant of the Critique of Judgement.

  2. At times Kant also uses the term Nachahmung to designate mimesis in the strong sense of the term. Derrida, who is an indefatigable lover of anagrams and puns, remarks that the two key terms in Kant's discussion of aesthetic tradition are themselves virtual anagrams of one another. Perhaps it is the case that the lexical similarity of two terms indicates the difficulty, if not the impossibility of the kind of clear cut Kant wishes to make between them. Derrida comments: ‘The indiscernibility of that distinction, which nevertheless pervades everything, is repeated, imitated, counterfeited in the signifier: a perfect anagrammatical inversion, except for a single letter’ (1981; 11).

  3. It is fascinating that not only has Frenhofer created a proto-abstractionist painting, but that he has also, by virtue of his pointing to the way in which his painting reveals its own materiality, unwittingly predicted the very terms used by art critics such as Clement Greenberg one hundred years later to justify the endeavor of abstract expressionist art. Of course, whereas for Greenberg, such a revelation is the source of abstract expressionism's power, for Frenhofer, who is a figural expressionist painter, it can only be a sign of radical painterly impotence. Again we are returned to the problem of the fundamental aesthetic undecidability of Catherine Lescault. See Greenberg (1961). Within the context of the inevitable return of the figure within abstract expressionist painting, one might argue that Frenhofer's fetishistic Catherine Lescault anticipates De Kooning's ‘Woman’ paintings from the 1950's. Indeed, Christopher Prendergast has remarked that according to Harold Rosenberg, De Kooning manifested a passionate interest in Balzac's tale during the time of his elaboration of the ‘Woman’ series (1989).

  4. My use of the term ‘absorption’ recalls the work of Michael Fried, who persuasively argues that in the late eighteenth century, French painting strove ever more intently to present a scene that would imaginarily obviate or even obviate the presence of the spectator by force of its own figuration of an experience of absorption. This absorptive painting is to be contrasted to a theatrical style that plays to the audience by obviously pointing to its own artifice. Fried relies heavily on Diderot's art criticism to make this argument: ‘The primary function of the tableau as Diderot conceived it was not to address or exploit the visuality of the theatrical audience so much as to neutralize that visuality … Diderot's conception of painting rested ultimately upon the supreme fiction that the beholder did not exist, that he was not really there, standing before the canvas. …’ Fried points to a logical paradox here, for ‘only by establishing the fiction of [the spectator's] absence or nonexistence could his actual placement before and enthrallment by the painting be secured’ (1980; 96, 102). One needs the beholder precisely insofar as one wishes to imaginarily negate him. Within this context, we might say that Frenhofer's painting takes absorption and anti-theatricality to its logical extreme, resulting both in the oblivion of the painted figure and in the radical negation of the spectator.

  5. In the psychoanalytic account, the fetish is that paradoxical object which simultaneously allows for the acknowledgement and for the fantasmatic disavowal of castration as a fact of human anatomy, and, in turn, of human psychology. Confronted with the truth of castration, the young mind splits: ‘He has retained that belief [in the phallic mother], but he has also given it up’ (Freud, 1927; 154). For Lacan, the phallus, construed not as the material penis, but rather as an abstracted fantasmatic wholeness that imaginarily predates and precludes castration, is thus the most privileged of all signifiers: ‘For it is to this signifier that it is given to designate as a whole the effect of there being a signified, inasmuch as it conditions any effect by its presence as a signifier’ (1985; 80). Insofar as the fetish stands in for the phallus, we might say that the fetish is the signifier of the signifier, that is, that the fetish, taken in its most formal possible sense, is a meta-signifier.

  6. It is hardly accidental that Balzac's text should suggest that a feeling of petrifaction is the upshot of the confrontation with the failure of the fetish and the concomitant re-revelation of castration. In ‘Medusa's Head’ (1940), Freud discusses the myth of Perseus being turned to stone as an allegory of the very problems I am analyzing in The Unknown Masterpiece. Within this context it is fascinating that Balzac's text should describe this foot as ‘like the torso of some Venus in Parian marble rising from the ruins of a city destroyed by fire’, for the archaic quality of the metaphor points to the archaic aspect of castration, a prehistorical event in the life of each human subject.


Balzac, Honoré de, Gillette, or The Unknown Masterpiece, translated by Anthony Rudolf (London, Menard Press, 1988).

Bersani, Leo, ‘Representation and its Discontents’, in Allegory and Representation, edited by Stephen J. Greenblatt (Baltimore, John Hopkins Press, 1981), 145-62.

———, The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1990).

Besser, Gretchen, Balzac's Concept of Genius (Geneva, Librairie Droz, 1969).

de Certeau, Michel, Heterologies, translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

Derrida, Jacques, ‘Economimesis’, translated by Richard Klein, Diacritics, 11 (1981).

Diderot, Denis, The Paradox of Acting, translated by Wilson Follett (New York, Hill and Wang, 1957).

Freud, Sigmund, (1905d) Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in Standard Edition (SE) VII (London, Hogarth Press, 1953).

(1914c) ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’, SE XIV

(1915d) ‘Repression’, SE XIV.

(1920g) Beyond the Pleasure Principle, SE, XVIII.

(1921c) Group Psychology and Analysis of Ego, SE XIX.

(1927e) ‘Fetishism’, SE XXI.

(1940c) ‘Medusa's Head’, SE XVII.

Fried, Michael, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Greenberg, Clement, Art and Culture (Boston, Beacon Press, 1961).

Jameson, Fredric, ‘Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism and the Problem of the Subject’, Yale French Studies 55-56 (1980).

Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Judgment, translated by James Creed Meredith (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1952).

Lacan, Jacques, ‘The Meaning of the Phallus’, in Feminine Sexuality, translated by Jacqueline Rose (New York, Norton, 1985).

———, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55, translated by Sylvana Tomaselli (New York, Norton, 1988).

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, Typography (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1989).

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe and Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Le peuple juif ne rêve pas’, in La Psychanalyse est-elle une histoire juive?. (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1981).

Laplanche, Jean and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (London, The Hogarth Press, 1973).

Prendergast, Christopher, ‘Making the World’, London Review of Books, March 1989.

Zizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, Verso, 1989).

John S. Haydock (essay date March 1996)

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SOURCE: Haydock, John S. “Melville's Séraphita: Billy Budd, Sailor.Melville Society Extracts, no. 104 (March 1996): 2-13.

[In the following essay, Haydock considers the influence of the novella Séraphita on Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor.]

Melville had in his library at the time of his death fifteen books of short stories and novels by Honoré de Balzac. One of them was the “philosophical study” Séraphita.1 The novel represents the third and culminating volume of Balzac's trilogy on the power of human will that begins with The Magic Skin and Louis Lambert, both of which Melville also kept on his bookshelf (MR, 153). Melville had always read philosophy, but in his later years, philosophy became an absorbing interest (MR, 130). As always, he was insistently curious about the relationship between free will and necessity, between individual freedom and impersonal fate. These three novels by Balzac deal profoundly with the advantages of strengthening and managing individual will to achieve specialized ends in and beyond ordinary life. Although in our time readers frequently sidetrack Séraphita as unessential to The Human Comedy, Balzac's correspondence makes clear that he intended Séraphita to be his definitive statement about individual moral evolution. It is one of his most misunderstood works, and has been interpreted from being a cranky pseudo-philosophic exercise to an endorsement of homosexuality. Séraphita cannot be forced into the realistic categories of the majority of his fiction. Balzac felt it separate from the rest of his work, in a way similar to Melville's protectiveness of his first philosophic romance, Mardi.2 My contention is that the concept and demonstration of will in Séraphita, with certain attendant images, structures and ideas, are reflected directly in the later revisions of Billy Budd, Sailor and offer a significant clue to the interpretation of at least part of the novel's meaning.

One can easily verify Melville's late reading of Balzac and related critical works. Sealts dates Melville's collecting of Balzac volumes from 1870, with an edition of Eugénie Grandet (MR, 131). Additionally, Melville owned a book by H. H. Walker printed in 1879 called The Comédie Humaine and Its Author, which Melville annotated with personal responses. The book contains short story translations along with English commentary and the original French (MR, 224). Although it is not precisely recorded when he purchased this book, Melville definitely owned a critical biography of Balzac in 1885. The book was a gift to him from his wife Elizabeth for his birthday on August 1 of that year and bears Melville's personal reading marks (MR, 210).

In light of recent research on Melville's alleged domestic abuse, and if indeed “Lizzie” was dreadfully concerned to please her husband, as Renker contends3, she probably would have offered him a gift related to his reading interest and not risk his displeasure or even anger by selecting an unfamiliar author. Further, Elizabeth Melville also demonstrated devotion to her husband and to his profession as a writer that must have stemmed from other feelings than “dread”: She continued to rework and edit his writing after his death, when apparently much of the rest of his family wished him and his life gone and forgotten (Renker, 127). Therefore, the choice of Balzac, particularly so soon after its publication in 1884, probably reflects a genuine preference of Herman himself as well as a safe choice for her. It seems natural that his wife again addressed his attachment to Balzac by giving him a copy of Balzac's correspondence for his birthday in 1889, apparently responding to a sustained interest, particularly since this volume also contains a newspaper clipping about the French writer (MR, 152).

Hayford and Sealts determined that Melville wrote the first version of Billy Budd between 1886-1887 and expanded it into a 150-leaf manuscript by November, 1888. From that time to his death in 1891, Melville continued to work on the narrative and elaborate it until written pages more than doubled in number.4 This latter period is precisely when he was accumulating Balzac's novels, although the exact order of receipt is as yet unknown (MR, 131). Sealts found that Melville tended to read translated, modern versions of foreign authors that were inexpensive and easily available (MS, 10). Roberts Publishers of Boston began distributing the readable but often careless translations of Balzac's complete Comédie Humaine by Katherine Prescott Wormeley that fit these requirements in the late '80s. Melville obtained his collection, either one by one as they came out or in a partial set (MR, 131). His extant edition of Séraphita is one of these volumes, which came to Melville sometime in 1889 or later, and is marked with his characteristic underlining (MR, 153).

It is probable, then, that Melville was reading (or rereading) Séraphita during the stages Hayford and Sealts have labeled “F,” “G,” and the pencil corrections (BB, 271-273). But he also could have known of the strange central figure Séraphitus, according to this evidence, as early as 1879. Further, before Sealts published his check list, which has tended since to restrict source studies to his listed contents of Melville's last library, both Newton Arvin and Van Wyck Brooks proposed Melville's use of Séraphitus as a model for Isabel, the mysteriously sexual half-sister in Pierre, sketched as far back as 1852.5 But it is sufficient now to establish that certainly during the last stages of revision and possibly even at or before the conception of Billy Budd, Melville would have been familiar with the plot and characters of Balzac's Séraphita.

Séraphita is a story about an androgynous youth (first called Séraphitus, later Séraphita) who possesses great spiritual and physical beauty, and dies, by ordinary interpretation, an untimely and unwarranted death voluntarily, quietly and fully self-aware. This individual has cultivated personal will so completely that he supersedes the intellect and the ordinary limitations of harsh life, represented by the novel's setting in a Norwegian winter. His actions depict Balzac's “specialist,” who is intent on moving beyond the material world of negativity and pain and deterministic law to a totally “other” plane above earth's unreasonable regulations. Séraphitus's purity and innocence are innate; he lacks the need for “experience” in his present circumstances in order to practice unhesitating benevolence. He is loved by both a man and a woman and is opposed by a jealous paster named Becker, who is intent on exposing Séraphitus as a fraud, but who himself is deftly out-argued by the truthful adolescent.

At the core of this novel is what Balzac learned from Swedenborg concerning “angelic spirits,” which he has Parson Becker explain from his Protestant point of view (as Wormeley translates it):

Swedenborg applies the term ‘Spiritual Angel’ to beings who in this world are prepared for heaven, where they become angels. According to him, God has not created angels; none exist that have not been men upon earth.6

For Balzac, “heaven” meant the state of being in perfected human qualities and no longer having to struggle with imperfection on earth.7 The action of the novel follows the central character in the final process and struggle that lead to physical annihilation to effect a permanent transformation, despite the vehement protests of Wilfrid, Séraphitus's male suitor, and Minna, his girlfriend. The androgyne counsels against active resistance to death, even to an “unjust” death, for the principal success of this conscious evolution is dependent on “resignation.”

… at the zenith of all virtue is Resignation … Resignation is the fruit that ripens at the gates of Heaven. How powerful, how glorious the calm smile, the pure brow of the resigned human creature … This earth on which we live is but a single sheaf of the great harvest; humanity is but a species in the vast garden where flowers of heaven are cultivated.

(S [Séraphita], 183-184)

Séraphitus's “suicide” is a form of euthanasia,—a peaceful dying—as the spirit cultivated by will exerts itself in total separation from life without any expectation of its continuance. Séraphita/Séraphitus, as he is seen in another dimension to be a winged angel, leaves the lovers together with a new and secure understanding of the true outcome of life.

Accompanying the text in the Roberts edition is a long and detailed Introduction by George Frederic Parsons, who attempts to clarify the philosophy about will and metempsychosis dramatized by Balzac. This part of the volume is significant to an examination of Melville's technique, because in it lie many suggestive passages that have responses in Billy Budd, Sailor.

First, Parsons clarifies the position of Séraphitus/Séraphita as a creature representing innate Altruism, “the highest and noblest works the human race possesses” (S, xii). The charismatic will that lures both Minna and Wilfrid represents the androgyne's power to make all “normal” humans love him and his enemies, like Becker, to wish to destroy him. The proper home of this perfection Parsons identifies as “the Shechinah [sic]—the Sanctuary of exiled Unselfish Love” (S, xiii).

In [Séraphitus] we see the consummation of the long process of transformation and evolution through and by which the mortal puts on immortality, the merely Human blossoms into the celestial.

(S, lvi)

Parsons explains that for Balzac in Séraphita humans in gestation passes through three distinct phases. There are then three kinds of persons in his scheme, distinguished by their levels of strength of will: the Instinctive, who function on the level of the animal needs and desires; the Abstractive, who depend on regulation and logic; and the Divine, who exist in purity, love, and the wisdom of the human heart.8

Human destiny, according to this theory, is a painful course of elevation and emancipation; a working out of what we call Matter into what we call Spirit,—but which really is merely different conditions of one primal substance.

(S, xii)

The Introduction in Melville's edition also strongly connects the concept of will in Séraphita with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, including the belief in reincarnation and the absolute necessity for volition to subdue the instinctive “will-to-live” (S, xx, ff). Other researchers have noted that at his death, Melville was reading Schopenhauer with Balzac while working on the leaves of Billy Budd.9 Since Melville apparently did not borrow or purchase books by Schopenhauer until after January, 1891 (MR, 130) and his copy of Séraphita was published in 1889, Melville could have been directed to the philosopher by Parsons's writing, which caused him to pursue lines of thought he had already encountered in Balzac. These include such common concerns as euthanasia, consciousness as it is inspired by crisis, the effects of unjust actions on the innocent, and the recognition that “… humanity is the only stage at which the will can deny itself, and completely turn away from life.”10

For Schopenhauer, Buddhism embodied the best institutional expression of this willed transformation of matter (WW, 504, 604), and in his Introduction, Parsons, after acknowledging Swedenborg's contribution to Séraphita, moves to an examination of Buddhism. Melville studied Buddhism for many years, as Mardi demonstrates, and by having written a poem called “Buddha” himself (BB, 198), he would likely have been interested in Parsons's observations. Parsons quotes a poem about the Buddha's “dark night of the soul” in comparing Séraphita's night before her death with the great Teacher's:

                                                                                … all hating Buddh,
Seeking to shake his mind: nor knoweth one,
Not even the wisest, how those fiends of Hell
Battled that night to keep the truth from Buddh.

(S, xliv)

The quotation reflects Billy Budd's implied struggle the night before his execution (BB, Chapter 24). Also, investigators have emphasized relations between Billy Budd and Buddhism, noting ideas touched on by Parsons in this edition of Séraphita.11

Parsons closes his essay with a survey of the Kabbalah and shows that to understand fully what is happening in Séraphita, one must have some knowledge of esoteric philosophy (S, lix). He explains Séraphitus's sexual ambiguity as representing the philosophic unity of worldly opposites prior to divine ascension (S, xviii), and the youth's appeal to both sexes as a Platonic yearning for a version of alchemical perfection. Since the composition of Mardi, Melville had displayed his knowledge of esoteric undercurrents in literature, and no doubt felt very familiar with these aspects of Balzac's philosophic system and could draw upon them also.12

Therefore, in both the Introduction and the text proper of the Roberts Séraphita, which Melville owned and marked during the last three stages of work on the Billy Budd manuscript, one can find reference extensively to the philosophic conception that in phenomenal cases the power of will can overcome the unjust elements of material life.

Hayford and Sealts point out that Billy Budd has been called a “testament of acceptance” and conversely a “testament of resistance” (BB, 193-194) by opposing readers; but it could also rightly be called, like Séraphita, a “testament of will.” It is a story of a navy captain's willfulness, the secret will of a master-at-arms, the innocent will of an angelic foretopman. Billy is an impressed sailor, one of those, Vere says, “forced to fight for the King against their will. Against their conscience, for all we know” (BB, 112), who displays the highest performance of individual self control: acquiescing with ease to his physical annihilation while making a beautiful demonstration of human conscience, blessing his executioner. This ideal character is named in full at only one place in the novel, when turned in for unjust punishment. The emphatic repetition at that point is significant. Claggart goes on to connect Billy not only to personal will but also to the general will of the ship:

“You say that there is at least one dangerous man aboard. Name him.” [said Captain Vere.]

“William Budd, a foretopman, your honor.”

“William Budd!” repeated Captain Vere with unfeigned astonishment …

“The same, your honor: but for all his youth and good looks, a deep one. Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his shipmates, since at the last they will at a pinch say—all hands will—a good word for him, and at all hazards. …”

(BB, 94)

The name “Will-I-am” contains in kabbalistic form both the primary syllable “will” and individual fulfillment in “I am.”13 There is likewise a suggestion of divine being—in Old Testament terms, the “I Am,” or inmost name of God. William Budd represents that inward life in man Melville had recognized in Clarel,14 but now this life relates directly to a clear, active expression: personal will. Yet Billy's will is not as far along in evolution as Séraphitus's; his is not yet a “blossom.”15 According to Hayford and Sealts, Melville added this passage to the manuscript in the final stage of production save for pencil revisions, level “Ga” (BB, 367). We may safely interpret it as an emphatic key to the nearly finished story as Melville then conceived it.

Other important actions in Billy Budd are assigned motivation from volition, or the lack of it. Billy has never willed malice (BB, 78); Claggart lacks will to annual the evil in himself (BB, 78) and voluntarily cuts himself off from enlightenment or disillusion (BB, 80), yet he can subvert the will of his subordinates (BB, 67) and Billy when need be (BB, 98); Billy is unconscious of the sources of ill will, while basking in the good will of his companions (BB, 88-89); he voluntarily withholds the evidence of his encounter with the alleged mutineer (BB, 107); and Vere, though not “mesmerically,” enforces his will on the drumhead court and Billy himself by abstract logic. Also, the crowd is “without volition” (BB, 123), and “involuntarily” echo Billy's benediction to Vere at the end (BB, 126). Only the will power of Vere and his mastery of conventional forms, with the piping down and the drum beats (BB, 127), holds at bay the mob grumbling over Billy's execution.

These multiple considerations of will might appear only incidental, had Melville not also seen fit to include at a late interim stage of writing, levels “F/G” (BB, 266), a direct discussion of will power associated with Billy's execution. The clue resides in a conversation between the doctor and the purser in Chapter 26, where like classical gods debating a hero's fate, they try to settle on the meaning of the sacrificial ritual of Billy's execution (BB, 412). The jovial purser credits Billy's calm death to will power, but the saturnine doctor objects.

“Your pardon, Mr. Purser. In a hanging scientifically conducted—and under special orders I myself directed how Budd's was to be effected—any movement following the completed suspension and originating in the body suspended, such movement indicates mechanical spasm in the muscular system. Hence the absence of that is no more attributable to will power, as you call it, than to horsepower—begging your pardon.”

(BB, 124)

A man more attached clearly to the heart than the head, the purser finally gets the “sparse” scientist to admit that the calmness of Budd's death was exceptional, and he forces the doctor to the limits of his science, leaving prejudice his only escape from facing the truth.

“But tell me, my dear sir,” pertinaciously continued the other, “was the man's death affected by he halter, or was it a species of euthanasia?”

“Euthanasia, Mr. Purser, is something like your will power: I doubt its authenticity as a scientific term—begging your pardon again. It is at once imaginative and metaphysical—in short, Greek.—But,” abruptly changing his tone, “there is a case in the sick bay that I do not care to leave to my assistants. Beg your pardon, but excuse me.” And rising from the mess he formally withdrew.

(BB, 125)

The satirical intent seems evident here: the officious repetition of “begging pardon,” the making of excuses, the egotism, the materialism—all tend to weaken the credibility of (this version of) the surgeon and give substance to the questions of the purser. We are not to take this surgeon seriously. Moreover, Billy (through the agency of the Handsome Sailor) has been continually described in Greek terms—Greek heroes (BB, 44, 51, 71, 77,), Greek gods (BB, 48, 51, 68, 88, 99), “reposeful” Greek sculpture (BB, 51)—so a Greek interpretation should be an organic one, especially on a mission taking place in the Mediterranean Sea. This is one of many examples of Melville's narrator playing with ambiguity and working against his own “reporting.” In truth, Billy is meant to be “the prodigy of repose in the form suspended in air” (BB, 127).

A close reading of Billy Budd, Sailor reveals many details that support the direct influence of Parsons's and Wormeley's rendering of Balzac's Séraphita beyond an overriding consideration of will and the voluntary surrender of life by euthanasia. It appears that as Melville continued with his composition, Billy Budd came closer and closer to being his own working out of the philosophy portrayed in their book. Hayford and Sealts indicate that after forming the character of Billy, Melville turned to contrasting him with the other principal participants in the story, Claggart and Vere (BB, 8). Showing how these characters interact in light of the ideal types of Balzac in Séraphita gives us another angle on how Melville was working.

Billy possesses, intentionally or not at the end of the first stage of writing, the being of Balzac's Divine type. Like Séraphitus, Billy, consistent with his name, evokes flowers, blooms, and budding as well as celestial ideals. Like the “flower of humanity” defined by Balzac, Billy is called “the flower of [the] flock” (BB, 48); Billy's complexion is often compared to lilies and roses (e.g., BB, 50). Claggart sees a mantrap under his sun flowers, or “daisies” (BB, 95). Furthermore, Billy is foreshadowed by his foil, the “Handsome Sailor,” who is abundantly described in sidereal and divine terms: those primarily of light, stars, and heavenly objects, just as Balzac associated Séraphitus with similar celestial descriptors.16 The very first simile applied to the prototype is that of “Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation” (BB, 43). Aldebaran was one of the fifteen “fixed stars” of the middle ages and is the “eye” of the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. The image affixes itself to Billy in Chapter Nine, when he is called “bully boy” (BB, 69), and is clarified by reference to the worshipped bull of the Assyrians (BB, 44). According to this tradition the bull is born of the sun, and expresses the idea of divinity. This is also, of course, a sacrificial bull, killed for ritual purposes by the priests and people and forming a “communicating link between heaven and earth”.17 Even Melville's language of Billy's impressment carries connotations of religious specialty: he is “elected” to join the crew of the Bellipotent (BB, 45). Ratcliffe calls Billy Apollo (BB, 48). He is a foundling with no parents (like Séraphitus after the age of 9), whose “lineage is in direct contradiction to his lot” (BB, 51): Séraphitus was also of higher birth. The narrator says Budd is a prelapsarian Adam (BB, 52), a young Achilles to the Dansker's Chiron (BB, 71), and a Hyperion, Titan progenitor of Apollo (BB, 88). He is twice called a “peacemaker” (BB, 27, 28), which of course elicits the promise given in Matthew 5, 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall become sons of God.” Appropriately, Ratcliffe assigns Billy to a post superior to ordinary humanity on the ship, to the foretop. The narrator tells us that Billy would spin yarns with his friends in his aerial club “like the lazy gods” (BB, 68); when he poises to strike Claggart he “gave an expression to the face like that of a condemned vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive” (BB, 99). Most directly, the captain perceives him as “an angel of God” (BB, 101). Again, Sealts and Hayford assign this attribution to Melville's very last stages of work on Billy Budd, level “G” and the final pencil corrections (BB, 379), apparently to further what Weaver called long ago Billy's “seraphic impulse.”18

In developing Claggart, Melville appears to illustrates the Balzacian Instinctive type as illustrated in Séraphita by Pardon Becker. Although the nature of Billy's essence evades Claggart,—Melville says perhaps willfully (BB, 79)—Budd is clearly delineated from the covert will of the master-at-arms as well as the hierarchical will of the distant King interpreted through Captain Vere. Claggart is one of those naturally depraved individuals that Balzac would oppose to the higher nature of Billy. He is “the direct reverse of a saint” (BB, 74). He is subject to the type of cold depravity “dominated by intellectuality” (BB, 75)—not by the objectifying intellect of the Abstractive, but one monitored by a conscience that was “but the lawyer to his will” (BB, 80). His depravity is of essence, “born with him and innate” (BB, 76). The very word “instinctive” describes Claggart at his lower points (BB, 88). He fits the type Parsons explains in his comments to Séraphita:

Instinctive Man not only deliberately prefers his inferiority, but regards with positive enmity all who evince a desire to ascend the scale of existence. This enmity is in part automatic and literally instinctive, and resembles the resistance which an air-breathing creature offers to immersion in the water.

(S, lxxvii)

So functions Claggart's malignant will power against Billy's innocent will, albeit much of the time “unconsciously” because of his firm attachment to enforcement (he is the ship's policeman) and his separation from the issues of the heart. Significantly, Billy destroys Claggart with a blow to his devious intellectuality—to his forehead, “so shapely and intellectual-looking a feature in the master-at-arms” (BB, 99).

Of particular importance in Séraphita is the character of Wilfrid, who after his experiences with Séraphitus becomes a devoted follower of the idea of human evolution. He portrays much the same manliness and vehemence as Captain Vere in Billy Budd. Like Wilfrid, Vere is the Abstractive type, who has not yet gained fully the understanding of the issues of the heart but has begun to experience some intuitions of immortality and fate. Because of his Abstractive nature, Vere can only operate from conventional forms (i.e., BB, 128; cf. note 8 above), a weakness Melville stresses. The word “intuition” appears several times in relation to the captain and his ability to make sound and perceptive decisions rapidly. He “leans toward everything intellectual” (BB, 62) but this nature in him is not evil but only “pedantic” and “bookish” (BB, 63). He is at a stage of transition in metempsychosis that puts him between the Instinctive intellectual and the intuitive Divine. That Vere is Billy's “follower” on the celestial journey, and moves “toward” him, in a fashion similar to that of Wilfrid in Séraphita is clear also by the language that describes him. Vere is morally inconstant, like the moon, to Billy's constant sun:

Slowly he uncovered his face; and the effect was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding.

(BB, 101)

He is a “bachelor” (like Wilfrid) and so holds no close family commitments (BB, 60). He is first identified with Nelson; and the narrator tells how “a star [was] inserted in the Victory's quarter-deck designating the spot where the Great Sailor fell” (BB, 57). This act in proxy puts Vere among the celestial affiliations with Billy, while Claggart, of course, is never connected with the sky or heavenly imagery. Vere is even afforded the epithet “starry Vere,” which remains with him until his death (BB, 61). Reading Nelson as the same sort of foil for Vere as the Handsome Sailor is for Billy, Vere's theistic role is, at least at first, to represent the absent King, a stand-in for God:

If under the presentiment of the most magnificent of all victories to be crowned by his [Nelson's] own glorious death, a sort of priestly motive led him to dress his person in the jewelled vouchers of his own shining deeds. …

(BB, 58)

The priest allusion plays well with that language previously mentioned depicting Billy as a sacrificial offering, particularly as Graveling calls Billy his “jewel” (BB, 47). Vere bends to those writers who “philosophize upon realities” (BB, 62) and he opposes novel opinion as “at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind” (BB, 63); hints that again mark him as a Balzacian Abstractive. He possesses that sort of intuition Balzac ascribes to the near-specialist in the affairs of humanity: Though unaware of Billy's stuttering disorder, for example, he “immediately divined it” (BB, 99). Finally, the last words on Vere's lips are “Billy Budd, Billy Budd” and not in “the accents of remorse” (BB, 129), suggesting that Billy's death and Vere's own reflect the relationship of the worshipped forerunner (foretopman, the sun) to the follower (the moon).

After this recognition of such close parallels, the reader can tell that the structure of the interactions in the two novels ultimately becomes the same. One can diagram the characters of Séraphita and their relationships. The actors associate in a triangle of both attachment and opposition to each other. A triangle of the same sort can be sketched for Billy Budd. In this case, Billy is “Divine” to a lesser degree than Séraphitus, but his function is the same in relation to the other characters. Both Claggart and Vere are drawn to Billy, as it were, at “opposite ends” of his character, yet they also touch on each other's personalities like Wilfrid and Becker.

Finally, the wise, old Dansker (i.e., Dane or dweller of the North like Balzac's Norwegians) plays much the same role as the old servant David in Séraphita. He is the wise and interpretive substitute grandfather, who shelters his charge but does not interfere in the accomplishment of what is determined for the maturing of “Baby Budd” (BB, 73).

Parsons recounts the legend that Balzac conceived of Séraphita while gazing at the statue of a finely carved angel in the studio of a friend (S, viii). One of the first comparisons Melville makes about Billy Budd is his resemblance to sculpture (BB, 51). Similarly, Billy and Séraphitus are both compared to painted angels of classical art. In describing Billy's aspect after his “illumination” the night before his death, Melville recounts the legend of the Roman Germanicus, who brought to the Pope some captives of the British people (of which Billy is a prime specimen, according to the narrator):

[The Pope said:] “Angles do you call them? And is it because they look so like angels?” Had it been later in time, one would think that the Pope had in mind Fra Angelico's seraphs, some of whom, plucking apples in gardens of the Hesperides, have the faint rosebud complexion of the more beautiful English girls.

(BB, 120-121)

It is telling to observe that Melville here, in the last fair copy before his final revisions—stage “Fa,” (BB, 407) chose the word “seraph” as the angel type to link with Billy Budd. In a very similar passage Balzac describes the beauty of Séraphitus:

No known type conveys an image of that form so majestically male to Minna, but which to the eyes of a man would have eclipsed in womanly grace the fairest of Raphael's creations. That painter of heaven has ever put a tranquil joy, a loving sweetness, into the lines of his angelic conceptions; but what soul, unless it contemplated Séraphitus himself, could have conceived the ineffable emotions imprinted on his face?

(S, 20)

Melville also creates a scene of apotheosis for his character reminiscent of Balzac's scene of angelic ascension in Séraphita, though it is less overtly mystical. Unlike Séraphitus, who passes through the gate of death with continuous consciousness, Billy undergoes the action of “holy oblivion” (BB, 115), Schopenhauer's “Lethe” (WW, 501), because he lacks in this life any knowledge of the spiritual sphere of human interactions (BB, 107). Although his will is still “unconscious,” it is nonetheless efficacious. To meet his death, Billy must climb skyward, like the cynosure he is, so that his shipmates may observe his physical demise, as Séraphitus needs an audience for his departure. Just as the witnesses see a great transformation in Séraphitus to a perfected human spirit, so does Billy cast aside his obvious weakness of stuttering, to depart with perfected qualities.

… not unenhanced by the rare personal beauty of the young sailor, spiritualized now through the late experiences so poignantly profound.

(BB, 123)

He is the “deep one” coming into his proper atmosphere.

Moreover, this “spiritualization” comes by facing execution; and better still for these purposes, an arbitrary and unjust one.19 Séraphitus's lovers feel the same arbitrariness and injustice in his euthanasia. Most important, the figurative language of Billy's death reveals the closeness of Melville's parallel thinking to Balzac's. Balzac's hero has a “falcon eye” and is a “blossom” transformed into a “bird” by achieving apparent spiritual wings (S, 190).

Her soul, like a white dove, remained for an instant poised above that body whose exhausted substances were about to be annihilated …

(S, 186)

Billy is compared to “a singing bird on the point of launching from the twig” (BB, 123). As the young man/girl in Séraphita is gently giving up the temporal body for eternal existence, the being has a mystical vision and sings:

Grant me a glorious martyrdom in which to proclaim thy Word! Rejected, I will bless thy justice! … Let us sing at the gates of the Sanctuary; our songs shall drive away the final clouds. With one accord let us hail the Dawn of the Eternal Day. Behold the rising of the one True Light! …

(S, 184-185)

This description is the “mystical vision” spoken of by the narrator in Billy Budd as he relates Billy's “martyrdom”:

At the same moment [Billy Budd was hanged] it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.

(BB, 124)

Melville had originally written here “the full shekinah of that grand dawn” and only excised it with his final pencil corrections (BB, 412), perhaps to make his point less obvious, since at the same stage he changed the description of Billy's death from an “ascension” to a less revealing “execution” (BB, 414). This “shekinah” in the Kabbalah represents the indwelling presence of the divine in matter, identified with the tenth sephira, Malkuth, called also the Gate, the Gate of Death, the Gate of the Shadow of Death, echoing directly Balzac's “gates of the sanctuary.”20 We have already seen, too, that Parsons, in his introduction to Séraphita, had suggested that the shekinah was the true home of “exiled unselfish love,” which love is surely ascribed to Billy. It is also identified with the Buddhistic annihilation in Nirvana, a concept long pondered, and used, by Melville.21 The most meaningful clue in this regard, however, is the hint that Billy's death is not “the end.” An earlier passage describing the filial relationship of Vere and Billy suggests that Budd Yet may return to “flower:”

… and holy oblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last.

(BB, 115)

The use of the comparative “diviner” can refer to the metempsychosis of Séraphita. These passages were all composed at stage “Fa,” part of the “third and final stage of development” of the manuscript according to Hayford and Sealts (BB, 8), and after Melville began studying Balzac.

Finally, both novels also share the expression of what might be considered prominent imagery of sexual ambiguity. Séraphitus is mistaken for a woman, Billy is “all but feminine in purity of natural complexion” (BB, 50) and is compared to a beautiful woman in a Hawthorne tale (BB, 53). Billy, like Séraphitus, exemplifies the externally beautiful, which Balzac believed to reflect moral perfection within:

If some able physiologist had studied this being … he would undoubtedly had believed either in some phosphoric fluid of the nerves shining beneath the cuticle, or in the constant presence of an inward luminary, whose rays issued through the being of Séraphitus like a light through an alabaster vase … Séraphitus appeared to grow in stature as he turned fully round and seemed about to spring upward. His hair, curled by a fairy's hand and waving to the breeze, increased the illusion produced by this aerial attitude; yet his bearing, wholly without conscious effort, was the result far more of a moral phenomenon than of a corporeal habit.

(S, 20)

Melville shares the belief that “the moral nature is seldom out of keeping with the physical make”: (BB, 44)

He was young; and despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the yet smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion but where, thanks to his seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose has some ado visibly to flush through the tan …

But the form of Billy Budd was heroic; … The bonfire in his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek.

(BB, 50, 77)

In Balzac's novel, the central character is the subject of the love of almost all around him, particularly Minna, Wilfrid, and the old servant, David. When Billy first appears, the narrator lets the reader know, through the captain of the Rights of Man, that a ruffian “really loves Billy—loves him or is the biggest hypocrite that ever I heard of” (BB, 47) and we read later, that “Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban” (BB, 88).

If the “camp” homosexual readings of Melville by contemporary critics like Robert K. Martin and James Creech22 are valid meters of Melville's sexual tendencies and the intuition of Brooks and Arvin is true, that Melville read Séraphita long before 1889, Melville's interest in Séraphita could prove to be more evasive than what can be traced from the evidence here. His modeling Budd's ambiguous sexuality on Séraphita could be more than philosophic romance; it could be a repeated personal identification at some psychosocial level of literary subterfuge. Balzac's novel may embody for Melville a very private reading that haunted him much of his life, one resonated with homoerotic feelings that according to these critics shaped many of his writing experiences.

This being considered, I nonetheless side with Parsons and view both Séraphita's and Billy Budd's sexuality as devised impersonally on the level of philosophy and in light of the esoteric tradition that informed both men rather than from repressed instincts or political statements about same-sex relationships. If my reading genuinely reflects Melville's convictions while finishing Billy Budd, an “absorbing interest” in this philosophy, his yielding to instinct, even vicariously, would be unlikely. Besides, without any direct proof that Melville read Séraphita before 1889, we cannot connect empirically with this line of reasoning, which is supported primarily by earlier works, and we must be satisfied that the relationship between Séraphita and Billy Budd is primarily philosophical and aesthetic.

Although Billy Budd, Sailor can be read as a “testament of will,” it is not necessarily Melville's “last will and testament.” In fact, it need not be more than another of the writer's experiments in philosophic romance writing, this time exploring the ambiguities of free will and necessity through his version of a drama of types as Balzac delineated it in Séraphita. As an eclectic novelist, Melville took philosophic ideas that appealed to him in his reading and from his idealistic hope for the endurance of mankind's better nature in an uncertain, hostile world and tested their inherent values in his fiction. In the case of Billy Budd, his interest this time happened to be not Rabelais or Shakespeare, but Balzac, shored up the articulation and credibility Schopenhauer. As an allegory for the human comedy, Billy Budd implies that mankind is like a crew of “impressed sailors” on an isolated ship characterized by beauty and power (Bellipotent) whose laws, be they karmic or arbitrary, are out of our control and far from the ruling King. Although there is not much we can do about those things “outside,” one can control the evolution of the “inside” by subverting the vehemence and selfishness of the “will-to-live.” This would be an appropriate meaning for a man so close to his own death to work out in his imagination as best he could, knowing that the “real story” would be distorted however it be told.


  1. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Melville's Reading (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 131. Future references to this work will be cited parenthetically within the text with the designation MR. It is important to repeat in the beginning Mary K. Bercaw's emphasis on something she attributes to Sealts: “… there are two possible misuses of his checklist: concluding that Melville in fact read all the books listed there, or that he did not read the books not so listed.” Mary K. Bercaw, Melville's Sources (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987), 14; (emphasis hers). This warning becomes important when considering the fact that Melville, with help from someone near him who knew French could have read Séraphita quite early: it was published in 1835. Future references to Bercaw will be designated in the text as MS.

  2. Honoré de Balzac, The Correspondence of Honoré de Balzac, tr. C. Lamb Kenny (London: Bentley & Son, 1878) vol II, 2. This is the edition Melville owned, and Balzac's letter to Mme. Hanska of his hopeless struggling with the writing of Séraphita could have come to his attention with only a casual glance. It would have struck a sympathetic note, for it echoes Melville's own letter to Murray about his frustration over the composition and expected reception of Mardi.

  3. Elizabeth Renker, “Herman Melville, Wife Beating, and the Written Page” in American Literature, LXVI, 1 (1994) 123-150.

  4. Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, eds. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 2. Hereafter cited as BB.

  5. Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972), 227. According to Arvin, the characters of Pierre are simply stock types out of the fiction and poetry of the romantic movement. “Isabel glides straight out of … the Balzac of Séraphita; …” His misreading is typical of that of the fifties. Van Wyck Brooks is not much more generous: “Isabel was perhaps suggested by Balzac's Seraphita [sic], whom she strikingly resembled, but she no more existed as a person than the [other characters] … in the book who were all vaguely stylized after Shakespeare” (The Times of Melville and Whitman (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1947), 169).

  6. Honoré de Balzac, Séraphita, tr. Katherine Prescott Wormeley with an Introduction by George Frederic Parsons (Boston: Roberts, 1889) 74. Later references to this novel will be given the abbreviation S in the text. This is a later printing of the translation read by Melville.

  7. Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, tr. Katherine Prescott Wormeley; Introduction by George Frederic Parsons (Boston: Roberts, 1887, 1896) 58. It is Louis Lambert who writes the famous “Treatise on Will” which informs these three novels and which is quoted in part in The Magic Skin. Characters from Lambert's philosophic “cenacle” appear throughout the Comédie Humaine, including in The Two Brothers, the book Melville was reading over his last illness. The exact statement is “‘Heaven,’ [Lambert] said to me, ‘must be the survival of our perfected faculties, and hell the nothingness into which imperfected faculties return.’”

  8. Precisely, “The sphere of Instinct is that in which Thought is little exercised, volition is weak, the animal tendencies are strong, and the man is little more than one of the automatons of Descartes … In the sphere of the Abstractive, government by arbitrary formula is the best that can be attained” (LL, lxiv - lxv).

  9. See essays in F. Barron Freeman, ed. Melville's Billy Budd (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948); R. K. Gupta, “Billy Budd and Schopenhauer,” Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch (1992) 73, 91-97; along with several others listed in MS, 115-116.

  10. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Clinton, MA: Falcon Wing's Press, 1958), 637. Future references to this text will be marked WW in parentheses.

  11. Walter Sutton, “Melville and the Great God Budd,” in Prairie Schooner, XXXIV (Summer, 1960), 128-33; Olive L. Fite, “Billy Budd, Claggart, and Schopenhauer,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 23 (Dec. 1968), 336-43, for example.

  12. See particularly Maxine Moore, That Lonely Game (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1975); and William B. Dillingham, “The Confidence Man and Alchemy,” in Melville's Later Novels (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1986), 338-364. (Further note is made as LN.) There is also much alchemical imagery and language in Billy Budd, particularly of the Labyrinth, that enforces this concept of androgyny over that I treat later in this essay.

  13. Dillingham in LN, in his chapter on Billy Budd stresses Melville's interest in fulfilling “youthful dreams” of perfection and the presence of this reminder at the author's writing desk. In relation to his suggestions, “William” may also have the connotation that one really does not exist until one has accomplished some level of mastery of one's negative instinctive inclinations.

  14. Stan Goldman, Melville's Protest Theism (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993), 164 ff. According to Goldman's extensive and convincing analysis, at the time he had completed Clarel, Melville had ascended to a stage of his thinking that was fundamentally active, one that allowed him a stance between faith and doubt that Goldman calls “protest theism”: a philosophy that according to the critic appears in summary at the poem's epilogue:

    Then keep thy heart, thought yet but ill-resigned—
    Clarel, thy heart, the issues there but mind;
    That like the crocus budding through the snow—
    That like a swimmer rising from the deep—
    That like a burning secret which doth go
    Even from the bosom that would hoard and keep
    Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
    And prove that death but routs life into victory.


    The phrase “ill-resigned” signals that at this stage of his thinking, Melville has accepted aspects of some undefined “resignation”; however, the prefix “ill” denotes that his acceptance is not complete. The two images of the crocus budding through the snow (cf. the first chapter of Séraphita, where the same image appears) and the swimmer rising from the deep (Billy is a deep one) are significant in their negation of the natural inhibitions that prevent most individuals from rising above adversity and oppression. Both the flower and the swimmer must exert exceptional individual effort to reach their proper being; but they do. Such observations show that Melville was very close to Balzac's philosophy even before his late reading and could easily have assimilated its nuances.

  15. The vocabulary of blossoming is rampant in Séraphita and pertains to the same idea that Melville seemes to be getting at by having is character of will named Budd. The most direct expression comes from Séraphita's father:

    This child will remain a blossom, it will not grow old; you will see it pass away. You exist, but our child has life; you have outward senses, the child has none, its being is all inward.

    (S, 88)

    Séraphita's blossoming means her death; Billy is “nipped in the bud” before his time. It is Billy Budd's death that constitutes the primary philosophic predicament of Melville's novel in the same way that Séraphitus's death is the principal material of Balzac's.

  16. In the opening incident of the narrative, Séraphitus and Minna have been climbing the highest peak in Norway, one covered heavily and thoroughly with frozen snow, when they happen across a sheltered, green meadow. It is there he finds a flower amid the cold, white wasteland that he wishes to make a reminding factor for his companion in the spiritual journey:

    … he gave her the hybrid plant his falcon eye had seen amid the tufts of gentian aucaulis and saxifrages,—a marvel, brought to bloom by the breath of angels. …

    Here and there from this green ground [of petals] rose pure white stars edged with a line of gold, and from their throats came crimson anthers but no pistils. A fragrance, blended of roses and of orange-blossoms, yet ethereal and fugitive, gave something as it were celestial to that mysterious flower …

    (S, 16-17)

    Thus the freshly bloomed androgynous bud transformed into a celestial flower shaped like a star becomes the primary image that informs Balzac's Séraphita. It is a “hybrid” plant, suggesting some element of intention is involved in its mutation, even if that consciousness comes from within itself.

  17. J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1983) 39.

  18. Raymond Weaver, “The Highest Kind of Happiness,” in Robert Milder, ed. Critical Essays on Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1989) 37. Later references to this collection are made parenthetically in the text as CE.

  19. Though Balzac does not speak directly of executions in Séraphita, only of “martyrdom,” he would be in harmony with Schopenhauer on this aspect as well:

    I have mentioned in the text that the great and rapid revolutionary changes in man's innermost nature, which has here been considered and has hitherto been entirely neglected by philosophers, occurs most frequently when, fully conscious, he goes out to a violent and certain death, as in the case of executions.

    (WW, 631)

  20. Dion Fortune, The Mystical Quabalah, (New York: Ibis Books, 1979) 265. It is also identified with Shiva, or the destructive side of the Hindu deity. According to Cirlot in his article on the symbolism of the shekinah:

    It should not be forgotten, in this case [identifying the shekinah with Shiva] that destruction is only concerned with the phenomenic side of beings, and, in reality, it is transformation, renovation and rebirth.

    (Cirlot, 293)

  21. In Melville's poem “Buddha,” the following lines occur:

    “Nirvana! absorb us in your skies, / Annual us unto thee” (Billy Budd, note 198). Additionally, Schopenhauer offers another clarification to Billy's Balzacian “change of state”:

    But the Buddhists with complete frankness describe the matter only negatively as Nirvana, which is the negation of this world or of Samsara. If Nirvana is defined as nothing, this means only that Samsara contains no single element that could serve to define or construct Nirvana.

    (WW, 608)

    Nirvana, then, is not nothingness, but nothing in relation to this material existence—something totally “other” than our reality. Death by annihilation is also akin to the understanding of Nirvana, since Nirvana is also used in the sense of a return to the original purity of the Buddhanature after the dissolution of the physical body, that is, to the perfect freedom of the unconditioned state: Phillip Kapleau. The Three Pillars of Zen. (Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980), 373. In this context, Billy Budd is not only a son of God as his designation of peacemaker implies, but he also may be intended to be divinity in a very specific case. Parsons spends several pages in the Introduction to Louis Lambert discussing Nirvana and its place in the scheme used by Balzac (LL,lxxv-lxxviii).

  22. Robert K. Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986) 107-124; James Creech, Closet Writing/Gay Reading (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 7-18.

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (essay date spring 1997)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3658

SOURCE: Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. “‘The Other Woman’: Reading a Body of Difference in Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or.Symposium 51, no. 1 (spring 1997): 43-50.

[In the following essay, Sharpley-Whiting explores the role of sexual and racial differences in the novella La fille aux yeux d'or.]

Et qu'est-ce que la femme? Une petite chose, un ensemble de niaiseries?

Balzac, La fille aux yeux d'or

In his undelivered lecture entitled “Femininity,” Sigmund Freud ventured to decipher what no man before him had ever successfully discerned—the nature of femininity:

Today's lecture, too[,] should have no place in an introduction. … It brings forward nothing but observed facts, almost without any speculative additions. … Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of femininity. … Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem—those of you who are men … to those of you who are women this will not apply—you are yourselves the problem.


Freud's inquiry reflects the tendency of Western patriarchal discourse to render unintelligible and incomprehensible peoples and cultures that do not conform to the normative gaze. The lecture “Femininity” is an attempt to capture “woman” through observation and in writing in order to make her more accessible to those people who have knocked their heads against her riddled nature: men. And while the psychoanalyst maintains that his work offers no speculative additions, “Femininity” is pure speculation, a mirroring project/projection that uses the masculine as its point of departure to discern the nature of the feminine.

And because Freud never discovered the nature of the feminine, some 42 years later, a re-reading of “Femininity” was undertaken by one of its objects of inquiry, Luce Irigaray. In her re-reading of “Femininity” in Speculum de l'autre femme, Irigaray determines that “woman” as she exists in phallocentric thought is a lesser man with a clitoris as an equivalent of the penis. In “Femininity” woman is defined by male subjects, by male parameters. In this logic of sameness, the masculine is mediated through the feminine; femininity is repressed, erased. The nature of femininity that Freud found so puzzling and analyzed in “unfriendly” terms is the result of woman's position as “un petit homme désavantagé, un petit homme plus narcissique du fait de la médiocrité de ses organes génitaux” (Irigaray 26).

In both the writings of Freud and Irigaray a particular erasure and universality occurs. If Freud privileges white male hegemony, Irigaray privileges a white female hegemony. Indeed, one could argue a privileging of a particular class as well. Certainly, the opportunity to observe the nature of the “Other woman” did not present itself to Freud in Austria—nor perhaps was the subject of particular importance. In her albeit insightful critique, Irigaray sets up the very logic of sameness against which she argues. Her repressed woman becomes the universal body that defines all female experiences. White femaleness and white maleness dominate both economies of representation. The Freudian question, What does femininity mean for men? and the Irigarayian re-reading, What does femininity for men mean for women? ask in reality: What does white femininity mean for white men? and What does white femininity for white men mean for white women?

What are the implications of this politics of domination for nonwhite women? Are they even lesser men, lesser beings—slaves even—than white women by virtue of their racial and sexual differences? What does Other femininity for white men mean for Other women? It is precisely this polemic that I wish to take up in a reading of the erotic Balzacian narrative La fille aux yeux d'or, whose female protagonist, Paquita Valdès, functions as a racial and sexual Other and a slave.

Considerable attention has been given to the themes of orientalism and the questions of sexual and class differences in Balzac's short tale at the expense of a rigorous analysis of the racial difference that manifests itself in the body of the female protagonist. Generally, the category of race has been understandably analyzed along the lines of Balzac's rêveries orientales or neatly subsumed into a reading of class and sex differences (that is, master and slave, man and woman), without taking into consideration the veritable socioeconomic and political differences between a slave woman and a woman. I would argue that Paquita's sex and race are intimately linked to her position as a slave. The differences between white femininity and Other femininity, between woman and racialized slave woman, between Euphémie and Paquita, become apparent at the novel's tragic end. Yet, in a novella rampant with what Doris Kadish calls “hybrids,” the dilemma with reading race may stem from the ambiguity emanating from the text itself (Kadish 270).

The situating of Paquita is somewhat frustrated by a fluid Balzacian cartography that traverses countries (France, Spain, Cuba, England, and Georgia) and cultures. Her mysterious origins begin with her denatured mother—a slave woman bought in “Géorgie” for her rare beauty. Georgia's Eurasian locale points to the text's all-too-well noted oriental bent. Racial difference inserts itself immediately with Balzac's description of the mother as possessing “au haut degré cette gravité des peuplades sauvages” (375). In Balzac's tediously class-delineated Paris (those who have gold [l'or] and those who do not), it is only fitting that distinctions be drawn between “civilized” and “savage” races, between Europeans and Eurasians, between Western and Eastern cultures. Cultural differences are perceived as concrete racial differences. Paquita is a slave because of her mother's racial and cultural differences. Yet, her racial otherness equally manifests itself outside of orientalism. Alternately referred to as “l'Espanole” (372), “l'inconnue” (351), and “une jeune créole des Antilles” (343), Paquita presents a tropical disruption to oriental readings. She is, in a word, Other, a body of utter difference: “l'Asie par sa mère, Europe par son éducation, Tropiques par sa naissance” (388).

A Creole, from the Spanish criollo or criar, which means to breed or nurture, is a person of European descent born especially in the West Indies or Spanish America. Creole was equally used to differentiate New World blacks—that is, blacks born in the New World—from Africans newly imported to the colonies (Grand Larousse de la langue française). Creolization thus describes European and African naturalization in the New World; creolity is a purely geographic marker. Yet, the nineteenth-century discourse on creolity in the Larousse du XIXème siècle is clearly racialized:

C'est dans les grands yeux spirituels des femmes créoles qu'on trouve le contraste si rare d'une douce langueur et d'une vivacité piquante. Elles sont surtout remarquables par la beauté de leur chevelure, qui est d'un noir incomparable, par la petitesse de leurs pieds cambrés. … Leurs membres sont presque toujours doués d'une souplesse qui les rend éminement propres à tous les exercises du corps. … La seule différence qui existe entre eux [les noirs] et les créole blancs à peu près est dans la couleur de la peau et dans la forme de la chevelure.

By drawing on physical and emotional specificities and, therefore, distinctions from the French born in France and similarities between Caribbean-born blacks, creolization is racialized. Creoles appear to be a separate and distinct race formed on the basis of their colonial experiences. The “white” creole is, in fact, biracial. The biracial characteristics exhibit themselves particularly in the French stereotypes of the creole woman; suppleness of the body, small, arched feet, incomparably dark and beautiful hair distinguish the Creole woman from the French woman. With the black woman, the Creole shares culture, nationality, and geographic space. Even her gaze represents a rare contrast—biraciality: blackness is equivalent to languor and whiteness to vivacity. In Curiosités esthétiques, Baudelaire also evokes the biracial gaze in his description of the Creole poet Leconte de Lisle (Miller 69-138). The exoticism, timelessness, and sensuality—the blackness—associated with the colonies envelops the Creole woman and filters osmotically into her blood. Blackness is contracted through proximity. The whiteness of flesh and the texture of her hair are the only distinctions from her black female counterpart.

The “remarquables” attributes of the Larousse's femme créole are strikingly consonant with those of La fille aux yeux d'or. Balzac pays particular tribute to Paquita's “pied bien attaché, mince, recourbé” (353) and “beaux cheveux noirs” (375). Paquita's creolity marks her racial alterity, her biraciality. In his description of Paquita, Henri de Marsay evokes this “two-ness”:

cette fille semblable à une chatte qui veut frôler vos jambes, une fille blanche à cendrés, délicate en apparence … mais dans les mouvements de laquelle se devine la volupté qui dort … c'est une femme idéale.

(351-2, 383)

A dichotomy is drawn between Paquita's appearance and her sexual nature. She is delicate in appearance, yet bestial and sexual. Balzac's contrasting of her slumbering voluptuous nature and beautifully placid, white exterior coincides with the romantic discourse on the mulâtresse as described by Léon-François Hoffman:

Admirable pour les uns, criminelle pour les autres, la Mulâtresse deviendra une des grandes figures de l'éros romantique … Réputation de beauté, réputation de légèreté egalement. La sensualité lascive des Nègres coule dans leurs veines, mais raffinée par l'apport blanc. … La Mulâtresse est la maîtresse idéale proposée à l'imagination érotique du Français moyen.


Both are white, yet inescapably black, and thus unable to shake the lascivious and sexually ardent stereotypes that govern characterizations of black female sexuality.1

The French conceptualizations of the femme créole and the mulâtresse are virtually interchangeable.2 It is from the sexually racialized stereotypes of the négresse that the sexual nature of both the mulatta and the Creole woman are conceived. The négresse is not ideal; she does not represent beauty but sexuality. The canon of feminine beauty is constructed around whiteness, whereas voluptuous sexuality is mysterious and dark: black. In a Pygmalion-like fashion, two erotic, exotic, and idyllic forms of femininity are created from the combination of the négresse and white femaleness.

Physically white yet epitomizing racial difference, Paquita, like the mulâtresse of the nineteenth century, is indeed de Marsay's ideal mistress in the story:

Jeudi dernier … je me trouve nez à nez avec une femme … Ah! mon cher physiquement parlant l'inconnue est la personne la plus adorablement femme que j'aie rencontrée. Elle appartient à cette variété féminine … la femme de feu. Et d'abord, ce qui m'a le plus frappé, ce dont je suis encore épris, ce sont deux yeux jaunes comme ceux des tigres; un jaune d'or qui brille, de l'or vivant, de l'or qui pense, de l'or qui aime et veut absolument venir dans votre gousset! … Depuis que j'étudie les femmes, mon inconnue est la seule dont le sein vierge, les formes ardentes et volupteuse m'aient réalisé la seule femme que j'aie rêvée, moi! tandis que c'est une femme idéale, un abîme de plaisirs où l'on roule sans en trouver la fin … c'est une femme idéale qui ne se voit … presque jamais en France. … J'aurais décidement cette fille pour maîtresse.

(351-52, 364)

Paquita is the essence of sensuality and beauty. She evokes purity, on the one hand, with her “virginal bosom,” and voluptuousness, on the other, signified by her “ardent curves.” She is white and black in the flesh; she is ideal.

Henri desires to possess the girl with the golden eyes, to become the slave woman's master and to master her sexually. Desire is fundamentally the narcissistic drive to impose oneself on another and to be recognized by the Other (Gates 85). Henri clearly imposes/projects himself onto Paquita: “Moralement parlant, sa figure semblait dire: ‘Quoi te voilà, mon idéal, l'être de mes pensées, de mes rêves … Prends moi, je suis à toi …’” (351). Paquita not only “recognizes” Henri but begs that he take possession of her. She is reduced to mere object: the object of Henri's sexual desires, but equally an object to be possessed—a slave woman. And as a slave, Henri's “jouet” (396), she has no will, desire, or subjectivity other than to be a “plaisir” (398) for Henri. Void of subjectivity, Paquita is invested with masculine desire. Her desires are those of the master, the white male, Henri.

And Henri, a fop par excellence, must “dormir et vivre devant un miroir”3 (Baudelaire 1:687). Paquita is that mirror. She is plaisir and or, a never-ending harvest of rich, sensual self-indulgence and reflexivity. She is “un chef d'oeuvre de la nature” (368), created to sexually satiate and envelop him and to constantly reflect and recognize his idealized self-image.

Henri's quest for this mirroring abyss of perfection is realized with the help of the Othello-like mulâtre Christemio, Paquita's “père nourricier” (376). The mulatto surrogate father further colors Paquita's creole origins. Balzac's portrait of Christemio is rather generous in its use of racialized language:

Jamais figure africaine n'exprima mieux la grandeur dans la vengeance, la rapidité du soupçon, la promptitude dans l'éxecution d'une pensée, la force du Maure et son irréflexion d'enfant. Ses yeux noirs avaient la fixité des yeux d'un oiseau de proie … comme ceux d'un vautour. … Son front, petit et bas, avait quelque chose de menaçante.


In uncanny Gobineauesque language (see Gobineau), Balzac credits the character with “irreflection,” a void of intellect. From Christemio's physiognomy—front petit et bas—Balzac reads his emotional and mental capacity. Propelled by violent, hasty emotions and vengeance rather than calculated rational thoughts—like Shakespeare's Othello the Moor—Christemio is a brute of a man, a black beast, in his use of strength to compensate for his “irréflexion d'enfant.”

His presence in the text is not only symbolic of Paquita's alterity, but cliché. Reading La fille aux yeux d'or along orientalist imaginations, Christemio functions as a eunuch. However, reading against the grain of orientalism, pushing this creolized reading further, Christemio would appear to serve as a reminder of the primitive sensuality of the colonies. He represents the contagious blackness that has filtered into the Creole woman's blood—the slumbering passion in Paquita's movements. He is an exotic backdrop, thrice used to take Henri to his out-of-this world, dreamlike sexual experience.4 The possibility of Henri's sexual gratification is mediated through Christemio, his “guide” (369) to the “femme idéale,” to the abyss of sexual pleasure. And as Henri navigates his way to Paquita through Christemio, he experiences the sensation of being in an Anne Radcliffe novel “où le héros traverse les salles froides, sombres, inhabitée, de quelque lieu triste et désert” (369). Blackness represents the primal, as it is only through a black (Christemio) that sexual gratification can be realized.

True to form, during the two love scenes, Paquita invites Henri into her “coquille de Vénus” (369) and takes him “sur ses ailes pour le transporter dans le septième ciel de l'amour” (394). However, during the last celestial sexual encounter, Paquita exclaims in ecstasy, “Mariquita!” (401).5 The fop is brought abominably low; “sa vanité d'homme” (401) is usurped by not another man but a woman. At this moment of emasculation—effeminization—Henri vows to kill Paquita.

Rather than re-explore the overwrought, but nonetheless accurate, readings of the triangularity encoded in the names Mariquita, Paquita, and Henri de Marsay; lesbianism and the ambiguous sexuality present in the name Euphémie Porrabéril; Paquita's use as a mask for the incestuous relationship of the half-brother and sister, Henri and Euphémie; and Henri's clearly effeminate beauty and resemblance to his sister, which led to Paquita's misnaming, I will move directly to the tragic denouement where the meaning of Other femininity is disclosed.

Paquita is viciously murdered by the jealously enraged marquise for her sexual indiscretion. She lies drowning in her own blood; with the dagger dripping, the marquise looks up to see Henri. This scene of recognition is followed by a mutual affirmation of common paternity—Lord Dudley. Henri then points to the expiring slave woman and declares, “Elle était fidèle au sang.” This critical sentence has been translated and interpreted as “She was faithful to the bloodlines”—that is, she was attracted to the brother and sister, the same blood.6 Yet, this same sentence has also been translated as “She was true to the instincts of her race” (Ives and Walton 423).7 The latter translation best captures Paquita's status as a slave woman. In essence, Paquita is void of subjectivity; she is commodified into a prototypical specimen of her race, a stereotyped being “true to the instincts of her race” (Gates 86).

Reduced to a generic, racially stereotyped object, Paquita can be exchanged for an “other” slave woman. This commodification is further revealed by Euphémie when Dona Concha sees her daughter's ravaged body:

Tu vas me dire que tu ne l'avais pas vendue pour que je la tuasse. … Je sais pourquoi tu sors de ta tanière. Je te la paiera deux fois.


Paquita is a readily disposable and exchangeable object, whose death is redeemable for gold. She is a lesser being, a lesser woman, because of her racial and sexual otherness. The otherness translates into her subjugation, enslaved objectification and unscrupulous murder. She is, as Doris Kadish relates, “a non-being” (276).

Exchangeability and disposability seem to accurately define the meaning of Other femininity for Balzac.8 Yet, the veritable unveiling of the meaning of “Other femininity” begins with de Marsay's contemptuous response to the riddle of femininity: “Et qu'est-ce que la femme? Une petite chose, un ensemble de niaiseries” (360). Woman is a little thing, a bundle of absurdities, silliness; woman simply makes no sense; she is nonsense. If woman is but a little thing, what of the Other woman? This non-rhetorical question brings us to Balzac's pronouncement on woman: “Woman and paper are two white things that suffer everything” (Balzac, Pensées, 45). As Peter Brooks has remarked, that statement implies that woman, like paper, is written/inscribed on by men (84). The male writer's pen penetrates the page and woman, thus marking both. Woman suffers penetration/inscription. But more important, woman is white. Therefore the Other woman does not exist for Balzac. She is less than a little thing; therefore invisible, nothing, a no-thing. And when she attempts to rear her quintessentially different head, to articulate desire outside of the dominant economy of representation, and thus subjectivity, she is physically suppressed, bludgeoned out of existence. In sum, the combination of racial and sexual otherness in this erotic novella is deadly.


  1. For more on French stereotypes of black femininity in literature and culture, see my forthcoming Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French.

  2. Flaubert writes in Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues under the rubric négresse: “elles sont plus voluptueuses que les blanches” (61). In his Historie naturelle du genre humain, Jean-Joseph Virey describes the négresse as “très ardente en amour”; “elles portent la volupté jusqu'à des lascivetés ignorées dans nos climat” (150.) The mulâtresse, having black blood, will share some of the négresse's characteristics.

  3. From Baudelaire's Oeuvres complètes in which he writes that the fop or “le dandy doit aspirer à être sublime sans interruption, il doit vivre et dormir devant un miroir.”

  4. Sander Gilman notes that the black servant in visual arts represents the sexualization of the society in which he or she is found. This observation could equally be said of literary representations of blacks.

  5. According to Shoshana Felman mariquita means homosexual man in Spanish.

  6. See Felman for this translation and also Edward Ahearn's interpretation.

  7. Though this translation may be a bit faulty, it nonetheless invokes the Balzacian unconscious concerning racial/sexual difference at work throughout the novella.

  8. One could plausibly argue that because of the sadness expressed by the marquise at the novella's end and Henri's description of Paquita as an ideal woman that Paquita represents more than an exchangeable and disposable object. However, this argument is flawed when one considers that despite the marquise's sadness, when asked about the police, she says that no one would avenge Paquita's murder except Christemio, whom she has also murdered—hence, Paquita's disposability. Paquita's exchangeability is glaringly apparent through the exchange of gold for her murder. De Marsay's idyllic characterizations of the slave woman are at best perverse. Henri is attracted to Paquita's differentness, which he describes in sexually racialized language. She is a sexual object, an abyss of pleasure. Paquita represents a prototype, “that feminine variety” that one “rarely sees in France” but in other countries. She is unique because she has been imported to a place—France—where “other” women are rarely encountered. And just as easily as de Marsay dreams of her, he wants to murder her, and then he quickly forgets her after she is murdered.

Works Cited

Ahearn, Edward. Marx and Modern Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Balzac, Henri de. La Duchesse de Langeais suivi de La fille aux yeux d'or. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1958.

———. Pensées, Sujets, Fragments. Ed. J. Crépet. Paris: Blaizot, 1910.

———. Cousin Bette, Pierre Crassou, The Girl with the Golden Eyes. Trans. George Ives and William Walton. Philadelphia: George Barrie & Son, 1896.

Baudelaire, Charles, Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Felman, Shoshana. “Re-reading Femininity.” Yale French Studies 62 (1980): 19-44.

Flaubert, Gustave. Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Paris: Aubier, 1951.

Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1965.

Gates, Henri Louis, ed. Race, Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Gilman, Sander. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1985.

Gobineau, Arthur Comte de. Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines. Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1967.

Hoffman, Léon-François. Le nègre romantique: personnage littèraire et obsession collective. Paris: Payot, 1973.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum de l'autre femme. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kadish, Doris. “Hybrids in Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or.Nineteenth-Century-French-Studies 16 (1988): 270-78.

Miller, Christopher. Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French (forthcoming).

Virey, Jean-Joseph. Histoire naturelle du genre humain. 1st ed. Paris: Crochard, 1801.

Thomas E. Peterson (essay date May 1997)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11028

SOURCE: Peterson, Thomas E. “‘Le Dernier Coup de Pinceau’: Perception and Generality in Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.Romantic Review 88, no. 3 (May 1997): 385-407.

[In the following essay, Peterson investigates the scientific notion of proof in the artistic context of Balzac's Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.]

In what amounts to a primer of holistic studies, Gregory Bateson asserts, “Science probes, it does not prove”.1 Science can only enhance certain hypotheses and discard others. The changing paradigm of what constitutes scientific knowledge is only part of a new epistemology, a forma mentis shared with artists and humanists. If “science is a way of perceiving and making what we may call ‘sense’ of our percepts,” since “all experience is subjective,” then the gap between scientific and aesthetic discourse has been narrowed.2 Henceforth any search for truth is tinged by narrative interferences, imperfections in the measuring device or procedures, the impact of the questions not asked, or, in the case of the easel-painted portrait, the details not rendered.

This changed theory of knowing and learning, advanced in parallel with the cybernetic revolution, has its philosophical predecessors in such figures as Leibniz, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. What these thinkers had in common was a view of thought as interactive process, always dependent on a context and engaged in an ongoing dialectic between generality and truth. “Mind” is seen a self-corrective analogical system, the biological extension of which is an “event”. One of the benefits of this paradigm shift has been to promote dialogue between scientists and humanists, and an appreciation of the dual aspect of dialectics, as empirical and verbal, but also intuitive and visual. Analytical reason now belongs to the poet as well the scientist, and successful logical argumentation is invariably a maieutic process. The resultant elevation of what is called artistic knowledge is of obvious importance to aesthetics. What now constitutes artistic proof? How does it differ from scientific proof? What are the perceptual characteristics of aesthetic evidence?

Like forensic determinations of attribution, in which the circumstantial means of identifying an individual “signature” are necessarily approximate, the nature of certitude in aesthetic matters is also limited. That is, the problems of assessing authorship are replicated on a higher logical plane by the problems of attributing mastery, an action which must occur in the public sphere (since “mastery” implicates one in a tradition, forwards and backwards in time).3 A masterpiece is considered to be a crystallization of human “genius,” a timely or prophetic validation of the human spirit.

This essay examines the issue of artistic proof in the context of Balzac's Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), a story which is at once a metatextual example of the aesthetic debate it posits. As one of Balzac's “philosophical tales,” it straddles the generic boundary between an excursus and a story. By fictionally representing his position on the arts, Balzac seems to presuppose the theory of ut pictura poesis. He does this at a time when the Horatian notion of the harmony of the “sister” arts, still accepted in the 18th century, had yielded to its opposite: a view of maximum tension between two contrastive forms of expression. He thus raises the level of debate on these issues, much in the manner of William Blake, who had argued for the “multiplication” of painting “times” poetry so as to yield an allegorical “product”.4 By eschewing a formal argumentative apparatus, Balzac seems to be saying that, with respect to aesthetic matters, deduction and induction are no more reliable means of truth-gathering than the abductive means of metaphor and intuition, and that human interaction and perception are the raw materials of any masterpiece. As such, Balzac's story is a radically anti-illuministic and anti-encyclopedic (and therefore paradoxical) addition to the modern Western paedeia or encyclopedia of learning.

Over the years I have habitually misstated Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu as Le Chef-d'oeuvre d'un inconnu. For me it was the master, not the masterpiece who was unknown; it was the painter and not the work. I began to associate the lapsus with an allegory I found in the story on the nature of artistic creation and transmission. Balzac worked on the story for several years (the inscribed date of completion, February, 1832, is false, given that additions from 1837 are included in the definitive version, as is an anonymous dedication “To a Lord,” dated 1845). The plot itself may be grasped after a twenty minute sitting, but its allegory—emblematized by the repeated terms “je ne sais quoi” and “rien”—continues to perplex the imagination. It is this persistent “nothing”—“A nothing, but that nothing is everything” (218)—that the protagonist Frenhofer initially claims characterizes a masterpiece.

By inserting the supplementary d'un, I was trying to attribute the masterpiece (to someone unknown). I might also have been pointing to the fact that Frenhofer—the presumed author of the “unknown masterpiece”—is invented by Balzac, and thus unknown to history; or to the fact that the then unknown Nicolas Poussin (1594-1695), who in 1612 had just arrived in Paris, is the repeated referent of the adjective “inconnu”; or to the fact that “masterpiece” is used almost exclusively to refer to the obscure works of François Porbus (1570-1622), the third painter, who mediates in many ways between the other two. The lapsus perhaps reflected my uncertainty over the story's ambiguous conclusion and lack of closure on epistemological issues. By stating the masterpiece of an unknown I had inadvertently focused on the problem of aesthetic execution and judgement, two phases which must be kept discrete if one is to make a masterpiece. Though the word “masterpiece” implies a sanctioning by authority, in history, the master must leave his or her identity and self-awareness behind. This is the point made by Gertrude Stein in her cascading speech, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them”: the masterpiece is created outside time and relations, beyond social concerns or personal ambitions.

Let me proceed to a gloss of the story, which is divided into two Parts and set in four locations: the Parisian ateliers of two painters, the fortyish Porbus, former court painter to Henry IV (recently replaced by Rubens), and the older and more accomplished Frenhofer, in his day the sole trusted disciple of the revered master Mabuse (1470-1532); and in the residences of Frenhofer and the talented young Nicolas Poussin:

Part I [“Gilette”]: 1. Porbus's atelier;
2. Frenhofer's home;
3. Poussin's home/atelier
Part II [“Catherine Lescault”]: 4. Frenhofer's atelier

Intending to visit the studio of the master Porbus, the avid yet timid Poussin is about to retreat when the mysterious figure of Frenhofer appears on the landing and whisks him into the studio. Frenhofer appears as if out of a canvas by Rembrandt; by his dress and the fuscum of diabolical obscurity from which he emerges, he suggests both the figure of a Dutch painter and his subject, also because little else is told about his appearance. This appropriation of a recognizable langue, or cultural style, creates expectations as to his style and temperament.

In the ensuing scene one theme emerges: what is the essence of painting, its “poetry”? how does one achieve the inexpressible something (or “nothing”) which characterizes a masterpiece? Shortly after entering the studio, Frenhofer delivers a lecture on painting to Poussin and Porbus. The successful picture, he says, is one in which the figure is convincingly present in a space continuous with that of the viewer. He demonstrates his ideas by adding a few brushstrokes to Porbus's commissioned portrait of “Marie l'Egyptienne” (a common subject, though there is no record of Porbus having painted it). By adding a few swirls of color to the area between the figure and the border, Frenhofer greatly adds to its unity of effect, concluding that he would now be willing to sign the canvas which earlier he found flat and unconvincing. However, it does not compare to his work-in-progress, a portrait of a courtesan (Catherine Lescault) which he calls “La Belle Noiseuse” (“The Quarrelsome Beauty”).

The primary criteria for Frenhofer's critique and subsequent “repair” of Porbus's “Marie l'Egyptienne” concern the vague and undulating folds of the background and intermediate space: “You see at once that she is glued to the background, and that you could not walk around her” (215) [“on s'aperçoit qu'elle est collée au fond de la toile et qu'on ne pourrait pas faire le tour de son corps” (46)]. Frenhofer characterizes the figure in Porbus's painting—a prostitute who was saved when she repented—as a woman whose parts and colors and proportions are there, yet who is not palpable, in that she lacks the “poetry,” the “je ne sais quoi” of a fully realized painting. He thus directs his lesson to the folds and edges of the figure where it meets the background. He stresses the life-giving, demiurgic, power of the artist, but he does so in an agonistic key which stresses the notion of Art as struggle.

After his speech on painting, which owes much to Delacroix and his liberal admixture of inspirational and technical terms, Frenhofer invites the painters to his home near the Pont St.-Michel for breakfast. Here in his sensually pleasing and convivial picture gallery the discussions of painting become more abstract, theoretical, and mystified. Here too (as the epithet “jeune homme” is twice applied to Poussin) the three painters stand allegorically as the three ages of man (as painted by Giorgione or Titian). Poussin has in fact confused one of the paintings on display in the luxurious setting with a Giorgione; it is the “Adam [and Eve]” by Frenhofer's teacher, Mabuse. What Poussin finds so compelling is its “power of reality” (“puissance de réalité”). The only man created without original sin is here depicted with Eve after the Fall; it is curious therefore when Frenhofer (who for the second time claims the superiority of his own painting to a rival) refers back to Porbus's “Marie” as “your pretty sinner” (223). By this metaphor he also signals his own indistinction between the woman as model and woman as representation on canvas, just as by elaborating expression as the essence of art, he erases the distinction between drawers and colorists that has driven the historical debate:

Nature's way is a complicated succession of curve within curve. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as drawing.—Do not laugh, young man; strange as that speech may seem to you, you will understand the truth in it some day.—A line is a method of expressing the effect of light upon an object; but there are no lines in nature, everything is solid.


Poussin still does not know Frenhofer's name, though he feels he is in “the abode of the god of painting” (223): “Everything combined to set the old man beyond the limits of human nature” (225). Yet once he learns Frenhofer's name, he will no longer be under his spell. In contrast to the old man's ideal of art as pure “expression,” Poussin will pursue a balance between expression and imitation, in line with the stated dictum of his historical namesake: “Art cannot exceed the boundaries assigned it by nature.”5 There is no escaping the fact, however, that, like the middle-aged Porbus, he desires to see Frenhofer's “Belle Noiseuse,” that Galatea which this self-described Pygmalion has endowed with life. In Frenhofer's claims of perfection about this secret work (which he first mentioned when he revised Porbus's “Marie”) and his mortal threats to defend “her” beauty and honor, one sees the inception of his madness, a delirious certainty of genius saturated with myths and names without bodies, words without images. Frenhofer claims to be an “Orpheus” who would descend to Hell, not to find Eurydice but the “unfindable Venus,” the unattainable ideal (and idol) for which he would pay his entire fortune. After this speech we hear Porbus tell the story of Frenhofer's apprenticeship with Mabuse, a master Frenhofer paid handsomely to teach him the “secrets of relief”.

In the third scene, in Poussin's humble flat, his model and lover, Gilette, is introduced and her crisis made apparent: is Poussin in love with her or only with his art? If the previous scene consolidated the myth of the Painter, here the myth of the Other takes shape, as Woman and Model. Gilette is disheartened at Poussin's detachment when he paints her; her melancholy is only accentuated by his request that she model for Frenhofer. If he truly loves her, how could he recommend that she pose nude for another painter? Is he drawn to her person or simply her objectuality, her exploitability for and by a male painter's gaze? The elevation of Poussin's “room at the top, a quaint, airy recess under the steep, high-pitched roof” is literal, but also reflects his poverty and the purity of the couple's relation. Gilette thus becomes a sponsor of aesthetic growth and of harmony through tension. The melodramatic dialogue that ensues between Poussin and Gilette is little more than a lovers' quarrel. The “sacrifices” they offer—he will give up art, she will pose nude for Frenhofer—are quickly resolved in favor of the latter. It is not a question of shame or modesty, but rather that Gilette, a city woman in love with the young man recently arrived from the country, was afraid that by posing nude for another she would lose his love, and with it her own sense of innocence and self-love. The fourth and final scene takes place in Frenhofer's studio, the repository of his portrait of a courtesan, “La Belle Noiseuse,” on which he has labored privately for ten years. It is here that the all-absorbing and potentially destructive nature of the artistic process is revealed. In order to verify his mastery, Frenhofer has considered touring the world to find a rival in beauty to his depicted woman; his fellow painters have convinced him instead to compare it to Gilette, who has consented to model for him. He consents and the two are left alone together. After this vain exercise, humiliating for Gilette but otherwise undivulged, Frenhofer confidently unveils his painting to his guests. In stark contrast to the masterful canvases they have seen in the studio, the work he shows them is little more than a “wall of paint,” lacking entirely the compelling realism, the “life,” he had argued for previously. The painting possesses one representational feature: an emerging foot. Poussin says he sees “nothing” there. Porbus, in a pathetic act of diplomacy, avers that “there is a woman under there,” as if by looking harder one could see “her”. In a series of epithets the master denounces Poussin and excuses them both. The following day Frenhofer is found dead in his studio, and all of his paintings have been destroyed by fire.

Let us first recall that the improvements made on “Marie l'Egyptienne” achieved a mimetic separation of the figure and ground, exploiting the difference between edge and field. By demonstrating Balzac's own aesthetic of the complementarity of thought and action, Frenhofer drew our attention in the first scene to the folds of background draperies as important factors in situating the figure. In contrast, as his own realistic portrait of “Catherine Lescault” grew progressively more obscure, Frenhofer renamed “her,” “la Belle Noiseuse,” in order to prolong the moment of the last brushstroke: “le dernier coup de pinceau”. By progressively accumulating her draperies and shadows, he banished this painted woman from the public space (of time, history and relations): the space of viewing masterpieces. A recognized master, Frenhofer craved something more than the masterpiece, something illicit: to be the sanctioner of his own masterpiece, to be his own exclusive public. He desired this so intensely that he became the slave of his own Galatea buried beneath layers of paint. When the figural depiction we are led to expect is revealed as a frenzied palimpsest, a confusion of coverings, like Poussin we see “nothing” (an echo of Frenhofer's early precept for painting the “real”), though like Porbus we wish to discover “a woman under there”. The painting as described has become a piece of evidence, whether about Frenhofer's madness or the universal desire to discover meaning out of chaos. How we interpret it obviously affects our notion of what constitutes artistic proof.

When Frenhofer first emerges from the gloom of the Dutch-Master setting, his beard obscures his face and his age dims his eyes and renders his aspect haggard. Beyond that the reader is left to complete the portrait. Porbus is described as “[seeming] to be an invalid”. Poussin is even more indistinct, described almost entirely through his thoughts and sentiments. When asked his name by Frenhofer, Poussin responds by signing his name on the quick sketch he has made of Porbus's “Marie l'Egyptienne,” a sketch which immediately establishes him as the rival which Porbus will never be. The opposition of Poussin, the poor commoner, to Frenhofer, the rich hierophant, helps to define Porbus, the only one of the three said to have painted a “masterpiece” (46, 51). Porbus is the kind of painter who makes up a school: a good listener and an able technician (at least formerly) well integrated in the patronage system. He thus mediates between the brash neophyte—in his fluctuating moods of modesty, veneration, anger and avidity—and the recognized master. The rubenisme of the latter shall be replaced in time by the neoclassical taste, or poussinisme, of the former.

It is apparent that Balzac is stepping both toward and away from realistic representation. The step toward realism is found in the depictions of typical characters and settings, the artful mixture of generality and detail. On the other hand, the stock epithets and generalities, the heavily discursive component, and the extreme ambiguities of resolution, particularly with respect to Gilette, make the text open-ended and abstract. It is only by integrating these poles, which I shall now present in greater detail, that the allegory can take shape, not simply to resolve the representational tension but to satisfy the higher purpose of the conte philosophique.

The move toward realism is assisted by the repeated use of a few key lexemes. As is known, narrative employs words to give contours to its story, while poetry typically draws attention to their selectivity. Naturalistic narrative, in particular, employs syntagmatic contiguity to guarantee an overall consistent verbal texture. But realism, unlike naturalism, also depends on paradigm—the lexical selectivity and iterativity common to lyric poetry—and employs select words as poetic markers; through its recurrent distinctness a common word provides a form of generality analogous to the visual term of “relief” (the art Frenhofer learned from his teacher Mabuse). Such lexemes include:

  1. “petite” as term of endearment or dimunition, or simply of size: Each of these passages is crucial to the story's central theme; moreover they point to the often overlooked agonistic component of this theme, a related component of which is the idea of art as merchandise and the disempowering nature of (Frenhofer's) wealth. Also the use of “petite” (as in Leibniz's “petites perceptions” discussed below) as a marker of those minute perceptions which escape us in their distinctness but which mass together in single and singularly clear aesthetic sensations like the flecks of blue and yellow paint which combine to make a green impression, or the sound of waves at the seashore.6
  2. “inconnu”. Of the five uses of “unknown,” all but one are epithets for Poussin, while the other is his own exalted impression of the “unknown” sphere in which Frenhofer resides, causing “countless vague thoughts [to awake] in his soul” (225). This is the genesis of clear though “confused,” non-distinct, aesthetic perceptions, and is analogous in this light to Balzac's own vague representation of his characters.7
  3. “chef-d'oeuvre”. Neither mention of “masterpiece” has to do with Frenhofer; both regard the accomplished but defective painting by Porbus.8
  4. Archaic epithets. To remind the reader of the story's historical context right at its denouement, Balzac includes certain archaic epithets: “—Le vieux lansquenet se joue de nous, dit Poussin en revenant devant le prétendu tableau. Je ne vois là que des couleurs confusément amassées et contenues par une multitude de lignes bizarres qui forment une muraille de peinture” (69) [“The old lansequenet is laughing at us,” said Poussin, coming once more towards the supposed picture. “I can see nothing but confused piles of color enclosed by a multitude of fantastical lines making a wall of paint”]; and “Le vieillard saisit avec force le bras du jeune homme et lui dit:—Tu ne vois rien, manant! maheustre! bélître! bardache! (71) [“The old man clutched the young painter's arm and said, “Do you see nothing? clodpate! Huguenot! varlet! scullion! …”].

The move away from realism is due to Balzac's theoretical obsession (pronounced in his rewritings of the story) which stresses the destructive force of the reason and the impracticability of the abstractions spoken by Frenhofer in his increasingly despotic and mystified explication of the artistic process. This discourse was begun tamely enough as a critique of Porbus's having hesitated “between drawing and color, between the dogged attention to detail, the still precision of the German masters and the dazzling glow, the joyous exuberance of Italian painters” (210). Yet as the psychological tension mounts in Frenhofer, the gap widens between what is said and done, between the various mythical names enjoined (Prometheus, Pygmalion, Proteus, Orpheus) and the foolish emulation of their divine tasks.

The step away from realism is most evident in the forms of the female, and the related issue of prostitution. Those women depicted by Porbus and Frenhofer (Marie Egyptienne, Catherine Lescault) are variously fragmentized, serving as emblems for two aesthetic operations. The first is an anatomical catalogue, whose parts, being too discrete, lack the adequate confusion of perceptions and fail to constitute a whole.9 The second is a reduction of the female figure to a single part, the foot, compared to marble, a kind of ultimate fetish object to material accumulation. The third woman, Gilette, stands on the other side of the art/life divide. At first unable to separate her status as Poussin's lover from that as his model, when she is asked to disrobe for Frenhofer one can understand her resistance. But as this phantom issue is resolved the couple's future appears felicitous.

Some have argued that Frenhofer's lofty discourse (“there is no such thing as drawing”) marks his emergence as a spiritual principle, a kind of precursor of the process-orientation of 20th century art.10 This overlooks the fact that, in his own 17th century context, his theories of vividness, of making the subject come alive, are only as valid as his ability to demonstrate them. As Anita Brookner writes, “In Balzac's story Delacroix's general theories on art are given to a mythical painter, Frenhofer, who is not only a recluse and a misogynist but is, in addition, quite demonstrably insane.”11 The ideological winner of the contest will be Poussin, who is faithful not so much to outline, but to the sketch from nature.

As I stated, a theory of allegory—specifically Leibniz's idea of baroque allegory—allows us to integrate the above poles of realism and abstraction. For Leibniz, “The world of allegory is especially projected in devices and emblems. … Devices or emblems have three elements that help us understand the basis of allegory: images or figurations, inscriptions or maxims, and personal signatures or proper names of owners. Seeing, reading, dedicating (or signing).”12 The Chef-d'oeuvre is rich in examples of such emblems: Frenhofer is “figured” as a Dutch Master, he “inscribes” himself into the historical debate between drawers and colorists, and emphasizes his own “signature,” which for him is the proof of mastery and authenticity. The function of allegory is to transfer such representational elements to a general theory of meaning. Based on their figurations, inscriptions and signatures, one might associate each of the three male protagonists with a type of perception and reasoning:

  1. Frenhofer: intensive perception and deductive reasoning. Based on a heightened sense of internal observation, he mystifies his own artistic vision, so as to reify expression. He concludes deductively that since he is a master, the painting on which he labors the longest is a masterpiece. The resultant lack of “evidence” (energeia) in his final work dictates, by force of the perfect and solipsistic syllogism that equates life and painting, that he die.
  2. Porbus: extensive perception and inductive reasoning. Based on techne and trial and error, involving the rules of perspective, natural proportion, anatomical rendering. This practice is parodied in Porbus's insistence, when confronted with the Belle Noiseuse, that “there is a woman under there” (“il y a une femme là-dessous”).
  3. Poussin: ostensive perception and abductive reasoning. While basing his perceptions on what is demonstrable, deictic, “out there,” Poussin is capable of thinking metaphorically, by imperfect syllogisms. This is a safeguard against confusing his model with his lover; when Gilette's body is seen in private by another artist, the integrity of Poussin's reasoning is proven, just as when he paints he is able to accomplish “le dernier coup de pinceau.”

With these principles in mind, let us consider the space of the action, again with reference to Leibniz, whose philosophy of the Monad is explicated in terms of “a house with its division into two floors, one in individual weightlessness, the other in a gravity of mass.”13 The lower floor of this baroque model is the public and collective space; the upper floor is the private, the “upstairs” of the edifice of consciousness. The lower floor is occupied by mass, by bodies; the upper floor is the domain of the monads, of weightlessness. Each of the four scenes of Le chef-d'oeuvre—two ateliers and two houses—is encoded as “high” or “low”. Frenhofer's home is the only salle basse among the three other salles hautes. The sumptuous decor of the home, its inviting public nature, is contrasted by the sacramental nature of his atelier, with its pseudo-Altar and Host in the form of the Belle Noiseuse covered in serge. Porbus's atelier is contrasted with the salle basse below it; the long flight of stairs stands for the lofty courtly tradition he represents. Finally Poussin, whose humble garret is also his atelier (an elevation allegorized by its position on the top floor), is the only space capable of positively integrating Leibniz's two floors. What we know of the historical Poussin serves to confirm his status as a foil for wealthy Frenhofer, whose “high” plane of inspiration was achieved only by a radical separation of the ideal from the real. Poussin's atelier shares with those of Porbus and Frenhofer the secrecy of the upper floor. At the same time he lives there. His lowly class background (“était de souche paysanne en relation avec la bourgeoisie”) is integrated with the lofty site of his askesis and amorous devotion to an ideal. He thus stands allegorically for a harmonious coexistence between monads and bodies, weightlessness and mass.

The authority of Frenhofer breaks down in the moment that he invites the others into the intimate, though unreal, world of his atelier, with its high altar and Host. This moment represents the undoing of the flesh. If the correct balance in depicting human skin lies somewhere between depicting it as a smooth membrane and as an infinitely grooved and striated series of folds, Frenhofer has sought to destroy that balance. In the purview of Poussin, the demise of the master is clearly a defeat for that ephemeral kind of inspiration not tied to eternal values. The allegory is finalized by the revealing of a part of a foot (“un bout de pie”) in an otherwise illegible painting. Frenhofer has progressively been overtaken by the shadows and folds of his phantasm, which by the conclusion only nominally has to do with the courtesan-model Catherine Lescault. The fact that his daimon or genius becomes a disabling obsession, a solipsism sliding into madness, a “frenetic” mania for instructing once he is no longer able to paint, is concretized in the fragment of the foot. In the closed matrix of this image, in which Porbus wants so much to find the likeness of a woman (and thus a validation of Frenhofer's genius), we see instead the catastrophic reduction to a fragment of Frenhofer's own vision and psyche.

In recent discussions of the Chef-d'oeuvre, Claude E. Bernard and Hubert Damisch have focused on the primacy of the notion of “exchange” in the story, suggesting a Mephistophelian trade-off by Poussin of his once beloved Gilette: a sacrificing of something intimately personal for the sake of social advancement. I do not concur with this interpretation: while it is true that Poussin is striving to earn a living, it is never stated that he wants to be rich. Though he is subject to the fits and starts of youth, Poussin does not participate in the errors of judgement of his seniors, the one an errant “reader” of love's discourse, the other a too avid “critic”. An error is made by assuming that Poussin's involvement of Gilette in his desire to acquire knowledge about Art is a “contract,” or that he confuses the woman he loves for the image in the painting, or that he “must choose to be either lover or painter” (21). Poussin is more scientific than all that; and like all true scientists, he is driven by curiosity. He never once confuses his nobility (or that of Gilette) for the sacrifices required to learn a craft and achieve material success. In fact the eagerness to see Frenhofer's painted lady is enabled by his love, not compromised by it. The scene where Gilette disappears behind a screen to be viewed by Frenhofer is crucial, but it is not the hermeneutic passe-partout it has been made out to be: since there is no information provided about what occurs, it is irresponsible to refer to it as a “strip-tease” (Bernard) or to say that Poussin is in pursuit of material gain, a “shameless pimp” (Lathers, 67). It is rather Poussin's disconcern about wealth that confirms his nobility.

In his discussion of Le Père Goriot, Edward Ahearn tracks money's value as an inverse of individual human value. The “contradiction of money” says Ahearn, citing Marx, is that “the less you are, the more you have”; the demise of the once-rich Goriot “represents the mortal destructiveness of the money system” (22-23). The same might be stated for Frenhofer. Just as money allowed Frenhofer to purchase his apprenticeship with Mabuse, so wealth is finally an unsurmountable barrier to his creative development. Balzac leaves constant reminders as to the evidentiary status of money in the references to Frenhofer's “wealth” and his “brushes of gold”. The courtesan-client relation which was subliminal in Porbus's portrait of Marie, and repressed in that of Frenhofer, who insists his painted lady is virginal and faithful, is nonexistent in Poussin.

The position of the artist with respect to wealth and power is a difficult one. Money is a facilitator and an impediment. Too close a relation—Frenhofer's wealth—deprives one of experience; inspiration is confused with sensation and eternal values are lost. Frenhofer's name suggests the mind (Gk. phrén) in the public space (Gm. hof), a cerebral obsession that becomes “frenetic” or “frenzied” when exposed to the public eye.14 If one recalls that the impoverished Rembrandt very rarely left Amsterdam, there is irony in the imagined globetrotting of the wealthy Frenhofer (whose costume is that of a Dutch Master) in order to find a rival for his Belle Noiseuse. Here one sees the extent of his myopia and delusion. In his attempt to fuse the techniques of design and color (which he had warned Porbus against, though he stipulated it was possible), Frenhofer has lost to either school. It is in fact the historical Poussin who proves that goal to be possible, and who arranges a tolerable compromise with the existing patronage system.

With his dual motivation of avidity and modesty, Balzac's Poussin possesses the strength of what Keats called negative capability; while Frenhofer dies of doubt, Poussin utilizes doubt creatively and stands in harmony with Gilette. This strength is evident in his ability to be overwhelmed by an undetermined emotion: “he seemed to be overpowered by some intolerable joy or sorrow” (229) [“comme un homme qui succombe à une joie ou à une douleur trop forte pour son âme” (60)]. Thus I disagree with the notion that Poussin has “definitively compromised his love,” or that Gilette plays the part of a “propitiatory victim” to a Frenhofer who is at once a “voyeurist” and a “visionary”; nor do I think it accurate to say that “we know nothing of what will happen to Poussin”.15 Is the use of an historical character mere whimsy? Are we to ignore the text of history in which it is Poussin who authors the masterpiece, due to his mastery of the sketch and his intuitive respect for the clarity of the “confused” perception (in the Leibnizian sense)?

When the fictitious 17th century master Frenhofer states that “drawing doesn't exist,” Balzac obviously disagrees with him, and with the whole “new” 19th century aesthetic of expression.16 The movement au rebours is similar to Manzoni's in the Betrothed (in which the current Austrian domination is figured by the cruel Spanish domination of the 17th century). The novella and the novel are written in the 1830's and set in the 1620's. This distancing allows for a perception of baroque cultural patterns as important determinants of meaning and cognition in the 19th century. At the same time, Balzac removes himself from the debate over the relative merits of Ingres or Delacroix, and in so doing advocates Poussin: for his discretion, his scientific integration of levels, and his abductive use of ut pictura poesis.17 In terms of his aesthetic politics, Balzac stood outside the “juste-milieu” of the materialistic regime of the 1830's.18 He was profoundly influenced by Theophile Gautier, who stressed the “interior model” and the crucial rôle of intuition, and the importance of the sketch. Balzac's philosophical insights carried him in the direction of Aesthetics itself, and, as a matter of course, Leibniz.

I should now like to tie what I've said about allegory to the Leibnizian aesthetic I find active within the tale. A metaphysical view of energy and event will be shown to support a theory of evidence and deutero-learning applicable to poetry and painting mutually.19 In what Bernard Guyon calls “the timid and awkward unpublished preface to Le Gars” (1828), Balzac's citation of Leibniz is a telling precis of the novelist's sense of his own place in the universe, and his conviction that through the powers of observation one can endow events with a memorable sense of authenticity: “He grew like a plant, abandoning himself to perpetual contemplation … living, so to speak, only by the strength of those interior senses that he claims constitute a double being within man, but exhausted by this profound intuition of things”; and again: “This soul was, in Leibniz's magnificent phrase, a concentric mirror of the universe.”20 The same sense of a reflective perceptual knowledge, an abductive savoir that includes within it both inductive and deductive processes is evident in an early letter:

Leibniz prétend que toute la masse idéale est coordonnée dans la nature et que cette chaîne commence au plus insensible jusqu'au plus sensible; il dit que les marbres, par cela même qu'ils naissent et croissent, ont des idées, mais extraordinairement confuses. Je serai marbres, passif dans la vie. Celui qui se blessera contre moi me maudira, celui qui, fatigué, viendra, s'asseoir me bénira. Si l'on me polit et que l'on mette au haut d'une colonne pour ornement, j'y resterai; si l'on m'emploie à la construction d'une étable, j'y resterai, également insensible aux injures et aux bienfaits. Adieu, mon rôle commence.


[Leibniz claims that all of the ideal mass is coordinated in nature and that this chain begins at the most insensible and goes to the most sensible; he says that pieces of marble, just as they are born and grow, have ideas, though extraordinarily confused ones. I shall be marble, passive in life. He that wounds himself on me will damn me, he who comes to sit, fatigued, will bless me. If I am polished and put atop a column for ornament, I will stay; if I am used for the construction of a stable, I will stay, equally insensible to the oaths and blessings. Adieu, my role begins.]21

That Balzac knew and appreciated Leibniz's metaphysics is apparent. The “je ne sais quoi” helps either man in explicating a theory of perception based on a sensorial and intellectual continuum existing between the “distinct” idea and the “confused” idea (when either of those can be a “clear” idea).22 As Jeffrey Barnouw explains, the term “confused” obtains a special philosophical definition in Leibniz, as distinct from simple confusion. When one reads that even an object like marble “has ideas,” one thinks immediately of the foot of “La belle noiseuse” which “seemed to [Porbus and Poussin] like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town” (237) [“apparaissait là comme le torse de quelque Vénus en marbre de Paros qui surgirait parmi les décombres d'une ville incendiée” (70)].

The term “aesthetics” was a product of the 18th century, and followed upon Leibniz's research into that form of perceptual, as distinct from logical, judgment, which allows for knowledge to emerge from a “confusion” of representational details pleasing to the senses and the sentiment. The aesthetic judgment benefits from a gaze which is not too intensely focused on particulars and yields therefore to the “je ne sais quoi”; yet this too is evidence in the form of a perceptual threshold, a realization of limits. The perspicuousness of such evidence is the topic of Yeats's “Among School Children,” in which it is the indistinction between dancer and dance which authenticates aesthetic experience. The negative example of such a confusion is provided in Yeats's reference to Ezra Pound as a latter-day Frenhofer.23

Let us recall that Frenhofer sees woman as painting and painting as woman; they are reversible. Porbus understands the folly of this non-differentiation, but sees woman and painting as exchangeable: one can trade them like property. Poussin sees the folly of either position. He does not allow the slippage between technique and emotion, style and affect, to change him into a Pygmalion or Gilette into a Galatea or Candaule figure.

The three levels of artistry represented in Le Chef-d'oeuvre might be compared with profit to a tripartite discussion of aesthetics proposed by Dámaso Alonso. The Spanish scholar defines the “affective,” “imaginative,” and “conceptual” as follows. The affective “envelops everything … like an atmosphere”; the imaginative is the “capacity to excite sensory representations” and “utilizes the data of memory to excite in us sensory images”; the conceptual concerns “the self-reflection of a form of thought … a philosophy”.24 A grievous error is committed, says Alonso, when the affective is confused with the imaginative, or when—as is too often the case—the logical is equated with the “grammatical” and excluded from stylistic studies altogether.

We might easily apply this scheme to our notion of artistic proof; first of all, a masterpiece is known by its affective totality, its intangible qualities of richness and grace (Frenhofer's “rien”) that evoke wonder in the viewer. A parallel occurrence is the canonization of works and artists so that a general public may deduce whether a work is a masterpiece and another is not. The imaginative is the knowledge of the particular, the sensory language of parts, the use of images that excites recognition of known signs in our memory. Such an encoding is inductive and is represented in the story by Porbus, a virtuoso with moderate support from the patronage system. The conceptual is the intellectual structure of the work. It includes the previous two levels while keeping them discrete in consciousness. This is Poussin's position; as the “scientist” in Alonso's terms, his rôle includes those of “reader” and “critic”. The scientific artist sees through the idea of a mastery based exclusively on affective or imaginative criteria; for it is only in its logical completion, accomplished by the “dernier coup de pinceau,” that the work approaches a mythical status. Myth, unlike metaphor, implies a history or narrative formulation based on the concrete representation of an intuition which, in a given society, refers to themes of destinies and origins, life and death. Myth takes value from public acceptance and seeks to explain the “why” of human labour and history. The myth of the “unknown masterpiece” requires that one talk about both “external” and “internal” models for painting; it also asks “unknown to whom?” Given the fact that portraiture is a form that thrives under a certain mercantile patronage system, the failure to maintain patrons (Porbus) or to render effectively the external model (Frenhofer) denotes on the allegorical level a critique of such a system, particularly to the extent that it dictates the content of such works which will be considered for masterpiece status. As is known, Poussin maneuvered around the patronage system by moving to Italy where he was protected and supported by the church.

Among those who have contended with the myth of the Le Chef-d'oeuvre is Maurice Blanchot, who concludes his early essay, “From Dread to Language,” as follows:

Naturally, since esthetic consciousness is only conscious of a part of what it does, the effort to attain absolute necessity and through it absolute futility is itself always futile. It cannot succeed, and it is this impossibility of succeeding, of reaching the end, where it would be as though it had never succeeded, that makes it constantly possible. It retains a little meaning from the fact that it never receives all its meaning, and it is filled with dread because it cannot be pure dread. The unknown masterpiece always allows one to see in the corner the tip of a charming foot, and this delicious foot prevents the work from being finished, but also prevents the painter from facing the emptiness of his canvas and saying, with the greatest feeling of repose: “Nothing, nothing! At last, there is nothing.”25

Blanchot generalizes about the phenomenon of the unknown masterpiece, suggesting that the condition Frenhofer finds himself in is somehow universal. He accords the phenomenon of “dread” a great role in artistic creation, and suggests that masters are always confronting a destructive impulse. Philosophically he places painting and writing on the same plane, effectively removing us from the particular case of Frenhofer and his Others. As a result, the attention is shifted away from the fatal indistinction between depicted and depiction. Unfortunately, he also removes us from the problem of judgment and the will, and ignores Balzac's implicit typology of perceptions.

As Blanchot interprets it, the foot ceases to be a vestige of the painting from its perfect stage, now hopelessly over-labored; instead, it becomes the inescapable referential moment in a purified language. … Blanchot treats Frenhofer's canvas as a model for literary language where the tension between transparent mimesis and purely sonorous language can never be resolved. … As he reads the story, the ten years' labor is a quest for the abolition of the referential human figure, a quest for the nothingness which would annul the “hasard” (chance) of the material world.26

Blanchot has essentially conflated the pictorial and poetic sides of the ut pictura poesis reciprocity. By universalizing Frenhofer's problem, he has cast the Artist, but also the Poet, as an inductive-deductive creature, who simply decides on a subject matter and technique, then executes it, empirically and intuitively, until it is right. This conflation ignores the fact that process for a visual artist and process for a poet are of distinctly different perceptual orders, neither of which is beholden to chance. An artist's “proof,” if successful, is indeed an attempt, a trial run, that results in an unforeseen coherence that is somehow compelling; yet this in no way means that the artist is out to abolish chance. The artist's proofing and probing is also, potentially, a proving. In the case of a masterpiece, one thing is certain: the move from the unfinished to the finished must allow for the viewer's (or the reader's) share. Yet this indeterminacy is known first by the artist, and only then by the public. It is not dependent on chance, neurosis, or the obliteration of referentiality. By reifying the incremental nature of creative work, Blanchot has confused the virtuality of a painting or poem with its failure to match an imagined ideal of some sort. (This notion of matching will be more fully explored in my conclusion, where the initial question of Le Chef-d'oeuvre, “What is life in a painting?,” is allowed, given the story's catastrophic conclusion, to lead (or collapse) into the question, “What is painting?”)

If Blanchot has dwelt on the internal model active in Frenhofer's consciousness, Michel Serres has focused on the unfinished art work as a significant external model for other cognitive and creative operations, specifically the idea of chaos. He takes his lead from Frenhofer's affectionate nickname for the painting of the courtesan Catherine Lescault, “La Belle Noiseuse,” which was the name used by her clients. Maria Assad has effectively presented the link (or double homology) Serres makes between his concept of the parasite and the epistemological importance of chaos, as figured by Balzac's (more than Frenhofer's) creation of “La Belle Noiseuse”:

Serres does not make the unknown masterpiece “known,” give it form or render it intelligible. Rather “noiseuse” indicates “noise” which indicates chaos. “La belle noiseuse” is thus a trope that frees the masterpiece from the search for forms, from the “connu”—meaning or concept—which conventionally determines the “inconnu.” “La belle noiseuse” frees chaos from any antithetical determination in relation to order.27

Serres has presented an interesting gloss more than an interpretation of the tale. By using the etymological opportunity presented him, he has fused the literal and metaphorical meanings of “parasite” into a third definition, which allows for its meaning in French as noise (or annoyance) and interference, thus chaos. Unlike Blanchot, Serres attributes no substance to the hidden figure in Frenhofer's painting, which is cast as a kind of negative Venus:

We see Venus, clearly and eagerly, and welcome her, because she represents the beauty that is inherent in order and logic as they are perceived in our cosmology. This explains why we do not see “La Belle Noiseuse” and why we call it in our blindness—together with Balzac—the unknown masterpiece, because it “represents” what cannot be represented.28

Blanchot focuses on the obliteration of reference as a seemingly unstoppable historical process undertaken by a Frenhofer desirous of an impossible knowledge, and thus hemmed in by dread and self-destructiveness, by the perpetually unfinished nature of his work. Serres, on the other hand, has little to say about the painter. It is the painting that for him is a trope of indeterminacy; he redirects the reader's attention to the purely visual side of the equation (and thus to the importance of ostensive perception, and deixis). In that way, by negative example, he suggests the Leibnizian idea of an aesthetic and perceptual clarity emerging from a perceptual continuum free of “markers”. Such clarity is not present in “La Belle Noiseuse,” but is in the idea of Venus, of the sketch that is completed by the “last brushstroke”.

The original question posed was: “What constitutes artistic (visual) knowledge?” I would like to extend that now, in light of the above discussions, to ask “What is a painting?” Much current debate has as its point of departure in Ernst Gombrich's “perceptual” response to that question. Gombrich's notion of induction, heavily influenced by the philosopher Karl Popper, sees the Artist as continually adjusting, correcting, refining the basic “schemata” which he has recognized as corresponding to his initial perception. Trial and error is the modus operandi of such an inductive method. Though Gombrich's reliance on schemata seems to offer an alternative to the classical (or “Plinian”) idea of the “Essential Copy,” that is, the technically exact replica of reality, or the so called Natural Attitude, it returns to the same doctrine of mimesis as the descriptive matching of a recognition, specifically the recognition of an action. Thus Norman Bryson can state that “Perhaps the most negative consequence of perceptualism is its bracketing-out of the constitutive role of the social formation in producing the codes of recognition which the image activates”.29 Bryson, in fact, constructs an alternative theory in opposition to Gombrich's definition of painting as the record of a perception. That such a “perceptualist” theory is “fundamentally wrong” is made painfully clear, he says, in the case of abstract, or non-representational art, which is reduced to a kind of puzzle or rebus.30

While crediting Gombrich for recognizing the independent materiality of painting practice, Bryson faults him for not heeding the asymmetrical relation which exists between connotation and denotation:

denotation belongs to an internal order of the image, and its codes need not necessarily operate anywhere beyond the four sides of the canvas. … The codes of connotation, by contrast, operate within the general social formation; they may also be transferred to painting, in which case the effect of the real is likely to arise; but they exist prior to such possible transferral, and with certain images, for example the theoretical minimal schema of recognition, or painting styles that remain close to the minimal schema, they are not brought into play by the image at all.


Bryson counters the inductive position—which argues that representation is the product of trial and error—with a historical and materialist approach (by which he does not mean Historical Materialism). By viewing a painting as a material object fixed historically in a given culture, he attempts to bridge the institutional division that has existed in Art History between stylistic critics, who engage in a synchronic analysis of the “signifier” in paintings, and iconological or sociological critics, who focus on the semantic interpretation of content. The former are fixated on technique; the latter on knowledge (16).

Albert Cook has adopted a broad approach to the same problems which is in many respects harmonious with Bryson's. In a discussion of Turner's impressionism he contests Gombrich's notions of “matching” and “making”. Gombrich had written with regard to Turner: “The status of objects is often quite swallowed up by the modification of the moment—mist, light, and dazzle. Matching wins over making. There is some justification in the idea that he suppressed what he knew of the world and concentrated only on what he saw.”31 Not only does Cook demonstrate the elusiveness, and even the reversibility, of “match” and “make” in this formulation, where “matching” is the swallowing up of objects and “making” is their replication (or as F. M. Ford, says, their “recording”), but he argues against Gombrich, saying that for the viewer, both operations may take place simultaneously: “The constructive habits of the eye and the conventions of representation within a culture no more split the viewer from direct immersive apprehension of a painting than the phonetic structure of language and the social conventions of communication split the auditor from the direct apprehension of a sentence.”32

Art of all kinds demands a criticism which acknowledges its complexity and novelty, or as Bryson says, its technique and its knowledge. The thrust of such a principle is that an endogenous critical method, or problematics, may be extracted from the work, rather than imposed upon it. All art employs a “language”—a rhetoric of its own and a silence of its own, a langue or cultural style—which in turn allows for the complementary but asymmetrical codes of denotation and connotation. Whether one is discussing painting, poetry, or fiction, the terms of one's argument are to be sought in the document itself, its materiality, in a given place and time. This requires a critic who is flexible and intuitive and does not reduce composition to a mere mechanics, but seeks a trenchant pattern in the work, in which the form of the content and the form of the expression achieve harmony.

This general principle holds true for painting and poetry, I believe. I have borrowed from Bryson to give the reader an idea of the art historical questions which concern the threshold between representational and non-representational painting, as well as the historical transition from colorism to a renewed aesthetic of line, composition and austere proportion. I do not mean to equate words and images. As Bryson notes, words are essential to our survival while painting could be halted without a devastating effect on human life as such. Indeed, one cannot assume the immediate practability of the Horatian idea of ut pictura poesis, in that the two means of expression engage discrete and separate areas of consciousness. If painting is to be understood as a visual poetry, and poetry a written form of painting, one must by necessity abstract, or distance oneself from the literalist understanding of these practices. (One thinks, for example, of Montale's aesthetic kinship with Debussy, his hypermetric creation of a poetic equivalent to the dodecaphonic scale.) In a post-Kantian era in which “taste” and “genius” are subjectivist anachronisms, and the myths of positivism are obsolete, the physical sciences enjoy no absolute proofs and the “evidence” provided by the fine arts may embody past epochs, or provide our most perspicuous knowledge of them. The epistemological question is also a question of aesthetics and deutero-learning. As with Blake, Balzac espouses a theory of the whole art as being the “product” of painting and poetry (a position compatible with that of the historical Poussin). At the end of his story the “bout de pied,” more than a narrative expedient, has become a “but” or goal, a desire for finality, for the agon, for the “struggle with Nature”. At the same time the “Belle Noiseuse” is amorous and erotic, the principle of opacity and the undisclosed, as well as a feminine stereotype of capriciousness, as reinforced by Frenhofer's act of naming her.33

When the esoteric Frenhofer—who idealized the sense of being inside the representational space—yields to the exoteric, self-naming Orpheus figure, his soul is lost, his body in fragments. In contrast to such a figure as Phocion in Poussin's “Landscape with the Burial of Phocion,” “a Greek hero who died because he refused to conceal the truth,” Frenhofer has failed to heed the truth of the external model (imitation), and its necessary equilibrium with the internal model (expression).34 In Balzac's corollary about artistic knowledge, Frenhofer thus constitutes a negative proof (preuve) of those

minute perceptions [which] constitute that je ne sais quoi, those flavours, those images of sensible qualities, vivid in the aggregate but confused as to the parts; those impressions which are made on us by the bodies around us and which involve the infinite; that connection that each being has with all the rest of the universe. It can even be said that by virtue of these minute perceptions the present is big with the future and burdened with the past, that all things harmonize—sympnoia panta, as Hippocrates put it—and that eyes as piercing as God's could read in the lowliest substance the universe's whole sequence of events—‘What is, what was, and what will soon be brought in by the future’ [Virgil].35

Of course it was a Virgilian aesthetic which gave Balzac the material for his allegory of artistic transmission. The entire history of ut pictura poesis is a metaphysical dialogue between the harmonies existing between the visual and literary arts. This history is positively inscribed in Le Chef-d'oeuvre through the figure of Poussin, the great painter of amorous melancholy and an accomplished technical practitioner (in a style which grew progressively more idealistic) of ut pictura poesis. As a scientific painter, capable of including in his practice the affective and imaginative levels, it is to Poussin we look for an understanding of the story's allegory, that is, its general theory of meaning. Viewed in this light, the two levels of allegory are (1) those of the story and his paintings as narrative constructs, accounts which one can immediately interpret; and (2) that of the living experience (of the model, the painter, the reader) as it absorbs the spiritual significance of the story or painting's message on art and love. In conclusion, Balzac's implicit opposition to Rubens and Titian in favor of Poussin (and perhaps Giambattista Tiepolo and William Blake) advances a 19th-century classicism, and a stable if melancholy myth of harmony set amidst the turbulence of the romantic movement.


  1. Bateson, 32. Bateson's legacy is broad and deep, as witnessed by many scholarly volumes by him and about his work. His diverse and prolific production created an enormous watershed of new theory and applied uses of his ideas on schizophrenia, the relationality of mind and nature, and in general, the possibility to construct a viable theory of perception and learning not tied to eternal verities, terminological absolutes, or rigid boundaries between disciplines. Batesonian interactive psychology stresses the importance of relations and context, even in defining the self.

  2. Bateson, 31, 33.

  3. The spirit of this sense of interaction is expressed by Paul Valéry, 160: “what is of value for one person only has no value. This is the iron law of Literature.”

  4. See Mitchell, 16-33.

  5. Ashton, 11, citing Poussin's letters from 1666-68.

  6. “le petit vieillard” (47); “Ce petit drôle est-il à vous?” (50); “au moyen de trois ou quatre touches et d'un petit glacis bleuâtre, on pouvait faire circuler l'air autour de la tête de cette pauvre sainte” (51); “Vois-tu, petit, il n'y a que le dernier coup de pinceau qui compte” (52); “mais que sont dix petites années quand il s'agit de lutter avec la nature?” (56); “Si tu désires que je pose encore devant toi comme l'autre jour, repritelle d'un petit air boudeur, je n'y consentirai plus jamais, car, dans ces moments-à, tes yeux ne me disent plus rien” (59); “Adieu, mes petits amis” (72).

  7. “le jeune inconnu paraissait avoir un vrai mérite, si le talent doit se mesurer su cette timidité première, sur cette pudeur indéfinissable” (44); “Je suis inconnu, barbouilleur d'instinct” (50); “L'inconnu copia lestement la Marie au trait” (50); “Ce vieillard au yeux blancs, attentif et stupide, devenu pour lui plus qu'un homme, lui apparut comme un génie fantasque qui vivait dans une sphère inconnue. Il réveillait mille idées confuses en l'âme” (56); “Porbus sourit à l'enthousiasme du jeune inconnu, et le quitta en l'invitant à venir le voir” (58).

  8. “Le jeune homme éprouvait cette sensation profonde qui a dû faire vibrer le coeur des grands artistes quand, au fort de la jeunesse et de leur amour pour l'art, ils ont abordé un homme de génie ou quelque chef-d'oeuvre” (43); “Cette belle page représentait une Marie égyptienne se disposant à payer le passage du bateau. Ce chef-d'oeuvre, destiné à Marie de Médicis, fut vendu par elle aux jours de sa misère” (46); “C'est un chef-d'oeuvre pour tout le monde, et les initiés aux plus profonds arcanes de l'art peuvent seuls découvrir en quoi elle pèche” (51).

  9. Leibniz states (in New Essays, cited in Barnouw, 92) that the presence of “markers” characterizes “distinct” perceptions, while their absence results in “confused”, yet still clear perceptions, such as hearing the roar of the ocean: “These minute perceptions, then, are more effective in their results than has been recognized. They constitute the je ne sais quoi, those flavours, those images of sensible qualities, vivid in the aggregate but confused as to the parts; those impressions which are made on us by the bodies around us and which involve the infinite; that connection that each being has with all the rest of the universe. It can even be said that by virtue of these minute perceptions the present is big with the future and burdened [chargé] with the past.”

  10. Ashton's illuminating study concerns the idea and figure of Frenhofer in such modernists as Cézanne, Picasso, Rilke, Schoenberg, and Kandinsky.

  11. Brookner, 78.

  12. Deleuze, 125.

  13. Deleuze, 102.

  14. Michael Fried ties the name to the discoverer of spectroscopy, a celebrated optician and fabricator of lenses.

  15. Bernard, 209, 207, 212, 205.

  16. While Lanes has argued against Balzac's actual authorship of Frenhofer's remarks on painting, because of the author's lack of technical sophistication, he also acknowledges there is little chance of proof of any “shared” authorship. Of interest in Lanes' essay is the position that Frenhofer's aesthetic—in brief, that of a Romantic follower of Delacroix 200 years before the fact—was not Balzac's position, and that Balzac looked for aesthetic models not in painting but in sculpture, where “the kind of work he admires is linear” (97). In addition, Balzac was “concerned with a statue's theme, and he sought in this regard an extreme of idealization. For him sculptors are ‘des hommes sublimes qui s'expriment avec du marbre’ …” (97-98).

  17. Consider Cousin's The Philosophy of the Beautiful (1818) as a typical vector of such an aesthetic (170): “In a certain aspect we ought to consider the axiom, Ut pictura poesis, to be untrue. Painting cannot be all that poetry is, nor can poetry be all that painting is. Everyone admires the description of Rumor given by Virgil [Aeneid, iv, 173-188], but if a painter were to think of portraying this symbolic figure, and were to place before us an enormous monster with a hundred eyes, a hundred ears and mouths, his feet on the earth, his head hid in the clouds, would not the sentiment caused by such a picture be laughable?”

  18. See Ashton, 9-29.

  19. Bateson employed the term “deutero-learning” to mean learning about learning.

  20. Balzac, cited by Chevalier, 176.

  21. Balzac, letter to Madame de Berny, Correspondance, I, 178. Emphasis mine.

  22. Leibniz, 256: “Thus, we cannot define these ideas: all we can do is to make them known through examples; and, beyond that, until their inner structure has been deciphered we have to say that they are a je ne sais quoi.

  23. Referring to Pound's Cantos, Yeats writes, “He has tried to produce that picture Porteous (sic = Frenhofer) commended to Nicholas Poussin in Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu where everything rounds or thrusts itself without edges, without contours—conventions of the intellect—from a splash of tints and shades; to achieve a work as characteristic of the art of our time as the paintings of Cézanne, avowedly suggested by Porteous (sic), as Ulysses and its dream association of words and images, a poem in which there is nothing that can be taken out and reasoned over, nothing that is not a part of the poem itself.” Yeats, 4.

  24. Alonso, 60, 61, 65.

  25. Blanchot, 19-20.

  26. Sitney, in Blanchot, 172-74. See also 186: “Blanchot puts Heidegger under a negative sign. While he allows the centrality of the concept of ‘work’ to thinking about art, he insists that a move from work to truth, or any other valorization of work misses the essential dialectic of work; for him, the masterpiece is not the product of the ‘passageway’ from ‘work,’ as Heidegger claims, but the regrettable sign of the work's disappearance.”

  27. Assad, 282-283.

  28. Assad, 283.

  29. Bryson, 43.

  30. Bryson, xii.

  31. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, cited in Cook, 223.

  32. Cook, 223.

  33. See Claudie Bernard, 208: “(‘noiseuse’, c'est-à-dire ‘querelleuse’, n'est-ce pas là l'essence de la féminité, capricieuse et changeante, comme chacun sait?)”

  34. Janson, 441.

  35. Leibniz, 55.

Works Cited

Ahearn, Edward J. Marx and Modern Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Alonso, Dámaso. “Lo Imaginativo, lo Afectivo y lo Conceptual como Objeto de la Estilistica,” Antología Critica. Madrid: Escelicer, 1956. 57-67.

Assad, Maria L. “Michel Serres: In Search of a Tropography,” in Chaos and Order. Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Ed. N. Katherine Hayles. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Ashton, Dore. A Fable of Modern Art. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Balzac, Honoré de. Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, Gambara, Massimilla Doni. Paris: Flammarion, 1981.

Works of Honoré de Balzac. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. 211-40.

Barnouw, Jeffrey. “The beginnings of ‘aesthetics’ and the Leibnizian conception of sensation,” Eighteenth Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art. Edited by Paul Mattick, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 52-95.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam, 1980.

Bernard, Claude E. “La Problématique de l‘échange’ dans ‘Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu’ d'Honoré de Balzac,” L'Année balzacienne 4 (1984): 201-13.

The Portable Blake. Ed. Alfred Kazin. New York: Viking, 1946.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Gaze of Orpheus. Preface by G. Hartman, translated by L. Davis, edited with an Afterword by P. Adams Sitney. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1981.

Bryson, Norman. Vision and Painting. The Logic of the Gaze. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Chevalier, Louis. “La Comédie humaine: A Historical Document?” La Revue historique 232 (1964): 27-48. Rpt. in Critical Essays on Honoré de Balzac. Ed. Martin Kanes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. 170-176.

Cook, Albert. Dimensions of the Sign in Art. Hanover, N.H.: UP of New England, 1989.

Cousin, Victor. The Philosophy of the Beautiful. Trans. Jesse Cato Daniel. New York: Bixby, 1849.

Damisch, Hubert. Fenêtre jaune cadmium. Paris: Seuil, 1984.

———, Théorie du Nuage; pour une histoire de la peinture. Paris: Seuil, 1972.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque. Forward and translation by Tom Conley. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Gombrich, Ernst. Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaedon, 1960.

Guyon, Bernard. “Balzac and the Mystery of Literary Creation.” Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France 50, no. 2 (April-June 1950), 178-91. Rpt. in Critical Essays on Honoré de Balzac. Ed. Martin Kanes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. 107-117.

Janson, H. W. History of Art. New York: Abrams, 1969.

Lanes, Jerrold. “Art Criticism and the Authorship of the Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu: A Preliminary Study,” The Artist and the Writer in France. Ed. F. Haskell, A. Levi, R. Shackleton. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1974. 86-99.

Lathers, Marie. “Modesty and the Artist's Model in Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu,Symposium (Spring 1992): 49-71.

Leibniz, Gottfried W. New Essays on Human Understanding. Translated and edited by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake's Composite Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Snow, Edward. “Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems,” Representations 25 (Winter 1989):30-41.

Stein, Gertrude. “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them,” Look at me Now and Here I Am. Ed. P. Meyerowitz with intro. by E. Sprigge. London: Penguin, 1967. 148-156.

Stoichita, Victor I. “Le ‘Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu’ et la présentation du pictural.” La Présentation. Ed. Rene Passeron. Paris: Centre Nat. Recherche Scientifique, 1985. 77-91.

Valéry, Paul. An Anthology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Yeats, W. B. A Vision. New York: Collier, 1966.

Further Reading

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Bongiorni, Kevin. “Balzac, Frenhofer, Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu: Ut Poesis Pictura.Mosaic 33, no. 2 (June 2000): 87-99.

Challenges traditional readings of the novella by suggesting that the character Frenhofer's work is not a failure, but rather simply misunderstood.

Houk, Deborah. “Self construction and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century French Dandyism.” French Forum 22, no. 1 (January 1997): 59-73.

Investigates dandyism in La fille aux yeux d'or and texts by Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Rachilde.

Livingston, Paisley. “Counting Fragments, and Frenhofer's Paradox.” British Journal of Aesthetics 39, no. 1 (January 1999): 14-23.

Examines the concept of paradox through a reading of Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu and Balzac's unfinished work.

Lowrie, Joyce O. “The Artist, Real and Imagined: Diderot's Quentin de la Tour and Balzac's Frenhofer.” Romance Notes 31, no. 3 (spring 1991): 267-73.

Discusses the influence of Diderot on Balzac's Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.

Nolan, Wendy. “Frenhofer's Suicide and the Downfall of Le Baron Gros.” Symposium 54, no. 2 (summer 2000): 90-112.

Argues that Antoine-Jean Gros served as a model for the mad painter in Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.

Additional coverage of Balzac's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; European Writers, Vol. 5; Guide to French Literature 1789 to the Present; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 5, 35, 53; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 10; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 5; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's World Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

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Balzac, Honoré de (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)