Maurice Beebe (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: Beebe, Maurice. “Honoré de Balzac: The Novelist as Creator.” In Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce, pp. 175-96. New York: New York University Press, 1964.
[In the following essay, Beebe assesses the work of French writer Honoré de Balzac and concludes that contrary to most appraisals of Balzac, as a writer, he was both a romantic and a realist.]
“The crossroad of sensibility and social history,” we have seen, is the area from which the finest fiction comes.1 Because the greatest novelists achieve a balance between individual vision and the life which they must use in their art, they seem to reside midway between the Ivory Tower and the Sacred Fount. Such a novelist was Honoré de Balzac. When we consider his total work after his early apprenticeship as a hack writer, we must be impressed by its evenness of quality: some of the novels and stories in the Comédie humaine are, of course, better or worse than others, but it is impossible to discover a clear pattern of improvement or deterioration in Balzac's literary career. It is as if he had from the beginning a vision so complete that it could never be exhausted and so balanced that it need never be rejected. He had only to draw upon that total vision as long as he lived.
Because Balzac's fiction falls within the middle area, both realists and romantics claim him as their own. Ferdinand Brunetière argued that “if romanticism consists especially in the display of the writer's ego, or, further, in the systematic reduction of the spectacle of the vast world to the range of the poet's or novelist's personal vision, who will deny that the whole work of Balzac is, on the contrary, a perpetual effort to subordinate his individual manner of viewing things … to the restraint of a reality which, by its very definition, is exterior, anterior, and superior to it?”2 Much of the more recent criticism of Balzac, however, sees him as a romantic and uses as its starting point Baudelaire's assertion, “I have often been astonished that the great glory of Balzac was to pass for an observer. It has always seemed to me that his principal merit was to be a visionary and a passionate visionary.”3 That to this day much of the criticism of Balzac assumes the unnecessary task of trying to classify him as either a realistic chronicler of his world or a romantic visionary creating a private world and that convincing cases can still be made for both classifications seems to me sufficient proof that Balzac was both a realist and a romantic, an observer and a visionary. Perhaps it is time for criticism to call a truce between the opposing camps and to investigate that “middle area” in Balzac where sensibility and history blend.4
The blending occurs in the vision of the artist. There is one who sees, and there is something seen; but what really distinguishes one artist from another is the way of seeing. Of the important aspects of the art of fiction which distinguish it from other forms of literature, none has been more neglected by critics than what Henry James described as
the projected light of the individual strong temperament—the color of the air with which this, that, or the other painter of life … more or less unconsciously suffuses his picture. … This is of the nature of the man himself—an emanation of his spirit, temper, history; it springs from his very presence, his spiritual presence, in his work, and is, in so far, not a matter of calculation and artistry. All a matter of his own, in a word, for each seer of visions, the particular tone of the medium in which each vision, each clustered group of persons and places and objects, is bathed.5
For want of a better term, we may substitute aura for “projected light”: aura, the dictionary assures us, is “a distinctive air, atmosphere, character”; “a subtle emanation proceeding from a body and surrounding it as an atmosphere.” Aura is the -ian in “Dickensian,” “Jamesian,” or...
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