Reading Balzac in one of my classes. The class is structured on a French class that I took at St. Johns–we read Balzac, then Flaubert, then Baudelaire (the only difference is that my class reads Bovary, in the original class we read A Simple Heart). The class was taught by Joshua Kates, a Derrida scholar, and was certainly the best course I had at the school, though I remember Kates’ presence more than anything else.
The class as I organize it moves through how each of the different authors deal with objects. Balzac’s realism nicely sets up Emma’s fantasies and Romantic connections to flowers and cigar boxes and what-have-you as well as laying a groundwork for the weirder encounters with objects one finds in Baudelaire. One knows Balzac for his objects, his long descriptions of clothes and houses and fashion, as well as his cynicism about those objects, the only real gift in the book is an empty box (an image that is repeated in Bovary’s cigar box), but reading the book within the context of this class for the second time I’ve taught it, as well as having some students thinking towards interesting ends, I began to also notice Balzac’s use of poetry and emotion as byproducts of the subject’s engagement with objects. While the book is most easily seen as a treatise on how cynical materialism gets in the way of true love, Balzac also shows the fallout of a world without access to the interiority that allows that kind of true love.
After showing Madame de Beauseant being betrayed by her lover, the Marquis Ajuda-Pinto, Balzac has his hero Eugene Rastignac think to himself (in a close third person):
He felt childishy angry. He could have groveled at her feet, he wished he had some demonic power with which to carry her off, clutched close to his heart, the way an eagle soars up from the plain to its mountain nest, bearing a small white suckling goat.
This is the only sort of internal monologue in Pere Goriot, characters either speak baldly, lie with reserve, or Balzac himself expounds like a detached dandy. How perfect that the only internal monologue we get from Eugene is this metaphor, emotion becoming material. He is not an abstract savior but an imagined eagle. For Balzac, thought is perverted by the material transaction.
Later on, when the Death-Dodger Collins (or Vautrin) is arrested and unmasked as the crook he really is, Balzac says of the crowd watching the reveal, watching Vautrin’s wig fall of in a punch from the police-captain:
Brick-red, short-clipped hair gave him a look at once sly and powerful, and both head and face, blending perfectly, now, with hs brutish chest, glowed with the fierce, burning light of a hellish mind. It was suddenly obvious to them all just who Vautrin was, what he’d done, what he’d been doing, what he would go on to do; they suddenly understood at a his implacable ideas, his religion of self-indulgence, exactly the sort of royal sensibility which tinted all his thoughts with cynicism, as well as all his actions…Prison language and prison ways, with their brusque transition from pleasant to horrible, their ghastly grandeur, their easy familiarity, their vulgarity, suddenly shown out in the [man]…although in truth he was no longer a man, but the embodied representative of a degraded people, a savage, logical nation, brutal, flexible. In an instant Collin had been transformed into a kind of hellish poem which depicted all human emotions except one, remorse. He looked the very image of the fallen archangel, forever militant. Rastignac lowered his eyes, accepting this criminal kinship as if in expiation for all his evil thoughts.
Rastignac is saved from his evil thoughts by Collins’ embodied poem, and this moment also acts as a forewarning against his eventual descent from the mountain. Collins is found due to a brand from prison on his shoulder–his embodied poem is not just up-speak from Balzac, his body as a body, as material presents itself to us as writing, as metaphor.