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Balzac In the Exegetic Mode … Alas!

ISSUE:  Winter 1977
Balzac’s Comedy of Words. By Martin Kanes. Princeton $14.50.

SOME years ago Yves Bonnefoy contrasted Anglo-American and French critics. His remarks appropriately dwelt on our virtually exclusive interest in “meaning.” He neglected an equally important trait, however. For the most part, our scholar/critics have a passion for the exegetic mode and an abhorrence of polemic. One imagines with difficulty that French critics would be accused of the same decorous deportment. Though it all grows from our laudable love of distinterested investigation, there are times when a refusal to descend to the street, soil our gowns, and bloody knuckles resembles vice. Martin Kanes’s Balzac’s Comedy of Words is a case in point. Readers unfamiliar with the nouvelle critique’s pronouncements in respect to the “traditional” novel, of which Balzac was the most notable (or, to some, heinous) practitioner, might well miss the importance of Kanes’s study or pass it over entirely.

From the beginning, Balzac has been known as an indifferent stylist. Those who idealized the stark prose of the 18th century considered him the perfect example of everything to avoid. But Balzac had as well both a profound understanding of his epoch and an awesome imagination. These qualities allowed him to create realistic representations of the period that extended from the Revolution through the July Monarchy. In short, despite his regrettable style, he was an admirable combination of Romantic flair and Realistic observation. His Romanticism, his Realism, and his questionable style have long dominated discussions in student manuals and, one assumes, the curriculum.

Starting shortly after 1950, New Novelists like Alain Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute and New Critics like Roland Barthes introduced a twist on the old clichés. They no longer mentioned Balzac’s inability to write well. Instead they pointed to his unfortunate lack of interest in the medium of his art—in language, Given the recent “truism” that all great art is in essence a commentary on itself as art or as its medium, they find little to commend in Balzac’s La Comédie humaine. The 19th-century novelist is said to be hopelessly dated because he attempted to use language to portray his day; he did not realize that language in itself is real (or “opaque,” in Barthes’s famous formulation). Had he concerned himself with the activity of language, current readers could continue to relate to the still pertinent adventure of associating mind to words. Instead, the poor fellow supposedly ignored the medium to represent the world that surrounded him. Naturally, the early 19th century has little relevance to our concerns. So says la nouvelle critique.

Anyone steeped in the Anglo-American tradition of criticism would immediately recognize the argument as a specious attempt to elevate one kind of subject matter over another. We know that aesthetic excellence has nothing to do with what the work is about. Although Kanes makes almost no reference to this background in la nouvelle critique (two brief disagreements with Barthes and a sharp but footnoted objection to Goldmann), his study constitutes a different and an important response. Kanes argues convincingly that Balzac’s work is intimately concerned with the problems of language, that language is an important theme of La Comedie humaine. He does not analyze Balzacian language, which has had critical attention, rather the role of language in the great novelist’s oeuvre, which has not. One may infer that la nouvelle critique has been guilty of insufficient insight into Balzac. It perhaps follows that recent French critics, with the notable exception of Michel Butor, have erred in their disdain of 19th-century fiction. I wish Kanes had made the points explicitly.

In my opinion and from the evidence adduced in Balzac’s Comedy of Words, they are valid.

Nonetheless, Martin Kanes’s contribution assuredly goes beyond the imperceptive, erroneous commentaries that doubtless gave it birth. He points to the intimate relationship of what previously seemed haphazard. There is indeed a connection between Balzac’s desire to write a history of his day and his conception of a genius who goes far beyond mere copies of reality to remake it. As Kanes makes clear, the conflict between an external, fixed, given reality and the more amorphous, subjective structures that occur in the mind continued across Balzac’s career. Language was the vehicle to communicate this struggle and, indeed, the battleground.

Kanes begins with a detailed analysis of a Balzacian manuscript dating from 1819. For convenience, the text has been titled the “Dissertation sur rhomme” and published in the appendix. Despite its juvenile pretentiousness, the little essay is extremely important. It shows the young author attempting to come to terms with the age-old problem of the relationships between mind and world, soul and body, thought and word.

Kanes situates the text in the intellectual environment of the day. Balzac’s efforts were not startlingly original, but they do show intelligence, background, and, more important, a need to relate the philosophical controversy to the needs of a creative writer. Balzac was clearly well grounded in the Port-Royal theory of grammaire générale and its modification by post-Cartesian sensualism. Though he recognized that the linguistic signs of language are themselves things, he distinguished this quality from their function as sign. In his day language was understood as primarily mimetic. It was also viewed as an inherent part of mental process or thought. Not that theorists believed the word to be the thing. Locke had condemned this proposition as “naive realism.” Long before Saussure the grammarians of Port-Royal had insisted that signs are arbitrary. They are signs, not of objects, but of thoughts. The fact that words are not just a condition and vehicle of thought but, on occasion, its creator led to the possibility of considering language “a forming form.” This Neo-Kantian concept was to lead Balzac out of the woods.

Kanes explains that the horns of the dilemma were the incompatibility of pensée (thought) and idée. “ Idea” constituted mental form and could be translated into the similarly fixed mold of “speech” or dire. Idée has structured entity. It refers to the “realm of cognition, of encounter with the world—the “objective” world,” as Kanes puts it (p. 70). Ideas are, then, acts directed at objects in the world and, as well, tangible and negotiable objects (hence the Balzacian theme of the “word-event,” where a word is charged with special meaning). Words, the physical counterpart of ideas, have physical power. When Raphaël de Valentin “speaks” his desires in La Peau de chagrin, for example, the skin shrinks, The word has a direct relationship to the thing. In short, Raphael, unable to temper dire with pensée, dies of “naïve realism.”

Pensée (thought) is related to dreams, reverie, and, above all, imagination. It is the mind’s functioning on levels other than that of reason. Today we might refer to it as a “preverbal” or “prerational” process. Balzac’s character, Louis Lambert, recognized that the typical pattern was for thought to move “de son état abstrait à un état concret, de sa génération fluide à une expression quasi-solide, si toutefois ces mots peuvent formuler des aperçus si difficiles à distinguer” (quoted by Kanes, p. 68). As is clear from this quotation, however, “By the time the initial psychic energy of Pensée is transformed into Idée and encounters the world. . .rationality has shaped it, and we have little chance of knowing to what degree it has been transformed” (p. 153). The process involves significant loss. The potential complexity, completeness, and originality of genius in pensée have become banal dire. The artist’s problem is very simply that of communicating pensée.

Balzac never explicitly formulated his solution, which was, according to Kanes, to combine words in such a way that they create real structures greater than the sum of the parts. The combination expresses pensée. The key word is expression, by which Balzac usually means this linguistic recreation of?> thought (unfortunately his usage was not as consistent as one might have wished). “Expression” accomplishes ideal communication of essence. “La mission de I’art n’est pas de copier la nature, mais de I’exprimer!” (p, 205). Here, “copier” is the equivalent of “dire” or the concept of “idee” as naive realism. Art then is a created simulacrum (or expression) which must be recreated by readers.

It would be nice, given current linguistic and metalinguistic obsessions, if Balzac had explicitly discussed his solution to the problem posed in the “Dissertation sur I’homme.” Had he done so, however, he would have made the fatal error of a Frenhofer, a Gambara, or a Balthasar Claës. He would have looked upon his work as though it could be evaluated by the same criteria as “real” reality. Standing before his work like any other perceiver, he would have debased the genial expression of pensee by limiting it to the formal descriptiveness of dire. Clearly, he recognized “the danger of being diverted from the creation of significance and value to the mere description of form” (p. 203). Perhaps his desire to avoid the kind of descriptive analytics he condemns in his characters explains why he (unlike Flaubert, Proust, Gide, and legions of recent writers) never wrote a novel about literary creativity. Still, Kanes admirably demonstrates that the problem and the solution exist at the center of key Balzacian texts like La Peau de chagrin and Les Illusions perdus.

One of the most satisfying things about Balzac’s soul searching is that “it always results from, or ends in, the production of language. There is a king of ‘justification par le récit’ in operation here; the theories are imbedded in the narration and are, indeed, an important part of it” (p. 124). After Kanes’s book, there can no longer be any doubt that Balzac joins the modern tradition of writers reflecting their art and the process of creation. One may even join with Kanes to “claim for him the first sustained effort in France to express in fiction the problems of creating fiction” (p. 261). However the case may be, Martin Kanes’s Balzac’s Comedy of Words forcefully and readably makes the point that Balzac was vitally concerned with language.

The point is important and worth making. Any new insight into the great, 19th-century novelist is of interest for historical reasons alone, and Balzac continues to have a large readership today. In France, one can still buy his novels on the news-stand. The number of English translations of his works suggests a considerable following here, as well. Dell even published an inexpensive paperback edition of La Peau de chagrin in French several years ago. Perhaps Balzac’s stature is such that Kanes may safely ignore passing perturbations in critical reception. Frankly, however, I doubt it. The main attractions that Balzac’s Comedy of Words might have for an audience outside specialist circles have been left for readers to infer. Ignorance cannot be advanced to explain Kanes’s refusal to insist that, contrary to recent opinion, Balzac’s fascination with the linguistic medium of his artistic expression makes him an author for modern sensibilities drawn to such topics and that the facile attacks on Balzac by adherents of la nouvelle critique, which has a large and growing membership on this continent, are fallacious. Kanes’s learning is impressive, and several brief comments make it clear that he is aware of current, critical pronouncements. So once again I return to the explanation proposed at the outset. Kanes did not make these points explicitly because he wished to avoid polemic. That is regrettable, for he has then largely limited his audience to those who can make them for him.


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