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Balzac at the Paris Zoo

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

The tremendous power emanating from Balzac is not yet spent. It still challenges his commentators to find some more or less basic explanation which will make clear the true significance of the “Comedie humaine.” One critic may see in Balzac, first of all, “the Napoleon of literature” (to use one of his own sayings) transposing into writing what a prodigious upstart had accomplished in action. Others rightly praise Balzac by likening him to some force of Nature, or by singling out his prodigious will power. The majority are satisfied with recalling the exuberance of his so-called compatriot Rabelais, in order to attribute his fertile genius to the province of Touraine, which Balzac himself scorned for its easy-going placidity; or else they follow him with highly justified admiration into the field of practical affairs. The present writer, however, has often emphasized the obvious Manichaeism of this young “Albigensian” of twenty, imagining the universe engaged in a never-ending struggle between Good and Evil, between God and the Devil, which compels all life to flow between these two poles.

This variety of interpretations is, in my opinion, justified, and each doubtless contains a measure of truth: indeed it would be impossible to explain by any simple linking of Balzac and his work to a single set of determining factors the seething creation of a man who, upon his death at fifty-one, left behind him a whole world. Thanks to the increasing fund of knowledge which M. Bouteron’s zeal has made possible, the man and his work are less and less “in the air” and literary history need no longer content itself with the first fine rapture of Gautier or Gozlan, the acts of faith of Brunetiere or Le Breton, still less with the somewhat fastidious faultfinding of many an academic or fashionable critic.

Thus, one episode in the dim past of Balzac’s life is becoming clearer and clearer, an episode which provided the future novelist with one of the chief roots of his work, and which in my opinion cannot be overemphasized: his brief but decisive acquaintance with the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, or Paris Zoo. I should like to add here some further details to those which I have already given in my “Orientations etran-geres chez Balzac.”

Young Honore was twenty. His education had been a thing of shreds and patches, torn between the practical realism of the Napoleonic system and the compulsory spiritualism of the Bourbon Restoration. It was decided that this ambitious and unruly youth would be given a chance to prove that he had literary talent, by laying him under the necessity of bringing forth a “tragedy” according to accepted rules. In great secrecy he moved to a garret at number 9 rue Lesdiguieres, near the boulevard du Temple, in a remote part of the city, which would enable his family to say that he was making an indefinite stay in the provinces at Albi. Take a map of Paris at that time, and try to imagine what his secluded but free existence was like. He must not be seen in his usual haunts; but incognito was really an advantage to this hollow-eyed, unshaven Bohemian who must not be seen at the theatre or the Louvre, and must avoid gatherings from which he might be tracked down. He himself, in “Facino Cane” and in his letters to “Laura soror” has enabled us to imagine his plight.

During this summer of 1819, while spending whole weeks in his garret “eating, sleeping, thinking thoughts, and walking walks without accomplishing anything,” he was trying to turn out, like a well oiled metronome, the two thousand verses of a classical tragedy. He put aside his plan for a comic opera and for a “Stella” in the classical manner, and then a “Corsaire” followed a “Sylla” into limbo, to make way for the impossible “Cromwell.” What worse torture than such imposed tasks? What worse foolishness than such experiments undertaken solely to tempt the muses? Now that we are acquainted with Balzac’s “Cromwell,” we can sympathize more readily with his genius that rebelled against those sacrosanct conventions which his family and his judges considered standards for good literature, and which were at the same time to show that this pretentious youth was really gifted for letters. And we are full of compassion for this exemplary docility: Honore Balzac cannot as yet marshal any objections, and so he is willing to let the Lord Protector and his antagonists converse in Alexandrines bearing the earmarks of versification and rhetoric which had indeed issued from the classics but which had been denatured by the windy wordiness of a whole century unaccustomed to real tragedy.

Did our young man intend, for this, to let his field lie fallow? Such a conclusion would take no account of his prodigious vitality, and would neglect the fact that for a being of this mettle even adversity is fruitful. During his solitary walks along the nearby boulevard, he observed what were to him “lesser breeds,” and the common people supplied him with ample food for intuitive observation, the method he always preferred to any positive documentation. As for another still more “dynamic” world, one which had even more to teach him about consequences and corollaries—Balzac was to discover it by himself. He had only to follow the boulevard Bourdon and the quai Morland to the place Mazas, and then after taking the Pont du Jardin du Roi across the Seine (into which he would have plunged in despair had he been Raphael in the “Peau de Chagrin”) he was before the main entrance to an institution which, under the leadership of its director Georges Cuvier, was one of the most prosperous in Paris. Lecture halls, laboratories, and galleries open for public demonstrations had been added to the Museum of Natural History itself, and to the botanical and zoological treasures which had been accumulating here since 1636.

By a striking coincidence, which throws into relief the minds of two famous literary figures, Wordsworth, in October, 1820, visited the Jardin du Roi or Jardin des Plantes, and nothing in Paris interested him so much. But the elderly poet felt himself “moved to tears of admiration for this boundless demonstration of the wonders of Creation.” Apparently, his faith in Providence was strengthened by these living tableaux, appropriately presented, in which adaptation to environment, the harmony between appetite and food, and the immediate satisfaction of instincts were all set forth for general edification—especially for the edification of Man, King of Creation, whose exceptional soul placed him above and beyond all these animals who ate, drank, slept, reproduced, and disappeared with such harmonious automatism.

Our bitter young visitor, however, drew from this same spectacle quite another lesson. Was he present at any of those evening demonstrations, when real scientists explained the ways of Nature, the defensive devices whereby the weak become the strong, and the difficulties presented at that very moment by hypotheses concerning the evolution of species? Did he thus early meet Cuvier, Saint-Hilaire and Vauquelin, with whose writings, we know from other sources, he had much more than a speaking acquaintance? It seems fairly probable, and his unoptimistic view of the world thus became strengthened by arguments which were unfamiliar to the merely bookish and fashionable writers who flourished at the time. Nor did he hide from his beloved sister the fact that a “young lady at the Zoo,” an occasional stroller there, had made his voracious heart beat faster.

All this, in the autumn of 1819, must certainly have seemed to a growing young mind worthy of the praise bestowed upon it by all the Paris guides of the period. Here, for example, is how the eleventh edition of Mr. Planta’s “Stranger’s Guide to the French Metropolis,” published at London in 1819, describes the Jardin du Roi:

In addition to a noble botanic garden, it contains a large menagerie, a museum of natural history and anatomy, and numerous halls in which public lectures are delivered on every branch of natural history and philosophy. Each of these divisions will afford inexhaustible amusement and information. . . . The dens in which are confined the fiercer beasts of prey . . . are arranged with considerable taste, and many of them afford a very instructive lesson in zoology and botany. Where it could be accomplished, the trees and shrubs of the animals’ native climes, or the vegetables in which they most delight, flourish within their enclosures.

Since many learned naturalists, in the course of the nineteenth century, were to credit Balzac with a precocious understanding of the problems of adaptation and environment, let us say that an inspired interaction was beginning in predestined surroundings.

As in the case of everyone and everything that really counted in his life, Balzac was to remain faithful, in memory and allusion, to this Zoo where he first came to recognize somber realities. To be sure, the rushing, chaotic, infernal existence which was his lot rendered impossible any precise and orderly record of his memories; for this very reason the scattered evidence which the exegete can interpret and contribute to Balzac’s biography, becomes the more precious. At the beginning of the fourth chapter of “La Femme de trente ans,” for example, he placed a meditation similar to many which must have passed through his mind in 1819, and which he enlarged upon in a manner unusual for him:

Between the Barriere d’ltalie and the Barriere de la Sante, on the inner boulevard, which leads to the Jardin des Plantes, there is a prospect which might well enchant the most fastidious artist or traveler. . . .

Many a tryst was to have for its background what the novelist called “the dull rustic boredom of the Jardin des Plantes.” Balzac himself, returning from a visit to a friend imprisoned for debt at Sainte-Pelagie, endeavored, in La Silhouette for June 17,1830, to arouse the pity of his readers for those other prisoners, “the inmates of the Jardin des Plantes.” More important still, when his friend Granville illustrated “Les Animaux peints par eux-memes,” Balzac drew freely upon his former acquaintance with the internal history of a great center of learning. Apparently harmless fantasies—such as “Guide-Ane a l’usage des animaux qui veulent arriver aux honneurs,” “Voyage d’un lion d’Afrique a Paris,” “Amours de deux betes”—are in reality the ironic aftermath of a terrible discovery: the close connection between mankind and the animal kingdom. After long observation and reflection, Balzac would have willingly recognized as his own the thought expressed by Bianchon, one of his most obvious fictional mouthpieces, in the album of “La Muse du departement”:

The distinction between Napoleon and a water carrier is perceptible only to Society. Nature can see no difference.

It goes without saying, however, that Balzac did not wait for the full development of the “Comedie humaine” to hint at the first proofs of his new convictions and viewpoints. Quite aside from his acceptance (slightly ridiculous because so unqualified) of the hypotheses of Lavater and Gall, for whom the physiological appearances of man seem a proof of his fundamentally animal nature (a theory which destroys Buffon’s homo duplex and still more the dignity of homo sapiens), Balzac early showed traces of his naturalistic preoccupations. There has recently been printed an unpublished work definitely dated 1819-1820, entitled “Stenie ou Les Erreurs philosophiques.” Several passages of this incoherent book give evidence both of the crisis through which a troubled mind and conscience were passing at this date, and of the almost “experimental” arguments which our genius had already drawn from first-hand observation, far more important than his so-called scientific reading. For example, the eighteenth letter alludes to one of the problems which was to haunt Balzac, the innocence of the animal when inflicting injury as compared to the intellectual perversity of man: “. . . the animal with his simple ideas . . . uses unerringly the faculties he has received. . . .” The twenty-ninth letter, foreshadowing “Le Pere Goriot” and the dedication of a case of apparent “monstrosity” to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, mentions one of the theories of Cuvier’s great rival, concerning the plausibility of teratologi-cal cases. Balzac here refers to the anomaly, the exceptionally rare curiosity, as “a simple variation of the human species”; the latter part of the letter supplies a basis for the “Physiologie du mariage” by admitting the “natural state” as favorable only to “momentary marriage”; the forty-second letter contrasts once again the animal who is “without crime because without reason,” with man, whose errors are blameworthy because subject to the suggestions of the mind.

Doubtless a sort of Wertherian world-weariness, which characterizes the hero of this epistolary novel, precludes any clear-cut expression of this naturalistic pessimism. The muddy mass of hack work which Balzac was soon obliged to turn out for the benefit of lending-library patrons, was to be still more inauspicious for the real expression of so many novel and fruitful ideas. Nevertheless, Balzac was henceforth designated for the great revival of psychology (should one say “physiology”?) which was to be his lot, and which he was to improve and amend, later, with genius.

In November 1819, Balzac wrote to Laura, after first mentioning the cemetery where he would thenceforth walk:

I must leave you now, and go to Pere-Lachaise for instruction in melancholy. . . . I have stopped going to the Jardin des Plantes because it is too sad. . . .

The Jardin des Plantes “too sad”? Could it have been merely because autumn had stripped the shrubs of their summer beauty, and because the leaves of the protecting trees were strewing the walks? Could it have been because the “young lady at the Zoo,” during her walks, no longer passed near a starving young genius? But the great cemetery where Balzac now turned his steps was not in itself a much more pleasant spot, and certainly the arduous problem which confronted the writer there (“of all the spiritual moods of the soul, grief is the most difficult to depict”) could not alone render the daily frequentation of a cemetery less lugubrious I No, Balzac, the “amateur naturalist,” the thoughtful spectator of animal life, suffering from the lack of any positive counterweight in his “Manichansm,” felt his humorous indifference cracking beneath impressions for which he had been ill prepared by ready-made spiritualism. Mankind in society—the only means of survival Nature has given to a being who is helpless by himself—seemed to him no less given to the “struggle for life” than any of those “inferior brothers” he had watched so closely. The “mystics” whose necessity and role in human progress he was later to show so well, were not yet revealed to him. The instinctive comba-tiveness of animals, scarcely perceptible to the complaisant eye of the “providentialists,” is aggravated in mankind by intelligence, and is attenuated only exceptionally and under the frailest of influences: such a truth is enough to make a young mind of Balzac’s stamp shudder; enough, too, to make him throw overboard all the vain outworn literary forms of pseudo classicism, Delille along with Lebrun, Girodet with David, and even that fatidical quartet to whom he thought he was still attached:

Crebillon encourages me, Voltaire frightens me, Corneille transports me, Racine makes me throw down my pen. . . .


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