Friday, February 22, 2008

A final note on Harlot - it is one of my little weaknesses to be interested in magnetism

Esther loved Lucien at a glance, and gave up everything for him. Monsieur de Nucingen loved Esther at a glance. The great criminal Vautrin renounced everything for Lucien. Lucien and Esther are somehow under Vautrin's power.

All of this just has to be taken at face value. That's part of the Romantic side of the novel. Most readers will do what they can to fill in the psychology - it's clear enough, for example, that Vautrin patronizes Lucien (and Rastignac way back in Pére Goriot) because he's homosexual. That doesn't explain much, though, and this isn't Chekhov, where small details provide ambiguous but real psychological clues to behavior.

Things get stranger, though. Lots of people, not just Esther and Vautrin, fall instantly in love with Lucien. Vautrin has a sort of gang that is absolutely devoted to him - his aunt Asia, his servant Europe, and others. Other criminals, the most dangerous men in France, are held by his gaze. So are the magistrates and prosecuting attorneys. What is going on?

A chapter near the end is called "Observation on the subject of magnetism" (421-4). Balzac interrupts the narrative to have one extremely minor character, a doctor, tell another about his recent experience with a hypnotist ("an experiment that made me shudder"). A mesmerized woman is ordered to squeeze the doctor's wrist:

"The pressure, at first barely sensible, continued without respite all the time adding new force to the pressure of a moment before; in short, a tourniquet could not have been applied with more precision than that hand changed into an instrument of torture. It seems to me clear, then, that, under the empire of passion which is will-power concentrated upon one point and brought to an incalculable idea of animal force, as the various types of electrical current may be, man's entire vitality, whether for attack or for resistance, can be concentrated in any one of his organs... We still don't know the extent of our vital forces, they derive from the underlying power of nature, and we draw upon them from unknown reservoirs!"

This looks like one of those passages an author uses to tell us how to read his book. My understanding is that Balzac believed this business. He also believed in phrenology and whatever other early 19th century pseudosciences were floating around. He wouldn't be the first intellectual to be seduced by nonsense like this. The question is, what does it mean for the book now? Should I treat the characters as under a mechanical influence - can they be explained by science? Or should mesemerism be treated as nothing but a metaphor? Or maybe the modern reader should just ignore it. Some meaning will be lost - Balzac didn't ignore it - but maybe we can extract something new.

Next week, just poetry. There's been too much prose here, thick blocks of prose. Time to cleanse the palate.


  1. Maybe Lucien is such a shark that he has ampullae of Lorenzini creating his electromagnetic field. Okay, not really, but ampullae of Lorenzini is a great phrase.

  2. Maybe so! Did I mention that Esther's nickname when she worked as a courtesan was "The Electric Eel"? I didn't dwell on it because it's so vulgar.

    Anyway, if you had run this by Balzac he would have been very interested.

  3. If she's the electric eel and he's obviously some sort of shark, there really could have been some great sparks flying.

    By the way, I love the change on the link to my blog and I feel inspired that to figure out something lucky about squash to post.