Thursday, March 4, 2021

Balzac's "Philosophical Studies" - it will be necessary to defend THE CHURCH

Balzac retroactively organized the pieces of his evolving “Human Comedy” into big categories, some obvious, like “Scenes from Parisian Life,” some more obscure, like the largest group, “Scenes from Private Life,” which includes the extremely Parisian Le père Goriot (1835), so don’t ask me.  I never took Balzac’s organization seriously, and in France his books are published on their own.  So I thought I would take a look, specifically at Volume 15 of an 1870 edition of the Complete Works of H. de Balzac containing the second part of the “Philosophical Studies,” which could mean anything.

I read the book until I was tired of it, which covered six texts, ranging from 20 pages to 240.  Three I had previously read in English; three were new to me, Numbers 41 to 43 of my progress through the 92 novels and stories Human Comedy.

The counting, by the way, is a joke going back to the beginning of Wuthering Expectations, mocking a tic critics have picked up when writing about Balzac.  He wrote an enormous amount in a fairly short time (twenty years for his mature works), certainly, but for what other author do we fetishize the number of “novels and stories,” as if those were comparable.  Elizabeth Bowen, checking quickly, wrote 89 novels and stories (10 novels, 79 stories), almost as many as Balzac.  But who would ever think to say that means anything?

Let’s see what I learned.

“Jésus-Christ en Flandre” (“Jesus Christ in Flanders,” 1831, 20 pp.)

I’d always wondered about that title.  A boat full of passengers almost founders in a storm off the coast of Ostend, but luckily Jesus Christ is on board.  He saves the faithful poor but not the faithless rich.  Christ’s footprints in the sand were, “the attestation of the last visit Jesus had made to the earth.”  That was in 1793.  In 1831, the narrator visits the chapel on the site and concludes that after the 1830 July Revolution “it will be necessary to defend THE CHURCH” (emphasis Balzac’s).

In the largest part of Balzac’s work, it would be impossible to know that France has a religion at all.  Religion is completely absent.  In at least two stories, better stories than this one, “An Incident in the Reign of Terror” (1830) and “The Atheist’s Mass” (1836), the personal meaning of the Mass is explored, but with some distance (see that last title).  I was surprised to see such a direct religious expression by Balzac.

Two pages and one long paragraph are given to a detailed description of the chapel, including organ music that agitates the narrator’s spirit.  These carefully described settings are common features of this set of stories.  They are a big part of Balzac’s “realism,” something he picked up from Walter Scott and developed into a major part of his art. 

“Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece,” 1831, 30 pp.)

For example, it is an artist’s studio that gets the treatment in this unusual story, a favorite of both Cézanne and Picasso.  The painter Frenhofer has been obsessively working on a single painting, his masterpiece, unseen by anyone.  A plot involving the young Poussin (we are in the early 17th century) and his smoking hot model girlfriend leads to the completion of the painting, which is revealed to be “a chaos of colors, tones, and vague shadings,” with “a delicious foot, a living foot” in the corner.  Frenhofer has spent, as Poussin and I suppose Balzac see it, ten mad years not making but obliterating a masterpiece.

Or, as Cézanne, Picasso, and many more recent readers see it, Frenhofer has invented Modernist painting a couple of hundred years too early.  I wrote similarly about “The Unknown Masterpiece” ages ago.  I have not, since then, come across another text with such a mismatch between how it presumably looked to its first readers and how it looks now.

I’ll save the other four for tomorrow.  The bits of translated text above are all my fault.


  1. Hmm, I suppose I should post my next post now, just to get in first. It would be interesting to calculate an average length for Balzac's 92 "novels". I'm guessing it's around 100 pages.

  2. That is very close to the estimate I made looking at the Pléiade editions.

    The works under discussion next, by the way, will be La Peau de Chagrin , "Melmoth réconcilié," "Gambara," and Massimilla Doni. My energy ran out before La Recherche de l'absolu, the last piece in the volume.