Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An afternoon with Balzac in Manhattan

I have a great affection for Honoré de Balzac, one of the most prolific writers in literary history. I was delighted to meet him again on Monday, in front of the great picture windows overlooking the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in midtown Manhattan.
    Balzac worked like a fiend. His books did not pour out of him all at once, but he gave them so much time and energy that they were obliged to come through. His daily pattern was to eat a light meal at 5;00 or 6:00 p.m., then sleep until midnight, when he would rise and immediately go to work. He wrote until dawn, fueled by countless cups of coffee. Once he was on a roll, he juts kept going. He thought nothing of writing for 15 hours at a stretch. He said that he sometimes worked for 48 hours with only three hours of rest somewhere in the middle.
     There was the more benign pressure of writing novels as serials that ran in the popular press. When you are under that kind of deadline, with the presses about to roll, you just have to deliver on time; you can’t wait on perfection. I remember this very well from my own days as a journalist.
     He was forever upping the pressure on himself to write. After he became a bestselling author, he squandered his money in ridiculous business ventures that left him broke. He fell for a scheme to process slagheaps left by the Romans in Sardinia. He blew away a lot more money trying to grow pineapples – unlikely to thrive in French weather – on a vast plantation in France.  
     His work habits and wild investments no doubt contributed to his early death. He died at 51, just five months after he married a woman who he first encountered in a letter signed "Anonymous", dispatched from Odessa, which criticized his novel La peau du chagrin but left him so intrigued that he tracked down the author and then courted her for fifteen years until her much older, rotten-rich husband was out of the way. That story would be worthy of a volume in his vast oeuvre, the Human Comedy.   
     Balzac is too little read in the Anglophone world today, but he has had many admirers, including Henry James and Freud, who chose  La peau de chagrin as his last read. The title has been translated as "The Magic Skin" or "The Wild Ass's Skin." It has a double meaning in French that escapes these clumsy translations. Chagrin (as in English) means sorrow or disappointment, often resulting from failure; it also means the rough, untanned hide from the rump of a horse or wild ass once often used for binding books. In English, this kind of leather is called "shagreen". 
     The hero of Balzac's tale, named Raphael, is a penurious scribbler who has decided to kill himself after losing his last money, when he stumbles into a curiosity shop that seems to contain the emblems of a whole world, like a kind of 3-dimensional Tarot deck. The owner shows Raphael a piece of shagreen with magic properties. The young writer can have this for nothing and the skin - covered with indistinct Eastern spells - will grant his every wish. But he would be well-advised not to use it.   
     The skeptical writer decides to give it a try. What does he have to lose? He's already bent on death. He rubs the skin and wishes for a revel worthy of a dissolute king. Instantly we are transported by Balzac's muscular prose into a scene of wild orgy and banqueting. The catch (and there has to be a catch in wishcraft involving lower powers) is that every time Raphael makes a wish, the skin shrinks and when it does so, he loses some of his own life-force.
      Eventually, having wished himself wealth and fame, he is desperately using his money to try to obtain a medical treatment that will reverse the process that is turning him into a shrunken, grotesque little old man. He tries to stop wishing, ordering his servants to provide him with everything he thinks he could desire at appointed times. The plan is overthrown in a scene with a beautiful woman for whom he feels passionate love. She flees from him, bent on killing herself to stop him destroying himself by wishing for her. Exactly the opposite is accomplished. As Raphael pursues her and flings himself on her, the last scrap of shagreen vanishes and he dies. 
       For all the fantastical elements in Balzac's story, anyone who has read him will know that its great success lies in what was more fantastic than fantasy in all his writing: his power of vividly realistic description. The reader is spared no detail of Raphael's decline into an ugly, shriveled wreck. It is impossible not to be moved by the picture of Freud, himself now a shriveled invalid, following this page by page. When he finished, he told his doctor, Max Schur, that it was the right book for him, because it was about "shrinkage and starvation", his lot. That same day, he gave his doctor the nod to give him huge doses of morphine that hastened his death.
     Balzac was a master in his literary depiction of the workings of passion and desire. He understood the fundamental unity of mind and matter, and that there is a law of spiritual gravitation as well as a law of physical gravitation. His view of reality — and his prodigious literary production — were driven by a vitalist belief in the power of will and imagination.
      His early novel Louis Lambert is a tale of the strange life of a young explorer in consciousness who is awakened by a precognitive dream to the fact that the world is much deeper than can be explained by reason and Newtonian physics. He comes to believe that man can become a creator by concentrating a whole reality — even an entire world — inside himself, re-visioning it, and then projecting the new image to fill his environment. But the protagonist comes unstuck and unhinged because he can’t ground his understanding in the physical world. 
      The Balzacian hero is a man of desire and imagination who must also ground his passions in the body, in healthy sex, in social engagement with the world — or else go mad.    Balzac's version of what becomes possible through exercising the passions of the soul is wonderful. Acts of mind, fueled by passion, abolish time and space. “To desire is immediately to be where one desires to be, instantaneously to be what one desires to be." Time is devoured by the moment; space is absorbed by the point. “For the man in such a state, distances and material objects do not exist, or are traversed by a life within us."  
     A person who carries a great desire is surrounded by a certain “atmosphere,” a “magnetic fluid” that moves in waves, like sound and light, and touches others. That person produces “a contagion of feelings.” Passion of this kind magnifies sensory abilities; we can see and hear and sense things vividly across distance.  Coincidences multiply around such a person, because things now happen through “sympathies which do not recognize the laws of space.”   
Thank you for this, and so much more, Honoré. I have dreamed of you several times. Once I dreamed I was walking with you, or like you, along a boulevard in Paris, happy to be alive and drinking the air after one of those long writing orgies. Dreams have pushed me to read several of your novels. I dreamed that, in an old curiosity shop, I found a copy of Les chouans. Waking, I rushed to my favorite used bookstore (dangerously close to my home) and found a copy of the Penguin translation in the stack of new arrivals. In another dream, I attended a performance based on a season in your life, when you managed to turn out page after page despite illness and fatigue. 
     And I must remember not to drink as much coffee as you did after midnight.
My comments on Balzac's novel Louis Lambert are adapted from my book The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power ofDreams, Coincidence and Imagination. Published by New World Library.


James Wilson said...

Hi Robert, my post does not relate with the subject of this topic. But I have a question concerning your topic of, 15 march 2013 : Strange sky and a plot against the government.
As I posted in that topic I had a dream in the night of 15-16 March where president Obama was a part of.
Yesterday I watched Obama give a speech at the Lincoln monument, in honor of the speech that Martin L King gave 50 years ago, and this made me think about my dream ( of 15-16 march) again.

I realize the event is not exactly the same as my dream, but it rhymes with my dream.
There were no people standing behind Obama, but the subject of and reason for his speech are connected with the events in the 60’s. This could be symbolized in my dream by the group of people behind him. And the religious atmosphere of his speech in my dream could refer to the fact that this speech was going to be about Martin L King

Because this event is not the only one that rhymes with my present day (waking)live I thought it’s worth mentioning. Another part of the same dream was about my house. “ I am standing in the living room and looking outside at the garden. People are working at the outside of my house. There is a lot of noise from drilling in the wall. I can hear the very loud noise of drilling while standing in my living room”
Since the beginning of this week people are working at the outside of my house because the drainpipes have to be renewed. And I can here al lot of noise from the drilling.

Of course I am very curious if your present waking live rhymes with your dream of 15 march.
Especially because of the current situation concerning Syria. If this were my dream I would wonder if it could refer to a plot to overthrow the government in Syria. (despite the remark in your dream "the states have a different viewpoint from the government.") So instead of an intervention with bombardments with airplanes and missile, there is a coup in the making?

Question: does your present waking live rhymes with your dream of 15 march?

Michael said...

What a wonderful appreciation of a writer who is as central as Shakespeare! And I'm glad to know that Honoré walks the streets of Manhattan, or at least haunts its museums.

I'd just like to share a Balzacian experience I had back in college. I was reading La peau de chagrin just after the post-summer return to campus in a public space, and an acquaintance passed by who had inexplicably converted to Pentacostalism over the vacation. He stared at me intensely, said it was an evil book, and told me I should stop reading it. His fiery look of disapproval is still with me, but I continued to read it with delight and horror up to the end. Time to pick it up again. Thank you warmly for the reminder!

Marit Standal Skyum said...

Thanks Robert. I read you with a lot of pleasure and your appreciation of Balzac. I have thought about fear and desire for a long time and think they are our most prominent feelings for motivation for our actions.
What do you think of this sentence from Pascal Mercier in "Night train to Lisbon". "If you have fear, you have a master. If you have desire, you are a slave" In this book he makes his statement very clear in the story and one doesn't want to be ruled by one or the other. I can see there's a truth in his statement, but how can we live without fear and desire? I agree with you and Balzac. Desire can give visible positive energy.