Review of Séraphita [And Louis Lambert & The Exiles] by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 1873982410 (ISBN13: 9781873982419)

Rarely have I seen such wise arguments, such logical rhetoric, such splendid lyricism, such sincerity – even within the pages of Balzac

Seraphitaseraphitus is one of the author’s personal favorites, or so he said, and it is clear he had a fascination with the hermaphrodite figure in history. Apply this to a Shakespearean love triangle and you get a very interesting work of fiction. Unfortunately, the plot is of secondary importance. This is more of a philosophic text than anything else.

We are at first presented with a majestic landscape in Norway. Some of the most luscious descriptions in Balzac’s oeuvre. Then the characters come into the scene, displaying as much wit and intelligence as any of his stock geniuses. “Human granite hems in the sea of intellect.” They start sermonizing, and simply following the train of logic from one point to the next makes for a rewarding journey.

Have people really changed at all since the beginning of time? Balzac doubts. This short novel, and the other novella and short story in the collection, cast light on the mystery of sentience, and serve as a contemplation of the Creator’s methodology in man and nature. They are starkly grounded in earlier centuries than our own, but radiate the charm of antiquated argument.

Fantastical though it is, Seraphita proved the exception in Balzac. Strict realism proved the rule, but this delightful tale makes one wonder how much fame he would have attained had he confined himself to supernatural subjects. Balzac was well-informed and well-read in every subject of life, it seems, and brings his knowledge to his characters, who never show but superficial ignorance.
Balzac the historian. Balzac the scientist and mystic. He put on every hat as he struggled to exhaust the forms of life he perceived in the human animal. The dialogue partakes of the same grandiosity as the detailed descriptions. The personalities swell to encompass their times. As is clear within fifty pages, Balzac expressed great confidence in Swedenborg’s theories and proceeds with an extended essay, Swedenborgian in inclination, inspired by that philosopher’s superhuman literary accomplishment. Even if this slide away from his original subject was unwarranted, it offers much historical and lyrical interest to the uninitiated.

Louis Lambert, the second novella, is an enchanting chronicle of a precocious boy of uncommon intelligence in a militaristic, monastic boy’s school, which, we are led to believe, mirrors what we know of Balzac’s strained childhood with a level of detail nothing short of astounding.

Childhood complaints become allegories as manhood’s struggles. It is a comedy fraught with pathos and much memorable Dickensian satire, which further reinforces Balzac’s tendency toward mysticism in its later pages, succumbing to philosophical eccentricities, as Louis Lambert, in a disturbing analog to Balzac’s own questionable beliefs, derails his own genius.

I can see why Balzac’s connection of Mesmer’s theories to the spiritual realm led to critical controversy. Though many of Balzac’s theories appear harebrained from a modern viewpoint – (“perfumes are ideas”) – you can’t fault his logic. Taking up phenomenology and religion, in the loosest sense, his breadth of learning and powers of articulation easily qualify him as a genius. It’s easy for us to scoff at the geniuses who believed the world was flat, but where would we be without them? From our high tower of contemporaneity, we can look down on Isaac Newton if we choose. Balzac’s theories of “Suspense” (potential energy) and electrical impulses in the brain seem old fashioned, absurd and comical – but he took them seriously, he culled them from immense troves of reading, and adapted them for his fiction. Much of the time, he made what he found kosher for his ecclesiastical purposes.

“By trying to create gold the alchemist’s created chemistry.” – By misstepping in many of his theories, he crafted eloquent fiction. In the end, this book reads almost like apologetics and is not a representative work or the best starting point in his corpus. You will still find very glossy prose, of course, but this is a side-story to the Human Comedy.

The germ of inspiration for some of Strindberg’s ideas is evident. That author was just as obsessed by Balzac as he was by Swedenborg. Balzac discusses the separation of the material from the spiritual world at length, as well as the problems of considering eternity in conjunction with man’s mind and co-eternity and anterior eternity and much else which requires deeper familiarity with Swedenborg’s religion.

Balzac posits that in human love there is something of the divine, and that which cannot be understood must be interpreted as witchcraft by men. Sometimes there is poison in the interpretation. Pure love, such as Seraphita engenders, is angelic, but Wilfred’s interpretations, his involuntary participation, lowers it to the human realm. The mystical impressions Balzac depicts are representative of the soul’s flights and descents in response to otherworldly impetuses. He held Seraphita in greater esteem than Goriot, as a character, and sweated over the novel far more than the several other books he wrote simultaneously. Somewhat dated in a few offhand racist and misogynist remarks, the plot and characterization fall by the wayside as 100 pages of philosophical debate ensue. But I still recognized the literary merit.

It also insinuates part of the underlying motive of the Human Comedy: that is, reconciling Spiritualism with Materialism. One finds throughout his work characters wrestling with these 2 forces.

Like his mouthpiece, Louis Lambert, Balzac deviates greatly from religious doctrine and partakes of playful speculation. This is all to say he undertakes serious moral arguments. He is a sound adjudicator and a convincing rebel.

Through his characters, one detects underlying doubt. There would be no need to expound at such length if he were merely novelizing. Moralizing is closer to what he is doing. He is spouting off his bottled up unreconciled anxiety in the guise of artistic experimentation.

His critics said: “His was an untutored, unrestrained intellect, deeply curious about the occult sciences, about mesmerism, astrology, animal magnetism, mysticism, and alchemy, but uncontaminated by science and commonsense.”

The dig about commonsense is false, and he obviously knew his science and mathematics. But that does not mean he did not twist what he read. Just for the inherent romance of wild landscapes, Balzac is a painter with words worthy of esteem.

He pinpoints some excellent juxtapositions: inertia versus motion, granite and the sea, within his lengthy, majestic descriptions which prefigured Naturalism, there are enough verbose and grandiose moments to justify his wild eccentricities. His is always concerned with the fascinating phenomena of human nature, depicting the feeling and intellect of his characters, their earthly pursuits and those of the hereafter. Mingled with the melodrama are universal truths, allegorized with exquisite precision. The tangibility of man’s ideas, our dichotomous natures, the mingling of unlike substances, bring out Balzac’s powers in excess.

In Louis Lambert, the speechifying is reminiscent of Hamlet’s. Man’s constituent propensity to contemplate god more than he contemplates himself echoes throughout literature, and the inspired Lambert internalizes the literary ideals of Balzac. Balzac’s brand of escapism, involves life and imagination proceeding from the power of the word. We draw out its meaning and expand upon it with our interpretations, and through this the evolution of modern languages and symbols took shape, from hieroglyphs to rhetoric. This is the heart of Lambert’s early argument. The imaginations of children in the ability to transport the senses was recognized and exploited by the author as his characters live out the axiom: “Our spirit loves the abyss.”

The abyss of death, the void of the hereafter, the religious ideals and the earthly restraints we feel in our daily existence all contributed to Balzac’s lifelong pursuits.

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