Thursday, June 7, 2012
that ludicrous medley of things
Charles Dickens does not conserve and Balzac does not conserve, they stare, they hunt, they describe, Dickens goes backstage with the actors, Balzac goes backstage in Paris, which city is his stage; and he goes up stairs, into tenements, looks around; he divulges everybody's secrets. "For the devotees," he says in Herbert J. Hunt's translation of History of the Thirteen, "Paris is sad or gay, ugly or beautiful, living or dead; for them Paris is a sentient being; every individual, every bit of a house is a lobe in the cellular tissue of that great harlot whose head, heart and unpredictable behaviour are perfectly familiar to them." It's wonderful to be a devotee and let's go up these stairs where we'll see a poor woman's secret boudoir, "a truly Parisian glory-hole" with a pug dog and a chicken.
Hazlitt pictures a barrier between those things he knows and the things he doesn't, or not a barrier but he sees a pair of different states, and there are conditions he would have to fill to pass from one to the other -- he doesn't want to pass -- he doesn't want to meet the actors in their dressing rooms, he doesn't want to be Lucien de Rubempré in Balzac's Lost Illusions: "At a sign from Lousteau, the doorkeeper of the orchestra took a little key and opened a door, concealed in the thickness of the wall. Lucien followed his friend, and passed suddenly from the brightly lit corridor into the dark hole that, in nearly all theatres, leads from the house to the wings" where he looks at "all that ludicrous medley of things, sordid, dirty, hideous, and gaudy" "the scenery, hideous when seen close up, the actors with their make-up and their extraordinary costumes, made of such coarse material, the scene-shifters in greasy overalls."
The original innocence is precarious, Lucien loses it so simply, by walking through a door after his friend, by being curious, and by being human, by having eyes, he never, like Hazlitt, identifies a state and plans to remain there; Lucien wants to prosper, and Lousteau has promised to introduce him to people -- he had no idea that Hazlitt's two states existed until he had left one and crossed into the other. If you can't see a danger then you can't say no. If you told me that Hazlitt stayed innocent of the backstage area until he died then I would believe you easily. But Lucien never can measure the experiences in front of him, even, in a different area of the book when someone in the know is telling him that they will be terrible. Don't do that, they say, I did it and it was the worst mistake of my life, I'm doing it right now and it's a disaster, whatever you do, don't do that, and he does it.
He wants to prosper, in other words he wants to change, and he changes; every new state sucks him in: love with one kind of woman, love with another kind of woman, friendship with idealists, friendship with cynics, Balzac presents him with a chain of alterations and he goes naturally into each one, foreseeing an advantage every time, in the act of change; the transitional period that Hazlitt fears, lures him on, perhaps it lured Hazlitt too, therefore the fear.
Journalism for example, says one of Lucien's friends: don't go into journalism, it will destroy you, trust me, I've seen that world. Journalism? He goes into journalism. Change is corruption, says the author. Change is always worse, says Balzac. But change excites him, paradox excites him, grotesque pawnbrokers excite him, his language becomes extravagant, he sounds thrilled -- violation excites him, if you have to choose a word -- expectations being violated, or ideals being violated -- everything that makes Lucien's life more difficult, Balzac likes.
But Ann Radcliffe is never excited by anything she has said she is against.