Friday, June 17, 2016

homage to those who insist on being found

The characters who can see that Andoche Finot is “the evident son of a hat-maker“ don’t need him to know anything about hats. If he had been the son of a shoe-maker then nothing would have had to change in the book besides the word “hat,” and the son of a table-maker or a butcher would have done equally well because the others don’t need him to know about tables or meat. “Son of a perfumer” would have been a problem since there are already people in the book working on perfumes and then Balzac would have had to align him with the existing perfume-universe in some way, which would have been a waste of time, the plot not needing another perfume person. It already has more than the average number of perfumers for a work of fiction. You can also say that it has more than the average number of sons of hat-makers, because most books have none. There is a certain character in the same author's Sarrasine, 1830, who, if he had been able to look “from head to foot” like precisely what he was, would have made it impossible for Balzac to write the story. As I am reading the introduction by Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin to the recent translation of Robert Walser’s essays about art I learn that the writer once managed to get himself fired from a secretarial position by sending “highly inappropriate business letters” to clients of the Berliner Secession. Immediately I assume that he found it essential. The displaced and abandoned title character in Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, 1832, does not need people to see that he is Colonel Chabert so much as he needs them to see that he is not someone who would pretend to be Colonel Chabert. There is one person who recognised him flawlessly and against her own desires but she is also unfortunately the human being who most benefits from him not being Colonel Chabert, and so she undermines him, knowing what he is but not wanting anyone else to know. Several theatre-workers in Sarrasine prefer to keep a certain true identity secret too, for their own enrichment -- emotional rather than financial: now that they have caused the sculptor Ernest-Jean Sarrasine to think that he is something that he is not, they are able to laugh and nourish themselves on that fun misapprehension. Chabert’s wife likewise derives satisfaction from her husband not being himself. The knowledge that Finot sends shining out of his appearance is not harmful to him because no one in The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau is going to cripple a man with the information that his father makes hats. But he is not going to benefit from it either. So his ability to look like the son of a hat-maker is not useful to him in any way that the reader can see. The crowd of characters in other Balzac books who travel from the provinces to the city because they want to be successful and envied do not want people to look at them and know that they are the sons of villager individuals. Think that I am the offspring of someone other than my parents: that is their wish and their hope. If Finot had been one of those characters then his skill would have been a liability that he would have had to overcome by being rich. “No one likes to pay homage to those who insist on being found noteworthy,” writes Walser in his essay on Manet’s Olympia, but money is strong, says Balzac, as he makes his characters wrestle the strongman, money. Some of them will lose the fight voluntarily. The author is thrilled by those freaks. César Birotteau himself wants to pay his debts honestly. His wife and daughter are the same way; his impoverishment has made them act out what they are, says Balzac: they are quiet, resolute, strong, upright, attractive, etc. Ferdinand du Tillet, the one who has decided to destroy César by taking away his livelihood, is being true to himself when he behaves cruelly, we are told; he is a destructive, vindictive person. But he is not happy at the end, even though he has been himself. People respect this brave Birotteau. Du Tillet is uneasy. Meanwhile Colonel Chabert realises that he has the opportunity to resume his identity but he is not willing to put up with the personal warfare he will have to go through to get it. He is enraged; he produces a dramatic spasm, he gives up on the possibility of money. His creator is deeply moved by what he has done. Ernest-Jean Sarrasine, seeing that he is thwarted and realising that he is not able to be what he thought he was, threatens to commit murder, and is murdered. Chabert dies, Birotteau dies, Finot leaves the story one way or another; Walser died in the snow. It is safer to be one of the series of ventriloquists that Charles Dickens imagined at subsequent Derby Days in the Epsom article he co-authored for Household Words in 1851.* They had an eternal appearance, “the sickly-looking ventriloquist with an anxious face (and always with a wife in a shawl) teaches the alphabet to the puppet pupil, whom he takes out of his pocket.” He doesn’t have to be the same individual every time, only the same evident self.

* Reprinted in Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words 1850 - 1859, vol. I, 1969, ed. Harry Stone


  1. so. people, as they grow up, learn, from their interactions with others, who they are, how to successfully relate to others, what works and what doesn't... as this happens, perception is automatically focused on personal ambitions and the knowledge achieved from interactions forms the tools people use to function in society. characters in books are assigned a place in the social organization within the pages by the author. how characters obtain what they desire, or don't, is at the author's whim. a successful book, one would think, might be one in which how and whether the characters perform adequately in the artificial society in which they are placed rings true to the reader... writers play with this boundary all the time, trying to both flesh out the characters, and to create an original way of perceiving them in their context, in such a way that the reader will recognize and approve the unique ability of the writer to reflect in his art an image of "real" life. many the missteps and sprained ankles in this process; some of them are fun to read and others fail miserably. because it all depends on what or how the reader has been shaped by his own environment. so. a chancy business at best, one that a writer needs a vast amount of courage to undertake... some, like Balzac, are so driven to realize an inner conception, that they have a tendency to repeat the same characterizations from book to book, using similar techniques and scenarios in the perusal of ever new and startling revelations on the part of the reader. sometimes they're successful, more often not, imo.... anyway, watching the author trying to work it all out can be fascinating, or boring beyond description; especially when attempting to contrast or compare characters from different books by different authors... i guess, though, that's how book critics and reviewers make their livings...

  2. In that case characters are essentially and fundamentally and psychologically not like humans, in that a human being comes into society as it already is, while a character and a written society or landscape develop together at the same time, as the book is proceeding.

    1. yes, that's the gist of what i was saying, i think, from a slightly different perspective. it's funny how when you think about an idea, write it down, and reread it, it often seems self evident or pedestrian... doing these comments over the last few months has enabled me to realize how difficult writing can be and how hard it is to express what you actually mean... i've really enjoyed it, though, and hope to continue doing so... tx..

    2. I'm glad to hear that commenting has been useful. I always find it amazingly difficult.