By BENJAMIN DE CASSERES1)This wonderful appreciation of Balzac originally appeared as a communication to the New York Sun, in which had been raging a literary battle as to the respective merits of Anthony Trollope and the master Frenchman. It is reprinted here because of its inspirational tone–its strength–its power of constructive analysis.–Editor
TO compare Trollope to Balzac is to compare the well-bred scenery of Prospect Park to the wild, almost blasphemous beauty of Yellowstone Park. Trollope is Philadelphia, Balzac is Paris. Trollope is a museum, Balzac is a Sphinx. Trollope is the Eden Musée, Balzac is Olympus. Trollope is an imaginative Pepys, Balzac is the Dante of intellect.
Like Shakespeare, Cervantes, Kant, Goethe, he was clumsy. He was too great for his medium of expression. He was a Titan piping on a reed. His mind apprehended the All in a glance, and he could only stammer when he would have fulminated. His brain was blockaded with ideas. A whirlwind of visions, emotions and prophetic dreams blew through his mind–and wrecked it. When he conceived a book he felt that a universe was bulging for birth in him. He was impatient. He could not, like De Maupassant and Flaubert, spend years building a bed for the perfect accouchement. He pitched his stuff out savagely, obliquely, helter skelter, for Debt and Death were at his heels. And that is what we call his “obscure style.”
Minds of the first order never seek for style. They are so overwhelmed by the vigor and vanity of their own natures and visions, are so completely mastered by their ideas that they smash all rules. In this class are the authors of the sacred books of the East, the Book of Job and “Don Quixote.” Rabelais, Shakespeare, Goethe, Nietzsche, Wagner, Rodin, Walt Whitman, Blake, Gorky and Balzac–were they “stylists”? Who cares?
Balzac was a seer. His eye pierced ail the veils of matter. He was the biographer of the human soul; he tops Shakespeare and Molière. He wrote the history of the Second Empire, but it might have been the chronicle of any other period in the world’s history. Under the tatters of Time he saw the eternal Man; he ripped from out its network of circumstance and convention the quivering race instincts and held them naked and bloody above his head. He plunged his finger through the tissues of flesh and muscle, through the thin mask that civilized man wears, and touched firmly the impelling secret motive. Holding his finger firmly on the secret spot while his subject screamed in shame and humiliation, Balzac turned an ironic and triumphant grin on the spectators.
The “Comédie Humaine” is Balzac’s answer to the Sphinx’s question, “Unriddle me existence.” And his answer was another riddle. At bottom Balzac was a Hindu of the eider age. The great sin of man is Ego, the self, the individualized, differentiated I. The soul of man, to Balzac, was an inferno of lusts, a city of sadic visions. Man is an inutile appanage of an aimless, protean Force. And man only rises to greatness when he looks at us through the mask of a Vautrin. For in this world, according to Balzac, the Will to grandeur and the Will to goodness are at everlasting war.
To Balzac the world had been invented so that he could analyze it; good and evil were only points of orientation, alternate coigns of vantage from which he, reporter for the gods, could watch the fray. Vautrin is Balzac, from one point of view. Good and evil existed because the gods needed sport. Or, as Heine said, because the Aristophanes of the heavens was in need of mirth.
Balzac’s mind was a huge piece of the universal Mind, in which we exist merely as infusoria. His brain was not a mind, it was a breeding place. He accouched his characters, whereas Trollope only created his. The germ of every variety of human being existed in the mind of Balzac. Like Goethe and Shakespeare, he was an encloser of all species, ideas and methods. He gave birth to such vital beings because he was giving birth to particles of himself. That is the supreme mystery of genius.
Balzac’s imagination was eucharistic. He lived the life of the race vicariously. A vision as profound as Sophocles, the godlike apprehension of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, a power of co-ordination as great as Beethoven and Herbert Spencer, the titanic vigor of a Goethe and a Walt Whitman, and the superb unarithmetical mockery of an Aristophanes and an Ibsen–he, too, was a Cosmos.
|↑1||This wonderful appreciation of Balzac originally appeared as a communication to the New York Sun, in which had been raging a literary battle as to the respective merits of Anthony Trollope and the master Frenchman. It is reprinted here because of its inspirational tone–its strength–its power of constructive analysis.–Editor|