Balzac -  his ideas.

Balzac set himself a daunting philosophical task -- to study the hidden meaning of the events that occur in our lives:
Surprendre le sens caché dans cet immense assemblage de figures, de passions et d’événements
Balzac’s confidence that this can be done came from his deterministic outlook.

Balzac’s determininsm.

What is determinism?
This is the principle, according to which, every fact or event has a cause.  When conditions are the same, the same causes produce the same facts and events.  The conclusion from this is that there exist specific laws to explain the interaction of facts or events and their causes

Balzac’s deterministic ideas were based on the theories of two eminent Frenchmen, who were precursors of Charles Darwin in the development of the theories of evolution.

Lamark 1744-1829.  The French biologist who explained to the mechanics of evolution as follows: new organs are brought into being by the needs of the organism in adapting to its environment.  These new facilities can be passed on to the offspring by heredity.

Saint- Hilaire 1772- 1844.  – (from my earlier notes) This French naturalist proposed the theory of the transmutation of species in time and Balzac was convinced by his thesis that human beings were originally uniform and that their present differences could be explained by the different backgrounds in which they have developed.

In his preface to Une Fille d’Eve, Balzac explains that human beings are as affected by the background in which they develop and keep the qualities, which they take on there, for centuries to come.  The human instincts are effects for which the causes can be discerned in a study of this background.
Les instincts sont des faits vivants dont la cause gît dans une nécessité subie.  Les variétés animales sont le résultat de l’exercice de ces instincts

In his preface to the “Illusions Perdues” (1837) Balzac states the principle on which his description of human society is based:
….. ce principe que l’état social adapte tellement les hommes à ses besoins et les déforme si bien, que nulle part les hommes n’y sont semblables a eux-mêmes et, qu’elle a crée autant d’espèces que de professions ; qu’enfin l’Humanité sociale présente autant de variétés que la Zoologie.

In keeping with his determinist ideas, Balzac feels it necessary to give a very careful and detailed description of the background to the events in his novels.    

In his description of the characters in his book, Balzac takes into account three determining factors

  1. Inborn hereditary factors
  2. The past experiences of the person involved
  3. His or her present circumstances and surroundings.

In return, describes how characters  

  1. Put their mark on their surroundings e.g. Mme Vauquer on her boarding house.
  2. Express themselves in their dress and manners
  3. Reveal their nature through their physiognomy and physical make-up.

Balzac said: la vie extérieure est une sorte de système organise qui représente un homme aussi exactement que les couleurs du colimaçon produisent sur sa coquille

In the Curé de Tours Balzac said:
La vie habituelle fait l’âme et l’âme fait la physionomie.

The deterministic outlook is revealed in the structure of a typical Balzac novel:
The book begins with a long period of exposition, description and preparation which are vital to explain the ensuing events.  With this completed, the tension mounts as the story moves on relentlessly to its climax determined by the situation.  In this respect, the plots of the novels unroll with the fatalistic inevitability of a Classical tragedy.

B) The idealistic convictions to which Balzac subscribed

Balzac was drawn to Idealistic theories which stressed the overwhelming domination of spiritual forces in our lives

The meaning of “Idealism” in a philosophical sense.

NB in this discussion of Idealism we are using the word in its philosophical sense where it represents the belief that there is no matter in the universe and that all that exists is mind or spirit. The German philosopher, Kant (1724-1804), reflects these ideas. Although he rejects pure idealism, accepting that matter does exist, he asserts, nonetheless that our picture of these objects is the subjective interpretation of our own personal sensations.  There is, therefore, no guarantee that the source corresponds to the impression received in our brain.  The conclusion drawn from this is that we should pay little attention to matter when all we can ever know is mental. 

Another influence in Balzac's belief in the overwhelming force the spirituality was his contact with Mesmerism.  The phenomenon of hypnotism had been known since the times of the ancient Egyptians and there had been a continuing tradition of trance healing throughout the ages.  In the eighteenth century, a Frenchman, Anton Mesmer (1733-1815)  had popularised hypnotism among the public.  He believed in animal magnetism, a supposedly potent and therapeutic force, which emanated from the living body.  This could be controlled by individuals who had been trained in its application.  Mesmer astounded his audiences with miraculous cures, performed under hypnosis.

At the time of Balzac there was a general acceptance of the powers that the human mind could achieve.  The course of the plot of many of his novels is directed by the irresistible force of powerful ideas which hold characters in their grip..  In his books, we see the progressive self-destruction of a person devoured by the overwhelming spiritual force of an idée fixe.  In “Le Père Goriot” we see the effects of the obsessive love of Goriot for his two daughters and in these two girls we see minds concentrated on n imperative for social success.

As early as 1831, Balzac had devoted a book to this idea.  In “La Peau de Chagrin”, the skin of the title was a magical talisman, , which have fulfilled every wish of the hero as soon as the wish was conceived and whatever its nature.   However, with each wish realised, the skin shrank and that the same time, the lifespan of the hero also shrank.  In this book, the character,Raphael de Valentin, describes how spiritual forces, when harnessed and concentrated, are all-powerful over all human things and even over the laws of nature:
 ….. dans le monde moral, rien ne résistait à cette puissance quand un homme s’habituait `a la concentrer et en manier la somme, à diriger constamment sur les âmes la projection de cette masse fluide, que cet homme pouvait à son gré tout modifier relativement à l’humanité, même les lois absolues de la nature.

These forces of the spirit were not necessarily destructive.  By knowledge, we could control them and achieve philosophic calm;  in “La Peau de Chagrin”, the antique dealer has chosen to husband his vital energy wisely.  He explains:
Deux verbes expriment toutes les formes que prennent ces deux causes de mort.  Vouloir et Pouvoir.  Entre ces deux termes de l’action humaine, il est une autre formule dont s’empare les sages, et je lui dois le bonheur de ma longévité.  Vouloir nous brûle, et Pouvoir nous détruit, mais Savoir laisse notre faible organisation dans un perpetuel état de calme.

Raphael, however chooses a different path, the one taken by many other characters in the books of Balzac.  It is the path of those impelled to the extremes.  Raphael proclaims:
 Je veux vivre avec excès

Balzac's saw this decision to be fatal.  In an unfinished work: “Martyrs ignores” (1836), Balzac says:
Les passions, les vices, les occupations extrêmes, les douleurs, les plaisirs sont des torrents de pensée.  Réunissez sur point donné quelques quelques idées violentes, un homme est tué par elles comme s’il recevait un coup de poignard.

With a similar choice of image, Balzac's friend, the critic, Félix Davin, said, in 1834, that the majority of Balzac stories show the sword wearing out the scabbard.

In “Le Père Goriot”, Vautrin describes the irresistible force that an obsession possesses, once it has become implanted in a person's heart.  He says (Page 58) that certain people…….
 …..  chaussent une idée et n’en démordent pas.  Ils n’ont soif que d’une certaine eau prise à une certaine fontaine et souvent croupie ;  pour en boire ils vendraient leurs femmes, leurs enfants, ils vendraient leur âme au diable.  Pour les uns, cette fontaine est le jeu, la Bourse, une collection de tableaux, ou d’insectes, la musique ; pour d’autres, c’est une femme qui sait bien leur cuisiner des friandises.

To some critics of Balzac, this view of the power of the idée fixe is a distortion of reality, presenting as a general experience, a phenomenon, which is, in their opinion, an unusual character deviation.  Some go on to claim that these obsessions reduce his characters to caricatures.  Thus, for example, Goriot becomes less a man with an obsession, than an obsession personified.

It is perhaps surprising that critics who voice these ideas have never come into contact with people who go to extremes in the relentless pursuit of a fixed ambition.  Balzac's own life story can be used as an illustration of such an obsessive personality. The power of total mental focus is seen in his extreme dedication to the ambition of writing a complete history of French society - in his single-minded pursuit of Madame Hanska over many years and in his repeated involvement in wild schemes to make a fortune from business enterprises.

The idealisation of love

Balzac's depiction of love very much reflects the age that he lived in -- the Romantic age.  With those characters who have the moral stature to know this true love, it is the most sublime and ecstatic experience in life - Rastignac is overcome by the magic of the moment when he is aware of his love for Delphine.

In Balzac's view, love provides another example of how idealism can easily be concentrated into an obsessive force. We see the self destructive love of Anastasie for de Trailles, the blind love of Mme de Beauséant for d’Adjuda Pinta, the extremity of the paternal love of Goriot for his daughters. 

When we read the biography of Balzac with the story of the love of Balzac for Mme Hanska, we are given a real-life example of how personal passion can become a protracted obsession.

Return to “Le père Goriot” contents page.