The Wild Ass’s Skin (Peau de chagrin)

November 8, 2009

kicking up a storm

The Wild Ass’s Skin is the weirdest novel by Balzac I’ve read to-date.  It was his second major novel in his vast Human Comedy, and it features several characters who reappear later in the series, albeit not always in a consistent manner. In it, we have Balzac’s pseudo-science, fascination with magic, some romanticism such as I’ve never read in his work, the usual thrilling and cynical dissection of social structures, and sex portrayed with an abandon and explicitness from which he usually refrains.

The premise of the plot is magical:  A down on his luck, impoverished aristocrat, Raphael Valentin, looses his last coin gambling, and resolves on suicide.  To pass the time until an opportune moment arises, he visits a vast antiques shop and meets its strange proprietor.  He is shown a strange piece of leather, an ancient scrap of an ass’s skin, embossed with eastern script.  The skin has the power to grant him his every wish, but each time it does so, it shrinks, and with it, so does the lifespan of Valentin.  Another twist on the old theme of making a deal with the Devil.

The novel also has three parts, and they don’t seem to fit together all that seamlessly.  The first part describes Raphael’s coming into possession of the magical skin and his first orgy; the second is an extended flashback describing his impoverished life while he was in love with a completely heartless and drop-dead gorgeous society woman; and the third describes his agonizing descent to his inevitable end.

At one point, Valentin enlists the help of the greatest scientists in France to see if they can stretch the skin back to its original size, after he has grown fabulously wealthy by its power, and watched horrified as it diminished in size.  The great mechanical engineer gives a discourse on Pascal, motion, and hydrostatic pressure, and then watches stupefied as the skin resists the force of his engines and causes them to explode under the strain.

“Between each point in space occupied in succession by that ball,” continued the man of science, “there is an abyss confronting human reason, an abyss into which Pascal fell.

A chemist is nonplussed, and can find nothing to make the slightest change in the skin.  At a forge, in a scene that seems a combination of Joseph Wright and John Martin, the men try to incinerate the hide, but it emerges from the flames cool and untouched.  The scientists have a laugh – the mysteries of the universe never end!  Raphael is not amused.  He visits some doctors to see if they can determine why his life force is ebbing away, but they just argue amongst themselves.

“What is the good of science?” Raphael moaned. “Here is my recovery halting between a string of beads and a rosary of leeches, between Dupuytren’s bistoury and Prince Hohenlohe’s prayer…Shall I live? They have no idea. Planchette [the engineer] was more straightforward with me, at any rate, when he said, ‘I do not know.‘”

When Raphael first takes possession of the skin, he wishes to be at a stupendous banquet and orgy – and then he sees the skin shudder and shrink a bit.  Next thing we know, he is whisked to a phenomenal debauch by two friends he stumbles upon in the street.  The tale is one of Balzac’s philosophical studies, and it dissects the psychology and practice of excess and orgies,  depicting them with great realism and in detail.

His chandeliers had been filled with wax-lights; the rarest flowers from his conservatory were carefully arranged about the room; the table sparkled with silver, gold, crystal, and porcelain; a royal banquet was spread–the odors of the tempting dishes tickled the nervous fibres of the palate. There sat his friends; he saw them among beautiful women in full evening dress, with bare necks and shoulders, with flowers in their hair; fair women of every type, with sparkling eyes, attractively and fancifully arrayed. One had adopted an Irish jacket, which displayed the alluring outlines of her form; one wore the “basquina” of Andalusia, with its wanton grace; here was a half-clad Dian the huntress, there the costume of Mlle. de laValliere, amorous and coy; and all of them alike were given up to the intoxication of the moment.

His only salvation from an early death is to arrange his life with mechanical regularity so that he need never give rise to an utterance of “I wish that…” and so never invoke the power of the skin.  He becomes a recluse.  His faithful servant, fearful that he is wasting away, and minding the doctor’s orders to “keep him interested…” arranges a special treat for him which he at first takes for one of his opiated dreams:

As Raphael’s death-pale face showed itself in the doorway, a sudden outcry broke out, as vehement as the blaze of this improvised banquet. The voices, perfumes, and lights, the exquisite beauty of the women, produced their effect upon his senses, and awakened his desires. Delightful music, from unseen players in the next room, drowned the excited tumult in a torrent of harmony–the whole strange vision was complete.

Raphael felt a caressing pressure on is own hand, a woman’s white, youthful arms were stretched out to grasp him, and the hand was Aquilina’s. He knew now that this scene was not a fantastic illusion like the fleeting pictures of his disordered dreams; he uttered a dreadful cry, slammed the door, and dealt his heartbroken old servant a blow in the face.

Contrasted with this infernal decadence, there is the scene he encounters when he flees to the mountains, searching for a serene resting place in which to live out his days without desires:

As Raphael reached the place, the sunlight fell across it from right to left, bringing out all the colors of its plants and trees; the yellowish or gray bases of the crags, the different shades of the green leaves, the masses of flowers, pink, blue, or white, the climbing plants with their bell-like blossoms, and the shot velvet of the mosses, the purple-tinted blooms of the heather,–everything was either brought into relief or made fairer yet by the enchantment of the light or by the contrasting shadows; and this was the case most of all with the sheet of water, wherein the house, the trees, the granite peaks, and the sky were all faithfully reflected. Everything had a radiance of its own in this delightful picture, from the sparkling mica-stone to the bleached tuft of grass hidden away in the soft shadows; the spotted cow with its glossy hide, the delicate water-plants that hung down over the pool like fringes in a nook whereblue or emerald colored insects were buzzing about, the roots of trees like a sand-besprinkled shock of hair above grotesque faces in the flinty rock surface,–all these things made a harmony for the eye.

Such a romantic, pastoral scene, so unlike Balzac’s usual settings of village interiors or urban apartments.  And in the two locales, he encompasses the twin extremes of Romanticism:  the diabolic, and the idyllic.

In the end, Raphael is united with Pauline, who loved him when he was poor, and now that he is rich, has herself come into a fortune.  They live together, planning to be married, and Balzac describes their lives together as one of erotic bliss, although Raphael is doomed.  When Pauline realizes Raphael’s situation, she resolves to kill herself so that they can die together:  there is a frenzied embrace, he bites her breast violently! – is it consummated? .. and they die.

Not surprising that Balzac loved the novel Melmoth the Wanderer.


Division of Opinion

August 27, 2009

ruskin Adam Smith - Enlightenment

I have been reading The Lamp of Beauty, a selection of John Ruskin’s voluminous writings on art.  The preface states that one reason for reading him is to find the source of so many ideas about art that we take for granted these days, and that’s true.  Even when I come across a theme with which I am familiar as one of his, say, the importance of craft, I am struck by the force of his statements and the depth of his critique of industrial society.

Here’s a little face off between Ruskin, the romantic godfather of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and Adam Smith…you all know who he is.  The topic is the division of labor in industrial production.  For Smith, an unalloyed good; for Ruskin, the source of mental and physical slavery and aesthetic degradation.

from the beginning of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.
. . .
In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labor are similar to what they are in this very trifling one [the making of pins]; though in many of them the labor can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labor, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labor. The separation of different trades and employments from one another, seems to have taken place, in consequence of this advantage. This separation too is generally carried furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement; what is the work of one man in a rude state of society, being generally that of several in an improved one. In every improved society, the farmer is generally nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer. The labor too which is necessary to produce any one complete manufacture, is almost always divided among a great number of hands. How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!
. . .
This great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.
. . .
I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labor is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we may falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must, no doubt, appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so such exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

from The Stones of Venice: The Nature of the Gothic

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, — that we manufacture everything there except men . . . It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

And how, it will be asked, are these products to be recognized, and this demand to be regulated? Easily: by the observance of three broad and simple rules:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which  Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

I Feel Justified!

February 14, 2008


Psssst! Want to read a really weird book? Try Mr. James Hogg’s Scottish concoction, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Yeah, that title, that alone drew me in. What the heck..?

Turns out it was far more of a wild ride than I had anticipated. An early gothic novel with a vengence! It is the bizarre, supernatural story of a sociopath motivated by religion! Yes, he’s a Calvinist, and understanding that most are irrevocably damned from birth, he decides to do a little earthly clean up on his own. After all, the lost, the preterite, the un-elect, are not worthy of life and the justified can do no wrong – their destiny is sealed from all eternity.

I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had for ever rendered impracticable. I could not disbelieve the doctrine which the best of men had taught me, and towards which he made the whole of the Scriptures to bear, and yet it made the economy of the Christian world appear to me as an absolute contradiction. How much more wise would it be, thought I, to begin and cut sinners off with the sword! For till that is effected, the saints can never inherit the earth in peace. Should I be honoured as an instrument to begin this great work of purification, I should rejoice in it. But, then, where had I the means, or under what direction was I to begin? There was one thing clear, I was now the Lord’s and it behoved me to bestir myself in His service. Oh that I had an host at my command, then would I be as a devouring fire among the workers of iniquity!

The book does drag a bit near the end, but the Scottish local color, customs and dialect, add to its interest. The entire text is available online.

Shelly’s Last Man

January 23, 2008


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly was the daughter of the woman who wrote the first major works in support of equal rights for women. She was a member of “The Elect,” the self-styled group of romantic exiles from philistine England, including her doomed husband, Percy Shelly, and Byron. She wrote what could be called the Ur-novel of science fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. I recently found that she wrote another novel, the ancestor of all those end-of-the-world scenarios we see so much of these days, The Last Man. Think of “The Omega Man,” “The Road,” “On the Beach,” multiple episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and “The Outer Limits” – she started the ball rolling.

Well, hers wasn’t absolutely the first apocalyptic fantasy: that appears to be Omegarus and Syderia by Jean Baptiste Francois Xa De Grainville, written in 1805, but it is pretty close. It’s a strange novel, filled with overblown romantic prose, describing the sublimest horror imaginable – the end of the human race, destroyed by plague. The book takes place in 2092, and the first half of it is a political drama, a roman a clef with a Shellyian and Byronic character bookending the narrator, Lionel Verney. This first part is extremely tedious at times, not the least because the nature of society and technology in 2092 is presented as nearly the same as 1822, except that England has eliminated its monarchy and become a contentious republic. Then the plague starts spreading.

It takes a couple of years, but the entire globe is depopulated. Nature, the soothing mother of the Romantic creed is now the indifferent slayer of the multitudes. Man’s reason (and the Enlightenment) are for naught: libraries go moldering as dogs roam their aisles, Rome is a deserted stage set for the “last drama,” and the Swiss Alps, where the last 1500 people go to seek respite from the plague, are an archetypal environment of the sublime in which    the miserable demise of humanity’s remnant can be run out. Nothing matters, all is nullity.

Some try to avoid the crushing weight of this conclusion by following a false prophet, a man who declares that those who believe in him shall not die (those who do die are secretly disposed of to keep up the ruse) and who wages war on the other survivors who will not subscribe to his unreason. The straggling remainder of humanity moves about, housing itself in abandoned palaces, eating the stores of food in the cities, while the climate, even the stars, seem to be going haywire, with enormous sea surges reports of strange events in the sky.

If you have an interest in romantic literature, the history of science fiction, or want to see how a critical mind dealt with her disillusionment about ideas, politics, and nature, not to mention trying to work out her grief at losing her husband and several of her children (can we even imagine the regularity of infant and child mortality with which people then had to deal?), you may enjoy this book.

Speed, Opium, and The Man

April 29, 2005

That’s speed, as in velocity, not the drug. That’s opium, as in the drug, not the perfume. That’s The Man, as in Thomas De Quincey, not Yves St. Laurent or Keanu Reeves. Does anyone read De Quincey anymore, or is he persona non grata in the “Just Say No” era? Well, times were different then, circa 1812.  I wonder if there is a literary influence at work between De Quincey’s piece, “The English Mailcoach” and the the screenplay of the movie, “Speed.”

Let’s see, the story of the Mailcoach is of a young man hitching a ride on the roof of a mail delivery stage, stoned on laudanum, i.e. opium, who sees in the distance a cart approaching down the endless tree covered lane. Its driver and passenger are in the midst of amorous billing and cooing and don’t see that they are in the way of the hurtling stage, rocketing along at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour. Nor can they know what the opiated author knows, that the mailcoach driver has fallen asleep, the reins grasped tightly in his hand. For thirty pages or so, the author spins a tale of hyperactive imagination, tracing his efforts, moment by moment, to rouse himself out of his narcoleptic state and to shout, like Stentor, a warning that would alert the young couple to their certain doom if they do not act. I detect some general similarities here…

De Quincey was my muse for many years. His wild prose, his total immersion in the realm of the fantastic and the imaginary, his long, convoluted sentences were music to my ears. He declared himself the true pope of the Church of Opium, and penned lines such as these:

Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm;

He created a personal mythology, based on his torrid hallucinations and his will to create, of whole cloth, a world of imagery. He describes his first ecounter with the drug, brought on by terrific facial pains that struck him as an undergraduate. He found his way to a pharmacy and was dispensed the narcotic by a man who appeared to be an ordinary man like any other “sublunary” citizen. Later, he revisted the spot where the shop had been, but could not find it, convincing him that it had been, indeed, a heavenly messanger who had sold him the magical dose.

He wrote of eating opium and going to the opera, where he sat fixed to his chair, in ecstasies of enchantment as the soprano sang. And he wrote of the Pains of Opium, which became dominant as his addiction deepened:

I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feeling, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hates me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

I thus give the reader some slight abstraction of my Oriental dreams…

De Quincey wrote on many topics, supporting himself through journalism, but it is by his Confessions of an English Opium Eater that he is remembered. These quotations were taken from later additions to that work that were entitled “The Pleasures of Opium,” and “The Pains of Opium.” Althea Hayter wrote a book called The Milk of Paradise that discusses the importance of opium in romantic literary history – Coleridge, De Quincey, Crabbe, and others.