Balzac's disorienting orientalism: "une passion dans le desert".
The Orient depicted in the inner story recounts the experience of a French soldier in Desaix's expedition in Upper Egypt. Balzac, of course, never went to Egypt, so all of the details that make up his description of the Egyptian landscape and its inhabitants come from the cultural discourses and representations available to him. Common sources of information on Egypt at the time include such texts as Volney's well-known Voyage en Egypte et Syrie, literary representations of Egypt, and most important for us, memoirs from the soldiers who fought in Napoleon's forces there? Pierre Nora writes of the appearance of the flood of memoirs of different sorts at the end of the Restoration and the beginning of the July Monarchy, including memoirs concerning Napoleon:
It was that moment that gave rise to the important treasure of memory that would constitute a crucial part of France's collective life during the entire nineteenth century and, in many ways, up to the present. The authenticity of the texts, the accuracy of the editions, even their scholarly value are of little importance from the perspective that concerns us here: the crystallization of the French national memory--a relived memory that has assumed the form of real-life experiences, of history as it was lived. The very mixture of genres reflected the new relationship to the past that was developing--a new relationship of which memoirs were both the cornerstone and symbol. (407-408)
Since the memoirs, whether true or invented, became the tale of what "happened" in Egypt for French memory and culture, their representations of Egypt created a kind of useful "effet de reel." We will pair descriptions from some of these texts with Balzac's in order to see how his representations parallel received ideas of that time. However, we will also see that, if Balzac uses and spreads these prefabricated ideas about the Orient, the way in which he does so at times also problematizes their political implications.
A quick summary of the inner tale in Egypt may be in order. At the beginning of the story, the soldier has already been captured by the Maugrabins (as some of the army's stragglers were, according to Denon's recit de voyage (2)), but he manages to escape from them, only to become lost--disoriented--in the Egyptian desert. After riding his horse to death, he sets off on foot in the immense sands until he finds a small oasis with date palms, which is an unsurprisingly standard representation of the desert in Egypt,3 and settles in to wait for passing French troops. However the soldier soon discovers that he must share his oasis with a female panther. He manages to tame the panther by petting her, and they live quite well together until they have a misunderstanding and he kills her.
The alternate title that the narrator gives this story, "Les Francais en Egypte" invites the reader to find an allegorical interpretation for it: thus one might begin obviously by surmising that the soldier represents more generally the situation of the French expedition in Egypt, and the panther would stand for the indigenous population. This meaning is interesting because the story does not represent the soldier as a strong and dominating presence, but rather introduces him in his vulnerability and subordination to the Maugrabins who hold him prisoner. Thus from the outset, the reader confronts a situation that places the French soldier, in a weak position. Pressing on with the allegorical interpretation, one might then see in this weak position the ultimate failure of Napoleon's foray into Egypt, perhaps the failure of the Empire itself, as reflected in the soldier's loss of power and authority. And in the end, the soldier escapes from his captors and from the desert, as Napoleon and the army did from Egypt. In any case, Balzac thwarts what one might imagine to be the reader's desired representation of a strong, French national identity triumphing on foreign soil, and he places the French soldier in a weak position.
The soldier's relation with the panther begins with a description of her powerful animal nature: she has the "sauvage energie" of an "enorme animal" (8:1223). The soldier also makes explicit that the animality of the panther stands for that of the human inhabitants of desert, when he says to her that the Maugrabins are "des animaux comme vous" (8:1229). Thus we find a typical cliched Orientalist representation of the savage energy of a backward culture situated closer to animal nature than the French soldier's superior civilization. However, the panther is given the grand title of the "sultane du desert" and the soldier is "son esclave" (8:1226), which puts him again in a subordinate, enslaved position, just as he was with the Maugrabins. Superior in culture, the soldier is inferior in power: this weakness reflects that of the colonialist enterprise in the story's allegory and creates an ambiguous position of power for the soldier.
This ambiguity of superiority continues as the relationship between the soldier and the panther develops. Although the soldier fears the panther's power, he nevertheless ultimately decides upon strategies aimed not at escaping from her or killing her, but rather at dominating her by taming her. Taming could be categorized as an Orientalist strategy, one that Said describes as the Western attempt to "domesticate the Orient" (78). This was certainly part of Napoleon's strategy. In his well-known proclamation, Napoleon demanded that his soldiers respect the religion and customs of the Egyptian population and desist from pillaging, because it was in the French interest to have the Egyptians as their "friends": they are people "qu'il est de notre interet d'avoir pour amis" (Bourrienne 2:78). (4) This restraint aimed at a friendship that is "interested" is then a kind of taming of the indigenous population, an attempt to keep them friendly but manipulable by the invader, just as the soldier would domesticate the panther. An ambiguous hierarchy results: the panther possesses physical superiority but is nevertheless manipulated by the taming practices of the French soldier.
Several other details in the story manifest a similar ambiguity, in that they adhere to the cliched descriptions of the desert in circulation at the time, yet turn those descriptions into a subtle critique of the French soldier's perception of it. The first cliched detail is the standard "mal de pays" felt by the soldiers in the new and strange desert environment. Miot, for example, writes:
A l'aspect d'Alexandrie et de ses habitants, a l'aspect de ses vastes plaines depouillees de toute verdure, en respirant l'air brulant du desert, la tristesse commenca a penetrer parmi nous; et deja quelques Francais tournaient vers la patrie leurs yeux fatigues, et laissaient echapper, en soupirant, l'expression des regrets que des epreuves plus penibles devaient bientot rendre plus vifs. (20)
Similarly, Balzac's soldier, finding himself alone in the desert after escaping from the Maugrabins, thinks of his homeland: "Regardant tour a tour l'espace noiratre et l'espace bleu, le soldat revait a la France" (8:1222).
Balzac then gives this soldier's cliched depaysernent a curious twist. The soldier actually sees France itself in the desert strangeness: "Enfin, son imagination meridionale lui fit bientot entrevoir les cailloux de sa chere Provence dans les jeux de la chaleur qui ondoyait au-dessus de la nappe etendue dans le desert" (5) (8:1222). He does not see the otherness of the desert and his own powerlessness, but instead hallucinates the comfort of his home countryside. Likewise the slab of granite that he uses as a bed is described as having been created in the image of his army bed, "une pierre de granit, capricieusement taillee en lit de camp" (8:1221). The trees in his oasis are like those carved on the Cathedrale d'Arles: "Il regarda ces arbres solitaires, et tressaillit ! ils lui rappelerent les futs elegants et couronnes de longues feuilles qui distinguent les colonnes sarrasines de la cathedrale d'Arles" (8:1221). Finally, the narrator describes a situation in which the soldier's interaction with the exterior other is literally situated within the soldier himself. When the soldier cries out, his voice is so weak that no echo returns from the exterior desert to him. The narrator adds that "l'echo etait dans son coeur" (8:1222). What should normally be communicated to the outside in order to come back from that exterior occurs only within the self. (6) Thus more generally, Balzac's narrative shows how the otherness of the Egyptian milieu is created by the Western gaze, a gaze which includes his own, and which sees the other through the lens of its pre-established French context.
One sees this same "hallucination" in the soldier's perception of the panther, which leads to an allegorical meaning related not just to national cultures but also to gender politics. Just as the soldier sees France in the Egyptian desert, he sees a woman in the exotic, wild panther. The great cat's markings become a woman's jewelry: "Plusieurs petites taches, semblables a du velours, formaient de jolis bracelets autour des pattes" (8:1224). Her gestures seem coquettishly feminine: "C'est comme une petite maitresse! ... pensa le Francais en la voyant se rouler et faire les mouvements les plus doux et les plus coquets" (7) (8:1225). Hence, when the soldier sees a strange and wild animal as a woman, he continues to transform the Oriental other into the known entity of his own culture and experiences. Balzac's narrative shows how a white male human sees a woman in his animal companion, as this soldier projects his own past and experience onto the otherness he confronts (see my Fictional Genders for a different reading of gender and mirroring).
The plot thickens, though, because this panther reminds the soldier not just of any woman, but of a particular woman from his past: his former French mistress, who was apparently dangerous. He nicknamed this woman, and then the panther, "Mignonne" "par antiphrase, parce qu'elle etait d'une si atroce jalousie, que pendant tout le temps que dura leur passion, il eut a craindre le couteau dont elle l'avait toujours menace" (8:1228). Here the allegory of the imperialist war struggle is aligned secondarily with the amorous struggle between the French male soldier and the dangerous French female loyer, so that the taming or domestication of the Egyptian native panther becomes more generally the taming of the female shrew. And taming in this case takes on a sexual connotation of seduction:
"[I]l la laissa venir pres de lui; puis, par un mouvement aussi doux, aussi amoureux que s'il avait voulu caresser la plus jolie femme, il lui passa la main sur tout le corps, de la tete a la queue, en irritant avec ses ongles les flexibles vertebres qui partageaient le dos jaune de la panthere. La bete redressa voluptueusement sa queue, ses yeux s'adoucirent; et quand, pour la troisieme fois, le Francais accomplit cette flatterie interessee, elle fit entendre un de ces toutou par lesquels nos chats expriment leur plaisir ... Le Provencal, comprenant l'importance de ses caresses, les redoubla de maniere a etourdir, a stupefier cette courtisane imperieuse." (8) (8:1225-26)
This taming seduction, a kind of trading of favors in a relationship in which the soldier caresses the panther hoping that she will not devour him, will be important later in the frame narrative of the story, and manifests once again the soldier's ambiguous power.
If the soldier calls the panther Mignonne in an antiphrase because she is dangerous, it is significantly he who acts dangerously in their relation. He is the one who initially threatens violence as he grabs a knife even though the sated female panther yawns, cleans herself, and generally behaves benignly towards him. The antiphrasis, then, is not only the irony of the name Mignonne, but it is the antiphrastic reversal of his own perception as well: he sees not the panther before him, passive and sated from a recent meal, but rather the dangerous knife-wielding Mignonne, the lover from his past who reflects his own violence. The panther/Egyptian other seems to act as a kind of mirror that sends back to him his own desires, fears, and violence. This is really a rather remarkable depiction of a white French man by Balzac, a representation that shows the vital error of the soldier's preconceptions and perceptions of the "other."
This mirroring process, in which the exotic turns into familiar images of France and of the soldier's personal history, is embodied in an image that relates to the desert: the optical illusion of the "mirage," another detail that appears in several of the Egyptian meeoirs, such as those of Bourrienne. (9) Balzac mentions the danger of a "cruel mirage" (8:1222), and in another description specifically evokes mirrors: "Il voyait un ocean sans bornes. Les sables noiratres du desert s'etendaient a perte de vue dans toutes les directions, et ils etincelaient comme une lame d'acier frappee par une vive lumiere. Il ne savait pas si c'etait une mer de glaces ou des lacs unis comme un miroir" (8:1221). The soldier doesn't know exactly what things he is seeing in the desert sands, but all of them are things that are not really there: ocean, mirrors, or lakes. The soldier continues to hallucinate a known and somewhat violent context (the comparison with a "lame d'acier") for an alien one, just as he sees his knife-wielding mistress in the panther.
Ultimately, the soldier does act violently against his Egyptian others; his first victim is a palm tree. He initially sees this tree as a friend (as Napoleon wished the Egyptians to be): "Le Provencal serra le tronc d'un des palmiers, comme si c'eut ete le corps d'un ami" (8:1222). (10) However he decides to cut down one of the palms in order to use its fronds: "comme un heritier qui ne s'apitoie pas longtemps sur la mort d'un parent, il depouilla ce bel arbre des larges et hautes feuilles vertes qui en sont le poetique ornement" (1223). He also, of course, kills the panther with his knife after she bites his leg, although she bites him only "faiblement" (8:1232) and he immediately regrets his actions. He blames his murderous act on a "malentendu" (8:1231), because he thought she was trying to devour him. This malentendu, the mistake of his perception and interpretation of the other, echoes the "mirage" as illusion or hallucination. On a more general level, it may offer a representation of the blindness of the imperialist enterprise, as shown in the delusional vision the soldier has of the other and his own identity.
If we are invited to read this story allegorically, we must also search for meanings in the story's frame, which takes place later in Paris. Here the male narrator has just left a spectacle with a female companion. We know nothing of them except that they seem to have some kind of romantic interest in each other. The first link between the frame of the story and its desert interior is thus through the woman and through passion: we find a connection among the female panther Mignonne, the soldier's French lover Mignonne, and the narrator's Parisian French companion.
This tie that binds the wild exotic animal and the narrator's Parisian companion grows stronger when we consider that she and the narrator have just seen a performance by Henri Martin, the wild animal trainer quite famous at the time, and who was reportedly the first performer to enter the cage of large, exotic cats in a performance. He was known particularly for his lion, Cobourg, who was so well tamed like Mignonne that he seemed to be more of a pet than a wild beast: "Le lion Cobourg, en particulier, dont la docilite, la gentillesse et les formidables espiegleries faisaient l'admiration de tous ses visiteurs, etait ne en cage et avait ete nourri par une chienne; il mourut, le noble animal, pour avoir avale une pantoufle dans l'appartement ou on le laissait folatrer en liberte" (Fournel 458).
Some details about Martin are curious and perhaps relevant to "Une Passion dans le desert." First, Balzac's sister claims that Balzac wrote this story after a conversation with Martin at the end of one of his performances (Surville 105). Martin supposedly got his start in the business of menageries by entering the cage of a tiger belonging to his sweetheart, Mlle Van Aken, in order to win her hand (Fournel 457), a fruitful link between animal taming and female seduction. Martin's wild animals had human names, just as the soldier named his panther Mignonne. When Martin got to Paris in 1829, he had not only named cats, "des lions et lionnes (Neron, Cobourg, Fanny, Carlotta) ... et un tigre," but also "une hyene" (Fournel 358). The hyena act, which Balzac's Parisian couple has just seen, is described by Furnel as follows:
Il se presentait d'abord avec sa hyene, la conduisant en laisse comme un chien, au moyen d'une chaine de fer passee dans son collier ... Il se faisait rapporter ses gants par elle. Puis, apres lui avoir jete plusieurs morceaux de viande qu'elle avalait goulument, il lui ouvrait la gueule toute grande, afin de montrer sa machoire aux spectateurs, et l'emportait sous son bras comme un epagneul. (358)
This hyena act mentioned in "Une Passion dans le desert" and which is possibly the act to which Balzac's sister alludes, had as its purpose to show the remarkable taming of the wild beast.
The Parisian frame of the story clearly represents not only the transportation of the story locale to Paris, but also, in the case of Martin's show, the transportation of exotic wild animals like the great cats and the hyena to Paris. Thus the presence of wild beasts in both locales creates the shared context of the taming of the exotic other by Martin in Paris and by the soldier in Egypt. In a sense, Martin takes the place of the soldier, and caged and tamed Parisian wild animals replace the docile but free Mignonne of the desert. The Orient has arrived in Paris, where careful attempts are made at taming, containing, and displaying it.
As our couple in Paris leaves Martin's show, the narrator's female companion claims that it was "effrayant" (8:1219), the same word used to describe the voice of the female panther in the desert. In response the narrator says that there is a perfectly natural explanation for the submission of the animals. He goes on to say that when he first saw the show, he too expressed his astonishment to a soldier with an amputated leg who was standing next to him, at which point the soldier exclaimed "Connu!" (8:1220). The narrator, intrigued by this comment, paid the soldier with an excellent meal, and received in exchange the very tale that we read, which convinced the narrator that the soldier was correct in exclaiming "connu." Needless to say, the curiosity of the narrator's female companion is piqued because she wants to know what this natural explanation could be: "Rentree chez elle, elle me fit tant d'agaceries, tant de promesses, que je consentis a lui rediger la confidence du soldat" (8:1220). If in Egypt, the struggle is one of power between invader and invaded, here the struggle is based on the power of knowledge, which one character has and the other wants.
The narrator's explanation for taming is the contagion of culture: we can tame animals because we taint them with our knowledge, with out civilization. We humans can give to wild animals (the exotic other) all the vices of civilization, we "educate" them: "apprenez que nous pouvons leur donner tous les vices dus a notre etat de civilisation" (8:1219). In the context of the French in Egypt, this certainly brings to mind, in the current day reader of this tale, the criticism of colonialist cultural "education," which "writes" colonized identity, just as the soldier "writes" a familiar identity onto the exotic otherness of the desert and the panther.
In the Parisian frame of Balzac's story, knowledge is the power desired by the woman, and, through her "education," parallel hierarchical positions are established on the basis of this knowledge: the amputee soldier "educates" the narrator; the narrator then has knowledge and thus power over the woman, whom he "educates"; Martin has power over animals whom he has "educated" in the vices of civilization by taming them; and the soldier "educates," tames, the panther.
This exchange of knowledge brings out one aspect that is rather hidden in the soldier's story but that emerges clearly in the Paris frame: the economic relation involved in the exchanges, familiar territory in Balzacian narratives. The narrator "pays" the soldier for his tale, the narrator's female companion makes "promesses" of some kind of payment, possibly sexual, as Tire Farrant notes (106). Most telling, Martin is described by Balzac as "ce hardi speculateur" (8:1219), thus linking the taming of the exotic other to capitalist profit. Indeed, the narrator says that the soldier in Egypt put personal profit ahead of sentimental ties, and we now read differently the passage in which the soldier cuts down the tree: "Mais, comme un heritier qui ne s'apitoie pas longtemps sur la mort d'un parent, il depouilla ce bel arbre des larges et hautes feuilles vertes qui en sont le poetique ornement, et s'en servit pour reparer la natte sur laquelle il allait se coucher" (8:1223). Here in the allegorical context, Balzac may be bringing out one of the underlying purposes of the Egyptian campaign, which was to develop possible commercial relations (Cleveland 65), what Said called generally the "corporate institution" of Orientalism (Reader 69). Certainly the memoirs of the Egyptian campaign give examples of some specific gains made by French soldiers from looting.
So Balzac presents the taming of the Orient as he uses its allure for his own benefit (he in turn sells his story), but he also specifically reveals certain less appetizing aspects of the taming and exploitation of the other, whether animal, Egyptian, or woman. Contact with the tamable other is seductive and alluring, yet it exposes hidden violent and self-interested processes at work in "taming" and thus in his own culture and work. And as we saw in the image of the mirage, Balzac would seem to be saying that the French, in seeking to domesticate the other, project onto the other the violence of their own gesture of domination, such as when the soldier, because of a "malentendu" imagines the violence of the panther in the scene when he misinterprets her movement, lashes out, and kills her.
This projection of violence finds a condensed representation in the enigmatic detail in the frame story of the soldier's amputated leg. As regards the soldier's identity, the reader first makes a logical and natural assumption that the soldier in the frame is the soldier in the Egyptian story? (11) Then the reader presumes, without real evidence, that his leg needed to be amputated because of the panther's bite, and thus that the soldier was correct to fear her. However the text makes clear that she bit him "faiblement sans doute," and he regrets his actions and the end of their relation in a "malentendu" (8:1232). Furthermore, as Brian Martin points out, the soldier goes on to continue to fight in Germany, Spain, Russia, and France, which would make amputation due to the panther bite highly unlikely (52). Why this detail of the feeble bite? Since Balzac never discusses the cause of the amputation, the text remains rather vague, in a sense inviting the interpretation of the panther's violence, which might put the reader in the soldier's position with his violent projections. Instead of taking up that fraught position, one might instead read the bite in a more generally symbolic way to interpret the soldier's actions and their result. He has lashed out at the panther, thus acting on his own violent imagination, and in the end he too is harmed because he mourns her death, whatever the cause of the amputation.
The narrator's female companion has only a vague presence in the text and her character serves mainly to link the taming and exchanges that take place in Egypt with those that take place in Paris. However a look at two other Balzac heroines, who are exotic, cat-like, and dangerous, and who were created after and perhaps through Mignonne, may help us to enrich the significance of the woman's structural role in "Une Passion dans le desert." Paquita of La Fille aux yeux d'or and Esther of Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes are both represented as uncivilized, exotic "beasts," whose place of origin is distant from Paris. They are uncivilized in the sense that neither can read nor write. The word "sauvage" is even used to describe Esther's mind. Both come from alien cultures: Paquita is racially and culturally hybrid, as Doris Kadish and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting have shown, who belongs "aux houris de de l'Asie par sa mere, a l'Europe par son education, aux Tropiques par sa naissance" (45). Esther's Jewish ancestry, which Balzac sometimes calls her race, is linked to an exotic milieu. Her eyes in particular reveal that she comes from a desert similar to Mignonne's, complete with sand and mirages:
Il n'y a que les races venues des deserts qui possedent dans l'oeil le pouvoir de la fascination sur tous, car une femme fascine toujours quelqu'un. Leurs yeux retiennent sans doute quelque chose de l'infini qu'ils ont contemple. La nature, dans sa prevoyance, a-t-elle donc arme leurs retines de quelque tapis refecteur, pour leur permettre de soutenir le mirage des sables, les torrents du soleil et l'ardent cobalt de l'ether? ... l'Orient brillait dans les yeux et dans la figure d'Esther.... Tout, chez elle, etait en harmonie avec ces caracteres de la peri des sables ardents. (6:464-465)
Paquita's eyes reveal much as well: Leon-Francois Hoffmann notes her resemblance to the panther Mignonne when he observes that Paquita's golden eyes are singled out as being "jaunes comme ceux des tigres" ("Mignonne" 182; Balzac 5:1064). The cat resemblance continues: Paquita looks like a "chatte" (5:1064), and Esther, who has the gestures of a cat, seems like "une bete fauve" (6:515). This feline, feminine connection is not surprising, since the French imaginary at this time conflated the North African exotic, the feline, and the feminine. A juxtaposition of several of Delacroix's works depicting exotic women with those depicting lions and other great cats makes this association visually explicit, both in the shared postures of woman and beast and in the shared violence perpetrated against them. (12) And we recall that Balzac dedicated "La Fille aux yeux d'or" to Delacroix.
Both Splendeurs and La Fille have their own Martin-like animal trainers. Vautrin, who aims to control, "tame" and reeducate Esther in Splendeurs claims that he is a "dompteur de betes feroces" (6:486). De Marsay finds in his bottomless vanity "des forces pour dompter cette fille" (5:1101), Paquita. Indeed it seems as though these women must be tamed and/or caged, because at some point in both of their stories, they are imprisoned and kept from public view: Esther in a house outside Paris, Pacquita in her boudoir. Esther makes this explicit when she calls Vautrin "cet etre inexplicable, qui m'a mise ici comme on met une petite bete curieuse dans une cage." Paquita despairs that she is "attachee comme un pauvre animal a son piquet" (5:1090), and she lives and dies in her special room where "on y peut assassiner quelqu'un, ses plaintes y seraient vaines comme s'il etait au milieu du Grand-Desert" (5:1089). Pierre Citron categorizes this sequestration as belonging to Balzac's fictionalized Orient, along with its danger and voluptuousness (309).
Like wild animals and Mignonne, these women appear to threaten the men they meet. Paquita, by making de Marsay stand in for a woman, wounds him in the same way that the soldier kills Mignonne, by stabbing, although for de Marsay it is a symbolic wound to his masculine identity: "il recut au milieu de sa joie un coup de poignard qui traversa de part en part son coeur mortifie pour la premiere fois" (1102). Esther so influences Nucingen that his identity as a financier is ruined: he is transformed from a heartless capitalist to a lovesick wooer. (13) The danger posed by Esther spreads beyond Nucingen, because if the money Esther gets for Lucien could succeed in any way in his landing Clotilde in marriage, one of the highest social families of French society would be tainted by a Jewish courtesan's wares.
Even though Paquita's and Esther's keepers try to contain them in their symbolic cages in Paris, the women do get out, and this escape ultimately leads to their death. When Esther is enclosed in the house outside Paris, she is allowed to go out only at night, and that is when Nucingen sees her, pursues her, and sets in motion the transactions that will cause her to kill herself. Paquita, who also leaves for walks only at night, claims that "depuis l'age de douze ans, je suis enfermee sans avoir vu personne" (5:1099), and finally leaves her house in the daytime for some strolls with her duegne and comes across de Marsay, who brings about her demise. Curiously, Henri Martin's tiger, like Henri de Marsay's Paquita, also reportedly escaped from its cage in Paris, to the dismay of passing pedestrians:
Un jour, il s'echappa de la menagerie et fit subitement sur le boulevard une brusque apparition, qui, comme on peut le croire, y jeta un grand trouble. Mais, tandis que les passants prenaient la fuite en jetant des clameurs d'epouvante, le tigre, apres quelques bonds folatres, s'arreta comme depayse et rentra de lui-meme a la maison. (Fournel 460)
Although it is not clear when and if this escape happened, nor if Balzac knew about it, this anecdote on its own certainly makes an enticing complement to the "felinized" Esther and Paquita: a disoriented, "depayse" lion in the street ironically goes back home to its Parisian apartment--an inextricably complicated intertwining of the exotic other and homey Paris.
The exotic Balzacian women who escape and make their way out into Paris die because of their appearance there, as if they were too dangerous on the loose and had to be eliminated. Their intrusion into and infiltration of French society threatens both male and artistocratic identity, as if physical or social contact with these women were contaminating. Thus it is significant that at the beginning of both Splendeurs and La Fille aux yeux d'or, certain threatening and foul quarters of Paris are described, as if to give a symbolic introduction to the contaminating possibilities that their female characters later threaten. In Splendeurs, it is the red light district near the Palais Royal that is physically noxious: "Le Conseil municipal n'a pu rien faire encore pour laver cette grande leproserie" (6:446-447). In La Fille aux yeux d'or, Paquita's story is introduced by a physical description of what lies beneath Paris, which symbolizes the unsavory underpinnings of l'or et le plaisir embodied in Paquita:
... les quarante mille maisons de cette grande ville baignent leurs pieds en des immondices que le pouvoir n'a pas encore voulu serieusement enceindre de murs en beton qui pussent empecher la plus fetide boue de filtrer a travers le sol, d'y empoisonner les puits et de continuer souterrainement a Lutece son nom celebre. La moitie de Paris couche dans les exhalaisons putrides des cours, des rues et des basses oeuvres. (5:1050)
Sharpley-Whiting notes that the contagion associated with Paquita comes from her exotic origin: "The exoticism, timelessness, and sensuality--the blackness--associated with the colonies envelop the Creole woman and filter osmotically into her blood. Blackness is like a contagion contracted through proximity" (46). To Paquita I would add Esther. When these two exotic women make their way in Paris, they threaten an infiltration and contamination by the other that must be contained. The invaders in the exotic, Egyptian context--the French--are now exposed to possible invasion by the contaminating other in their home territory. However, in La Fille aux yeux d'or, just as in "Une Passion dans le desert," even as Balzac shows the violent reaction to this infiltration, he also shows its error, since Mariquita was mistaken in her desire for revenge and regrets the murder, just as the soldier regrets his.
This equation of the exotic woman in Paris with the wild panther and the Orient brings us again to Said, who claimed not only that the Orient was feminized, but also that this Oriental feminine other was connected to troubling elements in the Western world itself, namely women in this case: "The Oriental was linked thus to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien" ("Orientalism" 207). Esther (as Samuels has noted) and Paquita (as Kadish has noted) provide a half-way point between the threatening other and the Parisian/white woman. These two women thus act not only as a locus of fears about the exotic and racialized other, but also more generally as the locus of fears about the otherness of woman herself. If the panther Mignonne is killed in Egypt, the threatening otherness of exotic women, constructed upon the otherness of woman herself, is eliminated back home in Paris. (14)
Yet Balzac once again renders the situation ambiguous because Mariquita and de Marsay are themselves "other": they are not purely French, as Kadish noted. Mariquita is the second hybrid figure from the contaminating colonies, linked to the part-French, part-English de Marsay through their shared English father, and also to a Spaniard through her mother's marriage. The two semi-French half-siblings who need to kill Paquita lash out at this "other," even though (or perhaps because) otherness has in fact already infiltrated their "French" identity. It is interesting also that both texts represent homosexual relationships, thus adding to cultural, racial, and gender otherness the "otherness" of sexual orientation, which threatens the growing power of bourgeois codes of family sexuality (Lucey). Kadish has admirably analyzed the anxiety about French hybridization that the characters in La Fille embody, and Balzac shows how Paquita and Esther seem to be sacrificial victims of this panic.
As we saw, the soldier in Egypt reveals the mirroring mechanism by which he projects his own ideas onto the other: he sees his past and past lovers in the desert and the panther. In his vulnerable situation, he projects his violent fears and aggression onto his companion, and his strike at her ends in harm to himself. In Paris, the egotistical de Marsay initially goes to kill Paquita because of her wound to his identity. However, he learns that he has been mistaken about her, because, as Mariquita says, she was "fidele au sang" (5:1108): she was faithful to her lovers because she was faithful to the family blood of Lord Dudley (and as Sharpley-Whiting notes, to the cliche of her exotic origin.) De Marsay is not only "in the family" as Mariquita's half brother, he is also her "mirror image" as de Marsay's friend Paul says early in the story: "mais, ma parole d'honneur, elle te ressemble" (5:1064). Thus in this story as well, a violent impulse, which eliminates the other, brings the French perpetrator face to face with his or her own image and violence. As de Marsay and Mariquita face each other over Paquita's dead body, they see their mirror image in their sibling other. Perhaps this mirror image offers as well a simulacrum and fantasy of a unified, pure family identity, a seamless image from which otherness has seemingly been eradicated. However Balzac shows that this illusory fantasy comes at the price of regret and loss.
Thus Paquita and Esther help us to flesh out the shadowy role of the narrator's Parisian companion, who as his female other, shares the symbolic place of the soldier's panther in Egypt and his French lover. The exotic locale of the inner story of "Une Passion dans le desert" exposes the playing out of fear and violence outside of France, which Balzac then transfers to the outer Parisian "home" frame in a surprisingly daring representation that questions the relation of French identity to its others. One might hear in these ambiguities of identity and difference a faint trace of Porter's "partially silenced counter-hegemonic voices."
But what of Napoleon and his army, "Les Francais en Egypte"? Is there any more to the story's explicit invitation to find allegorical meanings related to Napoleon's quests? First, there may be a link between the caged beasts of"Une Passion dans le desert" and Napoleon himself in the infamous statement Ney admitted he made about the return of Napoleon to France. During his trial Ney acknowledged that he said to Louis XVIII when Napoleon had just reentered the country: "que cette demarche, de la part de Buonaparte, etait insensee, et qu'il meritait, s'il etait pris, d'etre conduit a Paris dans une cage de fer" (Proces 1:9; emphasis mine). Furthermore, we remember Chateaubriand's description of Napoleon as a foreigner, an "other" who was not French, in his influential pamphlet, De Buonaparte et des Bourbons:
En vain pretendrait-on que Buonaparte n'est pas etranger: il l'est aux yeux de toute l'Europe, de tous les Francais non prevenus; il le sera au jugement de la posterite ... Buonaparte n'a rien de francais, ni dans les moeurs, ni dans le caractere. Les traits memes de son visage montrent son origine. (15:27)
This association becomes stronger when we remember that de Marsay's adventure with Paquita begins in mid-April, 1815, during the Cent Jours when Napoleon escaped from his "cage" in exile and returned to France, eventually to Paris. In any case, in the Memorial, it is claimed that Napoleon loved the desert, and that he liked to say that his name "Napoleon" "veut dire lion du desertt!" (Las Cases 5:180). This suggestion of Napoleon's catlike otherness further complicates the relays of contact and contamination between France and Egypt, between French and foreign other, and between the invasion of other places and the invasion of otherness at home. One final detail: Nodier is reported to have said of Henri Martin: "Les circonstances ont fait un dompteur d'animaux de celui qui eut pu devenir un dompteur d'hommes. A la tete d'une armee, Martin aurait ete peut-etre un Bonaparte" (Fournel 459).
Balzac, Honore de. La Comedie humaine. Ed. Pierre Georges Castex. 12 vols. Paris: Gallimard (Bibliotheque de la Pleiade), 1976-1981.
Bourrienne, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de. Memoires de M. de Bourrienne, ministre d'etat; sur Napoleon, le Directoire, le Consulat, l'Empire et la Restauration. 10 vols. Paris: Ladvocat, 1829.
Chateaubriand, Francois-Rene. "De Buonaparte et des Bourbons." OEuvres de Chateaubriand. 20 vols. Paris: Boulanger et Legrand, 1861-1863.
Citron, Pierre. "Le Reve asiatique de Balzac." L'Annee Balzacienne (1968): 303-336.
Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.
Cuvelier, Jean Guillaume Antoine. La Mort de Kleber, ou Les Francais en Egypte, mimodrame historique et militaire. Paris: Fages, Libraire, au Magasin de Pieces de Theatre, 1819.
Denon, Vivant. Voyages dans la Basse et Haute Egypte pendant les campagnes de Bonaparte en 1798 et 1799. 2 vols. London: Imprime pour S. Bagster, par J. & W. Smith, 1807.
Farrant, Tim. Balzac's Shorter Fiction: Genesis and Genre. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
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Hoffmann, Leon-Francois. "Eros camoufle: En marge d'Une Passion dans le desert, de Balzac." Hebrew University Studies in Literature 5 (1977): 19-36.
--. "Mignonne et Paquita." L'Annee balzacienne 5 (1964): 181-186.
Jacques, Georges. Paysages et structures dans La Comedie humaine. Louvain: Bureau du recueil, Bibliotheque de l'Universite, 1975.
Kadish, Doris. "Hybrids in Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or." Nineteenth-Century French Studies. 16.3-4 (1988): 270-278.
Kelly, Dorothy. Fictional Genders: Role and Representation in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Las Cases, Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonne de. Memorial de Sainte-Helene. 9 vols. Paris: Delloye, 1840.
Lucey, Michael. The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Martin, Brian. "Panthers, Palms, and Desert Passions: Balzac and Napoleon in Egypt." Queer Exoticism: Examining the Queer Exotic Within. Ed. David Powell and Tamara Powell. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
Miot, Jacques Francois. Memoires pour servir a l'histoire des expeditions en Egypte et en Syrie. 2 ed. Paris: Le Normant, 1814.
Ney, Michel, duc d'Elchingen. Proces du Marechal Ney, ou recueil complet des interrogatoires, declarations, etc. 4 nos. in 1 vol. Paris: L. G. Michaud, Imprimeur du Roi, 1815.
Nora, Pierre. Rethinking France = Les lieux de memoire. 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001-2010.
Porter, Dennis. "Orientalism and Its Problems." Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 150-161.
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--. "Orientalism Reconsidered," Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 198-215.
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Department of Romance Studies
(1.) Balzac makes mention of both Volney and Bourrienne. Georges Jacques finds another possible source for the description of the Egyptian desert in its similarity to the Breton countryside, which Balzac visited the summer before he wrote "Une Passion dans le desert" (32).
(2.) Denon, for example, writes :"un autre detachement militaire assurait le convoi contre les Arabes voltigeurs, qui, lorsqu'ils n'ont pas les forces necessaires pour attaquer de front, viennent quelquefois enlever les traineurs a vingt pas de la caravane" (1:62).
(3.) The desert is often described in a bare-bones mention of vast expanses of waterless plains with a few palm trees. See Bourrienne (2:282-283) and Volney (1:9-10). In Cuvelier's play, La Mort de Kleber, ou Les Francais en Egypte, mimodrame historique et militaire, we see "deux bancs de sable, quelques palmiers isoles" along with some ruins (5). This play is particularly interesting because Les Francais en Egypte, the second part of the title of this play, is also the subtitle suggested by the narrator for "Une Passion dans le desert." In the play, Kleber is killed, and his aid is stabbed in the throat--the panther in Balzac's story is also stabbed in the throat. This play was first performed in Paris at the Cirque Olympique in 1819 and published in the same year.
(4.) Balzac does allude to this Napoleonic strategy in Le Medecin de campagne.
(5.) Denon, in a very interesting description in relation to our story, calls to mind Volney's written image of Alexandria when he embarks there in person: "En traversant Alexandrie, je me rappelai et je crus lire la description qu'en a fit Volney; forme, couleur, sensation, tout y est peint a un tel degre de verite, que, quelques mois apres, relisant ces belles pages de son livre, je crus que je rentrais de nouveau a Alexandrie" (1:26-27).
(6.) This is particularly odd because when he cuts down the tree, the sound does make an echo: "Quand, vers le soir, ce roi du desert tomba, le bruit de sa chute retentit au loin" (8:1223).
(7.) This recalls Said, in this case his remarks on the feminization of the Orient: "the Orient was routinely described as feminine, its riches as fertile, its main symbols the sensual woman, the harem and the despotic--but curiously attractive--ruler" "Orientalism" 212).
(8.) See Hoffman's "Eros camoufle" for an interpretation of this eroticism.
(9.) "Les vastes plaines du Bohahire'h, qui n'est point un desert comme on l'a toujours repete, nous offraient a chaque instant le spectacle trompeur de ce desesperant mirage qui presente a l'oeil des nappes d'eau, la ou l'on ne trouve en avancant qu'une terre aride et profondement gercee: on a appele ce mirage, funeste; il n'est que trompeur, il n'a fait de mal a personne" (2:99).
(10.) Brian Martin reads "Une passion dans le desert" as a metaphor for "colonial homoeroticism, exoticism, and exploitation." In this essay he develops another aspect of ambiguous identity when he reads the confusion of masculine and feminine descriptions of the panther and her uncertain species in their relation to fantasies of exotic colonial homoeroticism (49).
(11.) In Furne we do not learn specifically that this Parisian soldier is the same soldier from Egypt; however in the Chlendowski edition, the narrator does say that the story is a scene from the errant life of his amputee interlocutor (1841).
(12.) For example, the reclining position of the woman at the left of "Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement" echoes the reclining position of the tiger on the right in "Etude de deux tigres." The violence against women of "La Mort de Sardanapale" resembles the violence of "Chasse aux lions."
(13.) In her pairing with Nucingen, she also raises the question of Jewish financial and social power, a topic Maurice Samuels has admirably treated. Nucingen is himself called a great cat, a "loup-cervier" (a word used for speculators).
(14.) One might argue that Esther is not killed but rather commits suicide, however she is a "suicidee de la societe" because she had warned that if she were to give herself to Nucingen, she would die; thus, in a sense, she is brought to this act by others who push her to it.
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|Title Annotation:||Honore de Balzac|
|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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