David, Jerome. Balzac: Une Ethique de la description.
Jerome David's book offers a remarkably complex inquiry into Honore de Balzac's turn to description over the course of his career. Eschewing commonplace and reductive sign postings, David places the evolution of Balzac's oeuvre in the context of a wide range of discursive and artistic practices in order to demonstrate the extent to which the French writer's descriptions fulfill several functions: rhetorical, epistemological, political, and ethical. By doing so, he brings into question Balzac's almost instantaneous canonization as a classical author and purveyor of maxims as well as the tendency to correlate description with third-person omniscience in the nineteenth-century novel.
David's argument revolves around two central notions: the detail and, more importantly, the type. Details allowed Balzac to both echo and take his distance from the historical writings of Sir Walter Scott and Jules Michelet and the sentimental tradition. Their use reflects his embrace of a social definition of what it means to be human and his attendant belief in an "ethics of description" that hinges on historical and spatial specificity. For David, this perspective accounts in part for Balzac's decision to focus almost exclusively on French society and for the epistemological and literary cohesion of his works.
Similarly, Balzac's "type" is both analogous to and distinct from a number of quasisynonyms and semiotically related terms, such as the classical allegory, the figura, the caractere, and the condition. In addition, David differentiates Balzac's "type" from the ways in which the concept was used in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century medical and scientific writings and in discourses on probability. Balzac's types are not ideal, universal, or statistically average. Nor do they represent a particular ideology.
They are anchored in concrete and unique historical contexts that the novel is ideally suited to reproduce, or rather, that the novel allows reader and writer to recognize and identify together. Though Balzac's Comedie humaine and other works belong to the tradition of panoramic writing described by Walter Benjamin, they do not share some of the key traits associated with it, most notably a clear separation between narrator and narratee and the presumption of epistemological superiority routinely assigned to the former. Balzac's use of details and types, though it draws on a wide range of third-person and univocal writings, ultimately rests on a very different literary ethos, one that owes more to journalism and echoes his participation in the encydopedic and polyphonic Les Francais peints par eux-memes.
According to David, Balzac's goal was to allow individuals to see themselves as members of an imagined community, a process that depends on the mutual recognition of descriptive truths. Verisimilitude and imitation thus have a political function: they contribute to the formation of a tableau that makes social identification possible. In such a context, the literary type does not reproduce a pre-existing subject; it is constructed and validated through the acts or writing and reading. This explains why Balzac's descriptions are both highly specific from a sociological point of view as well as partial. The tableau drawn by the narrator must be completed by the reader. Indeed, to the extent that Balzac viewed writing and reading as communal acts, the act of description never ends.
David's argument is somewhat difficult to summarize, iri part because he takes pains to discuss at some length the role played by a wide variety of registers in his analysis of the central role played by description in Balzac's oeuvre. Also, his own scholarly ethics lead him to adopt an exogenous approach to the history of literature and thus to historicize the various elements upon which his argument rests, which tends to dilute its linearity. (This is not to say that he avoids close readings of works by Balzac.) Moreover, he usually resists the temptation to box concepts in strict definitions and tends to qualify many of his statements. While this methodology partakes of a commendable refusal to oversimplify a scholarly argument, it can occasionally hide the forest for the trees. The book would have benefited from a willingness to make further cuts, stand by a particular line of argument, and articulate clearly its stakes and the nature of the contribution the author is making. These are, however, minor quibbles, particularly in the case of a work that appears to have come out of a doctoral thesis. Above all, David's book is a remarkably rich inquiry into the nature and role of description in Balzac's works and a welcome contribution to the ongoing debates on the nature of representation in nineteenth-century literature, art, and thought.
Catherine Labio, University of Colorado at Boulder
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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