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Un enlevement peut en cacher un autre: kidnapping the past in La Duchesse de Langeais.

Honore de Balzac's 1834 novella La Duchesse de Langeais is a story in which journeys abound. Paradoxically, the most significant of these symbolically-charged voyages are involuntary, at least on the part of the main traveler, for they take the form of a kidnapping. The primary objective of kidnapping is as much psychological as physical, in that it seeks to bring its victim from a public into a private space, and thus into direct confrontation with the intimate thoughts of the kidnapper. The public sphere, particularly at the time of the Restoration when the story is set, is represented by Balzac as entirely dominated by conflicting systems, from the political and ideological to the libidinal and psychological. Underlying the motive for kidnapping is the assumption that if someone is violently removed from this hypocritical milieu, and completely disoriented with respect to his or her public identity, the true value associated with a hidden and self-enclosed private system will be revealed; that is, the private self will be laid bare to the desiring eye of the kidnapper. However, as the notion of desire suggests, the captor's position is far from neutral, for kidnapping in Balzac is also conceived as the forum for the self-revelation of the kidnapper, and this secondary objective is somewhat at odds with the primary one. Where the victim is being profoundly and even ontologically challenged, the degree to which the perpetrator is also forced to abandon firmly-held ideas remains unclear. Balzac's earlier novella Sarrasine (1830) stands as a case in point that kidnappers, too, should beware of what revelations their abductions may unleash, concerning their own self-identity as much as that of their victim. (1) In La Duchesse de Langeais, the question of the kidnapper's position is complicated still further by Balzac's preoccupation with the issue of how even the most emancipated of his contemporaries remained fundamentally bound up in historical events within living memory. In challenging the victim's constructed identity, kidnapping implies at once a re-examination of the social and personal evolution of that identity, and a radical break with this past. Yet even a kidnapper has a past that is being reworked in the violence of the abduction. A character like Armand de Montriveau in La Duchesse de Langeais, for all that he is exemplarily detached from family and from the state, still runs the risk of seizing upon kidnapping as an opportunity to remain fixated on a repressed past, rather than using it as an opportunity to evolve into a newly-forged modernity.

Among all the other journeys that are undertaken or described in La Duchesse de Langeais--military exploits, scientific expeditions, flights of fancy or narrative flash-backs--, kidnapping stands as a strategic combination of physical and psychological transportation. A violent and transformative gesture, kidnapping wrenches its victim loose from all the material and conceptual anchoring points of his or her identity, whether personal or political, in the past or in an imagined future. The key plot-twist in the novella consists of an elaborate abduction of the Duchess by her lover, Armand de Montriveau, and this pivotal act is also echoed several times within the text in significant ways. The Duchess herself embodies all the qualities of latent heroism and manifest pettiness that characterize the milieu from which she will be extracted, that is, the Restoration aristocracy of the faubourg Saint-Germain. (2) In reference to her, Balzac explicitly justifies his long-held realist belief in incarnating social types. If, he proposes, one can say of Richelieu that he is the face of an entire chapter in France's history, and declare that "cette identite de physionomie entre un homme et son cortege historique est dans la nature des choses" then the same must clearly be true within the "drame national" of public mores that is played out across the social strata on a daily basis. "Pour briller dans une epoque" asks the narrator rhetorically, "ne faut-il pas la representer?" (5: 934). In this sense, kidnapping the dazzling Antoinette de Langeais amounts to carrying off and holding to account an entire social set, and indeed one that had flourished precisely in the age of Richelieu. Balzac's scathing critique of the dying aristocracy is overt and far-reaching in this text, as many critics have pointed out; in fact, it is for this vilification that the novella is arguably best known today. (3) Arlette Michel proposes that in this tableau of "un monde fossilise" where nothing moves with the times, Antoinette de Langeais is the last incarnation "dans l'aristocratie de style Restauration, des valeurs chevalresques autrefois specifques de sa caste" (94), values that, while admirable, have nevertheless lost the power to signify in the wake of the first Empire. True to the moeurs and "passions [...] hypocrites" that govern "la femme du Faubourg Saint-Germain" (5: 934)--and true also to the duality that is often associated with Balzac's representation of femininity--, (4) Antoinette de Langeais is drawn as a character of internal contradictions: "C'etait une femme artificiellement instruite, reellement ignorante; pleine de sentiments eleves, mais manquant d'une pensee qui les coordonnat; depensant les plus riches tresors de l'ame a obeir aux convenances; prete a braver la societe, mais hesitant et arrivant a l'artifice par suite de ses scrupules" (5: 935). Her personal evolution has been arrested within an early modern matrix of repression, artifice and appearance: "elle etait ce qu'elle voulait etre ou paraitre" (5: 948). (5) Ironically in all of this, affirms Balzac, "rien n'etait joue"; all her repressed potential for grandeur "ressortaient de sa situation autant que de celle de l'aristocratie a laquelle elle appartenait" (5: 935). In contrast to the Napoleonic qualities of the general who is on the brink of revolutionizing her world, Antoinette de Langeais is, truc to her kin, "une creature veritablement multiple, susceptible d'heroisme, et oubliant d'etre heroique" (5: 935).

The repressed nature of her latent heroism means that prior to her kidnapping, the Duchess remains enslaved to the worst social "convenances", caught in a private/public bind that results in her being "souverainement coquette" (5: 935). As Arlette Michel observes, "la coquette de haut-vol est une des figures majeures de la mythologie feminine balzacienne" (101), and here again Antoinette de Langeais initially serves as a clear social type. Admirable as the coquette is for her subversive power, the label in Balzac is nevertheless consistently associated with a feminized form of narcissism, a form that tiers with Freud's characterization of narcissism as a predominantly feminine misdirection of object choice. (6) For Balzac the self-satisfied coquette manifests in feminised terms a more general trait that is among his most frequent critical targets: that is, the tendency to hoard. Elsewhere in Balzac's writing, and particularly among male characters, the most obvious and symbolically-charged object of hoarding is, of course, money. We might note parenthetically that in many real-world cases, money is the motive behind a kidnapping as well, leading to the horrific gesture of putting a price on a human life. However, such is not the case for Balzac's kidnappers: though their acts are indisputably violent, they do not hoard bodies as barter in exchange for capital. In case of the Duchesse de Langeais, it is the flirtatious victim rather than the perpetrator of kidnapping who is initially portrayed as a miser, and of a particularly condemnable sort, for what she consciously gathers and refuses to give out is love. Brooks, in his 1993 Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative, proposes that the Duchess operates within what he calls "a restricted libidinal economy" (74); similarly Mireille Labouret-Grare speaks of her representing the cult of the "aristocrate" who, among the "'avares' balzaciens," seeks fulfillment by denying the body and thus controlling appearances. (7) But more than being merely contextualized by such a economy, Antoinette has herself set up the very terms of her own system, such that she generates ex nihilo a one-way flow of desire: "Madame de Langeais apprit, jeune encore, qu'une femme pouvait se laisser aimer ostensiblement sans etre complice de l'amour" (5: 939). Within the modern era, the duchess betters the courtly love model by wisely investing only what she can afford to lose, thereby creating an affective stockpile while remaining physically and emotionally untouched by what she has set in motion. In so doing, she fosters public admiration while retaining private control of her sentiments, upholding a powerful Lacanian noli me tangere that bolsters the egotism of the proud, frail aristocratic set, "qui se mourait sans vouloir [...] ni toucher, ni etre touchee" (5: 935). (8)

Thus a combination of subservience to the conventions of her flaccid society, and a narcissistic hoarding and withholding of affection, has made of this potential heroine a mere puppet-master directing and deferring unproductive desire. (9) As a type, the Duchess is set up as the antithesis of the rare "beaux caracteres, exceptions qui prouvent contre l'egoisme general qui a cause la perte de ce monde a part" (5: 927). Whether or not he is meant to directly incarnate one of these "exceptional" beings, Armand de Montriveau will deliver the crucial challenges to Antoinette de Langeais' self-contained system. He is clearly contrasted to the Duchess on several important points: his status as the penniless orphaned son of a republican general, raised as a ward of Bonaparte's state, presents an initial foil for her aristocratic pedigree; (10) his brooding manner and lack of discursive prowess serve to underline her grace and command of rhetoric; and where she is hamstrung by social conventions, Montriveau "s'etait habitue a n'exister que par une estime interieure et par le sentiment du devoir accompli" (5: 941). Nevertheless, the characters have two psychological similarities: firstly, they are both internally contradictory--Montriveau is described as a paradoxical combination of "naturellement bon" and "despotique" (5: 946-7). Secondly, despite his many heroic peregrinations, Montriveau, like the Duchess, has never been touched by love or desire, though this shared ignorance is founded in contrasting causes: "Or, la duchesse et Montriveau se ressemblaient en ce point qu'ils etaient egalement inexperts en amour. Elle en connaissait peu la theorie, elle en ignorait la pratique, ne sentait rien et reflechissait a tout. Montriveau connaissait peu de pratique, ignorait la theorie, et sentait trop pour reflechir" (5: 976). His naivete, combined with the sincerity of his smoldering passion, charm and intrigue the Duchess, and will confirm the instinctive desire to control him that she had felt upon hearing his story: "Elle voulut que cet homme ne fut a aucune femme, et n'imagina pas d'etre a lui" (5: 947).

The Duchess' signature hoarding reflex is initially triggered by Montriveau sight unseen, simply by a narrative she has heard about him. In this sense, their first interaction is virtual, based on Antoinette's fantasy. The general's reputation has preceded him through one story in particular about his lengthy travels in the African desert, a setting that in itself prepares both Duchess and reader to be transported out of the demure codes of the aristocratic salons. (11) The episode concerned Montriveau's excursion to a virtually inaccessible desert oasis, in search of the answers to several unelaborated scientific conundrums. Montriveau would have given up the desperate voyage at numerous points but for the ruse of his guide, who told him at every stage that they were mere hours from their destination, effectively luring him into achieving his goal. Antoinette is enthralled by this tale, to such an extent that during the night that passes between hearing the legend and meeting its protagonist, she dreams that is it she, rather than the guide, who has accompanied him on this journey. The narrator comments: "S'etre trouvee dans les sables brulants du desert avec lui, l'avoir eu pour compagnon de cauchemar, n'etaitce pas chez une femme de cette nature un delicieux presage d'amusement?" (5: 946). "Presage" it certainly proves to be, although perhaps more of a "cauchemar" than of the "amusement" she had expected, for the real-life general will profoundly disrupt her stable libidinal economy. Numerous commentators of this novella propose that Montriveau's desert voyage tan be read as a direct narrative premonition or allegory of their failed relationship. According to Bonnie Isaac, for example, "their affair resembles his desert adventures" (729) inasmuch as each is an indefinitely postponed search for lost illusions. James Mileham goes further, proposing that the general's journey prefigures the Duchess' abduction, with both experiences serving as "initiatory rites" in which each character is proven to be worthy of the other (217). However if the Duchess, like the reader, has been mislead from the outset concerning Montriveau and his identity as simply a disconnected orphan and "un homme de Bonaparte," (5: 1014) it is also true that the adventure story doing the rounds of the Saint-Germain gossip mill bears a much more complex relation to its protagonist's past than its subconscious rewriting by the Duchess can possibly reflect, a point which is crucial to understanding its importance within and beyond the recit.

Montriveau's time in the desert undoubtedly stands in the text as a means of structuring the later voyages of abduction behind which he himself is the driving force. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction that needs to be maintained between his initial guided journey to the oasis--a journey that, while based on ruse, is difficult to equate with a kidnapping--, and a second desert voyage that Montriveau also undertook. It is my contention that each of these two desert voyages is in fact subject to a manner of rewriting within the text, the first by the Duchess in her dream, and the second by Montriveau himself in his carefully-orchestrated abduction of Antoinette de Langeais. In her oniric fantasy, the Duchess casts herself as the intrepid guide, with Montriveau as her "compagnon"; and while this is clearly within the terms of her libidinal economy, wherein she prolongs their excursion by a dialectic of promising a wondrous goal and denying its fulfillment, it also implicitly carries within it the attainment of the "paradis terrestre" (5: 946), the oasis described by the legend. This is possible, of course, because in her dream she does not replace Montriveau, but rather embodies his guide, while the general plays the same role as in his actual desert voyage. Like Scheherazade, the Duchess delays through a nocturnal narrative; but like the realist author, she embroiders a fictional structure around a historical event, without misrepresenting the event itself, or rewriting the memory of the one who lived it. As with all history, including that of Restoration France, the possibility for future transformation, even the attainment of a "paradis terrestre", is left open. The duchess will go so far as to propose to be guided in turn by Montriveau through the passages of his recollections, tarrying with him instead of appearing at a ball, on condition that he continue his narrative: "'Vos aventures en Orient me charment. Racontez-moi bien toute votre vie. J'aime a participer aux souffrances ressenties par un homme de courage, car je les ressens, vrai!'" (5: 957). This point is significant for understanding why the expedition to the oasis does not, in my view, truly prefigure the later kidnapping. Whereas the desert journey, like the dream and indeed like the relationship, represents a seduction narrative into which Montriveau willingly enters, kidnapping is by definition a violence imposed upon another. Instead, the abduction of the Duchess represents Montriveau's own fantasy, and one in which he is rewriting, in a problematic way, his second desert voyage that is recounted in passing in the novella. This other journey, told earlier in the text but occurring later in time, involves Montriveau's own capture, enslavement, and miraculous escape; and it is this little-discussed narrative that he seeks to revisit when he sets in motion the kidnapping of the untouchable Duchess.

Before looking at this second desert voyage, I would like to analyze what occurs prior to and during the central kidnapping narrative, the key abduction that is provoked by Armand's frustration with the hoarded desire of the Duchess. At this point in the novella, the general has finally abandoned the small degree of social codification that he observes at all, by asking directly: "'M'aimez-vous, madame? [...] Dites hardiment: oui ou non'" (5: 963). When Antionette de Langeais naturally prevaricates, Montriveau forms a murderous resolve, one in which he even imagines putting a symbolic knife to her regal throat: "'je te prendrai par le chignon du cou, madame la duchesse, et t'y ferai sentir un fer plus mordant que ne l'est le couteau de la Greve'" (5: 987). Though Montriveau correctly understands the powerful signifying force of the guillotine for the aristocratic unconscious as the unstable "head" of society, the Duchess will nevertheless continue to manifest her superior command of symbolism, and of her emotions. She resorts here to what Balzac calls "son pathos a elle," a complex sublimating of "des desirs sans cesse reprimes" (5: 966) in neo-classical religious apologies, and then, when these have become tiresome, in spontaneous recitals of modern romantic music: "[E]lle quittait l'air charge de desirs qu'elle respirait, venait dans son salon, s'y mettait au piano, chantait les airs les plus delicieux de la musique moderne, et trompait ainsi l'amour des sens" (5: 967). Already Balzac's language affirms that her system of hoarding has begun to break down, insofar as the Duchess, while still manifesting detachment, is subject to desires she must actively displace. Her companion clearly comprehends the authenticity of this unconscious language--"En ces moments elle etait sublime aux yeux d'Armand: elle ne feignait pas, elle etait vraie, et le pauvre amant se croyait aime" (5: 967)--, but his grasp of its signifying is inconsistent, as the Duchess herself realises and even intentionally sustains (5: 972-73). Thus the game of deferral continues: Antoinette remains "horriblement coquette," while for his part Montriveau "ne l'aurait pas voulue autrement" (5: 973).

Despite his willingness to be lured on this adventure of physical desire and of exploration of the unconscious, the general continues to adhere to a code of conquest that is fundamentally military and libertine. (12) When Montriveau finally erupts in a "demande farouche de ses droits illegalement legitimes" (5: 974), the narrator again underscores his contradictory nature by describing the despotic general as the "esclave" of the Duchess. As we shall see, the image is far from arbitrary, and the Duchess immediately reappropriates this important motif, accusing Montriveau of seeking to "'me ravir la libre disposition de moi-meme.'" Her point is to highlight the historical fact that a woman under the Restoration was a virtual slave to the men who controlled her body: "'Si, en donnant notre personne, nous devenons esclaves, un homme ne s'engage a rien en nous acceptant'" (5: 977). (13) Particularly in the context of a story of the hyper-masculine Treize, she articulates a valid critique of a gender-based social injustice that will remain otherwise unchallenged in the text. As Antoinette suspects, for Montriveau, possessing is believing: he is seeking neither to question gender roles within the text, nor to revolutionize societal convenances to which he is utterly indifferent, but rather to overthrow and subjugate the closed system of the Duchess' ego and bodily personne. For him, in other words, the challenge to the social and political world of the Restoration has been reduced to the will to subvert the self-contained identity of its figurehead. He therefore elaborates a complicated scheme to transport the Duchess out of her habitual world, and unhinge her conscious and discursive control over their interaction. His avowed wish is to reveal the Duchess to herself, for he is certain that "'personne n'a ose mettre cette creature en face d'elle-meme'" (5: 986). But in forcing her to judge her past self and define her present, Montriveau will in fact revisit his own past subjugation, one that he has replayed rather than reformed in his dramatic abduction of Antoinette de Navarreins.

The first stage of Montriveau's kidnapping of the object of his desire clearly achieves its objective: the Duchess thinks she has returned home in her carriage after a ball, but the cascading description reveals her gradual awareness of an uncanny surrounding: "Arrivee dans sa cour, elle entra dans un vestibule presque semblable a celui de son hotel; mais tout a coup elle ne reconnut pas son escalier" (5: 991, my italics). This dizzying loss of familiarity sets up her abrupt and mysterious removal to a room that is gradually revealed to be, not her own boudoir, but another intimate space, one inspired by the roman noir: (14) Montriveau's private apartment. The Duchess soon manifests a manner of Stockholm syndrome whereby she sympathizes with her captor, as she admires the masculine simplicity of the room and begins to show signs that she loves Montriveau all the better for his act. For his part, Montriveau attempts to occupy several subject positions at once relative to the Duchess. On one hand he upholds his newfound position of power, symbolized none too subtly by his penetrating gaze and smouldering cigar. He claims to be free of all desire, and eventually explains that he intends to brand her forehead with a sign to visibly mark her as a manipulator of desire. On the other hand, he abruptly divests himself of the cigar and of all traces of its presence ("il ... brula des parfums, et purifia l'air" [5: 993]), and reneges his claim to bodily access to her "personne". He asserts that he no longer has the sentiment toward her that would make of his kidnapping a vengeful crime of passion, although Balzac makes it quite clear that this is untrue, and that the Duchess is right to identify herself as Montriveau's object choice: "D'ailleurs, pour enlever une femme, ne faut-il pas l'adorer?" (5: 992).

The general's inconsistencies multiply as the scene unfolds. His declared objective is to reclaim the position of the speaking subject, and orchestrate the crucial revelation of self and other that a kidnapping seeks to bring about: "'Je veux d'abord vous expliquer ce que vous etes, et ce que je suis. [...] Ici, personne ne peut me jeter a la porte. Ici, vous serez ma victime pour quelques instants, et vous aurez l'extreme bonte de m'ecouter'" (5: 992). Yet his revelation of a hidden, true identity in either of their cases depends upon his insight into their past lives, as well his clear vision of the present moment of confrontation, and the general's ability on both these counts is thrown into question by Balzac in several ways. Most obviously, Montriveau will utterly disbelieve--or as Brooks proposes, misunderstand ("Epistemophilia," 130)--the signs that his kidnapping mission has, as regards the Duchess, been successful, even as Antoinette moves from modest submissiveness to a histrionic and eroticized willingness to be branded with "ton chiffre rouge" (5: 998). She is still deftly playful with symbols, as she demonstrates by snatching up a cigar and claiming that to please him she would smoke it (5: 1000); at the same time she genuinely wishes to convince him of the sincerity of her love, and signifies this by adopting the position of slave in relation to his role as "'mon unique, mon seul maitre'" (5: 997). Yet Montriveau, whose incredulity will persevere long after this scene, replies here with studied coldness: "'Les gages en etaient dans le passe; nous n'avons plus de passe'" (5: 997). His melodramatic repudiation of the past does not ring true, prefacing as it does his intention to brand the Duchess permanently with the marker of her past acts. It does, however, underscore the importance of Montriveau's own relation to the past; and finally, it is the ability of both kidnapper and victim to consciously reassess their own history that will determine the success or failure of the transformative potential within this orchestrated crisis.

Ironically, the general's claire that their past no longer exists in fact recalls two earlier passages in the text, each of which touches on Armand's relation to--and loss of--his own former identity. One is the moment when, stricken by his initiatory experience of love in the presence of the Duchess, "d'un seul trait, par une seule reflexion, Armand de Montriveau effaca donc toute sa vie passee" (5: 951). By this rhetorical flourish Balzac insists on the transformative power of passion, even in a world of immutable relics. Prior to this romanesque coup de foudre that erases his past, the general has already been affected by a more serious loss of memory. He, like a few rare balzacian characters, suffers from amnesia; (15) however this crucial element of the story is one that passes virtually unremarked, by the narrator of the story and by its later commentators alike. A Napoleonic hero at the defeat of Waterloo, subsequently unrecognized by the new Restoration government, Montriveau had left Europe for the unexplored regions of Egypt. His obscure departure was followed by an ignominious return, for when he first regained French soil, it was neither as a reinstated war hero, nor as a triumphant researcher and adventurer, but rather as a recently-escaped slave. He had been betrayed, "depouille de tout, mis en esclavage et promene pendant deux annees a travers les deserts" (5: 942), and after this tortuous and extended desert wandering, had expended his last reserves of energy on his miraculous escape. He reached the French colony in Senegal "demi-mort, en haillons, et n'ayant plus que d'informes souvenirs. Les immenses sacrifices de son voyage, l'etude des dialectes de l'Afrique, ses decouvertes et ses observations, tout fut perdu" (5: 942, my italics). This of course purs into question the narrative status of the tale of his other desert journey to the promised oasis, as it must have been among those experiences of which Montriveau bas no clear recollection when he meets the Duchess, and thus can only have been known and recounted by others. (16) Furthermore, it casts an entirely different light on the nature of desert voyage that the Duchess' kidnapping later parallels within the text. Armand, once himself betrayed and transported against his will, displaced from his presumed colonial identity by becoming a European slave in Africa, and traumatized to the point of being severed from his past by amnesia, seems to be replaying his enslavement through the violent, disorienting and traumatizing act of kidnapping.

There are two textual indications that the kidnapping scene indeed echoes Montriveau's African enslavement. Firstly, in the room where the Duchess is held, Balzac describes a torch on the mantelpiece that "rappelait, par sa forme egyptienne, l'immensite des deserts ou cet homme avait longtemps erre" (5: 992). Hovering over the scene like a phantom, evoking by its "forme egyptienne" a forgotten experience in "la Haute-Egypte" (5: 942), this souvenir both haunts and illuminates the present confrontation of victim and slave-cumkidnapper. For Montriveau, himself a manner of "revenant" (7) from the first Empire, this image stands as an mute signifier of the power of the past to shape current acts, whether consciously or not. Secondly, the unelaborated presence of the desert enslavement within this scene of abduction begins to make sense of a striking gesture in the text that critics have struggled to explain, beyond associating it with the roman noir genre: that is, Montriveau's threatened but unconsummated gesture of branding the Duchess' forehead with "une croix de Lorraine adaptee au bout d'une tige d'acier" (5: 998). The impulse to mark the body of the Duchess as the site of desire's failure is, of course, rich in symbolic import, given that she is drawn by Balzac as a hoarder and even a castrator of desire itself, inspiring desire while denying its reciprocation, pointing out the lack in the other while refusing to signify her own. But the specific choice of the forehead as the target, the aggressive precision of the aim--"'Nous vous l'appliquerons au front, la, entre les deux 'yeux'" (5: 998)--, as well as the elongated shape of what Brooks labels "the red-hot signifier" (Body Work 75), remain unexplained. I would argue that they serve to recall the sole example given by the narrator of the humiliations suffered by Montriveau during his enslavement, when his head was used for target practice by the children of the tribe's leader: "Pendant quelques jours les enfants du cheikh de la tribu dont il etait l'esclave s'amuserent a prendre sa tete pour but dans un jeu qui consistait a jeter d'assez loin des osselets de cheval, et a les y faire tenir" (5: 942-3). (18) Though he is not decapitated by this cruel game, any more than Antoinette's brow is finally maimed by Montriveau's rapier-like brand, the gestures are reciprocal, each serving as a mocking reiteration of mastery and servitude that explicitly targets the captive body at the site of human thought and expression.

Like Montriveau himself, Balzac inscribes these traces of a forgotten past without comment. But their importance is all the more profound, for the reader must look more closely than does the general himself to understand why the transformative potential that is sought by the abduction, and which promises to affect captor and captive alike, in fact remains unrealized in the case of Armand. As victim, the Duchess suffers all the positive and negative effects of her abrupt enslavement, through the loss of her subject position and the rupture of her identity with ber past self. The kidnapper himself, by contrast, unconsciously returns to a former experience of enslavement, grasping at a clear sense of self by repeating and mastering his loss of self, but thereby recasting a repressed memory with no point of access onto a new outcome. It is significant in this regard that in his fantasy, Montriveau skews the model of Freudian transference, substituting his enslaved self with the kidnapped Duchess, and writing himself into the role of master. This gives a lie not only to his past, but also to the present; for inasmuch as Montriveau is not aware that he is replaying his own humiliation, he remains enslaved to this memory, so profoundly under its influence that his fantasy-laced kidnapping cannot be as productive even as the Duchess' oniric fantasy of deferral and fulfillment. Antoinette's poignant prose, in her final letter to Montriveau, will directly accuse him of structuring his desire as a reversal of, rather than a response to, her dream: "'Dans cette terrible aventure qui m'a tant attachee a vous, Armand, vous alliez du desert a l'oasis, mene par un bon guide. Eh! bien, moi, je me traine de l'oasis au desert, et vous m'etes un guide sans pitie'" (5: 1026). Ironically, it is not the captive but the captor who seems to have missed the sought-after revelation of a hidden identity, his own as much as hers. At the end of the kidnapping episode, when Montriveau reinserts the Duchess into her own past identity, and indeed into the very ballroom from which she had been abducted, the narrator will nevertheless leave no doubt that she has been transformed, freed of ber attachment to the world. Looking around this social gathering with new eyes, "elle trouva le monde petit en s'en trouvant la reine," and once she has arrived home, in a private space of introspection "elle s'y trouva changee et en proie a des sentiments tout nouveaux" (5: 1002). She has made a heroic escape from her affective desert, for she bas entered a new libidinal economy in which she will seek out Montriveau in word and in action. Yet though he once bodily escaped his enslavement, the only light in which he will see her remains the glow ri'oto the haunting Egyptian lamp, a relic locked in the past and still physically juxtaposed in his apartment with the "enormes pattes de sphinx" (5: 992) that frame both his bed and his unconscious imagination.

If the Duchess was initially presented as the incarnation of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and its values, her newfound liberty will manifest itself through her emancipation from ber position as figurehead for the stagnant Restoration and its libidinal and symbolic constraints. She has recognized her own enslavement to a retrograde system, and her legally-bound body as a pawn moved by forces other than her own. As she declares to her aging aristocratic relatives, even her closest family has treated her, not as a unique individual, but as an exchangeable piece in a game, by marrying her to the miserly Duc de Langeais: "'Mon pere, ma famille, en me sacrifiant a des interets, m'a, sans le vouloir, condamnee a d'irreparables malheurs'" (5: 1017). When she then ostentatiously parks her (empty) carriage outside Montriveau's apartment, she exploits and explodes the codification whereby her body is interchangeable with her role, sending it as "un substitut d'elle-meme" in Mireille Labouret-Grare's formulation (24), a manner of synecdoche for her body and thus also for the body of the society that she wishes to subvert. The Faubourg that witnesses this act is caught in a play of mirrors: scandalized by what is merely a lying appearance, it shows itself to be as hollow as the carriage, and proves finally that its greatest capacity is for self-destruction. By soliciting the predictable reaction of society, the Duchess is voluntarily engaging and subverting its sign system, and thereby provoking her own expulsion from that society. However, all metaphor is inherently vulnerable to misreading, or to flat-footed undoing by the imposition of a literal meaning; and no other character in this text is as hermeneutically hapless as is the principal intended recipient of this message, Montriveau. Equally fascinated and frustrated by the Duchess' indirect methods of communication, perpetually tongue-tied and "rude" (5: 953) in her presence, the general has already bungled the opportunity offered by the kidnapping, condemning his beloved to serve as a stand-in for his past self without realizing he has done so. When by way of response to the kidnapping she sends the rebellious carriage, as a metaphor incarnate for her liberated self, it is no coincidence that Montriveau unwittingly collapses this symbol, both by his witnessed physical presence elsewhere at the same time (a fact which undoes the intended societal scandal), and by his continued inability to believe in personal transformation.

Near the end of the kidnapping scene the Duchess assures her captor that she is already liberated from the Faubourg Saint-Germain, for she has remained capable of distinguishing and holding off its superficial values: "'Ce monde horrible,'" she explains, "'il ne m'a pas corrompue'" (5: 999). Yet the passionate Montriveau has already concluded that "'nous ne nous comprendrons jamais'" (5: 999), and his words are prophetic, at least as regards the power of symbolic language. Montriveau's detachment from symbolism is established within the first few pages of the nouvelle, and directly associated with his imperial heroism: he is "un homme dont la vie n'avait ete, pour ainsi dire, qu'une suite de poesies en action, et qui avait toujours fait des romans au lieu d'en ecrire" (5: 908). By contrast, inasmuch as the Duchess' world is a throwback to pre-revolutionary France, she is predisposed to see only what is poetic and romanesque in her surroundings, to see in every referent a socially-encoded signifier. "Les femmes habitudes a la vie des salons connaissent le jeu des glaces," explains Balzac; thus at the crux of the abduction, when Antoinette has passionately accepted, and Montriveau has abruptly dismissed, the brandished signifier, "la duchesse, interessee a bien lire dans le coeur d'Armand, etait tout yeux. Armand, que ne se defiait pas de son miroir, laissa voir deux larmes rapidement essuyees. Tout l'avenir de la duchesse etait dans ces deux larmes" (5: 998-9). The meaning of those clandestine tears is more genuine than the searing brand, and yet the "avenir" that they promise will be fatally postponed, and their reader will be detained permanently, as she later expresses it to Montriveau, "'au lendemain de votre vengeance'" (5: 1026). The general remains a literal thinker, who has executed his first corporeal abduction of his lover exactly, but misunderstands how to incorporate their past identities within this present moment of revelation. His inadvertent self-revelation in "ces deux larmes" is quashed, their metaphoric communication replaced with the literal ex-communication of Antoinette from Montriveau's life, and the story of her symbolic capture reduced to her imprisonment within by-gone events. It seems that, along with the Duchess, the poetry and nobility proper to her outmoded society, and with them a whole system of meaning that flourished with the aristocracy, are on the verge of becoming silent fossils in a modern era of action and conquest.

For a writer such as Balzac, the loss of the rhetorical grace and descriptive allusion that were the linguistic hallmarks of the aristocracy was a tragic side-effect of the enormous changes to French society at the dawn of the nineteenth century. The task of realism was to transform descriptive language, to unshackle it from the past while bringing the lessons of the past with it, to preserve symbolic wealth within the language of immediacy and frank eye-witnessing. Where a novelist such as Dumas sought to vulgarize history and bring it dramatically to life, Balzac refused to write, for example, the adventures of Montriveau, apart from those few stripped-down tales that structure the nouvelle in their larger significance. Rather, he was preoccupied with the difficult task leagued to his contemporaries: recalling the traumatic events of recent history without being transfixed by them. The past threatens to haunt the present, delaying it by hoarding the energy it needs to move forward; at the same time the present is tempted to repress the past, refusing to listen for fear that it will hear only what time has proved to be deluding lies. When the heroic Montriveau confronts his aristocrate, he symptomizes the difficulty of the present as it addresses the recent past; and despite the explosive potential for regeneration opened by the gesture of kidnapping, his unconscious solution is to replay history, unchanged but for the substitution of another for his subjugated self. What this man of action does not see is the metaphoric power of history itself, whereby the past can both signify and admit of interpretation, thereby bringing new meaning to the future.

In this story and in others, Balzac will explore how the inability to understand and react to the meaningful symbolism within history proves fatal, both for the survival of the past and for the enlightenment of the present. (19) His message is rendered all the more subtle and powerful through the tripartite structure of La Duchesse de Langeais, a pattern he had also employed in his 1830 novella Adieu. (20) Both recits consist of a central flash-back story that recounts the past, framed by two episodes set in the present; thus the crucial second part telescopes the past within the past, while imposing on the reader the act of remembering and rethinking the first episode. Clearly this interrupted chronology is one that Balzac sees as a faithful model of the way in which memory works, and also as a compelling structure for communicating the urgency of present consequences embedded in past events. With the benefit of hindsight we may perform the task that he expressly leaves to his reader--"Apres les faits," he promises early in La Duchesse de Langeais, "viendront les emotions" (5: 908)--, and restore the full diachronic context to the narrative by examining the upshot of these past events, recounted in the opening and closing sections of Balzac's enigmatic story.

The end of the novella's second part is set months after the kidnapping. Antoinette has written a letter offering an ultimate chance to be reconciled, and has ensured that Montriveau has read it. When he nevertheless misses the rendezvous it offers (for the banal but salient reason that his clock is slow), the Duchess disappears into the night to join a remote Spanish convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, and Montriveau begins a five-year search to find her. It is with the conclusion of this search that the nouvelle opens, and re-reading this first episode in its chronological order after the second reveals that Montriveau has once again attempted to wipe clean the slate of his personal history. Gone is his republican heroism, replaced by devoted military service to the 1823 monarchy and to Ferdinand VII of Spain; gone too is his skepticism over his mistress' genuine change of heart. This is to say that Armand has at last escaped his unconscious enslavement to the past; however he has replaced it with a conscious desire to rewind the clock yet again, this time to the instant after the kidnapping, the same moment in which the transformed Antoinette had found herself trapped five years before. Essentially, the rive intervening years have as little content for Montriveau as for the reader who is just beginning the book, a point that is symptomized by his unexplained conversion to the cause of the restored monarchy. Montriveau's existence was suspended a moment after it recommenced, when he learned that the woman in whom he finally believed had vanished, and his purpose is to re-launch his life--and hers--from that historical point. Yet the structure of the text means that this initial episode is layered with meanings that will only be clarified when the subsequent sections are read; meanings that, like repressed textual memories, should be more evident to the main protagonist himself than they could be to the reader.

On a first reading of this opening chapter, it appears that Antoinette shares Montriveau's fixation on their shared past. Her presence in the convent is indirectly revealed through music, as she weaves into her sacred repertoire the melody of the Fleuve du Tage: "romance francaise dont souvent [Montriveau] avait entendu jouer le prelude dans un boudoir de Paris a la personne qu'il aimait" (5: 910). It is significant that, unlike Montriveau, Balzac's reader is still in ignorance of the complexity of the sublimated desire to which this speechless voice refers. The musical signifier, in other words, only reveals one layer of its connection to the past: the nostalgia of the musician, whose patriotic "regrets d'une exilee" (5: 910) are presumably intertwined with her attachment to a lost lover. For his part, Montriveau, who is evidently still no reader of metaphor, is immediately transported to a delirious memory, hearing this echo of repressed desire as a sign that the Duchess still lives wholly in the past, as does he. The narrator underscores this nostalgia by describing the far-flung setting of their reunion as "ce rocher a demi europeen, africain a demi" (5: 906), a liminal space that is--we see on a second reading--symbolically infused with two past experiences: Montriveau's desert wanderings in Africa, and their subsequent multiple rewritings in Europe. Yet hindsight also makes it clear that there will be no space that can reconcile these past narratives after the failure of the kidnapping, and though Montriveau hopes for "la resurrection d'un amour perdu," his only accomplishment here, as the narrator intimates, will be to "le retrouver encore perdu" (5: 910). The cloistered "long suicide" (5: 905) of the former Duchess, in the over-inscribed "desert" (5: 914) of the convent, functions as a kind of voluntary amnesia. In effect, she has turned her foregone identity as the belle of Restoration society into a manner of legend or myth, a source of creative inspiration for her improvised music that no longer bears any relation to events in her ageless existence, an image as unanchored in time as her rocky refuge is in space.

Montriveau's clear intention in this opening section is to revisit his shared past with the Duchess and transform its outcome, by reanimating and responding to the desire that she had erstwhile sublimated and suddenly expressed in response to the kidnapping. However, whereas Montriveau has the capacity to suspend his present identity and return seamlessly to the past--he easily trumps up a "conge" (5: 923) from his military campaign in order to tarry on the Spanish island where Antoinette is hidden--, for her part the former Duchess has left temporality altogether in the near-death of the convent. She has entered a manner of stasis, repressed like a memory of her bygone self, in a new relation to time and recollection that is at once tragic and idyllic. Sublimating her former self in her music, which Balzac presents as the very medium of memory, (21) the former coquette transmits deep sadness for "un amant perdu, mais non pas oublie" (5: 913), but also a kind of ecstatic transformation of a profane love into a timeless, sacred love, an idealization of sentiments that, once confessed, are "purifies, [...] transportes dans les regions les plus hautes" (5: 920). (22) Balzac revised his manuscript to make it clear that her wordless musical expression is the sublimation not only of "le passe", but of all temporal experiences: "Pour [Montriveau], comme pour la soeur, ce poeme etait l'avenir, le present et le passe" (5: 914). (23) But whereas her former lover will seek to revive the past through the shock of the present, toward a future in which, he declares, "tu reviendras a la vie, a la sante, sous les ailes de l'Amour" (5: 922), Antoinette's own desert existence has become a kind of unworkable ideal, in that it is timeless and therefore detached from historical contingencies. This freedom from a personal and a historical past is precisely what the gesture of kidnapping sought to bring about, but in the novel's opening sequence the success of that gesture is already locked in the past.

Ironically, Antoinette's cry of despair at the instant in which she fled to this timeless refuge behind the veil, marking her abandonment of one fruitless self-transformation for another definitive one, coincided exactly with Armand's own return in time, as he belatedly recognized the successful outcome of the kidnapping. He now directly demands that his former slave return with him to and in time, unable to believe that the historical moment opened up by the revolutionary kidnapping is utterly irrecoverable. The future which the Duchess had proposed by means of her "coup d'Etat feminin" (5: 1009), signified by the empty carriage, was entirely open, responding to her abduction from time and identity by consciously overturning the social and political framework that had hitherto defined her. Its novelty lay in its radical break with the conventions of the past, and in its potential creation of a new society of two individuals whose histories and temperaments had hitherto been mutually oppose& Whether this unstructured and unrealized future could have in fact become realized is now, eternally, a moot point. Montriveau continues to be tragically out of step with the object of his desire: just as, at the onset of his quest to find her, he joined the same monarchical order that Antoinette had recently defied for his sake, so now at its conclusion he desires a seamless return to that foregone moment of societal defiance--a moment that, along with temporal existence, she has eternally closed. In response to his demand that she follow him beyond the convent walls, and into a future that would fold perfectly into the past, Antoinette makes the simple but crucial point that "les souvenirs du passe me font mal" (5: 920). The scope of this harm is difficult to assess without prior knowledge of the "passe" in question; once again the structure of the text means that only a second reading reveals how unlikely Montriveau is to grasp the risks of reviving the past. Though he has belatedly recognized his lover's change of heart, the general has gained no insight into his own role in the kidnapping he orchestrated, and into the disastrous consequences of unconsciously locking his victim in the trauma of his own past enslavement. Along with his Restoration contemporaries, Montriveau is about to discover that past identifies cannot simply be taken up where they were once left off, for they are anchored in their specific context by dark and complex roots.

The most surprising moment in this opening section is saved for the end; it is also, as we learn, its most over-inscribed gesture. Montriveau affirms here his blind conviction that he and his beloved must return in time, and his continued misunderstanding of the danger inherent in chaining a revolutionary act to the past. The former Duchess has abruptly broken off their interview by confessing to her superior that Montriveau is her ex-lover, and no sooner has the curtain fallen between them than the general forms a resolve: "'Ah! elle m'aime encore! s'ecria-t-il [...], il faut l'enlever d'ici'" (5: 923). Initially the reader does not know that the proposed kidnapping of "la soeur Therese" threatens to repeat an act that has already foundered once on a misappropriation of the past. The promised abduction provides much more than a segue between the opening and closing episodes, for between the utterance and the enactment of Montriveau's final abduction of Antoinette, both the lynchpin kidnapping episode and the earlier enslavement that it rewrites will emerge within the text. Thus the proposed ravishing of the former Duchess is nota revolutionary new idea, but is itself overlaid with a complicated history by the time it is conceived of here and carried out at the text's conclusion. The reader who turns the page on the second part to begin the third has gained the same historical awareness as Montriveau, and understands this decision for what it is: a desire to reinsert the Duchess into linear time by returning to a specific and transformative moment of trauma. Still outstanding, however, is the matter of Montriveau's unconscious tie to a more deeply repressed past: the story of his own enslavement that remains embedded in his gesture of kidnapping. Any potential for emancipation held within the act of kidnapping threatens to be short-circuited by this eternal return to Montriveau's repressed mis-adventure in Africa, and to the temporal lapses expressed through his subsequent amnesia. His repetition compulsion casts doubt over the implication that his earlier failure is to be set to rights in the richly ambiguous final episode.

The brief third section of the novella recounts the execution of the proposed kidnapping, and for the most part is devoted to the details leading up to the siege. As with the first abduction of the Duchess five years earlier, that of the nun in 1823 is planned and executed with military precision by the Treize. However, when Montriveau and the cross-dressed Henri de Marsay at last arrive at the cell of their intended victim, "ils virent alors, dans l'antichambre de la cellule, la duchesse morte, posee a terre sur la planche de son lit, et eclairee par deux cierges" (5: 1036). Confronted with a temporal existence that she had once revolutionized and then renounced, Antoinette has finalized her departure from history and from narrative. The Duchess' death, like that of many of Balzac's heroines, is at once tragic, unexplained and unsurprising: it is brought on primarily by narrative necessity, the result of an ideal--in this case, her social and historical self-transformation--that dissolves upon contact with an ever-limited reality. What is strange and extraordinary about this feminine demise is what follows, for despite the finality of her gesture, the plot will continue as planned. As they stand over the body, "ni Montriveau ni de Marsay ne dirent une parole, ne jeterent un cri; mais ils se regarderent. Puis le general fit un geste qui voulait dire: 'Emportons-la'" (5: 1036). The imperative verb emporter is remarkable in this context, not only for its sheer outrageousness, but also for the fact that its direct object is most often a thing rather than a person. In effect, the Duchess bas finally completed her withdrawal from the world by becoming a non-conscious being, just as, according to Heidegger and Sartre after him, a body always threatens to assert its fundamental nature as a physical object. In this context, the reduction to the material body renders the crucial gesture of kidnapping an act of petty theft; for if there is no alterity or consciousness to be confronted, then removing the body is tantamount to pocketing a trinket, or as Balzac puts it near the outset of the text, turning up a misplaced treasure. "Qui, dans sa vie," asks the narrator in reference to the general's opening quest, "n'a pas, une fois au moins, bouleverse son chez-soi, ses papiers, sa maison, fouille sa memoire avec impatience en cherchant un objet precieux, et ressenti l'ineffable plaisir de le trouver?" (5: 910). To understand Montriveau's devouring passion, the narrator goes on, one must "mett[re] une femme, un coeur, un amour a la place de ce rien" (5: 911); yet Montriveau himself finally does the reverse. His stubborn pursuit of a missed opportunity Mil make of Antoinette a misplaced "objet precieux" that he seeks to return to its "proper" place. This trifling "rien" can be purloined at will, but its power to transform and be consciously transformed has expired, and it now exists only as an opaque symbol, reminiscent of the mute African mementoes that once adorned Montriveau's private apartment.

The analogy that Montriveau and his band will make momentarily concerning the Duchess' body is not with artifacts, but rather with texts, and this later addition to Balzac's manuscript has garnered much interest on the part of commentators. (24) The tale originally ended aboard the ship that was meant to carry Montriveau's lover with him to revive their shared past, with the kidnapper in silent contemplation of the calm beauty on Antoinette's dead face. One might believe in this final tableau that the general at last recognizes the fatal departure from temporality that he imposed on his lover during the first abduction; at the very least, there is an implication that he beholds in this captured body something "sublime," a limitless aesthetic quality that remains momentarily associated with "nos depouilles mortelles" (5: 1037). However, subsequent editions of the novella pursue a brief conversation about what the Duchess ultimately is or represents. The worldly and callous Ronquerolles is the first to acknowledge the absurdity of their act in kidnapping a lifeless corpse: "'Ah! ca,' dit Ronquerolles a Montriveau quand celui-ci reparut sur le tillac, 'c'etait une femme, maintenant ce n'est rien'" (5: 1037). This 'nothing' corresponds to Montriveau's treatment of his former lover as a misplaced trifie; however Balzac does not simply leave the matter there, or gloss over the critical reflection on memory and transforming the past that the act of kidnapping has opened in this novella. Ronquerolles continues: "'[...] jetons-la dans la mer, et n'y pense plus que comme nous pensons a un livre lu pendant notre enfance.' 'Oui,' dit Montriveau, 'car ce n'est plus qu'un poeme'" (5: 1037). (25) Finally the Duchess has been consigned to a forgotten history, like a text whose potential to signify was overlooked by an immature reader, and whose subliminal meaning was subjected to a repression as rigorous as infantile amnesia. By dismissing the formative nature of childhood readings, the Treize, including Montriveau, manifest a problematic mindset that is at issue throughout Balzac's text: that is, a steadfast refusal to reassess the importance of personal and ideological history for inventing the future. Montriveau responds to this image of the discarded text of an intimate pre-history by equating the Duchess' silent body with purely metaphoric language: "un poeme." According to the heroic subject who values only "[les] poesies en action" (5: 908), and for whom the transformative power of words has never existed, the over-inscribed poetic body is devoid of signification. If she is no longer anything but a poem, the paradoxical implication is that she can deliver no message from the timeless place beyond death: her poetry is a closed system. What this poem incarnate needs is a reader, yet Balzac's Montriveau falls short, as a man of action who misunderstands the symbolism of his own gestures, and having found and discarded his lost treasure, once again leaves this metaphor unread, and turns his back on an uninterpreted past.

Through her efforts to signify her transformative break with her past identity, Antoinette has, in an important sense, been a poetic being since the first kidnapping. Correspondingly, since that moment, she has for all intents and purposes been dead to Montriveau; for she died the death he escaped, remaining eternally enslaved to his past humiliation and his loss of subject position. Insofar as she authored her own textual existence in Balzac's novella, Antoinette's revolutionary writing in response to the shocking success of the first kidnapping failed on two counts to affect her childish amnesiac destinataire: firstly when the metaphor for her "personne" (the empty carriage) was correctly read by society but misread by Montriveau; and secondly when she discovered that the series of letters she had addressed to her lover had never been opened. Her manifestoes are a testament at once to the effectiveness of kidnapping as a means of interrupting the historical inevitability of social class and place, but also to the need for the perpetrator's own past to be equally revisited and transformed. When evolution dissolves into regression, through a faulty transference of past roles and a slippage into a compulsive repetition, all hope for a new world order dissolves with it. Finally the past hoards the energy that could forge the future, and all tales of adventure, exploration and conquest are themselves reduced to a dead letter, enslaved to its own limited narrative. Kidnapping in this instance remains as visionless as the Duchess was prior to her transformation, for it achieves its immediate objective without taking the crucial step of conceiving of its own meaning.

Department of Modern Languages

University of Lethbridge, Canada


Balzac, Honore de. La Comedie humaine. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. 12 vols. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, 1976-81.

Baron, Anne-Marie. Balzac, ou les hieroglyphes de l'imaginaire. Paris: Honore-Champion, 2002.

Brooks, Peter. "Balzac: Epistemophilia and the Collapse of the Restoration." Yale French Studies 101 (2001): 119-131.

--. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Czyba, Lucette. "Misogynie et gynophonie dans La Fille aux yeux d'or." La Femme au XIXe siecle. Litterature et ideologie. Ed. Roger Bellet. Lyon: PUL, 1978. 139-149.

Dupuis, Danielle. "Souvenir et douleur dans La Comedie humaine." Annee balzacienne (2005): 265-85.

Heathcote, Owen. "'Les deux sexes et autres...'." Penser avec Balzac. Ed. Jose-Luis Diaz and Isabelle Tournier. Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire: Christian Pirot, 2003.59-69.

Henry, Alain. "Le texte alternatif: les antagonismes du recit dans l'Histoire des Treize de Balzac." Revue des sciences humaines XLVII.175 (juillet-septembre 1979): 77-97.

Isaac, Bonnie J. "'Tous les refrains sont bons': Balzac and Poetry's Lost Illusions." MLN 98.4 (May 1983): 728-744.

Knight, Diana. Balzac and the Model of Painting: Artist Stories in 'La Comedie humaine'. London: Modern Humanities Research Association and W. S. Maney & Son Ltd, 2007.

Labouret-Grare, Mireille. Balzac, la duchesse et l'idole. Poetique du corps aristocratique. Paris: Honore Champion, 2002.

Michel, Ariette. "La Duchesse de Langeais et le romanesque balzacien." Figures Feminines et Roman. Ed. Jean Bessiere. Paris: PUR 1982. 89-108.

Mileham, James W. "Desert, Desire, Dezesperance: Space and Play in Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 31:3-4 (Spring-Summer 2003): 210-225.


(1.) As Diana Knight notes, "Appropriately, Sarrasine brings his own tragedy to its climax when his abduction of Zambinella from the French ambassador's concert [...] is diverted into an enforced confrontation between Zambinella the model and Zambinella the statue in the sculptor's own studio" (Knight 12). The dire consequences for Sarrasine's sense of his sexual identity and place in the symbolic order are well known, particularly since Roland Barthes' S/Z.

(2.) Alain Henry even proposes that "Le personnage de la Duchesse de Langeais est litteralement produit par la longue analyse du faubourg Saint-Germain qui a precede son evocation" (Henry 81).

(3.) For example, Peter Brooks claims that Balzac is indicting the Restoration's "egotism, its fixation on class privilege rather than on national good, and most of all its failure of intelligence" (Brooks, "Epistemophilia" 120).

(4.) For a helpful review of the literature touching on this issue, see Owen Heathcote, in particular 61-3.

(5.) This pre-revolutionary and even chivalric model of comportment will return much later in the novel: the Duchess will adopt the suggestion of her elderly aunt, the Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry, to go to Montriveau's apartment in disguise. Significantly, this regressive and stereotypical gesture will reap what it sows: Antoinette will find nothing more than her unopened love letters (5: 1022-1023).

(6.) This is evidenced in numerous texts, notably the Introductory Lecture on Psychoanalysis entitled "Femininity", and in the essay "On Narcissism".

(7.) Labouret-Grare contrasts Antoinette de Langeais with Diane in Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan: "L'epanouissement auquel parvient Diane, d'autres aristocrates le recherchent dans un refus total du corps et un culte absolu de l'apparence" (126).

(8.) The aristocratic prohibition on touch in the novella is inscribed most directly in its working title, "Ne touchez pas a la hache," a phrase attributed to Charles I as he warned curious bystanders not to try the blade with which he was about to be beheaded. The anecdote and phrase are recounted by Montriveau to Antoinette shortly before the kidnapping (see 5: 989). This law will be most directly and symbolically challenged by the kidnapper's threat to permanently touch and scar the Duchess with a red-hot brand.

(9.) As Brooks points out, according to Balzac, "a ruling class that does not include within itself the dynamic principles of the desiring machine is doomed [...] to run out of steam" ("Epistemophilia," 129); and this fate is part and parcel of the Duchess' unidirectional system.

(10.) Though much later in the novella, the elephantine memory of the Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry will reveal that Montriveau is of noble extraction, a fact of which even his own father had not been aware (see 5: 1014).

(11.) As Anne-Marie Baron points out, "Balzac sait que la seule evocation de l'Egypte suffit a transporter le lecteur dans un univers exotique et mysterieux" (9).

(12.) Speaking of the code governing the actions of the Treize (a secret society of which Montriveau is a member), Lucette Czyba writes: "Les images militaires revelent le code qui regit les rapports amoureux, code influence par la tradition du libertinage romanesque du XVIIIe siecle: ce qui est 'chute' pour la femme est au contraire victoire masculine" (142).

(13.) Balzac's duchess makes several points of this nature concerning the situation of women under the restored monarchy; she points out a little earlier in the text that "'Si la maniere dont je vis avec monsieur de Langeais me laisse la disposition de mon coeur, les lois, les convenances m'ont ote le droit de disposer de ma personne'" (5: 961).

(14.) On this motif see Labouret-Grare 56.

(15.) Danielle Dupuis goes so far as to suggest that forgetting is almost non-existent in Balzac's writing: "L'oubli tel que la plupart d'entre nous le vivent dans la vie quotidienne ne semble pas exister dans La Comedie humaine. A part les deux cas d'amnesie exceptionnelle et d'ailleurs temporarie manifestee par le colonel Chabert et par l'heroine d'Adieu, le souvenir revient toujours en force avec son cortege de souffrances" (270). I would suggest that, while it is rhetorically impossible to recount forgetting--because in so doing even a narrator recalls--, Montriveau's forgotten amnesia is an instance where forgetting is genuinely, and even doubly, inscribed.

(16.) That is, the "principaux savants de Paris" oend "militaires instruits" (5: 943) whom the narrator names as Montriveau's only friends and champions after his return.

(17.) See Henry 81.

(18.) Indeed the entire episode of Montriveau's enslavement in Africa is very concisely recounted: here the narrator insists that "un seul fait fera comprendre ses souffrances" (5: 942), as if any elaboration would serve only to sensationalize a genuinely traumatic experience.

(19.) For example, the eponymous hero of Le Colonel Chabert (1832) finds himself in a limbo of time and of meaning, because the story of his heroic past existence is fundamentally incompatible with the fact of his present survival.

(20.) In this lesser-known recit, the Napoleonic hero Philippe de Sucy forces his lover Stephanie de Vandieres to relive the horror of their separation on the battlefield, in an effort to restore her memory and sanity. As with La Duchesse de Langeais, the reader learns of their history and of their shared trauma in the central flashback section of the text. In the first section Philippe discovers Stephanie, alive but aphasic; in the third he stages a literal reenactment of history, in a effort to alter the past rather than to understand its effects and meaning, with tragic results.

(21.) "La musique, [...] n'est-elle pas, pour les ames tendres et poetiques, pour les coeurs souffrants et blesses, un texte qu'elles developpent au gre de leurs souvenirs?" (5: 914).

(22.) In the "Avant-propos" to the Comedie humaine, Balzac idealizes this purification of guilty sentiments specifically in the penitent Catholic woman: "Dans le protestantism," he laments,"il n'y a plus rien de possible pour la femme apres la faute; tandis que dans l'Eglise catholique, l'espoir du pardon la rend sublime" (1: 16).

(23.) In the original manuscript this sentence read simply: "C'etait le passe." See 5: 914, note a.

(24.) For instance, Peter Brooks will comment on the series of textual images that conclude the novella: "Thus the Duchess' body, signed by the passion that eventually destroyed it, at the last becomes fully textualized, first as a book read in childhood, finally as a poem" (Body Work, 77).

(25.) In a letter to Mme Hanska, Balzac explains that Montriveau's words do not reflect his own views, but are designed to show to what extent a member of the Treize "doit etre un homme de bronze" (5: 1037, n.1).
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Author:Gerwin, Elisabeth
Publication:Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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