Balzac's Comedy of Words

Balzac's Comedy of Words

Martin Kanes
Copyright Date: 1975
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Balzac's Comedy of Words
    Book Description:

    Although Balzac's work has been much studied, practically nothing has been written on his use of linguistic concepts. Applying a new approach, this perceptive book demonstrates that the theme and theory of language were central to Balzac's fiction. In considering how the novelist was influenced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century speculation on language, Martin Kanes traces the development of Balzac's own linguistic ideas from his early to his later writings.

    Originally published in 1976.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6969-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-12)

    To put himself in the place of God and totally describe the world: such was the ambition of Honoré de Balzac. Who can help but admire the magnitude of the goal and the tremendous act of will that drove him toward it? Yet who can fail to see that it also had to culminate in a work whose drama lay, like that of life itself, in unresolved issues, incoherent circumstantiality, incomplete portraits, unfinished adventures, and unfulfilled destinies? To such an undertaking there were no frontiers.¹ Even if a certain “objective” content were always there, verifiable though constantly expanding, its aesthetic...


    • CHAPTER I Contemporary Theory and the Dissertation sur l’homme
      (pp. 15-40)

      TheDissertation sur l’homme,written in 1819, is a text of highest importance in the development of Balzac’s thought.¹ Although it is juvenile and pretentious in conception and execution, it attempts to deal with problems of staggering complexity that had been discussed for centuries: the mind-world relationship, the thought-word relationship, the soul-body relationship. It clearly emerges from the young man’s voracious reading in philosophy, and can be viewed as his first attempt at serious theoretical writing. The difficulties were many. Psychology (or what would be so called today), was traditionally barely distinguished from “philosophy.” It was marked by no scientific...

    • CHAPTER II From the Dissertation to La Peau de chagrin
      (pp. 41-64)

      The important achievement of the years roughly from 1818 to 1820 was Balzac’s adoption of a more or less sensualist stance, pragmatically oriented, although colored by doubts and uncertainties. This development is most clearly seen in Balzac’s juxtaposition of Descartes and Locke, in which Locke is clearly the winner in the young essayist’s mind.¹ The adoption of such a point of view has two important implications for language: first, it tends to favor a theory of human rather than divine origin; second, it implies some form of linguistic mimeticism, since the word, in Locke’s view, is so strongly linked to...

    • CHAPTER III La Peau de chagrin and the Problem of Creativity
      (pp. 65-100)

      “L’expérience et l’exemple de la vie humaine en tant que vie et que mécanisme”—so Balzac refers in hisAlbumtoLa Peau de chagrin.¹ Mechanism was, as a matter of fact, quite a natural word for him to use, in view of theDissertation sur l’homme. It is a key concept of the first preface to the story, which adopts a distinctly sensualist attitude by viewing art as a better or lesser reflection of reality. The word “mécanisme” involved not only art, but an entire conception of the human condition; and many post-Cartesian thinkers found Descartes’ attempts to link...

    • CHAPTER IV The Thought-Word Problem in the Comédie humaine
      (pp. 101-126)

      AfterLa Peau de chagrin,Balzac continued exploring his philosophical interests, but nowhere did he give a comprehensive treatment of the problems of thought and language that had been occupying him as far back as theDissertation sur l‘homme.His further remarks on problems of language are scattered throughout theComédie humaineand the ancillary writings, from which they must be extracted and grouped. After La Peau de chagrin, Balzac’s view of language did not change very much, but continued to fluctuate between Idee and Pensee. There are therefore echoes between works written as much as ten years apart, and...


    • CHAPTER V Language and Characterization in the Comédie humaine
      (pp. 129-166)

      Matters of theory, as we have seen, were never “resolved” by the Balzacian narrator. At worst they were simply ignored; at best they were transcended by the assimilation of contradictory attitudes into the act of narration as the needs of the moment directed. But the very telling of a story is the effectuation of a theory. We must, then, examine the practical results of the narrator’s interest in themes of language, and first of all in matters of characterization.

      Balzac’s characterization is based upon his familiar distinction between “types” and “individuals.” His interest in this duality may well have arisen...

    • CHAPTER VI The Narrator and his Words: The Word-Event
      (pp. 167-188)

      Part way throughLa Derniere Incarnation de Vautrin,Madame d’Espard’s maid rushes in to announce to her mistress “Madame, madame Camusot pour une affaire tres pressante, et que sait madame!,” (p. 221). The effect on Madame d’Espard is electrical, and the narrator characteristically offers us a “théorie [qui] explique Ie pouvoir de ces mots.” The one he gives is the simple observation that when influential people ask for an interview, their motives must be compelling. But the incident is significant, and offers a model of what we shall call “word-events”: peculiar nodes of significance to which the narrator calls special...

    • CHAPTER VII The Narrator, The Reader, and the Abolition of the Veil
      (pp. 189-216)

      “Malheur en amour, comme dans Ies arts, a qui dit tout!” (EB, 402). Such is the principle that Balzac ascribed to Stendhal, the novelist he so admired and perhaps envied. The remark sums up a good deal of the wrestling with narrative problems that manifested themselves in such techniques as the word-event. Obsession with rationality and logic, and the seeming inability of French and English philosophy—with a few rare exceptions—to deal with problems of thought, language, and creativity in any other terms, sharply limited the range of Balzac’s theoretical speculation. If he sensed in his own work, as...

  7. TEXTS

    • CHAPTER VIII Illusions perdues and the Word Game
      (pp. 219-260)

      The ancient question of the object-thought-word relationship was, of course, not settled by Balzac. But his basic maneuver of turning the difficulty into a source of novelistic invention led him to reject naive realism, thus liberating the imagination, as Saussure was later to say. It is this revolutionary stance on Balzac’s part that makes him such a problem for new and not-so-new critics.¹ For all his old fashioned ways, Balzac took the first steps toward the contemporary self-consciousness of fiction, toward the breakdown of mimesis as the conscious and accepted mode of narration. In discussing the mental revolution of which...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 261-264)

    Balzac’s use of adjectives . . . is a sign not simply of lack of analytic power . . . but of a tendency of all feelings to reduce themselves to their simplest elements.”¹ With this broadside, one of the best-known English critics of French literature dismisses the creator of theComédie humaine.His attack touches on the very juncture of language, psychology, and art that we have been examining in the preceding chapters. One must certainly admit that in many respects Balzac’s narration no longer challenges contemporary sensibilities; yet one must also recognize that it is full of drama,...

  9. APPENDIX The Text of the Dissertation sur l’homme
    (pp. 265-274)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 275-292)
  11. Index
    (pp. 293-299)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 300-300)