To discover Honoré de Balzac is to discover a new world, one comparable to that envisioned by Shakespeare. If there is any lesson the collected works of this counter-revolutionary author hold for us, it is that the human comedy is best illuminated not by politics alone, but by the ineffable light of the divine…

Love is precisely to the moral nature what the sun is to the earth. —Balzac

The Human Comedy by Honoré de Balzac (New York Review Book Classics, 2014)

death of sardanapalus

“Sardanopolous!” is the expletive of choice for the gallant and high-minded young attorney who narrates Honoré de Balzac’s short story “Gobseck.” While its exact significance is not clear, it is safe to say that the word was not selected willy-nilly. According to an old and rather grim legend Sardanopolous was a fabulously wealthy king of Assyria whose treasury contained a mountain of finely crafted works, whose stables held herds of purebred horses, whose harem housed hundreds of gorgeous women assembled from the four corners of the Earth. Evidently, all this had been acquired at the price of earning his neighbors’ enmity, however, for Sardanopolous eventually found himself in a war against many foes at once, and wound up on the losing end. Trapped in his own stronghold with his triumphant enemies at the gates, Sardanopolous resolved to take his possessions with him, and so set his palace ablaze and ordered his bodyguards to destroy everything they could. In the Delacroix painting The Death of Sardanapalus the action is frozen shortly after the moment of the terrible order, with the potentate wearing an expression of cold satisfaction as he watches his henchmen kill terrified concubines and horses.

There are sociopolitical implications to this legend, as Aristotle suggests in the following passage from The Nicomachean Ethics:

The many, the most vulgar, would seem to conceive the good and happiness as pleasure, and hence they also like the life of gratification. In this they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals. Still, they have some argument in their defense, since many in positions of power feel as Sardanapallus felt, [and also choose this life].

Ever the careful thinker, Aristotle concedes that those who equate happiness with pleasure are not entirely without a case. How much blame can we assign the common man enslaved to greed, when he is only following the example set for him by the high and mighty? Yet Aristotle also went on to warn his countrymen that a life revolving around wealth and self-gratification leads to self-destruction, just as the palace of Sardanapolous became the despot’s own funeral pyre.


Honoré de Balzac

The shadow of Sardanapolous stretches across Balzac’s world. In the aftermath of the 1830 July Revolution the Duc d’Orleans took advantage of rioting and discontent with Charles X to maneuver himself onto the throne, thereby become something entirely new to Gallic politics—a liberal “citizen king” who dressed not in regal ceremonial robes but in the black frock coat and top hat of the bourgeois. As the citizen-king Louis Philippe, he rejected both traditional monarchical symbolism and the extreme egalitarianism of the Jacobins who had beheaded Louis XVI, choosing instead to align himself with the rising commercial class.

Getting rich and then richer became the order of the day, as Peter Brooks notes in his introduction to The Human Comedy: Selected Stories. “And so the French did—at least those who had the means to invest in factories, railroads, and various manipulative stock market schemes. The workers—witness the revolts of the Lyons silk workers and various short-lived uprisings of the Paris proletariat—were largely excluded from this newfound prosperity.” In 1848, widespread disgust with this state of affairs would lead to Louis Philippe himself being driven from the country by yet another revolution.

Balzac concocts the figure of elderly usurer Jean-Esther van Gobseck so as to provide a spokesman for this mercantilist phase of French history. “If you’d lived as long as I have,” Gobseck explains to the attorney-narrator, “you would know that there is only one material thing whose value is reliable enough to be worth caring about: That thing is GOLD.” A lengthy monolog follows, a key portion of which is worth relating here:

I have traveled, I have seen that everywhere there are plains or mountains—plains are tiresome and mountains are tiring, so place makes no difference. As to behaviors, man is everywhere the same: Everywhere the struggle between the poor and the rich is a given; everywhere it is inevitable, so much the better to be exploiter than exploited; everywhere you find sinewy men who labor and indolent men who torment themselves; pleasures are the same everywhere; everywhere the senses grow jaded and only one sentiment endures: vanity! Vanity is always about the self. Vanity is only satisfied with floods of gold. Our fantasies take time, or physical means, or care in order to be realized. Well, gold contains every potential and provides every reality.

Realizing that his new acquaintance pities him, the old man assures the attorney that he leads a full life. After all, who but an usurer could truly appreciate the human comedy? From high to low, men and women hoping to borrow money or renegotiate terms of payment bare their dreams, secrets, and true selves to him, all the while pleading for his favor. The greatest politicians and preachers of France “are all just stammering amateurs compared to the orators who come in and perform for me,” Gobseck explains.

It may be a girl in love, or an old shopkeeper sliding toward collapse, a mother desperate to cover up her son’s misdeeds, a starving artist, or some prominent figure who’s slipping in favor and for lack of money may lose the fruit of his work – they’ve all made me shudder with the power of their words. These sublime actors perform for me alone, and they cannot manage to deceive me. My gaze is like God’s: I can see into their hearts. Nothing is hidden from me. No one refuses the man who ties and unties the purse strings.

In addition to affording a special insight into society and man, usury also entails a symbolic social function. “I am the Avenger,” Gobseck growls as he sets out to recover his due from Madame Restaud, an evasive society lady who has squandered her children’s inheritance on an insatiably parasitic lover. “I am the embodiment of Remorse!” Later, in the story’s climax, Gobseck acts as a deus ex machina, using his cunning to rescue the Restaud family from scandal and Madame Restaud’s children from poverty. Goldmonger or no, Gobseck strikes the cuckolded Count Restaud as an honorable man, “a philosopher of the Cynic school,” and the attorney agrees with this assessment, characterizing his mysterious friend as “a miser and a philosopher, petty and great,” a walking conundrum in whose heart “two different men exist at once.”

Quite unlike Sardanapalus, the aged capitalist exhibits a hint of magnanimity even on his deathbed. “You’re the executor of my will,” Gobseck tells the attorney.

‘Take whatever you want from here—Eat up! There are pots of foie gras, sacks of coffee, sugars, gold spoons. Give your wife the Odiot dinner service… But the diamonds, who gets them? Do you take snuff, boy? I’ve got all kinds of tobaccos, sell them at Hamburg, they go for half again higher there. Look, I have some of everything, and I have to leave everything!’

In the background is a household marked by “the mindless instinct we often see among hoarders in the provinces.” Silverware, thousand-franc notes, jewel boxes, linen, gold, shipping receipts for indigo, rum, and cotton are all scattered in room after room in careless heaps. So too are shipments of stockpiled haute cuisine that have long since been rendered inedible by thick coats of mold and swarms of worms and insects. “In all my career in the law,” the narrator later reminisces, “never have I seen such a spectacle of greed and eccentricity.” Gobseck passes into eternity looking like a quintessentially stoic pagan, like “those alert old Romans that Lethiere painted standing behind the consuls in his Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death.”

It is the ability to elaborate upon Gobseck’s virtues which is the mark of Balzac’s own greatness: A merely competent novelist can create sympathetic characters who espouse his own convictions; it takes a true genius to endow three-dimensional, human characters with sufficient freedom to defy their author’s philosophy. And whatever we make of Gobseck’s radical anthropology, he is clearly still human, still has natural impulses, still is a social being. For that matter, his tenaciously-held views cannot be lightly dismissed, as when he reluctantly declines to aid a hardworking young seamstress for fear that a secure living will only make her prey for shiftless, money-hungry relatives. “I have often observed that while a charitable act may do no harm to the benefactor, it is death to the one who receives it.”

That said, it is clear that the author of “Gobseck” did indeed reject the Louis Philippe era ethos the title character exemplifies. Balzac “loudly declared himself a monarchist and a Catholic,” Brooks notes, and though it is surely foolish and philistine to try to “explain” a genuine artist’s work via his politics, it is just as foolish to ignore entirely where he stands. “I am on the side of Bossuet and of Bonald,” Balzac wrote regarding the great nineteenth-century European struggle between l’ancien régime and economic liberalism, “and will never swerve.” Elsewhere Balzac dubbed Joseph de Maistre and the aforementioned Louis de Bonald as “the two eagles of thought.”

It would be difficult to name three thinkers more fervently opposed to the doctrine of laissez-faire than those Balzac hails as his masters. An ardent defender of royal privileges and bête noir of Enlightenment philosophes, Bishop Jacques Bossuet took for granted the French crown’s right to regulate trade and commerce in the interests of French craftsmen and consumers. Both Maistre and Bonald treated with contempt the idea that society is merely a contract between self-interested individuals, and the latter writer went so far as to characterize the usurer as “a tyrant who torments nature and humanity.”

The French Revolution came after Bossuet’s time, but Maistre and Bonald lived through it, and as a result aligned themselves with the counter-revolutionary movement known as Ultra-Royalism. As the poet and scholar Robert Beum relates, Ultra-Royalists

worked to retain effective monarchy, to revive certain aspects of the ancien régime, and to counter most of the tenets and thrusts of liberalism and the Revolution. In general, the Ultras favored the medieval—the loose and quite limited—type of monarchy rather than the ‘absolutism’ France had known since the seventeenth century. This meant that they found themselves in the lonely position of rejecting all three of the major political structures and movements of their times: the royal ‘absolutism,’ the bourgeois-capitalist force which had brought down that absolutism in 1789, and the emerging socialism which accepted the Revolution but attacked its capitalistic foundations. The story of the Ultras demonstrates clearly that the original Right of European politics is not to be associated with the capitalist enterprise subsequently termed the Right.

Here then is one possible explanation for why the Catholic Balzac is so infrequently mentioned in American Catholic circles today. Although it would be hard to deny his status as a world-class novelist, it would be even harder to deny Balzac’s well-documented affinity for the French counter-revolution. Aside from the fact that they are typically more interested in Buddhist culture than their own patrimony, left-leaning American Catholics identify with “the emerging socialism which accepted the Revolution but attacked its capitalistic foundations,” even as America’s conservative Catholics are likely to identify with “the capitalist enterprise subsequently termed the Right.” Thus in contrast to the studies of better-known Anglophone Catholic authors, Balzac studies have not the support of any large interest group. Next to Balzac’s Ultra-Royalism, both constitutional monarchy and socialism wind up looking relatively mainstream.

Just to be clear, none of this is meant to suggest that Balzac’s literary work should or can be summed up purely in terms of any political theory, however exotic and romantic. To discover Balzac is to discover a new world, one comparable to that envisioned by Shakespeare. If there is any lesson the collected works of this counter-revolutionary author hold for us, it is that the human comedy is best illuminated not by politics alone, but by the ineffable light of the divine.

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