Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The moral dimension of interior decoration

In Balzac, decor is critical.
“S’il est vrai, d’après un adage, qu’on puisse juger une femme en voyant la porte de sa maison, les appartements doivent traduire son esprit avec encore plus de fidélité.” (If it is true, as the adage says, that you can judge a woman by seeing the door of her house, the rooms inside would have to translate her spirit even more faithfully.
One of the key moments of Balzac’s novella Une double Famille comes when de Granville, preoccupied by the work of a young magistrate, hands over the responsibility for decorating his new Paris house to his bride, the “premières acquisitions de ménage, source de tant de plaisirs et de souvenirs pour les jeunes femmes” (the first household purchases, source of so many pleasures and memories for young women.)

What he discovers, when finally given a tour of the new decor, is for him a horrible insight into his wife’s true character:
"Soit que madame de Granville eût accordé sa confiance à des tapissiers sans goût, soit qu’elle eût inscrit son propre caractère dans un monde de choses ordonné par elle, le jeune magistrat fut surpris de la sécheresse et de la froide solennité qui régnaient dans ses appartements : il n’y aperçut rien de gracieux, tout y était discord, rien ne récréait les yeux.

(Whether Madame de Granville had placed her confidence in upholsters without taste, or she had inscribed her own character in the world of things that she ordered, the young magistrate was surprised by the dryness and the cold solemnity that reigned on his lodgings; there was nothing gracious, all was discord, nothing pleased the eyes.)
And then comes the catalog of tasteless choices, betraying rectitude and pettiness. In the antechamber, the walls are too somber, and the very dark green velvet on the furniture makes it cheerless, rather than welcoming. As Balzac notes, the antechamber is a kind of preface to the character of the inhabitants, and the first impression is a lasting one. The main hall, in faded gold and white, was in fashion in the days of Louis XV (a hundred years before). The details of the furnishings are not only unfashionable, they are themselves a grab-bag of different styles from different periods. The retailers, having devines the character of the client, has unloaded all their unfashionable claptrap on her.

But, it is made clear, this is not just a lapse of good taste or the mistakes of a provincial, but a sign of a deep problem in character. “La dévotion porte à je ne sais quelle humilité fatigante qui n’exclut pas l’orgueil.” (Piety wears a kind of tiresome humility, which does not rule out sinful pride.)

Botched house decoration, especially when the money exists to do far better, is a mortal sin in Balzac’s eyes.

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