Thursday, February 4, 2010

Balzac, “Une Passion dans le désert” (1830)

Une Passion dans le désert” (1830) is a short story where Balzac tries his hand at
Orientalism. That theme/setting, so dear to his contemporaries, had been the scene for much European literature the 18th century, from Voltaire to Montesquieu. But the Romantic take, based to some extend on the retold experiences of veterans of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, goes beyond the formulaic seraglio or pasha's palace, out into nature – in this case the Sahara desert.

The passion here is one between man (a French soldier escaped from captivity) and leopard. Fleeing the Bedouins who have taken him to an oasis, he spends the night in a cave for the night. He wakes up in terror next to the blood-flecked leopard (who has killed and fed on the horse he escaped with), but he is surprised to find that the sated cat adopts him, allowing “herself” to be petted and scratched like a pussycat.

The two warily adopt each other, the soldier torn between desire to slit the leopard’s throat, fear of a failed attempt, and fascination with the savage beauty of the feline. The cat flirts with him, reminds him of a jealous mistress, and purrs (“rourou”) as he gets nuzzled. When the soldier tries to escape at night, getting caught in quicksand, the leopard drags back by the collar to her lair.

The tension and playfulness ends when the leopard, back from a hunt, for no apparent reason half-playfully sinks his teeth into the soldier’s thigh, like a cat nipping her owner. He immediately slits the cat’s throat, and when he is at last found and rescued by fellow French troops, we is weeping over the corpse.

In this story, Balzac does not fall into speculative quasi-philosophical or sociological digressions, as he does in many early works. While these can be strong features of some stories, they often feel like filler, as Balzac scribbled on his famous all-night coffee high to meet a deadline with creditors on his heels. Here, the narrative is straightforward, and, given its nature, has very little dialog.

The “Orient” is portrayed in vivid colors. I was tempted to write that it was Delacroix’s famous paintings of lions and tigers in the desert that inspired this painterly work, but those paintings were created in the 1850s, 20 years later.

Here’s one example of the painterly description (based, of course, on no real observation – Balzac never got south of Italy in his life):

Il étudia pendant la nuit les effets de la lune sur l'océan des sables où le simoun produisait des vagues, des ondulations et de rapides changements. Il vécut avec le jour de l'Orient, il en admira les pompes merveilleuses ; et souvent, après avoir joui du terrible spectacle d'un ouragan dans cette plaine où les sables soulevés produisaient des brouillards rouges et secs, des nuées mortelles.

(During the night he studied the effects of the moon on the ocean of sand where the simoon produced waves, undulations and rapid changes. He lived with daylight of the Orient; he admired its marvelous ceremonies; and often, after having enjoyed the terrible spectacle of a hurricane in that plain where the stirred-up sands produced dry, red fogs, deadly clouds.)
It would hard to call Balzac a Romantic, but in this story he certainly writes like one. Yje fascination with the far away, with the “terrible spectacle”, and the heroic domination of nature all have the taste of High Romanticism.

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