- The Occult Roots of Realism:Balzac, Mesmer, and Second Sight
Balzac criticism has long struggled to make sense of the pervasive fantastic element in the Comédie humaine, which has as a rule been judged incompatible, and often embarrassing, unfortunate, even scandalous, in the context of a canonical realist text—as if a certain ideologically correct version of Balzac had been used to clobber his poor cousin. Why the visionary rhetoric? Why the illuminist jargon, the Swedenborgian angels, and the mesmerist hocus-pocus? Why all the pseudo-science, magic skins, potions, and powers? The quarrel between Balzac the observer and Balzac the visionary began early, and was first formulated by Baudelaire in 1859, when he wrote that "j'ai mainte fois été étonné que la grande gloire de Balzac fût de passer pour un observateur; il m'avait toujours semblé que son principal mérite était d'être visionnaire."1 Ever after this pronouncement, critics have taken sides, now for Balzac voyant, now for Balzac réaliste, but as a rule to praise him as an unparalleled observer, and to deplore his ill-advised forays into the fantastic. This question might have vanished when structural poetics exposed the conventional nature of the realist code, and Barthes' effet de réel invaded the critical lexicon, exposing the dichotomy as a false one, a pseudo-problem rooted in the text's malicious scrambling of codes.2 But the question, in fact, still persists, and does so, I would argue, for two main reasons: first, because the dogma that all representation is reducible to signs, codes, and textual play has itself begun [End Page 261] to crumble, so that it is once more legitimate to ask to what degree Balzac is an observer, how he processes visual data, and what he really sees; and second, because the attempts to articulate vision and observation in Balzac's work so far all seem fragile, unstable, and prone to fall apart. In this paper, I make the case for a visual reading of Balzac's representational practice, one which grounds his "realism" in Franz-Anton Mesmer's doctrine of animal magnetism. Vision and observation are, in the end, inseparable in Balzac's realism, not because they are simply codes, endlessly transposable into other codes, but because within Balzac's mesmerist metaphysics the visible and observable world is a function of occult magnetic forces. There is no neutral, inert, material world whose positive contours the eyes could register, and observation for Balzac inevitably already requires the poet's power to divine. Here I will approach what might be termed Balzac's "magnetic realism" in three stages: first, by discussing the important role of "second sight" in his visual practice; second, by outlining the "fluid mechanics" that unite observer and world in a single energetic field; and third, by showing how "visible matter" itself emerges in Balzac's world.
The most recent and sophisticated treatment of the réaliste-voyant question is probably Andrea Goulet's discussion of Balzac in terms of the history of optics, in which she situates Balzac at the junction between Cartesian vision (taken as an abstract, disembodied, interior form of sight), and the new nineteenth-century psychology of vision (in which seeing becomes empirical, physical, and grounded in the body).3 Goulet's argument is rooted in Jonathan Crary's magisterial study of the transformation of vision in the early nineteenth century, and she places Balzac at the cross-current of two distinct optical regimes, thereby temporalizing the dichotomy, to some extent positing an earlier and a later Balzac, the first a romantic seduced by the vivid spectacle of inner sight, the second a realist chastened by the labor and limitations of direct observation.4 She assimilates, perhaps too hastily, the abstract vision of the camera obscura and its disembodied images, with the inner sight of romantic poets, which in fact has nothing to do with optics; she also questionably links Balzac's realist mode with the new paradigm of physically grounded vision. The contrast between inner (figural) and outer (literal) vision is conceptually distinct from the historical shift from Cartesian to empirical visual regimes that Crary...