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  • The Paradox of Bildung: Balzac’s Illusions Perdues
  • Adam Bresnick (bio)

I. Introduction

Balzac’s Bildungsroman, Illusions perdues, turns on the problems of affect and readerly identification. In contrast to the classical Bildungsroman, which both solicits and depends upon the reader’s identification with the fictional hero, Balzac’s novel renders such identification desultory, and in so doing problematizes the very literary genre it is taken to exemplify. Whereas the classical Bildungsroman, exemplified by such works as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, may be said to depict the transformation of youth into maturity, thereby conferring symbolic legitimacy on the socio-cultural forms into which the novelistic hero is ceremoniously inserted at the novel’s conclusion, Illusions perdues narrates nothing so much as the failure of that education. Lucien de Rubempré, the novel’s hero, never manages to attain the stability of maturity, while the social and political life of nineteenth-century France is incriminated as an amoral hustle of competing self-interests, entirely bereft of symbolic legitimacy. 1 Rather than allure the reader into an [End Page 823] identification with and prospective imitation of Lucien, Illusions perdues plays out an aversive scenario that enjoins the reader to do just the opposite, as if the narrative were demanding, “By all means do not emulate this hero!” Lucien, in short, is a hero on his way to becoming an antihero. Yet while its stock in trade is a relentlessly negating irony, the Balzacian variant of the Bildungsroman does offer a kind of lesson and cannot escape the educative function of the genre, for even an entirely negative, cautionary lesson remains a lesson all the same, whether we choose to follow it or not. What matters here is that Balzac’s lesson will be essentially negative, as the dreams of an organically developing personality and its novelistic insertion into a legitimated social structure that so enlivened the classical Bildungsroman are here confined to the junkheaps of a superseded historical moment. Through recourse to a German neologism, we might say that Illusions perdues is less a Bildungsroman than an “Entbildungsroman,” or novel of the failure or impossibility of education, for the lesson it offers turns out to be precisely that of the impossibility of novelistic pedagogy. And just as one must refrain from identifying with the novel’s hero, so must one come to identify with the ironic gaze of a narrative apparatus that does its best to fend off the pathos of an imaginary identification that it knows to be all too seductive. Illusions perdues suggests the impossibility of a recuperative pathos that would somehow restrain the reckless irony that characterizes the narrative and the reader’s affective relation to it. To put this another way, we might say that whereas the classical Bildungsroman narrates the manner in which symbolic and imaginary identification 2 [End Page 824] can eventually come to coincide as irony and pathos merge into one another, Illusions perdues demonstrates the impossibility of such a reconciliation, for here we are confronted with a novel whose exfoliating ironies will outstrip any attempt to cut them back. Illusions perdues leaves the Bildungsroman destitute.

II. Philosophical and Novelistic Bildung

. . . indem es das Ding bildet, bildet es sich selbst.


Before turning to the reading of Illusions perdues that will take up the bulk of these pages, we would do well to examine the philosophical concept of Bildung and the novelistic form of the Bildungsroman so that Balzac’s literary deformations may be more richly understood. In the opening section of Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer provides a helpful overview of the evolution of the concept of Bildung from the eighteenth century to the present. “The concept of self-formation, education, or cultivation (Bildung),” writes Gadamer, “was perhaps the greatest idea of the eighteenth century.” 3 Gadamer associates the rise of Bildung with the rise of historicism as a method in the human sciences and suggests that it was Herder, for whom Bildung amounted to “rising up to humanity through culture” (10), who was the first of the modern philosophers to place Bildung at the center of his philosophical program. Bildung implies a certain historicity, for it is...

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pp. 823-850
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