- Adumbrative Allusion in Balzac’s Illusions perdues
Balzac was a master of allusion. He usually embedded his allusive patterns so seamlessly that, although they may work on the reader’s subconscious, they only call attention to themselves with great subtlety. While in most cases, as for example when he alludes to the female novelists Mme Girardin, Mme Guizot, and others in La muse du département, he forms simple parallels that make his adventures seem more forceful and pertinent for contemporary readers, in some cases the allusions establish antitheses. In Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, for example, the clear references to the biblical story of Esther and Mordecai create an obvious opposition to Balzac’s Esther, for the latter serves not the sovereign God of the Hebrews but the maleficent Jacques Collin or Vautrin. Occasionally, the allusions create surprising complexity, encompassing entire works. I think of Eugénie Grandet, an instance where the author’s references to the Bible and church history establish dueling religions that oppose Mammon to love. In all cases, Balzac’s allusions add complexity and richness to the tapestry he weaves.1
The allusions in Illusions perdues (1837–43) serve to adumbrate Lucien’s fate. In 1819, shortly before the period when Illusions perdues was set, the writer and critic Henri de Latouche had revealed André Chénier to the French public. Balzac refers to the revolutionary poet a number of times and, as the Pléiade editor, Roland Chollet, notes, associated him with “toute une atmosphère morale de jeunesse, d’exaltation, d’idéalisme forcené” (5.147n2). Certainly, for Balzac, Chénier was [End Page 145] unquestionably one of the great poets of France. He tried early on to pastiche him, he cited his poems in his letters, he took various passages to serve as epigraphs in his pre-Comédie humaine novels by Lord R’hoone, and what Chollet terms his delicate appreciation of Latouche’s preface to the 1820 edition of Chénier leaves no doubt of the novelist’s appreciation: “Un poète retrouvé par un poète,” Lucien says (5.147 and n2). As Balzac put it in one of his letters to Madame Hanska, Chénier was for him “le poète de l’amour, le plus grand des poètes français” (Lettres à Madame Hanska 1.71).
The text of Illusions perdues refers to Chénier repeatedly in connection with the two enthusiastic young men, Lucien and David, and casts long shadows of meaning forward, in particular relationship to Lucien. Such reiterations always indicate importance in La Comédie humaine. Most obviously, Lucien resembles Chénier as a great promise that was never fulfilled, however different the reasons for this lack of success. As Latouche put it, “André Chénier n’avait en mourant . . . qu’un nom promis à la célébrité.”2 Likewise, Balzac leaves no doubt that Lucien is an eagle, although young (5.147, 173), at least until his repeated failures reveal him as at most an “aiglon” (e.g., 5.577). Eagles are characterized by their daring flight, speed, and close association with thunder, fire, intelligence, and action (Cirlot 87, 321; Chevalier 750). Appropriately, given his desire for “gloire” and his love of flashy attire, his name derives from the etymon lux or “light” (Hanks 212–13). The text makes it clear that the young man could have established himself as an outstanding poet had he been stronger and capable of refusing easy paths to success, first as a journalist, then as a corrupt socialite. David, on the other hand, is “ce bœuf.” He wonderfully characterizes ox’s symbolic qualities of patience, submission, and self-sacrifice (5.147, 559; Cirlot 236, 321, 750).
For some three years David and Lucien had enjoyed getting together to read great, recent works of art and science. On one day in particular, David has just received a small 18mo volume of Chénier’s poems, published in 1820, and he reads several: “Néère, puis celle du Jeune Malade, puis l’élégie sur le suicide, celle dans le goûte ancien, et les deux derniers ïambes” (5.147). Unquestionably, the...