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  • Balzac and the Chagrin of Theory
  • Patrick M. Bray

“Une œuvre où il y a des théories est comme un objet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix.”1

HONORÉ DE BALZAC’S 1831 NOVEL La peau de chagrin presents the reader with a baffling array of theories on subjects ranging from willpower and mechanics to politics and medicine. The ‘theoreticians’ competing for narrative legitimacy are nearly as diverse as the theories they expound: the narrator, Raphaël de Valentin, Eugène de Rastignac, an ancient antiques dealer, as well as scientists, journalists, courtesans, and a host of other characters. Lost, perhaps, in all of these theories in the novel is a comprehensive theory of the novel, of literary thought, which is to say how this or any novel constructs and represents meaning for the reader. I argue that Balzac’s novel, which opens his Études philosophiques, inscribes within its pages a theory of its own writing that problematizes the role of fiction, desire, and the visual in theory itself.

As the above quote from Marcel Proust’s last and most theoretical volume of À la recherche du temps perdu suggests, a novel that displays its own literary theories shows as much bad taste as leaving a price tag on an object. Presumably, only a writer unsure of the value of a work would need to provide the reader with a theory of literature or a measure of literary quality. In so doing, if we follow Proust, the literary “work” becomes an “object,” one that loses its status as artistic creation when it enters into a monetary exchange. When a theory of the novel is crassly written into the narrative, its self-defined worth is visible and readable (like a price that is decipherable on a visible tag), and the novel enters into something akin to a marketplace, it commodifies itself by some mysterious alchemy. Polite literary society thus demands that theory be invisible, that literature’s value be undeclared yet self-evident, limited perhaps to those “happy few” who know its price and can afford it.

La peau de chagrin, although disregarding literary good taste in innumerable ways, obeys Proust’s injunction and displaces and diffuses its theory of the novel across all the other theories represented in the work. When a theory becomes a fictional representation, its claim to truth (where the inscribed concept matches its external referent) becomes secondary to the theory’s role in establishing the novel’s aesthetic truth (a structural harmony that may or may not exist outside of the text). Narrative logic takes the place of scientific [End Page 66] reason. By so openly displaying its fictional representations of theory and masking its theory of fictional representation, La peau de chagrin reveals the workings of dominant theoretical discourses as subject to narrative, to an obsession with vision, and to a fetishization of monetary exchange. Balzac’s theoretical turn shows that the exclusion of theory in the literary domain, as described by Proust, masks the role of fiction within theory itself.

Much to unlearn

La peau de chagrin’s plot rearranges and unsettles the habitual narrative thread of a novel of education. The beginning of the novel finds Raphaël de Valentin already “educated”: both book smart and disillusioned in love and in life. The novel’s three-part narrative—consisting of middle, beginning, and end—suggests that at every stage in his life Raphaël’s theories, and those of all the other characters in the novel, prove incompatible with his experiences because they are out of synch with the narrative thread. By following the narrative detours and the fate of various theories, the reader learns that the guiding principle of truth in this Balzacian novel is retrospection, a vision that can interpret the past but not the future.

Raphaël starts the novel, in the section “Le talisman,” losing his last coin in a gambling house and quickly becomes nameless (incessantly referred to by the narrator as “l’inconnu”), penniless, hopeless, and determined to throw himself into the Seine. In order to pass the hours before nightfall, which according to the narrator is the most convenient time to drown oneself in...