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  • Animality and Contagion in Balzac’s Père Goriot
  • Travis Wilds (bio)

In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Erich Auerbach famously cites the opening pages of Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot as emblematic of modern realism. With their minute description of the boardinghouse, where much of the novel’s action takes place, these pages emphasize physical setting, Auerbach argues, in a way new to Western literature. Yet Balzac’s descriptions are driven by something more than an ambition to represent “contemporary life” in scrupulous detail (468). In Auerbach’s view, the characteristic element of Balzac’s realism is an obsession with the reciprocal action of characters and milieu, a scientific or philosophical principle according to which the quality of a given environment may be inferred from a person who inhabits it, and the character of a person may in turn be inferred from their customary environment. In Auerbach’s account, Balzac borrows this notion of milieu from the physiologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, but the category of milieu as both agent and patient of living things is a feature of medical discourse as well as natural philosophy beginning in the late eighteenth century; in the work of Michel Foucault and his teacher, Georges Canguilhem, “milieu” comes to describe the space on which the living thing projects its needs and values and which also forms the physical surround in which it lives.1 Balzac tells us so much about the boardinghouse furniture in the novel’s opening pages because, as elements of a particular milieu, it reveals the character of Mme Vauquer, the proprietor, as well as the physico-moral circumstances which shape her and her boarders. Despite “milieu’s” antecedents in scientific or medical discourse, however, Auerbach remarks that it generates effects in excess of rational description in Balzac’s work, infusing the representation of contemporary Paris with a surprising “demonic” energy. In accenting an extra-rational dimension in Balzac, Auerbach rejoins a longstanding tradition that views Balzac as a visionary rather than a realist writer. If for Baudelaire, for instance, Balzac’s characters “are endowed with the vital ardor with which he himself was animated,” this is because he is distinguished not as an “observer” [End Page 173] but as a “visionary, and a passionate visionary at that” (692).2 Within this tradition, Auerbach is perhaps original for having traced that visionary vitality to an empirico-metaphysical theory.3 For him, something about this particular theory not only drives Balzac to make visionary declarations, but even lends the text itself something of a supernatural charge.

This lurid element emerges clearly in Auerbach’s commentary on Mme Vauquer, the central figure of the novel’s opening pages. The novel describes her in the following terms: “Her old, fattish face, from the middle of which juts a parrot-beak nose, her small, fleshy hands, her figure as plump as a churchwarden’s, her loose, floppy bodice, are in harmony with the room, whose walls ooze misfortune, where speculation cowers, and whose warm and fetid air Madame Vauquer breathes without nausea” [“Sa face vieillotte, grassouillette, du milieu de laquelle sort un nez à bec de perroquet; ses petites mains potelées, sa personne dodue comme un rat d’église, son corsage trop plein et qui flotte, sont en harmonie avec cette salle où suinte le malheur, où s’est blottie la spéculation et dont madame Vauquer respire l’air chaudement fétide sans en être écoeurée”] (Auerbach 468–70). Glossing this passage, Auerbach writes:

the motif of the unity of a milieu has taken hold of [Balzac] so powerfully that the things and the persons composing a milieu often acquire for him a sort of second significance which, though different from that which reason can comprehend, is far more essential—a significance which can best be defined by the adjective demonic. In the dining-room, with its furniture which, worn and shabby though it be, is perfectly harmless to a reason uninfluenced by imagination, “misfortune oozes, speculation cowers.” In this trivial everyday scene allegorical witches lie hidden, and instead of the plump sloppily dressed widow one momentarily sees a rat appear. What confronts us, then...


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