- Two Stories in One: Literature as a Hidden Door to the History of Seventeenth-Century France
I would like to take you into the history of seventeenth-century France through a narrow door—a door that is not only narrow but hidden. Why should we struggle to squeeze through this passage? Well, there are at least two reasons. First, it is an attempt to experience a disorienting perspective on a landscape that we believe we already know completely; and second, the narrowness of the path underlines its particularity and in that way elicits a comparison with other paths elsewhere. This narrow passage is a text, perhaps an insignificant one, written by a seventeenth-century author. After making a few observations concerning its mechanics, I will use this text as a model to interpret something else, to understand it as something that stimulates thinking about historiographical hypotheses: as a convenient tool to shake up the political history of seventeenth-century France. In other words, I propose to utilize literature as a hidden door in order to enter the arena of political history, where we usually do not find any door at all.
Deux histoires en une, or Two Stories in One, is a brief text by Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, a work of uncertain status, published among dozens of other pieces in a collection known by two titles: Moral Treatises and Conversations. Guez de Balzac, who lived between 1595 and 1654, does not appear on the short list of the most celebrated writers of seventeenth-century France: Molière, Racine, Corneille, La Fontaine, Sévigné, Bossuet. At the time, however, he occupied center stage in French literary life. He was perhaps the first author recognized as a grand écrivain; he was widely admired, celebrated, criticized. At the center of protracted literary debates, Guez de Balzac exercised an immense critical authority in the world of belles lettres.
Since I first began working on the question of the birth of literature as a specific social space in seventeenth-century France, I have not stopped reading and rereading Balzac’s Two Stories in One. This text resists interpretation—even comprehension. It gives the reader the feeling—to be honest, an exasperating feeling—of extraordinary richness and also of an extraordinary capacity to steal away from view. The importance of this text for the comprehension of something other than itself, however, has become clear to me. This leapt out at me, by chance, when I was reading it for the nth time—at nearly the same time that I was rereading several pages of Marcel Proust. Not that the author of À la recherche du temps perdu had any connection at all to Guez de Balzac. Rather, it was Proust’s evoking, in his way, two stories in one—or rather one story in two parts—that for me rendered suddenly palpable something of the force of Balzac’s text.
At the beginning of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, Proust meditates on the story of Swann before and after his marriage. He emphasizes our incapacity to think of two successive states in the history of our life at the same time: for example, that of a jealous lover and that of an appeased husband. If one succeeds in thinking both things at once, the two moments then cease to appear distinct to us, and are mixed up one in the other. If the [End Page 92] mind wants to distinguish them, it loses the ability to think them both at once. I would like to propose an hypothesis that the import of Balzac’s Two Stories in One, contrary to Proust, is an attempt to open up to speculation an improbable space, a space imperceptible to sensory experience. This space lies at the interstice of “both at once” and “separately.” Thus Balzac attempts to escape the dilemma of superimposition (that is to say, fusion) or of succession (that is, separation). He attempts to subvert the elementary rule of logic that states that “a” is either different from “b” or is the same as “b.”
What is striking when one first reads Two Stories in...