When Frenhofer, exhausted by his passion, falls into a profound reverie, Porbus tells young Poussin: 'He is conversing with his spirit .' At that word, Balzac tells us, Poussin is conscious of the pressure of an inexplicable artist's curiosity. The old painter assumes 'the proportions of a supernatural genius, living in an unknown sphere'. The spiritual argument of the fable begins here. Throughout the two parts, Balzac has woven the subtheme of love, slightly emphasizing the sensuous, earthly aspects of passion. In the first part Gillette, Poussin's submissive young mistress, is offered by Poussin as a model to Frenhofer in the hope that, through her sacrifice, he will learn the secrets of the old artist. In the second part, Gillette's unearthly counterpart, Catherine Lescault, overshadows the young, living model. This creation of the supernatural old painter is ideal, as Frenhofer sardonically points out when Gillette is first offered to him. How can a living, youthful being compare with his creation? Sooner or later, he says, Gillette will betray Poussin, while La Belie Noiseuse . . . Never ! In the first version, this theme of passion assumes at least as much importance as the theme of the nature of art. In the final version, the story of the sacrifice of Gillette serves only to bring into relief Balzac's preoccupation with the spiritual. When Poussin senses that he is in the presence of someone living in an unknown sphere, we are introduced to one of Balzac's most persistent motifs: the assertion of the ascendancy of the spiritual element in true works of art.
The pronounced materialism of the July Revolution emphasized the need for such assertions. Never had French society so blatantly declared its materialistic bias, and never had artists felt the loss of the spiritual so keenly. Painters, poets, and novelists deplored the degrading conditions under which they worked. The juste milieu was visibly mediocre and the grand themes debased. Increasingly the most independent spirits in the nineteenth century turned their thoughts to matters of the spirit. From the 1830s on, throughout the century, there were resurgences of interest in the spiritual on the part of writers, sometimes manifested in the practice of allegory, as in the case of Flaubert, or in the actual study of mysticism, as in the case of Baudelaire and, later, Rimbaud. While Balzac and his successors cast side glances at science, and attempted to coordinate vanguard scientific thought with strands of creative mysticism, their repeated statements of anxiety centred largely on the loss of dignity of the arts through the loss of the spiritual base. The most inconsolable were the adherents of the principle of art pour l'art . From the beginning of the 1830s the little magazines and newspapers were filled with anxious observations that the age of individualism had robbed art of its
grandeur. The renewed vigour of the Saint-Simonians, whose mysticism did not apply to the arts (which they insisted must be 'useful'), disturbed observers in the press, and impelled them to call, as did Gustave Planche in 1835, for 'a spiritualist reaction in art'. Others, such as Heinrich Heine, avoided the embarrassing word 'spiritual', but took care constantly to remind their readers of the dangers of 'useful' art. 'You know', Heine wrote to a friend in 1837, 'that I stand for the autonomy of art which must not be the valet of either religion or politics, but on the contrary its own end, like the world itself.'
The impression of Frenhofer as registered by the young Poussin is an archetypal portrait of the spiritual artist. Poussin longs to penetrate the unknown sphere. His encounter with Frenhofer 'aroused a thousand confused ideas in his mind'. The one point that was clearly perceptible to Poussin was - and this is Balzac's most constant perception of artists - a 'complete image of the artist's nature, of the erratic nature to which so many powers are entrusted, and which too often misuses them, leading sober reason, and bourgeois intellects, and even some connoisseurs into a stony wilderness where they see nothing; whereas the winged maiden, in her sportive fantasy, discovers epics there, and castles, and works of art . . .' Thus to the enthusiastic Poussin 'the old man had become, by a sudden transformation, the personification of art, art with its secrets, its impulses, its reveries'.
In this secret world hedged by reverie, Balzac forages for meaning. From his earliest works he had pondered the nature of the creative principle, and tested it against the most varied approaches. He had scoured scientific treatises of such nineteenth-century figures as Cuvier and Lavater for an explanation of his own experience as an artist. And, just as assiduously, he had searched the horizons of the imaginative philosophers and theologians. There is hardly a work by Balzac, no matter how specifically committed to the faithful reflection of the human comedy, no matter how boldly and objectively reported, that does not have some touch, some fragment, of speculation about the deepest mystery he knew: the mystery of the created work. The secrets, impulses and reveries of art were Balzac's most insistent challenge. His search for their origins led him to consider the most extravagant explanations and to reach the very edge of a psychological abyss. 'Abyssus abyssum ,' Louis Lambert exclaims. 'Our minds are abysses which delight in abysses. Children, men, old men, are always greedy for mysteries under whatever form they present themselves.'
There are repeated allusions to the nature of the abyss in Balzac's work. He was among the first to see in its depths the positive value of what later generations were to celebrate as the 'void' or 'nothingness'. The narrator in Louis Lambert , who was closely modelled on Balzac himself, tells us:
I loved to plunge into that mysterious world, invisible to the senses, wherein everyone takes pleasure in living, whether he pictures it to himself under the indefinite form of the future or clothes it with the potent forms of the fable. These violent reactions of the mind upon itself taught me unwittingly to realize its power and accustomed me to the labours of thought.
Balzac, who had trained himself so carefully as an observer, made it a habit
to observe 'these violent reactions of the mind upon itself', and in his intensity prefigured the ultimate exercise undertaken by Paul Valéry in Monsieur Teste .
Balzac shared his attraction to the abyss with several of his more sensitive contemporaries. They all went to the same sources. The tenets of Swedenborg, for instance, were repeatedly examined by artists and writers throughout the nineteenth century, each generation finding solace or matter for extrapolation, from Balzac to Poe to Baudelaire and into the twentieth century to Kandinsky and Mondrian. But Balzac's interest in mysticism and angelism, tempered by his natural scepticism, offers a curious blend of objective notation and enthusiastic rhapsodizing. Like E. T. A. Hoffmann, whom he admired, Balzac was interested in psychological details that could illuminate the old argument over the dichotomy of spirit and matter. Both writers explored gestures, human tics, and the events occurring in sleep or half-sleep for keys to artistic behaviour. Both saw the artist as the most sensitive barometer of emotional climate, and as a fragile being always in danger from the assaults of the philistines.
In many works Balzac set himself the task of describing as precisely as possible how an artist felt and what impelled him during the crucial moments of creation. His belief in the furor was founded in his own experience when his imagination vaulted into the 'spaces of thought'. He checked against the experiences of close friends such as Gautier. The principal inquiry in what Balzac calls his 'philosophical' works is into the functioning of his own imagination, which he describes through various characters. Louis Lambert, destined to become insane, is overendowed with what Balzac thought of as the creative principle - as is Frenhofer. The necessary ability to observe the violent reactions of the mind upon itself is, in them, too highly developed. Before his breakdown, Lambert's capacity to imagine is clearly a reflection of Balzac's own process, always directed towards 'the spaces of thought'. There are many passages in Louis Lambert in which Balzac attempts to characterize the psychological experience; for example:
'When I choose,' he said in his peculiar language . . . 'I draw a veil over my eyes. I suddenly enter within myself and find there a dark chamber where the accidents of nature are reproduced in a purer form than that under which they first appeared to my external senses.
Balzac explains that Louis Lambert's imagination was already highly developed at the age of twelve, 'either because he proceeded by analogy or because he was endowed with a species of second sight by virtue of which he embraced all nature.' The 'second sight' theory is fundamental to Balzac's aesthetic convictions. In another passage in Louis Lambert he elaborates:
When he thus put forth all his powers in reading he lost, in a certain sense, the consciousness of his physical life, and no longer existed save through the all-powerful working of his interior organs, whose scope of action was immeasurably extended; as he himself expressed it, he left space behind him .
Gautier, who wrote in his memoir on Balzac that, 'although it may be singular to say it in the full light of this nineteenth century, Balzac was a seer !',
stressed the importance of second sight (a concept a shade more complex than that of intuition). He cites the story Facino Cane , published in March 1836, in which Balzac describes his following working people in the streets and listening to their talk of the price of potatoes and the rising cost of coal:
I felt their rags upon my back, I walked in their dilapidated shoes; their desires, their needs all passed into my soul and my soul passed into theirs; it was the dream of an awakened man. To abandon my own habits, to become another than myself through this transport of the moral faculties, to play this game at will, such was my recreation. To what do I owe this gift? To a second sight? It is one of those faculties whose abuse would lead to madness: I have never sought the sources of this power; I possess it, and I avail myself of it, that is all.
In the preface to Peau de Chagrin he tells us that this faculty is a moral phenomenon that science finds difficult to account for. It is a power which transports poets and artists to where they must or wish to be, and which will perhaps permit them to abolish the laws of time and space.
Balzac speaks of the 'dream of an awakened man' - in short, of reverie - from his own experience. His one specifically Swedenborgian story, Séraphita , goes to the limit of the mystical aspect of the question, but there are other stories in which Balzac's insights are offered in less arcane terms. His Swedenborg adventure was an exercise in mysticism, an approach to the observation of the violence of the mind upon itself. Gautier claims that Balzac's phenomenal reading capacity allowed him to absorb his mother's entire set of the voluminous works of Swedenborg in a few days. André Maurois, on the contrary, says Balzac knew Swedenborg only through a French outline of his writings. It is also possible that Balzac came to Swedenborg through the writings of Charles Fourier, which in the late 1820s and early 1830s were becoming well known. First in 1803 and more definitely in 1808, Fourier had already put forward his doctrine of universal analogy, in which he likened the laws of the animal kingdom to the laws of the cosmos. Fourier's belief that he could scientifically analyse the movements of the spiritual and material worlds, and that 'human passions are animated mathematics', is reflected in numerous passages in Louis Lambert . Whatever Balzac's sources, in S éraphita he was chiefly using Swedenborg as an exemplar of the mystical principle, just as he used Frenhofer as the exemplar of the creative principle. Balzac himself said of Swedenborg, 'In reading him one must either lose one's mind or become a seer.'
In Séraphita , Balzac paraphrases Swedenborg so deftly that Baudelaire could lean more on Balzac than the original source for his own adventure in Swedenborgism. Balzac's paramount interest in Séraphita is the question of angelism. He speaks of 'the correspondences that exist between the visible and tangible things of the earthly world', and he describes angelism: 'With men, the natural passed into the spiritual, they viewed the world in its visible form and in an atmosphere of reality adapted to their senses. But with the angelic spirit, the spiritual passes into the natural, it views the world in its inward spirit and not in its form.' The correspondences that Baudelaire made so memorable were enunciated by Balzac in 1834: 'Speech is the gift of all
mankind. Woe to him who should remain silent in the midst of the desert thinking that no one could hear him; everything speaks and everything listens here below. Speech moves worlds.'
While Balzac was working on Séraphita he may have been thinking again of his revision of The Unknown Masterpiece , for in that story we find the phrase: 'like the painter who wants to put life itself on the canvas and is dashed to pieces even with all the resources of art in this vain attempt.' The old Pygmalion myth is revived and Frenhofer's two colleagues are well aware of its moral. Balzac's shift to the mythological voice is heralded by Frenhofer himself when he exclaims: 'To the abode of the departed I would go to seek thee, O celestial beauty ! Like Orpheus, I would go down into the hell of art, to bring back life from there.'
With great understanding Porbus explains to the younger artist that Frenhofer is a man passionately devoted to art, 'who looks higher and further than other painters'. Yet, for all his understanding, Porbus feels obliged to give a practical critique of the older man's theory. Its chief flaw lies in the consequence: 'He has meditated deeply on colour, on the absolute accuracy of line, but he has investigated so much that he has at last reached the point of doubting the very object of his investigations.' To spare the young artist the moments of despair that led Frenhofer to insist that there is no such thing as drawing, and that only geometrical figures can be made with lines, Porbus tells him that art is, like nature, composed of an infinitude of elements, all of which can be used. However,
There is something truer than all of this; namely that practice and observation are everything to a painter, and that, if rhetoric and poetry quarrel with the brush, we reach the doubting stage like this good man who is as much a madman as a painter.
He urges Poussin to work, for 'painters ought to meditate only with a brush in hand'.
Balzac's conviction that work and works are everything is not entirely triumphant in this story. He himself never ceased to struggle with what he considered the debilitating role of thought, imagination and theory in the creative act. Doubt was just as indispensable to Balzac himself as was exhaustive work. On the one side he was convinced that excessive reflection dissipates into doubt; on the other, that no authentic masterpiece could be born without doubt. This is the essential conflict in The Unknown Masterpiece , and in many subsequent works of imagination in the nineteenth century. The problem of doubt is linked in Balzac's mind with the problem of abstraction. Frenhofer says that nature provides a succession of rounded outlines that run into one another, but that there are no lines in nature. The artist, then, is faced with the problem of abstracting from nature its essential forms. These, Balzac believed in an almost Platonic mode, were accessible only in that abstract realm of second sight. The abyss was infinity, feared and yet longed for by artists. 'None of your savants has drawn this simple induction', he writes in Sé'raphita , 'that the curve is the law of material worlds, and the straight line that of spiritual worlds: the one is the theory of finite creations, the other is the theory of the infinite.' (Impossible not to be struck with the
world that Mondrian and Malevich created with these very principles, almost a century later.)
Through his hunger for mystery, an artist such as Frenhofer can be tempted into other worlds, unintelligible to his confreres. Frenhofer himself recognizes this in his description to his two friends of La Belle Noiseuse . 'My painting is not a painting, it is a sentiment, a passion !' Porbus finds himself at a loss. Is Frenhofer sane or mad? 'Was he under the spell of an artist's caprice, or were the ideas he expressed attributable to the strange fanaticism produced in us by the long and painful delivery of a great work?' Clearly Frenhofer had gone to what Balzac called in Séraphita the higher abysses, 'the sphere to which meditation leads the scholar, to which prayer transports the religious mind, to which his visions entice an artist, to which sleep carries some men; for every man has his voice to beckon him to the higher abysses'. Some twenty years later Baudelaire was to identify this voice as 'modern' when he characterized modern art as reflecting intimacy, spirituality, colour and aspiration to the absolute.
The implacable thirst for the absolute made Balzac wary and he argued with himself, marshalling all his experience. He associated it with the state of trance in which an artist's highest moments occur. Yet again, he confirms his own doubts in the face of Porbus's practical suggestions and presses his notion that the artist is beside himself, outside himself, beyond himself as he creates. Frenhofer was not finally mad in Balzac's eyes, at least not incontestably mad. His view of the artist and his 'riotous nature' was always tinged with a sense of mystery he could not expunge in his own functioning as an artist. In notes for Des Artistes , begun in 1836, he writes of the artist:
He has recognized that he is not himself in the secret of his intelligence. He operates under the empire of certain circumstances of which the coming together is a mystery. He doesn't belong to himself. He is the plaything of an eminently capricious force . . . Such is the artist: humble instrument of a despotic voluptuousness, he obeys a master.
Neither Lord Byron, nor Goethe, nor Walter Scott, nor Cuvier, nor the inventor belongs to himself; they are slaves to their idea; and this mysterious power is more jealous than a woman; she absorbs them, makes them live and kills them for her own benefit.
A few years later, in 1843, in Les Martyres Ignorés , Balzac reiterates the theme:
I wanted to tell you a secret: Thought is more powerful than the body; thought devours it, absorbs it and destroys it; thought is the most violent of all agents of destruction; it is the veritable exterminating angel of humanity that kills and animates, because it does animate and kill. My experiences have been geared to resolve this problem, and I am convinced that the span of life is in relation to the force that the individual can oppose to thought; the basis is temperament. . . . Do you know what I mean by thought? The passions, the vices, extreme occupations, sorrows, pleasures are torrents of thought.
And in Masshnilla Doni , written in 1837:
When an artist has the misfortune to be carried away by the emotion he seeks to express, he cannot do so, because he has become the thing itself instead of being its
instrument. Art proceeds from the brain, not from the heart. When you are dominated by a subject, you are its slave and not its master.
Finally, Balzac clearly tells us his artistic intentions in his 'philosophic' works in a letter to Mme Hanska of 24 May 1837:
Massimilla Doni and Gambara are, in the Philosophic Studies, the apparition of music under the double form of execution and composition , submitted to the same test as thought in Louis Lambert ; that is to say, the work and its execution are killed by the too great abundance of the creative principle - that which dictated to me The Unknown Masterpiece in respect to painting.
But were Frenhofer's ten years of work squandered? Was he suffering delusions? It is here that the wisdom of Balzac's statement that 'it is the property of a good fable that the author himself does not know all the riches it contains' is most pertinent. What has haunted the imaginations of so many artists subsequently is the climax of the fable, open to so many interpretations. When Frenhofer in a frenzied state finally reveals his masterpiece, he exclaims:
'Where is art? lost, vanished! Those are the outlines of a real young woman. Have I not . . . caught the living turn of the line that seems to mark the limits of the body? Is it not the same phenomenon presented by objects that swim in the atmosphere like fish in the water?'
But the other painters saw 'nothing there but colours piled upon one another in confusion, and held in restraint by a multitude of curious lines which form a wall of painting.'
It is this description that lingers in the memory of modern artists. Some, such as deKooning, have seen an avatar of cubism in this brief description, while others have seen in it the prophecy of totally abstract painting. Nearly everyone recognizes the peculiarly modern impulse to render the absolute, the impossible, the unknown - what Paul Klee called the prehistory of the visible.
There is yet another revelation in Frenhofer's painting. Once they have seen it as a wall of painting, Porbus and Poussin step closer:
In coming closer they noticed in a comer of the canvas the tip of a bare foot which emerged from this chaos of colours, tones, vague nuances, a kind of mist without form; but a marvellous foot, a living foot ! . . . This foot appeared there like the torso of some Venus in Parian marble rising up among the ruins of a burned city.
Balzac's painting harbours the sources of the dialectical conflict of all modem painting. The presence of that foot, that living foot within the wall of paint, the web of line - the abstraction that floated Frenhofer beyond the range of communication with his contemporaries - calls up the other side of the question. Balzac says that the two younger painters were beginning to understand, but only vaguely, the 'trance' in which Frenhofer lived. We know' from Lords Lambert that the trance was a necessary state for certain kinds of creation. In discussing the Apocalypse Louis calls it 'a written trance'. Yet, remembering the risks of angelism, Balzac has Porbus say, 'That marks the end of our art on earth.' Finally, Frenhofer is discovered dead the following morning, having burned his pictures.
The question, where is the picture? seems to us a modern question, and it was implicit in the dialogues of the nineteenth century. Gautier's description of Balzac's house at Jardies reminds us that for him and his circle a picture existed as much in the imagination as on canvas:
The magnificence of Jardies had slight existence save in dreams. All Balzac's friends remember having written upon the bare walls or grey paper hangings 'Palissandrian wainscotting, Gobelin tapestry, Venetian glass, pictures by Raphael'. Gérard de Nerval had already decorated an apartment in the same manner.
Victor Hugo, describing his visit to Balzac's last house, also remarks on the imaginary decor of his old abode as distinct from the final house where there were real paintings. At Jardies, Hugo remembers, there were magnificent inscriptions on the walls indicating the fictive presence of paintings by Raphael, Titian and Rembrandt. (Hugo also supplies us with the names of a few of the painters Balzac finally managed to collect, among them Porbus, Holbein, Cranach, Boucher and a Dürer portrait of Melanchthon. We also know from the sales catalogue of Balzac's widow that in 1872 there were two Chardins and two paintings attributed to Rembrandt. Some historians speculate that the paintings named in Le Cousin Ports may at one time have been in Balzac's collection - works said to be by Giorgione, Sebastiano dePiombo, Hobbema, and Géricault.)
Balzac's fable, or his inspiring myth, remains alive for modern art because, as Valéry intoned, 'In the beginning was the Fable !' He concurred with Balzac's view of a world without laws of time and space, the world invented by eccentric geniuses such as Frenhofer, abstract to the verge of mystery. 'What would we be', Valéry asks, 'without the help of what does not exist? Not very much, and our very unoccupied minds would pine away if myths, fables, misunderstandings, abstractions, beliefs and monsters, hypotheses and the so-called problems of metaphysics did not people the darkness and the depths of our natures with abstract creations and images.'
Frenhofer's last cogent words to his two admirers, 'one must have faith, faith in art, and live a long, long while with one's work, to produce such a creation', speak to the spiritually deprived modern soul. The necessity for myth has not retreated and certain myths are indispensable. The myth of Frenhofer's unknown masterpiece (which was unknown or unrecognized not only in the physical sense but in the moral sense as well) will continue to be astonishing and inspirational because the conundrums implicit in it are still with us. Frenhofer is the archetypal modern artist, existing in a constant state of anxiety, plagued by metaphysical doubt. He is recognizable to modern painters who have pushed beyond appearances, as Porbus says Frenhofer did, to higher and further reaches than most painters. They are regions where loneliness, or 'alienation', is the common condition; where no compromises are permitted; where there can be no juste milieu . Mankind, says Balzac gloomily in Séraphita , continues to live as it lived yesterday, as it lived in the first Olympiad, as it lived on the date after the Creation of the day before the great catastrophe: 'Doubt covers everything with its waves.'