5Brooks - xx PREFACE TO THE ORIGINAL EDITION intensity and...

Info icon This preview shows pages 1–12. Sign up to view the full content.

Image of page 1

Info icon This preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

Image of page 2
Image of page 3

Info icon This preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

Image of page 4
Image of page 5

Info icon This preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

Image of page 6
Image of page 7

Info icon This preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

Image of page 8
Image of page 9

Info icon This preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

Image of page 10
Image of page 11

Info icon This preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

Image of page 12
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Unformatted text preview: xx PREFACE TO THE ORIGINAL EDITION intensity and quality of their response: David A. lVliller and Susan Goode Crulli. Typing of the final manuscript was performed with admirable patience and care by Sheila Brewer. And Ellen Graham of Yale University Press was a most helpful and genial editor. The Melodramatic Imagination Qu’on n’aille pas s’y tromper, ce n’était pas peu de chose que le melodrama; c’était la moralité de la Revolution! —-—Charles Nodier OVERTURE There is at the start of Balzac’s first major novel, La Pena de chagrin, a passage that indicates how we should read Balzac, how he locates and creates his drama, and, more generally, how the melodramatic imagination conceives its representations. When Raphaél de Valentin enters a gambling house to play roulette with his last franc, a shadowy figure crouched behind a counter rises up to ask for the young man’s hat. The gesture of surrendering one’s hat forthwith elicits a series of questions from the narrator: Is this some scriptural and providential parable? Isn’t it rather a way of concluding a diabolical contract by exacting from you a sort of security? Or may it be to oblige you to maintain a- respectful demeanour toward those who are about to win your money? Is it the police, lurking in the sewers of society, trying to find out your hatter’s name, or your own, if you’ve inscribed it on the headband? Or is it, finally, to measure your skull in order to compile an instructive statistic on the cranial capacity of gamblers? 1 The gestures of life call forth a series of interrogations aimed at discovering the meanings implicit in them. The narrative voice is not content to describe and record gesture, to see it simply as a figure in the interplay of persons one with another. Rather, the narrator applies pressurgemto the gegtgge, pressure through interrogation, through the evocation of more and more fantastic possibilities, to make it yield meaning, to make it give up to consciousness its full potential as “parable.” Throughout these opening pages of La Peau d2 chagrin, we can observe the narrator pressuring the surface of reality (the surface of his 2 THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION text) in order to make it yield the full, true terms of his story. In the face of the old man who takes the hat, we are told we can read “the wretchedness of hospital wards, aimless wanderings of ruined men, inquests on countless suicides, life sentences at hard labor, exiles to penal colonies.” The gambling house itself elicits a contrast between the “vulgar poetry” of its evening denizens and the “quivering passion” of daytime gamblers. The crowd of spectators is like the populace awaiting an execution at the Place de Greve. Finally we reach this judgment: “Each of the spectators looked for a drama in the fate of this single gold piece, perhaps the final scene of a noble life” (9:17)- Use of the word drama is authorized here precisely by the kind of pressure which the narrator has exerted upon the surface of things. We have in fact been witnesses to the creation of drama—an exciting, excessive, parabolic story—from the banal stuff of realityTTS‘tates of beingngeyo‘fid’th'e/immediate context of tfié’fiafiafimss of it, have been brought to bear on it, to charge it with intenser significances. The narrative voice, with its grandiose questions and hypotheses, leads us in a movement through and beyond the surface of things to what lies behind, to the spiritual reality which is the true scene of the highly colored drama to be played out in the novel. We have entered into the drama of Raphaél’s last gold piece; that coin has become the token of a superdrama involving life and death, perdition and redemption, heaven and hell, the force of desire’éaught in a death struggle with the life force. The novel is constantly tensed to catch this essential drama, to go beyond the surface of the real to the truer, hidden reality, to open up the world of spirit. One could adduce a multitude of other examples. There is always a moment in Balzac’s descriptions of the world where the eye’s photographic registration of objects yields.to_t_herni_n‘d’s effort to pierce surfacef'toiinfiefi‘dgateappearan‘ces:-In Leférnggriot, afterfiaxfe’w initial lines 5f7d<?scfipti6n"of"Mlle‘Michonneau, the narratorhhifts into the interrogatory: “Whawtflacidmhad stripped this creature of her female forms? Sh’éimufist‘once have been pretty and well-built: was it vice, sorrow, greed? Had she loved too much, been a go-between, or simply a courtesan? Was she expiating the triumphs of an insolent youth?” (2:855). Reality is for Balzac both the scene of drama and mask of the true drama that lies behind, is mysterious, and can only be alluded to, questioned, then gradually elucidated. His drama is of the true, wrested from the real; the streets and walls of Paris, under pressure of WW‘ THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION 3 the narrator’s insistence, become the elements of a Dantesque vision, leading the reader into infernal circles: “as, step by step, daylight fades, and the song of the guide goes hollow when the visitor descends into the catacombs.” (2:848). _ The same process may be observed in Balzac’s dramatizations 0f human encounters. They tend toward intense, excessive representa- tions of life which strip the facade of manners to reveal the essential conflicts at work—moments of symbolic confrontation which fully articulate the terms of the drama. In Gobreck, for instance, the sinning Comtesse de Restaud, struggling to preserve an inheritance for her two illegitimate children, is caught in the act of trying to extort her husband’s secrets from the oldest son (the legitimate child) when the comte rises from his deathbed: “Ah!” cried the comte, who had opened the door and appeared suddenly, almost naked, already as dried and shriveled as a skeleton. . . . “You watered my life with sorrows, and now you would trouble my death, pervert the mind of my own son, turn him into a vicious person,” he cried in a rasping voice. The comtesse threw herself at the feet of this dying man, whom the last emotions of life made almost hideous, and poured out her tears. “Pardon, pardon!” she cried. “Had you any pity for me?” he asked. “I let you devour your fortune, now you want to devour mine and ruin my son.” “All right, yes, no pity for me, be inflexible,” she said. “But the children! Condemn your wife to live in a convent, I will obey; to expiate my faults toward you I will do all you command; but let the children live happily! Oh, the children, the children!” “I have only one child,” answered the comte, stretching his shriveled arm toward his son in a gesture of despair. [2:665] I have deliberately chosen an extreme example here, and in quoting it out of its context, I run the risk of simply confirming the view, popularized by Martin Turnell and others, that Balzac is a vulgar melodramatist whose versions of life are cheap, overwrought, and hollow. Balzac’s use of hyperbolic figures, lurid and grandiose events, masked relationships and disguised identities, abductions, slow-acting poisons, secret societies, mysterious parentage, and other elements from the melodramatic repertory has repeatedly been the object of critical attack, as have, still more, his forcing of narrative voice to the breathless pitch of melodrama, his insistence that life be seen always 4 THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION through highly colored lenses. “His melodrama,” Turnell comments, “reminds us not so much of Simenon or even Mrs. Christie as of the daily serial in the BBC’s Light Programme.” In his most waspish Scrutiny manner, Turnell adds, “It must be confessed that our experience in reading Balzac is not always very elevated and that his interests are by no means those of the adult.” 2 To the extent that the “interests of the adult” imply repression, sacrifice of the pleasure principle, and a refusal to live beyond the ordinary, Turnell is right, but his terms of judgment blind him to Balzac’s characteristic drive to push through manners to deeper sources of being. Such representations as the scene I quoted from Gobreck are necessary culminations to the kind of drama Balzac is trying to evoke. The progress of the narrative elicits and authorizes such terminal articulations. The scene represents a victory over repression, a climactic moment at which the characters are able to confront one another with full expressivity, to fix in large gestures the meaning of their relations and existence. As in the interrogations of La Peau de chagrin we saw a desire to push through surface to a “drama” in the realm of emotional and spiritual reality, so in the scene from Cobras/c we find a desire to make starkly articulate all that this family conflict has come to be about. The desire to express all seems a fundamental characteristic of the melocfrafiiafimyl‘lalfifig is spared because nothing is left unsaid; the characters stand on stage and utter the unspeakable, give voice to their deepest feelings, dramatize through their heightened and polarized words and gestures the whole lesson of their relationship. They assume primary psychic roles, father, mother, child, and express basic psychic conditions. Life tends, in this fiction, toward ever more concentrated and totally expressive gestures and statements. Raphaél de Valentin is given a lesson by the old antiques dealer: “Desire sets us afire, and power destroys us”——terrns which reveal the true locus and the stakes of his drama. Eugene de Rastignac, in Le Pe're Gorz'ot, is summoned to choose between Obedience, represented by the family, and Revolt, represented by the outlaw Vautrin. The metaphoric texture of the prose itself suggests polarization into moral absolutes: Rastignac’s “last tear of youth,” shed over Goriot’sTgraveffro‘m‘the of its drama by putting us in touch with the conflict of good and evil played out under the surface of things—just as description of the THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION 5 surfaces of the modern metropolis pierces through to a mythological realm where the imagination can find a habitat for its play with large moral entities. If we consider the prevalence of hidden relationships and masked personages and occult powers in Balzac, we find that they derive from a sense that the novelist’s true subject is hidden and masked. The site of his drama, the ontology of his true‘ subject, is not easily established: the narrative must push toward it, the pressure of the prose must uncover it. We might say that the center of interest and the scene of the underlying drama reside within what we could call the “moral occult,” the domain of operative spiritual values which is bothflindi—c‘iedVWiTHin and masked by the surface of reality. The moral occult is not a metaphysical system; it is rather the @3933):ny the fragmentary and desacralized remnants of sacred myth. It bears compfiofifito‘iiECOnscious’rni’ndffdfifi’s‘fsphmf being where our most basic desires and interdictions lie, a realm which in quotidian existence may appear closed off from us, but which we must accede to since it is the realm of meaning and value. The melodramatic mode in large measure exists to locate and to articulate the moral occult. We shall return to these summary formulations. It is important first to extend our understanding of the kind of representation of social life offered by melodrama of manners, and to extend the demonstration beyond Balzac by calling upon his greatest admirer among subsequent novelists, Henry James. The melodramatic tenor of James’s imagina- tion was beautifully caught by his secretary, Theodora Bosanquet: When he walked out of the refuge of his study into the world and looked about him, he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of the doomed, defenseless children of light.3 James’s moral manichaeism is the basis of a vision of the social world as the scene of dramatic choice between heightened moral alterna- tives, where every gesture, however frivolous or insignificant it may seem, is charged with the conflict between light and darkness, salvation and damnation, and where people’s destinies and choices of life seem finally to have little to do with the surface realities of a situation, and much more to do with an intense inner drama in which Consciousness must purge itself and assume the burden of moral sainthood. The theme of renunciation which sounds through James’s novels—Isabel Archer’s return to Gilbert Osmond, Strether’s return to Woollett, Densher’s rejection of Kate Croy——is incomprehensible and 6 THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION unjustifiable except as a victory within the realm of a moral occult which may be so inward and personal that it appears restricted to the individual’s consciousness, predicated on the individual’s “sacrifice to the ideal.” As Jacques Barzun has emphasized, James always creates a high degree of excitement from his dramatized moral dilemmas, partly because of his preoccupation with evil as a positive force ever menacing violent conflict and outburst.4 Balzac did an apprenticeship in the roman rzoz'r, nourished himself with Gothic novel, melodrama, and frenetic adventure story, and invented cops-and-robbers fiction. These are modes which insist that reality can be exciting, can be equal to the demands of the imagination, which in Balzac’s case means primarily the moral imagination, at play with large and basic ethical conflicts. With James, the same insistence has been further transposed into the drama of moral consciousness, so that excitement derives from the characters’ own dramatized apprehension of clashing moral forces. A famous sentence from the preface to The Portrait g” a Lao} suggests James’s intent. He is describing Isabel’s vigil of discovery, the night she sits up and makes her mind move from discovery to discovery , about Gilbert Osmond. “It is,” says James, “a representation simply of her motionlessly seeing, and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity of her act as ‘interesting’ as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate.” 5 The terms of reference in the adventure story are mocked; yet they remain the terms of reference: moral consciousness must be an adventure, its recognition must be the stuff of a heightened drama. The excitement and violence of the melodrama of consciousness are obviously and derivatively Balzacian in such an early novel as The American. Christopher Newman’s initiation into the epistemology of good and evil is represented through a dark ancestral crime hidden beneath, and suggested by, the gilded surface of F aubourg Saint-Ger- main society: depths open beneath the well-guarded social image of the Bellegarde family; crisis is revelation of sin, and Newman’s consciousness must open to receive the lurid, flashing lights of melodrama. But even in James’s latest and most subtle fiction~prob- ably most of all in this fiction-the excitement of plot is generated almost exclusively from melodramatic conflict within the realm of the moral occult. There is a pressure similar to Balzac’s on the textual surface, to make reality yield the terms of the drama of this moral occult. To take this time deliberately a low-keyed example—standing THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION 7 in apparent opposition to the quotation from Gooseck and thereby suggesting the range of the mode—~from The Ambassadors: following the revelation of Mme de Vionnet’s relationship with Chad, Strether goes to pay her a final visit. He stands for the last time in her noble apartment: From beyond this, and as from a great distance—beyond the court, beyond the corps de [agis forming the front—came, as if excited and exciting, the vague voice of Paris. Strether had all along been subject to stidden gusts of fancy in connexion with _ such matters as these—odd starts of the historic sense, Supposi— tions and divinations with no warrant but their intensity. Thus and so, on the eve of the great recorded dates, the days and nights of revolution, the sounds had come in, the omens, the beginnings broken out. They were the smell of revolution, the smell of the public temper—~or perhaps simply the smell of blood.6 That this vision is ascribed to Strether’s “gusts of fancy” does not really hedge the bet. James makes the “unwarranted” vision exist, wrests forth from “beyond” the facades of Paris sinister implications 0f impending disaster and chaos, and pervades the final encounter of Strether and Mme de Vionnet with “the smell of blood.” Their relation has all along been based on Strether’s “exorbitant” commit- ment to “save her” if he could, Here, the evocation of bloody sacrifice, eliciting a state of moral exorbitance, authorizes the intensity of the encounter, where Strether sees Mme de Vionnet as resembling Mme Roland on the scaffold, and where he moves to his most penetrating vision of the realm of moral forces in which she struggles. “With this sharpest perception yet, it was like a chill in the air to him, it was almost appalling, that a creature so fine could be, by mysterious forces, a creature so exploited’? (2:284). Strether, and James, have pierced through to a medium in which Mme de Vionnet can be seen as a child of light caught in the claws of the mysterious birds of prey. After this perception, when Strether speaks it is to say, “You’re afraid for your life!”—an articulation that strikes home, makes Mme de Vionnet give up “all attempt at a manner,” and break down in tears. This stark articulation, which clarifies and simplifies Mme de Vionnet’s position and passion, which puts her in touch with elemental humanity (“as a maidservant crying for her young man,” thinks Strether) and with the ravages of time, finally differs little from the exchanges of the Comte and Comtesse de Restaud in George/c. The Jamesian mode is subtler, 8 1 THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION more refined, but it aims at the same thing: a total articulation of the grandiose moral terms of the drama, an assertion that what is being played out on the plane of manners is charged from the realm of the moral occult, that gestures within the world constantly refer us to another, hyperbolic set of gestures where life and death are at stake. There is a passage from James’s 1902 essay on Balzac (he wrote five in all) that touches closely on the problem of melodramatic represen- tation. A notable point about the passage is that it constitutes a reparation, for in his 1875 essay, in French Poets" and Novelim, James had singled out, as an example of Balzac’s ineptitude in portrayal of the aristocracy, the episode in Illusions perdues where Mme de Bargeton, under the influence of her Parisian relation the Marquise d’Espard, drops her young provincial attachment, Lucien de Rubempré. The two women desert Lucien, whose dress is ridiculous and whose plebeian parentage has become public knowledge, in the middle of the opera and sneak out of the loge. Aristocratic ladies would not so violate manners, James argues in the earlier essay, would not behave in so flustered and overly dramatic a fashion. His view in 1902 is more nuanced and marks an effort to come to terms with those features of Balzacian representation that he had previously criticized: The whole episode, in “Les Illusions perdues,” of Madame de Bargeton’s “chucking” Lucien de Rubempré, on reaching Paris with him, under pressure of IVIadame d’Espard’s shockability as to his coat and trousers and other such matters, is either a magnificent lurid document or the baseless fabric of a vision. The great wonder is that, as I rejoice to put it, we can never really discover which, and that we feel as we read that we can’t, and that we suffer at the hands of no other author this particular helplessness of immersion. It is done—we are always thrown back on that; we can’t get out of it; all we can do is to say that the true itself can’t be more than done and that if the false in this way equals it we must give up looking for the difference. Alone among novelists Balzac...
View Full Document

{[ snackBarMessage ]}

What students are saying

  • Left Quote Icon

    As a current student on this bumpy collegiate pathway, I stumbled upon Course Hero, where I can find study resources for nearly all my courses, get online help from tutors 24/7, and even share my old projects, papers, and lecture notes with other students.

    Student Picture

    Kiran Temple University Fox School of Business ‘17, Course Hero Intern

  • Left Quote Icon

    I cannot even describe how much Course Hero helped me this summer. It’s truly become something I can always rely on and help me. In the end, I was not only able to survive summer classes, but I was able to thrive thanks to Course Hero.

    Student Picture

    Dana University of Pennsylvania ‘17, Course Hero Intern

  • Left Quote Icon

    The ability to access any university’s resources through Course Hero proved invaluable in my case. I was behind on Tulane coursework and actually used UCLA’s materials to help me move forward and get everything together on time.

    Student Picture

    Jill Tulane University ‘16, Course Hero Intern