Hooked Atoms

Our heart is our treasure; empty it at one turn and you’re ruined. We no more forgive an emotion for showing itself complete than we forgive a man for not having a cent. – Honoré De Balzac, Père Goriot (80)

I was merrily reading away my hours immersed in the parlor of Madame Vauquer’s boarding house described so wonderfully by Balzac as “a kingdom of poverty without poetry,” when it struck me that this is the sort of book I would hate to see made into a film because the visual image is so perfectly detailed in my head. From the “costumes in which only the idea survived,” down to the color of the dust and odor of the coverings, it is all undisturbed by any other vision save Balzac’s and mine.   Balzac and I see the characters, rooms and carriages in vivid bursts- a lock of hair, a candlestick, button or boot, they are all there- in between us.

When I came to the scene of Monsieur Vautrin’s capture I felt like everything was going full speed, all the people in and out, the plans and counter plans – some mid-execution, like a firework going off in all directions from a single source. And then, then – there is the fabulous M. Vautrin himself- the Jaques Collins, the Cheat-death – I admit it, I quite like him and I wish the scene had not ended.

“You must learn to be philosophic, Mama,” Collin continued. “Did you suffer any harm from being in my box at the Gaîté last night? Are you better than we? There’s less infamy branded on our shoulders than there is lodged in your hearts, you flaccid units in a cancerous society.Why the best among you did not repel me.” (204)

Something in his awesome confidence and secure measure of himself as a man, and as a criminal- his towering insouciance – was charming.  I just loved him. Maybe I just love Balzac. He’s always giving us the down low on love, but not true love: the banal and shallow version born out of, as Camus put it, “vanity and boredom.”

…or he would write to her, for it would be much more convenient to manage this assassination of a love by correspondence than by conversation. (69)

Well, that detail alone describes the man’s character with perfect clarity. Balzac employs his words and phrases by whatever means it takes to reach that core of portrayal. It could be descriptive, expository or by reflection, but he will make you see what he wants you to know.

I get the feeling that Balzac likes his readers, he has a love of people and sees the sad and cynical turn the broken hearted and disillusioned make.

Such silly phrases, stereotyped for the use of beginners, always have charm for women and show up in their emptiness only when they are read in cold blood. (129)

He is the avuncular friend giving fair warning, we can forgive him if he repeats himself, because he does try so hard to make himself clear:

Put in other terms, the elegy is as essentially lymphatic as the dithyramb is bilious. (142)

I ask you, how can you not be grateful for his advice? Can you be insensible to the delight of an extravagant sentence such as the above to emphasize the conflicting sources of passion in the various temperament of men? Impossible!

The book comes to a desperate close. Père Goriot must have been some sort of model for Hugo’s Jean Valjean, but in Père Giorot’s case, his paternal love ends all bitter, with no sweet. The innocent Eugène comes to the harsh realization of the life of society:

“The crimes committed in it are of the pettiest and meanest sort,” he said to himself. “Vautrin is on a grander scale.” He saw that the three principle expressions of society were Obedience, Struggle, and Revolt- The Family, Society and Vautrin. He did not have the courage to take a firm stand Obedience was irksome, Revolt impossible, Struggle uncertain. (255)

Eugène comes around, albeit by force of reality, to take his chances with uncertainty and maybe even impossibility (at least of the inward sort). One has to be desperate enough, I suppose, to gamble that the known unknowns are better than the known knowns. Impossible as it is.

* “hooked atoms” is Balzac’s brilliant explanation for the mystery of sexual attraction.

I read the Modern Library edition translated by E.K. Brown

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2 responses to “Hooked Atoms

  1. I love that you used the word ‘avuncular’.

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