Balzac Was Funny

More Properly, he was Droll, i.e. curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement. I think ol ‘Honore invented the style of feigned ironic detachment in order to draw a laugh.

In the years that followed, he delivered up countless towns in Asia and in Africa to sack, fell upon the miscreants without warning, ripped up Saracens, Greeks, Englishmen and sundry other nationals, heedless of whether they were allies or whence they came. Among his sterling merits was a lack of curiosity: he never questioned his victims until after he had slain them.

Honore de Balzac, ” The Venial Sin”

Dryer than a Baptist wake, that is. And possessed of that circuitous truth-telling, with slyness to make the medicine go down.

He it was who, when in rare form one day, avvered that four things in life are excellent and opportune: to void hot, to drink cold, to rise hard, and to swallow soft. Certain persons have vituperated against him for consorting with filthy sluts. This is utter nonsense: his sweethearts, one of whom was legitimatized, all came from great houses and all presided over sizy establishments.

Honore de Balzac, “The Merry Jests of King Louis the Eleventh”

The question becomes, what purpose has this besides drollery? Given the years of his life, (1799-1850), one must expect the rustle of the full and gaudy robes of 18th-century prejudice, a post-Revolutionary figure sending up the pre-Revolutionary establishment. One picks up Voltairean echoes here. But where Voltaire smirks, Balzac merely chuckles, giving hypocrites the grace of humor. Having seen in his youth the idealism of Revolution drowned in terror and war, he went above damning the Middle Ages for a lack of saintliness.

He has been called a “realist”, which I take to mean his characters act as humans do. But Realism always betrays a narrowness; one sees what one sees, and nothing more. The jump from “I observe men acting like this,” to “men are this,” passes the smell test but not a rigorous logical assessment; generalizations by nature do not account for individuation. I think his characters contain complexities, like Shakespeare’s, which reminds us of the dizzying and contrary impulses contained within our own souls. Perhaps that is less “realism” than “humanism”, minus the pseudo-ideological, actually-rhetorical weight of that term.

Anyhow, a charming fellow. Enjoy him with some cognac.

I Picked Up a Copy of Esquire and Now I Regret It.

The good news is, I didn’t pay for it.

Here’s a mostly-fun article by Dwight Garner, about the joy of having enemies:

This is a column, however, about that old-fashioned word—enemies. Today we more often speak of “rivals” or “competitors.” Richard Nixon would have been vastly duller had he compiled a rivals list instead of an enemies list. “Nothing produces such exhilaration, zest for daily life, and all-around gratification as a protracted, ugly, bitter-end vendetta that rages for years and exhausts both sides, often bringing one to ruin,” wrote the muckraking journalist Jack Anderson, one of Nixon’s crucial enemies. They don’t make guys like Nixon and Anderson anymore. Their feud was not Boeing versus Airbus. It was Montague versus Capulet.

It goes on in that vein, droll and assured, refreshingly un-screechy. But then it tacks on this hot garbage at the end:

We are living in a surreal time in America, a moment in which a president and a political party have made an enemy out of knowledge itself. Science, ethics, economics, art, politics: These things are linked, like climbers lashed together near the top of a vertiginous mountain. It’s a mountain that has taken centuries to ascend. If one of these things falls, all are imperiled. I’m grateful to the quasi-enemies in my daily life for keeping me on my toes and in fighting trim. But it may be time to let those things go. In terms of this political era, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Yes, can’t miss an opportunity to put our marker down and let everyone know that We Do Not Approve of this boorish Trump mountebank, can we? We must drag him into everything, and never mind the fact that forty years from now some writer will doubtless give Trump the same backhanded praise that Garner just gave Nixon (another boorish mountebank). Perspective? This is Esquire.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is the online headline: “I’ve Relished Having Enemies In My Life. But Am I Wasting My Time?” with concomitant tagline “Even though holding a grudge keeps us on our toes, I’m considering letting go.” That’s not what the article is about. At all. That’s what the narrative-signaling final graph is about. That’s an utter butchery of the tone and intent of the piece.

How do I know this?

Because the dead-tree version has the Headline “Best Served Cold”, with “Every man needs a feud. Our author ponders the pleasures of maintaining an Enemies List.”

The internet ruins everything (he said, on the internet).