20 June 2016 by Jessica Palmer
The Living Death of the Past: Body Parts, Money and the Fetish in La Peau de chagrin
In his 1846 essay, “Ce qui disparaît de Paris” published in Le Diable à Paris, Balzac describes the city as it goes through a transitional phase. He first writes of the ruins of the Ancien Régime that linger in the new bourgeois Paris: “Les ruines de l’Église et de la Noblesse, celles de la Féodalité, du Moyen Âge, sont sublimes et frappent aujourd’hui d’admiration les vainqueurs étonnés, ébahis.”1 Balzac remarks here on the surprising effect of the continued presence of these sublime ruins of the past that intrude on the present to astound and dumbfound. These material remains represent a kind of living presence of the dead past that invades the current moment and “strikes” it, interrupts it in a way.
The second transition is the ongoing loss of a small world of vendors: “En 1813 et 1814 … on pouvait remarquer bien des métiers totalement inconnus aujourd’hui…. La boutique a reçu dans ses flancs dispendieux, et la marchande de marée, et le revendeur, et le débitant d’issues, et les fruitiers, et les travailleurs en vieux, et les bouquinistes, et le monde entier des petits commerces” (15-16). The few vendors who remain are becoming difficult to recognize and comprehend in the new, boutique world. They are the human remnants of a society in the process of disappearing, again a kind of curious presence of something that is dying. Balzac imagines how one will perceive their images in the near future, as these merchants grow illegible: “Bientôt un marchand de coco sera comme un problème insoluble quand on verra sa portraiture originale, ses sonnettes, ses belles timbales d’argent, le hanap sans pied de nos ancêtres, ces lis de l’orfèvrerie, l’orgueil des bourgeois, et son château-d’eau pomponné, cramoisi de soieries, à panaches, dont plusieurs étaient en argent” (16).
The appearance or intrusion of what has died or disappeared can be found in many of Balzac’s texts in his representation of the post-Revolutionary transitions taking place in his society – Chabert is the human embodiment of such a remnant. Often the collapse of the antithesis between life and death serves as the figure of this ghostly appearance of the ruins that intrude on the present. And, as in the example of the vendors, the disappearing past is often associated with money and commerce.2
These images of living death are particularly apparent in Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, where they participate in their own kind of “economy,” a symbolic economy of growing and shrinking, ghostly appearing and disappearing.3 A study of these images can lead to an understanding of the ways in which the living dead of the past functions in this text, and in Balzac’s oeuvre more generally.
Growing and shrinking, appearing and disappearing body parts
Two important examples of living death in La Peau de Chagrin involve the body part of a dead animal. First, Cuvier’s powerful imagination enables him to make the dead live again (as Balzac puts it, “la mort se vivifie”4 by means of one small, preserved fragment of a long-dead body — a foot, a bone, or a tooth — which Cuvier uses as a kind of magic synecdoche to reconstruct entire extinct animal populations:
…notre immortel naturaliste a reconstruit des mondes avec des os blanchis, a rebâti, comme Cadmus, des cités avec des dents, a repeuplé mille forêts de tous les mystères de la zoologie avec quelques fragments de houille, a retrouvé des populations de géants dans le pied d’un mammouth (25-26).
This rebirth is expressed in terms of growth, as the animal part “grows” into the whole creature: “Ces figures se dressent, grandissent et meublent des régions en harmonie avec leurs statures colossales” (emphasis added, 25). Dead body parts can thus be made into the whole animal if one knows how to use the laws of its “organic economy”: “en commençant par chacun d’eux isolément, celui qui posséderait rationnellement les lois de l’économieorganique, pourrait refaire tout l’animal” (emphasis added, 61).5 In Balzac’s example it is particularly Cuvier’s mammoth foot that resonates with the “economy” of the remainder of La Peau de chagrin.
This “Apocalypse rétrograde” (21) as Balzac describes Cuvier’s art of growing the foot into the whole creature, is itself the opposite of the trajectory taken by the peau de chagrin, our second example of a body part of a dead animal, the skin of a wild ass. Like the mammoth foot, the skin manifests unusual movement. However, unlike the dead mammoth foot that “grows” into the whole animal, the peau de chagrin shrinks with the life of its owner until he dies, until they both disappear. Cuvier brings the dead back to life and the skin accelerates death; the two opposite movements create a kind of pulsing economy.
These reverse trajectories serve as another way of representing the conflict of the “economics” of conserving and spending, which exemplifies two opposing philosophies of life in the novel: conserving energy by living in thought (Cuvier’s imagination that creates the whole from the part, the antique dealer’s life of the imagination, Raphaël’s life as a writer and thinker) or spending energy by acting and desiring (Raphael’s desires that shrink his life and the skin; Rastignac’s “système dissipationnel,” in which expenditures outpace means; the antique dealer’s “second life” as he spends desire and fortune on Euphrasie). The mammoth foot used by the imagination to regrow the whole animal represents savoir, the life of the mind; the skin that disappears as it shrinks represents pouvoir and vouloir in the symbolic economy of the novel. Raphaël, as we shall see, adheres to the two different systems at different times and is thus ambiguously situated in that economy.
Living death in the antique store
If Cuvier is, according to Balzac, “le plus grand poète de notre siècle” because as we saw he has “reconstruit des mondes avec des os blanchis” (emphasis added, 25), then Raphaël is his equivalent poet/writer who can also bring back worlds with his imagination. While Raphaël looks around at the curious objects in the antique shop, he can envision the bones of twenty lost worlds: Raphaël “était poète, et son âme rencontra fortuitement une immense pâture: il devait voir par avance les ossements de vingt mondes” (17). Balzac in fact places his description of Cuvier’s work in this scene in the antique store, just before the appearance of the antique dealer himself; its presence here then metonymically associates the objects of the store with the Cuvier’s fossilized bones and with Raphaël’s state. Cuvier actually calls himself an “antiquaire d’une espèce nouvelle” in one of his books that influenced Balzac and this novel.6 As a symbol of the relation of the past to the present, the scene in the antique store anticipates our opening passage from Le Diable à Paris, with its lost world of vendors and its description of the intrusion of fragments of the past, the ruins of the Ancien Régime, in the present.
Indeed, the objects in the store are often, like a fossil or the skin, preserved dead creatures, remains of the past that linger in the present, similar to the strange and out of place “fossils” that the street vendors represent. There are beautiful mummies from Cairo; stuffed crocodiles, monkeys, and boas; and most bizarrely, an “enfant en cire, sauvé du cabinet de Ruysch,” which is described as “cette ravissante créature” (21). Ruysch’s collection consisted not of wax figures but of cadavers, which he was able to preserve for enormous lengths of time with his secret formula – thus the dead “live on.” Some of these bodies are strangely beautiful babies preserved in jars, which explains Balzac’s “enfant en cire.”7
The antique store is also a place where the dead or disappeared turn back into the living: a painting of Mary is an “Ève régénérée” (20), “L’Inde et ses religions revivaient dans une idole” (20), “tout revivait là” (21). A skeleton “pencha dubitativement son crâne” in an image of living, moving death (27). Sometimes what has never lived begins to move in Raphaël’s hallucinatory state: “Les tableaux s’illuminèrent, les têtes de Vierge lui sourirent, et les statues se colorèrent d’une vie trompeuse” (26). How similar is this description of the (imaginary) color that flows into the statues, to the description of Cuvier’s magic talent that animates stone: “Soudain les marbres s’animalisent” (25).
The creations in the shop are thus “assises sur les confins de la mort et de la vie” (22) and seem to echo Raphaël’s liminal state: “Enfin, doutant de son existence, il était comme ces objets curieux, ni tout à fait mort, ni tout à fait vivant” (22-23). Indeed, Raphael, between life and death, himself becomes like one of Cuvier’s fossils, buried under the weight, not of the earth, but of the past that is “reborn” in the present: “Il étouffait sous les débris de cinquante siècles évanouis, il était malade de toutes ces pensées humaines, assassiné par le luxe et les arts, oppressé sous ces formes renaissantes” (24).8 Raphaël’s burial under the presence of the past is an allegory in this novel, as we shall see. He attempts to emerge into a new world, however he can do so only ambiguously, because the past has not completely disappeared. He exists in a limbic state between the dead, old world and the new.9
In fact, from the very beginning of the novel Raphaël is a member of the living dead: when he decides to kill himself but postpones his suicide, he places himself symbolically on the side of the dead, but remains alive in the real.10 This state of living death is expressed diachronically throughout the novel in the alternating symbolic economy of energy spent and saved, energy that disappears and reappears. In Raphaël’s greatest pleasures and expenditures of energy, the shrinking peau de chagrin shows him the progress of death in his life; when he attempts to save energy, he is really living a kind of death: “il abdiquait sa vie pour vivre” (204). As Diani aptly states: “Tel est du reste le propre de toute la réalité balzacienne, cette matière/énergie qui est une, et pourtant est en contradiction incessante, se mouvant entre la vie et la mort, la construction et la déconstruction.”11
Human body parts and fetishes
This symbolic economy of living death, seen in the dead animal body parts, animates two human body parts in the text that participate in the same alternations of growing and shrinking, appearing and disappearing. These human parts point us to the significance of living death in its more general relation to the past, in particular to the law of the past. Both of these body parts belong to women. As for shrinking or shriveling up, it is again skin that is at issue, this time, humorously, the skin of women, as one of the scientists who examines the shrinking peau says: “En effet, répliqua Maugredie en affectant un air grave et rendant à Raphaël sa Peau de chagrin, le racornissement du cuir est un fait inexplicable et cependant naturel, qui, depuis l’origine du monde, fait le désespoir de la médecine et des jolies femmes” (255).
If woman’s skin shrinks with age, what body part could grow on a woman that would be unusual? In this text it is something related to a foot (we recall the mammoth foot), in this woman’s case it is a toe.12 The six-toed woman is the rejected object of Rastignac’s desire: he had been courting a supposedly rich Alsatian widow who, thought he, had “le plus joli petit pied” (140). However, here is how he describes just why he gives her up : “J’ai découvert qu’elle a six doigts au pied gauche, je ne puis pas vivre avec une femme qui a six doigts ! cela se saurait, je deviendrais ridicule. Elle n’a que dix-huit mille francs de rente, sa fortune diminue et ses doigts augmentent” (emphasis added, 173). The woman’s body grows while her money shrinks.
What could explain this link among women, shrinking money and skin, and growing feet? First, clearly women’s feet are fetishes in this text:13
De petits pieds étroits parlaient d’amour, des bouches fraîches et rouges se taisaient (67).
Elle avait un pied mignon dans d’ignobles souliers. (107).
Combien de fois n’ai-je pas vêtu de satin les pieds mignons de Pauline… (110).
[Raphaël] contemplait… sa Pauline les cheveux en désordre et montrant un petit pied blanc veiné de bleu dans une pantoufle de velours noir (227).
Women’s feet and the detached body parts of the skin and the mammoth foot thus lead us to the structure of the fetish, which I would like to explore in this text in its three different contexts: religious, psychoanalytic, and
The first and original religious meaning of the fetish is that of an object believed to have supernatural powers. Clearly the peau de chagrin is a fetish in this sense: Raphaël believes that the skin has the power to realize wishes and change his life. The mammoth foot also becomes “magical” via Cuvier’s imagination when the whole animal is conjured from a fragment of its body. Money, the object that shrinks as the woman’s body part grows, is endowed with a kind of magic property as well in Balzac’s world: it can make wishes come true, like the skin. Both skin and money are signifiers that represent anything and everything, the object of desire, because they can acquire anything and everything.15 We shall come back to money shortly in our economic considerations.
Second, the foot has clear associations with the fetish as defined by Freud. The story is well known: the fetishist, upon seeing the woman’s sex and fearing castration and loss (it will be useful for us to think of this loss as a kind ofdeath of love or pleasure in our context of the living dead – Sarrasine comes to mind here), does not want to relinquish his belief in the woman’s/mother’s phallus. So he fixes on a contiguous substitute – a foot, the shine on a nose, furs – that can reassure him that loss (death) has not taken place and that can allow him pleasure.
On the surface, the fetish is a beautiful object of desire, the woman’s foot. However, as Freud says, castration has set up a memorial to itself in the fetish: the loss that has been covered over remains as a deep meaning (it is in fact a kind of double loss: it is the loss of an object that never existed in the first place). The foot memorial, like a tomb that holds the missing phallus, preserves loss, and symbolically for us here, harbors death. Thus the fetish is a kind of living death in that its symbolic structure is contradictory:16 it allows pleasure to “live” yet it also preserves death and loss, somewhat like the beautiful mummies (aesthetic pleasure and death) and Ruysch’s “ravissante créature.” The synecdoche of the mammoth foot, a dead body part that contains a hidden structure that blossoms into life, and the structured economy of the peau de chagrin that brings death with the pleasures of living it provides, are homologous to the fetish’s structure of deathly content latent in the pleasurable object. The opposing actions of shrinking and growing, disappearing and appearing, could express in a temporal way the simultaneous appearing and disappearing of the phallic object that the fetish performs, the co-presence of pleasure and loss, life and death.
Substituting body parts
There is, of course, that infamous scene in the text in which the question of the phallic woman arises, when Raphael is confused about the physical sexual identity of the woman he loves and finds beautiful, but who rejects him. To explain just why he is not the “object” she desires, he thinks she might be a hermaphrodite (we think of Rastignac’s love object with the sixth toe). She might be “ce monstre qui, tantôt officier, dompte un cheval fougueux, tantôt jeune fille se met à sa toilette et désespère ses amants, amant, désespère une vierge douce et modeste” (155). Because of his uncertainty, he feels the need to look at her when she is naked in order to ascertain her sex. So he hides in her bedroom while she undresses to see if she has that extra part.17
As he spies on her and sees that she has a beautiful woman’s body, the mystery should be solved – she is a woman and so does not have the extra part. The imagined phallus should “disappear” in reality. However, her ambiguous identity remains mysteriously intact because she has “grown” new enigmas. This happens for Raphaël just before he sees her naked when her ambiguous gender identity is transferred to the new mystery of her voice, which no one had ever heard before, and which is described in a very strange way. A kind of beautiful organ (a suggestive word in the context of fetishes), it penetrates its listeners and it gives Foedora pleasures of love:
La comtesse avait dans l’organe une clarté vive, une justesse de ton, je ne sais quoi d’harmonique et de vibrant qui pénétrait, remuait et chatouillait le cœur. …La beauté de cette voix fut donc un mystère de plus dans une femme déjà si mystérieuse. Je la voyais alors comme je te vois : elle paraissait s’écouter elle-même et ressentir une volupté qui lui fût particulière ; elle éprouvait comme une jouissance d’amour (159).
Even though Foedora is sexually female, the voice as a substitute organ has appeared to take the place of the phallus that Raphaël thinks she might have, and this organ is related to pleasure.18 The voice becomes a kind of fetish, which now sings: we recall those “petits pieds étroits [qui] parlaient d’amour” (67).
Foedora uses her voice to utter mysterious words just after Raphaël sees her perfect body, the words, “Mon Dieu,” which specifically reintroduce the contradictory structure of her identity: “Ce mot, insignifiant ou profond, sans substance ou plein de réalités, pouvait s’interpréter également par le bonheur ou par la souffrance, par une douleur de corps ou par des peines…. L’énigme cachée dans ce beau semblant de femme renaissait, Foedora pouvait être expliquée de tant de manières, qu’elle devenait inexplicable” (emphasis added, 162-63). Thus her mystery continues as the voice takes over the role of the fetish. Her phallic identity, because it has migrated to her voice, “renaissait.” Its living dead character is located in the act of substitution, its magical appearing and disappearing act, related to the pulsing economy of growing and shrinking. The fetish also, in keeping the substitute phallus in place, denies sexual difference and maintains an illusion of plenitude, while still harboring the lack/death on which it is based.
The transfer from the body to the voice (presumed object/phallus to voice/language) represents a move to a more abstract, linguistic symbolism. The voice is physically present, but it cannot be touched or grasped. It is less material, in a sense, than a bodily object, such as a foot. Thus the voice brings about the partial disappearance of the body and a more complete immersion in a symbolic world.19 It is a fetishistic world that not only denies sexual difference (the woman has a phallus) but that also provides pleasure through its substitution. Yet in substitution, death continues, the fetish is not the desired object but a replacement for the missing (dead) phallus.
Appearing and Disappearing Money
After this scene, Raphaël learns that when Foedora uttered those words, “Mon Dieu,” she was supposedly thinking about her money,20 which brings us to our third consideration: the economic symbolism of the fetish structure. Money, we recall, is endowed with a kind of magic property: it can make wishes come true because it can substitute for and acquire the object of desire, particularly in Balzac’s world. Like the skin, it is the ultimate signifier for the object of desire, the ultimate fetish.
Fortunes, of course, grow and shrink, appear and disappear in this text as well, like women’s toes and animal and human skins. And money, like Foedora’s voice-organ and the skin, belongs to the material and symbolic world, since it is “marked” by language, by the writing on it. Most important, like the voice, money in this text makes noise. At the beginning of the novel, when Raphael enters the gambling den hoping to make his money grow, he loses it all instead: his fortune shrinks. As his last coin disappears, it seems to flee magically from him, making a noise as if to advertise its loss. Raphaël understands his dire straits only at the moment when the rake takes his coin and makes that noise:
Quant au jeune homme, il ne comprit sa ruine qu’au moment où le râteau s’allongea pour ramasser son dernier napoléon. L’ivoire fit rendre un bruit sec à la pièce, qui, rapide, comme une flèche, alla se réunir au tas d’or étalé devant la caisse (10).21
It is at this point that he enters the realm of the living dead and decides to delay his suicide until after dark. While waiting to die he decides to “flaner” a bit and, of all things, even though he has no money, to do a little shopping at the book displays: “son attention fut excité par les bouquins étalés sur le parapet; peu s’en fallut qu’il n’en marchandât quelques uns” (14). The strange appearance of the urge to shop at the point when Raphaël is about to throw himself into the Seine is intriguing, contrasting shopping with dying, shopping and immersion in the commodity world as a way to distance death.
Smiling at himself as he realizes he has no money, he suddenly hears the magic sound of coins in his pocket: “il entendit avec surprise quelques pièces retentir d’une manière véritablement fantastique au fond de sa poche” (14). Somehow in a strange “fantastique” way, money reappears, his fortune has grown again. Its noise “announces” its reappearance, just as it made noise when it had previously shrunk at the gambling table, and just as Foedora’s substitute organ (her voice) announces its presence. This magical appearance of money occurs another time in a later scene when money suddenly again appears out of nowhere: “Comprendras-tu le délire qui m’anima, lorsqu’en ouvrant pour la septième fois le tiroir de ma table à écrire … j’aperçus, collée contre une planche latérale, tapie sournoisement, mais propre, brillante, lucide comme une étoile à son lever, une belle et noble pièce de cent sous?” (142).
Back at the scene at the booksellers, Raphael’s fortune has not grown by much, and he gives his last three sous to an old beggar. His fortune disappears again. As he continues his stroll, he sees a beautiful young woman step down from a carriage, whose dress “lui laissa voir une jambe dont les fins contours étaient dessinés par un bas blanc et bien tiré,” and she buys a few things with coins that “étincelèrent et sonnèrent sur le comptoir” (15). Again money seems to announce its symbolic importance by making noise, and here it is contextually related to a woman’s leg (foot), covered in a fetishistic stocking that allows one to see but that also hides. So we are left with the idea of a similar and associated kind of fetishism in two different contexts, that of women and money.
The Ambiguous Loss of Symbolic Law
We can find some insights into the linking of women, money, and fetishes, in the relationship between Raphaël and his father. The father most definitively represents the law in this text.22 In his autobiographical story recounted to Émile, Raphaël begins with the tale of his transition from youth to adulthood and the life of constant work and study in which he was a prisoner of his father’s rule: “mon père m’astreignit à une discipline sévère … Ainsi, jusqu’à vingt et un ans, j’ai été courbé sous un despotisme aussi froid que celui d’une règle monacale” (82). His father’s tyranny keeps from him the objects of his desire: money and women,23 and it traps him in a world of constant work performed with the aim of earning (back) their fortune, making it reappear after its loss in the political turmoil of the times.
However Raphaël revolts once and “steals” from his father in a charged Oedipal scene that represents a turning point in his life. His father gives him two significant objects to guard while they are at a party: imagine the symbolic shapes of these two objects and their valuable key symbolism in relation to the fetish. Here money makes noise again, alerting us to the fact that the fetish is involved: “Par une raison que je n’ai jamais devinée, tant cet acte de confiance m’abasourdit, il me donna sa bourse et ses clefs à garder. A dix pas de moi, quelques hommes jouaient. J’entendais frétiller l’or” (84). Raphaël then risks his father’s money in secret, usurps it in order to gamble and win his own money, in order to make money grow (the movement of the mammoth foot and the woman’s toe). By this act, Raphaël has now transgressed his father’s law by stealing money, the object of desire, a scene Weber views as involving the “(maternal) phallus” (70). In a sense, he moves into a world that has transgressed the symbolic law of the father; indeed, the fetish can be seen as defying symbolic law by refusing castration.24
However, after this scene, like Oedipus, Raphaël punishes himself and, in a sense, takes his father’s place by depriving himself of pleasure: “Je devins mon propre despote, et n’osai me permettre ni un plaisir, ni une dépense (89). Raphael’s theft from the father gains for him the object of desire (money and the paternal position), however his gain also entails a kind of loss, when Raphael inflicts his own punishment. He has broken the law but he still abides by it; again he is in an ambiguous place. As in the structure of the fetish, the object of desire, money, brings with it a menace: it represents the object of desire, but also a kind of death, here paradoxically the denial of pleasure. Thus the magical, fetishistic money that shines and sounds, the object of desire, is tainted with death; it is linked with the skin, the dead body part that shrinks and kills yet gives pleasure, and Foedora’s voice organ, that substitutes for the lost (dead), fictional phallus.
Raphaël’s keeps the surplus money that he won and “stole” from his father: he earns money from money, which represents in a different way that kind of magical appearance of money from nowhere.25 This economy expresses the ultimate desire of the new Parisian reality that is emerging around Balzac and that is so often exemplified in his works. If it is a commonplace to say that money is the new god of Balzac’s universe, Diani and Lucey have noted that it is not just that money is important, but also that money permeates the entire social/symbolic system and shapes human perception and social interaction, even desire itself.26 Certainly in this text, Raphaël admits that he needs what money can buy in order to love: “Puis, je l’avoue à ma honte, je ne conçois pas l’amour dans la misère. Peut-être est-ce en moi une dépravation due à cette maladie humaine que nous nommons la civilisation” (108). As Diani notes, Balzac sees this transition as a kind of degradation of the present, which as in the Diable à Paris essay, represents a fall and a loss.27
The Living Dead Past
In order to see how this economic degradation is represented in La Peau de chagrin, we must follow it through one typical plot of the BalzacianBildungsroman, in which young gentlemen attempt to rescue their families, who are suffering financially from the revolutionary changes that occurred and continued to occur in France. These young men come from provincial noble families whose past wealth had come from inherited lands, but who now have a hard time living off that land: Rastignac’s family, for example, cannot sustain its way of life by means of its vineyards alone. Just as the quaint vendors represent the lost commerce of Paris, Rastignac and his family represent for Balzac the disappearing economy of the provincial aristocracy. Rastignac arrives in Paris to try to make his way in the new world, where work has nothing to do with working the land, and where he needs cash in order to seek the more abstract forms of wealth: women, money, and power. As Rastignac writes to his mother, using a metaphor derived from their dying means of living: “Je dois aller dans le monde, et n’ai pas un sou pour avoir des gants propres. Je saurai ne manger que du pain, ne boire que de l’eau, je jeûnerai au besoin ; mais je ne puis me passer des outils avec lesquels on pioche la vigne dans ce pays-ci.”28
In La Peau de chagrin, however, the story is a bit different. It is Raphaël’s father who is the landed artistocrat who makes the move away from the products of his land to Paris and its more artificial economic system: “Autrefois, peu flatté d’avoir le droit de labourer la terre l’épée au côté, mon père, chef d’un maison historique à peu près oubliée en Auvergne, vint à Paris pour y lutter avec le diable” (we might say, Le Diable à Paris) (88). Raphaël helps his father with his new work, legal paper work very different from harvests and farms: “Je dus combattre comme sur un champ de bataille, travailler nuit et jour, aller voir des hommes d’État, tâcher de surprendre leur religion, tenter de les intéresser à notre affaire, les séduire, eux, leurs femmes, leurs valets, leurs chiens, et déguiser cet horrible métier sous des formes élégantes, sous d’agréables plaisanteries” (88). Barthes’s description of another Balzacian character, Mercadet, could qualify the Valentins’ new life: Mercadet “works in an absolute fashion to create money ex nihilo…. As a modern man, Mercadet no longer works with concrete goods, but with ideas of goods.”29
Significantly this legal work does not involve the family’s inherited land but rather land that Raphaël’s father had acquired, property that had been given by Napoleon to his generals and that Raphaël’s father procured, thus land torn from its past by revolutionary wars. Now Raphaël must help his father fight to keep these purchased properties: “Ayant jadis acheté plusieurs terres données par l’empereur à ses généraux et situées en pays étranger, il se battait depuis dix ans avec des liquidateurs et des diplomates, avec les tribunaux prussiens et bavarois pour se maintenir dans la possession contestée de ces malheureuses dotations” (88). In this way, the two Valentins become embroiled in a maze of legalities, paper work, and social networking, a “labyrinthe inextricable de ce vaste procès d’où dépendait notre avenir” (88). The Valentin family’s new job is a kind of ambiguous amalgam: virtual work—legal, social and paper work—done in pursuit of the retention of purchased land on which they don’t live. Balzac represents here a kind of move away from the physical connection of wealth to the land that one owns and works, to the artificial world of paperwork and the buying and selling of property. The past régime of landed wealth is the world that Balzac sees dying, disappearing, but that yet still remains. Land and coins disappear into the new vortex of virtual wealth, land as financial transactions and wealth as paper.
Raphaël’s state of living death is explicitly connected to this new financial world of words on paper: “Pour continuer de mourir, je signai des lettres de change à courte échéance” (181). His imagined creditor becomes the living-dead ghost that haunts him and threatens the loss of pleasure, somewhat in the image of his father, as Weber notes (113): “Ce monsieur sera ma dette, ce sera ma lettre de change, un spectre qui flétrira ma joie” (182). Thus it is no coincidence that at the moment when Raphaël decides to sell the last land he owns and signs the paper document, the notary’s office takes on for him the chill of the graveside of his father, thus symbolically representing the death of family ties to the land: “En signant le contrat chez le notaire de mon acquéreur, je sentis au fond de l’étude obscure une fraîcheur semblable à celle d’une cave. Je frissonnai en reconnaissant le même froid humide qui m’avait saisi sur le bord de la fosse où gisait mon père” (184).
Most significant is that this land belonged to his dead mother and that she is buried there. When he signs the document that exchanges her land for money, he is haunted by her living-dead ghost and the sound of her voice: “Il me semblait entendre la voix de ma mère et voir son ombre” (184). As Raphaël engages himself in the abstract world of the circulation of money by turning his family’s land into money, what is dying appears in a ghostly form; we see again the fetish structure that both denies and preserves death and loss.30 The dead mother’s voice, like the sound of money, announces his entry into the symbolic “modern” world and at the same time announces the loss and death that this move entails.31 His mother’s voice recalls Foedora’s, “Mon Dieu,” and the move to a more abstracted linguistic system. Thus in this scene, the two fetishistic structures related to woman and money combine in Raphaël’s divestiture of his dead mother’s land.
When Balzac bemoans those lost yet sublime ruins of the aristocracy that began this essay, he uses the example of antique furniture (a reprise of the antique store?), the wooden wardrobe of a grande dame, which in the new bourgeois world might be used to furnish, significantly enough, the office of a banker : “La garde-robe d’une grande dame du temps passé peut meubler le cabinet d’un banquier d’aujourd’hui” (“Ce qui disparaît de Paris,” 19). He then asks the question: “Que fera-t-on en 1900 de la garde-robe d’une reine Juste-Milieu ?… Elle ne se retrouvera pas, elle aura servi à faire du papier semblable à celui sur lequel vous lisez tout ce qui se lit de nos jours” (emphasis mine, “Ce qui disparaît de Paris,” 19). What remains is paper, the embodiment of the new virtual world – even perhaps the paper on which the Diable à Paris is printed. At the end of his essay Balzac asks one final question: “Et que deviendra tout ce papier amoncelé?” (Ce qui disparaît de Paris, 19). The question remains unanswered.
1. Balzac et al, Le Diable à Paris: Paris et les Parisiens (Paris: J. Hetzel, 1846), 18.
2. Walter Benjamin unsurprisingly quotes part of the above passage from Le Diable à Paris. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), C2a, 8.
3. See Warren Johnson, “That Sudden Shrinking Feeling: Exchange in La Peau de chagrin” on economic and other exchange systems in the text. Johnson takes a different point of view on the skin than that presented here. He considers the skin to represent the opposite of a fetishized commodity, because once its pact is accepted, it is non-exchangeable. Johnson thinks that Raphaël himself, however, fetishizes the skin because Raphaël thinks its material substance conducts his existence when it actually merely reflects it. Johnson does not see the skin as the universal equivalent but rather as the law of no desire, since once Raphaël understands its workings, he cannot desire. The French Review, 70 (4), Mar., 1997, pp. 543-553.
4. Honoré de Balzac, La Peau de chagrin (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1967), 25. All further references to Balzac are to this text unless otherwise indicated.
5. According to the Dictionnaire de la conversation et de la lecture of 1835, the term “économie organique” refers to the laws and structures that organize the rich abundance of animal life into a limited number of forms. It is also related to the more general use of the word “economy”: “Avec cette nuance dans leur signification, les mots ‘économie organique’ se rapprochent du sens usuel sous lequel on emploie les termes économie domestique, économie politique, etc.” Vol. 23 (Paris, Belin-Mandar, 1835), 168.
6. Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles (Paris: Deterville, 1812), 1.
7. Did Balzac think they were wax figures? Did he know that wax was thought to be one of the ingredients in Ruysch’s formula? Had he seen any of these children? I haven’t been able to find the answers to these questions. One can see an image of one of Ruysch’s specimens at:http://www.medischerfgoed.nl/topstukken.aspx?topstuk=018
Ruysch was also famous for dioramas created from skeletons and various body parts, organs, and veins – a kind of “poetry” of dead bodies; drawings were made of these dioramas, which can be seen here:
8. Bettina Knapp reads Raphaël’s experience in the antique store as “his need for rebirth” in “The Gambler’s Quest for Power,” Nineteenth-Century FrenchStudies, 27, nos 1-2 (Fall 1998-Winter 1999), 16-37.
9. I borrow this term from Richard Burton, who uses it to describe Baudelaire’s “‘vieux poète’ to whom not even death has brought repose, a ‘limbic’ being if ever there was one, marooned, like the poet himself and the ‘pâles habitants’ of the graveyard nearby, on the marches of life and death, unable fully to die as he had been unable fully to live.” Baudelaire and the Second Republic: Writing and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 305.
10. Raphaël, like Lacan’s Antigone, is “between two deaths”: between real death and symbolic death (he has given up on the symbolic order). Lacan says of Antigone: “Her punishment will consist in her being shut up or suspended in the zone between life and death. Although she is not yet dead, she is eliminated from the world of the living.” Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1997), 280.
11. Marco Diani, “La Révolution dans la forme: L’Inscription immatérielle de l’argent chez Balzac,” Stanford French Review, 1991; 15 (3), 385.
12. In fact Cuvier discusses the number of toes of various species of elephants and mastodons. In Recherches sur les ossements fossiles he states: “Les élépans et les mastodontes constituent à eux seuls la famille des proboscidiens, reconnoissable dans le squelette, ne fût-ce qu’aux cinq doigts de tous ses pieds.” Nouvelle Édition, 2nd volume, Part One (Paris: G. Dufour et E. D’Ocagne, 1822), 100.
13. For an analysis of some of the same details that relate to the fetish in La Peau de chagrin from the different point of view of voyeurism and the attempted containment of gender see my Telling Glances.
14. Information on these various forms of fetishism can be found in Emily Apter and William Pietz, Fetichism as Cultural Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). Samuel Weber in his remarkable study of La Peau de chagrinperforms a fascinating reading of the fetish in its psychoanalytic and Marxist contexts. However, since his analysis is a close reading of the entire novel, he is limited to a few illuminating comments. Samuel Weber, Unwrapping Balzac: A Reading of La Peau de Chagin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.
15. Jane Marie Todd analyzes the skin as the perfect fetish that allows Raphaël to desire Pauline and leave Foedora behind. “Balzac’s Shaggy Dog Story,”Comparative Literature, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Summer, 1992), 276.
16. Samuel Weber: “Woven or knotted together out of oppositions … the fetish displays the form of the Balzacian antithesis itself; the unity of inversions and reversals” (82-83).
17. For an analysis of this as a kind of primal scene, see Telling Glances.
18. Weber sees the organ of the voice as “fulfilling a phallic function, maintaining the distance and the mystery necessary to support the illusion of the fetishist, his denial of maternal castration,” and to support the illusion of presence to itself (98).
19. Baudrillard envisions this move as an attempt to cover the “wildness” of the body: “It is the final disqualification of the body, its subjection to a discipline, the total circulation of signs. The body’s wildness is veiled by makeup, the drives are assigned to a cycle of fashion”: Fetishism and Ideology: The Semiological Reduction,” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign(Saint Louis, Missouri: Telos Press, 1981), 94.
20. Jane Marie Todd mentions this fetishism of the voice and relates it to Raphaël’s other fetishistic needs for women who display the trappings of wealth, 276.
21. In the discussion after I presented this paper at the NCFS Colloquium in Salt Lake City, Michael Tilby aptly noted that the ivory rake is itself a preserved body part of a dead animal.
22. Peter Brooks articulates this relation of the law to Raphaël’s father inReading for the Plot (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 49-50 and 56.
23. Weber describes Raphaël’s father as one who “bars the son’s way to the plenitude of the phallus” (71).
24. Mignon Nixon discusses this in “What’s So Funny About Fetishism?,” inEveryday Extraordinary: Encountering Fetishism with Marx, Freud and Lacan, ed. Christopher M. Gemerchak (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2004), 99.
25. Significantly, once Raphaël has betrayed his father’s trust, “stolen” his money for a time and stolen its profits, he carefully encloses the money he has won so it cannot make noise: “Dès que je me vis possesseur de cent soixante francs, je les enveloppai dans mon mouchoir de manière qu’ils ne pussent ni remuer ni sonner pendant notre retour au logis” (86).
26. Michael Lucey shows how in Balzac’s texts sentiment can be formed by financial considerations. “What I would like to call particular attention to (in this Balzac text) is the link of the birth of affect to a moment of economic crisis… Affective patterns would seem to be constantly available for renewal and revision, and the outcomes of those renewals and revisions will necessarily be linked to economic, legal, and social forces and histories.” The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 33.
27. Diani rightly notes that Balzac shows positive aspects of this transition as well.
28. Balzac, Honoré, Le Père Goriot (Paris: Garnier Flammarion, 1999), emphasis added 123.
29. Roland Barthes, “Will Burns Us.” In Critical Essays (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 79.
30. It would be interesting to analyze the economics of this scene through the lens of Derrida’s “hauntology,” which he developed in Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).
31. There are many such odd voices in the text; a few examples follow. Balzac attributes to Cuvier’s voice a strange power: “cette épouvantable résurrection due à la voix d’un seul homme” (25-26). A famous singer’s voice is “shrinking” : “La voix de la Malibran a perdu deux notes” (57). The antique dealer’s voice “avait quelque chose de métallique” (30), like coins perhaps? Later, when the antique dealer falls for Euphrasie, he speaks with “une voix déjà cassée” (212). Pauline sees a change in Raphaël when the skin resurfaces from the well: “Ta voix m’effraie, reprit la jeune fille, elle est singulièrement altérée” (228). Raphaël’s enemy in the duel exclaims: “Fais-le taire, avait dit le jeune homme à l’un de ses témoins, sa voix me tord les entrailles!” (275).
Apter, Emily and William Pietz, editors. Fetichism as Cultural Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Balzac, Honoré. “Ce qui disparaît de Paris.” In Balzac, Honoré, et al. Le Diable à Paris: Paris et les Parisiens, 11-19. Paris: J. Hetzel, 1846.
____. La Peau de chagrin. Paris : Classiques Garnier, 1967.
____. Le Père Goriot. Paris: Garnier Flammarion, 1999.
Barthes, Roland. “Will Burns Us.” Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard. Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972, 77-81.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Fetishism and Ideology: The Semiological Reduction.” In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. Saint Louis, Missouri: Telos Press, 1981, 88-101.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Burton, Richard. Baudelaire and the Second Republic: Writing and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Cuvier, Georges. Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles. Paris: Deterville, 1812.
____. Recherches sur les ossements fossiles. Nouvelle Édition, vol. 2, part 1. Paris: G. Dufour et E. D’Ocagne, 1822.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Diani, Marco. “La Révolution dans la forme: L’Inscription immatérielle de l’argent chez Balzac.” Stanford French Review 15, no. 3 (1991), 373-92.
Dictionnaire de la conversation et de la lecture. Vol. 23. Paris: Belin-Mandar, 1835.
Johnson, Warren. “That Sudden Shrinking Feeling: Exchange in La Peau de chagrin.” The French Review 70, no. 4 (1997), 543-553.
Kelly, Dorothy. Telling Glances: Voyeurism in the French Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Knapp, Bettina. “The Gambler’s Quest for Power.” Nineteenth-Century FrenchStudies 27, nos. 1-2 (Fall 1998-Winter 1999), 16-37.
Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960.Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1997.
Lucey, Michael. The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Nixon, Mignon. “What’s So Funny about Fetishism?” In Everyday Extraordinary: Encountering Fetishism with Marx, Freud and Lacan. Edited by Christopher M. Gemerchak. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2004, 97-115.
Todd, Jane Marie. “Balzac’s Shaggy Dog Story.” Comparative Literature 44, no. 3 (Summer 1992), 268-279.
Weber, Samuel. Unwrapping Balzac: A Reading of La Peau de Chagin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.