drinking game with Balzac

Do you ever find yourself going through a text, doing the close reading and, in particular, “tracing” one element throughout, and feel like you are playing a drinking game with yourself? I’m reading La Duchesse de Langeais for the second time, having noticed that in addition to several interesting portrayals of slavery (both conceptual and actual) there is a MAJOR FOOT FETISH going on. Combined with this major foot fetish is a fascination with the head of the king and the head of the coquette. See, the head of the king falls at the feet of the proletariat, figuratively and literally. And the head of the lover is constantly lying upon the feet of the coquette.  And Balzac can’t seem to decide which he finds more enticing, the coquette’s pieds or her perfectly coiffed and toiletted tête

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In the meantime, I’m sitting here typing up notes and writing things like

Madame de Langeais in the Spanish convent of the Carlélites Déchaussées [FEET!] where she plays the organ [FEET!]

“L’orgue est certes le plus grand, le plus audacieux, le plus magnifique de tous les instruments créés par le génie humain…N’est-ce pas, en quelque sorte, un piédestal sur lequel l’âme se pose pour s’élanceer dans les espaces lorsque, dans son vol, elle essaie de tracer mille tableaux, de peindre la vie, de parcourir l’infini qui sépare le ciel de la terre ?” [FEET!!!]

“Dans toutes les créations, la tête a sa place marquée. Si par hasard une nation fait tomber son chef à ses pieds, elle s’aperçoit tôt ou tard qu’elle s’est suicidée. Comme les nations ne veulent pas mourir, elles travaillent alors à se refaire une tête. Quand la nation n’en a plus la force elle périt…” [HEAD! FEET!]

“Madame de Langeais ne se leva même pas, elle ne montra que sa tête…” (112) [HEAD!]

“Madame, en Asie, vos pieds vaudraient presque dix mille sequins” (114) [FEET!]

…and feeling like I should be sitting around my friend Emily’s house in Madison watching Gossip Girl and taking a swig of Spotted Cow every time Chuck looks dark and tortured…not that I ever did that…ever…clearly… (But if you want a good 19th century romantic plot, complete with antihero, watch Gossip Girl. No joke.)

I do want to talk about one of those quotes, discussing the head of the nation falling at its feet. So I will translate (roughly) for you…

“In all creations, the head has its marked place. If, by chance, a nation makes the head of its leader fall at its feet, it will see – sooner or later – that it has killed itself. As nations do not want to die, it will work to refashion a head. When the nation no longer has the fortitude to do this, it perishes…”

In January 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined, this being the original beheading, and one of the major events of the French Revolution – the other notable one being the storming of the Bastille, in 1789. France will spend the next century desperately trying to replace that ever important Head of State. So by the time Balzac is writing La Duchesse de Langeais (1834), France has seen the execution of Louis XVI. Then the rule, (then defeat, then exile, then rule,) then final defeat at Waterloo of Napoleon Bonaparte. Then the Bourbon Restoration, a constitutional monarchy lead by Louis XVIII of the House of Bourbon (as had been the other Louis) and yet again, establishing a supreme head of state. Then the succession of Charles X, who was in turn exiled during the July Revolution of 1830 . Then the July Monarchy led by Louis-Philippe I.

(I can TOTALLY do that off the top of my head now!)

So this is where Balzac is at right now. Since 1789, there have been (Louis XVI, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis-Philippe) five heads of state, FIVE!!!. And that’s not like here in the United States where the head of the nation is merely supposed to sit around, look pretty, and, you know, attack the Middle East every once in a while. (Well, okay, they have that in common with Napoleon…) That is five completely different governments. FIVE!!!

With the nation finding itself headless every few years, you can see why Balzac should become fairly obsessed with the feet. The feet of the nation are not replaced or exiled or executed. They merely become reanimated, mobilizing this zombie of a political body year after year. The head of France was severed from its feet, from the French Revolution onward. The nation, as a political body, was split up into pieces, and yet continued to live. It is no coincidence that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published for the first time with the author’s name in France in 1823. (The first edition having been published anonymously in Londonin 1818.) The political body of France is a veritable Frankenstein, a monstrous being of severed body parts being assembled and animated time and again. How salient would the dream of Dr Frankenstein have seemed to the French, who had been living the last several decades among the severed parts of bodies – both corporal and sociopolitical…

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