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This coroneted town is like a queen, who, being always with child, has desires of irresistible fury […] She cleaves the world, illuminates it through the hundred mouths of her tribunes, ploughs the seas of science, rides with full sail, cries from the height of her tops, with the voice of her scientists and artists: “Onward, advance! Follow me!” She carries a huge crew, which delights in adorning her with fresh streamers…
Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl With the Golden Eyes is a novella about a ruthless, rich young man in nineteenth-century Paris, and his entanglement with a mysterious and beautiful woman.
At the same time, and more importantly (as far as this overview is concerned), it’s the story of Paris itself; Paris the city, the mistress, the ship, the living entity, as Balzac refers to it – an entity that lives and breathes alongside its inhabitants, and which moves incessantly along the paths of time like a tireless, merciless, fancy-driven machine made up of strata, decks, priorities, duties, wants, needs, and elaborate preferences that dictate the past, present, and future of those who man it.
In other words, the novella is a chronicle of progress – of a culture in deep flux, in a world that reels in the ebb and flow of wealth and entropy.
The style of the work is rich and spiral, and it reaches out to every corner, nook, and cranny of Parisian society, leaving little to the imagination. It recreates Paris: the-wonder-of-wonders not just in spirit, but in detail. The image builds into a resplendent mosaic. Balzac’s style is elaborate and indulges in the spellbinding specifics and minutiae – a highly descriptive and verbose discourse, full of punctuation, adjectives and information that paint an intricate picture, typical of the times in question – and that’s the whole point. Both primer and prompter, the narrative style exemplifies the time of which the author speaks, and Balzac becomes the era’s timeless reporter.
Two centuries down the line, we, in the twenty-first century, experience something fantastical when reading Balzac’s novella. The images that he puts together coalesce with time-specific beauty to create a lively historical picture, a collection of tesserae that add up to a composite Paris: extremely vibrant, central, and full of energy, the kind we perhaps associate with a modern capitalist society. Events and developments unfold in this story in such a way that a modern or postmodern reader can’t help but discern in them the hum and drum of a contemporary, ruthless, rampant culture of impersonality.
In fact, a page or two into the narrative and we witness Balzac’s Paris emerge triumphant: a cultural and economic machine in perpetual motion, powerful in its ascendancy, ruthless in its conduct, lethal in the long term; beautiful and horrific at the same time, and so pure in its resolve to hold people captive that it transmogrifies into a prison of brutal majesty. Paris, the living encyclopaedia of the world, the colossal atlas – it never sleeps, and forever grinds its way to the future, into glory, through the men that power it and the women that render it human.
These men and women, of course, resemble their city in every way. They never sleep, they are always on the go, en route to better lives, be it a higher social stratum, a better office in government, a position of greater respect, perhaps even greater power and privilege.
It is refreshing to see that the quandaries we face today, so readily ascribed to our modern, postmodern, frantic, and in all respects globalised society, are not unique to our era; that they are timeless; that they are the symptoms, or perhaps the side-effects, of a society on the move, indicators of a life where culture rises to create something out of the squalor from which it has erupted. Our drive and mobility, however brutal, are synonymous to life, working their way from West to East, North to South, driven by passions and wonders, promise and suffering.
The points of view in such dynamic settings vary, of course, as they should. The variance of perspective in a thriving city such as Balzac’s Paris allows a wide range of ideas to take hold. Diversity promotes action. Action promotes motion, and motion leads to results – incessant, backbreaking, wonderful events that power the system, ensuring its improvement and survival.
In the process, Paris sucks the life out of its inhabitants, turning their faces bleak and pale, crusty and meek, blank, sick, putrid and foul, mouldy like the bogs on which the city itself was founded. Like the stench that rises from their unkempt mouths and obsessive minds, it lingers. But, at the same time, the city is beautiful and alive. Dear wild Paris, its hum so very loud and unmistakable. Its generations follow one another down the tracts of time, degenerating with every passing second, offering themselves as sacrifice to the altar of accomplishment, to bequeath their successors a little more something in turn.
And the decadence and pain turn into development and improvement.
It’s a journey without which life would be worthless.
Paris, in light of all this, is the great mistress, the grand boat, the wonderful machine that carries its crew on the stormy waters of progress, as worldly ships do. And society at large – if one were to extrapolate the story’s place and the effect it has on its inhabitants – is a daunting venture into the unknown. Our development is contingent on the leaps we take, the pressure we withstand, the willingness to improve our lot. Culture is forever shaped by dynamism, from which progress is made. The way ahead is exacting, the process formative, and hardly a recent phenomenon. On the contrary, what we so fear and abhor in our day and age i.e. the monstrosity of our so-called advanced way of life, has been around for centuries. It is more meaningful and pervasive than we care to admit: a voracious spirit of organised circumstance. A will to process. Motion in all its glory, rife with savage, life-churning powers that have been driving culture since time immemorial. Since animation began.
Balzac captures this impersonal and yet all-too-natural phenomenon in his novella. The intrigue, desire, and violence that thread the city speak of lust so ubiquitous, it transcends the ages. The urban setting is a stage where people triumph and collapse, shine and wither, ad nauseam. The crimes that take place underscore the social commentary, painting a daunting picture of humanity’s obsession with the intangible. The story is timeless, reminding us, children of the future, victims of our times, that life is larger than we. Our limited understanding and our bloated self-importance tempt us to deem ourselves the be all and end all, but we are just an intermediary stop in the long route ahead. Motion, the perpetual catalyst and ruthless driver, sustains life by forcing it to constantly exercise, lest it rot and wither away.
Thereby we, Parisians of the twenty-first century, so to speak, all of us urbanites in our so-called advanced societies – with the aid of Balzac’s story, and to each our own, and with the aid of history and every story, account and anecdote dug up from our records (our narratives about civilization, culture, and human progress in general) – we, the tragic, wonderful, frightened, angry, beautiful people of the Fort and the Court, the Street and the Plebiscite are now, and forevermore, able to see, smell, and taste ourselves in Balzac’s novella because we are one and the same. The people of yesterday and the people of today – joined at the historical hip. Life is continuity and relevance, a tangible relationship between here and there, then and now. We read about the lives of those who lived two hundred years ago, and their plights feel familiar. We can relate, and it comforts us in a bittersweet way.
It’s an age-long procedure. Everything changes, but many things remain the same, including the struggles of any given generation as it strives to be relevant in a blistering, challenging, and predominantly cruel world. Some things get easier and some pain is taken away, but the way forward is riddled with challenges and injustice, some of it so painful, one wonders if the loftiness of any given ideal is worth it.
Still, life goes on. It finds a way to continue along these lines, on and on.
Life, in other words, is perpetual motion. A paradoxical arrangement that cleaves the world ‘like a queen, who…’