Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Louis Lambert by Honoré de Balzac

A strange fiction/philosophy hybrid
Prior to the twentieth century, philosophy was the driving force behind all literature. Authors used the novel as a means to communicate their ideas on man’s purpose and his place in the universe. With Louis Lambert, however, Balzac takes the idea of the philosophical novel a little too far in giving us this odd, chimerical mashup of philosophical treatise and coming-of-age novel.

Louis Lambert is a boy of modest means, born in Vendôme. At a very young age he develops a passion for reading and soon begins to exhibit signs of a genius intelligence. He captures the attention of the writer Madame de Staël, who offers to finance his education at the Collège Vendôme, a boarding school run by the Catholic order of the Oratorians. There he develops a close friendship with the narrator of the novel, presumably Balzac himself. Lambert’s intellectual development is profoundly affected by the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher who proposed a dualistic philosophy in which man is composed of an animal body and an angelic spirit, a person’s nature being determined by the preponderance of one or the other of these independent influences. Eventually Lambert goes on to develop his own more materialistic version of Swedenborg’s philosophy, though it’s still a quite mystical, dualistic form of materialism. In Lambert’s view, the universe is created of one substance which resembles an electrical energy. Ideas are like living things inhabiting the internal world of the mind, which coalesce to form the Will, through which man is able to affect the external world. At about the age of 15, Lambert consolidates these ideas into an essay entitled The Treatise on the Will, much to the chagrin of his educators, who abruptly confiscate the manuscript.

Though Louis Lambert was published in 1832, Balzac displays an almost modernistic experimentation with form and style. The first quarter of the book is a straightforward narrative of Lambert’s youth and his time spent at the Collège, which is mostly based on Balzac’s own educational experiences. This is the most intelligible and enjoyable portion of the book. The second quarter of the book concentrates on the contents of the Treatise, mostly related through Lambert’s ecstatic, confusing disclosures to his friend. This is followed by three-eighths of the book comprised of love letters from Lambert to a woman he adored. While these epistles are eloquent and lyrical expressions of love, they do little to move the story forward or shed light on Lambert’s philosophical thought. The final eighth of the book consists of a couple laundry lists of philosophical postulates, arranged and enumerated with the intention of resembling the Euclidian order of Spinoza’s Ethics, but much more illogically constructed.

There is some validity to Balzac’s ideas on metaphysics and epistemology. This novel has value in that it does give the reader some insight into the philosophical thought of this great man of letters. The medium used to express that thought, however, is less than satisfying. Balzac could have conveyed these ideas far more successfully in a series of essays, or even a memoir of his own intellectual development. Instead, the book is too philosophical to be good literature, and too literary to be good philosophy. Failing on both counts, Louis Lambert is a book best skipped by all but the most enthusiastic of Balzac’s admirers.

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