Monday, November 25, 2013

The Exiles by Honoré de Balzac

Closer to Hell than Heaven
Honoré de Balzac
“The Exiles,” a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831 under the French title of “Les Proscrits.” Although it is considered part of Balzac’s collection of works known as the Comédie Humaine, the story takes place at the beginning of the 14th century, so there is no interconnectivity with the other works under that heading, most of which take place in the 19th century.

The story opens in 1308 at the home of Sergeant Tirechair, a constable whose home is located on Paris’s Île de la Cité, in the very shadow of the cathedral of Notre-Dame. We find Tirechair vociferously regretting his decision to accept two lodgers into his home. He suspects them of practicing witchcraft and worries he and his wife may be condemned by association. The two lodgers—an aged “stranger” and a beautiful young man named Godefroid—cross the river to attend a lecture on mystical theology. The speaker, Dr. Sigier, describes a world divided into spheres of spiritual existence ranging from the lowliest levels of Hell to the heights of Heaven. Mankind are essentially fallen angels sentenced to dwell in a middle ground, but through piety they have the power to spiritually evolve to a higher plane.

As is the case with many of Balzac’s more philosophical works, it becomes apparent that the contents of the lecture are more important to the author than the story built around it. It seems that the whole purpose of the narrative is to convey this theological concept, which begs the question, why not just write an essay? Balzac stimulates interest and curiosity on the part of the reader by keeping the identities of the two lodgers a secret. Over the course of the story it becomes apparent that the “stranger” is an eminent personage. Balzac gives enough clues for the reader to solve the mystery before the big reveal at the end. The conclusion of the story is pretty good, but it’s a shame one has to wade through so much esoteric discussion of angels and demons to get there.

The cosmology described by Dr. Sigier bears a great deal of resemblance to the metaphysics explored in Balzac’s novel Louis Lambert. Like that novel, most readers of today will find “The Exiles” inaccessible and rather dull. It’s hard to imagine any 21st-century Christians deriving inspiration from this bizarre theology. Only the most devoted fans of Balzac should think about tackling this story, and even they should prepare themselves for a difficult read.

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