Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Atheist’s Mass by Honoré de Balzac

Why the materialist went to church
The Atheist’s Mass, a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was first published in 1836 under the French title of La Messe de l’athée. Like most of Balzac’s writings, this is one small piece in his grand patchwork of novels, essays, and stories known as La Comédie Humaine, in which he set out to document all facets of French society in the early 19th century. The story of The Atheist’s Mass revolves around two medical men. Horace Bianchon, a Parisian physician, is a recurring character in the Comédie Humaine, appearing in over two dozen works including Père Goriot and Lost Illusions. His mentor, the distinguished surgeon Desplein, also shows up in at least ten of Balzac’s works.

Desplein, whom Balzac describes as one of history’s great medical geniuses, is an unswerving and unapologetic atheist. Like many men of science, Desplein grounds his beliefs in empirical evidence rather than faith. His explorations of the human body and brain have made him a hardened materialist, one who disbelieves in the existence of the spirit or soul and trusts in matter alone. Desplein’s staunch nonbelief in all matters religious makes it all the more extraordinary when his protégé Bianchon spots the esteemed surgeon entering the church of Saint-Sulpice to attend a mass. What possible explanation could there be for this contradictory behavior? His curiosity aroused, Bianchon investigates the matter on the reader’s behalf. Roughly the first third of The Atheist’s Mass is a character sketch of Desplein, the middle third is Bianchon’s inquiries into this perplexing matter, and the final third is Desplein’s explanation for his uncharacteristic actions.

The result is a very moving and memorable story. Though the narrative concerns matters of atheism and religion, Balzac doesn’t take sides or preach in either direction. Atheism is merely a characteristic of Desplein that allows Balzac to explore the character’s history and personality. The account Desplein gives of his past reveals the humanity within the genius. The background in medical science and Balzac’s depiction of the lifestyles of these 19th-century doctors also keeps the story interesting. In the end, however, Balzac delivers a universally touching tale that transcends the time and place of its setting. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it, The Atheist’s Mass packs a powerfully poignant punch and stands as one of the better short stories in the Comédie Humaine.

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