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The Quest of the Absolute
by Honore de Balzac

Book Description
"Balzac depicts more forcefully than anyone else ever has the way a whole life and a whole family can be destroyed when an individual is taken over by unbridled passion"-Gustave Lanson. In Balzac's classic study of obsession, a chance meeting changes Balthazar Claes' life as it introduces him to alchemy and initiates his quest of the absolute. Throughout, our sympathy is equally divided between Balthazar's single-minded determination to push back the frontiers of knowledge at whatever price, and the ruin of his family. THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE was first published in France in 1834 and appears in a new edition from Dedalus, translated by Ellen Marriage and with an afterword and chronology by Christopher Smith.

From: Dean Denis Date: Tuesday, December 09, 2003 03:25 PM This was first published in 1834 under the title "La recherche de l'absolut." It has been translated under two titles "The Quest of the Absolute" and "The Alkahest." A copy can be found on the Gutenburg Project under the latter title at In this novel Balzac portrays the effects which an obsession has on a man and his family. That Balzac chooses science, in particular chemistry, as the destructive obsession reveals much about Balzac's own biases. Balzac himself was absorbed in the teachings of the Swiss Johann Caspar Lavater (1741 - 1801) who promoted the idea that there was a link between an individual's facial features and his character. Balzac doesn't hesitate to refer to these as "scientific" and promoted this doctrine in his works. (I wonder if Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris" (1831) wasn't intended to contradict the fad of Lavater's doctrines.) At any rate Balzac's portrayal of the relationship between Balthazar Claes and his wife Josephine begins from the ground up: the house in Douai, the history of the Claes family, the psychological foundations of their marriage. It is very well done and we have no doubt of the value of what is being destroyed by Balthazar's obsession. I find that I am becoming more interested in this story as I read and I am just about half way through. I know that many of you aren't finished yet but perhaps you could post your impressions here as you progress through this novel. All roads lead to roam. Dean
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, December 10, 2003 07:42 AM I thought the beginning was extraordinary. It felt almost like an Altman film. We see the whole of the region, as if we're seeing it from a spaceship, then we settle in on a area, getting closer and closer, then land on the family and hear the history of the family. The story starts with the sad wife crying and thinking. What is she crying about, why is she sad? The rest of the book describes why she is sad. I felt like I was looking through a camera with an immensely wide angled lens, focused tighter and tighter until I was looking at the weeping wife. Quite a series of images. Sherry
From: Dale Short Date: Thursday, December 11, 2003 10:08 PM Hmmm. I'm of two minds about this one. I enjoyed the graceful prose and the powerful descriptions. Like Sherry, I was particularly wowed by the beginning. I thought it took guts for Balzac to spend a good chunk of the narrative telling why he's not going to cut to the chase, but take the time first to establish a setting and a family. The village and the house he conjures up is so real in its particulars that I felt I was standing inside it with all my senses receptive. Quite a piece of work, for an author. But once the domestic drama got rolling, it became a sort of one-note experience for me...the faithful and angelically patient daughter, the perpetually backsliding dad, tending at times to melodrama. I was drawn to the story because of the title. I've always been fascinated by alchemy and want to know much more about it, but to me the practice and its psychological implications are mostly a cipher here, representing obsession. I don't feel the story would have been substantially different if drugs, drink, or gambling had been substituted as the father's downfall of choice. I came away feeling very little enlightened on the subject of alchemy, whereas in the Dostoevsky novella "The Gambler" we read here a few years ago, I felt I knew for the first time what goes on in the mind of a gambler that makes the process so addictive. Does anybody else feel that Balzac gave the subject in his title short shrift? And if so, was it because his contemporary audience was already familiar with the alchemist's trade, or because the author's interest lay elsewhere? >>Dale in Ala.
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, December 12, 2003 07:05 AM I think I agree with you, Dale. We certainly got the idea the guy was obsessed, but why was a mystery. If the story had been told from his POV instead of from his wife's and from his daughter's, maybe we would have felt more intimate with the details of his destruction. As it was we felt like his family--shut off from him, wondering about him, about his reasons and his sanity. Maybe the point was to shut the reader out, so we would feel as at sea as his family did. What I didn't get, and maybe this is an instance of my being not of the time, was why his wife and daughter were so stubborn about letting him ruin them financially. They knew it would happen, knew what they could do to stop it, and allowed it anyway. I was especially amazed at the daughter giving him his restored house back after she had worked to bring it from financial ruin. Sherry
From: Ernest Belden Date: Saturday, December 13, 2003 12:07 AM This book reminds me a lot of books by other French authors of the period. I have always enjoyed reading about the life of the French people of this particular time. The style of writing is also similar to that of other French writers and a bit on the circumstantial repetitious side. Dale, you hit the nail on the head when you compared the book with Dostojevski's Gambler. The same thought occurred to me. What bothered me was the almost complete acceptance of the Alchemist's extravagance without regard of others especially his wife and children. Well Marguerite stood up to him at times but not at the end when she did not worry about money any more. Why did the members of the family and others consider him a genius even though he did not produce. Also a true scientists shares his findings with colleagues. He publishes his findings positive or negative in the journals. I can't remember that this was the case. Frankly the book aroused in me some anger because the so called genius did not produce but assumed to be entitled to all of the family resources and that this was more important than the affection both his wife and children desperately needed. Now there is another thing that puzzled me. He showed no remorse in addition of not learning from past experiences that his work would lead nowhere. He temporarily may have felt sorry for the family but in fact cheated as he did not tell them what he had done: Namely ruined them financially. Well we can use scientific terms to explain Balthazar's sick compulsion but that does not make him likeable. But Balzac did a fine job of describing most aspects of the obsession as well as the consequences. I feel that Balzac for some reason invented a more positive resolution since much of the time the end results would be catastrophic for all the people involved. Ernie
From: Ann Davey Date: Sunday, December 14, 2003 05:49 PM I finally finished this one today. Thanks Dean for getting the discussion started. The first half was slow going for me, but about half way through (after the saintly wife died), the novel really picked up, and I read straight through to the end. I think it is difficult for a modern reader to appreciate Balthazar the way Balzac intended. In light of modern scientific knowledge, his quest seems like the height of stupidity, but Balzac repeatedly refers to him as a "genius." The modern reader will never buy the idea that there was the remotest chance that he would be successful,and so it skews our whole view of his character. We can't see him as tragic, as I think Balzac did. Consequently, at the very end of the novel, the newspaper article and Balthazar's sudden understanding of how to solve the puzzle fall flat for us. But who knew that one could spend so much money on chemistry!! I don't get the female characters either, Sherry. I think they are one genius's (Balzac's) fantasy of how women ought to treat men of exceptional ability. The author gave Josephine a physical "deformity" to help explain her behavior. She felt herself unlovable and was so grateful to the handsome man who rescued her that she could never effectively oppose him. Marguerite was made of stronger stuff, and I enjoyed the parts that showed how she rescued the family. But I can't believe that any woman would give Balthazar that many chances and allow him to wreck so much of what she had accomplished. I think it was Dottie who nominated this book several years running. My guess is because the hero is Flemish and Dottie was living in Belgium at the time. Dottie, are you there? Ann
From: Dean Denis Date: Monday, December 15, 2003 05:33 PM Dale: "I don't feel the story would have been substantially different if drugs, drink, or gambling had been substituted as the father's downfall of choice.” Your right, Dale, which raises the question why did Balzac choose science as his protagonist’s "drug of choice"? I think that Balzac is a Romantic author who is anxious to point out what he sees as the false promise of science. Yes, as Ernie and Ann point out, Balzac does use the word ‘genius’ in describing Balthazar but here’s what Balzac says about it: Ch. 2 Vice and Genius too often produce the same effects; and this misleads the common mind. What is genius but a long excess which squanders time and wealth and physical powers, and leads more rapidly to a hospital than the worst of passions? It would seem that Balzac considers genius to be a condition and he does not refer to Balthazar as a genius but as a man “of genius.” Ernie, I, too, found the misrepresentation of science to be annoying but his description of scientists goes beyond merely annoying to become pejorative: Ch. 12 “Men of science, plunged though they be in abysses of thought and ceaselessly employed in studying the moral world, take notice, nevertheless, of the smallest details of the sphere in which they live. More out of date with their surroundings than really absent-minded, they are never in harmony with the life about them; they know and forget all; they prejudge the future in their own minds, prophesy to their own souls, know of an event before it happens, and yet they say nothing of all this. If, in the hush of meditation, they sometimes use their power to observe and recognize that which goes on around them, they are satisfied with having divined its meaning; their occupations hurry them on, and they frequently make false application of the knowledge they have acquired about the things of life. Sometimes they wake from their social apathy, or they drop from the world of thought to the world of life; at such times they come with well-stored memories, and are by no means strangers to what is happening.” As a Romantic work “warning” about the pitfalls of science, I would compare this book with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus” (1818) only this time the fire does not come down from Olympus. Balzac never let’s the story stray far from his anti-science prejudice. This constant undertone contributes greatly to what, as Dale put it, is the novel’s “one-note experience.” Be that as it may, let us approach Balzac on his terms. Balthazar comes to his obsession after a conversation with a Polish gentleman who was frced to give up chemistry and became a soldier. I think that what seizes Balthazar is his sense of mortality, seeing as he does the fate of the soldier, and he forges a link between the solving the problem and his own death. Indeed what throws Balthazar back into his obsession after making an effort to quit it was the news of the death of the Polish soldier. As he says later in Ch. 12 “…to renounce Science, to abandon the Problem, --it was death.” All roads lead to roam. Dean
From: Dale Short Date: Monday, December 15, 2003 05:52 PM Ahh. Very insightful observations, Dean. Reminds me, too, of one of the great strengths of Constant Reader, for me...namely, that seeing a work of literature through you guys' eyes helps me get so much more out of it than if I read it in isolation. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Pres Lancaster Date: Monday, December 15, 2003 07:17 PM Thanks, Dean, and thanks, Dale. pres The fat is in the fire, the die is cast, the jig is up, the goose is cooked, the cat is out of the bag, and my hour has struck.
From: Ann Davey Date: Monday, December 15, 2003 08:12 PM Dean, Interesting - I never saw this work as anti-science, although I certainly could be wrong. In fact, I thought that Balzac was probably identifying with Balthazar as a fellow genius. He refers to the main character several times as a "great" man. Great men are by nature obsessive, he seems to be saying, and it is perhaps inevitable that their families will suffer. In fact, right before she dies, Josephine says as much: "Great men should have neither wife not children; they should tread the paths of misery alone; their virtues are not those of commonplace people; such men as you belong to the whole world, not to one woman and a single family. You are like those great trees which exhaust the soil round about them..." (p-126-127) The relatives, including the sons-in-law, seemed to have considerable respect for his scientific endeavors. "He had lifted the world like a Titan, and the world had rolled back heavily on his breast. This giant sorrow, controlled so manfully, had its effect on Pierquin and Emmanuel, who at times felt so much moved by it that they were ready to offer him a sum of money sufficient for another series of experiments- so infectious are the convictions of genius!" (p. 181)
From: Dean Denis Date: Tuesday, December 16, 2003 03:15 PM Ann, to what extent do Josephine's words represent Balzac's view. Balzac did, after all, choose "science" as the corrosive agent of the familial happiness. Josephine sounds like the woman married to a gambler who reconciles herself to her fate by fatalistically calling him "a dreamer." Josephine's fatalism increased my sympathy for her (as if her fatality wasn't enough) and, far from making me think that he was great, only hardened my harsh view of Balthazar. All roads lead to roam. Dean
From: Ann Davey Date: Tuesday, December 16, 2003 08:31 PM Dean, this is interesting. I personally view "science" in a very positive light, so perhaps I have been influenced by my own preconceived ideas to interpret this book a certain way. In other words, it may be hard for me to imagine that Balzac is anti-science because I am not. To complicate matters further, I do not see Balthazar's pursuits as real science, but as a kind of misguided pseudo-science. He wanted to create diamonds or gold once he had discovered the fundamental element, like the medieval alchemists. For me, that means that his entire life was dedicated to something ridiculously impossible. However, I was under the impression that Balzac saw something a little noble in his pursuit. Why else would he call him a "great" man? My interpretation was that the evil was his obsessiveness, rather than science per se. I thought there was an underlying subtext that obsession natually accompanies greatness. Now it's very possible that I read things into the story which were not in the text. I'm curious. How did the rest of you interpret the story? As for Josephine, I think that women that self-sacrificing may only exist in male fantasies. Saint that she was, she definitely got in some zingers right before she died and I must say I enjoyed them: "Dear," she answered, "your love was my life, and when all unconsciously you ceased to love me, my life ceased too." "Two millions and six years of toil have been thrown into that bottomless pit, and you have discovered nothing---" "This wife of yours is dead, you see. Slowly and gradually she has starved for lack of affection and happiness." (pages 124-126) Talk about laying on a guilt trip (even though it didn't really take)! Ann
From: Ernest Belden Date: Wednesday, December 17, 2003 01:28 AM I almost note a consensus regarding the key issue presented by Balzac. The key issue is that greatness (and I think Balzac just happened to pick scientific research of the Alchemist type)is incompatible with family life. Preoccupations of this kind are totally exclusive just like gambling. This includes the arts as well. Of course there must be a few exceptions. Goethe, for instance strikes me as having been pretty normal. Jean Jaques Rousseau the opposite. One only needs to read his autobiography. Recent work on this subject has been carried on by psychiatrists and psychologists. and one of them a lady professor at one of the Universities has written, lectured on the summary concluding that genius and mental illness are frequently found together. If I remember correctly she considered Bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder associated with genius. In her book on the subject she lists a large number of geniuses who have suffered from this disorder. Lord Byron comes to my mind. The author readily admits that she herself has been suffering from this disorder. Dale, did you once mention that there is no such thing as a sane artist? I hope to find the name of the above mentioned book on this subject. Ernie
From: Ann Davey Date: Wednesday, December 17, 2003 09:25 AM Ernie, I think the book you are thinking of is TOUCHED WITH FIRE: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison. I read it and found it fascinating, but it is written in a scientific way that might not appeal to all readers. Her personal memoir of her struggle with manic depression, AN UNQUIET MIND,is very different. It is extremely readable, and I couldn't put it down. What particularly touched me about Jamison is that she was a true constant reader who loved books, but for several years the medication she was taking made it impossible for her to read anything of any length -so she turned to children's books in order to satisfy her need for reading. Nowadays, Ernie, don't you think doctors would have put Balthazr on medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder? :) Ann
From: Ann Davey Date: Sunday, December 21, 2003 01:46 PM The discussion of this book seems to have ground to a halt, but while we are on the subject of Balzac, I would like to recommend a contemporary book called Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. I read it because it was recommended on Constant Reader (by gail?) and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is about two young Chinese men who are sent to the country to be re-educated during the time of the so-called Cultural Revolution. They come into possession of a chest of Western classics, including some books of Balzac. They read these to a beautiful, but uneducated Chinese seamstress. **** MINOR PLOT SPOILER********** At the end of the book, she leaves and goes to the city. The final words in the book are, "She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price." ****************************************** Ann
From: Dale Short Date: Saturday, December 27, 2003 09:44 PM Good points, Ernie. I highly recommend the Jamison books on the subject of emotional illness and the arts...also William Styron's powerful DARKNESS VISIBLE. Speaking of Balthazar and obsessive-compulsive disorder, a question springs to my mind...what's the difference, in medical terms, between a compulsion and an addiction? I used to assume that addictions were for substances and compulsions were for activities. But now, we hear of Internet addicts, sex addicts, etc. Ann, Balthazar could definitely have benefited from Prozac, I think. Wait a minute...Balzac, Prozac. Got to be a connection, there.{G} >>Dale in Ala.
From: Pres Lancaster Date: Sunday, December 28, 2003 01:15 PM Ann, Balthazar could definitely have benefited from Prozac, I think. Wait a minute...Balzac, Prozac. Got to be a connection, there.{G} ~ Dale. This caught my eye because it is a sterling example of an interesting trait many of us share - listening to what you write and catching the double meaning of similar sounds that creep into the text. pres The fat is in the fire, the die is cast, the jig is up, the goose is cooked, the cat is out of the bag, and my hour has struck.

Honore de Balzac
Honore de Balzac

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