Sunday, October 21, 2018

On Rousseau’s Challenge (from Balzac’s Father Goriot)

Honoré de Balzac
It is well known that Fyodor Dostoevsky had done an extensive study of Honoré de Balzac's works.  He was inspired by Balzac's style of writing. In fact, Dostoevsky's first literary publication was his translation (in 1844) of Balzac's Eugе́nie Grandet.

I can see a little bit of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) in the following exchange between Eugène de Rastignac and Bianchon in Honoré de Balzac’s novel Father Goriot (Le Père Goriot):

“Have you read Rousseau?” 


“Do you remember that he asks the reader somewhere what he would do if he could make a fortune by killing an old mandarin somewhere in China by mere force of wishing it, and without stirring from Paris?”


“Well, then?”

“Pshaw! I am at my thirty-third mandarin.” 

“Seriously, though. Look here, suppose you were sure that you could do it, and had only to give a nod. Would you do it.” 

"Is he well stricken in years, this mandarin of yours? Pshaw! after all, young or old, paralytic, or well and sound, my word for it… Well, then. Hang it, no!” 

“You are a good fellow, Bianchon. But suppose you loved a woman well enough to lose your soul in hell for her, and that she wanted money, lots of money for dresses and a carriage, and all her whims, in fact?” 

“Why, here you are taking away my reason, and want me to reason!” 

“Well then, Bianchon, I am mad ; bring me to my senses. I have two sisters as beautiful and innocent as angels, and I want them to be happy. How am I to find two hundred thousand francs apiece for them in the next five years? Now and then in life, you see, you must play for heavy stakes, and it is no use wasting your luck on low play.” 

“But you are only stating the problem that lies before every one at the outset of his life, and you want to cut the Gordian knot with a sword. If that is the way of it, dear boy, you must be an Alexander, or to the hulks you go. For my own part, I am quite contented with the little lot I mean to make for myself somewhere in the country, when I mean to step into my father's shoes and plod along. A man's affections are just as fully satisfied by the smallest circle as they can be by a vast circumference. Napoleon himself could only dine once, and he could not have more mistresses than a house student at the Capuchins. Happiness, old man, depends on what lies between the sole of your foot and the crown of your head; and whether it costs a million or a hundred louis, the actual amount of pleasure that you receive rests entirely with you, and is just exactly the same in any case. I am for letting that Chinaman live.”

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