Where does one even begin when diving into one of the 19th century’s greatest literary composers? Honore de Balzac, with his prestigious name and astounding literary oeuvre, certainly does not make the task easy: that being said, simply choosing a work at random can do no harm should one wish to glean a sense of what made this writer one of literature’s true epochs.
So was my strategy for choosing “Seraphita,” a book that I confess I still have trouble parsing, despite my slow and deliberate pace. It would appear to me that we have mislabeled “Seraphita” as a novel; the rather slim volume is more theological dissertation and dialogue than what we’d consider to be an 19th century romance. In Patricia Abrams’s introduction to the piece, she even quotes “Seraphita” as belonging to “ ‘that cloying school of ecclesiastical decoration [that] still manages to dazzle such uncloistered spirits as Henry Miller’ “.
This reads quite unhelpfully at first, until one delves fully into the text and realizes that “dazzle” is just the word for the piece. Let us consider first, briefly, the plot, if it can be so termed.
Seraphita, a perfect androgyne who takes as a male name Seraphitus, has descended on Norway’s Stromfiord where he/she has ignited the passions of the townspeople, among them the lovely young Minna and Wilfred. Deceived by the imperfect human love that cannot fathom the cross-perfection of Seraphita/Seraphitus’s androgyny, Minna and Wilfred lay claim to the beings Seraphita and Seraphitus, respectively, first through declarations of love and then through cries of subjugation.
But Seraphita’s humanity is transient; she is on the brink of her salvation into Heaven and finds herself weakened considerably by these vulgar cries of love and possession of Minna and Wilfred, and by the lack of faith demonstrated in the village’s Pastor Becker. Through a series of lengthy theological impartations, Seraphita leads the three into understanding the essence of love and God, before resigning a last breath and transcending to the world of eternal life. Following this last act, Minna and Wilfred become wise to the fruitless aims brought on by human selfishness and ignorance, manifested in the “ministers of various religions, all calling themselves true, kings consecrated by force and fear, warriors and conquerors sharing the nations, etc.” (178) and shun them in the name of the power of prayer, after which they are happened upon by Paster Becker, who enquires where the two are going. “We mean to go to God…Come with us, father” (179).
One will find no suspense here: Seraphita is destined for her salvation and for the reader expecting the quick turnabout of plot, the twist ending, etc. hopes will be dashed.
But nevermind all of these things. Taking the novel for what it’s worth and one will find a dazzling joy in the novel: feelings of transcendence, of happy elevation (akin to riding as high as possible on a swing) when one rereads the beginning and sees images, such as of Minna’s trembling faith, symbolized in her reluctance to continue on an adventure with Seraphita up a Norwegian mountain: “ ‘Stop here…and let me take breath’/ ‘the spot where we are standing is not firm enough to remain on’ “ (17).
Or perhaps when Seraphita begins her first digression on the beauties though limits of mankind, the first contention of which I quote here: “We cannot measure the orbit of the Divine mind, of which we are but atoms as minute as God is great…Men are constantly mistaken in their science, not seeing that everything on their globe is relative and subordinate to a general cycle, an incessant productiveness which inevitably involves progress, and an aim. Man himself is not the final creation; if he were, God would not exist” (27). It’s comparable the thesis to a skeptic’s argument brought to reverse: man is not the end, therefore there is no God is now man is not the end, therefore there must be a God. In an admirably astute yet difficult essay midway through the novel, Seraphita develops this thesis in a striking essay: a mix of careful argument and critical thought influenced by the philosophies of Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose works are said to be divinely inspired.
Hope and charity; faith and prayer. Love of self. Love of the world. Love of Heaven. These are the messages echoed in “Seraphita.” Echoed, because Balzac does not provide a new guide for comprehension or a new means for angelic transcendence, other than an age-old cautionary measure: “If you desire to train your feet to walk in the way that leads to heaven, remember that your first steps are rough” (157). So it goes with “Seraphita” at large: a work to be read and reread and whose shine, rather than abate with time, dazzles greater each time.
Balzac, Honore de. Seraphita. 3rd ed. New York: Garber Communications, Inc, 1986. Print.