Here are a couple of excerpts from a brilliant decoding of Balzac’s esotericism, accomplished by Scott Sprenger, a colleague of mine at BYU. Consider the applications to the analysis of Straussianism, and to a post-Straussian postmodern critique of modernity:

The fundamental problem that arises in the transmission of a theory of will (or desire) with universal, scientific pretensions is this: the disciple’s desire to know the substance of the master-theorist’s theory can never be cleanly differentiated from the imitative desire generated by the charisma of the theorist.(2) Put differently, there is no way to distinguish between a disciple who has rationally comprehended the principles of mimetic theory and a disciple who is merely enacting the principles through imitation of the language and thoughts of his master. As Balzac understood, any human science aspiring to the status of a positive science will produce in disciples either a reaction of idolatry (and therefore mystification) or rivalry and conflict (since the disciples will naturally aspire to make their own scientific and universal claims). As there can logically be only one universal theory of desire, the theorist who pronounces it is doomed from the start since idolatry will lead to fatigue and boredom, and rivalry will eventually lead to overturning and displacement. Gans says in Signs of Paradox, “To think is to liberate oneself from an idolatrous form of mimesis, never absolutely, but by replacing it with another, less pathological form” (34). If this is true (and I think it is), it must hold even in the case of the theory of mimetic desire as object of desire. At some level even the most faithful disciple must distance himself from the master-theorist through paradox or irony in order to demonstrate critical distance and independent thinking. But at this point anthropology meets literature—for what is a scientific treatise that includes irony and paradox in its strategy of communication? . . .

. . . Balzac, of course, has no illusions about the restoration of Christianity. The values and imitative practices described in The Underside, inspiring as they may be to his character, Godefroid, are supported by only a tiny secret society whose practical effect on the marketplace of ideas of 19th-century Paris is nil. The utility of The Underside for our purposes, however, is that it lifts visibly to the surface the hidden mimetic force behind the social pathologies portrayed in other novels. It thus indirectly reveals the historical reasons for modern society’s “need” for anthropology. Born at the time when Christianity’s transcendent form of knowing was being decoupled from the imitative practices grounded in it, anthropology would serve as a diagnostics for (and corrective to) the new operations and expressions of Christian mimesis.(9) Even if modern desire had in theory been detached from religious ideals and was now informed by Reason, this did not mean, in Balzac’s view, that it necessarily could recognize its hidden operations or limits. On the contrary, a residual “religious” passion for the Christian infinite would remain intact; however, it would now look for models and objects along a horizontal axis where lasting satisfaction, by definition, cannot be found.


See the full article at http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ .

Articles by Ralph Hancock

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