Christ in Flanders

LA COMEDIE HUMAINE – Honoré de Balzac

Philosophical studies

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The Raft of the Medusa – Work by Théodore Géricault (1818 and 1819)


Balzac dedicates this work: A MARCELINE DESBORDES-VALMORE To you, a daughter of Flanders and one of its modern glories, this naive tradition of Flanders. DE BALZAC    

Preamble This tome brings together the tales and short stories that Balzac classified as Etudes philosophiques after La Peau de chagrin. In organizing his works, Balzac had reserved this division for stories that illustrated his thesis on the power of thought and imagination. Most of the works presented under this classification correspond well to this purpose: they describe significant, “typical” situations. Some, however, do not always have the same documentary value. It is often the circumstances or the date of writing that explain these differences. Other times, exceptionally, the reason for this classification was the difficulty of maintaining certain historical accounts in the series entitled Etudes de mœurs au XIXe siècle . The Etudes philosophiques were presented under different titles and by different publishers between 1831 and 1840. The first of these studies were published in 1831 under the title Romans et contes philosophiques by Gosselin, the publisher of La Peau de chagrin. Balzac added this series of Nouveaux contes philosophiques in 1832, then enriched it with new tales and reunited the whole in 1833 under the old title, Romans et contes philosophiques, in a second edition published in 1833, again by Gosselin. Then, in 1835, Balzac announced a more ambitious plan, with a new publisher, Edmond Werdet, under the titleEtudes philosophiques. In this presentation, Etudes philosophiques was to comprise thirty in-12 volumes. In the end, only twenty were published between 1835 and 1840, first by Werdet and then, after his bankruptcy, by other publishers.

Analysis of the work The tale entitled Jesus-Christ en Flandre (Jesus Christ in Flanders ) is made up of two distinct parts, which Balzac has brought together under a single title. The first part is a Flemish legend that Balzac appropriated and turned into a tale, inserted under the title Jesus Christ in Flanders in the first edition of Romans et contes philosophiques published in 1831. The second part is an allegory entitled The Churchalso published in 1831, and formed from the combination of two articles published a few months earlier in the last quarter of 1830, one entitled Zero in an issue of The Silhouette of October 1830, the second under the title The Stone Dance in an issue of The Cartoon of December 1830. These two parts of Jesus Christ in Flanders have the same meaning, albeit presented in two different forms: so there’s nothing contradictory about this amalgam. The disparity between a story and an allegorical vision is somewhat surprising, but not shocking if the vision extends the thought that the legend presented. Stranger still, but still only an anecdote, are the circumstances in which Balzac transformed a fantastic reverie expressing a very disenchanted conception of religion into a panegyric of the Church. Medieval legend showed Jesus Christ on a boat off the coast of Flanders among other travelers. A storm was brewing. The poorest and most ignorant of the travelers began to pray fervently: Jesus saved them because they believed in him, even though they didn’t know he was among them. The rich, the dignitaries, the prelate, who are on another part of the boat, don’t want to follow Jesus on the waves when he sinks, because they haven’t believed in him, and they perish with the boat. It’s a naïve story told in Flemish evenings, the meaning is clear, it’s an illustration of the famous saying: “It’s faith that saves”. In a way, it is similar to, or at least does not contradict, Balzac’s thesis on the omnipotence of thought. It teaches that faith, conviction and absolute trust give strength that can triumph over trials. The miracle is that Balzac didn’t promise it. He simply recounted the legendary miracle, alluding to “its hidden meaning, which the wise man can live with”. In the second part of the tale, the author, seated on the shore that had seen Jesus Christ pass by, fell into a morose meditation that led him to enter the church built there to commemorate the miracle. In the evening and the stones drawn into a kind of dance that stuns and intoxicates him, and, at the end of this illusion, a cold little old woman wearing a black dress takes his hand and leads him into rooms where everything speaks of death, of suffering, where everything is old age, ruin, nipples eaten away by time, but she reminds him of what she has been in the past and what she can be in the future, and she begs him, crying out, “Defend me!” This second part was the result of a singular amalgam. Balzac had first written the article entitled Zéro, which appeared in La Silhouette. He imagined his encounter with a decrepit courtesan, a horrible little old lady who appalled him and whom he recognized in the end, ironically referring to her with the title that was all that remained of her former power: “It was a dominant religion that was still stirring. “This symbolic vision, published three months after the revolution of 1830, heralded the collapse of Christianity. To round it off, Balzac had the idea of attaching another tale, one he had written two months later, an optical illusion entitled La Danse des pierres, which had been written for the ” Fantasy ” section of Caricature. The two articles were combined in a new tale entitled L’Eglise, in which he imagined a reverie in the cathedral of Saint-Gratien in Tours. But the allegory no longer ended with the appearance of the courtesan depicted in Zéro. The Church, blamed for its past, justified itself in the name of the culture it had inspired. Balzac, moved like many of his contemporaries by the popular riot of February 14, 1831, which ended with the sacking of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois and the Bishop’s Palace, concluded his tale with a rehabilitation of the Church, mother of laws and civilizations: at the end of his nightmare, he depicts her as the young girl she can become again if she regains a sense of her mission. For a long time, Jesus Christ in Flanders and The Church were presented as two separate tales that followed one another. It was only in the 1845 edition of La Comédie humaine that they were brought together, after a few modifications, under the single title of Jésus-Christ en Flandre.

The story In the ferry boat that links the island of Cadzant (no longer in existence, but still around in the 18th century) with the coast of West Flanders near Ostend, the notables sit at the back of the boat, the poor people at the front. When a stranger arrives, just before departure, the notables do nothing to give him a place among them, while the poor squeeze in (one even sits on the edge of the boat to give him a seat). The sky is threatening, the sea stormy, and even the ferryman senses that there’s going to be a storm. As the boat progresses and the storm lifts, we discover that the stranger on board, despite his sober clothes, is no poor man. It’s a being apart: Jesus Christ, as the title indicates; the very one who will save the righteous among the humble at the moment of shipwreck. The second part of the story takes place in the chapel that has been built on the very spot where the miracle took place. The narrator of the legend is in the grip of a hallucination: an old woman (a character already introduced in Zerowho embodies a Church worn down by compromise) is transfigured into a dazzling young girl (the Church can regain its radiance). In the incipit of the text, which places Flanders at an indeterminate period, he also refers to Brabant Flanders: “At a rather indeterminate time in Brabant history, relations between the island of Cadzant and the coasts of Flanders were maintained by a boat intended for the passage of travelers. The island’s capital, Middelbourg, later so famous in the annals of Protestantism, had a population of just two or three hundred. Rich Ostend was an unknown haven… Who ruled Brabant, Flanders or Belgium? Tradition is silent on this point.

1) Source analysis: Preface from the 23rd volume of La Comédie Humaine, published by France Loisirs in 1987, based on the full text published under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac, 45, rue de l’Abbé-Grégoire – 75006 Paris.

2) Source story: Wikipedia, the universal encyclopedia.

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