31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 10: “A Passion in the Desert” by Honoré de Balzac (Carol Cosman, trans.)

May 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Human Comedy: Selected Stories

The_Human_Comedy_BalzacLong before Yann Martel set Pi Patel adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac conceived of a fictional interaction between a human male and a large feline that scholar Peter Brooks calls “surely one of the strangest tales ever published.” Certainly, “A Passion in the Desert” is a strange tale for a writer better known as a realistic chronicler of French society.

The main section of the story involves a soldier in the Napoleonic army who has been dispatched to the Maghreb region of North Africa, where he has been taken prisoner. After escaping from his captors, the soldier takes refuge in a grotto at the base of a hill. Disturbed by a presence in the middle of the night, the soldier wakes to find the entrance to his refuge blocked by the giant figure of a spotted panther. He contemplates killing the animal as it sleeps, but decides this would be too dangerous; the rest of the story involves man and beast negotiating a detente that eventually gives way to friendship.

Boiled down to its bare essentials, Balzac’s tale sounds like a kind of charming children’s story; rest assured, it is anything but. The author of Eugénie Grandet and Cousin Bette was known, among other things, for his frank explorations of eroticism and human sexuality; “A Passion in the Desert” examines animalistic aspects of human desire by literalizing the metaphor and substituting an actual animal for the object of the soldier’s affection.

Not that Balzac takes the same tack as, say, Marian Engel in her novel Bear. But the language used to describe the relationship between the soldier and the panther is telling, and unmistakable. Early on, the soldier determines the panther is female; from that point on, their relationship is characterized by words and phrases that evoke erotic longing and sexual congress. The panther rolls on the ground in “the gentlest, most flirtatious movements” and raises her tail “voluptuously”; the soldier gazes at her “caressingly and steadily,” and when he strokes her fur, he does so “with a movement as gentle, as amorous as if he had wanted to caress the prettiest woman.”

The soldier dubs the panther “Mignonne,” a French word that means “pretty” or “sweet,” and which he used as a nickname for his former lover. In that case, the term of endearment was meant “ironically,” because his mistress “was so violently jealous that as long as their passion lasted, he was afraid of the knife with which she used to threaten him.”

The image of the mistress’s knife is recalled in the focus on the panther’s claws, which are “curved like steel blades.” The feline’s claws are also implicitly compared to the soldier’s own blade, a scimitar stolen from his Maghrebi captors. (He initially contemplates using the scimitar to decapitate the sleeping panther, but decides against it, thinking reasonably that should he fail to cut through the beast’s tough hide, it would surely kill him before he had a chance to regroup.)

The conflation of blades and claws, and their continued association with women, is indicative of a kind of masculine terror of the female, and her potential for violence. In Balzac’s story, female violence is precipitated by jealousy, an emotion that is not associated with the soldier. His former mistress was not just jealous, she was violently jealous; when Mignonne witnesses the soldier admiring the grace of large eagle in the sky, she growls at him, a reaction he instantly interprets as similar to that of his ex-lover. “‘God help me, I think she is jealous,’ he cried to himself, seeing her eyes harden. ‘Virginie’s soul must surely have passed into this body!'”

If the female is associated with violence toward males in Balzac’s story, it is perhaps a stretch to imagine that when the panther bites the soldier on the leg, resulting in him killing the beast, this is meant as an allusion to the folkloric idea of vagina dentata, although there are reasons to suspect otherwise.

Balzac’s story is presented as a framed tale, the beginning and end of which are related by a man to his female companion. The two have just been to visit Monsieur Martin’s menagerie, a popular circus spectacle in Europe during Balzac’s lifetime. Monsieur Martin was a noted animal tamer who was able to enter the cages of wild animals and emerge unscathed. When the woman expresses astonishment at this capability, her companion is moved to tell her about an evening spent in the company of “an old veteran with a missing right leg”; the veteran relates the story of the panther to the man, who writes it down for his female companion.

The structure Balzac employs in “A Passion in the Desert” is complex and multivalent; it is arguably necessary to filter the soldier’s story through the consciousness of another, lest it appear too utterly fantastic. But the framing device also serves to complicate our responses to the soldier’s experience. How did the soldier lose his leg? Balzac leave this unspecified, although we know that Mignonne died after biting the soldier’s thigh, in what is described as “a misunderstanding,” as between lovers.

In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Balzac’s selected stories, Peter Brooks writes about the ambiguities that result from the framing device employed in “A Passion in the Desert”:

The links between the tale told and the situation of its telling are by no means obvious here. What, if anything, does the soldier’s amputated leg have to do with his adventure with the panther? Are her teeth responsible? And if we learn from contemporary accounts that Monsieur Martin was reputed to master his wild beasts by satisfying them sexually before a performance, what further connections do we want to tease out among the various forms of passion?

There is, undoubtedly, more than enough evidence in the soldier’s tale to suggest that the passion between him and Mignonne is, on some level at least, erotically charged. In the light of 21st-century sensibilities, it is also possible to locate a strain of misogyny in the story’s attitude toward women as jealous, devouring harpies, although such criticisms may be mitigated by the real tenderness the soldier feels toward the panther, his frank awe at her majesty (her refers to her as “the sultana of the desert”), and his observation, late in the story, that “She has a soul.”

In the event, “A Passion in the Desert” resists summary or potted interpretation, straining against attempts to constrain its unruly nature. More than 180 years after its first publication, the story remains full of contradictions and ambiguities – but this is also what makes it such a fascinating work of fiction.

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