In Honore de Balzac’s short story, “A Passion in the Desert” (1830), is a vivid—and unsettling—description of an old, one-legged Napoleonic soldier:
“He was without a doubt one of those troopers who are surprised at nothing, who find matter for laughter in the contortions of a dying comrade, who bury or plunder him quite lightheartedly, who stand intrepidly in the way of bullets; in fact, one of those men who waste no time in deliberation, and would not hesitate to make friends with the devil himself.”
If we sit with the description of this old soldier for a moment, and let its full and monsterous power disorient us, questions begin to arise:
- Why does Balzac begin his description with the phrase “He was without a doubt . . .”? Why doesn’t he simply start off emphatically by saying, “He was one of those troopers who are surprised at nothing”? This seems to tip us off that what Balzac has given us is not the man as he really is inside, but as civilians might naively imagine the inner life of a soldier to be. In fact, this soldier may have a sensitive heart.
- If, for the moment, we accept the characterization as really applying to the soldier, we are then left to imagine what it would feel like, from the inside, to be “surprised at nothing,” to laugh at the “contortions of a dying comrade,” to stand “intrepidly in the way of bullets” and to “waste no time in deliberation.” Wouldn’t this be the very opposite of what it would mean to be human in a time of war? Short of discovering that the soldier is a psychopath, should we accept, at face value, the speaker’s characterization of the soldier—or be suspicious?
- Balzac’s description also suggests that what is being portrayed is an unironic “anti-Hamlet”—someone who is the opposite of Shakespeare’s character, without irony, passions, or confusion. And yet, if this is the case, why does Balzac name his story about the old soldier, “A Passion in the Desert”? Might it be because our prejudice about what this particular soldier’s inner life might be will get undermined in the telling of the story? Isn’t it the case that “passion”—whether it be the passion of Christ or the passion of romance—entails an encounter with extremity—whether of body, love, intellectual disorientation, desire, suffering, or fear? A man so described by Balzac would be capable of experiencing none of these things.
In short, might it be that a great writer like Balzac did not make a mistake in characterizing his old soldier as an “anti-Hamlet”?
Instead, might he be trying to bring his readers to ironic reflection, and perhaps (ultimately) an opposite conclusion about the soldier?
Even more troubling: Might Balzac mean for us to take his “anti-Hamlet” characterization of the soldier non-ironically, and to drive us into a reflection of the capacity of the human heart for BOTH callous indifference and emotional passion (depending on the circumstances)?
And if we read too fast aren’t we likely to miss reflection upon all these possibilities?