Illusions! Lost ones! Where are they? Joking about it now, 'lost illusions' is a really sad thought, you can never get them back! The notion of illusion in fiction is something really interesting to me, and I think I dwell on it quite a bit in my reviews either consciously or unconsciously. I mean, is there anyone really without illusions? I hope not, it seems like an awfully sad life to live without illusions. Whenever I think of illusionment or disillusionment, my mind always floats away to Wallace Steven's poem "Disillusionment at Ten o'Clock." The poem mourns the loss of illusion, or imagination, of the modern world, as a result of the rise of routine and superficiality. He mourns:
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
...People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
The world, to Stevens, has become unimaginative, "haunted" by ghosts without imagination of creativity. People don't have imagination to dream of silly things, they are burdened by the dullness of reality, the focus on the real value of things, appearances. Childhood dreams of baboons and periwinkles, gaudy playfulness and uniqueness of dress are forgone for the seriousness of the world, a deliberate but deadening disillusionment.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
Catching tigers in red weather - what a dream, what an illusion and imagination, though the only one enjoying it is a drunk sailor.
Lucien Chardon is the drunk sailor of Balzac's Lost Illusions
and offers the counterargument to Steven's cry for the imagination. Like Macbeth, Lucien's imagination is proleptic, always anticipatory of his greatness and his fame, and so he does not see the precarious path he walks on in the pursuit of those dreams. Within the dream of his success, he mortgages reality, he mortgages all he has and all he imagines he will have in order to reach his goal: Not listening this time to the voice, he put his twelve hundred francs on the black and lost. He then felt within him that delicious sensation which succeeds the dreadful agitations of gamblers when, having nothing more to lose, they leave the flaming palace of their spasmodic dream.
Lucien moves constantly from one oneiric palace-in-the-sky to the next, burning each to the ground, but shuffling quickly cloud-to-cloud to always keep himself afloat. But the real tragedy, and this book really approaches tragedy, is that Lucien's imagination sacrifices everyone whom he loves (David, his sister, his mother, Coralie), but never himself. Lucien seems impervious to his fall. And he does fall, and his name is the appropriate echo of the fallen angel Lucifer, for whom he is emblematic.
Lucien is charismatic, he is naive, he knows himself to be a good poet but his illusions which shroud the reality of Paris life make his publishing success an impossibility. Throughout Balzac's Paris are heavy social commentaries on the print business for literature and poetry, a field with which he clearly had some familiarity. If Lucien is the fallen Lucifer, Literature and Art are God, but Journalists are the devils of Hell, which destroy art for sport. Lucien, more like Milton's Satan than the Bible's, is morally vague, he is a shadow of his Biblical predecessor, a parody of him even. In trying to good, Lucien invariable does bad. Like Macbeth, his crimes beget crimes, he makes matters worse, he is caught in the maelstrom of malefactions:"It is written," cried Madame Chardon, "that my poor son is fated to do evil, as he said he was, even in doing good."
While it seems easy to say 'Lucien's heart is in the right place' it would be to over value his morality. Lucien is a misguided Machiavellian. He is a Machiavellian in spirit, but only in his imagination is he capable of doing the means which would justify his ends; for Lucian is really very timid, clever and maybe talented but too timid to stick to one dogma or path to success.
Lucien's illusions are literally invested in an identity: Lucien de Rubempré, an illustrious name which he adopts without having truly the right to bear it (though is related to the Rubempré line through his mother). It is this identity, this illusion, which is bold, which is brilliant, which is famous and beloved, and like a caterpillar turning to a painted butterfly, he hopes to shed his Chardon skin and leave his mother and sister and David behind him in Angoulême ('It is better to serve in Paris than rule in Angoulême!' I can almost hear him say). But in his attempt to transform himself he loses himself, he tries to jump over the gestation-chrysalidic phase, and in doing so cuts himself from all supports, headed for a free-fall which financially destroys David Sechard and his wife, Lucien's sister.
The first section of Lost Illusions
is entitled "The Two Poets" - which are Lucien and David. While Lucien represents a "true" poet in the definitive sense, David is a poet of science, in that he labors in his art to discover the truth. While the story of Lucien's fall is morbidly fascinating, and evokes pity and condemnation, the tragedy of David is heartbreaking and sympathetic. Ruined by his friend and brother-in-law, David starves as he works to revolutionize the printing process, and create a new, cheap stock of paper. David is a good man, a truly good man and loving husband, a virtuous man and a generous man. Son to a penny-pinching mogul who stole his wife's inheritance from his own son, David's story is an tenuously uplifting story of the virtuous struggle, which parallels Lucien's struggle to fame and downward race to the ethical bottom.
Lucien is never fully removed of his illusions, even in the end, despite his regret for the fate which befalls David, a new dream quickly replaces the one that has died and fallen away. What can can be said of Lucien's imagination is that it is phoenix-like in its endurance. So why is it called Lost Illusions
? I think to Steven's poem again, disillusionment in routine, in the middling repetition of the bourgeois. Despite his success in invention, David never financially enjoys his success, but rather sells his enterprise to feed his family. His struggle has unchained him from the illusion. We feel his inventions are done, he is "happy" - his ending is a happy one, but a reservedly happy one. We want David to succeed, to achieve the greatness which he deserves and which Lucien seeks. But he doesn't get that, he gets a complaisance, he gets by, and he and Eve are OK with that. He doesn't foster the illusion of success or of fame, nor of wealth nor ambition of any kind. His house is haunted by white night-gowns, none of them are "strange with socks of lace and beaded scintures." He will live happily, we believe that, but he will live only a half-life, and that wounds us.