and Supernatural Power
Stories about the supernatural withstand the test of time. They invoke the imagination of story-tellers of milennium to tell and retell them. Stories of magic amulets and talisman capable of invoking the supernatural have drawn the attention of readers and writers for centuries, not merely for the morals they draw but also for what they tell us about the life of the soul and mind. The Monkey’s Paw is a popular story about the dangers of wish-fulfillment, but while it hints at the supernatural it leaves the deeper themes undeveloped.
Supernatural stories involving wish-fulfilling talisman are as old as the Arabian Nights and Aladdin’s lamp. Like a winning lottery ticket, the idea of a magic talisman capable of granting wishes tempts us even while straining our credulity.
The story of the Monkey’s Paw terrifies us, not for its appeal to magic, but for the realistic elements in the story. It is at once a transcendent promise and a cautionary tale: don’t try to change your karma, lest you create an unexpected reaction. Told to children on a rainy night it still serves to terrify and instruct. It has components of magic, but the story seems “real.”
A more terrifying and effective tale of magic and wish-fulfillment is found in The Wild Ass’s Skin or Le Peau de Chagrin, by Honore de Balzac.
My connection with the story is personal. My curiosity about Balzac was not aroused by late night sessions with a seductive French lit teacher, but had to do with my wanderings through the city of Raymond Chandler.
When I was a boy growing up in Los Angeles, one of my favorite things to do on Saturday’s was to go for long hikes on my bicycle and see the city for myself. I would get on my bike at six o’clock in the morning and set out to discover the city. I lived in the Pacific Palisades, near the beach. I would ride up Sunset Blvd. over to Santa Monica Blvd., or Wilshire or Western Avenue Some Saturdays I would go downtown, others I would head for East or Central L.A. I would simply pack a sandwich and a couple of oranges and head for parts unknown.
|My old neighborhood: Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles|
Back in the sixties I saw a strange variety of urban life on my bike hikes. I would wander along in the streets of L.A. and observe as I rode. I saw the surfers and wannabe actors and writers in Santa Monica preening and drinking green juice at sidewalk organic cafes; I rode past guitar stores and bookshops and gas stations. Sometimes I would ride over to the black section of town in Central L.A. with used car lots and pawnshops and soul food restaurants. Sometimes I’d go out to China town and try the Chinese food: Won Ton Soup, Spring Rolls. Or I’d ride up Western Avenue to Fairfax near Wilshire where Jewish delicatessens sold Knishes and Bagels and Lox on Fairfax Avenue or out to Echo Park or East L.A. with its tacos and burritos and Latino music blaring out of low-rider cars. In my adventures around Los Angeles one of my favorite spots was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Blvd near Fairfax.
|La Brea Tar Pits|
It was near the La Brea tar pits where dinosaurs and wooly mammoths fell into massive pools of black goo and surfaced millions of years later for school-kids to see and wonder at.
In those days it didn’t cost much to get in. I can’t remember if they charged admission or if it was free for kids. But I whiled away a few Saturdays looking at the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamen or the impressionist paintings of Vincent Van Gogh.
Inside the museum was fascinating. But outside the museum was pretty cool too. There were always musicians out front busking. One Saturday I saw a brilliant flautist serenade the crowd outside with an amazing performance of a Bach Suite. Later there was an brilliant banjo player who did a lightning speed version of Lester Scrugg’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
And presiding over this strange melange of creativity was a huge statue installed on the steps of the museum. It was a weird figure of a half-melted giant sculpted in bronze by Rodin. At that time I really didn’t understand the sculpture. It didn’t seem “beautiful” in any traditional sense. In fact it was hideous. I looked at the identifying plaque: “Balzac” by Rodin.
|"Balzac" by Rodin|
Rodin was one of the best sculptors the world has seen, after Michelangelo. I later learned that the statue in front of the museum was one of several that he had done as studies for a final work. I was left wondering, “Who was this Balzac character?” And why was he so important that someone like Rodin would create a giant sculpture like this? The statue was incredibly hideous. I didn’t get it. I respected Rodin, but how could this be art. And why did he make so many studies of this particular author in bronze? Balzac has been called, “The Limburger Cheese of literature,” for his uneven quality and appeal to sensationalism. And yet, the great sculptor Rodin, when commissioned to create a statue of Balzac, spent years of his life trying to get it right. What special insight did Balzac have that made him such an important figure in French letters?
|Balzac at work with coffee-maker|
The Wild Ass’s Skin by Honore de Balzac is perhaps Balzac’s most famous work, and certainly the most influential. Oscar Wilde is said to have drawn on it for his Picture of Dorian Gray, and Sigmund Freud identified with the hero and the themes of this novel, especially at the end of his own life. Unlike many works of fantasy, this is not overwhelmed by its fantasy, but retains a truthful and grounded reality and in that sense may be said to be the forerunner of Magic Realism. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the greatest proponent of Latin-American “magical realism” once explained that his technique involved creating such a palpable reality that his “magical” elements seemed entirely natural. Garcia Marquez certainly knew of Balzac and had read his works before writing his own masterpiece, 100 Años de Soledad.
“Magic Realism” (el realismo magical) was an expression first forwarded by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier in 1949. He coined the phrase to describe the offhand mix of both fantastic and quotidian elements in his fiction. While Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and even Jorge Luis Borges contributed elements to “magical realism,” I think it may be argued that the real pioneer of this technique was Honoré de Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin, translated as “The Wild Ass’s Skin.”
|The Wild Ass's Skin|
When I was older I found a dog-eared copy of The Ass’s Skin and couldn’t resist the temptation to try to discover Balzac’s value for myself.
Looking back, I’ve been through many of Balzac’s works and have a better idea of how he earned his reputation and why he is considered great. The Wild Ass’s Skin is considered a masterpiece of French literature and focuses on the nature of a talisman or wish-fulfilling device. Stories about three wishes are inevitably fraught. Somehow those who try to extract from nature more than the share karma alotted to them by their karma will pay with interest to the farthing, as we have seen in the story of the Monkey’s Paw, which is representative of the genre.
Balzac is known for his realism. His account of post-Napoleonic Parisian life is intimate. He describes such mundane details as taxi fares, the price of a pair of yellow gloves, or cup of coffee or the rent of a hotel room on the Left Bank of the Seine between the Rue St. Jacques and the Rue Pierre. Balzac has a gift for revealing his character’s psychology through detailed descriptions of their very real environment. His prose reveals an obsession for the material details of how money is made and spent.
But where many of Balzac’s story’s deal with the worldly foibles of his characters and their dilemmas as they descend into moral turpitude, “The Wild Ass’s Skin” is a complete departure. It is a window into the mystic world and the source of Balzac’s genius.
The apparently materialistic elements of his technique, his capacity for dwelling on the details of bourgeois Paris, instead of vitiating the mystical elements of his story, anchor the magic of “The Wild Ass’s Skin” in a frank realism.
But in this mystical tale the focus shifts. Instead of merely detailing his patient’s symptoms and probing the vicissitudes of lust, anger, greed, pride, illusion and envy--the hidden sins of high society-- that color works such as Father Goriot or Cousin Pons, Balzac creates in The Wild Ass’s Skin an alternative world of magic realism. He is concerned with the mind as touchstone and the consequences of using the creative fire. The author himself will burn from inside out. His own creative fire will result in his brain exploding from too much creativity. In this novel he searches for the link between mind’s gift of creativity and the demon power of a magic talisman that will consume its owner..
While originally created as a standalone novel, The Wild Ass’s Skin was enfolded into Balzac’s Comedie Humaine as on of the Études Philosophiques, or Philosophical Studies.
In the Wild Ass’s Skin, Balzac weaves a mystic story: A magic donkey skin fulfills its owner’s every wish, but shrinks as each desire is fulfilled. In the end, the owner’s own life shrinks as well until he is confronted with the prospect of inevitable death.
The plot is simple, yet brilliant. Inspired by Balzac’s contrasting ideas about the nature of the will and the expenditure of necessarily finite vital force, The Wild Ass’s Skin is the first and probably the greatest of Balzac’s “Philosophical Studies,” a subdivision of The Human Comedy. One cold Parisian evening Raphaël de Valentin, inspired by poverty enters a casino where he bets and loses his last coin at roulette. Desolate, he walks through the bitter streets of Paris, to the River Seine, in which he intends to drown himself in the freezing waters.
He feels that it is still early. There may be a witness. He decides to kill a few hours. Near the banks of the river is an old antique shop. There the strange proprietor, a curious old man offers him a magic skin. It is the skin of a wild ass, charmed to provide its owner with all his desires.
All wishes will be fulfilled but the skin will shrink according to the quality and quantity of the desire. And finally, when it has shrunk into nothing, its owner will die. Echoes of this theme are found in many stories about wish-fulfilling devices, including “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” by Oscar Wilde.
The old man is anxious to rid himself of the charm. He has achieved longevity by freeing himself from desire. Disregarding the old man’s warnings, the young Raphaël declares that he wants to achieve all his desires.
Ecstatic at first with his new wish-fulfilling charm, he wants money, sex, and power. He holds drunken orgies with oriental dancing girls, artists, and poets. He does his best to erase his misery with drunkeness. The morning after the orgy subsides, Raphaël learns that he has inherited the vast wealth he had wished for but sees that the skin has shrunk. It is only half the size as before. He can understand that he can attain all that he desires, but at the cost of his life. He will get whatever he wants, but every want will reduce his life’s power. He wants now to do nothing, but cannot cease desiring. He finds himself in the classic dilemma faced by a student of Buddhism who wishes to dissolve the ego by ending desire.
The ass’s skin is a ‘talisman’ that comes from the world of the supernatural, bursting the bounds of earthly existence. It has the power to fulfill any wish, but shrinks whenever its power is used, shrinking also the life and power of its owner. And while it can grant any desire, the insidious effect of the skin is to shorten the life of its owner.
Raphael, an angry young genius, soon finds himself in a struggle to conserve his life force against the power of desire and the wish-fulfilling impulse of the talisman.
The hero reaches the Buddhistic conclusion that desire must be shunned. To live free of desire is the only way to preserve his life against the mechanism of the talisman that fulfills wishes even as it shrinks his life force. The key to his survival is the adoption of a wholly habitual, routine way of life, free from desire and ego. Raphael’s only escape from the power of the wish-fulfilling talisman, is to follow a life from which all desire, almost all action, has been banished.
Even mental desire is a form of wishing. Even mental desires are also confirmed and fulfilled by the talisman which is bound to shrink with every fulfilled wish. The reaction is fatal.
The cruel twist of fate is that the wish-fulfilling device brings death; the only way to escape the fatal pact is to give up desire--to stop wishing. Balzac was fascinated with oriental philosophy and here, he explores a theme that Buddha explored long ago: how to give up desire.
Unlike the Buddha, Raphael fails miserably. Unable to conquer his desires he succumbs to the power of the talisman.
As Marceau, Felicien puts it: “The novel extrapolates Balzac’s analysis of desire from the individual to society in general; he feared that the world, like Valentin, was losing its way due to material excess and misguided priorities. In the gambling house, the orgiastic feast, the antique shop, and the discussions with men of science, Balzac examines this dilemma in various contexts. The lust for social status to which Valentin is led by Rastignac is emblematic of this excess; the gorgeous but unattainable Foedora symbolizes the pleasures offered by high society.
“To be reading Balzac is to be allowed to wallow, to be consumed by his world view, to give yourself fully . Here is a writer paid by the word and who made sure his books were filled to the brim with them. He allowed digressions, meandering thought and plot, and sometimes seemed to have little regard for plot. “
(Marceau, Felicien. Balzac and His World. Trans. Derek Coltman. New York: The Orion Press, 1966.)