A Passion in the Desert (Une Passion Dans le Désert) by Honoré de Balzac, 1837
A PASSION IN THE DESERT (Une Passion dans le désert)
by Honoré de Balzac, 1837
"A Passion in the Desert" ("Une Passion dans le désert") was first published in the 26 December 1830 issue of Revue de Paris, a literary magazine that had begun appearing only a year before and whose policy was to encourage young writers. Honoré de Balzac was a writer whose fertile imagination was matched by a fondness for grandiose plans for ever more ambitious schemes. His plans embraced not only the works he had already completed but also others that, in many cases, were no more than an embryonic idea that never developed to maturity. He dreamed up a number of ideas of larger structures in which to insert "A Passion in the Desert." First he thought of putting it with various other texts in a collection to be called "Fantaisies." He next decided to incorporate it into his Scenes of Military Life, but he then changed his mind and published it in 1837 with his Études philosophiques (Philosophical Studies), only to print it in 1844 with "Modeste Mignon." Finally, two years later he restored the story to the series Scenes of Military Life, the 15th volume of The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine).
"A Passion in the Desert" reflects a number of interests Balzac shared with the French public in the days of romanticism. The tale is set in the desert of North Africa, a region that had loomed large in the French imagination since the time of the Crusades. Attention had been fired by reports of Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt in 1797, and it became even more intense with French military involvement in Algerian affairs during the period of the restoration of the monarchy. Painters, poets, and novelists all strove to satisfy the public's interest about the area, and it was characteristic of Balzac that he did not let the fact he had never been to North Africa stop him from setting his story there and from imaginatively evoking the loneliness of the desert with great feeling. In taking a soldier as his hero, Balzac also was responding to the spirit of the age, as French readers reflected on Napoleonic glories and wondered whether something similar might be in the offing now that Louis-Philippe was on the throne. The theme of the possibilities of a relationship between human and beast, though age-old, was also one that fascinated the French at the time. There was, of course, the basic problem of the dual human nature, of the beast within the individual, that was fundamental to romanticism, but to this must be added a fascination with the loyalty and intelligence of animals.
According to Balzac's sister Laure Surville, it was a visit to Martin's menagerie in Paris that gave him the idea for the story, but it has been suggested that, in fact, he had gone there at the suggestion of Victor Ratier, the editor of the review Silhouette, specifically to gather material for a story. However that may be, "A Passion in the Desert" begins at the menagerie when a lady expresses her horror at the sight of Martin handling a hyena. Conversation soon focuses on the question of whether animals have feelings, and the narrator tells the exciting story of an old Provençal soldier. While serving in Egypt, he had been captured by nomads, but he managed to escape and fled across the desert. After suffering from hunger and thirst and being taken in by mirages, he came at last to a group of palm trees, where he was able to rest in a cave. To his surprise and horror he discovered when he awoke that the exit was blocked by a huge she-panther.
The soldier's first response was to reach for his musket, but there was no room to raise it. He was doubtful that he could kill the fierce animal with his knife. Thus, he had to wait as patiently as he could, and a relationship between the man and the beast gradually developed. The relationship is made all the more probable as Balzac brings out behavioral similarities between the panther and its zoological relative, the domestic cat, with which his readers are familiar. There are particularly fine passages in which Balzac describes how the soldier grew bolder and ran his hands over the panther's fur, feeling its muscles rippling over the powerful skeleton underneath. In a rather odd anthropomorphic literary allusion to Robinson Crusoe, the novel by Defoe that had become popular with French readers, the panther is referred to as "a strange Friday." The soldier called the animal Mignonne (darling), a name he had given to his first mistress, a beautiful girl possessed of an uncertain temperament. The name expressed the ambiguities of his relationship with the panther. The inevitable breakup finally came, however, and the soldier was fortunate to escape almost unscathed, but he had an experience he would never forget.