Essay on The Unknown Masterpiece
Genius artists, by nature of their label, are held to an unparalleled standard of creativity. Eccentricity is not merely valued in their works; it’s expected. Therefore, when these connoisseurs of the imaginative world are overcome by ordinariness, they implore the universe to deliver some form of inspiration. Faced with the task of interpreting nature rather than replicating it, they invoke muses to break dry spells of creativity and revive artistic ingenuity. Upon completion of the genius’ awaited artwork, audiences scrutinize techniques, dissect meanings, and evaluate intentions. Yet beneath this enigmatic product, whether alluring or unseemly, lies the untold story of the muse. Honore de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is a story of a painter and a story of obsession, but it’s also a story of a grief-stricken muse with her complexities of her own. As a result of her exploitation as a victim, a lover, a model, and a muse, Gillette is robbed of her agency and self-worth.
The short story depicts the deterioration of Gillette’s self-respect from her first appearance to her eventual sense of defeat. Balzac portrays her as significant only in regard to her contribution to Frenhofer’s artwork, and essentially as a gambit in the process of creating a masterpiece. Her status as a ploy-like muse develops as a result of both coercions from her lover, Poussin, and from Frenhofer, the genius artist himself. In a sense, her decision to pose nakedly for Frenhofer is her own, yet patriarchal pressures cause her to see it as more of an obligation than a choice. By embedding this obligation, Balzac epitomizes traditional gender roles and illuminates the construct women like Gillette were innately to accept. The prospect of pleasing her lover outweighs her apprehensions, and she frequently fluctuates between states of childlike bliss to threatening depression. Balzac describes her jejune levity, “Obediently, the happy girl leaped onto the painters lap” (29). Gillette is conveyed as mindless, obliging, shortsighted, and naïve. Because of the incorporation of this playful diction, exemplified in words such as “leaped” and “happy,” parallels can be drawn from Gillette’s demeanor to that of a child. She’s merely seeking love and affection, and thoughtlessly so, as she says to Poussin, “I’m purposely willing to ruin myself for your sake” (Balzac 31). Her greatest ambition is to satisfy her patronizing lover, and to do so would be to actualize her most wondrous dreams. Gillette is an accessible target for Poussin and Frenhofer: both beautiful enough to be a muse and subservient enough to be a cooperative one.
From an objective outlook, Gillette and Poussin are, in relation to one another, lovers. Yet as dialogue progresses and Poussin elucidates his ignominious sense of morality, Gillette emerges as merely a docile companion exploited for Poussin’s benefit. To Gillette, Poussin is someone to be exalted and cherished, an invaluable prize to be kept. She says, while immersed in discussion about her modeling endeavor, “Let’s go: being an eternal memory of your palette will still be a kind of life” (Balzac 36). Whether she says this out of love or a lack of self-respect is ambiguous, yet it is apparent that in an unhealthy manner she acts as a lover to Poussin and is willing to sacrifice her body for his happiness. Universally, sacrifices are a part of love, but self-degradation is not. The imbalance here reveals Gillette’s conventional perception of what a woman should be to her lover, and Poussin’s blind acceptance of her infinitesimal sense of self. Gillette and Poussin convolute the notion of love so that it bears little resemblance to the modern concept of mutual affection. Throughout the entirety of the story, Gillette’s primary pursuit is to preserve and foster the love she feels she has found in Poussin, yet in this venture her ties to her morals grow irrevocably thin. In the context of the nineteenth century, Gillette indeed embodies the character of a lover, and Balzac exaggerates her submissiveness in order to exhibit her conformity to social precepts.
An ethnocentric standpoint would deem Gillette a definitive victim, one accustomed to the obsequiousness typical of her era. When yielding to men’s demands was inherently necessary, women pragmatically did so to feel fulfilled. Yet Gillette is distinctly a victim because of the emotional trauma that ensues as a result of this social commandment. Balzac exhibits her dehumanization as a muse when he writes, before Gillette enters Frenhofer’s studio, “Gillette stood before him in the innocent posture of a terrified Caucasian girl carried off by brigands to some slave dealer” (36). Evidently, Gillette is marked by desperation and isolation. By likening her to a slave, Balzac depicts her lack of choice in the matter, as well as her sorrows because of it. The analogy to the slave also serves to illustrate that at the conclusion of the story, Gillette is robbed of her agency. Even before the devastating, unremarkable painting is divulged, she already feels like a tool being maneuvered by obsessive men. She is being “carried off” into a world of confined freedom and dissipated dignity.
Although Gillette’s sense of agency begins to wane long before Frenhofer’s “masterpiece” is revealed, the disclosure of the allegedly hideous painting heightens her sense of isolation. After selling such an immense portion of herself for the sake of an artistic masterpiece, the realization that her trauma was in vain is both disheartening and embarrassing. Her personal afflictions of love, self, and morality congregate to form the most devastating emotion, and her previously suppressed sorrows are exhumed. She is overcome with self-disgust and comprehends the abject futility of the sacrifice that led her to resent both Poussin and herself. Demoralized after the experience of stripping herself of her dignity, she screams, “Kill me! I’d be vile to love you still— you fill me with contempt. I admire you, yet you horrify me” (Balzac 43). Her mortification has left her unwilling to live, and resuming her love would deem her utterly pitiable; however, she is entrapped in an ineluctable paradox. Despite her repulsion for what he allowed her to do and his selfish treachery, Gillette is obliged to admire Poussin still, rigidly limited in freedom by social standards. Her freedoms, now that she has made the calamitous exchange of self-worth for a man’s love, are virtually nonexistent. As she prophetically warned Poussin earlier in the story, “If I showed myself to someone else, you wouldn’t love me anymore. And I myself would feel unworthy of you” (Balzac 30). Gillette’s world is scant beyond her lover, her existence meaningless without his approval and “love.” The failure of the painting is reminiscent of Gillette’s own failures, both to herself and Poussin, whose respect she is certain has receded.
Gillette, at this concluding point in the story, is a representation of the unintentional destruction geniuses can wreak on the people around them. Frenhofer was driven to insanity by his compulsive and incessant desires to perfect his work. Had he not been so inextricably immersed, Gillette would not have been needed as his muse, and her superficial yet comfortable life would have continued. Her hopelessness and disparity are direct results of three men willing to exploit those around them for their unrivaled obsession.
The men surrounding Gillette perceive her as an amenable asset in creating the immaculate painting. She is simply one of Frenhofer’s innumerable tactics to obtain the ideal, and her relevance to the painters lies only in her contribution to the art. Her strife and emotional discordance are not incorporated in their bottom line, her trepidation is never ameliorated, and her individual story is not the focus. Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is a tale of ingenuity, madness, and unadulterated fascination. Gillette’s most influential role, transcending her status as a lover, model, muse, or victim, is her accentuation of madness and genius. Her life crumbled as a result of the recklessness of genius, the blindness of the immersed, and the impossibility of perfection. Gillette’s character is a symbol of the dark consequences of utter obsession; Frenhofer’s obstinate pursuit was toxic to more souls than just his own. Through her forged relationship, her moral discord, and her inauspicious fate, Gillette reveals that ingenuity can be insidious.
de Balzac, Honore. The Unknown Masterpiece. New York: NY Review of Books, 2001.
Essay on The Sorrows of Young Werther
A break in normalcy is intriguing. In a mass of prosaic similarity, the mutation from average to extreme piques interest and inquiry. Something is intrinsically alluring about bests and worsts, about highs and lows, about embodying the paragon of an ordinary quality. When erudition becomes ingenuity, when admiration becomes infatuation, or when melancholy becomes utter despondency, run-of-the-mill people see the amplification of their own visceral emotions. Extremes are simultaneously familiar and foreign, containing fragments of normality, but also entirely unexplored domains. The eighteenth century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe distills these enigmatic extremes in his protagonist, the fatally volatile Werther of The Sorrows of Young Werther. In his epistolary novel, Goethe juxtaposes Werther’s euphoric bliss with his debilitating depression, both of which have inimical consequences and dictate the course of the book. By deliberately seeking out literature and nature, Werther illuminates his experience and compliance with his extreme mental states.
Consuming feelings plague Werther’s mental condition throughout his entire journey, yet they are often intensified in response to certain stimuli. Namely, works of literature are
prolifically alluded to throughout the novel and evoke surges of extreme sentiments in Werther. Some are sorrowful and some are euphoric, but all cause him to think and act irrationally. In each of these vehement responses to literature, Werther’s afflicting emotions toward his coveted Lotte are heightened. He perceives that through their profound literary connection, they are bound to be lovers. During conversations about literature, Werther admits to being hardly able to function with such unharnessed emotion. In a conversation with Lotte about a sentimentalist novel entitled Vicar of Wakefield, Werther recounts his extreme immersion and slip from reality, saying, “How I feasted during the conversation on those black eyes, how those moving lips absorbed my entire soul […] I totally lost my composure, told her everything I knew, and noticed only after a while, Lotte directed the conversation toward the others, that they had been sitting there the whole time with startled eyes” (Goethe 25). By nature of his intemperate disposition, Werther could not have been simply engaged in the discussion, appreciative of Lotte’s insight, or stimulated by intellect. Instead, in true Werther fashion, he allows his entire soul to be “absorbed,” forgets the presence of everyone else in the room, and provides a lucid example of his “all or nothing” personality. With Werther, nothing can be done in moderation; a middle ground doesn’t exist. In this situation, literature serves as an outlet to euphoria, and elucidates Werther’s arrival at extremity.
Goethe’s literary allusion to Klopstock precipitates a similarly rapturous effect on Werther. In this encounter, which is one of his firsts with Lotte, Werther is in a state of bliss that he perceives as lust. As is consistent throughout the primordial stages of this curious relationship, Werther is overtaken by admiration, and is flying exuberantly upward toward extreme,
unadulterated happiness. The Klopstock allusion lacks complexity and depth; all Lotte does to exhume such emotion from Werther is say the name itself. Werther recounts that he “couldn’t bear it”, signifying the intensity of the emotion he is experiencing and his extreme reaction to an infinitesimal occurrence (Goethe 30).
Yet the most poignant interference of literature in the novel, representing the climax of Werther’s vain attempt to secure Lotte, is the recitation of the Ossian text. In this scene, Werther is deluged with sorrows and desperation. As he undergoes an emotional exposure through the recitation, he is tragically aware of the impossibility of being with Lotte, and knows that all courses of action at this point would be futile. The literature unearths the extreme pain he has felt throughout the relationship’s development, and Goethe writes, “The whole weight of these words fell on the unfortunate man. Frantic with despair, he threw himself down before Lotte” (137). Happiness for Werther is unreachable, lying at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. This realization causes him to simply concede from unalloyed exhaustion. In hearing the words so sorrowful to him, he surrenders and feels that his death is unavoidable. Here, literature takes the role of manifesting Werther’s depressive extreme in its most appalling contours.
Nature also powerfully elicits these extreme states of mind in Werther. Goethe juxtaposes Werther’s cathartic relationship with nature at the beginning of the novel with his overwhelming consumption by nature in the end. Initially, upon moving to Walheim, Werther wishes to become one with nature, and is immersed in its beauty and curative properties. He extols, “A wonderful cheerfulness has taken possession of my soul, like the sweet spring mornings I delight in with all my heart […] I don’t know whether deceiving spirits hover over this region or if it is the warm heavenly fantasy in my heart that makes everything around seem like a paradise to me” (Goethe 9). Werther likens the beauty of nature to a “heavenly fantasy,” and admits to viewing the world like a “paradise” because of it. Although this diction is seemingly a mere hyperbole to exhibit an appreciation, Werther’s character reveals that he writes these divinely connotated words with literal intent. He is truly absorbed in nature with “all his heart”, which falls in accordance with his other emotional investments over the course of the novel. Everything Werther feels, everything he does, and everything he experiences is with all his heart. Yet this wholesome devotion to nature takes a turn as Werther’s mentality metamorphosizes to a new extremity. When his hope has atrophied by the latter half of the novel, as the result of an unrequited love and a lack of purpose, his perspective of nature drastically transforms. No longer is nature a sanctuary or an aesthetic escape for Werther; it has become a sinister force that emotionally devours him. The once colorful source of such elation has been replaced by a dark, unnerving dimension. In a letter, Werther describes, “And then I wander around in the horrible nocturnal scenes of this inhuman season of the year (119). This “inhuman season” is the antithesis of the “paradise” detailed earlier in the novel, exemplifying Werther’s radical changes from one extreme to the next. Werther’s polar personality and moods are discernible in his divergent perceptions of nature and the physical realm.
Although Werther is constantly seeking out stimuli like literature and nature, he describes his oscillating emotions as entirely involuntary, as if unwanted sentiments are being thrust upon him. His diction in his letters to Wilhelm exhibits his sense of helplessness in the matter of feeling, and somewhat begs pity. He writes, “Sometimes it overcomes me: it is not fear, not desire– it is some inner, unknown raging that threatens to tear open my breast, that stifles my throat” (Goethe 119). This excerpt demonstrates that Werther deems his extreme emotions unconquerable. His psychological demons are, to him, terrorizing, which is conveyed in his usage of the words “overcome” and “threatens.” By claiming that he has been completely victimized, Werther implies that his extreme moods are entirely independent from his own actions.
Yet Werther blatantly refuses to avoid literature and nature, which are the very forces that invoke such extreme emotions. He says, “I treat my heart like a sick child: whatever it wishes is granted” (Goethe 10). This submissiveness simply fuels his emotional fires. By remaining close to the very things that drive him to insanity, Werther establishes an environment conducive to rampant emotion. He goes on to state, “My passions were never far from madness, and I don’t regret it either” (Goethe 52). Although Werther’s “passions” drive him to an eventual suicide, he expresses no “regret” for their existence and makes no attempts to repress them. Ultimately, these extremes manifest themselves as his hamartia. His unyielding infatuations and threateningly intense emotions eventually overtake him, as he refuses to immerse himself in anything else. By coming to terms with such a debilitating mental state and obstinately avoiding change, Werther is complicit with his downfall.
Goethe built his narrator from a foundation of ordinary emotions: pleasure, heartache, and longing. The extremes Werther embodies are simply the products of an excess of such normalities. His excess of pleasure transmuted into a deceiving euphoria, his excess of heartache and longing to an ineluctable depression. Perhaps the ordinariness of it all is what makes his
state of mind so precarious. Werther didn’t concoct some foreign emotion; he didn’t foster an esoteric new sense. He intensified the senses everyone already has, convoluting their implications in a way that serves as a cautionary tale for the mundane holders of diluted excesses. Through his strikingly honest monologues and vehement reactions to literature and nature, Werther illustrates his fatal journey from the world’s apex to its abyss.
Essay on Emerson’s “Self Reliance”
Whether because of the masterpieces they fashion or the enduring legacies they leave, we often dismiss the humanity of geniuses. The person’s character, hidden by a veil of talent, can seem irrelevant in comparison to his productions. The intrigue might lie in the work itself rather than in the force behind it. Other times, the character of the genius is so appalling that we turn a blind eye, choosing to admire the output instead of dwelling on its lamentable source. Yet Emerson argues that the quirks and eccentricities of geniuses cannot be isolated from their works. Rather than being merely qualities of personality, idiosyncrasies and individual character mold people into the geniuses they may later become. In his essay Self-Reliance, Emerson claims that true genius emerges from adherence to individuality and intuition.
From the essay’s initial paragraphs to its conclusion, Emerson maintains a stark contrast between originality and convention. He positively evaluates ideals of nonconformity, creativity, and independence, while negatively evaluating notions of preconceived customs, names, and “dead institutions” (Emerson 32). By following the values that correspond with originality, Emerson claims that genius can be unleashed. He states that “the essence of genius, of virtue, of life… we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom to Intuition” (Emerson 39). Here, Emerson indicates that genius is almost synonymous with instinct and spontaneity,
and implies that to suppress them would also be to suppress genius. He also illustrates the concept of conformity as a contradiction to Spontaneity and Instinct, and dissuades the reader from submitting to society. In this sense, society hinders the development of the genius. Early on in the text, Emerson claims that “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (31), and later concludes that “the great genius returns to essential man” (50). Therefore, because a man is a nonconformist and a genius is an “essential man”, a genius conversely must be a nonconformist. Emerson suggests that cultivating a sense of independence and looking skeptically upon society as a whole creates an environment conducive to the development of genius. “Society everywhere,” he contends, “is in conspiracy against every one of its members” (Emerson 31). The conspiring society Emerson depicts is one that challenges the virtues of its people, and should therefore not be yielded to. If society is opposed to its subjects’ individuality, as Emerson dictates, then it is also opposing the cultivation of genius, as he believes the two are innately entwined. He believes genius can only be attained by following personal principles and complying with intuition.
Emerson attests that people most closely follow such instincts and intuitions in youth, before they have been adulterated by their surroundings. To reach a genius quality, man would have to preserve the virtues that distinguish youth. Childhood, in its innocence and purity, manifests the conditions necessary for genius to prosper. Emerson emphasizes the strong link and necessary coexistence between nonconformity and instinct. When discussing boyhood, he states:
Infancy conforms to no one: all conform to it… So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood no less with piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious in its claims to not be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me (Emerson 30).
The diction Emerson employs in this excerpt demonstrates a youthful type of intellect, a misunderstood and underestimated force. The circumstances of boyhood he describes correlate to the circumstances necessary for ingenuity. Children, like geniuses, are spontaneous, individualistic, and nonconformist, acting in accordance with their own philosophies rather than the ones society has fed them. This originality characterizes someone who has not yet been “clapped into jail by his consciousness” (Emerson 31), and embodies the unharnessed instincts of a genius. Emerson calls for the preservation of childish independence and the instinctiveness that accompanies it. He describes the “force” children possess as underestimated, and in a way misunderstood. Yet public understanding is irrelevant to Emerson’s genius construct. In fact, he writes explicitly that “to be great is to be misunderstood” (Emerson 35). Geniuses and children both deviate from norms, arouse curiosity, and obey their instincts, which often leads to public disapproval or suspicion. To Emerson, however, this is the mark of greatness. He believes that, with their self-awareness and independence, children possess the foundation that builds ingenuity.
Emerson’s rejection of institutionalized religion also exhibits his views on individuality and genius. He emphasizes that the highest form of self is achieved through following personal principles, and not by adopting the ones ingrained in our minds from outside sources. Organized
religion exemplifies all that Emerson defames: societal constructs, conformity, rigidity, and, most importantly, the idea of a dead institution. The genius, in the framework in which it is described in the text, represents the opposite of such notions. Emerson professes that “dead institutions” rob people of their potential:
If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society… under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life (Emerson 33).
As in his discussion of childhood, Emerson references “force.” Earlier, he explained force as something children possess, yet here he addresses it as something religious institutions take away. Once subjected to society’s structures, the “forceful” children have lost their individuality. Emerson conveys the conformist church-goer as someone who has lost his sense of self, someone undetectable because he is covered in “screens.” To Emerson, genius emerges from a person acting on instincts and personal principles, not on antiquated sermons or societal precepts. A more personal form of worship would encompass individual thought and leave room for the instinctive genius. Perception is imperative to Emerson, and he disputes forms of religion that obstruct it. He writes, “For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun” (Emerson 39). Therefore, if people can perceive God through their own eyes, rather than through the eyes of an institution, they can still maintain the individuality necessary for ingenuity. By claiming that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (39), Emerson indicates that the individual, rather than the institution, has the final say in internal matters.
Instinct and individuality, which fuel genius, are lucidly discernible in states of self-reliance. Emerson focuses on extricating oneself from society in order to achieve a stronger sense of self-understanding. He claims that people are more in tune with their intuition when they have an objective view of themselves, rather than when they are immersed in society and perceiving themselves in relation to others. When someone is uncorrupted by his environment, his instincts are uninfluenced and valid, and he has an authentic perspective of himself. This leads to a stronger sense of individualism, and thus the possibility of genius. Emerson links this individualistic outcome of self-reliance with ingenuity, stating,
There is a time in every man’s life when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is suicide… the power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried (Emerson 29).
Emerson expatiates on the importance of knowing oneself, trusting intuition, and avoiding comparison. When man halts his imitation and envy of the people around him, he acquires a new sense of power, similar to the “force” of the child or the independent worshipper. He now, by following intuition, can trust his inner judge and give rise to the genius that may reside inside him.
Instinct and intuition are promoted by some things and impeded by others, yet in all situations they affect the likelihood of the world receiving a genius. Emerson’s argument casts suspicion on the productivity of society as a whole. If society incessantly rejects individualism, and attempts to craft a world of homogeneity and compliance, it hampers its progress. When intuitions are jettisoned and conformity is valued, genius is suppressed and lost in the process. This realization establishes a paradox: people are systematized into societies for the purpose of maximizing efficiency, yet the society itself dissolves the very geniuses that advance the world. Self-Reliance is a plea for originality, an appeal for self-trust, and an indication that we never know what can lie beyond the instincts we subdue.