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Investigating the unexplored world of mysticism in Balzac literature

Saori Osuga
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Enchanted by the supernatural world of Séraphîta

Translations of Séraphîta, my articles, and doctoral thesis

I have been researching the works of the 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac since my master’s degree in French literature in 2005. I am particularly interested in the mystical and biblical undertones of Séraphîta, one of his most unique works, which I first read as an undergraduate student. When I moved to Tokyo from Fukushima and enrolled in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, I became deeply absorbed by the books of Dostoyevsky. When I finished reading all of his works, I picked up Balzac, a writer respected by Dostoyevsky. Balzac’s depictions of 19th-century French society, customs, and personal relationships are vivid. If I fell asleep reading his works, scenes from his stories would appear in my dreams. After completing a collection of Balzac works, I began looking for more translations. That is when I found Séraphîta in an anthology of world fantasy literature.

Balzac’s beautiful and celestial story, set in Scandinavia, is unlike any of the worlds I experienced in his works prior. The name of Séraphîta is taken from an angel of love—a member of the highest order of angels—and one chapter of the story unfolds through a series of monologues given by a clergyman recounting the mysticism of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. The depth of Balzac’s and Swedenborg’s thoughts overwhelmed me and I believed the work was too large in scope to use for my graduation thesis. I graduated hoping I would eventually be able to work on it in the future. Four years later, I enrolled in graduate school and began researching Séraphîta.

Thematic structure in Balzac’s La Comédie humaine

Although Balzac is a writer known for his realistic depictions of society and its customs, his philosophical works contain a deep spiritual world with multiple influences, both orthodox and unorthodox. Les Proscrits, Louis Lambert, and Séraphîta, which were compiled in a volume entitled Le Livre mystique ("The Mystical Book") are his most profound philosophical works. Séraphîta revolves around the thought of Swedenborg, a recognized “heretic” at that time in France. The many quotes and borrowings from a Swedenborg digest however led many to accuse Balzac of plagiarism. For these reasons, Séraphîta did not become a subject of deeper research.

I decided to study in France after completing my master’s and starting my doctorate. However, I could not find experts in my particular research field, and asked Dr. Dominique Millet-Gérard of the Université Paris-Sorbonne, an expert in biblical studies and Catholic writers who once lectured at Waseda, to be my academic supervisor.

My days in Paris following the editions of the Bible

I spent many hours conducting basic bibliographic surveys. Based on bibliographies, archival lists, and quotes from the Bible, I traced and surveyed the Bibles used by Balzac in the 19th century and several editions used by Swedenborg in the 18th century. Many editions of the Protestant Bible used by Swedenborg are not kept in French libraries, which meant I had to visit the British Library and the Swedenborg Society in London.

Generally speaking, established studies serve as clues when conducting basic bibliographic surveys. However, the examination of these biblical editions had yet to be executed completely, which meant that this Japanese student had to go do it herself! Maybe because biblical influences are commonplace within Christian cultures, there seemed to be very little enthusiasm among researchers to investigate this field. For me, however, the Bible was a fresh new world: I was curious to know the Bibles used by Balzac and Swedenborg, and became committed to my research.

Théophile Bra, Ange en adoration, Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai, France
(The angel created c. 1830 was the source of inspiration for Séraphîta)

I did nothing but pore over documents, read each work, and then write my thesis chapter by chapter. After completing a group of writings, and before meeting with Dr. Millet, I would have them proofread. The person who proofread my work was an elderly man I found on the Sorbonne bulletin board. With his knowledge of Balzac’s works and theology, he made suggestions regarding word use and expressions. In this way I learned the subtle nuances of the French language. It was a very profitable process.

The character of Séraphîta was inspired by a sculpture of an angel located now in a museum in the small town of Douai in northern France. I requested information on the sculpture from the museum, and the museum’s curator kindly sent me photographs and articles which I used when writing my master’s thesis. During my stay in France, I also visited the sculpture in person. The sculptor was a friend of Balzac, and the statue was a source of inspiration. Balzac wrote, "I saw the most beautiful work of art in this world. Then, I had an idea for the most beautiful book." The expressions and features of Séraphîta are an important aspect of Balzac’s work and I gained a greater understanding by coming into contact with the model.

After establishing a concrete plan for my writing during my fifth year in France, I returned to Japan and completed my doctoral thesis in six months. I then went back to Paris to have my thesis reviewed. Dr. Philippe Sellier, an authority on Blaise Pascal, who attended the review, and Dr. Millet, my academic advisor, arranged the publication of my thesis. Thanks to their support, my thesis was published by the academic publisher Éditions Honoré Champion. I hope that Balzac would be content that the religious aspects of his works have been brought to light.

Together with reviewers after finishing the public review of my doctoral thesis at the Université Paris IV in November 2010 (photo provided by Professor Takaharu Hasekura)

Séraphîta et la Bible, a compilation of my doctoral thesis, was published and on display at Éditions Honoré Champion in Paris in April 2012 (photo provided by Ms. Chiho Takeda)

Reducing Conflicts in the World

I would like to delve more deeply into the work of female mystics. There are three women in particular who influenced Balzac: St. Theresa in Ávila, Antoinette Bourignon, and Madame Guyon. Although St. Theresa was accepted as a reformer of the Carmelite Order in Spain, the other two French women were persecuted under the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century and were forced into the margins of history. The Catholic Church considered them threatening dissidents. From a uniquely feminine perspective they emphasized the importance of internal devotion over visible worship and the restoration of pure faith. I intend to investigate the thoughts of these women and their influence on Balzac.

I have since also developed an interest in the ‘ritual culture’ of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of my stay in France I began exploring the broader cultural foundations of the Church, and soon noticed the Latin liturgical books used during masses or divine offices. I asked Dr. Millet, "Are there still any churches that hold the same mass as those in the era of Balzac?" She said, "Yes!", and I was introduced to a church that was holding a beautiful, solemn liturgy, the like of which I had never experienced. I was struck by the fact that there are still churches in this modern era where ordinary people in Paris pray and sing sacred songs in Latin. This brought a new dimension to my studies and now I visit churches and religious houses in different regions in France while staying and surveying them for about one week every year. I am also fascinated by the Latin lyrics of Gregorian chant and its use of square notes on four-line staves and melodies.

Literature and stories are indispensable for the development of our humanity. I feel that the tragic conflicts and violence occurring in the world are the result of a lack of effort to understand one another and the lack of knowledge or imagination to understand another group’s circumstances. The best we can do to avoid conflicts and violence is to read about and understand unfamiliar worldviews and value systems and engage in thorough discourse. I believe literature is the foundation for this process.

Me, joining a Gregorian chant lesson held in a religious house in the suburbs of Poitiers in August 2013.

At a class on the comparative study of French cultures in May 2013. Father Daniel Couture lectured on Gregorian chant, the origin of Western music. He also sang a beautiful Ave Maris Stella.

Saori Osuga
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Saori Osuga graduated from Waseda University’s School of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 1999 with a major in French literature, and completed her master’s program in French literature in 2005 at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She completed her Master 2 program in French literature in 2006 at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, and completed her doctorate program in 2010 at the same university where she received her Ph.D. in literature. Saori Osuga left the doctorate program at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences after completing the course. She was a JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) Research Fellow (DC1) from 2008 to 2011. After serving as a part-time lecturer at Waseda University, Gakushuin University, and Caritas Junior College, she became an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2013. She was the recipient of the 2015 Waseda Research Award (High-Impact Publication)