Part 2 of our study into the themes and concepts of “La Peau de Chagrin” by Honoré de Balzac.
The mid-19th Century novel, which translates as ‘The Skin of Sorrow’, is a fantastical Faustian critique of excessive bourgeois materialism, and inspiration to our values as designers of slow, sustainable, environmentally conscious products. Peau de Chagrin works intimately with the finest remaining craftsman around Europe, producing limited editions of each object.
Included with either our Tan or Noir handbag comes a copy of “La Peau de Chagrin”, earnestly printed and bound by José Castellano. The book contains a foreword by academic Martha Vasiliadi titled ‘La Peau de Chagrin: a contemporary narrative?’, of which part 2 follows:
“Power and Will” or negotiating desire?
Behind the exaggerated moralism of the story (Raphaël dies because of his untamed desires), Balzac models a world where the relation to power, authority and love depends on the irrepressible compulsion to consume. Surrounded by perfect desirable objects and perfect desirable women projected in a luxuriant background of decadent abundance, the young hero experiences an illusory sense of freedom that brings him to his telos (end). Parisian modernity, with its amoral dandies and lascivious, glamorous women, is presented as a perilous heterotopia that moves constantly between the boundaries of vice and virtue. Hence, what really inspires Balzac is not the fragile duel between moral and immoral values but the perplexity of the conflictual mechanics of desire.
The old man explicitly points out in the beginning of the novel: “This thing,” he said in a piercing voice, pointing to the shagreen skin, “is Power and Will combined. There lie your concepts of social relationship, your excesses of desire, your intemperance, the pleasures that kill you, the pains that make you feel too alive, for even pain is a kind of sharp pleasure. Who can determine the point at which sensuality becomes painful, or at which pain becomes a sensual delight?”
Nothing is more romantic than a pact concluded with an undefined, evil force, which mysteriously controls vanity and human folly. Goethe used this motif in Faust and Oscar Wilde celebrated fatality through the same visual–discursive paradigm in A Picture Of Dorian Gray. Balzac presents the eternal struggle between life and death through a tactile sense of perception: the leather shrinks every time a wish is consciously or unconsciously pronounced. Touching the shagreen skin somehow gives a shape, a weight, a body to the unspeakable “forza del destino”. Avoiding value judgements in terms of moral and immoral, Balzac focuses on the intriguing challenge to resist or succumb to the ecstasy of vertiginous, ephemeral beauty.
Lost in the prodigality of an endless feast and constantly dissatisfied desire, Peau de Chagrin not only connects to fascinating aspects of the Romantic Parisian life, but prophetically and accurately defines the enigmatic “concept of consumption”.