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The Wild Assís SkinReview - The Wild Assís Skin
by Honore De Balzac
Penguin Classics, 1831
Review by Margo McPhillips
Dec 20th 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 51)

If one is really interested in man and in his unconscious, don’t read the textbooks, read Balzac, read Dostoyevsky, read Kafka. There you learn something about man, much more than in psychoanalytic literature (including my own books). There one finds a wealth of deep insight, and that is what psychoanalysis could do, should do with regard to individuals.

Erich Fromm The Art of Listening

 

I had a therapist twenty years ago who enjoyed and recommended Erich Fromm’s books and I read all I could find back then, in an effort to learn more about my therapist and where she was coming from. It was that old habit and interest that had me reading an essay of Fromm’s recently, where I read this quote. Now, trusting Fromm, and having read and enjoyed Dostoyevsky in my youth, I thought perhaps it was time to try Balzac in a sort of experiment to test out the assertions in this quote. This review is the write-up of that experiment.

On the surface, Balzac’s plot is simple; a down and out young gambler passing the time before quietly committing suicide that evening, is given a magic piece of material that grants any wish, but at the further expense of his health each time he wishes. A question is, if you could have anything you wanted or simply be, alive and physically well, which would you choose?

Erich Fromm, studying having versus being from a psychoanalytic viewpoint and writing about it in To Have or To Be, came to the conclusion that, "having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the respective strengths of which determine the differences between the characters of individuals and various types of social character."

Reading or rereading both books together now, do I wish my therapist had recommended Balzac rather than Fromm back twenty-some years ago? Now I am an upper middle class, 49 year old menopausal woman, 130 pounds over my twenty-five year old self’s weight, with no material wants. Who might I have become, what might have been different in my life had I read Balzac rather than Fromm?

Obviously, the novel is a more "lush", imaginative, hands-on portrayal than the intellectual, scholarly, more focused work of Fromm’s. Does this matter? There’s preference. Twenty-some years ago, I preferred novels to nonfiction. Back then I was just beginning to come out of my inner shell and novels helped me "feel" what reality was like. If I felt and experienced my emotions reading a book, I was more comfortable with my situation and more hopeful that I was like the rest of the human race instead of a freak. What did I get from Fromm at that time?

All these years I’ve only remembered one thing from To Have or To Be and it is a rather fearsome thing to have remembered. I was delighted though to find it again, immediately, in the first chapter.

My mother died when I was three. When I was a child of four or five, my paternal grandmother, who did a great deal of the taking care of me as my mother was sick and dying and after she died, sat with me for long hours on the front lawn of my house and "taught" me to find four-leafed clovers. I’m still very good at this "skill" and use to delight in bringing my therapist bouquets of four- and five-leafed clovers when I’d arrive at my therapy sessions early.

Fromm starts his book by comparing the nineteenth-century English poet, Tennyson’s attitude toward a flower with that of the seventeenth-century Japanese poet, Basho. Tennyson is a "haver" versus Basho’s "being" attitude and knowing what was coming, it is the spirit of Tennyson’s verse that has stuck with me all these years,

Flower in a crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies,

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower—but if I could understand what you are,

root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.

Fromm discusses the two poets’ reactions at length; Basho’s haiku is about how one should "look carefully" to "see" a flower. In the over twenty years since I’ve read the discussion, I’ve gotten over my guilt at picking four-leafed clovers and thus "killing" them but there is enough of an emotional scar there to remind me to look and pay more attention to the beingness of myself and other living things rather than rushing in and just "grabbing" what I want.

I think I’m more aware and conscious now from having read Fromm then. I think novels twenty years ago held my head above water but it was my experience of Fromm that I took with me and which helped me grow further. How about now?

I was excited to start Balzac; I expected, because of my previous experience of Fromm, that something good and new would come from reading Balzac as Fromm suggested doing. I ended my reading of The Wild Ass’s Skin disappointed.

In high school I had to read Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, and found his long descriptions of landscape difficult to wade through. I read the entire book then but ten or fifteen years ago I reread it, thinking I must not have been old enough to appreciate it properly when I was sixteen. I had the same reaction rereading it now that I had when I was younger. Balzac reminded me a great deal of Hardy. The novel makes it hard to track "movement" and the complicated, "rich" descriptions made me feel I must be missing some experience or am not mature and sophisticated enough to understand.

However, I didn’t fare much better with Fromm this time either. Fromm was comforting and familiar but I felt myself to be intellectually wanting back twenty-five years ago and the same feeling was present this reading. I can follow sophisticated intellectual arguments but not sustained sophisticated intellectual arguments such as Fromm wrote; I haven’t had the practice. I love Fromm’s books because what I understand I understand well and it becomes a part of me. But I also find his writing personally frustrating because of what I’d like to understand but am not skilled or capable of understanding. Fromm’s writing works at my limits, both expanding my knowledge and reminding me that I have limits. Reading Fromm for me these days is a bittersweet experience.

Do I agree with Fromm that I should have read Balzac instead of himself? No. I’m glad I read and am reading Fromm both then and now. I found Balzac interesting, mostly though because of Fromm’s respect for him and my respect for Fromm. The problem with novels is that their authors’ style is often an acquired taste. A textbook or other work of nonfiction can be written in a lively style but whether it is or not, usually something is learned and taken away. However, novels are a more personal vehicle and whether or not something is learned depends on the chemistry between the author and the reader. I can see why Fromm would feel particular writers to be useful in the way a good psychoanalysis is useful; but just as therapy is most useful when the chemistry between the therapist and the client is good, I think any reading material, especially novels, is also most useful when the author or material is chosen by the reader for the reader’s own purposes. Sorry, but Balzac didn’t do it for me.

 

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