Balzac diagnoses illness in La Comédie humaine by combining medical facts and pseudoscientific fiction. Malady's physiologic and psychologic aspects blend to exert a reciprocal effect on each other, resulting in malady that is neither exclusively physical nor mental in origin. La pensée ultimately determines a character's corporeal and emotional well-being. The Balzacian thought mechanism is Janus-faced, having either deleterious or benevolent consequences according to the use the character makes of it. The importance of the thought mechanism, in Balzacian malady, goes beyond the traditional 19th-century view of illness: "Les maladies se révèlent à la simple observation par un état de souffrance ou de malaise qui accompagne un désordre plus ou moins apparent dans les fonctions de l'économie" ("Maladie"). In addition to overt or subclinical symptoms from which Balzac's characters suffer and the monomanias that define their lives, thought has the power to exacerbate a minor disorder or palliate severe pain. Thought also can render a formerly healthy character profoundly ill or kill a character who otherwise displays the promise of a centenarian's longevity. Balzac's pseudoscientific beliefs toward medicine emanate from the folklore of mesmerists, phrenologists, and physiognomists incorporated with 19th-century knowledge of physiology, psycho-physiology, and advice from the novelist's family doctor, Jean-Baptiste Nacquart. Balzac's view of symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments of malady is quaint and represents a fanciful notion of health and disease. Nevertheless, Balzacian malady in La Comédie humaine is a mythology of medico-literary fact and fiction, interwoven to form a unique description of disease.
Winter, Marsha Terry
"Science or Superstition? Balzac’s Diagnosis of Illness,"
University of Dayton Review: Vol. 20:
3, Article 14.
Available at: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/udr/vol20/iss3/14