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Blast From the Past: Honoré de Balzac's New English Release, Treatise on Elegant Living

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If Mark Twain thought clothes made the man, Honoré de Balzac seemed to believe they made the creative demigod. In his Treatise on Elegant Living, he outlines the rules of elegantology, with particular focus on the artist with panache who soars far above the uncouth, earthly masses. Only recently released for the first time in English, the Treatise (1830) paved the way for two other foundational texts of the francophone dandy tradition -- Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's On Dandyism and George Brummell (1845) and Charles Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life (1863).

That Balzac sets forth this thin volume -- that reads like the fragmented diary of an unhinged elitist -- as a sourcebook of style lends the text a rollicking dose of unintentional humor. The most amusing part, however, is that it's written by what one chronicler of dandyism (Captain Gronow) describes as a failed fashionophile, who "dressed in the worst possible taste, wore sparkling jewels on a dirty shirt front, and diamond rings on unwashed fingers." Yet this doesn't mean that the Treatise is without its charms. With its snobbery and inconsistencies, the book is like a peevish aunt that you love in spite of yourself.

Although it came before Baudelaire's and d'Aurevilly's, Balzac's text doesn't project a sense of authority, but rather seems to be haunted by the author's fear that he's not quite right for the job. The Treatise veers between the insecure pompousness and pompous insecurity of a man who dons bling on dirty fingers and then sets out to create the urtext of social seemliness. He expresses concern that he may not be at the right level of society to merit his work (noting that "more than one elegantologist would have perhaps been able to write, deduce, or link together in a better fashion" his premises) even as he scoffs that the man of low rank "has no more right to ask God for an explanation for his fate than does an oyster." (I shudder to think what shellfish comparison the social justice seeking ladyfolk would receive from our scholar of elegance.)

The principal way that Balzac's insecurity manifests itself is in his obsession with the completeness of his theories (again, slightly humorous in a text that caps off at just over 100 pages). He compares "inelegant" men to decimals as though being gauche makes them less than whole, "not quite zeros and not altogether numerals." Ostensibly as a result of his fear that they are flimsy, Balzac strives to elevate his ideas to the level of a science or religion by dressing them up in proofs and doctrine. Consequently, he portrays what's in vogue not as a fleeting superficiality, but as a creed with followers that worship at the altar of the visually pleasing. Clearly, in keeping with the highfalutin ring of elegantology, other terms must undergo a makeover. Daily attire is considered under the heading of clothingonomy and duly analyzed as part of a fashionologue. Similarly, his work is not merely a book, but an aristocratic encyclopedia.

As the demon of uncertainty grows nearer, Balzac pens still more unbalanced equations of elegance that grow progressively more puffed up until, finally, fashion becomes, "one, indivisible, like the Trinity, like liberty, like virtue." As a final touch, he plays ventriloquist, couching his beliefs in the royal "we" of Balzac and Brummell. One of the founding fathers of the fashionable in early 19th century England, Brummell is the titular dandy from the Baudelaire's aforementioned text. Balzac's imagined conversation (filled with inaccuracies, according to its translator, Napoleon Jeffries) with this consummate man of style forms the backbone of his manifesto. Apparently, Balzac felt the need for someone to back him up, so he invented his own version of Brummell.

Possibly, the drolly uneven tone of the Treatise can be attributed to what its translator dubs the difficulty of democratizing "a way of living that cannot be taught or studied;" or maybe the impasse derives from Balzac's attempt to exclude others from a way of life that he couldn't fully call his own; or perhaps everything got too complicated when he tried to anatomize the thoughtful fashion plate, to reconcile the profound and superficial spheres of the male artist -- addressing at once his thoughts and his togs. Regardless of why it is, our author appears to be consistently flummoxed by his own creation. Yet, luckily for us, nobody does flummoxed with quite the same cleverness, charm and, yes, elegance, as Monsieur Balzac.