The Fantastic (as) Negligent Orientalism in Honoré de Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin
This article begins by examining how depictions of the fantastic in Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin rely on associations with the Orient. Extending Edward Said’s argument that the nineteenth-century French Realist novel expressed the West’s desire for imperial mastery over the Orient, this article argues that the fantastic elements in Balzac’s novel illustrate the failure to achieve this wished-for mastery. In fact, the misrepresentations and mistranslations surrounding the Orientalist interpretation of the eponymous supernatural talisman’s inscription cast doubt on the idea that European scientific thinking and Realist writing produce reliable knowledge about either Europe or the Orient. Finally, the misinterpretation of the talisman’s script prompts a discussion of the history of the arabesque, which provides a model for thinking about how Orientalist interpretation, as a series of misrepresentations, is intertwined with the mimetic practices of Balzac’s novel.