Passion in the Desert by Balzac

Years ago I saw the film version of Passion in the Desert, so I was curious to read the source material. This is the story of a Napoleonic soldier who, after being captured and then escaping from the Maugrabins in the desert, stumbles into an oasis and becomes the companion of a wild animal. The story begins with the narrator and an acquaintance  attending an entertainment that includes trained hyenas–not something I’d care  to see and the narrator’s companion apparently feels the same way. She asks how the trainer can “have tamed these animals to such a point as to be certain of their affections?” The narrator replies:

“You think beasts are wholly without passions?” I asked her.

“Quite the reverse; we can communicate to them all the vices arising in our own state of civilization.”

Interesting answer, and then the narrator proceeds to tell the story told to him by an old, one-legged soldier. Caught up Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, the soldier, a young man of 22 was captured by Arabs but managed to escape on a horse that he rode to death. So there he is stuck in the middle of the desert facing certain death;

He was awakened by the sun, whose pitiless rays fell with all their force on the granite and produced an intolerable heat–for he had had the stupidity to place himself adversely to the shadow thrown by the verdant majestic heads of the palm trees. He looked at the solitary trees and shuddered–they reminded him of the graceful shafts crowned with foliage which characterize the Saracen columns in the cathedral of Arles.

But when, after counting the palm trees, he cast his eyes around him, the most horrible despair was infused into his soul. Before him stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread further than eye could reach in every direction, and glittered like steel struck with bright light. It might have been a sea of looking-glass, or lakes melted together in a mirror. A fiery vapour carried up in surging waves made a perpetual whirlwind over the quivering land. The sky was lit with an oriental splendor of insupportable purity, leaving naught for the imagination to desire.

Heaven and earth were on fire.

A beautiful passage which describes and allows us to envision the raw beauty of this harsh environment and also and the pitiless indifference of nature.  

The soldier is young. Despair at his predicament is quickly replaced with hope when he notices dates on the palm. He has food then to sustain him and he makes a crude shelter. Falling asleep in a cave he has vague thoughts about wild animals of the desert. The next day, he wakes and discovers that he’s in the company of a “lion of Egypt.”

The rest of the story concentrates on the relationship the soldier develops with this wild animal. I’ll admit that I’m a bit confused as to the animal’s precise identity. At one point it’s described as having “the spotted skin of a panther.” I think of a panther as black and a leopard as spotted. Later, we read “the cold cruelty of a tiger was dominant.” This is not a long story, but it is a peculiar one that takes a very different look at the relationship between man and beast. Even as I type that I feel the basic ‘wrongness‘ of using the word beast–after all, who is the brutal one of the pair?

The soldier anthropomorphizes the leopard (I’m going to stick with that identity due to the spots), and that’s the identity given in the film. He calls her a queen, a “sultana of the desert,” and a “regular petite maitresse.” The leopard accepts the soldier’s company and becomes exacting about his attentions:

But he looked at her caressingly, staring into her eyes in order to magnetize her, and let her come quite close to him; then with a movement both gentle and amorous, as though he was caressing the most beautiful of women, he passed his hand over her whole body, from the head to the tail, scratching the inflexible vertebrae which divided the panther’s yellow back. The animal waved her tail voluptuously, and her eyes grew gentle; and when for the third time the Frenchman accomplished this interesting flattery, she gave forth one of those purrings by which cats express their pleasure; but this murmur issued from a throat so powerful and so deep that it responded through the cave like the last vibrations of an organ in a church. The man, understanding the importance of his caresses, redoubled them in such a way as to surprise and stupefy his imperious courtesan.  

So the soldier sees the panther (as he calls her) as a jealous mistress–a demanding female who requires his entire and constant attention. How long can this state of affairs continue?

I’ll admit that I didn’t like how the story ended–back to the narrator’s earlier comment that “we can communicate to [animals] all the vices arising in our own state of civilization.”

The story of the soldier and the leopard does not end well, and I found myself thinking about people and the bizarre desire to own and keep wild animals. This is no doubt influenced by the news today that 2 chimps escaped from an outdoor pen in Vegas and embarked on a rampage that ended with one of them shot dead from three shotgun blasts.

Translated by Ernest Dowson and produced by the hard work of  Dagny and John Bickers. This edition is available FREE for the kindle.


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

11 responses to “Passion in the Desert by Balzac

  1. I haven’t read this but it sounds interesting. I wonder what he wanted to say with this. It’s not your typical Balzac, at least not the setting. And it’s more like an allegory.
    Something similar happened here a few years back. A chimp escaped from the zoo and was then shot dead. I was upset for days. Currently the law is being changed and the aim is to include animals just like humans. We have the first “animal lawyers” now. I think this is a good way to move away from the perception of the animal as object. But it will take time.

  2. I think the phrase about communicating our vices is the kicker in this story. The soldier is never at ease about living with the leopard and eventually his fears come to the fore. If you are not comfortable with someone or some situation, people are always suspicious and ready to react, and this is what happened with the soldier. I think Balzac was saying that beast has a better nature than man–although I can see how it could be interpreted differently.

    As for the chimps… the people who housed them were part of a non profit and the chimps had been given up by someone who kept them as pets. Obviously, the facility was not secure enough–hence the escape. It takes deep pockets to be able to house exotic pets securely and humanely.

    To me, part of the joys of having a ‘pet’ lies in the companionship, the shared life and the love–not a cage–not fear that you might be hurt if that animal escapes and not the hissing, growling or whatever behaviour the poor caged animal exhibits. Of course these exotic animals are not pets in the normal sense but fetish objects.

    On the other hand, my neighbour can’t handle his 10lb dog who frequently escapes. I hear brakes screeching as the dog barrels across the road and the neighbour yells, “you asshole, get back home” to the dog. I suppose I should be grateful that he doesn’t have a tiger.

  3. Your commentary and description of this book made me think about the “Human – Animal Similarity” debate.There are many strong arguments, based upon science and observation, suggesting that that humans and animals are not all that different in psychology and behavior. It sounds like Balzac explored this topic years ago.

  4. I read this last year and I realise I don’t remember anything about it, except that it was weird.

    I’ve never had any pet and don’t intend to get one so I’m not familiar with the relationship you can have with an animal. I can only imagine.

  5. I enjoyed reading your review of Passion in the Desert. Balzac is my favorite French author and one of the main emphasis for my thesis project. I am finding a “desert theme” running through several 19th century French authors in particular Gide’s “Retour L’Prodigal” and Maupassant’s Bel-Ami . In addition, Balzac uses the history from Lettres écrites d’Egypte à Cuvier for his characters in this story. This “espèce sociale » was written by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, one of Napoleon’s scientists who traveled with him on his expedition to Egypt. He also uses Byron’s writings of the Orient to unite these great themes.

    • I hadn’t thought of the aspect of the Desert theme to be honest, but yes, now you mention it, I recall it in Bel Ami which is, BTW, one of my favourite novels.

      • I loved the novel Bel Ami as well. However, I would not recommend the recent film released this year. It is a disgrace to this intriguing story.

        • I liked the film even though it missed all the nuances (not to mention the duel scene) but I’m easy going on interpretations. I think Bel Ami would be best as a miniseries.

          Have you seen the miniseries The Red and the Black?

          • No I haven’t seen it. What is it about? I admit I was a little harsh on the Robert Pattison version. I think the George Sanders ’47 version is much truer to his character even though it takes many liberties with the story line.

            • I ended up thinking of the film Bel Ami as an entirely separate thing from the book. I haven’t seen the George Sanders version so I’ll try and find a copy as he makes an excellent rogue.

              The Red & The Black is a French television series based on the Stendhal novel. I liked it.

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