76. Balzaculator – La Comedie Humaine as a Binary System for Balzacolytes

Edition of 33 copies
9″ x 6.25″ x 1.5″

Having access to books in private libraries, before public lending libraries existed, has been acknowledged as the determining factor in the lives and education of many writers and public figures in past centuries. This thought would never have occurred to me had I not noticed references to private library privileges in the biographies of so many 18th and 19th  century authors of humble origins. My house had thousands of books, but my own reading was stoked by the charming public library I could walk or bike to on an almost daily basis. It is there that my ravenous appetite for biographies was developed and indulged, in second and third grade, when I began reading longer books for pleasure.

Yet in my adult life, sitting in the corner of my grandmother’s parlor recreated in my father’s house in Maine, years after her death, her library began to influence the direction of my creative projects. Seated under Helen Lorenz’s oil portrait, on her Martha Washington chair, and leaning forward to pluck volumes from the adjacent bookcase, my long journey through the life and letters of  Honoré de Balzac began. Not surprisingly, taking into account my love for non-fiction and reference materials, this project sparked with a biographical introduction of the author, and his clothing.

Writing through the night in a hooded white cashmere monk’s habit, strung out on personally imported and brewed coffee? Taking one hour baths at 6 AM like Napoleon? The escapades, misadventures, and foils of Balzac, to deceive creditors, lovers, publishers and draft enforcers, never fail to entertain. But the introduction actually provided me with the reason for creating a piece on the author: his status as the first writer to use repeating characters throughout his body of novels and short stories, which he considered one long work entitled La Comédie Humaine. Balzac is notable as an innovative author in many ways I subsequently learned, but from the start my goal was to visually represent this phenomenon of repeating characters, hundreds of individuals appearing and reappearing at different ages and stages of their lives. Serializing work, as in a soap opera, gives us recurring characters we get familiar with, and start to care about. Balzac was the first author to release a serialized novel in a daily newspaper, the same year Dickens began, but Balzac took the concept to its limit: his characters appear throughout most of the 90-odd novels and short stories of The Human Comedy. This tactic allowed him expand upon his psychological insights regarding any character in various stages of his or her life, as they happen to appear and reappear in the novels at a different stage of life. Balzac was an author in a hurry, and having pre-established doctors, notaries, lawyers, criminals, society women, nobles, moneylenders, opera singers, decorators, publishers, artists, police inspectors, psychics and old clothing vendors to throw into a scene without needing to introduce them was handy. It makes for good repartee in ballroom scenes and post-opera orgies. As a reader, the remarkable effect this can have is Balzac managing to make you both despise and root for the same character at turns, for once in a while a truly deplorable character will do something good. Some of the repeating characters are real historical figures from politics and culture, playing themselves, like Napoleon and several kings.

After reading a handful of biographies, the novel Père Goriot and visiting the Balzac Museum in Paris, I had a clear idea where I was going with the project. I realized that creating the piece didn’t even necessitate reading the novels, as the legions of Balzac worshippers created indexes with the information I needed already in the 19th century, not surprising as Balzac was wildly famous throughout Europe even during his own fairly short lifetime. But I felt it would be false and superficial not to read the Human Comedy first. Not only has the experience been immensely entertaining, it has enriched my work and allowed me to find errors in the extant encyclopedias.

At my point of embarking on this reading marathon, three friends volunteered to read along with me. Somehow they got it into their minds that this was to be a secret club, as opposed to an intellectual exercise. The only way to describe it would be a book club gone wrong, a devolution into vaudevillian theatricals and gastronomic excess in the middle of the day, witnessed behind closed doors, with accidental sightings by perplexed neighbors and strangers. This informal, ribald society is known as the Ricerche Balzac, meeting in revolving locations in Bologna and Venice, Italy, and beyond, via Skype. The enthusiasm of the other three members of the Ricerche Balzac certainly accelerated my reading. I doubt I would have made it very far into the Comedy without these catalysts. The costumes, props, locations and food actually function as mnemonic devices to better remember the characters and plots. And the serious discussions at each meeting, despite the hilarity, have been very useful.

From the start, I imagined a skinny, upright box perforated with 80 or so holes on one side, through which dots would appear, the arrangement and number of dots dependent upon which piece of cardstock inside was flush against it.  The box was to contain several dozen cards with dots, in no specific order, dedicated to an individual character of the comedy. On the front of the box, under each hole, a title of one of Balzac’s works would be printed. Wherever a dot appeared, the title below it would indicate the story that character appeared in. This potential structure was based on the SRA reading kits in elementary school. Pupils, myself included, would progress from color to more challenging color as our reading level improved. Some of us became rather competitive in my class, and might have compromised the honor system involved as we self-monitored our progress.

As is often the case, I changed this format entirely, partially due to random events. Working at home one day, deprived of a paper cutter, I decided to tear the pages down to size for the mock-up of the book. This stack of paper looked so much like a 19th century book, with edges torn open with a letter-opener, that I decided the piece should more closely resemble a book. I dismissed the idea of perforating the cover with many holes due to concerns about printing, registration, and wear and tear. At a certain point I realized that the dot system was a binary code, and that the first computer program was a loom with card-stock punch cards, instituted by Jacquard right around the time of Balzac’s birth. So I chose to exploit the binary code and loom connections, and play with the low-tech origins of the computer. The acrylic case which houses the work brings a futuristic appearance in synch with electronics, but it also keeps the book snugly closed, even when displayed upright, with the 0’s and 1’s of the binary code flashing through, like a computer rebooting. The faux antique loom weights, tied to eight strands of linen book thread, bring the loom into play, and keep the cardstock pages within the cover.

It is appropriate to represent Balzac’s work in the guise of technology as he himself was obsessed with cutting-edge innovations in industry, science, medicine and transportation. It permeates his work from the start, in the big commercial success The Wild Asses’ Skin, with all sorts of machines trying to halt the supernatural shrinking of the magical skin. He prided himself in his knowledge of medicine and science, but were he alive today, those are the areas I believe he would excise and edit, as they are embarrassing at this point. Phrenology features prominently, as does Mesmerism. There are several remarkable cases of book disease, as when a character with no bones or teeth is miraculously restored to full health by modern medicine, and when severe mental illness brought on by rape is cured instantly through child-birth a decade later. Balzac tries to prove unusual theological and supernatural ideas with science in the least entertaining passages of his work. He is all about educating the reader, often regarding the nature of love and women, which equally misfires, but the bad science is the most pitiful aspect of the Comédie Humaine. In a kind gesture, I cloak it with good science, a technology from his time of  great value.

The eight strands of linen thread refer to the eight sections of the Comédie Humaine. Balzac organized and reorganized the stories into categories, groupings that were likely helpful to his memory and all encompassing mission to display every human personality trait imaginable. It often appears he wants to be a know-it-all on every topic imaginable, or he feels it is his duty to teach us about banking, annuities, interest, debt, the secret police, art, nobility, escutcheons, politics, the justice system, gambling, history, war, the theater, journalism, agriculture, prostitution, religion, metaphysics and the military, in infinitesimal, often excruciating detail. He tried to organize his works in a noble, grand scheme, but some of the eight categories, or strands, are stunted, while the salacious tales of Paris life and gossipy domestic strife, ever popular with readers, were more complete upon his death. We are happy for what he did manage to complete, as is the case with Chaucer’s Tales, which also fell short of the pre-established number.

As a visual biography, this piece is more subtle than the ones on Charles and Mary Lamb, Sir John Denham, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas More and John Bunyan. Using HB pencil erasers to print the over 55,000 dots to complete 33 copies of the work was done in homage to Balzac the writer. Writing materials featured in the John Bunyan piece “Life, Life, Eternal Life” and in “The Fettered Lettered” about works written in prison. Errata corrige, in black archival ink, using similar handwriting and correction marks as those invented by Balzac in his own corrected proofs, indicate Balzac’s extreme editing during the printing process. The white cover is actually linen canvas, as opposed to book cloth, for the reason that Balzac constantly wrote about art and artists, collectors and art dealers. He himself finally achieved his dream of an art collection of old masters just a few months before his death, in the luxurious villa fitted out with antiquities and precious fabrics for his soon to be installed noble wife. Balzac’s character sketches, hilarious and revolting at turns, bring to mind a painter conjuring up a person on canvas. The linen color itself stands in for Balzac’s white monk’s habit, and the faux Roman loom weights  represent both the looms in the punch card origins of computer programs and the tassels dangling from the gold Venetian belt cinching Balzac’s robe. His penchant for collecting terracotta antiquities ultimately caused him to be ensnared by the authorities, when a repo-man posing as a postal worker pretended to be delivering an Etruscan vase, and Balzac was lured to the door.

Balzac claimed his sometimes shocking and gruesome stories to be based in truth. What we know of his life lends credence to this, as he mixed with people from all walks of life: the noble cross-dresser George Sand; abused children employed as fancy grooms for the equipages of wealthy men; common prostitutes in neighborhood bars. And despite his bohemian entourage of writers and artists, his own eccentric ways bring to mind behavior ascribed to people now diagnosed with mood disorders, especially in his exalted energy bursts, monomania and strange sleep patterns. Balzac’s view of 19th century France was colored by this life, but he strived to objectively record every type of  person at that time, together with their daily lives and their dwellings, which accurately indicate the personality of each  inhabitant, according to the all-knowing author.

The edition number of 33 is not a reference to the life of Christ, although Balzac does write extensively about religion, atheism, Christianity, Christian texts, religious persecution in France and Mass secretly celebrated, as well as a two volume story on a secret Christian philanthropic society. 33 indicates 1833 as the year he had his epiphany regarding repeating characters. He realized he had already used a repeating character, and decided to infuse his whole oeuvre with them, even retroactively in all the works already published. These adaptations led to a few inconsistencies in hair and eye color, or personality changes, but he didn’t have the opportunity of J.K. Rowling to consult the intricate online fan encyclopedia with every detail mapped out. The Balzac indexes are online now, too late for his uses. He had to resort to scribbling characters’ genealogies on the walls of his home.

The Balzaculator could have been considered complete with the lavender, blue and green dots for the females, males and frog appearing in the Human Comedy, but it seemed a shame after so much work not to add personality traits, professions and status to each character’s page. The names show their titles, nicknames, aliases and maiden names, but the colorful dots printed freehand in the corners, elucidated on the Balzaculator color code, tell us a lot more about the 179 repeating characters featured in the work. The Balzaculator features all characters appearing in more than three novels, but some featuring in only three or two are included because they have a special relationship or connection with the character on the other side of the page. 179 was chosen to make the year of Balzac’s birth, 1799, although it is coincidentally the number of house colors and addresses featured in the work Bologna Sample (see archive item 24). Some of the most interesting characters appeared only once, and therefore don’t appear in the Balzaculator. But a selection of these have novels named after them, so they appear on the punch card.

The single punch card with the names of all the stories and novels of the Comédie Humaine with repeating characters, and the templates used to register the dots representing the novels characters appear in were perforated by hand with a paper drill. The only mechanical process involving modern technology was the laser printing of the character names at the top of the page, and the electric gold stamping machine for the title of the work in 8-bit binary code, carried out by Legatoria dell’Unione in the center of Bologna, where Balzac wandered around, noting monuments for his novels and visiting his friends Rossini and Zulma Carraud in Strada Maggiore.

The printing and assembling of this piece could never have been accomplished in several months time without the help of my 2013 University of California interns Lilly Huang and Jessica Chan.

Balzaculator is dedicated to my maternal grandmother Helen L. Lorenz and to the members of the Ricerche Balzac, who fueled  this project through their love of fiction.



Balzaculator – La Comédie Humaine as a Binary System for Balzacolytes
By A.S. Lorenz

This is an analog, proto-computer to determine which characters created by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) appear in which stories or novels of The Human Comedy. In 1833, after Balzac had already started writing this collection of 90+ novels and stories, he realized the potential of weaving repeating characters throughout the works, to introduce familiarity into any scene and to eliminate the need to describe every figure anew. This also allowed Balzac the chance to develop individuals further, earlier or later in life, in any given moment of The Human Comedy. Of the thousands of characters, all appearing four or more times are here.

The loom apparatus pays homage to French weaver and merchant Jacquard, whose innovations around the time of Balzac’s birth constituted the first computer program: a series of punched cards to indicate a pattern to be woven automatically on a loom. The viewer may place the punched card in front of any of the 179 repeating characters in the Balzaculator and colored dots will show the novels or stories in which a character appears. The Balzaculator Color Code on the reverse is a key to enrich each character by citing professions, status and personal qualities. For the truly curious, there is also an index regarding the reason two characters share a single sheet. Some notable characters are missing here, appearing only in one story named after them.

The eight linen bookbinding threads allowing the cover to open and close echo the eight-character bit strings of binary code used to write the title on the cover, and the eight sections of La Comédie Humaine. The faux terracotta antique Roman loom weights dangling from the threads, together with the canvas cover printed in gold, summon up Balzac, the fervid collector of art and antiquities, writing through the night in his white cashmere monk’s robe tied with a gold Venetian belt. Dots in Memento archival ink printed with HB pencil erasers on acid-free cardstock. Errata in archival ink pen based on Balzac’s outlandish corrected proofs which he gave as presents to friends.

Copyright 2013 Angela Lorenz            /33

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