Strangers to Ourselves: Animality and Theory of Mind in Honore De Balzac's "A Passion in the Desert"

By Hart, Kathleen R. | Style, Fall-Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Strangers to Ourselves: Animality and Theory of Mind in Honore De Balzac's "A Passion in the Desert"


Hart, Kathleen R., Style


How could one tolerate a foreigner if one did not know one was a stranger to oneself? (Comment pourrait-on tolerer un etranger si l'on ne se sait pas etranger a soi-meme? 269)

--Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves

Why is it that people often do not know themselves very well (e.g. their own characters, why they feel the way they do, or even the feelings themselves)?

--Timothy D. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

Honore de Balzac's 1830 short story, A Passion in the Desert, about a French soldier's erotic encounter with a leopard (1) during Napoleon's 1798 Egyptian Campaign, has lately received new critical attention. Its plot and subject matter lend themselves well to psychoanalytic, post-colonial, feminist, and queer theory approaches, which, in conjunction with the recent explosion of interest in animal studies, makes it a popular text to revisit. (2) What scholars have still not addressed is the story's use of animality to explore Theory of Mind, or the problem of how we know what others may feel, think, or do. The story concerns itself significantly, in that regard, with what twenty-first century evolutionary psychologists call the "adaptive unconscious": a set of automatic, unconscious mental processes that influence "judgments, feelings, or behavior" (T. Wilson 23). These processes evolved from features that humans have always intuitively recognized as sharing with animals. In both humans and complex vertebrates, for instance, the amygdala, located in the medial temporal lobe, can automatically misinterpret incoming stimuli as a threat, triggering involuntary defense behaviors. For humans, such misinterpretations can be about someone else's knowledge, feelings, or intentions.

In "A Passion in the Desert" the same automatic processes that link humans with animals are shown to participate in a man's misinterpretation--or professed misinterpretation--of a female animal's desires and intentions. This raises questions about how reliably the story's frame narrator interprets the desires and intentions of his female interlocutor, whom he represents as extremely eager for his account of the soldier's adventure. What is the narrator's interest in sharing the story; what is hers, in knowing it? At stake, I propose, is how to negotiate the conflicts of interest between men and women that, for evolutionary reasons, are "an intrinsic part of the mating game" (Cashdan 9). Such conflicts were exacerbated, in Balzac's era, by the dominant ideologies of manhood and womanhood with which, to quote Sandy Petrey, "the single figure of Napoleon is intimately bound up" (40). Although these ideologies are also "bound up" with a cultural intolerance of Arab identities and alternative sexualities, respectively, it is through the lens of male-female conflict that the story filters other conflicts. Hence my analysis begins with the story's Parisian frame narrator, whose own unreliability is part and parcel of the Theory of Mind problems raised by his tale of a "misunderstanding" between a man and a female leopard.

A Story Not Told

Any attempt to summarize "A Passion in the Desert" is vexing, as Janet Beizer observes, because the multiple narrators, indirect language, and incomplete sentences exert the reader in a peculiar way (50). The tale begins with a dialogue that takes place between the first-person narrator and his female companion as they exit the menagerie of Henri Martin, famous in Balzac's time for performing animal acts, usually with big cats. Martin was rumored to win the compliance of his animals by sexually sating them before a performance, an unspeakable practice that may explain the interrupted or suspended sentences in the text. As if alluding to something she cannot openly discuss with propriety, the woman asks a question that trails off, and which the man seems to understand implicitly:

--By what means, she continued, can he have tamed his animals to the point of being certain enough of their affection for . …

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