Balzac and the African Explorer: Cognitive Mapping of the faubourg Saint-Germain

A fresh reading of Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais (1834) reveals that the geography of African exploration, and of Andalusia as a liminal space between Europe and Africa, are mapped onto the geography of Paris. Class boundaries make the conquest of the aristocratic faubourg Saint-Germain as problematic as the exploration of central Africa. Spatiality is crucial in understanding this novella, which can be read as secondary travel writing: it is partly a response to a travel narrative by René Caillié published in 1830. Useful here are critical approaches to travel narratives such as Mary Louise Pratt's notions of the "contact zone" and the "anti-conquest" narrative. Caillié's real-life experience sheds light on Montriveau, whose voyage is one of pathos, suffering, and epistemological failure. Balzac's novella thus explores a failed or incomplete mapping project. This reflects what Fredric Jameson calls the failed "cognitive mapping" underlying the European attempt to reach a fully global world-view.