The Arty Semite

Balzac and the Hebrew Tutor

By Benjamin Ivry

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Tracing Old Testament influence on modern literature is a never-ending study, but “The Sign and the Seal: Literary Variations on the Song of Songs” (Le Signe et le sceau: Variations littéraires sur le Cantique des Cantiques) by Dominique Millet-Gérard, out last August from La Librairie Droz in Geneva, offers precious new insights on the subject.

Nobel-Prizewinning poet Paul Claudel was long fascinated and mystified by the Song of Songs. In 1938, Claudel wrote to a friend, puzzling over certain lines such as “Thy cheeks are beautiful as the turtledove’s.” “A turtledove’s cheeks?” asked Claudel, clearly baffled: “All this needs to be seriously meditated and explicated.” A 1954 book, “Paul Claudel Examines the Song of Songs” was the result.

The philosopher Jacques Maritain, who called Shir ha-Shirim the “loveliest of all poems,” was similarly inspired. But, perhaps the most startling use of the biblical song in French literature is that of 19th century novelist Honoré de Balzac, the title of whose 1835 novel, “Le Lys dans la Vallée” (The Lily of the Valley) was inspired by the Song of Songs.

Balzac’s friend the French Hebraist Samuel Cahen was an expert who in 1851 published an 18-volume dual-language Tanakh in French and Hebrew. Cahen taught rudiments of Hebrew to Balzac, who in 1843 wrote to his beloved Évelyne Hańska, romantically citing a “famous Hebrew word” which he spelled as “Lididda,” explaining:

It means from the beloved man; to the beloved woman; from the beloved woman; the beloved man; the beloved woman, and even, Cahen informed me, both at the same time, so full of meaning is this magnificent Eastern language that all the tender words of all the modern languages cannot convey an idea of this sublime and primordial word: ‘Lididda’ which comprises notions of paternity, maternity, filiality, love, divine sweetness, paradise etc., and celestial voluptuousness.

Balzac notes that all this information came from the “Rothschild children’s tutor,” which was indeed one of Cahen’s professional responsibilities. Further inspired by the potential amorous power inherent in Hebrew as he understood it, Balzac had a malachite box specially constructed with the — inadvertently incorrect — Hebrew words “Hava lidida” (intended to signify “Eve to her Beloved”) inscribed on it, to store letters which he received from Eva Hanska, the first lady of his life.

Doubtless influenced in part by Cahen and the Song of Songs, Balzac’s “fiction is less egregiously anti-Semitic than his personal writings,” according to Richard S. Levy’s 2005 “Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution.” Which is yet another reason to enjoy Shir haShirim!


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