Commodities and Reality, or Balzac and a peach

I found a reference to a conversation recorded by Leon Gozlan between Vidocq and Balzac in Robb’s biography of the latter. I went to Gozlan (o, the things you can do on the Internet!) to read it myself. I am not sure what to make of Gozlan, who may well have been heavily fictionalizing himself. In any case, he sets this story about the time that Balzac was trying to cut Les Paysans for its serialization. Readers of LI will remember that Marx chose to illustrate the force of the capitalist system, as it borders older, archaic modes of production, with the story of Les Paysans.

According to Gozlan, the process left Balzac tired and discouraged. Vidocq, who was among the company who had gathered at Balzac’s place one night, saw this, and said:

“I say that you give yourself a lot of pain, Monsieur de Balzac, to create stories of the other world when reality is before your eyes, near your ear, under your hand.”

“Ah, how charming, you believe in reality! I would never have supposed that you were so naïve. Reality! Tell me about it: you have returned from that beautiful land. But go on – it is we who create reality.”

“No, monsieur de Balzac.”

‘Yes, monsieur Vidocq; you see the true reality, it is this beautiful Montreuil peach. The one which you call real, it grows naturally in the forest wild. Very well! That one is worth nothing. It is little, sharp, bitter, impossible to eat. But this one here that I am holding has been cultivated over one hundred year, obtained by trimming it to the left or the right, by transplantation to drier or looser soil, by certain grafts – this one at last, which one eats and which perfumes the mouth and the heart. This exquisite peach, it is we who have made it the only real one. The same procedure occurs with me. I obtain reality in my novels the way Montreuil obtains reality in its peaches. I am a gardener in the realm of books.”

Reality and value – such will be our text, following up my post concerning circulation work. LI’s occasional critic and reader, Mr. Chuckie K., advanced the thesis that I misunderstood Marx, here. Let me recommend the comments thread. And let me advance to an example – a piece of reality that was incorporated in 1820, in Paris, under the title, l'assurance des succès dramatiques. This agency, run by a former wigmaker named Porchon and his partner, a M. Sauton, would hire people to make a play or an opera a success. These claqueurs would be sure to applaud, laugh loudly at the jokes, cry copiously at the sad parts, and in other ways make sure that a playwright’s opening night went well. Porchon would even loan money out to the writer – Alexander Dumas was one of his grateful clients.

We possess a ‘Memoir of a Claqueur” (1828) by one Louis Castel Robert. Robert’s story was of a reality that, like Balzac’s peach, required the intense cultivation of history – the history of France in the 1820s. Having inherited some money, and being of a tender, philosophical disposition, Robert, a young man in Paris, naturally pissed his funds away on drink, women, books and idleness. At the end of this process he confronted an unpleasantness that many of his type encountered, viz, debtors prison. In Sainte Pelagie, he had the good fortune to fall in with a man named Mouchival. Mouchival was a common looking fellow – yet Robert soon learned he was not so common after all. He was only in Sainte Pelagie due to a misunderstanding, practically - having co-signed on a loan for a friend – for Moucival, like Porchon, was always a friend in deed – he found himself being charged with it. The man, however, was quite equal to the situation. As an entrepreneur in the claqueur field, he had simply written to a rich client who fancied himself a dramatist and expressed the need for some cash, for which he would, in the future, supply such services as may be required, yours truly. Thus, he was utterly confident of rescue. Rescue, in the form of francs, eventually did appear, but sent by an actress – through which he, in turn, rescued his promising young acquaintance, Robert. Which is how Robert found a place to fill in the world as a claqueur.

The claqueur was a character type in Paris. The yellow gloves of the claqueur were particularly distinctive, and became a nickname for the claque crowd. – les gants jaunes. Robert writes that Mouchival gave him ‘elementary instructions in the science of cabales, and treated, as an experienced master, all the articles of the tactics proper to making plays succeed or fail.” Robert learned the “circumstances in which it was necessary to applaud or whistle, cry or laugh, be silent or scream, yawn or blow your nose.”

The romantics, particularly Schiller, had invested a utopian hope in the division between work and play; but for the capitalist, for whom every boundary is a living thing, that division promises not the sweetness of life, but an unexploited margin of profit.

As Mouchival soon teaches the young man he has inexplicably taken under his wing, the surface work of the claqueur is just one link in the chain of profit. A more noticeable link is in the work of selling tickets. A certain number of tickets are allotted, free, to the claqueur. He can sell the superfluity himself. But the claqueur is not the only one to scalp tickets. Indeed, a good part of the theater world, from the actor to the usher to the critic, supplements their income on such sales.

Well, more on this subject in the next post.