“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reality and speculation in restoration Paris

Imagine a dinner. Much wine. An old Parisian ‘notaire’ – who combines the various offices of lender, soliciter, and financial counseler – confides his problems to a plausible young man he has met at various dinners given by one of his clients, a successful, though not very educated, perfumer. His problem, it turns out, is a passion – as one should have guessed from the beginning – as one did guess from the beginning, given the state of his nose, ‘ignoblement retroussé’. Having become, from the very wedding night, an object of the unsurmountable physical disgust of his charmingly rich wife, the notaire has found other outlets for the passion announced by his nose – one of which is the very expensive “belle Hollandaise”, whose lifestyle the notaire has supported by defrauding his client. The plausible young man is sympathetic – of course he would be! When the notaire reveals that his plan is to blow out his brains, the young man dissuades him – he even has the notaire empty his pistols by shooting them into the air.

This is the dinner which is at the heart of the intrigue in César Birotteau. The notaire is named Roguin, the plausible young man du Tillet, and the perfumer is César. We have already seen that du Tillet is dangerous. His start in life as César’s first apprentice was certainly not enough to satisfy his ambitions. Finding that he could not seduce his boss’s wife, he satisfied his sense of Birotteau’s inferiority by stealing three thousand francs from him. When Birotteau goes through the books and discovers the theft, du Tillet – in a wonderfully savage little scene – stares the perfumer down. But – as Balzac says – du Tillet was the type of man who could never forgive a victim. Thus, freed from his duties with Birotteau, he begins his rise among the speculators of Paris. Each rung on the ladder is, figuratively, someone’s skull.

There is a whole critical tradition that finds César Birotteau – or to give this novel its entire and real name, “HISTOIRE DE LA GRANDEUR ET DE LA DECADENCE DE CESAR BIROTTEAU, marchand parfumeur, adjoint au maire du deuxième arrondissement de Paris chevalier de la légion d'honneur, etc.” – as insurmountably tedious as a perverted husband on one’s wedding night. As the book is rife with money making schemes, and as each scheme demands a backstory, the criticism takes major offense at this evident dangling of the monetary in front of our eyes, when we readers live by our passions. Myself, however, as a long time reader of Gaddis’s J.R., find the rat’s nest of financial speculations in this book – the trail of the incorrigible du Tillet - to be as fascinating as anything Balzac ever wrote. Here, the realism that created Balzac’s peach shows itself to be, literally, speculation. Against which Balzac balances the elements contained in the title of the novel. On the one hand, of course, the title is mock heroic in Balzac’s best style. On the other hand, it encodes the ideology of the limited good – about which readers of LI have perhaps read all too much – in the form given it by its greatest theorist, perhaps, Montesquieu. I’ve already done a few posts on Montesquieu’s meeting with John Law, and his entire inability to understand Law’s “system”. This is, in a sense, a very pregnant symbolic moment – the moment in which the ideologist of the limited good meets the inventor of modern speculation – and its echo is all over Balzac’s novel, which includes a very glorious passage on grandeur and decadence – which, in English, is invariably translated as rise and fall.

I’ll quote from a translation not my own:

“Every existence has its apogee, a period during which the causes act and are in direct relation with the results. This prime of life, where the lively forces reach equilibrium and are present in all their glory, is not only common to organic beings, but also to cities, nations, ideas, institutions, businesses, enterprises, which, like the noble breeds and dynasties, are born, rise, and fall. Whence comes the rigor with which this theme of growth and decline is applied to everything here on earth? For death itself has, in times of plague, its progress, its slowing down, its renewed outbreak, and its sleep. Our itself globe is perhaps a rocket a little longer lasting than others. History, by retelling the causes of the grandeur and the decadence of everything that has existed here on earth, could warn man of the moment when he should bring an end to the action of all his faculties; but neither conquerors, nor actors, nor women, nor authors listen to its salutary voice.

César Birotteau, who should have considered himself at the apogee of his fortune, took this pause as a new point of departure. He did not know, and moreover neither nations nor kings have attempted to write in indelible characters the cause of these reversals of which History is full, of which so many sovereign or commercial families offer such great examples. Why shouldn’t new pyramids ceaselessly recall this principle that must dominate the politics of nations as well as of individuals: When the produced effect is no longer in direct relation or equal proportion to the cause, disorganization begins? But these monuments exist everywhere, they are the traditions and the stones that speak to us about the past, that sanctify the whims of indomitable Destiny, whose hands erase our dreams and prove to us that the greatest events are summed up in one idea. Troy and Napoleon are but poems. May this story be the poem of the bourgeois vicissitudes which no voice has dreamed of, since they seem to be so devoid of grandeur, while they are by the same claim immense: this is not about a single man, but about an entire populace of suffering.”
In this post, I haven’t mention Marx and the productive/unproductive category I have been trying to unravel – but I want to use the three formulations of that category to speak of what is going on, here. In another post.

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