the modern and the archaic in a sale

Continuing the post I put up yesterday. Get used to this, scattered and few readers of LI!

Sylvaine Pons, the ‘poor cousin’ in Balzac’s Cousin Pons, is first seen as an incredibly ugly, elderly man hurrying one afternoon through the streets of Paris, holding a package that evidently contains something fragile. He is dressed in the style of the 1810s and 20s, in the Paris of the 1840s – a fact that leads Balzac to treat him, and in fact the whole Parisian scene, as something ‘archaeologic’. It is a term that resonates throughout the novel, foriIf Pons is a relic, he is also the man with the passion for relics. He is a treasure hunter. His tragedy unfolds within a triangle of wants: 1.) the want of sex, denied to Pons when he was young on account of his ugliness and his lack of prospects; 2. the want of bibelots, objets d’art, in the pursuit of which Pons has become an expert, chasing down the stray treasures of the ancien regime for almost forty years; and 3) the want of the stomach, the one desire that brings our man down. Pons, as a musician, enjoyed enough of a vogue in the 1820s that he could dine out. And just as his desire for beautiful objects is a compensation for his lack of sexual satisfaction, his desire for good food is fed by a stomach and tongue – organs that Balzac, in the course of the book, treats almost as independent systems of intelligence, another kind of sex – so too he becomes an epicure in his way. It is this that leads him to become, little by little as his vogue wanes, a man who has to plan his way into the houses and to the tables of those rich people who are his ‘cousins’.

After treating us to the archaeological spectacle of Pons, that afternoon, in the Paris street – digging outward towards his deeper history, and that of the world in which he collects his objects, a world in which there exist real people like Sauvageot (an actual figure, a poor musician “like Pons, without a great fortune as well, [who] proceded in the same manner by the same means with the same love of art, with the same hatred against the illustrious rich who have cabinets made for themselves in competition with the merchants”) – Balzac takes us down to earth, or rather to the real-time moment in which Pons arrives at his destination – his cousin Camusot’s house (now the President Marville) – and presents the woman of the house, the Presidente Marville, with his find: a fan painted by Watteau. Let’s underline the fact that the fan is presented as a gift. And it is an aspect of Marville’s vulgarity that she not only does not recognize the name Watteau, but that she orders Pons’ meal, in his hearing, as a counter-gift – violating the rule that spaces out giftgiving, and making it seem like a return, an exchange.

I am fascinated by the complex economics of the scene. Here is Pons, trying to explain to the inexpressibly stupid Presidente Marville what he has done for her in finding the fan in a place on Rue de Lappe, at a brocanteur’s – which, according to a 1786 dictionary of official terms (Dictionnaire universal de police) is he who traffics in diverse and chance merchandise (“marchandise de hazard”)”:

“"I know all those sharpers," continued Pons, "so I asked him, 'Anything fresh to-day, Daddy Monistrol?'—(for he always lets me look over his lots before the big buyers come)—and at that he began to tell me how Lienard, that did such beautiful work for the Government in the Chapelle de Dreux, had been at the Aulnay sale and rescued the carved panels out of the clutches of the Paris dealers, while their heads were running on china and inlaid furniture.—'I did not do much myself,' he went on, 'but I may make my traveling expenses out of this,' and he showed me a what-not; a marvel! Boucher's designs executed in marquetry, and with such art!—One could have gone down on one's knees before it.—'Look, sir,' he said, 'I have just found this fan in a little drawer; it was locked, I had to force it open. You might tell me where I can sell it'—and with that he brings out this little carved cherry-wood box.—'See,' says he, 'it is the kind of Pompadour that looks like decorated Gothic.'—'Yes,' I told him, 'the box is pretty; the box might suit me; but as for the fan, Monistrol, I have no Mme. Pons to give the old trinket to, and they make very pretty new ones nowadays; you can buy miracles of painting on vellum cheaply enough. There are two thousand painters in Paris, you know.'—And I opened out the fan carelessly, keeping down my admiration, looked indifferently at those two exquisite little pictures, touched off with an ease fit to send you into raptures. I held Mme. de Pompadour's fan in my hand! Watteau had done his utmost for this.—'What do you want for the what-not?'—'Oh! a thousand francs; I have had a bid already.'—I offered him a price for the fan corresponding with the probable expenses of the journey. We looked each other in the eyes, and I saw that I had my man. I put the fan back into the box lest my Auvergnat should begin to look at it, and went into ecstasies over the box; indeed, it is a jewel.—'If I take it,' said I, 'it is for the sake of the box; the box tempts me. As for the what-not, you will get more than a thousand francs for that. Just see how the brass is wrought; it is a model. There is business in it. . . . It has never been copied; it is a unique specimen, made solely for Mme. de Pompadour'—and so on, till my man, all on fire for his what-not, forgets the fan, and lets me have it for a mere trifle, because I have pointed out the beauties of his piece of Riesener's furniture. So here it is; but it needs a great deal of experience to make such a bargain as that. It is a duel, eye to eye; and who has such eyes as a Jew or an Auvergnat?"
The old artist's wonderful pantomime, his vivid, eager way of telling the story of the triumph of his shrewdness over the dealer's ignorance, would have made a subject for a Dutch painter; but it was all thrown away upon the audience. Mother and daughter exchanged cold, contemptuous glances.—"What an oddity!" they seemed to say.
"So it amuses you?" remarked Mme. de Marville. The question sent a cold chill through Pons; he felt a strong desire to slap the Presidente.”
And who among Balzac’s readers, at this point, does not?
Remark, here, on the double aspect of this transaction, at once modern and archaic. The modern aspect is found in the whole question of value: Pons and his fellow experts in bricabracology are commodifying, instead of monumentalizing, the past. About this aspect, I want to say a lot – but let me do this later. I’m more interested, here, in the archaic aspect – that “merchandise of chance” - implicit in the very activity of treasure seeking in what the economists would call a secondary market. What is a treasure?


Bruce said…
I am a grateful reader even if I cannot always follow tour erudition. I'm very interested in homo economicus as well. By the way, have you read Andre Gorz, especially his Critique of Economic Reason?
Anonymous said…
Roger, I only became aware of your site recently, started reading it since your post for Amie. I'm pretty sure I will continue to do so, as your posts make me think. So please carry on!
I just want to make one comment on this post, which relates I think to the question of the archaic and modern and of treasure - something which gets lost or transformed in translation. It is the end of the passage from Cousin Pons that you quote:

The old artist's wonderful pantomime, his vivid, eager way of telling the story of the triumph of his shrewdness over the dealer's ignorance, would have made a subject for a Dutch painter; but it was all thrown away upon the audience. Mother and daughter exchanged cold, contemptuous glances.—"What an oddity!" they seemed to say.

This is a passage that one could say a lot about. I just want to note that last phrase. "What an oddity" is a translation of "quel original".

roger said…
Bruce, No, I haven't read the Gorz. So would you recommend it?

Justine, I rather lazily did not translate the Balzac passage myself, but slotted in a translation that I can't vouch for from I think a Victorian translation. But you are right that 'original' is aligned, ironically, with what is going on in this scene. At a certain point, Pons points to Watteau's signature. Amie would have, probably did, love that passage!

I miss what she would say about what I'm working on more than I can say.
Bruce said…
Yes, definitely. He is concerned that accounting and calculation have become the sole means we have of evaluating our societies. I recently came across his name, but now that I've read him I can't believe he is not better known. He is also (in)famous in France for completing a suicide pact with his very ill wife in 2007.