markets and talismans (changed a bit)

The great metaphor for George Foster’s thesis of the image of the limited good, published in the 1960s, preceded George Foster by one hundred years: it is the talisman in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin, or The Wild Ass’s Skin.

Treasure, treasure-hunting and rarity are all bound up with each other in a stubborn cosmic vision of the distribution of goods in the world that appears in our dreams, love life and friendship. This world is ruled, as I will point out multitudinously in this essay, by Nemesis. No one saw the affective changes that were occurring in the switch between the regime of the old economy and the new – the economy of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, the economy of growth – better than Jules Michelet. Michelet, writing in 1846, picks up on the difference between the terms 'treasure' and "money" to demarcate a division not only between the emotional regimes of wealth but in how these dominant affects correspond to a basic division between urban and rural society. For the peasant who comes to the city: “How difficult it is, what force one needs, what domination of oneself to hold money captive and the pocket sewed close, when everything solicits the worker! Add to this that the savings account that stands guard over an invisible money gives one none of the emotions of the treasure that is buried and dug up by the peasant with so much pleasure, mystery and fear…” [La Peuple, 95, my translation]

The People, Michelet’s experiment in a sort of romantic ethnography – using his own experience, hearing with his own ears the 'voices of the crowd' – is a shifty text, romantic, full of sentiments, displaying too much the pulses of its heart – and yet Michelet’s instincts for the larger social facts is very good. He sees very well, just as Marx does, that agriculture is being industrialized – it is for this reason that he compares a British agricultural economy that has devolved into an agribusiness that employs workers or tenents with the small holding farmers of France. But he also sees the tension between ‘invisible’ money and visible treasure, an object to be buried. It is a tension between the invisibility of the system and the hiddenness of piecemeal primitive accumulation. Latter in the nineteenth century, Georg Simmel will take up the issue of the difference between the money economy of capitalism and the ‘natural’ economy of the small holder. For Simmel, the affective side of economics – pleasure, mystery, fear – are not contingent or accidental properties that one can put to one side, but feed back largely into economics as it is incorporated – a death drive - in a whole way of life.

Balzac’s Human comedy doesn’t just try to capture the workings of French society from the Revolution to the apogee of the Bourgeois King, Louis-Philippe – in its many passages, incidents, cities, shuffles of character, essayistic asides, it crystallizes into plot and counterplot the cosmic vision of capitalist society at the moment when it first becomes aware of itself. Marx’s affinity for Balzac comes out of his similar venture in Capital, although Capital, of course, surveys the comedy from a different focal point, in which the Human is denuded of the moraliste’s universality that still raggedly clung to it for Balzac.

In The Wild Ass’s Skin, we are, once again, plunged into the world of the search for luxury objects and their seemingly odd markets, where the deals are all about valuing the ‘invaluable’. In this case, the object is a beautiful woman who has inherited a fortune – Foedora. She is first introduced to Raphaël, the novel’s protagonist, by Rastignac, under the category of her price: she is the unmarried possessor of an income of 80,000 livres. That income comes from investment in bonds – properly, she possesses 80,000 livres in ‘rentes’.
La peau de chagrin is a young novel, written in 1830 and published in 1831 and considered the first of the Human Comedy novels. It begins with the magical contract that, as I noted above, is a wonderful image of the limited good. Here is the premise of the book, unrolled at the very beginning, when we follow Raphaël de Valentin as he walks about in a fever, waiting for night to come so he can throw himself off a bridge. In the course of his wandering, he comes upon a shop full of odds and ends, and in it he finds a mysterious talisman made of onyx hide. The talisman is inscribed with a phrase in Arabic. Balzac, that master of cod learning, reproduces it and allows Raphael the knowledge to read the “Sanskrit”, as the owner of the odd shop calls it. promises to make the wishes of the person who uses it come true. “If you possess me, you will possess all. But your life belongs to me. God wills it. Desire, and your desires will be realized. But regulate your wishes according to your life. It is there. For every wish, I will shrink, like your days. Do you want me? Take me. God grants it to you. So be it!” And so the desire for fortune, the want realized, is paid for in kind – by a counter-gift of the days of one’s life. The talisman is the very image of one way of looking at the almost magical supply of goods and services that already, in 1830, could be felt on the horizons. The culture of growth never shakes off Nemesis, who balances and casts an evil eye on the “too much”.
Under this image, Balzac sets up Raphaël’s rescue from poverty and suicide. And it is after the talisman has realized the first of his wishes – for Raphaël is unexpectedly rescued from poverty and the feeling that he must commit suicide that very night – that we hear how Raphaël came to be in such a plight. It is a tale he tells a group of his friends, and some sympathetic demi-prostitutes.
I love the story, I love the operatic language that Balzac employs, I love the vital energy of this text that expands as the onyx skin contracts. I will pluck from my love the story of Raphaël’s hat.
Under a more secular magic spell, cast by Rastignac, Raphaël – who has been living happily on a pittance that he inherited, frugally, writing a philosophical work that he is sure will gain him esteem and the means to continue his esoteric studies – throws away that money in a mad attempt, via theater tickets, carriages and suppers, to seduce Foedora. Foedora is quite a name – a name that wreaks of foeter, of odor, and of foeter hepaticus, the breath of the dead, a medical term applying to the smell of the breath of patients having a certain genre of disease. In short, the name is vampiric. And so it is that Raphaël transitions from the man in the attic, struggling with his thoughts – the man who has prided himself on living on 1100 francs over a period of three years, “three sous for bread, two sous for milk, three sous of meat” every day, carefully managed – to a man on the burning streets of Paris in 1830 (the burning streets to which Michelet refers to when, in his History of France, he speaks of the moment when the great work appeared to him – when he saw how the fall of Charles X and the Revolution and all the kings could be fit into a Viconian system, a system of circles and counter-circle, a maelstrom, and needed to be written), looking at his hat.