At the beginning of Balzac’s l’envers de l’histoire contemporaine – one of the most brilliant title ever -the narrator, who is easily recognizable as the ever voluble Balzac, places his still unnamed protagonist at the “heart of Paris”:
“In 1836, on a beautiful September evening, a man of about 30 years of age leaned on the parapet of the quai from which onne can see both the Seine flowing downriver past the Jardin des Plannttes to Notre Dame and, upriver, the vast riverine perspective as it passes by the Louvre.”
The heart of a city changes more than the heart of a mortal, according to Balzac’s contemporary, Baudelaire. But this perspective is still there – I biked past it yesterday. True, the Notre Dame is a half charred skeleton, and the Louvre is presently defaced with an enormous advertising placard for some miserable luxury object, the kind of neo-liberal graffiti we see, now, in all the world’s hotspots, from corporation named stadiums to the university buildings named for odious tax avoiding plutocrats, philanthropists all.
Yet Paris is a stubborn fact. As is Montpellier, Nimes, Arles, Aix-en-Province, Nice, etc. This stubbornness makes for some despair among the neoliberal set: doesn’t this mean the heart has stopped? Where’s the disruption? Change for its own sake, imposed by above, permits rent-seeking possibilities beyond the wildest dreams of Balzac’s most superhuman speculator, and that’s what its all about. It is not hard to see that we are living, extras all, in the season of their fever dream – from the horribly incompetent Trump to the horribly incompetent Macron, all that is solid melts into the pipeline between the central banks and the investment banks. Ghost financial instruments and watered stocks, such is the economy of the movers and the shakers. Outside, corona takes care of the disposables, while party-on is the motto of the lesser bourgeoisie, that aspirational group who haven’t made it and won’t, but who long for a simulacrum of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. The aspirational zombies of the apocalypse of pseudo-freedom – Balzac would have enjoyed them immensely.
Or to put it differently: it is still Balzac’s world. The sentimentality of Dickens has degenerated into greeting card slogans that are now ironic even to their purchasers and their receivers. George Sand’s socialism has disappeared. Flaubert’s contempt for stupidity has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the most flatheaded reactionaries possible. But Balzac, I thought, passing by that quai and that perspective, lives.