Balzac — Escaping the Prison

I loved the insights into daily life and the city to be found in Le Pere Goriot, but perhaps this was more important: everyone is trapped. It’s clear that only extraordinary luck or ruthless ambition can save you. Goriot is trapped by his love for his faithless daughters (a little much like King Lear perhaps). The wealthy and powerful daughters are just as trapped in the cages their ambition has made for them within the larger cage surrounding women in general. The hero of the tale — who will escape through luck and a bit of ruthlessness that he is quite torn about:

He belonged to the number of young men who know as children that their parents’ hopes are centered on them, and deliberately prepare themselves for a great career, subordinating their studies from the first to this end, carefully watching the indications of the course of events, calculating the probable turn that affairs will take, that they may be the first to profit by them.

It’s clear that most of these young men never come to very much, leading lives of quiet and precarious disappointment.The other lodgers have mostly resigned themselves to their fate:

M. Poiret was a sort of automaton. He might be seen any day sailing like a gray shadow along the walks of the Jardin des Plantes, on his head a shabby cap, a cane with an old yellow ivory handle in the tips of his thin fingers…

Balzac is at his best, I think, in his evocative descriptions — though they are invariably unkind when not describing the young and beautiful:

Mlle. Michonneau’s musings did not permit her to listen very closely to the remarks that fell one by one from Poiret’s lips like water dripping from a leaky tap. When once this elderly babbler began to talk, he would go on like clockwork unless Mlle. Michonneau stopped him. He started on some subject or other, and wandered on through parenthesis after parenthesis, till he came to regions as remote as possible from his premises without coming to any conclusions by the way.

Or the wealthy…here is the young woman cast off by her wealthy father, quiet and meek and tearful (and another little comment on gender, a good line if an annoying one):

She was pretty by force of contrast; if she had been happy, she would have been charming. Happiness is the poetry of woman, as the toilette is her tinsel.

Woman are trapped here as much by their own improbable natures as anything, which is a bit annoying to have hammered into you if you are a woman. There are lots of sentences like this:

women are in a manner true to themselves even through their grossest deceit, because their actions are prompted by a natural impulse.

Still, at the end of the day, everyone is stuck.

Unknown – Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot. Philadelphia: George Barrie & Son, 1897

It is the criminals who are able to fight back against it, to attempt escape. You cannot help cheering them on in the person of Vautrin, criminal mastermind, man of wealth and power hiding in this pension, his achilles heel his platonic (but really?) love for ambitious young men who deserve to go further than he knows they will.

Or you would cheer them on if only they weren’t quite so terrible. What is Vautrin’s dream of escape from this prison shared in different aspects by everyone in this novel? To help Rastignac escape upwards, and for himself:

My idea is to live a patriarchal life on a vast estate, say a hundred thousand acres, somewhere in the Southern States of America. I mean to be a planter, to have slaves, to make a few snug millions by selling my cattle, timber, and tobacco; I want to live an absolute monarch, and to do just as I please; to lead such a life as no one here in these squalid dens of lath and plaster ever imagines. I am a great poet; I do not write my poems, I feel them, and act them. At this moment I have fifty thousand francs, which might possibly buy forty negroes. I want two hundred thousand francs, because I want to have two hundred negroes to carry out my notions of the patriarachal life properly. Negroes, you see, are like a sort of family ready grown, and there are no inquisitive public prosecutors out there to interfere with you. That investment in ebony ought to mean three or four million francs in ten years’ time. If I am successful, no one will ask me who I am. I shall be Mr. Four Millions, an American citizen.

There is so much in that paragraph, I don’t even know where to start. But this is the true escape, to America, open land for the taking (by force), the ownership of men, and wealth that makes the past irrelevant. If you can do this anywhere in Europe, it is Paris:

If the proud aristocracies of the rest of Europe refuse admittance among their ranks to a disreputable millionaire, Paris stretches out a hand to him, goes to his banquets, eats his dinners, and hobnobs with his infamy.

But it is not enough for him. Still, he lays out the path of ambition for young Rastignac, the only route of escape:

Paris, you see, is like a forest in the New World, where you have to deal with a score of varieties of savages–Illinois and Hurons, who live on the proceed of their social hunting. You are a hunter of millions; you set your snares; you use lures and nets; there are many ways of hunting. Some hunt heiresses, others a legacy; some fish for souls, yet others sell their clients, bound hand and foot. Every one who comes back from the chase with his game-bag well filled meets with a warm welcome in good society.

Could it be more clear that savagery is a thing entirely European, yet disowned and tagged to another people to rationalise their destruction?

Could it not be more clear that the true soul of Paris, and the true savage, lies here in the criminal class?

The convicts’ prison, its language and customs, its sudden sharp transitions from the humorous to the horrible, its appalling grandeur, its triviality and its dark depths, were all revealed in turn by the speaker’s discourse; he seemed to be no longer a man, but the type and mouthpiece of a degenerate race, a brutal, supple, clear-headed race of savages. In one moment Collin became the poet of an inferno, wherein all thoughts and passions that move human nature (save repentance) find a place. He looked about him like a fallen archangel who is for war to the end.

“What dolts you are, all of you! Have you never seen a convict before? A convict of Collin’s stamp, whom you see before you, is a man less weak-kneed than others; he lifts up his voice against the colossal fraud of the Social Contract, as Jean Jacques did, whose pupil he is proud to declare himself. In short, I stand here single-handed against a Government and a whole subsidized machinery of tribunals and police, and I am a match for them all.”

Because it is money, the achievement of wealth and with it power that justifies any means in the eyes of the world. To get it, you can’t be proud:

Of all pieces of advice, my cherub, I would give you this–don’t stick to your opinions any more than to your words. If any one asks you for them, let him have them–at a price. A man who prides himself on going in a straight line through life is an idiot who believes in infallibility. There are no such things as principles; there are only events, and there are no laws but those of expediency: a man of talent accepts events and the circumstances in which he finds himself, and turns everything to his own ends.

No wonder Marx loved this author.


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