Sunday, April 25, 2010

Balzac and Secret Societies

One theme that comes up repeatedly in Balzac (as it does in other XIXth century novels) is that the world is controlled by secret conspiratorial groups who have the real power, while the politicians and bankers simply have the appearance of power. In the books, I’ve read recently, there three such underground groups.

First, in Le Père Goriot, the villain Vautrin (a.k,a. Collin or Trompe-le-Mort) is revealed to be the chief agent of the Société des dix mille, the Society of 10,000, a shadowy “association de hauts voleurs, de gens qui travaillent en grand, et ne se mêlent pas d’une affaire où il n’y a pas dix mille francs à gagner.” (association of master thieves, who undertake great works, and don’t get mixed up in any affair in which there isn’t 10,000 francs to be gained.)

Vautrin, we are assured, albeit an inhabitant of a dump of a boarding house, has immense sums at his disposal. He has created his own secret police and keeps his vast connections in a state of impenetrable mystery. He uses his funds to finance all kinds of criminal activity, waging a constant war on society.

Second, the three novellas of the Histoire des Treize posits a group of thirty men, including criminals, military men, and society dandies, who work the levers of society to. Among other things, they invade a Spanish nunnery (La Duchesse de Langeais), assassinate several busybodies (Ferragus), and raid a private home (La Fille aux yeux d’or). There seems to be no obstacle in terms of money or the ability to lean on bureaucrats. Balzac hints at a far greater deeds than we see in the novellas.

Balzac’s description of the Treize hints at a society of supermen:
Treize hommes également frappés du même sentiment, tous doués d’une assez grande énergie pour être fidèles à la même pensée, assez probes pour ne point se trahir, alors même que leurs intérêts se trouvaient opposés, assez profondément politiques pour dissimuler les liens sacrés qui les unissaient, assez forts pour se mettre au-dessus de toutes lois, assez hardis pour tout entreprendre, et assez heureux pour avoir presque toujours réussi dans leurs desseins.”
(Thirty men equally struck by the same sentiment, all endowed with enough energy to be faithful to the same idea, upright enough to in no way betray it, even when their own interests are opposed, deeply politic enough to hide the sacred bonds that united them, strong enough to put them above all laws, bold enough to ubdertake anything, and fortunate enough to almost always have succeeded in their plans.)
This reminds me of what “secret clubs” (no girlz allowed!) of my boyhppd. In real life, Balzac himself established a sort of literary free-masonry called “le Cheval Rouge”, to which a few of his friends joined including Théophile Gautier. It seems not to have gone much past being set up, like most boyish secret clubs.

Finally, in Gobseck, Balzac conjures up a cabal of moneylenders:

Nous sommes dans Paris une dizaine ainsi, tous rois silencieux et inconnus, les arbitres de vos destinées. La vie n’est-elle pas une machine à laquelle l’argent imprime le mouvement, L.’or est le spiritualisme de vos sociétés actuelles. Liés par le même intérêt, nous nous rassemblons à certains jours de la semaine au café Thémis, près du Pont-Neuf.
(In Paris, we are made up of around ten men, silent and unknown, the arbiters of your destinies. Isn’t life a machine that money puts in motion. Gold is the spiritualism of your current societies Bound by the same interests, we get together on certain days of the week at the café Thémis, near the Pont-Neuf.)
Note the name Themis, the Greek goddess of law and justice.

In other words, all the machinations of the Parisian economy are secretly guided by thus group of about ten, acting well out of the limelight. This groups knows all the financial secrets of each family. For Balzac, who was a constant debtor and a foolish speculator, the thought of such a cabal might be a paranoid comfort.

And the motivation? “Comme moi, tous mes confrères ont joui de tout, se sont rassasiés de tout, et sont arrivés à n’aimer le pouvoir et l’argent que pour le pouvoir et l’argent même.” (Like me, all my colleagues have enjoyed everything, have sated themselves with everything, and have ended up loving power and money for the sake of power and money themselves.) In other words, the brotherhood has, like Gobseck, left off love and family, and become monomaniac.

In some ways this is a religious society, dedicated to the spiritualism of gold, whose self-denying but powerful priests they are.

1 comment:

  1. I have only read Pere Goriot, but the character Gobseck appears in that book as well, a pawnbroker to whom the wealthy turn when they need to turn a few trinkets into cash. He was, if I remember, a Jew. Did Balzac, in your opinion, adopt the anti-Semitic views that led people to later believe things like the Protocol of the Elders?