Saturday, June 18, 2011

Birotteau and the theater of high finance

When Balzac lays out the nature of a bankruptcy proceeding and, by extension, of all of the activities of high finance, he likens it to a theatrical performance.
Comme toutes les pièces de théâtre il offre un double spectacle : il a sa mise en scène pour le public et ses moyens cachés, il y a la représentation vue du parterre et la représentation vue des coulisses.

Like all theater pieces, it offers a double spectacle: there is a shoe aimed at the public and another show that is hidden, there is the performance seen from the front of the house and the performance seen from backstage.
In other words, there is a ritual performance for the consumption of the general public; the real insiders know that the reality is quite different, with special rules and a not easily apparent distribution of power. Woe to those like César Birotteau who might be tempted to believe that the performance is real. Fortunately, he has friends who know how the system works, and can guide him through the realities, make deals with the people with real power and observe the forms for the rest.

In a larger sense, the whole financial world is presented as a carnival show to lure the gullible. The apparently random chances in the money market are, Balzac repeatedly shows, the result of the backstage manipulations of the real masters, the bankers and the usurers. The show of probity and respectability from the financiers is just a show, while backstage ruthless greed reigns.

Du Tillet, the principal villain of César Birotteau, stage-manages the ruination of the perfumer by setting up a tempting but disastrous investment, while remaining out of sight. When he does encounter Birotteau, it is with the greatest feigned sympathy and the offer of financial aid, along with even more ruinous advice that is aimed at grabbing the one saving play for the perfumer, Anselme Popinot’s hair tonic business. He plays the part so well that Birotteau never really understand the cause of his ruin.

Birotteau goes to borrow to among others to the brothers Keller, the heads of a major Paris bank. The one brother, the onstage performer for the firm, is all smiles, encouragement, and graciousness, in his beautiful office. Birotteau is sent to the backstage brother, the one who runs the real operations of the bank, who, in a cramped dark office in the bowels of the building, is mean and uncompromising. Again front-of-house versus backstage

The idea of the dual realities is a forerunner of the theories of the 20th-century Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman, whose Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) elaborates a whole theory of the dramaturgy of social interactions. While the theatrical metaphor is commonplace, Goffman stresses several unique issues: One is the importance of the stage set (such as Keller and Du Tillet’s elegant furniture and trappings), and this concept of becoming successful by looking successful is a constant in Balzac, and well suited to his keen eye for superficial detail. For example, is so bowled over by Du Tillet’s surroundings that he is unable to analyze what is happening.

Another key is the near for teamwork among the performers to keep the illusion alive. The wolves the financial troupe in Balzac, whatever their individual relations, are happy to keep up the illusion, and not let outsiders into the game. More specifically, Du Tillet has to give lessons to his talkative front man for the swindle, in order to keep his performance credible and avoid over acting.

In awiser sense, most of Balzac’s Paris novels are based on the tension between an apparent reality of glamour and comfort, and an ugly reality – death, penury, debasement– lurking just beneath it.

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