Monday, May 29, 2006

Conspicuous Desiring (Père Goriot part 1)

One quarter through Pere Goriot, the title character, a retired vermicelli manufacturer, has moved into a pension, asked twice to move into less expensive apartments within the pension, received his daughters, and sold off silver and other possessions. Yet he is the object of scorn and ridicule by the proprietress and the other pensioners, described as a scandalous scoundrel, derided for dallying with women and being a miser.

In his first post on Balzac as historian, Andrew writes:
Balzac [portrayed French society] through the creation of fictional worlds, ones that in some ways are created to perfectly illustrate the point Balzac wished to express. Perhaps, then, Balzac's utility to the historian resides in his efficient evoking of a "'histoire des moeurs'" [2]. A history, not of economics, politics, or even society. But a history of culture and the ways in which economics, politics, and society had the potential to affect the everyday French citizen.
In Pere Goriot, the pension is a microcosm of the corrupt sociability of Restoration France (1815- 1830, the period after the fall of Napoleon in which the monarchy and aristocracy pretended that nothing had changed since the revolution, especially their legitimacy.)

Although bourgeois types like Goriot would be heroes of the July Monarchy (1830-1848), whose style would be imitated by King Louis-Philippe himself, in 1819 Paris they were boors out of step with the persistence of noblesse oblige. They hoarded money rather than court the approval of the elite; they put themselves off limits to the seduction of entitlement; they shrouded themselves in secrecy that can only be the sign of degeneracy. Personal improvement and frugality counted for nothing.

Despite being relatively unknown to the pensioners, Goriot's character is completely formed from his unwillingness to participate in the same social games as everyone else in Paris: desiring to attend the great parties, to gain the ear of the count, and perhaps possessing the affections of his wife (if not her body, as well.)

This was the society that Balzac criticized. The ambitious seduced the aristocracy in order to make their way into Parisian high society; the aristocracy had to make themselves available for seduction in order to maintain their standing.

The first taste of this comes when Goriot, who is first seen as a man of wealth and, thus, a ticket to the easy life, turns a cold soldier to the game of seduction. Madame Vauquer, the pension's proprietor, plans to use Goriot to improve her own status, perhaps eventually marrying him. First, she uses his presence to attract better clientele to her lodgings.

However, her impression of Goriot turns on a dime: the Countess de l'Ambermesnil (one of the high class lodgers) attempts, but fails, to entice Goriot. Because of his indifference, the Countess leaves the pension in a huff. Vauquer turns on Goriot, not out of jealousy, but because she felt betrayed by his unavailability, and being unavailable did not just make him socially undesirable, it made him asocial.
Once she'd realized that he couldn't be tempted ... it did not take her long to understand why. And what she understood, to use Monsieur Goriot's own words, was that he was and always had been an odd bird. Now, at long last, he'd shown her the futility of her pretty little plan: as the countess had rather forcefully phrased it--certainly a good judge of such matters--there was nothing to be gotten from a man like him. Her aversion, of course, was necessarily a good deal more intense than her affection had ever been. It was not live that led her to detest him, but disappointment.

Goriot appears to be a negative presence in an economy of conspicuous desiring. To the other lodgers, he buys women rather than socializes with them. Eugene de Rastignac, the law student from the "South," affirms this logic of seduction, believing that his ticket to the good life is not obtainable through his professional ascent, but by managing relationships with upper-class women.

Yet he finds himself beaten at this game at every turn: by the dandy, Maxime de Trailles, and the Portuguese nobleman, Marquis de Ajudo-Pinto, whose stature is enhanced by the visibility of their affairs with married aristocratic women. As for the women, the sense that they are attainable, even in marriage, makes them desirable.

The kicker: one of these women, de Restaud, comes to Goriot's defense when Rastignac impugns his character.

As much as I would like to believe that Balzac's descriptions of sociability and seduction are drawn from observations, they could also be taken as a continuation of a tradition of the Old Regime: depicting the aristocracy as a debauched, and thus illegitimate, class. The Diamond Necklace Affair (well described in Sara Maza's book) was an opportunity to depict Marie Antoinette as an adultress. The impoverished writers of Darnton's Grub Street delighted in writing "pornography" that acted as a political weapon against the elites. Although Balzac claims to write about 1819 (from his vantage in 1836), I wonder how valid the trope of the debauched nobleman was.


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