Daguerrotype of Honore de Balzac circa 1845, Wikimedia Common

Like Spiders in a Pot: the Contemporary Significance of Balzac

Pierre Azou
Pierre Azou
11 min read
"In this time, party hatred was far more bitter than in our day.… In those almost forgotten days the same theatre could scarcely hold certain Royalist and Liberal journalists; the most malignant provocation was offered, glances were like pistol-shots, the least spark produced an explosion of quarrel.… There were but two parties—Royalists and Liberals, Classics and Romantics. You found the same hatred masquerading in either form, and no longer wondered at the scaffolds of the Convention."

The lines above come from Honoré de Balzac’s novel Illusions perdues, published between 1837 and 1843, set between 1815 and 1830, and the keystone to his grandiose La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy): more than 90 works written between 1829 and 1850 with the expressed ambition to “rival the State” in its record of every layer of 19th century French society.

Yet, as today’s “Progressives” and “Conservatives” champion ideological purity and sterilely denounce each other from their respective echo-chambers, one might think “these almost forgotten days” are in fact all-too present and wonder if Balzac’s “sociology” is not also one for the 21st century.

Bringing this question to the fore is the critical and popular success met by a new film adaptation of Illusion perdues, by director and screenwriter Xavier Giannoli. Premiering at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, the piece makes no secret of its attempt to draw parallels between Balzac’s time and our own.

In this context, one intriguing fact in today’s French politics has surprisingly remained unnoticed: two of the main representants of these political trends both explicitly find inspiration in Balzac’s work. This is Emmanuel Macron, current “progressive” president up for reelection against “conservative” Marine Le Pen in the second round of the 2022 presidential election; and “conservative” political newcomer Éric Zemmour, whose first campaign failed to make of him the new leader of the far-Right, yet whose ideas and media presence have left an important mark. Much of France’s political fate depends on whether his millions of electors will follow his instruction to vote for Le Pen in the second round.

What draws Macron and Zemmour to Balzac is his portrayal of the passion they have in common: ambition. Indeed, each identifies with one of the two versions Balzac gives us of the typical 19th century young man trying to find his way in the new world born of the French Revolution. Macron wrote in his campaign manifesto "Revolution" that as a young man he “was excited by the passions of Balzac’s young wolves”—the most famous of whom being Eugène de Rastignac, whose rise to fame and power starts in Le Père Goriot, and unfolds across several Balzac novels, including Illusions perdues. Zemmour, on the other hand, decided to name the publishing company he recently founded after the main protagonist of the latter novel: Lucien de Rubempré, who, like him, embraced journalism as a means to rise.

To those who would take this as sheer anecdotal curiosity in France’s long history of intertwinement of politics and literature, any connoisseur of Balzac would retort by pointing to the duality at the core of his work. He expresses it time and again in his novels, and most pithily in Illusions perdues: “Everything is bilateral in the domain of thought. Ideas are two-sided. Janus is the tutelary deity of criticism and the symbol of genius.” Thus it is that Balzac-Janus, the self-proclaimed reactionary who wholeheartedly rejected the modern world (“I write by the light of two eternal Truths: Religion, Monarchy,” he famously declared), has also been a darling of Marxist critics going back to Engels himself, who wrote that he “learned more in Balzac than in all the historians, economists, and statisticians of his time.”

As Rastignac and Rubempré meet in Illusions perdues, each trying to outdo the other, what Balzac’s emphasis on duality suggests is therefore that our “Conservatives” and “Progressives” might have more in common than they are willing to admit—or, indeed, than they are aware of.

To understand this, Giannolli’s film adaptation provides a good entry point—precisely because it goes in the very opposite direction than the one we want to take.

That is to say, it does to Balzac the reverse of what Balzac does to politics: it absolutizes him. As it centers on the rise and fall of Lucien de Rubempré from aspiring poet in Angoulême to successful journalist in Paris to destitute poet in Angoulême again, it only expresses his reactionary side, clearly distinguishing the good (Art, Love) from the bad (Journalism, Money).

Most conspicuous is the absolutization of Love. In the book and in the movie, Lucien gravitates alternately towards two women who are, socially speaking, polar opposites: Mme de Bargeton, a provincial noblewoman professing a love for literature, and Coralie, a Parisian actress and courtesan “kept” as a sort of beneficiary or pet by a rich merchant while she awaits a breakthrough. In the novel, the tension between these women is never truly overcome, precisely because it is never clear whether he actually loves them—or rather the “value” that they represent. Thus money, as the symbol of this uncertain value, always comes between them, and his desire is always a “double desire.” As Balzac specifies, noting of Lucien that “He loved, and he meant to rise.” In the movie, however, Coralie clearly comes out on top. Far from the gold-digger that Balzac created, she now represents “pure and profound Love that doesn’t care what evil society thinks,” and she dies the death of a saint. Resisting the lure of Mme de Bargeton’s fortune to stay true to her is one of Lucien’s few admirable acts—an episode found in the film but not in the book.

Even more problematic, however, is the absolutization of Art, which the film sets against its journalistic debasement. In Balzac’s hands, Nathan, while not devoid of admirable qualities, is just one of many writerly voices in the Parisian polyphony surrounding Lucien. In Giannolli’s, not only does he defend the path of pure and disinterested Art that Lucien should have followed, but he is also his story’s narrator—and thus, the owner and deliverer of its truth. This is to forget the many other writerly projections of Balzac himself in the novel, and notably the very character that Giannolli has erected to the status of main antagonist: the journalist Lousteau, Lucien’s Virgil-like guide through his hellish world. Portrayed in the movie as nothing but cynical, unscrupulous, and dissolute, he is in the novel far more human and loveable in spite of all his failings, notably because he is also shown to act as a true friend to Lucien. Crucially, this serves as a reminder that, while he unequivocally attacks the world of Journalism, Balzac was himself very much a part of it: both as a journalist like Lousteau—the income paid his bills—and as an author whose work was serialized in newspapers.

To sum up, contrary to Giannolli’s movie where truth (Art, Love) comes first, so that untruth (fake love, fake news) can be denounced—losing one’s illusions being then the process whereby truth asserts itself through its loss—in Balzac’s world “illusions” and “truth” are coeval, and therefore inextricable. Thus, if Balzac is our contemporary, it is not, as the movie suggests, because he has foreseen the disappearance of Truth, but because he heralds a time in which, as one of his characters has it, “everything is true and everything is false.”

What is the key to this paradox? Two complementary explanations can be offered, one socio-political, the other theoretical.

The theory we need is the one introduced by René Girard in his first book, published in 1963: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Desire, Deceit, and the Novel), and with which his name is now associated: “mimetic desire.” In its simplest form, the theory holds that desire is not a straight arrow, but rather a triangle: one only desires someone or something else because one wants to be someone or something else. As the recurrence of words like “imitation,” “jealousy,” or “revenge” attests, the episodes in the novel exemplifying this theory are numerous. Suffice it to recall how Lucien’s passionate love for Mme de Bargeton in Angoulême, where she is the object of all the noblemen’s admiration, suddenly disappears once they arrive in Paris, where nobody cares about the provincial woman she is.

But the relevance of Girard’s theory to our problem goes beyond discreet episodes. Its contextual key is provided to us in Le Père Goriot, in a speech addressed to Rastignac:

There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in that aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot.

In the period between 1815 and 1848, which covers both the time of the writing of Illusions perdues and the time in which it is set, demographic and political changes converged to create this “spiders in a pot” like situation. The wars of the Empire (1804–1815) were certainly robust and included a period of demographic growth, with two-thirds of the population aged under 40; and this a time of constant and rapid political change, a return of the monarchy with the Restoration in 1815, the July Revolution in 1830 which established a constitutional monarchy, and finally a new attempt at a Republic with another Revolution in 1848—before the return of the Empire in 1852.

Thus, what our numerous young men have to grapple with as they try to find a “good position” is the incomplete legacy of the French Revolution, the perplexing birth of a new world that is never quite born, since the old world never stops dying. In the famous words of Alfred de Musset in his Confessions d’un enfant du siècle, published just before Illusions perdues, what they find “between these two worlds—like the ocean which separates the Old World from the New—[is] something vague and floating, a troubled sea filled with wreckage.” “Human Beings are born and remain free and equal in rights,” said the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men—but “rights” do not make a living, nor do they confer the recognition these young people struggle so eagerly for.

If privileges and the prestige attached to the nobility were abolished on the night of the 4th of August 1789, did that really mean that talent and hard work were the only criteria of success? Conversely, when privileges were restored in 1815 with the monarchy, does that really mean that the king and the nobility would be all-powerful as they were before the Revolution? The answer to both questions is, of course, no—but as the constant political changes show, this “no” is never definitive.

Obviously, there is no better environment than this for mimetic desire to thrive. As each individual has to navigate by themselves the troubled sea of perpetually changing values, the only available guides they can find are similarly lost other individuals. They may group in classes, but, like these individuals, each class lacks something, and therefore desires what the other class possesses. The result is reciprocal envy, hidden under reciprocal scorn: “The merchant classes are rich, the noblesse are usually poor. Each side takes its revenge in scorn of the other.”

After the French Revolution, noblemen are all the more intent on distinguishing themselves from the commoner as these commoners have been recognized as being just like them, and ready to take their place. Yet, to distinguish oneself from someone, one has to presuppose the very equality that one is trying to negate. Thus, the noblesse will try to prove its superiority by showing its “merit”, i.e., by imitating the non-noble class. Which makes the non-noble class all the more eager to take the place of the noblesse, etc. Down the road, what we end up with is the situation that Girard calls the “mimetic crisis”: everybody is just the same precisely because everybody attempts to distinguish themselves, and everybody hates each other precisely because everybody is the same.

Born of a noblewoman and a commoner, Lucien owes his life to the desire that ties the old and the new world; thus, his journey encapsulates their dead-endish tension. What sets it going is the “injustice” he feels at “possessing the high order of intelligence which sets a man on a level with lofty height,” while being “consigned socially to the lowest level.” His resolution to “rise” is therefore grounded in the principles of the French Revolution. However, in his provincial town, it is still the nobility that lies at the top of the social hierarchy, and, to them, intelligence is nothing: birth is all. Propelled by the new world, Lucien crashes against the old one. Hence the first plot-driver of the novel. To conquer this world, Lucien—whose real name is that of his father, Chardon—needs to gain the right to bear his mother’s name, de Rubempré. Yet—and this is the second plot driver, the one that leads to Journalism—only his talent as a writer, and the money earned by this craft, can get him there. Hence the paradoxical nature of his journey, hence, finally, the key to Balzac’s “doubleness.”

Just like Girard’s nobleman who proves a commoner because he tries to distinguish himself from the commoner, the means of Lucien’s quest contradicts its ends: for what is a right of birth gained through merit, if not a contradiction in terms? And so Lucien beats on in Musset’s “troubled sea”—a boat against two currents, borne ceaselessly and alternatively towards the past and the future.

To conclude where we began, imagine now not fifty-thousand, but millions of such boats—and you have the situation described by Balzac in Beatrix, which I, for one, do not find too unlike ours:

So soon as a nation has … pulled down all recognized social superiorities, she opens the sluice through which rushes a torrent of secondary ambitions, the meanest of which resolves to lead. She had, so democrats declare, an evil in her aristocracy; but a defined and circumscribed evil; she exchanges it for a dozen armed and contending aristocracies—the worst of all situations. By proclaiming the equality of all, she has promulgated a declaration of the rights of Envy.

Yet, from there, we can go in three directions.

We can conclude, as Balzac obviously wants us to do in this passage, that things were better under the Ancien Régime, and try to turn back the clocks of time. This is supposedly Zemmour and Le Pen’s conclusion, and, even though Giannolli would probably never explicitly endorse such a view, it is also the direction that his film is unwittingly heading towards as it uncritically reproduces Balzac’s attack on the Press. Only now, indeed, can we fully understand the meaning of this attack which, critics have shown, was in fact far from realistic. Balzac attacks the Press because, as he states himself in La Peau de chagrin, it is “the new religion of Democracy”—the ultimate expression of this new age he is denouncing. He attacks the Press because, in allowing for the scrutiny of everyone by everyone, its rise provides a magnifying channel to precisely the “mimetic desire” that lies for him at its roots.

As upholders of Democracy, however, we know that this is not the only thing that the Press does: it is also a counter-power, the watchdog of our liberties. Rejecting Balzac’s conclusion on that basis is supposedly what Macron would invite us to do. But, his critics would argue, doesn’t this invitation to freedom hide a ruthless individualistic competition, a world where, in Macron’s own words, some people are “everything” and some people “nothing”?

Between the Charybdis of reaction and the Scylla of neo-liberalism, there has to be a third way—of both Liberty and Equality. We will not find it all in Balzac, but, if we recognize his “double” nature instead of simplifying him to serve our purposes, if we play Balzac against Balzac, he does take us on the first step.

The illusions we have to lose are those that make us believe “Progressives” and “Conservatives” have nothing in common. They do. They have their desire. Macron and Zemmour, their respective supporters (“Conservatives” and “Progressives”) are but two sides of the same coin. The more they hate each other, the more they look alike. The more they look alike, the more they hate each other. “Like spiders in a pot,” their scorn is mixed with envy. Their successes are but the reflection of the other’s failures. Let us stop catering to their illusions.‌

Pierre Azou

Pierre Azou is a PhD candidate at Princeton University. He holds two master's degrees, one in Public Affairs from Sciences Po and one in French Literature from the Sorbonne.