Marx and My Sentimental Education

Oscar Wilde wrote that “the nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.” Fredric Jameson similarly attributed the beginning of what has come to bear the name of “modernity” to Balzac and the Comédie Humaine.

Today I moved into the Marxist criticism phase of my reading, starting with Lukács, then probably onto Serres and Jameson. As a result, my thesis is really starting to crystallize in my mind. The basic point seems to be that it wasn’t a coincidence that Napoléon III’s opulent 1867 Universal Exposition coincides with Marx’s publication of Das Kapital. I’ve read a fair amount of Marxist theory in various lit classes and, despite what the author of the preface to the edition of Lukács I found at the library would have you believe, I’ve always found it very germane. (Seriously, how can you open your preface to one of the most famous Marxist texts by saying that Marxist theory is just one tiny, self-important division of the great meaningless, self-serving machine that is literary studies? Who hired this guy?)

One of the arguments Lukács makes is that Balzac stood at the precipice of the birth of modern capitalism and all its oppressive, soul-crushing, exploitative machinery, and was conscious of it. He argues that Balzac looked out at the world and saw that the bourgeoisie was not the rational, egalitarian enterprise it claimed to be (one book I’ve read quotes a French Revolution-era essay that argued that bourgeois capitalism would do away with war because it wasn’t profitable), but that Balzac was also inexorably aware that the aristocracy could not persist and that capitalism’s efficiency would make certain things better.

Lukács believes that Balzac and realism were the last stand of the complete man; the movements that followed (Zola’s naturalism and the more psychological works of the modernists) could never recover the individual as something entire. Balzac’s man is a type; Cousin Pons is not a monad, despite being a pariah in society, but rather a representative of a class, of a political philosophy, and of an era. From his clothes to his naïveté to his appreciation of art, Pons is a stand-in for a specific Society. Zola, in sacrificing interiority and interpretation in favor of scientific objectivism, and Proust (for instance), in climbing so deep into memory that the definition of the real begins to blur, are both equally incapable of imagining a man who is an Individual in the Lukácsian sense.

To compare Balzac’s prescient ambivalence with the economic realities of the Second Empire – the well-meaning but misguided utopian socialism of Haussmann and the Malthusian war against the poor that became one of the primary motives of the Grands Projets – it’s really very heartbreaking. On one side there’s Pons, the symbol of the pre-capitalist past being brutally dispossessed of his treasured art collection by the combined force of the bourgeois trifecta of the Lawyer, the Doctor, and the Money-Lender, and on the other side there’s Madame Bovary, running from man to man in the desperate hope of feeling anything.

As Deslauriers complains in Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, “Things were more beautiful when Camille Desmoulins, standing on a table, pushed the people to the Bastille! People lived back then, they could assert themselves, prove their strength…

“The future doesn’t look great.”

Flaubert’s characters are like flies bashing themselves over and over again against the walls of a jar that’s been sealed shut. Their parents have told them about the times of revolutions, when society seemed to be beginning in earnest, but when they look around they start to think that if society is really flying forward so quickly, they’re certainly being left behind. The people of the provinces, like Emma Bovary, imagine that in Paris things must be better, and in the process empty their tiny towns of whatever life was left in them. Frédéric, of the Sentimental Education, sees one beautiful woman and in a desperate effort to resurrect Young Werther in his own life, he sacrifices friends, family, and happiness in pursuit of one approving look from her. Slowly, they suffocate.

And unfortunately, it’s to the fragmented, emotionally neutered builders of castles in the sand that I most relate.

As Professor Begley says, books teach us history, but not in a way that we can know. Rather, they show us what history feels like, how history tries to represent itself. As Jameson says, “History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention.” Reading Flaubert doesn’t convey the 1860’s in the way a list of events or a list of Haussmannian projects does, but it does show in some mediated sense what the 1860’s felt like. And that’s precisely why I’m doing this project: because there’s some link between the happiness I feel standing on the pont neuf at night with the long rows of identical buildings stretching along the quai and the alienated loneliness of living in the world’s first modern city.

I’ve been repeatedly surprised by how relevant and modern these books and these historical facts have been. They seem at many times to have been written last year instead of a century and a half ago. I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked then to have found the following paragraph in the Sentimental Education which really might as well have been written with me in mind:

« Comme les ennuis de Frédéric n’avaient point de cause raisonnable et qu’il ne pouvait arguer d’aucun malheur, Martinon ne comprit rien à ses lamentations sur l’existence. Lui, il allait tous les matins à l’Ecole, se promenait ensuite dans le Luxembourg, prenait le soir sa demi-tasse au café, et, avec quinze cents francs par an et l’amour de cette ouvrière, il se trouvait parfaitement heureux. »

“As Frederic’s ennui didn’t have any reasonable cause and he couldn’t articulate any particular sadness, Martinon didn’t understand any of his lamentations about existence. For his part, Martinon went to school every morning, went for a walk afterwards in the Luxembourg, had an espresso in the evening at the café, and with his 1500 francs a year and the love of his poor, working-class girlfriend, found himself perfectly happy.”

Admittedly, I’m still owed the 1500 francs a year and the amour de l’ouvrière, but it’s good to know that if I had just gotten here 150 years earlier, I could have found Gustave making the same circuitous rounds of the gardens I make every afternoon, watching the tourists slowly going by, and wondering what life was like back then, before the last complete man died, before Balzac invented the 19th century.