Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Vautrin was greater than this"

Johann Hari doggedly asserts that Vautrin does not reside in Cheltenham.

Empson's pages on Gay put forward the idea that the pastoralisation of the criminal milieu in bourgeois society: its effective presentation as a network possessing apparent organisational consistancy, could be achieved by substituting a version of the old aristocratic social world in the place where an accurate picture of the criminal world would otherwise be. A dissapearing class is made to stand in for one newly "discovered" or at least unearthed. Sentimentalised ideas about the old aristocracy were not in short supply and were of less and less use in real life. Acquiring real knowledge about the criminal world has always been difficult, dangerous and distasteful. But the purpose of the exercise isn't in any case the passing on of accurate information rather its the dramatic effect of menace. A certain vagueness has its part in the overall effect. The shift is from mere crime to criminal underworld.

Balzac's Vautrin is likewise a cod aristocrat: Vautrin, we are told, commands the loyalty of ten thousand men, as by feudal bond; he is pledged to a fearful code of honour such as persists in a degraded half remembered form among Balzac's bourgeois aristocrats; his ambition is to set up a slave colony in Louisiana: grotesque caricature of the feudal system. Again, the effect is to suggest criminality as a black menace offstage, with which this character communes and from which he draws his stregnth. Second thing is, once a degree of uncertainty is induced the eccentricity of this character commutes from his individual self, as if a line of cartoon ants, and comes to signify the vagueness of the milieu in which he's apparently so surely planted. Shakespeare may have had the same idea with Falstaff, who knows?

One of the reasons for valorising so called "materialism" is getting away from these sorts of effects, when they appear not in forms of entertainment but in apparently serious ideas about real life; ideas that are really acted on. The idea of the world that makes the social group of criminals* an effective class with perfect "conductivity" on the basis of a few tricks is surely an idea opposed to materialism. The act of the gauging this "conductivity" might as well be "materialism", since the name might as well be used.

*other groups from which an exoteric network can be contrived or has been historically: the Police; Freemasons; the Catholic Church; Jews; Gypsies; the upper ten thousand; circus performers; the working class; drug addicts; communists; bourgeois leftists.

1 comment:

catmint said...

Père Goriot also features an Empsonian double plot: Vautrin's proposed swindle involving Mlle Taillefer and her estranged family paralleling the main arc of the story in a coarser way, approaching a parody of it.