Balzac wrote a long series of novels about France from the late 18th until the mid-19th century, a series that was interrupted when he died. He called it the Human Comedy, and he aimed at capturing the totality of life. He himself was a member of a Prophet generation--indeed, I named his generation the Balzac generation in my article on Western European generations--born in 1799, rather like an American born in 1864 or 1944. (While the Napoleonic wars continued, of course, until 1815, France itself was quite stable by 1803 and was clearly in a High by that time.) Balzac was not only keenly aware of the influence of history upon people, but he was very much alive to differences between generations. He obviously knew hundreds of people who had been young adults during the Revolution, and they play enormous roles in his books, even those like La cousine Bette that are set in much later periods. Although many of them made fortunes under Napoleon, they tend to be careful and frugal with money, as our own GI generation was. Balzac has particular respect for the old soldiers of the period, one of whom takes sick and dies in La Cousine Bette because his younger brother has disgraced his family. In short, by the 1830s and 1840s, the era of the relatively liberal July Monarchy that came to power in 1830, the Napoleonic generation are aging relics of a glorious and more heroic past. Most of the heroes of these books were either children during the revolution or were born in its wake, like Balzac himself.
Balzac sets his books all around France, but many of the most famous take place in the Paris of the Restoration (1815-30) and the July Monarch (1830 until his own untimely death in 1850.) There he finds almost no heroes. The rich in particular care only for social distinction, money, and sex. Here and there, a lonely artist toils, like Balzac himself, to please a public lacking in taste, and some young men reach Paris determined to do good, but generally fail. Here in the United States it took us at least 40 years after our last great crisis--that is, until the 1980s--to reach this state, captured so well by Tom Wolfe, a Balzac fan himself, in The Bonfire of the Vanities. In France this happened almost instantaneously, perhaps because Napoleon had in the end lost the war, and a new elite had taken power composed largely of emigres who had spent the Napoleonic era in exile. The society is, of course, utterly inegalitarian, and Thomas Piketty cited Balzac, along with Jane Austen, to illustrate the key features of societies dominated by inherited wealth. The drama of Balzac's novels, including La Cousine Bette, often comes from rich men's tendency to squander all their wealth in pursuit of pleasure. Women, meanwhile, scheme to share in the available riches by selling their companionship and their bodies. Balzac even coined his own word, a "lorette," for beauties of the stage and the opera who became the high-priced mistresses of bankers and nobles.
What is lacking in Balzac's Paris is exactly what is lacking in the United States today: any widespread devotion to something larger than one's self. That is why Balzac obviously feels nostalgia for the Napoleonic era even though he is a believing Catholic and a monarchist, just as the United States in the 1990s was seized by a fit of nostalgia for the era of the GI generation. That is why most of his heroes are solitary artists. Near the very end of La Cousine Bette I discovered this remarkable passage, delivered by a doctor, speaking to a virtuous woman who has heroically tolerated her husband's escapades for decades, and who now devotes herself to charitable work among the poor.
“This is the law of society. The confessor, the judge, and lawyer would be helpless if the state did not subjugate the human spirit. . .We, we have the pleasure of a successful cure, just as you have the joy of saving a family from horrible hunger, misery and poverty by finding it work; but what solace is there for the judge, the police commissioner or the lawyer, who spend their lives searching among the most heinous conspiracies of ambition, that social monster that knows the pain of failure but never feels repentance?
“Whence comes this great evil?” asked the baroness.
“From the lack of religion,” he replied, “and from the rule of finance, which is nothing but pure egotism. Money in other times was not everything, one recognized other things of greater value. There was nobility, talent, and service to the state; but today the law makes money a universal standard of value and the basis of political power! Certain magistrates are no long eligible for it, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would not be eligible! The endless division of inheritances forces everyone to think only of himself from the age of twenty onwards. And the need to make one’s fortune leads easily to depraved schemes, because the religious spirit is lacking in France, despite the efforts of those working for a Catholic restoration. That is the opinion of all those who, like me, see into the bowels of society.”
Sadly, even the rhetoric of President Obama's State of the Union address hardly recognizes values greater than money. "Middle class economics" simply argues, accurately to be sure, that some have much too much while most of the nation has too little. But we too need "other things of greater value" such as nobility (of spirit), talent, and service to the state. We are at a disadvantage in some of our overseas struggles because militant Muslims find things of greater value in service to their religion, however misguided they may be. Balzac, by telling us that society has been here before, opens up the hope that it may some day escape again, as well.