If de Tocqueville Predicted Twitter, Balzac Knew Trump Would Use It
Liesl Schillinger on Reading Balzac in the Age of Trump
For my book club this January—kicking off its 20th year in operation—I asked my members to read Balzac’s novel Old Goriot, set in Paris in 1819, exactly two centuries ago, and four years after Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena. For decades, to no avail, I had pushed Balzac’s Cousin Bette on my group, so I was thrilled when Old Goriot made it through the sorting hat. (Among its many attractions, the novel is short—about half the length of Cousin Bette—always an advantage for a book club.)
It is a curious fact that even lifelong Francophiles—people who have read Flaubert, Stendhal, and multiple volumes of Proust, who recite Baudelaire for kicks, watch the newest French comedies on Netflix, and mainline Époisses—often have skipped Balzac. This may be because his name sounds silly in English, or because his titles can be clunky (one of them translates: “At the House of the Tennis-Playing Cat”; another, “Ferragus, Leader of the Devourers”), or because the epic scale of his project dwarfs even Proust’s. Both Old Goriot and Cousin Bette are part of Balzac’s vast “Human Comedy”—a sprawling collection of novels and stories (he published more than 90 of them, and dozens more were underway when he died at 51) that paints a thickly detailed portrait of French society in his day.
This is a shame, because Balzac’s writing is engrossing, entertaining, revelatory and merciless. He has an artist’s eye for visual detail, and a hard-boiled newsman’s aversion to euphemism. In his age, he frequently came under attack for his unsparing portrayal of human foibles and folly. If you visit his house in Paris, a green-shuttered villa with a tiny garden, hidden on a verdant hillside in Passy, with creaking floors that make you feel you are being tailed by Balzac’s suspicious ghost, you will see plaques on the wall that set forth the scathing rebukes he received from his critics. His reputation survived the fury of his peers; and two hundred years on, reading his novels still produces frisson—and recognition that human vices and vicissitudes have not changed all that much in two centuries, though they do not always feel as Balzackian as they do at the present moment.
Old Goriot tracks the climb up the slippery, clattery Parisian social ladder of a handsome, passionate, earnest young man in his early twenties named Eugène de Rastignac, who arrives in Paris from the south of France (think of it as the French version of the American Midwest—the provenance of down-to-earth, straightforward folk), determined to make his mark. Picture Timothée Chalamet as Eugène—or at least, that’s what my book club members did, as they clamored for this novel to be filmed.
Everyone in Old Goriot, including the hero, is constantly rising or falling in social status, with abrupt consequences in their treatment by others—like the characters in the Jules Verne fairy tale “The Rat Family,” who change species (up or down on the evolutionary continuum, from man to mollusk and back) as their luck changes. While Eugène studies law (half-heartedly) and falls in love (ardently) in Paris, he lives in a grimy boarding house run by a blowsy penny-pinching widow named Madame Vauquer, who treats her boarders rudely when their fortunes flag, and knows the price of every comestible she serves, down to the half sou. Eugène’s doting provincial family pays his tuition and board, and sends him extra money (which they cannot afford) when he needs to buy fashionable clothes to gain entrée to elite circles. This is not as frivolous as it sounds: the family’s long-term security depends on Eugène’s success at cutting a dash, and his ability to monetize his éclat.
Among Madame Vauquer’s boarders (besides Eugène) are a naïve, pious, penniless maiden named Victorine, whose selfish brother has persuaded their wealthy father to disinherit her; and a Lear-like retired pasta merchant named Goriot, who has bankrupted himself to launch his two daughters into the haut monde, converting his lifesavings into dowries to buy them titled husbands. Eugène falls in love with one of the daughters. But there is yet another notable boarder at the Maison Vauquer: a schemer named Vautrin, who knows all the ins and outs of the enclaves of influence. Vautrin takes a shrewd interest in Eugène, hoping that, if he succeeds in elevating the boy into the Bourbon Elysium, he will be rewarded with a sizable nest egg, which Vautrin intends to use to leave France, and reinvent himself in egalitarian America.
Balzac’s writing is engrossing, entertaining, revelatory and merciless. He has an artist’s eye for visual detail, and a hard-boiled newsman’s aversion to euphemism.
I chose Old Goriot as our first book of 2019 for a very particular reason, beyond Balzac-boosting. For two years, since Donald Trump’s accession to the U.S. Presidency, I’ve been teaching a course called “Facts/Alternative Facts: American Media from Tocqueville to Trump,” at the New School in New York City. The class draws on Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s magisterial examination of the social and political life of the United States, half a century into our country’s existence. Last December, it occurred to me that Tocqueville and Balzac wrote at the same time and were about the same age (Balzac was five years older); and, furthermore, that Democracy in America and Old Goriot were published in the same year, 1835. If there had been a National Book Awards in France at the time, those two books would have been shoo-ins for Best Work of Non-Fiction and Best Work of Fiction.
I doubt the two men ever met. Tocqueville was posher than Balzac, more sociable, and better groomed (and dressed); and he and his family were intricately connected with French politics. It was that connection, in part, that prompted Tocqueville to set out for America in 1831. The July Revolution of 1830 had unseated the Bourbon kings, who had favored Tocqueville’s parents and, by extension, their clever son. The Bourbons were brothers of the guillotined Louis XVI, whom Tocqueville’s parents had served (they nearly lost their own heads during the Terreur, but they squeaked by). During the 15 years of the Bourbon Restoration, the loyalty of Tocqueville père and mère was rewarded. The July Revolution brought a new king to power, Louis-Philippe, upsetting the patronage game board. Tocqueville was 25 then, only a couple years older than Balzac’s Eugène de Rastignac; and it was prudent for him to keep his distance while new rules took shape. He applied for, and got, a commission from the July Monarchy to travel to America to write about our prison system, a topic safely irrelevant to the new king’s amour-propre.
During the nine months he spent in America, Tocqueville traveled widely, gained a prodigious amount of information about the customs and convictions of the populace, and schooled himself in the foundational documents of this country, like the U.S. Constitution  and the Federalist Papers. Echoing Alexander Hamilton (Federalist 67-77), Tocqueville held that a U.S. President (whom he referred to as the “elective magistrate”) likely would not act as tyrannically as kings often do; and that if he tried to, the Senate would slap him down. Because of Senate supervision, he explained, “in his relations with foreign powers,” the American president “can neither corrupt nor be corrupted.”
It’s interesting to look at Alexander Hamilton’s attitudes on the Presidency, given that they informed Tocqueville’s thinking and paved the way for the passage of the U.S. Constitution. The creation of the office of the Presidency was a major stumbling block to the Constitution’s ratification, back in 1788. Many Americans fiercely opposed the creation of a Chief Executive; the memory of the oppressions of King George III was too near. Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay published the essays that later came to be called The Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788, months before the Constitution was ratified, to refute the detractors. In Federalist 67, “The Executive Department,” Hamilton poked fun at scaredy-cats who thought an American president might succumb to monarchical excesses, like wanting to be “surrounded with minions and mistresses, giving audience to the envoys of foreign potentates in all the supercilious pomp of majesty.” He derided the notion that a democratically elected U.S. President would ever embrace “images of Asiatic despotism,” or defend “murdering janizaries.”
Hamilton could not have anticipated Presidential tweetstorms and statements cozying up to a North Korean despot, embracing a Russian autocrat, and endorsing a Saudi Arabian potentate, who (the CIA has concluded), ordered the ambush and murder of a Washington Post reporter last October in Istanbul. Tocqueville (by my reading) was less wary of Presidential abuse of power than of the “omnipotence” of public opinion in America, the “tyranny of the majority.” Famously, he wrote: “I know of no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”
Tocqueville did not anticipate Donald Trump, of course; but arguably, he foresaw Twitter.
Like the contemporary novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard—who warned in 2015 that writers in the current age were censoring themselves, hiding their true thoughts behind an “invisible wall” for fear of being shunned or shamed on social media and beyond, Tocqueville saw the danger of the herd mentality, and recognized the media’s power to influence that herd. Warning that “the word of a strong-minded man which alone reaches to the passions of a mute assembly has “more power than the confused cries of a thousand orators,”
And yet, Tocqueville was exhilarated and fascinated by the equality he found in this country, believed it would stick, and believed it augured “the approaching irresistible and universal spread of democracy throughout the world.” He dreamed of a republican France, in which the fortunes of Balzac’s Rastignac and all the other denizens of the Human Comedy, in Paris in 1819 or in any country, in any year, would no longer depend on the fickle whims and tyrannical impulses of rich, corrupt, powerful autocrats and their courtiers.
In 1848, after another French revolution brought republican rule to France, Tocqueville wrote an elated new introduction to the 12th
During the next three years, Tocqueville helped draft the constitution of the French 2nd Republic, served briefly as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and more prolongedly, as a member of the French National Assembly. But on December 2, 1851, the French 2nd Republic ceased to exist, when Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (later known as Nap III) staged a coup, dissolved the Assembly, and declared the Second Empire. Tocqueville joined an effort to have Nap III tried for “high treason” for violating the French constitution, and when that failed, he left politics, retreated to his castle, and kept writing.
Balzac had died the previous year, 1850, while still toiling on his neverending oeuvre; knowing that, whatever governments—aristocratic or democratic—might rise or fall; whatever good or bad presidents and kings might come along, the frailties and fungibility of the human condition would stay the same, and needed to be recorded. “Mankind lives under changing conditions,” Tocqueville had observed in 1848, “and new destinies are impending.” Under whatever conditions—democratic or autocratic—the shape of those destinies will always be easier for a novelist to capture in hindsight than for a social observer to predict.