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Balzac’s Bureaucracy: The Infinite Destiny of the Unknown Masterpiece Marco Diani W ITH THE BU REAU CRATS (Les Employés) Balzac writes the great novel of the Bureaucracy, paradoxically managing to cre­ ate at one stroke both a new literary genre and its uncontested masterpiece.1In so doing he will inspire all those who will follow him, from Flaubert to Kafka, not only the novelists but all the great reformers and idealists of modernity, up to and beyond Max Weber. Balzac does more than only invent a new genre. We know how the “ common base of the bureaucratic stereotype” had existed in France for some time and was deeply rooted in the collective consciousness of his society. Balzac’s fundamental innovation is in overcoming the banalization of the bureau­ cratic stereotype by giving a more adventurous, dramatic, and mockheroic stamp to the pre-existing verbal and narrative material. Balzac himself notifies us of this, in case it weren’t sufficiently clear: he is not writing a novel, but an analysis of a new form of power that will dominate modern societies: the mediocracy, marked by the end of indi­ viduality, the disappearance of traditional values, and the rise of mass society. Balzac, the “ social scientist,” has witnessed what is being built on the ruins of pre-modern society: a harmony between two new aspects of social being, one having to do with the subjectivity of the individual actor and his passion for power; the other concerning the objective inscription of the sign of money—the gold that blinds and consumes. “ Desire burns us and Power destroys us, but Knowledge leaves our system in a perpetual state of calm,” says one of the characters of La Peau de chagrin. 2 Knowledge, therefore, remains. In modern literature, Balzac repre­ sents one of the extreme examples of the representation of intellectual power in its statu nascenti. Bequeathed a prophetic vision in which the motif of money, the tragic isolation of modern individualism, and the absolute rift between values and “ things” assume extraordinary impor­ tance, Balzac writes almost as though to define Modernity as an epoch of transition; as in fact the Modern is the transitional epoch par excellence. The visionary power of his intellectuality must be stressed, because 42 Sp r in g 1994 D iani visionary knowledge can exist only in the realm of the immeasurable, of the immaterial, whose elements encircle all Balzac’s novels. The accumu­ lation of capital and the concentration of finance, political revolution, the birth of the social state and the rise of the bureaucracy, the emergence of completely unprecedented personal and collective relations —Balzac treats these themes that always anchor his thought in the novel, obligating his readers thereby to reenact his own process of analysis and definition of the problem. This is in fact the very paradox of the prophetic modernity of Balzac. We can still call him our contemporary not by virtue of some kind of “ rediscovery” of his work, nor because of some realistic “ reflection” of our time in his, but because only now have modern societies finally taken on the forms he prophesied, explored, and analyzed. This is so above all politically because, instead of manifesting nostalgia for the past, Balzac never misses the chance, for instance, to exalt the figure of Napoleon as a brilliant organizer, an astute populist revolutionary, and a fervid model of an entirely modern efficiency and audacity: Since 1789, the State, Nation or patrie if you like, has replaced the Prince. Instead of look­ ing directly to the chief political magistrate, the commis have become, in spite of our fine patriotic ideas, the employés of the government, and their superiors are blown about by the winds of a power called Minister, who does not know from day to day whether he will be in office tomorrow. Since the routine of business must go on, a certain number of indispensa­ ble commis survive; indispensable but at the mercy of the administration, they want to keep their positions. Bureaucracy, a gigantic power set in motion by dwarfs, is thus born. If by subordinating all things and all men to his will, Napoleon for a time put off...


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