Lost Illusions

Today we live during a period when illusion seems to dominate more than reality. Government keeps us safe, the press is free and gives us the truth, Dr. Fauci is a brilliant doctor, Bill Gates is spending all of his money to make poor people healthier, gender is a social construct …. I could go on and on with the common illusions that many people now take as gospel. The problem of illusions conjured by the ruling class to control society, I think, is persistent to the human condition. Here it is relevant to mention Plato’s shadows on the cave wall as the first instance where this has been recognized. Tom DiLorenzo noted that a lost illusion, what was called reality, is the opposite of being “woke”.

This all comes to mind because I recently saw the film Illusions Perdue in Paris. It is based on the sprawling three-part novel by Honoré de Blazac. From Wikipedia comes this nugget of understanding about his life. “Once his studies were completed, Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law; for three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to understand the vagaries of human nature. In his 1840 novel Le Notaire, he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code”…….In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but his apprentice had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite”. He announced his intention to become a writer.” Balzac’s view might be stated by thousands of young lawyers today.

He published Illusions Perdue in serial form between 1837 and 1843. I have not read the novel so I rely on the Wikipedia plot summary.

Lucien Chardon, the son of a lower middle-class father and an impoverished mother of aristocratic descent, is the pivotal figure of the entire work. Living at Angoulême, he is impoverished, impatient, handsome and ambitious. His widowed mother, his sister Ève and his best friend, David Séchard, do nothing to lessen his high opinion of his own talents, for it is an opinion they share.

Even as Part I of Illusions perdues, Les Deux poètes (The Two Poets), begins, Lucien has already written a historical novel and a sonnet sequence, whereas David is a scientist. But both, according to Balzac, are “poets” in that they creatively seek truth. Theirs is a fraternity of poetic aspiration, whether as scientist or writer: thus, even before David marries Ève, the two young men are spiritual brothers.

Lucien is introduced into the drawing-room of the leading figure of Angoulême high society, Mme de Bargeton, who rapidly becomes infatuated with him. It is not long before the pair flee to Paris where Lucien adopts his maternal patronymic of de Rubempré and hopes to make his mark as a poet. Mme de Bargeton, on the other hand, recognises her mésalliance and, though remaining in Paris, severs all ties with Lucien, abandoning him to a life of destitution.

In Part II, Un Grand homme de province à Paris, Lucien is contrasted both with the journalist Lousteau and the high-minded writer Daniel d’Arthez. Jilted by Mme de Bargeton for the adventurer Sixte du Châtelet, he moves in a social circle of high-class actress-prostitutes and their journalist lovers: soon he becomes the lover of Coralie. As a literary journalist he prostitutes his talent. But he still harbours the ambition of belonging to high society and longs to assume by royal warrant the surname and coat of arms of the de Rubemprés. He therefore switches his allegiance from the liberal opposition press to the one or two royalist newspapers that support the government. This act of betrayal earns him the implacable hatred of his erstwhile journalist colleagues, who destroy Coralie’s theatrical reputation. In the depths of his despair he forges his brother-in-law’s name on three promissory notes. This is his ultimate betrayal of his integrity as a person. After Coralie’s death he returns in disgrace to Angoulême, stowed away behind the Châtelets’ carriage: Mme de Bargeton has just married du Châtelet, who has been appointed prefect of that region.

In Part III, Les Souffrances de l’inventeur, in Angoulême David Séchard is betrayed on all sides but is supported by his loving wife. He invents a new and cheaper method of paper production: thus, at a thematic level, the advances of paper-manufacturing processes are very closely interwoven with the commercialization of literature. Lucien’s forgery of his brother-in-law’s signature almost bankrupts David, who has to sell the secret of his invention to business rivals. Lucien is about to commit suicide when he is approached by a sham Jesuit priest, the Abbé Carlos Herrera: this, in another guise, is the escaped convict Vautrin whom Balzac had already presented in Le Père Goriot. Herrera takes Lucien under his protection and they drive off to Paris, there to begin a fresh assault on the capital. Lucien’s story continues in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.

I enjoyed this film (see the trailer in English). The setting of 19th century Paris was nicely done. For example, the narrator’s description (I take it to be directly from Balzac) of the Palais Royal, filled with prostitutes, grifters and journalists is priceless. The performances were all good. Vincent Lacoste plays the journalist Lousteau who takes Lucien under his wing. Lacoste has a permanent smirk that makes him perfect for the role of the disillusioned journalist ready to do anything for money. In his limited scenes Gerard Depardieu dominates the screen, not least due to his great bulk, playing a top publisher who cannot read.

From the summary I believe the film follows the plot rather closely from the end of Part I through Part II of the novel. Apparently, by the express purpose of the director Xavier Giannoli, the societal corruption described by Balzac is hinted to apply to today’s corruption. Foremost is the omnipresence of fake news. At least one reviewer shared my sense of reverberations with Citizen Kane. The new technology of the day was the revolving printing press, like the internet, that allowed for a much bigger presence of the newspaper. But the most pertinent line for today was a note by the narrator explaining the pyramid of hierarchical control, with the bankers like Rothschild and Laffitte at the top, who were really in control of the press.

I would recommend this film, but I am not confident it can be as good dubbed or with subtitles in English. Personally, I am going to read the free ebook.