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Balzac, on The News

April 2, 2014

Honoré de Balzac published Lost Illusions in three parts, from 1837 to 1845. It is a complex novel, with major sections analyzing the corrupt practices of publishers and lawyers, as well as Post-Napoleonic petty nobility. One of the themes that Stands out today is the way that the newspapers meld into the petty evils of Parisian society, augmenting and coarsening them. Read in the context of the News International scandals, extreme political blogs, and the limp mainstream media, Balzac’s descriptions are downright prescient.

In the second part of the novel, originally published as A Great Man in Embryo (1839), Lucien Chardon foregoes the purity of writing fiction and poetry for the short-term profit of writing for the newspapers. Over dinner with his dancer mistress, Coralie, Lucien hears a savage rant from one of his new journalist friends, Claude Vignon.

Instead of being a priestly function, the newspaper has become a political party weapon; now it is becoming merely a trade; and like all trades it has neither faith nor principles. Every newspaper is, as Blondet says, a shop which sells to the public whatever shades of opinion it wants. If there were a journal for hunchbacks it would prove night and morning how handsome, how good-natured, how necessary hunchbacks are. A journal is no longer concerned to enlighten, but to flatter public opinion. Consequently, in due course, all journals will be treacherous, hypocritical, infamous, mendacious, murderous; they’ll kill ideas, systems and men, and thrive on it. They’ll be in the happy position of all abstract creations: wrong will be done without anybody being guilty. … Napoleon gave the explanation of this phenomenon – moral or immoral, whichever you like – in a superb aphorism dictated to him by his study of the Convention: In corporate crimes no one is implicated. A newspaper can behave in the most atrocious manner and no one on the staff considers that his own hands are soiled.

Vignon continues, looking to the future:

We shall see the newspapers, which originally were run by men of honour, fall subsequently into the hands of the greatest mediocrities possessing the patience and india-rubber faint-heartedness lacking in men of fine genius, or into the hands of grocers with money enough to buy the products of the pen. We can already see this happening! But in ten years’ time any urchin fresh from school will believe he’s a great man; he’ll climb on to the column of a newspaper in order to kick his predecessors in the teeth; he’ll pull their feet from under them in order to get their place.

Summing up:

It’s an incurable sore which will become more and more cancerous, more and more insufferable; and the greater the evil, the more it will be tolerated, until the day comes when, thanks to their abundance, the newspapers will be in a confusion like that of Babel. We know, the whole lot of us, that the papers will go further in ingratitude than kings, further in speculation and calculation than the dirtiest kind of commerce, that they will rot our intelligences by selling us their mental fire-water every morning. But we shall all write for them, like the people who work a quicksilver mine knowing that they’ll die of it.

And that’s just the journalists. In Part III, Balzac takes on the lawyers…

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