Balzac’s Gobseck Understands Trump

In this still from Czech film “Gobseck,” a rich debtor pawns her necklace.


At the recommendation of my friend Mladen Dolar, I’ve been reading Balzac’s short story “Gobseck” and find myself dazzled. Karl Marx famously said that Balzac taught him more about capitalism than any economist, and I can see why. The author also gets to the heart of Donald J. Trump.

“I am the king of debt,” Trump has boasted, and he has flaunted the way he spends “other people’s money,” including the money of America’s taxpayers. Like a dandy in a 19th century novel, he has a long history of stiffing his creditors, so much so that American banks finally stopped lending to him, forcing him to take money from shady Russian and Saudi sources. We watch him as we watch Balzac’s debtors, wondering how long he can keep up the high wire act.

Gobseck is an omniscient loan shark who lends money in part so that he can watch “la comédie humaine” up close.” As he explains to Derville, a lawyer and the story’s principle narrator, the desire for money reveals people’s inmost character:

[D]o you think that it is nothing to have this power of insight into the deepest recesses of the human heart, to embrace so many lives, to see the naked truth underlying it all? There are no two dramas alike: there are hideous sores, deadly chagrins, love scenes, misery that soon will lie under the ripples of the Seine, young men’s joys that lead to the scaffold, the laughter of despair, and sumptuous banquets. Yesterday it was a tragedy. A worthy soul of a father drowned himself because he could not support his family. To-morrow is a comedy; some youngster will try to rehearse the scene of M. Dimanche, brought up to date.

Those he hears pleading for money or begging him for relief surpass the greatest orators of the day, who appear “mere stammering beginners” in comparison. Trump too can extort millions even from those who sense he will never pay them back.

While Gobseck can see through the façade, the youthful Derville cannot. Take, for instance, his encounter with a spendthrift lover who is ruining his mistress. Derville knows he shouldn’t trust the man but falls for his charm:

My head was fairly clear, I was upon my guard. As for him, though he pretended to be decently drunk, he was perfectly cool, and knew very well what he was about. How it was done I do not know, but the upshot of it was that when we left Grignon’s rooms about nine o’clock in the evening, M. de Trailles had thoroughly bewitched me. I had given him my promise that I would introduce him the next day to our Papa Gobseck. The words ‘honor,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘countess,’ ‘honest woman,’ and ‘ill-luck’ were mingled in his discourse with magical potency, thanks to that golden tongue of his.

Trailles and his mistress, like the Trumps, reside in a world fueled by other people’s money. We peek behind the curtains of this world when Gobseck goes to collect a debt from the woman, a wealthy man’s wife who has “turned heads the night before.” The luxury items for which she is bankrupting herself are strewn about as though of no worth, even though she once believed they were crucial to her happiness:

She wore a loose gown trimmed with snowy ruffles, which told plainly that her laundress’ bills amounted to something like two thousand francs in the course of a year. Her dark curls escaped from beneath a bright Indian handkerchief, knotted carelessly about her head after the fashion of Creole women. The bed lay in disorder that told of broken slumber. A painter would have paid money to stay a while to see the scene that I saw. Under the luxurious hanging draperies, the pillow, crushed into the depths of an eider-down quilt, its lace border standing out in contrast against the background of blue silk, bore a vague impress that kindled the imagination. A pair of satin slippers gleamed from the great bear-skin rug spread by the carved mahogany lions at the bed-foot, where she had flung them off in her weariness after the ball. A crumpled gown hung over a chair, the sleeves touching the floor; stockings which a breath would have blown away were twisted about the leg of an easy-chair; while ribbon garters straggled over a settee. A fan of price, half unfolded, glittered on the chimney-piece. Drawers stood open; flowers, diamonds, gloves, a bouquet, a girdle, were littered about. The room was full of vague sweet perfume. And—beneath all the luxury and disorder, beauty and incongruity, I saw Misery crouching in wait for her or for her adorer, Misery rearing its head, for the Countess had begun to feel the edge of those fangs. Her tired face was an epitome of the room strewn with relics of past festival. The scattered gewgaws, pitiable this morning, when gathered together and coherent, had turned heads the night before.

 Gobseck says the woman attempts “to drink of the Tantalus cup of bliss,” Tantalus being the Greek mythological figure to whom we owe the word “tantalize.” Here’s Odysseus describing the punishment meted out to him in Hades:

Aye, and I saw Tantalus in violent torment, standing in a pool, and the water came nigh unto his chin. He seemed as one athirst, but could not take and drink; for as often as that old man stooped down, eager to drink, so often would the water be swallowed up and vanish away, and at his feet the black earth would appear, for some god made all dry. And trees, high and leafy, let stream their fruits above his head, pears, and pomegranates, and apple trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. But as often as that old man would reach out toward these, to clutch them with his hands, the wind would toss them to the shadowy clouds.

Never satisfied with what one has, one always wants what is out of reach. This truth applies especially to those billionaires who pressure politicians for tax cuts, even at the risk of bankrupting the nation. And to Trump, dissatisfied even with the presidency of the world’s preeminent super power. Gold, Gobseck informs Derville, is about self-interest and vanity (a.k.a. narcissism), and because vanity can never be fully satisfied, people always demand more money. I think about Trump’s gold-plated penthouse when I read the following passage:

The one thing that always remains, the one sure instinct that nature has implanted in us, is the instinct of self-interest. If you had lived as long as I have, you would know that there is but one concrete reality invariable enough to be worth caring about, and that is—GOLD. Gold represents every form of human power….[W]hen all sensations are exhausted, all that survives is Vanity—Vanity is the abiding substance of us, the I in us. Vanity is only to be satisfied by gold in floods. Our dreams need time and physical means and painstaking thought before they can be realized. Well, gold contains all things in embryo; gold realizes all things for us.

Or seems to realize all things for us. Because people have the illusion that gold will fulfill all desires, they grovel and debase themselves to get it. They even sell out their country, and Trump’s former lawyer is now testifying that Trump tried to land a Moscow real estate deal while running for president. Why not sell out America’s belief in human rights, its commitment to Ukraine, and its participation in NATO with such an end in sight?

The story’s conclusion reveals the emptiness of Trumpian grasping through multiple story lines. On the one hand, the spendthrift woman fears that her husband, now dying, will bypass her and bestow his wealth on their children. She therefore haunts his outer chambers, bribes the doctor and servants, and searches her young sons when they emerge from the bedroom. She makes sure that Derville, her husband’s attorney, can’t get close to him. She lives a wretched existence.

Gobseck too, despite his perspicacity, has the same disease. Acting as his lawyer, Derville surveys the moneylender’s accumulated wealth after he dies and is greeted by a suffocating sight. Every item that Gobseck has ever received as payment—and kept if he wasn’t able to dispose of it for the price he wanted–can be found there:

In the room next to the one in which Gobseck had died, a quantity of eatables of all kinds were stored—putrid pies, mouldy fish, nay, even shell-fish, the stench almost choked me. Maggots and insects swarmed. These comparatively recent presents were put down, pell-mell, among chests of tea, bags of coffee, and packing-cases of every shape. A silver soup tureen on the chimney-piece was full of advices of the arrival of goods consigned to his order at Havre, bales of cotton, hogsheads of sugar, barrels of rum, coffees, indigo, tobaccos, a perfect bazaar of colonial produce. The room itself was crammed with furniture, and silver-plate, and lamps, and vases, and pictures; there were books, and curiosities, and fine engravings lying rolled up, unframed. Perhaps these were not all presents, and some part of this vast quantity of stuff had been deposited with him in the shape of pledges, and had been left on his hands in default of payment. I noticed jewel-cases, with ciphers and armorial bearings stamped upon them, and sets of fine table-linen, and weapons of price; but none of the things were docketed. I opened a book which seemed to be misplaced, and found a thousand-franc note in it. I promised myself that I would go through everything thoroughly; I would try the ceilings, and floors, and walls, and cornices to discover all the gold, hoarded with such passionate greed by a Dutch miser worthy of a Rembrandt’s brush. In all the course of my professional career I have never seen such impressive signs of the eccentricity of avarice.

I think of Citizen Kane’s final scene where an overhead camera pans “the loot of the world” that Kane has collected. Trump has his own acquisition mania, and America is paying the price.

One other note: Balzac provides us with a contrasting vision in the figure of Derville, who marries a good woman, refuses to climb the ladder of ambition, and believes in truth-telling and integrity. He preserves the husband’s fortune for the children, which in turn allows a deserving young couple to find happiness. In spite of Gobseck’s contention, not everyone is ruled by self-interest and vanity.

That’s what we hope for in America today: that Trump and other self-interested billionaires, along with the legislators and grifters who feed off of them, will be checked by principled citizens. One’s level of optimism may depend on one’s view of human nature.

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