Volksbühne Berlin am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz

La Cousine Bette

adapted from Honoré de Balzac



Pornocracy can be described as today’s second most important world power next to money … Life is a feast. Hear, hear, says the pornocrat, so let’s have a ball! Let’s enjoy life and get happy – work less, spend more, and have a lot of sex.” Well, isn’t that what we all dream of? We certainly no longer share the reservations of the Parisian society against libidinous tendencies recorded by the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the mid-nineteenth century. Urban life was transforming rapidly in France during the July Monarchy, and Balzac’s novel “Cousin Bette” bears witness to these changes. The protagonists – the courtesan Valerie Marneffe and the men tight-roping around her, Baron Hulot and the perfume trader Crevel – are prototypical of the new urban lifestyle, which Proudhon so fiercly criticised. Oscillating between sexual desires and lavish consumption, these characters represent a version of upper-class hedonism, the petty-bourgeois counterparts of which we see dancing in the party zones of today’s metropolitan regions all over the world.

Yet even amour only functions in relation to social conventions: “In Germany, love is deemed a pure and unsoiled thing; it may not be sullied and tainted by money. In other words: love mustn’t cost a thing.” At an early stage of French capitalism, however, a new principle was introduced: “Those who love must pay” (Wolfgang Pohrt). If prostitution – the dialectic downside of the monogamous marriage model with its intrinsic ties to private ownership – is a straightforward transaction trading sex for money, the concubinage model not only increases the production and circulation of goods, it also maximises desires and passions. A power called love pushes its way between sexual pleasure and money, triggering off an often ruinous circuit of consumption. That is the lesson Baron Hulot and the tradesman Crevel must learn. Unlike their German counterparts, the Romanticists, they do not write poems to their sweethearts on a moonlit night; instead, they are trying to buy the desired woman’s soul by bringing her all kinds of commodities to titillate and seduce her senses. According to the product range of the early nineteenth century these included: lavish and fast horse carriages, sparkling jewellery, high-priced paintings by famous masters, and, due to the developing financial industry, also immovable property was appreciated, as well as the latest fashion back in the days – bonds, bonds and more bonds. The courtesan soul and the soul of the commodity were thus short-circuited on the battlefield of turnovers and other capitalist practices. Almost in passing, as collateral damage, Baron Hulot ruins his family, since all his money goes down the Marneffe. The material and psychological consequences are disastrous, since “the worst thing in our society is to not possess any money”, as Balzac writes.


Meanwhile in a different arena, the political antagonist of Balzac and Proudhon, Karl Marx pounds out his version of “Cousin Bette”, which he read carefully. With an obsession for details, he tries to trace Balzac’s fictional characters, and identifies in his famous “18th Brumaire” a certain Louis-Désire Véron as the contemporary on which the fictional Crevel is built. Véron, a Parisian businessman, became rich by trading medical patents and being the first franchise partner of the Paris opera. It was he who established the genre of “Grand Opera”, which earned him a fortune. And he was the founder and chief editor of the literary review “Le Constitutionnel”, in which “Cousin Bette” was first published after he had squeezed Balzac into an unfair contract. Businessmen such as Véron were, according to Marx, responsible for the perversions of the 1789 revolution which repeated itself in February of the year 1848 as a “mean” farce. Until then, the question of how the class struggle functioned was “ideal-typically” framed but in Balzac's novel sharper “outlines” shine through. The protagonists Hulot and Crevel – in love with the same woman – represent two successive systems: Hulot stands for the Ancien Régime based on hereditary nobility, workplace patronage and other blue-blooded privileges, while Crevel represents the bourgeois self-made millionaire, the capitalist with an unerring sense for opportunities. One system replaces the other, and money cuts out the “right of blood”. However, just months before Louis Napoléon Bonaparte would win the presidency in December 1848 and restore monarchy by a coup d’état, the new social forces manifested themselves with oomph as the bourgeoisie went to the barricades to fight for change, two years after the publication of “Bette”. 3,000 revolters were slaughtered during the “June insurrection” in Paris, almost 15,000 deported. The “insurgents”, the “trash and scum” of our society – in short: the proletariat – is the true and only subject of the revolution, according to Marx.

It is only in passing that Balzac refers to the underprivileged victims of a process that may easily be seen as a precursor to the gentrification processes in today’s faubourgs not far from the Seine and the Louvre. Balzac's place was not on the barricades but in the salons and beds of the rich and the famous. He needed a lot of money to be respected as one of them. Heaps of money. Like Dostoevsky, who tried to equal the French novelist in many ways, Balzac was a driven man, a slave to advance payments for his writing that were spent shortly after having signed the contract for the next, as yet unwritten book. Rushing from idea to idea, from word to word, Balzac delivered the episodes of his serials in various newspapers, driven by the confidence in himself and his genius. He was a one-man literary factory. Doped by caffeine, he kept working manically for nights on end in the service of the law of the series and the subscription customers, who formed the financial basis of the new media economy. Playing on the mass appeal and ‘pull’ of a story and characters that evolve throughout the length of a book rather than just a short text, the man of letters successfully transformed passionate readers into regular, paying subscribers.


However, Balzac is no stranger to the world beyond money and wealth. His true love, the woman he is obsessed with, the one he desires madly, seems to hover like an invisible phantom or a cover girl out of reach over his life and work. He hardly ever sees her. The tubby and ever “suspicious” Polish woman Ewelina Hańska is always on the rush to somewhere else (mostly to places in the Ukraine), escaping his advances and vows to marry her. Balzac wrote his first love letter to her without having even met her. He courted Ewelina for more than 20 years. (In the novel “Bette”, Balzac depicts aunt “Liesbeth” – which is an outdated German rendering of the French Bette – as illiterate and of Corsican blood (like Napoleon), and she in love with the Livonian Pole Wenceslav. Is the East the imaginary other of the “heartless” West?) Balzac’s passion for Ms Hańska is all-consuming and boundless. This intensity is also reflected in the main characters’ intransigence and their determination to not compromise their desires; in Bette’s merciless and spiteful vendetta, in the stubborn refusal to perform by the suicidal artist and slacker Wenceslav, and, not least, in Baron Hulot’s unrelentingly chase after the young kitchen maid at his Methuselah age of 80, no matter what... For Balzac, theses passages are not so much about the material dreams of the bourgeoisie or petty-bourgeoisie, not about luxury or betrayal, but rather about the pathological condition he is in while writing: Obese, he suffers from shortness of breath, he fears to go insane, and therefore his writing is compulsive, dictated by a dark, existential, primary inner source (a writing practice brought to perfection by his ardent admirer Dostoevsky). In these scenes Balzac’s texts are at their most intense, revealing a second layer of truth, when life accelerates, when the obscene and the libidinous, the destructive sides of human passion and money are taking over.


From the point of view of politics, Balzac’s text touches upon a much wider dimension – i.e. the history of Algeria, this blessed spot on earth, where “corn and food grow without the help of human beings.” The North African country was colonised by France in 1830. It is only a minor thread in the dramaturgy of the piece, but it’s there. Baron Hulot, senile but still a wild one when it comes to libido, has ruined himself with expensive gifts for La Marneffe. He talks Bette’s Alsatian uncle, Monsieur Fischer, into an embezzlement job in the far-away colony. 120 years on, the Algerian- French writer Albert Camus is witness to the country's bloody struggle for independence with ten thousands of victims as its toll. He analyses the political tableau of the time as an entanglement of colonial guilt, nationally fuelled desire for freedom in the oppressed countries, the economic involvement of western corporate consortia in the global south and a militarily potent Islamism. In the socialist anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century, the latter was perceivable as merely a silhouette. The re-Islamisation of the North African region through to Persia and Indonesia has given it a new focus. Yet the often used ahistorical language of the political “officialese” recognises only good countries that respect human rights, and evil rogue countries that breed terrorism. There is nothing in between, and our view of the recent events in Europe’s south makes us look pathetic and naïve. We are prisoners of a political ideology. We modern pornocrats prefer to tread familiar ground; we keep dancing, if we are lucky enough to be allowed to get access to the party zones of the metropolises. We are out of the woods, although we neither possess Crevel’s millions, nor the billions of a Russian oligarch or the heirs of BMW. The state and the family and inherited private property, of course, will warrant our lack of concern. We do not have much – and in analogy to ancient Greek democracy, where the right to vote was conferred only to those with sufficient income and real property, we do not have much to say or decide anyway. The proletariat, conceived by Marx as the revolutionary silver lining on the historical horizon, is fully committed to society by way of collective wage agreements, garden houses and holiday entitlements. The disenfranchised masses and “insurgents” no longer hail from the centre of our society. They flow in from sub-Saharan Africa to reach the fortress Europe via North Africa. They are perturbing the freedom argument as they reach the Brandenburg Gate … and their numbers are rising by the day.

Text Sebastian Kaiser; translation Bettina Seifried