Lately I’ve been thinking about what today we call “the one percent.”
I am reminded of what the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac concluded in one of his “philosophical tales” of the early 1830s, La Peau de Chagrin.
Yes, it’s a funny title, even in its original language.
It means, literally, the skin of grief, but refers in translation to a magical shagreen, or animal hide, that confers upon its owner the ability to own anything desired merely by looking at it, to have every wish granted, to satisfy any craving, to control all within reach.
The end result is that, for the owner of the skin, nothing ever satisfies.
As Balzac (who wrote madly to keep himself out of debt) knew very well, it’s never only about money. Rather, it concerns the evil grasping of a certain stratum of “society.” Only a grand observer of human nature at its most debased, as Balzac certainly was, would warm to his subject with this astute comment: “Vice is a sign of affluence.”.
Listen, as he continues:
However dignified misfortune may be, society understands how to belittle and ridicule it with an epigram … like the young Roman matrons in the Circus, it never shows mercy to the fallen gladiator; it lives on gold and ridicule . . .
Death to the weak! That is the watchword of what we might call the equestrian order established in every nation of the earth, for there is a wealthy class in every country, and that death-sentence is deeply engraved on the heart of every nobleman or millionaire. Take any collection of children in a school: this microcosm of society, reflecting it all the more accurately because it does so frankly and ingenuously, always contains specimens of the poor helots, creatures made for sorrow and suffering, subject always either to pity or to contempt: The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, say the Scriptures. Take a few steps farther down the ladder of creation: if a barnyard fowl falls sick, the other hens hunt it around, attack it, scratch out its feathers and peck it to death.
Faithful to this law of egoism, society exerts all its rigors to punish those bold enough to spoil its feasts, or sour its pleasures.
Human nature ordains, however, that sometimes there comes a moment when “society” – meaning high society – earns a comeuppance from the 99 percent, as France knows as well as any nation on earth.
The gladiator once in a while slays the lions. The creatures “made for sorrow” may choose to resist either society’s pity or its contempt. The equestrian order – O excellent Balzac, what a telling phrase – may on occasion, for just a little while, find itself unhorsed.