public sphere

Violence, Intimate and Public, in Bel-Ami’s Republic

By Contributing Editor Eric Brandom

Mme Forestier, who was playing with a knife, added:

–Yes…yes…it is good to be loved…

And she seemed to press her dream further, to think of things she dared not say.


“L’argent” (“Money”), from Félix Vallotton’s series “Intimités” (image credit: Van Gogh Museum)

These are lines from a dinner scene early in Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 Bel-Ami (I have consulted, but in places substantially modified or replaced, the Sutton translation). The novel follows the talentless and superficial George Duroy—eventually Du Roy, since the sparkle of aristocracy is all the more fascinating en République—as he makes his social ascent through seduction, daring, and a little judiciously applied journalism. Duroy is driven by desire, especially for wealth, status, to be adored by people in general, and to possess women. His lack of moral feeling for anyone but himself means that he is able to make good use of his one real advantage, which is that women find him uncommonly attractive. Robert Pattinson played him, perhaps without the requisite physicality, in the 2012 film. In this post, I want to think about violence in Maupassant’s novel. Indeed I would like to use the experience of reading to give historical depth and complexity to the notoriously ambiguous and freighted concept of violence.


Bel-Ami is a rich text, taking as major themes not only great passion betrayed, but also journalism, gender, and colonial politics in the early Third Republic. It does not appear particularly violent compared to, for instance, Zola’s Germinal (1885), which breaths misery and social politics from every page, or the same author’s Nana (1880), also about an implausibly sexually attractive individual. For just this reason it seems to me that we may learn something from Maupassant about what counts as violent, what registered as dangerous violence in the Third Republic. As the lines quoted above suggest, violence is by no means absent here. Violence is both presented to the reader in the action of the plot, often at an ironic distance, and also is an effect produced in the reader. These two sorts of violence do not line up. So here I consider several “violent” incidents, including those that are physically—manifestly or naively—violent and those that are not. Indeed it seems to me that it in this novel, and perhaps in the larger society out of which it came, we might look for the most dangerous violence at the juncture of what is spoken and what one does not dare say, of the public and the intimate.

Bel-Ami opens with Duroy as flâneur, going down the boulevard with barely enough money in his pocket to last out the month. He has a powerful thirst for a bock (beer), and covets the wealth of those he can see enjoying the pleasures of life in the cafés. He has just finished two years in “Africa” and the memories are not far away: “A cruel and happy smile passed over his lips at the memory of an escapade which had cost the lives of three men of the Ouled-Alane tribe, and secured for himself and his comrades twenty chickens, two sheep, some money, and something to laugh about for six months.” The novel’s plot is launched when Duroy by chance meets Charles Forestier, an old friend from the military. He is introduced to the borderline honorable professional of newspaper work at the fictional La vie française, owned by “le juif Walter.” We are introduced to Madeline Forestier, whose talent for political journalism and willingness to ghostwrite propelled her husband Charles into prominence, and will now do the same for Duroy.

French expansion in African is woven into the plot. Indeed the way in which the novel takes journalism in general, and the actualités of Third Republic colonial ventures in particular, as a theme is one source of scholarly interest. Duroy’s first publication in the newspaper, which meets with a success he is never able to emulate again without the assistance of Madeline, draws on his experiences in Africa. But there is a larger colonial venture in the background of the novel. Put briefly, the minister Laroche-Mathieu connives with Walter to convince the public that the French will never go into Tunisia. This has the effect of driving down to practically nothing the price of Tunisian government bonds. Then Laroche-Mathieu’s government does decide to invade, determining among other things to guarantee the solvency of the bonds. Walter turns out to own a great quantity of them. From merely wealthy he becomes among the richest men in Paris—from “le juif” he becomes “le riche Israélite.” This subplot ties the novel both to the current events of the 1880s and to Maupassant’s own newspaper career.

But colonial experience is manifest in the novel on quite other levels. Through no fault of his own Duroy becomes involved in an affair of honor, a duel with a reporter from another paper. In a darkly comic scene Duroy, who is capable of self-reflection only in the mode of self-justification, considers the ridiculous possibility that he will die. His military past returns, above all in its irrelevance: “He had been a soldier, he had shot at Arabs without much danger to himself, it is true, a little as one shoots at a boar on a hunt.” Unfortunately for him, “in Paris, it was something else.” The duel takes place, as it must; both parties fire and miss; honor is maintained. Such duels were relatively common among bourgeois men and especially among journalists on the right like Duroy. So well institutionalized was the practice of risking one’s life—even if relatively few people died—for one’s honor that it could be seized by women to criticize the gender divisions of the Third Republic. In an elaborate set piece that farcically repeats his own experience, Duroy attends a charity banquet involving a series of epée and saber duels as entertainment. One section of the spectacle is women sparring to the erotic delight or forbearance of all.

The violence of Algeria has no existential weight for Duroy, as little as do the semi-nude fencers. This has not to do with the victims (Duroy has no feelings for anyone beyond himself, Ouled-Alane or French, man or woman) or more surprisingly even with the objective risk of death.In Paris, there are other men looking at him. It is fame, unequal recognition—to seduce Paris—that Duroy really wants. The duel is violence that does not take place, mere potential violence, as meaningless as the long late-night monologue in which the poet-columnist Norbert de Varenne spills out to Duroy all that he has learned about life and death.

The duel, staged and public, is a comic event for the reader and, at least as he tells it in retrospect, for Duroy. But there are also many moments of intimate violence that are less comical. Charles Forestier succumbs to a long-term illness, and Duroy proposes himself to Madeline as a replacement at the deathbed. Eventually, she agrees. Later, however, Madeline stands in the way of Duroy’s plans to marry Suzanne, the prettier of the now fabulously wealthy Walter’s two daughters. But how to rid one’s self of a wife? Duroy brings in the police to make a public discovery of Madeline in a compromising situation with Laroche-Mathieu, and force a divorce (this, too, was topical–debates around its legalization in 1884 were intense). Duroy breaks down the door to the furnished apartment and the police commissioner follows him in. The policeman demands an account of what has obviously been going on from Madeline. When she is silent: “From the moment that you no longer wish to explain it, Madame, I will be obliged to verify it” (“Du moment que vous ne voulez pas l’avouer, madame, je vais être contraint de le constater”). Duroy is able to turn the revelation—which of course is nothing of the sort—to his own advantage not only by divorcing Madeline but also, in a series of newspaper articles, by destroying the career of Laroche-Mathieu.


“La santé de l’autre” (“The Health of the Other”), from Félix Vallotton’s series “Intimités” (image credit: Van Gogh Museum)

This elaborately public scene with Madeline is to be contrasted with the scene between Duroy and his longtime mistress and benefactor, Clotilde de Marelle. They are together in the apartment that she rented for that purpose long ago; she has just learned, elsewhere, about his impending marriage to Suzanne Walter. Marelle, processing what he has done, how he has kept her in the dark about the plan, abuses him: “Oh! How crooked and dangerous you are!” He gets self righteous when she describes him as “crapule” and threatens to throw her out of the apartment—a miss step because she has been paying for the apartment all along, from back when he had no money at all. She accuses him of sleeping with Suzanne in order to force the marriage. As it happens, Duroy has not and this, it seems, is a bridge too far—at least so he can tell himself. He hits her; she continues to accuse him, “He pitched onto her and, holding her underneath him, struck her as though he were hitting a man.” After he recovers his “sang-froid” he washes his hands and tells her to return the key to the concierge when she goes. As he himself exits he tells the doorman, “You will tell the owner that I am giving notice for the 1st of October. It is now the16th of August, I am therefore within the limits.” It is almost as though Duroy was compelled to assert to a man, of whatever class, that he was “dans les limites.” As Eliza Ferguson succinctly remarks in her rich study of Parisian judicial records related to cases of intimate violence, “the proper use of violence was an integral component of masculine honorability.” In certain situations juries and even the law itself recognized that an honorable man might inflict even fatal violence on a woman. Duroy is of course not an example of honorable masculinity, but he is intensely concerned with that appearance. Familiar with his style, Marelle simply will not accept the appearance he wants to impose in the space of their intimate life. He resorts to physical violence of an extreme sort.


The only scene in the novel that does not follow Duroy in close third takes place between the Walters, when Madame Walter discovers that her daughter Suzanne has disappeared, doubtless with Duroy. Duroy, of course, had earlier seduced, used, and then grown bored of Madame Walter, a devout Catholic who had never previously done anything so immoral. Her relationship with Duroy is, again of course, unspeakable. As she explains to her husband that Duroy has made off with their daughter, Walter responds in a practical way. Rather than rage at betrayal, he is impressed by Duroy’s audacity: “Ah! How that rascal has played us…Anyway he is impressive. We might have found someone with a much better position, but not such intelligence and future. He is a man of the future. He will be deputy and minister.” His wife cannot explain the depths of betrayal she feels, at least without admitting her own culpability, so that she is rendered hypocritical even in her righteous anger. The public face of things, carefully arranged by Duroy, brings appalling suffering to the private.


“L’absoute” (“Absolution”), Félix Vallotton (image credit: Gallica)

The novel’s violent moments are at this juncture, when the not always unspoken code of illicit intimacy is broken. Violence is generally inflicted on women by Duroy, using publicity, using his capacity to apply the logic of public to that of private life, honor to desire. In Duroy’s Third Republic the deepest moral corruption, the most serious violence, is not corruption in the usual sense of the word, the turning of the public to private ends, which is how one might normally think of the Tunisian affair, but rather the brutal and repeated enforcement of the public in the intimate. Here, then, is a way of thinking about differentiation within the broader category of violence. Some violence mattered more than other violence in the Third Republic. Men beating women, French soldiers killing Arabs out of boredom, or a duel in defense of masculine honor—this was violent, but not serious. The interruption of logics of intimacy and desire by logics of publicity, the betrayal of a tacit agreement by spoken law, these are the sorts of transgressions that are not so easily sanitized by ironic distance.


Solidarity, Fragmentation, & Welfare

by contributing editor Daniel London

The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century. – Stuart Hall

The problem of solidarity is shaping up to be the problem of the 21st century. – David Hollinger

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. inaugurated the field of American urban history in 1940 with a sweeping declaration that most of what was most progressive about America originated in cities. This was a result, he believed, of the circumscribed conditions within cities which “forced attention to matters of common concern which could not be ignored even by a people individualistically inclined”. This forcing of attention, in turn, brought with it a “necessary concern with the general welfare” that “nourished a sense of social responsibility”, manifested in collective voluntary action and, ultimately, in the welfare state.

While this interpretation still finds its defenders 60 years later by some unreconstructed social democrats, more specialized scholars of the American welfare state have not echoed it, to put it lightly. Rather than the result of a bottom-up solidaristic consensus or pragmatically pluralist negotiations, the welfare state as described in the work of such luminaries as Michael Katz and Linda Gordon represents the triumph of particular and privileged social groups (white men, mostly), the operations of which were lodged in bureaucracies disconnected from the people they were meant to serve. There is no talk of ‘public good’ in these works, at least with a straight face; rather, the American welfare state is characterized by its uneven and private-sector oriented nature, and its cities permanently characterized by fragmentation and segregation.


Historian Thomas Bender

Both sets of interpretations, apparently irreconcilable, nonetheless rest on a similar set of over-drawn binaries between ‘public’ and ‘private’ as related to normative concepts (the public versus the private good), social groupings (civil society versus the state) and social provision (public sector versus the private sector). Here I would argue for a more open-ended, nuanced, and empirical research agenda as to the relations within and across these pairings, oriented around the concept of “public culture” articulated by Thomas Bender.

The welfare state was, for postwar social theorist and economist T.H. Marshall, the quintessential public good – an enrichment of the “universal status of citizenship” that both emerged from and ensured a “common culture and common experience” among the populace. Many urban historians sympathetic to this interpretation emphasize moments (and spaces) of communication and cooperation between social groups, tracking the rise of a progressive and redistributive Gemeinschaft that transcended, if not replaced, a more ethnos-oriented Gesellschaft.

Other historical works, however, argue that the idea of a “public good” was not only debilitating toward efforts at redistribution (usually via hegemonic interpretations), but that it overshadowed injustices oriented around what Nancy Fraser calls issues of recognition wherein gender and racial differences need to be stressed. Such battles over representation and multiculturalism, of course, are seen by social democrats as displacing attention from mal-distribution by failing to address its real causes, and undermining the solidarity that redistributive campaigns appear to require.

We need to move away from such zero-sum interpretations, and provide more historical accounts of how understandings of the public good were developed, articulated, and gained ideological and political purchase within and across different social groupings. To what extent do policies recognizing social differences (including those of class, race, and gender) inhibit trust, and empathy and cooperation between groups – and vice-versa? When, precisely, do languages and practices around solidarity – both in terms of cultural identifications and more abstract “interests” – weaken or strengthen the respective influence of different social institutions (civil society/state) and sectors (market/state) vis-à-vis one another?

T.H. Marshall also posited a unidirectional link between active “social responsibility” by citizens on the ground and the formations and operations of the Welfare State. Indeed, Marshall believed that at a certain point civil-society institutions such as unions would be unnecessary and distracting: it would be the State that ensured the common good free of any particularizing institutions. Conversely, Jürgen Habermas, believed that the welfare state actually destroyed the “public sphere” by making civil society seemingly unnecessary, thereby reducing citizens to State clients and eroding the zones of privacy – Nancy Fraser calls them “ ‘counter-publics’” – in which citizens can gain clearer and more participatory understanding of their interests.

More empirical work is needed investigating precisely when state organizations (and at what scale) are actually more open to inclusive and open participation than voluntary organizations. A more vexed problem, however, is examining degrees of overlap and connection between civil society organizations, communities, and state organizations. To what extent have diverse publics contributed to more general formation of public opinion on a scale sufficient to influence the state and other social institutions? How have transformations in the ownership and usage of communication – and the physical spaces where inter-group communication literally takes place – influenced their capacities to do so? How have ideas and policies around the ‘public value’ of redistribution and recognition been influenced by changing connections between, and degree of democracy within, these institutions? Finally, how have languages and practices around solidarity and conflict discussed earlier influenced participation within and across civil society and the state?

Finally, we must address the question of policies themselves. The entire point of Welfare, for Schlesinger and Marshall, was to ensure a certain equality of condition and opportunity for individuals that alternative mechanisms – the family, volunteer organizations, and especially the market – could not provide. America represents a “laggard” Welfare state, in the eyes of many historians, to the extent that these purportedly “private” institutions were responsible for sectors of social reproduction. Not only were such institutions insufficient in dealing with major economic crises, but they also discriminated on the basis of the recipients’ status or income in ways that universal, tax-financed policies (across class lines) do not. Other New Left and conservative critics argue that the State, by monopolizing social provision, erodes horizontal solidaristic ties within communities and civil society.

Recent scholarship into comparative welfare state formation, however, has overturned traditional understanding of the American State and welfare policy more generally. Most importantly for the purpose of this essay, they have demonstrated ‘public welfare’ activity always consists of a mixture of institutional players – many of them non-state – and policies at any given time. Under these conditions, how do individuals navigate changing configurations of welfare providers? How do differences in their funding structure (tax financed versus contributory), accessibility (means tested versus universal), and operation (via parochial organizations, civil-society, ‘community’ organizations, and so forth) both reflect and affect patterns of solidarity within and between groups?

51O7y451EUL.jpgAs should be clear from this résumé, any simple characterization of the welfare state as either the embodiment or antithesis of solidarity rests on shaky foundations. The easy, unidirectional link between the “public” good”, the “public” sector, and “public” policies – as ultimately manifesting in the universal welfare state – does not seem born out by the evidence. However, both adherents of this position and its die-hard critics tended to state their cases in overly binary terms. This is partly an understandable reaction to the neoliberal valorization of the private sector since the 1970s. I also believe it stems, however, from the fact that so many historians tend to locate their areas of inquiry outside the realm of policy formation – preventing us from seeing in greater detail the actual inputs and effects of welfare policies on ideas, practices, and institutions as relating to solidarity.

Toward this end, I propose a research program scaffolded around the transformation and consequences of welfare policies (with “welfare” interpreted loosely), but whose locus of inquiry is what Thomas Bender calls the  making of public culture. Public culture encompasses the sites and processes whereby social groups interact and contest for the power to define legitimate social meanings – in my own work, around the meanings of “public” and “private” – for the polity.   This is not consensus or pluralist history, insofar as it critically examines how and why some groups and identities are not represented in these contests. It is, however, unapologetically built around interaction. Not as a way of avoiding questions of power and domination, but of more fully understanding and interrogating it: in Julian Zelizer’s words “how it was structured and changed, where it was contested what its impact was, and what assumptions shaped the discourse that framed it.” To this end, highlighting brief moments of social democratic deliberations or inter-group interactions is not enough: our study must also encompass the translation of (some) of these meanings into actual policies, along with their effects. If this entails a closer examination of institutional formations and interactions that many cultural historians have become accustomed to, so much the better.

What does all of this, finally, have to do with the city? We cannot naively assume that urban areas are, either historically or theoretically, the most generative space for social politics. However, they remain unparalleled as a site for investigating and comparing interactions at their most complex, heterogeneous, and dense. And in our investigations, we will need to deploy the methodologies of intellectual history in order to fully understand the contexts and complexes around the meaning of those keywords – public, private, solidarity, fragmentation – that are all-too-often unreflexively deployed by well-meaning commentators and chroniclers alike.