Agnes Callard and I Discuss Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames
Agnes Pursues a General Theory of “Why Women Shop”, Justin Aids and Abets
Not so long ago, Agnes and I got together to talk about Émile Zola’s 1876 novel, L’Assommoir. You can listen to that conversation here. At that time, we broached the idea of doing it again soon for another installment in Zola’s massive 20-volume epic, Les Rougon-Macquart : Une histoire sociale et naturelle d’une famille sous le Second Empire. I recently finished the wonderful novel, Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), which of course Agnes had already read, so this seemed like a good occasion for a Part 2.
Au Bonheur des Dames is remarkable for many reasons. It is a hyperlucid investigation of the rise of the department store as an engine of commerce in the mid-19th century. This is a surprisingly familiar story that has been recapitulated in our own era by the new “disruptive” industries, notably Amazon, and that other big company whose actual motto for a time was “Move fast and break things”. In Zola’s novel a whole world of artisanal handicraft and pride in tradition is razed practically overnight by a single visionary entrepreneur, Octave Mouret, who is based on the real-life character of Aristide Boucicaut (1810-1877), the founder of the department store and Paris institution known as Le Bon Marché (whose jarred oignons confits I am eating at this moment). Mouret does this, effectively, by fracking the attention and desires of Parisian women, thus tapping into a new massive reserve of capital that had hitherto mostly been left unexploited. Mouret’s genius for maximizing profits is almost algorithmic in its perfection. He keeps streamlining the science of sales, and the women just keep shopping… and some among them, notably some grand aristocratic dames, just keep shoplifting.
This whole new system of exchange is shot through with pathologies — the paraphiliac perversity of gratuitous theft, the sublimation of sexual seduction by commercial transaction, and so on. In its way this new lower-middle-class world is as bleak and preterite as that of the rock-bottom down-and-out drunks in L’Assommoir. But it’s shinier and newer, and at least in a certain light can make a person who inhabits it giddy about what the future might hold, much as we might feel when we experience our first Amazon drone-delivery of some dumb thing we don’t need.
Let me be clear: this is a book about shopping, which prima facie is a topic that doesn’t interest me, but which Zola succeeded nonetheless in making me care about at least for the duration of the novel. Agnes, I gather, had a preexisting interest in shopping, both doing it and thinking about it, so Au Bonheur des Dames was really fuel for her fire.
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