French Humor Exists

By | May 10, 2018

It is an American cliché that the French have a terrible sense of humor. Exhibit A for many Americans is their love of Jerry Lewis. After living in France for many years and marrying a French woman I can attest as well as any American that the cliché is true, or at least somewhat true.  For example, I have a personal critique of French humor, that is a response to my French wife’s attempted humor: “You’ll never have coffee with Jerry.” Of course this line refers to Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee internet series. But perhaps this view might be as much a Venus and Mars difference as well as French and American. One could also recognize that to listen to French humor in French requires knowledge of all the subtleties of the language. The French really love le jeu des mots, the play on words, that I often miss. In reality, I think most Americans would find a comedian like Louis de Funès really funny.

In this spirit of multicultural humor, I would like to bring to your attention a French book that after 200 years since its publication still brought me many a big grin while reading it. The book is The Government Clerks (also translated as Bureaucracy as found on Project Gutenberg) by Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). In French the book is called Les Employés or la Femme supérieure.  It is a part of Balzac’s series La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), a multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories depicting French society in the period of the Restoration (1815-1830) and the July Monarchy (1830–1848). In brief, it is a view of the French deep state than any libertarian could appreciate (see this link for nice synopsis). I will append several quotes below that include satirical descriptions of state functions, but also wonderful descriptions of the bureaucrats themselves. Enjoy!

Also humorous is the pot belly of Rodin’s Balzac.

From these general signs you will readily discern a family man, harassed by vexations in his own household, worried by annoyances at the ministry, yet philosopher enough to take life as he found it; an honest man, loving his country and serving it, not concealing from himself the obstacles in the way of those who seek to do right; prudent, because he knew men; exquisitely courteous with women, of whom he asked nothing,—a man full of acquirements, affable with his inferiors, holding his equals at great distance, and dignified towards his superiors.

Bureaucracy, a gigantic power set in motion by dwarfs, was generated in this way.

After 1818 everything was discussed, compared, and weighed, either in speech or writing; public business took a literary form. France went to ruin in spite of this array of documents; dissertations stood in place of action; a million of reports were written every year; bureaucracy was enthroned! Records, statistics, documents, failing which France would have been ruined, circumlocution, without which there could be no advance, increased, multiplied, and grew majestic. used to its own profit the mistrust that stands between receipts and expenditures; it degraded the administration for the benefit of the administrators; in short, it spun those lilliputian threads which have chained France to Parisian centralization,—as if from 1500 to 1800 France had undertaken nothing for want of thirty thousand government clerks!

Superior men could scarcely bring themselves to tread these tortuous ways, to stoop, to cringe, and creep through the mire of these cloacas {In animal anatomy, a cloaca is the posterior orifice that serves as the only opening for the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts (if present) of many vertebrate animals, opening at the vent., where the presence of a fine mind only alarmed the other denizens.

No one comes or stays in the government offices but idlers, incapables, or fools. Thus the mediocrity of French administration has slowly come about. Bureaucracy, made up entirely of petty minds, stands as an obstacle to the prosperity of the nation; delays for seven years, by its machinery, the project of a canal which would have stimulated the production of a province; is afraid of everything, prolongs procrastination, and perpetuates the abuses which in turn perpetuate and consolidate itself. Bureaucracy holds all things and the administration itself in leading strings; it stifles men of talent who are bold enough to be independent of it or to enlighten it on its own follies.

In person, Isidore was a tall, stout man of thirty-seven, who perspired freely, and whose head looked as if he had water on the brain. This enormous head, covered with chestnut hair cropped close, was joined to the neck by rolls of flesh which overhung the collar of his coat. He had the arms of Hercules, hands worthy of Domitian, a stomach which sobriety held within the limits of the majestic, to use a saying of Brillaet-Savarin. His face was a good deal like that of the Emperor Alexander. The Tartar type was in the little eyes and the flattened nose turned slightly up, in the frigid lips and the short chin. The forehead was low and narrow. Though his temperament was lymphatic, the devout Isidore was under the influence of a conjugal passion which time did not lessen.

In spite, however, of his resemblance to the handsome Russian Emperor and the terrible Domitian, Isidore Baudoyer was nothing more than a political office-holder, of little ability as head of his department, a cut-and-dried routine man, who concealed the fact that he was a flabby cipher by so ponderous a personality that no scalpel could cut deep enough to let the operator see into him. His severe studies, in which he had shown the patience and sagacity of an ox, and his square head, deceived his parents, who firmly believed him an extraordinary man. Pedantic and hypercritical, meddlesome and fault-finding, he was a terror to the clerks under him, whom he worried in their work, enforcing the rules rigorously, and arriving himself with such terrible punctuality that not one of them dared to be a moment late. Baudoyer wore a blue coat with gilt buttons, a chamois waistcoat, gray trousers and cravats of various colors. His feet were large and ill-shod. From the chain of his watch depended an enormous bunch of old trinkets, among which in 1824 he still wore “American beads,” which were very much the fashion in the year VII.

The Emperor of Russia would be thankful to be able to pay fifty thousand a year to one of these amiable constitutional poodles, so gentle, so nicely curled, so caressing, so docile, always spick and span,—careful watch-dogs besides, and faithful to a degree! But the private secretary is a product of the representative government hot-house; he is propagated and developed there, and there only.

The elder of these men, who was also the richest, waited upon the main body of the clerks. He was sixty years of age, with white hair cropped short like a brush; stout, thickset, and apoplectic about the neck, with a vulgar pimpled face, gray eyes, and a mouth like a furnace door; such was the profile portrait of Antoine, the oldest attendant in the ministry.

Here follows the portrait of Monsieur Dutocq, order-clerk in the Rabourdin bureau: Thirty-eight years old, oblong face and bilious skin, grizzled hair always cut close, low forehead, heavy eyebrows meeting together, a crooked nose and pinched lips; tall, the right shoulder slightly higher than the left; brown coat, black waistcoat, silk cravat, yellowish trousers, black woollen stockings, and shoes with flapping bows; thus you behold him. Idle and incapable, he hated Rabourdin,—naturally enough, for Rabourdin had no vice to flatter, and no bad or weak side on which Dutocq could make himself useful.

Though he knew himself incapable of important work, Dutocq was well aware that in a government office incapacity was no hindrance to advancement; La Billardiere’s own appointment over the head of so capable a man as Rabourdin had been a striking and fatal example of this. Wickedness combined with self-interest works with a power equivalent to that of intellect; evilly disposed and wholly self-interested, Dutocq had endeavoured to strengthen his position by becoming a spy in all the offices. After 1816 he assumed a marked religious tone, foreseeing the favor which the fools of those days would bestow on those they indiscriminately called Jesuits. Belonging to that fraternity in spirit, though not admitted to its rites, Dutocq went from bureau to bureau, sounded consciences by recounting immoral jests, and then reported and paraphrased results to des Lupeaulx; the latter thus learned all the trivial events of the ministry, and often surprised the minister by his consummate knowledge of what was going on. He tolerated Dutocq under the idea that circumstances might some day make him useful, were it only to get him or some distinguished friend of his out of a scrape by a disgraceful marriage.

The liveliness of his wit and the prodigal flow of his ideas made him acceptable to all persons who took pleasure in the lights of intellect; but none of his friends liked him. Incapable of checking a witty saying, he would scarify his two neighbors before a dinner was half over. In spite of his skin-deep gayety, a secret dissatisfaction with his social position could be detected in his speech; he aspired to something better, but the fatal demon hiding in his wit hindered him from acquiring the gravity which imposes on fools.

No wizard could foretell the future of this young man in whom all talents were incomplete; who was incapable of perseverance, intoxicated with pleasure, and who acted on the belief that the world ended on the morrow.

Once a month he took Zelie to the theatre, with tickets bestowed by du Bruel or Bixiou; for Bixiou was capable of anything, even of doing a kindness.

Nature herself is not so fixed and unvarying in her evolutions as was Poiret junior in all the acts of his daily life; he always laid his things in precisely the same place, put his pen in the same rack, sat down in his seat at the same hour, warmed himself at the stove at the same moment of the day. His sole vanity consisted in wearing an infallible watch, timed daily at the Hotel de Ville as he passed it on his way to the office. From six to eight o’clock in the morning he kept the books of a large shop in the rue Saint-Antoine, and from six to eight o’clock in the evening those of the Maison Camusot, in the rue des Bourdonnais. He thus earned three thousand francs a year, counting his salary from the government. In a few months his term of service would be up, when he would retire on a pension; he therefore showed the utmost indifference to the political intrigues of the bureaus. Like his elder brother, to whom retirement from active service had proved a fatal blow, he would probably grow an old man when he could no longer come from his home to the ministry, sit in the same chair and copy a certain number of pages. Poiret’s eyes were dim, his glance weak and lifeless, his skin discolored and wrinkled, gray in tone and speckled with bluish dots; his nose flat, his lips drawn inward to the mouth, where a few defective teeth still lingered. His gray hair, flattened to the head by the pressure of his hat, gave him the look of an ecclesiastic,—a resemblance he would scarcely have liked, for he hated priests and clergy, though he could give no reasons for his anti-religious views. This antipathy, however, did not prevent him from being extremely attached to whatever administration happened to be in power. He never buttoned his old green coat, even on the coldest days, and he always wore shoes with ties, and black trousers. No human life was ever lived so thoroughly by rule. Poiret kept all his receipted bills, even the most

…. he was nevertheless detested by every one because of his impertinence and conceit. The two chiefs were polite to him, but the clerks held him at arm’s length and prevented all companionship by means of the extreme and grotesque politeness which they bestowed upon him. A pretty youth of twenty-two, tall and slender, with the manners of an Englishman, a dandy in dress, curled and perfumed, gloved and booted in the latest fashion, and twirling an eyeglass, Benjamin de la Billardiere thought himself a charming fellow and possessed all the vices of the world with none of its graces. He was now looking forward impatiently to the death of his father, that he might succeed to the title of baron. His cards were printed “le Chevalier de la Billardiere” and on the wall of his office hung, in a frame, his coat of arms (sable, two swords in saltire, on a chief azure three mullets argent; with the motto; “Toujours fidele”). Possessed with a mania for talking heraldry, he once asked the young Vicomte de Portenduere why his arms were charged in a certain way ….

It is difficult even for an observer to decide from the aspect of these strange personalities whether the goose-quill tribe were becoming idiots from the effects of their employment or whether they entered the service because they were natural born fools. Possibly the making of them lies at the door of Nature and of the government both. Nature, to a civil-service clerk is, in fact, the sphere of the office; his horizon is bounded on all sides by green boxes; to him, atmospheric changes are the air of the corridors, the masculine exhalations contained in rooms without ventilators, the odor of paper, pens, and ink; the soil he treads is a tiled pavement or a wooden floor, strewn with a curious litter and moistened by the attendant’s watering-pot; his sky is the ceiling toward which he yawns; his element is dust. Several distinguished doctors have remonstrated against the influence of this second nature, both savage and civilized, on the moral being vegetating in those dreadful pens called bureaus, where the sun …

Elisabeth saw through the window-panes the two faces of Gobseck and Gigonnet (her uncle Bidault), which stood out in relief against the yellow wood-work of the old cafe, like two cameo heads, cold and impassible, in the rigid attitude that their gravity gave them. The two Parisian misers were surrounded by a number of other old faces, on which “thirty percent discount” was written in circular wrinkles that started from the nose and turned round the glacial cheek-bones. These remarkable physiognomies brightened up on seeing Mitral, and their eyes gleamed with tigerish curiosity.

“What! some misfortune?” said Bidault. The old man drew his eyebrows together and assumed a tender look like that of an executioner when about to go to work officially. In spite of his Roman virtue he must have been touched, for his red nose lost somewhat of its color.

… every one must feel the importance of retaining a commercial sceptre that makes fashion in France what the navy is to England. This patriotic ardor which leads a nation to sacrifice everything to appearances—to the “paroistre,” as d’Aubigne said in the days of Henri IV.—is the cause of those vast secret labors which employ the whole of a Parisian woman’s morning, when she wishes, as Madame Rabourdin wished, to keep up on twelve thousand francs a year the style that many a family with thirty thousand does not indulge in.

“Hein?” said Bixiou, when they were safely under the arcades in the place Royale; “did you examine those uncles?—two copies of Shylock. I’ll bet their money is lent in the market at a hundred per cent per week. They lend on pawn; and sell most that they lay hold of, coats, gold lace, cheese, men, women, and children; they are a conglomeration of Arabs, Jews, Genoese, Genevese, Greeks, Lombards, and Parisians, suckled by a wolf and born of a Turkish woman.”

… the fact that for this price France possesses the most inquisitorial, fussy, ferreting, scribbling, paper-blotting, fault-finding old housekeeper of a civil service on God’s earth. Not a copper farthing of the nation’s money is spent or hoarded that is not ordered by a note, proved by vouchers, produced and reproduced on balance-sheets, and receipted for when paid; orders and receipts are registered on the rolls, and checked and verified by an army of men in spectacles. If there is the slightest mistake in the form of these precious documents, the clerk is terrified, for he lives on such minutiae. Some nations would be satisfied to get as far as this; but Napoleon went further. That great organizer appointed supreme magistrates of a court which is absolutely unique in the world. These officials pass their days in verifying money-orders, documents, roles, registers, lists, permits, custom-house receipts, payments, taxes received, taxes spent, etc.; all of which the clerks write or copy. These stern judges push the gift of exactitude, the genius of inquisition, the sharp-sightedness of lynxes, the perspicacity of account-books to the point of going over all the additions in search of subtractions. These sublime martyrs to figures have been known to return to an army commissary, after a delay of two years, some account in which there was an error of two farthings. This is how and why it is that the French system of administration, the purest and best on the globe has rendered robbery, as his Excellency has just told you, next to impossible, and as for speculation, it is a myth. France at this present time possesses a revenue of twelve hundred millions, and she spends it. That sum enters her treasury, and that sum goes out of it. She handles, therefore, two thousand four hundred millions, and all she pays for the labor of those who do the work is sixty millions,—two and a half per cent; and for that she obtains the certainty that there is no leakage. Our political and administrative kitchen costs us sixty millions, but the gendarmerie, the courts of law, the galleys and the police cost just as much, and give no return. Moreover, we employ a body of men who could do no other work. Waste and disorder, if such there be, can only be legislative; the Chambers lead to them and render them legal. Leakage follows in the form of public works which are neither urgent nor necessary; troops re-uniformed and gold-laced over and over again; vessels sent on useless cruises; preparations for war without ever making it; paying the debts of a State, and not requiring reimbursement or insisting on security.”

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