Friday, January 07, 2011


Guy de Maupassant's "The Little Cask" ("Le Petit Fût") is a short, cautionary narrative of unequal exchange at the border between two economic systems.

In brief, an innkeeper has his eye on his neighbor's farm. But the owner, an old woman who has spent her entire life there, stubbornly refuses to sell: "I was born here, and here I mean to die," as she puts it. But the two eventually come to an agreement, that the innkeeper will pay the old woman an annuity of fifty crowns a month (which she, on the advice of a lawyer, has bargained up from a mere thirty) and he will inherit the property on her death. With the transaction agreed, life continues as before, and the innkeeper notes despairingly that as the years pass the old woman remains as hale and hearty as ever. He then invites her over to dinner and discovers her weak spot: a preference for fine brandy. So in an outpouring of generosity he arranges for her to receive a constant supply of the fine liquor. Soon enough, she begins to decline, people start talking, and she dies a reviled drunk. When her neighbor comes by to take possession of her farm, in accordance with their agreement, he intones the tale's sad moral: " It was very stupid of her; if she had not taken to drink she might very well have lived for ten years longer."

The joke is the disconnect between the moral and the tale itself, even if the conclusion that the innkeeper draws is literally true. For what is stupid is the old woman's trust in her neighbor's generosity, not realizing the economic motives that underlie it.

But in some ways the joke is also on the innkeeper, though he doesn't notice it and indeed presumably wouldn't even mind. For if, as I say, the crux here is the clash between a relationship to land and property based on habit and affect on the one hand, and the introduction of rational calculation of profit, loss, and risk on the other, we see how the dispassionate logic of capital in fact has to be supplemented by an appeal to the senses. The innkeeper's despair arises from the apparent failure of his actuarial calculations: he is forced to intervene by calling on the rather more traditional gestures of hospitality, neighborliness, conviviality, and the gift economy. It just so happens that his gift is (almost literally) a poisoned chalice.

So the hypocrisy of the final judgment rebounds on the innkeeper (again, however little he might ultimately care about the fact). It is as though everything could indeed be explained by the old woman's unwise choices, her failure to make a rational account of her situation and to act prudently to ensure her continued health and so continued enjoyment of the property and annuity alike. But in fact the story tells us that in origin it is the innkeeper's risk assessment that fails, and that his reputation as a "very knowing customer" or "smart business man" depends on his acceptance of other modes of dealing that are not, in the end, entirely businesslike.

Thus ideology: everything can happen as though the tale's moral were correct, because of course it can't be denied. (The old woman may indeed have lived much longer had she not taken to drink!) One is reminded of the many justifications for the recent bank bail-outs, each of which is on its own terms incontrovertible. But this occludes the continued effectivity of another economy, which apparently rational accounts of profit, risk, and loss can never fully escape.


fiona said...

I wonder if André-François Raffray thought of offering brandy to Jeanne Calment (

Jon said...

Yes, I did think of that very same case and almost linked to it.  (Here is a rather more succinct account.)

Bill said...

Lots of interesting threads here -- and all very elegantly put. You have led us very quickly to an interpretative perch where it is easy to plunge ahead in many conflicting (?) directions. One of those directions you took:

>>> But in fact the story tells us that in origin it is the innkeeper's risk assessment that fails, and that his reputation as a "very knowing customer" or "smart business man" depends on his acceptance of other modes of dealing that are not, in the end, entirely businesslike.

Where does business stop? By definition, a free market is a market that is free to use any means of exploitation; freedom of the people is second to  market freedom (and market freedom is justified by the wealth it generates). In that society, there is no such thing as corralling business – that would be socialism! So the sub-prime lenders were being “smart business men”; whether they caused death and destruction or not, the majority walked away with fortunes.

After reading your post, my thoughts also went to the Native Americans at the time of colonization, who were almost literally washed away by a wave of alcohol, when more deadly weapons were not used. Apparently the Johnny Appleseed story is more about cider rather than pies.

PS: I like your translation better than the one I put up. Thanks! said...

<p><span>I am interested in the two economic systems you have identified in
this tale as well as in the ideology that can be extracted from the
tale and how it can be challenged.

The most obvious economic system I can identify is capitalism which maître Chicot ascribes to.  I would like to better understand the second system, which could be associated with mere Magloire.  Is this a specific economic system such as socialism or gift economy?  I can recognise the two kinds of relationship to land that you have identified: one based on affect, the other based on profit.

By ideology, I understand the values or ideas which can appear as common sense or the ideas of the dominant class which are assimilated by an entire society by way of socialisation.  In my understanding, you are suggesting that although it may seem that this tale cautions against greed, avarice and drunkenness, it actual shows that capitalism has failed and that profit-driven greed and cunning and has had to be supplanted by human fraternal behaviour.</span>
Since the “dispassionate logic of capital” has failed, can we see in
this tale the supremacy of traditional values which you have
identified as “hospitality, neighbourliness, conviviality, gift
economy”?  Should rationalism and objectivism give way to affect and subjectivism?  Is the tale prescriptive or descriptive?  Is there a clash of masculine or masculinist values embodied in the person of Chicot with feminine or feminist values embodied in the person of mère Magloire?  (By masculinist values, I refer to rationalist and objectivist values descending from the Enlightenment representing the European and predominantly male heritage associated with the scientific movement, which some have accused as not being representative of the reality of, say, Aboriginal people, women, non-European people, etc.)

If the apparent ideology warning against greed, avarice and
drunkenness are insufficient to explain the story, and if capitalism,
which seems to crush traditional values, actually fails in securing
profit, how do we deal with the disguised homicidal behaviour of
maître Chicot?  Can we draw conclusions about power, violence, and oppression?  Can capitalist regimes sometimes turn to structural violence and oppression to maintain power?</span></p>

Jon said...

Bill, thanks for your comments.  Yes, perhaps another way of putting things is that it is in the nature of business to be "unbusinesslike," to go beyond its bounds or to refuse to stop.

Jon said...

I'd put things slightly differently: this is not a tale about the failure of capitalism, but about its limits.  The old woman, here, puts a limit on capitalist expansion by initially refusing the notion that everything has a price.  The central problem that the story poses, then, is how does capital manage to go beyond its limits.  I suggest it does so by supplementing its own logic with another, here something that's closer to the gift economy.

Now, to say that the logic of capital is limited (or reaches its limit) and has to be supplemented isn't quite the same as saying it has failed.  And to say that traditional values mark the limit of capitalist expansion or or to note that capital has to take recourse to such values isn't the same as saying they have "supremacy."

But these observations do, I'm suggesting, complicate our way of understanding capital, and help us show that it's self-portrayal, as sufficient unto itself, is at best ideological (however "true" it may be!) and at worst irrelevant (because the widow's downfall is thoroughly post- or non-ideological).

So, yes, we've managed to "undo" an irrelevance.  But another way of seeing it is that we've shown that the terrain of dispute is not ideology, but rather affect and habit.

(For what it's worth, this is also what I try to show in my book, Posthegemony.  Though there I also introduce a third term, apparently absent in this story: the multitude.)