The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

Controller Calonne.

Under such circumstances of tristesse, obstruction and sick langour, when to an exasperated Court it seems as if fiscal genius had departed from among men, what apparition could be welcomer than that of M. de Calonne? Calonne, a man of indisputable genius; even fiscal genius, more or less; of experience both in managing Finance and Parlements, for he has been Intendant at Metz, at Lille; King’s Procureur at Douai. A man of weight, connected with the moneyed classes; of unstained name, — if it were not some peccadillo (of showing a Client’s Letter) in that old D’Aiguillon–Lachalotais business, as good as forgotten now. He has kinsmen of heavy purse, felt on the Stock Exchange. Our Foulons, Berthiers intrigue for him:— old Foulon, who has now nothing to do but intrigue; who is known and even seen to be what they call a scoundrel; but of unmeasured wealth; who, from Commissariat-clerk which he once was, may hope, some think, if the game go right, to be Minister himself one day.

Such propping and backing has M. de Calonne; and then intrinsically such qualities! Hope radiates from his face; persuasion hangs on his tongue. For all straits he has present remedy, and will make the world roll on wheels before him. On the 3d of November 1783, the Oeil-de-Boeuf rejoices in its new Controller–General. Calonne also shall have trial; Calonne also, in his way, as Turgot and Necker had done in theirs, shall forward the consummation; suffuse, with one other flush of brilliancy, our now too leaden-coloured Era of Hope, and wind it up — into fulfilment.

Great, in any case, is the felicity of the Oeil-de-Boeuf. Stinginess has fled from these royal abodes: suppression ceases; your Besenval may go peaceably to sleep, sure that he shall awake unplundered. Smiling Plenty, as if conjured by some enchanter, has returned; scatters contentment from her new-flowing horn. And mark what suavity of manners! A bland smile distinguishes our Controller: to all men he listens with an air of interest, nay of anticipation; makes their own wish clear to themselves, and grants it; or at least, grants conditional promise of it. “I fear this is a matter of difficulty,” said her Majesty. — “Madame,” answered the Controller, “if it is but difficult, it is done, if it is impossible, it shall be done (se fera).” A man of such ‘facility’ withal. To observe him in the pleasure-vortex of society, which none partakes of with more gusto, you might ask, When does he work? And yet his work, as we see, is never behindhand; above all, the fruit of his work: ready-money. Truly a man of incredible facility; facile action, facile elocution, facile thought: how, in mild suasion, philosophic depth sparkles up from him, as mere wit and lambent sprightliness; and in her Majesty’s Soirees, with the weight of a world lying on him, he is the delight of men and women! By what magic does he accomplish miracles? By the only true magic, that of genius. Men name him ‘the Minister;’ as indeed, when was there another such? Crooked things are become straight by him, rough places plain; and over the Oeil-de-Boeuf there rests an unspeakable sunshine.

Nay, in seriousness, let no man say that Calonne had not genius: genius for Persuading; before all things, for Borrowing. With the skilfulest judicious appliances of underhand money, he keeps the Stock–Exchanges flourishing; so that Loan after Loan is filled up as soon as opened. ‘Calculators likely to know’ (Besenval, iii. 216.) have calculated that he spent, in extraordinaries, ‘at the rate of one million daily;’ which indeed is some fifty thousand pounds sterling: but did he not procure something with it; namely peace and prosperity, for the time being? Philosophedom grumbles and croaks; buys, as we said, 80,000 copies of Necker’s new Book: but Nonpareil Calonne, in her Majesty’s Apartment, with the glittering retinue of Dukes, Duchesses, and mere happy admiring faces, can let Necker and Philosophedom croak.

The misery is, such a time cannot last! Squandering, and Payment by Loan is no way to choke a Deficit. Neither is oil the substance for quenching conflagrations; — but, only for assuaging them, not permanently! To the Nonpareil himself, who wanted not insight, it is clear at intervals, and dimly certain at all times, that his trade is by nature temporary, growing daily more difficult; that changes incalculable lie at no great distance. Apart from financial Deficit, the world is wholly in such a new-fangled humour; all things working loose from their old fastenings, towards new issues and combinations. There is not a dwarf jokei, a cropt Brutus’-head, or Anglomaniac horseman rising on his stirrups, that does not betoken change. But what then? The day, in any case, passes pleasantly; for the morrow, if the morrow come, there shall be counsel too. Once mounted (by munificence, suasion, magic of genius) high enough in favour with the Oeil-de-Boeuf, with the King, Queen, Stock–Exchange, and so far as possible with all men, a Nonpareil Controller may hope to go careering through the Inevitable, in some unimagined way, as handsomely as another.

At all events, for these three miraculous years, it has been expedient heaped on expedient; till now, with such cumulation and height, the pile topples perilous. And here has this world’s-wonder of a Diamond Necklace brought it at last to the clear verge of tumbling. Genius in that direction can no more: mounted high enough, or not mounted, we must fare forth. Hardly is poor Rohan, the Necklace–Cardinal, safely bestowed in the Auvergne Mountains, Dame de Lamotte (unsafely) in the Salpetriere, and that mournful business hushed up, when our sanguine Controller once more astonishes the world. An expedient, unheard of for these hundred and sixty years, has been propounded; and, by dint of suasion (for his light audacity, his hope and eloquence are matchless) has been got adopted, — Convocation of the Notables.

Let notable persons, the actual or virtual rulers of their districts, be summoned from all sides of France: let a true tale, of his Majesty’s patriotic purposes and wretched pecuniary impossibilities, be suasively told them; and then the question put: What are we to do? Surely to adopt healing measures; such as the magic of genius will unfold; such as, once sanctioned by Notables, all Parlements and all men must, with more or less reluctance, submit to.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/carlyle/thomas/french_revolution/v1.3.2.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30