risk

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.

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