THE ORDER OF THE DAY, the 2017 Prix Goncourt winner by Éric Vuillard, translated by Mark Polizzotti, pretends to be about February 20, 1933, the day when a clique of twenty-four of Germany’s wealthiest businessmen agreed to fund the nearly bankrupt Nazi party in advance of elections which the party went on to win, thus signing the death warrant for millions of people, and also about February 12, 1938, when Kurt von Schuschnigg, the authoritarian Chancellor of Austria, capitulated to Adolf Hitler, thus paving the way for a bloodless Anschluss and the subsequent march of Nazi armies. But the book is not about this at all: it is an alarm, a warning not to entrust matters of state to powerful and wealthy businessmen whose very success depends upon flexible morals and a spiritual vacuum.
Vuillard does not flinch at scathing analyses. “A company [a corporation] is a person whose blood rushes to the head.” The cabal of 24 heads who sealed other people’s fates in 1933 were all used to “the same string of underhanded maneuvers, marriages of convenience, double dealings—the tedious saga of their exploits.” He sagely remarks that winning the game means nurturing the only other people who are equal to them in power, the politicians, whoever they may be; “In the grand scheme of business, partisan struggles don’t amount to much. Politicians and industrialists routinely dealt with each other.” This cabal has long experience of survival through adaptation; “Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions.” If anything, the entanglement of corrupt and morally bankrupt political leaders with similar corporate leaders is more effective and putrid now than it was then.
He calls this group of 24 men “sphinxes,” “none other than the proxies [of their corporations], the clergy of major industry; they are the high priests of Ptah.” The 24 “lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly” to greet Hitler’s agent, Hermann Goering. They are “calculating machines at the gates of Hell.”
These powerful men, so secure in their wealth, turn out to be just as susceptible to intimidation and propaganda as any common man. Shuschnigg wrote later in his memoir about the “magical influence” that Hitler exerted over people. “The Führer drew others to him by magnetic force then pushed them away with such violence that an abyss opened, which nothing could fill…The Reich Chancellor was a supernatural being, the one that Goebbels’s propaganda machine wanted us to see, a fantastic creature, fearsome and inspired.” This sounds like America’s own “very stable genius,” who has inexorably gathered his chosen minions around him to blow air into his delusions and provide the rest of the world with fairytales to believe in.
Vuillard’s parable is rounded out by his acknowledgement that these men succeeded in their assignments so well that their companies survived their complicity with Hitler in the Second World War and subsequent political upheavals to remain household names today: BASF, Bayer, Agfa, Opel, IGFarben, Siemens, Allianz, Telefunken. The names of the corporations’ sphinxes, avatars, high priests and lizards are different, but their comportment and spiritual vacuity is still with us, and that is the point. If the very people who influence and support a government’s actions are the very ones who benefit from these actions, then they have triumphed.
The book does not flinch from documenting the passivity of the populace, who are “grinding away, immersed in the great, decent fallacy of work,” not realizing the danger they are in. They are delighted to gather for a big party when the Nazis invade Austria. Did they really mean to start a world war? Did they think their local taunts and disdain of Jews would lead to six million of them being killed? Probably not. The populace is too gullible, ill-informed, and busy to pay close attention, and Vuillard does not blame them for the catastrophe under way.
The corporate giants, on the other hand, were keenly aware of the stakes and they had the power to change the course of events. But they, too, are distracted by the “decent fallacy of work.” Like all of the super rich, they are out of touch with heavy labor and anxiety about where their next loaf of bread is coming from. They gladly accept the public’s dependence upon them and why not? They have proven themselves capable of great things.
THE ORDER OF THE DAY shook me to the point of nausea, but the language inspired me, and the credit for that goes not only to Vuillard but to his superb translator, Polizzotti
Given the elegant, sophisticated writing style of Vuillard, the translator had his hands full creating equally elegant and sophisticated phraseology in English, and has succeeded. Please enjoy the following translation fragment: “…Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, with its grandiose brass, its harrowing pause, then the whisper of a clarinet, and the moment when the violins slowly spit their little stars of blood.” This is the art of translation at its highest.
The corrupt lizards were capable of rhapsodic appreciation of the finest art and music—evidence of a high level of education. They were also affected by personal tragedies followed by transformative changes in their outlook, so they cannot be excused for either lack of experience or lack of education in their embrace of Hitler, whom Vuillard calls “an ignorant little agitator.” America’s own ignorant little agitator has been similarly embraced by people inhabiting the highest rungs of our judiciary, educational institutions, and government, though not so much by people in the world of the arts itself. He has them in his sites. Hitler took the six lizard-funded years between the beginning of the book, 1933, and the end, 1939, to marginalize the thinkers and artists.
Add meticulous research to Vuillard’s nauseating alarm and exquisite language. I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was four foot eleven, or that Bismarck’s left eyelid drooped, or that the name of the Nuremberg hangman was John C. Woods. Have you ever heard of the mad French artist Louis Soutter, who “in his delirium, might unwittingly have captured the slow death agony of the world around him” in his pre World War II sketches? Vuillard reached far from the proscenium of Hitler’s staged villany to illuminate the larger danse macabre which would soon expand to include the whole world.
Vuillard uses this story to imply a larger question: Are we now “immersed in the great, decent fallacy of work,” remaining purposely ignorant of a looming catastrophe? Do we “shuttle between house and factory, market and courtyard where the laundry is hung out to dry, or in the evening between office and tavern, before finally heading home?” Are we ignoring the cowardly compromises being made in our names by the modern lizards and the self-dealing schemes which will take away our livelihoods and turn us all into soldiers dying for their benefit?
Vuillard does not tell us what to do about it if we are. The solution is to be found in ourselves. The final paragraph of his book is a sigh of resignation in the face of the catastrophe building around us today:
We never fall twice into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread. We so desperately want not to fall that we grapple for a handhold, screaming. With their heels they crush our fingers, with their beaks they smash our teeth and peck out our eyes. The abyss is bordered by tall mansions. And there stands History, a reasonable goddess, a frozen statue in the middle of the town square. Dried bunches of peonies are her annual tribute, her daily gratuity, bread crumbs for the birds.