:: Article

Balzac’s Physiology of the Employee

By P.T. Smith.

Honoré de Balzac, The Physiology of the Employee, translated by André Naffis-Sahely
(Wakefield Press, 2014)

In the war against the specific sufferings induced by office life, Herman Melville’s Bartleby is revered as saint and martyr. In the sacred literature of the office genre, his death is the office worker’s call to arms. But it’s a mistake to think that before his sacrifice, the literary universe wasn’t waging such a war against office ennui. Bartleby’s sacrifice is still honored and “I would prefer not to” remains our great rallying cry, but the more his followers understand the history of their war, even if it means recognizing how little ground has been gained, the more allies they find, the better suited they are to continue the fight. Honoré de Balzac’s The Physiology of the Employee (1841) is a guidebook, and it is not outdated. In its relevancy yet seeming strangeness, it fits with the rest of Wakefield Press’s catalog. His description of the climate in which he wrote sounds little different from the economic recession of recent years, and the lack of change since: “Personal expenses were examined with a fine-tooth comb. Benefits were chipped away at.” In its careful organization and laying out of office principles, The Physiology of the Employee serves as a work that grounds the spirit of Bartleby.

Presented straightforwardly as a physiology, a careful study of the living system of the office and the employee, Balzac’s text begins by defining the employee before moving through the history of how such a creature came to be, remarking on its environment, and then shifts to an examination of specific categories of employees—from interns to heads of departments. It becomes clear that this science is not pure, that it comes with some agenda, but Balzac remains level-headed throughout, and since his stance sides entirely with the office worker, we—yes, we, for I, too, am in this war against office ennui, a Bartleby acolyte—should be grateful for his purportedly dispassionate study.

Also taking a side in this cultural engagement is the translator, André Naffis-Sahely. In his introduction, he acknowledges the importance of Balzac’s physiology to the modern zeitgeist—linking it to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, another touchstone text in the literature of the office—while making his own position clear, such as when Naffis-Sahely acknowledges that the “sign reads ‘Human Resources,’ which really strictly means ‘Human Capital,’ and in practice amounts to little more than ‘Slave.’” Following this, in the translator’s note, he acknowledges the affect of his passion on the translation. Some liberties with the translation make the text’s connection to our contemporary lives more resonant, such as translating “supernumerary clerk” as “intern.” He, too, is on our side.

Since The Physiology of the Employee is meant to educate its readers and to give workers an opportunity to find new clarity in the doldrums of office ennui, the instinct to relate and update to our times is strong, and it is not misguided. That the text is still is so relevant to contemporary office life is reason for a resigned “Nothing in this world changes” but rather a call to keep up the fight. Balzac defines the employee as “someone who needs his salary to live and isn’t free to resign as he isn’t equipped for anything other than producing endless piles of paperwork.” The latter half of this may not be entirely true (we hope), but we remain beholden to it all the same. Office culture dubiously convinces the employee that he or she is not capable of anything more, while capitalism gives life to the lie that the employee’s salary will eventually free them of these confines.

Viewing this conundrum from my own cubical, these lies are somehow given beauty and clarity. At eye level, I can see two things: a brick wall reminding me of my faith in Bartleby, and an advertisement from L.L. Bean. This is not a small ad; it takes up the entire side of another office building. Where before I could peer in on workers, watching their mundane lives as if peeping on my own, I now see a man kayaking on beautiful waters, beneath trees and a cliff face, open seas ahead. It’s a promise that I can purchase that life, just across the street, if only I push enough papers to afford it—a paradox that precludes ever having time for it.

Balzac, aware of the inanity of this paper-pushing, gives room for those employees who do thrive, who “live for this sort of administrative quibbling…They can even create new obstacles so that they can fix them and simultaneously put their abilities to the test.” Immediately following, though, he bemoans the fact that this isn’t enough to satisfy the demands of the office: even those suited to the life are asked to sacrifice more, to further bend under the weight of paper. Acknowledging these employees and those who find their way up the promotional ladder to Office Manager or Head of Department, Balzac’s greatest sympathy lies with—and therefore his greatest attention is devoted to—the employees who suffer the most. His categorizing itself, the attention to the finest detail, becomes an act of empathy. It may even be a risky act. The office is an absurd place, possibly absurd enough to defy such organization. At times, Balzac rides to the edge of his calm: “What use can a Ministry really have for a Library? Does anyone have the time to read? Maybe the Minister himself? Or all those interns? Was the Library set up for the Librarian, or did the Librarian set up the Library?”

Ever brave, ever analytical, Balzac forges through the confusion. His physiology is an examination of the entire office system, and its place in the larger world. If the office is necessary, if we, the little moving parts of the system, are essential to a functioning society, then Balzac could possibly tolerate its effect on employees, assuming that he sees society functioning at all. To the accusation (which is his own) that the employee is only good for pushing papers, he points to the “massive wastage” in the rest of a country: “This mismanagement of the country’s affairs is the domain of the statesmen. An employee is no more responsible for these mistakes than a June bug is for knowing the laws of natural history: but they are perfectly placed to observe it.” So what if our efforts produce nothing of value? At the least we aren’t responsible for violence, physical and economic, committed against people and the environment, by the governments and corporations that create the framework that supports our lives.

To Balzac we are rendered a meaningless neutral: waste has taken on a different meaning now. Your office has a green committee and fundraisers, and the powers-that-be have crafted a convoluted, empty-minded mission statement that emphasizes social responsibility. There’s at least one coworker who sends out periodic email reminders about wasting paper, leaving lights on, carpooling, etc. The modern office worker is encouraged to be socially aware, to be a good citizen—at the same time our very jobs demand that we fail. At home, you run a computer into the ground before buying a new one; at the office, new ones arrive, the old ones disappear. On our computers, we skim articles online about the difficulty in disposing of such computers,. This modern June bug is now responsible; the guilt is ours. What for Balzac was neutral has become yet another oppression.

The comparisons to the modern office risk becoming a competition, one necessarily tinged with nostalgia. No matter the scientific drapery of the physiology, Balzac is a wonderfully playful writer, which adds depth to that unavoidable nostalgia. In describing the habitat of the employee, he details “the smell of paper and quills” and “a patch of hardwood floor strewn with an incredible array of debris.” Oh, what I wouldn’t give for that! To have that old-fashioned world instead of rattling florescent light fixtures, the fabric of cubical walls, the rough carpet in a color designed to blur and hide stains beyond my lifespan would be a happier life—so says nostalgia.

We would do better to pass over the competition, and ally ourselves with Balzac’s compatriots. Is my ceiling not also the “ceiling toward which he hurls his yawns”? Do modern doctors not also worry about “the influences that this simultaneously civilized and barbarous nature has on the moral beings boxed in those frightening cubicals we call Offices, where the sun barely filters through, and one’s faculties are blinkered by chores”? This may all sound despairing, but when Balzac makes his distinction between the Parisian employee and the provincial one, there’s a lifeline, even if the specific Parisian/provincial break no longer stands. He grants that “if the provincial employee feels demoralized, he is at least aware of it, whereas the Parisian employee might very well lack that self-awareness.”

Does being demoralized but self-aware save those of us who manage it? It must, to some degree. It’s what leads us to fall in line behind Bartleby. The Physiology of the Employee can be read by those who are not self-aware, and the reward of studying it can teach a despairing employee to recognize their despair as well as to locate allies in the annals of history. In an office life without allies—seeing only the fallen, those who succumb to despair but in their lack of awareness do nothing for it—even the self-aware can be lost.

I recently received a work email loaded with an absurd request which, if granted, would embarrass all parties involved. I stretched to imagine how the client who sent it could think that it would reflect well on his work. For relief, to share a laugh, I forwarded it to a coworker, saying hyperbolically that I couldn’t find the words required to respond to such an email. What I received in return was a very clear-cut and serious set of guidelines to follow in answering it. My coworker knows not his despair. At times, I’ve looked around and counted the few in whom I can glimpse a shimmer of life, so when Balzac names those others in the Physiology, I let out a cry of joy. To name something is to come closer to understanding it, and knowing is one step closer to empathy.

Balzac, harshly but not unjustly, labels this office employee, and possibly all of us, a cretin. Such a lowly label begs—I beg, fearing what it means for forty hours of my life each week—for elaboration. Thankfully, Balzac later adds that the “only difficulty lies in determining whether these feathered mammals are truly cretinized by their jobs, or whether they simply fell into those jobs because they were cretins to begin with.” Possibly there’s a spectrum that he’s uncovered here. Some of us are saved from being cretins, at least for a time, while others have become cretins; still others have always been so. It’s easy to imagine that the last group are those who are most successful in the office, those who treat others as if they were beneath them and are rewarded for doing so. With this spectrum, the process of eyeing coworkers, determining if they are cretins or not, becomes a little easier. Those who aren’t can become allies, and those who are must be guarded against.

It’s also a reminder to monitor yourself. The line between human and cretin is a thin one. Maybe that’s why Bartleby preferred “not to.” He saw no way out of becoming a cretin, no way back to being human, so he preferred not to go further. Melville’s tale is entirely from the perspective of his boss, a man who believes in his work, who isn’t shown to have much resembling a life outside of the office. It is impossible for him, or for the other employees, to understand Bartleby. Even when a reader sees himself in Bartleby, there is a sense of isolation, and a lack of origin. In removing himself entirely from the office, placing himself as a scientific observer, Balzac reveals the nuances of drudgery that causes Bartleby to be “the victim of [an] innate and incurable disorder.” In understanding the world that caused his disease, we stand a better chance of curing it in ourselves.

A new employee recently joined my office. She sits in the cubical right next to mine, like myself, like Bartleby, her window faces a brick wall, only feet away. It’s been three weeks and I’ve spoken no more than ten sentences to her. Is this not cretinous behavior? Does it not push her towards her own transformation into a cretin, if some other office hasn’t already turned her into one? This isolation is what may have hurt Bartleby the most. Sure, his employer was compassionate, but he could never side with him. The other office inhabitants were themselves too far gone. Bartleby did not have the chance to join with allies, create a salvation other than the most passive resistance, and could only burrow deeper and deeper into that. Years later, the narrator of Fight Club moved to the opposite extreme. Balzac’s Physiology, presenting the complexities that are the breeding ground for other office novels, can help us crack those walls of isolation.

If the cretin cannot be re-humanized, the physiology can at least save those on the cusp, as well as educate those who aren’t yet at risk. However, to interpret Balzac’s efforts as solely concerned with practical worth ignores his touches of absurdity and enthusiasm. In “Categories of Clerks,” he explores the nooks and crannies of office personalities, the details of dress, behavior, and home life. Even in clothing differences, the lifestyles that have changed with time, the game of spotting a coworker begins. A reader can put a name to the “the drudger” in his or her life: “Nothing discourages him, nothing deters him. Strangely enough, this sort of man inspires much envy in others, who in turn make his life difficult.” Or “the bootlicker”: “He sometimes denounces people publicaly and often spies on them, but when you speak to him he’s always busy!” If the reader is willing to be mocked, usually with some love, he or she can even look for themselves in the text, as I did. I trust Balzac to lead me to a better understanding of my own place in the ecosystem of the office.

Accepting that I’m not “the dapper,” I continued to try and find myself in the Physiology. Neither “the codger” nor “the collector”—though my bookshelves could argue otherwise—I came to “the literary employee.”. It fit as well as any type, particularly the subcategory “who writes critical novels under a pseudonym.” When Balzac named my fear, I shuddered: “he sometimes winds up never writing again.”

Balzac’s fine descriptions enforce the scientific framework of the objective study. The dapper “always wears curve-pleasing pantaloons: tight-fitting or loose, pleated or brocaded; he wears nice boots, expensive cravats held in place by a ring, and new hats.” Balzac leads us to understand that we’re all so identifiable, that every dapper wears specifically yellow gloves. This categorizing, for all the humor, has the dark effect of reminding the reader that once the employee is defined by office life, they are no longer an individual.

Subtleties dance throughout the Physiology, unfolding even in a single sentence. Of “the codger” Balzac writes: “he doesn’t publicaly disapprove of colleagues who carry on with other work that lies outside their official duties.” The italicization reveals the level of disdain the codger feels. He may want to hide the disdain, but those italics likely live in his actions, in his sighs as a coworker mentions some of that other work. Balzac’s acknowledgement of these quirks is more than the office itself ever provides. Returning to “the dapper,”:“People make fun of this poor man’s Amadis, and quite wrongly. After all, he has a plan and doesn’t harm anyone; he simply has his beliefs and is devoted to them.” It’s the simplest morality, really, but one not often lived out in the office environment. A show of personality is to be mocked so that the craggy individual is rubbed smooth.

Balzac remains consistently on the side of his subjects, even though they themselves may mock or scorn one another. It’s a buttress for the employee, while never ignoring or running from the waves of bitterness that threaten to drown any such compassion in the office. This leads to one of the ways The Physiology of the Employee stands apart from so much of contemporary office-based humor: Balzac’s humor doesn’t offer an escape within the office. Office-based comedies on television have a deadening, often infuriating effect on me. TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation wear a cynical guise, mocking the mundanity of work, the useless coworkers, or the office nemesis, but it’s only that: a guise.

These shows nudge the viewer with a winking commiseration: “We know office life is miserable; we’re on your side.” But once the Judas goat has you following, they depict characters who burst with personality and life. Those people clash, sure, but they inevitably form a family, their deep love reinforced with each and every episode. Friends and lovers rarely exist outside of the office, and when they do they are only visitors—both to the office and to the show. It’s an insidious lie, offering viewers an opiate dream that they can find such a life in the office. The comfort Balzac offers demands that the employee fight instead of succumb to the haze of the opium den.

The forces against the employee are strong and invasive. Besides the gruesome traditions of capitalism, as fearsome as any of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, there are those cretins who have passed the point of no return: the managers and heads of departments. Balzac doesn’t loathe these people; he describes them no differently than he does any other worker. He reminds the reader why someone would rise up the ranks: “the farther up the ladder one rises, formalities grow looser and looser, delusions grow fewer, and horizons widen; medals bloom out of buttonholes, characters grow more distinctive, the men grow portlier, and their salaries allow them to actually live.” That these successes can only be built on the hunched shoulders of the despairing cannot be forgotten. The final subspecies of clerk Balzac discusses is “the poor employee.” His life is nothing but toil, and the “ministers aren’t the slightest bit interested in the fates of these poor victims.” The managers are beneath the ministers, but are no different, only called on to create the illusion that they are.

For Balzac, writing specifically about French office life, at times briefly comparing it to other countries, above all of these categorical distinctions stood the Emperor: “So as to please the Emperor, he will deprive himself of everything.” As Balzac located a larger malaise in his time and place in order to be specific where otherwise he could be forced into vagueness, it is useful to for modern readers, with an even wider world affected by the malaise, to do the same for their lives. So, rephrased to fit my context: “to dream the American Dream, he will deprive himself of everything.” The deviltry of the change is that the employee of Balzac’s time had no aspiration of becoming the Emperor, while the employee of today is told to reach for the American Dream. Politicians, the media, and those who have already achieved fortune and fame sell the dream, loudly proclaiming its availability, while the price is raised quicker than a down payment, made on a credit card, can be paid off. Work hard, act right, and you can succeed, own the biggest house, the nicest things. Any help in life is deemed socialist, infringing on the dream of others—so the rich sell and the poor buy. In this model, our modern Emperors protect their thrones, and employees refuse everything that can ease their suffering, convinced that one day they, too, will have a throne.

Even those of us who never bought into this delusion generally bought another, simpler lie. Balzec recognizes this naïveté as well:

Decent, proud families should question how much freedom such a career really offers if it takes a young man—educated in the Classics, vaccinated, honorably discharged from the army, who, while perhaps not incredibly intelligent, is in full possession of his faculties—twelve years to amass a capital of 45,000 francs, which is after all only the total sum of his wages, which being variable are subject to change and do not translate into a life annuity.

How many readers recognize their own lives in this passage? Go to college, get a degree, maybe go to graduate school, get a decent job, work, save, get a better job, save, buy a house, eventually retire. Our parents had this life, and the lesser American dream, the American satisfaction, is that we will do better than our parents. Instead, the only outcome of education is debt and the promise of a job is to be an employee, an “intrepid shipwreck survivor who manages to stay afloat only by dint of bold strokes.” The young American employee may need to abandon the hope of retirement, but there is still room for hope amidst a bleak future.

Bartleby is the fallen saint, and Balzac keeps the troops in the culture war self-aware and loose. He can open the eyes of the undecided and loosen the tensed shoulders of the partisans. The office is torturous, but also pathetic, something to be laughed at. Balzac’s description of the office is of a stifling place, then when it an office is moved, pulled down the street in carts, it’s absurd. The flying bits of the office may be frightening, but that is overwhelmed by the entertainment in its strangeness. Balzac is able to imagine, as I often find myself doing, that the whole of daily work is an experiment on the employee by some unnamed being. He calms us by reminding us though we are refused motivation, we get take by wasting half our work day, now time wasted on gchat, fantasy football, or editing a review.

The perfect escape, the way to truly fight against the system, to avoid simply “prefer[ring] not to” or to do so with humor, and side by side, instead of despairingly alone, may lie in Balzac’s belief that “the most beautiful things that France has accomplished were achieved before the advent of reports, when decisions were made spontaneously.” So, in protest, be spontaneous, confound the cretins, never become one, band together with those who do the same. Maybe something can be created from our oppressive office environments and our downward spiral to becoming a cretin—just don’t be delusional, don’t hold your breath.

N.B. Images from Wakefield Press’s edition of Balzac’s The Physiology of the Employee are reprinted above with the publisher’s generous permission.

P.T. Smith lives and writes in Vermont. His work has appeared in Music & LiteratureFull StopThree Percent, and other publications.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 13th, 2015.