Epigrammatic Accumulation

by zunguzungu

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather begins with the following epigram:

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime”
-Balzac

So the relationship between “Crime” and “Fortune” is not only at the heart of the book, but this oddly Marxist quotation makes a particular claim about the relationship between: the legitimate power of wealth, it implies, is always derived from an act defined by its social illegitimacy.

The relevant piece of Marx would be this, on the idea of primitive accumulation:

“The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production…The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.”

More poetically, he writes elsewhere that Capital comes into the world “dripping, head to foot, with blood and dirt from every pore,” and more to the point, his argument was that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of capital (be it monetary or social) breaks down if we look at it close enough. All great fortunes, in other words, have their origin in some kind of crime.

Still, Balzac? Wikipedia confirms that the sentence comes from Le Père Goriot, p115, which in the 1896 translation reads: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.” That qualifier “for which you are at a loss to account” seems key, for with it we lose the Marxian certainty that all capital accumulation is, as such, a form of expropriation, and the more fundamental conceptual argument that all social modes of legitimation are, at their roots, sublimated forms of violence.

With some cheap internet sleuthing, I found some information in Ralph Keyes’ The Quote-Verifier, which has both the original French and an alternate translation that I like better (“The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectful way”), and hypothesizes that Puzo found the pithier (which is to say, pithily mis-quotated) version of Balzac in C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite.

Neither Balzac nor Mills fall under my pay grade–so if anyone has any insight into the genealogy, I’d love to hear it–but the interesting way the former has to be transformed by the latter before it can be adopted by Puzo not only reveals some of what is at stake in The Godfather (the necessary interrogation of social legitimacy by crime), but contains its own kind of literary irony. The secret of a great quote for which you are at a loss to account is a strategic omission? Literature comes into the world dripping blood and dirt from every pore? Behind every great epigram, perhaps, is a great mistranslation?