Fifty thousand spiders in a pot

manet dead torreador



In The French Generation of 1820 Alan Spitzer writes, using an image from Balzac, of “hungry young provincials competing in the Paris arena like fifty thousand spiders in a pot . . . all tortured by the discrepancy between boundless ambition and constricted opportunity.” He quotes a translation of le Comte de Rambuteau’s warning to Louis Philippe — that the French King should beware of:

the déclassés, the doctors without patients, the architects without buildings, the journalists without journals, the lawyers without clients, all the misunderstood, maladjusted, famished characters who, having found no seat at the banquet, try to overturn the table to get the plates. There are your makers of revolutions, your high priests of anarchy, your buccaneers of insurrection.


In Western Europe off and on since the early nineteenth century and in the United States since the 1960s, two phenomena have become intertwined:

(i) More people, at some cost to themselves and their families, have been earning professional credentials than there have been corresponding professional posts. For example, lately in the United States about twice as many people have been going to law school as there are jobs for lawyers. And some number of these people began in college studying subjects they loved—literature, philosophy, foreign languages, creative writing and other arts—only to discover there were precious few jobs in those fields and that what jobs there were would not support a family, or pay for their own or their kids’ college educations.

(ii) Many children have been raised with values—e.g. justice, truth-seeking-and-speaking, artistic self-expression, preserving the non-human environment—for which their societies have not been willing to pay much or to pay well. And thus many of these children, if and when they become anxious to earn comfortable livings, have needed to commit themselves to different values or to leave behind value-oriented behavior and take up opportunism. (Cf. Georg Lukacs, Studies in European Realism: “It was the tragedy of a whole generation . . . that the bourgeois society would not let them realize the ideals that society itself had given them but forced them to shed their illusions to survive.”)

Some scholars have also connected the overeducating to social unrest, particularly to the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the student protests of the 1960s in Europe and the United States. I was introduced to the scholarly discussion by a collection of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures on Edouard Manet. In some harmony with Marx’s discussion of the lumpenproletariat, Bourdieu proposes that one result of such educational oversupplying is the creation of a flourishing (if not at all well paid) bohemian class, people on the margins of a society and of its economy who are, on the one hand, seeking desperately to find some new, special way to make their mark and earn a good living, and who, on the other hand, may be in the process of giving up, becoming alienated. They renounce the values of the society that allows them little or no way to succeed, to think well of themselves, to be officially recognized, accepted into mainstream society. Bourdieu further observed that historically bohemian classes make major contributions to their societies, particularly in the areas of culture and mores, to include what has gone by the name of “sexual liberation.”

Bourdieu describes Manet as un homme clivé, a person born into a well-to-do and well-connected, yet dissatisfied family; himself split (clivé) between respectability and bohemia and feeling at home in neither. An assertion of the present text is that a feeling of being split is common to a whole class of us. In Manet’s case, Bourdieu proposes, both the split and the overeducation, allowed him/drove him to become a great, even revolutionary artist. Marx’s career and ideas owe a good deal to some intersection between his native character and genius and the oversupplying of degreed professionals, lawyers in particular, in early-nineteenth-century Germany. And I find myself here thinking, too, of the person with whom I shared an apartment shortly after I graduated from college. He was then a Cooper Union art student of great talent, but, after a year or two of doing odd jobs in order to support his art habit, he switched to engineering, a field which seemed to offer more stable, better-paying jobs, a career. And, split between two fields and two yearnings, this person ended up being so extraordinarily successful that his engineering creations have been exhibited as art work in the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere.

Carme Harp CakeBut these are, we might say, the needles in the haystack. I would focus rather on a highly idealistic and hard-working woman I know who has worked as what used to be called a “secretary” in an academic department while pursuing an art career (or simply making drawings) on the side. A sister of mine dropped out of her elite college to go into fabric sculpture and then architecture school. She subsequently dropped out of designing McMansions that she wished were never built and became an early champion of solar power. Now she earns a meager living baking bread. At a gourmet restaurant in Harvard Square I recently met a young woman who had come from Japan to study sculpture and anthropology. Then she had had an idea that she might become a pastry chef. (Cf. Antonin Carême: “There are five fine arts: painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture, the leading branch of which is pastry.”) When I met the young Japanese woman she was working as what we used to call a “bus boy,” though she said she was learning “front-of-house operations.”

Mrs. Eastwood, my English teacher at Ann Arbor Pioneer High, warned me, back in the rich and optimistic 1960s, that there were only about 50 places for writers such as I wanted to be. My response at the time: Well, then, I would be one of the 50. Little did I know that I would now be giving many (happy) hours to publishing an online journal—Zeteo—that neither earns money nor seeks it.

I am less interested here in my own example than in the larger fact of millions of students, from the early 1970s onward, graduating from universities and finding that there are many fewer well-paying and intellectually and spiritually stimulating jobs than there are people like them, raised to expect such employment. We have scrambled and retrained and adjusted our expectations and ethics—and we continue to scramble, retrain, and adjust. And thus we have been able to survive in one way or another, though with plenty of loss, frustration, and alienation along the way. A few of us have indeed found new and special ways to make our mark, and some of us are still trying, even as we approach old age. Many of us have been involved in changing the mores of our society—gay and lesbian marriage leaps to mind.


One of my interests is in how many people, myself included, feel about having lost out in a tacit, yet still cutthroat competition for the few places that might possibly exist in our society to earn a comfortable living from truly creative, ambitious, iconoclastic thinking and writing. How do we feel about having been thrown unknowing into a system dead set on producing more “me’s” than the system in fact needed? (And how do we feel about the fact that our own overeducating has been the means for previous generations of professors and college administrators to enjoy comfortable lives?) In a somewhat different context, Freud proposed that education was “behaving as though one were to equip people starting on a Polar expedition with summer clothing and maps of the Italian Lakes”.

Spitzer offers an observation of Balzac’s from Illusions perdues (lost illusions):

Nowadays, in inviting all its children to the same banquet, society arouses their ambitions in the very morning of life. It deprives youth of its charm and taints most of its generous sentiments with an admixture of calculation.

“The rising generation,” Spitzer writes of the French generation of 1820, “would settle its hopes on the regime’s demise.” In another different context, in his poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes famously asked:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

— Wm. Eaton

William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.


Credits & Links

Top image is of Manet’s L’Homme mort (English title: The Dead Toreador), which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The museum’s online text states: “In 1864 Manet exhibited a large painting he called Episode from a Bullfight. Critics complained that its image of a fallen matador was out of proportion to the bull that had just gored him. “A wooden bullfighter, killed by a horned rat,” one sneered. At some point, Manet cut the painting apart, creating two smaller, more powerful works: The Dead Toreador . . . and The Bullfight, now in the Frick Collection, New York.” As Bourdieu wrote:  un homme clivé.

The second image, of a harp cake, is from one of the illustrations of pastries drawn by the great French chef Marie Antoine  (dit « Antonin ») Carême (1784 – 1833). His bon mot translated above is: “Les beaux-arts sont au nombre de cinq : peinture, sculpture, poésie, musique et architecture laquelle a pour branche principale la pâtisserie.” Source unknown.

Alan B. Spitzer, The French Generation of 1820 (Princeton University Press, 1987). The prefect quoted is Claude Philibert Barthelot de Rambuteau, Memoirs of the Comte de Rambuteau, translated by J.C. Brogan (J. M. Dent & Company, 1908).

Balzac’s image appears in Le Père Goriot:

Une rapide fortune est le problème que se proposent de résoudre en ce moment cinquante mille jeunes gens qui se trouvent tous dans votre position. Vous êtes une unité de ce nombre-là. Jugez des efforts que vous avez à faire et de l’acharnement du combat. Il faut vous manger les uns les autres comme des araignées dans un pot, attendu qu’il n’y a pas cinquante mille bonnes places.

There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in that aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot. [Translation by Ellen Marriage via Gutenberg]

Georg Lukacs, Studies in European RealismThe quote given here is from Spitzer’s book, op. cit.

Pierre Bourdieu, Manet, Une Révolution Symbolique; Cours au Collège de France (1998-2000) suivis d’un manuscrit inachevé de Pierre et Marie-Claire Bourdieu; édition établie par Pascal Casanova, Christophe Charle, Franck Poupeau et Marie-Christine Rivière. (Raisons d’agir/Seuil, 2013).

Bourdieu cites Leonore O’Boyle, “The problem of an excess of educated men in Western Europe, 1800-1850,” The Journal of Modern History 42 (4), December 1970, 471-95.

Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, as translated by James Strachey, footnote near the opening of Chapter VIII.

Langston Hughes, “Harlem.” In order to focus on the intellectual content, the quotation above ignores the poetic structure of Hughes’s text.

Click for pdf of Fifty thousand spiders in a pot

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