Le rouge et le noir

April 16, 2010

When I first read The Red and the Black by the pseudonymous Stendhal, I immediately wanted to form a Julien Sorel fan club.  Send me a few bucks, and you can join and receive a hand made button like the one shown above – I wear it proudly – for your lapel.

Julien is the child of a brutish and crafty peasant who runs a local saw mill, discussed in my recent post on peasants.  He idolizes Napoleon, and fumes at his inability to find a ladder out of the provincial pit of sloth and stupidity into which he has been born.  He is smart though, and is made tutor to the local bourgeois family of note, a family with a very beautiful mistress.  He promptly decides that seducing her is his only chance to advance himself.

Julien is cold, calculating, touchy, arrogant, insensitive and incredibly blockheaded.  He is also very good looking, but his deep sense of insecurity and inferiority, born of his low social station, prevent him from fully understanding or exploiting the effect he has on others, especially women.  He frequently appears to them as simply strange, unpredictable, even bizarre.  He is a strange sort of romantic hero.

Strange also in that his romantic nature is fixed on social climbing, even as he aches for love.  He can’t get love from Madame de Rênal, his employer, even though she is utterly infatuated by him, because he only uses people, as his father used him to make money.  He is passionate, and torn apart internally by his conflicts; he is the romantic hero of the superman – Napoleon – and the cursed burnout – Rimbaud or James Dean.

Eventually, he makes his way to Paris, where he works as a secretary to the Marquis de la Mole.  The Marquis’ young daughter, Mathilde, is a real piece of work herself.  Haughty, beautiful, intelligent, and suffering from the crushing boredom of post-1830 society in which nothing of interest can be said because it might be controversial, she is the natural aristocratic complement to Julien.  She is intrigued by this upstart plebeian – at least he is interesting. After considerable erotic knife-play, they become lovers.

Eric Auerbach, in his magisterial work of scholarship, MimesisThe Representation of Reality in Western Literature, devotes a chapter to the novel, naming it In the Hotel de la Mole after the title of chapter 34.  He dissects Stendhal’s brilliant depiction of the stifling and suffocating enforced conventionality, of manners, of dress, of thought, amongst the noble and bourgeois elite.  I practically gasp for air when I read the scenes of Julien suffering through an evening of chit chat in the de la Mole’s drawing room, the object of amused condescension of the more at-home guests.

Julien comes to a bad end, Mathilde is pregnant with his child, and she keeps his head as a keepsake.  There is so much in this novel, so many fantastic scenes, such crazy passion and psychological insight, such merciless realism, that I read it again and again with the passing years.

In 1996, Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes published this clever parody and rap hommage to the novel:

THE RED AND THE BLACK (with apologies to L. L. Cool J and other rap artists):

Now I’ve got a tale I wanna tell.
It’s how I romanced these chicks and
got sent to hell.
My tag’s Sorel
And I’m one bad dude,
Master manipulator, young
Machiavelle.

Grew up in the sticks, where there ain’t no glory.
Had to make my name, no matter
how gory.
Got me a job as a kinda tutor.
Met the kids’ ma and became her suitor.
Mrs. R., she fell for me hard,
I made her my toy,
I’m one bad boy.

Got me a job in the far-off city.
Met a rich girl who was pretty pretty.
She was a doormat, I had a format.
We were gonna get hitched
I was gonna be rich.
Till old Mrs. R. played her
role as snitch.

She sold me out as a nasty cad.
So I tried to fade her, but I
got had.
They found me guilty and
now I’m dead.

Stupid Mathilde went and
buried my head.
Old Mrs. R. heard the news
and fell.
Now she’s off-line too,
as you can tell.
Like I said before, I’m a
master manipulator, the
new Machiavelle.

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Anti-Jacobin!

April 16, 2010

One of the themes that swirls around my empty head endlessly is the French Revolution and The Terror.  Not really surprising that I should be transfixed by it – it held men and women in thrall in its day and long after.  And, of course, it seems to embody that political/moral question of the place of violence so well.  And then, there’s Gillray.

The image above is from a bound collection of the Anti-Jacobin Review that I just purchased.  James Gillray was commissioned to illustrate it, but after the first few  months, his cartoons were dropped.  The Jacobins were the radical element among the revolutionaries, named after their clubhouse on the Rue St. Jacques.  The allegory depicted, “A peep into the Cave of Jacobinism,” shows Truth scaring the bejeezus out of Sedition, whose human mask drops away to reveal a monstrous creep, while the light of Truth’s lamp sets his anarchistic, murderous tracts aflame.  For a version with original coloring, visit this post.

Like many Englishmen, Gillray sympathized with the French Revolution at first, but then turned against it as it grew more radical.  Being a genius, even when he is at his most partisan and propagandistic, he is powerful, often hilarious, and just plain fascinating.  I can’t wait to read the articles and poems in this volume!  Will they rise to the level of Burke’s Reflections or will they comprise the reactionary froth of intellects at the level of Rush Limbaugh?

And of whom do we think when we are thinking about The Terror?  Robespierre, of course.  I am reading some of his works right now, in a book named after his most famous phrase, Virtue and Terror, presented by Slavoj Zizek, a radical celebrity, I have now learned.  In his intro, Zizek recalls the oft repeated circumstances of Robespierre’s death.  He was captured in a raid on his club, and his jaw was broken.  At the guillotine, the bandages around his head that kept his jaw in place interfered with his getting properly seated in the apparatus, so the executioner ripped it off of him.  His horrible piercing scream sounds through history, and is mentioned by Simon Schama (Citizens) among others.  Zizek comments that many – all bourgeois, of course – seek to interpret this scream as the release of Robespierre’s horrible inner spirit, the revelation of his true nature in extremis.  I thought of it that way.

Now that I’ve read a few of his speeches, I think better of Maximilian.  His speech on granting voting rights to actors and Jews is a well reasoned attack on prejudice and humbug.  He tirade against the war party in the National Assembly – he was a committed pacifist – is a fine analysis of the terrible costs of war, costs that he felt were justified only as a means of national defense.  Still, there is that Terror, and those speeches equating terror and virtue, the guillotine as a sort of social tough love.

Zizek realizes that Robespierre is a problem for the radical left, and he rightly states that the Left must deal with him, or suffer the attacks of bourgeois critics who will use him as a way to beat the entire radical program into the ground.  After all, nobodywants to be seen as the party of Robespierre!  His lengthy essay on this problem is frequently incomprehensible and ranges widely.  I was tickled to see that he endorses something that I have often posited as a potential consequence of current trends in radical green-thought, known as deep ecology, a science fiction type dictatorship of the ecologists.

He says – Terror is one of the four moments (Alain Badiou) of revolutionary-democratic terror that opposes itself to the excesses of egalitarian democracy.  These moments are the only way to counter the threat of ecological catastrophe that looms over our horizon.  (I’m sure he’s devoted a lot of thought to the scientific issues involved here…)  And what is terror but the ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures.

This seems to be a common way for these radical thinkers to elide the serious moral stain of terror and its bloodshed.  They always associate it with something we take for granted – punishment of law breakers, for example.  And in that future eco-world, having three children, burning some coal, breathing too much? maybe will be a capital offense.  After all, mustn’t the community protect and police itself?  Recall, Robespierre was the head of the Committee for Public Safety!  And so, one of my favorite books in college that entranced me with its over-the-top rhetoric was Henri Lefevre’s Everyday Life in the Modern World, in which he labels our society a terroristic society of controlled and enforced consumption.  Terror is nothing but the radical and sudden restructuring of the rules of life in line with a new program, and isn’t that what every advertiser would like?  All life directed towards the buying of his or her products?  I think the inmates at the Lubyanka prison would not have agreed.


Is there nothing solid anymore?

April 8, 2010

  

A constant preoccupation of mine is the dissolving of things that seem fixed and solid into things, or groups of things that are anything but that. [See these posts on the truths of dots, and philosophy of dots]  Eternal verities that turn out to be contingent conventions; precise definitions that reveal themselves as maddeningly circular; substances that are mostly void, and so on.  A few examples:

  • Matter:  seems pretty solid, but as we know from modern physics, it’s mostly empty space.
  • Self:  long after David Hume noticed the self-deception inherent in the concept, the notion is being revised under the influence of contemporary neuroscience away from a unitary, unvarying core to something more fluid.
  • Organism:  the image of a well coordinated mechanical apparatus is giving way to the notion of a living thing as a community of smaller organisms and enormous collections of cells that somehow coexist in the same space.
  • More on the disappearing self, the void, and organisms here and here.

And just what does that have to do with the two marvelous books I’ve placed at the top of this post?  Of course, for some people, standard English, the Queen’s English (note, it doesn’t even stay as the King’s English) is an immutable and well-defined path from which only the uncouth will stray.  Jack Lynch demolishes this view in his book by giving an intellectual argument why this is absurd, and then providing individual historical treatments of the never ending battle between the language idolaters and the realists,  prescriptivists and descriptivists. 

He is remarkably fair in his assessment, giving the maven worshippers of linguistic non-change their due – useless to assert that fixed standards are never useful; just try to get an executive job with a corporation by speaking like a rapper in the interview – but even those fixed standards are not fixed in time.  We try to grasp the language in its static entirety and we come up with…nothing.  Like trying to get your arms around a drifting mist.  (You can read about my own struggle with my inner language snob here)

Just as I finished Lynch’s book, I started Robb’s on the geography of France.  The first several chapters are devoted to the mind boggling linguistic diversity that was French culture up until WWI.  Like examining a block of steel at the atomic level and finding vast reaches of nothing instead of solid stuff to bang your head against, when you try to reach in and grab the French Nation, there is nothing but a stupefying mix of local patois, communes, castes, entirely separate languages, and hardly an awareness that this thing called France – What, where is it?  In Paris, you say? – exists.  What a hoot that is, to conceive of the French State, the gold standard of centralized cultural and political authoritarianism, as something of an illusion!

How different is this from other countries?  My guess is that it may be similar to the cultural history of Italy, Spain, or Germany, but certainly not most of the English-speaking world.  Didn’t England succeed in forcing it’s language pretty much over the Isles long before the 20th century, despite the tenacity of local accents and dialects?  Certainly, the royal center made its presence known by edict and sword pretty uniformly.

Intellectual effort is often seen as the striving for the general and universal over the particular and contingent.  But these two books comprise an argument for the opposite view.   What good is system building if it is based on doing violence to the facts?


Atheism on the sly

March 31, 2010

It’s 1715, and Louis XIV, The Sun King is near to setting.  The Duke de Saint-Simon is concerned about the state of the realm after the great king, whom he detests, has passed from the scene.  The Dauphin (the direct heir to the throne) is dead, and the most appropriate successor is only three years old:  There must be a regency while he grows up to his majority.

The Regent will, of course, be the Duke D’Orleans, the son of Louis’ brother, Philipe d’Orleans, who was simply known as Monsieur.  (He was, I believe, a homosexual, something that was tolerated in the Court for a variety of nefarious reasons. )   The Regent, an intelligent man with many good qualities, is also a bit of wag, and takes pleasure at thumbing his nose at convention.  During a long church service with much music, he was seen to be assiduously following along in a prayer book.  When congratulated afterwards by an old family retainer, he responded with a laugh, “You are a great ninny!  I was reading Rabelais – and he showed the book’s cover.”  Saint-Simon comments that this was all for show since he was quite happy to attend the mass, Rabelais or no,  being a great lover of good music.

D’Orleans was a freethinker, however, and this could cause difficulties.  Here Saint-Simon counsels the future Regent on how to discreetly maintain his atheism, if atheist he must be:

Most damaging of all, I continued, would be to proclaim his godlessness or anything approaching atheism:  for it would make enemies of all religious bodies and at the same time antagonize every decent person who cared for morality, sobriety, and religion.  He would then find turning against himself that licentious maxim which he was so fond of quoting – namely that religion is a bogy which clever men have invented in order to govern and which is therefore necessary for Kings and republics.  If for that reason only, he might think it in his best interests to respect the Church and not bring it into disrepute.  I dwelt long on this important subject, adding that he need not be a hypocrite, only avoid plain speaking, observe the conventions (which was not hard if one confined oneself to appearances), refuse to countenance improper jests or remarks, and generally live like an honest gentleman who respects his country’s faith and conceals the fact that he, personally, sets no store by it.


Madame Bovary – Chabrol

February 20, 2010

In a post several years ago, I commented negatively on Claude Chabrol’s take on Madame Bovary, saying it was too faithful to the book to be interesting.  It seemed a slow-paced, Masterpiece Theater sort of treatment.  On watching it again, I’m not so sure.

A lot of reviewers felt as I did, and the film is not rated among Chabrol’s finest.  Yes, Isabelle Huppert is too old for the character, and her light hair and freckles are not Emma at all, but she’s lovely.  More interesting, is the complaint I read in many places that she, and the film, are too cold, controlled, lacking the sentimental passion of Emma, the passion that destroys her.

Certainly the film is restrained. Consider the scene in which Emma meets her old (Platonic) flame, Léon, in the Rouen cathedral, and he takes her for a ride in a hired cab.  He tells the driver to drive through the streets of the town,  and the citizens of the fair city are left to puzzle over this meandering cab that occasionally rocks back and forth rather wildly.  Inside, rapturous lovemaking.  The action is described in an almost cinematic way, yet the film gives us just this, with one brief glimpse of passion:

Not much for a literary passage that surely inspired the passionate sex-in-the-backseat scene of that masterpiece, Titanic.  The sculptural group on the right in the image above is a nice touch, though.

Still, I think Chabrol is on to something here.  The crucial thing about the novel is the control of tone – a touchstone of Flaubert’s writing.  Emma is shallow and sentimental, and a prey to passion, but it’s childish passion.  On the other hand, she’s an adult, a woman who is trapped in a dull marriage in a dull town in a dull epoch, and it’s not her fault.  Another woman who is the victim of men, and she knows it.  In the film, she comments frequently on things men might do that a woman has no chance of doing.  She sees her situation clearly, and she wants to rebel against it, yet she is fiercely restrained by her own ingrained sense of social propriety. [Compare to Flaubert’s other sentimental “hero,” Frederic Moreau.]  She was never a wanton bohemian or heedless character, at least not at first.  She must calculate – as a woman, she is always being watched.  In that sense, Huppert’s portrayal is just right.

Emma’s passionate nature is displayed before her marriage.  She has no hesitation at sucking her pricked finger despite the presence of Charles, the doctor.  Later, when their marriage is in the offing, she drinks a liquer with more than the normal relish, sticking her tongue into the glass to get the last drop.  After marriage, as her boredom and disposable income grow, her clothes get more and more elaborate.

On the left, Charles Bovary, the oafish husband.  On the right, Homais, the pharmacist, the man of reason.  His tiresome and superficial political, scientific, and philosophical patter are an ironic counterpoint throughout much of the story.  Even when you share his opinions about the clergy, the gentry, the capitalists, you want to throttle him to shut him up.  His stupid grasping for acclaim leads him to stampede Charles into a foolish and disastrous operation on a well young man who happens to have a club foot that needs “correcting.”

Is Charles the hero of the novel?  In a way, he is.  Only he has genuine, sincere, and deep emotional responses to his situation.  He is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he truly loves Emma, though he can’t make her happy with that.

Emma is tempted by the local notary’s assistant, Léon, a callow and romantic young man who is obviously in love with her.  She seeks spiritual help from the local priest in one of the most powerful passages of the novel.  The priest is absolutely tonedeaf to what ails her.  She has fine clothes, food, fire to warm her – the notion that she could be gravely suffering is totally alien to his mind and he shoos her away to deal with the urchins who must learn their stultifying catechism.  “What is a Christian?”  “One who is born and baptized!”  A fine verbal irony, pointing out the total lack of Christian love that comes Emma’s way in the church.

There’s not much to do if you live in a small French town in 1840, but the local aristocrat gives a grand ball and invites the Bovarys since Charles cured his abscess.   The waltz is absolutely dizzying, especially for a relative novice.  Emma says it was the most beautiful day of her life, and she daydreams about it endlessly.  At least the local draper, always willing to sell on credit, has some beautiful fabrics to show her to occupy her mind.

Rodolphe, a local gentleman and ladykiller shows up just as the town gets to host the annual country fair, a real boost for the place!  He seduces Emma with a steady torrent of romantic cliches and appealing hurt and angst.  Taking a window seat to the official proceedings, his words are intercut with prize awards for pigs, manure, and cows.  The bullshit is flying hot and heavy, and Emma is powerless to resist.  At last, someone who understands her!


They have a passionate love affair, but Rodolphe drops her because she’s becoming inconvenient.  Emma is shaken, but eventually picks up in earnest with Léon, leading to the cab ride and three days of bliss in an hotel room in Rouen.  She throws caution to the wind, and she actually scares her lover a bit, she’s so intense.  Her clothes get sharper and sharper, and the friendly merchant always has fancy stuff to sell on credit.  Finally he comes up with some promissory notes to sign and tells her to keep all the cash for now.  She can pay him pack later.  You can see the thought balloon above her head, filled with lists of things to buy.

It had to end.  The bills come due.  The bailiffs come to take back all the stuff in the house.  Notices are posted in the square – dishonor and utter humiliation await her, unless she can get 3,000 francs fast!  Won’t the draper help her out with a stay of a few days?  Her hand on his knee gets no results – he cares for francs, not fucking.  Was she really willing to do that with him? She is appalled at his insinuations, and at herself?

Of course, Rodolphe, he will help her!  He must help her!  She runs across the fields to his mansion – so difficult to do in the female costume of the day.  Standing outside his bedroom door, she is out of breath and desparate, but composes herself.

She opens the door.  “Oh, it’s you!”  There she is, in the mirror, smaller than the man of course.  She is only what she is in mens’ eyes.  Maybe she can rekindle their old love – they will run away together, of course.  She is so beautiful!

Building castles in the air is fine, but there is the matter of those 3,000 francs.  Rodolphe sees how it is, and he’s having none of it.  Cooly he tells her, “I don’t have it.” Surrounded by the accessories of wealth, in a mansion, on an estate, Emma finds it hard to believe him.  The awful truth dawns on her.  Nobody cares, nobody loves her.  She is alone.

She escapes by poisoning herself.  Charles loves her.


When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…

   

    

The Little Ice Age – View from Versailles

December 17, 2009

Baby, it’s cold out there!!

From the memoirs of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, a blast from the past reporting on the Little Ice Age and the horrible effects of global cooling!  An excerpt from Chapter XLIV:

One of the reasons Madame de Maintenon had brought forward, which much assisted her in opposing the siege of Lille, was the excessive cold of this winter [1708-09]. The winter was, in fact, terrible; the memory of man could find no parallel to it. The frost came suddenly on Twelfth Night, and lasted nearly two months, beyond all recollection. In four days the Seine and all the other rivers were frozen, and,—what had never been seen before,—the sea froze all along the coasts, so as to bear carts, even heavily laden, upon it. Curious observers pretended that this cold surpassed what had ever been felt in Sweden and Denmark. The tribunals were closed a considerable time. The worst thing was, that it completely thawed for seven or eight days, and then froze again as rudely as before. This caused the complete destruction of all kinds of vegetation—even fruit-trees; and others of the most hardy kind, were destroyed. The violence of the cold was such, that the strongest elixirs and the most spirituous liquors broke their bottles in cupboards of rooms with fires in them, and surrounded by chimneys, in several parts of the chateau of Versailles. As I myself was one evening supping with the Duc de Villeroy, in his little bedroom, I saw bottles that had come from a well- heated kitchen, and that had been put on the chimney-piece of this bed- room (which was close to the kitchen), so frozen, that pieces of ice fell into our glasses as we poured out from them. The second frost ruined everything. There were no walnut-trees, no olive-trees, no apple-trees, no vines left, none worth speaking of, at least. The other trees died in great numbers; the gardens perished, and all the grain in the earth. It is impossible to imagine the desolation of this general ruin. Everybody held tight his old grain. The price of bread increased in proportion to the despair for the next harvest. The most knowing resowed barley where there had been wheat, and were imitated by the majority. They were the most successful, and saved all; but the police bethought themselves of prohibiting this, and repented too late! Divers edicts were published respecting grain, researches were made and granaries filled; commissioners were appointed to scour the provinces, and all these steps contributed to increase the general dearness and poverty, and that, too, at a time when, as was afterwards proved, there was enough corn in the country to feed all France for two years, without a fresh ear being reaped.