Saturday, July 27, 2013

Streets of the Spectacle

It's February 1848, and Frédéric Moreau, the idle young hero of Flaubert's Sentimental Education, paces up and down the sidewalk, nervously awaiting a rendez-vous with another man's wife. The two have been engaged in a passionate but unconsummated love affair, and Frederick has at last persuaded her to stroll arm-in-arm with him, in public view, along the streets of Paris. (What Madame Arnoux doesn't know is that he is secretly scheming to whisk her up into a room he has previously rented just for that purpose.) But, inexplicably, his date hasn't shown, and Frederick is left cooling his heels. Here's how Flaubert describes him:
He considered the cracks in the paving-stones, the mouths of the gutters, the candelabras, the numbers above the doors. The most trivial objects became his companions, or rather ironic spectators, and the regular façades of the houses seemed pitiless to him. He felt himself dissolve from despondency. The reverberation of his footsteps shook his brain.

When his watch read four o'clock, he felt a wave of something like vertigo, like horror. He tried to repeat some lines of poetry, to perform some mental calculation, to concoct a story. Impossible! The image of Madame Arnoux obsessed him. He wanted to run to her. But which route would he take to avoid passing her?
What gives this rather silly scene an extra pungency is what is happening all around it, because an uprising is in the process of breaking out, the early stages of which Frédéric has personally witnessed, and the reign of Louis-Philippe is about to come to a sudden, violent end. Only after some time has passed does it dawn on him that it might be the fighting in the streets that has prevented her from appearing — in fact this is not the case, as she has been detained because her son is ill — and eventually he gives up and consoles himself, even as the battle rages, by chasing after another woman, whom he succeeds in leading up to the same rented room he had prepared for Madame Arnoux. The next morning he leaves her, goes out, and is on hand during some of the fighting, which fascinates him even as he remains emotionally detached from it:
The wounded who fell, the corpses stretched out, didn't seem like real wounded, like real corpses. It seemed to him like being present at a spectacle.
At one point Frederick will tread on something soft and realize that it's the hand of a dead man, but even this has no real effect on him.

The whole episode, and the entire novel, are heavily tinged with irony, a self-mocking irony given that the character of Frédéric is regarded as being modeled on the author, who, like Frédéric, supported the 1848 revolution but was largely indifferent to politics. Inevitably, it recalls the writings of the Situationist Guy Debord, who declared (as translated by Ken Knabb):
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving. (The Society of the Spectacle)
It's likely no coincidence that the events that Flaubert chose to describe coincided with the earliest years of photography. Far more so than a painting, a photograph is an image that acquires a life independent of its creator. Photography is an art form, to be sure, and is eminently susceptible to being manipulated, but a photographic image eludes the control of the photographer in a way that a painted one, whose every brushstroke has been consciously placed, can not. The image at the top of this post, captured by Daguerre himself in 1838, bears details and resonances that the photographer himself may or may not have noticed; most importantly, it doesn't matter if he noticed them. Frédéric, the epitome of the Paris flâneur, is strolling through a spectacular world, that is, a world made up of just such images, not necessarily photographs themselves (though they are a part of it) but a whole universe of things that appear not to have been consciously created, by God or by man, but rather to simply exist on their own.

The Daguerrotype shown, which is said to be the earliest datable photographic representation of the human form (a bootblack and his customer at lower left), depicts the Boulevard du Temple. Flaubert later lived on the same street.

1 comment:

Tororo said...

Ah! le boulevard du crime! What better place for beginning a study on the société du spectacle?