Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why have they killed Jaurès?

Today is the 99th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès, the French socialist leader and parliamentarian who had struggled, valiantly but vainly, to keep his country from plunging into the infernal stupidity of what would become known as "the Great War." Dining in a Paris restaurant, Jaurès was shot by a French nationalist who was later acquitted of the murder. A fictionalized version of the event is included in Roger Martin du Gard's Les Thibault.

This version of Jacques Brel's "Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?" was recorded by Erik Marchand.

Ils étaient usés à quinze ans
Ils finissaient en débutant
Les douze mois s'appelaient décembre
Quelle vie ont eu nos grand-parents
Entre l'absinthe et les grand-messes
Ils étaient vieux avant que d´être
Quinze heures par jour le corps en laisse
Laissent au visage un teint de cendres
Oui notre Monsieur, oui notre bon Maître

Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?
Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?

On ne peut pas dire qu'ils furent esclaves
De là à dire qu'ils ont vécu
Lorsque l'on part aussi vaincu
C´est dur de sortir de l'enclave
Et pourtant l'espoir fleurissait
Dans les rêves qui montaient aux cieux
Des quelques ceux qui refusaient
De ramper jusqu'à la vieillesse
Oui notre bon Maître, oui notre Monsieur

Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?
Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?

Si par malheur ils survivaient
C'était pour partir à la guerre
C'était pour finir à la guerre
Aux ordres de quelque sabreur
Qui exigeait du bout des lèvres
Qu'ils aillent ouvrir au champ d'horreur
Leurs vingt ans qui n'avaient pu naître
Et ils mouraient à pleine peur
Tout miséreux oui notre bon Maître
Couverts de prèles oui notre Monsieur
Demandez-vous belle jeunesse
Le temps de l'ombre d'un souvenir
Le temps de souffle d'un soupir

Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?
Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?

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.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Three portraits

Three more Real Photo postcards, possibly from western Pennsylvania. The one above has the following inscription on the reverse of the card:
Mother Moser [or possibly "Moses"]
Mother's Sister
Mariah Knotts
& Son & his child
This conceivably could be the Mariah Knotts who was born in 1836 and died in Franklin, Pennsylvania in 1915. The Cyko cardstock on which the image is printed was manufactured from 1904 into the 1920s. The other two cards, which bear no inscriptions, are on Azo stock that is roughly contemporary.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Scenes of Rural Life

The images on this page reproduce part of a group of Real Photo postcards that may have originated in western Pennsylvania. The one above is probably the oldest; it's printed on postcard stock, in this case sold by an unknown manufacturer, that became obsolete around 1907, when postal regulations were updated to permit including a message, in addition to the mailing address, on the reverse of the card. The wall behind the adolescent boy has been decorated with a variety of posters and advertisements, though it's difficult to read the lettering because of the angle and the exposure. Even so, the central image of the boy and his horse is nicely composed.

The remainder are later, printed on Azo postcard stock manufactured from 1918-1930, and may be the work of a single photographer, one who developed his own images but hadn't quite mastered the printing process. In the first, an oval frame was employed, but only on the right side. Note the rungs on the tree to enable climbing. The name "Harold Bixler" is written on the back.

The image below, of a woman holding a cat, is even more askew (these scans are aligned with the axes of the cardstock, not of the print).

In the composite below, I have juxtaposed the two cards to show how the ragged edge and the dark background on the left side apparently align. If I'm correct, the two prints must have been made at the same time.

The awkwardly exposed image below may also belong with the previous two; if rotated 90° to the left, it also is a possible candidate for aligning with the top of the print of the woman with the cat.

The dark backgrounds framing these three prints appear to be previously exposed film. I don't really understand the developing technique involved here, but it's clear the photographer was improvising, probably with minimal training and rudimentary equipment. That would make sense given the general poverty and isolation of the scenes, but it says something that he or she was driven, even under less than optimal conditions, to preserve a little bit of the surrounding world.

None of these postcards were ever addressed or mailed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Hopscotch at Fifty

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Editorial Sudamericana, and next year will be the centenary of the author's birth. Blog Morellianas has a useful round-up of some related articles and announcements in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. Among the more interesting are an exhibit at the Instituto Cervantes in Paris devoted to Rayuela: El París de Cortázar and a nice appreciation by Ted Gioia.

Much of this activity is inevitably highly "meta," as they say these days, since the author himself has been dead for nearly thirty years. Supreme cronopio that he was, he would probably have found all of it more than a bit tiresome and wandered off to play with the nearest cat or spin some Louis Armstrong records. But hopefully it will draw the attention of new readers and bring old readers back to the books themselves, which are aging nicely, thank you.

I'll leave the last word to Cortázar, from a letter to Jean Barnabé dated June 3rd, 1963, just as Hopscotch was going to press:
Personally, I think I've written nothing better than "The Pursuer" [his novella loosely based on Charlie Parker]; nevertheless, in Hopscotch I have broken any number of dikes, of doors, I have smashed myself to pieces in so many and such various ways, that as far as I'm concerned it wouldn't matter to me if I died right now. I know that in a few months I'll think that I still have other books to write, but today, when I'm still within the atmosphere of Hopscotch, I feel that I've gone to my own limits, and that I would be incapable of going further.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dark beginnings

It's a bit disconcerting, perhaps, to reflect that the oldest story in this collection is now more than sixty-five years old. Gabriel García Márquez is still with us, of course, though he seems to have outlived his muse, but these early stories, almost of which were written before more than a handful of readers had even heard of him, now seem to belong to a distant era. Even so, many of them still hold up quite well for all that.

The volume gathers "all the stories" Gabo had published as of 1975 (the latest story is in fact dated three years earlier), organized into the three earlier collections — Ojos de perro azul; Los funerales de la Mamá Grande; and La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Erendira y de su abuela desalmada — in which they first appeared. They can be roughly divided into three distinct but not necessarily mutually exclusive modes. Two are fairly easy to categorize: the neorealism of "La mujer que llegaba a las seis" and "En este pueblo no hay ladrones"; and well-wrought fantastic tales like "Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes," "El ahogado más hermoso del mundo," and "El último viaje de la buque fantasma." The third (but chronologically earliest) group is made up of what we might call existential horror tales, and here we find most of the contents of Ojos de perro azul.

There are deservedly popular gems among both the neorealist and fantastic tales, but it is the author's first — and by most measures least accomplished — pieces that interest me for the moment. And what a difficult and strange bunch of stories they are! Most are concerned with ghosts, or corpses, or disembodied spirits of some kind; in the least challenging (perhaps "Nabo, el negro que hizo esperar a los ángeles") the reader is eventually able to piece together something resembling a narrative thread, but at their most extreme (the frankly baffling "Amargura para tres sonámbulos") we're pretty much left scratching our heads. Note that this is not a criticism. Note also that the stories, though written over the course of a least a half-dozen years, weirdly illuminate each other; thus certain cryptic references in "Diálogo del espejo," which describes a man shaving before work and discovering that the face he sees in the mirror has begun to diverge from his own, acquires new possibilities when read alongside "La otra costilla de la muerte," in which one of a pair of twins has died and the survivor waits while a barber shaves the face of his brother's corpse in the next room. Motifs of consciousness beyond the grave, of transmigration, not always fully developed, weave in and out of these tales, though it isn't clear whether their affinities are the result of strategy, improvisation, or simply the reworking of material that wasn't fully mined the first time through.

One of the strangest, and most abstract, of the tales is the brief "La noche de los alcaravanes," in which three men who have been blinded by curlews* stumble about within a space that is neither explained nor truly described; the setting could be from one of Beckett's theatre pieces, except that Beckett would never have conceived of anything so garish. According to Gerald Martin's biography of García Márquez, the tale alludes to a folk belief about curlews blinding children, but no such origin can account for the oddness of the tale. Longer, but no less perplexing, is "Eva está dentro de su gato" ("Eve Is Inside Her Cat"), in which a woman who is tormented by her own beauty (which she compares, in a lush extended metaphor that runs to a full page, to a population of insects coursing through her veins) suddenly leaves her body, floats in a dimensionless world, finds herself drawn back by a craving for the taste of oranges, and then attempts (apparently unsuccessfully) to enter the body of a cat. There is no backstory, no explanation; instead there are mysterious allusions to a buried "niño" — a boy or child, but the word is placed in quotation marks in the original — and to "three unmovable enemies" (the sonámbulos of the other story?) and the reader has little to hold onto, though the story's final sentence provides a devastating, if not clarifying, conclusion.

To some extent, these perplexing stories can, perhaps, be characterized as apprentice work, though by a singularly gifted hand. García Márquez would go on to write more classically polished tales, as well as audience-pleasing novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude. But these earliest pieces, as clunky and difficult to interpret as they often are, also display the possibilities of a more radical approach to narrative.

*"Curlews" is the word used in Gregory Rabassa's translation of the story, though the Spanish alcaraván may correctly refer to a "stone-curlew" or bittern.