Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words:

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo submitted to the Comédie ‘Marion de Lorme’: he was the head of this school which, paving new roads, made the claim and manifested the hope of reviving literature. The work was read [by the committee which decides which plays to perform], received; the contract was created; but the censor blocked the performances; this intervention established force majeure [a legal term still invoked today, typically to qualify a natural castastrophe that impedes a theater or other entertainment facility from fulfilling an engagement], and the play was cancelled.

“In 1830, ‘Hernani’ was accepted and mounted with care; Mademoiselle Mars performed the leading role; everything was done to incite the curiosity of the public.

“A newspaper, giving its opinion on my pleading during the Commercial Tribune trial, said that I was not a ‘man of literature.’

“I don’t have any pretensions to this title; but permit me to recall, for its singularity, that certain spectators, on the occasion of the new piece, surpassed every known limit of admiration, and that, in their enthusiasm, they tried to impose their sentiments in a manner that was hardly literary: It needs to be recalled that there was pounding on the orchestra chairs; furthermore, this served as another incitement to public curiosity.”

[Here Delangle noted that when censorship was abolished following the 1830 revolution which toppled King Charles X and restored the Republic, Hugo opposed the return of “Marion de Lorme” to the Comédie-Française repertory for the “honorable motive” that it might be seen as casting aspersion on the dethroned king; at the time Hugo explained that he didn’t think it fair to pile on on somebody who was already down for one’s own pecuniary advantage. Adding that the author subsequently arranged for the Theater de la Porte-Saint-Martin — still standing today — to give 68 performances of the play, the Comédie’s lawyer concluded that the contract, ‘thus broken two times,’ was no longer binding. If his subsequent reference to another production, of Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse,” seems off-topic because that drama was not one of the works concerned in the disputed contracts — Delangre seems to have evoked the earlier play in order to be able to mock Hugo’s contention that he is the victim of a ‘literary intrigue,’ noting that in the case of “Le roi s’amuse” his legal opponent was the royal censors, and he lost — it’s worth remarking because of his legitimate point that the cancellation of that production cost the actors of the Comédie Française, in effect the owners of the troupe, 20,000 francs. The rest of the attorney’s pleading essentially consisted of contesting that the Comédie’s director, Védel, should be held personably liable for the 6,000 francs in damages and interests awarded to the author by the Commercial Tribunal, as decreed by that court; contending that Hugo has always been generously remunerated by the organization; and insisting that the author’s own motives in bringing the case are not the high-minded literary and public interest ones he invoked during the first trial — of fighting the Romantic school’s exclusion from the theater and the public’s thus being deprived of this work– but financial. Insinuations that Maitre Paillard de Villeneuve, Hugo’s lawyer, would shortly devastate.

Shortly after taking the floor, Paillard de Villeneuve arrived at the essential:]

“It comes down to knowing whether the contracts that the Comédie Française requested — that it implored [Hugo to agree to] as an act of mercy — should be executed to the profit of Monsieur Victor Hugo, as they have been to the profit of the theater. This is the only relevant question of the trial.

“Before we get to this, a few words on the facts.

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo wrote ‘Marion de Lorme,’ of which the performances were halted following a censor’s veto. In transmitting this order to Monsieur Victor Hugo, Monsieur the minister of the interior sent him as compensation the duplicate of a money order which augmented to 6,000 francs the pension of 2,000 francs that he owed to the spontaneous good wishes of Louis XVIII. Monsieur Hugo refused this pension; no matter how much the minister insisted, he persisted in this refusal; and, later on, in 1832, when on the occasion of [the censorship proceedings involving] “Le roi s’amuse” he saw himself constrained to plead against the minister of the interior, he renounced of his own volition this 2,000-franc pension, which seemed to be held against him….

“It seems appropriate to recall these facts in a discussion in which we appear to be accused of putting monetary questions ahead of all others. I might also recall, in the name of an author whose plays we seek to have performed in the name of justice, that in 1830 Monsieur Hugo, after the abolition of censorship, refused to allow ‘Marion de Lorme’ to be performed, because he did not feel comfortable exploiting political passions to sell tickets for a literary work, and he had no intention of banking on a hit injurious to a fallen dynasty.”

The advocate enumerated the various contracts in question, and whose violation he linked to intrigues by the [culturati] and to a monopoly system which shut the doors of the Theatre-Français to an entire literary genre.

“They started out by framing this as a financial question,” the lawyer continued. “It’s important to respond to this. If the Comédie-Française, they claimed, retreated before the execution of contracts, it was because said execution threatened the theater with a dreadful deficit: keeping its word spelled for it inevitable ruin. Let’s examine this contention:

“There exists for the theater, in evaluating box-office receipts, a kind of thermometer which indicates the most prosperous situation. This is the box-office receipts brought in when Mademoiselle Mars is performing.

“So: During the winter of 1835, a favorable season, as we know, the average of these receipts was 2,618 francs and 95 centimes: this goes from the strongest, that for ‘The Misanthrope,’ which was 4,321 francs, to the weakest, that for “The School of Old Men,” which was only 1,230 francs (which proves, by the way, that the Comédie-Française is not always so rigorous as it claims in executing the requirement that it cancels the run of any work which doesn’t break even [by bringing at least 1,500 francs per performance, as the Comédie’s lawyer had claimed in the first trial.]).

“And yet, the average nightly box-office receipts for the 85 performances of Monsieur Victor Hugo’s work — all of which took place during the summer season — was 2,914 francs.

“Even allowing for the five performances of ‘Angelo,’ which took place with this trial already in view and in circumstances which I’ll describe a little later, the average was still 2,856 francs. And if we subtract the expenses of the theater — based on the figures the theater itself has provided us with — the resulting net profits for the theater from the performances of the two works by Monsieur Hugo, ‘Angelo’ and ‘Hernani,’ came to 125,000 francs.

“These are without doubt but miserable details, I’m well aware; but after all one must respond with precise numbers to the strange lamentations of this theater.

“We would have liked for the Comédie-Française to have allowed us, by providing its financial records, to compare what’s been called the pecuniary situation of Monsieur Hugo with that of the playwrights most favored by the theater.

“This information was refused. But I was able to procure these figures anyway: So, the average box-office receipts of one of these authors is 1,917 francs; that of the other, a tragic poet, 1,803 francs.; and yet we can easily see the singular favor enjoyed by these authors who, whereas it’s impossible for us to obtain the execution of our contracts, for their part were able to obtain, by the entirely gracious goodwill of the actors, in 1836, for example, 115 performances, compared to 54 for all the other playwrights combined; and in 1837, over a period of 10 months, 119 compared to 34 for all the others.”

[Hugo’s attorney next attacked, and nimbly exposed the feebleness of, the Comédie-Française’s various other rationales for violating the terms of the contracts it signed with Victor Hugo for the performances of “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo,” as previously detailed in our earlier translation of the first trial, notably that the successive directors who signed the contracts didn’t have the authority to do so, that Hugo failed to double-cast certain of the plays and thus violated stipulations required by the theater’s rules, and that before any reprise “Marion de Lorme” should have been treated like a new play, and as such subjected to a new reading by the theater’s acceptance committee, which never happened. Given that the Commercial Tribunal’s ruling for Hugo in that trial implicitly recognized the speciousness of these defenses, we see no reason to regurgitate here the arguments from Hugo’s lawyer during the appeal adeptly demolishing them. We pick up, then, with his allegations about the numerous subterfuges with which the Comédie-Française itself attempted to sabotage five performances of its own production of “Angelo” in order to mine the run’s success and be able to support its argument that poor box office justified its recusal from the engagement:]

“These five performances were given with the trial in mind, and the theater did everything possible to annul the receipts.

“Do we need to go through the thousand intrigues, the miserable cavils, which Monsieur Hugo had to surmount…?

“Thus, for example, a performance of ‘Angelo’ was announced; on the day in question, [the actress and cast member] Mademoiselle Volnys was suddenly indisposed; the following day she miraculously recovered, just in time to perform, with a lot of vigor and talent, in ‘Camraderie’; the following day, ‘Angelo’ was again scheduled; but, the health of these ladies apparently being such a fragile and capricious thing (laughter in the courtroom), the actress had a second sudden indisposition, which forced the performance to be rescheduled; only to see another sudden recovery the next day, just in time for the audience to applaud her in ‘Don Juan of Austria.’

“I could go on forever in recounting for you what, from the caprices of a star to the maladresses of a prompter, can transpire when it comes to impeding a playwright. There’s a word for this in the argot of the backrooms of the theater, it escapes me at the moment….

“For example, a curtain might go up at 6 p.m. in lieu of 7 p.m., so that, unless they’re fasting, the public risks arriving just in time for the denouement…; the play might be performed, as was the case with ‘Angelo,’ on a day when public celebrations call the entire population of Paris to the public squares; they choose the conditions the most unfavorable in order to be able to avail themselves of the [meager] results later on, during the trial everyone’s waiting for….”

The lawyer, whose brilliant pleading held the judges and the public constantly captivated, next endeavored to justify each of the dispositions taken in the earlier judgment, as pertaining to the damages and interests and the deadlines for performing each of Monsieur Hugo’s three plays….

“Besides the motives for this judgment, which consecrate Monsieur Victor Hugo’s private rights, there are others which formulate a general thesis concerning the rights of literary property, and recall to the Theatre-Française the mission of its institution by protesting against the scandalous monopoly which it exploits. [We ask that you] add to the one and the other of these motivations of the initial judges the authority of your own high sanction; and, in thus giving the Comédie-Française a lesson in good faith, you consecrate, to the profit of dramatic literature, a guiding principle of liberty.”

Maitre Delangre [the Comédie-Française’s attorney], in a brief response, tried to re-assert the numbers for the box-office receipts that he’d provided, prompting lively interventions from Monsieur Victor Hugo and [Comédie-Française] director Védel.

M. Victor Hugo: “I formally contest the figures presented by the lawyer; they are inexact and, as the Comédie is well aware, its director has refused to provide copies of the records.”

M. Védel: “This is true. I felt obligated to do so.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge, severely: “Why did you refuse to produce your records? You were wrong, Monsieur.”

Monsieur Védel remained silent.

M. Victor Hugo: “I request the court’s permission to make several observations.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge: “Speak, Monsieur Victor Hugo, speak.”

Victor Hugo: (stirring of the audience) “As I noted before the initial judges, if I take the floor in this affair, it is because of the larger issues at stake.

“This is not just about me, gentleman, but concerns all of literature. This trial will resolve a question that is vital for it.

“It is for this reason that I was forced to launch this process; it is for this reason that I must add my words, devoted to the interests of all, to the eloquent words of my lawyer.

“This obligation, I executed it on a premiere occasion before the Commercial Tribune; I’ve come to execute it a second time before this court.

“And in effect, gentlemen, the dire fact that I’m here to enunciate surges forth from the trial in its entirety. What, therefore, is this trial really about? Let’s examine it more closely.

“In this trial, I have two adversaries: the one public, the other latent, secret, hidden.

“The public adversary isn’t serious, it’s the Theatre-Français; the hidden adversary is the only real one. Who is it? You’ll know this shortly.

“As I said, my public adversary, the Theater, is not a serious adversary.

“And, in effect, what am I to the Theatre-Français? A playwright. And what playwright?

“The question, gentleman, rests entirely there. Monsieurs, for the theaters there are two kinds of playwrights: the playwrights who make them rich and the playwrights who leave them broke. For the theaters, the good plays are the plays which bring in money; the bad plays are those which don’t.

“Without doubt what we have here is a scurrilous fashion to judge literature, and posterity will rank the poets on other criteria.

“But we’re not here to deal with the question of literary value; we’re not posterity, we’re contemporaries.

“And for contemporaries, for the courts in particular, between the critics who affirm that a piece is good and the critics who affirm that a piece is bad, only one thing is certain, only one thing is proven, only one thing is irrecusable: the material fact, the figure, the receipts, the money.

“Contemporary [audiences] are often lamentable judges, this is quite possible. ‘The Misanthrope’ ruined the theater; ‘Tiradate’ made it rich. And voila! By the standards [of contemporary audiences], ‘The Misanthrope’ was wrong and ‘Tiridate’ was right.

“Posterity sometimes overturns the judgments of contemporaries; but, and I repeat this, as far as we living authors are concerned, we’re not [yet before] posterity! Accept therefore as a given, if not in the literary at least in the commercial sense, this fact that, for the theaters, there are but two types of authors: the authors who break their banks and the authors who make them rich.

“And voila! What am I to the Theatre-Français? Am I an author who breaks its bank or an author who makes it rich?

“Voila the first point to which it’s important to have the solution. This solution will then illuminate the entire cause.

“The Theatre-Français has accepted but four of my plays: ‘Marion de Lorme,’ ‘Hernani,’ ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ and ‘Angelo.’ Of these four pieces, two, ‘Marion de Lorme’ and ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ were, in different epochs, halted by the censor; only two, ‘Hernani’ and ‘Angelo,’ were able to be freely performed.

“Now, how many performances did these two pieces have? 91. What was the total box-office produced by these 91 performances?

“Here, gentleman, I have to say, during the first trial, precisely because I was indignant about the maneuvering of the Comédie-Française against the final performances of ‘Angelo,’ I believed it necessary to exempt from the total of my box-office receipts these receipts obviously artificially influenced by the theater for the need of the cause and to help its case, as my attorney excellently demonstrated, and as the Commercial Tribune judged. I believed it necessary, as I was saying, to exempt these receipts, but for what? Why does this matter?

“Is it not victorious, my cause, even in including these receipts? I therefore include them.

“And voila! Gentleman, even in including the desultory box offices for these performances, the result of the intrigues of the theater, the receipts for my 91 performances at the Comédie-Française totaled 259,963 francs and 15 centimes, for an average of 2,856 francs and 67 centimes.

“The theater’s expenses per performance come to 1,470 francs. Figure it out yourselves.

“The average receipts for Mademoiselle Mars, for both the classic and new repertoire, for Mademoiselle Mars, the celebrated actress, who has a 40,000- franc salary in recognition of the enormous revenues she generates, brought in during the most favorable conditions, whereas my plays have always been performed during the summer — the average nightly receipts for Mademoiselle Mars were 2,618 francs and 96 centimes.

“Calculate the difference. In whose favor is it? My favor.

“I can therefore proclaim — and proclaim with pride — which by the way in no manner pre-judges the literary value of my works — that I am for the Comédie-Française among the ranks of the authors who earn it money; this is the irrefutable result of the facts, of the proof, of the figures….”

M. Védel, interrupting: “I have never contested this; Monsieur Victor Hugo does not have any need to insist on this point; Monsieur Victor Hugo is above this discussion.”

M. Victor Hugo: “I believe so, monsieur, I would have well disdained it, this discussion of figures, because the public notoriety alone should suffice as evidence; but your lawyer having advanced his allegations, it was necessary for me to respond with proof.”

Here Monsieur Victor Hugo turned to the court and added:

“And gentleman, this proof might have even been more complete, but this was not just up to me.

“I had wanted, by a detailed summing up of the records of the Comédie-Française, to enable the courts to compare my box-office receipts with those of the privileged playwrights performed the most often at this theater. A vivid light would have splashed forth from this comparison.

“I asked the theater to communicate these records. The theater refused.

“Thus, in this cause, we make our figures public, the theater hides its figures.

“For our part, we place all that is relevant before you; for its part, the theater takes refuge in the obscurity of the shadows.

“We fight with our visage in plain site, the Comédie fights with a mask. Which side is being loyal to the truth?

“They cry out, they disparage, they bandy about various figures in the newspapers.

“What’s to prove that these figures are correct? The only way to verify them is through the records of the theater; the theater refuses to produce these records. It is up to you to judge between our adversaries and us, gentleman.

“To continue:

“Who, therefore, am I for the Theatre-Français? A playwright. What kind of playwright? A playwright who fills seats. Voila the facts.

“In what manner do I present myself in this cause? With plays in one hand and contracts in the other. What kind of plays are these? I’ve just explained. What kind of contracts? I’ll explain.

“Are the plays profitable for the theater? Yes, gentlemen.

“Are the contracts legitimate? Yes as well.

“And gentleman!, these contracts, my lawyer explained them to you and the theater was unable to dispute this: It’s not I who drew them up, it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who requested them; it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who sought out the theater; it’s the theater which sought me out.

“In the name of the theater, Monsieur Taylor came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Desmousseaux came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Jouslin de Lasalle came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Védel came to find me. Why? To offer me the very same contracts that the theater now rejects.

“And I say all this in front of Monsieur Védel, who knows all the facts and does not make any effort to deny them.

“These contracts, successive directors of the theater wrote them entirely in their own hands.

“These contracts, they demanded them of me, they solicited them, they obtained them as a favor, and before long they’ll be asking me for new work.”

M. Védel: “Certainly, and I’ve always requested it.”

M. Victor Hugo: “You hear him now.” (Murmurs in the audience.) “Apparently our contracts are quite valid, and the theater is well aware of this. My plays fill the house, and the theater knows this.

“The theater, as I said at the beginning, is not seriously my adversary. The theater has need of me; and I’m not afraid to say it, it will have need of me again. Before three months are up, you’ll see, if the box-office receipts dip, the director of the Comédie-Française will have no problem finding his way to my house. He’ll find me ready to welcome him.

“He’ll find me ready to welcome him with open arms. Why? Because in this entire affair, and I repeat it, the theater, in truth, is not my real adversary.

“The Comédie has invested a lot of bad faith in this fight, but it is a bad faith which was imposed upon it, I’m well aware; one day it will be embarrassed about this, and I’ve already forgiven it.

“No, it is not in the theater where my real adversaries lurk. Who are they, therefore? I’ll explain.

“Gentlemen, my adversary in this cause, it is not the government, to so claim would be to invest petty chicaneries with too much importance. It is not the ministry; it is not even a minister.

“I’m angry. I would have loved to have had an adversary of scale for this occasion; if for no other reason than my own dignity and ego, I prefer big enemies to petit enemies; but, it must be admitted, my enemies are not big.” (Sensation in the courtroom.)

“My adversary, in this cause, is a petite coterie of slackers in the offices of the interior ministry who, because the funding must pass by the ministry before it gets to the Theatre-Français, has the pretension to rule and govern on its own authority this unhappy theater.

“I proclaim this loudly, gentleman, in order that my words might mount all the way to the minister.

“If this trial is taking place today, it is because this coterie wanted it to; if the Theatre-Français has not lived up to its engagements, it is because this all-powerful coterie desired it so; if, at this juncture, but three our four playwrights are constantly performed at the Theatre-Français to the exclusion of all the others, it is because this coterie wanted it this way. We are talking about a group of influences united, compact, impenetrable, a *comradery*, — I did not invent this word (laughter), but because it’s been invented, I’ll employ it! — a comradery, as I was saying, which blocks and obstructs the future of the theater.

“An entire branch of theater is sidelined by it. It is to just about all of literature that this coterie has attempted to close the doors of the theater. These doors, gentleman, your decision will re-open them.

“I say this because it is a fact, but it is a mighty abnormal fact, that this coterie already has the right to political censorship, it also wants that of literary censorship.

“What do you think of this pretension, gentlemen?”

“It is thus a duty that I execute now. In 1832, I condemned political censorship; in 1837, I unmask literary censorship. Literary censorship! Do you understand, gentleman, all that is odious and ridiculous in this term?

“The fantasy of a bureaucrat, the good taste of a bureaucrat, the poetics of a bureaucrat, the good or bad digestion of a bureaucrat, voila the supreme law which is to rule the theater from now on!”

“The uncontrolled and unappealable opinion of a censor whose command of the French language is not even a given, voila the sovereign rule which will open up and will close from now on to the poets the theater of Corneille and Moliere! The literary censor! On top of the political censor!

“Two censors, good God! Isn’t there already one too many?” (Lively reaction.)

“And in conclusion, gentlemen, allow me an observation. When it comes to attacking all manner of censorship, my position is simple and clear. At a time when unbridled license has invaded the theater, I, partisan of the liberty of theaters, am not reticent to censor myself.

“My lawyer and the lawyer for the Comédie-Française have recounted for you, in concert, and I would simply like to recall here a fact known to all.

“In August 1830, I refused to authorize the Theatre-Français to perform ‘Marion de Lorme’; I did so because I did not want the fourth act of ‘Marion de Lorme’ to become an occasion to insult and outrage the fallen king.

“As the theater’s lawyer himself told you, I had the opportunity to score an immense success from the political scandal, but I didn’t want it. I declared that it was beneath my dignity to make money — as they say at the Comédie — off the misfortunes of the royal family, and to hawk, right there in the theater in the midst of the hateful passions of a revolution, the flowered coat of the fallen king. I declared, in my own terms, as regarded my own play, that I much preferred its literary failure to its political success; and, a year later, in recounting these facts for the preface to ‘Marion de Lorme,’ I reproduced these words, which will always be, in similar circumstances, my rule in life: ‘It is when there is no more censorship that writers must censor themselves, honestly, conscientiously, severely. When one has complete liberty, it is essential to preserve all measure.'” (Movement of approbation.)

“The Commercial Tribune appreciated these facts, gentlemen. It listened to the public debate of the pleadings, it examined the most minute details during its deliberations. It was able to see that at the heart of the resistance of the Theatre-Français in this business lurked an intrigue fatal for literature. It sensed that it was unjust that this theater, the sole national theater, the sole State-funded theater, the sole literary theater was open for a few writers and closed to all the rest.

“The consular court, in its loyal equity, came to the rescue of the world of letters. It rendered a memorable decision that you will consecrate, I have no doubt, with a memorable confirmation. It threw open to everyone the doors of the Theatre-Français: it is not you, gentleman, who will close them again.

“You also, gentlemen, you are the living conscience of the nation. You also will come to the rescue of a dramatic literature persecuted in so many shameless ways, you will make everyone see — us and our adversaries, the literature whose liberties and interests I defend here, this crowd that is listening to us and that surrounds my cause with such a profound adherence, you will make them see, I say, that above the petit caverns of the police there are the courts, that above political intrigues there is justice, that above the bureaucrats there is the law.” (Profound and prolonged applause.)

Presiding judge: “The court is adjourned for eight days, at which time it will hear the pleading of the attorney general.”

Except for recommending that the damages and interests awarded to Victor Hugo for the Comédie-Française’s failure to perform “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” as agreed to in the contracts it signed be halved from 6,000 to 3,000 francs, arguing before the Royal Court on December 12, 1837, the attorney general sided with Victor Hugo and the first court’s ruling ordering the Comédie-Française’s director to have the three plays performed by specified deadlines or face a 150 franc per day fines. In the same session and after deliberating for 20 minutes, the appeals court upheld the Commercial Tribune’s ruling in full.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française: When the greatest writer of the 19th-century had to take the renowned theater to court to get it to honor its contract to perform his plays

hugo hernani artcurial

Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Manuscript of “Hernani” delivered to the censors, 1829. 115 pages in one volume in-folio (35.3 x 22.8 cm). Includes seven requests for correction of the censor. Pre-sale estimate: 2,000 – 3,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Introduction by Victor Hugo
Translation and preface by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think all you can glean from a sale of musty old books and manuscripts is a whooping cough, think again. What arises most remarkably from today’s sale of 19th and 20th-century literature belonging to the Collections Aristophil organized by Artcurial, Aguttes, Drouot Estimations and Ader-Nordmann in the Drouot-Richelieu auction facilities in Paris is not dust but history, and not just literary histories but histories of humanity. Among the more than 100 lots comprised of manuscripts, original editions, photographs, and art by or associated with Victor Hugo which constitute the heart of the auction is a 115-page manuscript for “Hernani,” considered by many to be the first salvo launched by the Romantics of whom Hugo was the general on the citadel of the Classicists. If this manuscript — estimated pre-sale by the auctioneers at 2,000 – 3,000 Euros — is the example the author submitted to the censors in 1829, contrary to what one might assume, the impediments to getting Hugo’s plays produced didn’t fall with censorship in the Revolution that followed the next year. They only increased. Herewith our translation of the proceedings of the legal process the author was forced to launch against the august Comédie-Français in 1837 after seven years of trying in vain to get the theater created by Moliere to honor its contracts to perform “Hernani,” “Marian de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” as reported by French legal journals and as included and introduced by Hugo himself in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872 . (A copy of which we picked up not an auction but a ‘vide-grenier’ — like a neighborhood-wide garage sale, meaning literally ’empty the attic’ — above the park Monceau earlier this year … for one Euro.) As you’ll discover, because the plaintiff was Victor Hugo and because the defendant was the Comédie-Française, in other words the guardian of the temple, far from representing just one author’s efforts to get his client to honor its contracts, the affair was a sort of outing of the literary battle of two schools, of the past and the future, previously largely hidden or confined to the corridors of power and the backrooms of the theater. With his later lambasting — in the appeal process — of the ‘coteries’ which controlled what the public gets to see, the proceedings also can’t help but resonate with anyone who observes the programming at the establishment theaters of today, whether in Paris or New York. (In this observer’s view.)

Because Eugene Delacroix was to art what Hugo was to theater — ushering in the  Romantic movement in that world, and even designing costumes for Hugo’s first play — we’ve included below a drawing by the former also on sale in today’s auction. There’s also one from Hugo himself.

Our translation is dedicated to Lewis Campbell, for introducing us and so many others to the humanistic power and historical resonance of the theater. To read our translation of George Sand reviewing Victor Hugo for Victor Hugo, click here. And of Hugo appealing for clemency for John Brown, click hereTo support our work via PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com  , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check, or to hire Paul for your translation needs.

Introduction by Victor Hugo

As with “Le roi s’amuse,” “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo” had their trials. At heart, it always comes down to the same thing: Against “Le roi s’amuse,” it was a matter of a literary persecution hidden under a political fracas; against “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” of a literary persecution hidden behind the chicaneries of the corridors of power. We’re forced to admit: We’re somewhat hesitant and not a little embarrassed to pronounce this ridiculous term: “literary persecution,” because it’s strange that in the moment in which we’re living, literary prejudgments, literary animosities, and literary intrigues are consistent and solid enough that one can, in piling them up, erect a barricade in front of the door of a theater.

The author was forced to crash through this barricade. Literary censorship, political interdiction, preventions devised in the backrooms of power, he had to solemnly seek justice against secret motives as well as public pretexts. He had to bring to light both petty cabals and ardent enmities. The triple wall of coteries, built up for so long in the shadows, he had to open in this wall a breach wide enough for everybody to pass through it.

As little a thing as it was, this mission was bestowed upon him by the circumstances; he accepted it. He is but — and he is aware of this — a simple and obscure soldier of thought; but the soldier like the captain has his function. The soldier fights, the captain triumphs.

For the 15 years that he’s been at the heart of the imbroglio, in this great battle that the ideas which characterize the century wage so proudly against the ideas of other times, the author has no other pretension than that of having fought the good fight.

When the vanqueurs are tallied, he might be numbered among the dead. No matter! One can die and still be the vanqueur.

One should not therefore be surprised if, in the middle of the trial, he suddenly stood up and spoke. If he did so it was because he sadly sensed the need to do so; because he’d suddenly perceived, at a turning point in his adversaries’ pleading, the larger interests at stake for public morals and literary liberty which solicited him to raise his voice. Because he’d come to see the global question erupt in the middle of the private question. And in such circumstances he has no choice but to act thusly.

In whatever situation in life in which obligation unexpectedly seizes him, he adheres to this obligation.

This trial will one day be part of literary history; not, certainly, because of the three nondiscriminate plays which occasioned it, but because of the trial itself, because of the strange revelations which sprung from it, because of the light it cast in certain caverns, because of the theaters in which it disclosed the wounds, because of the literature to which it consecrated the rights, because of the public in which it so profoundly awoke the attention and stirred up sympathy…. [Whence the reason, Hugo goes on to explain, for the trial record’s inclusion in this compilation of his theatrical oeuvres.]

We reproduce here the four sessions in the two trials [as covered by] the Gazette des Tribunaux, which accurately reported them…. This record will always furnish, we believe, more than one type of instruction and respond to more than one type of interest. It is fitting that the public which comes after us can one day know, if by accident the pages that we inscribe survive until then, to what adventures tragedies were exposed in the 19th century.

And now that the author has explained the full extent of his thinking, permit him to thank here, not in his name but in the name of the literary world, the judges in whom the admirable good sense understood so well that in a minor question lurked a larger question, and that the interests of the poet contained the interests of all.

Permit him also to thank the sovereign court, whose austere equity so completely confirmed the intelligent probity of the initial judges.

Permit him also to thank, finally, the young and admirable lawyer for whom this cause was a continual triumph, M. Paillard de Villeneuve, an incisive mind and noble heart, a precious talent in which all the ingenious and fine qualities are allayed with and completed by all the refined and generous qualities.

Victor Hugo
December 20, 1837

HUGO artcurial houseFrom today’s Paris sale of 19th and 20th century French literature from the Aristophil Collection, co-organized by Artcurial: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), original drawing, signed, with the legend “Maisons a mi-cote.” Pen and brown ink, brown lavis, 23 x 25.5 cm. From the ancient collection of Paul Meurice, to whom Hugo turned over his newspaper “L’evenement” when he took exile in the British iles. Pre-sale estimate: 15,000 – 20,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Tribunal de Commerce de la Seine
(Presidence de Monsieur Pierrugues)

Monsieur Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française

[Contemporary summations by the translator of certain sections will be separated into brackets like these.]

Session of November 6

A large audience, composed for the most part of men of letters and actors, assembled in the chamber of the Tribunal of Commerce. Monsieur Victor Hugo was seated at the Bar.

Maitre Paillard de Villeneuve, Monsieur Victor Hugo’s lawyer, explained as follows the claimant’s case:

“Monsieur Victor Hugo requests that the Comédie-Française be condemned vis-a-vis him to pay damages and interests for having not presented the plays of which he is the author; he demands, in addition, that going forward you order the theater, under threat of penal sanction, to present these works.

“For its part, the Comédie-Française appears to oppose the execution of obligations to which on three different occasions it consented, and which for five years it has persisted in refusing to recognize. Is this stance to be interpreted as signifying that Monsieur Victor Hugo is one of these men who, to impose himself on the [will] of a theater, needs to place himself under the protection of a legal mandate? Does this signify that the Comédie-Française, in this fight that it is waging against its own engagements, can excuse itself by the sacrifices that these engagements impose on it and hand off in a certain manner to the public itself the solidarity of a resistance and of an abandonment in which it is complicit? No, such is not, for the one or the other question, the position of the two sides….

“Monsieur Victor Hugo is among those to whom the Comédie-Française owes its most brilliant and most profitable successes, one of those to whom, in its moments of distress, it turns to pray to think of it, and around whom the crowd still presses with an avid enthusiasm.

“These engagements, against which the theater will plead today, it is the theater itself which solicited them. It knows, it still knows, that for it there’s no peril if it submits; and that this is not one of the least oddities of this cause, that shoulder to shoulder with the private interests of Monsieur Hugo one finds also the interests of the Comédie-Française.

“What is therefore the key to this trial? What circumstances have put both of us in this unusual position?

“It is here, gentlemen, that the cause takes on a character of general interest which raises it above the interests of a private squabble and powerfully recommends it to your meditation.

“At the heart of all this lies, in effect, a question of literary liberty, a question of theatrical monopoly. It has to do with knowing if a theater funded by the State, which operates on the expenses of a budget, must be open to everyone, or if it is no more than the exclusive monopoly of a chosen few; if it is awarded to one dramatic system more than another, and if engagements cease being sacred because they might offend what is sometimes referred to as literary scruples. Bizarre position, that, which seems to send us back to the times when legal decrees leant their strong arms to the lessons of Aristotle: but this position, it is not we who came up with it, and you will see it developed with each of the facts of this trial.

“In the epoch in which Monsieur Victor Hugo wrote ‘Marion de Lorme’ and ‘Hernani,’ two literary systems were in place:

“The ones, admiring only the past, did not imagine that the human spirit could go beyond or follow another road; in their powerlessness to produce new matter, they devoted themselves to being no more than inept imitators, and were condemned to perpetually idle in the presence of a great century of which they’d made themselves the pale satellites.

“The others, young, ardent, conscientious, with at their head Monsieur Victor Hugo, believed, au contraire, that, while continuing to admire the chefs-d’oeuvre of the past, there might be a new quarry to forge; they told themselves that, in the arts as in politics, in morals as in sciences, each epoch must have a mission of its own; that for new mores, for new needs, there must be new forms, new nourishment; lastly, they believed that our century is not so bereft that it must be condemned to be but an echo of the past and that it cannot have, it also, its own original cachet, its own horizons of glory and immortality.

“Who was right and who was wrong? This is not important.

“For all the quarry was opened up; public opinion was there to see and judge on its own.

“You must recall these struggles so animated, so furious, which exploded at the time. One awaited with impatience for the French stage to finally be opened up to what was called the new school.

“But this test must have, or so at least it appears, frightened those who up until then had been the exclusive proprietors of this stage, which they regarded as their own feudal kingdom, and which must be closed at all costs to these hardy innovators, the only theater in which they could encounter their adversaries.

“Thus it was that began to manifest themselves against Monsieur Victor Hugo, and against what was called his school, this series of intrigues which have since never ceased to envelope him, which for seven long years have pursued and harassed him, and which finally, his patience extenuated, prompts him to today demand from you reparation.

artcurial delacroix 236From today’s Paris sale of 19th and 20th century French literature from the Aristophil Collection, co-organized by Artcurial: Eugene Delacroix, “Study for Moulay Abd-er-Rahman, Sultan of Morocco,” probably 1832. Much as Delacroix sometimes unfairly gets the rap for ushering in the dubious artistic movement of Orientalism, this drawing is no imagined fancy. The artist met the sultan in 1832, when he accompanied French ambassador Charles de Mornay, charged by the government of Louis-Philippe with opening up relations with Morocco, on his North African voyage. If the painting for which the drawing is a study was made in 1845 for that year’s Salon, the study likely dates from this trip. On the 10-day odyssey which took the party to their meeting with the Sultan, passing besides overflowing rivers and over rough terrain, the painter could often be seen pausing on his saddle, in the shadow of a fig tree, or while walking  hastily scribbling an artistic record of the marvels passing before his eyes. (Source: “Delacroix,” Hachette, 1963.) Black crayon, 17 x 22.7 cm. Lot also includes Jules Labbite’s 1845 edition of “Le Salon de 1845” by Charles Baudelaire and an autographed letter from Baudelaire to Champfleury, an early literary champion of the Realist painter Gustave Courbet. Pre-sale estimate: 12,000 – 15,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

“It was in the month of March 1829: A petition was addressed to the King, it was signed by seven members of the Academie Française, habitual furnishers of material to the Theatre-Français, ancient debris of this imperial literature which vaunts itself as having been the parterre of kings, and which, in its proud naiveté, figures that its genius alone accounts for the ephemeral spotlight that its coronated public had cast upon it.

“This petition requested that the Theatre-Français be closed to productions of the new school; and that, notably, the performances of ‘Hernani’ be banned. You know, gentlemen, how King Charles X responded to these singular petitioners.

“‘As far as literature goes,’ he told them, ‘I have but, like each of you, gentleman, my place in the orchestra pit.’

“And ‘Hernani’ obtained 50 consecutive performances.

“For the theater, this meant the most brilliant box office receipts.

“When the Revolution of July [1830] followed, and with it the abolition of censorship, the Theatre-Français wanted to reprise ‘Marion de Lorme.’ Monsieur Victor Hugo opposed this.

“He who will shortly be portrayed before you as an insatiable author did not want to consent to the performances that were being solicited from him. ‘Marion de Lorme’ had been banned by the censor as being potentially prejudicial by allusion to his royal majesty; there was, yet, at the time [that followed the abolition of censorship] a reaction favorable to success, to enthusiasm….

“But Monsieur Victor Hugo is not one of those who thinks that scandal is a good thing when it can result in applause and in [increased revenue for authors]. He reminded himself that a fallen dynasty had the right to this respectful compassion that every man of heart owed to the banished, and that it didn’t seem right to him to bank a success on the effervescence of those then piling up on Charles X, and on allusions which he’d never contemplated. He thus limited himself to requesting from the Comédie-Française the reprise of ‘Hernani.’ [It’s worth noting here that Hugo had been raised as a Royalist.]

“But the intrigues of which you’d seen the germination in the petition of 1829 were resurrected, and it was impossible to obtain this reprise.”

Here the lawyer reviewed for the tribunal the various contracts that had been signed by Victor Hugo and the Comédie-Française.

The first, that of August 12, 1932, relative to the celebrated drama titled “Le roi s’amuse,” stipulated that “Hernani” would be reprised in January 1833. This first contract was violated.

A second intervened April 10, 1835, on the occasion of “Angelo,” and stipulated that “Hernani” and “Marion de Lorme” would be reprised over the course of the year. This double clause was also violated, [Hugo’s attorney contended], despite two ardent reclamations from Monsieur Hugo.

Lastly, a third engagement from Monsieur Védel [director of the Comédie Française], remained unexecuted. The lawyer, recalling the various censorship decrees implemented against “Le roi s’amuse” and “Antony,” linked the motives of these decrees to the petition of 1829 and the literary discussions which arose each year in the legislative chambers when it came to the budget of the Theatre-Français and the threat issued, on many occasions, to cancel the funding of a Theatre-Français sullied by its contact with the literary innovators, and attempted to demonstrate that all these acts were linked to a general system of monopoly and of exclusion of a literary doctrine which offended certain repugnancies and bore umbrage to certain celebrities.

“What would be, in effect,” continued the lawyer, “the motive of this perpetual violation of contracts? A pecuniary interest, a question of box office receipts. To this we respond, figures in hand, that Monsieur Hugo’s box office receipts are equal, superior to those that the theater considers as its most fructeuse, those [brought in by performances] of [Comédie Française star] Mademoiselle Mars. Thus the average intake over 85 performances of Monsieur Hugo was 2,914 francs and 25 centimes. Mademoiselle Mars’s average in the winter of 1835 was 2,618 francs. [Anne-Boutet Mars, 1779 – 1847, created the lead role of Dona Sol in “Hernani,” considered by many to be the play that set off the war between the Classicists and the Romantics, in 1830, when she was 51 years old. In his own notes on the initial performances of “Hernani” and “Angelo,” Hugo is effusive in his eloges to Mademoiselle Mars.]

“Do we need more proof of the system to which I’m referring? Why not give you more?: Because here, Monsieur Hugo is not speaking only in the name of his private interests, he’s speaking in the name of all those who toil with him in the same quarry, in the name of a question of art and of theatrical liberty; and you need to know to just what lengths the abuse against which we’re here to protest today can go.

“Among the men whom public favor accompanies with its esteem and its applause, but who don’t tread the same literary road as Monsieur Victor Hugo, and who unlike him are not under the censorial embargo, there are above all two individuals, to whose talent and competence we more than anyone rend homage, and whose success has been and still is great. Certainly, it is not they who have put us in this position.

“The exclusion which weighs on certain authors, which pushes them away despite sacred engagements, is the farthest thing from their thoughts; and if a monopoly results from this, they undergo it more than fabricate it.

“I’m even convinced that the two people of whom I’m speaking are not even vaguely aware of all this. I would simply like to demonstrate that the Comédie-Française is intent on nothing less than disinheriting from its advertising all those whose doctrines aren’t in line with the officially sanctioned literature imposed upon it.”

The lawyer then placed before the tribunal a sheet with a statistical breakdown of the diverse performances of the Theatre-Française, examining the relative positions of the 40 to 50 authors whose works belong to the repertoire.

What follows is an excerpt from this curious document as presented by the attorney, which provoked several manifestations of surprise in the audience.

“In 1834, out of 362 performances, and after subtracting the performances of the old standards [i.e. by dead authors], the two authors in question accounted for 180; for all the other authors combined there remained but 45 days.

“In 1835 and 1836, these two authors had 113 and 115 days, all the others [combined] but 50 and 54 days.

“Finally, from the first of January, 1837, up until this moment, these two authors have obtained 112 representations; only 54 have been accorded to the others.”

After signaling all that is alarming in such an abuse, on the part of a theater whose very institution must be open to all work, to all successes, and after allowing that nothing is more legitimate than frequently paying authors who regularly succeed, on the sole condition of not excluding other authors who succeed no less, Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve moved on to the examination of the contracts [between Monsieur Hugo and the Comédie-Française] themselves, and attempted to justify, in a luminous discussion, the conclusions reached in the name of Monsieur Victor Hugo.

“This cause,” he pronounced in terminating, “does it not offer you a strange spectacle? For eight years, despite numerous and explosive successes, despite the good faith owed to sacred engagements, Monsieur Hugo has not been able to open the doors of this theater, on which nevertheless he has cast more than a little glory; and, while the Comédie-Française thus fights to condemn him to silence and oblivion, Monsieur Victor Hugo is able to see his works translated in every language; and to learn that on diverse stages in Europe, in London, in Vienna, in Madrid, in Moscow, his works have been gloriously performed and coronated with applause…. It is only in France, in his own country, that he has been unable to hear this echo.”

Mr. Delangle, lawyer for the Comédie-Française, takes the stage.

“Gentleman,” he begins, “I did not expect to see the question placed on the terrain that my adversary has chosen. I see in this affair nothing but a simple question of private interests, nothing but an appreciation of acts, and not a question of art, of literary monopoly.”

“Don’t expect therefore of me that I follow Monsieur Hugo’s lawyer in the discussion that he’s come to breach. It’s sufficient for me to tell you that our adversary is significantly unfounded in his complaints and recriminations; because, of five plays of which the illustrated poet is the author, four have been received by the administration of the rue Richelieu [where the Comédie-Française was and still is based]; three, ‘Hernani,’ ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ and ‘Angelo,’ have been performed by the [actors of the] Comédie-Française.

“If ‘Marion de Lorme’ is not among them,’ the fault can only be attributed to the censor’s [initial] veto.

[Here the Comédie-Française’s attorney launches into a lengthy discourse in which he argues that as the theater is in his view still governed by an imperial decree from Moscow as well as a royal decree from 1816, the two Comédie-Française directors who signed the contracts with Hugo did not have the authority to do so without these bodies’ approvals, and that Hugo did not perform due diligence in inquiring as to whether these parties agreed with the contracts, going on to
say this is like signing a contract with a minor without the permission of his parents. To this he adds the rather specious argument that because Hugo himself did not assure that the roles in ‘Hernani’ were double-cast, as, he claims, the decrees governing the organization dictate, the contract promising future performances of that piece is null and void.]

“An initial casting was done in 1829; but Michelot, who played the role of Charles V, pulled out; Mademoiselle Mars renounced the role of Dona Sol. Since then, Monsieur Hugo has done no new casting.”

[At this point Victor Hugo himself rises.]

“You are mistaken. The casting was done in 1834. It’s all written down in the records of the theater, in the very hand of [director] Monsieur Jouslin de Lassalle. The role of Charles V was given to Monsieur Ligier, who’d actively campaigned for it with me.”

[After stating that he was not aware of this, Delangle goes on to insist that even if it’s true, this in itself does not meet what he claims is the requirement that the author is responsible for double-casting all roles. Next he contends that as pertains to “Angelo,” the company fulfilled its contract obligations with ten performances and only interrupted the run when audiences diminished to the point where it was making less than the 1,500 francs per performance necessary to break even. As concerns “Marion de Lorme,” he cites Hugo’s own decision to withdraw the drama from the repertory following the 1830 revolution for the reasons described above by the author, and his subsequently giving it to the Theatre Porte Saint-Martin, and then goes on to claim that the play had mitigated success anyway, at which point Hugo again interrupts:]

“It had 68 performances,” causing stirring amongst the audience.

[The Comédie’s lawyer then argues that a reprise would have been conditioned on a re-reading by the organization’s reading committee, as is required for all new plays because “it was in a certain manner a new piece,” and which reading never happened, thus excusing the organization from its obligations to reprise the play, concluding:]

“Thus, I have demonstrated that as regards ‘Marion de Lorme,’ the Comédie-Française was under no obligation to fulfill [the contract] as long as Monsieur Hugo had not held up his end.

“For ‘Angelo,’ we are in the terms of equity before the law, which cannot force us to fulfill a [financially] prejudicial engagement.”

“Finally, as for ‘Hernani,’ if the tribunal believes that the contract is valid and that it’s appropriate to order [a reprise of] its performance[s], we request a delay sufficient for effectuating the reprise.

“In any case, no damages or interests should be accorded,” because “on the one part,” [there has been no failure by the Comédie to live up to its agreements, and on the other] “Monsieur Hugo has fulfilled none of the obligations that for his part he should have executed.”

[Rising to respond to the Comédie’s various grounds for dismissing Hugo’s claims, Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve points out the theater’s apparent double-standard thus revealed:]

“Three contracts were signed by diverse directors: when it comes to Mr. Hugo’s obligations, these directors are quite capable of acting; their supposed incapacity is only invoked when it comes to meeting their own obligations…”

[Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve goes on to argue that the supposed regulations imposed by the other institutions mandated to control the Comédie — the Moscow and Royal decrees adduced by his adversary — whether those affecting the directors’ power to enter into contracts without their assent or the obligation of its authors to double-cast, have never been executed in any other cases. That as regards “Hernani” the author did everything in his power to execute the contract in good faith; and that as pertains to “Marion de Lorme” the 1835 contract contained no obligation for a second reading of plays which had already been performed at the Comédie. Turning to “Angelo,” he contests the organization’s method for calculating box office receipts and produces an alternative document in which they’re larger than his adversary has implied, averaging 2,300 francs per performance or 800 more than the required break-even level cited by the Comédie’s lawyer. Here we pick up the newspaper’s contemporary account:]

The lawyer terminates in requesting a judgment which will at the same time serve as a reparation for Monsieur Hugo and a punishment for Comédie Française for its bad-faith efforts to honor the contracts for the three plays.

Monsieur Hugo rises. (Excited movement of curiosity amongst the audience.)

“Gentlemen, I did not expect to speak during this affair. My lawyer has completely dynamited, in his argumentation, at once eloquent and precise, the strange system adopted by the lawyer for the Theatre-Française, and if it were just a matter of me in this trial, I would not take the floor; but it’s not just a matter of me: It’s literature itself whose cause in this moment is interchangeable with my own. I must therefore speak up. To speak up for one’s private interests is a right; I would have easily renounced a right. To speak up for the interests of all is an obligation, and I never retreat before an obligation.

“And, in effect, gentlemen, the attitude that the Theatre-Francaise has taken in this affair is a grave warning for dramatic literature in its entirety. There is a system here which needs to be called out, a lesson in which all authors must claim their part. The loyalty of the Comédie-Française deserves to be called out. Let’s bring it to the grand light of day.

“From the singular defense to which the Theatre-Française has had recourse, there result two things:

‘The first is this: The director of the Theatre-Française is a double-man.

“The director of the Theatre-Français has two visages, one for us, authors, and the other for you, the tribunal.

“The director of the Theatre-Français (Here Monsieur Hugo turns towards the bar and states: “And I regret to not find him here before me at the bar to confirm my words.” Then he continues:) “The director of the Theatre-Français has need of me; he comes to find me. His box-office receipts are falling, he tells me; he counts on me to rescue his theater; he asks me for a play. He offers me all the conditions I might desire; he proposes a contract; he has the full power to do so; he’s the director of the Theatre-Français. I consent. I consent to give him the play that he’s requested.

“The director writes out the entire contract in his own hand; I sign it, then he signs it also. Voila an engagement that is formal, complete, sacred you say. No, gentleman, it’s a fraud.

“You heard it yourself, I’m not making anything up, it’s the lawyer of the theater who told you so himself, the director, whether his name is Védel or Jouslin de Lasalle, it’s not important, the director is not qualified to enter into contracts; the director has come to my house knowing this; and why has he come to my house? To make a contract with me.

“I acted in good faith, me, the author; the director lied and fooled me. Behind him was a decree from Moscow, a regulation of consuls, an ordinance from 1816 — what do I know! I ignore completely this decree, this regulation, this ordinance.

“The director was fully aware that I ignore it, he took advantage of my ignorance.

“Grace of my ignorance, he obtains from me plays for which other theaters make sincere offers to me. Although having no power to make a contract, he makes a contract with me, he fools me, I say, and, you’ve just heard it, it’s this act that the Comédie-Française is now vaunting.

“What happened? Me, the author, I religiously executed the terms of the agreement: I turned in at the deadlines agreed the promised plays. The theater, for its part, was only loyal to violating its engagements; it violated them three times consecutively.

“For all my claims — I don’t know if this is what they mean by mettre à demeurer — for all my claims, the theater gave only evasive responses, the theater eluded, the theater promised, the theater fooled me and put me off from year to year by commencements of execution. To sum it up, the theater did not execute.

“And yet, I must declare, no director has never dared let me catch even the shadow of a glimpse of this system that the theater’s advocate has just exposed — and ‘exposed’ is the operative word, gentlemen — to the face of justice.

“After seven years of waiting, of good faith procedures, of patience, of silence, of serious damage to my work and to my interests, I decided to appeal to the tribunals; I had recourse to the protection of the law, which should not cover literary property any less than other property. I call to your bar who? The director of the Theatre-Français. And the director of the Theatre-Français evaporates.

“The man who I saw, the man who wrote to me, the man who spoke to me, the man who came to my house, the man who had all the power, the man who made the contract with me and who signed it, this very man is no more than a shadow. He’s an invalid being; he’s an individual without any qualifications; he’s a minor.

“He did draw up a contract, this is true, but he didn’t have the right to draw up a contract; there’s that decree of Moscow. He signed it, this is true; but he shouldn’t have signed it: there’s that regulation of consuls. He gave his word, this is true. But how could I possibly have believed his word? It’s his own lawyer who says this. Voila the defense of the Theatre-Français.

“Was I not right to tell you in beginning, gentlemen, that the director of the Theatre-Français has two visages?

“These two visages are two masks: With one he fools the authors, with the others he fools justice.

“Once again, gentlemen, when I say the director of the Theatre-Français, I’m not trying to designate any one person, no more Monsieur so-and-so than Monsieur tickety-tack. It’s not the man who occupied, who occupies, or who will occupy the position of director who I accuse; it’s the position itself. It’s this ambiguous and unqualifiable situation that I signal to you. Besides, as you can see yourselves, the director of the Theatre-Français is a shadow who escapes authors on one part, and justice on the other.

“What also results from the pleading of the theater is this: If you are an author, if you’ve produced at the Comédie-Francaise 85 reciepts [i.e. the box-office receipts for 85 performances]; if, including the costs to the theater, which are 1,500 francs per day, these receipts have yielded 2,914 francs, that is to say 85 times 1,414 francs in profits for the theater, this means nothing, absolutely nothing. Among your 85 reciepts there are receipts which surpass 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 francs; who cares?! if among those 85 there are one or two below 1,500 francs, voila those that the theater declares, voila those that it denounces before the court, and it heaves out on its losses great moanings! In truth, does this not provoke pity?

“I won’t say anything further about these numbers, about these chicaneries, about these miseries. I don’t follow the theater’s lawyer in the inextricable labyrinthe of subtleties in which he attempts to lock away my rights. I disdain, gentleman, all this discussion which is completely unexpected to me, I declare so, and which Monsieur Védel would be the first to disavow, I hope for him, if he were present at this trial.”

Monsieur Delangre: “I’m simply pleading as my client has instructed me.”

Monsieur Victor Hugo: “I believe it, but this surprises me, because I know the loyalty of Monsieur Védel, it’s painful for me to think that he could have possibly consented to invoking against me at this trial arguments from which he seemed so removed in our personal conversations.

“There’s another point, gentleman, I say this in passing, to which I’m surprised that the lawyer for the Comédie-Française has not himself called your attention. The average nightly receipts for “Hernani” were 3,312 francs.”

Monsieur Delangre: “I don’t have this figure.”

Monsieur Victor Hugo: “3,312, the number is exact… and 12 centimes if you want to be absolutely exact.” (Smiles among the audience.)

Monsieur Victor Hugo, continuing: “I don’t have anything to add, gentlemen; I have acted in good faith in this affair, the Comédie in bad faith. Rare thing: It’s the Comédie itself which declares this, and which makes of its bad faith its defense system. I signed contracts which I took seriously and which I executed; the successive directors of the theater signed contracts which for them were derisory and which they have violated.

“This theater has often had need of me; it came to find me: I’m citing here just the facts, facts which nobody can ignore. I rendered it services which it does not deny; it responds with deceptions that it also does not deny.

“You are fair judges; you appreciate this manner of acting and this manner of defending oneself.

“You will teach this theater that it’s immoral to make contracts and to purposely make them in an invalid fashion so that afterwards they can violate them.

“You will break the monopoly which this theater has confiscated to the detriment of all literature, for which two Theatre Françaises would hardly suffice.

“You will not recognize the system of the Comédie-Française in the name of decency to itself; you will teach it, because it has need that the justice system teach it, that the signature of its directors is a valid signature, that the word of its directors is a word that should be taken seriously.

“You will not insult these directors in siding with them and thus declaring their signature null and their word a lie.

“And me, gentlemen, I will be able to felicitate myself for having given you a new occasion to show that your judgments are the exact echo of your consciences and the echo of that of the public conscience.”

After this brilliant improvisation, which was followed by a general murmur of approbation, Monsieur le president announced that the case would be deliberated with a judgment pronounced within 15 days.

 

[15 days later, on November 20, 1837, the tribunal, siding with Hugo and declaring that the Comédie had done him wrong, condemned its director Védel to pay Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interest and gave Védel, in his capacity as director of the Comedie-Francaise; two months to reprise “Hernani”; three to reprise “Marion de Lorme”; and five to complete the 15 performances of “Angelo” or face fines of 150 francs per day for each day past that deadline. He also ordered him to pay Victor Hugo’s trial expenses.]

Next: The Appeal.

Lutèce Diary, 39: August 31, 1944 –Critique of the New Press / Critique de la nouvelle presse (French original follows English translation)

by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus. To read our translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s report on the Liberation of Paris from the same issue, click here. To read our review with extracts of the recently published correspondence of Albert Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. After returning to Paris with false identity papers furnished by the Resistance, Albert Camus was the underground newspaper Combat’s final editor under the Occupation, on one occasion (as documented by Olivier Todd in his 1996 biography for Gallimard) being saved from being busted with proofs of the newspaper in his pocket at a Gestapo checkpoint when he was able to deftly pass the proofs to Casarès, correctly guessing that she would not be searched.

PARIS — Because between the insurrection and the war, a respite has today been granted us, I’d like to talk about a subject that I know well and which is dear to my heart: the Press. And because it’s a question of this new Press which has emerged from the battle of Paris, I’d like to speak with, at the same time, the fraternity and the clairvoyance one owes to comrades in combat.

When we were producing our newspapers in clandestinity, it was naturally without a lot of to-do or grandiloquent declarations of principles. But I know that for all our comrades at all our newspapers, it was also with a great secret hope: The hope that these men, who risked their lives in the name of a set of ideals which were sacred to them, would be able to give their country the Press that it deserved but no longer had. We know from experience that the pre-war Press had lost its morals and its principles. An avariciousness for money and an indifference to the big picture had combined to give France a Press which, with rare exceptions, had no mission beyond promoting the power of a select few and no effects beyond devouring the morality of the whole. It was therefore not difficult for this Press to become the Press it became between 1940 and 1944, that is to say the shame of the nation.

Our wish, all the more profound from remaining largely unspoken, was to free newspapers from pecuniary concerns and endow them with a tone and a truth which would elevate the public to the highest form of its higher self. We believed that a country is only as good as its Press. And if it’s true that newspapers are the voice of a nation, we were decided, for our part and as our humble contribution, to elevate this country by elevating its language. Wrongly or rightly, it was for this reason that many among us died in inconceivable conditions and that others suffered the isolation and the threats of prison.

In fact, we merely occupied offices, where we fabricated newspapers that we put out in the heat of the battle. It’s a great victory and, from this point of view, the journalists of the Resistance displayed a courage and a will that merits the respect of all. However — and forgive me for bringing this up in the midst of the reigning enthusiasm — this is very little considering all that remains to be done. We’ve conquered the means for conducting this profound revolution that we desire. But we still need to really carry it out. To put it bluntly: The Free Press, at least as far as one can judge after 10 days of putting out issues, leaves a lot to be desired.

What I propose to say in this article and in the following piece, I don’t want it to be misconstrued. I speak in the general name of fraternity forged in combat and am not targeting anyone in particular. The criticisms that it’s possible to make are addressed to the entire Press without any exceptions, and we understand each other. Are they premature? Should we allow our newspapers time to organize themselves before undertaking this examination of conscience? The reply is NO.

We’re well-situated to be able to appreciate the extenuating circumstances under which our newspapers have been produced. But this isn’t the question. The question is over a certain tone that might have been adopted from the get-go and that was not. On the contrary, it is precisely at the moment in which this Press is in the process of being created, of defining itself, that it is imperative that it examine itself. Only by doing so will it know what it wants to be and be able to become this.

What do we want? A Press clear and virile, a respectable language. For men who, for years, have written their articles in full awareness that they might have to pay for these articles in prison or death, it’s clear that words have their value and that they must be weighed. It is this responsibility of the journalist to the public which they want to restore.

Sins of laziness

And yet, in the rush, the anger, and the frenzy of our offensive, our newspapers have sinned by laziness. In these times the body has been working so hard that the brain has lost its vigilance. Here I’ll say in general what I propose to explain in detail later: Many of our newspapers have fallen back into the same tired formulas that we believed outmoded, with no fear of the rhetorical excesses or the pandering to the lowest common denominator in which the majority of our newspapers indulged before the war.

In the first case, we need to get it into our heads that we’re only marching in the same tracks, in a kind of reverse symmetry, of the Collaborationist presse. In the second case, we’re simply resuming, because it’s the easy thing to do, formulas and ideas which endanger the very morality of the Press and the country. If we really think that either of these is an option, we might as well quit now and resign ourselves to giving up on what we really have to do.

Because the means for expressing ourselves are now conquered, our responsibility vis-a-vis ourselves and the country is total. What’s essential — and it’s the goal of this article — is that we’re averted. The task of each of us is to really reflect upon what he wants to say, to shape step by step the spirit of his newspaper, to pay attention to what he writes and to never lose sight of this immense necessity we have to restore to a country its most profound voice. If we ensure that this voice remains that of energy rather than that of hate, that of objective pride rather than that of hollow rhetoric, that of humanity rather than that of mediocrity, then a lot will have been saved and we won’t have failed.

— Albert Camus

Version originale

PARIS — Puisque entre l’insurrection et la guerre, une pause nous est aujourd’hui donnée, je voudrais parler d’une chose que je connais bien et qui me tient à cœur, je veux dire la presse. Et puisqu’il s’agit de cette presse qui est sortie de la bataille de Paris, je voudrais en parler avec, en même temps, la fraternité et la clairvoyance que l’on doit à des camarades de combat.

Lorsque nous rédigions nos journaux dans la clandestinité, c’était naturellement sans histoires et sans déclarations de principe. Mais je sais que pour tous nos camarades de tous nos journaux, c’était avec un grand espoir secret. Nous avions l’espérance que ces hommes, qui avaient couru des dangers mortels au nom de quelques idées qui leur étaient chères, sauraient donner a leur pays la presse qu’il méritait et qu’il n’avait plus. Nous savions par l’expérience que la presse d’avant-guerre était perdue dans son principe et dans sa morale. L’appétit de l’argent et l’indifférence aux choses de la grandeur avaient opéré en même temps pour donner à la France une presse qui, à de rares exceptions près, n’avait d’autre but que de grandir la puissance de quelques-uns et d’autre effet que d’avaler la moralité de tous. Il n’a donc pas été difficile à cette presse de devenir ce qu’elle a été de 1940 à 1944, c’est-à-dire la honte de ce pays.

Notre désir, d’autant plus profond qu’il était souvent muet, était de libérer les journaux de l’argent et de leur donner un ton et une vérité qui mettent le public à la hauteur de ce qu’il y a de meilleur en lui. Nous pensions alors qu’un pays vaut souvent ce que vaut sa presse. Et s’il est vrai que les journaux sont la voix d’une nation, nous étions décidés, à notre place et pour notre faible part, à élever ce pays en élevant son langage. A tort ou à raison, c’ést pour cela que beaucoup d’entre nous sont morts dans d’inimaginables conditions et que d’autres souffrent la solitude et les menaces de la prison.

En fait, nous avons seulement occupé des locaux, où nous avons confectionné des journaux que nous avons sortis en pleine bataille. C’est une grande victoire et, de ce point de vue, les journalistes de la Résistance ont montré un courage et une volonté qui méritent le respect de tous. Mais, et je m’excuse de le dire au milieu de l’enthusiasme générale, cela est peu de chose puisque tout reste à faire. Nous avons conquis les moyens de faire cette révolution profonde que nous désirions. Encore faut-il que nous la fassions vraiment. Et pour tout dire d’un mot, la presse libérée, telle qu’elle se présente à Paris après une dizaine de numeros, n’est pas satisfaisante.

Ce que je me propose de dire dans cet article et dans ceux qui suivront, je voudrais qu’on le prenne bien. Je parle au nom d’une fraternité de combat et personne n’est ici visé en particulier. Les critiques qu’il est possible de faire s’adressent à toute la presse sans exception, et nous nous y comprenons. Dira-t-on que cela est prémature, qu’il faut laisser à nos journaux le temps de s’organiser avant de faire cet examen de conscience ? La réponse est « non » .

Nous sommes bien placés pour savoir dans quelles incroyables conditions nos journaux ont été fabriqués. Mais la question n’est pas là. Elle est dans un certain ton qu’il était possible d’adopter dés le début et qui ne l’a pas été. C’est au contraire au moment où cette presse est en train de se faire, où elle va prendre son visage définitif qu’il importe qu’elle s’examine. Elle saura mieux ce qu’elle veut être et elle le deviendra.

Que voulions-nous ? Une presse claire et virile, au langage respectable. Pour des hommes qui, pendant des années, écrivant un article, savaient que cet article pouvait se payer de la prison ou de la mort, il était évident que les mots avaient leur valeur et qu’ils devaient être réfléchis. C’est cette responsabilité du journaliste devant le public qu’ils voulaient restaurer.

Péché de paresse

Or, dans la hâte, la colère ou le délire de notre offensive, nos journaux ont péché par paresse. Le corps, dans ces journées, a tant travaillé que l’esprit a perdu de sa vigilance. Je dirai ici en général ce que je me propose ensuite de détailler : beaucoup de nos journaux ont repris des formules qu’on croyait périmées et n’ont pas craint les excès de la rhétorique ou les appels à cette sensibilité de midinette qui faisaient, avant la guerre ou après, le plus clair de nos journaux.

Dans le premier cas, il faut que nous nous persuadions bien que nous réalisons seulement le décalque, avec une symétrie inverse, de la presse d’occupation. Dans le deuxième cas, nous reprenons, par esprit de facilité, des formules et des idées qui menacent la moralité même de la presse et du pays. Rien de tout cela n’est possible, ou alors il faut démissionner et désespérer de ce que nous avons à faire.

Puisque les moyens de nous exprimer sont dés maintenant conquis, notre responsabilité vis-à-vis de nous-mêmes et du pays est entière. L’essentiel, et c’est l’objet de cet article, est que nous en soyons bien avertis. La tâche de chacun de nous est de bien penser ce qu’il se propose de dire, de modeler peu à peu l’esprit du journal qui est le sien, d’écrire attentivement et de ne jamais perdre de vue cette immense nécessité où nous sommes de redonner à un pays sa voix profonde. Si nous faisons que cette voix demeure celle de l’énergie plutôt que de la haine, de la fière objectivité et non de la rhétorique, de l’humanité plutôt que de la médiocrité, alors beaucoup de choses seront sauvées et nous n’aurons pas démérité.

— Albert Camus

El Paso, 8/3/2019: J’accuse ou, Bienvenue dans le Texas / Welcome to Texas

serranobloodontheflag smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Andres Serrano, “Blood on the Flag” (9/11), 2001-2004.  © Andres Serrano and courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/ Bruxelles.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

J’accuse Donald Trump, avec sa haine des migrants et de tout les gens de couleur, et qui a semé la haine dans les cœurs des esprits vulnérables. / I accuse Donald Trump, with his hate of migrants and all people of color, and who has sown the seeds of hate in the hearts and minds of the vulnerable.

J’accuse l’hypocrisie de le Gouverner Abbot, qui ose dire que “Le Texas est en deuil” quand c’etait bien lui qui a agressivement soutenu le politique anti-migrants de Donald Trump et qui a signé la loi ‘droit à porter’ (les armes à feu). I accuse the hypocrisy of Governor Abbot, who dares proclaim that “Texas grieves” when it’s he who has aggressively supported the anti-migrant policies of Donald Trump and who signed the “right to carry” law.

J’accuse l’état de Texas avec son amour pour les armes à feu. / I accuse the state of Texas with its love of arms. Et qui confond la culture de le Cowboy et le Far-Ouest avec la doctrine le Force fait de la raison, le culte des armes. / And which confounds the Cowboy culture and the culture of the Frontier with Might makes Right, the cult of the gun.

J’accuse le National Rifle Association et tout les politiciens qui se laissent acheté par ce lobby des armes à feu. / I accuse the National Rifle Association and all the politicians who’ve sold their souls to the arms lobby.

J’accuse ces marchands de la haine qui ont oublié que notre force a nous c’est le multi-culturisme, que nous sommes un nation des MIGRANTS. / I accuse the hate merchants who have forgotten that our strength is our multi-culturalism, that we are a nation of MIGRANTS.

I passed through El Paso one early September evening in 2012 on my way back home to Fort Worth. In the pause at the station a young Mexican, or Mexican-American woman boarded the bus to sell us delectably spicy burritos for $1.50 or $2.00 a pop. This is our spice. They are our spice. This too is Texas. This too is America

Bread in Doses

lang white angel bread lineCurrently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, as part of its exhibition Photography + Photography: Photographs from the Robin and Sandy Stuart Collection: Dorothea Lange, “White Angel Bread Line,” 1933. Collection of Robin and Sandy Stuart. © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California.

At American universities, the brain is a lonely hunter

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(If you’ve not already, please consider supporting this translation work and our sister site the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager  by making a gift today / S’il vous plait penser à faire un don  by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail)  en région Parisienne pour le rentrée. Le contacter à artsvoyager@gmail.com )

Recently contemplating a return to school, I’ve been appalled at course programming at universities across the United States which looks more like the Democratic Party platform, aimed at pleasing — at *including in the curriculum while at the same time segregating into their own separate courses* — various interest groups, than a coursus meant to endow young people with a solid, comprehensive understanding of their field, more at teaching them what they should be thinking about (and often how to think about it) than how to think.

It’s not so much the expanded idea of what should constitute valid histories, cultures, and oeuvres for the academy in itself that’s disturbing. My first choice among all the universities whose course offerings I’ve carefully, voir maniacally, scrutinized (albeit 40 years too late, the school having originally admitted me in 1979), and not just because it’s on the banks of Lake Michigan and on the border of a city (on the make) I’ve always wanted to get to know better, Chicago, would be Northwestern, precisely because of the apparently broad scopes of its English, Art History, and Comparative Literature departments. (And notwithstanding a list of distribution requirements which includes two courses in “Ethics and Values.” If those kids haven’t already started developing a system of ethics and values before entering college, it’s not the paternalistic force-feeding of an institution which is going to make them do so.) The first offers separate courses not just on “the Chicago Way” (with a reading list including Nelson Algren’s “Chicago, City on the Make,” a book I discovered while cat-sitting in ‘my’ literary New York brownstone), but on the literature of Native Americans who lived in and around Chicago before and after the revolution. The second offers a freshman survey course on “Modernism” which promises to traverse national and chronological borders, in my mind a much more accurate approach than the “Modern” courses I’ve found just about everywhere else, whose professors variously and erroneously peg the beginning of the “Modern” period at 1850, 1880 or 1900 (Princeton’s Hal Foster notably commits this latter error, or at least suggests this by offering a scope for “Modernist” art that only starts that year), when in fact it begins at the latest in 1827, with Delacroix’s “Mort de Sardanapale.” Northwestern also proposes an art history course which takes a field trip to Carbondale, Illinois, to get involved with a community art project — while at the same time offering a late 19th century expert whose latest book looks at how modern lighting affected modern (as in Impressionist and immediately after) art in France. And the resumé of at least one other professor suggests an outside of the box, global, cross-disciplinary, and broad focus on aspects of abstract and contemporary art. (The professor in charge of this realm seems to have three appointments, in Comparative Literature, Art History, and North African or Middle Eastern Studies.) The Comparative Literature department, meanwhile, joins with other universities in integrating ecology into the curriculum, but not just in a lock-step follow-the-latest-mode fashion where the relevance of the field to the subject isn’t evident. Rather, “Ecology of the Book” strikes me as an umbrella theme which makes sense, encompassing issues of distribution, production, and promulgation.

I began with this mostly positive example to demonstrate that my quarrel is not with inclusion, expansion, or integration of what are considered valid histories of non-White or non-Western cultures or literatures, and above all not with curricular innovation per se (one of the reasons I’d not major in English were I to return to Princeton is that the department is too stodgy) but with what strikes me as more than a tendency towards segregation — a sort of ‘separate but equal’ philosophy and approach that completely ignores a fundamental pillar of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, that ‘separate but equal’ is actually not equal. Part of the basis for that determining principle was that keeping black children at (confining them to) separate schools, often with inferior resources, would make them grow up feeling inferior to white children. Here it’s almost as if, by creating numerous separate categories of courses to treat African-American, Latinx (don’t ask me what the ‘x’ is doing there), LGBQTWKWE (WKWE = Who Knows What Else) artists and writers, the intention is to make up for this inferiority complex by saying “See? We too deserve our own courses.” The problem with this argument is the same as that of expositions of art by exclusively female artists; the sous-entendu is that they’re not talented enough to be included in a general exhibition (or course) on their merits alone and need the extra-metier racial or gender cachet to get us to see or read them. As pertains to African-American artists and writers, one of the immediate results in academia seems to be that Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and occasionally Ralph Ellison are typically the only African-American authors who show up in general survey courses of American literature from the second half of the 20th century; Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are left to languish in the ghetto.

But much more damaging than the racially or gender-encadred courses is a generalized social categorization — the need to meet a social category to qualify as a course subject — of the offerings, particularly in American Literature. If you don’t fall into a social or thematic category — *A BOX* — you’re simply dropped into the dustbin of history. Thus, and incredibly, Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967) — whose only qualifications for the canon are her mastery of craft, style, character, dialogue (particularly vernacular dialogue) and ability to poetically convey a sense of place — is simply not taught anywhere (not even at Columbus State College in Columbus, Georgia, which may well offer a Carson McCullers fellowship at the Carson McCullers Center in the home where she was born, but doesn’t appear to actually teach her work). She might have made it into a course on “Southern” literature, but apparently Flannery O’Connor — here the national conformity is appalling — has been designated across the university spectrum as the token Southern white female mid-20th-century novelist, never mind that she’s by far the inferior writer and that her Catholicism makes her appeal less universal than McCullers’s. And heaven forefend that one might include *two* Southern female writers (not that I’m acquiescing to McCullers’s circumscription to this narrow category) to accompany the overwhelmingly male majority in these survey courses.

White male authors from the latter part of the 20th century — the generation I grew up with — who aren’t Jewish (which would earn them consideration for — *restriction* to? — the category of and thus their own course in “Jewish-American writers,” which is what one of McCullers’s peers, Grace Paley, is usually reduced to when she does appear) have simply disappeared, or just about. Thus Kurt Vonnegut Jr — the 20th-century dauphin of Mark Twain — only sneaks in once, at one university, “Slaughter-house Five, or the Children’s Crusade” making the syllabus in a course on the literature of war. Never mind that Vonnegut was the century’s most eloquent and mordant socio-political satirist (making even Mencken pale by comparison)– or perhaps this is what these universities are afraid of, conformism being a frequent target of Vonnegut’s rapier pen — and a master of the art of the short story (as demonstrated in “Welcome to the Monkey-House and other stories”). And speaking of masters of the short story, even F. Scott Fitzgerald only gets in grace of “The Great Gatsby,” sometimes, as at Tulane University, in an examination of craft, but more typically as an example of literature on Capitalism; “The Last Tycoon” makes it once in a course on the Hollywood myth. And yet Fitzgerald, far less monotonous in his essays with the form than his contemporary Hemingway, made his living by the short story, and this vitality is evident in the stories, always delivering a full self-contained world in its little snow-ball glass, a universal truth in a grain of sand.

And yet the coursus — and thus the faculty resources — have been so taken over by the politically correct (I’m loathe to use this term, typically employed by the intellectually lazy to condescendingly dismiss points of views which aren’t just politically correct but correct, instead of taking them on on the factual merits of the arguments, but here it’s unavoidable) that there’s no room for Fitzgerald’s stories, for Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and stories that don’t fit into a social, historic, or other topical category, for writers like Carson McCullers whose only entry card is their talent, from whom the only lessons are in craft, style, memory, and power of observation. The irony is that to make up for their own having been left out during earlier ages, these sub-groups (or rather the faculty and university advancing this approach to making up and compensating for their previous exclusion from the canon as well as life) are now excluding another group — of their peers — and whose only default is to not fit into any social category. Carson’s only hope being that perhaps someone will decide to write a thesis on “Queering Carson McCullers.”

I’ve compiled enough course listings of this politically correct genre from around the country to write my own thesis, but because it seems more valuable here to restore to McCullers a little bit of the exposure of which the politically correct English professors who should be teaching her are depriving her– not out of fairness to the author, but fairness to these teachers’ students (a couple of years back I edited a doctoral thesis in which I found myself correcting basic language, style, and syntax problems that should have been caught by my client’s junior high, high school, university, and graduate professors; when I pointed this out to her, she accused me of ‘insulting’ her; I guess should have been more sensitive) — I’ll just cite a couple of the worse instances before turning the floor over to McCullers and sharing the conclusion of “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” (Which I scored in a crumbling “Bantam GIANT” paperback compendium, “Seven by Carson McCullers,”  marked .35 cents which was waiting for me in a book exchange box high above Belleville.)

Unfortunately, both examples come from my (and Fitzgerald’s) alma mater.

First, and as an example of where topicality seems to have triumphed over staying power, there’s the English department’s offering of a whole course on “Brexit.” To understand how stupid and irrelevant this course is — for an English department, I mean, which should be teaching subjects that will be relevant after tomorrow — just imagine if in the ’70s the same English department had offered a course on, I dunno know, WIN. Most of you don’t know what that represents and there’s no reason you should because it’s no longer relevant (at least in the context of an English department): Whip Inflation Now.

The second, more egregious example — in its stark priming of a politically correct prerogative over aesthetic and creative criteria — comes from a Princeton course cross-listed in the Theater, American Studies (a program which, judging from its course offerings, should be re-baptized “Sectarian American Studies”), and two other departments whose acronyms I can’t decipher, “Movements for Diversity in American Theater,” taught by Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus, who begins her description with this harrowing premise (in the second sentence):

“Theater artists routinely bend, twist and break all kinds of rules to create the imaginary worlds they bring to life on stage. Why, then, has the American theater so struggled to meaningfully address questions of equity, diversity and inclusion?”

Leaving aside the syntactical problems with that second sentence (oh, all right, because you asked: ‘…struggled so much,’ ‘so often struggled,’ or even ‘struggled so’ would be more correct), maybe it’s because artistic creation should be driven not by political correctness but by the muse? Or, to channel the correctly revisionisized comment of a not so politically correct American Indian personage (Tonto) and put it another way: What you mean ‘we,’ white man? The writers, and particularly the playwrights, I know (including myself) are more apt to be struggling with questions of expression and language and structure and editing and content and voice and character than with meeting your social-political-racial agenda, Professor Beliso-De Jesus. And rightly so.

Carson McCullers would no doubt not fit into any of your socially in need of legitimization groups, professor (unless you’ve seen Ethel Waters opposite Julie Harris in the film adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding,” and even then I suppose your opinion could go either way, although your objections to Waters’s relegation to the role of nounou — your own apparent politically correct blindness — would probably prevent you from seeing that she’s the only stable force in the play). And yet besides its primary values as a paragon of fine craftsmanship, style, capturing of dialogue and vernacular, and evocation of place, as well as compassion (seeming at first to be almost a detached afterward, the passage in fact explains the drastic actions of one of the novella’s villains, who’d just gotten out of prison before he returend to town to wreak havoc) the following coda to “The Ballad of the Sad Café” also delivers an observation about racial leveling that might have inspired Martin Luther King Jr..

The Twelve Mortal Men

“The Forks Falls highway is three miles from the town, and it is here the chain gang has been working. The road is full of macadam, and the county decided to patch up the rough places and widen it at a certain dangerous place. The gang is made up of twelve men, all wearing black and white striped prison suits, and chained at the ankles. There is a guard, with a gun, his eyes drawn to red slits by the glare. The gang works all the day long*, arriving huddled in the prison cart soon after daybreak, and being driven off again in the gray August twilight. All day there is the sound of the picks striking into the clay earth, hard sunlight, the smell of sweat. And every day there is music. One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great horse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.

“And what kind of gang is this that can make such music? Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county. Just twelve mortal men who are together.”

In 1947 – 48, a white man, Alan Lomax, recorded some of this music being sung by a prison gang on Patchman Farm.

In 1951, a white woman wrote about it — in prose that, without any social agenda behind it but because her muse dictated it so and her craft made it such, *causes the heart to broaden.*

In 1959, a black man who’d danced with companies lead by black and white men and women (notably Martha Graham, with whose troupe he toured the world on a State Department-sponsored tour in the 1950s), Donald McKayle, created a dance to the Lomax Brothers’ recordings and about the men on a prison gang, “Rainbow ’round my Shoulder,” since performed to audiences of all colors all around the world.

*Even McCullers’s cadence here — “all the day long” — has a social, historical, cultural, and folk resonance which transcends race and owes nothing to a social dictum and everything to McCullers’s cultural memory and ability to invoke it without seeming to do so intentionally. The rhythmic and thematic reference is of course to the lyric from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” the refrain followed by “all the live-long day,” thus linking McCullers’s mixed-race group of outcasts to a founding element of the Western myth, the construction of the railroad, by prison gangs, by Chinese immigrants, by poor whites…. (Gregory Peck also blithely whistles the refrain after bombing a railroad line in King Vidor’s 1946 “Duel in the Sun.”) And where was this particular song invented, or at least first recorded in print? A quick Wikipedia search reveals that “The first published version appeared as “Levee Song” in Carmina Princetoniana, a book of Princeton University songs published in 1894.” (Most likely originating in the Princeton Triangle Show, on which Fitzgerald would later work. We both spent too much time on extra-curricular activities and not enough time in class.) Thus if Professor Beliso-De Jesus wants to find creative expression that is naturally diverse in its references, she has but to step out of 185 Nassau Street and cross University Avenue to Firestone Library.

JOURNALISTE/TRADUCTEUR AMÉRICAIN CHERCHE ÉCHANGE DE BONS PROCÉDÉS (LOGEMENT CONTRE TRAVAIL) EN RÉGION PARISIENNE POUR LE RENTREE

Journaliste/traducteur (New York Times, et cetera) américain, metteur en scène, DJ, animateur des ateliers théâtrales pour les enfants expérimenté cherche échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail)  en région Parisienne pour le rentrée, durée à discuter. (J’ai une maison en Dordogne donc ca peut être même pour quelques semaines,) Échange des bons procédés logement – travail (Leçons anglais, Comm., gérance sites web,  gérance galeries d’art, Traduction fr. – ang.,  Rédaction, Consultation art/s, Dramaturgie, DJ, garde chats, pub sur mes sites: la Maison de Traduction,  et the Dance Insider & Arts VoyagerRéférences si besoin.  Voici quelques infos me concernant. Merci de me contacter  par mail a l’une des adresses suivant: paulbenitzak@gmail.com ou artsvoyager@gmail.com. 

Lola Lafon’s “Mercy, Mary, Patty” (Revised and Expanded Translation)

lafon small

Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K.. Courtesy Actes Sud.

by Lola Lafon
Translation by and copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
Original text copyright 2017 Actes Sud

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“In this world where everything is rigged, where the only thing that is not divided is money and where the only thing that is spread around is the heart, it’s impossible to rest on the sidelines.”

— Paul Nizan, “The Conspiracy” (1928), cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

Extract, pages 7 – 19:

You write the vanishing teenaged girls. You write these missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to seek out new horizons and embrace them without being able to tell the problematic from the promising, elusive, their minds shutting out adults. You interrogate our brutal desire to “just talk some sense into them.” You write the rage of these young women who, at night, in the childhood bedrooms where they’re still surrounded by their stuffed bears and giraffes, dream of victorious escapes, then climb aboard ramshackle buses, trains, and strangers’ cars, fleeing the neatly-paved road for the rubble.

“Mercy, Mary, Patty,” your book published in 1977 in the U.S., is dedicated to them and has just been re-issued, augmented with a preface by you and a brief publisher’s note. It’s not yet been translated in France. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your biography, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through the teaching positions you’ve held: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic journals over the past few months tout the importance of your work, magazines question what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker consacrates two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenage girls, from Mercy Short in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.”

The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga’s old history, you’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one gets stuck on a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s listed in the faculty directory.

But I’m not looking for you. Your office is on the second floor of the building I walk by every morning but it doesn’t matter because I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you. I explain my reason for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I recount, I say “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing there right next to us and insist upon it, I say “Neveva” the same way as your students in France who venerated you and who I was not one of, Neveva Gene who debarked in a little village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1975 hastily tacked up notices in the village’s two bakeries, Wanted female student with high level of spoken and written English, full-time job for 15 days. Adults need not apply. URGENT.

(New chapter)

October 1975

The three girls who have replied to your ad sit across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater is patched at the elbows, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’

Squeezed into a bordeaux window nook, one by one the candidates detail their trajectories in an effort to win you over, this one is studying English Literature at the university, the next has already been to the U.S. twice, speaking English fluently is important if you’re going to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she invokes a sabbatical year since graduating from high school in June and the need to make a little money. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied in Massachusetts at Smith College, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t mean anything to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the embarrassment of the candidates. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which tempers you, it’s a novel that’s more than a little dubious, above all Smith had the honor of admitting the first African-American woman to graduate from college, in 1900: Otelia Cromwell.

“American Lifestyle and Culture,” the course you’re offering at the College of the Dunes, is protean; you speed through what you’d anticipated teaching before you actually got here, the particular architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a study of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” a deciphering of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Formidable program. The fact is that you nurtured high hopes for this college. They should see the welcoming brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift about aimlessly after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, cute little domestic animals brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand nothing in the articles you pass out. The young postulants keep quiet and wait politely to find out what this has to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just petrified now at the thought of having to submit themselves to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?

But where did you learn to speak English like that, you ask the third candidate who immediately blushes, she refers to American songs whose lyrics she likes to copy, they’re actually British you point out, amused, when she recites the words from the Rolling Stones’s “Time Waits for No One” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” She rattles off her favorite movies, every week the public t.v. channel shows a film with sub-titles, the ciné-club, she never misses it even if it’s on late, 11 o’clock, you call her an Americanophile, she stammers, not sure if this is good or bad. All three listen to you, dumbfounded, as you imitate the annual speech of the director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing at all to do with excluding boys from my establishment and everything to do with offering girls special attention! To free them from their own fears!” You want to know what they think: Would they like to study there, with access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Cinema History, Introduction to Baroque Singing, Judo, and Modern Dance? The third girl’s answer — the tuition is too high — you greet with exaltation, as if it were a scientific breakthrough: Eggs-act-ly! Yes! The very principal of this establishment is a contradiction: Emancipate only those who can afford to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

Suddenly you leap up on the transparent Plexiglas chair. You grab a box from the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you declare in designating the package of American origin, as indicated by an impressive quantity of identical green stamps plastered across the top. The job of whoever you decide to hire is entirely contained within, you show them the folders overflowing with press clips, half open a plastic bag filled with cassette tapes resembling those teenagers use to record their favorite songs off the radio. You’ll have to write a report, and you won’t have time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you point your finger at the box. You insist on an availability that will be indispensable but of a limited duration, 15 days maximum.

“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re already on the porch when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates blurts out: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, Yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she’s dead. No, you correct her, she’s not dead, the police caught her. It’s her kidnappers who are dead. And they’ve hired you to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask who exactly this mysterious “they” is who’s hired you, nor why “they” chose you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also the exotic foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That alone is enough. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distraught, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That very evening her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand resting on the phone: It’s for you, a funny accent, surely the American professor.

“Is it frowned on here to go to teachers’ homes?,” you ask the young woman you’ve anointed as your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my home. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you to not let me rip you off. By the way, are you really 18? I’d put you more at 15.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst, you add before hanging up.

(New chapter)

During the ramshackle hiring interview — a real show — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you afraid of scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you worried that their parents will be freaked out to see them working on such a subject, you’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 inhabitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything about everyone, talks to everyone about everyone, judges everyone. It takes time to explain the complexities and nuances of the drama to your interlocutors and time is the one thing you don’t have a whole lot of. What angle will you use to trace the journey of this young American, which episode will you start with?

That of the kidnapping of Patricia on February 4, 1974 by an obscure pseudo-revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the initial message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording dropped off by her abductors on the doorstep of a radical radio station which set off a riot in the entire country, her small voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m okay”? How to explain to these French women who just need a job that for the FBI, the victim morphed into a perpetrator in less than two months, converted to the Marxist cause of her captors she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, packing an M16. It’s understandable that you’re prudent about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.

As for your task, this “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and leave Patricia’s lawyer, your silent partner, in the shadows. You have 15 days to discover something in the cardboard box overflowing with photocopies that will enable you to write an expert’s report exonerating this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial approaches. 15 days to decide, who is the real Patricia, a Communist terrorist, a lost college student, a genuine revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with America in her sights.

(New chapter)

A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep with outsized enthusiasm, you lunge forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a big wet kiss on me — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog so he’ll skedaddle.

You put out a plate of frosted cookies, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, Russian flavor, whatever she wants, you point to 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea you only drink it when you’re ill. She listens to you standing up, cup in hand, you haven’t invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.

“Summarizing the articles will be tedious, we need to stay focused on the details,” you caress the frayed edges of the cardboard box on the dining-room table with a finger. The young French woman nods, looking for clues, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone as the reddened nostrils confirm, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are stained yellow with tobacco, you laugh your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled-up necklaces peek out from a half-open drawer, you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, two times you evoke your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the phrase suggests an overly prolonged adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the toilet you go right on talking to your assistant, shouting for her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.

She’s never met an American before you. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and actors, hearing her own voice become foreign turns your first day together into an intoxicating game of role-playing. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by title: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls you rub your eyes like a sleep-deprived child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian-style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you’re impressed at the manila folders that the girl has prepared and the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her pencil case.

“I just love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you though, ‘Violette,’ it makes you sound like a delicate little flower….”

My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You stretch your legs out under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the smoke rings dissipating by the time they hit the ceiling.

“It’s important, a first name, it’s a birth. Violaine. Not easy to pronounce for an American but o-kay. You know, Vi-o-lai-nuh, what will remain unforgettable for me when I go back to the United States?”

The thunder-storms. The mountains. On the beach, on certain days, one can make them out carved into the fog, when they lock themselves around the ocean like an open hand it’s a sign that it will be sunny the next day, your assistant is amused to hear you recite with such conviction the sayings of the old-timers.

The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean seeped up to the edge of the dunes! The paths along the moors. They all look the same, there are no landmarks, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which turns into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that finds its way into your purse, your notebook spirals, the bottom of your bed, stuck to the soleus muscles of your calves, your socks.

Mlle Neveva won’t forget the sand, she who’s just baptized herself Violaine writes in her diary with the detachment of a documentarian, omitting the fleeting moment when she thinks she hears you describe her as unforgettable even though she barely knows you.

The sand, you repeat practically every day like a mantra, exasperated, taking off your sneakers and shaking them out onto the ground.
Extract, pages 92 – 99

(New chapter)

Day 13

When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. This is all she wants, to return to the equilibrium of those first days, to just be your little helper who cuts, translates, and pastes. Instead of being the person who slows you down and irritates you and doesn’t hear the same things you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village bar and smoke-shop, a change of scenery will help.

It’s noon, church is letting out, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who never lets you out of his sight, you whistle and put an end to all the social whirl. You deride the devout out loud in English, tell Violaine to observe their holier-than-thou airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies, our own.

When you make your entrance into the café, the men lined up along the counter pivot to stare at you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a tad too wide reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea-blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavsky Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the great American actors, Robert De Niro used it in playing Travis in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It offers an abundance of exercises to help with building a character. And indisputably, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll be Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you, at the end of the day, Marxism isn’t contagious.

“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”

“Very mature for her age.”

“Too many words, Violaine…! Susceptible and superficial?”

“Secretive.”

“Typical teenager,” you fire back at Violaine, sticking your tongue out at her.

“A symbolic example.”

A symbolic example? Of what? Your assistant sputters, she has no idea of what, she’s just repeating what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to your character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, the college sophomore of before the kidnapping, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, prisoner? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, all the same distressed to be disagreeing with you once again. You maintain that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, is Violaine the same with her parents as here, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.

The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! — his wrist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter, who slinks away, the bar is packed to the rafters, the regulars coming from the rugby game, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone, you go to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal but who are against killing calves. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”

A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder, so that everyone can benefit, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, they’ve heard so much about you, you interrupt them, she needs to read Brecht, their daughter, voilà!, the glasses are refilled and clinked, fascistes de merde, then, in the exhilaration of this frenzy, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its communiqués, “Death to the fascist parasite who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, startled, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so many times in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you grab her hand and kiss it with ceremonious exaggeration, everyone whistles in approval, you bow as if for a curtain call.

You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests: It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Weaving along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing recalling the shocked air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way you can never separate those two in class, the sadistic books that one devours, stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of this other one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs inconsolably over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which surround Violaine’s parents’ property. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the racket which rages around here — you indicate with a sweeping gesture the forest and the few scattered other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their living-room for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s freezing, that the French phrase is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the living-room lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which never comes. As if it weren’t already night and the sand humid under your naked feet – you grip your sneakers in your trembling hands — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll return to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find any of her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice the reaction in the bar when you told about how Nina Simone’s parents, during a concert by their daughter, had to surrender their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. No reaction. Not a shadow of indignation.

The bar had never been so silent. Violaine should remember it, this silence, it has an acrid taste, it’s the silence of that which remains unsaid, those who didn’t flinch at the idea of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but their silence said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his camp. There’s no such thing as neutrality.

(New chapter)

Day 14 (Excerpt)

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the next morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve only just started writing it, this report that Violaine assumed you were on the verge of finishing. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this tape, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “You need to understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.” When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, all the others, does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what exactly is she the example, Patricia…?

You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed in depth on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be in a better position than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more problematic.

But now this skinny French teenager comes along. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re not willing to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you can’t permit yourself to hear it either, you whose job it is to show that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need her to….

Extract, pages 108 – 112

(New chapter)

Day 15

Are you tired of an experiment which isn’t working out like you wanted it to, these debates in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed. Are you exhausted, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied with the prison sentence waiting for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence, or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have led a charmed life, the trial promises to be highly newsworthy, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene was incapable of coming up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing the door open to your bedroom in designating, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One
rough draft after another, each superseding its predecessor.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia grinning widely, under the delicate blue of an immobile horizon, her hair tussled by a sea breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” a pensive Patricia curled up in a vast olive-green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine kneels, careful not to move the photos. That’s the most recent one, you point to the Time cover of April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, just fire. The background of the image is red, like the fire of a nightmare which seems to surge from nowhere, red like the SLA flag before which she stands, her legs slightly ajar, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.

(New chapter)

You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The speech but also Patricia’s tone of voice, the way she talks to her parents. You propose listening to it three times, this tape, once with the eyes closed, to take notes and rapidly go through the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

“I’d like to start out by making it clear that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is what I’m feeling. No one’s ever forced me to say anything on these tapes. I haven’t been brainwashed, or drugged, or tortured, or hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety: Your gifts [the SLA’S ransom demands included food giveaways to the poor] were an act. You tried to hoodwink people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI took advantage of to try to kill me, me and those in the SLA. You claimed you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything in its lust for extending its power over others, even if it means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who couldn’t care less about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.

“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve chosen to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to stand in line in order to be able to eat, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and about the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the People. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be eliminated. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, tell the poor and oppressed of this country what the government is getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of industrialists. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t need anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and that the elimination of the useless has already begun. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of law and order is just a pretense for getting rid of the so-called violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I should have known that you, like other businessmen, if you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reason. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?

My name has been changed to Tania, in homage to a comrade of the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely to an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.”

–Tania Hearst

Extract, pages 126-140

Soon after her collaboration with Violaine on the Hearst brief, Neveva returns to the U.S., leaving behind her one lost dog and one “capsized” teenager. Violaine grows up to become the village outcast, adored only by the children who flock to her house after school to eat brown sugar crepes and learn how to question accepted societal norms, much to the consternation of their parents. Her most tenacious pupil is the narrator, in whom Violaine eventually confides the notes she took and the diary she kept while working with Neveva Gene on the Hearst case. (Whence the second-person premise with which the narrator addresses Gene at the beginning of the novel: “I’m supposing you.”) A sort of repository of the influences of Neveva, Violaine, and through her Hearst, the narrator continues to question…. and to search.

***

Did you really get to know her, your assistant, or did you just skim the surface and size her up in the wink of an eye while you were pontificating about the liberty of women? Of course, in 1975 you were the adult, her elder with whom she didn’t share a whole lot. I have the advantage of the notes she entrusted me with and of the distance of time.

I’m five years old and she who let herself be baptized Violaine to please you is this thin young woman approaching 30 who lives alone with her dog in the house she grew up in, on the outskirts of our little village. From her house you can take a short-cut through the forest which leads directly to the beach, a four-kilometer walk between the columns of towering pine trees. Her dog fascinates me, hieratic and klutzy at the same time. Lenny seems immense to me, Violaine whispers mysterious words to him, my parents explain to me that she speaks English with him because he’s American. Children tend to linger at her place, at snack-time she makes us brown sugar crepes, she listens to us, talks to us like adults never talk to us, we can ask her anything we want. What does she do for a living? She thinks for a moment, let’s see, she translates newspaper articles into English, she helps kids with their homework, she dog-sits when families go on vacation, at the antique shop in the neighboring village she sells bathroom shelves and picture-frames that she makes herself, she repairs shoulder-straps on discarded purses. Why do you have to be limited to one way of making a living?

And why doesn’t she have any children? Well, that depends on what you mean by “have,” can one really “have” another person, what do we think, do we belong to our parents? What if all we can actually own are these scraps of time like the time she spends teaching us to swim, to dig, to read?

I’m seven years old and have the right to hold Lenny’s leash on his walks, the job of making sure there’s always water in his bowl. Violaine teaches me a few English commands that I test out, marveling at how the dog “sits,” “gives me his paw,” and “lies down.” While she reads the newspaper, I get to know Lenny, the silkiness of his dewy, practically hairless skin, the interior crease of his front paws, his leathery nose cracked at the edges, I curl up against him without him batting an eyelid, I hold my face up near his mouth, he snoozes, his breath caressing my cheek. I race to Violaine’s after school to see him, he’s ecstatic to see me, I throw rags to him which he methodically tears to shreds, Violaine warns me about his age, not to be fooled by his healthy appearance, Lenny is a vieux monsieur.

I’m eight years old, summer vacation is over, one September morning, in the glare of the Sun, Violaine’s face seems to have suddenly been drained of all its youth. Lenny died yesterday cradled in her arms, he didn’t suffer, he looked her right in the eyes until the end, a serene trusting look, he was over 15 years old, he lived an incredible life, he traversed a whole continent, he was lost and found at the edge of a lake in America and here also, Lenny was loved multiple times, he had two mistresses, I’m inconsolable, Violaine takes me to discover a path which leads to a part of the beach where normally I’m not allowed to venture alone, there’s no lifeguard. You have to make your way slowly, pushing aside the thistles and blackberry branches to avoid getting pricked, can I tell if the cumin smell is coming from those tiny mauve flowers sprouting up out of the dunes? The sun-baked sand is lined with narrow, barely detectable trails, vipers’ paths. We cry without talking facing the sea then laugh at the idea that what’s making us wail is a dog who landed in France one fine day in 1974 and was lost one fine December morning in 1975. In the spot where he loved to spread out under the Sun, behind the house, Violaine suggests that I plant carrots, which he adored, when I get up to look for a sprinkler, she kneels pressing her forehead against the sand, caressing the soil with her palms.

I’m ten years old and I’m not aware of her tenuous status among the village’s adults. Tolerated but not included, Violaine is never invited to dinner, no one asks for her help in getting ready for the village fête in July; when she is asked for anything, it’s reluctantly, someone needs something translated. They’re all polite to her but without any warmth, like they might be with a foreigner who still doesn’t understand the local customs. For us, Violaine is a miracle in equilibrium between our adolescence to come and the morose adult age of our parents, time circled around her and spared her.

One Saturday afternoon, Violaine passes around a plastic bag in which each child is supposed to place a cracker, an apple, a bon-bon, for “the poor.” We obey, a bit skeptical, no one’s in need around here, we’re not in India. The bag is left out in the open on the City Hall plaza, the morning after it’s empty. What then becomes a ritual generates a buzz that lands us in the local daily, which heralds “a laudable initiative by children identifying the growing poverty in the village since the cork factory shut its doors.” A journalist wants to meet Violaine, she demurs, taking the credit doesn’t make any sense, she didn’t invent anything. The following weeks the priest joins our effort, accompanied by his catechism students, we add to the bags poems copied onto loose sheets as well as drawings. Violaine starts a new club, “The atelier-debate,” Wednesday afternoons from three to six. We cram into her living-room. She hands out a Xerox with the rules: No Interrupting and Show Kindness Towards Others. Such formality makes us feel important, elevates us above the aggressive brouhahas of adults that we dread, Sundays we get up from the table as soon as we’re done eating, plug our ears in our beds to block out the bickering of our parents, “You could have…. If you at least had…. You’ll never do it.”

Sitting on Violaine’s carpet, it doesn’t matter if we’ve already eaten, we compete for cookies, shortbread, marble cake, we hold out our hands, we fidget, me me Violaine, our cheeks reddened with impatience, anxious about not being able to remember everything we have to say.

Violaine presses us about our habits, did we see an ad for our backpack in a magazine, is that why we wanted to buy it, does choice even figure into it?

What if we were starving and we heard about a place where we could get free meals, but where we knew the food was stolen, what would we do? Would we not eat? If we were asked to pass this food out to the poor, what would be more important, where the food came from or feeding those who don’t have anything?

The day after the third Wednesday session, my parents, like the others, receive a letter signed “Concerned Parents” accusing Violaine of justifying stealing. And then I hear them talk about you for the first time: For 15 years they’ve made her pay for the episode of the American professor, it’s time they leave her alone, says my mother, exasperated. I’m eleven years old.

I’m 12 years old, when school lets out Saturday afternoons I race over on my bicycle, I have to scale two hills to get to Violaine’s house. I have my own cup for the tea that she’s taught me to love, a Disney plate dating from when I was eight, Violaine regularly makes like she’s going to toss it and is amused by my protests. My rites make her laugh, aren’t I bored yet of trying on her old scarves in front of the mirror?

I walk by her side. We forge through glades invaded by ferns nearly two yards high, picnic in the hollow of the dune, where we can light a fire without being spotted by the gendarmes, we dine on pepper and zucchini shish-kebobs, wade into the Ocean shivering in April, the water is freezing, that was stupid declares Violaine once we’ve enveloped ourselves in blankets on the sand. I’ve just been authorized to enter her office at the end of the hall, the most beautiful room in the house where the window looks out on the round stones of a dry creek bed. The shelves reach almost up to the ceiling, with books of all sizes which I’m permitted to read but not to take home. The air seems to be in repose, a silence of filtered light impregnated with amber and paper, I pray night never comes, that there’s no interruption of this world that I’ve discovered in the pages of Newsweek, Time, Life. They all have holes in them where articles have been cut out.

In 1991, I’m in eighth grade, Sandrine Cornet loans me a CD her father brought back from the United States, on the cover of Nevermind a plump baby swims in indigo water below a dollar bill attached to a fishing hook. Violaine translates the words of “Something in the Way,” we discuss the meaning of the refrain, America and its wars, says Violaine, seem to be painfully lodged in Kurt Cobain’s throat. I make fun of her lightly, one says the United States, not America. And speaking of the United States, which city does she know the best? I’m not surprised by her response but feel awkward about having made her uncomfortable, what does it matter, she’ll travel later, what does she want to see when she finally goes there?

Violaine gets up on a chair and fetches a folder from the highest shelf, she spreads the photos out on the carpet. Among the snapshots of Northampton and its campus is a portrait: You stare straight into the lens with a mocking smile, your white blouse tucked into the bell-bottom jeans, your feet sheathed in light blue Converses. Sitting on one of the three steps of the building, back leaning against the august portal with its gothic wrought-iron interlacing, the gilded lettering proclaiming: “Smith College, 1875.” Patricia Hearst does not come up that day, just you, Mademoiselle Neveva, for whom Violaine “translated articles and filed papers” in the winter of 1975.

I’ve just turned 16, I half-heartedly prepare for finals. Since Easter, at the request of my parents I’m taking English classes with Violaine, she has me read Emily Dickinson’s poems and excerpts from novels, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” I have trouble translating the articles she gives me, one of which is an analysis of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” It’s signed Gene Neveva.

She starts your story like this, Violaine: How lucky she was to have been your assistant, despite the migraines every afternoon, the anguish every morning, you needed to work fast, understand complex articles in one reading, summarize them without complaining. But what a chance, what an honor to have contributed, with you, to saving an adolescent from life in prison, here, this is her, Violaine points to the framed photo on her desk. I’ve been looking at this photo since I was a kid, I always assumed it was a cousin, one of Violaine’s friends. I’ve now met Patricia Hearst. Violaine captivates me with the ambiguous charm of the story she reveals to me in bits and pieces. A story of solitude, of encounters, of choice. Of being alive and making sure people know it. Sometimes maybe it’s better to remain with the Indians like in the Westerns, she murmurs.
She pretends to be surprised when I show up on my bicycle the following Wednesday, what, I haven’t had my fill of talking about all this, don’t I have friends my own age? But my classmates and their mundane lives, their preoccupations – what will I do after high school – their Friday nights, their whiskey-Cocas and ground-up aspirin, all this pales in comparison to Patricia Hearst. Violaine holds the key to what I want to understand. The odyssey of a young woman barely older than me whose fracas inebriates me. I tirelessly scrutinize her face on the cover of Newsweek from September 1975. Not a very flattering picture, the glaring lighting accentuates the shadows of the rings under her eyes and her pallid skin. Patricia-Tania stares out at anyone who pauses before the image with a defiant air in this photo taken by the LAPD after her arrest. She looks livid and yet the police have just freed her from her kidnappers, I remark to Violaine, perplexed. Years later, after I’ve spent entire days listening to her and reading her notes, Violaine confides in me that this “livid” surprised her, most of those to whom she’s shown this photo have described Hearst’s expression as “flippant, annoyed.” I’m the only one to catch her anger.

My own is invisible. When it’s time to go back to my role of docile daughter, I ride my bicycle on the bumpy path, where the sand forces me to pedal harder until I’m out of breath, the sadly softened quietude of the family foyer with its bright lights making my eyes fill with tears, I listen without saying a word to my parents recount their day over dinner, two subdued adults with tired smiles. The utter forlornness of blood ties appalls me like it’s only just hit me, I detest what they’re in the process of turning me into, right up to the first name I was given, I’ve been brought up to advance lock-step into the future, whatever the cost, an obedient little soldier who sticks to the family narrative without questioning it, content to obtain what she’s never really wanted, a place in society, a job, a happy home. The prudence of my parents’ life makes me want to throw up, the cowardice of it. Their parsimonious kindness when they toss a coin to a homeless person, their bitter resignation disguised as “character” when they vaunt themselves: “Me, I have no illusions.” I will no longer be the person I was. I open up to Violaine, she doesn’t say anything, her eyes shining brilliantly, she just listens to me debate with myself without being able to identify the strings tying me down. I impregnate myself with Patricia Hearst’s words, hoping that they will contaminate me, I see myself ready to sacrifice everything but the words and the causes elude me, they seem either outsized – the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq – or too local, the closing of the pine cellulose factory. Tania’s heroism dwarfs me, forces me to confront my own passivity, she knows how to fearlessly target her enemies, I can’t even find them. What needs to be destroyed, what needs to be attacked first, how, with whom, and which side are you on if you’re not on hers? I scoff at the student demonstrations against the CIP (Contract of First Employment, designed to release employers from minimum wage requirements for workers 26 and under), the counter debates where everyone recites his own personal litany of indignations before sagely returning to the daily grind, and which are useless because no victory exists if it’s only partial. I devote myself to building up my body, push-ups, tractions, abs that I perform on my bedroom carpet, Patricia learned to run and high jump, to load a gun in the dark, to be fearless, to attack. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, I spend my Wednesdays stretched out on the carpet in Violaine’s office, I start one book that I discard to grab another that I also don’t manage to finish, I want to read them all. I’m too young I can’t wait. For a class presentation in which the theme is “the other side of the décor,” in the presence of a baffled French teacher I talk about the exposure of the cloistered world of the heiress, how Patricia, in going over to the other side, put an end to several tenacious myths. No, parents don’t love their children unconditionally, not if they embrace another identity besides the one they’re pre-programmed for, no, the police aren’t here to protect us, the police who didn’t hesitate to spray the house in which Patricia was supposed to be with machine-gun fire. I read extracts of her messages to my peers, convinced I’ll find more converts, but there’s an outcry, a millionaire who pretends to care about the poor, who are you kidding, what did Patricia do to change the world, rob a bank? I spout back what are they doing, besides carefully avoiding anything which might slow down their progress, and towards what exactly are they racing with such fervor, I get a 5 out of 20, my work declared “off subject.”

Violaine accompanies me in my humiliations and my questions, cajoles them, anticipates them. She’s no longer the reserved older sister of my childhood who makes me crepes, but a methodical genius with high-speed reasoning, no one besides me knows her, my bilingual heroine saved Patricia in two weeks time with an incredible American. My parents worry more and more about what the two of us are fabricating together, Violaine is after all a mature woman, she’s just celebrated her 40th birthday, and when they pronounce the word “fabricating” their discomfort is palpable, their embarrassment about what they imagine we might be scheming up together.
I’m 18 years old and just barely manage to graduate, my parents want me to “broaden my horizons and create some distance, this school will open doors for me, Bordeaux is a very beautiful city.” I leave behind the fine November rain, the foggy June nights on the cornfields, the mauve thistles, the storms which erode the dunes and Violaine.

If Violaine could only see what they open up to, these doors vaunted by my parents…. Every night I complain on the telephone about my courses in “commercial strategy,” a real brainwashing. Violaine puts me at ease, my brain will resist this like all the rest, I’ve already been subjected to dozens of brainwashings since I was born, my parents, school, the media, religion, and herself all pleading culpable. She sends me numerous letters, no one can force me to stay in this school, photos of the beach and its ferns already turning brown ahead of winter, also one of Lenny, and this text she thinks will please me, its author wrote it when she was exactly my age, 19:

“It seems to me that the term ‘brainwashing’ only makes sense when it designates the process that starts with the education system and is perpetuated by the media, this process by which people are conditioned to passivity, to accepting their pre-destined roles, that of slaves of the dominant class. If I’ve been subjected to any brainwashing, it’s that which conditions all of us to accept and hang on to our place in society. I spent 12 years in private schools surrounded by young people pre-occupied with pursuing their aspirations to dominate. Retrospectively, for me these schools are a training ground for the formation of future little fascists, we’re encouraged to develop all the values of capitalism: individualism, the sense of competition, not to mention racism.”

Tania Hearst takes the words right out of my mouth, I cite her in my paper, I copy this paragraph and hand it out to my fellow students, suggesting that we have a debate about it, isn’t this exactly what’s happening in this school, what are they training us for? The school authorities rapidly summon me and suggest that I “reconsider my objectives.”

I’m 22 years old. I live in a hole-in-the-wall studio apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris below Montmartre. I’ve roamed from one university to the next and attempted three freshman years without conviction or success, a year of Anglo-American literature, a year of sociology, and a semester of history, I’ve worked as a waitress, perfume saleswoman, baby-sitter and dog-sitter, translator of various manuals, hair-dryers, bathroom scales and hydrating lotions, none of them lasted and I couldn’t care less, my life starts the moment I push open the doors of the National French Library, I’ve picked up the habit of reading American newspapers several times per week. The ceremonious silence of the room is soothing, I leaf through Time, Newsweek, Life, snuggling up with them as time blurs. These hollowed out moments are where I live, I have no place else to be, going back to my parents’ house is unthinkable, and I get lost in Paris, I shy away from the impatient masses who push and press but to get where? I don’t really think about Patricia Hearst, I forget about her like the childhood friend you hung out with too much and who you now need to break free of. I’ve not responded to Violaine’s latest letters, which have begun to space themselves out.

For the first time in years, in December 2000 I spend New Year’s week at my parents’. They’re sorry to report that Violaine appears to be losing it little by little from living alone, now she’s defending two students at the Dax high school who want to wear the veil, Violaine’s not even Muslim, as far as we know! She wrote a letter to the principal, a bizarre petition in which she sticks up for “teenagers who expose that which embarrasses us. Some are punk rockers, others might wear the veil. We who describe these girls as prisoners and say they’re being manipulated, are we so sure we’re free?” The children no longer scramble to get to her house for snack-time.

I visit her the next day, guilty to have been out of touch for so long, but she hugs me tightly for a long time. She’s just signed up for unemployment. It’s harder and harder to find translating work; it would seem that everyone now speaks perfect English, she rails. On the surface immune to the sarcasm she’s been subjected to since the business of the high school girls, she leaves me admiring her propensity for solitude. She’s so thin I take pity on her, I want to protect or force-feed her. And yet this body isn’t fragile at all but honed by years of effort, Violaine doesn’t cede to anything.

I’m 30 I’m 32, she comes to Paris regularly to visit me, worried about “being under-foot,” she sleeps on a mattress on the floor and gets up noiselessly at dawn, Violaine disappears for entire days. At first, delighted, she copies the names of streets down like a poem she’s just discovered, she loves crossing the bridges, all the bridges! Monuments everywhere you turn! Stonework everywhere, the palaces, churches, banks, and ministries. And the stores, the restaurants, is there any place where you don’t have to pay for the right to sit down, why do all the parks close at 7 p.m.? All I see in this city, she writes me in a note left one morning, is the overwhelming proof of what we’ve enabled to be erected, no one looks at each other, we’re just statistics and social roles. She hopes I won’t hold it against her but she needs to return to her beloved ocean, with its insistent currents, a space where, as Mademoiselle Neveva used to say, “everything is possible but nothing is guaranteed.” To my parents whom she runs into from time to time and who fret about my wandering – spending the whole day in the library, this is not a job! — she retorts dryly that wandering is courageous work and should be obligatory, like doubting. She warns me on the phone, she doesn’t want me showing up one morning on her doorstep announcing I’m pregnant and am moving back, don’t come home. For that matter, why not go to America for a few weeks, me who gets by so well in English. I get excited, suggest to Violaine that we go in the summer, I’ve found a cheap flight and a youth hostel in Northampton, we can visit the campus. She shakes her head without responding as if I were a child she doesn’t want to answer directly, we’ll see.

I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young women are vanishing from their homes. They’re signaled at the frontiers, designated “S” (Suspect), written up in organizational charts, with graphics illustrating the co-relations between them: Coming from middle class homes for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and displayed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they demand accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we do nothing, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end in mind, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare out at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations of adults panicked by these impenetrable young girls and who
propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia
didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one at all but rather a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania).

The Lutèce Diaries, 26: Dimensions

Lembereur Haut OSP GalleryMarcel Lempereur-Haut, “Tete-mécanisée” (Mechanized head), 1916-1970. Oil on panel. Among the galleries in Saint-Germain-des-Près maintaining the standard set by their ancestors in the late 1940s and 1950s is OSP – Oeuvres sur Papier, with its self-professed “pronounced taste for the forgotten, the inclassable, women, writer-drawers, etching maniacs, and young painters.” The OSP also likes juxtapositions. Its recent exhibition at 7, rue Visconti — itself a mythic gallery street — paired the Modernist heads, hearts, and stars of Lempereur-Haut (1898 – 1986) with the drawings and water-colors (see below) of contemporary artist Maximilien Pellet (b. 1991), for whom, says the gallerist, “the hour of hyper-consumation visual, of the digestion of images is significant.” Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — Nearing the end of my virgin visit to Paris one brisk November afternoon in 2001, I stepped on my tippy-toes to touch a corner of the pedestal of a marble statue on the periphery of one of the two large fountains in the Tuileries gardens, where Augie Renoir and his pals used to pitch stones at the window of the Princess, who would toss bon-bons back at them. The idea was that a future Paul had touched the same spot and assured me “You’ll be back.” Which I did when I was, and have continued to do over the years (on both the receiving and giving end). If I chose this particular statue, it was probably because it featured a bare-breasted woman leaning (protectively I thought) over a child. (Living at the time in New York — where nary a human bronze bust was bared and a polychrome cow had caused a scandal because its teats weren’t covered — I’d found the French embrace of the beauty of the naked human body refreshing.)

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, returning to the Tuileries for the first time on this Paris stay and wanting to record the actual name of the statue for you, that I realized the woman (sculpted by Pal Gasq in 1893 and installed in the Tuileries since 1904) was Medea and the child was screaming.

lapotoc on laissera des traces“On laissera des traces,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage, on view through April 13 at the galerie ArtAme at 37 rue Ramponeau in Paris. (See below.) “Immersed between reality and fiction, my world is a mix of painting, words, and images-matter, with my personal history as the common denominator,” says the artist. “I work with the individual and collective sub-conscious, attempting to echo that which unites and divides us. It’s a voyage between my own life experience and that of the regardeur. My collage technique is fragmentation, based on my piecemeal vision of the world.” Courtesy Lapotoc.

But this first brilliant Spring day in Paris, palpably emanating from the alabaster sculptures arrayed around the gardens washed in the late afternoon sunlight, was too sublime to let a little Greek blood-lust way-lay my plans, which were to secure a reclining green iron chair in front of my favorite fountain — the small one at the Louvre end and Seine side of the park, a favorite of the locals — and sip my thermos coffee ‘a petites gouts’ (as Simenon’s Commissar Maigret does after his wife serves him in bed) while marveling at the statuary. The chair was waiting for me, offering the unanticipated benefit of a side view on the Eiffel tower under the partly clouded sky. The mallards in the pond outnumbered the female ducks four to two, with one already ushering in the season by vigorously bobbing his head in the universally recognized sign for “Let’s get it on.” (After playing it coy, she eventually bobbed back.)

A young couple across the pond from me was mimicking the ducks, only their heads weren’t bobbing but nuzzling. Between them and me a voluptuous blonde woman in a summer dress more willowy than she was sat down next to a male friend and gathered her arms around her scrunched-up knees as the wind blew the dress up to reveal her pallid gams.

When I poured my first cup of coffee (healthily dosed with nutmeg and cinnamon), reclined back, and sipped — continuing a ritual initiated 15 years ago after a meeting at the American consulate with the Paris representative of the IRS (no doubt the cushiest job in the agency; I’d loved the juxtaposition of an inevitably stressful meeting, although Monsieur. Greg Burns was incredibly helpful, and the least stressful most bucolic pastime one can imagine, sipping coffee before a fountain in the Tuileries), j’était rempli and sated.

Given the way the day of my most recent visit had begun, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the apparition of Medea.

“Je suis venu pour mes jumeaux,” I’ve come for my twins, I’d announced to the butcheresse at the marché on the Place des Fetes, high atop the rue Belleville (and where the market scenes in Cedric Klapisch’s “Paris” may have been shot, which would explain why I was looking for Juliette Binoche at every counter). At first she had no idea what I was talking about, understandable given that the last time I’d seen her, and used this line, was in November 2015, right after the Paris massacres, over which we’d commiserated. (“I just don’t understand how someone could do something like that,” she’d told me.) “Les lapins,” I clarified (we’re back in 2019), pointing down at the two for 12 Euro rabbits splayed out in the vitrine. “The price has gone up!” (It had been 10 for two since 2009, when I first started provisioning myself at the market.)

“Clients keep telling us that, even though we changed it in September.”

“I haven’t been here since 2015!”

“Do you want me to slice them up for you?” she asked, wielding a long narrow blade.

“Yes, just don’t forget the heads, they give it taste.”

When she bobbled one of the noggins, I couldn’t resist: “Don’t lose your head!” After I’d paid I asked, “Can I leave them here while I do the rest of my marketing?”

“Yes, we’ll keep them au frais.”

By the time I’d come back she’d apparently remembered our routine of four years ago. “Rabbits, rabbits? I have no idea what he’s talking about” she told a colleague when I returned to fetch the twins.

“Comme toujours!” I retorted.

“Come back again, before 2021!”

In fact she’d given me an excuse to return much sooner. When I’d asked if she (I keep referring to her as ‘she’ because I’ve realized that neither ‘butcheresse’ nor a physical description can do justice to the way her beauty startled me) had a recipe for Lapin au moutarde, “because I’ll be making Lapin au chasseur with the first one,” she’d begun with “it’s a lot less complicated than Lapin au chasseur.” My idea was to come back Sunday to offer her a portion of my “Hunter’s rabbit,” a dish I’ve been perfecting for 15 years, since I found the recipe in an Astra ad in the “Adieu a Churchill” 1965 issue of Paris Match. (Which I did on Sunday. Lifting the plastic quince paté container into which I’d placed the sample, she suggested, “Come back next Friday for the desert!”)

En attendant this next move, there I was this past Friday afternoon watching the ducks and other humans mating at the Tuileries fountain, decided to indulge myself with a second cup of thermos coffee. This would have to be the limit because of the paucity of toilets within a five-mile radius of the park. When the Sun disappeared, the wind kicked up, and my neighbors lit up, I decided to continue to the gardens of the Palais Royale, where an alleged vernissage had provided the putative excuse for Friday’s expedition. (I know, I shouldn’t need one to go to the Tuileries; it’s the practical Taurus in me.)

OSP PelletMaximilien Pellet, Untitled, 2018. Water-color and ink on paper. Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP. (See above for more information on the gallery, its aesthetic, and this artist.)

I never found the exhibition, and the “Cocteau – Colette – Palais Royale” banner pasted to the gardens’ grill after I hop-scotched over the Daniel Burin black and white columns turned out to just be announcing that they both once lived there, but I did get to surreptiously watch a Spanish girl who sat down in the green iron chair next to me on the lip of the multi-spigot fountain carefully select a fountain pen from a small case and start sketching pictures of a far building and the tree-tops bisecting its view. When the wind picked up more and started blowing the water on me, I headed out of the gardens, turning from the short cobblestoned uphill street at the exit onto the rue Vivienne, intending to check out the bookstalls in the glass-covered Vivienne arcade. Two tres chic French girls were excitedly gaggling in the middle of the street ahead of me while marching towards their Friday evening no doubt on the Grandes Boulevards, and I’d just concluded that the one with her blonde hair bunched up artfully was another French girl I could fall in love with when she spat ungraciously and inconsequently on the cobblestones.

After walking down the long glassed arcade of the Vivienne I turned on to a corner to re-find my source for all things Max Jacob and Kees von Dongen (I’m always getting lost in and confounding the Vivienne, Panoramic, and Victoires arcades, one of which spits you out onto the Grandes Boulevards), where the bookseller was hurriedly clearing the tables outside his shop and putting the books on the 2 Euro bargain table into cartons so that he could close. Too late for me to peruse.

Van dongen de seine 1962From Artcurial’s recent Estampes & Livres auction in Paris: Kees van Dongen, “De Seine,” 1962. Color lithograph on Japan paper, 39.1 x 59.7 cm Signed and justified “III/X.” Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

I did, however, discover a sanitaire that hadn’t been on my Paris toilet radar. (This is rare.) And one whose soggy floor — unlike at least half of the municipally operated sanitaires in Paris I’ve inspected — wasn’t covered in shit, despite that they’re supposedly automatically washed after each use. And had toilet paper. (Half the dispensaries are empty.) Toilet paper that on your fanny actually felt like toilet paper. This is probably because this particular sanitaire was located just outside the French stock market, on top of the 3 Metro station.

In the Metro car there was more cardboard and another blonde, this one natural, wearing an oversized plaid Mackinaw and who instead of clinging to a cell-phone as if it were a lifeline like nine in ten subway passengers I see was holding up a subway-car height, three-foot wide carton side on the top of which was scrawled:

“Et si on parlait de l’intelligence?” (How about if we talk about intelligence?)

As the girl — who might have been in her last year of high school or first year of college — looked up at me shyly I leaned my head sideways to read the rest. Under the title was written “Jours d’entrainment,” Training Days, and under that was a list of columns, suggesting a sort of intellectual Olympics, dividing the visual and other response times of “Homo-Sapiens” and “Homo Neanderthals.” (Note that I’m not the one who brought up Trump.) At the lower right corner of the slat under a cut-out of the title of the sports weekly “L’equipe” (the team) someone had added “Scientific!”

When the girl realized I was copying this all down — that I was a reporter — she raised her magazine to hide behind it.

I finished just in time to hop out at the station Arts & Metiers, whose shiny copper-colored metal walls with their displays behind portals make you feel like you’re in a submarine designed by Jules Verne.

lapotoc don't be afraid“Don’t be Afraid,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

More provocative phrases awaited me when I surfaced at Belleville, these mixed into collages by the eponymous Lapotoc, who through April 13 is sharing an exhibition with Farah Iaaich in the Galerie ArtAme (Art & Soul) at 37, rue Ramponeau, a street on which the state of artists if not art is fragile after a long fight to save the ateliers and one of Belleville’s last craftsmen workshops from eviction by city hall in a mixed-use building at No. 48.

If I continue to believe that it’s vital to support an artistic presence in what’s fast being transformed into BoBoville, this does not mean that all the art I’ve seen in Belleville this season is vital. In contrast to Saint-Germain des Pres, where the standard of the exhibitions I’ve caught in recent months often rivals the golden period of the late 1940s and 1950s, in Belleville the vernissages I’ve attended seem to be mostly populated by friends of the artists and if it’s unfair to categorize all of them as Sunday painters, many of the artists wear the etiquette “auto-didact” like a badge of honor, as if they’re proud of having received no formal training, even if this gap often reveals itself in a lack of rigor. Soit, but when this extends to ignoring their own history, it’s often manifest in work that presents itself as new but which in fact is derivative even if the author doesn’t know what it’s derived from.

So it was that fresh off the vernissage for an exhibition of animal art I’d attended Thursday at the gallery of the Associated Artists of Belleville (at least this time we weren’t treated to the cruelty of one artist bringing a live rabbit wearing a tutu), not to mention the alleged Palais Royale exhibition which had posed me as a lapin (= stood me up), I was already not of a particularly open disposition when I walked into Art & Soul. It didn’t help when the (no doubt well-meaning) gallery owner introduced one of the artists with “This is the Artist.” “This is the spectator. And journalist,” I couldn’t help responding. If I didn’t quite wince when I saw the catch-phrases mixed with catch-images (some of which were captured on Google Images, the artist in this case, Lapotoc, notes; I do have a problem with this generic attribution — before they got to Google, those images were made by real people), I still thought, “This isn’t new.” So it was as much to demonstrate my own smarts as to earnestly dialogue with the artist that I asked, pointing at a large work taking up most of one wall, “Is the canvas hand-made paper?,” noting the material’s warped shape. “No,” this “gondola” effect is the canvas’s response to the glue and other matter with which the collaged cut-outs are pasted on to it, Lapotoc explained. When she added that her purpose was to create matter for dialogue I offered, “For example, the juxtaposition between the phrase ‘Tout un parfum,’ the woman’s naked back and… is that an atomic symbol?” I was expecting a response but instead she just nodded.

Lapotoc tout un parfum“Tout un parfum,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

If I dutifully copied down phrases from three other collages which particularly spoke to me — “Don’t be afraid,” “On laissera des traces” (We will leave traces), and, from the canvas “Vaisseau Beauté,” “Parce que je le vaux,” (Because I deserve it) it was just to have some images to request to accompany this chronique; even if they resonated with me personally, the phrases still seemed straight out of a women’s self-help book and once I got home I couldn’t remember any of the images.

But a funny thing happened as I was writing this piece. When the images of the four works arrived in my e-mail box from Lapotoc, they had the opposite effect of that of seeing them in front of me. The gondola’d shape and texture of the canvas didn’t come across in the two-dimensional electronic format. But it wasn’t just the words in “On laissera des traces” that left me in tears, and “Don’t be afraid,” with a unit of cell phones replacing the body between a hanging head and stilletos, seemed to crystalize the horror of seeing all these people on the Metros riveted to their devices. (And me to my laptop here in Paris, which is why I don’t have an Internet connection at my regular digs.) The images had put my verbal description of this phenomenon into a visceral form. Although I can’t help wondering if, at least in this particular work, Lapotoc is using the words as a crutch; I’m not sure we need them.

lapotoc vaisseau beaute jpeg“Vaisseau Beauté,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

Another thing art does, besides giving aesthetic form to our ideas and sentiments, is to invest us with the capability to view quotidian things and circumstances — our surroundings and environments — with an artistic sensibility. I already have this sensibility when I walk the streets and ride the Metros of Paris and observe certain things that resonate with my own life experience and references, or even in the greater story of Paris or of me in Paris. But what happened to me Friday night after leaving Lapotoc’s exhibition was that her artistic sensibility immediately imbued a banal object that has never interested me or resonated with me before with an exquisite beauty.

I don’t identify at all with swimmers or find myself in a swimming pool. The former (with the exception of my mentor; you know who you are) intimidate me and the latter frighten me. And yet when just moments after leaving Art & Soul, wanting to avoid the busy boulevard Belleville, I turned down a cobbled pedestrian alley one block up that I’ve been by-passing for 10 years because it’s too branché (hip), I found myself stopped and standing before the glass front of a building I’d never even noticed before: A swimming pool. The symmetry of the pool with its curved ceiling, the light reflecting off and from the bottom of the water, the contrast of that light with the night outside and the penumbra of the alley, the syncopated bodies with their slowly churning arms, their ’20s-style bathing caps which made the scene timeless — something left me so transfixed that I even read the entire two long poster-length “A History of Swimming Pools in Paris” affixed to the window. Seeing this perfect beauty — in relation to, what, the garbage around it (Paris and particularly the Right Bank is filthy)? The garbage in the air (and more polluted than ever)? The crowds? (The swimmers moved neatly and orderly in the lanes without crowding each other.) The contrast of this immaculate scene with the memory of the dirty, gym-sweat smelling, often-underground municipal swimming pools of my San Francisco youth?

I think rather it was that something in Lapotoc’s artistic way of seeing — as chaotic and crowded and sometimes even n’importe quoi some of her oeuvres seen Friday seem to me — had managed to expand even my own over-stimulated vision and way of seeing.

I’m not sure why this artist had this effect on my vision; she didn’t so much impress me as empower, or expand my ability to be impressed by even the most ordinary of surroundings. (This continued Saturday, when the crepuscule found me paused on the rue Buffon that flanks the Jardin des Plantes, leaning against the garden’s stone wall and iron fence and fascinated by a solitary tree projecting over the street from the fence, the vetuse shutters on an ancient apartment building, an oval window under the roof of another, the sunlight glinting on the chrome surface of a modern office building at the end of the street.) Maybe it’s her sincerity or determination to put the whole ugly beautiful sensory mess on a canvas without too much concern to organize or arrange it. But how often is art able to accomplish this? To not only make you see what the artist is seeing, but to expand your general vision once you leave the work of art?