Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rulfo: Immortal Scribe of the Dead

By
Ariel Dorfman

How to explain that the centenary of the man who was arguably Mexico’s greatest writer passed last year with barely a notice in the United States?

Juan Rulfo (1917–1986), rightly revered in Mexico and outside, is regarded as one of the most influential Latin American writers of all time. In the United States, too, he has been hailed, in The New York Times Book Review, as one of the “immortals,” and acclaimed by Susan Sontag as a “master storyteller” responsible for “one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century world literature.”



One reason for the surprising neglect of Rulfo today may be that his reputation rested on a slender harvest of work, essentially on two books that appeared in the 1950s. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that with the magnificent short stories of El Llano en Llamas (1953) and, above all, with his 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, set in the fictional town of Comala, Rulfo changed the course of Latin American fiction. Though his entire published work did not amount to much more than three hundred pages, “those are almost as many, and I believe as durable,” Gabriel García Márquez said, “as the pages that have come down to us from Sophocles.” Without Rulfo’s groundbreaking work, which blended the regional realism and social critique then in vogue with high-modernist experimentation, it is hard to imagine that Márquez could have composed One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nor, probably, would we possess the marvels created by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rosario Castellanos, José María Arguedas, Elena Poniatowska, Juan Carlos Onetti, Sergio Ramírez, Antonio di Benedetto, or younger writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Carmen Boullosa, Juan Villoro, or Juan Gabriel Vásquez, among others.

What beguiled all these authors was Rulfo’s uncanny ability to give a lyrical majesty and distinct rhythm to the terse colloquial speech of the poorest Mexican peasants. That achievement may also explain why Rulfo is less esteemed in North America today, for it led to a literary style that was, alas, difficult to translate; the English versions of his work rarely preserve the magic of the Spanish original.

Another reason for Rulfo’s being overlooked may have been his own reticence and publicity-shyness, a refusal to play the celebrity game. Rulfo cultivated silence to a degree that became legendary. My friend Antonio Skármeta, the renowned author of Il Postino, told me that when he was about to be interviewed for a TV show one day in Buenos Aires, he saw Jorge Luis Borges and Rulfo coming out of the studio. “How did it go, maestro?” Skármeta asked Borges. “Very well indeed,” Borges replied. “I talked and talked and once in a while Rulfo intervened with a moment of silence.” Rulfo himself simply nodded at this account of his conduct, confirming the discomfort he felt at putting himself on display.

In the few interviews he gave, Rulfo attributed his reluctance to speak to the customs and reserve of the inhabitants of Jalisco, where he grew up—though other factors, such as the unresolved traumas of the author’s childhood, cannot be discounted. Jalisco, a vast region in western Mexico, has been the scene of an almost endless series of clashes and uprisings. Rulfo would carry with him all his life images of the carnage that followed the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Between 1926 and 1929, the young Juan witnessed the abiding fratricidal violence of his country, specifically of La Cristíada, the Cristero War. That popular revolt, an insurrection of the rural masses that was aided by the Catholic Church, began after the revolutionary government decided to secularize the country and persecute priests. (Readers may recall these events as the setting for Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.) Jalisco was at the very center of the conflict, and the frequent military raids, volleys of shots, and screams kept the young Rulfo shut inside his family’s house for days at a time. Outside, men without shoes were dragged before firing squads, prisoners were strung up and hanged, neighbors were abducted, and the smell of burning ranches singed the air.

The terror was compounded when Rulfo’s own father, like the father of Pedro in Pedro Páramo, was murdered over a land dispute. A grandfather, several uncles, and distant relatives were also killed. Then Rulfo’s mother died, supposedly of a broken heart. In the midst of this mayhem, the future author found solace in books. When the local priest went off to join the Cristero rebels, he left his library—full of books the Catholic Index had forbidden—with the Rulfo family, paradoxically providing a vocation for a boy who would grow up to write about characters who felt abandoned by God, whose faith had been betrayed. Rulfo must have understood, somehow, during those years of dread, that reading—and perhaps, someday, writing—could be a form of salvation. Inspired by the ways that Knut Hamsun, Selma Lagerlöf, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and William Faulkner had given expression to the people of the marginalized backwaters of their homelands, he found the means to describe the terror he had endured in the stories collected in El Llano en Llamas.

In these gems of fiction that English-language readers can enjoy in a recent, vivid translation by Ilan Stavans with Harold Augenbraum, Rulfo immortalized the derelict campesinos whom the Mexican revolution had promised to liberate but whose lives remained dismally unchanged. The men and women he described have been wedged into my memory for decades. Who could forget that group of peasants trekking through the desert to a useless plot of land the government had granted them? Or that bragging, drunken, fornicating functionary whose visit bankrupts an already starving pueblo? Or the idiot Macario, who kills frogs in order to eat them? Or the father who carries his dying son on his back, all the while reproaching him for the crimes by which the son has dishonored his lineage?

Crimes haunt most of these characters. A bandolero is tracked down for hour after hour along a dry riverbed by unknown pursuers. A prisoner pleads for his life, unaware that the colonel who commands the firing squad is the son of a man whom the prisoner killed forty years earlier. An old curandero (or healer) is corralled by a coven of women in black, bent on forcing him to confess to his many sexual transgressions against them. But, as always in Rulfo, the greatest crime of all is the destruction of hope, the orphaning of communities like the forsaken town of Luvina:


People in Luvina say dreams rise out of those ravines; but the only thing I ever saw rise up from there was the wind, whirling, as if it had been imprisoned down below in reed pipes. A wind that doesn’t even let the bittersweet grow: those sad little plants can barely live, holding on for all they’re worth to the side of the cliffs in those hills, as if they were smeared onto the earth. Only at times, where there’s a little shade, hidden among the rocks, can the chicalote bloom with its white poppies. But the chicalote soon withers. Then one hears it scratching the air with its thorny branches, making a noise like a knife on a whetstone.

This description not only gives us a distant taste of Rulfo’s style, but is also a metaphor for how he envisions his invented creatures: smears on the earth, hidden among the rocks, scratching the air in the hope that they will be heard—though it is only a remote, timid writer who listens and affords them the brief dignity of expression before they vanish forever. The bleak world depicted in Rulfo’s stories was on the verge of disappearing in the mid-1950s, with the migration of peasants to the cities and, from there, on to El Norte—victims and protagonists in a global trend that John Berger, for one, so movingly explored in his novels and essays. To read Rulfo in our times, when so many refugees pour out of Central America fleeing violence and thousands of lives are lost in Mexico’s ongoing drug wars, is to become painfully aware of the kind of conditions from which those people are escaping. Migrants who leave their own infernal Comala behind still carry inside its memories and dreams, its whispers and rancors, as they cross borders and settle into new streets. Rulfo’s fiction reminds us of why El Día de los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, is more important today than ever as a link to the ancestors who keep demanding a scrap of voicehood among the living.

My own immersion in the hallucinatory world of Pedro Páramo and its evocation of the realm of the dead may illustrate how strongly Rulfo’s fiction affected Latin Americans and, particularly, the continent’s intellectuals. I first read Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo in 1961, when I was nineteen and studying comparative literature at the University of Chile; I was so mesmerized by it that, as soon as I finished, I started to read it over again. Years later, during a lunch with García Márquez at his house in Barcelona, he related that his encounter with Rulfo had been similar to mine. He had devoured Pedro Páramo, reading it twice during one long, enraptured night in Mexico City.

From its opening lines, the novel takes the reader on a mythical quest: its narrator, Juan Preciado, has promised his dying mother that he will travel to his birthplace, Comala, and find his father, “a man named Pedro Páramo,” who had sent the mother and her newborn child away and must now be made to pay for that betrayal. That journey, related in concise, poetic fragments, turns out to be even more disquieting than expected. Abundio, the muleteer who guides Juan down into the valley of Comala, acts strangely, suggesting that nobody has visited this place in a long time and that he, too, is a son of Pedro Páramo. The town itself, far from being the lush paradise of greenery that “smells like spilled honey” evoked by Juan’s mother, is miserable and mostly deserted. The only resident is an old woman, who gives the traveler lodging. Although nobody else appears in those parched streets, Juan hears voices that ebb and flow in the oppressive heat of a tormented night, phantom murmurs so stifling that they kill him.

As Juan descends into an eternal realm populated with the ghosts that suffocated him, the reader pieces together the parallel story of his father: how Pedro Páramo rose from the dust of a disadvantaged, backward childhood to become a caudillo whose toxic power destroys his own offspring and the woman he loves, finally turning the town he dominates into a burial ground swarming with vengeful specters. Juan himself, we gradually realize, has been dead from the start of his narration of these events. He is telling his tale from a coffin he shares with the woman who used to be his nanny and wanted to be his mother; we are struck with the petrifying knowledge that they will lie there forever in that morbid embrace, alongside the corpses of others whose lives have been snuffed out by this demonic caudillo.

Pedro Páramo realized as a child, after his own father was murdered, that you are either “somebody” in that valley, or it is as though you have never existed. If he was to thrive in turbulent times, he had to deny breath and joy to everyone else. We meet his victims: the many women he bedded and abandoned, the sons he scattered like stones in the desert, the priest he corrupted, the rivals he killed and whose land he stole, the revolutionaries and bandits he bought off and manipulated. Of particular significance are a couple, a brother and sister living in incestuous sin, their inability to conceive a child symbolizing the sterility to which Pedro Páramo has condemned Comala. Unlike Telemachus in The Odyssey, Juan is never reunited with his father, only finding the inferno that his father, like a fiendish demiurge, has created and ruined, a world made with such cruelty and mercilessness that there is only room for one person to thrive.

Behind Pedro’s ascendancy there is more than merely greed and a will to power. He has accumulated money and land and henchmen so that he may, like a Satanic Gatsby, some day possess Susana San Juan, the girl he dreamed of when he was a boy with no prospects. But Susana, now a grown woman, has gone mad, and her erotic delusions have carried her beyond Pedro’s reach. The reader, along with the ghosts of the town, have access to her voice, but not the husband who has sold his soul to make her his bride. Nor can Pedro control the destiny of the only other human being he loves: Juan’s half-brother, Miguel Páramo, the spitting image of his progenitor, callous toward men and abusive of women, who is thrown from his horse while jumping over the walls his father erected to protect his land from poachers. Instead of inheriting Pedro’s domains, Miguel joins the souls who wander the earth in search of an absolution that never arrives. Pedro himself is killed by his illegitimate child, Abundio. The novel ends with the death of the despot, who “collapses like a pile of rocks.”

Pedro Páramo is a cautionary tale, one that should resonate in our own era of brutal strongmen and rapacious billionaires. According to the wishful fantasies in Rulfo’s imagination, all the power and wealth that the predators of his day have accumulated cannot save them from the plagues of loneliness and sorrow. Many Latin American authors later emulated Rulfo’s vision of the domineering macho figure who terrorizes and corrupts nations. Faced with the seeming impossibility of changing the destiny of their unfortunate countries, writers at least could vicariously punish the tormentors of their people in what became known as “novels of the dictator.”

What made Rulfo exceptional, a fountainhead for so much literature that was to follow, was his realization that to tell this tale of chaos, devastation, and solitude, traditional narrative forms were insufficient, that it was necessary to shake the foundations of story-telling itself. Though modernity was denied to his characters, isolated from progress by the tyrant of his tale, Rulfo expressed the plight through an aesthetic shaped by the avant-garde art of the first half of the twentieth century. This twisting of categories and structure was indispensable for him to express how a Comala that dreamed of beauty and justice, a place pregnant with hope, could be transformed into a bitter, confusing graveyard. What other way was there to portray the disorder of death? Linear, chronological time does not exist in death, nor in the deranged psyches of those who live as if they had already died. From the perspective of the afterlife, everything is simultaneous, everything has already happened, everything will happen perpetually in the restless minds of the ghosts. Rulfo’s technique of scrambling time and place, this and that voice, his characters’ inner and outer landscapes, imposes on the reader a feeling of helpless anxiety akin to the anomie the specters themselves suffer.

Today, we live in a world where the version of an encounter with the dead that confronts us occurs in a very different form than the one that Rulfo described in his work. Last year’s hit Pixar movie, Coco, celebrated the cultural heritage of the Mexican tradition of El Día de los Muertos with humor and a heartwarming message. In Pedro Páramo, the young man who ventures into the Land of the Dead in search of his origins does not return, as Miguel Rivera does in the Disney film, with a song of optimism and redemption. The purveyors of mass entertainment are certainly aware that most audiences would rather not be fed tales of anguish and despondency. Who can blame moviegoers for preferring happy endings instead of terrifying ghosts murmuring from their tombs that there is no hope?

But life is not a movie, and life always ends in death. Rulfo posed vital questions about the dead and how we can grasp their departure without succumbing to despair. When Latin Americans first read the novel, they were enthralled by it. While each wisp of a scene is presented with the minute implacability of matter-of-fact realism, like a series of images captured by a camera, the cumulative effect is to give a tortured, transcendent, trance-like allegory of a country, of a continent, of the human condition. Such an extraordinary feat of the imagination would be impossible had it not been for Rulfo’s remarkable prose, incantatory yet restrained. Against the grain of the baroque, overwrought style that had seemed to define Latin American literature, each word emerges as if extracted from the soil, leaving readers to apprehend what is held back, to divine the vast unspoken world of extinction, the final silence that awaits us all. Juan Rulfo spoke so eloquently not just for the dead, but for those among us who never really had the chance to live.

Credits:  This article was originally published in The New York Review of Books.

Monday, June 18, 2018

An Unconventional Life of His Mind : A biography of Andre Breton in turn becomes a biography of a culture in turmoil

By
Peter Gay


For most Americans, the name Andre Breton, if they know it at all, stirs some uncertain if intriguing memories. Didn't he invent surrealism? Didn't he go in for automatic writing? Wasn't he a Communist for a while? Didn't he interview Freud? Mark Polizzotti answers all these questions--with "yes"--and dozens more in this exhaustive biography, a volume that tells everything anyone would want to know about Breton, perhaps more.




Yet, for all its devotion to the smallest detail, its patient tracing of Breton's life almost day by day, the book remains consistently absorbing. This is so in part because it clearly sets out the kind of gossip inseparable from so defiantly unconventional a life--Breton's sordid love affairs with unstable women, his emotional ventures into French radical politics, his dramatic oscillations between needy dependence and bossy authoritarianism--in part, too, because Polizzotti never loses the thread of his story. A few stylistic lapses apart, he writes convincingly and with insight. And he has done his homework: He has had access to unpublished materials and knows his way around the published materials.

What is more, Breton is simply an interesting man; while a far from admirable character, impulsive and self-centered, he met nearly everyone on the French literary scene and modern painters including De Chirico and Picasso and quarreled with most of them; his list of acquaintances reads like a Who's Who, mainly of the French Left, in the first half of the 20th Century, so that this biography becomes almost incidentally a collective biography of a culture in turmoil.

Andre Breton was born in 1896 in a small town in Normandy to a genial father, insistent only on a single topic, anti-clericalism, and to a severe, unloving mother whose main purpose seems to have been to terrorize her son and to make him respectable, an assignment in which she conspicuously failed. If Breton later idealized childhood, it was a childhood he never had. Unenthusiastically, he let himself be pushed into studying medicine--he would serve in World War I as a medical auxiliary--but soon found his vocation: He would be a poet. In his voracious reading and interminable debates with like-minded friends, he developed powerful enthusiasms, almost infatuations--for the French romantics Mallarme, Valery, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Lautreamont; French psychiatrists; Freud--who worked for him like substitute fathers to point the way to his lifelong search: the irrational sources of the mind as they erupt in his poetry and the raucous public happenings he organized.

Breton's grand quest derived its energy as much from his adversaries as from his allies: conventional literature, middle-class tastes, liberal icons like Anatole France were ideal targets for his unsurpassed gift for invective and noisy demonstrations. Except for a vague anarchist ideal of freedom and an unconquerable distaste for propriety, often expressed with explosive, obscene gestures, Breton and his little band had no program. Order was the enemy, order and the bourgeoisie. In his denunciations of the latter, Breton went far beyond the greatest French hater of the bourgeoisie, Gustave Flaubert, an ancestor whom he does not cite yet whom he resembles in his overpowering sense of revulsion at the spectacle of that much-maligned class, its hypocrisy and its piety.

It was in the midst of war, in 1916, that Breton discovered Dada, just launched in Zurich, and took important impulses from that tiny but articulated band. Disgusted with a rationalist culture that had caused an insane war, and endowed with a superb gift for publicity, it proudly and ominously announced, "Dada does not mean anything." The author of this slogan and leading spirit of this self-declared destructive movement, Tristan Tzara, became for a time, after he turned up in Paris, Breton's close associate.

The roots of surrealism in Dada's conscious absurdities and nonsense poems were plain, but several intervening experiments were needed before Breton was ready to proclaim surrealism as a full-fledged and self-conscious challenge to bourgeois civilization. One of these steps was automatic writing, which Breton and his closest friends practiced in 1919, jotting down free associations that abandoned any of the rational controls, any censorship of style, that was the indispensable tool of saner writers. Then came Breton's disillusionment with the Dadaists working in Paris, one of many, finally followed by his confident establishment of a group ready to follow him into new territory. The surrealist manifesto of 1924, written by Breton, stated its program and traced its lineage. Surrealism, as he defined it, is "Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express--verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner--the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from an aesthetic or moral concern."

This uncompromising definition also implicitly defines Breton's conduct as the undisputed leader of the surrealist pack: He purged those who deviated from his strict line or had "sold out" by writing for the respectable press, and, translating depressions over amorous catastrophes into ideological questions, banished from his presence friends who had not sufficiently sympathized with him during love affairs or, in the late 1920s, a messy divorce. In the eyes of Polizzotti, clearly fascinated by his subject but distant enough to be objective about him, Breton was indomitable in opposition and intolerable in power.

Early in 1927, after painful and prolonged discussions in the inner circle, Breton applied for membership in the Communist Party. It proved a calamitous move, but from his point of view probably predictable. True, surrealists claimed to value artistic independence above all and a number of them found the very idea of submitting to strict political discipline, especially as dictated from abroad, too detestable to contemplate. But with their contempt for the bourgeoisie and the widespread politicization of art and literature in the hectic 1920s, other surrealists, Breton among them, saw the Communists as their natural allies. Some of Breton's closest associates, notably Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, the most prominent writers in the group, joined him, and Aragon in particular became Moscow's faithful, shrill servant. Still, Breton kept on writing in his own way; in 1928, he published his best-known book, "Nadia," which in his characteristic unconventional way tells the story of an affair with a near-psychotic young woman and of her breakdown. Indiscretion was the surrealist Breton's strong suit as a matter of principles; he would faithfully report his infatuations and his sexual triumphs to his long-suffering wife Simone until she could take no more and divorced him. His private life remained as chaotic as ever; he kept discovering dazzling women and being discovered by others. In 1934, he married again, hoping for some stability.

But the world would not let him alone. History overtook Breton, as it would so many other literary folk arrogantly making political pronouncements on the slightest acquaintance with the issues. No one except a true hermit could ignore the Great Depression and the elevation of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship of Germany in 1933, and for some time, Breton remained loyal to the French Communist Party. Even as he dissented from the prescribed party line, he tried to maintain cordial relations with the Party. But, unlike Aragon, he was unwilling to surrender his autonomy or his admiration for Trotsky, whom he visited not long before his assassination, and decisively broke with Moscow. In 1941, after the defeat of France by the Nazis, he moved to the United States with his second wife and young daughter. He was safe, but otherwise life remained vintage Breton. He would not learn English but found French refugees with whom he could speak his beloved native language. He enjoyed a certain resonance among American collectors and museum directors. He separated from his wife and found a third one.

In 1946, he returned to France. His old enemies, most of them his former friends, were still there, some of them more powerful than ever, and he spent most of his remaining years rallying the troops that remained, inducting a new generation into surrealism, and refusing lucrative prizes although he needed the money. He was the Founder, and let no one forget it. When he died in 1966, just before turning 70, more than a thousand mourners went to the cemetery to say farewell to the Pope of Surrealism.

What remains? Mainly some memorable art--ready-mades by Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the only person before whom Breton was, shyly, reduced to silent adoration; the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico; the collages of Max Ernst; the work of Joan Miro and of Rene Magritte, an impressive body of work that still attracts our attention. The poetry and the fiction have become more a sign of the times than a body of literature to which we turn with pleasure, or even great curiosity. There are some remarkable parallels between surrealism and psychoanalysis, but the differences loom far larger. The aim of psychoanalysis, as Polizzotti puts it, is to replace as much id as humanly possible with ego--the aim of surrealism was to celebrate the id without any concessions to the ego. Viewed by the surrealists as a liberation of the deepest human passions, their program now seems more frightening than admirable. But as a historical movement, it retains its interest. Polizzotti's full guide to Breton's life will not need to be redone for a long time.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in the LA Times.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Soul is a Strange Factory

By
  Gaby Mancey-Jones 








Paris, 8th December, 1922. In the Théâtre Antoine, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus is having its opening night. The audience grow rowdy at elements they did not expect from an evening at the theatre: there is a ballet of skeletons and singing fish, characters rise to heaven or break out into burlesque, and a review in the New York Times of the next day informs us that ‘[it] attempts to convince the audience that earthworms are just as fond of music as human beings and easily tamed’. By the third act, the crowd are heckling, whistling, throwing coins, and arguing with the actors. Yet, sat among the audience that night are a group of Dadaists, all admirers of the author, and keen to defend him: up jump Vitrac, Leiris, Breton, Aragon and others, who join in the fighting in an attempt to protect the actors and stage (three nights later, Breton will be arrested for an over-vigorous ‘defence’ of another performance). Sat to one side, Raymond Roussel silently observes the angry public and the eventual Surrealists; both incomprehensible to this author who somehow, through images of muttering corpses and parrots’ tongues, dreamt of global success.

My soul is a strange factory.

Roussel is probably not a familiar name to most. It was unknown to me until one day while chatting with a tutor, when a mention of language games prompted him to lean over and dig out an encyclopaedia of French literature, searching fussily for the right entry: ‘Perfect, here we are!’. I only got a glance – dandyism, addiction to barbiturates, world travel – before the book was snapped shut and the conversation moved on. Fortunately, it was a memorable glance, and I sought out his work. Those first impressions were fleshed out. I discovered an eccentric and deeply troubled man stranded at the turn of the 20th century. Born in 1877, he led a life as strange as his fiction, although certainly easier to digest. I read about a severe fear of tunnels, a habit of only wearing collars once, and a great black vehicle in which he travelled the globe (neglecting to look out of the window in favour of his meticulous writing). He wrote near-unreadable books while dreaming of popular acclaim: worshipping Jules Verne, he reads more like a proto-Pynchon. That quick glance at the encyclopaedia entry was my own initiation into the small cult of Roussel admirers. Mark Ford opens his biography of the man, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000) with a description of a meeting a fellow fan: ‘I felt like a neophyte who has just made his first successful contact with another member of a secret order he has recently joined;.

The machine knew how to recreate the same work indefinitely, without help or surveillance

In this Rousselian secret order, mechanical imagery is everywhere. Over and over again in his work, the image of the art-machine appears; in ‘Mon me’, a poem written at 17, he compares his soul to a vast and infernal factory. Miners and factory hands unearth and churn out poetry: ‘Ils saisissent à la surface/ Les vers déjà formés un peu’ (From the surface they seize/the verses, already part-formed). It recurs yet more frequently in his later, stranger novels. In Locus Solus (1914), the reader is led around the vast home of a genius inventor named Canterel. Amongst his creations is a ‘paving-beetle’, suspended by a balloon, which lays out mosaics of human teeth: ‘The contours and the proportions varied endlessly – immense molars and monstrous canines side by side with near-imperceptible milk teeth. Metallic reflections blossomed here and there from silver or gold fillings’. Art is detached from the need for a creator in Locus Solus – objects multiply themselves. In the square at the centre of the fictitious village in Impressions of Africa (1910) stands a statue of Immanuel Kant which, when a magpie lands on a special perch, illuminates his head:

One divined the presence of countless reflectors, placed facing in every direction inside the head. So great was the violence with which the bright rays, representing the fires of genius, escaped from their incandescent source… Each time the bird’s weight was applied to the lever, it seemed as though some transparent idea was born in the thinker’s brain, as it blazed suddenly with light.

There are yet more art-machines in this novel, in particular that created by Louise Montalescot in the final display of Les Incomparables, the group of stranded geniuses in the text. Her photosensitive creation captures a landscape, then paintbrushes attached to a wheel transfer it to canvas. There is also the inventor Bedu’s ‘precious machine borne out of his industrious perseverance’: an impossible tapestry machine which weaves out of rushing water shining scenes of the biblical Flood. As with clockwork Kant, the process of creation is depersonalised – there is no transcendent genius to be found here.

Music is also mechanized. Locus Solus features a worm-shaped music machine which convulses drops of water onto the strings of a zither. Roussel compares it to ‘a miniaturized version of the componium of the Brussels Conservatoire’, pointing to the bizarre real-life inventions of his own time. This strange contraption was a variation on the orchestrion, a machine made to imitate an orchestra through the rolls of music it played. The componium was unique in that it played a random stream of muzak by endlessly combining random notes, creating a never-to-be-repeated tune. In this respect, one may begin to better understand what J. A. Duncan refers to when he discusses Roussel’s ‘sophisticated contrivances – which have nothing to do with utility but mock the age of machines by the absurdity underlying their apparent ingenuity’. Despite the remarkable advances in technology being made in his time (vacuum cleaners, combustion engines, radios and helicopters) Roussel tends to interpret these wonders as a kind of magic. Instead of weapons or washing machines, he focuses on making a comparison to one odd muzakmaker now relegated to a museum. It is important to remember his own circumstances in this respect. A pampered man-child, he was the wealthiest author of his time. He had no need to interact with the utility of the new machines which furnished his lavish lifestyle – indeed, he went so far as to refuse to eat food that showed signs of serration. Tomatoes would have to appear as though they had been parted out of sheer self-will. The sign of human effort, of the interference of a tool like a knife, was unthinkable – little wonder that his creations never venture into the realms of usefulness.

Like the componium, random chance is at the heart of Roussel’s work. It is not just the images which are mechanized: the whole system by which he wrote was a tightly regulated game of chance. The books were constructed according to a complex system of homophones: ‘I chose two similar words. For example, billard (billiard) and pillard (looter). Then I added to it words similar but taken in two different directions, and I obtained two almost identical sentences thus. The two sentences found, it was a question of writing a tale which can start with the first and finish by the second.’ A story beginning with ‘Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard’ (the white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) must somehow end with ‘Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard’ (letters written by a white man about the hordes of the old plunderer). This was not the only method he used: certain images are also created from homophones – ‘These last three couplings of words gave me a statue of a Spartan slave, made out of whalebone corsets, rolling on rails made from calf’s lung…’ The never-ending variety of images that Roussel finds in this system of word-games is the result of both a strict writing system and the randomness of homophones. Roussel’s infinity isn’t sublime or poetic – it is the endlessness of a random number generator.

Was Roussel himself a type of art-machine? He was at several points in his life subsumed entirely by his manic need to write. One can picture him, monomaniacal, bent over his writing desk in a little darkened carriage while a Tahitian sunset burns outside. There is a remarkable quote detailing the most passionate of these phases when, aged 19, he spent six months gripped in a frenzy of writing, convinced of his genius: ‘Whatever I wrote was surrounded by rays of light; I used to close the curtains, for I was afraid the shining rays emanating from my pen might escape into the outside world through even the smallest chink’. He was machine-like, too, in the curious emotional detachment that permeates his work. Nicholas Jenkins, reviewing the detailed minutiae present in Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932), notes the significance of an infected uvula: ‘A distasteful glimpse into the depths of an infected mouth is the nearest that Roussel’s writing ever comes to entering the inner world of another person.’ Roussel truly believed himself to be apart from all those around him. There is a fantastic story of the poet Péret attempting to contact him, only to be brushed off with the assertion that ‘he did not class himself as belonging to any school’. This detachment could often turn dark, particularly in the months leading up to his death from overdose. Addicted to barbiturates in a hotel in Palermo, Michel Leiris describes him then: ‘handsome and elegant, but a bit heavier, somewhat slumped, and he spoke as if from a great distance’. In the ever-widening distance, he seems to have been a flesh and blood precursor to those melancholic, neurotic robots that crop up in science fiction now and again – a very French paranoid android.

Roussel’s mixed legacy is painfully apparent considering the gap between ambitions and reception. While popular literature has not been kind to him, the rarefied world of installation has welcomed him with open arms. Although it was no condolence to him, there is no denying the influence he has had on visual artists to this day. Ideas from his work can be seen in that of Marcel Duchamp, a dedicated follower who went to Roussel’s plays, to Pierre Huyghe’s later installations incorporating live animals (much like the worm attached to the zither in Locus Solus). In particular, his influence is most visible in the mechanical moving creations of Jean Tinguely. Tinguely never explicitly stated that he had been inspired by Roussel, but often did implicitly acknowledge it. This inspiration is undeniable when looking at the former’s 1950s Métamatics, a series of clanking great iron machines armed with paintbrushes. These are Roussel’s art-machines brought to life. There is another, more subjective reason for which the artist calls to mind the author. At a retrospective of Tinguely’s work in Amsterdam, after I had just read Impressions of Africa for the first time, I was struck by two things. The first was the deeply Rousselian nature of much of his sculpture, particularly the smaller pieces made of junk: a radio attached to a tin can and a dead stoat, playing music from jangling scrap metal, would not have seemed out of place in Locus Solus. But the second was the reception from the visitors in the gallery: whole families ooh-ing and aah-ing at the moving machines, small children running between them laughing, students and toddlers and grandparents clapping together when a particularly magnificent piece whirred unexpectedly into motion. Here was a 1950s take on the paving-beetle, the worm-zither, the paintbrush-wheel, and here too was the popular all-ages acclaim which Roussel had so desperately sought.

In the delighted reactions of children, I also began to understand more about Roussel’s machines. Having spent so long contemplating their significance in art and industrialisation, it was easy to forget that the closest thing to a useless, entertaining, fantastical machine is a child’s toy. After all, this was the man obsessed with authors like Jules Verne and Pierre Loti, the man who would have his chauffeur drive out to the countryside where he would curl up in the back seat with a copy of Around the World in Eighty Days or Les Trois Dames de la Kasbah, and lose himself in their childish worlds. Their influence finally showed on my last reading of Locus Solus, hinting at a populism that was never to be. The story of a king, travelling deep into a marble-and-gold cavern to carve out a message for his future heir, read as though it were a forgotten folktale, as did the ‘popular and moral story’ of a Norwegian duke battling to earn the love of fair Christel, married to the evil baron Skjelderup. The exoticism of Loti’s Orientalist works is clearly visible in the ‘Africa’ that Roussel conceives, separate as it is from the reality of the continent, and he takes the focus on fantasy at the expense of characterisation (a not uncommon feature of these adventure novels) to its extreme. His work was a child’s adventure story turned inside-out. So too was his life, recalling Larkin’s ‘hideous inverted childhood’, whether cocooned in the black vehicle in which he travelled the world, or in the warm irreality of barbiturates. In light of all this infantile fancy, the machines that dominate his work can be seen less as a comment on technology, and more as a distorted toybox: woven water, singing fish and all.

Credits: This article originally appeared in Oxford Review of Books.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Marginalia ("The Metamorphosis")


by
Kathryn A. Kopple


Paul Klee



The young reader (almost but not quite sixteen years old) may find Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" difficult:  a bit slow, a lot sad.  Between the slowness and the sadness, words turn sluggish and distractions proliferate.  A page can turn into a series of eight hour days:  sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset.  When not yet sixteen, the long-cycling page drags on the psyche, and the tick of the clock becomes a form of captivity, not to mention claustrophobia.

Being time's prisoner is the aspect of Kafka's writing that links him to existentialism and expressionism; both are associated with angst. Angst is to Kafka what blue is to sky.  The twinship of Kafka and angst has cast a stubborn spell, that of youth over the man and the writing.  Kafka, perpetually young, perpetually doe-eyed, perpetually self-obsessed.  This is the Kafka about whom a Castle's worth of books have been written that report on broken engagements, job dissatisfaction (okay, revulsion), and emotional complaints. Details of a life so often repeated they seem to merge effortlessly with the work.  But!  Of course Gregor is Kafka--and so is every other character and creature he wrote about.  For there is no subject other than Kafka in the work of Franz Kafka.  It is a fortress of self with few windows, no doors, and light if it gets in at all remains trapped; angst is nothing if not all consuming.

But, angst has less severe definitions; it is akin to "fret."  The English Oxford Dictionary cites such examples as:  "my hair causes me angst," "... I used to cause my mother major fits of angst while trying to keep me still in church;" "... she put all our cutlery and crockery away in the wrong places, causing much angst upon our return."  These examples are the stuff of comedy, as Kafka knew so well, and tragedy. Whatever disturbs expectations has the power to produce an exaggerated response, and taken to the extreme becomes a mattter of life and death.  Or, slapstick.

"Kafka's stories aren't all sad."
"'The Metamorphosis' is sad."
"I guess you are right.  It's a sad story."
"You think?"

Saying "The Metamorphosis" is sad is not saying much, and the reader, despite feeling worn out by the task at hand, is aware that sentimentality leaves much of the story untouched.  Developing an argument requires more effort, more thought.  More work.

And what is "The Metamorphosis" if not the quintessential story about work? getting out of work that is; the problem being that skipping out on the job is not so easy.  "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect (trans. Will and Edwin Muir)."  And, "It was no dream."

"Is he really a bug?"
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. It's sad."

Clearly, Gregor is not going to work that day.  He reflects a moment on his condition, which he tries to dismiss as "nonsense," before his thoughts turn to his boss (a tyrant), the porter (an agent of the chief), the insurance doctor (another agent), his parents (who live off his earnings).  Gregor is enmeshed in a network the primary function of which is to get as much work out of him as possible, and which he fears and resents.  There is of course the job itself--traveling salesman--described by Gregor in terms of relentless torture.  When the chief clerk arrives to fetch him, Gregor's father tries to fend off any suspicion of malingering.  Gregor, he insists, spends his free time reading timetables and thinking about business.  His single "form of relaxation is working with his fretsaw."  Only illness explains Gregor's lateness.  The chief clerk responds that whether Gregor is ill or not is beside the point; he must work given "business considerations."

The reader has by now finished the story and has decided that work is the cause of Gregor's unwanted and ill-timed transformation; focus is shifted from the over-all sadness the story causes to...

"Alienation."
"In what way?"
"Red marks."

A difficult thesis.  Kafka has managed to alienate most political factions. He is the bow over which  partisans on the left and the right launch criticism, warnings and frustrations   Fascism?  Kafka, for or against?  Socialism?  Zionism? No one really can say for sure, not that people have stopped trying.

As far as Kafka's politics, many of the attempts to swap interpretation for ideology take the form of saving him.  Theodor Adorno must save Kafka from Heidegger; Hannah Arendt must save Kafka from Nazism; Walter Benjamin must save Kafka from stupidity.  The list goes on.

And then there is Max Brod--Kafka's friend, editor and promoter--who is often singled out for trying to save Kafka from politics to begin with.  Brod has been regularly accused of misleading the public on--most, well--everything Kafka, beginning with his religious convictions.  Regarding The Trial, Brod observes:  "Only a man who loves life on the deepest foundation writes a tale in such a way."  He goes on to assert that Kafka's stylistic choices represent aesthetic and moral principles; there is no separating the two.  "A ray shines out from every detail, pointing to the eternal, the transcendental, the world of ideas." The description feels so forced (trying to squeeze humor out of Kafka is difficult enough) that one wonders if Brod is talking about another book entirely.  But he is not.

Brod's lofty approach to Kafka has caused much consternation, and yet his view of Kafka was in keeping with the Prague literary circle to which he belonged.  The beautiful, the sublime--and the ideal.  The raison d'être of art, and what is art if not life itself?

By the 1960s, Kafka's reputation as what Adorno describes as the "information bureau of the human condition" had solidified.  Remarkably, 11,000 books and counting have been written on the author, turning Kafka into the very thing he despised:  an industry.  This industry is by and large dedicated to whatevet is sad, shabby and shameful in his writing, with a bit of the absurd thrown in to relieve nervous tension.  Brod, we are continuously warned, is not a reliable source.  But, truth be told, even if Brod's aesthetic idealism is at odds with prevailing opinions about Kafka, it still lives on in certain German-Jewish, English-speaking households--which is perhaps simply another way of saying:  Kafka, don't you see?  He is really just one of us.

"Did you turn in your paper?"
"I finished."
"What did your teacher say?"
"He said every year he has one kid who picks Kafka."

Indeed.
















Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Jeanne Moreau, Indestructible And in Demand

By
Richard Morais


"Usually when a woman is 60, it's over,'' says Jeanne Moreau, sipping Evian in her dressing room at the Theatre National de l'Odeon here. ''But now it begins again. During rehearsals I am confronted by things very mysterious. I have terrific fights with inner demons, and it's more painful than it ever was.''

When a great performer's career draws to a close, the film industry usually responds with a tribute, much like the one planned for Miss Moreau this week in Florida at the Sarasota French Film Festival, which begins Tuesday. In the last 40 years, Miss Moreau has made 85 films for directors like Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle. At the inaugural Sarasota Festival, dedicated exclusively to French cinema, Jeanne Moreau will justly take a curtain call. ''She, more than any of the others, was the signal star of the Nouvelle Vague,'' says Molly Haskell, the film critic who is the artistic director of the event.

But Jeanne Moreau is not a weepy, broken-down star. Far from it. At 61, she is riding a new wave of popularity, with a 12-month work schedule that includes four films and two plays. After the festival, she is off to Moscow for the last seven weeks of production of the Soviet film ''Anna Karamazoff,'' directed by Rustam Khamdamov. Then it is back to France, after touring Japan in one of her recent stage hits, then to film ''La Femme Fardee,'' based on a Francoise Sagan novel. And the West Germany director Wim Wenders has cast the actress in ''Until the End of the World,'' an $18 million futuristic love story to be filmed in 12 countries from Australia to Iceland.

Earlier in the year, Miss Moreau for a cameo appearance in the film ''Nikita'' with the French director Luc Besson.

''I work more now,'' says Miss Moreau in her gravelly voice, ''because at this time of my life I am not disturbed from my aim by outside pressures such as family, passionate relationships, dealing with who am I?'' - those complications when one is searching for one's self.'' She pauses. ''I have no doubt who I am.''

Miss Moreau is not one to research roles extensively. She abhors actors who needed to discuss motivation to pick up an ashtray. (''Some actors need to know why. But why not?'') When it comes to film, Miss Moreau uses the preparation of costumes to find her way. ''It's like a trip when you make a film,'' she says. ''You prepare your costume as if you're packing. The intensity comes bit by bit, like a puzzle.'' ''She cooks the characters,'' says Florence Malraux, the daughter of Andre Malraux and an old friend who has worked with Miss Moreau during the production of three films. ''And I don't think she has the same approach every time.



''She's obsessed with details. In 'Jules and Jim,' we ran out to a department store to buy material for a belt.''

In 1986, Miss Moreau's career found fresh energy when she returned to her theater roots and appeared in ''Le Recit de la Servante Zerline,'' adapted by Hermann Broch from his novel. In this drama, Miss Moreau portrayed a maid recounting the details of her full life, a role that required the actress to command the stage virtually alone for more than two hours. Theater critics from France, Germany and Italy all separately voted her actress of the year in 1987, and Miss Moreau found herself besieged with offers to work. ''Zerline was an enormous beginning in my life,'' she says.

As Miss Moreau flies into Sarasota, she will have just closed another hit on the Paris stage. She played the old, fat matchmaker in ''La Celestine,'' a 15th-century Spanish play by De Fernando de Rojas. Her performance prompted John Peter, a London Times critic, to publicly urge British producers to bring her to the West End.

In the late 1920's, Miss Moreau's French father, a restaurant owner in Montmartre, married an Anglo-Irish woman dancing at the Folies-Bergere. After Jeanne and her younger sister, Michelle, were born, their father lost his restaurant. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, Jeanne's family lived in a hotel above a brasserie managed by her father.

At 15 she saw her first play, Jean Anouilh's ''Antigone,'' and immediately informed her parents she wanted to become an actress. Her father slapped her. But he could not deter her, and Miss Moreau began taking classes at the Conservatoire, the well-known theater school in Paris. ''My father was pretty anti,'' says Michelle Moreau. ''It was my mother who used to secretly help her study.'' It worked. By the age of 20, Jeanne Moreau was the youngest performing member of the Comedie-Francaise.

Miss Moreau was paid some $300 for her first picture (''Last Love'') in 1949, a sum that was quickly devoured in treating herself and friends to dinners of woodcock and bananas flambees. What followed were small parts in 21 easily forgotten Grade-B movies. Her drooping mouth and smoldering looks were not appropriate for a time that favored more conventional beauty. In 1953, however, the star of a Paris stage production, ''L'Heure Eblouissante,'' fell ill, and Miss Moreau was asked to play both lead women roles. The dual characterization of wife and lover awakened Parisians to a phenomenon.

A few years later, her steamy portrayal of Maggie in Peter Brook's staging of ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' reaffirmed her talent among the international cognoscenti. ''A wide experience . . . has put Mademoiselle Moreau in the front rank of the younger generation of the French actresses,'' said a 1957 article in The New York Times.

At the time France was in turmoil. The Fourth Republic was disintegrating, and Gen. Charles de Gaulle was rallying the nation to ratify a new constitution. Young Frenchmen were coming home in boxes from the Algerian War. The French film industry was not immune to the changes in the air, and a group of young film critics working for a periodical called Cahiers du Cinema began turning their hand to film making. They included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer.

The New Wave was born. Its best films between 1958 and 1962 - such as Mr. Goddard's ''Bout de Souffle'' (''Breathless'') (1960) with Jean-Paul Belmondo - were steeped in a critic's knowledge of the classics but were unconventional and rough, as the times dictated. A new style of film, of course, also required new stars, and it was to Jeanne Moreau that one young director - Louis Malle - turned for inspiration. Mr. Malle had previously co-directed an underwater film, ''Le Monde du Silence,'' with the marine expert Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

In ''Frantic'' (1957), Miss Moreau's first film with Mr. Malle, the director did away with flattering lights and makeup and instead allowed the camera to explore the actress's pouting beauty. ''She suggested intimate pleasures to everyone,'' says Ms. Haskell. The style was continued in ''The Lovers'' (1958), in which Miss Moreau's bored, provincial housewife abandons her husband and child for her new lover -a feminist film before the feminist movement.

The crucial scene, a torrid lovemaking that closely explores a woman's reaction during orgasm, scraped through the censors and became an instant international sensation. That year the film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Miss Moreau, the thinking man's femme fatale, was born.

''The New Wave was an expression of what was going on in that period, but I lived everything from a distance inside the cinema,'' says Miss Moreau. ''At 30 I didn't give a damn about what was going on in the world. My only concern was me, the way I was going to work and meet these extraordinary people.''

A string of critically acclaimed performances followed. Her portrayal of Madame de Merteuil in Roger Vadim's version of ''Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' (1959) was lurid. She created a woman at the point of breakdown from Marguerite Duras's screenplay for ''Moderato Cantabile'' (1960); she was alienated in ''La Notte'' (1960), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; and a brassy gambler in Jacques Demy's ''Baie des Anges'' (1962). But many critics think that her greatest performance was as Catherine in Truffaut's ''Jules et Jim'' (1961). In the film, Miss Moreau's Catherine is involved in a complicated menage a trois that ends tragically in her suicide and the murder of her lover.

Sometimes, of course, talent alone does not make a star. Publicity does. Miss Moreau was a favorite of the 1960's paparazzi, who hounded her to her 57-acre estate near Saint-Tropez or through hotel lobbies in exotic locations.

Miss Moreau had a son by her first husband, the French actor Jean-Louis Richard. The tabloids, however, were filled with stories about her affairs with Mr. Malle, young actors and the couturier Pierre Cardin. Her reputation was fanned by touchingly frank interviews that seemed to mirror the destructive, passionate women she played on screen.

But her days of stardom in the early 60's, she now says, were racked with jealousies, confusion, searching. Around 1965 it caught up with her. She had just finished several films - ''The Trial,'' directed by Orson Welles and Marcel Ophuls's ''Peau de Banane'' - when Mr. Malle teamed her with Brigitte Bardot for ''Viva Maria.'' Shortly thereafter, Miss Moreau fell into a deep depression. She could not tolerate light. She suffered from insomnia.It was a turning point in her life. ''In 1965, I found the pressure of 'You must do this for me,' 'You must get that amount of money,' 'You mustn't do this one' unbearable,'' she says. ''I couldn't stand it. I was too aware of the system. In fact, it was a very healthy reaction because I cut loose of the star system and began to lead a different life.'' Miss Moreau began an intensive self-analysis. ''Some people are addicts. If they don't act, then they don't exist. I had to check to see if I was an addict. Well, I know now that if something happened, I could make a decision to do something totally different. I can live without acting.''



Miss Moreau was never forced to give up acting altogether. But by the early 1970's, the type of film she was acting in had deteriorated. ''Moreau is commonly the only excuse for the films she's in,'' observed one critic. In 1975 her directorial debut (''Lumiere'') was critically praised, and the following year she performed a cameo as the aging, temperamental actress in Elia Kazan's film ''The Last Tycoon.'' Yet the opportunities to work were nothing like those of the heady days of the early 1960's. She sold her beloved Saint-Tropez estate, and a brief marriage to the director William Friedkin ended.

In her latest stage hit, the actress created the bawdy Celestine by means of a few facial scars and petticoats. Somehow the stringy tendons in her neck knotted like a trunk of an olive tree. She did something with her mouth, moving it as if food were caught under wooden dentures. These are the kinds of details that have made her a great actress.

''Part of the excitement is to discover a role by oneself,'' she says, aligning a jar of skin cream against a towel on her dressing room counter. ''Sometimes we have these very special qualities, as though we were psychic. Through a small detail we go directly to the point.''

Credits:  This article was first published in 1981 in The New York Times.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Can Cities Make Us Better Citizens?



By
Justin McGuirk




What is a city? The sociologist Richard Sennett once opted for a deceptively simple definition: a city, he wrote, is “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.” For Sennett, meeting strangers is a civic duty. He arrived at this belief in the course of a fifty-year career, and his latest book, “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City,” distills into a single volume his thoughts on how urban design shapes the ways in which we relate to one another. Consistent, throughout, is the notion of the city as a place where we tolerate those who are different. Immigrant? Stockbroker? Both? Who cares? The anonymity of the metropolis makes one indifferent to difference. As the German adage has it, stadtluft macht frei. City air makes you free.



Of course, it’s exactly this cosmopolitanism that is today under attack. For Immanuel Kant, the cosmopolitan was a “universal citizen”; for Theresa May, he is “a citizen of nowhere.” The crucial difference is that May, like President Trump, seems to see belonging in the tribal sense: it’s “us” and “them.” If the largest metropoles in the U.S. and the U.K. are bastions against such impulses, it is precisely because their diverse populations make them cosmopolitan and liberal leaning. Sennett mentions neither the U.S. President nor the U.K.’s psychodrama, but it’s clear that one of the “ethics” referred to in the book’s subtitle is a city’s ability to normalize encounters with the Other.

The challenge Sennett sets himself in “Building and Dwelling” is whether it’s possible to plan a city so as to maximize these encounters. Can the way one designs a park or shapes a city block make us better citizens? To meet that challenge, Sennett divides the city into two, rather like a body and a soul. This duality is a comparison between the city as built form (“ville”) and as lived experience (“cité”)—the “building” and “dwelling” of his title. Built form has social consequences, and not always the ones that the city planner intended. When Baron Haussmann carved his broad boulevards through the medieval tangle of Paris, in the eighteen-fifties and sixties, one of his aims was to make it easier for the military to suppress an insurrectionary working class with horse-drawn cannon. But he could not have predicted the boulevards’ effect on a flourishing bourgeoisie. They hurried things along, but they also contributed to a more detached street life, in which citizens engaged not with one another but with the vitrines of department stores.

This is a familiar lament for Sennett. “Building and Dwelling” is his twentieth book, but it feels haunted by the spirit of a much earlier work. In 1977, he published “The Fall of Public Man,” his influential study of the ways in which public life has declined since the ancien régime. The argument was that citizens in eighteenth-century Paris or London were far more likely to exchange opinions with strangers, even those of wildly different social class, than in the bourgeois nineteenth century, when they became more private and self-absorbed. (Baudelaire’s flâneur exemplified the citizen as detached observer.) This withdrawal into an inner psychological life, and into smaller social circles, Sennett interpreted as a form of narcissism. He saw further omens in the “white flight” of the nineteen-sixties, when the middle classes headed to the suburbs, and in the hippie generation, which, in a short-lived experiment, abandoned cities for rural communes. Sennett accused both groups of betraying the cosmopolitan ideal and retreating to closed communities of people just like themselves.

More than forty years later, Sennett is as passionate as ever about the richness and complexity of public life, by which he means urban life. In “Building and Dwelling,” he rejects the comforts of clearly defined communities, of anything that smacks too strongly of “we.” That means gated communities as much as “projects” for the poor. It also extends to the offices of tech giants like Google, which supply everything a neighborhood has to offer without employees needing to leave the building. Each of these is, for Sennett, a ghetto. Instead, he argues for a city that embraces difference, a place of porous membranes and spatial invitations.

Sennett calls this ideal “the open city.” “Ethically, an open city would of course tolerate differences and promote equality,” he writes, “but would more specifically free people from the straitjacket of the fixed and the familiar, creating a terrain in which they could experiment and expand their experience.” In other words, the city should not mirror the closed systems and monopolistic instincts of a company like Apple. Yet all too often, it does. Across the planet, gated communities are the fastest growing form of development. “Global cities,” like London and New York, are shaped by flows of international capital that neither their citizens nor their polities can influence. In China, state-led development on an unprecedented scale has resulted in alienating, repetitive landscapes. Meanwhile, in the ballooning cities of the global South, urban migrants build vast slum zones that are physically and psychologically divorced from the centers they service. Exclusion is the order of the day.

Is the answer to give more power to the urban planners? Not quite. If the sweeping historical passages of the book tell us anything, it’s that even the most well-meaning planners rarely get it right. Sennett’s “Great Generation” of the eighteen-fifties—Haussmann; Ildefons Cerdà, who gave Barcelona its distinctive cornerless blocks; and Frederick Law Olmsted, who gave us Central Park—all failed to predict the social outcomes of their grand plans. And twentieth-century shapers of the ville, in his eyes, were even more aloof from the cité. The book’s bête noire is Le Corbusier, whose Plan Voisin would have demolished Paris’s Marais with a field of identical cruciform towers set in parkland. Efficiency at the expense of a lively street life is anathema to Sennett.

More power, then, to the citizens? Yes and no. Sennett takes issue with his friend Jane Jacobs, who defended Greenwich Village against the highway lust of Robert Moses. Saint Jane’s charming vision of slow, incremental growth, led by citizens, might be fine for a neighborhood, but not for a city—not if you want public transport or a sewer system. In one of their amiable arguments, Jacobs, no doubt impatient with Sennett’s prevaricating, put him on the spot: “So what would you do?”

“Building and Dwelling” is Sennett’s attempt to answer that question. And it has an almost Taoist attachment to harmony and balance. Give architects and planners too much control and the citésuffers; too much faith in the citizen and the villewithers. The open city of Sennett’s imagination is one that requires us to embrace difference, even if we do not identify with it. Though the title appears to draw on Heidegger’s essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Sennett reserves a particular disdain for the philosopher’s retreat to a hut outside Freiburg. The decision to disengage from Jewish colleagues and students was an “ethical lapse” as egregious, to Sennett, as Heidegger’s anti-Semitism. Sennett also needles Google’s New York headquarters, which he finds to be an island frat house, introspective and infantile, “in the city but not of it,” and “disengaged” from “the grim street outside.” Readers of Sennett will know that the insult is not “grim” but “disengaged.”

Sennett likes “grim.” He also likes “difficulty,” “complexity,” and “friction.” His critique of the effect of digital devices on the city, apart from the fact that they are “individualizing machines,” is that apps like Google Maps make the city too user-friendly, too “friction-free.” If you think that the role of a designer, whether of software or of city streets, is to make those things easier to use, Sennett would disagree. He sees “encounters with resistance” as crucial to learning any craft, even the craft of dwelling. Getting lost is how we learn.

Sennett’s answer to Jacobs’s question, then, involves creating spaces of encounter and friction, particularly at the border between one neighborhood and another. He is deprecating about his own forays into planning and treats his failures as salutary. Why, for instance, did he and his colleagues locate a market in the center of Spanish Harlem, instead of along Ninety-sixth Street, the border with the well-heeled Upper East Side? The site might have become a porous membrane, a gateway “between different racial and economic communities.”

If Sennett accused Jacobs of being better at the cité than at the ville, he suffers from the same bias. His experience as a planner notwithstanding, it is Sennett the writer and sociologist—the gimlet-eyed flâneur—who is most rewarding. Part of the charm of “Building and Dwelling” is its intimacy. While writing it, Sennett suffered a stroke, and his accounts of relearning how to walk straight, or of watching people on Berlin’s Kantstrasse as he supports himself against a wall, give his observations the poignancy of lived experience. There is an extraordinary account of ethnic relations in the Hatton Garden community of London where Sennett lives. After an audacious jewelry heist, he finds the local Hasidic shop owners and their Muslim neighbors being unusually polite to one another—mutual suspicion smoothed over with “superficial civilities.” Sennett is not above the idea of wearing social masks as a means of getting along. “Mixed communities work well,” he writes, “only so long as consciousness of the Other is not foregrounded.”

This points to one of the book’s peculiarities, which is its elision of the political. Sennett is brilliant on cities with established histories but less convincing on more emergent states of urbanity. His encounters with the owner of a market stall in Delhi, who sells him a dud iPhone, and with some streetwise kids in a hillside barrio of Medellín, leave one wondering what the lessons are for the informal cities that are prevalent in parts of South America, Africa, and Asia. The lesson of that barrio in Medellín is not that poor kids develop a sixth sense for the street but that the most impressive building in the city, a public library in the form of a mountain outcrop, was built in the poorest neighborhood, and then connected to the city center by a cable car. These were political acts by a mayor who was trying to redress extreme urban inequality. Similarly, while Sennett rightly bemoans the effects of Corbusian planning—of characterless, instant cities made of identikit towers—he might have cited any number of modernist housing designs in which the cité thrived. In fact, in London, at least, it is only the privatization or demolition of postwar social housing—and not its design—that has forced poorer citizens out of the center and diminished the social commingling that Sennett espouses.

Sennett seems to feel that any overt politics might undermine the neutrality of his sociological observations. In this, he sits somewhat apart from the lineage of writers who have also called for “the open city,” if not exactly in those terms. We might include in that line Henri Lefebvre, whose dictum that the poor have “the right to the city” fizzed with revolutionary zeal. We might also include Marshall Berman, who argued that open public space, where the rich could encounter the poor, offered society the chance to confront its “collective repressions.” Sennett asserts much the same but keeps his leftist credentials in his pocket. Ever the diplomat, he couches his positions in the language of ethics and craft—a mode consistent with this being the final book in his Homo Faber trilogy, which examines man as craftsman. But it may rankle those who feel that stronger medicine is required.

More bracing is the assertion that a healthy city cannot merely be designed; it needs to be enacted by its citizens. The nub of “Building and Dwelling” is that the open city is a demanding place. Anyone who has taken part in community meetings, resident groups, or planning consultations will know that getting people to agree is hard work. And to be a citizen of the open city requires patience and adaptability in the face of the unfamiliar—qualities that Sennett finds embodied in the migrant. One of the book’s final sentences concludes, “The ethical connection between urbanist and urbanite lies in practising a certain kind of modesty: living one among many, engaged in a world that does not mirror oneself.” Typically idealistic, typically urbane, it’s a sentiment that’s well-timed for the disputes of our day.

Justin McGuirk is the chief curator at the Design Museum in London and the author of “Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture.”

Credits:  This article first appeared in 2018 in The New Yorker.


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