Saturday, January 9, 2010

Urban Legend

I felt the great power that certain places, certain sights exercised over me, without discovering the principle of this enchantment. Some everyday objects unquestionably contained for me a part of that mystery, plunged me into that mystery. I loved this intoxication which I knew how to put into effect, although ignorant of its causes. . . Slowly, a desire sprang up in me to find out what was the link between all these anonymous pleasures. I felt sure that the essence of such pleasures was entirely metaphysical and involved a sort of passion for revelation with regard to them.

Louis Aragon (1897-1982), along with Philippe Soupault and André Breton, was one of the founders of Surrealism, which evolved out of their involvement with Dadaism. Surrealism, as outlined in Breton's Manifesto of 1924, can be best summed up by a simple phrase: There is a man cut in two by the window. As Breton explained it, Surrealism is the arrangement of two distinct realities fused together in an uncanny union. As such, the artist must recognize the value of the ordinary and everyday, but must also interpret them with the full range of their imagination pursuant to the Hegelian Dialectic, which lays out three stages of development. The first is thesis, an idea that must be reacted to; the second is antithesis, which is the reaction's negation of the thesis; and the third is the resolution of the conflict by means of synthesis.

(Hegel himself, however, actually ascribed that model to Kant and preferred the formula "Abstract-Negative-Concrete," which suggests that the initial thesis may be flawed in both its abstract ambiguity and its lack of the negative controls of trial, error, and experience.)

Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant (Le Paysan de Paris, 1926) is, first and foremost, its author's attempt "to use the accepted novel-form as the basis for the production of a new kind of novel that would break all traditional rules governing the writing of fiction, one that would be neither a narrative (story) nor a character study (a portrait), a novel that the critics would be obliged to approach empty-handed . . . because in this instance the rules of the game would all have been swept aside." My original intent, Aragon would go on to say some forty years later, was to reverse the process of myth → romance that occurs when people have lost faith in the myth. Paris Peasant was to be a novel (roman) that would read as a mythology of the modern. "Then, without feeling reluctant any longer, I set about discovering the face of the infinite beneath the concrete forms which were escorting me, walking the length of the earth's avenues" (from page 115 of Paris Peasant). Tired of resorting to abstract fancies to understand the world, Aragon has resolved to trust in the imaginative arrangement of his immediate sensory input. In his original introduction he argues that,
Humanity's stupid rationalism contains an unimaginably large element of materialism. This fear of error which everything recalls to me at every moment of the flight of my ideas, this mania for control, makes man prefer reason's imagination to the imagination of the senses. And yet it is always the imagination alone which is at work. Nothing, neither strict logic nor overwhelming impression, can convince me about reality, can convince me that I am not basing reality on a delirium of interpretation. But in the case of the senses, man, after absorbing the teachings of various traditional schools, has begun to have doubts about himself; one can imagine by what play of mirrors this has been at the expense of the opposite thought process, reasoning. And here we have man a prey to a mathematics. In trying to free himself of matter he has become the prisoner of the properties of matter.
In a nutshell: Aragon has taken two disparate spheres - that of the real world, as revealed through his senses, and that of the imagination - and now seeks to elucidate his vision of a city whose people and passages conceal a rich subconscious that can be glimpsed only by the most open-minded viewer.

For his observations, Aragon chose the Passage de l'Opéra, a narrow corridor scheduled to be demolished in the near future so that a new accessway could be built to the Boulevard Haussmann. It is not the Paris that tourists visit: it is a shaded, winding pathway lined by dilapidated storefronts, questionable hotels, brothels, and restaurants of varying quality. "The whole fauna of human fantasies," says Aragon, "their marine vegetation, drifts and luxuriates in the dimly lit zones of human activity, as though plaiting thick tresses of darkness." Aragon perceives a siren in the window of a cane shop, floating among the artfully-displayed merchandise. He arrives at a women's salon and goes off on a rambling rhapsody on the beauty of blond hair, likening it to every lovely object he can think of, and then contemplates the history of hairdressing from its sensual beginnings to the cold, modern efficiency that characterizes it at present. The male customers, Aragon perceives, are all "pierced by a single mystery" and patronize the salon "to acquire the ingredients for their innate sense of illusion." He arrives at a bathhouse and ruminates on the power of public prurience, linking it to society's "taste for confusion" that tends to divert a given object from its original usage and attach to it all sorts of wild speculations. And then there is the common burlesque house, which is actually the ultimate in art, thanks to its strict appeal to the senses.

In his internal transformation of urban spaces, Aragon sees himself as reinventing the idea of the myth. All myths are created out of nature, which Aragon believes is "essentially metaphysical." In the modern world, however, nature can no longer be thought of as simply all that humans did not create and which possesses a divinity and beauty which human creation can never have. The new myths draw their inspiration from the same source: the external world, which Aragon views as "a single construct representing the limit of my mind . . . which enters my consciousness gradually and intermittently." That "sense of nature" people speak of is really a sense of their surrounding environment in general, similar to the conscious mind's sense of its own unconscious from which it arises, not unlike how myth arises from aspects of reality.

In other words, nature - defined as the entire external world, both untouched and artificial - is a collective unconsciousness. Whereas traditional religion demanded a meditative and introspective mood out of sync with the quickly-changing spirit of modern life, Aragon posits that humans now worship speed, as seen in the new cult of the automobile. As civilization increasingly urbanizes, it is only logical to assume that the new "gods" of the future may well be those forces humans have amazed themselves by taming and have then grown dependent upon. It is the machine, after all, that shapes modern life, while the city is where modern life takes place.

That's really only a slice of what Aragon was trying to do with Paris Peasant, which is best defined as a memoir/philosophical treatise (although Aragon hated philosophers). Unfortunately, unlike his contemporary Soupault's Last Nights of Paris, also written in the Surrealist vein, Paris Peasant is not an accessible work. My knowledge of Hegel and Surrealism is pretty shallow, and there were several passages that just went over my head. Aragon's frequently convoluted style didn't exactly help either. I was also in somewhat of a hurry to finish, however, and I think this book could definitely benefit from a more careful re-reading.

I was further bothered by Aragon's arrogance. For example, he was amused by the residents and business owners of the Passage de l'Opéra being upset by his depiction of the area (Paris Peasant was originally serialized in a newspaper edited by Philippe Soupault - unfortunately, I was unable to find any further information about that on the Internet and my edition's introduction is very scant), especially since it came at such a sensitive, difficult time for them. What he intended as irony, they were insulted by, though not that he seems to care, since he also shares in that stereotypical avant-garde hatred of bourgeoisie life. He is also thoroughly convinced of the truthfulness of his worldview and explicitly states, within the last several pages, that he denies anyone the right to legitimately criticize his work. Overall, Louis Aragon strikes me as kind of a jerk.

Paris Peasant does have its moments of brilliance, in both the ideas it presents and the language it uses to present them. It is also difficult and slow-moving and requires a strong background in philosophy and Modernist thought which the average reader is not going to have. I would recommend it to anyone willing to ponder some hefty concepts but this is definitely not the book for everyone.


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