My big, big hope was that of finding documents on rural wages from some of the landed estates of pre-socialist Romania. I wasn’t lucky, of course: somehow you never find what you’re looking for. Instead of the much-needed accounts, there were just few family letters; written in French, coming from one of the big landowning families of the fin-de-siècle, the Furnarakis. Despite my better self, I did have a mild archival kick: putting aside my aversion to old-documents fetishism, I was fascinated by how most personal letters from the period were written in small, postcard format; something I had no clue about. The letters themselves, however, were hardly exciting or revealing in any way: just a handful of lives spent between Paris and some destitute muddy Moldavia. Somehow, from Bahia/Brazil to Bacău/Romania, the cosmopolitan rural elites of the fin-de-siècle seemed the same, experiencing the same unrecognized social dissonance: feeling comfortable both in Jardin du Luxembourg as in the poverty-stricken areas at home, dealing with this transition in the most matter-of-factly ways possible.
Socialist ravings aside, what I found essential, however, was this beautiful minimalist description of a Paris trip. It’s written by a family friend, Alexandre Pisosky [i.e. Alexandru Pisoschi], whose estates were in the same impoverished region of Moldavia. It is a curt blasé sentence, almost jaded in its phrasing, and probably unimportant. Its weariness, however, its emotional fatigue, seems to epitomize that era: “I was in Paris these last days, one of my cousins brought me there. I somewhat mildly enjoyed it [Je m’y suis médiocrement amusé.]”
Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), dir. Robert Bresson.
At the Existentialist Café (2016), by Sarah Bakewell.
I won’t say too much about Bresson’s movie, its simplicity, spirituality, etc, etc. I don’t want to repeat the plethora of epithets bestowed upon the poor guy from Bazin to Paul Schrader (although I should mention Susan Sontag’s piece about him which, despite its occasional didacticism, is such a beautiful text.)
As I was watching it, however, I couldn’t help but recognize something I’d have thought buried in the 1940s-1950s; something which seemed totally outlandish, outside any present references, an echo of some distant past, of some cultural Middle Ages: French existentialism. It’s true, the cinematography had nothing to do with any passionate discussions about political engagement, personne, absurd, the Slansky trials, Indochina. The camera’s strict movements, its careful tailing of the character’s inner monologue, its sense of transparency were from another movie, borrowed from a different aesthetics: some sort of “écriture blanche, exemptée de tout théâtre littéraire” as another French put it. But it was impossible not to recognize the postwar French atmosphere, traces of phenomenology and existentialism, Mounier, Merleau-Ponty, Gabriel Marcel. The character’s attempts to refashion the objects of his cell into instruments of freedom; the obsessive attention to the materiality of things; or the Biblical idea of free-will as a “wild wind”, totally indeterminate; all these smacked of smoked-filled cafes and postwar contentions about the Resistance.
And yet, while Bresson is still a part of our intellectual vocabulary, this cultural context of his has totally disappeared, muffled by common-places about tormented existentialists smoking in dim-lit cafes. Or take for instance Andre Bazin, whose writings spring more from Les Temps Modernes and Esprit rather than anything else. One cannot help but see in “la politiquedesAuteurs” the same intellectual impulse laying behind Sartre’s books on Baudelaire or Flaubert. Our way of thinking about film, from the centrality of the director to phenomelogical obsessions about the moving image, is somewhat the direct heir of this postwar era.
One cannot deny, however, the shaky instability of this 1940s intellectual style : it only took a few years, after all, to be displaced by the post-1956 generation, from Levi-Strauss to Foucault. Even historians, famous for rummaging in all sorts of things, are shying away from it: the intellectual history of the 1940s-1950s is now much more focused on the complex intellectual legacies of Bachelard or Canguilhem. Something more interesting, I admit. Although it is important to recognize that the history of French Theory (in the Anglo-Saxon academia) is also the history of this awkward disappearance, of how easily we forgot the highfalutin language of the 1940s-1950s.
I am not the one to miss or mourn its passing. I was just suddenly surprised by its awkward cinematic appearance, with such full force, and by my inability (or unwillingness) to recognize it. Existentialism appears, after all, so much soaked in teenagerish sensibility that you forget how the elegant simplicity of Bresson is actually connected to it. Just as much as you forget how many political debates of the postwar period, from Indochina to the post-1944 rationing discussion, were carried in its strange language. Even after reading the nice endearing book by Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café, which received so much notice lately, I could hardly identify with its nostalgic outlook: the spectre of emo-ness seemed probably too powerful. If anything, what remains dear to me about those years is the carnavalesque description from Boris Vian’s L′Écume des Jours: with a Jean Sol-Partre arriving on an elephant at the lecture hall, causing a fury of engagement.
There is, however, a particular aspect which remains fascinatingly present: the issue of deprivation and scarcity. In Bresson’s movie, Fontaine, the main character, is forced to make out the few objects of his cell instruments of escape: his spoon, the arm of his lamp, the cords beneath his mattress, a handkerchief. Projected against the general deprivation of prison life, of an almost empty cell, each object receives an incredible presence, a powerful light, like in those minute phenomelogical description of Merleau-Ponty. In a way, it’s not just the Germans that Fontaine has to fear, but the lack of any resources that might help him flee. And while this might be a movie about freedom, it’s also a movie about the scarcity which needs to be overcome to reach that freedom. The same deprivation is present in Pickpocket, or in Journal d’un Curé …. And even in Vian’s novel, regardless of its baroque surrealist imagery, the general atmosphere is that of scarcity, of lack, of dire deprivation, of mouldy ruined homes, of poverty hiding behind the corner: people snowed-in by debts, taxmen shooting at those unable to pay their taxes, the endemic want of money, the rotting atmosphere of disease and the dearth of resources for fighting it. While in Sartre’s work of the same years, scarcity is the main character, the source of alienation and of historical struggle.
Some of this period’s main traits, including the phenomenological attention paid to objects and every-day life, seem to be an extended discussion about scarcity and deprivation. After all, this was a period when bread rationing was still in place, when “bread marches” where organized, when price controls affected the distribution of staple foods, and the black market for main products was a gigantic political issue. In places like Dijon, in 1947, the Economic Control Board was invaded by the rioting population, asking for more food, while by the end of the same year a gigantic wave of strikes was followed by numerous urban riots. Even after 1949, when these issues gradually disappeared, it was not hard to understand the centrality of scarcity for a generation which had witnessed the economic deprivation of the war and the immediate post-war years. In Bresson, in Vian, want and lack are somehow always there, lurking in the background, leading to death or escape.
Nothing could be more different that the intellectual debates of the 1960s-1970s, where the main problem seems to be that of affluence, of finding ways to manage over-abundance: the challenges of material and symbolic excess. French intellectuals seemed to be concerned with the alleged surpassing of scarcity (société d’abondance, sociétéde consummation, etc, etc), the embourgeoisement of the working class, the challenge this poses for progressive politics once the revolutionary subject is not that angry anymore and has a TV or a frigo. Even more annoyingly, there’s a continuous focus on the affluence of symbolic resources confronting the modern subject. The French intellectual scene is obsessed with the wild, abundant proliferation of discourses and ideologies; from the “society of spectacle” to structuralist/post-structuralist debates about the labyrinth of signs, Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, etc. Somehow, it is the management of an over-abundance of material and symbolic resources which becomes the main problem in the 1960s-1970s: a topic successfully imported in the US through French Theory.
And you cannot help thinking that maybe this wasn’t at all fun, true or interesting.