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Pearls That Were

Esther Leslie

Three instances of the everyday in art interlaced. Firstly, the everyday as duration to be interrupted, a rebellious approach which develops a critique of everyday life (from Baudelaire to the Surrealists and beyond). Secondly, the evocation of everyday life as exotic in modernist art, combined or not with a political attitude (so to speak, the Flaubertian streak). Thirdly, the everyday - this time the everyday of commerce - smoothly wrapped back into the practices of a once avant-garde that now finds itself strictly establishment (Paul Claudel).

On 24th January 1939 Walter Benjamin wrote a letter to Max Horkheimer. It is a literary round-up, a few snapshots of the current Paris scene, along with considerations on war and fascism in France and Germany. A recurrent theme in this slice-through of Parisian intellectual life is that of betrayal on the part of the bourgeois vanguard and avant-garde alike. Paul Nizan’s book The Conspiracy is discussed at length. Nizan was a friend of Lefebvre and together they had been involved in the ‘Philosophies’ circle in the mid-1920s. The Conspiracy is a story of a coterie of super-intelligent young bourgeois men, attracted to revolutionary thought after the Russian Revolution. They seek the authentic life of risk and reject their philistine families. Treating revolution as posture, they hatch two fatuous conspiracies- one military, one industrial- to try to force the pace of change. Benjamin speaks of how in the 1920s, "when the youth were still carried by a revolutionary wave", Louis Aragon and others approvingly called comrades from the bourgeoisie "traitors". These young men are "traitors" to their class. Nizan’s story, he admits, might be about the Surrealists who also supplemented Rimbaud and Lautremont with Hegel and Marx.

The Conspiracy is a criticism of the dullness of everyday life - voiced by the bourgeois intelligentsia, bourgeois boys with that fatal combination of time to play and an excessive intellect that magnifies social constriction. For meteoric moments their cause is identified with the proletarian cause - but it falls away - says Benjamin - because of their actual isolation from the proletariat. That is an old story. Benjamin had spoken of it before. A radio lecture in 1931 on the Bastille, the French state prison, dramatizes an original bond of political activists and intellectuals making common cause to overturn life as it goes on. The Bastille locked in people who had contravened state security. There were two classes of prisoner held there; those accused of conspiracy and treason, and those more numerous inmates who were writers, engravers, book dealers and binders, all propagators of books that offended the king or his favourites. Peopled by conspirators and seditionaries, and governed by an obfuscatory command-structure, it was no surprise, says Benjamin, that the Bastille prison was rife with rumours. Prisoners disappeared from behind its screened windows as briskly as they had appeared, subject as they were to the whims of the powerful. The storming of the Bastille, home at that moment to just sixteen prisoners, was the first act of destruction in the French Revolution. Evidently released then into the French post-revolutionary cosmos was a tattered band of writers, artists, artisans and conspirators. A low-life bohemia of gossip-mongerers, art-peddlars and revolters dispersed into the air of a new class-rule. Once brothers behind bars, they forged a bond that spawned. For it was from their ranks that the avant-garde was born, as Clement Greenberg noted in ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch’ [1939]. No longer "at home" in the prison, these homeless rebels agitate and aggravate from inside the vaster prison of the bourgeois world; opposed to that world, but inside it, they figure a place apart. They subject everyday life to criticism, and in so doing, invent it as category, at the very moment that they voice their estrangement from it.

This dislodged, disaffected clique thought it could rule through sheer intelligence, yet finds itself superfluous. So they turn their attention from seeking power to tracing everyday life - that is the life of the street, low-life: the catalyst for their creativity. In a 1929 review of books by Pierre MacOrlan, Benjamin detects an intellectual fascination for the milieu of the lumpenproletariat and prostitutes and the like. This began, he says, with Flaubert, emerging of a vague revolutionary hatred of the bourgeoisie and an intensified sense of erotics. From then on a "subterranean communication of the intelligentsia with the yeast of the proletariat" materializes, as the "free" intelligentsia decays. This occurs because the bourgeoisie is no longer strong enough to maintain the luxury of a "classless" intelligentsia who once represented their interests happily and for the long term. The word, avant-garde, drawn from a military or naval context; the avant-guard, the foremost division of an advancing force - crossed over from the military to politics ending up in art, in Paris, by the 1850s, just as Napoleon III elects himself emperor and secures an authoritarian rule with harsh and fleet economic-political change. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and quoted by Benjamin, Marx notes how, in France, from about 1852, with the crushing of the 1848ers’ revolutionary movement now complete, the victorious section of the bourgeoisie, supportive of "a party of order", sought to take its "cause" away from the most articulate artists. They called upon Napoleon III:

to destroy their speaking and writing segment, their politicians and literati, so that they might confidently pursue their private affairs under the protection of a strong and untrammelled government.

Class politics are thrown awry. The bourgeoisie is split. The revolutionary workers’ movement is knocked back. Artists scoot to the margins, representing no one clearly, and certainly not officialdom or an aspiringly heroic class. Marx and Engels write about this clique in 1850, in a review of two books, Chenu’s The Conspirators [Paris 1850], and de la Hodde’s The Birth of the Republic [Paris 1850]. It is a milieu of bohemians; critics, seditionaries, anarchists, putschist types uncomfortable with both the old order and the new as it is turning out. Marx includes amongst these bohemians full-time professional conspirators, and those who are occasional or part-time, reliant on pimping and dealing. For them all, existence is uncertain, chance-filled. Their conspirators’ business consists of jostling on the revolution, launching crises, yanking a revolution from out of thin air without doing the groundwork, so their critics charge. For these "alchemists of the revolution". its only condition is the sufficient organization of their conspiracy. Like alchemists they are fixated, obsessive, and advocate the vaporization of ideas. The conspirators espouse madcap schemes and phony science. Marx and Engels write:

They embrace inventions that are supposed to perform revolutionary miracles: fire bombs, destructive machines with magical effects, riots which are to be the more miraculous and surprising the less rational their foundation is.

Marx and Engels scold these anarchistic spontaneists who deeply despise the everyday theoretical explanations of the workers’ parties, with their laborious assessments of class and economics. Furthermore, they detest the fact that they need to take money from the "habits noirs", the "black coats", "the suits", representatives of the revolutionary party. They are tied to the party, but their revolt hopes to float free of its seemingly sensible mundanity. Such an attitude of ceaseless rebellion, and such a precarious existence, is carried over into the artistic milieu. Art is not so much inspired, as conspired. An avant-garde emerges whose techniques are shaped by the activities of the conspirators with whom they might identify or cavort - trouble-making, 360 degree critique, pranksterism, destructionism, tract and manifesto-issuing, and the like. Common to them all is a critique of everyday life. The everyday must be blast apart. It is not so far from Marx’s view of the everyday. A critical concept of the everyday is present in Marx. In Capital volume 3, Marx fingers what he labels a "religion of everyday life", the zone of the bad common-sensical, the fetishised realm of appearance. In Value, Price and Profit, from 1865, Marx writes similarly: "Scientific truth is always paradox, if judged by everyday experience, which catches only the delusive appearance of things". Also here he characterises existence as a series of everyday struggles, a permanent class war. These everyday struggles are part of the constant encroachment of capital on daily life. That it goes on like this is the catastrophe. The everyday war on workers throws up guerrilla fights, says Marx, articulated more often than not as reformist demands - but such ceaseless skirmishes will never overturn the system that generates the tension in the first place. Nor, however, will conspiracy, confusionism and terrorism.

It is in this atmosphere that the avant-garde first militates; scuttling between factions, susceptible to influences, ideologically wed to no one force, spurning conformity in all its guises, lurching between fantasies of destructive nihilism of what is and its constructive re-ordering of everyday existence. Benjamin notes that for the second time an intellectual front is formed, exhibiting a raw, military discipline. The first had been the front of 1789-1848, a bourgeois class on the offensive, its intellectuals in the front ranks. Marx speaks of this period as one in which "men and things seem set in sparkling brilliants, ecstasy is the everyday spirit" but it is "short-lived" and "a long crapulent depression seizes society". The second front is defensive and the intelligentsia finds no place. It seeks therefore the romanticism of classlessness, of slipping through the ranks, to join the lumpens. They imitate them without being connected to them at all. This, notes Benjamin impatiently, has been going on for fifty years and has led to much confusion. Some hitch their criticism to the fortunes of the revolution. When it goes down, so do they -

This is how Benjamin saw Baudelaire. His existence was akin to that of the conspirators, disaffected, but dependent on money-suppliers, be that those in the market or on the left. Baudelaire, archetypal modern hero, dwells in a scene of extremist politics and rebellious attitudinizing. In the Arcades project, Benjamin notes this:

Professional conspirator and dandy fuse in the figure of the modern hero. This hero imagines himself to contain a quite secret society within his own self.

At home on both sides of barricades, Baudelaire epitomizes what Benjamin terms "the metaphysics of the provocateur". In Belgium Baudelaire was regarded as a French police spy. In France he oscillates between backing the revolution of 1848 and supporting clerical reaction. For Benjamin, Baudelaire is a "secret agent" in another sense. The class’s faultlines run through him, for he is "an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule". For him, the revolt is all, even the revolt against the revolt - hence his swift shifts of allegiance. But what matter that in a situation of such confusion where police spies, as if they truly were the rebels they imitate, fall on the barricades of Paris. And where art for art’s sake, as a "negative theology" of art, develops into the ultimate political gesture. Baudelaire’s artistic attitude hinged on rumour, conspiracy, provoking scandal, and playing with irony and macabre humour - as displayed in the vicious but arch prose poem Let’s Beat Up the Poor [Assommons les Pauvres]. It was, notes Benjamin, just such a milieu that produced Napoleon III, who sustained the techniques of bohemia in his rule of the Second Empire, deploying "surprising proclamations and mystery-mongering, sudden sallies, and impenetrable irony". Avant-garde confusionism matches the impenetrable murk of bourgeois power tactics. Scuppered by the rollback of social revolution, the avant-garde surrenders its palette of advanced techniques to the class that rules over it.

The denouement of Nizan’s Conspiracy plays in the winter of 1931, when one of the characters, the poorest with the least to lose, turns police spy. Benjamin notes that his decision happens at just as the French Communist party is curbed, accused of planning a vast conspiracy to bring down the state. The informer justifies his action of changing sides, because he - and not just he, but his conspiring comrades too - always had to back the winning side and where once Marxism had promised the victory of the proletariat, now it seemed clear that the party of order would win out again. That is the force of history, he says. Its trend cannot be bucked: "the man who wants to trick history is always tricked, nothing can be changed by petty means. Revolution is the opposite of policing." [p235] Nizan knows that economic forces, complexly mediated through history and politics, are more potent than intellectual voluntarism.

Market Surveys

Benjamin outlines how in the period of reaction, the avant-garde gets tangled up in capital’s tendrils. Of the hero of modernity, Baudelaire, flâneur and artist, Benjamin writes: "He parades the concept of purchasability itself". The avant-garde exits from the dim milieu of seedy conspirators. Emerging from the underworld to snoop upstairs, the flâneur seeks the anonymity of the crowd, while longing to stand out. Hence the immersion in everyday life, but simultaneously the desire to explode it. As flâneurs, the intelligentsia, artists and critics, come into the market place. They thought that they came only to observe it - but, in reality, it was, says Benjamin, to find a buyer. Benjamin is explicit: that in the middle of the nineteenth century, as the avant-garde emerges, the conditions of artistic production change. Art is the commodity form that faces a mass market, and like any other commodity, it is in competition with others.

In 1846 Baudelaire had expressed the view that the schools of art and the associations of emancipated workers confound atomisation. Later, though, he had come to the recognition that art too is about commerce, and originality no mark of authentic genius, but of the good scam, the thing that will sell. The artist of modern life is permanently under threat, menaced by market rebuff. The best artists are those who get to know the market and work it to their advantage. Internal competition is stiff. Benjamin notes how art’s commodity nature is heightened by the advent of photography, for photography can pull other objects into the process of circulation, realizing capital from saleable segments of the optic field - and this is most peculiarly demonstrated by art itself as the photographer Disderi gains a state monopoly on all postcard reproductions of things in the Louvre.

And that is why Benjamin concedes that technical and formal progressions may occur in advertising, that "cunning by which the dream forces itself on industry". Preparing to migrate to the frames of pictures hanging in dining rooms, Benjamin tells us, are advertisements for Schnapps, cocoa from van Houten, jams from Amieux. These are dreamlike, fascinating, though not critical. Later, asserts Benjamin, the surrealists simply make this fact of commodity aesthetics explicit - and so revolutionary - when, in their poetry, they treat words like names of firms and their texts are prospectuses for firms that are not yet established. They have absorbed the everyday poetry of commerce into their work - or they have invented commerce as poetry. Either way, a new stuff and market of art opens up.

Which brings us back to Benjamin’s letter to Horkheimer in 1939. The surrealists appear several times in the letter. It is through them that Benjamin introduces his final snapshot of the Paris scene, dedicated to discussion - not of an autonomous literary creation - but a pamphlet for the jeweller’s Cartier, written by the former avant-gardist and now diplomat Paul Claudel. It is Claudel who is mentioned in Nizan’s Conspiracy, when the police informer, in his testament to his former co-conspirers, reels off a list of special writers, a cultural capital that he associated with the truly revolutionary and the truly brilliant; Claudel, Rimbaud, Valery, Proust. [p217]

In the letter Benjamin notes how on 1st July 1925 the surrealists had put out a leaflet called ‘Open Letter to Mr Paul Claudel, ambassador to Japan’. They wrote:

For us there can be no talk of balance or great art. The idea of the beautiful has long gone to roost. Only the moral idea remains incontestable - for example the knowledge that one cannot be French ambassador and a poet at the same time.

This had an echo of Courbet’s "the state is not competent in artistic matters". Benjamin now finds the surrealists vindicated in their attack on this clerical reactionary. The jewellers Cartier have produced a little book called Mystique of Precious Stones, written by Claudel. It is not for sale, but is available at jewellery shops, and it does not seek to educate readers about the mystique of precious stones through history, but rather to be an ambassador for stones in order to sell them. Its language is high-flown, allegorical. And like the patron in old pictures, Cartier appears in the book. Claudel calls him a merchant, such as is praised in the Gospels. He delivers of the sea its mystical fabrication - the pearl. Claudel tells how a poor blind and deaf man finds the pearls by scooping in the depths, in order that he, Claudel, might now hold in his hand this angel-made, holy nothingness. Benjamin is clear - this is where the poetry of advertising language has ended up, in a botched avant-gardism that adds the correct elements up incorrectly. Though the image of the advert-speak betrays a truth: the merchant has his place in the shadow of the gospels – he is the charmed man. The proletariat - blind and dumb from labour - suffers under the curse of work, and finally there is the consumer, the one to whom this new beatitude is directed. Benjamin continues the critique: for the pearl appears as the mystical mustard seed of the Gospel. For Matthew, it is the smallest seed but once grown it outstrips all the others. And yet, what happens to it is child’s play compared to the miraculous deeds of the pearl in economic life. Benjamin quotes Claudel:

The penny has its exchange value, law prescribes it, but justice guarantees it. But the pearl, product of the duration and fruit of the sea, has no other value than its beauty … Its appearance on the market devalues all other goods; it changes their price; it brings disquiet to the banks, it threatens the balance of all transactions. For it carries with it an element that is absent from any number: I am speaking of that spiritual covetousness which comes from contemplation

So speaks a diplomat - also one of the first to order luxury frames from Cartier in the ‘30s, together with Jean Cocteau and Colette. His words are well wrought, embellished enough to glorify the everyday world of commerce. The surrealists meet their shadow. Once the specialism of poetry had been undercut by inventing a lyricism of the everyday through the commodity’s secret tongues. Now the everyday succumbs to the mysterious lure of commerce. The rebellion is done.

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