la vie francaise

"The periodical press has been, as is its nature to be, only an instrument of disorder and sedition. . . . The press has thus disseminated disorder into the most upright minds, shaken the firmest convictions, and produced in the midst of society, a confusion of principles that yields to the most sinister attempts. Thus by anarchy of doctrines, it prepares anarchy in the state." – Report to the King, July 25, 1830, from Spectacular Realities : Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris by Vanessa Schwartz..

The story in Bel Ami is pretty simple. It is another story about a man rising to social success using the instruments of capitalism. This story, in an English novel, would be about the ‘natural’ rise of this man, through either a death (an inheritance) or sex (a marriage). In France, death and sex are wrenched from their natural poles – they are manipulated in one way or another. The English illusion that the peculiar stratifications of class respond to a natural order is, in France, a form of nostalgia for an époque when that was true. This is not to say that the rentier has no place in French literature. However, the great French novelists do not take a ceremonial authorial attitude towards the rentier, as the English novelists do. If I were to go about this in a Hegelian way, I’d probably posit Henry James’ work as the great synthesis of the two attitudes…

But I digress. In Bel Ami, an ex colonial soldier named Georges Duroy rises through the ranks of a newspaper, La Vie Francaise, on the way to becoming the tres rich husband of Suzanne Walter, the boss’ daughter. Duroy’s rise as a journalist is remarkable insofar as Maupassant portrays him as barely literate. But it turns out that, just as today, with its Novaks and Barnes and TV pundits, illiteracy is no bar to the ambitious man who doesn’t mind having his articles ghostwritten for him, and who realizes that the power of the pen is virtual – the menace disguised in the ability to disseminate “news,” - rather than actual, the virtuosity of the exercise. To the right character, a vista of profitable entries unscrolls before the rolling eye. That journalism is related, on the one side, to literature, and on the other side, to blackmail, has been abundantly revealed by the Plame scandal, even as it is unconsciously sensed by your average householder.

It isn’t only Duroy who uses his blackmailing propensities to get ahead: the owner of La Vie Francaise has set himself up in order to tout certain speculations and dowse others. The growth of news gathering around this central premise is a happy accident.

As the quote at the head of this post indicates, the very idea of a free press was a liberal idea in the nineteenth century. Bel-Ami was published in 1885, four years after the press laws were radically liberalized, allowing the “penny press.” The association between liberalism and the press was forged in the same process that brought about the extension of suffrage, the growth of unions, and the basic plan of what we’ve grown used to as the liberal state. This, of course, includes growth in the state’s military. Duroy’s original entry into LVF stems from his having served in Algeria. The imperialist effect appears at this moment, and not by some coincidence. Comically, the account of his adventures in Algeria is put together by Madame Forestier. After the party at which Duroy’sa stories about Algeria had attracted the attention of the proprietor of LVF, “M. Walter, Deputy, Financier, a man of money and affairs, a Jew from Southern France,” Duroy spends days trying to write an account of his experience – all in vain. He takes the task to be the same as the writing of an exposition in high school. It isn’t, of course. As Maupassant realized, the narrative of the news story calls upon the same narrative intelligence that flows into novels.

Duroy’s real talent is the manipulation of his dick. While Maupassant doesn’t go into the apocalyptic bedroom details, Duroy’s travels from the bed of one rich woman to another is carried on at the same time that he is wrestling with the finer points of journalistic ethics. Eventually, the two story lines converge in Duroy’s marriage to the attractive, mysterious Madam Forestier.

Monsieur Forestier is the editor of La Vie Francaise, and Duroy is inducted into the service of the newspaper by the whim of Forestier inviting him to the party at which he met the publisher. This is another modern note – for haven’t we seen editors and publishers lavish their care on some of the more dubious specimens of the newsgathering trade, recently? In Judy Miller’s case, there is even a slight scent of the boudoir that follows her from story to story – much as in the case of Duroy.

LI has, of course, been having some fun playing with parallels. But, more seriously, the existence of both the fictional LVF and the more factual NYT and WAPO both depends, essentially, on a particular act of consumption: being read. So if we take Singh, et al.’s nodes seriously, we should be looking at hierarchies of readership. Singh thinks of these as marketing relationships. I like the idea that these are reading constituencies. Still, what we have with the LVF, as with any newspaper, is:
1. The readership who subscribe to or buy the paper.
2. Institutional agencies that act as "guardians" of the marketplace, or censors.
3. Advertisers and others with financial stake in the paper.
4. And finally, the “noncommercial intermediaries that act as independent gatekeepers” – these are the readers of power, so to speak. The operate both as the subset of the readers (1) and as the readers to whom the papers producers go before the news appears. In terms of court societies, such as D.C., readers 4 become enmeshed in the news in a peculiar way, one which separates the image of the newspaper from its reality more and more as the newspaper becomes more and more powerful.

The ghost of these readers haunts every news story. One of the things Maupassant saw very well is that the act of writing is not, in the newspaper, independent of the readership constituencies. This is not the worry about whether a particular piece would sell or not. That worry is but one of a set. Right at the root of writing is a grand division of the seemingly indivisible writer – the text that eventually appears, with his byline, its production, its processing through the editorial system, its placement on the page, and the feedback it gets are all parts of a system that displaces the writer from the defining act – the writer is the one who writes – and turns it into another act – the writer is the one who ends up with the byline. This radically subverts the image of the writer as the hermit of the highest form of art. Maupassant knew all about that hermit – after all, he was related to Flaubert and an intimate of his circle.

That the news is, actually, an act of belief rather than of fact – “newness” being a judgment rather than an observation – disseminated by writers who aren’t writers makes the press a very strange locus of anxieties about what is and what isn’t authentic in liberal culture. Even odder, though, is the fact that freedom of the press, which emerges as part of the liberal program, so quickly develops tools that are seized by the right. In fact, the radical right in the twentieth century habitually used the media to achieve political goals, while the “liberal” media has been driven, in its quest for authenticity, to deny its essential liberalism.


Paul craddick said…

Good post - and it was a nice touch to have the image at the top.

As to your observation that "the very idea of a free press was a liberal idea in the nineteenth century" - at least in part for that reason, Nietzsche had a very low opinion of newspapers. As Zarathustra would have it, "they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper."
roger said…
Paul, Zarathustra was just jealous. He didn't get the op ed position at the Zauberberg Zeitung that went to Mauricius Dowdmann.

Yeah, I've decided to get with the kewl krowd and put in more images. The wave of the future, man!