"Et, lorsque Nana levait les bras, on apercevait, aux feux de la rampe, les poils d’or de ses aisselles."
Nana attaching itself by a hundred strings to a prearranged table of kinships, heredities, transmissions, is the vast crowded epos of the daughter of the people filled with poisoned blood and sacrificed as well as sacrificing on the altar of luxury and lust; the panorama of such a “progress’ as Hogarth would more definitely have named – the progress across the high plateau of pleasure and down the facile descent on the other side.” – Henry James.
Offenbach’s career is neatly divided by 1870. In that year, he had to disappear from France for a while, since he was originally from Germany. The collapse of Napoleon III’s court, and the Second Empire, and the commune, and the establishment of the third republic created, at least for a while, a puritanical atmosphere in which Offenbach’s operas were looked upon as symptoms of decay, if not causative agents in themselves. And of course there was the matter of Offenbach’s connections in the imperial entourage.
Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels not only portray the corruption working through the genealogical tree of one family, but – by implication – the corruption that, on a macro level, brought about Le Debacle – France’s defeat at the hands of a surging Germany. On last page of Nana, in which Zola puts an end to her with that favorite of sentimental novelists, the unmentionable disease, one hears, in the streets, the stir and celebration of the crowds, receiving the news that war has been declared. Madness mirrors madness.
“A red crust, parting from the cheek, invaded the mouth, spread in an abominable smile. And on that horrible and grotesque mask of nothingness, the hair, the beautiful hair, guarding its solar like flames, flowed in a stream of gold. Venus decomposed. It seems that the virus she caught in the sewer, on all those tolerated corpses, this ferment by which she had empoisoned a whole people, had mounted to her face and utterly corrupted it.
The room was empty. A great desperate wind came up from the boulevard and swelled the curtain.
- To Berlin! To Berlin!”
Momento Mori and all that – death being the moralist’s great hat trick.
This, then, is Zola’s judgment on the subversive content of Offenbach’s operas – for subversion buttressed the order by creating a space in which all that was solid melted into money, and money became both a value and the mocker of all value.
Es gab alles, alles! Das hinderte nicht, daß sich die meisten wie Sarcey durch die Operette in ein Traumreich entführt glaubten. Sie träumten selber. Wären sie wach gewesen, so hätten sie (…) die unwahrscheinliche Wirklichkeit ihres Daseins wiedererkannt. – Kracauer
“It had everything, everything! But that didn’t get in the way of the fact that most, like Sarcey [a critic] felt themselves enticed by the operetta into a dreamland. They dreamed themselves. If they had been awake, they would have recognized… the improbably reality of their own existences.”
In European history, there were three occasions, that I can think of, in which the theater really played an important political role: The Marriage of Figaro, The Three Penny Opera, and the two mytho-farces of Offenbach, Orpheus in Hell and Beautiful Helen. In all three instances, a society went to see itself unmasked – and found the spectacle terribly funny. One of the inspirations for Canetti’s Crowds and Power was the opening night of the Three Penny Opera:
“It was the exactest expression of this Berlin. The people were howling up themselves, this was what they were and they were happy about it. Erst kam ihr Fressen, dann kam ihre Moral – nobody could have said it any better, they took it literally… Against the sweet forms of the Viennese operetta, in which the people could calmly find everything that they wished, here was another, which put on a Berliner form, with all its hardness, rascality and banal justifications, that they wanted no less than, and probably more than that sweetness.”
The dreamworlds in which the dreamers become aware of what they are wishing for batter against the constitutive principle of dreaming, at least according to Freudian theory. The dream takes its form from condensation, from the active intervention of the censor on the wish and that glitch in the libido's program: it can't say no. Dreams, in other words, require a latent content, an opacity. This is how the human dreamer humanly dreams. Otherwise, we get … animals. And the movement is, indeed, to the animal here, at least with Zola and Canetti.
That there is censorship outside of dreams, in the state or the corporation, is an important social evidence for the felt notion that art can be subversive in some manner – can corrupt morals or overthrow institutions. But this social evidence is, LI would contend, about the whole art system – no one work operates to subvert faith in the state, the gods, or money. So that rare moment when one work seems to have gathered into itself, by some genius, a real look at ‘what we are and why we are well pleased with ourselves’ – those are definitely worth looking at. Especially as their prestige has been lent, by a multitude of critics, to the drabbest and most commonplace of movies, books, paintings and novels.
Well, let’s end this with the beginning from Nana. Zola obviously bases Nana’s first appearance as Venus on Offenbach’s La Belle Helene. Here’s one translation:
“The traditional three knocks were given, and among the returning throng, attendants, laden with pelisses and overcoats, bustled about at a great rate in order to put away people’s things. The clappers applauded the scenery, which represented a grotto on Mount Etna, hollowed out in a silver mine and with sides glittering like new money. In the background Vulcan’s forge glowed like a setting star. Diana, since the second act, had come to a good understanding with the god, who was to pretend that he was on a journey, so as to leave the way clear for Venus and Mars. Then scarcely was Diana alone than Venus made her appearance. A shiver of delight ran round the house. Nana was nude. With quiet audacity she appeared in her nakedness, certain of the sovereign power of her flesh. Some gauze enveloped her, but her rounded shoulders, her Amazonian bosom, her wide hips, which swayed to and fro voluptuously, her whole body, in fact, could be divined, nay discerned, in all its foamlike whiteness of tint beneath the slight fabric she wore. It was Venus rising from the waves with no veil save her tresses. And when Nana lifted her arms the golden hairs in her armpits were observable in the glare of the footlights.”
It is rather funny that even now the translation above, on an etext server in Australia, is censored. After the Amazonian bosom Zola writes: “sa gorge d’amazone dont les pointes roses se tenaient levées et rigides comme des lances” – but the nipple talk was all too much for the English translators all the way up to the sixties. To LI, however, the most important part of this description is the golden hairs of the armpits. Which I will return to, I hope.
Oh, and do go to the Mery Laurent page where I stole my photograph of la belle Helene.