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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, February 18, 2011

the outside and the inside of a hat: the decline of aura

So much depends upon the hat…

When Raphael is explaining the prison of debt into which he is forced in order to court Foedora, he speaks of a spectre that haunts him: “In the midst of poetry, in the midst of an idea, or at dinner, surrounded by friends, with happiness, with sweet raillery, I see enter the room a man in a chestnut colored suit, holding in his hands a dilapidated hat (un chapeau râpé). That man will be my debt, my letter of credit, a specter who will wilt my joy, who will force me to quit the table to speak to him…”

It is the dilapidated hat in the hand of the specter, in the hand of debt itself, Raphaël’s double – for the man is the spirit of Raphaël’s signature on the letter of credit – of which I’d like to speak. If a hat, in the Freudian dream language, is an augur of castration, what further effect is put into play by the delapidation of the hat?

Balzac has already alerted us, at the very beginning of Peau de Chagrin, that much will depend on the hat. In the first sequence in the book, as we follow Raphael’s trajectory through Paris, we find him going into a casino – at which point the authorial voice bursts out with the following commentary:

When you enter into a house of games, the law begins by despoiling you of your hat. Is this an evangelic and providential parable! Isn’t it rather a manner of concluding an infernal contract, with you in demanding I don’t know what stake? Is it to require you to keep a respectable attitude before those who are going to win your money? Do the police infiltrated into these social sewers insist on knowing the name of your hatmaker, or of yours, if you have inscribed it on the interior band? Is it at last in order to take the measure of your skull and construct an instructive statistical table on the cerebral capacity of gamers? On this point, the administration keeps a complete silence. But know well, hardly have you made a step onto the green carpet than you no longer belong to yourself .”

Balzac is capable of outbursts that predict all the styles to come – here, surely, we have the style of Melville, a sort of opium dream decoding of the fate of the world, as written in the language of the world’s little accessories. It is this warning that we should remember when reading of another night’s wanderings – the night in which Raphael, plucked of all his money and still unable to move the heart of Foedora, finds himself staring at his hat as the rain stops on a Paris street.

“And I always loved, loved that cold woman whose heart wanted every second to be conquered and who, in always effacing the promises of the previous day, the next day made herself into a new mistress. In turning under the grill of the Institute, a feverish movement held me in its grasp. I remembered that I hadn’t eaten. I didn’t possess a cent. And to top it all off, the rain had deformed my hat. How to approach, thenceforward, an elegant woman and present myself in her salon without a satisfactory hat? Thanks to my extreme care, even as I cursed the stupid and ignorant fashion for exhibiting the inside of our hats while keeping them constantly in our hands, I had up to that moment maintained mine in a doubtful state. Without being curiously new or dryly old, denuded of pelt or very silky, it could pass for the problematic hat of a careful man – but its artificial existence had arrived at its last gasp: it was wounded, dejected, over with, a true rag, worthy representative of its master.”
Raphael’s hat is, of course, ruined for show. And yet, what is this ruin? It is a question not just of keeping the hat new looking, but keeping this particular thing – a hat, a thing that protects the head from, among other things, rain and mud – in a doubtful state of care, which is exhibited by the inside of the hat – the coiffe, the band. Where, remember, the police might look for the name of the owner.
The outside and inside of Raphaël’s hat is a model of something uncanny inside use value – inside the artificial existence of the commodity.
While the state of the hat is a variable within the grammar of fashion circa 1830 that has gone out of fashion, one can easily find equivalents for the outside and inside of the hat today – for instance, in that perpetually doubtful thing, a pair of blue jeans.

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