Saturday, January 12, 2019

Cocteau, fast motion film, and Ce Soir

I have a passion for old newspapers, which is one of the reasons I love the internet. You can find old newspapers all over the internet. It is as if all the old birdcages have shed their papers, for here is the news from London in 1778 to Paris in 1947. No longer does one need to get up, go down to the library, and search out the musty, lumbering volumes in the periodicals section, where the old paper dies a little every day. The internet is to the periodicals section as the book of forensic photographs is to the morgue: the bodies are in the latter, but the former captures their looks in their last agony.
What I especially like are the legendary papers: among which surely counts Ce Soir. It was set up with Louis Aragon as its editor in the mid 30s. It was supposed to be a communist paper, but it was as communist as Louis Aragon – which is to say that it would mouth communist verities, but its heart was in the intersection between the sensational and the glamorous. Full of great and gory murders, starlets running off with tycoons, and foreign correspondents reporting from distant battlefields, with the print flowing around big bold photographs, the newspaper looked exciting – an art lost in our time, with the bland layouts of all the serious papers. Even the tabloids don’t quite have that Weegeeish look.  Aragon had certain of his buddies write for the rag: for instance, Jean Renoir, the great director, who had a regular column. Jean Cocteau also had a column. I came across one of Cocteau’s pieces, The Branch of the Orange Tree, and looked around to see if it had been translated. It should have been. A short piece – this was after all a newspaper – it read like a premonition for his Orpheus film. Yet I couldn’t find the translation, so I thought: I’ll do it. Why not?
The Orange Tree Branch
Since the existence of time-lapse documentary films (films of the lives of plants), it is impossible to walk in a garden without an uneasy feeling, or to lean over the flowers with the soul of a young girl. Nothing is crueler than the plant world, or more erotic. A German film, which was banned by the French censors (certain passages in the film recall those movies that they show in Marseilles in certain seedy venues) denounces the horrifying habits, the mad mecanisms of a realm that man had previously believed to be immobile and uniquely preoccupied with pleasing us. The science and patience of the makers of the film, which let a plant live in its own rhythm and then brought it up to ours by accelerating it, proves just how unconscious man is.

The results of their espionage work would astonish the romanticism that sings “phlegm”, the haughty attitude of nature and would furnish new bases for its inspiration. For it is not only an affair of a difference of rhythm, speed, “tempo”. The secret has been well guarded. Thanks to the extraordinary slowness of the gestures of a tree in comparison to ours, a park could lead a ferocious life under our eyes, a curate’s garden could make love, do its make up and its murders without anyone having a clue.
In fact, no witch’s sabbat equals what happens in these gardens where the vegetation overlaps. A prodigious erotic activity directs the flows of life and the explosive pollen. The stems curl, the petals grimace, roll out and in, the leaves contract and the scents, the nuances that transport beautiful dreamers appear to us suddenly like the violent signs of an erotic fever.

At Promousquier where I live, I see outside my window, on the little terrassed plot that juts out over the sea, three orange trees. These are old acquaintances. After eighteen years (I think of them and ask myself – are they still living) I always come back to them with emotion. They were in their pots and now they have been planted in the earth, in the same place.
These wild oranges have little by little ceased to be wild. They’ve been domesticated. Certainly the oranges they bear are bitter, but the flowers emit a powerful scent. Not having to defend themselves against mouths and muzzles, the branches only grow rare and short thorns. Certain branches are defiant, but the majority have renounced these habits.
 And now, now the films that I mentioned have put us on guard and made us look at bushes in another way concerning a strange detail which teaches us something about the intelligence of the vegetable kingdom. Not that we have to suppose that the plants are geniuses because they astonish us with their obscure mecanisms. I will continue to be very simple about this. A palm tree keeps the sunlight off one of my little orange bushes. Alas! I pruned back the palm tree too late. The branch died. But hardly did it feel itself in danger when it “defended itself with all its forces”, silently, blindly. For, alone of all the branches of this orange tree, this branch boasted thorns as long as my finger. Thus, it told me of its struggle. I leave to the readers, to those who love trees, and who are intrigued by nature, this mysterious witness of a struggle against the unknown. A bitter, solitary fight, which recalls Daudet’s story of the fight between M. Seguin’s goat and the wolf.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Zarquawi effect in France

In the movie Vice, which I saw this Christmas and heartily recommend, there is a sequence on how Zarquawi, an Iraqi thug who called himself al qaeda's representative to Iraq, went from being a small time delusional to being a major player in the creation of Islamicist paramilitaries by way of D.C.'s intentionally aggrandizing view of him (with the purpose of linking Saddam H. to Osama bin Laden) in 2003. By making him seem much more important than he was - I mean, this is Washington D.C. making you a supervillain! - he attracted thousands who figured, if it pisses off the Americans, it must be good. As Vice shows, this tactical move in the propaganda war to get the American public to accept an unnecessary and stupid invasion bore terrible fruit - among them, ISIS.
It is interesting that the Macron government is playing the Zarquawi card with the Gilets Jaunes. From the beginning, instead of treating these people as citizens with complaints - which are supported, incidentally by about twice as many French people as support Macron, 55-60 percent vs. 23-28 percent - the government treated them as hooligans. As it amped up the hooligan image, and as the compliant press, lorded over by corporate heads who benefit massively from Macron's tax cuts, conveyed the government's rhetoric, there arose a considerable cohort of real casseurs. They came to the call. Now, of course, having tried to cast the GJ as hooligans, the Zarquawi effect is in stage 3: using the violence the government provoked to legitimate clampdowns on opposition to the government. As a bloomsburg article today shows the laws being proposed by Edouard Phillipe to allow the government to patrol, control, and surveille the opposition are harsher than those imposed by the Putin government in Russia. Particularly beautiful is the law against covering your face. For really, if the gendarme lob tear gas at you and you cover your face, you are violating your duty to endure pain for the state, citoyen!
I don't think this will end well.

Sunday, January 06, 2019


The ancient Greeks, those great nomenclaturists, had a word for the tale in which the hero came home after many adventures: nostos. There’s a very fine essay by Anna Bonifazi in the American Journal of Philology, Winter, 2009 – your fave journal, reader, and mine too – that explores the way this word played out in Greek literary culture.

“From the literary point of view, a nostos tale basically concerns a sea voyage, including a storm that causes a shipwreck, a landing in an unforeseen place, and the survival of the one who experiences all this. Even before the Odyssey narrative was conceived, nostos tales and Odysseus' nostos tales were presumably widespread.”

Our return to Atlanta did not, thank God, include shipwreck or the culling of our crew by one-eyed giants. But as in any return home, journey’s end puts in question the identity of the endpoint – of “home”. In fact, my relation to Atlanta – or more properly, the Atlanta metropolitan area – is not that of a native. I wasn’t born there. I was raised there. On the other hand, my mother, father, and father’s parents have all died there – it is the country of all my significant ghosts. It is where my brothers and one sister live. It is the place I left, when I was eighteen, and have come back to for variable stays, but always with the plan to depart. And maybe, maybe that really is home – it is where one plots one’s departure from. Odysseus did not want to leave Ithaca – he pretended to be mad, when the proposition was put to him that he should join the insane Greek expedition to return Menelaus’s wife to him by main force, but was found out and forced to go along. Yet when he returns, and rejoins his wife Penelope (“journeys end in lovers’ meetings”), he sets off again on a journey whose purpose is only to fulfill an oracle.

Atlanta, I think, is actually a very fine place to call home. When I was a disconsolate adolescent – moaning for arty circles and bohemian parents, like the worst snobbish teen you can imagine – I thought of Atlanta as a provincial place, where the ethos would always be Lennard Skinner. Now, so many eons later, I see that the provincial was myself. Atlanta is an amazingly diverse place: unlike Los Angeles, it is not a place, for the most part, of ethnic conclaves. The distant metro suburban counties, Cobb, Gwinnett, or even Dekalb, which in my youth were white flight chickenhouses, have long become rainbow: black, Asian, Latinx, white, jumbled together as in some advertisement or sitcom. Our last afternoon in Lawrenceville (the county seat of Gwinnett, most famous for being the place where Larry Flynt was shot by a person unknown, or at least unprosecuted - although Joseph Franklin later confessed to the deed) was spent, given the sogginess of the afternoon, going to Sugarloat Mills Mall – which turned out to be a wonderful place. The Mall’s great anchor store is a huge depot of sporting goods that stocks boats, fishing poles, bows and arrows, a huge aquarium stocked with bass and gar, and guns. Adam, in fact, got to shoot a play gun at targets in one of the store’s dioramas, and so did I. The Wikipedia entry on Sugarloaf Mills describes it, unkindly, as “struggling” and catering to “low income” shoppers. Whatever. To my mind, it was infinitely superior to the shopping mall at the end of Third Street in Santa Monica, where you couldn’t get a shirt under one hundred bucks or a belt under forty. Fuck that, as they say at Sugarloaf Mills (not really – politeness still reigns in the South!). Here, you can get that shirt for ten dollars and they will throw in a belt that is just as good as any you can get at Nordstrom for five. But what you can do, besides, at Sugarloaf mills is sit on a massage chair for five bucks, experience virtual reality at the virtual reality kiosk, play weird childfriendly variants of miniature golf, have a medieval theater dinner, race toy cars in a shop that is laid out in the most economically inefficient way possible (seemingly the shop can only accommodate five racers at a time, which means that even on the best of days, they cannot make more than a few thousand dollars – which made me wonder, as we raced cars there, how they can afford the upkeep), watch a discount movie or shop, miraculously, for books – or even get mild head shop-ish paraphernalia. I know that Walter Benjamin would pick Sugarloaf over Santa Monica’s mall every time. I’m with Walt.

The Christmas week was soggy. About five -ten years ago, Georgia and the whole southeast was suffering such a drought that Alabama, Georgia and Florida nearly came to armed battle over who got dibs on the Chattahoochee water flow. Now – according to the Viconian rule of corsi e recorsi that rules the Gods, the stars, and mankind – Georgia has an overabundance of the stuff that W.C. Fields so despised. We sortied out to several parks during intervals of non-sogginess and saw the landscape, which gave me a deep satisfaction. I’ve always liked the Northern Georgia forests – even when I was a teen, I would apply to them that line from Yeats: “The trees are in their autumn beauty”. Melancholy was my fave teen mood – followed by brooding and above it all. Hey, I was a snot, what can I say? Everyone to their own teenage emotional shell, and devil take the hindmost. I retain, as a merry old man, my liking for oaks that are bluesing their loss of leafage. We went out and saw plenty of that action. We also surveyed the new developments around Emory University, thus upsetting my mental map of the area. In contrast, the area around Stone Mountain and Lithonia seems still to be in the era of Flannery O’Connor. While my hometown, Clarkston, long ago became an emblem of immigration and change. Never in my wildest dreams – when I was a teen – did I imagine that the most vibrant religious denomination in Clarkston in the 21st century would be centered around a mosque. My sister told me that the Baptist Church in Clarkston, amazingly, has been sold to some other denomination. There goes the very symbol of everything I rejected when I first read Nietzsche. Somehow, I feel it is a case of lese majeste – they can’t do this to Nietzsche!

Adam was a great hit with my family. And they were a great hit with him – at a certain point, he started complaining about how “boring” Paris was compared to Atlanta. It is true – your kids are your parents revenge on you.

And then we came back to Paris. Hope this New Year is better on every dimension than 2018 for all who read this – and for all who don’t!

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...