Thursday, June 16, 2022

Function dysfunction


In the 1920s, left-leaning writers in Germany became enamoured of questions like: what is the function of art? What is the function of poetry? What is the function of the novel? Und so weiter. These questions were echoed in the Cold War period, and you still see the phrase “the social function of the novel” or the like in criticism.

Which leads to the question, naturally, of the function of ‘function talk’.

When everything has a social function, the underlying image is of society as composed of parts, each of which is programmed to perform for some purpose. As in a machine, the parts have, ideally, one program and one purpose. The gears in a watch are programmed to turn in synch with each other, and not to do the cha cha cha. I just had a problem with my mouse, and I went, as per a helpful Internet site, to the task manager and solved that problem – because my mouse was performing badly: it was dysfunctional.

This view of function has received some dents, however, in the design philosophy that has grown up around affordances. “Affordance” entered the vocabulary of design psychology by way of James J. Gibson, and like so much about design and psychology, it all started in World War II. Gibson worked for the air force, which had numerous questions about pilot to environment interactions. Thus, he was provided with plenty of funding to experiment. For instance, he experimented with the notion that objects become smaller as they become more distant and then disappear. According to Gibson, this confuses “smaller” with “indefinite” – for estimates of the size of the object at increasing distance did not fall under the qualities of smaller or larger, but under the category of ground to figure.  Nice gestaltist terms.

Given what Gibson called the ecological view of perception, we require some ecological view of function. A key sentence in Gibson’s book, The Ecological approach to Visual Perception, rather shatters the mechanistic view of parts and functions: “ I suggest… that what we perceive when we look at objects are their affordances, not their qualities.” As Gibson writes, further on, the term “affordance” is one he made up to refer to everything that implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. That means that perception, rather than translating immediately into a physical language of qualities, is immediately relative to the animal itself.  The physical world is first what it affords, for the animal.

To get back to our topic: in the view of the world expressed by the functional vocabulary, the program of, say, the novel is set by a positivist technology in which we have the epic, the novel, the film, the tv series, etc., each one supplanting the other. This is how critics have sometimes maintained that tv series have taken over the function of the novel. In fact, this view of the novel, in the U.S., was deeply embedded in the self-identification of novelists in the 50s through the 90s, and even now. Mailer, or Updike, or even Jonathan Franzen, in this ideology, write novels to capture something about America.

But, as many technological historians have pointed out, the idea of artifices that have one function supplanting each other in sophistication only works for some artifices, not for others. The bicycle did not die out with the advent of the automobile – although the horse and carriage did. The bicycle, the motorcycle, even, now, the motorized scooter all flourish. Television, despite my conviction that the computer would replace it, simply incorporated computer features. Poetry, far from being a dying art, is – if we look at songs as poems, which we should – one of the most flourishing of all arts. In combination with the radio and the car, poetry to a leap to a new niche. Similarly, in combination with audio technology, novels are now being read, in recording, to millions of drivers – thus, oddly, regaining a certain oral affordance novels used to have in cigar factories, when a person with the position of reader, a lector, read novels to occupy the hearing of cigar rollers. Although cars don’t “ “contain” bicycles, they contain an equivalent to the chain and the gearing that make bicycles work. Similarly, though tv series and movies don’t “contain” novels, they contain scripts that often come from novels. Walter Benjamin, that endless searcher, found this bit in his essay on Eduard Fuchs which I hold close to my heart:

“When the 1848 Revolution came, Dumas published an appeal to the workers of Paris in which he presented himself to them as one of their own. In twenty years, he had made 400 novels and 35 plays: he had been the source of the daily bread of 8,160 people.”

Dumas, in the end, lost, but his accounting – which encompassed the newspapers in which his stories were serialized, the printing presses that published them, the venders that sold them, the bookbinders and etc – and could have included the operas and plays made of them – gives us the very air of art, which is squeezed to death in an inventory of social “functions” that picks out and individualizes the “aesthetic.”

Function, function, what’s your junction, indeed. I’d prefer, in ongoing discussions of the function of art, that the word be spelled with a “k” – the funk-tion of art – because however scientific and engineering like the word function sounds, it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of affordances that you find in any playground, office or apartment.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Rue Perdue



Pierre Michon is not well known as a writer in the Anglophone world, but in France he holds a position of high regard, in disproportion to the pages he has produced for publication – he favours the small enterprise.  His first book, Vies Miniscules, packs it in at 248 pages in the Folio edition. It is his longest book. His collected works would surely amount to around 500 pages. He’s been writing for forty years.

I’ve just finished Les Onze, a novel he wrote in 2009. The book presents itself as a cross between a biography and  an essay on François-Elie Corentin and his painting of the eleven member Committee on Public Safety from 1794, on the eve of Robespierre’s downfall. It is a painting that shocked Michelet with the brutality of the painter’s unmasking of its spectral crewe of terrorists, terrorists in a good cause, as they considered it; which is why he devoted 12 pages to it in his History of the French Revolution. The painting anoints a special room in the Louvre.

As those who have read around the book, or have searched in Michelet, or have gone to the Louvre know, Michon’s book is fiction as hoax. There is no Corentin, nor painting, nor passage about the painting in Michelet. These facts would be spoilers for another novel, but the quality of Michon’s novel does not rest on the prank of the fiction. It reminds me, a bit, of Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch – I detect in Michon an under-the-text dialogue with one of  Calasso’s leading themes, expressed by quotes taken by Calasso from Tallyrand’s memoirs: that the temper of the ancien regime was characterized by a sweetness that disappeared after the revolution. Calasso takes the lack of this sweetness to be of the sacrificial essence of the modern: “History after the French revolution is the history of progress devoid of the patina of douceur.”

Michon’s reply is to point out that douceur was labor – the labor of slaves. Literally, the sugar in the coffee cups and chocolate of the ancien regime nobility and upper bourgeoisie was the product of a slave regime that killed, by most accounts, something like 500,000 blacks in the making of the prosperity of Saint-Domingue – Haiti – and by consequence France  in the 18th century.  Michon sees the servitude that went into making all good things, all the sweet things, that abounded before the Revolution. The terror of before and the terror of the Revolutionary moment are bound up with each other, under the patina of sweetness. Michon even chooses Tiepelo – a painter Calasso has written about – as his emblem of this sour sweetness:

« Thus when from Combleux to Orléans holding hands with his [Corentin’s] mother  they went to rejoin some small evening sponsored by a little literary salon, the young girl had before her eyes the emblem of desire and of her satisfaction, the canal with all the sky reflected in it ; and underneath, the invisible foundations, that is, two generations of earth moving laborers and masons from Limoges who had a kind of life before falling from the scaffolds or being sucked into the mud of the Loire and vanishing without remains, some kinds of joy in the form of quasi-vinaigre candies and of switchblades, a kind of wife that they saw two months of the year out of the twelve in Limousin, the two months of black winter, of whom, under their black shapeless robes they never saw the nude body, but only blindly in stinking common rooms where all the family slept very discretely in the full of night unpantsed, did their duties, and impregnated, and from this exploit  pulled out a kind of children destined in their turn to be the blacks of America ten months out of twelve (all of this, Sir, note it well, in the era of the sweetness of life, at the same hour that Tiepelo or another at the height of some scaffolding, at the summit even of what used to be called Man, painted the most beautiful and light things that have ever been painted – for nothing comes from nothing, and God is a dog).”

Michon’s use of a fictional painting from a fictional painter to illuminate, darkly, the French revolution is fascinating to me, concerned as I am with producing vitae of Cold War men. As well, I began thinking about the many, many portraits and paintings from the 18th century that are displayed, beautifully, in the Carnavelet Museum – just a block from where I live. Which produced an idle search on my part, resulting in my discovery of the story of Zamor. A true story – if that is not an oxymoron.


Zamor appears in a painting by Jean-Baptiste-André Gautier d’Agoty bringing a cup of chocolate to his “owner”, Madame or Comtesse du Barry. In the Carnavelet, there is an anonymous portrait of a young black man wearing a fantastic headress, a sort of reddish turban with a string of pearls running along the hem of it. This, it is speculated, is Zamor. The painter remains unknown.

In the Goncourt brothers’ book on Du Barry: “Nothing was lacking in the enchanted palace [that Louis XV gave Du Barry]. There was even, as in a fairy tale painted by Veronese, a little black boy [negrillon – you translate that one], something like a human chimera.”

So many chimeras! Zamor is painted as an African. And he is so named in various documents. But in fact, if there is a fact of the matter, Zamor was not born in Africa. He was born in Bengal. He was captured, young, by slavers and sold in a mart in Madagascar. Or so much is speculated. Speculation engulfs the whole backstory, not only of Zamor but of Madame du Barry, whose appearance at the court of Louis XV as a sort of bait to satisfy his satyriasis has many stories to explain it. In one, Louis’s mistress, Madame Pompidour, recruited the girl as a means of retaining her standing with the king.  In other versions, the enemies of Louis XV’s minister, Choiseul (the minister who exercised, in Michelet’s words, a tyranny over the King) found the girl in the famous brothel of Marguerite Gourdan and pimped her out to the King. This is the version reprinted often in scurrilous pamphlets of the time, funded, often, by the Choiseul clique, and picked up as the real right thing by the Goncourts in their apartment in Napoleon III’s Paris, a Paris in which the idea of a grande horizontale devouring the wealth of France was not at all implausible – see the ending of Zola’s Nana for details. The Goncourts had a nice eye for the emblematic anecdote, such as the one related by a source to  Horace Walpole, the man with the most malicious ears in the 18th century, the author of that gothic sweet and sour, the Castle of Otranto:

“One day she [the Comtesse du Barry] drank from the punch bowl scoop, which she then replaced in the bowl, for which the King reproached her for “giving everyone her spit to drink”. She responded, “Well, I want everyone to drink my spit.””

That, from the revolutionary point of view, contains an image of the ancien regime that no patina of sweetness can save. The savour of Du Barry’s spit was, metaphorically,  distributed throughout France, a little bit in the daily gruel.


These punchbowl occasions: surely Michon, doing his research for his novel, read the historians who closely fastened on the paintings and drawings of, for instance, the parties at Du Barry’s residence in Louveciennes. The nineteenth century historian Charles Vatel wrote a three volume work containing a rejoinder to the scandalous image of Du Barry exploited by the Goncourt brothers, working with the abundant material left behind by journalists doubling as police spies and police spies doubling as journalists which makes the late eighteenth century in France such an historically crowded space.  Correspondence is everywhere, everyone has some behind the scenes management to take care of.

In this mix, the little Negro,  Zamor, serves as a rococo ornament. Du Barry, disregarding any religion he may have had, in the same way she would have disregarded the religion passed down from some pedigree bitch to her puppies, if she had known about it, has him baptized – the certificate still exists that shows “this year 1772, on July 4, Louis-Benoit Zemor, negro attached to Mme le Comtesse du Barry, around ten years of age, was baptised under our signature…”

Vatel explains Zamor like this:

“Zamor was not a negro properly speaking. He was a man of color, born in India, in Bengal. Tradition holds that he was carried to France by an English captain. What makes this credible is that his name was pronounced in the English manner: Zemor. It is written like that in the oldest memoirs of Carlier, the dressmaker of madame du Barry, and this pronunciation is still that of the old inhabitants of Louveciennes, owners of the room when he lived near the castle. He’d been taken at four years old from his family.”

The slave trade was etched in the global economy of the time – and isn’t every era of globalization also an era of cheap flows of labor, free or unfree? How a Bengali boy became the “negro boy” attached to the mistress of the King of France, herself a product of a social mobility that depended on the flesh and the main chance, is in itself an anecdote that pulses with the dialectical image it could become. That, in a way, it does become, for the meeting of Comtesse du Barry and Louis-Benoit Zamor ends, at least for her side, on a note that seems like a sketch for a play by Genet, or a story from Kleist: a narrative about role reversal.

Vatel gives an abbreviated vita of Zamor in a paragraph concerning Zamor’s age that cuts grandly to the chase: “When Zamor appeared as a witness before the revolutionary tribunal in the trial of madame du Barry, 7 December, 1793, he declared that he was 31 years old and had been born in Bengal. Subtracting 31 from 1793, one finds 1762… When he died on 7 February 1829, the certificate of death put his age at 58 years. “ Zamor, in this chronology, goes from baptism to witness to nondescript just as he did in life. For Comtesse du Barry, in 1772, Zamor was undoubtedly just a doll.  In 1792, however, the Comtesse du Barry has lost all her value as a former mistress of a former King – a woman to be left with her palace and her jewelry by that King’s son, Louis XVI, and that son’s wife, Marie Antoinette, who did not much care for her. She had literally lost her fortune in jewels. Or, as the story is told, she had literally hired a thief to steal those jewels, and had made several trips to London to oversee her investments. One of her purchases, in one of her visits to London to visit her jewelry, was the French translation of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. One wonders what she made of it.

It was in 1793 that Zamor makes his reappearance in the record, in conjunction with a revolutionary adventurer named George Grieve. An Englishman, a self proclaimed friend of both Benjamin Franklin – Grieve had been across the Atlantic – and of Marat. Grieve called himself a “fractionist and anarchist of the first order, disorganizer of despotism in two hemispheres” in some pamphlet. This is not Tom Paine, this is not the age of Reason: it is a hint of that romantic glee which went into De Quincey’s Murder as one of the Fine Arts and the monologues of Poe’s murderers – a glee that also ran through Hebert’s obscenities in his newspaper, Le Père Duchesne, where the word “fuck” crawled out from the mauvaises livres of the Paris police list and became a shock tactic to devalue the aristocracy, to degrade it utterly as a form of human life; a good play in 1792-3, but a bad one in Germinal, 1794, when Hebert was himself guillotined.

When Grieve shows up in Louvenciennes, in 1793, he did so as a hunter. The private dick, the scandalmonger, the police spy who hunts for victims – this was the bubble in which Grieve moved. Madame du Barry must have noticed. When Grieve arrived in her territory, she was still in London. She had every reason not to return, but return she did. It was to a different Louvenciennes. Her house was sealed up.  Grieve had made acquaintances, gathered tips, compiled a dossier. Among his informants was Zamor.

It would suit the story, it would fulfil the logic of revolutionary glee, to tell it this way: Zamor, humiliated by his position in the household, by du Barry’s domination, turns the tables, tells Grieve and the Revolutionary Tribunal that citoyenne Barry is an out and out counter-revolutionary agent, and thus serves to send her to her death. But this inversion, it turns out, is too easy. Zamor is, for instance, himself imprisoned. His testimony is not about an aristocratic Nana sucking the lifeblood of France, but of a woman who refuses to listen to him when he cautions her not to be so openly contemptuous of the revolution. Vatel notices the nuance: “Observe that madame du Barry fingers Grieve as the author of the persecution of which she complains. She does not speak nominatively of Zamor. It is, however, the latter that the clamour of the public has designated up until this day as the denunciator of his benefactor. He had no doubt done wrong to join the chorus of her persecutors, to testify against her. But it is not true that he was the principle author of what Madame du Berry called her “sad case” before the tribunal.”

At the trial: “The witness Zamor declares that many times he had represented to the accused Dubarry that she welcomed aristocrats, representations to which she did not deign to respond.” Is the scenario one of the servant who feels his power in reproaching his mistress for her company, or one in which the servant advises his mistress that she is playing with fire? Certainly Zamor could have turned her in long before Grieve came on the scene. Zamor, however, was not going to lose his head for his Godmother.



The sad case ended badly, as she must have known it would.

“On 18 frimaire of Year 2 of the French Republic, one and indivisible, the person named Jeanne Vaubernier, wife of du Barry, Jean-Bpatiste Vendenyver, Edmond-Jean-Baptiste, etc., and so imprisoned, was extracted from the house of justice, in virtue of the judgment rendered by the Revolutionary tribunal, dated yesterday, of which those named above where submitted to the pain of death on the place of the Revolution, in the presence of ourselves, court ushers of said Tribunal, undersigned: Deguaigne.”

And this is the account in Gentleman’s Magazine, 1793:

“In the evening she was conveyed in a cart to the place de la Revolution; her behavior was by no means firm. The executioner was under the neceissity of supporting her in his arms during the whole way. When she arrived at the front of the scaffold,d the two assistants of the executioner were obliged to lift her upon it. When they were on the point of fastening her to the plank, she exerted her strength and ran to the other side of the scaffold; she was soon brought back and died: her head was immediately struck off.”

Madame du Barry’s modern biographers are unworthy of her, and of the sublimity of that last gesture. They have woven a romance around her life, are always telling the reader about the “rougish” look in her eyes when she was a girl, and defending her against old scurrilities, and in general pimping her out in some Disney dream of whoring in the palace, a living paperback Harlequin cover. The royalists, whose internet sites abound, also make her out to be a romantic figure, but have much less use for her than her rival, the sainted Marie Antoinette. The inheritors of the revolutionary torch, back in the nineteenth century, took a harsher line. This is Louis Blanc, a little inexact, in his history of the Revolution: “The guillotine awaited a less noble victim: the 27 frimaire (17 December), madame du Barry expiated under the hands of the executioner the debasing splendors of her past fortune.”

Zamor survived his brush with 18, or was it 27 Frimaire, Year 2. Charles Vatel, who sought out the descendants of the owners of the house in the room he rented in Louveciennes so as to taste the pronunciation of his name, sought out, as well, the after-revolutionary life of the man who was in one narrative arc a good and faithful servant (“agent of the courtesan Dubarry”), or, in the other, the  bad and disloyal (or good patriotic citizen) betrayor. In Year 2, the Bengali was hustled through the prison system, first in Paris, then in Versailles, where the local Committee on Public Safety wrote a note, urging either his release – if there was no proof against him – or a prompt punishment, if there were. It was at this point that George Greive wrote a letter to the judge in Versailles, touching the right notes: Zamor was a “child of nature”, a true “student of the immortal Jean-Jacques”: “this interesting being who, torn from the arms of his family at the age of four and brought to Europe to serve as a toy for the vile mistress of a crapulous tyrant” had been subject to enough indignities. Was the revolution not made for such as him? Greive’s letter produces the strange impression that the citoyenne dubarry was the kind of monster who could see telescopically, from her perch in Louis XV’s infamous Parc-aux-Cerfs, all the way to Bengal, and spotted just the toy for slavers to bring her – a wicked witch indeed. By your cartoon you shall be judged.

Shall we attribute to Greive a moment of loyalty and fellow feeling? Or was this letter part of a machine to save himself – for after all, if Zamor was an agent of Dubarry, perhaps the black spot would fall on Greive himself. He’d seen similar things happen – he’d made similar things happen.

Whosoever diggeth a pit/shall fall in it, shall fall in it.

On 24 Pluviose Year II Zamor was set at liberty. Set at liberty, and delivered to rumor and oblivion. An oblivion that was officially interrupted on 7 February, 1820, when the Justice of the Peace was called to inventory the property of a single man who had died  at 9, Rue Perdue. Charles Vatel is proud of picking up this discovery, which he attributed to the genealogical  work of two compilers of official documents on Paris, Picque and Manigot. The single man was Louis-Benoit Zamor. Vatel went looking for any surviving witnesses to Zamor’s final years, but he immediately encountered the difficulty that Rue Perdue – literally Lost Street – had been, itself, lost in Haussman’s Paris, at least according to current maps. “The heart of a city changes, alas, more than the heart of a mortal” – as a poet of Vatel’s day once wrote. However, much like a detective, Vatel compared maps, old and new, until he found where Rue Perdue had been – and, it turned out, still was. Number 9 still existed, although now as number 13. Vatel went to find Zamor’s last abode. Paris is a city in which every address is at the intersection of antiquarianism and poetry – if you have the channeler's gift for conjuring spirits. Vatel was evidently of that kind. He was lucky enough to stumble upon an old dame, Madame LeJeune, born Poullain-Dubois, 82 years old on that spring day in 1875 when Vatel interviewed her – her and her sister, who was also an old woman – and in so doing catching an old, rare echo of the ancien regime and its overthrow.

Madame LeJeune was around 20 years old when Zamor rented an apartment from her parents – around, she estimated, 1815 or 1816. Her mother inquired about her renter from others in the neighborhood, where it turned out that the story of Madame du Barry's end was well known. She found out as well, according to her daughters, what happened after Zamor fell out of the records of the Committee of Safety in Versailles. After getting out of prison, Zamor apparently had money from some source, perhaps a thin trickle of the fabulous Dubarry wealth, to live on, but then he fell in love with a woman who owned a fabric shop. “He placed all he had in her hands, and she lost it.” Thus, Zamor was forced to live on his wits, as a private tutor. Madame LeJeune remembered that he was a bad one: too much the disciplinarian, too much slapping his students when the came out with the wrong answers, a habit that caused parents to cease patronizing him.

“He spoke little, especially little of the past. When he had to explain himself, he did so in bitter words against the great lords, against Madame du Barry; he said that, if she had hosted and educated him, it was to make him a toy, that she allowed him to be humiliated before her, that he was always the butt of jokes and insulting mockery by the people of the court. He conserved a sentiment of hatred against the ancient regime. He spoke the language of the men of the Revolution. He had images of them in his room, Robespierre, Marat and the others; it was chiefly Marat that he liked.”

It was to this room that the justice of the peace came, to sort through the papers, search for any cash – which would go to his debtors and the rest to the state – and to find someone who could be charged with his burial. But there was no-one: “He was carried directly to the cemetery without passing through the church.”

A man who spoke the language of the Revolution, in a quartier of Paris where the sentiment of the little people, the modest owners of boarding houses and small shops, was, if not reactionary, at least resigned to the prevailing mood of the Restoration. What is one to do, after all, with the bric-a-brac of Madame du Barry’s negro godson? His papers, the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, shored not so much against his ruin but in the hopes of some future ruin of the state?

 “The justice of the peace and the police commissioner left us the portraits of Robespierre, Marat and the others, but as they had no value and were forbidden, at that time, so my father burned them right away.”

“As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester -- and this is my last jest."


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...