Paris, Home of the Avant-Garde

Paris-street-with-giant-p-007 Adam Thirlwell in The Guardian:

I suppose I should worry that the French and military codeword avant-garde still seduces me. This word, after all, can conceal so much snobisme. But then: there's no reason to dismiss something just because it's impure, and this idea of the avant-garde, in its essence, is a noble ideal. The avant-garde is wildness: a wildness of content, and a wildness of form.

And this is one reason why I harbour another complicated attraction. My idea of the avant-garde is so often Parisian.

This isn't, of course, entirely a form of romance. In the bourgeois 19th century, Paris was where the avant-garde was invented. But even then, the ideal of wildness was precarious. It was Walter Benjamin who observed how the association of art and isolation was “all the more dangerous because, as it flatters the self-esteem of the productive person, it effectively guards the interests of a social order that is hostile to him”. And he sardonically quoted Marx: “The bourgeois have very good reasons for imputing supernatural creative power to labour . . .”

As for now: well, you know it. You take the Eurostar to the avant-garde and you end up shopping. The avant-garde is much more likely to be found in Hamra. Paris, I think, can still be useful – but an imaginary, historical Paris: a jukebox of wild examples.

Because you can rehearse the usual arguments about how impossible it might be for writing to be avant-garde, in this era when everything can be recuperated as orthodoxy. Or, say, you can consider the ambiguous pleasures of the trial in Paris in 1956, to determine whether to allow the republication of four novels by the Marquis de Sade. Among the witnesses for the defence were two famous literary figures: Jean Paulhan and Georges Bataille.

When the judge asked Paulhan if he didn't find Sade's dismantling of moral values dangerous, Paulhan sadly agreed. “I knew a young girl who entered a convent after reading Sade's works, and because she had read them.” Was entering a convent, he was asked, such a bad result? “I note that it's a result,” shrugged Paulhan.

And then Bataille came to the stand. Bataille was a man who, in his novel Story of the Eye, had imagined scenes with bull testicles, pissing, the whole shemozzle. Now, 30 years later, in a courtroom, he soberly observed that he couldn't see how Sade's works could be harmful to the public. “I have to say,” he added solemnly, “that I have a lot of confidence in human nature.” To which the judge replied: “I congratulate you, Monsieur. Your optimism does you honour.”