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Posts Tagged ‘France’

Baudelaire Gets Baked

April 20, 2015 | by

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Étienne Carjat’s portrait of Baudelaire, ca. 1862, with special detailing.

From Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises), Baudelaire’s 1860 book on hashish, a drug he referred to as “the playground of the seraphim” and “a little green sweetmeat.” Along with Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, and others, Baudelaire belonged to Club des Hashischins, a Paris group that conducted monthly séances at the Hôtel de Lauzun to experiment with drugs. Translated from French by Aleister Crowley, 1895.

Generally speaking, there are three phases in hashish intoxication, easy enough to distinguish … Most novices, on their first initiation, complain of the slowness of the effects: they wait for them with a puerile impatience, and, the drug not acting quickly enough for their liking, they bluster long rigmaroles of incredulity, which are amusing enough for the old hands who know how hashish acts. The first attacks, like the symptoms of a storm which has held off for a long while, appear and multiply themselves in the bosom of this very incredulity. At first it is a certain hilarity, absurdly irresistible, which possesses you. These accesses of gaiety, without due cause, of which you are almost ashamed, frequently occur and divide the intervals of stupor, during which you seek in vain to pull yourself together. The simplest words, the most trivial ideas, take on a new and strange physiognomy. You are surprised at yourself for having up to now found them so simple. Incongruous likenesses and correspondences, impossible to foresee, interminable puns, comic sketches, spout eternally from your brain. The demon has encompassed you; it is useless to kick against the pricks of this hilarity, as painful as tickling is! From time to time you laugh to yourself at your stupidity and your madness, and your comrades, if you are with others, laugh also, both at your state and their own; but as they laugh without malice, so you are without resentment. Read More »

Broken on the Wheel

March 13, 2015 | by

A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.

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The death of John Calas, depicted in an English chapbook.

This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.

On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.

A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”

Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.

Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More »

The Service Industry’s Snobbiest Sector, and Other News

February 24, 2015 | by

Who could say no to that face?

  • Your stereotypical French waiter is condescending, arrogant, and rigid with hauteur—a veritable seven-course meal of Gallic clichés. But that radiant superiority is earned: French waiters are still more talented than most everyone else in the game. No one has perfected the art as they have. Sartre wrote of their “lively and exaggerated manner, a little too precise, a little too fast … trying to mimic the rigor of a robot while carrying his tray with the temerity of a tightrope walker.”
  • It’s time to bury Pablo Neruda again, a Chilean judge has ruled. Forensic scientists exhumed Neruda’s remains nearly two years ago to investigate a claim by his former driver, who’d said the poet “had been murdered by an injection to his stomach by political enemies.”
  • On Oscar Wilde’s long journey from tasteless sodomite to canonized icon: “In the English classrooms of my youth, Wilde was taught as a pillar of classical learning and modern suavity, not some licentious bogeyman. Wilde, now, is tame; safe. We canonize authors to pretend we understand them; we forgive authors who ought rather to forgive us.”
  • Charles Simic knows how to beat writer’s block: just stay in bed. “When you write in bed, you don’t feel like you’re doing something serious. I’ve been traveling, visiting European institutions, and they give you a gorgeous space to work, with perhaps a lake and a beautiful desk. I could never write there; I feel intimidated by the whole thing. When you’re in bed, you feel very casual about it. It’s just doodling.”
  • Industry analysts, publishers, and grown-ups are flummoxed by news that hip, digitally native young persons apparently prefer reading printed books to reading electronic ones. “These are people who aren’t supposed to remember what it’s like to even smell books,” said one wide-eyed, confused adult. “It’s quite astounding.”

The Fabric of a Life: An Interview with Yasmina Reza

February 20, 2015 | by

Yasmina Reza. Photo © Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

Last week, Yasmina Reza, who lives in Paris, came to New York to promote the American publication of her latest novel, Happy Are the Happy. I met her in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel. As she pointed out, it looks a lot like a hallway, with doors on every side.

Happy Are the Happy isn’t entirely unlike that hallway: the book is a gallery of portraits, with each chapter opening a door on a new scene. Characters pass through each other’s lives—some connected closely, as, say, mothers and daughters, and others linked only casually, as two strangers in a doctor’s office.

Quietly glamorous in light makeup, her dark wavy hair undone, Reza looked slender in a plaid miniskirt and green mohair sweater. In conversation, she seems effortlessly poised and speaks as she writes, with elegant precision. We talked about the frivolous and the profound, what it means to be French, theater today, and Michel Houellebecq. 

We were speaking in French; the following is my translation.

Your American publisher, Judith Gurewich, warned me that you don’t like interviews.

It’s not that I don’t like interviews, I don’t like promoting myself. I don’t like the feeling of having to step outside the work in order to sell it. And sometimes professional journalists can be nightmares—they’re only waiting for you to make a faux pas. They have nothing personal invested, they’re not really there. It’s all business.

Like Charlie Rose?

Yes, I refused to go on the Charlie Rose show because he’s a perfect example of that kind of professional journalist, who just asks a series of smart prewritten questions and doesn’t bother listening to the answers. It feels like being faced with a brilliant question machine. It’s a horrible experience that I’d rather not put myself through.

In your play The Unexpected Man—a series of internal monologues between two characters on a train—an aging novelist describes his early works as so far removed that they might as well be someone else’s. At the time you were just starting out as a writer, so you had to be guessing. Now that twenty years have passed, does it feel true?

Writing is so prophetic—at twenty, you already know everything there is to know, you don’t need to have experienced life to be able to write about it. There’s an intuitive phenomenon at work that’s almost clairvoyant. I’m not only speaking for myself. Many other writers have shared this impression. Read More »

Read, Reread, Re-reread, Re-re-reread, and Other News

February 10, 2015 | by

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A passenger reading on a train to Houston, 1974. Photo: NARA

  • It’s one thing to be well read—quite another to be well reread. Stephen Marche has coined the term centireading, i.e., reading something a hundred times. He’s accomplished only two feats of centireading (Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves), but they effectively restored the purity of his reading experience: “The main effect of reading Hamlet a 100 times was, counter-intuitively, that it lost its sense of cliché. ‘To be or not to be’ is the Stairway to Heaven of theatre; it settles over the crowd like a slightly funky blanket knitted by a favorite aunt. Eventually, if you read Hamlet often enough, every soliloquy takes on that same familiarity. And so ‘To be or not to be’ resumes its natural place in the play, as just another speech. Which renders its power and its beauty of a piece with the rest of the work.”
  • As a moneymaking device, the book is obsolete, as we all know. Of course it is—it’s very, very old. What you might not have heard yet is that Web sites are obsolete, too, and that your mere presence on this page renders you a technological dinosaur. It’s okay. I’m one, too. This man is not: “In his weird zone of the internet, he said, the concept of a large publication seemed utterly hopeless. The only thing that keeps people coming back to apps in great enough numbers over time to make real money is the presence of other people. So the only apps that people use in the way publications want their readers to behave—with growing loyalty that can be turned into money—are communications services. The near-future internet puts the publishing and communications industries in competition with each other for the same confused advertising dollars, and it’s not even close.”
  • From the makers of the flaneur, meet the crónica: “a crónica is both ‘a history that obeys the order of the times’ and ‘a journalistic piece … about current events.’ But it is more. Starting in the nineteenth century, crónica and urban life became inseparable; to the mere recording of a city life for posterity, the genre added flânerie and modern investigative reporting. Together, crónica and la ciudad (the city) inform a typology of ‘essaying’ a pie (on foot), in which walking is to thinking what seeing is to reading, and cities’ ‘intensification of nervous stimulation’ becomes social and cultural criticism.”
  • In France, even illicit, politically scandalous affairs play out like fairy tales: “It was not until his press attaché phoned Valérie and informed her that François was ‘madly in love with you’ that Valérie recognized the current of passion that roiled beneath their professional rapport … They were committed to others—Ségolène and Denis—and they had more than half a dozen children between them, but how could they refuse love’s call? Over crêpes and waffles, Valérie and François confessed their feelings, which led to, she wrote, ‘a kiss like no other kiss I’d ever shared with anyone. A kiss that had been held back for nearly fifteen years, in the middle of a crossroads.’”
  • William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the most daring movies of the sixties, which may be why no one saw it until 1991. Now his film is finally getting its due: “Greaves was up there with John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke in the blend of sophisticated modernism and emotional fury, of self-implication and formal innovation, of self-revelation and revelation of the heart of the times.”

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How to Write a Dance

February 4, 2015 | by

Remy Charlip and the problems of dance notation.

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“Flowering Trees,” a page from Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W. B. Yeats

How do you tell a person in another place or time what a dance looks like, and how it should be performed? You could use words, describing, second by second, the movements made by every dancer on stage—but inaccuracies would creep in. Take an instruction as simple as “lower your arm”: How would the precise angle, attitude, and displacement of the arm be explained? As an algebraic vector? And what about the hand, the fingers, the knuckles, the rest of the dancer’s body—what are they doing? Such a method would come to resemble programming code, in which reams of language and symbols come to stand for something that’s supposed to look simple and elegant. The problem is that a dance is read by a human, not a machine.

What about images, then? You could reduce the dance to two dimensions, represented frame by frame, using diagrams and drawings. Yet even for a short sequence, you’d need so many! It would come to resemble a flip-book or an animated GIF, preempting the most efficient and simple method we’ve ever had to record dance: moving images, or film.

Before we had image-capturing technology, the need to preserve dance, as a record, gave way to attempts to write dance down. Dance notation, the symbolic representation of human movement, has developed into systems for making graphics recognizable as living movement. Traditional dance notation marks a path through space and a relationship to music. As Edward Tufte writes in Envisioning Information (1990), “Systems of dance notation translate human movements into signs transcribed onto flatland, permanently preserving the visual instant.” It’s a question of “how to reduce the magnificent four-dimensional reality of time and three-space into little marks on paper flatlands.” Dance never looks the same twice, unless it’s on film. Read More »

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