Sunday, May 2, 2010

Was French individualism a virtue prior to World Wars I & II?

            Shattuck (The Banquet Years, the Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire) has throughout his book regularly appalled me, and though I am very near the end he has done it once again.  He is in his last chapter which he has entitled "The Last Banquet," in which he sums up his period.  I'll quote a particularly objectionable (at least to me) passage and then comment::
            (from Page 357) ". . . Like the impressionists before them, symbolists, fauves, and cubists were all first ridiculed from outside under those names which in defiance, they finally accepted as designating some form of common purpose.  Jarry was a symbolist, Braque a fauve, and Delaunay a cubist only by chronological accident, not by self-proclamation or lasting affinity.  The artists of these years remained individuals, whom only critics and enemies lumped together, in order to have a bigger target.  And it was as individuals that they achieved the greatest of all essentials to creative endeavor: courage.  One does not live; one dares to live.  Forty years after the Banquet Years, in an era of social adjustment, mass communication, and normal response, the resolve to be oneself and live one's life in the face of misunderstanding and disapproval has come increasingly to be branded nonconformity -- and even schizophrenia.  But conformity, in life and in art, in love and in work, must be to one's inner being and not to the world.  The most notable artistic figures of the Banquet Years practiced external nonconformity in order to attain a conformity within the individual.  Outstanding among them, Rousseau, Satie, Jarry, and Apollinaire did not seek courage in numbers; they found it in themselves.  We see them variously as children and determined humorists, as dreamers and mystifiers, and they played all these roles.  But their ultimate virtue lies deeper, lodged beneath all their vices.  They had the wisdom, already rare, to know themselves, and the courage, which is far rarer, to be themselves."
            COMMENT: I suspect Shattuck of having drawn too deep a draught from this period he admires.  If I were a detective examining his crime, I would accuse him of attempting to find something good at the end and using "lawyerese" to defend it -- else, if he drew conclusions similar to mine, why would anyone bother to read it. 
            My eyebrows went way up when I read that "their ultimate virtue lies deeper, lodged beneath their vices. They had the wisdom, already rare, to know themselves, and the courage, which is far rarer, to be themselves."  Good grief!  One could say something like that about any evil person:  Hitler's ultimate virtue, was lodged beneath his vices.  He had the wisdom to know himself, and the courage to be himself."  If one considers it a virtue to know and be oneself however heinous society and history might consider that self, then Hitler, like Shattuck's four individuals, was virtuous.  Lest one think I have chosen an inappropriate example, there has been a resurgence in the appreciation of Hitler in Germany.  "After all," some German's will tell us.  "Hitler did a lot of good.  He improved the economy and gave German's their pride back."   There is also a resurgence of interest in Stalin.  Modern admirers of Stalin will tell us that he saved Russia from defeat in World War II, that he was a great "war leader," and such "crimes" as sending individuals to gulags because they "might" disagree with him in the future were necessary in order to hold his fragile nation together.
            But Shattuck offers us no such virtues.  He lets their mere individuality stand as virtuous.  Shattuck had someone like me in mind when on page 358 he wrote, "A reader who has progressed this far may feel that he has been offered a goodly sum of picturesque counterfeit currency without value outside the closed game of the arts and the Banquet Years.  But perseverance may bring him to the point where he suddenly finds the currency declared valid and legal tender.  The old coin of the realm has become worthless; the reversal of values, the conversion has taken place.  By an evolution that only today begins to become clear, the Banquet Years yielded the arts of the twentieth century."
            Does Shattuck follow this with evidence that the "currency" ought to be "valid and legal tender"?  Not that I can see.  On page 359 he writes, "The celebrations of the avant-guerre bear witness that the era had found itself.  Essentially it embraced the attitude of 'morbid-mindedness,' which William James defined as ranging over 'a wider scale of experience' than the healthy-mindedness.  In other words, the era acknowledged the vitality of certain areas conventionally called evil and lunatic.  But the presence within us of these forces does not oblige us to be forever dispirited, condemning man's iniquity and depravity.  On the contrary, these forces can be transformed into the source of new strength.  Thus Apollinaire pursued eroticism into mysticism, and Satie boredom into inspiration.  These morbid artists, from Rousseau to Picasso, from Jarry to Proust, found reason to take courage in aspects of human consciousness that would dismay weaker minds.  They celebrated the discovery not that man is superficially good and happy, but that his richest potentialities are lodged deepest within him.  To this truth they lifted their glasses."
            As I read this passage, I couldn't help recalling Shattuck's reference from a story by Apollinaire to the hero, very much an "individual" in Shattuck's terms, who rapes, gouges out the eyes, and then murders a twelve-years old girl."  If this was Apollinaire "being himself," then that "self" was not a good thing to be, despite Shattuck's praise. 
            Furthermore, it is difficult to avoid the effect of the anarchists and subsequent artists, that Shattuck discusses, on World Wars I and II.  Perhaps morbidity of spirit offers opportunities to the novelists, but it wrecks havoc with a nation's willingness and ability to defend itself against an aggressive neighbor.  On the very last page of his book, Shattuck describes a banquet that occurred in 1925, the last of the banquet years, in which artists of the sort Shattuck has been praising objected to a lady who was critical of the Germans.  They, these sales artistes, became violent, shouting out the window, "down with France."  The authorities intervened against them, something Shattuck regrets, but their work, undermining French healthy-mindedness, went on.  On paper, France had a more potent army than Germany prior to World War II, but it had lost its spirit, thanks in no small part to these sales artistes who became "individuals" in the Shattuck-sense; which included being "anti-establishment, anti-the French nation, and French self-interest."  Pardon me Shattuck if I don't find that a virtue.

1 comment:

Mike Geary said...

I cannot believe that you, of all people, would be arguing against individualism. It can only be because there's no room for individualism in the military and you are heart and soul, a military man. Why you are such, I have no idea. I can't imagine being in the military so I just have to accept that there are those who thrive on it. Rorty is my hero. We are fiercely individual persons and who are tightly bound inside a society. Allegiance to each is a life long battle. There are no rules from God, we each work it out for outselves. I prefer the anarchist artists to the CEO's of the world. Thank you, kindly.