It is a few years after the end of the Second World War. Europe is in ruins. Out in its colonies, the will and the means come together to start throwing off the yoke. The Russians and the Americans brandish bombs at each other. Meanwhile in Paris, the City of Light, curfews and rationing slowly come to an end. The lights are lit again. The black market fades to gray. It’s a time to shoot movies rather than collaborators. Formerly banned pleasures still have a special quality: American jazz, gangster movies and crime novels seem to promise unknown thrills, a sort of cultural correlate of the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction. There is a world to build out of books and mortar.
Existentialism is all the rage. All the papers say so, even if they don’t approve. A doctrine that puts such a premium on freedom seems somehow both frightening and delicious. The philosophers credited with creating it—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty—refuse the label while selectively exploiting the attention. Self-styled existentialists turn up in their Paris neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They hang out in the famous cafés, hoping to rub shoulders with intellectual celebrities. After the cafés shut, it’s on to the cellar clubs. The wire-service journalists started this fad. Working odd hours, in need of a drink when all else closes, they end up in the cellars, and so the cellars end up in the news.
The most famous was Le Tabou. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “People drank and danced and also brawled a great deal, both inside and out front. The neighborhood declared war … at night, people threw buckets of water on the customers and even on people just passing by.”1
De Beauvoir claimed never to have been there. She did not like the way its front people, Anne-Marie Cazalis and Juliette Gréco, traded on the existentialist fashion. But she was friends with
Boris Vian (1920–59), who played the trumpet in the band. Vian was a man of parts. Besides his passion for jazz, he wrote a fake American crime novel to cash in on that craze, and he wrote the Manual of Saint-Germain-des-Prés
is a mock ethnography of the quarter. Saint-Germain has its natives, those who ply respectable trades, pouring cold water on the bohemian effusions they consider beneath them. It has its incursionists, new-money people who doubtless got rich off the black market and came looking for ways to spend it. It has permanent invaders, American and Scandinavian and the occasional English.3
And it has its troglodytes
, the nocturnal residents of the cellar clubs. Boris Vian regarded himself and his friends as none of the above. The real Saint-Germain was to him a small coterie of creative individuals.
Here are some of them, with their dates, since time is key to this story: the poet Tristan Tzara (1896–1963), the composer Georges Auric (1899–1983), the writer Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), the writer Jacques Prévert (1900–77), the artist Alberto Giacometti (1901–66), the writer Raymond Queneau (1903–76), the writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), the writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61), the writer Jean Genet (1910–86), the saxophonist Don Byas (1912–72), the actress Simone Signoret (1921–85), and the singer Juliette Gréco (b. 1927). None will feature much in our story—with one exception: the poet Gabriel Pomerand (1925–72).
In her memoir, Simone Signoret describes her initiation into Saint-Germain in 1941. She quit her job on a collaborationist paper and came to hang out at the Café de Flore, hoping to get into the film business. Of the people she met there—“some of them Jewish, many of them Communists or Trotskyites, Italian anti-fascists, Spanish Republicans, bums, jokers, penniless poets, sharers of food ration tickets, ambulatory guitarists, genial jacks of all trades, temporary no-goods”—some would not survive the war.4
Of those who did, a few would become celebrated figures of a new postwar culture, with Saint-Germain as their symbolic home. Saint-Germain was where the forces for the postwar restoration of the spectacle gathered.
American pop mixed with youthful irreverence was not to everyone’s taste. In his Manual
, Vian takes great exception to the portrayal of Saint-Germain in both the conservative and communist press.
Gullible cellar-dwelling troglodytes, he suspects, can be cajoled into saying pretty much anything for the price of a drink. They give the place a bad name. The legend the press starts is that Sartre is the Magus and jazz the Pied Piper of an evil cult. Worse, Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex
(1949) ruins the morals of impressionable girls. Vian quotes some choice bits of journalese: “Beginning of the legend: an amateur existentialism of destruction. The whole story: blood, sensuality, death.” Poor troglodyte existentialists, mere teenagers, living in cheap hotels they can’t afford. They are “unwholesome” and “violent,” “intoxicated” by American crime novels (or perhaps by Vian’s copies of them). In the clubs they can be found “screaming like banshees.” The press has fabulated a folk devil
here, about which to whip up a moral panic
“These zealots recognize each other through thousands of little items of clothing: cowboy shirts flapping in the breeze, red, yellow and green, plaid shirts that hang open down to the belly button.” The troglodyte existentialist belongs to a subculture
“The women of the tribe are fond of smocks that come in maybe two or three colors: their hairstyles give them the look of a drowning victim … they are none too fond of soap or hairbrushes, but they dance one hell of a boogie-woogie.” The press can’t decide if they have too much sex or not enough, but either way their desire is out of line, a threat to bourgeois enjoyment.7
They gather in Saint-Germain, in the shadows cast by its luminaries, to reinvent themselves, by means both fair and shady. Bohemia’s other face is delinquency.
She loved to dance: Vali Myers (1930–2003) left home at fourteen and moved to seamy St Kilda, a waterside neighborhood in Melbourne, Australia. She worked in a hair salon for a while, and as an artist’s model, but preferred factory jobs. What money she made went towards study with the Melbourne Modern Ballet. In 1950 she left Australia, aged nineteen, determined to dance in Paris. She found a ruined city, cold in winter; poor all the year round. The war had shattered one way of life, and another had not yet risen from the ashes. Myers dropped ballet and went dancing in the cellars where African drummers played. Tourists threw money at her feet. She learned very little French, but picked up the argot of the streets. This is what she wrote about those times:
The kids who survived after the war years in our quarter, Saint-Germain des Prés, can be counted on one hand. It was … a world without illusions, without dreams. It had a dark stark beauty like a short Russian story of Gorky that one doesn’t forget. They were uprooted kids, old for their years, from all over Europe. Many had no home or parents, no papers (stateless), no money … We lived in the streets and cafés, like a pack of “bastard dogs” and with the strict hierarchy of such a tribe. Students and workers were “outsiders.” The few tourists on the lookout for “existentialists” were “game” (for a meal or a drink), but no one sold himself. There was always cheap booze and Algerian hashish to get by on. What we had we shared, even the butt end of a cigarette.8
Sometimes she slept in cafés or movie houses; sometimes she slept rough. For a while she had a tiny room at the Hôtel d’Alsace-Lorraine, where the concierge was reputed to have worked for Marcel Proust in his last years. She slept by day, and danced through the night as if consumed by fire. Her whole delinquent “tribe” was nocturnal.9
There was Kaki, the beauty of the quarter, a former Dior model, the daughter of collaborators who killed themselves after the war. Kaki joined her parents at age nineteen. There was Fred, the big blond Corsican, in and out of prison, who later became a success
: as an artist, husband, and father. There was Robert the Mexican, said to have killed a man. There was Eliane, who had run away from both home and the reformatory. There was Ralph Rumney, dodging military service in Britain. Vali Myers lived on and off with Pierre Feuillette, who was known as the Chief. Unpredictable, with a walk like a cat, he was not the sort of character it pays to romanticize. He cut her once, in a fight. When she danced, it was he who collected the money the tourists threw. These were the scenes and characters from what she called her “opium years”—which lasted until 1958.
Gabriel Pomerand introduced Myers to opium. He was one of several men of the quarter who made her into a bohemian muse. Pomerand wrote that “she disobeys every last law of conventional beauty,” and compared encountering Myers to meeting a “cheetah on a leash.” The Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken gave her the leading role in his book Love on the Left Bank
. “She danced like a Negress,” he said. George Plimpton, the expatriate American, wrote in Paris Review
dancing is remarkable—a sinuous shuffling, bent-kneed, her shoulders and hands moving at trembling speed to the drumbeats.” Plimpton quotes another admirer: “You saw in her the personalization of something torn and loose and deep-down primitive in all of us.” Even the great gay Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo idolized the “solemn, hieratic girl, systematically dressed in black, with her face painted like a mask,” who declared that she lived in a “damp cave with mice and called on the most daring to try her one night in a cemetery.”10
Myers said that for her Saint-Germain was “like a little battlefield.” Tired of parrying the glances of so many attentive men, she left Paris for a secluded valley in Italy. She would henceforth prefer the company of animals. The remarkable thing is that she survived her marginal Paris life. One of the press stories Vian disparages contains at least a kernel of truth: “Existentialism has ripened so quickly that it is already divided by class warfare. In fact it is necessary these days to distinguish the rich existentialists from the poor ones.” Bohemia is fine for those who enter it voluntarily, and its legend is sustained by those who succeeded through it. For those who aren’t rich, aren’t men, aren’t white, aren’t straight, for those from the provinces, for those without a home to go back to, it is no picnic. People like Myers’s tribe were doubly dispossessed, too young and too marginal. There was nothing for it but to stick together. As Ralph Rumney put it: “Our social exclusion made us a closed group.”11
It has become an impertinence to say we
. The collective pronoun is to be distrusted. Only the voice of the self is authentic. This voice declares itself from endless status updates
, with whole spiders’ nests of self-affirmation: ME! ME! ME! It’s a world of free agents vainly attempting to establish themselves on the slender résumé of their own qualities. The twenty-first century is the culmination of two forms of individualism. In the first, individuals are all the same; in the second, they are all different. The first is classically bourgeois, the second distinctively bohemian. But whether different or the same, in the twenty-first century it’s the same difference. Bourgeois individualism is now infused with bohemian flourishes. In the 1950s Vali Myers stood out even in Saint-Germain. In the 1970s, when she gave the singer Patti Smith her first tattoo, this might still have been a gesture with a point. Now you can get your tattoos at the mall. It’s romanticism for everybody, with a little blood and pain thrown in for the price. The collapse of bourgeois
and bohemian individualism into the warm embrace of the commodity is the defining style of the middle-class sensibility of today’s disintegrating spectacle.12
There are also two kinds of collective belonging. In the first, we belong because we are the same; in the second, we belong because we are not.13
The most insistent form of collective belonging in Paris after the war was the Communist Party, which was definitely of the first kind, a collective belonging that obliged of its members a certain unity and identity as proletarians
. Wrapping itself in the scarlet mantle of the Resistance, the Party exerted its gravity upon artists and intellectuals even if they were not members. While directing a withering criticism at the surrealist old guard, Sartre agonized over how to align himself with the Communists, who he still took to be the representatives of the working class.
Saint-Germain offered its own alternative to the collective belonging of communism—the collective belonging of the Letterist movement, led by the charismatic Romanian poet and film-maker Isidore Isou (1925–2007). The rogue surrealist Georges Bataille once described him as a genius who lacked nothing except talent. Sartre hated the Letterists almost as much as he hated Bataille: “Letterism is a substitute product, a flat and conscientious imitation of Dadaist exuberance. One’s heart is no longer in it, one feels the application and haste to succeed.”14
Yet not the least merit of the Letterists is that they were one of the few groups who managed to stay outside of both bourgeois postwar French culture and its Stalinist alternative. They managed to make something enduring, by seizing control over their own self-presentation. These were things for which Myers and her tribe lacked the wherewithal.
Romania gave the world Tristan Tzara, the poet of Dada, and it gave the world Isidore Isou, the prophet of Letterism, who first achieved fame in postwar Paris by publicly embarrassing poor old Tzara, even as he began his own avant-garde practice by appropriating the best Tzara had to offer. Notoriety led to the publication of two of Isou’s books by the venerable, if somewhat compromised, house of Gallimard. Saint-Germain was at the time the center of the French publishing world, so it made sense for a provincial gate-crasher like Isou to install himself the cafés there while finding a way to both scandalize and break into one of the quarter’s few industries. Its other racket was cinema, drawing the
likes of Signoret. Isou would tackle that one too, in his extraordinary film Treatise on Spit and Eternity
While most people approached the postwar years as a time of reconstruction, Isou wanted to push the destruction of culture still further. His trans-historical theory of culture took the will to create as its primary axiom. Not Marxist necessity, not Sartrean freedom, but creation was the highest form of human activity. Creation takes us from the spit of unconsciousness to the eternity of a consciously created history, for while the artist creates within history, the act of creation touches the eternal. All forms—aesthetic and social—move from a stage of amplification
to one of decomposition
. In the amplification stage, a form grows to incorporate whole aspects of existence. The amplified form shapes life and makes it meaningful. During the period of decomposition, forms turn on themselves and become self-referential. Forms fall from grace and from history. As the form decomposes, so does the life to which it once gave shape. Form becomes unreal, and language becomes tame: “Tarzan learns in his father’s book to call tigers cats
Isou applied this theory to all forms, from art to cinema, but poetry had a central place, for he was interested in both the history of poetry and the poetics of history. In modern French poetry, Victor Hugo took the amplification stage as far as it could go. Its decomposition then advanced, phase by phase, through Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Tzara. Dada rendered all existing forms worthless. Dada was conscious decomposition. Isou’s self-appointed task was to complete the reduction of the word to the letter, through a deliberate chiseling of poetry down to its bare elements. By creating a new alphabet, a new language would be possible, which would reconstruct, amplify, and retell the story of the world. Isou’s mission was to gather disciples for an all-out attack on spent forms, and the creation in their place of a fresh language.
Treatise on Spit and Eternity
is almost the masterpiece Isou so confidently proclaimed.17
It has three movements. In the first, Isou wanders the streets of the quarter in his plaid jacket. “The neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is an invention of the author, and represents nothing but the author’s calvary.” The voice-over recounts his (or rather his fictive double Daniel’s) attempt to expound his vision of a new cinema to a hostile audience at a film club who shout him down, usually with stock leftist jibes. Cinema has become obese, he declares.
Its images have become too banal, too artistic
. Cinema is merely “an industry organized in defense of current production.” The cinema of classic unities ...