Among the 44 newly exhibited contemporary masterpieces transforming the presentation of the Art Institute of Chicago’s contemporary collection is, above, Richard Prince, “Untitled” (girlfriend), 2000. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis / Neeson Collection. ©Richard Prince.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
“You are the light of the world
But if that light’s under a bushel
It’s lost something kind of crucial.”
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PARIS — For personal reasons, I’ve resolved this week to get out more and circulate: to try to connect with people, with the esperance that the ame-soeur, the soul-mate, is waiting for me somewhere among them. (If you’re also looking, click here to find out more about me — and the us I’m looking for.) So after a moderately successful noon-time Russian Earl Grey thermos tea on the banks of the mighty Ourcq canal here in Pantin / le pre Saint-Gervais — there was the water but there was also the bruit of the garbage truck which seemed to be following me around, and the blight of the gray Centre National de la Danse behemoth which looks more like a prison than bunhead central — last night I was determined to have at least one coffee at Le Danube, a brightly-lit, recoup-furnished pastel colored bar on the place of the same name dominated by a buxom lime-stone babe that I’ve had my eyes on (the bar, not the babe) since attending a vide-grenier (community-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) and activities fair in the ‘hood nearly five years ago. Before that, I planned to watch the sunset and the people jogging and returning from work from a bench high atop the Buttes Chaumont park, my ears caressed by its water-falls and my chest warmed by more Russian tea, moderated with Algerian mint left over from Saturday’s Palestinian and Jamaican chicken twins feast with my Bellevilloise artiste friends K & R. I’d never liked this man-made park, designed by Colonel Hausmann and just as antiseptic as his apartment buildings, with the clumps of cypress trees divided by a concrete periphery path whose connecting trails never seem to lead to the lake at the bottom… until I started translating Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), in which the young street urchin heroes, who’ve just been taken in by two almost as young publishers of an anarchist journal at the same time they’re hosting members of the violent Bonnot Gang, regal in cavorting amongst the caves and falls before running down to the La Villette Basin. Ragon and his wife Françoise have become my model couple since I met them Saturday afternoon, her nudging her older husband on observations they’ve shared and developed together for 51 years, since getting married in a building constructed by Le Corbusier, a Ragon chou-chou. (Ragon told me he switched to architecture after art magazines, pressured by advertisers, started trying to clamp down on what he could and couldn’t write. When the same thing started happening at the architecture magazines, he turned to books.)
Besides the thermos, the chick — er, soulmate — attracting tools I brought with me were the copy of Ragon’s “Dictionary of Anarchism” M/M gave me (they also gave me, as I was hoping for, a copy of his “Courbet, Painter of Liberty”) and my two vintage ping-pong paddles. (They’re not vintage because I bought them in a vintage store, they’re vintage because I’ve had them since 1973, when I came in second in the city-wide San Francisco championships for the 9-12 age group, having won my ‘hood and my region before getting slaughtered by a nine-year-old Chinese kid half my size whose spin-balls I couldn’t touch. I’ve had the paddles as long as I’ve had this adult carcass, and they’re in a lot better shape.)
Would you play ping-pong with this man? (Photo: Julie Lemberger.)
I’d decided to pack the paddles for this Paris trip after seeing Forest Gump for the first time; stacked on top of the tiny valise he brings with him when he goes to retrieve his childhood sweetheart is a paddle. And after a twilight spotting from a bridge off the Ile St-Louis of a pair of kids playing in the Tino Rossi sculpture park on the Left Bank, I’ve got it into my head that maybe the first step to finding my soul-mate is finding a playmate. At first the idea was to sit on a bench near a table with the rackets until she showed up. But lately I’ve been thinking that instead of going where the ping-pong players are — which might just lead to another shellacking by a tiny Chinese kid — I might have better luck, soul/playmate-wise, taking my paddles to where the chicks hang out, brandishing my most innocent Tom Hanks smile (being careful not to open my mouth too widely, at least not until the denture arrives), and attracting the French nana with the innocent abroad thing, hoping I’ll do better than Lambert Strether in Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” whose innocence is ultimately quashed by European cynicism and hundreds of years of European history. (I’ve been hearing the rebuff Strether’s French lass handed him since an Italian boy told me just after high school, “To understand my sister, you first need to understand our history,” an imposing wall for someone who keeps trying to act like he was born yesterday.)
The tea proved edifying, but — initially anyway — not in the way I’d hoped for.
The last time I took a twilight tea in this spot, I’d been moved by the sight of a young couple who paused at the bench next to me so the man could take the baby-pack from the woman. This time I was devastated by the arrival of a boy in a light blue cap tossing a squeaky ball to a beagle, accompanied by a big man in an olive jacket and darker blue cap who, instead of marveling at this precious moment which will never happen again, remained riveted to his cell-phone screen. I got the impression that if the beagle weren’t there, I could kidnap the kid — perhaps by using the ping-pong paddles as a lure — and the father would keep right on staring at his screen. “Go play with the other dog,” the kid said, as he finally wrenched the squeaky-toy from the beagle’s jaws while his father remained oblivious. “We’ll play with the ball more at home.” I followed them with my eyes another 100 yards until they passed through the iron gate, the distance between the father and son growing.
Things perked up for my own family prospects when a tall and lithesome young woman, perhaps in her thirties, her short curly hair ensconced in a dark brown cap, took a look at me surrounded by all this regalia, hot steaming chrome cup of tea at my lips, paddles by my side, anarchists in hand, and, albeit without slowing down much, spread out her arms and, looking at me in the eyes, smiled as if to proclaim, ‘On est bien la, n’est pas?!,’ to which implicit benediction I responded out loud, “Tranquille.” (Not a worry in the world.)
When it finally got too dark to tell the Christian anarchists from the anarcho-syndicalists from the Action Française anarchists (Ragon lays out five distinct categories in an introduction that’s the most concise sweeping history of anarchism I’ve ever come across), after beholding the layered cushions of the Sun setting over Northeastern Paris I left the park and headed down the street to the Danube, telling myself, “Your sole goal tonight is to buy one coffee. If you do that, the evening will be a success.” But when I looked in at the bar and saw there were just two guys with the requisite five-o’clock shadows seated on leather stools chatting with two crew-cut male bartenders, I decided that there wasn’t any point if there were no women in sight. On the off-chance that She might simply be running late, I decided to walk around the block, hoping that no one would wonder what a swarthy unshaven guy in a dark trenchcoat and “I Heart Golf” beret was doing loitering in the area with a pair of Chinese ping-pong paddles and an anarchist dictionary, and call the “I just saw something suspicious” hotline.
When I returned to the bar, the counter-composition hadn’t changed, and it looked like the chercher la femme playmate crusade would come up empty for the night. But all was not for naught, as I did find a good closer for this column: Looking through the glass at the bright interior of the restaurant to give it a final scoping out before leaving, I spotted, sitting alone at a table — whose neighbor table was free — a woman who resembled either Camille Puglia, Gloria Emerson (the Vietnam war correspondent who’d once chided me in an airport jitney from Princeton to JFK, after I’d bragged that I was already writing for the NY Times at 23, “When David Halberstam was 23 he already had his first Pulitzer”), or my high school advanced composition professor Anne-Lou Klein, looking up towards the heavens as if exasperated by the book in front of her:
“L’Homme Nu.” (The Naked Man.)
C’est moi — comme tu le savez bien, dear reader.
PS: As for my ping-pong paddle as chick magnet theorem: Usually when I smile at a woman on the street here in Paris she just ignores me or grimaces. But as I was crossing the street from the Danube to the avenue General Brunet, paddles clearly in evidence, a young woman who registered Amelie on the light in the eyes scale looked at me and coyly smiled with a glint in her eye, a smile inviting enough to make me want to live to love another day.
I’ve often wondered: If an alien looked down on us, what would he see? At this moment on the streets of Paris, an awful lot of people talking into little boxes or who simply seem to be talking to themselves, ignoring their prochaine to pummel their box with their fingers. Until the aliens arrive, we can count on artists to give us a clairvoyant perspective on this society increasingly depourvu de la contacte humaine. So if you can get away from your little box and lift your eyes long enough to negotiate the narrow labyrinthine rues of the Marais, the above oeuvre by Catherine Balet, “Moods in a Room #34 (2019),” as well as other works by the hybrid artist pastiching painting and photography to investigate contemporary mores, is on view through March 30 at the Galerie Thierry Bigaignon at 9 rue Charlot. (Chaplin — or Charlot as the French call him — no doubt someone else who might have had something to say about the zombies walking the streets with their heads in the cyber-sand.) Courtesy Galerie Thierry Bigaignon. — Paul Ben-Itzak
Running tomorrow through April 29 at the Pompidou Centre, “Jos Houweling, Amsterdam Seventies” features 233 photo-collages many of which were published in the 1975 “700 centenboek Amsterdam” to fete the canal city’s 700th birthday. Above: Jos Houweling,”Toeristen! (Tourists!).” Taken from “700 centenboek Amsterdam,” 1975. Photos glued on cardboard, prints silver-gelatin. ©Centre Pompidou. Photograph of photo-collage: G. Meguerditchian / Dist. RMn-Gp. ©Jos Houweling.
Albert Camus and Maria Casarès. Book cover photo courtesy Gallimard.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Commentary copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
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Previously explored by Olivier Todd in his exhaustive 1996 Gallimard biography and insinuated in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Albert Camus’s inherent self-doubt — in all areas of his life – as he struggled to live up to the principles he extolled for others is now decisively confirmed by the novelist-journalist-philosopher-playwright’s 16 years and 1,275 pages of correspondence with his longtime mistress (for want of a word which would do better justice to their fidelity) Maria Casarès, recently published for the first time by Gallimard after being released by Camus’s daughter Catherine, who inherited the letters from the actress. Portions of the correspondence will be recited this month at the Avignon Festival by Lambert Wilson, whose father George worked with Casarés (including at Avignon), and Isabel Adjani.
A die-hard Camusian ever since being assigned to read “The Plague” in high school (thank you, Ralph Saske), of course I had to request a review copy from the publisher as soon as the correspondence came out, putatively for this article, but with the ulterior ambition of being the first to translate the letters into English and trying to find an American publisher.
Because of the period covered (the pair became lovers in Paris on D-Day 1944, split up the following fall when Camus’s wife Francine returned from Algeria, and reunited in 1948 after bumping into each other on the boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres, remaining together until Camus’s death in a traffic accident on January 4, 1960), I’d hoped to find new insight into Camus’s thought process in preparing “The Fall,” “The Rebel,” and the unfinished autobiographical novel “The First Man” — the hand-written manuscript of the first 261 pages were found among the wreckage and later published by Gallimard — as well as his inner reasoning as he struggled to come up with a resolution for the conflict and war in Algeria, where Camus’s efforts to square his principles with the well-being of his family in the French colony, his birthplace, tore him apart, and his public views pissed off everyone on both sides. (The author ultimately proposed an autonomous state federated with France, and where the ‘colonists’ would be allowed to remain.) From Casarès — the busiest stage and radio actress of the fertile post-War Parisian scene, a major film presence (she played Death in Jean Cocteau’s 1949 “Orpheus”), and the daughter of a former Republican president of Spain — I’d relished the potential accounts and impressions of the playwrights and directors she worked with, a real’s who-who of the French theater world during the Post-War epoch (as attested to by Béatrice Vaillant’s thoroughly documented footnotes), notably Jean Vilar, founder of the Theatre National Populaire and the Avignon Festival.
Unfortunately (if understandably; this is not a criticism of the correspondents, but of Gallimard’s ill-considered decision to make their private, often banal dialogue public), in fulfillment of their main purpose of maintaining the link during their often long separations, necessitated by his retreats for writing, author tours, visits to his family in Algeria, tuberculosis cures, and family vacations — he never divorced Francine — and on hers by performance tours, apart from the travelogues (except where they describe her vacations by the Brittany and Gironde seaside, more interesting on his part), their letters are often dominated by declarations of love and the sufferance of absence (even if your name is Albert Camus, there are only so many interesting ways to say I love you, I want you, I need you), and the often anodyne details of their daily lives apart. Camus tells her to leave nothing out, understandable for an often absent lover, but which ultimately reveals her frivolity and recurrent prejudices (particularly when it comes to male homosexuals, who according to Casarès are typically vengeful). Her manner of chronicling her quotidian activities is often so indiscriminate, investing theatrical rendez-vous with the same level of importance as shopping excursions for furniture to decorate her fifth-floor flat with balcony on the rue Vaugirard, that at one point he mildly rebukes her, “Don’t just write that you had a luncheon appointment, say who it was with.” The best she can come up with to describe the experience of making “Orpheus” with Cocteau is that she was annoyed by the autograph-seekers who showed up at the outdoor shoots, not the only instance where she disdains her public. And when it comes to the radio productions which seem to constitute her main employ, at least in Paris, she often refers to “having a radio today,” without even naming the play in question. (When Camus refers to “a radio,” he means an x-ray to analyze the progress or regression of the chronic tuberculosis which dogged him all his life.) Never mind that the radios in question were plays by the leading European writers of the day, as well as classics. But the part I found myself resenting a bit – as someone who would have loved to have had a tenth of the dramatic opportunities Casarès did – is that at times she seems to treat her theater work, particularly the radio recordings, as almost onerous. (This morning on French public radio, in a live interview from the same Avignon festival, the director Irene Brook, Peter’s daughter, recognized that “we’re very privileged to be able to pass our days rehearsing theater.”)
When it comes to discussing his work, at most Camus refers to his progress on the literary task at hand or writers’ blocks impeding it, rarely going into the philosophical or political issues he’s grappling with – some of the headiest of the Post-War period, French intellectuals’ inclination towards which Camus was instrumental in forming. As for the letters from Algeria, typically occasioned by visits to his mother, uncle, and brother’s family, if Camus’s native’s appreciation for and adoration of the landscape is apparent, even lyrical (particularly in recounting excursions to Tipassa), he dwells mostly on his ageing mother’s maladies, and rarely comments on the sometimes violently contested political encounters he was having at the time. If anything, their relationship was their havre, a refuge and sanctuary from the demands of his calling and the rigors of what she seems to have considered more obligations than labors of love. (From his letters to his wife cited by Todd – at one point he tells her he regards her more as a sister than a spouse – Camus was much more likely to discuss his thinking process with Francine than with Casarès, at least in his letters.)
This is not to say there are no newsworthy stories here. For Camus, the story, albeit one already explored by Todd in his biography (for which Todd apparently had access to the letters), is the author-philosopher’s continually frustrated efforts to live his private life in accordance with his public principles. Moral responsibility (and fidelity) to one’s community, and the need to be exemplary even in the most trying of circumstances and times — two of the principal themes of “The Plague” — dictate that he remain in a conjugally loveless marriage, which means he can never shack up for good with the woman he loves, to her great frustration. (Never mind that he’s an atheist — which he hedges here at times by asking Casarès to pray to her god, sometimes on his behalf — Francine is a practicing Catholic.) The right, voir obligation, to be happy — another pillar central not only to “The Plague” but Camus’s over-riding philosophy of positive Existentialism, where one must still find meaning even in the most trying of circumstances — would insist that he fully commit himself to Casarès and the complete realization of their love. Because he ultimately can’t square the two principles, everyone — Francine, Maria, and himself — is often miserable.
A fourth, and perhaps the author’s most personally invested, theme of “The Plague” — absence and separation — is indeed one of the two principal unifying themes that emerge from the letters, but given that the book was published in 1948, when their relationship began in earnest, at best the letters furnish an after-the-fact illustration and elaboration of this theme, their particular separations having played no role in its actual development. (The absence and separation which inspired “The Plague” being the one the war imposed between the author and his wife Francine, who remained in Algeria.)
If there is a bonafide, universally resonant story here (besides the humanizing of a super-human philosopher), it is that of the ultimate unconditional love. After some initial resistance (expressed in face to face, and animated, arguments referred to and regurgitated in her letters), Casarès never demands that Camus leave his wife, even though it means she can’t have a true domicile conjugal, with a companion and children to come home to (at least as manifest in the letters, she remained loyal to him, even though he had at least two other mistresses during the time they were together, according to Todd). For his part, if he doesn’t hear from her for more than a week when they’re apart, he worries that she might be drifting away and sinks into a morose depression, unable even to work. If I know these things — here’s where the unconditionality comes in — it’s because they’ve made a pact, referred to in the letters, to share everything without holding back, no matter how ridiculous or petty the sentiment might seem. And they stick to this agreement faithfully.
The other element that links the author and the actress — how they fulfill and complete each other — is a shared, desperate need for nature, primarily the sea (although he’s also able to appreciate the pictorial value of the mountainous terrains he often finds himself confined to, for writing and health retreats; but we didn’t need the publication of these letters to know that Camus was an adroit paysagist). Maria’s most brilliant and moving passages describe her merging with the sea on an island in Bretagne or off a beach in the Gironde, her two vacation retreats. (If I use the first name, it’s because on these occasions, watching her galloping into the waves to meet the surf head on, I feel like I’m discovering the child inside the woman.) Camus’s descriptions of a return to Rome — which he values as a living monument to art and archeology — are also inspiring (they made me want to go there, or at least watch “Roman Holiday” again), and a personal review of a London production of “Caligula” that he finds lacking is scathingly funny.
The most poignant moment comes not so much at the juncture we expect — Camus’s final letter, of December 30, 1959, alerting Casarès he’ll arrive back in Paris by the following Tuesday “in principal, barring hazards encountered en route,” and where he looks forward to embracing her and “recommencing” — but earlier in the same year. Casarès has just decided to leave the TNP (over Vilar’s latest caprices, this time insisting on his right to call the actors during a well-earned vacation), after five years, which followed a shorter stay at the stodgy Comedie Française. I dream of living in a roulotte — or covered gypsy wagon — and hitting the road, she tells him. (He’s welcome to join her, but her plans don’t depend on that eventuality.) He encourages this dream, but notes, in the manner of a supportive but prudent parent, that she should realize that just because she’ll be living in a roulotte doesn’t mean she’ll be free and independent; it just means she’ll be living in a community surrounded by other roulottes. “Even in roulottes, there are rules.” This could be an analogy for their 16-year relationship, an emotional vagabondage inevitably — and fatally — tethered by the rigors, responsibilities, and rules of living in good society.
If the example of unconditional love revealed in the letters is compelling and inspiring, the moral problem I have with Gallimard’s publishing them is that there’s no indication that the professional writer involved intended for them to be made public. The problem is not just one of intrusion and indiscretion (Todd cites a note to Camus from Roger Martin du Garde to the effect that a writer owes the public his work, not his private life, inferring from this that Camus subscribed to the same belief), but that *with works he knew were destined for publication*, Camus was a scrupulous and meticulous perfectionist. Counting the war, “The Plague” took eight years to write, from gestation to publication. “The First Man” started germinating in 1952, and by the author’s death eight years later was only one third finished, according to his outline. Both Todd’s biography and the letters themselves confirm that Camus worked, re-worked, and re-wrote his books and articles, and even after they were published continued to be besieged by doubts. (Notably over “The Rebel,” virulently attacked by Sartre and his Modern Times lackey Francis Jeansen, the former not confining himself to taking on the treatise’s arguments but attacking Camus personally, like a Sorbonne senior with a superiority complex upbraiding an underclassman who has the moxey to challenge him.)
If an argument can be made for making them available to researchers for biographical purposes — in the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale, for example, or of the university in Aix-en-Provence, a region where many of Camus’s papers are located — my feeling, as a Camus loyalist, is that these letters should not have been published. If Catherine Camus’s motivations in releasing them should not be questioned — she’s been an assiduous guardian of her father’s legacy, and who can interject themselves into the complex considerations, even after death, created by the relationship between a daughter and the father she lost prematurely at age 14? – I’m flummoxed by Gallimard’s decision, given the meager literary and biographical value of the result. (A caveat and reservation: Camus does tell Casarès at one point that everything in him which connects him to humanity, he owes to her; at another, on July 21, 1958: “As the years have gone buy, I’ve lost my roots, in lieu of creating them, except for one, you, my living source, the only thing which today attaches me to the real world.”)
After finishing them, I was still, nonetheless, on the bubble about the letters’ inherent worth, and worthiness as a translation project. What red-blooded Camusian doesn’t want to be the first to translate freshly released words by his idol into English?! Less self-interestedly, I considered that perhaps the lessons of this extraordinarily unconditional love justified the value to potential English-language readers of a translation. And then there was the lingering vision of Maria running joyously, fearlessly into the waves in the Gironde, or holed up in a cave on the obscure side of a Brittany island as the tide rises and the waves begin to crash against the uneven rocks under her naked feet, imperiling her own life and engendering Camus’s chagrin when she describes the episode to him. And above all the penultimate image of Casarès, liberated by a relationship whose restrictions might have fettered anybody else, terminating her contract with the TNP and setting off to see the world in a roulotte, after Camus’s parting advice to be careful. When it informed me that the book was still in the “reading” stage at several Anglophone publishers, with no firm commitment for a translated edition, I even asked the foreign rights department at Gallimard if it would be open to a partial, selective translation of the letters.
But then, after dawdling over the 1,275 pages of correspondence between Maria Casarès and Albert Camus for three months, I read Gallmeister’s 2014 translation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and was reminded of what literature is. (This despite the rudimentary translation; it reads like one.) And isn’t. Albert Camus, like Kurt Vonnegut, set a high bar for what constituted literature, working it, re-working it, and re-working it again before he felt it was ready for his public. (And even then, continued to be wracked by doubts.) These letters were not meant for that public. When Vonnegut, for “Breakfast of Champions,” decided to share his penis size, he knew he was exposing himself on the public Commons. When Camus shared his innermost thoughts, doubts, and fears with the most important person in his life, he did not.
Post-Script: Because you got this far and deserve a reward; because they do reveal a rare lighter side to Camus which, their correspondence suggests, Casarès was at times able to elicit from an author whose work rarely reveals a sense of humor; because I can’t resist the urge to translate, for the first time in English, at least a smidgeon of previously unreleased Camus; and above all because these morsels were at least theoretically intended for a public larger than their couple, voila my renderings of several “search apartment with view on ocean” letters written by Camus on Casarès’s behalf in 1951 and 1952 appended to the correspondence (and which serendipitously mirror my own current search):
At times I dream — living in the midst of flames as I do, because the dramatic art is a pyre to which the actor lights the match himself, only to be consumed every night, and you can imagine what it’s like in a Paris already burning up in the midst of July, when the soul itself is covered in ashes and half-burned logs, until the moment when the winds of poetry surge forth and whip up the high clear flame which possesses us — at times I dream, therefore, and as I was saying, and in this case the dream becomes the father of action, taking on an avid and irreal air, I dream, at the end of the day, of a place sans rules or limits and where the fire which pushes me on finally smolders out, I’ve been thinking that your coast with its nice clear name would not refuse to welcome the humble priestess of [Th… ], and her brother in art, to envelope their solitude in the tireless spraying of the eternal sea. Two rooms and two hearts, some planks, the sea whistling at our feet, and the best possible bargain, this is what I’m looking for. Can you answer my prayers?
Two words. I’m hot and I’m dirty, but I’m not alone. The beach, therefore, and water, two rooms, wood for free or next to nothing. Looking forward to hearing back from you.
PS: I forgot: August.
Dear Sir or Madame,
Voila first of all what I want forgive me I’m forced to request this from you but everything’s happening so fast and everyone’s talking and talking and nothing comes from all the talking it’s too late so here’s what I need I am going in a bit with my comrade to take the train to Bordeaux it gets better it’s on the beach and even better it doesn’t cost anything question that is to say I don’t have any money but I’m confident. So, goodbye, monsieur, and thanks for the response which I hope comes soon it’s starting to get hot here.
To a housing cooperative
Two rooms please open on the night
I’ll cluster my people and hide my suffering
As far as money goes it’s a bit tight
I’ll be on the coast but no ker-ching, ker-ching.
— Albert Camus, for Maria Casarès, translated (liberally) by Paul Ben-Itzak
By Lola Lafon, as translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright Actes Sud; translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
“Heartless powers try to tell us what to think
If the spirit’s sleeping then the flesh is ink
History’s page will be neatly carved in stone
The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own
On our own, on our own, we are on our own.”
— “Throwing Stones,” lyrics by John Perry Barlow, songwriter for the Grateful Dead and visionary co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Click here to listen.)
“You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.”
— Patti Smith’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” cited by Lola Lafon in “Mercy Mary Patty”
“Qu’on se moque pas de mon âme.” (Don’t mock my soul)
— Lola Lafon, “Mon Ame,” from the album “Grandir a l’envers de rien” (Growing up on the other side of nothing) (Recording here.)
“Je suis perdu, je suis revenu.” (I’m lost, I’ve returned)
— Lola Lafon, ibid
(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California 45 years ago today.)
Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K., and courtesy Actes-Sud.
Translator’s note: If the ‘you’ addressed by Lola Lafon’s narrator is Neveva Gene, the fictional American professor teaching at a private women’s college in rural France who’s been hired by Patricia Hearst’s attorneys to analyze the Hearst coverage and the tape-recorded messages from Patty released by her kidnappers the “Symbionese Liberation Army” as they try to prove she was brainwashed or coerced into participating in the SLA crimes, this is not a case of the author pretending to be the interior voice of her protagonist. There’s a practical explanation: As becomes clear over the course of the book, the narrator grew up as one of the adopted charges of the adult Violaine, subsequent to the latter’s apprenticeship with Neveva in 1974. During that apprenticeship — while working on the Hearst brief – the French teenager kept a diary. So when the narrator, finding her way to Smith College in 2015 (see first excerpt below) explains (still addressing Gene), “I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you (emphasis added),” she means that she’s supposing Neveva – and the details of her collaboration with the French teenager Violaine on the Hearst case and their ensuing relationship which form the bulk of the novel – based on what Violaine has told her and on her own reading and interpretation of Violaine’s notes. (In addressing Gene in the second person, Lafon employs the formal “vous,” thus dispensing with any notion that she’s presuming to be the character’s interior voice.) I discovered Lola Lafon when her album Growing up on the other side of nothing was among a box of CDs left on the doorstep of my Belleville apartment building on November 12, 2015, the night before the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in the music halls and stadiums and on the café terraces of Paris. Her music (see link below) accompanied me during the soul-wrenching days, weeks, and months that followed. So when I heard that Lafon had taken on an episode of my own youth in San Francisco of 1974-75 — in part as a way, in my interpretation, to understand what was happening to too many youth in my Paris of 2015 — I had to find out what she had to say. In “Mary Mercy Patty” Lafon reveals things about my own self — and the impact the Hearst episode had on the fragile pre-adolescent I was — that I hadn’t previously seen. )
In this world where everything is manipulated, where the only thing that can’t be split up is money, and where the heart is rent in half, you can’t rest neutrally on the sidelines.
–Paul Nizan, “La Conspiration,” cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy Mary Patty”
You write of the disappearing teen-aged girls. You write of these missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to search out new vistas without the ability to sort the good from the rotten, elusive, their minds shutting out adults. You question our brutal need to ‘just talk some sense into them.’ You write of the rage of these young people who, at night, in their bedrooms surrounded by stuffed animals, dream up victorious evasions, boarding dilapidated buses, trains, and strangers’ cars, abandoning the neatly paved road for the rubble.
“Mercy Mary Patty,” your study published in 1977 in the U.S., which has just been re-issued, augmented with a new preface by you and a brief publisher’s note, is dedicated to them. It’s not yet been translated into French. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your résumé, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through your teaching positions: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic revues over the past few months underline the importance of your research, magazines analyze what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker devotes two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenaged girls, from Mercy Short** in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.” The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga is old history, You’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one idolizes a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s probably listed in the faculty directory.
But I’m not looking for you. Your office is on the second floor of the building I walk by every morning but it doesn’t matter because I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you. I explain my reason for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I recount, I refer to “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing right there next to us and insist upon it, I pronounce “Neveva” in the same way as your students in France who venerated you and who I was not one of, Neveva Gene who arrived in a village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1974 hastily tacked up notices at the village’s two bakeries, Wanted female student with high level of spoken and written English, full-time job for 15 days. Adults need not apply. URGENT.
The three girls who have responded to your notice are there, sitting across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater sports elbow patches, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’
Squeezed into a window nook, one by one the candidates rattle off their credentials in an effort to win you over, this one is studying English Literature at the university, the next has already been to the U.S. twice, speaking English fluently is important if you’re going to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she refers to taking a “pause” since graduating from high school in June and the need to make a little bread. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied at Smith College in Massachusetts, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student there. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t ring a bell to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the embarrassed looks of the postulants. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which you find alarming, it’s a novel that’s more than a little dubious, above all Smith had the honor of admitting the first African-American woman to graduate from college, in 1900: Otelia Cromwell.
American Lifestyle and Culture, the course you’re teaching at the College of the Dunes, is multi-faceted; you rapidly enumerate what you’d anticipated teaching before you arrived, the distinct architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, an examination of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” an explanation of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Daunting program. The fact is that you harbored big hopes for this college. They should see the welcome brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift aimlessly about after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, adorable domestic pets brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand absolutely nothing in the articles you hand out. The young candidates say nothing and wait politely to find out what this has got to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just terrified now at the idea of being subjected to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?
But where did you learn to speak English like that, you ask the third candidate who immediately blushes, she refers to American songs whose lyrics she likes to copy, they’re actually British you point out, amused, when she recites the words from the Rolling Stones’s “Time Waits for No One” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” She lists her favorite movies, every week on the second public television channel a film is projected with sub-titles, the ciné-club, she never misses it even if it’s on late, 11 o’clock, you call her an Americanophile, she stammers, not sure if this is good or bad. All three listen to you, petrified, as you imitate the annual speech of the director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing to do with not accepting boys in my establishment but offering girls special attention! To liberate them from their own fears!” You want to know their opinion: Would they like to study there, where one has access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Cinema History, Introduction to Baroque Singing, Judo, and Modern Dance? The third girl’s answer — the tuition is too high — you greet with exaltation, as if it were a scientific breakthrough: Eggs-act-ly! Yes! The very principal of this establishment is a contradiction: Emancipate only those who have the means to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. (In English in the original.)
Suddenly, you climb up onto the Plexiglas chair. You grab a box stored on the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you announce in designating the package of American origin, as attested to by an impressive quantity of identical green stamps glued across the top of the box. The job of whoever you decide to hire is entirely contained within, you show them the folders overflowing with press clips, half open a plastic bag filled with cassette tapes resembling those teenagers use to record their favorite songs off the radio. You have to write a report, and you won’t have the time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you explain to them, pointing your finger at the box. You insist on an availability that will be indispensable but of a limited duration, 15 days maximum.
“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re on the landing when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates hastens to answer: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she was killed. No, you correct her, she’s alive, the police caught her. It’s the kidnappers who are dead. And you’ve been hired to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask about this mysterious “they” who have engaged your services or why “they” picked you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also a foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That’s enough in itself. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distressed, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That same night, her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand on the telephone: It’s for you, a funny accent, certainly the American professor.
“Is it accepted here to go to teachers’ homes?,” you ask the young woman you’ve annointed as your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my home. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you to not let yourself be gypped. By the way, are you really 18? I’d put you more at 15.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst, you add before hanging up.
During the rambling job interview — a real Show — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you afraid of scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you worried that their parents will be alarmed to see them working on such a subject? You’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 habitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything, talks about everything, judges everything. It takes time to explain the complexities and nuances of the drama to your interlocutors and time is the one thing you don’t have a lot of. What angle of approach will you use to study the trajectory of this young American? Which episode will you start with?
That of the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst on February 4, 1974 by an obscure revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the first message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording deposited by her abductors at the entrance to a radical radio station which mesmerized the entire country, her feeble voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m all right”? How to explain to these French girls just looking for work that in the eyes of the FBI, the victim metamorphosed into a perpetrator in less than two months; converted to the Marxist cause of her captors, she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, armed with an M1. It’s understandable that you’re cautious about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.
As for your task, the “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and consign Patricia’s lawyer, your client, to the shadows. You have just 15 days to find something in the cardboard box overflowing with Xeroxes that will help you write an expert report proving the innocence of this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial date approaches. 15 days to determine, who is the real Patricia Hearst?: a Marxist terrorist, a lost co-ed, an authentic revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with her sights set on America?
A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep with boundless enthusiasm, you lean forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a sloppy wet kiss on me — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog so he’ll amscray.
You put some sugar-coated cookies out on a plate, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, saveur Russe, it’s up to her, you indicate 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea, it’s only imbibed when one’s sick. Remaining standing, she listens to you, her cup in hand, you’ve not invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.
“Summarizing the articles would be too fastidious, we need to concentrate on the details,” with a finger you pick at the frayed edges of the cardboard box posed on the dining room table. The French girl acquiesces, looking for signs, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone, the reddened nostrils testify to this, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are yellowed with tobacco, you laugh with your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled necklaces peak out from a half-opened drawer; you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, twice you allude to your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the expression suggests an extended adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the WC you continue talking to your assistant, yelling at her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.
You’re the first American she’s ever met. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and movie stars, hearing her own voice become foreign makes your first day together an intoxicating role-playing game. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by name: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls, you rub your eyes like a tired child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you marvel at the manila folders that the girl has prepared, as well as the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her bag.
“I love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you, ‘Violette,’ maybe because it makes you sound too much like a fragile flower….”
My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You skooch your legs under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the smoke rings evaporating before they hit the ceiling.
“It’s important, a first name, it’s a birth. Violaine. Not easy to pronounce for an American but o-kay. You know, Vi-o-lai-nuh, what will remain unforgettable for me when I go back to the United States?”
The thunder-storms. The mountains. On the beach, on certain days, one can make them out etched into the fog, when they lock themselves around the ocean like an open hand it’s a good sign that it will be sunny the next day, your assistant is amused to hear you recite with such conviction the sayings of the old-timers.
The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean rose up to the level of the dunes! The paths along the moors. Absolutely identical, no point of reference, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern tree is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which melts into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that ends up embedded in your purse, encrusted in the spirals of your notebooks, stuck to the base of the bed, clinging to the soleus of your calves, rooted in your socks.
Mlle Neveva won’t forget the sand, she who’s just baptized herself Violaine notes in her journal with the detachment of a documentarian, omitting the fleeting moment when she thinks she hears you qualify her as unforgettable even though she barely knows you.
The sand, you repeat practically every day, exasperated, removing your tennis shoes and shaking them out over the ground.
When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. Her only wish is to get back to the equilibrium of those first days, to be your helping hand which cuts out the newspaper and magazine clippings, translates, and pastes. Rather than being the person who slows you down and annoys you and doesn’t hear the same thing you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village’s bar / smoke-shop, a change of ambiance will help.
It’s noon, people are emerging from the chapel, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who you never let out of your sight, you whistle and put an end to the social whirl. You dismiss all these pious church-goers out loud in English, tell Violaine to note their holier-than-though airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies — our own.
When you walk into the café, the men aligned along the counter rivet their eyes on you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a little too big reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.
This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavski Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the big American actors, Robert de Niro used it for his approach to playing Travis McGee in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It includes an abundance of exercises to aid in character-building. And without a doubt, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll portray Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you; what, Marxism isn’t contagious?!
“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”
“Alone,” Violaine suggests.
“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”
“Too mature for her age.”
“Too many words, Violaine! Susceptible and superficial?”
“Typical teenager,” you fire back, sticking your tongue out at Violaine.
“A symbolic example.”
A symbolic example? Of what? Your assistant is talking nonsense, she has no idea, she’s simply parroting what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to one’s character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, college sophomore, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, convict? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, regretting all the same to find herself disagreeing with you yet again. You continue to insist that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, does Violaine act the same with her parents as here in the bar, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.
The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! — his wrist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter, who slinks away, the bar is full, the regulars just coming from the rugby match, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone in all the hubbub, you step up to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal then say calves shouldn’t be killed. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”
A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder this time, so that everyone can hear, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, she talks about you all the time, you interrupt them, she should read Brecht, their daughter, voilà, the glasses are refilled and clinked, dirty fascists, then, in the midst of this mob, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its messages, “Death to the fascist insect who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, amazed, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so often in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you take hold of her hand and execute a rapid, exaggeratedly ceremonious kiss of the hand, everyone whistles for you, you graciously acknowledge them as in the theater.
You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests, It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Weaving along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing, recalling the perturbed air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way one can never separate those two in class, the sadistic books that one devours, the stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of that one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which hide the property of Violaine’s parents. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the terrible racket which rages around here — you indicate with a large gesture the forest and the disparate other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their salon for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s cold, that around these parts the expression is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the living-room lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which doesn’t come. As if it weren’t night, with the humid sand under your naked feet — you clutch your shoes in your hands, they clutch you — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll go back to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice what happened when you recounted how, during a Nina Simone concert, her parents had to give up their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. Nothing happened. Not a shadow of indignation.
The bar had never been so quiet. Violaine should remember it, this stillness, it has an acrid taste, it’s the silence of that which remains unspoken, those who didn’t flinch at the mention of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but they said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his camp. There’s no such thing as neutrality.
Day 14 (Excerpt)
Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the following morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve really only just begun writing it. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this recording, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “… understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.”
When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, “all the others,” does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what is she supposed to be the example, Patricia…?
You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be better placed than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more intriguing.
But here at your side sits a skinny French teenager. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re going to refuse to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you also can’t allow yourself to hear it, you whose job is to prove that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need.
Are you eviscerated by an experiment which is not turning out the way you wanted it to, all these discussions in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed? Are you drained, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied by the prison sentence in store for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence — or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have lived a dream life, the trial promises to be extremely mediatized, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene couldn’t be bothered to come up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing open the door to your bedroom to reveal, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One melting into the other, the covers overlapping and supplanting each other.
The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia bearing a wide grin, under the tender blue of a fixed horizon, her hair tossed and tussled by an ocean breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” with a pensive Patricia coiled up in a vast green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, his hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”
Violaine sinks to her knees, careful not to move the photos. Here’s the most recent one, you indicate the Time cover from April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, but fire. The background of the image is red,**** like the fire of a nightmare which announces the color, red like the flag of the SLA in front of which she poses, her legs slightly apart, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.
You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The discourse itself but also Patricia’s tone, the way she talks to her parents. You propose to listen to the recording three times, once with the eyes closed, to take notes, and then to rapidly read the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.
Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974
“I’d like to start out by emphasizing that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is how I feel. No one’s ever forced me to say anything in these messages. I haven’t been brainwashed, or drugged, or tortured, or hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety. Your gifts were an act. You tried to fool people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI used to try to kill me and the members of the SLA. You pretended you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is, for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything to extend its power over others, even if this means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who don’t give a hoot about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.
“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve decided to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to line up for food, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and for the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the people. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be taken away. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, the poor and oppressed of this country, what the government’s getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of Big Business. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t have need of anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and then the elimination of the useless will begin. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of order and the laws are just an excuse to get rid of the supposedly violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I should have known that you, like other businessmen, you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reasons. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?
My name has been changed to Tania, in homage to a comrade of the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely in an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.“
From pages 139-140:
(The “I” in this segment is the narrator herself, now an adult after having in her turn grown up at the knees of the adult Violaine.)
I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young women are vanishing from their homes. They’re signaled at the borders, designated “S” (likely to commit terrorist acts), inscribed in organizational charts, with graphics establishing the co-relations between them: Coming from the Middle Class for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and displayed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they ask accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we remain immobile, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations of adults panicked by these impenetrable young girls and who propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one but a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania)
From the Arts Voyager / Paris Tribune archives: From our coverage of the 2018 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Is Fashion Modern?, Display figures with hijab, in East Jerusalem market. Photo by Danny-w. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
From the exhibition Sigmund Freud, From Seeing to Listening, on view at the Museum of the History and Art of Judaism through February 10: Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du monde” (The Creation of the World), 1866. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. © Paris, musée d’Orsay.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — A sort of anthropological elaboration on his discovery that the model for Gustave Courbet’s alternately maligned and celebrated 1866 painting “L’origine du monde” (most recently in the news when the luddites at Facebook tried to ban it; okay to use us to recruit terrorists, but art is too dangerous) was the Paris Opera Ballet dancer Constance Quéniaux — the author uses her trajectory as a window into the world of the late 19th-century Parisiennne courtesan — Claude Schopp’s “L’origine du monde: Vie du modèle,” published by Phébus, should be required reading in schools of journalism, for both its positive demonstration that investigative journalism relies as much on scrupulous research as vigorous legwork and its negative example of how to pad out (or as the French say, embroider) a story. Given that Schopp has singularly taken the mystery out of a major work of art that managed to retain it for 150 years, the achievement is dubious.
It’s easy to forget, in this era of “gotchya” journalism, the example set for my generation of Woodstein wannabes by the Washington Post reporters who brought a president down. They did this not by digging in the White House trash-cans but because a cops reporter named Bob Woodward had his ears perked and was smart enough to recognize the national implications of a local hotel break-in when it came up on the municipal court docket.
Claude Schopp’s solving of a mystery which has intrigued art aficionados since the work Anglophones know as “The Creation of the World” was created in 1866 came in an even more staid setting, the musty research rooms of the French National Library on the Seine. And it came because Schopp is what the late Joseph H. Mazo, one of my mentors, used to call (as in I’m looking for) “an anal copy editor.”
The leading living expert on Alexander Dumas Jr., Schopp was preparing a book on the correspondence of the latter with George Sand, the good woman behind at least four great men of 19th-century European arts and letters (Chopin, Dumas senior and junior, and Flaubert). He’d already revealed, in “Alexander Dumas, Jr. — the anti-Oedipus” (Phébus 2017) how the son had rescued a batch of love letters between the woman he referred to as “Mom” and Chopin (while chasing after his own elusive mistress in an obscure Slavic border town), subsequently burned by Sand. That book also proved that Schopp does not have his head buried in the past; the revelation of a screed Dumas Junior had written supporting a law (still on the books at least as recently as 1872) which gave a man the right to kill his unfaithful spouse helps explain what some see as the retrograde status of women in contemporary France; they’ve had a long way to come, Baby. (Junior, who as the author of “Camille” might have been expected to have more sympathy for women, terminated his piece with “Kill her!”)
So it’s no surprise that this reactionary, no friend of the Paris Commune (organized by Parisians who refused Versailles’s surrender to the Prussians), would pen a report for the Rouen News on June 6, 1871 lambasting its most prominent artistic avatar: Gustave Courbet, who had famously brought down the Vendome column (as being a symbol of Versailles) and was subsequently ruined when he was forced to pay for its restoration.
“What kind of fabulous copulation of a slug and a peacock,” Dumas asked, “what procreative antitheses, what sebaceous oozing could have possibly generated, for instance, this thing known as Gustave Courbet? Under what blister, with the help of what compost, as the result of what mixture of wine, beer, and corrosive mucus and flatulent edema could this pilose, loud gourd, this aesthetic stomach, this incarnation of the imbecile and impotent Me have sprouted?”
Mlle Constance Quéniaux par Disdéri, BnF, département des Estampes et de la Photographie.
It was while examining the transcription of Dumas Junior’s response to the letter “Mom” must have subsequently written him defending Courbet (as Dumas’s letter suggests; the Sand letter to which he’s presumably responding is lost) that Claude “Eagle-Eye” Schopp stumbled on the identify of the model for “L’origine du Monde”:
“There’s no excuse for Courbet — this is why I piled it on,” Dumas explains to Sand. “When one has his talent which, without being exceptional, is remarkable and interesting, one doesn’t have the right to be so proud, so insolent, and so cowardly — not to mention that one simply does not paint with such a delicate and sonorous paintbrush the *interview* (emphasis added) of Mademoiselle Quéniaux of the Paris Opera Ballet, for the Turk who dwelled there from time to time, above all in such an in-your-face, natural manner, not to mention painting two women passing as men,” the latter a reference to the painter’s “Sleep,” in which two luxuriant odalisques cuddle in a nap. “All this is ignoble…. Compared to this I’ll forgive him for toppling the Vendome column and suppressing God, who must be laughing like a little fool.”
Struck by not just the senselessness but the epoch and language incongruity of the English word “interview” in a letter from 1871, Schopp asked to examine the original manuscript in the Library’s collection, and discovered that the handwritten word was clearly not ‘interview’ but *intérieure* — the word is underlined, and easily legible even in the reduced reproduction in the book, including that accent over the first e.
For a rigorous scholar like Schopp, though, this wasn’t good enough, so he then set about looking for connections between the four principals — Courbet, Quéniaux, Dumas Junior, and the evident Turk in question, the Ottoman ambassador and playboy Khalil Bey, who had been the dancer’s lover. Thus it was that he uncovered that the painting had been a vanity commission for the painter from “the Turk” — paint my mistress — and who subsequently kept it hidden behind a curtain in his salon, with only the select privileged with an occasional viewing. (Schopp also found accounts from some of these contemporary witnesses.) The Dumas-Bey and Dumas-Quéniaux connections — which would explain how the writer had access to this intimate knowledge — are more sketchy; Dumas’s lover was Quéniaux’s best friend, and the writer and the ambassador had at different points both bought at auction Delacroix’s 1839 painting, “La Tasse dans la maison des fous,” which inspired Baudelaire to write (and which I know because the poem illustrates the painting’s or a drawing of its appearance in a 1905 auction catalogue in my own possession):
Le poète au cachot, débraillé, maladif,
Roulant un manuscrit sous son pied convulsif,
Measure d’un regard que la terreur enflamme
L’escalier de vertige où s’abîme son âme.
(The poet in solitary confinement, slovenly, darkly pensive
Rolling a manuscript under his foot so convulsive
Realizing with a regard that the terror like fire to coal
is consuming the vertiginous stairwell roughing up his soul.)
(Click here to read more of the poem, in French and in English translation.)
So far so good but still not enough to justify a whole book, so Schopp pads it out with a portrait of the world of the demoiselles that is not particularly original for anyone who’s read Balzac or Zola, except in a conclusion where he adduces Quéniaux as the proof that not all courtisans ended up like Zola’s Nana or Dumas Junior’s Camille, dying young and consumptive after destroying or being deserted by everyone around them. And everything: Schopp goes into much — too much — detail listing all the beautiful things with which the retired dancer went on to surround herself in homes in Normandy and on the rue Royale, not far from the Church de la Madeline. His detailing of her good works — in charity — is more justified, until you get to the part where he supposes, without any evidence, where all this money came from, namely from being a prostitute, or mistress if you prefer. And it doesn’t stop there; he goes so far as to make the generalizing statement that the line between dancer and hooker — or mistress — was fine at the time, the slippery slope of retirement leading from one to the other. I guess Claude Schopp never heard of Marie Taglioni, the Paris Opera Ballet dancer and school founder who was the first to dance on point artistically, and who was still giving classes to English girls when she died.
The other padding is more onerous, consisting of quoting two pages-worth’s (on multiple occasions) of passages from contemporary gossip pages on theater parties or benefits just because Quéniaux makes an appearance, or recurring sequences on an old fogey of an operetta writer whose (platonic) harem included her and, worse, naming every single witness, including their profession and address, who signed every single birth or death certificate of even the most peripheral figures to the tale. It’s as if the very talent which lead Schopp to the discovery — scholarly meticulousness — took over the project, with the means getting confused for the end.
But there’s a larger problem here, and it’s the same one I have with the original painting’s current exhibition at the Museum of Jewish History and Art in the Marais in the (re)context(ualizing) of an exhibition on Sigmund Freud.
The great thing about art is its mystery, the room it leaves for the viewer to collaborate in constructing its meaning. That viewer might be a fancy-schmancy critic like me, or it might be the cowgirl I once overheard telling her cowboy and his friend, on coming upon a Charles Russell painting of two young Indians accompanied by an older women in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, “Reminds me of our first date; mom insisted on chaperoning us.” In creating the painting whose English title is “Creation of the World,” Courbet offered his viewers the greatest source of mystery in the world, open to multiple interpretations, from the most basic (or base) to the most wondrous. (If he’d wanted it to be a portrait, he wouldn’t have cut her head off.) He invited them to participate in creating his grand oeuvre’s meaning. Schopp has now killed those infinite possibilities by revealing, “It was Constance Quéniaux.” (As the Jewish Museum has done by latching the painting onto Freud, as if his interpretation of the world and juicing up of male complexes around the vagina hasn’t already screwed us up enough.) I’m also reminded of what Andre Malraux said about Degas’s nudes (in the series of lectures that became “The Psychology of Art”), that the subject is not the model but color.
In other words: It’s about the art, stupid. Or to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A work of art is a work of art is a work of art.
Cover jacket for Claude Schopp’s “L’origine du monde, vie du modèle.”
In the case of Schopp and his publisher, It’s almost as if they just had to take away the mystery and vulgarize it, in both senses of that term. (In French, ‘vulgarize’ means ‘popularize.’) As if it’s not bad enough that a publisher with such an impressively esoteric list (except for the Dumases, I haven’t heard of any of its authors) and a scholar whose previous work, the Dumas Junior biography, operated on a much higher level, plunging into the artistic processes and relationship of father and son, could sink no low, they’ve compounded the vulgarity by the book’s cover. (See illustration.) When I first visited Paris in 2000, I loved how, unlike the cultural fathers and mothers of New York, the French had no compunction about revealing naked bodies in art, in sculpture gardens, and in performance. (No ‘Family Unfriendly’ warnings here.) So why, instead of sticking to that high standard in their cover illustration, have these representatives of French intellectuals sunk to the low level of Facebook, which has infamously banned Courbet’s oeuvre?