Under the pavés of Parisian History

We should be willing to read one volume about every street in the city, and should still ask for more… But each Londoner has a London in his mind which is the real London… and each feels for London as he feels for his family. Virginia Woolf, 1916

Déchets divers, paysage décevant, chemise souvent impraticables. Je ne vous conseille pas de venir. www.tripadvisor.fr, consulté en mars 2010

These are the two epigrams that set the bearings for the project I want to discuss here today, a project that takes the form of what I think the programme for this conference means when it refers to “public elite literature.” In the French context there probably isn’t much more elitist that the collection blanche, the signature collection of the largest independent publishing house and home of a large swathe of the French twentieth-century canon. But although I’m holding this entity in my hand, I’m going to be approaching it through the trivial happenings and ephemera that composed it. And to be explicit about the type of tracking back that this involves, I have to acknowledge that I’m talking about a book that I wrote myself, and as I speak I’m realizing perhaps more than I had when planning this talk that this posture of holding in my hand the result of the work I’m talking about is both more unsettling and closer in itself to the crossing over from the intimacies and erraticism of private knowledge to the frame of public understanding, than I had anticipated.

But to come back to my quotes – déchets divers, general waste, unrecyclable refuse, on the one hand, and Woolf’s thrill to the marvelous in the everyday, on the other. Disinterest – “don’t bother” – on the one hand, and that very specific sort of interest that is cherishing, as one would cherish a family member, on the other. I want to think about this cherishing, specifically in the face of waste. And to set that thinking up I’m going to call here on another quote, which doesn’t find a place in this book, but which retrospectively speaks to it. It comes from Benjamin, and his critique of cultural history. Ostensibly turned towards the non-canonical, cultural history, Benjamin writes, “presents its contents by throwing them into relief, setting them off,” a process he judges to be illusory. We must observe reservation, he argues, or caution before seizing on “new” content, alternative content, for – and you will recognize the final part of this section from his essay on Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian – “no document of culture is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (p. 267)

Benjamin points us decisively, then, away from thinking about what our corpus is, and whether it should be expanded to a range of other material, and towards thinking about how we hold, or more provocatively, how we own the material we value. And by extension how our owning it “values” it, in the sense of giving it value it might not otherwise have. This is where Benjamin’s distinction between the collector and the historian enters the discussion. Fuchs is a collector, a great collector, and a great collector is distinguished by the originality of their subject matter. They acquire what no-one else at that time is acquiring; they build a collection from disparate components, from what might be considered “déchets divers,” they have a “nose,” as Benjamin says in relation to Daumier: they “look almost with the tips of their noses.” The acquisitive, ferreting aspect of the collector is right at the fore in this text, inseparable in fact from the “research” that the text also advances. The collector is like the alchemist for Benjamin, driven by his “base” desire for gold and in the process carrying out research that result in “images of historical man.”

How does this relate to the production of knowledge, and to the way language is inflected – amplified or silenced –  in the crossover from the private domain to the public?

Well for a start I think it allows our personal predilections back into the story. What do we want to reach out to take, to hold, to cherish, to make our own? And why? Then how does this desiring compulsion translate into understanding?

Like a lot of people, I have a predilection for sites of urban reconstruction, non-lieux, or abandoned lots, where remnants of earlier processes, often industrial processes, are still readable in the shape of the landscape, where graffiti and the tattered advertising for long-forgotten events give texture to the environment. The more the city takes on the shine of de-differentiation where offices, theatres, cafés and schools all merge in the polish of plate glass, the more the spaces of dereliction ache with the promise of magic. To draw on Benjamin again, from Benjamin as collector himself, these derelict sites – including old lanes, alleyways, markets that are directly akin to the arcades that were his personal Ur-space – are today where we tend to head when seeking “the dream houses of the collective” that he found in “winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railway stations” (L1, 3). Contained and yet open, obsolete and polluted and yet full of fascination, the remaining islands of city wasteland, or old movie houses, or city baths that have so far escaped complete overhaul, are those spaces we can wander and entertain the dream of a closer, more textured way of life, as yet to be absorbed into the inflationary cycle of gentrification.

Such was a very little street in the north-eastern part of Paris. It exemplified the setting I am evoking in very broad brush strokes here: no more than 150 metres long, about 7 metres wide, almost entirely derelict and due for demolition. Moreover it had a stage-like quality and that was significant for me. I passed by there everyday, I took photos, I kept notes. The landscape was changing fast as the bulldozers moved in and the buildings began to fall, and as I looked in briefly to the domestic interiors that had mutated from small working-class apartments to rooming houses, to hotels for immigrant workers, to squats to crack houses, I wanted to hold these forms of quivering life before it was smashed in on itself and all that enigmatic inwardness was leveled as the city claimed it back for the public domain. Although I didn’t conceive it that way, my posture was to some extent one that I can connect with the archetypal flâneur, enticed by the experience of the threshold. But there was a significant difference, which I will lodge under the notion of “assiduousness” because although I didn’t write the back cover for the book, I was willing to situate it under what the editor called “une flânerie assidue.” For while the flâneur walks on, easily bored, my route round this little street was conditioned by the fact of dropping a child off at a daycare centre. So my circuit was short and frequent, and marked in that sense by the sort of compulsiveness of Benjamin’s collector/alchemist: that is, tending to the indiscriminating, to the repetitive, the dailyness of it dulling the dream of a sudden immersion in another spatio-temporal realm where life feels more vivid in the very moment when it is departing from us.

I’m rehashing the part of the narrative that speaks perhaps most polemically to the atmosphere we associate with Benjamin, and through him or alongside him, with Paris: domestic labour and childcare in a crowded city gets little visibility in the large amount of cultural history dedicated to Paris, and if I accepted the notion of “flânerie assidue” it was because it pointed to the sort of “almost-contradiction” that writing that sort of history from a female point of view might involve. In its fuller articulation in the book, this question of whether women get to wander is folded into other less obligated or domestic dispositions: dispositions towards particular people, women and men, encountered in this space, towards vistas that evoked other, deeply rooted landscapes, or particular recollections of texts sparked by coincidences, and a sort of stretching of self before sitting back at the desk for a few hours… But the thing I’m trying to get to is the idea of being led a bit by my nose. As Benjamin writes, paraphrasing Fuchs in his discussion of Daumier: the painter begins at precisely the point where he is most “compulsively interested,” and he continues to describe the “most concentrated looking, be it gazing into the distance, a contemplating of specific things, or even a hard look at their own inner selves” (p. 282). The modality of this looking is strangely complex, both inward and outward, concentrated and apparently vague, interrogative and contemplative. I’d like to claim that something like that disposition was what I found the regular trip down the interstice of this little derelict street inducing in me.

There is a danger that this becomes unbearably narcissistic. So let me jump to the gold, or at least to something I think I can claim as “an image of historical woman,” which is a gendered twist on the aim of historical materialism as Benjamin articulates it in the essay I have been quoting.

Months of dull or slightly “mindless” accumulation of fragments from this street, daily and often rushed sprints down it and off to the rest of my day, and I found myself on the trail of a story I couldn’t find narrated anywhere, despite its evident significance for twentieth-century Parisian history. The largest print-works on the continent of Europe at its apogee, the highest concentration of factory workers within the walls of the Paris at its final closure, the most technologically advanced machinery in France as magazine press started to take off in the 1920s and 30s, the strategic centre of Nazi propaganda activities throughout the Occupation, the factory that held out the longest during the strikes of May and June 1968, the first major industrial dispute after the election of France’s first socialist President under the 5th Republic, and a sign of the way that the long march of the French left would turn…. The superlatives abound, and yet no source material consulted gave me any specific insight to what I was learning through rubbing up against this street. I had heard of the print-works through one of the workers, hired in 1936 and still there when it closed in the early winter of 1981, and a long-term resident of the building next door to the shining new day-care centre. He told me a lot, and I noted, gleaned, tried to question, observed the remaining walls, looked stuff up in a library catalogue. A Historian colleague said to me, you must record him. But I’m not really a historian. So instead, I continued my daily routine, building something of a collection, led by my nose, as he shared with me examples of what he had kept over the years, offcuts, bound volumes, memories, all things that had struck his imagination, which became things that struck my imagination for it was only those that I kept from the wealth of what he wanted to share. From collector to collector, if you like, as is so often the case, often not leaving the domain of the private home, connections being made by other “connoisseurs” independently of a public circuit. And that mode of transmission seems interesting to me precisely because its process of accretion preserves it from the setting apart, from the throwing into relief that is the work of cultural history. So there is a bit of me that would like to continue merely to unfold examples of this trivia, to tell you more about what is in the book. But there it is, and there is also Virginia Woolf and the imagining of a book, a volume, that she announces, and I think we can all agree that I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you about this street if the work it prompted didn’t also have a relation to public culture. So I want to say something too about what that meant for the process of writing.

Let me take an example. One of the things that “turned up” in this process was a short-lived magazine, La Femme, officially the Journal of the Women of the National Liberation. Printed at Curial Archereau, the print-works in question, in the immediate aftermath of the Liberation of Paris, it was, to some extent, an avant coureur of the famous magazine Elle, now an international fixture, which was launched at the end of 1945. Much has been written about Elle, and Marie Claire, and other vehicles of the postwar consumer culture that swept across France wiping out the dismal grey of the mid 1940s. But nothing about La Femme. The cultural history dedicated to this material, by key contributors to the field such as Kristin Ross and Alice Kaplan, for example, has underscored the impact of American imagery and Hollywood production on the forms of everyday life that the magazine press propagated, but what is significant about La Femme, is its fragile emergence from within the clandestine networks of the Resistance and its closeness to the penuries of daily life through the war. Aspirational, and yet resistant, its colour spreads are still as unstable as its tone and subject matter. Everything about it felt precious, as I looked through the small series of issues, published on a ten-day schedule, “décadaire” as the front page announced, with the additional note: “hebdomadaire” or weekly, “when circumstances permit.” It lasted a few months and never made it to weekly regularity. Paper was in short supply in France through these months, and the Americans requisitioned the print works in the wake of the Germans, to publish Time, for distribution as they advanced East across Europe, squeezing La Femme out. What did I find: well some extraordinary texts about what it meant to vote for the first time, and how to do so. And also pages on what it signifies to welcome back prisoners of war, and survivors of the camps. And advice for feeding babies, and for making new dresses. One page in particular prompted the sort of concentrated looking that is also distanced contemplating, which Benjamin sums up as “looking with one’s nose.” It was a page entitled “La rue de la mode”: Beauty has returned, said the magazine. “Paris est ouvert. Allons l’habiller de nos formes” – Let’s dress it with our forms. Something about the dressing of the city with unrestrained, carefree movement, after the dark years of the Occupation, and the dressing of self to dress the city… I’m not sure I could quite formulate as a conclusion worthy of cultural history what this page said to me and why I valued it, wanted to collect it. Was it the last line of the text “Paris est un ensemble d’ensembles” – an untranslatable phrase that plays on the idea of an “ensemble” in the sense of an outfit, illustrated in fashion drawings, and “ensemble” as “togetherness,” which also echoed with an early element in the text where it read “Et Paris aussi est fait de tout. Mais ce n’est pas un bloc; c’est un ensemble, comme disent les femmes.” Something about that sort of explanation, its resistance to simplification. Its idiomatic density.

But if it was not going to become the cultural history that would throw it into relief against the account of France’s emergence from the war under the sign of American cultural dominance, then what to do with it other than store it away as my heart-warming treasure? In the book it becomes a scene of exchange with one of the main “characters,” if I can call her that, and I think I probably do have to call her that. It was a difficult scene for me, the one where I felt the need to stage most explicitly the danger of grandiloquence in the face of the slightness or understated-ness of the conversations that were proving so rich for me, strung out over those months of regular visits, but which never became interviews as such. Does it work? Well that is not really for me to judge. It is trying to hold the trivial detail without throwing it into relief, or allowing it to be flattened by the bulldozer of History. And that seemed to me to require something like the distortion produced by a strangely compelled but still awkwardly unsure looking, a desiring looking, between an old working-class woman and myself. And the writing that can produce that sort of distortion is hard to imagine without the sort of imagining that Virginia Woolf might be willing to allow me to attach to her name: time, a room of one’s own? Those are important. But more importantly than these material considerations, there is also the poetic work that she imagines across the generations, the “common life,” as she calls it, when we see human beings “not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality,” “when we step out of the sitting room” and see the sky. So perhaps this does take me out of the interstice between public and private, precisely, away from the threshold, and freer in the space of literature, for all its acknowledged dependency on the privileges that an institution such as a publishing house or a university embodies.

MHRA Conference

October 2016

Anna-Louise Milne