LEFEBVRE IN THE AGE OF COVID — Lessons from The Urban Revolution and Paris Commune

 

This essay was originally posted at Monthly Review Online on 28th March 2021 

B40FA13A-E29A-4D41-8F41-DA8F087E6FB5Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution (1970) quietly celebrated its 50th birthday under lockdown, and our greatest ever urban revolution, the Paris Commune (1871), just toasted its 150th. Both book and event have lost none of their lustre for helping progressive people think about city life, even as COVID-19 threatens to destroy that life. We might say especially as COVID-19 threatens that life, because both The Urban Revolution and the Paris Commune offer vital instruction about how we might rebuild a post-pandemic urban world, rebuild it democratically.

COVID has upended urban life as we once knew it. But it intensified already existing pathologies, those contaminating “normal,” pre-pandemic life. For decades, business-as-usual exploitation has meant cities have become not only functionally and financially standardised, but also unaffordable and unequal. Recent social distancing disrupts these inequities even more, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters, hurting poorer, immobile denizens the most. Nowadays, our urban reality is one of the de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and loathing.

Such denigration of the city would have hardly surprised Henri. He knew all about anti-urbanism and thwarted hopes. After all, The Urban Revolution was born of them, rooted and incubated in the promise of 1968, yet anticipating much more the depressing era that would follow. [1] By 1970, Lefebvre recognised that the promise of those street-fighting years was dashed; a sober reconceptualisation was warranted, a taking stock, particularly of material circumstances. What he foresaw, post-1968, was a revolution fellow Marxist Antonio Gramsci might have labeled “passive”—a revolt from above, a counter-revolution. (It’s what Marx meant in the Manifesto when he said “the bourgeoisie has played the most revolutionary part.”) Still, what Lefebvre wanted in The Urban Revolution was a revolution more akin to the Paris Commune, something Gramsci would have called a “war of position,” a popular, historical assault from below.

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Like Marx inverting Hegel, Lefebvre stands mainstream economic and sociological wisdom on its head: “we must consider industrialisation as a stage of urbanisation,” he says, “as a moment, an intermediary, an instrument. In the double process (industrialisation-urbanisation), after a certain period the latter term becomes dominant, taking over from the former.” This is a bold, provocative statement for any Marxist. For it suggests that the mainstay of the capitalist economy isn’t so much industrialisation as urbanisation, that industrialisation all along was but a special form of urbanisation. Capitalism reigns, Lefebvre says, because it now manages and manufactures a very special commodity: urban space itself—an abundant source of surplus value as well as a massive means of production, both a launch pad and rocket in a stratospheric global market.

We must no longer talk of cities as such, he says; all that is old hat. Instead, we must speak of urban society, a society born of industrialisation, a society that shattered the internal intimacy of the traditional city, that grew into Engels’ industrial city, but which has, in turn, been superseded, absorbed and obliterated by vaster metropolitan units. Rural places, too, become an integral part of the urban process, swallowed up by an “urban fabric” that continually extends its borders, ceaselessly corrodes the residue of agrarian life, gobbling up everything and everywhere in order to increase surplus value and accumulate capital. “This term, ‘urban fabric’,” explains Lefebvre, “doesn’t narrowly define the built environment of cities, but all manifestations of the dominance of the city over the countryside. In this sense, a vacation home, a highway and a rural supermarket are all part of the urban tissue.”

The Urban Revolution appeared a year before Richard Nixon devalued the US dollar, wrenching it from its gold standard mooring. Gone, almost overnight, was the financial and economic regulation that kept in check a quarter of a century of capitalist expansion. As the US economy bore the brunt of war in Vietnam, an American balance of trade deficit loomed. Nixon knew fixed exchange rates couldn’t be sustained, not without overvaluing the dollar, not without losing competitive ground. So he let the dollar drift, devalued it, and loosened Bretton Woods’ grip. World currency thereafter oscillated; capital could now more easily slosh back and forth across national frontiers. A deregulated capitalism became rampant, without restraint; Lefebvre sensed its coming, saw how it facilitated what he’d call the “secondary circuit of capital,” a siphoning off of loose money that could speculate on real estate and financial assets, liquid loot yearning to become concrete in space.

From capital’s point of view, as a class, this makes perfect bottomline sense: the landscape gets flagged out as a pure exchange value, and activities on land conform to the “highest,” if not necessarily “best,” land-uses. Profitable locations get pillaged as secondary circuit flows become torrential, just as other sectors and places are asphyxiated through disinvestment. Willy-nilly people are forced to follow the money, flow from the countryside into the city, from factories into services, from stability into fragility. The urban fabric wavers between devaluation and revaluation, crisis and speculative binge, a ravaged built form and a renewed built form—and a fresh basis for capital accumulation. Once, it was a gritty warehouse on a rusty wharf; now, it’s a glitzy loft on a prim promenade. Once, an empty field on the edge; now a core neighbourhood on the up.

Half a century on, Lefebvre’s insights in The Urban Revolution sound as fresh and as meaningful as ever. Yet anybody expecting a rebel-rousing manifesto here will be disappointed. This isn’t a book like The Right to the City (1968), which climaxed with a passionate “cry and demand” for urban life. In 1970, Lefebvre gave us a more reflective text, cautious in its militant musings. If we want clues about what kind of radical revolution The Urban Revolution actually does espouse, we must look backwards, turn towards the past, and to an earlier Lefebvre work: La proclamation de la Commune, written in 1965. Reading it can help us move forwards.  

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It was the style of the Commune that kindled Lefebvre’s political imagination. What style? “The style of an immense, grandiose festival,” he says, “a festival that citizens of Paris, essence and symbol of the French people and of people in general, offered to themselves and to the world. Festival at springtime, festival of the disinherited, revolutionary festival and festival of revolution, free festival, the grandest of modern times, unfurling for the first time in all its dramatic magnificent joy.” [2] For 73 days, loosely affiliated citizen organisations, neighbourhood and artist associations, propped up by a “Central Committee” of the National Guard, transformed Paris’s 20 arrondissements into a liberated zone of people power, freed from bourgeois authority, from its army and police, from its economy and bureaucracy.

In the early hours of 18th March, a crowd of disgruntled citizens, predominately women, gathered on the Butte Montmartre, and surrounded obsolete cannons that were public property. General Lecomte ordered the National Guard to seize the cannons, and to open fire. Three times he gave the order to shoot. The soldiers stood silent, reluctant to turn their weapons on their own, on “the people”; they were, after all, themselves “the people,” conscripts from the working-class, and before them stood their would-be mothers. Suddenly, the tide had turned. Machine guns switched direction, took aim at the rule of Order. Lecomte would be shot later that day, alongside General Clément Thomas, one of the chief executioners in the 1848 “June Days.” 10 days on—28th March 1871—in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, la Commune de Paris was formally proclaimed. “Here is the holy city,” wrote Rimbaud not long afterwards, “seated in the west.”

It was, Lefebvre says, “grandeur and folly, heroic courage and irresponsibility, delirium and reason, exaltation and illusion” all rolled into one. Insurgents corroborated Marx’s ideal of revolutionary praxis at the same time as they refuted it. For this was no worker uprising incubated in the factories; rather, “the grand and supreme attempt of a city raising itself to the measure of a human reality.” An urban revolution had made its glorious debut, reenergising public spaces and transforming everyday life, touting victory while it wobbled in defeat. It was condemned to death at birth, notwithstanding the gaiety of its baptism. “The movement’s success,” says Lefebvre, “masked its failings; conversely, its failures are also victories, openings on to the future, a standard to be seized, a truth to be maintained. What was impossible for the Communards stays until this day impossible, and, by consequence, behooves us to realise its possibility.”

Ironically, the particular singularity and uniqueness of the Commune—that it occurred when Paris was besieged by war, surrounded by Prussian forces—makes it somehow more universally applicable for us today, as we, too, are besieged by forces that likewise surround us, that likewise invade our lives. In fact, the Commune’s pre-history sounds ominously like our own present history. Poorer populations suffered most. Paris’s economy was kaput. Enterprises folded daily. Food was scarce. Unemployment grew. People stood in long lines outside essential services, like boulangeries, desperate for bread. Winter had been bleak. Spring stayed chilly. There was little fuel for heating. Meantime, the rich had fled, cleared off to the countryside, along with their money. The Bourse and the Banque de France equally upped sticks; an interim bourgeois government ruled from Versailles.

This “de-structuring” of social life, says Lefebvre, rippled from top to bottom. On the other hand, its “re-structuring”—the reconstitution of urban life—flowed the other way, from the bottom upwards. People reorganised and rebuilt Paris in the rubble, from the rubble. Here we can learn plenty. There was a moratorium on rents; debts were written off; parasitic practices forbidden. Paris was “de-capitalised.” “There was a sort of qualitative bond,” writes Lefebvre, “in the activity of the Parisian masses.” The city’s base became “the people of Paris…artisans, small business owners, workers, petty-bourgeois allied to proletarians—who became spokespeople and participants in municipal events.” These unsung heroes and heroines “were proud of their anonymity.”

The promise of city reveals itself here when all is taken away, when city life is most in danger. For what remains are only its human resources—its citizens, citizens acting as citizens, joining hands, participating, creating their own public institutions, organising one another, doing so voluntarily, without monetary tags, without competitive compulsions; doing so, we might say, for the wellbeing of everybody else. It was the great gift of cooperation that Marx outlined in Capital, his core vision of democracy. Marx spoke about cooperation at the workplace; here we’re talking about cooperating in an entire city, human beings pooling their will and wits as a municipal power. When people work together, Marx says, they “have hands and eyes both in front and behind, and can be said to be to a certain extent omnipresent.” This is a rather lovely way to describe things. Marx thinks that when we “cooperate in a planned way with others,” we strip off the fetters of our individuality, “and develop the capabilities of our species.”

But the problem with cooperation in “normal” capitalist life is its phoniness, that it’s controlled exclusively by the bourgeoisie, by the ruling class, who exploit people’s togetherness for their own commercial ends. Human omnipresence gets transformed into capital’s omnipotence; a collective power, in other words, not mobilised for the common good but creamed-off as private gain. Marx calls it a “free gift” for business, an associative force that costs capital nothing. And “as cooperation extends its scale,” he says, “the despotism of capital extends.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that “as the numbers of cooperating workers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.” Marx always willed this at the factory; for 73 days, in Paris, we glimpsed it in the street, in daily life, where we still need it most.

Could we ever imagine those extraordinary circumstances of Paris’s Commune becoming somehow ordinary, embedded in a city life released from a competitive free for all? What happened in 2020 has been something extraordinary. COVID-19 instigated its own revolution in daily life, a passive, if deadly, revolution. But what of Lefebvre’s active revolution, and his right to the city? Could a de-commodified, de-capitalised city life ever become a little less extraordinary, maybe even something completely normal? What if real cooperation became the order of day, that our hands and eyes were in the front and behind—as Marx suggested—and that we became “to a certain extent omnipresent”? We’ve seen what a strong state can do when it intervenes in our economy and society, what it can do at a crisis moment; now we need reimagine it intervening once the crisis has passed, intervening democratically, fostering cooperation and participation, enabling some bottom-up reconstruction of a world that has undergone so much topdown destruction.

One thing is for certain: that the right to the city no longer means the right of the rich and powerful to mobilise its own property rights, to use them to abuse other people, to rip off at work and at home, to pay too little while charging too much. There has to be some institutional control of flows into the secondary circuit of capital, some way those flows can be stymied, channeled into infrastructure and property geared towards public use-values, not corporate exchange-values. In Lefebvre’s Marxist terminology, concrete space must prevail over abstract space. Those “blind-fields” of thinking of the world in terms of quantitative growth for quantitative growth’s sake must be broken down, rendered longer-sighted, more socially visionary.

Lefebvre said the right to the city, if ever it came to pass, would resemble a giant social and spatial contract. Associative ties would bond people together, bond them to each other and to their city. What we might add, in an age of public health crisis, is that these “rights” now need to be complemented by “duties.” The Commune, again, is suggestive. Communards gave to the city, recognised that to make their city function they had responsibilities. Public space wasn’t just about them, exclusively about individuals. Public service meant respecting the collective, respecting each other in the realm of one another. Freedom here came through collective necessity, through contributing towards the common good—existentially profiting from this common wealth, primarily because people were helping create it themselves. The sense of unselfish achievement was legion.

The value of the public realm, in other words, was affirmed, kept robust and healthy. In our own times, we’ve seen how this public realm has been denigrated and torn apart. The breakdown of the social contract is nowhere more evident than where unfettered self-interest reigns, where responsibility for other people is denied. What prevails here is an absurd anti-social contract, exemplified by the flagrant unwillingness to wear a protective face mask in public, since it supposedly threatens individual liberty. Successive generations have been force-fed a capitalist ideology that seduces people into thinking they’re free agents capable of doing what like, and if they can’t their rights are being flouted.

Anything public and shared is treated with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as a third-class entity, something to be avoided. This no longer appears ideological: it is embedded in people’s brains as an objective reality, as the way it has always been. It’s a belief system that has taught people how to forget, how to turn their backs on the public realm and ergo on any duty to the city beyond the self. Perhaps for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. It seems perfectly natural these days to see public sector core functions—planning and the organisation of collective services—outsourced for vast sums to distant private consultants and contractors. But COVID has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state.

There’s plenty of collective necessity involved in dealing with a global pandemic, and in dealing with a city during one. It’s like rebuilding Paris in a revolution. One aspect of any right to the city has to be a willingness to acknowledge society again, that there is such a thing after all, that we can be freer if each of us admits that we’re part of a bigger whole, part of a public culture that requires collective rebuilding. The remarkable success story of the UK’s vaccine roll-out hinges on an unofficial subplot: the army of dedicated volunteers who have chipped in to lend a cooperative hand, organising every vaccination centre, the line ups and traffic flows, even administering the injections. They’ve done it everywhere with good cheer and with great efficiency. Maybe it’s because collective participation offers personal fulfilment. Everybody knows it, everybody appreciates it, is inspired by the positive spirit in the air. Waiting for your jab, standing in line, those hands and eyes in front and behind are really palpable, and uplifting. (One might dream of a public health system commandeering this much respect and manpower in ordinary times.)

In a strange, more modest way, perhaps this collective feeling corresponds with what the Communards felt. It’s a sensibility that crops up often in Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la commune, and gets expressed by a word seldom spoken anymore: “dignity”—la dignité. We seldom hear it because so much of our life today, notably our urban life, has no dignity, is hard, an alienating daily struggle to survive, to make ends meet. In amongst it all, dignity becomes a luxury, a far-off ideal. But the sense of dignity, as the Communards knew, derives from solidarity, from public engagement. Poor but proud, they retained their dignity, did the right thing, did it with others, staved off isolation and disempowerment, struggled to overcome adversity together, sensing that for a while it could work, that you could succeed. Perhaps the right to dignity is really what The Urban Revolution quietly proclaims 50 years on, like the Commune, at its 150th anniversary: the right to be respected, the duty to respect others. If ever there’s a style worth emulating, then it’s dignity. A grand style, for sure. One that should never have gone out of fashion. Vive la Commune!

 

NOTES

[1] Henri Lefebvre, La révolution urbaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1970); and The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003)

[2] Henri Lefebvre, La proclamation de la Commune (Paris: Gallimard, 1965). Lefebvre’s interpretation of the Commune led to a fallout with Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI), who accused their former comrade of pilfering its ideas on 1871. Debord said Lefebvre’s take was lifted from SI’s own “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” admitted Lefebvre in a 1983 interview. “I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan. I worked for weeks at the Institute.” “I don’t care about these accusations of plagiarism,” Lefebvre said. “I never took the time to read what they wrote about the Commune in their journal.” All the same, Lefebvre thanks Debord in La proclamation de la Commune, for his friendship and support “in the course of fecund and cordial discussions in the elaboration of this book.” But in a typesetting howler—or Lefebvre practical joke?—Debord is cited as M. Guy Debud! In 2018, La fabrique éditions republished Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la Commune, with an excellent preface by the late Daniel Bensaïd, from 2008, discussing at length the Lefebvre-Debord tiff, which unfolded like Gogol’s tale of the two Ivans. In La fabrique’s reprint, though, Lefebvre’s Debord acknowledgement has been cut.

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GOGOL’S NOSE

Today, 212-years ago, on April Fool’s Day, the writer Nikolai Gogol was born in the Ukraine. As his birthdate might suggest, Gogol was never a man to miss an opportunity to joke, and in this essay I pay homage to perhaps his most biting satirical story, THE NOSE—a tale for our times.

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Sniffing out stupidity and malevolence was Gogol’s great gift. His most olfactive tale, appropriately enough, is The Nose, a comically grotesque satire from 1836—grotesque in the sense of its storyline: a drunken barber finding a nose in his breakfast roll. (Think of it like the severed human ear we see close-up in the grass, crawling with ants, at the beginning of David Lynch’s film noir Blue Velvet.) If The Portrait had haunted us with those terrible eyes, then Gogol’s own portrait has its nose take prominence, become a nasal force, fleeing the frame to blow of its own volition. Remember, Gogol had a conk complex, a thing about noses, especially his own. “My nose,” he once told a lady friend, “is decidedly bird-like, pointed and long. However, in spite of its ridiculous appearance, it is a good beast: it has never been known to turn up, it has never sneezed to please my superiors or the authorities—in short, in spite of its excessive size, it has behaved itself with great moderation, for which, no doubt, it has got the reputation of a liberal.”

In 1828, as a naïve nineteen-year-old, humiliated by the reception of his self-published poem, Hans Küchelgarten, copies of which he tried to burn, Gogol set off to emigrate to America, getting as far as Lübeck before giving up the ghost. Had he made it to the new world, he’d have most certainly had a nose job, found some plastic surgeon to reshape it. The Nose even alludes to such a possibility: “I’ve heard there’s a certain kind of specialist,” somebody says, “who can fix you up with any kind of nose you like.” In a way, The Nose is Gogol’s nose job; he sticks it into the petty affairs of Petersburg officialdom, mocking its ranks, suggesting it’s not quite true that he never turned his nose up to anyone. After all, he does something much worse: has “Major” Kovalyov lose his. Gogol cuts off the self-satisfied bureaucrat’s nose in order to spite his face, wrenching him out of his snotty complacency. Gogol’s satire had always been biting: now it was so voracious that it bit off something completely.

Gogol was a natural born storyteller even as a solitary writer. When he wrote, he’d lock himself away in his room and scribble standing up at a lectern. According to his friends, who’d sometimes spy on the unsuspecting writer through the keyhole, before getting anything on paper Gogol frantically paced up and down composing in his head, voicing aloud his characters’ dialogue, laughing to himself, engaging in all manner of bodily contortions, clutching his hair, pulling weird faces and generally waving his arms about. Thus the thespian element was embedded in his finished comic set-pieces, explaining why Gogol was such a brilliant reader of his own texts.

When it came to “Major” Kovalyov, the comedy was merciless, no holds barred. For one thing, Kovalyov isn’t a real Major, just a Collegiate Assessor who calls himself a Major out of vanity. For another, this is no dream; that nose really does turn up one morning at Ivan Yakovlevich’s, the wastrel barber, in the middle of his onion roll. And the latter recognises whose nose it is, though has no recollection of ever severing it with his razor, having shaved Kovalyov a few days back. Praskovya Osipovna, the barber’s wife, says he can’t remember because he was dead drunk that day. In any case, she cries, “I’ve heard three customers say that when they come in for a shave you start tweaking their noses about so much it’s a wonder they stay on at all!” “I’ve a mind to report you to the police myself,” she says. The barber gets in a tiz about how to get rid of the snout, deciding to dump it in the Neva river, wrapped up in a handkerchief. But a policeman spots him on St. Isaac’s Bridge, up to something fishy, and hauls the barber in for loitering suspiciously. Thereon after, the nose appears across town, “wearing a gold-braided uniform with a high stand-up collar and chamois trousers.”

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Meantime, waking up early, there was no mistake about it: Kovalyov’s nose had gone. “He began pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t sleeping, but to all intents and purposes he was wide awake.” “Damn it!” he screams. “What kind of trick is this?” Hmm. It’s Gogol’s trick, of course, heaping scorn on parvenu conceit, wreaking revenge, maybe, on all those who mocked his own elongated beak when he was a lad, imagining them, like Kovalyov, losing theirs. Noseless, Kovalyov can no longer pursue his sleazily habit of chatting up pretty young girls. Nor can he wine and dine with his old cronies, or swagger proudly along the Nevsky Prospect, or boss about his inferiors at the office, pulling rank just for the hell of it. Now, “instead of a fairly presentable and reasonably sized nose,” all Kovalyov has is “an absolutely preposterous smooth flat space.”

By chance, one afternoon, he spots his nose stepping out of a carriage, and follows it to Kazan Cathedral, confronting it inside: “Don’t you realise,” says Kovalyov, “you are my own nose!” The nose has none of it. “What do you want?” it replies, curtly. The nose looks down on Kovalyov the way the Collegiate Assessor looked down on people when it was firmly affixed to his own face. He gets a touch of his own medicine, having his nose turn itself up at him. Then it slips away, disappearing into the crowd. Infuriated, Kovalyov heads straight to Police H.Q., to report a scoundrel on the loose. But the authorities are as indolent on the job as Kovalyov is on his; the Commissioner isn’t about; and nobody at the station gives a toss about a stray nose. So Kovalyov decides to put in an ad at a Petersburg rag, about a missing body part, hoping somebody might hand it. The newspaper clerk, nonplussed, says such an announcement would give the paper a bad reputation, end up as a libel case, like the one they had the other week with a lost poodle. “My God!” despairs Kovalyov. “What have I done to deserve this?”

Before long, the nose is seen taking regular strolls along the Nevsky Prospect, at exactly three o’clock every afternoon. Crowds of inquisitive people flock there to watch the spectacle. After a few days, the police seize it and bring it to Kovalyov. He’s thrilled yet perplexed about how to stick his nose back on. The doctor is as clueless as anybody, and suggests putting it in a jar of alcohol; “better still, soak it in two tablespoons of sour vodka and warmed-up vinegar, and you’ll get good money for it. I’ll take it myself if you don’t want it.” In the end, the nose miraculously shows up again, in its rightful place on the Collegiate Assessor’s face, between his two cheeks, and Kovalyov wonders if the whole ordeal had been a bad dream. “He grabbed it with his hand to make sure—but there was no doubt this time. Aha!”

***
The Nose is a decidedly weird tale even by Gogol’s decidedly weird standards. His letters suggest he’d initially conceived the story as a dream, but then decided to present it in waking Petersburg life. Still, it’s not so straightforward with Gogol. Nothing ever is. After all, his narrator tells us that Kovalyov was “to all intents and purposes wide awake.” It’s the “to all intents and purposes” that raises doubts. “Perhaps I dreamt it!” Kovalyov wonders, planting further seeds of ambiguity. “How could I be so stupid as to go and lose my nose?” Was it, then, something he did himself? Or was it the barber? But how could the barber do it and Kovalyov not know it? Whatever the case, this isn’t realism we’re dealing with here. It’s Gogol’s experiment in absurdist literature, his surrealist black humour, anticipating Kafka’s Metamorphosis by eighty-years, playfully pulling the rug from underneath the reader—or pulling the wool over our eyes—provoking us, taunting us, especially with its disclaimer: “The world is full of the most outrageous nonsense. Sometimes things happen which you would hardly think possible.”

His final paragraph has us wonder if this was Gogol’s April Fool’s gag all along: “All of this took place in the northern capital of our vast empire! Only now, after much reflection, can we see that there is a great deal that is very far-fetched in this story. Apart from the fact that it’s highly unlikely for a nose to disappear in such a fantastic way and then reappear in various parts of town dressed as a state counsellor, it is hard to believe that Kovalyov was so ignorant to think newspapers would accept advertisements about noses.” On the other hand, says Gogol, you won’t find much in life that isn’t on the absurd side somewhere. “Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.”

Almost two centuries after its publication, Gogol’s Nose still pokes fun at authorities and (dis)organised bureaucracies everywhere. Gogol mobilises absurdity to pillory the negative, to voice the artist as critic; yet with absurdity he also defends the “little people,” those victims of petty power who feel its injustice and complacency, who feel it while they experience their own sense of powerlessness. But Gogol is no bleeding heart liberal. His moral stances are frequently difficult to pin down, never fully settled upon. Sometimes the wielders of petty power are precisely his little people. In their fawning servility, in their yearnings to rise up the slippery slope of officialdom, Gogol knocks them down. He knows how power is scary because it is ordinary, because it is apparently autonomous, working behind the backs of those who work under it, of those who work with it and want it.

Vladimir Nabokov, in his brilliant little study of Gogol, says Gogol’s nose isn’t a proxy for sexual organs, nor any castration fantasy—which is probably how the cocaine-sniffing, nose-obsessed Freud might have read it. Rather, nasal symbolism for Gogol is more a narrative device, not so much a tongue-puller as a nose-twister, a piece of mischievous trickery related to the nose-humour so ubiquitous in Russian carnival tradition and in the hundreds of Russian sayings that revolve around the nose. Gogol knew them well. Nosology and nose-consciousness was rife in his day, all of which doubtless drew attention to the fact that his own beak was exaggeratedly long.

“The man with the longest nose,” a Russian proverb goes, “sees further.” Gogol didn’t just see further, but, as Nabokov says, brought new odours to literature and life. That’s doubtless why the authorities objected to his olfactivism: it was sniffing out awful truths about society, scenting other possibilities. When Gogol first penned The Nose, publishers weren’t turned on. They passed up on taking the tale, dismissing it as “sordid.” In printing it they feared prosecution. Gogol’s friend Pushkin eventually took the story for his own journal, The Contemporary, yet warned Gogol of probable trouble ahead, of censor repercussions. And so it was. The first beef was that the nose chose to cavort in Kazan Cathedral, a holy institution. As such, the setting was offensive, blasphemous, and had to be axed. In later versions, Gogol changed Kovalyov’s encounter with his nose to a shopping arcade—though modern reprints have restored Kazan Cathedral.

By the time of its third printing, in 1854, two-years after Gogol’s demise, the story went under the censor’s nose again. “The aim of the author,” they claimed, “is obscure and capable of being interpreted in various ways.” In condemning the tale accordingly, censors provided no better testimony to Gogol’s genius, that he was the creator of dangerous literature, a literature so ambiguous that it gave people all sorts of ideas, maybe ideas above their station. Readers might thereafter follow their own noses, and threaten the status quo, challenge the authorities as Gogol had challenged us to challenge them. Gogol’s literature stimulates deep feelings in a variety of ways, in unforeseen ways, in ways beyond the grip and grasp of governments.

That’s as good a reason as any why we should continue to read him, why we should continue to laugh with him. Most of us know from Pinocchio what happens to kids who tell fibs. Big fibs meant big noses; nice boys who fibbed and said sorry had the woodpecker come to peck their noses back to normal size. But that’s a children’s fairytale. In an adult parable, fib-tellers would lose their noses entirely; no woodpeckers would help them. “An absolutely preposterous smooth flat space” would prevail as a badge of dishonour. Corridors of political and economic power would be crawling with noseless Kovalyovs, from the petty fibbers to the really big liars, sprouting nonsense about Brexit, about how the election was rigged, about how the pandemic is nothing to fear, how it’s all a great hoax. Gogol could rewrite the script of our times, if only for a day, for April Fool’s Day, his day, and give us florid descriptions of noseless villains, clambering around frantically, outed as malicious lie-tellers, there for every honest person to see. What a day! Fake news’ nose snubbed! Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen. Don’t they?

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A PORTRAIT OF GOGOL

On the mornings when I used to walk my daughter to school, years gone by now, we would pass by a little pub called “The Prince Albert,” along a narrow old lane, near the town centre, by the cathedral. On a pole sticking out above the pub’s entrance hung a portrait of the said Prince Consort, Queen Victoria’s husband, painted in 1840 by royal artist John Partridge. On windy days, the prince oscillated, creaked in the breeze, reminding you that he kept watch overhead. Every morning I’d grin, laugh to myself, sometimes laugh out loud. It got a bit boring for my daughter, for she knew what I was laughing at. After all, I’d tell her everyday, “you know, that Prince Albert up there, he’s a dead ringer for Gogol.” She knew, too, that I meant Nikolai Gogol, the great Russian writer, a longtime favourite of mine. The thin prominent nose, the vivid eyes, the little well-groomed moustache, the general affected air, camp despite the military regalia—all that was Gogol to a tee!

I remember seeing an image of Gogol himself, likewise painted in 1840, by a St. Petersburg artist pal of his, Fyodor Möller. It had been on show at London’s National Portrait Gallery, in a special exhibition from 2016 called “Russia and the Arts.” The thought that Gogol had a doppelgänger, that Prince Albert was secretly Gogol, or that Gogol was secretly Prince Albert, sneaking out of Russia, spooked, after the authorities resented his mockery of provincial officialdom in the rollicking drama The Government Inspector, eloping clandestinely into British royalty, struck me as quintessentially Gogolian. Roaming Europe under an assumed identity was as bizarre and surreal as only Gogol could render believable, like the rumour he’d make stick near the close of Part I of Dead Souls, his unfinished novel: that Captain Kopeikin was really Chichikov. How on earth could a war veteran peg leg with a missing arm transfigure into a fully-limbed shyster conman? Only at the touch of Gogol’s satirical quill.

I’d probably read too much Gogol myself to think up such a pairing; even though the Ukrainian-born Gogol (1809-1852) and the German-born Prince Albert (1819-1861) were pretty much contemporaries, and even though both died relatively young, each at forty-two. But it was seeing the portrait of Prince Albert, with his bird-like nose, and glimpsing Gogol’s own image—with his famous beak—that had me recall Gogol’s short story, The Portrait. That alone was enough to put ideas in your head. Prince Albert’s eyes stared out each morning as those eyes had leapt out on Gogol’s poor young artist Chartkov. Gogol has Chartkov rifling through dusty worn paintings one day, at a cheap Petersburg art shop, where he stumbles across a portrait of an old man, with a bronze, gaunt, high-cheek-boned face. Most extraordinary of all were the eyes. After much deliberation, the young artist parts with his last few kopecks and staggers back with the canvas to his draughty garret in the grungiest part of town. Once there, “two terrible eyes fixed directly on him, as if preparing to devour him.”

At nightfall, trying to doze on the sofa, he can’t bare the thought of those eyes, like some terrible phantom, staring at him. He tosses a bedsheet over the portrait. Still, moonlight intensifies its whiteness, the portrait’s ghostly presence. As Chartkov falls asleep, Gogol’s pen springs into action. The sheet is no longer there; the old man has stirred. Suddenly, leaning on the frame with both hands, he thrusts both legs out to free himself of his confinement. Chartkov attempts to scream, only has no voice. The old man steps down, takes out a sack containing packets of fabulous golden roubles. One pack drops to the floor; Chartkov runs over, clutches it, tries to prise it open but can’t. He cries out—and wakes up.

By morning, the room is bleak, gloomy as “an unpleasant dampness drizzled through the air.” It seems to Chartkov “that amidst the dream there had been some terrible fragment of reality.” “My God, if he had at least part of that money,” he sighs. A knock at the door heralds the arrival of the landlord and a police inspector, “whose appearance,” Gogol says, “as everyone knows, is more unpleasant for little people.” The landlord wants the unpaid rent. He’s a retired civil servant, “an efficient man, a fop, and a fool,” quips Gogol, “who had merged all these sharp peculiarities in himself into some indefinite dullness.” Chartkov, dirt broke, offers him his paintings. But the landlord scoffs uninterestedly. Meanwhile, the inspector examines the portrait of the old man, and, clumsily picking it up, its frame splits apart. One side falls to the ground along with a packet, wrapped in blue paper, with the inscription “1,000 Gold Roubles.” Chartkov, like a madman, rushes over, seizes the heavy packet.

His woes are over—or so it would seem. Now, he has a fortune—as he’d foreseen in his dream. He pays off the landlord, installs himself in a swanky bourgie apartment along the Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg’s finest commercial thoroughfare. He has his hair curled, sports fashionable tailored suits, dines at fancy French restaurants, struts along the sidewalk admiring himself, like the most elegant of dandies. Strangely, too, Chartkov’s reputation as a great artist soars. That because he gets a Petersburg newspaper to publish an article he’d written himself, about his own extraordinary talents, a brilliance worthy of any Titian or Van Dyck. Petersburg’s elite become mesmerised by a new genius in town, and flood him with commissions. At first, his portraits glow with subtle brush strokes and masterful shading. But sitters want less, are thrilled by banality, by cliched images, by empty smiles and upper-crust stiffness. The shallower the portrait, the better—and the more he’s in demand. He’s rewarded with everything: money, compliments, handshakes and kisses, invitations to dinners, to glamorous soirées. Soon, says Gogol, “it was quite impossible to recognise in him that modest artist who had once worked inconspicuously in his hovel.” After a while, though, the lustre of riches and finery wears thin. He tires of churning out hundreds of the same portraits, of the same faces, whose poses and attitudes he knows by rote.

When the Academy of Art invites Chartkov to judge a new work by a young Russian artist, already hailed a great genius, he’s sceptical. After seeing the canvas in the gallery, surrounded by hoards of visitors, he’s stunned: the purest, most immaculate conception hangs on the wall, a painting so modest, so divine that tears flow down the cheeks of onlookers. He’s blown away, stands motionless, “open-mouthed before the picture.” Chartkov’s whole being, says Gogol, “is reawakened in one instant, as if youth returned to him, as if the extinguished sparks of talent blazed up again.” The blindfold suddenly falls from his eyes, and he realises he’d not heeded his professor’s advice, that he’d ruined his best years, neglected the long, arduous lesson of gradual learning. He’d become that dreaded species: a fashionable painter. (One wonders whether John Partridge, Prince’s Albert’s depicter, ever felt the same way, ever regretted his life as a court artist, whipping off fawning portraits of royalty, nobles and society people?)

Chartkov can no longer bear those lifeless pictures, the portraits of buttoned-up hussars and state councillors, of eternally tidied ladies; he orders them out of his studio. Then he remembers the strange portrait he’d purchased, which had somehow kindled all his vainest impulses, and heralded his demise. A rage bursts into Chartkov’s soul. Bile rises up in him whenever he sees a work marked with the stamp of greatness. He begins to buy up great masterpieces, hauling them back to his room, where he tears them apart, shreds them, cuts them to pieces in a savage orgy of destruction that portends Chartkov’s auto-destruction, bizarrely mimicking Gogol’s own fate. A cruel fever, compounded by galloping consumption, soon sees off our artist. “His corpse was frightful,” says Gogol. “Nothing could be found of his enormous wealth; but seeing the slashed remains of lofty works of art whose worth went beyond millions, its terrible use became clear.”

***

Gogol worked over The Portrait many times over many years, adding and revising, chopping and changing, shaping it up into one of his finest stories. He’d first published a version in 1835, in Arabesques—“a mishmash” collection, he’d called it—of historical essays on art and architecture, on the Middle Ages, and on Pushkin, alongside two other brilliant stories, The Nevsky Prospect and Diary of a Madman. The Portrait Take-2 appeared seven-years on, longer and better honed, and it’s the one I’ve been citing here. The well-known critic and liberal spokesman, Vissarion Berlinsky, Gogol’s most trenchant interlocutor as well as most ardent champion, thought the supernatural in Take-1 too clumsy. It wasn’t leavened by the story’s brilliant realism, a feature, Berlinsky said, that made Gogol’s most unbelievable and incredible moments believable and credible. As ever, Gogol took only part of Berlinsky’s critique to heart; he would never abandon his torquing of reality, never expunge the surrealist flourishes that made his ordinary so extraordinary, his satire so biting, his creations so idiosyncratic and original. He was too subtle an artist to capitulate to either the dullest social realism or most contrived surrealism. He’d forever work against his predictability, often turning his own inventiveness against itself, sometimes even against himself, just when we’d least expect it. He has us, the readers, twist and turn as his characters twist and turn, as he himself twists and turns, gyrating to some weird cosmic force.

It turns out, Gogol tells us in an annex second section to The Portrait Take-2, that the old man with terrible eyes had been a dreadful moneylender, a loan shark who extorted Petersburg’s poor, sometimes even extorting Petersburg’s rich. Calamity befell on everybody who took money from him. He possessed some strange, dark curse, which damned him and anyone he touched. Even the artist who painted his portrait was struck down by demons, yet managed to cast them off by becoming a repentant hermit monk. The painting similarly imparted devilish forces, and tragedy afflicted everyone who owned it, who felt its burning eyes. At the close of The Portrait, as the painting is about to be auctioned off, the painter’s son suddenly appears, demanding the thing be burned, destroyed at all costs—or else.

So warns Gogol’s story, which tells us plenty about the role of the artist in our society, about the dichotomy between artistic integrity and everyday materialism, between the art of pure creation and the act of earning a living. It tells us plenty, too, about Gogol’s own plight in the world, about his allegiances with “little people,” and about how art for him ought to make the highest service to the moral good. He knew, as we know, in a society dictated by money values, and governed by shallow, buttoned-up people, that genuine artistic passion will always be up against it. Artists like Chartkov are there, isolated and destitute, dedicated to their creation, yet fair game to be bought off, commissioned as hired hands, seduced by all the trappings of a high society that, in Gogol eyes, is really pretty low down.

In 1844, two-years on from Gogol’s Portrait, a young Karl Marx, probably not much older than Chartkov, pilloried, with Gogolian irony, “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society.” Money, said Marx, “is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples,” the “inversion of all human and natural qualities.” Marx called money a “divine power,” indicting it on the same plane as religion, “as the estranged and alienating species-essence of man which alienates itself by selling itself.” Money turns one thing into another, inverts everything it touches, converts people and objects into their opposites, into “contradictory qualities” antagonistic to their own qualities. As such, money “transforms loyalty into treason, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, nonsense into reason and reason into nonsense.” With its implicit disdain for how money corrupts, The Portrait exhibits more than a hint of young Marx’s romanticism, helping us recognise something I suspect I knew when I was laughing each morning at Prince Albert: that Gogol’s Portrait is really a picture of ourselves.

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FUNGAL POLITICS — Dreams from Underground

“Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what’s happening…
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden…
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes”
                                                                                  —Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles”

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Every once in a while The New York Times publishes a knockout article. This past December, the newspaper’s Sunday magazine section featured “The Social Life of Forests, a long, lusciously illustrated portrait of the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, digging away in British Columbia’s old-growth forests. Forest ecology, ordinarily, isn’t my bag; but the subject of the piece—fungi and their secret underground world—was so utterly fascinating and suggestive that it set my mind abuzz about our above-ground human world.

For years, Simard has been thrilled by forests. As a kid, she foraged mushrooms and huckleberries, even ate handfuls of dirt, relishing, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Rebeca from Hundred Years of Solitude, the taste of damp raw earth. This taste never went away. Now, as a sixty-something college professor, she’s become an authority on the forest’s undergrowth. Decades ago, she noticed how commercial logging hacked down diverse old forests, replacing them with homogeneous plantations, stripping the soil of its underbrush. The logic went that without competitors, and with more space for light and water, young saplings would thrive. But they didn’t. Frequently they withered and died, proving more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in entangled ancient forests.

Simard discovered the reason why lay in mycorrhizal networks, the threadlike fungi that envelop and fuse with trees. Here, beneath ground, something pretty amazing takes place. These fungi pass on to trees nutrients—phosphorous and nitrogen—and help extract the water required for photosynthesis. Around ninety percent of trees depend on these mysterious underground mycorrhizal networks—mykes is the Greek word for fungus and rhiza root—which link trees, even trees of different species, sharing life, knitting together the earth’s soils in a complex system of symbiosis. When we see mushrooms sprouting, this is just one part of the story, only the fruiting body of fungi, its blossom, the visible realm where spores are produced and transmitted. A lot more of the action is subterranean, occurs deep down. Carbon, water and nutrients pass from tree to tree via underground circuits, shifting resources between the oldest and the biggest to the youngest and smallest, from strongest to weakest.

While Simard says conflict in a forest is undeniable, she knows, too, that life abounds there because of negotiation and reciprocity, because of widespread mutuality. Earlier in her career, these ideas were disparaged as “girlie” by her male “growth and yield” forest colleagues. Nowadays, Simard’s vision of a forest ecology based on cooperation and selflessness has seeped into the mainstream, even gotten written into college textbooks. Hers isn’t so much a critique of Darwin—who, remember, stressed contest and self-interest in the evolutionary process; it’s more a little caveat, a modest rejoinder: When we think about sustaining life on earth, fungi teach us that real resilience comes about through cooperation not die-hard competition. [1]

***
Loggers replacing diverse forests with homogeneous plantations sounds uncannily like the dynamics of today’s urban environments, where developers similarly create homogeneous plantations out of messy old human woodland. Our cities likewise wither from frailty, stripped bare of human undersoil, devoid of any selfless life. There, only the richest survive. There, willy-nilly, people are forced to compete with one another, compete in labour markets, pit themselves against each other in housing markets. In a way, Simard’s studies of fungi provoke us to reevaluate the whole notion of cooperation in human life.

Cooperation, after all, lies at the core of Marx’s vision of democracy, yet it’s dealt with in perhaps the strangest chapter of Volume One of Capital. If we listen to Marx’s voice there, it is schizoid, dualistic, sounding a bit like Nick Carraway’s in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both fascinated and repelled by his subject matter. Marx, too, is a great advocate of cooperation, fascinated by the sheer power of human beings pooling their will and their wits. When people work together, he says, they “have hands and eyes both in front and behind, and can be said to be to a certain extent omnipresent.” This is a rather lovely, if odd, way to describe things. Marx thinks that when people “cooperate in a planned way with others,” we strip off the fetters of our individuality, “and develop the capabilities of our species.” “Not only do we have here an increase in the productive power of the individual,” he says, “but the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.”

The problem with this kind of cooperation, of course, is that it’s phoney: it’s controlled exclusively by the bourgeoisie, by the ruling class, who use it for their own commercial ends, as a means to boost relative surplus value. This is why Marx is repelled by cooperation, because it has been subverted, converted into an alien force, thrown back in people’s faces. Human omnipresence gets transformed into capital’s omnipotence; a collective power, in other words, not mobilised for the common good but used to exploit social labour, creamed-off as value-added. Marx calls it a “free gift” for business, an associative force that costs capital nothing. And “as cooperation extends its scale,” Marx says, “the despotism of capital extends.” That’s the bad news. The good news is this is “an unavoidable antagonism,” somehow dialectically necessary, perversely progressive. Indeed, “as the numbers of cooperating workers increases,” says Marx, “so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.”

Our technologically advanced society might realise human needs and desires—if only production could be wrested from private gain, put to cooperative public use; if only cooperation could lead to resources becoming common property rather than Intellectual Property. This vision of cooperation is one of the most hopeful things dramatised in Capital, and it’s there lying undeveloped, getting pushed and pulled by capital, and pushed and pulled by Marx. Marx gives us an ideal of humanity rich and expansive, generous in its affirmation of people as fundamentally cooperative beings. Much as he admires Darwin, he never accepts human life as intrinsically competitive. “It’s remarkable,” Marx says, “how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’ It is Hobbes bellum omnium contra omnes.”

Darwin’s biggest stumbling block is Malthus, the quack theorist of overpopulation. Darwin’s natural selection took from Malthus the belief that life is a battle over dwindling resources. The world is crowded out by species jostling each other for survival. Only by shoving an inhabitant out can a new species flourish. Darwin used the “wedge” metaphor to highlight how any new species had to create their own little chink by displacing another. Success came from bullying out a rival, making space for oneself at their expense. Which pretty much runs counter to what Suzanne Simard found in her packed old-growth forests, running counter to Marx’s own ecological vision as well. Only through cooperation, he says, can people develop a fuller sense of individuality, as well as a “higher form” of collective coexistence—like trees. Ironically—or perhaps dialectically—it’s a higher form of existence that emanates from Marx’s underground imagination. For he, too, has a trusty digger in the subsoil: the mole.

Moles, like mushrooms, regulate soil and plant ecosystems. True, their tunnels are a gardeners’ curse, pushing up great mounds of earth that wreck pristine lawns. Yet, in the bigger ecological scheme of things, all that is cosmetic, rather superficial. For moles eat earthworms and soil-inhabiting insects, aerate the earth, turn it over, and thereby serve a vital function within the soil’s natural food chain. Marx’s mole has his own special laws of underground motion. Propelled by a tough head and powerful shovel-like paws, packing a digging power forty-times their own bodyweight, moles’ tunnelling represents nothing less than the revolution itself, the incessant spade work needed to loosen capitalism’s foundations, the underground agitation and cooperation required to make fixed capital crumble underfoot.

We first encounter Marx’s “old mole” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father, no longer living but transformed into some strange underground “pioneer”:

“Well said, old mole. Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast? A worthy pioneer!”

These are cryptic, somewhat inexplicable lines, yet Marx, the irrepressible reader of Shakespeare, plainly loved the symbolism. Perhaps he knew that even after he was long gone, dead and buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, where mushrooms would sprout out of the decay, the moles would still be digging away at the earth, creating tunnels everywhere in society’s infrastructure, pioneering the revolution in Marx’s worthy name.

The figure of “old mole” crops up in 1852, in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. “The revolution,” Marx says in his polemic against Napoleon III, “is thorough-going. It is still in the process of passing through purgatory. It does its work methodically.” There’s still much cooperative spade work to be done, Marx says, much digging, much to bring down to earth the ideological superstructure of capitalism. Yet when the foundational groundwork is put in place, Marx declares, paraphrasing his great hero Shakespeare, “Europe will leap from her seat and exultantly exclaim: Well-grubbed, old mole!” Four years on, Marx’s old mole was still at it. In a speech given in 1856, celebrating the anniversary of the Chartists’ People’s Paper, Marx redoubles his furry, well-grubbed imaginary. In the steady work of political agitation and organisation, he says, we’ll recognise “our brave friend . . . the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer—the Revolution.”

***
There’s a memorable moment in “The Social Life of Forests,” when Suzanne Simard digs beneath British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. After working the earth for a long while, near the roots of a whitebark pine, she suddenly uncovers a delicate gossamer web of tiny threads. “Holy shit!” she exclaims, “it’s a mycorrhizal network!” “So cool, heh?” What Simard held were the material filaments of what mycologists and ecologists now refer to as the “Wood Wide Web,” nature’s very own broadband, traversing humous subsoil everywhere. Channels for resource exchange and communication are here always open without tariff or subscription. In this other-worldly kingdom, the “internet of things” is nothing new: “smart” forests have been around for thousands of years.

Stitched together by this connective tissue is much life on earth. Its constitutive ingredient is a mystical and magical substance called mycelium. Mycelium operates more as a process than a thing, possessing an innate directional memory that spreads outwards radially, forming a white spidery circle of filaments in all directions. Mycelium expands until it touches something, finds something to latch on to, to feed on and nourish, anything dead or alive, organic or inorganic, decaying and decomposing—not only tree roots and plants but old books and carpets, bits of wood and floorboards, trash and food waste, mouldy wallpaper and even cigarette butts.

The British biologist Merlin Sheldrake says that if you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of soil, laid it out end to end, “it could stretch anywhere from a hundred metres to ten kilometres.” It’s impossible, Sheldrake reckons, to measure the extent to which mycelium connects the Earth’s structures and systems—“its weave is too tight. Mycelium is a way of life that challenges our animal imaginations.” Mycelium is how fungi feed, how they digest the world, absorb matter and grow. Fungi draw sugars from a tree or plant’s photosynthetic activity, fuelling themselves, at the same time as trees and plants benefit from mycelium’s ability to extract nutrients from the soil. It seems like a marriage made in heaven.

Sheldrake marvels at how fungi like truffles produce tastes commanding thousands of dollars per kilo; how is it, too, he asks, that delicate cap mushrooms push through asphalt? Some fungi are the hardiest organisms on earth; others—like puffballs—are the most fragile, things you can literally blow over. At calamitous moments in human history, fungi have not only survived but thrived. After the atom bomb incinerated Hiroshima, the first living thing to sprout was a matsutake mushroom. Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor exploded; yet amid the devastation and contamination a large population of fungi spawned, flourishing in hot radioactive particles, harnessing radiation as a source of life-giving energy, blooming into gorgeous benign fruit.

“Radical mycologists” have been most vociferous in arguing that fungi can be active agents in environmental clean-up and detox programmes. They call this “mycoremediation,” stressing the enormous appetites fungi have for breaking down and gobbling up hazardous toxins, for degrading chemicals and crude oil, happily digesting plastics and other man-made pathogens that contaminate our soils and waterways. Some fungi also have a knack for bypassing termites’ defence systems and have been deployed to wipe out entire pest colonies; the mould metarhizium has proved particularly effective against malarial mosquitoes. Fungi, radical mycologists say, are amongst the ablest organisms for environmental remediation. [2]

In reality, though, the shady underworld of mycelium remains mysterious. A lot is darkly inexplicable. Why do mushrooms reveal themselves above ground, popping up as lonely protuberances, whereas others blossom beautifully in packs? Are mushrooms spontaneously generated by lightening strikes, as ancients thought? By thunder claps, by things that go bump in the night? They seem only to flower nocturnally, spookily in blackness, as we mortals sleep. They haunt like weird surreal dreams—remember Alice, in her wonderland, meets a caterpillar siting on a mushroom, smoking a hookah. And near the end of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce has Anna Livia muse, as she “lies as quiet as a moss”: “Why, them’s the muchrooms, come up during the might.”

Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s dream book of the night, whose underground isn’t so much buried deep in the soil as hidden in the human mind, in its unconscious; in “underground heaven,” Joyce calls it, “a mole’s paradise.” It’s a dream that even gets punctuated by shuddering claps of thunder. Aficionados are torn about whether the mind of Finnegans Wake reflects the dream-thoughts of a single man—the Dublin publican H.C. Earwicker—or whether the book’s dream is too vast to be a condensed solo night flight. Is it more our collective unconscious working itself through, “humble indivisibles in this grand continuum” tossing and turning in sleep?

Joyce’s friend and benefactor Harriet Weaver said Finnegans Wake was never intended to be the dream of one character, but that the “dream-form” gave the writer the greatest freedom to explore “a night-piece,” the multiple layers of our personality, revealed in broken and stuttering language. It was Joyce’s own version of civilisation and its discontents. While he mocked Jung and Freud—“Jungfraud’s Messongebook,” “freudful mistake,” “when they were yung and easily freudened”—and never let himself or his bipolar daughter Lucia be psychoanalysed by Jung, Joyce nonetheless absorbed the psychoanalysis of his age.

The dream in Finnegans Wake, then, isn’t only the domestic torment and anxieties of Earwicker and wife Anna Livia, those between husband and wife, between father and mother and their two twin sons, Shem and Shaun, between father and mother and daughter Issy—the love and hostility that Freud labelled “Family Romances”—but it’s also a dream about Ireland, about the history of the world, about mythology and folklore, about reoccurring all-too-human themes like birth and death, family and sexuality, guilt and judgement. These are dreams that incorporate sixty languages; sleep thoughts, its “langscape.” When Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake he had only around ten percent sight. For a ninety percent blind man, it made perfect “soundsense” that his book prioritised hearing: Earwicker isn’t called that for nothing. His is an “eartalk”; he’s an “earwitness” to things; a “paradigmatic ear.” And so Joyce gives us the sloshing sounds of a somnolent underground, better heard with others than read alone. [3]

What we can hear here is Joyce’s “fermented language,” the puns and portmanteaus that push up like mushrooms on the page. One of the active agents in fermentation—vital for the ale and spirit production so prominent in the Irish psyche (“Ireland sober is Ireland stiff”) and which flows liberally in Finnegans Wake—is yeast, a type of fungi. In fact, it’s no surprise that the Wake should be full of fungi and mushroom symbolism. Earwicker himself, in his raving night sweats, is “sitting on a twoodstool on the verge of selfabyss.” Had Joyce been eating hallucinogenic magic mushrooms? Fried in butter, they’d complement the Swiss white wine he loved to tipple. Finnegans Wake lets us enter the “museyroom,” visit Phoenix Park, whose fate doesn’t rise out of burnt ashes: it spawns in a damp “fungopark,” with its “many warts, slummy patches, halfsinister wrinkles.” The Earwicker household has made its “hoom” on “limpidy marge,” on the banks of the Liffey where them muchrooms grow and where life looks a lot clearer. We find people there “as gentle as a mushroom,” which, quite possibly, is the nicest mycological sentence in all English literature. Joyce’s wordplay even sounds like fungal spores, onomatopoeias of soil stirring:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild.

If Joyce’s other great work, Ulysses, adopted Homeric punctuation to its eighteen episodes, Finnegans Wake’s four-part ring cycle takes Vico to heart, Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth-century humanist author of New Science. Joyce borrowed Vico’s “poetic wisdom,” the belief that humans alone create the world: we recreate our own creations, inherit and reinvent them from other men and women—not from gods. [4] Another Viconian inflection in the Wake is very Marxian: the notion that civilisations pass through definitive phases, cycles when, for Vico, we’ve imagined divine gods, invented myths about great heroes, only to later, in another cycle, come to recognise things in explicitly human terms, as a life comprising real men and women. That said, Vico was no believer in progress, never seeing each cycle as advancement, as an improvement in our lot. The all-too-human phase spelt dread as much as democracy.

Joyce has his Viconian cycles interrupted by loud thunderclaps, noise that rattles the earth, that signals the end of one epoch and the birth of another. But just as those mushrooms push up gently in Fungopark, he veers away from Vico: the riverrun of Finnegans Wake circulates like capital for Marx, taking us forwards, dialectically towards progression, metamorphosing into something vaster, more open, fuller of human possibility, an act of detoxification. Our night sweats are shrugged off by morning; we awake refreshed, brought back to life, cleansed, in conscious life, in broad daylight. “Soft morning, city,” says Anna Livia in the closing sequences of Finnegans Wake. “Rise up, man of hooths,” she urges her husband, “you have slept so long…rise up now and aruse!”

All of which bodes the question what might that “wake” in Finnegans Wake really mean? The obvious response is one Joyce mobilises himself, without an apostrophe: the actual “wake” of Tim Finnegan, recounted in the Irish ballad of the eponymous “hod” carrier, a bricklayer who, drunk one morning up a ladder, falls and is thought dead. At his wake, somebody splashes whisky—the “water of life” in Gaelic—on Tim’s head, only to have him suddenly leap up, bawling, “D’ye think I’m dead?” The ballad’s theme of death and resurrection appealed to Joyce’s scatological imagination, which, like Marx’s, remained darkly optimistic. Forever fascinated by the potencies of fermentation, Joyce has Earwicker transfigure and resurrect into Tim Finnegan. There’s something fungal about all this, too, about how putrefaction can be fecund, about how decomposition means rejuvenation; rot and decay, even death, can somehow be glorious, a miracle of mycelium: out of trash heap of the past emerges new life. “He dumptied the wholeborrow of rubbages on to soil here.”

Without that apostrophe in Finnegans Wake maybe there’s another sense to who might be waking. A clue comes from Joyce’s own allegiances, that he was drawn to outsiders and the downtrodden, to déclassé middle-class (like himself) and working-class people; they tend to populate his creative universe and command his political sympathies. Maria Jolas, who knew Joyce intimately at the time of his writing Finnegans Wake, says that those Finnegans were “the small men of the world,” the unsung heroes of his Wake, little insignificant people, a nameless working-class, who, as the ballad goes, “to rise in the world carry a hod.”

This is the Bildungsroman of an aspiring working-class everywhere, common people who graft hard, hoping to become upwardly mobile, that their graft might eventually pay off, especially for their children. Failing that, of course, this rising up might also spell judgement day for the ruling class. When hopes of respectable mobility are dashed, when the inevitably of the fall under bourgeois society becomes apparent, then we might see those Finnegans wake, wake up collectively, cooperate to awaken as a class-conscious working-class. Which is why Anna, like so many women the world-over, initiates the rally cry of socialists, mimicking the refrain from The International: “Arise ye workers from your slumber.” “Come! Step out of your shell!” says Anna to Earwicker. “Hold up you free fing! Yes. We’ve light enough.”

Joyce, like Marx, believed in the world, thought of it in terms of progress, that those seventeen years he spent cagily calling his Wake “work in progress” also affirmed a human progress, that the world itself could be a work in progress. In that sense, his book is radical, expressive of an underground that went to the root of things. Mycologists say fungi’s existence brings about “change from the roots,” and getting to the root of things, remember, was always Marx’s notion of radicality, of being radical. Maybe, one day, we can dream of a “mycorrhizal Marxism,” as cooperative roots push up and nourish the overground, ripen into gorgeous benign fruit. “Connections are made slowly,” Marge Piercy reminds us, “sometimes they grow underground.” And “after the long season of tending and growth,” she says, “the harvest comes.”

Time mulches hope. What we have before us is similarly a work in progress, albeit a desperately flawed one. At the close of “The Social Life of Forests,” Ferris Jabr talks about eons, “the eons, through the compound effects of symbiosis and coevolution, that forests developed a kind of circulatory system. Trees and fungi were once small,” he says, “unacquainted ocean expats, still slick with seawater, searching for new opportunities. Together, they became a collective life form of unprecedented might and magnanimity.” Could we ever imagine social history rising up to such magnanimous heights?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

This essay was conceived through two Zoom talks given at the The University of Orange, in a seminar series entitled “Mushrooms and Marx.” Since 2007, The University of Orange, rooted in Orange, New Jersey, has been a non-profit community organisation, “a free people’s urbanism school that builds collective capacity to create more equitable cities.” I am especially grateful to Mindy, Molly and Doug for inviting me, and for their encouragement and inspiration.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, loosely brings Suzanne Simard’s story to fictional life as the pariah forest scientist “Patty” Westerford. The hearing and speech impaired Westerford, with “all the intuition of a girl who grew up playing in the forest litter,” recognises early on that trees talk to one another. Powers’ is the best tree narrative since 1953, when Jean Giono dazzled readers with The Man Who Planted Trees, the French shepherd who over four decades disseminated hundreds of acorns, turning a Provençale wilderness into a wooded Garden of Eden. The account was so compelling that people actually believed the selfless shepherd’s existed. Giono’s novel was a genius of simplicity; Powers’ novelistic skills are more self-conscious, more strained. But the overall performance in The Overstory is rewarding: the lives of eight individuals entwine around trees, infusing a forest epic so tight that, like fungi and tree roots, it’s hard to say where one organism leaves off and another begins. 

[2] An early pioneering radical mycologist, nowadays something of a mushroom rockstar, as well as a crowdsourcing fungi entrepreneur, is Paul Stamets. Stamets cultivates mycelium en masse at his hangar sheds along Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Over past decades, he has secured environmental contracts with assorted US universities and federal government agencies. In 2008, Stamets did a remarkable TED talk, viewed over three million times, called Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, presenting a half-dozen “mycological solutions” to how fungi can prevent species extinction, our own included.

[3] This is one reason why Finnegans Wake is best read in a group, or listened to, at least initially, because its musicality is more instinctively understandable. There many abridged audio recordings of the Wake; the sole complete is Patrick Horgan’s admirable effort from 1985. The former Star Trek actor, a Finnegans Wake addict since his college days, realised this full recording in less than a month. After forty years of poring over Joyce’s masterpiece, Horgan thought it about time he fulfilled his life-long ambition. Little wonder, too, that another Wake enthusiast, the avant-garde composer and musicologist John Cage, would want to put Joyce’s great “Irish Circus” to music. In 1979, Cage composed Roaratorio, a strangely lulling yet cacophonous mix of Irish pub ballads and streaming water, chattering and clangings from Dublin’s everyday life, all blended together with Joyce’s own garbled words. As it happened, Cage was also a fanatical mushroom forager, a fungi expert in his own right, author of A Mycological Foray (1972), a text that lets us glimpse, through writings, compositions, photos and art work, the composer’s long fascination with mushrooms and fungi. Atelier Editions rereleased the book in 2020. 

[4] The idea might sound obvious; but Marx himself, discussing Darwin in Capital (chapter 15, footnote 4), also invokes Vico to remind us.

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Reclaiming Public Values in the City

These days, with lockdown, I don’t get out much. But I can still talk and meet people—across the airwaves, on Zoom. A few weeks ago, I was in Seoul—well, sort of. I’d been there before, for real, five years back, and this time I was invited to talk at the Seoul Urban Regeneration International Conference, with its big inflexion on post-COVID-19 cityscapes. World Bank and UN-Habitat bigwigs, together with academic planning experts, were all present, rapping away virtually. My own stint was an annex panel called “Special Talk,” tagged on at the end of the two-day meeting, and it comprised a dialogue between myself, Hakjin Kim, Seoul’s Vice-Mayor, Soontak Suh, the President of the University of Seoul, and Mike Batty, from UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning.

Seoul itself, a metropolis of some 10 million people, figured high on the conference agenda: what challenges does COVID-19 throw up for the city’s economic base? What are the new infrastructural requirements for mega-cities like Seoul? How does social distancing affect community solidarity when face-to-face interaction is threatened? Mr. Kim, the city’s Vice-Mayor, said Seoul now faces enormous problems, but equally, he stressed, there are new opportunities. A deeper question voiced was one I want to consider in this blog: what kind of “values” should urban governance embrace? Seoul’s leaders were “seeking advice about which direction to take urban regeneration.”

I said that coming from the UK I felt uneasy about giving advice to a country that has handled COVID-19 so ably. Boris Johnson, after all, has blustered and blundered his way through the COVID crisis, handling it awfully, the worst of all western nations, in terms of per capita death rates, even worse than the United States. So there was little I could tell, wanted to tell, South Korea, whose first confirmed case was on January 24th and since then hasn’t had any major lockdown. Meantime, Britain’s death toll has soared beyond 50,000, whereas South Korea’s has yet to top 500–yes, 500; 497 to be precise! All of which had nothing to do with South Korea being small; it isn’t. It’s a pretty large country, with a population of around 51 million. Nor is it low-density. As at 2018, South Korea had 515 people per square kilometre, compared to the UK’s 281 and England’s 432.

South Korea’s densely urbanised society has been incredibly effective at suppressing COVID outbreaks. They’ve employed excellent contract tracing and vigorous mass testing. Maybe most vitally is its people have unanimously complied with social distancing rules. None of this surprised me, I said, given what I’d seen on my past visit to Seoul, during a lovely week one balmy spring attending a conference. I told Mr. Kim and Mr. Suh that I remember wandering around the city, looking and listening, mindful of Jane Jacobs’s dictum that urbanists “needed an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.” (Who isn’t nostalgic about those yesterdays when you could roam uninhibited around town?) Strolling through Seoul’s neighbourhoods, I was struck by the quietness of the city, notwithstanding its magnitude and busyness, how peaceable its residents, how dignified their interactions were with each other in the public realm, along the narrow streets, and in the ubiquitous little stores. There was a serenity and mutual respect you rarely saw in Western cities anymore.

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In such a city, I said, I imagined mask-wearing wouldn’t be an issue. People would doubtless don a mask in public because they know they have responsibilities towards others. Public space isn’t just about them. It’s a shared experience. Seoul’s citizens seemed to understand implicitly what a social contract meant. Thus, if I had anything to say about Seoul, and South Korea, it would be that they had to defend this dignity in public, this dignity of the public, guard it as a badge of honour. They must continue to affirm the value of the public realm, keeping it robust and healthy, because where I come from it had been denigrated and torn apart. And now we were paying the price. This breakdown of a social contract, I said, was nowhere more evident than in the United States, where an ideology of unfettered self-interest denies any responsibility for other people. What prevails is an absurd anti-social contract, people’s flagrant unwillingness to wear a mask in public because it threatens individual liberty.

Mr. Kim had his own take on this observation, explaining why he thought Korean society was less resistant to mask-wearing. A lot had to do with the city’s rapid development, he said, of how, since the 1960s, after the Korean War, its population increased two-fold every decade. Thirty years ago, the city had no systematic sewerage facility. Mr. Kim, who’s an approaching forty-something, remembers electricity arriving to his household only when he’d reached age fifteen. It was also then that he got his first pair of sneakers; hitherto he’d been walking around in rubber slippers! He, like other people, still retained this memory of backwardness, of a dark age nobody wanted to return to, a life without electricity and sneakers. If we didn’t work together, he said, the COVID pandemic would shut us down, destroy our economic wellbeing, and propel us backwards rather forwards. Hence Korea’s high social resilience, our favouring of solidarity and cooperation.

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I was glad Koreans remember their past because, I said, in Britain (above) people have forgotten. In the 1980s, throughout my twenties, Margaret Thatcher assumed the mantle of power and famously announced there was no such thing as society, “only individuals and families.” It was the beginning of an ideology of possessive individualism, of a fervent, obsessive inculcation that the public sector was the problem and the private sector the solution. The public sector needed negating, right-wing pundits and ideologues insisted, replaced by free-market entrepreneurialism. New business paradigms devised methods to deliver public services at minimum cost. Health and municipal services were contracted-out to low-balling private sector bidders; whole government departments were dissolved or replaced by new middle-management units whose machinations became as publicly transparent as mud.

Successive generations have been force-fed this ideology that treats anything public with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as a third-class entity, something to be avoided. Only the poor travel by mass transit, right, when the rich drive a car, frequently a big one, often more than one; only the most vulnerable rent property when the better off owner-occupy. Now, this no longer appears ideological: it is embedded in people’s brains as an objective reality, as the way it has always been. It’s a belief system that has taught people how to forget, how to turn their backs on the public realm and ergo on any social contract. Perhaps for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. It seems perfectly natural nowadays to see public sector core functions—planning and the organisation of services—outsourced to private consultants and contractors.

But as the pandemic raged, the UK government had neither the hardware capacity nor the software know-how to deal with this massive societal problem. Instead, it doled out millions to consultant “experts” like McKinsey who apparently did. When the latter instigated a National Health Service (NHS) test and trace system that hardly worked, we realised they, too, were clueless. COVID-19 has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state, of the incompetence of private enterprise addressing public health, and of how public health challenges aren’t resolvable by individuals and families alone. Mr. Kim was right to stress the importance of sneakers as cultural items for young people; but when a society prioritises buying sneakers seemingly above everything else, like in the UK, which affirms consumer sovereignty by the box load, we know then that it has lost its collective way.

***

Mr. Suh, the University of Seoul’s President, seemed to know his Rousseau. He’d recognised I was alluding to the eighteenth-century author of The Social Contract, whose democracy defined freedom as a recognition of collective necessity. There’s plenty of collective necessity involved in dealing with a global pandemic, and in dealing with a city during one. But collective necessity can only work if people recognise the state as “democratic,” know good government from bad. In populist nations like the UK and US, democracy seems like a vision from another planet. We might call these uncivil states because people have lost their sense of duty to one another. They’ve been kidded by demagogues into thinking they’re free agents capable of doing what they like, and if they can’t it’s their own fault. Private inclinations have run roughshod over public interests.

But in Rousseau’s civil state a different morality would prevail. Rather than pursue narrow self-interests, people would “act according to other principles, and consult reason before heeding to inclination. Although in this state a person denies themselves a number of advantages granted by nature, they gain others so great in return—their faculties are exercised and developed, their ideas expanded, their feelings ennobled, their entire soul soars so high…and out of a stupid, limited animal emerges an intelligent being.” Somewhere inside us, then, an intelligent being lurks, one yearning to burst out, someone who reaches out, upwards, towards Rousseau’s high bar, knowing that we’ve hitherto set this bar so desperately low. Intelligent creatures might even acknowledge society again, that there is such a thing after all, that we can be freer if each of us admits we’re part of a public culture that requires collective rebuilding.

Seoul’s leaders shouldn’t only defend public culture, I said, but, post-COVID, they’ll likely have to bring it to bear on private culture—on market culture. The social contract imposes limits not only on anti-social individual behaviour; it equally reins in anti-social organisational behaviour, the behaviour of big businesses concerned only with big business. There are small businesses that serve local needs, that contribute to the public good; and there are big businesses that serve shareholder needs, frequently detrimental to this public good. Defending the public interest is destined to disgruntle certain private interests, and doing so will require courageous leadership, honest leadership, the sort of civic leadership currently in short supply.

During my Zoom encounter with Seoul, I spoke a little about my last blog, “Beyond Plague Urbanism,” with its appeal to government support of struggling small businesses, particularly important in South Korea because of its large numbers of self-employed people—around 25 percent of the total workforce. After I’d left the meeting, I started to reflect on demagogy, on how it destabilises good leadership and undermines public culture. In the UK and US, we’ve seen demagogy thrive. (Is it now history in the US?) Politicians in both countries have freely engaged in what Jonathan Swift, half-a-century before Rousseau’s Social Contract, labelled “the art of political lying.” (Swift’s essay actually appeared in the year of Rousseau’s birth, 1712.) Being honest, Swift said, doesn’t require much crafting, not like “salutary falsehoods,” which, he reckoned, usually demanded great care to fabricate. But the problem, the author of Gulliver’s Travels noted, is that even the stupidest lie has to be believed for only an hour for its work to be done. Twitter helps. “Falsehood flies,” said Swift, whereas “truth comes limping after it.”

Peddling salutary falsehoods no longer seems to disgruntle masses of people, let alone harm a demagogue’s political career. On the contrary, it assures this career, guarantees it, because there’s a popular willingness to believe in falsehoods. Even when we knew Brexit would never save Britain’s NHS £350 million a year, as Boris Johnson had bragged, or that Donald Trump was ever going to make America great again, the lie nonetheless became the necessary mood music for huge numbers of people. They wanted to hear it, yearned to trust, felt the need to believe, and 71 million Americans still do, insisting that Trump can still make their country great and that the election was rigged.

Demagogy harks back to the Ancient Greek word “demagoguery.” Initially, it had neutral and sometimes positive connotations, since it meant simply “leading the demos.” The demos was the Greek popular masses, the bulk of the people, the poorest if largest political class. One of earliest deployments of demagoguery was in Aristophanes’ comic drama Knights, publicly unveiled at the Lanaea festival in 424 B.C., to great acclaim. Pericles had died five years earlier, and Athens was still soul-searching for a worthy replacement. Knights captures the mood of this leadership vacuum and the role of demagogy in the power struggle.

“Hard not to be outspoken/ When your political system’s broken,” the chorus of Knights bawls. Aristophanes’ brilliance was to twist the meaning of demagogy, exposing it in its negative sense. The great playwright had seen how wannabe leaders mobilised rhetoric to manipulate the masses, seducing crowds for their own cynical, unscrupulous ends. (I am leaning here on Robert Bartlett’s Against Demagogy [University of California Press, 2020], which introduces and offers fresh translations of Aristophanes’ plays Acharnians and Knights.) “Demagoguery,” Aristophanes had his character Demosthenes say, “no longer belongs to a man acquainted with/ the things of the Muses or to one whose ways are upright,/ But to one who is unlearned and loathsome.”

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The Donald Trump of Aristophanes’ day was Cleon, an arch-demagogue, who flattered the people while secretly despising them, shamelessly slandering his enemies, taking bribes, encouraging wars, lying and manipulating the legal system—it was a West Wing playbook avant la lettre, using every ruse imaginable to retain power and accumulate wealth. Aristophanes had it in for demagogues like Cleon, as well as for the gullible Athenian demos, ignorantly letting the wool get pulled over its eyes, too readily believing in the demagogue’s hollow pledges. As Athenian citizens watched Aristophanes’ drama, they found themselves implicated in the plot, often bearing the brunt of his jokes, of his lampooning and pillorying. They were laughing at themselves, and this, for Aristophanes, was the crux of political theatre: the shock of recognition. (Gogol pulled a similar gag in his equally ribald Government Inspector, when at one point actors turn to point the finger at the audience: “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves, that’s what!”)

The unlikely hero of Aristophanes’ Knights is a sausage-seller, a wizened streetwise old man. He pushes his portable kitchen into the agora, starts frying, and soon confronts Paphlagon—“the blusterer”— Cleon’s alter-ego. In front of them both is the demos, whom Aristophanes symbolises as a single Athenian household, and a “chorus” of wealthy Athenians, the said “knights,” riding on horseback. Paphlagon and the sausage-seller hurl abuse at one another. Their verbal combat, full of vulgarity and vaudeville, quickly takes on the tone of the theatre of the absurd. The cunning street vendor, though uneducated, has been round the block a few times and seen plenty; he’s a maestro of ironic put down. And after awhile it is clear to everybody listening that the demagogue has met his match. He’s exposed as the lier and charlatan he really is.

“How could there be a citizen, O Demos,” Paphlagon proclaims, “who feels more/ friendship for you than I do?” But the sausage-seller doesn’t buy this tosh, responding: “he’s the bloodiest bastard, O dearest little Demos, who’s done the/ crookedest misdeeds!/ When you stand agape,/ He breaks off the stalks of officials undergoing an audit/ And gulps them down, and with both hands/ He sops his bread in the public funds!” “I’ll teach this very thing to you first,” says the sausage-seller to the demos, “that he isn’t your friend or well disposed,/… he gives no thought to you seated here on such hard rocks.” “Why don’t you judge, Demos, which of the two of us/ Is the better man when it comes to you and your stomach?”

The sausage-seller isn’t sophisticated. But he’s a good man, a better man than Paphlagon, an honest man connected to real people because he is a real person himself. He cares about the public and knows the value and importance in government of “noble and good gentleman.” And he’s bothered about social betterment, not just about himself. Before long, the demos recognises his worthiness, somehow comes to its wits, and is won over by the sausage-seller’s more earthy rhetoric, words of a mere-man rather than those of a conceited, self-professed God-man like Cleon. Aristophanes would have needed to wait six centuries to see his sausage-seller participate in Rousseau’s Social Contract, stalking its pages as “the public person,” “formed by the union of all other persons.”

Rousseau’s public person is an archetype of the social contract, a representative of the “reciprocal commitment” between an individual and society. The public person singularly personifies the demos much the same way as Aristophanes had it personified in a single household. We can also read this person as a paradigm of the reciprocal commitment we’ve seen breakdown over recent years in the Anglosphere, gone because we know it’s gone, because Rousseau said its presence would make people “aware less of what belongs to others than what does not belong to oneself.” We’re no longer aware of this. And yet, reciprocal commitment is the bedrock of a public value—the bedrock, moreover, of public virtue.

Rousseau never tells us how we might reach this virtuous state, attain a society in which the social contract bonds together its citizens, maintaining the delicate balance between freedom and necessity. Nonetheless, he does give us a few hints about what needs to be in place beforehand, and I’d caught glimmers of this, in its modern everydayness, out on Seoul’s streets: “Just as the architect, before erecting a great building,” says Rousseau, “observes and plumbs the ground to see if it can bear the weight, so the wise founder of institutions does not begin by drafting laws good in themselves, but first examines whether the people for which he intends them is capable of supporting them.”

Fast forward several hundred years, and we can see Rousseau’s public person get reincarnated in Jane Jacobs’ “public character,” her wily earth-spirit patrolling the sidewalks of Death and Life of Great American Cities. “The social structure of the sidewalk,” Jacobs says, “partly hangs on public characters,” those men and women who have “frequent contact with a wide circle of people.” Storekeepers and barkeepers are obvious public characters in city life (Joe Cornacchia, a deli owner along her Hudson Street block, actually sells salamis); yet there are plenty of public characters anchored to the sidewalk, too, she says, “well-recognised roving public characters.”

Public characters know stuff, see things, engage in city affairs, even if it means sometimes sticking their noses into these affairs, like Aristophanes’ sausage-seller. Their main qualification is that they are public, that they are visibly out in public, in public spaces, there talking to lots of different people. With public characters, “news travels that is of sidewalk interest.” Their presence helps create a certain “togetherness” in neighbourhood life, connecting people to other people, spreading the word “wholesale,” Jacobs says, enlarging our notion of the public.

Rebuilding public institutions in the city will doubtless require not a few public characters, helping change both the public and political mindset. Maybe, post-COVID, as an increasingly outdoor, open-air urbanism takes hold, we can hope for a few more sausage-sellers on the block, confronting the structures of political power and demagogy, doing so in the new and necessary agoras we have yet to invent. These al fresco street markets might go back to the future and reenact our own version of Athenian public-political theatre, whose dialogues, like Aristophanes’, will prompt greater civic and critical awareness on the part of citizens as well as leaders, who’ll both have their legs pulled by the actors. Turning on us, the amused audience, they might even ask: What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves, that’s what!

Ah, if only life were that funny.

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Beyond Plague Urbanism

Our most insightful urban commentators generally agree that the liveliest cities are those with greatest diversity. Diversity of activities, diversity of people. Jane Jacobs long ago highlighted the link between economic diversity and social vitality; how the former fuels the latter, how economic activity ensures the presence of people, concentrations of people, different kinds of people, who in assorted ways all help keep economic activity afloat.

Henri Lefebvre, in France, made pretty much the same point, if in a different register. He wasn’t so much interested in the economic forces that create diversity as how diversity creates dynamic encounters. Cities, for him, are sites of encounters, dense and differential social spaces in which people assemble. City spaces come alive through proximity, through concentrations of different social groups and activities, gathering in place. Lefebvre said the enemy of encounters—indeed the enemy of urbanisation itself—is segregation and separation, two profoundly anti-urban impulses.

Over past decades, the diversity that Jacobs extols and the encounters animating Lefebvre’s urban visions have had their work cut out. The form and function of our cities have been moving in the exact opposite direction. Jacobs emphasised the need for high- and middling-yield enterprises mingling with low- and no-yield enterprises. Instead, predatory city economies have throttled small businesses: high-yield has become the only asking price. Many corner stores as well as corner people have been forced out of business and out of town. Cities have become functionally and financially standardised, predictable and unaffordable, predictably unaffordable, sucking dry their vitality, their Jacobean life-blood.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 assailed world, killing and upending urban life as we once knew it, intensifying those existing pathologies. Economic distancing had been gnawing away at the urban fabric for awhile, executing the separation Lefebvre feared so much. Now, social distancing explicitly breaks into urban densities, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters. Suddenly, our new urban reality is one of de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and avoidance.

As the pandemic raged, the rich who’d hitherto been colonising citadels everywhere, shaping them in their own crass class image, exited fast. Same story the world over: a wealthy urban exodus, a hunkering down by the shore, up a hilltop, at the country estate, anywhere without people. Between March 1 and May 1, the first two months of lockdown, 420,000 of New York’s wealthiest quit town. Manhattan’s Upper East Side emptied out by 40%. Denizens fled to second homes upstate, in Long Island, in Connecticut and Florida. “Farewell Poor People,” said the Daily Mail (March 19, 2020), catching the spirit of London’s select out-migration. Its most well-heeled populations similarly headed for rural sanctuary, paying up to £50,000 per month in rentals. British estate agents have since been inundated with requests for country mansions and isolated manor houses.

In times of plague, the rich outrunning the spread of infection has been a time-served tactic. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe describes the harrowing scenes of the 1665 “Poors Plague,” the bubonic epidemic that struck London, striking it unevenly. The famed author of Robinson Crusoe narrates his tale of the Great Plague through the lens of an alter-ego character, an independent merchant, H.F., who had agonised about whether to stay or flee London like his class peers. Eventually, unlike them, he decides to stay put, even ventures out, and walks the streets and bears witness to the mass slaughter of a terrifying disease few understood.

In 1665, Defoe would have been a five year old lad, so A Journal of the Plague Year is a novelistic invention—an artistic creation based on historical fact. Like the good journalist he was, Defoe did his research thoroughly, read meticulously around the plague, the books, pamphlets and scientific studies, and H.F. evokes graphic details reliably accurate and believable from the standpoint of an authentic observer: the desolate streets and parishes, the shut-up shops, the over-run cemeteries, the fevers and vomiting, the pains and swellings, the destruction of whole families and the reality of 97,000 Londoners perishing because of a bacillus now known to be a parasite of rodents, transported by fleas.

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H.F. is a sympathetic, if eccentric, flâneur, both fascinated and frightened by the disease, compassionate about the calamities afflicting populations that bore its brunt, that suffered the greatest body count. Even the poor’s insurrectional tendencies found an understanding ear. At one point, he distinguishes between “good” and “bad” mobs, between dissenting peoples whose marauding cause seemed legitimate, and those who seemed to be acting because they’re deluded by false propaganda. This sounds oddly contemporary, a refraction of our own COVID-19 crisis moment, with growing economic inequities ripping apart society, cross-cut by ideological battles between mask wearers and right-wing anti-maskers, Black Lives Matter protesters and white supremacists. Separation and segregation here encounter one another. Our public life has fractured into trench civil warfare, even direr than in Defoe’s seventeenth-century.

Public space is a menace, a threat to public health, not only because of the spread of virus, but also because it is fraught with violence: “I can’t breathe,” is one expression, immortalising George Floyd’s dying words on a Minneapolis street, as a white cop pressed his knee into the black man’s neck. “Don’t shoot!” is another, after Michael Brown’s valedictory plea in Ferguson, Missouri, just as the police opened fire, heralding a spate of police killings of young, unarmed black men (and women). Such homicidal tendencies beget a few questions: What remains of the public realm? Is it for population-level wellbeing, for public safety? Or is it for individual liberty, the right of a person to freely express themselves?

Right-wing libertarians say forcing people to wear face masks in public is an assault on individual freedom, an infringement of personal liberty. It’s a perverse logic, another instance that unfettered self-interest is best; that a greedy drive for profit maximisation and unregulated consumer choice brings about a healthier, more robust society. It doesn’t. It’s a big lie, a foil for a selfishness that bears no responsibility for how it hurts others, economically or otherwise. The mask isn’t only a personal protective equipment: it’s there to ensure other people’s health isn’t put at risk. There have to be limits to what is deemed acceptable individual behaviour in public. There’s more need than ever for a social contract, for a democratic covenant in which everybody recognises duties as well as rights, accepts that our inner selves are constructed through a social identity.

It’s a touchy subject. Yet it’s an agenda Jean-Jacques Rousseau set himself over two and half centuries ago, forty years after Defoe’s Journal, and its basis remains instructive about what we still lack: “a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each with the common force of all.” “I had seen that everything is rooted in politics,” Rousseau said, “and that, whatever the circumstances, a people will never be other than the nature of its government makes it.” “Great questions as to which is the best possible form of government,” he thought, “seems to me to come down in the end to this one: what is the nature of the government most likely to produce the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the wisest, and in short, taking this word in its widest sense, the best people?”

These days, people are far from virtuous, enlightened and wise. As presidents and prime ministers bully, lie and peddle misinformation, stoke up hatred and division within society, they’ve rendered us stupid. They’ve destroyed our ability to judge truth from falsehood, good sense from (social) media nonsense. Some describe this as a denigration of our “cognitive immunity,” the destruction of our mental defence system, the ability to ward off pathological ideas, just as our immune system might ward of a pathological disease. We’ve got what we deserve, an anti-social contract, a model of government that has hoodwinked its populace into believing it is free, that it is upholding its individual liberty, when in actuality we’re enslaved.

Past pandemics—from plague in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire’s Plague of Justinian, to Europe’s bubonic epidemics in the Middle-Ages and eighteenth-century, passing through typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the nineteenth, onwards to “Spanish flu” in 1918 and the latest COVID-19 epidemic—have all revealed underlying crises in their respective societies. Plagues sparked terrible tragedy, yet were often outcomes of crises, not initial causes, a symptom of something lurking within the culture, about to give, a growing malaise, soon to worsen. COVID-19 isn’t so different, exposing structural defects in our economy and politics, our encroachment into the natural world, our destruction of it, and how zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 now more virulently jump from animals to humans. When COVID-19 struck, our mix of under-funded public and for-profit private healthcare systems proved woefully inadequate to cope. The virus spread like the wildfire and flash-flooding evermore frequent in our midst. Another hurricane had hit, hitting our urban system particularly hard, which had long been in an endgame crisis.

Endgame happens when the rich displace the poor from the city’s checkerboard, when they banish all but a few pawns from their isotropic plane of business immanence. The game is up yet we continue to feign the moves. The Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote a play called Endgame, a prophetic play about the end of the world. There he hones in on his peculiar specialty: claustrophobic confinement—although now, in our case, this confinement is engendered by a space-hungry, market-driven urban expansion. As buildings go up in cities, partition walls move in for millions of people. Speculative space opens up, dwelling space closes down, gets sliced up and subdivided to maximise rents and property values. Wealth for the few resonates as crampedness for the many, little squares for the pawns. Britain’s lack of affordable housing, as elsewhere, has pushed more and more people into tiny shoebox lives, and studies show how micro-dwelling negatively affects our health and happiness—even in “normal” times.

Beckett’s short story The Lost Ones gives us an unsettling sense of those walls closing in, with “one body per square metre or two hundred bodies in all round numbers…The gloom and press make recognition difficult.” Is this a vision of a death camp, or refugees in a transit camp? Or is it just the ordinary everyday madness of multi-occupancy in an unaffordable city, where rents have skyrocketed? Whatever the case, it’s an environment conducive to the spread of virus. Public space on the outside, shorn of people and finance, resembles another Beckett mis-en-scène, Waiting for Godot, with a main street (and its boarded-up stores), a tree, and a few vagrants hanging around. We can almost hear one of them grumble, as Estragon had grumbled: “We’ve no rights any more.” “We got rid of them,” sidekick Vladimir rejoins. “Well? Shall we go?” Vladimir wonders. “Yes, let’s go,” says Estragon. They do not move.

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History is maybe on our side, expressive of long-wave good news. Over the centuries, humans have survived tragedy through the incredible stoicism of not moving, of standing one’s ground, of resisting, of engaging in tremendous creativity. Wars, plagues and mass ransackings of cities in Ancient Greece gave us poetry like The Iliad, epic drama like Trojan Women, scholarship like Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War and Plato’s Republic. When bubonic plague hit seventeenth-century Britain, theatres closed and Shakespeare’s plays could no longer be performed. But none of this prevented the bard from writing them, from letting his creative juices flow, in the misery and isolation, penning such masterpieces as King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the mid-1850s, Marx lived through a cholera epidemic in London’s Soho, killing hundreds of people because of a contaminated water pump. Marx was destitute, had several children die before him, lodged in a truly dreadful, cramped apartment—this as economic crisis deepened and workers’ revolt dissipated. Nonetheless, he continued to work, never stopped studying capitalism, never let up writing Das Kaptial. He never stopped hoping, either, telling his comrade Friedrich Engels that “in all the terrible agonies I have experienced these days, the thought of you and your friendship has always sustained me, and the hope that, together, we may still do something sensible in the world.”

In the twentieth-century, disgust with an economic and political order that plunged us into two murderous world wars helped spark Surrealism, a revolutionary movement that affirmed its own extraordinarily creative dialectic. On the one hand came Max Ernst’s brilliant pictorial horror story, “After the Rain II,” painted between 1940-2, a hellscape of hope smothered by petrified and calcified structures, by corpses and decayed vegetation, by deformed creatures in a prehistoric premonition of our own COVID-19 fate.

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On the other hand emerged an optimism, an art and literature that celebrated the dawn of romantic love, the primal form of the Surrealist encounter, epitomised by André Breton’s Mad Love. Fascist bombs rained on Guernica and Hitler’s Third Reich was about to stomp across Europe, yet Breton wrote: “I have never ceased to believe that, among all the states through which humans can pass, love is the greatest supplier of solutions, being at the same time in itself the ideal place for the joining and fusion of these solutions.” (Three decades on, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme nodded in agreement. As racial hatred raged across America, its triumphant choruses sought “resolution” through love, as well as the “pursuance” of this love resolution.)

Perhaps what we’re experiencing now is an interregnum that progressives need to ride out, need to struggle through, sustain ourselves by hope, by a love supreme, by friendship, believing there’s light somewhere beyond the darkness, some way still to do something sensible in the world. This too will pass. Hopefully. Perhaps we can use the time alone, in quarantine, to think collectively, to reflect together on how we might reconstruct the public realm of our cities, even the public realm of our lives. Maybe we need to start by thinking up a transitional “public sphere,” incorporating the virtual into the real, developing online links with others, collapsing the social distance on the outside through time-space compression on the inside, via our computer screens, through the Zoom communities that continue to sprout.

In our private households, we can plot another public world, do it together, from the underground, as it were, where dissidents and activists have traditionally hidden out when the political going has been rough. There we might reframe the notion of “intimacy,” tweak its meaning in the interim. With Zoom, after all, not only can we look into people’s faces: we can enter into their homes, too, into their personal spaces, see the art on their walls, the books on their bookshelves, the family photos, share a strange sociability and camaraderie that helps us almost touch one another. It’s not ideal, not the same as face-to-face encountering; but let’s use it nonetheless, let’s try and find partial nourishment in this interregnum, by sharing ideas, launching discussion and reading groups, webinars and virtual gatherings, talk and debate and listen to one another, organise one another, forge solidarity in kind, if not in person. It’s a first-cut attempt at scheming a new beginning.

There have been hints of what post-pandemic cities might do to bounce back. Usually this involves smaller-scale design rather than any vaster public planning. The key issue seems to be ushering in fresh air into urban life, creating cities that flourish in the open, in the public realm, making them al fresco playhouses, bringing a touch of Ancient Greece back into our civilisation, when open-air amphitheatres became scenes of mass political and intellectual communion. Researchers indicate that we’re twenty-times more likely to catch COVID-19 indoors than outdoors. So there’s need to reimagine a different open-air public life, more resilient to future pandemic, with different spaces and places, accessible spaces and places, with commercial and recreational activities that not only entice people back into cities, but offer enough to make us want to stay, to feel safe as well as stimulated.

Design initiatives propose squeezing roads to widen pedestrian sidewalks, enlarging café and restaurant terraces; radiant heating and cooling technology can extend outdoor seasonal usages. Future cities will be a lot greener, more walkable and bikeable. Cars and car-oriented infrastructure will get scaled back. Abandoned lots and obsolete multi-storey car parks might flourish as urban farms, using hydroponics, providing cheaper, fresher produce for neighbourhoods, on their doorsteps, minimising food miles and distribution costs. Such innovations now seem de rigueur, standard repertoires in design game-plans. Ditto opening up streets and parkland to vendors and commercial activity, reanimating open-air city retailing, allowing it to be improvised and spontaneous—maybe like it once was.

After decades of “quality of life” campaigns, this would be an enormous volte-face for a city like New York. Since the mid-1990s, during Giuliani’s mayoral years, Business Improvement Districts have waged war on unlicensed street activities, converting Manhattan into a glorified corporate suburban theme park, funnelling people into the chain malls and cleansing the streets of grubby diversity—of food stands and street peddlers, of artists and homeless booksellers, stuff that brought vitality to many sidewalks.

Al fresco city life has always thrilled our most romantic urbanists. Their ideal visions invariably affirmed the outdoors, the street. They sat in cafés, wrote books, fretted home alone; but their real muse was without a roof, amid the crowd, out on the sidewalk—no matter the weather. It was an open-air intimacy, amongst strangers. Poet Baudelaire suggested we embrace the crowd, bathe in the multitude, take universal communion, find ourselves as we get lost in public, merging with the masses, though not too close. Surrealist André Breton recognised his great heroine, Nadja, enjoyed being nowhere but in the street, “the only region of valid experience for her, in the street.” Nadja, the phantom woman who’d chosen for herself the name “Nadja,” because in Russian it marked the beginning of the word hope, and because she, Nadja, was only a beginning.

Lefebvre’s urban encounters were likewise street-based and streetwise. For him, streets were modes of attraction and assembly, of union and proximity, of human co-presence. Jane Jacobs said the liveliest streets have the most dynamic choreographies—“intricate street ballets,” she called them—changing with the time of day, never repeating themselves from place to place. We’ve seen some of these choreographies adapt and change over past months, as dancers dodge and sway, twirl with other members of the ensemble, guarding social distance on city streets everywhere.

But Jacobs knew that sidewalks needed more than just urban design to keep them alive, more than a street bench here, a charming park there. Design alone, she suggests, can only go so far. We need a bolder vision of how to reintroduce public life. How might we recapture the diversity and vitality dear to Jacobs’s heart? Especially since her cherished small businesses and street corner societies have been heading towards extinction.

Local commerce needs life-support even more than it did pre-COVID. 21,000 British small businesses went under during March’s lockdown. The British Chamber of Commerce fears as many as one million little enterprises might collapse soon, leaving empty shells and boarded up main streets across the land. New York lost 3,000 small businesses during its March quarantine. Many Manhattan street corners, even in neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village, are boarded up and graffiti-splattered. Big retail chains have made conscious choices to elope. After years of plundering Manhattan, seeing off little independent competitors, sucking life out of many New York blocks, big brands like Gap, J.C.Penney, Subway, Domino’s Pizza lead the charge out.

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We need a public action plan that restricts private interests chomping away at the common wealth. In our largest cities, this common wealth has been squandered by conspicuously wasteful large enterprises, administered by elites who thrive off unproductive activities: they roll the dice on the stock market, dance to shareholder delight, profit from unequal exchanges, guzzle at the public trough, filch rents and treat land and property as a pure financial asset, as another money-making racket. Invariably, too, they dodge their fair share of the tax burden. They leech blood money out of urban territories and underwrite what might be termed “parasitic city” development, antithetical to the “generative city” that any public action plan would now need to reinstigate.

Accumulated wealth ought to be reallocated to benefit ordinary people and public infrastructure. Top of this plan’s agenda is making city life viable for little businesses as well as little people. There’s need here to impose some kind of commercial rent and business rate control. When urban economies thrive, commercial landlords jack up rents, speculate and inflate property markets, become the “monstrous power” that Marx recognised. “One section of society,” Marx said, “demands a tribute from the other for the right to inhabit the earth.” In downturns, when the economy dips, landlords prefer to sit on vacant property, leave their premises empty until they find tenants able to pay the market rent, the inflated market rent. It’s a double whammy that inevitably works both ways against less resourceful tenants.

A carrot option for municipalities is to offer landlords tax incentives to release commercial space at more affordable rents, making it worth their while to see rents reduced. Yet there are harder alternatives, too, bolder policies that might be pursued, which necessitate a stick. One could be the creation of a “living rent” program, a landed counterpart to the living wage ordinances already passed in a lot cities around the world. A living rent would be a rent that enables small business owners to earn a living, to pay for a lease in accordance with their modest income streams. In a property market designed not to screw everybody, potential small business concepts might actually become real practical endeavours; little entrepreneurs are encouraged to take the risk, to go for it. A living rent would allow landlords to receive a rent-controlled return, a fair return, not an extortionate, parasitic return, subject to taxation at an appropriate rate. Leases would be negotiated over five year terms. At each renewal, living rents would be recalibrated according to the tenant’s past and prospective future earnings. Refusal of landlords to comply to living rent ordinances would mean that the municipality sequesters the property, procures it as a public landlord.

Imagine, in such an incubating culture, what little generative activities might flourish. By themselves, they’d be modest ventures. But scattered around a whole city, they’d collectively add up to a lot. They’d signal the return of the re-skilled worker in the city, empowered in their labour-process, answerable to themselves as well as their locale. These artisans would pioneer little start-ups the likes of which we’d already begun to glimpse, pre-COVID. In grungy, abandoned areas of town, we’ve seen micro-breweries and distilleries prosper in small-scale fabrication units. Let’s hope they continue to prosper, and have others emerge alongside, post-COVID: bakers and candlestick makers, bookbinders and printers, potters and carpenters, furniture repairers and cheese-makers, welders and sculptors, clothes and craft producers, artists and urban farmers. We can imagine them together, bringing a little diversity and curiosity back into the ’hood, adding vitality to an everyday ordinariness of grocery stores and corner delis, who’ll now equally be able to make the living rent.

Meantime, city officials need think hard about what they’re going to do with the glut of office space remote home-work now betokens, the new norm for the privileged white-collar employee. Much of this office space was speculatively built, produced by over-accumulated capital, colossally unnecessary even at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, we have it, looming large, a dark cloud hanging over urban space, threatened with devaluation. It’s a lesson in how to kill a city, to make large swaths bland, the kind of blandness only money can buy. But here, again, imagine how vast open-planned floors could be rezoned and converted into affordable individual dwellings and family homes, with real space between partition walls, fitted out with balconies and breathable outdoor terraces. City governments could obtain the leases or the freeholds of these premises, recruit local architectural practices to engage in innovative designs; local construction companies might undertake the actual rehab itself.

Importantly, some of this affordable housing would need to be set aside for younger people. Since lockdown, millennials have undertaken a mass urban exodus, too, and this flight out continues everywhere, from New York and London, to Paris and Tokyo. Even before COVID-19, younger people were wilting under the pressure of exorbitant big city costs, enduring tiny domestic spaces because of the wealth of amenities outside, on their doorstep—the bars and restaurants, the theatres and art galleries, the cultural attractions, the sheer energy of flocks of people, the sense of opportunity. Yet given that many of these attractions remain closed today, costly big cities have quickly lost their lustre. Their bright lights have dimmed. Many millennials have left, some opting for cheaper small towns, others working remotely from their parent’s home, wondering if they’ll ever return to city life again.

It says a lot about our civilisation, about what’s gone wrong: young people fleeing cities because they’re too expensive, because the high cost is no longer worth the hassle, that the city’s promise has been a let down. It equally bodes badly for our urban future, when so much young creative capacity decides to up sticks, leaving a worrying urban footprint in its wake. Historically, cities were places where young people always flocked to, went there to liberate themselves, to grow up in public, as independent adults, beyond the grasp of their parents. The city was an existential rites of passage. Now, it’s an exit from a no exit. As the cost of living soared, the city’s romance was already talking about alimony.

Anybody who has ever watched French nouvelle vague cinema, directed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Louis Malle, will have felt this urban romance, imbibed its moody atmosphere. Much of the dialogue and action in these films unfolded in the street, in the everyday public realm, on a café terrace, up and down the boulevard, day and night. The city was a site where young people fell in and out of love, argued about politics, read books, discovered themselves, extended themselves. In cities you broadened your horizons, deepened your whole being. Few young people went motivated by money. Indeed, cities were places where the young preferred to be poor, because there you led a richly adventurous life. And the cold water affordability was part of the bargain, a fair exchange.

The city itself was portrayed here as a sort of Great Book, as a seat of higher learning, as an open-air library where one learned, received a humanist education about how to be a public person, with civic rights and responsibilities. There, almost unwittingly, you engaged in what the American educational philosopher Robert Hutchins once called “The Great Conversation.” How to initiate a Great Urban Conversation nowadays? How to get people talking again about the city in humanist terms? Not just map it on a moneyman’s spreadsheet, or run it through a technocrat’s algorithm. The Great Urban Conversation is to dialogue around our collective destiny. Might we find the civic leadership courageous enough, visionary and intelligent enough, to step up to the plate, to accept this challenge, to help us discover a new urban social contract together, to make our minds as well as our cities generative again? It’s hard to tell. Some days it seems impossible. Yet despite the apparent hopelessness, I can’t quite give up the ghost, can’t quite give up hope for a time beyond the coronavirus, beyond what we have now, beyond Trump, beyond Johnson—for a time when our urbanism might inspire rather than plague us.

*NOTE: I am very grateful to Bill Morrish, at New York’s New School, for helping me frame this discussion. Many of the ideas here are his own put into my words.

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September 11

Today, September 11, is a terrible date in New York’s collective memory, a day of mass death and destruction surpassed only by the coronavirus. But September 11 is also awful for New York in another sense: seven years back, the city’s great humanist critic, Marshall Berman, died of a heart attack. New York seemed smaller after Marshall’s death. Few modern thinkers ever thought about their hometown the way Marshall did. 

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I got to know Marshall well when I moved to New York at the millennium. He was enthusiastic about my coming. Terrif, he said, New York needs people like me, newcomers who care about it, who have the emotional resources to care, who open themselves up to the city, embrace it, who willingly want to live here rather than just grudgingly work here. He said as much in his co-op board letter, recommending my wife and I for the tiny apartment we were buying, seven blocks south of Marshall’s. I’m not sure the board really understood what he meant. I remember him saying, shortly afterward, something like: you have to love New York for its faults, you have to learn how to live with its faults, embrace them, embrace everything, warts and all. You have to look the negative in the face and live with it. Marshall knew I knew this was Hegel’s maxim, the speculative German philosopher who taught Marx plenty. In 1807, Hegel said: “Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.” 

It was classic Marshall, his energy of thought. It was how he could be a positive critic, a man whose life and thought derived its strength from the depressive position, from the critic as artist. “The life of the spirit isn’t the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation,” said Hegel, “but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.” This is maybe why Marshall could write such memorable lines like: “Even as New York fell apart, it rose.” I wonder now, hearing Marshall’s voice in my head, whether he was really warning somehow, telling people something we should heed, something I thought I was able to heed: looking the negative in the face and living with it, not walking away from it.

I’d learned so much from listening and reading Marshall. The pages of his masterpiece All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, devoted to “Modernism in the Streets,” are particularly inspiring, some of the best Marshall ever wrote. He was proud to have written them: “People have especially enjoyed my take on Baudelaire,” he said, “on the connections between metropolitan life and inner life.” “I’ve had many happy hours ‘doing’ Baudelaire, bringing out his romance of a city of crowds, vibrating with mutual fantasy and desire.” “Baudelaire imagines a new form of writing that is also a new form of urban development,” Marshall said, “and also a new form of democratic citizenship, and also a new way of being alive.” 

I’ve often wondered whether this is Baudelaire talking, or Marshall. I’m rooting for Marshall. He makes Baudelaire better, more hopeful, less exclusively French, more universal, more eternal: so long as we have cities, Marshall’s Baudelaire will always lurk around some dark corner, even at its darkest hours. As ever, it’s an interpretation that comes with a dialectical twist. “We can hope, as Baudelaire sometimes hoped, for a future in which joy and beauty, like the city lights, will be shared by all,” Marshall said. “But our hope is bound to be suffused by the self-ironic sadness that permeates Baudelaire’s city air.” 

I hung out a lot with him in my New York’s years. He always made an effort to see me. He incorporated me into his daily life, which revolved around childminding, looking after his son Danny, a little boy back then. We’d sometimes sit in the park, at the end of my street, West 93rd, across from the Turin apartment building. A gap in the wall led to a path up to the kids “Hippo Park,” to a family of hippopotamuses wallowing in a soft foam lake. I’d sit on one hippo while Marshall sat awkwardly on another larger hippo, the pop hippo. It wasn’t most people’s idea of great intellectual, sitting on a hippo in a tie dye t-shirt on a summer’s morning, in a pair of shorts and sandals. But Marshall wasn’t your average great intellectual. 

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He sometimes pointed stuff out, indicated across the street, to somebody who once lived in that building over there, to some incident a while back in the park here, when you couldn’t walk around after twilight. To see kids back in the park, he said, was wonderful. He could remember a time when there were no kids. You can’t understand everyday city life, he said, without kids. And you can’t understand kids in cities without playgrounds. Grace Paley knew that, he said. Some of his happiest moments have been in playgrounds, with his own kids, seeing other smiling families, moms and pops of all colors, talking all kinds of languages, goofing around with their kids.

Marshall loved Grace Paley because of kids. He quoted a Paley line in many pieces he wrote, the same line, over and over again. I guess it spoke to him somehow. It said something about kids, and about his cherished, long lost South Bronx: “the block is burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to build something on the other.” The twin plagues besieging New York and America nowadays would have tested Marshall’s optimism. He never did live to see Greta Thunberg’s generation. But he may be right yet: those kids across the street, in the charred ruins we’ve left them, are trying to build something else. 

We miss you, Marshall

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Easy on Main

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to participate in a Zoom book launch of Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s latest creative endeavor, Main Street. I plead guilty to a certain partisan partiality here, because I wrote its foreword. A hundred-plus kindred tuned in across global time zones, drifting in from Japan and France, the UK, onwards over both US coasts. But the real epicenter of the encounter was Orange, New Jersey, Mindy’s hometown, base camp for her political and educational exploits. If ever there were any awards for a New Jersey “organic intellectual” (in the Gramscian sense), Mindy would bag the lot each year. Friends, family, and a diverse array of people touched and influenced by her work, several New Jersey town mayors included, all joined in the party, feting Mindy.

Main Street appears as another instalment of Mindy’s attempt to ward off bad urban karma. She may hail from the East yet acts like the Good Witch of the North, knowing that behind every evil spell lies a counter-spell to undo it, one that can change the course of the hurricane. She knows that while there are plenty of evil spells fracturing US neighborhoods, counter-spells can unite them; that while evil spells create division and hate, counter-spells spread joy and love; that while evil spells turn life into a dark puzzle, counter-spells unpuzzle, make life collectively human and thrilling.

One of Mindy’s best spells is no hocus pocus. It insists that communities discover what they’re FOR, find something that might bring people together in a positive sense, affirming the creative, not merely denouncing the negative. Part of this magic is earthily unmagical; it asks communities to look within themselves, to see what they’ve already got, to reclaim their hidden assets, not just commiserate their more obvious deficits. It’s as easy, and as complex, as ABCD—Asset-Based Community Development. Find solidarity, celebrate your achievements, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

Such a spirit infuses Main Street, her companion volume to two previous hits, Root Shock and Urban Alchemy, the fulfilment of an urban trilogy pursuing the theme of what’s wrong and what’s right about urban America. Scott Fitzgerald said in The Crack-Up that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Under the awful presidential watch of Trump, this is the agenda Mindy has now set herself.

Mindy’s text was written before Covid-19 assailed the world, killing and upending social life as we once knew it. But with its priority accorded to acts of human kindness and community solidarity, Main Street’s program is crucial during crisis. Implicit within its pages is the message that those old inequities, the short-term greed and divisions that pervade our society, that have been manufactured by our leaders, can no longer cut it; business-as-usual economic distancing must never return. As I write, not a few of Mindy’s Main Streets will see their commerce on the brink of collapse, if they haven’t collapsed already. An early victim was her beloved Irish pub, Coogan’s, in Washington Heights, shutting its doors under New York’s March lockdown, never to reopen. (A special part of Mindy’s book launch was presenting a “Love my ’Hood” award to Coogan’s former owner Peter Walsh, a man now pledging to fight for small businesses throughout the land.)

Some of the wonderful characters she introduces to us may also be no more. And yet, Mindy shows us why these Main Streets lived on so vibrantly in the first place, and why it is vital for our public health that we keep them in life. At a time when presidents and prime ministers bully and sprout lies, Main Street assembles a series of gentle voices and honest testimonies. We listen up as Mindy scours the Main Streets of a hundred and seventy eight cities in fourteen countries. Her avowed mission is nothing less than “to discern the contribution of Main Street to our collective mental health.”

Mindy’s Main Streets are full of cells and soft tissue where streets are arteries that need to flow to nourish the entire body politic. But Main Streets need independent structuring as well, a particular set of architectonics in order to function healthily. They’ll require clear demarcations, specific relationships to surrounding buildings, and definite borders—borders that are open and porous, that loop and curl into backstreets, that have walkable links and accessible transit connections all around. Main Streets need to be discrete though not too discrete: they can’t be ghettos hacked off from the rest of the city, engulfed on all sides by busy highways.

Mindy has drifted through a lot of Main Streets, walked them, observed, talked to people, ordinary people as well as professional practitioners. While she got to pace many miles of New York’s Broadway, ate French patisseries as a flâneuse in Gay Paree, sipped çay in Istanbul, and chilled in Kyoto’s dazzling Zen temples, her real concern is Main Street, USA, the more modest main stems of provincial America. There, she paints her canvas as sensitively as Edward Hopper, touching up with a few hues he left out. She has us journey to Baltimore and Brattleboro, Charlottesville and Cleveland, Memphis and Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and St. Louis. Many more of her Main Streets are closer to home, in New Jersey—in Asbury Park and Englewood, in Jersey City and Livingston, in Maplewood and Newark, in Tenafly, and, of course, in Orange.

She even pays homage to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, with its daddy Main Street of them all, the Main Street Sinclair Lewis used for Main Street, his 1920 allegory of the narrowness of small town USA. “Main Street is a frustrating book,” Mindy writes near the end of her own Main Street. Carol Kennicott, Lewis’s protagonist, “is perfectly good and perfectly inept,” she says. “But the narrator’s deeper impatience is with the status quo and its ability to suck the life out of good people who want to make things better.”

It’s hard to imagine life getting sucked out of Mindy. During her launch, she read out passages from her book, and we got a flavor of its paean to the complexity and diversity of human life, to the beauty of it, but also to the difficulties of it. While listening, I could visualize Mindy strolling through Main Street America on a sunny Sunday afternoon, looking and hearing, interrogating the cityscape with compassionate embrace. For my bit in the evening’s proceedings, I suggested that if ever she needed a theme tune for these jaunts, and for her book, I’d like to propose Thelonious Monk’s “Easy Street.” It’s a number that bobs along with the same playfulness, the same lyricism, the same dissonant chords and off-kilter rhythms of urban daily life itself, and of Mindy’s evocations of it.

Nonetheless, there’s a little dialectical twist to the jaunt: Easy Street is something of an ideal rather than a reality these days, a vision that’s economically and politically under fire. Easy Street’s sweet life won’t come about easily. None of this, of course, was lost on Monk himself. We might remember that “Easy Street” appears on his album Underground, released in 1968, a year as racially fractious and fraught as our own. Its sleeve image has become almost as famous as the music inside—Monk at an upright piano, in his beat-up subterranean lair, coming on like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, a resistance fighter and urban guerrilla glaring at the camera, telling us he’s taking no more fascist shit.

It’s quite probable, then, that for Main Street to become Easy Street, for love to trump hate, we’ll need to engage in similar combat, in some kind of struggle and resistance, battling the injustice and autocracy everywhere in our midst. And so I think Mindy leaves us with a vision of urbanism and society not only worth endorsing and cherishing, but also something to fight for, to struggle over. Thank you, Mindy, for giving us such a precious gift of hope, a tool kit for our post-pandemic future.

 

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ANDRÉ GREGORY — Living With His Art

Review Essay of André Gregory, This Is Not My Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November, 2020)

Ah yes. My impulsiveness had its consequences, my dear Mr. Brack”
—Ibsen, Hedda Gabler

Theater director André Gregory has had an eye gouged out in the blockbuster Demolition Man, been ankle deep in Martin Scorsese’s holy waters, raving as John the Baptist, and menaced as the creepy missionary in Mosquito Coast; yet his truer to life screen persona is the ageing hippie twiddling his beads at the beginning of Vanya on 42nd Street, bobbing along merrily in the midtown throng to Joshua Redman’s jazz groove “Chill.”

In the late 1980s, Gregory began reenacting Chekhov in the boarded up Broadway jewel, the ruined Victory Theatre, giving the Russian country estate a grungy New York makeover. He’d persuaded a small group of celebrity actors—Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn included—to show up in their spare time to rehearse Uncle Vanya, actually for years, in a marathon odyssey that often performed complete run-throughs in front of family and friends. In 1994, Louis Malle shot the entire play, in the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre, a space that once housed the Ziegfeld Follies. Built in 1903, four years after Chekhov’s play premiered, there Malle and Gregory borrowed a little corner of the crumbling theater, gnawed away by rats, to create beautiful art in the ruins.

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Gregory himself is something of a maestro of ruins. He’s directed many plays in ruined theaters, ruined castles, ruined men’s clubs, ruined riding stables. Why so many ruins? he once wondered. Probably because he’s a director allergic to formal theaters. In New Amsterdam’s ruins, Gregory’s actors chat to each other, complain of being tired, pour tea, set up the table, arrange the bench, organize the chairs, the sofa. “Drink?” actor Phoebe Brand asks Larry Pine, who plays Doctor Astrov. “No. No thank you,” Pine replies. “I don’t want it somehow.” “A little Vodka?” wonders Brand. “Not today,” says Pine. “How long have we known each other?” Pine enquires. “How long,” Brand says, “Lord, let me see…Eleven years. More.” “How much have I changed?” Pine asks. “Very much I think,” says Brand, “your looks have faded.” “Ah,” Pine laments, “I have become a different man.”

Then, all of a sudden, Malle’s camera shifts. Now we can see what Brand and Pine were seeing: a tiny audience before them, with André Gregory on the front row. He’s grinning like the Cheshire Cat. We’ve been watching Chekhov for a while; the play had already begun, even before we realized it. Doctor Astrov and Marina were dialoging the opening act, in a brilliantly seamless shift between the street and stage, between modern life and modern art. Gregory said this “was what it feels like to live a life”—not just perform one. Now, he’s written a book all about it, about his theater of life.

***
The Cheshire Cat springs to mind because of Alice in Wonderland, Gregory’s first great experimental success of the 1970s. But we also sense this Cheshire Cat grinning at us in This Is Not My Memoir, Gregory’s new “autobiography,” written in collaboration with the theater scholar Todd London; his dizzy and wondrous life, “filtered over time through the prism of selected memory.” Occasionally, he’s just as elusive as Lewis Carroll’s fabled cat, vanishing when we’d like him to linger longer, to say a bit more about himself and his ripping yarns. On the other hand, this is what makes This Is Not My Memoir such a great read, so tantalizing, so wonderful in its lightness of touch, in the sort of fullness it conveys in its absence.

Maybe this is what Beckett meant by “Not I,” where his mouthpiece defines herself similarly through a negative, feeling inclined to let out a scream. Gregory knows this scream only goes so far: after all, This Is Not My Memoir is no Aristotelian catharsis, no emotional release, no bleeding heart laid bare on the page. The telling of Gregory’s life, like the performing of his theater, is more Brechtian in its “V-effekt,” keeping readers sufficiently at arm’s length, letting us understand rather than get too emotionally attached. Then again, perhaps this is just Gregory being mischievous with that other Brecht maxim: “SIMPLER AND WITH MORE LAUGHTER.”

And This is Not My Memoir is a genuinely funny book, even if sometimes it’s a painful read, a schizoid tale of two André’s: a struggling one, the portrait of a frustrated artist as an angry young man, and a mature Everyman, who later finds peace with himself, a way to live with as well as in his art. We can guffaw out loud at rookie André’s outrageous mishaps, at his theatrical birth-pangs and romantic excesses. But the main narrative thrust of this Bildungsroman is of a man at war, frequently with himself.

There’s another battlefront going on in This Is Not My Memoir: a war against Gregory’s father who’d gone so far as to escape tyrants, son says, only to end up as one himself. Dad was rich, Zelig-like, cozying up to both communism and capitalism, aiding Trotsky, exporting furs to the US, becoming Moscow’s main man for the dodgy German chemical cartel I.G. Farben (immortalized by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). He quit Soviet Russia for Weimar Berlin, made a fortune in Marlene Dietrich’s city, drove a fancy car, worked to reunite with his wife, stuck in Russia, while carousing with a glamorous girlfriend, a dancer at the Berlin Opera. After Hitler came to power, Gregory’s parents fled to Paris, where André was born, in 1934, later traveling to London, and onwards to America, to New York.

How did his father do it? son asks. “Did he cut deals to get out? Was he a calculating and lucky survivor, a rat, or both?” One problem for Gregory, and this emerges early on in This Is Not My Memoir, was guilt, that he was a privileged trust fund kid, a dependent, living off the back of a Jewish businessman father who may have collaborated with the Nazis. It’s a dreadful skeleton in the family closet. And yet, thanks to dad, never having to fret about earning a living, son could throw himself headlong into art. He could be absorbed by theater as dad had been absorbed by business.

Mother and father were great survivors, says Gregory, yet lousy parents, “negligent and self-absorbed, petty and often mean.” “My mother was witty, stylish, and sarcastic,” he says, “but for all the romance around her, she was, to me, unknowable.” Gregory’s father passed away a few years after his son’s global success with My Dinner with André. On the sly, he’d replaced the Marc Chagall he’d bought in Paris in the 1930s (fake as it turned out) with a My Dinner with André poster. Not long afterward, aged eighty-four, about to croak, father and son finally found some kind of reconciliation. “We are alike, you and I,” dad admitted. “You build a role the way I build a building.” Son could have been a great lawyer, dad commiserated. Dad hated son marching on Washington, protesting the Vietnam war. Yet it didn’t matter what side we’re on, dad said. “What matters is that we are both men of principle. And that we stand by our principles.”

Decades on, André has stood by his principles, though his lack of a real father figure has always had son on the look out for a mentor. Bertolt Brecht, the German director and playwright, was an early one, dead before Gregory got to him—only just. But Gregory did manage to get to Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel. A two-week pilgrimage to East Germany in 1958, to visit Brecht’s famed Berliner Ensemble, turned into a transformative two-month sojourn. Weigel found him a little apartment, introduced him to the actors, had him over for tea, was incredibly hospitable, maybe even tried to seduce him. Gregory, so wrapped up in Brecht’s theater of miracles, in a scary city, devastated by war, swarming with toughs and Soviet tanks and goose-stepping East German soldiers, hadn’t noticed. An affair with Weigel? What had he missed? He was only twenty-four, and “didn’t realize that women in their fifties had sex.” “Don’t pay any attention to Bert’s bullshit and theoretical nonsense,” Weigel teased him. “Just look at the work. Look at the work, and see what you see.”

Gregory’s other enduring influence was Jerzy Grotowski. His theories and provocative plays with the Polish Laboratory Theatre stunned audiences everywhere. Mythical and mystical with a long wispy beard, Grotowski was a guru who became Gregory’s friend, mentor and brother all rolled into one. At first, Gregory knew Grotowski only by reputation, and by the latter’s Towards a Poor Theatre, released in that heady year of 1968. By then Gregory had already experimented with poor theater himself, having a string of misfires in regional theaters.

In Seattle, he’d put on Max Frisch’s Firebugs, a drama about two clown-faced arsonists pretending to be traveling salesmen, modeled on Hitler and Goebbels. Everywhere they went ended up in flames, like Gregory’s production—brilliant yet excessive, it was too much for a little theater to take. In Philadelphia came Rochelle Owens’s Beclch, about a bored suburban housewife who runs off to “an Africa of the subconscious,” where she fucks the locals and eats them. Gregory’s audience wore masks to transform them into jungle natives; musicians stood in a mud pit; a chemist friend of Gregory’s created a magic potion smelling of rotting flesh; a few drops gave a putrid smell so intense that it permeated the theater’s carpets and upholstery; people vomited. It created such a scandal that Time magazine ran a four-page spread on Beclch; the drama became a big drama, an overnight sensation, and Gregory an enfant terrible. The play sold out for weeks. But the theater’s board, terrified by its notoriety, fired him.

Then Watts, an African American neighborhood in Los Angeles that had revolted in 1965. There they wanted a director who could work with the school board, put on a few quality productions to turn kids as well as adults on to theater. André was their man, hand-picked by none other than Hollywood icon Gregory Peck. André opened with Molière’s Tartuffe, casting the young unknown black actor Lou Gossett to play Tartuffe, who would kiss Elmire, his white lover. The scene bothered the powers that be. Gregory took the kiss out. But the repressed desire only aroused audiences even more, such that the Catholic Church shut the play down.

He planned Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle next. But wasn’t Brecht a “dirty commie”? So Gregory switched to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie; how could that offend? Only after he had cast a black actor as the Gentleman caller. People in high up Hollywood places didn’t approve. The mogul George Cukor tried to persuade Gregory to ditch the black guy; Gregory, appalled by the racism, told him where to go. Peck got wind. They met. He, too, tried to gently dissuade. Soon a heated argument erupted, and Peck “slugged me,” Gregory says; “another regional theater, another disaster. Three strikes. I was out.”

***
Every great artist, it’s said, has the sense of provocation. Gregory knew he was provoking, knew he was challenging theatergoers as well as theater owners; he probably knew he was blazing a trail of scorched earth for himself, coming across like Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s young artist hero: arrogant, angry, and arch. “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely and as wholly as I can,” Stephen had declared, and journeyman André concurs. He would never kowtow to any power, institutional or otherwise. Not so fast: Stephen’s friend Cranly reminded how all budding artists come to grief against reality’s hard facts. Thus for Gregory: “I was thirty-three,” he says, “and couldn’t get a job as a dogcatcher.”

As his dream of being the new Stanislavski lay in tatters, the dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts invited our dogcatcher to do a six-week workshop with the school’s first class of graduating students. What could he teach? Why what else but Grotowski, improvising and doing drills with a well-thumbed copy of Towards a Poor Theatre. “If the theater cannot be richer than cinema,” said Grotowski, “then let it be poor. If it cannot be as lavish as television, then let it be ascetic. If it cannot be a technical attraction, let it renounce all outward technique.”

Grotowski’s productions, like Gregory’s, never played to the mass theatergoers. Rehearsals lasted for months, sometimes years; actors underwent fiercely disciplined training, learning how to use their bodies in strange and demanding ways, contorting them, becoming the props as well as the stage; voices were adapted to create disturbing sounds, used as music in the face of an elimination of music. Audiences, too, were compelled to overcome themselves, to transcend their limitations, to enter into an emotional and metaphysical dialogue with the actors.

Inspired by Grotowski, Gregory and his loose cohort of graduating NYU students formed the Manhattan Project, after the US’s atomic weapons program of the 1940s—as peace-loving irony and because they were sure they’d bomb. Instead, they created one of biggest theatrical hits of the 1970s: Alice in Wonderland, bringing a little Polish Laboratory Theatre verve to New York’s shoestring avant-garde scene. Reworking the kids classic as post-’68 adult agitprop, actors and audience took a giddy psychic trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. The stage became a dream space in which explosive laughter and delinquent lunacy mingled with a sinister atmosphere of edgy unease; those present plunged deep down into unconscious terrors.

If the madness was exaggerated, if the Mad Hatter really was mad, it was only to stress the reality of our scarily mad world. A cast of six invited you into Alice’s underground; audiences entered a bleak converted Lower Manhattan chapel via a makeshift rabbit hole. Alice’s sudden size changes were achieved through skilful body manipulation; umbrellas became trees; people croquet balls; actors descending underground literally did fall; legs became rungs on ladders; tables a house; arms a hookah puffed on by a caterpillar who’s an actor on the backs of four others, forming a mushroom. “Our production concept might be said to be this,” Gregory says: “How could a group of children limited to a padded cell create an entire world.”

Alice in Wonderland ran for four rollicking years. The Manhattan Project had eight years of “mind-bending fun,” of experimental globetrotting, playing in a Berlin Riding Rink, an abandoned Italian 17th century dungeon, and an onion and garlic packing factory in Persia. Days and nights were full of laughter and wonderment, bringing hysterics to audiences wherever they went. But somehow, by 1975, the music was over; there was no other side to break on through to. Fun and magic gave way to argument and resentment. The crew disbanded, acrimoniously. The end of the Manhattan Project was André’s end, “a death for me,” he says. At least for a while. He gave up directing, seemed to give up everything. “I had had success after success, internationally and at home,” he muses, “but something was wrong. There was something I was still unable to express.” So began the wilderness years, his journey into a midlife crisis, closer and closer to mental collapse.

Curiously, around this time Grotowski had also walked away from theater, dropped out, entered into a new phase, experimenting with what he was calling “paratheater.” He retreated to a site thirty miles outside Wroclaw, the staging for his “Laboratorium” paratheatrical projects. A lost Gregory went there to find himself, discovering a huge, magical forest “with a group of forty Polish rebels and hippies Jerzy had gathered for me.” “I was unmoored from anything I knew,” he says. They camped out together, started work at sunset, improvised throughout the night, formed and reformed groups, played out small scenes, communicated with their bodies and sounds, not with words. When the sun rose, they sang and danced and went off to eat a breakfast of bread and jam, cheese and tea. Nothing ever tasted as good.

What was amazing about these workshops, Gregory recalled in My Dinner with André, “was how quickly people seemed to fall into enthusiasm, celebration, joy, wonder, abandon, wildness, tenderness. Could we stand to live like that? I mean, maybe we’re just simply afraid of living?” These encounters had people follow the “laws of theatrical improvisation”—do whatever your impulse as the character tells you to do—except now, André says, in the improvisation, the theme is oneself: you are character; you have no imaginary situation to protect you, no other person to hide behind.

My Dinner with André was Gregory’s own paratheatrical interlude, his most famous work, a crucial transitional point; “poor cinema,” we might call it, a low-budget adventure. This is Not My Memoir is reserved about My Dinner with André. It’s almost as if Gregory is conscious that it is well-trodden ground, that he’s said a lot about it already, that the film speaks for itself, now more than ever, that he never stops talking about himself there, tells all. Besides, Gregory is clear: his current book isn’t a memoir; he didn’t want to work over the past again, not in its entirety, that this was selected memory on show. Why read this book when you can just watch the film. Everything he says in My Dinner with André is true anyway: he really did go to Grotowski’s forest, did eat sand with a Buddhist monk in the Sahara, was buried alive in a mock Montauk graveyard. He really was a husband and a father who put himself, and his art, before everything else, before anyone else.

He does tell us that the film’s genesis was a phone call from old friend Wally Shawn, saying something like, “Listen, I know what you’re going through, and when I’m your age I don’t want to go through it myself. So in order for me to prevent that, what do you think of the two of us sitting together, you telling me your stories, and out of that we might create a talking heads TV show?” Wally spent countless hours transcribing Gregory, paring down his dialogue into a script—one of the longest screenplays ever, perhaps the longest speaking role in the history of film! They managed to raise enough money, and persuade Louis Malle to film it.

Malle told Gregory that the camera sees everything, that Gregory needed to “talk faster.” This would take his mind off acting. He needed to become “André,” “a character who is driven, obsessed, and narcissistic, who delights in the sound of his own voice.” Was this the real Gregory, or an actor pretending to be “André”? One major reason why My Dinner with André touched audiences, challenged and charmed in equal measure, was that this process of finding oneself isn’t the exclusive domain of André: it’s the plight of all of us. Are we playing roles in our lives, performing in front of others? Or are we being true to ourselves, affirming our authentic selves?

When My Dinner with André appeared during Ronald Reagan’s first-term, Gregory thinks the film’s alarm bells about creeping fascism and corporate totalitarianism went unheard. We thought it bad enough then under a Hollywood B-actor’s watch. What to make today of André bemoaning the modern world’s incapacity to express real feeling, overwhelmed by air-conditioning and political-conditioning, by feverish right-wing demagogy. People no longer have time to think, André said, no longer want to think. André spoke about alienation like a young Karl Marx, only now its twenty-first century mystification: “We’re all bored, and somebody who’s bored is asleep. And somebody who’s asleep will not say no.” “But has it ever occurred to you, Wally,” André confronts his friend, “that the process which creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money?”

“You see, Wally, the trouble with always being active and doing things is that it’s quite possible to do all sorts of things and at the same time be completely dead inside . . . if you’re just living mechanically, then you have to change your life.” It’s time to stop acting, quit performing, be done with the clatter and bullshit around you, inside you. “I think there comes a time when you need to do that,” André says at the end of My Dinner with André; the restaurant has emptied out; all the other diners seem to have left hours ago; Satie’s Gymnopédie #1 starts to play. “Now maybe in order to do it, you have to go to the Sahara, and maybe you can do it at home. But you need to cut out the noise…”

***
Sitting on the beach at Truro, Cape Cod, an octogenarian Gregory has finally learned how to cut out the noise—from his life and from inside his head. The noise has been silenced by radiant light, flooding into his twilight days, now shared with his second wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine, the creator of “powerful, weird and wonderful documentaries.” She’s twenty-four years his junior. Yet they’re both talkers, love the same movies, laugh at the same things, love one another enough that an ageing André at last loves his life, appreciating what Picasso said as the Grim Reaper haunted: “It takes a very long time to become young.” Kleine has given Gregory something Scott Fitzgerald thought impossible in America: a second act.

1F0E11EE-BF7E-4E06-B641-F9D9887CB061It was she who’d brought him to Cape Cod, where, from Longnook dunes, he now stares out to sea, overwhelmed by its beauty, by an ocean reflecting the blue of the sky, by the reddish hue of the sand. “The water’s azure and aquamarine mix with colors I’ve never seen before. I weep.” He gazes at the light; it’s pure Edward Hopper, who’d similarly adored the light and colors, building his little house nearby, in South Truro, perched on a cliff overlooking the bay; “and, again,” says Gregory, “tears come to my eyes.”

That light has even illuminated the artist in him—not the director of plays, which tend to be sad affairs, but the novice painter, joyously engaging with the world anew, even as it politically falls apart, undergoes a Biblical meltdown with tyrants and plague. In painting watercolors and drawing in pencil, Gregory has learned how to look again, at trees and bicycles, at old typewriters, at telephones and film-projectors, at colors and tones, looking in childlike wonderment. To paint is to love again, Henry Miller had famously said, at a similar ripe old age.

“To live and love, and to give expression to it,” Miller reckoned, “one must be a true believer. There must be something to worship.” Gregory has become a true believer, has learned how to do both, to paint and to love, perhaps is still learning. He’s found something to worship, a woman and an avocation. “I love doing something I don’t know how to do, returning to a ‘beginner’s mind’.” He’s again like Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s young artist, only now Gregory’s an old guy, a Bloom; in Ulysses, the protofascist headmaster, Mr. Deasy, fears Stephen won’t last long as a teacher; it wasn’t his vocation. “A learner rather,” Stephen rejoins. “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”

Sixty seemed to have been the turning point for Gregory, some kind of ontological break, a rift between an angry man and an Everyman, a wiser man who’s graduated with honors from life’s great teachings. It was a turning point punctuated by grief, by the death of wife Chiquita, after half a decade’s battle with breast cancer. Some of the most moving parts of This Is Not My Memoir have Gregory tell about his marriage to Chiquita, “the quality and taste of life with the woman I shared it with for thirty-three years.” They were always terrific friends and supportive of each other’s desires and needs. And yet, the poignancy jars, when he admits: “We didn’t, though, talk about the most important things: what was going on between us.” We dug a hole for ourselves, he says, “a hole of silence and evasion.”

When Chiquita died, Gregory had already been rehearsing Uncle Vanya for a while. Could he return to it? He felt so alone, so grief-stricken, that he called the Vanya actors to see if they might work again, maybe for another eight weeks, do it for sad André, help release him from the pain of mourning. Malle himself was ailing, had undergone open-heart surgery. But he agreed to come, to film the valedictory run-through. (It would be Malle’s own cinematic farewell, dying the following year from lymphoma.) It was “an exquisite experience,” Gregory says, filming our Vanya, New York-style, not just recording the play but capturing the company’s walk to the theater, the coffee breaks between acts, the exit afterward, the whole spontaneous feeling of an event that had been rehearsed for years.

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“Great!” says director André, re-entering the frame right at the end, putting his arms around his actors, smiling. It’s our Cheshire Cat again. Malle’s camera continues to run even as the curtain goes down, or would have gone down had there been a curtain. It was Gregory’s greatest theatrical achievement, and somehow he knows it, even back then, talking brilliantly about it in This Is Not My Memoir, the best section of his endearing book. (Grotowski knew it, too. After watching Gregory’s Vanya, he’d said, himself staring death in the face, “you don’t need to see any more theater. See this film every day, and you will understand the nature of theater.”) It was like Gregory had said all along: “Vanya is a rehearsal that gets deeper and deeper until you forget it’s a rehearsal.” “What can we do, Uncle?” Sonya wonders at the close. “All we can do is live,” she sighs. “We will live through a long row of days,” she says. “And through endless evenings. And somehow we’ll bear up.”

Gregory is bearing up to the final countdown rehearsing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, his ongoing project, a sequel to the Master Builder’s great fall. Gregory is still standing, planning on premiering Hedda at 103. If he doesn’t make it, his wife, he says, will kill him. There’s no promise he’ll ever finish. But no matter. Isn’t the joy of work in the doing? he asks, in the process itself? In Ibsen’s play, the eponymous heroine says, “I mean, for me, it’s a liberation to know that an act of spontaneous courage is yet possible in the world. An act that has something of unconditional beauty.” Hedda is talking about the suicide of a former lover; but for Gregory this act of spontaneous courage has been life itself, an unconditional beauty—in spite of it all. It’s taken him a long while to realize it, to watch himself blossom, finally be himself. We see his late Blooming self unfold before us at the close of This Is Not My Memoir. What kind of scandal might old man Gregory stir up with Hedda Gabler? We’ll have to wait and see, be as patient as his rehearsals, knowing that, if nothing else, by opening night there’ll be one less virus in the world to contend with.

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Surrealist Encounters—When We Could Still Have Them

In June 1933, launching the first issue of the Surrealist magazine, Minotaure, [1] poets André Breton and Paul Éluard conducted a survey that posed two questions to its readers: “What do you consider the most important encounter of your life? To what extent did this encounter strike you as being fortuitous, or preordained?” These questions seemed to be a mould for some special pass key, one that could unlock a buried treasure trove of the mind. Once unearthed, a profound emotional response is triggered; nobody is immune from it. Doesn’t everyone, if they really thought about it, have an encounter they’d consider the most important of their life?

What would Breton have said himself? Maybe it was his encounter with Nadja, the luminous adventure he’d recount in his “novel” Nadja, from 1928? Somehow he’d be effected forever more. He had never seen such eyes before. Was Nadja fated to enter his life? Nadja, the phantom woman who’d chosen for herself the name “Nadja” because in Russian it marked the beginning of the word for hope, and because she, Nadja, was only a beginning. One of the strangest romances ever written, Nadja leads us into that liminal zone where dream and reality blur and where we’re left wondering if any of this really happened at all—this infatuation with a woman, this infatuation with the streets of Paris.

Often we’re not sure if Nadja is a person or an event or a metaphor for the Surrealist city itself, or just a figment of Breton’s fertile and sometimes febrile imagination, an unconscious wish-image. Perhaps it’s all those things. “Who is the real Nadja,” Breton wrote. “The one who told me she had wandered all night in the forest of Fontainebleau with an archaeologist who was looking for some remains which, certainly, there was plenty of time to find by daylight… I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, in the streets?”

And yet, she was real. Nadja really did exist, a twenty-something woman, semi-destitute, alone, a beguiling presence, perhaps a bit mad. Or maybe she was made mad by a world ill-equipped for her, a woman free from conventional appearances and conventional discretion, from conventional behaviour, a woman, Breton said, who seemed to “foment a private conspiracy” inside her own head, inside her own imagination. Nothing about Nadja’s sense appeared common.

Hailing from the curiously named Saint-André, a commune now part of metropolitan Lille, in Northern France, Nadja’s real name was Léona Delcourt, born 1902. In 1919, aged seventeen, she’d had a fling with an English soldier, who’d stuck around after the Great War, the result of which was Marthe, Léona’s illegitimate daughter. The birth, in 1920, caused a scandal; not wanting to bring shame to her family, Léona immediately escaped to Paris, leaving baby Marthe with her grandparents. The mother had to save herself somehow. Léona was now her past. Her only future was Nadja, her new beginning. [2]

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With no high-school diploma and little means, in fragile health (asthmatic) and with few prospects, Nadja lived in a shabby rented room at the Hotel Becquerel, rue Becquerel, in Montmartre. Her ambition, never realized, was to work in fashion. She refused a job offer in theatre because of insultingly poor pay. She sat in cafés instead, often writing letters, walked the streets, occasionally went to the cinema; for a while she had an elderly male “benefactor.” One time Nadja was arrested at the Gare du Nord for transporting two kilos of cocaine in her handbag and hat, bought in the Hague. Never an addict, nor any kind of real trafficker, she took the risk only for the money. Still, it was clear to the police then that she was a psychologically troubled young woman. They questioned her at the 18th arrondissement’s police station, releasing her later without charge. (One of the few written records of Nadja’s existence—still officially “Léona Delcourt”—is this police report, from March 21, 1927.) It had been the autumn prior, out on the street, late on a gloomy, idle afternoon, that Nadja and Breton first set eyes on each other.

In Nadja, the encounter was recorded as October 4, 1926. But Nadja’s letters to Breton, of which a dozen or so are beautifully preserved as part of Breton’s Archive, the encounter may have actually been on October 7. Why did Breton, so meticulous a man, say October 4? And why, too, did he say along rue Lafayette, when, in another of Nadja’s letters (January, 27 1927), she recalled the site of the encounter as near the entrance to the Saint-Georges métro station, almost a mile from rue Lafayette? Perhaps it was Nadja who’d misremembered? We’ll never know. Yet this is how Breton memorably described their coming together:

[A]fter stopping a few minutes at the stall outside the Humanité bookstore [rue Lafayette] and buying Trotsky’s latest work, I continued aimlessly in the direction of the Opéra. The offices and workshops were beginning to empty out …[and] people on the sidewalk were shaking hands, and already there were more people in the street now. I unconsciously watched their faces, their clothes, their way of walking. No, it was not yet these people who would be ready to create the Revolution. I had just crossed the street whose name I don’t know, in front of a church. Suddenly, perhaps still ten feet away, I saw a young, poorly dressed woman walking toward me, she had noticed me, too, or perhaps had been watching me for several moments. She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. A faint smile may have been wandering across her face. She was curiously made up, as though beginning with her eyes, she had not had time to finish… Perhaps I had never seen such eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, I spoke to this unknown woman, though I must admit that I expected the worst.

Yet she did respond. And it wasn’t the worst. She smiled, Breton noted, “quite mysteriously and somehow knowingly.” (His italics.) She claimed to be going to the hairdresser, which, he sensed, was a lie. They stopped at a café terrace near Gare du Nord and there Breton “took a better look at her.” “What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes?” he wondered to himself. “What was it they reflected—some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride?” They talked, awkwardly, hesitantly, for a while, and arranged to meet again the following day. About to part, Breton wanted “to ask her one question which sums up all the rest, a question only I, probably, would ever ask, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it it: ‘who are you?’ And she, without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I am the soul in limbo’.” [3]

There’s something charming and chivalrous about Breton’s tonality here, about his whole portrayal of Nadja, the touching passages he’d eventually put down in a book she always knew he’d write. “You will write a novel about me, André,” she’d said. “I am sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us…” I’m moved each time I read words like these. Breton seems honest about trying to enter Nadja’s mind, about entering into her desolate space, on her terms, genuinely out to understand his attraction, their mutual attraction, their fleeting Surrealist encounter, enduring for an eternity.

Perhaps encounters like these are really modern encounters. Or are they already archaic in our pandemic age? They symbolize, symbolized, what the Surrealists called the “new spirit,” a thoroughly urban spirit, were men and women “freely” encountered one another, by chance, by objective chance, out in the public realm; never, certainly, on equal terms, but the gaze would cut both ways, would look back. People watched one another, lost and found one another, did so amid the throng. It was the stuff of modern poetry as well as modern life. In one of the last letters Nadja ever wrote to Breton (January 27, 1927), she, too, remembered seeing him for the first time, in the memorable scene he had described, “with a blank look on your face,” she’d said, standing out in the crowd “like a ray of calm grandeur.” The radiant light seemed to get “caught up in the curls of your hair.”

When Breton wrote Nadja he was thirty years old, only six years Nadja’s senior. They belonged to the same generation, living out an interregnum between wars. Perhaps they sensed the impending doom. He’d quit his medical studies; and, while fascinated by medicine, especially psychiatry, he had no more pretensions about practicing it—indeed about practicing any profession. By the early 1920s, Breton had already vowed to devote himself exclusively to literature, art and Surrealism. Surrealism would be his day as well as his night job. He’d suffer financially for it, but stuck throughout to his belief that “there’s no use being alive if one must work. The event from which each of us is entitled to expect the revelation of life’s meaning—that event which I may not yet have found but on whose path I myself seek—is not earned by work.” (Again the italics are Breton’s.)

The other thing about Breton was that he was already married. He tells Nadja this but somehow she’d guessed. She probably recognized this marriage was kaput, was effectively over. Breton had met Simone Kahn in Luxembourg Gardens and they’d wed in 1921. She’d been a frequenter of La maison des amis des livres, along rue de l’Odéon, in the 6th arrondissement, the nation’s first female-owned and run bookstore, Adrienne Monnier’s passion. Simone interested herself in art and the avant-garde and so her liaison with Breton was always likely to happen. She’d participated in early Surrealist ventures around unconscious “automatic writing.” But she and Breton drifted apart, eventually divorcing in 1931, though they remained on amicable terms.

She knew all about her husband’s thing with Nadja, and was, to a certain degree, complicit in it. She and Nadja spoke at least once to each other over the telephone. And Nadja wrote to Simone. Breton told Simone about Nadja. He told her what he and Nadja did together. They met in cafes. They wandered the streets. They talked. They argued. They fell silent. Breton recounted the first kiss, their debut evening together, in a flea-bitten hotel, how they took late-night trains beyond Paris, to provincial faubourgs, where everything was closed and there was nothing to do, nowhere to stay.

Breton lends Nadja his books, hoping she won’t read them. One was Les pas perdus [The Lost Steps], a series of essays published in 1924, an important Surrealist opening gambit, bits and pieces on artists and figures like Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, Lautréamont and Jacques Vaché; some are collaborative commentaries written with Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon—“L’esprit nouveau,” for instance—as well as a position statement on Surrealism’s relationship to Dada. Nadja is intrigued, bemused by its title. “Lost steps?” she queried. “But there’s no such thing!” Her life, however, would suggest otherwise: it was full of lost steps; or at least full of past footprints she’d taken care to efface, purposely wanted to cover over. It’s evident that their affair is stormy. We know it from the letters she’d write Breton, frequently shifting between the formal and informal, between vous and tu, depending upon mood. Nadja rarely bothered with punctuation.

Many bore the letterheads of the cafes she sat in. Café Terminus at Gare St. Lazare was a favourite; another was Café de la Régence, along rue Saint-Honoré; elsewhere, Chez Graff, near Place Blanche in the Pigalle, a café Breton didn’t much like, despite being near to his own apartment at 42 rue Fontaine; ironically, its location today bears his own name: Place André Breton. Another haunt was Café Wepler, Place Clichy, immortalized by Henry Miller, a regular in the early 1930s, who’d always hope to encounter some acquaintance or another there, if only to bum a meal.

In one letter (October, 9 1926), only days after they’d first met, Nadja tells Breton: “I’ve some things to say to you, come and listen to me this afternoon around 5:30pm at the little café on rue Lafayette. There’s a misunderstanding between us. I will explain it to you. I want to see you again—Nadja.” (Was the French postal service almost as good then as our e-mail today? Or did Nadja deliver her letter by hand?) In another correspondence, Nadja kisses the page in red lipstick, leaving her luscious pouting imprint, alongside the inscription: “C’est moi.” “GARDER SUR VOUS!” is emblazoned overleaf. “It’s me.” “KEEP IT WITH YOU!”

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Nadja makes pencil sketches in cafes, too, doodling and designing mysterious creatures from her dreams; she never had the inclination to draw before encountering Breton. Some sketches are naïve; others move and intrigue him. Nonetheless, he keeps them, seemingly all, for the forty remaining years of his life. “Nadja has invented a marvelous flower for me,” he wrote. It was “La fleur des amants”— “The Lovers’ Flower.” “It is during a lunch in the country that this flower appeared to her,” Breton said, “and that I saw her trying—quite clumsily—to reproduce. She comes back to it several times, afterwards, to improve the drawing and give each of the two pairs of eyes a different expression. It is essentially under this sign that the time we spent together should be placed, and it remains the graphic symbol which has given Nadja the key to all the rest.”

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Nadja evidently loved Breton. He was her “Saint André,” her “Lion-King,” paired with herself, Lionne, after Léona, the “Lionne-Reine”—the Lioness-Queen. Breton is deeply affected by Nadja. And yet, he knows, when he’s writing about her, recalling what had happened to them over that late 1926/early 1927 period, so paltry a time-span, that he didn’t truly, deeply, madly love her. How did he know?

“I had not been granted the realization until today,” he mused in the closing sequences of Nadja. It had been a car ride they’d taken together, returning to Paris from a trip to Versailles. Nadja was beside him. Suddenly, without any warning, she pressed her foot down on his, on the accelerator, and tried to cover his eyes with her hands, “in the oblivion of an interminable kiss, desiring to extinguish us, doubtless forever.” They might collide at full speed, with one of the splendid trees lining the route, in a frenzied test of love, of two lovers deciding to spectacularly end it together, in a poetic suicide pact. But Breton hadn’t yielded to the desire and it was clear then, at that moment, how he really felt, perhaps how he’d always felt, about Nadja.

She was, for him, a concept of love, an abstraction. Was he a rat, a sleaze-bag, leading her on this way, using her as literary grist? Perhaps. For he loved her intellectually, as a sort of metaphysics. On November, 8 1926, Breton wrote his wife Simone, explaining himself, typically cryptically, outlining to her, and maybe to himself, what might be this thing called love: “I don’t love her,” he said. “She’s only capable of calling into question all that I love and the manner in which I have to love.”

Nadja established Breton as the magus of Surrealism; his bewitching book set the high bar of the Surrealist love encounter, and of how objective chance might underwrite this encounter. The encounter strikes. Sometimes it strikes. It strikes like a meteor. Like a rain shower immediately bursting into flames. In post-pandemic times, will it ever strike again?

 

ENDNOTES
[1] Minotaure was the Surrealists’ “Artistic and Literary Review,” running thirteen issues from June 1933 up until the onset of the Second War War in 1939. Founded by a young Swiss publisher Albert Skira, whose eponymous press had that year opened an office in Paris. Breton and Pierre Mabille assumed editorial direction. The pedigree of contributors is staggering, running like a Who’s Who of the modern movement. The list of artists illustrating Minotaure’s lavish frontispieces is alone enough to set the remarkable tone: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Salvadore Dali, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Henri Matisse, André Masson, André Derain, Max Ernst, and Diego Rivera. We’ll never see the likes of Minotaure again. Then again, maybe we will.

[2] The Dutch novelist Hester Albach once went in search of the real Nadja, and produced an affecting homage, a sympathetic biography with fictional flourishes, translated into French as Léona: héroïne du surréalisme (Actes Sud: Arles, 2009). Albach tracks Léona’s enigmatic existence and traces out a life that would end in 1941, aged thirty-eight, in a Bailleul mental asylum, not far from her birthplace. She’d been interned since Spring 1927, certified as hysterical and maniacal, likely schizophrenic.

[3] This translation is Richard Howard’s 1960 Grove Press rendering of Breton’s original French: “Je suis l’âme errante.” I’ve always thought that “the soul in limbo,” while poetic, was never quite right. It somehow casts resigned light on Nadja’s tragic yet more affirmative response: “I am the wandering soul.”

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