Sunday, June 08, 2014

Félix Fénéon, or: Modernity is Flat

Félix Fénéon, in Signac's painting

Skepticism about morality is what is decisive.  The ending of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some metaphysical beyond, leads to nihilism.  'Everything lacks meaning' (the untenability of [the Christian] interpretation of the world, upon which a huge amount of energy has been lavished, awakens a suspicion that all intepretations of the world are false.
            —Nietzsche, from The Will to Power.

I'd been poking away at Félix Fénéon's Nouvelles en trois lignes on and off for what must have been weeks when it hit me: modernity is flat!  Let me explain.

Fénéon is a fascinating figure.  An art critic, an anarchist, quite probably a one-time terrorist, and the man who invented the term "neo-impressionism," he was never really famous, but he was ubiquitous on the Parisian art and literature scenes of the 1880s and 90s.  He edited Rimbaud and Lautréamont, championed pointillism, and he's the figure near the center of the spirals in what is probably Paul Signac's best known painting.  An odd man, his Nouvelles en trois lignes is an odd book: it's a compendium of more than 1,200 little narratives, most three lines long, originally written for the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906.  The narratives tell compressed stories of miscellaneous news events of no great significance.  We don't get history book stuff here, but what the French call "faits-divers"—mostly true crime stuff from the provinces, or weird little events that don't fit in any more formal context.  It's a minor form, to be sure, but Fénéon is a genius with it: his delivery is deadpan, and even within the restrictions of a few sentences he often manages to be wry, or to give an ironic twist to the events.  The title given to the collection of these faits-divers, Nouvelles en trois lignes, is sort of perfect: it can mean "the news in three lines," but also "novels in three lines."  The English translation goes with the latter, and it is a shame there was no way to keep the double sense of the French original.

Despite the elegant simplicity of the individual items in Nouvelles en trois lignes, I had a hard time getting through the whole thing, because the pieces, read in mass, become enervating.  Even with the often-sensational subject matter, they become, en masse, an endurance test: there's no development, virtually no judgment of events, no direction to them.  There's a clear tone—removed, objective, yet ever so slightly ironic—but it never changes, so the narrator becomes difficult company to keep.  Everything is seen from the same perspective.  Horrors and trivialities come to us in the same voice, with little or no difference in judgment.

Maybe a few examples, chosen at random, will make the point (these, which occur consecutively in the book, are in Luc Sante's excellent translation):

At Menzeldjémil, Tunisia, Mme Chassoux, an officer's wife, would have been murdered had her corset not stopped the blade.

Fearless boys of 13 and 11, Deligne and Julien were going off "to hunt in the desert."  They were brought back to Paris from Le Havre.

A virgin of Djiqjelli, 13, subject to lewd advances by a 10-year old, killed him with three thrusts of her knife.

In the heat of argument, Palambo, an Italian of Bausset, Var, was mortally wounded by his chum Genvolino.

Some people, believed to be the same ones who attempted a derailment on Tuesday, tried to set fire to the Labat house in Saint-Mars, Finistère.

Eugène Périchot, of Pailles, near Saint-Maixent, entertained at his home Mme Lemartier.  Eugène Dupuis came to fetch her.  They killed him.  Love.

You get the idea.  There's a flatness of delivery here, re-enforced by the accumulation of examples.  The narrator is almost transparent in his objectivity: only in the word "fearless," attached to the two naïve boys, and "love" attached to the murder of Eugène Dupuis do we get something like analysis or opinion.  And it is the opinion of someone a little removed, a little world-weary, a little like our American stereotype of a certain kind of jaded Parisian.

It is in this very flatness, the thing that makes Nouvelles en trois lignes difficult to read through, that its significance lies.  The worldwide gathering of information, and the availability of specifics about names and places represents an impressive, and distinctly modern, information regime.  You couldn't assemble a daily paper featuring these kind of events before the late nineteenth century, with its telegraph cables and cheap newsprint and centralized police bureaucracies keeping records.  This kind of communication is native to modernity.  As Nietzche knew, modernity gives us an impressive machinery for information delivery "The entire apparatus of knowledge," he wrote in The Will to Power, "is an apparatus for abstraction and simplification."  But Nietzsche also knew something else: that modernity was largely emptied of systematically articulated values.  After what he saw as Christianity's self-destruction, we had no established moral framework.  Dante was able to articulate an intricate, multi-leveled, continuous moral universe—a vertical universe extending from the deepest circles of the inferno to the highest celestial haunts of truth and beauty.  But modernity is stripped of that condition.  In a way, Fénéon's Nouvelles en trois lignes  can be seen as our Divine Comedy: it gives us a universe full of fast communication, and lurid sensations, a world flattened out and shorn of any vertical scale of vice and virtue. Fénéon's moral universe, like his tone, is flat.  And, for many, it is our home.