The Fall of Paris – Harold Rosenberg
The Style of Today
The laboratory of the twentieth century has been shut down. Let us admit, though, the rapping of the soldier’s fist did not interrupt the creation of fresh wonders. For more than a decade there had been a steady deflation of that intellectual exuberance which had sent out over the earth the waves of cubism, Futurism, vorticism – and later, dadaism, the Russian Ballet, surrealism. Yet up to the day of the occupation, Paris had been the Holy Place of our time. The only one. Not because of its affirmative genius alone, but perhaps, on the contrary, through its passivity, which allowed it to be possessed by the searchers of every nation. By Picasso and Juan Gris, Spaniards; by Modigliani, Boccioni and Severini, Italians; by Brancusi, Roumanian; by Joyce, Irishman; by Mon-drian, Dutchman; by Lipchitz, Polish Lithuanian; by Archipenko, Kandinsky, Diaghilev, Larionov, Russians; by Calder, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, Americans; by Kupka, Czechoslovak; Lehmbruck and Max Ernst, Germans; by Wyndham Lewis and T. E. Hulme, Englishmen … by all artists, students, refugees.
The hospitality of this cultural Klondike might be explained as the result of a tense balance of historical forces, preventing any one class from imposing upon the city its own restricted forms and aims. Here life seemed to be forever straining towards a new quality. Since it might be the sign of what was to come, each fresh gesture took on an immediate importance. Twentieth-century Paris was to the intellectual pioneer what nineteenth-century America had been to the economic one. Here, the world beat a pathway to the door of the inventor – not of mouse traps but of perspectives.
Thus Paris was the only spot where necessary blendings could be made and mellowed, where it was possible to shake up such ‘modern’ doses as Viennese psychology, African sculpture, American detective stones, Russian music, neo-Catholicism, German technique, Italian desperation.
Paris represented the International of culture. To it, the city contributed something of its own physiognomy, a pleasant gift of sidewalk cafes, evening streets, shop signs, postmen’s uniforms, argot, discursive female janitors. But despite this surface local color, twentieth-century art in Paris was not Parisian; in many ways it was more suited to New York or Shanghai than to this city of eighteenth-century parks and alleys. What was done in Paris demonstrated clearly and for all time that such a thing as international culture could exist. Moreover, that this culture had a definite style: the Modern.
A whole epoch in the history of art had come into being without regard to national values. The significance of this fact is just now becoming apparent. Ten years ago, no one would have questioned the possibility of a communication above the national, nor consequently, of the presence of above-national elements even in the most national of art forms. Today, however, ‘sanity movements’ everywhere are striving to line up art at the chauvinist soup kitchens. And to accomplish this, they attack the value and even the reality of Modernism and ‘the Paris style.’ National life alone is put forward as the source of all inspiration. But the Modern in literature, painting, architecture, drama, design, remains, in defiance of government bureaus or patriotic streetcleaners, as solid evidence that a creative communion sweeping across all boundaries is not out of the reach of our time.
In all his acts contemporary man seems narrow and poor. Yet there are moments when he seems to leap towards the marvellous in ways more varied and whole-hearted than any of the generations of the past. In the ‘School of Paris,’ belonging to no one country, but world-wide and world-timed and pertinent everywhere, the mind of the twentieth century projected itself into possibilities that will occupy mankind during many cycles of social adventure to come. Released in this aged and bottomless metropolis from national folklore, national politics, national careers; detached from the family and the corporate taste; the lone individual, stripped, yet supported on every side by the vitality of other outcasts with whom it was necessary to form no permanent ties, could experiment with everything that man today has within him of health or monstrousness: with pure intellect, revelling in the tension of a perfectly adjusted line; with the ferocious trance of the unmotivated act; with the quiverings of mood and memory left by unmixed paints; with arbitrary disciplines and the catharsis they produce; with the nonsense of the street and the classics; with the moody pulps and absolute lyrics of paranoiac dreams. […]
True, the Paris Modern did not represent all the claims of present-day life. Any more than its ‘Internationalism’ meant the actual getting together of the peoples of different countries. It was an inverted mental image, this Modern, with all the transitoriness and freedom from necessity of imagined things. A dream living-in-the-present and a dream world citizenship – resting not upon a real triumph, but upon a willingness to go as far as was necessary into nothingness in order to shake off what was dead in the real. A negation of the negative.
Perhaps the wrenching of Western culture that had produced this style had been too severe, resulting in a kind of ‘Leftism’ in the field of thought, an over-defiance of the powers of the past. Science and philosophy had crossed national boundaries in earlier centuries; abstract ideas had shown that they could drop from the skies without regard to time or place; but life itself, manners, ways of speaking, of acting, of composing images, of planning the future, had always been imprisoned by the gravitation of the community site, where the grip of the dead was most unrelaxing. . . .
Then, suddenly, almost in the span of a single generation, everything buried underground had been brought to the surface. The perspective of the immediate had been established – or rather, a multiple perspective, in which time no longer reared up like a gravestone or flourished like a tree but threw up a shower of wonders at the will of the onlooker.
The urge toward a free life, in a society that every year tangled him deeper and deeper in the web of the systematic, had carried the individual too far.
So the Modern became, not a progressive historical movement, striving to bury the dead deeper, but a new sentiment of eternity and of eternal life. The cultures of the jungle, the cave, the northern ice fields, of Egypt, primitive Greece, antique China, medieval Europe, industrial America – all were given equal due.
Strange vision of an eternity that consists of sheets of time and space picked from history like cards from a pack and constantly shuffled, arranged, scattered, regrouped, rubbed smooth, re-faced, spread in design, brushed off to the floor. An absolute of the relative, to be re-created in compositions of bits of newspaper, horse-hair, classic prints, the buttocks of a South Sea Islander, petroglyphs, arbitrary shapes suggested by the intoxication of the moment.
Thus the Paris Modern, resting on the deeply felt assumption that history could be entirely controlled by the mind, produced a No-Time, and the Paris ‘International’ a No-Place. And this is as far as mankind has gone toward freeing itself from its past. […]
But note: processes less spectacular than those of the Paris studios had also been steadily loosening the cultural reefs of the past. Paris has been synonymous with Modernism in the sense of the special style and tempo of our consciousness. But it is a mistake to see this city also as central to the modern in the larger sense, the sense in which we think of the contemporary as beginning in 1789. This larger and more fundamental span has not belonged to Paris alone. It has embraced equally the United States, South America, industrial and revolutionary China, Japan, Russia, the whole of Europe, every spot in the world touched by contemporary civilization. Despite the fall of Paris, the social, economic, and cultural workings which define the modern epoch are active everywhere. Even the style has not vanished with the elimination of its capital: having been driven from the realm of art, it now reappears in new military and propaganda techniques. If there is a break between our lives and the kind of life existing before 1789, the current debasement of the Paris of the past 150 years does not imply a break of similar magnitude with the future. The world take its shape from the modern, with consciousness or without it.
The Intellectual Form of Defeat
The cultural International had a capital: Paris. In the 1920s the political International, too, had a capital: Moscow. It is a tragic irony of our epoch that these world centers were not brought together until the signing of the Franco-Soviet pact, when both were already dead. Then the two cadavers of hope embraced farcically, with mutual suspicion and under the mutually exclusive provincial slogans: DEFENSE OF THE USSR and FRANCE FOR FRENCHMEN.
The intellectuals turned out in full dress – the ‘proletarians,’ of course, with red rosettes and suggestive smirks – to the wedding of their pair of radical ghosts. And offered themselves as anxious godfathers to its earthly issue, the Popular Front. From that time on it became bad luck even to recall the graves of international culture and international socialism.
A few courageous men – Gide, Breton, Victor Serge, a few others – strove to uphold the tradition of French criticism. But what ‘higher need’ had paralyzed the conscience of non-conformist Paris?
The higher need was Antifascism. [. . .] Wearing armbands supplied by Moscow, the Paris Left adopted the style of the conventional, the sententious, the undaring, the morally lax – in the name of social duty and the ‘Defense of culture.’ Feasible Fronts were formed in which all the participants were forced to give up their power of action – perhaps a profound desire for this renunciation was the main reason for the coalitions.
Antifascist unity became everything; programs, insight, spirit, truth, nothing.
[…] To defend Paris, men and slogans long discredited were restored to power. The Communists claimed the ‘Marseillaise’ as their own and former surrealist poets acclaimed Romain Rolland.
In this milieu, inquiry soon became not merely a matter of taste but of bad taste. Another blow by Fascist radicalism and it became treachery.
Meanwhile, modern formulae perfected both by Paris and Moscow in the hour of their inspiration, and now discarded, had been eagerly seized upon by Germany and adapted to its peculiar aims. In that country politics became a ‘pure (i.e., inhuman)’ art, independent of everything but the laws of its medium. The subject matter of this “avant-garde” politics was, like that of earlier art movements of Paris, the weakness, meanness, incoherence and intoxication of modern man. Against this advanced technique, which in itself has nothing to do with revolutionary change, the Paris of Popular Front compromise was helpless.
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So that, at last, when the crisis is ripe, a fast-moving explosive force finds nothing in its path but a pile of decomposed scrapings.
The academy had failed to halt modern art, and Fascism was not to be stopped by cliches.
In the Fascist political and military adventures, modernist mysticism, dreaming of an absolute power to rearrange life according to any pattern of its choice, submits itself to trial. Against this experiment is opposed, not conservation, but other forms of contemporary consciousness, another Modernism.
No one can predict the center of this new phase. For it is not by its own genius alone that a capital of culture arises. Current flowing throughout the world lifted Paris above the countryside that surrounds it and kept it suspended like a magic island. And its decline, too, was the result not of some inner weakness – not of ‘sensuality’ or ‘softness,’ as its former friends and present enemies declare – but of a general ebb. For a decade, the whole of civilization has been sinking down, lowering Paris steadily towards the soil of France. Until its restoration as the capital of a nation was completed by the tanks of the Germans.