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Catching Up with the Avant-garde

Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930

by Jerrold Seigel
Viking, 453 pp., $25.00

Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France

by Charles Rearick
Yale, 240 pp., $29.95

France: Fin de Siècle

by Eugen Weber
Harvard University Press, 294 pp., $20.00

Theory of the Avant-Garde

by Peter Bürger, translated by Michael Shaw, foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse
University of Minnesota Press, 135 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Poets, Prophets, and Revolutionaries: The Literary Avante-Garde from Rimbaud through Postmodernism

by Charles Russell
Oxford University Press, 303 pp., $29.95

The Culture of Time and Space: 1880–1918

by Stephen Kern
Harvard University Press, 372 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Eight books dealing with various aspects of Western literature and the arts during the last 150 years should tell us something about how we are learning to sort out our recent past. The only artist to whom all eight works assign an important place is Baudelaire. Bergson, Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset, and William James appear in most of them. All are written by professors of history or literature in (with one exception) American colleges and universities. Behind several of these works I detect the needs of higher education as now organized in the United States. Both the survey course and the graduate seminar call for comprehensive categories that can be laid out and illustrated in a semester. The metaphor of the map that appears in Quinones’s title recurs in nearly every introduction. The terrain these writers wish to describe is cultural and artistic and can presumably be discovered by careful reference to contemporary documents. All but one of them have a thesis rather than a theory; Bürger carries a fairly heavy burden of Frankfurt-school Marxism. None has written a major critical or historical work. Taken together they reveal enough patterns and omissions to reward careful scrutiny.


A Renaissance scholar and former Marxist, Jerrold Seigel has written the most ambitious and illuminating of these books. His subtitle, “Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830–1930,” insists on the symbiotic relations of bohemia—seen as a social category—to the bourgeoisie. Associated from the start with art, youth, and vagabond living bordering on criminality, the bohemians came to assume an important pioneering function. “Individuals in modern society can explore forms of action and expression, enter new territories of personal and social life, without the cataclysm of revolution.” Seigel’s study of how the amorphous territory of bohemia overlapped that of street performers, ragpickers, artists, gypsies, the underworld, and restless bourgeois individuals leads him to challenge attempts to distinguish between a genuine revolutionary bohemia and a romantic hedonistic bohemia. In Image of the People (1973) the art historian T.J. Clark singled out the socialist Jules Vallès to represent the true condition of bohemia and he insisted on the need “to rescue Bohemia from Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème.” Seigel’s response takes better account of the historical evidence.

In [Clark’s] Marxist schema, the boundaries of bourgeois experience are known in advance; uncertainty, ambivalence, and the testing of limits disappear…. Such a view mistakes a division that existed within individuals, and which was often shifting and uncertain, for a firm distinction between one group and others.

Seigel portrays Murger as the spokesman for an emergent social status that drew on the mythology of withdrawal, marginality, parasitism, and opposition—what we now call alienation.

Seigel’s teeming social history of bohemian Paris gains concreteness from the album of full-length portraits it incorporates, approximately one per chapter for thirteen chapters. After Murger, Seigel examines little-known figures like Alexandre Private d’Anglemont, chronicler of offbeat professions, and Emile Goudeau, cofounder of the Chat Noir cabaret, and well-known writers like Baudelaire and Verlaine. Courbet and Satie are the only nonliterary figures represented. The variety and perceptiveness of the case histories prevent bohemia from becoming a narrow notion. The careful treatment of Vallès, the loner revolutionary who saw in the stock market “a moving poetry,” contributes to Seigel’s basic attitude. “A bohemian political style was one formed by ambivalence toward membership in the bourgeoisie, and whose successive expressions were the dramatizations of that ambivalence.”

Seigel’s case histories are accompanied throughout by a thesis on the nature of art and the production of art works.

The surprising conclusion was that the most characteristically Bohemian attitude toward art—its identification with feeling and sentiment—was precisely the bourgeois view. Both neglected the conditions of real artistic production for some form of pure natural feeling. In bourgeois writers like Augier, this feeling could be found within ordinary life rather than, as for Murger’s followers, at its margins. But both invited the confusion of art and life. The Bohemian project of living life in the name of art dissolved real artistic production in the life that was substituted for it.

It was partly the example of Vaché that led Breton at this time to conceive art in a surprising way—as réclame, advertising…the sense in which Christianity was a form of publicity for heaven. In other words, art was a way of life and a system of convictions that embodied the yearning for a transcendent form of being within the limitations of the present…. The claim to be a poet or an artist was now justified only because it contributed to a life beyond art.

Without ever using a phrase that goes back at least to Hegel, Seigel suggests that the alluring stumblings and mumblings of bohemia display not a valorization of art but “the withering away of art.” I shall come back to this theme.

So comprehensive a book underlines its own omissions. For example, I miss a pertinent discussion of caricature and Daumier. At least once Seigel compares bohemia to Erik Erikson’s notion of a “moratorium”—a social space for acting out rebellion before full maturity, but he fails to examine the fluxes and forces in actual experience suggested by such familiar expressions as “rites of passage” and “sow one’s wild oats” (jeter sa gourme in French). Toward the end of the book the terms “avant-garde” and “modernism” begin to appear without adequate explanation.

The research that went into Bohemian Paris turns up some treasures—the very stuff of history. The anarcho-socialist weekly of the 1860s, La Rive Gauche, preached a bohemianism based on hard work and political engagement opposed to sensual indulgence. Emile Goudeau founded the Hydropathes, an informal café-theater for poets and artists that preceded the Chat Noir, because the leftist results of the 1877 elections inspired him to look for new means of publicity in order to reach a more democratic audience. In Cocteau’s original scenario the true subject of the ballet Parade (1917) was “the confusion that had grown up between art and the life that parodied it, the entanglement of modernism with Bohemia.” This highly readable book probes further than any other I know into the reciprocating movements that connect and distinguish bohemia and bourgeois.

Charles Rearick’s Pleasures of the Belle Epoque is an elusive book. A proverb Rearick quotes could apply to his own celebration: “Après la fête, on gratte tête.” (“After the party, you scratch your head.”) The art nouveau design and detail of the book, the generous illustration (almost a third of the space), and the bouncy opening pages on la joie de vivre suggest that Rearick accepts as a premise the myth that France actually had a belle époque around the turn of the century. Qualifiers and reservations accumulate slowly; by the end we discover that the presumed euphoria of the era was lined with pessimism and aching ennui. The last chapter interprets the belle époque as a moral lesson for our own times, which have absorbed into their everyday texture the indulgence, prodigality, and taboo breaking formerly reserved for la fête. Rearick does not seek the seamy underside of the period; he tries to locate the ideal of shared public enjoyment in a republic recently set free from the aristocratic monopoly of pleasure; he wants to find events in which people were not treated as objects.

Rearick wrote his first book on the connections between folklore and history in France. His new book is gleaned from extensive archival research, interviews, explorations of Parisian topography, and enterprising reading. He includes a map of the principal “places of pleasure” at the turn of the century. Rearick gives us statistics on prices, attendance, consumption, and profits in a variety of establishments. There were 27,000 cafés in Paris in 1900; if you add wine shops and cabarets, Paris had “more drinking places (11.25 for every thousand residents) than any other major city in the world.” The well-documented opening chapter on the first Bastille Day in 1880 demonstrates that it was both a popular outburst and a spectacle staged by the government. The belle époque began with its climax.

As he moves on to cabarets, music halls, world’s fairs, and movie houses, Rearick introduces many vivid details.1 He identifies the weekly newspaper, Le Courrier français, that stimulated and exploited the wave of festivity, and describes the group of eccentric spirits, the Incoherents, who in the Eighties and Nineties sponsored an annual salon and a wild costume ball at mid-Lent. Intermittent discussions of publicity and commercialization probe beneath the appearances of lightheartedness that feed the myth. Rearick finds two apt quotations from Paul Adam, a second-rank Symbolist close to the trends of the era, to demonstrate the downward path of entertainments. Adam refers to “the right to license and enjoyment” that infused the Eighties. By 1907 he begins to see the need for social constraints and to recognize the role of suffering and the wisdom of composing “a purely spectator soul.” For Adam, the party was virtually over.

Reproduced in color on the jacket and again in Chapter 2, Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin de la Galette (1889) shows a respectable man in a derby seated at a table and staring intensely at a heavily made-up woman sitting near him at the edge of the dance floor. Rearick’s caption refers to Renoir’s earlier festive version of the same dance hall and compares it to Toulouse-Lautrec’s “more somber view of…isolated individuals waiting on the sideline.” Toulouse-Lautrec depicts a moment of pure sexual solicitation. Rearick is too much the historian to bowdlerize his materials. Yet how can a sustained study of, precisely, the pleasures of the belle époque, omit the subjects of prostitution, the pervasive demimonde of kept women who became celebrities of scandal and extravagance, and the criminal side of bohemia? Zola’s Nana and Proust’s Odette tell us more about certain basic pleasures of Paris than Rearick. Most writers and painters of the day dealt with the brothel as an institution that revealed human behavior and character as much as a political meeting or a concert. Rearick cites Edmond de Goncourt’s description of a belly dancer and of a fellow spectator, a clergyman, who looked away when the movements became too suggestive. Rearick himself looks away too often and thus leaves undisturbed large segments of the myth he wants to recast.

The last page of the introduction uses the word “modern” three times. The first sentence of the conclusion recapitulates. “By the early twentieth century, most of what we know as the modern culture of entertainments was in place.” Yet Rearick has given us only occasional and uncertain suggestions of what he means by modern: giganticism, spectatorship rather than participation, commercialization. Amplifying technology, radio, and television would soon modify these features. We are fascinated by the belle époque, I believe, because many of its entertainments were sui generis, not because they ushered in a loosely defined condition called modern.

  1. 1

    A fine illustrated supplement to Rearick’s book can be obtained: Mariel Oberthur, Cafes and Cabarets of Montmartre (Peregrine Smith, 1984).

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