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Louisiana Story

Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable

by Christopher Benfey
Knopf, 294 pp., $27.50

Masters and Servants

by Pierre Michon, translated by Wyatt Alexander Mason
Mercury House, 176 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Edgar Degas, the Impressionist painter of racehorses, ballet dancers, and washerwomen, was the opposite of precocious. It is true that the official Salon jury accepted some of his early paintings. Copying had taught him his craft. But not until he turned thirty did he leave home, give up historical subjects and self-portraits, and begin painting the Second Empire world around him-usually with a model in his studio, not in the open air. He also began to frequent Right Bank cafes and had lengthy conversations about painting with Manet, Monet, and a group of art critics. His embrace of the new “realism” was interrupted by military service during the Franco-Prussian War and by the massacres of the Commune. Then, just when he seemed to be finding his style in vivid small paintings of musicians and dancers, he left Paris in October 1872 to visit his relatives in New Orleans. He was thirty-eight.

The five-month New Orleans sojourn marked no turning point in Degas’ career. He developed a strong affection for several members of his deceased mother’s extended Musson family. He visited the city and some of its outskirts. He began a few family portraits, most of which he finished in Paris. But he took little notice of the disruptive political and social developments of the Reconstruction through which the city was passing during his stay. He made no contact with other artists or with writers in the city. The Louisiana trip was more an intermission than a continuation of his development, a change of scenery and society among admiring relatives. Back in Paris, he returned to painting dancers and washerwomen. And soon he became one of the founding organizers of the association that would later be referred to as the Impressionists. (He deplored the term.) His works appeared in seven of the eight exhibits that the Impressionists mounted between 1874 and 1886.

One does not readily write a book about an intermission. But an enterprising author can soon discover in this bite of history more episodes than first meet the eye, more potential subjects. Degas may not have noticed, but during his stay the uniquely layered Creole society, including many prominent “free men and women of color,” balanced between the Unification Movement, which favored and practiced integration, and the White League, which preached and enforced segregation. That winter, two rival governors and two rival legislatures sat in New Orleans, the Republican government imposed by the occupiers from the North (including fifty-five illiterate Negro legislators), and the alternative Democratic movement. During this crisis, a Northern newspaperman, Edward King, “discovered” the local reporter and story writer George Washington Cable. Both went on to important careers in American letters. And all these events left their mark on the young wife of Oscar Chopin, a cotton factor and member of the Cotton Exchange along with members of the Musson family. Twenty-five years later Kate Chopin drew freely on this interlude for the background of the novel that made her fame, The Awakening (1899).

A generation ago, only a local historian would have glimpsed in this hodgepodge of characters and episodes the subject of an article about a convergence that never quite happened. Now a gifted literary historian and critic, Christopher Benfey, who has written intelligently on Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, has convinced himself and a New York editor that these miscellaneous materials form the subject of a proper book, “the decisive moment” and “a pivotal period” for Reconstruction New Orleans as well as for the three transient lead players. This is an ambitious book, not so much about Degas as about five months in a unique Southern city, an interval treated as a lens to reveal Franco-American politics, history, and culture. To accomplish his difficult enterprise, Benfey employs four recog- nized and unrelated literary techniques, two traditional and two modern or “postmodern.”

The book begins and ends with a walk on the Esplanade in the style of a historical guidebook pointing out the sites. In order to keep track of places and events and prominent New Orleans figures as they appear, the guidebook tone recurs frequently.

Second, in order to introduce his three widely separated principal characters, Degas, Cable, and Chopin, Benfey employs a narrative technique reminiscent of nineteenth-century novels. (Dickens and Conrad practiced it.) Sets of characters are introduced separately, kept apart for a time, and brought together almost providentially by later events. The reader’s question, “Where is all this going?” resolves into, “Ah, I saw it coming.” In Degas in New Orleans, however, the characters never meet; they pass through the magic eye of 1872-1873 in New Orleans and go their separate ways. No interweaving and knotting of strands here: at most, a series of near misses.

As a consequence of this incomplete convergence of persons, Benfey must pursue several plot lines. They move independently across his screen in search of coincidence. Gradually, the reader receives the impression that the book is written not about particular persons but about a fleeting collective moment of history, and written not by an author but by history itself, by the events calling attention to the singular convergence they almost embody. The evidence just presents itself. No hero. No hands. This third technique rests on the assumption that apparently unrelated events and lives, when brought close in time and space, contain in themselves genuine historic significance. Yet in this perspective, history amounts to little more than a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, which at intervals produces a surprising arrangement of elements.

The fourth device Benfey uses is to mix history and fiction. The archives, which he has thoroughly mined, do not supply a complete and verifiable story of anything or anyone. Therefore he resorts to the conjectural mode to fill in the gaps. In addition to “perhaps,” “apparently,” and “may have,” one encounters such troubling turns of phrase as “It hardly seems likely that he did not…”; “It is reasonable to assume…”; “It is tempting to see….” Compared to Simon Schama’s blurring of the line between fact and fiction in Dead Certainties (1990), Benfey scrupulously labels his speculations. But that way he also registers a strong temptation to write a novel. When Tom Stoppard found a similar subject in the imagined crossing of James Joyce and Tristan Tzara in Zurich in 1916, he made a play of it. Travesties resourcefully toys with history. Stoppard’s play does not give rise to the feeling that it wants to be some other genre.

How then does Benfey go about deploying his literary techniques, assembling the unruly parts, keeping them separate for long stretches, threading them all through the designated eyelet of history in Reconstruction New Orleans, and then following them as they diverge out the other side? He employs montage style, keeping transitions and explanations between sections to a minimum. The bare juxtaposition of elements gives the impression that the materials were simply there, and that, once conceived, the book assembled and wrote itself. The reader can supply needed connections. This self-construction is what is implied by the lead sentence in the last paragraph of the introduction: “…The materials that make up this book [have] a logic of their own.” An outline of the book’s three parts will convey the disjointedness of that logic.

The introduction serves as a brief guide to the New Orleans Degas visited in 1872-1873 and mentions Cable and Chopin waiting in the wings. The first two chapters of Part One deal with the prominence of “free men and women of color” in that city during the 1830s, and with a scandalous incident revealing the mistreatment and torture of slaves by a respected white Creole beauty. The third chapter jumps to France in 1865 and the visit of Degas’ aunt and two female cousins fleeing the occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War. Next comes Kate Chopin’s wedding trip through Germany and France in 1870. The last and longest chapter describes Degas’ stay in the Musson mansion in New Orleans and the three beautiful cousins whom he painted.

In Part Two, the first chapter relates the meeting of Cable and King in 1873 and their fascination with the racial and political tensions in Creole society. (Until the Civil War, according to Benfey, “Creole” meant anyone of any race born in New Orleans. Subsequent attempts to make the word refer only to whites did not take.) Now comes the revelation of a Musson family secret that we have no evidence Degas ever learned about. His unmarried maternal great-uncle left children by a free quadroon mistress. One of them, the Paris-trained Norbert Rillieux, became a distinguished engineer and inventor in New Orleans. Does Degas’ painting of a mulatto circus performer in Paris, Miss La La (1879), imply that he knew of his relation (first cousin once removed) to a free man of color? The supposition remains highly dubious. The following chapter considers what Cable called the “lacteal” bond created by the wet-nursing of white children by black women. A careful and resourceful discussion of Degas’ two mercantile paintings begun in New Orleans argues convincingly that they are composed like ballet scenes. The final chapter concentrates on the 1873 Mardi Gras parade as an expression of the racial and political tensions that racked this divided city and that led to a fleeting rebellion in September 1894 of the White League against the Northern occupiers.

The first chapter of Part Three discusses Cable’s 1880 novel, The Grandissimes, a lightly fictionalized version of the above events. The hybrid character of New Orleans society is embodied in two half-brothers, both named Honoré Grandissime, one white and one a free man of color. A chapter called “The Haunted House” turns back to the mansion of the woman who tortured her slaves in the 1830s. In 1874 it has become an integrated girls school and is raided by the White League. A chapter on Chopin’s stories is followed by a chapter on The Awakening called “Divided Houses.” The novel treats divided families in the divided New Orleans of the 1870s. Through the shared detail of a piano, this chapter rhymes Chopin’s novel with Degas’ painting The Song Rehearsal (1872-1873), which appears to represent a searing division in the Musson household.

The two-page first-person coda informs us that the Mussons’ mansion, where Degas stayed during his visit, has now been literally divided and part of it moved fifty feet away. (The book is generously illustrated with reproductions of paintings, photographs, engravings, and maps.)

Does this jagged sequence of chapters fit together? Through contrast and alternation, does it work as a book? Benfey writes well enough, both narratively and descriptively, to convey a strong sense of historical event and to build up a lively portrait of New Orleans in the 1870s. If the book has a hero, it is that juncture of local, national, and even international events. I learned a great deal from Degas in New Orleans. But not much about Degas. One can leap from chapter to chapter and tolerate each time the wrenching of one’s attention in another direction. But for me, the chapters do not finally hold together. Lacking a beginning and an end, lacking a linear flow between parts, the book relies heavily on the slender area of overlap that relates the characters and stories to the five months of Degas’ visit to New Orleans. The three major characters, Degas, Cable, and Chopin, approach from different directions, walk simultaneously through a large hall where important events are taking place, do not notice one another, and disperse again. They give different accounts of their passage. The only unity of action lies in the simultaneity of their passage. Because none of them remains long in the picture, there can be little character development.

Does the book have a thesis, then? Benfey maintains at the start that “Degas in New Orleans…reinvented himself as a painter.” Neither Benfey’s intelligent analyses of the handful of works Degas painted in New Orleans nor the direction of Degas’ paintings when he returned to Paris justifies the term “reinvent.” Later, Benfey states that “the American wing of Degas’s family, especially the Rillieux branch, was far more interesting than has been thought.” For this claim Benfey produces reasonable evidence. But the dimensions and aspirations of the book promise more than incidental detail, such as a cousin with black blood. The subtitle, “Encounters in the Creole World,” conceals the fact that most of the encounters never took place.

I go into these questions of structure and unity because a genuinely scholarly and critical work such as Benfey’s will influence the way scholars and critics conceive and approach historical subjects. Benfey’s awareness of the precariousness of his book’s structure is acknowledged in the fourteen-line epigraph taken from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I quote the essential phrases: “…something is missing…almost indecipherable, yet meaningful…nothing happens: just the words…against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.”

The epigraph cannot refer to Degas’ long and productive life. I read it as an avowal that Degas in New Orleans does not finally have a center or an outcome. By various forms of chronological and geographical coincidence, it brings together materials that can be threaded through New Orleans in the mid-1870s. A few gruesome incidents occur having to do with war, occupation, and slavery. A Creole society reveals deep tensions and divisions. But “nothing happens” because any potential story is soon interrupted, fragmented into subplots and digressions to the point of dissolution. Is this the way to write a book? Montage has strong supporters: it keeps the reader alert. But for me the separately convincing sections of Degas in New Orleans never congeal into a lasting whole.

Ten of Benfey’s most searching pages examine the two paintings Degas undertook in New Orleans depicting the Musson cotton offices. The two- by three-foot A Cotton Office is nearly photographic in its detailed rendering of a dozen male figures working or lounging in a complex architectural space. Degas showed it in the second Impressionist exhibition, and it now hangs in the museum at Pau. The smaller oil sketch, Cotton Merchants (Fogg Museum, Cambridge; see illustration on page 24), reduces the scene to an oblique table laden with a sea of cotton, flattens out the space almost to the picture plane, and portrays only three figures. Its stark and suggestive “Impressionist” style anticipates paintings to come. The boldly manipulated space and the truncated figures fit together beautifully as design. They almost defy anecdotal explanation.*

I find myself thinking that the disjointed structure of Benfey’s book, with its jumpy chronology and barely overlapping narratives, was influenced by the design of Cotton Merchants. Both the book and the painting combine three isolated and cut-off figures in uncertain relation. Both rearrange perspective, spatial and temporal, in ways that disorient our sightlines and our reading. The result in both cases combines the genuine with the jerry-built. On the other hand, the flattened Degas composition imprints itself vividly on the mind, whereas I believe that a reader will have great difficulty remembering the shape and sequence of Degas in New Orleans.

Are we genetically programmed to seek unity in a work? Or is that expectation just a bad habit we can and now should put aside? Benfey and his editor are evidently pleased with the convoluted structure of the book. In spite of many other virtues, however, that aspect of the book seems to me not to reward the demands it makes of readers: that we furnish the missing shapeliness.

Masters and Servants assembles five narratives about painters and the life of painting by a contemporary French writer not previously translated into English. With one exception, each story approaches a celebrated artist through a peripheral, even obscure witness: for van Gogh, the postman Roulin, a neighbor and friend whom he painted; for Piero della Francesca, the humble disciple Lorentino, mentioned by Vasari. Pierre Michon offers no introduction or frame for his tales. His supple prose, dappled with chiaroscuro effects, is used in straightforward chronicles. But his writing can at any time lift or lower into semi-hallucinatory effects that recall Arthur Rimbaud’s assaults on conventional perception. A paragraph will suggest Michon’s style.

In the fifth story, a boy swineherd-probably invented-sees an elegant young woman descend from a coach and lift her voluminous skirts to urinate in the shrubbery. And he overhears her prince in the coach mutter “a word reserved for the lowliest tarts.” The boy, become a man, recalls the scene as a Visitation that opened the world to him and allowed him eventually to become almost a prince.

I don’t know if what I experienced that day may be called pleasure, I was still little. I visited the spot where she had lifted her skirts; I went to the spot where the carriage had stopped, the little consecrated place where I calculated that the prince had been; I looked at the edge of the woods, the exact tree underneath which the girl had pissed for her prince. I lowered what I could imagine of a white hand, I said aloud the word used for the lowest whores: I tapped my two fingers. In this light the trees were immense, numerous, tireless. So we are made that here, in this light, flesh takes on a greater weight. God, who sees everything with an even eye-we do not envy such even sight; we envy the sight of those who pause patiently to consider what they will soon devour, while all around them the world explodes. Sitting there on that road in the bright sunshine, where a prince who perhaps had been only a marquis had, for a moment, smiled, I began to cry, loudly, in great sobs. I would rather have burned. An insane elation took hold of me that perhaps was pain, anger, or the disturbed laughter of those who suddenly find God along a road. It was the future, without question, this bucket of tears. Just as easily, it was God, in his curious fashion.

Michon’s characters inhabit a universe crowded with real objects, which are also powerful signs. The world revealed by this incident converts the swineherd to the understanding that life can explode and that he can devour the pieces in order to create a new life. The unnamed boy now takes up with a group of French painters accompanying Duke Charles during the French occupation of Mantua. The most frightening of them turns out to be Claude Lorrain, who tames the swineherd and starts him on a brief career as painter. He ends up a “prince” among servants and thieves.

The Watteau section is told in the voice of the curate of Nogent, who provides an “ordinary” face for the famous portrait of Pierrot as Gilles. The curate reports vividly on Watteau’s talents and crotchets and on his rages over his misfortunes, primarily concerning women he wants. Watteau’s rants match those of Rameau’s nephew in Diderot’s dialogue. Michon allows his intense fictional narrative to fill in seamlessly around known historical facts. This is a work of concentrated love, which lifts from its subjects the garments of traditional art history and recostumes them in a more palpable layer of imagined circumstances and feelings. Michon’s brevity and concentration ultimately reveal two complementary forms of vision: the transfiguration a painter works upon his materials by the spark of insight accompanied by patient work; and the slow discovery by an underling of the marvel of that transfiguring vision in a princely painter. Particularly in sensuous scenes like the above, religious contemplation hovers behind the action like a figured bass.

I did not know Michon’s work before Masters and Servants appeared. It offers a matched and varied set of what I do not hesitate to call prose poems. They survive in English because of the nearly flawless translation by Wyatt Alexander Mason. Mason is also Michon’s dedicated champion, who persevered until he found a discerning publisher. At least two more books by Michon deserve publication in English. His writing springs from no new school or ism but from the very taproot of French language and literature.

Both Degas in New Orleans and Masters and Servants use narrative prose to approach the ebb and flow, the response and recall of several artists’ minds. Both honor their subjects and try to pay them full justice. Compared to Michon’s fully formed pieces, Benfey’s book appears to be suspended among conflicting genres of writing and to accept its own inchoateness. Starting late and coming almost from nowhere, Michon demonstrates the independence of voice that marks a true writer. Benfey’s sound instincts as an author have not found a satisfactory way to meet the demands of the academy for scholarship and of current fashions for formlessness and fragmentation. It is a dilemma that affects many writers. Unaffected by the dilemma, Michon is able to collect five free-standing narratives that quietly join hands as a single work.

Letters

Unreliable Source March 4, 1999

  1. *

    In these pages I believe Benfey misconstrues Degas’ famous remark, “One must paint a picture as one commits a crime.” Benfey looks for a crime in the anecdotal content of the paintings. The syntax of the quoted remark and Degas’ practice oblige us to understand that the crime lies not in the subject of a painting but in the process of production. To paint a picture requires the imaginative leap, the careful planning, and the cool courage of a master criminal.

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