Apollinaire, the streets, and time
I threw into the noble fire
With human hands made of that pyre
That void socketed dead man beneath,
That past, and worshipped within me the fire.
Flame, I do what you breath.
– Free translation of the first stanza of “Brazier”
I live some three blocks from the Rue Franc-Bourgeois, which is where Apollinaire locates the boutique that is at the center of his story, “The Shadow Departs”. Going by the Google Map, I can reach Rue Saint-Merri – which features in Apollinaire’s Marais heavy poem, The Musician of Saint Merri – in ten minutes. In fact, just this morning, returning with my son from a visit to the doctor, we walked past Eglise Saint Merri – a church I never notice, since its massiveness seems to fade into the neighborhood – and went down Rue de Saint Merri. The route was an accident, just a matter of turning here and there to reach our street, but I was happy when I saw the name on the street plaque, as I was writing about Apollinaire as I was waiting in the doctor’s office for Adam. I’ve been writing a lot about Apollinaire lately, piling up notes, but not really getting anywhere. Saint Merri, however, smiled at me. The city walker lives for signs and dies without them – or stays home, defeated, and calls for the Uber. This was a sign. As Apollinaire said in his poem, On Prophecies, “I don’t believe but I look and when possible listen.”
Yes, I’ve been piling up notes, signs: but as happens sometimes in the essay you want to write, the signs are all wrong. It is as if the vandals came and took down all the streets signs and then put them back up randomly. So I keep going down the wrong street, a victim of some mysterious disorientation, haunted by Benjamin and his unfinished, unfinishable monster essay of the Arcades Work, which started with a simple, sweeping premise, so sweetly, how that music must have sounded in Benjamin’s ear (even though the man was notoriously unmusical) and soon swallowed everything in its path. It is natural characteristic of monsters, this threatening, total appetite – it is how you know them.
So at last, instead of pinning my hope on texts and commentaires, it occurred to me that I have walked these streets too, I have entered into the living space, the animal territory, of Guillaume Apollinaire. There’s a wonderful essay by Marc Poupon that ties The Musician of Saint Merri to the streets of Marais on May 21,1913, as represented in the newspapers, and in Apollinaire’s own cultural reportage: a bakers’ strike in which the windows of two new bakeries on Rue de la Verrerrie were shattered, and a lover’s murder on 17, Rue Simon le Franc. These are material circumstances that have gone to newspaper limbo; but a poem that contains a date and so many Marais streets, that recounts a fantastic, erotic mass hypnotism, introduces a blind, impossible pied piper of the Marais whose subjects are neither rats nor children but women – all those women that thronged Apollinaire’s imagination and formed his most vivid correspondents – lives in newspaper time, the time of “actualite,” of the “new”, caged in all its blind simultaneity in the pages of Le Matin, L’Intransigeant, Paris-Midi, etc. It is as if the typography of the newspaper, the columns that we learn to read as paths going separately down the page and sometimes diving underground to crop up on another page, were the real story of the world, here: this is the simultaneity that fascinated Apollinaire, that he experimented with.
A date in a poem is a surprise. We are used to dates in novels, although classically, they are disguised – the year is 18.., in the nineteenth century novel, which treats exact dates with a certain modesty, a certain ethical reticence. Fiction, in this ethic, has to remain in its place, and mark its place. The made up name exists on another plane from the made up date, in this ethos: the one being a private affair of fantasy, the other being a public affair of fact. The dates that Apollinaire puts into his poems and stories create an interesting moment, a newspaper moment, in which the date, as it is shared by poem, story, and newspaper, put them all on the same temporal plane. And this is a clue to what Apollinaire is up to, or so I take it. And yet this question of dates…
Apollinaire, always a reader of the periodicals, might well have read Gabriel Tarde three part series in La Revue des Deux Mondes in 1901, which later became his book, Opinion and the Crowd, which that takes into account the temporal shift that comes epiphenomenally out of the development of public opinion from its primitive state as the crowd, the savage crowd. The haptic space of the crowd, with the physical proximity one to another of the members of the crowds, cedes and becomes subordinate to another kind and degree of proximity, which is mediated by a the simultaneity which is both the ontological and typological principle of the Newspaper. News, as we have pointed out, is actualité in French. Between the English and the French word, an important movement between kin temporalities is captured. News becomes the now. In the old order, the evidence of universal and intemporal processes (which is why history “teaches”, is exemplary) is undermined by the sensational and a present in movement. Tarde speaks of the newspapers giving their readers a ‘sense of simultaneity.” He does not, unfortunately, disinter the phenomenon of simultaneity, instead vaguely pressing on the idea of “at the same time”. But ordinary simultaneousness is transformed in the social mode of simultaneity. We speaking of catching up with, keeping up with, or following the news, or fashions, or tv, or books, or sports. It is in this sense that we are not simply conscious of being simultaneous with, but as well, and more strongly, that the simultaneous is moving ahead of us even as we are part of it, like a front.
The anthropologist Johannes Fabian coined the term allochrony to speak of the peculiar way in which Europeans, starting in the seventeenth century, started to divide up the contemporary world into different cultural time zones. Europe, of course, appropriated the modern to itself. Other contemporary cultures were backward, savage, stone age, traditional – they were literally behind their own time. Modernity exists under that baptism and curse. But Fabian’s concern was so completely focused on cultures exogenous to Europe that he ends up treating Europe, or the West, as a homogenous, total mass. Of course, it isn’t. This is why what happened in the colonial periphery was related to the social forces in motion within the metropoles, the imperial powers. There is, as it were, an allochronic competition, here – here in Paris in 1911, for instance. Simultaneity is the horizon for a temporal competition – one in which the new, the young, the latest compete against the old, the laggard, the out of touch. One of the stories in The Murdered Poet is a riff on these themes. In The Deified Cripple, a chauffeur named Justin Couchot is involved in a vicious car accident that tears off one of his arms and one of his legs and leaves him in a coma for a long time. Once he gets out of the coma, he has to hop around on his one leg, since the stump of the other is so tender that they cannot attach a prosthetic limb to it. This is a very twentieth century wound. But Couchot is absurdly happy. Like the figure in Borges’ Funes the Memorious, Couchot, nicknamed “Eternity”, has been pushed by a brain injury into an entirely new perception of time:
The two months he spent unconscious had abolished in him any memory of his life before the accident, from which he escaped, crippled, and if he rediscovered, partially, the language that he heard spoken around him, it was not impossible for him to reconnect the liasons between the diverse events that now filled his existence. He no longer perceived the succession in his halting actions.
To tell the truth, it seems impossible to believe that they appeared to him to be simultaneous and the only word which could, in the thoughts of persons accustomed to the idea of time, render what was passing in Justin Couchot’s brain is “eternity”. His actions, his gestures, the impressions that struck his eye and his one ear seemed eternal to him and his solitary limbs were impotent to create for him, between the diverse acts of his life, that liaison which two legs, two arms, two ears evoke in the soul of normal people, from which results the notion of time.
Bizarre crippling, which well deserves to be called divine!
Note, here, that the modern, the simultaneous, and the eternal – the acceleration of modern time – comes about as the result of a horrendous mechanical accident, a breakdown of the human/machine interface. This story appeared in the Paris-Journal on March 27, 1912. It prefigures the curious exaltation Apollinaire felt about the mechanized warfare of World War I, which is all over Calligrams, and comes as a bit of a shock to his readers. It was a shock to his friends, as well: as Picabia said, his friendship with Apollinaire was slightly cooled by a “question of uniform” – Apollinaire’s pro-French, pro-war position.
Tomorrow: Apollinaire: the impossible marriage of lyric and adventure