The orange tree branch – Cocteau and Ce Soir

 

I have a passion for old newspapers, which is one of the reasons I love the internet. You can find old newspapers all over the internet. It is as if all the old birdcages have shed their papers, for here is the news from London in 1778 to Paris in 1947. No longer does one need to get up, go down to the library, and search out the musty, lumbering volumes in the periodicals section, where the old paper dies a little every day. The internet is to the periodicals section as the book of forensic photographs is to the morgue: the bodies are in the latter, but the former captures their looks in their last agony.

 

What I especially like are the legendary papers: among which surely counts Ce Soir. It was set up with Louis Aragon as its editor in the mid 30s. It was supposed to be a communist paper, but it was as communist as Louis Aragon – which is to say that it would mouth communist verities, but its heart was in the intersection between the sensational and the glamorous. Full of great and gory murders, starlets running off with tycoons, and foreign correspondents reporting from distant battlefields, with the print flowing around big bold photographs, the newspaper looked exciting – an art lost in our time, with the bland layouts of all the serious papers. Even the tabloids don’t quite have that Weegeeish look.  Aragon had certain of his buddies write for the rag: for instance, Jean Renoir, the great director, who had a regular column. Jean Cocteau also had a column. I came across one of Cocteau’s pieces, The Branch of the Orange Tree, and looked around to see if it had been translated. It should have been. A short piece – this was after all a newspaper – it read like a premonition for his Orpheus film. Yet I couldn’t find the translation, so I thought: I’ll do it. Why not?

The Orange Tree Branch

Since the existence of time-lapse documentary films (films of the lives of plants), it is impossible to walk in a garden without an uneasy feeling, or to lean over the flowers with the soul of a young girl. Nothing is crueler than the plant world, or more erotic. A German film, which was banned by the French censors (certain passages in the film recall those movies that they show in Marseilles in certain seedy venues) denounces the horrifying habits, the mad mecanisms of a realm that man had previously believed to be immobile and uniquely preoccupied with pleasing us. The science and patience of the makers of the film, which let a plant live in its own rhythm and then brought it up to ours by accelerating it, proves just how unconscious man is.

 

The results of their espionage work would astonish the romanticism that sings “phlegm”, the haughty attitude of nature and would furnish new bases for its inspiration. For it is not only an affair of a difference of rhythm, speed, “tempo”. The secret has been well guarded. Thanks to the extraordinary slowness of the gestures of a tree in comparison to ours, a park could lead a ferocious life under our eyes, a curate’s garden could make love, do its make up and its murders without anyone having a clue.

In fact, no witch’s sabbat equals what happens in these gardens where the vegetation overlaps. A prodigious erotic activity directs the flows of life and the explosive pollen. The stems curl, the petals grimace, roll out and in, the leaves contract and the scents, the nuances that transport beautiful dreamers appear to us suddenly like the violent signs of an erotic fever.

 

At Promousquier where I live, I see outside my window, on the little terrassed plot that juts out over the sea, three orange trees. These are old acquaintances. After eighteen years (I think of them and ask myself – are they still living) I always come back to them with emotion. They were in their pots and now they have been planted in the earth, in the same place.

These wild oranges have little by little ceased to be wild. They’ve been domesticated. Certainly the oranges they bear are bitter, but the flowers emit a powerful scent. Not having to defend themselves against mouths and muzzles, the branches only grow rare and short thorns. Certain branches are defiant, but the majority have renounced these habits.

 

And now, now the films that I mentioned have put us on guard and made us look at bushes in another way concerning a strange detail which teaches us something about the intelligence of the vegetable kingdom. Not that we have to suppose that the plants are geniuses because they astonish us with their obscure mecanisms. I will continue to be very simple about this. A palm tree keeps the sunlight off one of my little orange bushes. Alas! I pruned back the palm tree too late. The branch died. But hardly did it feel itself in danger when it “defended itself with all its forces”, silently, blindly. For, alone of all the branches of this orange tree, this branch boasted thorns as long as my finger. Thus, it told me of its struggle. I leave to the readers, to those who love trees, and who are intrigued by nature, this mysterious witness of a struggle against the unknown. A bitter, solitary fight, which recalls Daudet’s story of the fight between M. Seguin’s goat and the wolf.

 

The last sentence references a text well known to every French child, but unknown to American ones, so I expanded it a bit.  The goat and the wolf engage in a battle in the mountains that eventually leads to the goat being devoured. I suppose there is a comparable scene in some Jack London tale.

As to the German film that Cocteau mentions, I can’t trace it. My illustrations are from F. Percy Smith and Jean Comandon, two pioneers of speeded up filming, who both made plant documentaries.

This little essay was published on September 7, 1937. On the front page of Ce Soir, there was a report that Myriam Hopkins, the American film star, had secretly married. “The thunder of cannons growled for thirty six hours on Shanghai”, one headline reads. “The vigor of the Chinese counter-offensive leaves in suspense the outcome of the battle”. “At Nurember, 300,000 Nazis and a million visitors in the decked out city.” “I will avenge you, said a young man to his fiancée”, was the headline of a sad story about a man beaten to death by two thugs, enveloped between one of the bloodiest wars in history and the Nuremberg rally that unleashed a new wave of anti-Jewish crimes in Germany.  In this atmosphere, the thorns of Cocteau’s orange bush, which grew large in a struggle that only time-lapse film could reveal on the human time scale, seem as much like sinister portents of the acceleration of violence sweeping the globe as indicators of the slowing of time in Cocteau’s Orpheus. The witch’s sabbat of history, man. I’m tempted to connect the world revealed by time lapse film and the world climate that is changing more rapidly than at any time ever recorded. In Science News, recently, scientists reported on CO2 levels going back half a billion years, using fossil algae.  “In our data, we see high levels of carbon dioxide, reaching 1000 ppm as opposed to today’s 410 ppm. In this respect, present day levels are not unique, but the speed of these changes have never been seen before. Changes that typically take millions of years are now happening in a century.

The effects of our temporal unconscious are everywhere, if you want to see them. Notice, for instance, how smoking connects to much later cancers – as does fallout. Chronic disease is so hard to catch because it doesn’t manifest as a sudden crisis until it has established itself as an unseen presence within the body over decades. The real time lapse camera man is Death.

Which is just to say that our time-lapse film, entitled The Holocene,  is coming to an end at a theater near you – and around you – and within you.

 

 

 

About Roger 27 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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