Before Ayn Rand and Nietzsche was La Païva

Most 19th century courtesans looked rather tame by our standards

Esther Pauline Thérèse Lachmann, Mme Villoing, Mme la Marquise de Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck

Grandes Horizontales, Virginia Rounding, Bloomsbury, 2003

Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (tr. Baldick), NYRB, 2007

At table she expounded a frightening theory of will-power, saying that everything was the result of an effort of the will, that there were no such things as fortuitous circumstances, that one created one’s own circumstances, and that unfortunate people were so only because they did not want to stop being unfortunate….She spoke of a woman who, in order to attain some unspecified aim, shut herself up for three years, completely cut off from the world, scarcely eating anything and often forgetting about food, walled up within herself and entirely given over to the plan she was developing. And then she concluded: “I was that woman”.

Goncourt Journals, January 3, 1868 (p. 134)

La Païva (Esther Pauline Thérèse Lachmann, Mme Villoing, Mme la Marquise de Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck) was one of the most famous courtesans of decadent Second Empire France — famous for bleeding her lovers dry. In those days marriages were expected to be loveless and there was no such thing as a relationship, and men who had the wherewithal satisfied their needs for sex, romance, fantasy, ego-gratification, etc. through a variety of more or less openly commercial arrangements. A few of the courtesans became the objects of bidding wars and were able do very well for themselves, and La Païva married several aristocrats and spent the last years of her life in her final husband’s castle. (more…)

Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 10:41 pm  Comments (6)  

You can’t tell the players without a program

France around 1830 was rich in factions and tendencies, and you can’t read about the French literature of the first half of the 19th century without running into a large number of competing groups — political, literary, or simply social. So I have compiled a list.

France changed its form of government four times between 1787 and 1830 (plus another couple of changes during the revolutionary period), and in 1830 partisans of most of the past regimes were still around. The main political factions were the ultra-royalists, the Girondin republicans, the Jacobin republicans, the American-style republicans, the Bonapartists, and the moderate semi-liberal royalists who took power with the July Revolution. Besides these there were utopian socialist followers of Fourier or Saint-Simon, but while they got their ideas out, they didn’t really have a political role, and whatever groups the bottom 70% of the population had were regarded with fear and disdain.

The only faction that was probably lacking was one supporting the overthrown Restoration government. The Bourbons had been imposed on France by England and Germany after Napoleon’s defeat, and while they weren’t royalist enough for the ultras, they were too royalist for everyone else. This set a pattern for France — the moderate royalist regime established in 1830 didn’t make anyone happy either, and examples could be multiplied.

In the literary world, the big split was between the romantics just coming onstage, and everyone else:  the classicists, philosophes, and republicans. To begin with, the romantics were led by Charles Nodier of l’Arsenal (a library), but around 1830 Victor Hugo seized power for his Cénacle, and a little after 1830 Théophile Gautier and Petrus Borel established the Petit Cénacle, which included younger writers. (Nodier, Hugo, and Gautier became famous for praising the writing of anyone who ever brought them a manuscript.) The first two groups were just salons, but many of the members of the Petit Cénacle were housemates, and they threw rowdy parties of a type which should be familiar to many readers.

Most of the factional activity took place among the romantics. The romantic factions were Les Meditateurs, Les Frénétiques, Les Larmoyants, Les Illuminés, Le Petit Cénacle, Les Jeunes-France, Les Buveurs d’Eau, the literary Bousingots, the political Bousingots, Les Badouillards, Les  Muscardins (dormice), Les Dandys and Les Bohème.*  (more…)

Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 1:42 am  Comments (6)  

I have no idea how I could possibly have missed Courbet up till now

I feel this way a lot of the time.


Gustave Courbet

Published in: on April 23, 2010 at 4:59 pm  Comments (2)  

More on Enid Starkie vs. Petrus Borel

(A further development of the previous post. At some point I will join the two posts into one.)

Starkie’s disapproval of Borel reveals itself in sharp passing comments scattered through the book.  Borel’s grandiose attitudes, irregular way of life, and lack of shrewdness and worldly wisdom are all blamed for his ultimate defeat, which she interprets as weakness. As far as I know Starkie gets the facts right, with one possible and rather large exception, but  she treats Borel’s misfortunes as, in effect,  judgments — things that wouldn’t have happened to a better man.

Starkie’s attitude toward her subject does not have to be teased out with the help of sophisticated hermeneutics:

Indeed nothing sound could be expected from the collaboration of two such madmen as Gerard de Nerval and Petrus Borel (p.148)

Neither he nor Nerval had been able to acclimatise themselves to ordinary everyday life (p. 191)

Champfleury describes him as a shabby middle-aged man…. talking solemnly and grandiloquently in archaic language. He still thought of himself as a leader, still tried to assert his ascendancy over others …. only Baudelaire, with his sympathy and understanding for failures, recognized something noble and fine in this tragic wreck….Life however broke Borel as it was never to break Baudelaire (p. 149)

[This is a repeated theme; Gautier was also "a survivor". Baudelaire, the greatest poet of the age unless it was Hugo, in fact admired Borel and learned from him, which suggests that Borel was, in fact, a leader.]

Petrus Borel was the kind of meteoric personality who is thrown up by violent revolution, whose light burns brightly for a short space, as long as the fashion for destruction prevails, and finally, because he cannot adapt himself to the conditions of a stable society, splutters out into obscurity.  (p. 193) (more…)

Published in: on April 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm  Comments (4)  

An iron law of literary history

In early 19th century France, drinking from human skulls was regarded as eccentric

Petrus Borel the Lycanthrope

Enid Starkie, Petrus Borel, New Directions, 1954

The pioneer French avant-gardeist Petrus Borel (fl. 1830-1840) was noted for his extravagant attitudes and behavior and his violently republican political beliefs. His bitter, cynical fiction sold poorly, and before he abandoned writing he lived for a considerable time in real poverty.  By and large his writings have been forgotten, and he is generally regarded as having been important as a personage, and perhaps as an influence, but not as a writer.  (On this more later;  I have some books on order and wonder whether Borel might not be due for a revival.)

Enid Starkie, by contrast, is an Anglo-Irishwoman* of good family who spent her life going from success to success and who played a major role in introducing such authors as Rimbaud to English-language readers. Her biography of Borel is good for what it is, and it also can serve as a literary history of the time. She does not have the carefulness of contemporary biographers and occasionally takes stories too much at face value, but that’s more than made up for by the good anecdotes she passes along as a consequence of that.

The problem with Starkie is this: like every other biographer of a starving artist I’ve ever read, from time to time Starkie feels compelled to kibitz , or to wonder why Borel did the things he did, or to suggest maybe he was partly at fault for his difficulties, or to suggest other ways he could have gone at things. Borel is not the best case to make my point, since the value of his work is uncertain, but I have also seen similar attitudes taken toward artists like Musorgsky, Satie, and Nerval whose merit is unquestioned.

Subject to correction, I would like to generalize this into a law. There are no starving or avant-garde biographers. The biographers of starving artists will always have more common sense and be much more comfortably situated than their biographees, and in every case some degree of condescension must slip into their work. Readers are invited to suggest counterexamples.

As a corrective principle I’d like to propose that if the person you’re writing the biography of has been dead for a century or more, they should (except for idiot kings, mass murderers, etc.) be assumed to deserve a considerable degree of respect; whereas the same is not necessarily true of biographers.

* Along with Joanna Richardson’s The Bohemians and Pamela Pilbeam’s The 1830 Revolution in France, Starkie’s book has also led me to suspect that well-born Englishwomen, however hyphenated, are not the best choices for writing about Frenchpersons of any description.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 1:51 am  Comments (7)  

The hypocritical octopus

Recently when reading what Victor Hugo had to say about octopuses (none of it good)in Travailleurs de la Mer,  I came across this line: “The octopus is a hypocrite. You don’t even notice it, and suddenly it unfolds itself.” For Hugo the octopus is murderous — it lies disguised  in ambush, and then suddenly it opens up and gets you! (which indeed it often does,  if you’re a fish). Elsewhere, Hugo writes of the sea itself  “The wave is hypocritical: it kills, hides the evidence, plays dumb, and smiles“.

To me, the English word hypocrite does not simply mean “someone who feigns innocence”, which is how Hugo uses it here. To me hypocrisy is the ostentatious affectation of virtue by someone who is unvirtuous, especially when the hypocrite also loudly condemns someone who has committed the same sin that he himself is committing. (more…)

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm  Comments (2)  

The etymology of hypocrisy

(Many thanks to my friends at

My puzzlement over the hypocritical octopus and the hypocritical ocean wave in Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer led me to an etymological investigation of the words hypocrite and hypocrisy (hypocrisie) in English,  French, Latin, and Greek (but not Hebrew.) It was actually sort of a wild goose chase, but I put in a lot of time into it and one of the privileges of obscure bloggers is to publish anything they want. This is probably my least interesting post ever, since most people aren’t interested in etymology and the ones who are have better things to read.

The word “hypocrite” and its derivatives trace back to the Greek. Neither the word nor the concept is found in Hebrew. The  word does not appear in the Septuagint, the Jews’ own Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Old Testament), though it does appear in a different Jewish translation of the Tanakh into Greek. When the word is seen in the KJV translation of the Old Testament  it translates, and possibly mistranslates, a word that simply means “godless” or “lawless”. (Whether it’s a translation or a mistranslation depends on the degree to which the Biblical Greek word’s meaning had diverged from its classical Greek meaning).

In classical Greek the word “hypocrite” means someone who is pretending to be or acting as someone else. It can be  negative, as in the case of a fraud, or neutral, as in the case of stage actors and public spokesmen.

The word appears many times in the Greek New Testament, often in the words of Christ.  This is problematic, since Jesus did not speak Greek and there doesn’t seem to be an Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent of the word. In only one case does this word clearly have its classical Greek meaning of “pretending”; in the others (and in the exceptional Jewish translation mentioned above) the Greek word seems to have acquired an additional meaning beyond just feigning and dissimulation, something more like “evil”.

Presumably the Greek word had evolved (perhaps under the influence of Hebrew and Aramaic). Conjecturally, if “hypocrisy” in the sense of “feigning” had come to be used mostly in cases when evil people were feigning goodness, then “evil” might become part of the definition.  Thus, “pretending to be good, but really evil inside” and simply “evil inside”, rather than “feigning”,  might have become the primary meaning of the word. However the restricted “feigning” meaning probably never quite disappeared — Godefroy cites an instance from Old French.

It seems pretty clear that the common European meaning of the word is derived (via the Vulgate) from Biblical and not classical Greek, though some scholarly writers may have occasionally deliberately reverted to the classical meaning. One source claims that the word came to English via Molière’s play Tartuffe, ou le Hypocrite, and while this is not true and is off by many centuries, it’s possible that in English the limited Tartuffian sense became dominant while the broader meaning survived in France. Even so, Hugo’s application of the word “hypocrite” to an octopus pretending to be a rock and to the murderous ocean wave feigning innocence does seem like quite a stretch.  But Hugo, being Hugo, could lay it on as thick as he wanted.



Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (1)  

Victor Hugo on Cephalopods

To believe in the octopus, one must have seen it. Compared with it, the hydras of old are laughable.

Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod were only able to make the Chimaera; God made the octopus. When God wills it, he excels in the execrable. And all ideals being admitted, if terror be the object, the octopus is a masterpiece.

Its most terrible quality is its softness. A glutinous mass possessed of a will — what more frightful? Glue filled with hatred.

At night and in its breeding season, it is phosphorescent. This terror has its passions. It awaits the nuptial hour. It adorns itself, it lights up, it illuminates itself; and from the summit of a rock one can see it beneath, in the shadowy depths, spread out in a pallid irradiation, — a spectre sun.

It has no bones, it has no blood, it has no flesh. It is flabby. There is nothing in it. It is a skin. One can turn the eight tentacles wrong side out, like the fingers of a glove.

The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, oh horror! breathes you in. It draws you to it, and into it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.

Beyond the terrible, being eaten alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive.

(Excerpted from five pages of Toilers of the Sea, II iv 2, “The Monster”: Toilers of the Sea, p. 157; Les Travailleurs de la mer, p. 199) (more…)

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 2:43 am  Comments (4)  

The Discovery of the Bourgeoisie

The Bohemians, Joanna Richardson,  A.S. Barnes, 1969

The 1830 Revolution in France, Pamela Pilbeam, St Martin’s Press, 1991

Bourgeois doesn’t mean a citizen with the rights of the city. A duke may be bourgeois in the indirect sense in which the word has been used for the past thirty years or so. Bourgeois, in France, means roughly the same as philistine in Germany, and it means everyone, whatever his position, who is not initiated in the arts or doesn’t understand them. Once upon a time…. it was enough to be pink-cheeked and clean-shaven, with a square shirt-collar, and a stove-pipe hat, to be apostrophized with this injurious epithet.

(Theophile Gautier, in Le Moniteur universel, Dec. 31, 1855;  Richardson,  p. 52.)

Before Marx were the bousingots.  According to Pilbeam, the political factions of the 1830 revolution were not class-conscious, and to the extent that class lines can be detected between them, they did not match the distinctions described by Marx.  She also concludes that the streetfighters who made this and later 19th century revolutions happen were never the beneficiaries of the revolutions. Gautier’s anti-bourgeois convictions were not political, and the political bousingots were not really progressive.

The bourgeois and the bousingot are enemy twins, and, and you can’t have one without the other. The bousingots usually lose, and the cagy ones  jump ship (as Gautier did). But the bourgeoisie always produces more of them.

Gautier’s bouzingos (his spelling) were mostly just literary dissidents. The slightly later street-fighting bousingots were urban artisans and undifferentiated political rebels.  Their enemy, the newly-discovered bourgeoisie, has pretty much dominated France ever since.

We miss that in the United States, because what we go to France for is avant-gardists, not  ordinary folk. Two generations of American college students have learned that France is populated primarily by existentialists, surrealists, symbolists, Marxists, decadent aristocrats, bohemians, and so on — but no!. The petty bourgeoisie dominating France is the pettiest of them all.

“Bousingot”:  not in your dictionaries.

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm  Comments (3)  

“Bousingot”: not in your dictionaries

The massacre of April 9, 1834.

(Recently I’ve been reading about French counterculturalists, avant-gardists, bohemians, and revolutionaries during the period 1830-1848, which is really the source of all counterculturalism since then. It’s a work in progress and this is a scrap of it. This is my fourth revision of this piece.)

Nerval et les Bousingots, Francis Dumont, La Table Ronde, 1958

The word bousingot, which designates certain French political and literary rebels during the period 1830-1835 (and which is seen twice in Hugo’s Les Misérables), was used as a political label only during that very brief period and cannot be found in my ten pounds of French dictionaries: as Hugo explains in his novel, it had replaced the word ” jacobin“, and a little later was itself replaced by the word  “demagogue”.

Luckily, ample materials exist on the internet for tracking down this word and its origins.  The word comes from sailors’ and farmer’s argot and was adopted by Les Jeunes-France of the Petit Cénacle,  a group of political and literary rebels of that era which included Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. Their enemies picked the word up to use against them, and the usage and the behavior it labeled both spread out into the greater society. Eventually it came to to designate more militant rebels (especially the students among them), and when these staged actual uprisings and brought heavy repression onto themselves, many of the original literary bousingots dropped the label. This use of the word survived as a historical reference to the rebels of that era, but the generic meaning “rebel” fell from use.

The “original meaning” of bousingot, reminds you of  cur in Flann O’Brien’s legendary  Old Irish Dictionary. “Bousingot” means manure, filth, a stable, a snuffbox, a dive bar, a whorehouse, a racket or hubbub, or a sailor’s hat.  Of these meanings, per Argoji,  only the “racket” / “whorehouse” meanings seem to have survived into the later nineteenth century, still as argot or slang.

Both in its base meaning and in its extended politico-cultural meaning the word “bousingot” is contested and aggressive, without a fixed referent and always looking for  new victims. Conjecturally, the history of this never-respectable word goes as follows.  To begin with, bousin meant stable or the floor of a stable, and the rare name Bousingot is like the English name Stabler.  (Nyrop gives many examples of this kind of -ot derivation.) By analogy bousin came to mean a low and dirty dive bars and whorehouses, especially on the waterfront,  and bousingot came to mean the rowdies who frequented such places,  their rowdiness, their hats, and even their nasty snuffboxes. Les Jeunes-France picked up the name in a jocular way, Gozlan made it famous with his satires, the word spread wider and was adopted  or applied to political demonstrators and rioters (especially the students among them), at which time the les Jeunes-France backed off. (In its extended cultural / political meaning the word could be either an accusation or a defiant and jocular self-description — which as often as not would later be disavowed). And finally, the word reverted to its rowdy dive bar meaning.

Altogether, an unstable and fluctuating word, but of a kind familiar in countercultural history, and a word whose career exemplifies the mutual dependency of counterculturalists and their bourgeois journalistic adversaries.

(This page has basically been a Google exercise. I started with Dumont’s book, of which I’d only read part, and proceeded to track the bousingots down using Google and Google Book. I was able to replicate a fair proportion of Dumont’s research and find out some things he hadn’t included. It’s been very satisfying and I will never understand people who badmouth the internet.


Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 4:40 am  Comments (6)  

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