“Faced with the conflict which is at present shaking the world, even the most recalcitrant mentalities are beginning to admit the vital necessity of a myth which can be set up in opposition to that of Odin and various other belligerent gods.” – André Breton (1942).
“‘We refuse to flee poetry for reality,’ he said. ‘But we refuse to flee reality for poetry.’ The men and women blinked at him. ‘No one should say our actions are superfluous,’ Thibaut recited. ‘If they do we’ll say the superfluous supposes the necessary.” – China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris (2016)
Warning: This review of Last Days of New Paris (China Miéville, 2016) contains spoilers.
To rise to and consolidate power 20th century fascism invoked crude race and national origin myths. This is part of what led Breton to pose the problem of counter-mythology, a different set of stories; stories that would animate resistance – that would bring the weight of the past crashing down on the enemies of socialism and the working-class. As Walter Benjamin wrote, the hatred and sacrifice needed for revolution is nourished “on the picture of enslaved forebears.” For Breton this was bound together with Surrealism and its intersections of chance and plan, individual and collective psychology, dream and consciousness, individual and collective action. As our contemporary far-right movements have gained ground they have brought back the “belligerent gods.” And among the neo-fascist “alt-right” there is a return of esoteric occult fascism in the “Cult of Kek” and its Pepe the Frog fascinations. So, just as before, we need our own animating counter-mythologies – our own stories for living and fighting in this world – for ridding it of the “myths of Odin.”
China Miéville’s latest novella, The Last Days of New Paris, pits the Surrealist art of Paris – literally, or literarily – against the Nazi occupation. The art has manifested itself – becoming “manifs” in the novella’s slang. A giant version of Max Ernst’s The Elephant Celebes – “the most famous manif of Paris” wanders the streets. An exquisite corpse battles a centaur-Panzer tank. People flee Teutonic Arno Breker statutes. Odilon Redon’s “leering ten-legged spider” hunts “at one end of rue Jean Lantier, chattering its big teeth.” Last Days takes places in an alternative timeline in which a comedy (or tragedy) of errors causes an “S-Blast” in Nazi occupied Paris. The S-Blast makes Surrealist art come to life – and the art of Surrealism’s antecedents. The Nazis cordon off the city and attempt to raise their own demonic manifestations. A nearly decade long battle for the city ensues. And it is here where we meet the protagonist Thibaut – a gun-toting pajama-clad partisan with the surrealist Main à Plume.
Paris has been all but destroyed – the endless shifting palimpsest that makes the city “beautiful” sublated by war and art-come-to-life – an accelerated erasure and restoration.
Weeds grow through old cars and the floors of newspaper kiosks. They cosset the skeletons of the fallen. Huge sunflowers root all over, and the grass underfoot is speckled with plants that did not exist until the blast: plants that make noise; plants that move. Lovers’ flowers, their petals elliptical eyes and throbbing cartoon hearts bunched alternately in the mouths of up-thrust snakes that are their stems, that sway and stare as Thibaut warily passes.
Thibaut passes from one arrondissement to the next – an armed Surrealist flâneur crossing evil flowers, transformed cathedrals, gutted cafes and possessed movie houses. And the fragments of art – a playing card designed by the surrealists holed up in Marseilles after the invasion – are elements of chance that can, sometimes, defeat the fascists and their ghouls.
The stranded Nazis in the tenth [arrondissement] could never take those streets, or the altered landscapes they crisscrossed, the sagelands, smoothed alpine topographies like sagging drapes, houses of frozen rooms full of clocks, places where the geography echoed itself. The ninth was too completely made of recalcitrant art for anyone to take. It would shelter no one but the partisans of their art – the Surrealist stay-behinds, soldiers of the unconscious. Main à Plume.
Some people have criticized The Last Days of New Paris for insufficient character development. They do not understand that the main character is Paris – marked by hundreds of years of class struggle and art – degraded and cleansed by fascist violation. Thibaut navigates the marks of thousands of artists and millions of peasants and workers. He is their automatic guerilla. As he moves through Paris he encounters an American photographer named Sam. She claims she is collecting images of the ravaged city’s “art-come-to-life” for a book titled “Last Days of New Paris.” They befriend, sort-of, an exquisite corpse that follows Thibaut around. With his comrades lost, the three of them aim to thwart a secret Nazi plan called “Fall Rot” – the “avatar of the defeat of France.”
Many of the characters in Last Days are based on historical figures. The real life traitor priest Alesch enslaves demons for the Reich. André Breton and other Surrealists make appearances – as do collaborators and occupiers. There is Varian Fry, the American who, against the U.S. diplomatic mission, rescued thousands from occupied and Vichy France, who “would have brought every refugee out… every anti-Nazi, every Jew, every trade unionist and radical and writer and thinker forced into hiding” if he could have done so. Then there is the occultist-rocket-scientist Jack Parsons who plays an unwitting role in the S-Blast. Aleister Crowley + André Breton + mid-20th century engineering = Surrealism bomb. La Main à Plume was even the name of an underground surrealist publication during the occupation – collectively edited by the surrealists who failed to escape France.
The greatest horror in Last Days is banal – destroying the evidence of new and old Paris alike – “perfecting” the city. A figure that makes the city disappear until the “façades of Paris reappear, as the figure stares, and they are prettier and more perfect than they have ever looked, and they are quite empty.”
Paris is great again.
"He never could paint people," Sam whispers. "He always left them out. Painting everything empty. Even when he drew himself, he couldn’t do features…”
The Other Paris
Fascist erasure is brutal and fast. But a slower erasure is part and parcel of everyday life under “normal” capitalism. Throughout the 19th century the bourgeoisie of Paris repeatedly cleansed the city of its rambunctious working-class and poor. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s massive gentrification projects – which removed narrow medieval neighborhoods and created the grand boulevards – even renamed the city streets. “Yank Penis” Street and “Whore’s Track” Street were forgotten. “Small Ass,” “Shitter,” “Cunt Hair” and “Scratch Ass” Streets were likewise abandoned. As were the “Alley of Sighs,” “The Street Paved with Chitterling Sausages” and “The Street of Lost Time.”
But even Haussmann couldn't fundamentally destroy the the flaneur's Paris. The flâneur walks through Paris without pre-determined purpose, experiencing its social-aesthetic-geographic truth – a truth built on histories, myths and ghosts – histories and ghosts the elite wish to destroy. As Luc Sante writes: "All the tyrants and landowners and monopolists in vain set their shoulders to bulldoze the past out of existence but it stubbornly remains, sometimes in the most indefinable and evanescent way…"
The flâneur is in sympathy with time not from nostalgia but from an obligation to truth. The past is hardly a single era, after all, but the combined, composted layers of a thousand eras, and any given movement includes some proportionate blend of all those eras. The future is a threat or a sales pitch, the present flies around you like the landscape as seen from a moving car, but the past is what you stand on, lean against, breathe in.
The Lettrist International (precursor to the Situationists) imagined a different kind of S-Blast in 1955 – a “Project for the Rational Beautification of Paris” – including “arranging, with ladders and footbridges, a promenade along the roofs of the city; putting switches on lampposts so that lighting decisions could be made by the public; redistributing works of art currently held in museums among local bars; and turning churches into either romantic ruins or haunted houses.”
In one sense the Nazi occupation was totally alien to the Paris sketched above. In another sense it was outsourced fascism. At the beginning of World War II neither the French bourgeoisie or its working-class wanted to fight Nazi Germany – for different but related reasons. Moreover, France had plenty of collaborators in waiting, fascists and anti-Semites that despised, among other things, the Popular Front governments of the late 1930s that introduced the 40-hour work week, paid vacations and legalized collective bargaining. Worse still, for the anti-Semites, the leader of those Popular Front governments, Léon Blum, was Jewish. The rising far-right, organized in ligues, made sport of attacking left-wing students in the Latin Quarter.
The French bourgeoisie had no ardor for a war with Germany (seeing the Soviet Union as the real threat) – and many envied how the Germans had disposed of their militant working-class movement. The French working-class, remembering the slaughter of World War I, had no desire to repeat the experience. The political system could not resolve the social and economic crises of the inter-war period. From November 1918 to June 1940, thirty-four separate governments were formed. During the "phony war" – after war was declared but before the German invasion – Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “And what were we fighting for? To defend democracy? There is no such thing anymore. To preserve things as they were before the war? But it was the most complete disorder. There are no more parties or coherent ideologies. Only social discontent everywhere.”
Decades later, Jean-Paul Sartre recalled, “In 1939, 1940, we were terrified of dying, suffering, for a cause that disgusted us. That is, for a disgusting France, corrupt, inefficient, racist, anti-Semite, run by the rich for the rich – no one wanted to die for that, until… we understood that the Nazis were worse.”
Paris – the center of cosmopolitan Europe – fell to fascism easily. The lesser evil, the status quo, had made the greater evil inevitable.
Nazis vs. Art
The aesthetic constitution of the Nazi was, of course, hostile to modern art and free expression. But Hitler was obsessed with proving to the vanquished French their artistic superiority – even as they looted the art of Paris. The arts program of Nazi occupied Paris was therefore three-pronged – destroy and marginalize modern art, steal art (including modern art) and either bring it home to Germany or sell it on the black market, and court French intellectuals and artists with invitations to Berlin and special concerts and exhibitions. In particular art owned by Jewish collectors was confiscated. Germanic art hanging in French museums was transferred back to Germany. Hermann Wilhelm Göring made multiple trips to Paris to select art for transfer or destruction, touring the Jeu de Paume. The curators of the Louvre had smartly hidden much of their massive collection. But Paris leaks art in every corner. There were several bonfires of modern art outside the Jeu de Paume – one destroyed nearly 4,000 works – including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Paul Klee.
In The Last Days of New Paris art gets its revenge.
Because of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact – the non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – the initial resistance was not formed by the Communist Party – even though many comrades were already executed or languishing in concentration camps. Instead, one of the first resistance groups was led by the staff of the Musée de l'Homme, an anthropology museum in Paris. Using the museum’s mimeograph, they published Resistance – an underground newspaper. They were soon arrested and put to death. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union the Pact no longer held back the Communist Party. Partisans began a series of attacks. The first was in a Paris metro station killing a German soldier. In response the Nazis took hostages and executed them for each partisan operation. French workers, conscripted into the Nazi industrial machine, started running away and joining the Maquis – the rural French guerilla fighters. The resistance was politically divided, more or less, between the “Free French” – Gaullist forces supported by Great Britain and the United States – and the Communist partisans. Each started small and grew to massive proportions by the end of the war.
In the alternate history of Last Days this process diverges with the S-Blast early in the occupation. The Free French are still the competitors/enemies of the socialist resistance – in this case the surrealist partisans in the Main à Plume. Somehow the S-Blast, or other factors outside the narrative, has caused the war to drag on into the 1950s. The different sides are driven, in part, by the need to contain and master the explosion of living art.
The Last Days
Raymond Couraud, who in real life was a gangster and French soldier during WW2, walks down the street in Miéville’s Paris – soon after the occupation but before the S-Blast.
Raymond walked past Nazi officers chatting in a pavement café just as if he were a harmless man. He crossed between bicycles under the Arc de Triomphe, watched a woman flirting with a young German officer and imagined killing them both. Shooting the man first, once in the head, then several in his dead body to make it dance while the treacherous woman screamed.
In our "timeline," after World War II, collaborating artists and writers in France were banned from their professions. Several were executed. A few thousand collaborators (artists and otherwise) were executed in total. Women were paraded through towns and neighborhoods shorn of their hair. Some of the worst collaborators – the industrialists who cooperated with the Nazi war machine – went unpunished. Maurice Papon, the police official who sent Jews (and others) to their deaths, would later murder hundreds of Algerian and French activists and socialists in the 1950s and 1960s. He drowned many in the Seine. On balance, however, the collaborators were punished or chastened.
In 2017 the President of the United States began implementing a racist ban on Muslims entering the country – on Holocaust Remembrance Day. He threatens mass deportations (building on the mass deportations of the lesser evil he replaced) and more. Trump may not be a fascist per se – although Steve Bannon certainly is – but Trump has awoken the “belligerent gods.” Marine Le Pen is doing well in the French polls. Right-wing populism is on the rise. Now is the time to nourish hate and sacrifice “on the picture of enslaved forebears” – with our myths and our art; art that swallows Nazis whole.
- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Book, 2007)
- China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris (New York: Del Ray, 2016)
- Alan Riding, And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris (New York: Vintage Books, 2010)
- Luc Sante, The Other Paris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
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Adam Turl is an artist and writer currently based in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an editor at Red Wedge Magazine, writes its "Evicted Art Blog" and is an art critic for the West End Word. Turl's most recent solo exhibitions include Thirteen Baristas at the Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas, Nevada and Kick the Cat at Project 1612 in Peoria, Illinois. In 2016 he was a resident at the Cité internationale des Arts in Paris. More of his art can viewed at his website.