Wunderkammer

Reading Zola’s The Belly of Paris, I was struck with the contrast it makes with the later Germinal; the latter an impassioned call for revolution and social justice, the former treating the matter in terms that are rather more cynical, seeing such matters as the affair of naive idealists (as Claude describes Florent; "You’re an artist in your own way. You dream about politics") and hypocrites (Gavard being, as Claude describes it, "fat, but the sort that pretends to be thin. That sort is common."); in other words, not that far away from Conrad’s The Secret Agent. For all of the injustice meted out towards Florent, the novel presents a relatively poor case for revolution, with most of the stallholders prospering. For all of his talk of the fat and thin, Claude seems at best apolitical; "You titillate yourself with ideas of about truth and justice. Your ideas, like my paintings, frighten bourgeois people… politics did not bother him at all." At worst, Claude seems enthralled by the modern age, celebrating the market’s iron cathedral displacing the nearby church; "The iron will kill the stone.. only one original building has been built that has not been copied from somewhere else and that is Les Halles." With the emphasis on walking around the Parisian arcades, Zola and Claude at one with Baudelaire and Benjamin. Equally, the novel also seems ambivalent as to whether Florent’s rebellion is simply a matter of an inherent predisposition; "He could easily have become a decent citizen agan, he had nothing but good examples in front of him. But no, it’s in his blood!" While animal metaphors abound in Zola’s novels, it is unusual here for all being physically present in the market and the protrayal of characters like Cadine tends towards showing Paris as a place ‘red in tooth and claw’ populated by people who are barely distinguished from animals ("as free as birds and quite without shame"). Much of Florent’s revolt is a physical one (as with Claude’s notion of the fat and the thin rather than the rich and the poor), a sense of nausea at the market’s stench; "he had experienced smells as terrible as these but never from his belly." By contrast, Lisa is "a steady and sensible Macquart, reasonable and logical in her craving for well being… even at the age of six" just as Quenu declares of Florent that "had been bound to come to a bad end, you could tell from his face." Nonetheless, Zola is far from consistent also stating that Florent under different circumstances would simply have been schooltecher in a provincial town; "a man as gentle as a child."

Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin is a quite remarkable text and one that reminds me greatly of the Helene Cixous’s gender theories (as well as sharing an interpretation of As You Like it with Woolf’s Orlando). The novel blurs gender boundaries and advances a form of sexual politics that would seem advanced even by today’s standards; "The reality is that neither of these two sexes is mine… many men are more female than I." I was interested in d’Albert declaration that "I am a man of the Homeric age. The world I inhabit is not my own and I understand nothing of the society around me. Chris did not come for my sake. I am as pagan as Alcibiades." d’Albert decries the modern tendency to view women as equals, a view that is challenged by Rosalind’s winning of duels against other men, but which seems nonetheless to continue to inhabit the novel, which does contain a counter-reading whereby d’Albert subdues Rosalind’s Third Sex identity and is freed from the horror of desiring a member of his own sex.

Balzac’s Cousin Bette has the same sort of duality you can find in a lot of his novels (something advertised by the author from the outset with his note that "Moliere always presents both sides of every human problem"); on the one hand, he is a Catholic conservative, deploring immorality and excess. On the other, he chooses to invest much of that enmity in the Napoleonic old-guard in the novel (although he does seem to admire Crevel for sticking to his Voltarian principles on his death bed), seen as the destroyers of the ancien regime (and far more the objects of Balzac’s hatred here than the bourgeoisie Lukacs thought him so adept at critiquing with his aristocratic sympathies, even in the midst of statements that dissolve individual responsibility in favour of social critique; "in Paris, life is too rushed for vicious people to do evil because they choose to"). The result is that the destructive actions of Bette to destroy Hulot acquire an almost laudable aspect, with the same later applying to Victorin’s destruction of Valerie. As in The Chouans, if Balzac is offered a choice between the gildings of civilisation and savage barbarism ("a close observation of the young woman would have observed the fierce side of the peasantry.. the savage has feelings only, the civilised man has feelings and ideas"), he invariably chooses the latter even as he condemns it, with Hulot proving far more driven by feelings than Bette. In the character of Bette, savagery at least proves itself to have a profound work ethic and a strong sense of thrift lacking in the dissolute aristocrats; Bette is in essence Balzac’s avenging angel. This can partly be attributed to Balzac’s ideas on gender. Although in theory, he lauds characters like the Baroness for their piety, even her own daughter sees her as essentially passive, a trait that leads to her destruction. Balzac sees virtue in essentially masculine terms and lauds it irrespective of which gender it is found in (conversely he seems to see characters like Wenceslas and Hulot as essentially feminine and weak, with Balzac sniffily noting that the Poles wear jewellery like women having acquire tastes for "oriental splendour"). This leads to odd conjunctions like "this energetic woman and that weak man." As such, at one point the author opines that the ideal woman should combine virtue with masculine energy, a trait he finds in the courtesan Josepha (and implicitly in Bette) but not in the Baroness; "if you’d had a little of our savvy, you’d have stopped him gallivanting; for you’d have know how to be what we have been; all kinds of women to a man… but governments are so prudish, they are led by men who are led by us."

Lukacs drew a connection between the conservatism of Balzac and that of Scott in their join condemnation of the bourgeoisie. Certainly Old Mortality sees him vesting much sympathy with rebellion and revolt against the established order ("that excites the vassals of persons of rank to to rebel against the very house that holds and feeds them"), but his approach is as dialogic as Balzac’s ("who shall warrant me that these people, rendered wild with persecution, would not be in the hour of victory, as cruel and intolerant as those by whom they are now hunted down?"), with characters like Evandale portrayed with as much sympathy as Morton (hence Morton’s comparison of Balfour’s spirital pride to pride in things material; "Morton could not help, in his heart, contrasting Claverhouse with Balfour of Burley"). Scott’s sympathies inherently lie with the dialogic and tolerant instead of the monologic and the dogmatic; like Eliot later, his novels are in many respects an appeal to empathy. The model character is the old woman whose covenanter sons have been slain in battle and who still shelters Lord Evandale and saves his life ("and was a fanatic woman capable of such generosity?").

Visiting Oxford, I began by walking along the canal to the Church of St Barnabas, a building based on the cathedral I visited last year at Torcello. The church would appear to be well on the way to decaying to the same state as its Venetian counterpart, with the pebble dash crumbling from walls encroached upon by weeds. I pass by towards the Ashmolean. Much of the museum has been closed for refurbishment and a temporary exhibition is in progress. This does rather recapture the spirit of Tradescant’s wunderkammer; the Alfred jewel rests alongside Etruscan canopic jars, a robe given to TE Lawrence by King Faisal, a lovely early twentieth century Japanese waterfall vase and Guy Fawkes’ lantern. The gallery houses a diminished collection of Gertler and Courbet landscapes, Palmer and Spencer neo-platonic scenes, a Vernet night scene, an early Kandinsky landscape, Uccello and Cosimo forest scenes. Wondering around Holywell cemetery afterwards, I noticed that although the tombstones were all mass-produced, with several specimens of the same type often in evidence, they were nonetheless different to those in London cemeteries of the same period; industrial production but on a local scale. It also feels more like a country churchyard, with bluebells in flower and the stones of a much modest scale than their London counterparts. I also visit Exeter Chapel, Gilbert Scott’s remodelling of Sainte-Chapelle, an astonishing confection of stained glass, mosaic and tiling. More impressive though is Saint Mary’s in Iffley; as at Kilpeck, its carvings of Mer-Men, Centuars, Green Men and Sphinxes seem essentially pagan to me, something reinforced with Piper’s stained glass window of sheep, owls and other birds.

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