Lecture on Libertinage

A. Constantin

In the foreword to the very book which, I admit, we will take merely as a pretext, Aragon claims that it was his wish for the novel which put him in conflict with the Surrealist movement, and it is true that Philippe Soupault, for example, had been expelled from the group precisely because of his exploring into a genre that, according to the rules of the game, was considered reactionary. I would rather think that it was a certain tendency towards the frivolous, the concept of ambiguity, that is – in his understanding –, of irresponsibility in trying out more than one party, ambition, strategy, and putting on as many masks as necessary in order to keep the game going on without following other rules than those which life itself – and its ever changing demands and temptations – may suggest. And it is significant enough that Aragon wrote more than one foreword to this collection of prose and loose scenarios: revision, as it turned out, became the one constant mode of his work as well as of his life. Also, that tendency towards the frivolous is one of the temptations any virtuoso has to stand, and Aragon was arguably the most gifted and versatile writer of that movement.
History itself consists of revisions anyway, and this author might have felt the need to participate not only in terms of strict commitment but with a sovereignty of someone who is just taking a part in some play; there is a risk then, that the main actor, from time to time, will not be aware of slipping into mere postures. The history of literature therefore has seen Aragon in many roles, not all of them becoming; especially today he would have difficulties with explaining the relation between an adorable work and a trace of self-denial: we have got all too sensitive towards ambiguity, and the notion of human existence as being consequently shaped by contradictions has become unbearable even for those who still call themselves intellectuals.
But we ourselves would now have difficulties explaining the fruitful relationship between libertinage and enlightenment; this would concern not only the classical period of the 18th century but what we might call the second period of enlightenment, going from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies of the 20th century. Of course, there have always been different forms of engagement and search for truth, regardless of ways of living and political attitudes. Still, there seems to be an indivisible curiosity, as playful as serious, driven by confidence and by skepticism, the ability and willingness of dedicating oneself to every concrete facet of the world while keeping an artistic approach. We should not forget that this short and precious »second period« was defined by a concept of emancipation which included the sexual revolution.
In 1971 Aragon brought out a book called Henri Matisse, roman; it contained, aside from lush reproductions, numerous conversations with the painter and reflexions on his work. At the time of its publication that book must have made the impression of something inappropriate: at the height of frugal though voluminous theory – and, as we are now better used to say, political unrest – it celebrated an artist of a long-gone era who had entitled one of his most famous paintings Luxe, calme et volupté. Nevertheless, we may leave aside the wide context; I think, we can focus on Aragon and his personal motives. In 1965 – the year of his marvellous La Mise à mort – he had made an attempt of embracing the avant-garde by writing an eulogy on Godard's Pierrot le fou,1 but it seems to me that now, by summing up his occupation with Matisse, he was referring more authentically to a radical vision of utopia.
An artist who declares that any piece of his work is supposed to decorate and to please, can hardly be held for an accomplice when it is about to go for a perfect society – that means, to fight for all the conditions of such society, to convince and to animate those who shall participate, to make a total change. Obviously, this is a rather conventional, not a radical vision of utopia. Matisse has been called the last artist who managed to affirm the outer world while not appeasing us with its harmless version. Such an achievement would imply a certain indifference towards any subject and a reduction to a state of mind objectifying itself merely through a constructive arrangement of colours.
In case of a modernist painter this explanation may sound trivial; it is specific when we consider that »constructive« here refers to that outer world: it excludes conceptual abstraction as well as impressionistic representation. And, of course, we are referring to a particular human being whose mind was obsessed by the idea of harmony. Harmony, as a disposition, does not make a decision about how reality should look like; like truth itself – defined by coherence – it is a quality according to which any particular reality has to be composed. The result then may be called Les toits de Collioure or Jazz, and each will be an example of subjectivity totalized through an absolute mind.
This concept must have been a challenge to someone like Aragon, who insisted on a particular realism, defined by an adjective – though not a greater challenge, or temptation, than it meant for him to integrate the myth of Tristan, an early protagonist of libertinage, Théophile de Viau, or Matisse himself into his concept of the novel. And elaborating a theory of the novel was perhaps the one authentic ambition Aragon was following throughout his life – not the least, in order to legitimate that adjective, socialist.
In La Mise à mort he – the author, the main protagonist, one of them – explains clearly enough that he chose Alice's »Let's pretend …« against Flaubert's »… c'est moi«; he even quotes Charles Lamb, giving this definition of the novel: »Some who did not know that what he tells us of himself was often true only (historically) of another ...« It is the step from verse to prose which had opened the field of particularization,2 but one that makes path for history – as a tool for mastering reality, constructing society.
Not only considering the development of that genre we may have reason to find that ambition highly questionable – the novel having declined to some sedative for the people, who have reduced themselves to consuming stories like headlines, while erasing history in its true sense, not to say any teleological approach. At the end of the second period of enlightenment that ambition was not delusional but realistic; we have no good reason to imagine ourselves being advanced, especially looking back on what since then has turned out to be a deterioration of society – in favour of a community which may be on its way to some sort of socialism, surely not to realism.
Pointing out the political context here I think is necessary: Aragon does not need to be excused, even less in a sense of separating the author from the man; instead, one should recall a notion of integrity as an ideal and formal coherence, completeness and complexity – including Aragon the liar as well as the genius of prose. Art has been described as the most effective medium for society to express – and to process – its internal conflicts; in consequence, a society which had found a state of true integrity would be able to spare the arts; it seems that society has decided to spare the arts without having achieved such integrity.
One reason – if not the main one, summing up several others – is that we – the people, including those formally known as intellectuals – have lost confidence in the idea of progress. This is not the place to analyze how this loss is influencing the concept of democracy; what we can state is, that it has already damaged the vision of art – as something beyond its function of providing a certain, luxurious, pleasure for the happy few; that function had been authentic as long as we had not elaborated the conditions and the means to transform ourselves historically: we cannot go back to Louis XIII. Only, it seems that future will have too many similarities with an even earlier period.
What does it mean to spend a life on composing colours according to an absolute mind? Aragon suggests, this practice constitutes something like a novel. It means mastering reality every day – constructing and revising, also confronting oneself with a mirror which does reflect not oneself but anonymous possibilities of the human being, fragmented into innumerable possibilities of the concrete; it means seeking an integral without giving in to any prejudice, knowing that any perfection has to lead to another canvas, another sentence.
This sketch of the creative process though should be completed by explaining the expression »absolute mind«. It means a form in which one particular thing is organized through total coherence, that is, one which essentially extends to anything else, as well as a way of understanding such form; it is necessity and freedom. And it is this notion which implies the most profound relevance of art – independent from any sujet; there does not have to be any explicitly political relevance, as the first impact of any piece of art, made with such understanding, reaches out as far as our mind does. There is no point of view outside that realm.

1   It has been noticed that Godard might have been inspired by one phrase within Aragon’s novel: »... while the sum of one plus one actually contains something that is expressed neither with one nor the other one – undoubtedly that plus ... « So, this »embracing the avant-garde« would have found a fair response; the specific Romanticism of the Nouvelle Vague payed tribute to Surrealism more than once at the time.
2   From time to time, one feels a certain lack within the English language, which, in its preference for common sense, tends to reject all too abstract connotations, even if those are more appropriate to the concrete. Here we can only refer to Hegel‘s Philosophy of the Arts, which is to be recommended anyway – whenever it comes to the relation between language (in terms of any art of expression), history and society.