Friday, December 28, 2012


S: You have often expressed contempt for psychology. Yet you keep talking about the mystery of personality in ways that sound psychological. What's the difference between what you want to understand and what the psychologist wants to understand? 

B: The psychologist discovers only what he can explain. I explain nothing. 

S: You are a person with no preconceptions. 

B: None at all. 

S: Whereas psychology is a closed system, whose premises dictate its method. Therefore, it discovers evidence in support of a preexisting theory of human behavior. 

B: If I succeed at all, I suppose some of what I show on the screen will be psychologically valid, even though I am not quite aware of it. But of course, I don't always succeed. In any case, I never want to explain anything. The trouble with most films is that they explain everything. 


S: What I am trying to explore with you is the emotional problem for the spectator [in Pickpocket]. 

B: I never think of the spectator. 

S: But you can see that your hero might appear unsympathetic. 

B: He is unsympathetic. Why not? 

S: I am also puzzled, in view of your uninterest in psychology, at the heavy psychological emphasis in this film. Let me explain. As we see the hero stealing, we don't know his motive, but toward the end of the film we find out that he previously stole from his mother. We then realize his psychological motivation; he stole from his mother, felt guilty about that, was ashamed to confess to her, and, therefore, commits crimes so as to be punished and fulfill his need for penitence. 

B: Perhaps, but only a psychiatrist would explain it like that. As Dostoyevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you desire to find out the reason.

From this interview with Robert Bresson.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Novelist and the Storyteller

The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel others.

From The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin 

Benjamin was distinguishing the novelist from the 'storyteller', by which he meant someone participating in an oral culture: that is, someone linked to their audience by direct physical contact, for whom storytelling is a bodily performance. I think that the growth of online culture has, ironically (given that all online communication is, by definition, mediated), taken us back to the age of the storyteller. It is impossible to flourish as a new writer now without communicating regularly and closely with one's audience: that is, without performing the role of author in public.

Friday, December 21, 2012

'Paris Peasant' by Louis Aragon

Louis’ Aragon’s anti-novel Paris Peasant [Paysan de Paris, 1926] is one of the earliest Surrealist texts. To my mind, it’s superior to Breton’s Nadja, though the latter is better known and more widely read now, perhaps because it has a recognisable plot of sorts (that of the author’s romance with the titular heroine), whereas the structure of Paris Peasant is determined only by Aragon’s perambulations around a soon-to-be-demolished shopping arcade (the longest part of the book is a tour of all the shops it contains) and the Buttes-Chaumont park. Throughout, Aragon pays particular attention to places where the distinction between public and private is in abeyance, as indeed it is in arcades and parks in general, but even more so in public lavatories, bathhouses, hairdressers, brothels, and the more secluded corners of Buttes-Chaumont after dark.

The walk around the park put me in mind of several photographers: Atget, who in fact took several photographs in Buttes-Chaumont (Google tells me they were of trees, but perhaps he also photographed the statuary, as was his wont), Brassai, whose Paris After Dark contains several images of locked park entrances (Aragon and friends are surprised to discover Buttes-Chaumont open when they arrive there by taxi at night); and, most of all, several infrared images shot by Weegee of lovers in New York parks. Like Weegee's, Aragon’s nocturnal stroll is also surrounded by partially-visible canoodling couples, but he leaves them in semi-obscurity, which is more inspirational for his surrealist purposes.

If I have understood Weegee's technique correctly (it is rarely explained), he used a flash with an infrared filter to expose the film: the filter suppressed the light source from the point-of-view of his subjects, but allowed infrared wavelengths through to provide enough light to expose the film. He shot several famous images in darkened cinemas and on the Coney Island beaches using the same technique. The results are far from seductive, since infrared light exaggerates bone shadows on the face, and highlights skin imperfections, especially male stubble. But they are revealing. Nonetheless, it seems a mean-spirited – not to mention voyeuristic – pursuit, and I can’t imagine anyone replicating it now without being prosecuted. I’m glad the photographs exist, but Aragon’s descriptions are both more suggestive and more tactful: desire generalised and mythologised, like the gouged outlines of hearts and genitals that Brassai photographed for his graffiti project.

One of the most inspired aspects of Paris Peasant is Aragon's inclusion of transcriptions of ephemera - newspaper cuttings, price lists, product advertisements, shop signs - which give a fascinating insight into the history of the everyday in 20s Paris, and (in the form of inscriptions on a column in the park and a disquistion on statues) into the relationship between the ephemeral and the historical. These transcripts are not photographic reproductions of the originals, at least in my English translation (Sebald's work occasionally includes such photographs of ephemera, but Aragon was the pioneer here). The texts are instead displayed in a variety of layouts that attempt to mimic the designs of the originals. This has a strange effect: a strictly mimetic intention (which is, moreover, concerned with written texts that do not aspire to innovation) results in highly original typography in the context of a book.

I wish (I wish!) I had had the foresight to retain receipts from Venice in 2004 (the setting and time for much of Reciprocity Failure), and to take related notes on signs and prices, so as to follow Aragon's example.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Site Maintenance

I am in the process of changing servers, so my website (jonathanwalkervenice.com, and various subdomains) is likely to experience significant downtime over the next couple of weeks. Links from blog entries to the site will suffer accordingly.

The site should be back to normal before Christmas.

EDIT: Everything seems to be working fine as of 18 December.