Slaves of New York*: It’s still a helluva town

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on January 7, 2011, with a slightly different title, and reprised, revised, and greatly expanded today because New York City — which at last count had lost 21,000 or a fifth of the national toll to the Corona virus, in no small part because the state’s governor waited too long to impose confinement (San Francisco, which went into confinement a week earlier, has lost less than 100 as of this date) and thanks to his policy of cutting back on hospital beds (thank you, Democracy Now, for these tragic factoids) — is still a helluva town. This one goes out to Sue, Melinda, Jamie, Richard, Margaret, Veronica, Robin, Caitlin, Elizabeth, Julio, Therese, Bonnie, Chris, the memories of Ed Winer, Becky Jung, Joe Mazo, Ranjabati Sircar, and Eileen Darby, and to Maura, Christine C., Matt, Nancy, Tristan, Fabrice, Pilar, Nathalia, Amaury, Laurent, Ruth-Lynn and too many other dancers to name, Michelle, Kevin, Donna, Lisa, Laurie, Phil, Herb, Ingrid, Neil, Eddie, Marty, Amy, Juan, Nimet, Jane, Martin, Anyta, Rebecca, Mark, Jill, Julie, Adam, Jocelyn, Dean, Darrah, Lucie, Harris, Ron, Don, Ben, Jonathan Schwartz, the editorial team at Wunderman Cato Johnson, and to all those who have given me so many New York moments and who are still there trying to make sure that it’s still a helluva town, despite Governor Cuomo’s irresponsibility and the mayor’s callousness towards the homeless. Take a dip in the Bethesda Fountain, New Yorkers, while knoshing on a knish or a dog with da works, de ma part…. (For art related to this column, click here .)

NEW YORK — Dance seems to be calcified in New York, the same fossils that were here 10 years ago — when I left for Paris — even more entrenched. Indeed, the wilderness is so sallow that the New York Times felt the need to send its chief dance critic abroad to review 27 “Nutcracker”s, as if even 27 “Nutcracker”s would have to be more interesting than one more New York dance concert, so desperately desolate has the local mainstream landscape apparently become. (Having once been sent abroad myself, to review a ‘Nut’ in a far-gone bourg of BFLI — Bum Fuck Long Island if you have to know, weisenheimer — where the publicist made sure to seat me next to the company’s director and my Newsday editor excised my mild criticism of a lackluster Clara, I sympathize.)

So this art aficionado has been feeding his art jones with art of the visual variety, as well as the self-made art still on view — nevah change, baby! — in New York every day. In the visual art landscape, between the Impressionist-era paintings one can stumble upon at a corner uptown gallery and what I’m told is the blossoming of the windblown Chelsea Territory — though the new High-line above the Western limits of the neighborhood looking out over the Hudson seems antiseptic compared to the colorful Paris counterpart that apparently inspired it, the coulee verte that starts at the Bastille — things at least seem to be moving. Scouring a Chelsea gallery guide Thursday afternoon to scout out vernissages (opening receptions to you, bub), I couldn’t help but notice some art on the various gallery websites that actually looked interesting, as opposed to the buy-me variety which seemed to be preponderant here 10 years ago, memorialized in Schnabel’s “Basquiat” film when Tatum O’Neal, considering a purchase, asks the artist, “Can you make it more brown?”

While I didn’t see enough art in an abbreviated gallery crawl Thursday night to be able to offer an assessment, let alone pass judgment, what was, on the other hand, dispiriting was that, as was the case 10 years ago, everyone seemed to be standing around talking up each other and I only saw one lost woman looking at the art — yet one more sign that not just dance, but intellectual life in New York may have ebbed. (The biggest indication of this is the effective demise of the Village Voice, a molted praying mantis’s skin of its former self, its last breath expiring with this week’s firing of 33-year-old veteran investigative journalist Wayne Barrett supposedly for financial reasons, the final death knoll for a storied heritage.)

But the good news is that like Paris, New York itself remains a work of art, even performing (as opposed to performance) art. After a cat-sitting gig in a literary brownstone healthily crammed with a century of books from first to top floor in the Upper East Side environs of Central Park, I’ve spent the past week in the Lower East Side environs of Chinatown where I literally saw it all on Mulberry Street: The Italian stretch of the street may have devolved into a Disney-fied Italian-Land — with young barkers standing outside the restaurants cajoling potential clients, reminiscent of the older men who stand outside Pakistani restaurants in Paris’s Passage Brady or the hawkers of “Pig Alley” — but Chinatown remains authentic, and perhaps the only place in Manhattan where one can still lunch like a monkey king for less than $3. That’s right — less than $3. I’ve had crumbled pork cake (at the Orange Tea House on Elizabeth Street), which is just what it sounds like — pork crumbs on the outside, sweet cake on the inside, for 90 cents. Goopy large noodles woven with shrimp and dribbled with soy and hot sauces for $1.25, (from a stand on Elizabeth Street). My comforting favorite for this weather is what I call a chicken porridge soup — in Chinese I think its moniker is ‘congee’ — of which you can get a nice helping for $1.50, from a woman working out of a cart on Grand Street. But the mecca — for starving journalists as well as starving dancers — is clearly Vanessa’s dumpling house on Eldridge. The signature dish is the owner’s sesame pancake sandwiches, all under and some well under $3 (the vegetable variety is just $1.50), but I’ve stuck to the fried pork dumplings, three plump ones available for just $1.(On this visit, I forgot to ‘vestigate – as the late dancer Becky Jung might put it – into whether Yonah’s Knishes was still dealing this daily staple of my forgotten Lower East Side ancestors. Or head uptown to see if the yamuka-crowned speedheads that used to dish up pickle-packed tahimi-oozing falafel sandwiches to long lines of Mad Men and Women from a van on 46th long before ‘food-truck’ became part of the lingo were still in business. ) If your parents are coming to town and you want them to take you to someplace nice, you might scout out the Vietnamese restaurant dance friends turned me on to earlier this week, which they’d learned of from choreographer and Chinatown institution HT Chen. (The menu even offers “HT Chen Crispy Noodles.”) Here my conch jones was finally satisfied. Since reading during my last NY sojourn, in the Joseph Mitchell classic “Up in the Old Hotel,” that fewer and fewer restaurants were serving conch, the meat that lives in that large sea-shell that whispers ocean gusts when you hold it up to your ear — fisherman only hunted for them by special request — I’ve been on a singular quest to find this item on NY restaurant menus. Last time around, I found three Italian places — in the whole city — that still served scungili, or conch in a spicy tomato sauce. One of those, the fabled Luna cafe on Mulberry Street (where an apprentice Guido once paused before pouring  the chianti for me and my female friend because “I didn’t wanna interrupt the eye contact”), has closed, and the other two have removed conch/scungili from their menus. At first, the waiter at the Vietnamese place disappointed me by shaking his head when I ordered the sauteed conch, listed as a specialty. “All out!” Then he returned excitedly to tell me that the fisherman had just brought some in that morning.

The hazard conch-fanciers face when ordering is the same one calamari-cravers have to deal with, that the dish will probably be over-cooked and thus rubbery and hard to break up. This conch, though, was perfect, as soft, flat, and sea-pungent as abalone. (I hadn’t touched another of my favorite NY-only ethnic dishes, Mofungo – a large plaintain and pork dumpling – since a serving had broken my last good molar left standing in Spanish Harlem. I’d have done better heading further downtown and sinking my delicate choppers into chicken and waffles at Wells’s or Sylvia’s.)

But affordable downtown culinary riches are not restricted to one cuisine. On Sunday — my favorite, maybe the only day for a gambol in the Village if you don’t like crowds — I hied over to El Rinconcita, on E. 10th and Avenue C, which still sells its catfish empanadas for just $1 apiece. (The mofungo is also nothing to kick a can at.)They were out of them when I got there, but I blithely ignored the tired waitress’s suggestion of chicken and asked if they could make some. “I’ll wait!” (The lively cumbia on the juke didn’t make it hard.) The woman who cooked them up for me — perhaps the owner — must have remembered me because she packed the empanadas not just with catfish but juicy jalapenos as well, which I ate on a wet bench in still snow-covered Tompkins Square, sipping the last of my warm cafe con leché. (At a Columbian stand outside a church on 14th street where I used to get it with my dollar enchiladas on Sundays, they used to sell Mexican-style hot chocolate infused with rice.)

If there’s one thing I’ve craved, though, since I returned from France this past summer, it’s duck, the soul-food of the country’s southwest, where I spent most of the past three years. I’d been warned that a Chinatown duck was not the same as a Frenchytown duck, so I had resisted. I was not even tempted by the opportunity to try the one duck part I’d never tried when I saw it here. I’d thought I’d sampled everything — duck carcasses, duck confit, duck hearts, duck blood patties (kind of like boudin but too rubbery for me), duck necks, preserved duck gizzards, smoked duck breast, duck breast with goat cheese sauce, beaujolais nouveau duck. But it wasn’t until I walked into a Chinese butcher’s on Grand street that I discovered duck tongues, 50 of them wrapped tightly in cellophane. Didn’t go for those, but finally gave in and bought a Peking Duck Wednesday. The price was right — $12 — but man was that Long Island (Peking by way of Valley Stream, and no doubt not blessed by my old rabbi Donna Berman) canard skinny compared to its French relatives. Not even a morsel of liver to be found, and forget about heart. (In France, they sell their chickens without the liver, which any Jew, whether he was brought up in Rabbi Berman’s Long Island congregation or the Aquarian Minion in San Francisco, will tell you is the best part.) And in a whole duck probably about four servings, max. Pumping its value to the maximum, I’ll be cooking the carcass up in a duck soup this weekend.

Of course the global beauty of my Chinatown digs this past week — the snow is gently falling outside the window to the courtyard as I write, set off by the neighbor building’s tenement brown brick — is the seat they’ve provided in the LES and Soho (a stone’s throw away) neighborhoods, which, despite the boutiques which have replaced the galleries in the latter and the leather jacket stores which have supplanted the Hester Street pushcarts in the former, still retain some of the eternal New York character, inherent in the architecture and the denizens (or as Damon Runyon would say, ‘citizens’) who pass under and between the buildings and who are perhaps inspired by the shadows of their not-so-forgotten ancestors. Is it also fueled by life on the edge, the element of danger lubricating one’s joie de vivre? Perhaps. The other day on Lafayette (I am here!) below Houston (hint to newbies: HOW-ston), in one block I was hit by both the beauty and the terror. In the middle of the block a blonde woman in sweats and tennies was fervently telling a tall worried man with curly brown hair, “This is for all the women murdered in New York.” A few yards further, before I could even take a look at her face, a woman walked past me who could have stepped straight out of a ’30s glamour magazine, everything from her smart felt hat to her long brown coat denoting style. Me, I’ll have one more stylin’ lunch in Chinatown and the LES before heading up to the theoretically more staid digs I’ve now scored on the Upper West Side off Broadway, plopping down on a bench in the middle of a bank of snow, propping my French boots (no Doc Martens this time) up on the concrete barrier between the benches and the basketball court across from her café and chowing down on my first cold sesame noodles of the season, a $3 feast courtesy of Vanessa’s. Bon appetit!

*For the non-New Yorkers among my readers, this title refers to the Tama Janowitz novel, itself encapsulating a particular NY phenomenon. I interviewed Janowitz in Princeton in 1987.

(Updated noon French time) Paris année zero: Keeping our word — A program of solidarity for our times

by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota
Artistic director, Theatre de la Ville, Paris
Translation and Introduction by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Translator/editor’s note: While the Theatre de la Ville furnished the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager with a copy of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s statement in the original French, what follows is a journalistic, and not official, translation, as the English text was not coordinated with the Theatre de la Ville. Demarcy-Mota’s stance here is striking in both a global and historic context. In the first realm, whereas “Dance NYC,” which should get the Bessie award for “Least Effective and Most Out of Touch Arts Lobbying Organization in the United States,” is now making the ludicrous claim that “dancers are necessary workers,” putting them on the same level, essential worker-wise, as health and food workers (exactly the kind of insulated naval-gazing thinking that makes dance be treated less serioiusly in the U.S. than in Europe), EDM has a more global, less self-interested, au-dela de sa propre nombril perspective. And in the historic context, and given that French president Emmanuel Macron has likened the battle against the pandemic to “a war,” it’s no accident that Sarah Bernhardt, in whose former stomping-ground the Theater de la Ville EDM directs is based, turned her own lavish home into a MASH unit during the Prussian siege of Paris of 1870 — herself volunteering as a nurse.)

Five propositions imagined with an ensemble of players from the domains of Health, Culture, Education, and Justice.

Four temporalities whose rhythm has been determined by the epidemic: the confinement, the deconfinement, the coming season and the Day After. Four pillars to put in place: Culture, Health, Education, Justice.

Health has been our absolute priority these past few months. Culture is our absolute priority at this moment that we emerge from confinement.

Our country, certainly attenuated but profoundly modified, has a strong desire to reconstruct itself with a view to creating a different kind of world where the idea of solidarity is at the heart of the debate.

In order for our society to recover its strength, we would like to propose a new model able to bring together the arts, science, and education with, as its corner-stone, the union between health and culture.

We wanted to bring together an ensemble of allies from the fields of health, justice, education, and the arts to create a new space for dialogue and coordinate new actions.

Together we are founding “Tenir Parole” (Keeping our Word), a new alliance of leaders from different realms who share a common desire to stimulate and propel a new approach to imagination.

We will strive for the emergence of new forms of solidarity in relying on our capacity to think together. We will work against frontiers, whether they be of the physical or mental variety or between disciplines or human beings.

We will create a proximity and an amity to traverse this unprecedented period of history together.

“Tenir parole” (Keeping our Word) is a way to infuse power in the imagination, to incarnate a convergence of visions, to stimulate the manifestation of life and give hope.

Rather than allow an uncertain present to be imposed upon us, we want to invent desirable tomorrows. Thus, at the end of this tempest, if we’ve “kept our word,” we will have learned, reflected, exchanged, and created.

One Calendar, Five propositions

The Troupe of the Imaginary

Created during the confinement and engaged amidst poetic and scientific consultations, the troupe brings together at this stage more than 50 people from various horizons: the actors of the Theatre de la Ville troupe, joined by young Italian, Senegalese, Egyptian, Cameroonian, Central-African, Congolese, Taiwanese, and French actors, as well as by scientists associated with the project: the neurosurgeons Carine Karachi and Hayat Belait; the neurology professor David Grabli; biologist Marie-Christine Maurel; biologist and philosopher Georges Chapouthier; physician Kamil Fadel; architect Denis Laming; and astrophysicist Jean Audouze.

Together, we have developed, in order to be able to act from the moment confinement began (March 15 in France), invent alternative ways of creating, maintain a link with the population and combat individual isolation, “poetic and scientific consultations by telephone,” which have already reached nearly 5,000 people across France and beyond.

The consultations have been offered in 15 languages: Seven European languages (French, Greek, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German), six languages spoken on the African continent (Wolof, Beti, Lingala, Sango, Congo, and Pidgin) and also in Arab and Mandarin.  “The troupe of the Imaginary” will develop new actions and continue its consultations in the months to come.

Dancers, musicians, and historians, partnering with the Rectorate of Paris, are joining this team beginning May 18 to suggest new forms of consultations.

The European Encounters of May-June

Meetings will be held starting the week of May 18. In rapport with the evolution of the deconfinement, they can be held by distance and bring together the world of culture — public and private — as well as those of health, justice, and education.

The emergence from confinement as a moment to learn together is the occasion to create bridges, to propose a new model which brings people together to co-construct perspectives on a common future. Because ignorance is also a form of confinement and it is through knowledge that we must find the emergency exit that will enable us to escape from asphyxia.

At the hour when we must all construct the 2020s, let us make our theaters the place for a community gathering, the reflection of our social commitments and of our will for esperance. Let us build a new Europe, a Europe of culture but also of sciences, of the environment and of young people.

Open-air artistic propositions beginning in June

The cultural world must now support the care-givers, the care-receivers, the confined. This is the moment to experiment, test, invent.

We will be allying ourselves with the doctors of the Salpêtrière Hospital and with the Rectorate of the City of Paris to initiate the first experiments, artistic manifestations to be held outdoors and in different spaces around Paris. Performances, readings, concerts, testimonials by the caregivers, actions for the sick, film screenings and art installations will be proposed in unexpected places: from the gardens of the Champs-Élysées to those of the Salpêtrière, not forgetting the parks, retirement homes, elementary schools, and high-school courtyards.

These propositions must be geared towards the population in its entirety and inscribe themselves in the continuity of our art education programs and of our commitment to re-inventing a place for the arts in schools.

“The troupe of the Imaginary,” with the ensemble of 50 actors, scientists, dancers, and musicians who constitute it will be fully mobilized from the end of May and throughout the Summer.

The Academy of Health and Culture

In connection with the program “Charter 18XX1 – Turning 18 in the 21st Century,” a new academy centering on health and culture will be launched to work with young people and recreate ties with the experienced of the older members of our society. Encounters around art and science will take place during the month of August, and can be open to the public.

For the first time in its history, the Theatre de la Ville’s spaces will be open all Summer:

* At l’Espace Cardin, in partnership with the doctors of Salpêtrière Hospital, young artists and young care-givers will work to elaborate projects which can be prolonged this fall on themes linked notably to movement: “Normality and abnormality,” “Liberty of movement, Liberty of thought.”

* At the Theatre des Abbesses [in Montmartre] ateliers on the practice of dance and theater will be offered, free and open to the public of all ages. This new project is inscribed in a partnership with the city of Paris and can include European partners, to trace new perspectives together and share our desire for a theater without borders.

* A 2020/21 season of solidarity and re-invention: Today, we need to deconstruct our seasons to be able to reconstruct them in another fashion, in imagining many potential scenarios. Together, we are ready to adapt, to re-invent, to re-assess our different propositions to amplify the occasions for solidarity with the artists, the health milieu, the worlds of education and justice and also our European and African friends and partners.

Three scenarios:

* Scenario #1 incorporates the obligation for physical social distancing as health regulations evolve, leading us to drastically reduce our capacity to accommodate the public in our theaters.

* Scenario #2 adds to this the absence of all international theater, dance, and music companies outside Europe, the frontiers outside the European member states remaining closed.

* Scenario #3 includes the absence of European as well as extra-European companies, who combined represent more than 50% of the planned programming at the Theatre de la Ville and the city-wide Festival D’Automne between this September and December. Under this scenario, we will only be able to welcome companies situated on the national territory.

Whichever scenario comes to pass, nothing will be, nothing can be, like before. So why not transform these obstacles into a new challenge? After months of strict confinement, we now need to push back the walls, quench our thirst for creation, for bodies and movements, for encounters with the population. We will mobilize artists and those from other disciplines to invent innovative propositions which rely on our capacity to imagine together. Next season we will go into the hospitals, the elementary and middle schools, the high schools, the parks and the gardens, the stadiums if need be.

In the theaters, we will invent unprecedented subterfuges, adapted parcourses and real artistic propositions in dance, in music, and in theater which turn sanitary restrictions into the stipulations for a new imaginary, and we will find the pathways to economic viability. If the virus has felled a number of our fellow citizens, we will take back the edge on the terrains of the imagination and of thought, of sharing and of solidarity.

The Day After

If we have collectively been able to invent new spaces and new forms, to experiment with new ways of being and making, to create dialogues between the ensemble of the arts, the sciences, and different domains of thought and of the economy, we would now attempt to erect new foundations for the future.

It is the moment to consider that this epidemic is also a factor in the acceleration of our choices and of our commitments. Today, we must imagine a Day After which will be comprised of a new reflection on a planet that will be durable and solidary. Today, we need to keep our word.

Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota
May 13, 2020
Paris

We would like to extend our thanks to all those who have committed themselves with us and to those who will do so in the future.

The Algerian Papers, 1, or, the Lutèce Diaries in Exile: Belleville à Kabylie (with translated excerpt from Mouloud Feraoun)

Text (after intro) by Mouloud Feraoun
Translation and introduction copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Mouloud Feraoun text copyright Éditions  de Seuil

In my exile from Lutèce (and I am not alone among cosmopolites), wondering how long I’ll have to wait until it will be safe to return to Paris, to ride the Metro, to browse the volumes in the Old Book Market at the parc Georges Brassens before pique-niquing on my five for 10 Euro end of the market cheese platter and -2 Euros sauerkraut on a hiller next to the parc’s bald Japanese creek (on the Canal St.-Martin the other day, police had to disperse a crowd of pique-niquers; these are my people), or hunt for additional volumes of Anatole France’s “La Vie Littéraire” and other hard-to-find editions at the vide-greniers (neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, grenier = attic), or walk into a Pompidou Museum library packed with other hungry searchers; and most of all to weave my way through my beloved — and often sardine-can dense — marchés of Belleville and Barbes looking for pungent olives, flavorful red peppers, sweet soft Algerian black dates (the dried-out Trader Joe’s facsimile I picked up the other day finna bust my one remaining real tooth; it must have left Algiers before Independence), all at bargain prices, on my last Paris stay thriving on rather than cringing from the teeming multi-cultural humanity, I take solace in books. Because Paris, like New York once upon a time (still?), is a literary city, defined and retained in memory by authors as much as visual artists. Indeed the most vivid description I’ve found of the old pissoirs which used to line the Grands Boulevards (you’ll find one still in working order, even if it does look like a Rube Goldberg contraption of a sewer covering, on the boulevard Arago outside the walls of the infamous la Santé prison where Papon once vegetated during his war crimes trial, except perhaps for the heating coil above the basin) comes not from Pissarro but Victor Serge, the reformed Socialist theorist who, in the 1947 “Les années sans pardon” (I scored a copy of François Maspero’s 1971 edition at a vide-grenier hosted by les Grandes Voisins, a civic organization for immigrants on the Meridian), has his hero, fleeing the French Communist Party he’s decided (like Serge) to leave, fascinated by the lower halves of trousers peeking out from under the pissing stations during the early evening rush hour.

If I may have to wait a while before reuniting with my pissoir on the Boulevard Arago, I have now been able to retrieve the Belleville market — in the Kabylie village of Tléta, as evoked by Mouloud Feraoun, the Algerian writer and educator assassinated by the paras of the French OAS on the eve of Algerian Independence, in “Jours de Kabylie” (my edition copyright Editions de Seuil, 1968). (In which the chapter on the “djemâa” of Aït-Flane could also be a description of the rudimentary cement block benches at the intersection of the rue and Boulevard Menilmontant, where the Belleville market empties out, and which Feraoun’s descendants in Paris have turned into their own djemâa. And mine too; after passing through the gauntlet of the market, I usually collapse on one of these nondescript blocks arrayed around a barren sand pit, my large red backpack recuperated from a sidewalk on the rue Voltaire stuffed with 1 Euro cauliflowers, eggplant, tomatoes, bananas, 2 Euro two-kilo boxes of squishy deglet nour dates from Algeria, .30 cent bushels of fresh mint, conical red peppers, thin pock-marked sweet potatoes, 1 Euro chunks of packaged blue cheese, and 2.30 jars of Dutch peanut-butter from the French Arab epicerie down the street, rewarding myself with a warm pepper-stuffed 1 Euro crepe or a 1 Euro “Diplomate” bread pudding from the French-Arab boulangerie between the market’s end and Pere Lachaise. As in — I imagine — Feraoun’s Kabylie djemâa, neither I nor the mostly French-Arab middle-aged men who are my companions feel any particular need to talk. It is enough to soak in the ambiance, perhaps while puffing languorously on a cigarette. So what if the old oak tree sketched by Charles Brouty for Feraoun’s book has been replaced by a Kentucky Fried Chicken? By common consent, these men have dubbed this corner their djemâa. As Feraoun puts it: “…from the moment that it’s designated the djemâa, it might well find itself at the entry, in the middle, on a random corner, offer but homely sidewalks, or be confounded with the street, this can’t diminish it. It has its history, its importance, its clientele.”) Enjoy what you’re reading? Please make  donation today by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to donate by check.-– PB-I

 

Le marché du Tléta
Excerpt from “Jours de Kabylie”
by Mouloud Feraoun
Copyright Editions du Seuil, 1968
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Some people will tell you to never miss a marché.

“Once a week, what the heck, you can offer yourself a little respite and distraction!”

Distraction, maybe. But respite? Forget about it!

Our marché isn’t far away, happily! It all the same takes six kilometers to get there and six to get back. Three good leagues. Not counting the kilometers of perambulation, over many hours, around the stands with their displays. Well, there must indeed be those who consider this a respite even though on other days they get a lot less tired out going through their daily tasks. Go figure. The weekly respite has its inconveniences all the same.

In one sense, it’s certainly agreeable to go to the market. And also educational. It feels like leaving your shell to penetrate the world and discovering that the world is vast. In the village, we have no idea of this. We’re here going around in circles, making a big deal over minor incidents, bickering over little things, full of our own importance and ceding none to our neighbor. From the moment we find ourselves on the road, all that’s finished: we take it down a notch and keep a low profile. From all over, from all the villages, people mount or descend to the marché. Every path which feeds into the road pours out its batch of men. The groups cross each other, follow each other, surpass each other. Some come by foot, others on donkeys, on mules, in taxis, trucks, busses. Some don’t carry anything, others are loaded down or push in front of them an animal who is loaded down. One man pulling his heifer with a rope maneuvers around horned creatures, another leads a tightly-packed herd of emaciated muttons, their hoofs stirring up a cloud of dust. And then there are the faces! The sizes, the shapes, the outfits! A real world in which you perceive yourself with modest eyes, where you’re forced to size yourself up without complacence and where you’re all the same content to occupy your little patch of earth. You tell yourself that you’re a man among men and that, no matter your age, your corpulence, your physique, your condition, it’s still possible to ascertain that you cut a good figure. You see people from your village, from neighboring villages, and from other tribes all through the same lens. Those you already know seem to be transformed by mounting themselves in a different light. Some whom you previously looked upon as important suddenly become dwarfed in size, while others, on the contrary, surprise you and gain ground in thus evolving outside of their home turf. This occurs to you without even thinking, to tell the truth, it floats in the air, creating an ambiance that one senses vaguely on the teeming road before even getting to the market. The village, the home, the family, they’re not forgotten but they’re relegated to a place behind a vast multi-colored scrim which is the very image of society itself.

For someone who’s not used to moving among crowds, the spectacle of a great market can be imposing and even distressing. You make all the interior concessions, you understand that you are alone and feeble, that you represent but an infitissimal part of an indefinable and ephemeral monster which grabs hold of you for several hours and moves you along, re-fashioning your face, impregnating you with a new spirit, integrating you into a larger form from which it’s no longer possible to cut yourself off.

The story of the seed merchant naturally comes to mind.

The seed merchant was, it seems, a colossus, an affable and modest man, eager to successfully sell his wares but not to show off his strength. One day he received a customer of a comparable size who wanted to buy his wheat and decided to take advantage of the circumstances to see how he measured up against the seed merchant.

“Your wheat isn’t so hot,” the customer remarked. He took hold of a fistful and began crushing the seeds, one after another, between his fingers, making flour out of them. And this from hard wheat grains.

“The market is vast,” responded the placid trader. “You can take your pick.”

“I know. I’ll take two kilos.”

“I am a merchant. You shall be served and I shall be paid.”

When he received the coins in payment, he gave them back to the buyer, retaining one between his massive fingers.

“I prefer paper money, my friend,” he said. “Take your coins back. They’re no good. Look!”

He crushed the coin between his fingers, reducing it to a ball that he tossed back in the man’s face.

“Now, pay me with no fuss. In bills.”

He got his paper money. The other lost his coin and his pride.

Those who have never seen the marché of Tléta can try to picture it if they like, they’ll still have no idea of the real thing because it’s not enough to tell them that it’s vast and that it attracts a lot of people. They must be lead through the inextricable disorder, made to traverse an unimaginable tumult, made to listen to an extraordinary cacophony of calls, of yelling, of noises. This is why it’s one thing to describe something, quite another to see it in the flesh. Our marché, it has to be seen to be believed!

 

Dance in a time of cholera: Roll over Tchaikovsky and tell him the Tulsa Ballet free streaming news

Tulsa Ma Cong Tchaikovsky 1Happy Birthday, Tchaikovsky: Has any industry, any business, any art form been hit in a more existential place than dance? As dancers, choreographers, teachers, and dance company directors continue to ponder the impact of the double-body blow the virus has dealt them — how to keep performing (and rehearsing, and holding classes in) an art form that often depends on (sweat-accompanied, breathing proximity) touch, to a live audience scrunched into a closed space — companies across the world are at least finding ways to stay connected to their audiences, in both the visceral and neo-technological senses. Streb — which certainly doesn’t need the publicity — is offering free online adult classes. And Tulsa Ballet has been offering its audience regular free streaming of work from the current repertory. “Recently we streamed ‘Tchaikovsky, the Man behind the Music,’ by Ma Cong,” company and school director Marcello Angelini told the DI. (Above.) “To my knowledge no American company has ever touched the subject of the life of this composer because he was gay. We did! The work was done sensibly, and is about the life of a gay man who eventually commits suicide because he can’t live his life the way he wants. Then we streamed a work by Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer of ‘Hamilton’.” Here’s to Tulsa, birthday-boy Tchaikovsky — who would be 180 years old today — and living your life the way you want to.

A Dance Insider/Arts Voyager May Day exclusive: Michel Ragon’s The Book of the Vanquished (“La mémoire des vainçus”) (Extracts, in newly revised translation, with new introduction)

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Original French-language novel copyright Éditions Albin Michel

Editor’s note: On this May Day 2020, with Donald Trump abusing the Military Production Act to potentially send workers to their deaths by asserting he has the right to pre-empt state decisions to close the meat-packing plants which are loci for virus contamination (where’s Upton Sinclair when you need him?), and with the governors of Iowa and Nebraska insisting that those who refuse to return to hazardous working conditions will see their unemployment benefits cut off, we thought the moment propitious to revise and share our translated excerpts of Michel Ragon’s “La mémoire des vainçus” (literally, “the memory of the vanquished”), as proof that if the struggle is still not over, the battles of the vanquished are never really in vain. And can still serve as inspiration for the labor and human rights struggles to come. (To read the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager serialized publication of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil,” click here. )

“The ideal is when one is able to die for one’s ideas. Politics is when one can live for them.”

— Charles Péguy, cited on frontispiece, “The Book of the Vanquished.”

“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not entirely slid into oblivion, because this book of your life exists.”

— Michel Ragon, Prologue, “The Book of the Vanquished.”

Part One: “The little girl in the fishmongers’ wagon” (1899-1917)

(Excerpt, 1911-1912.)

“As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, there’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make sure the thunder-claps work.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”

“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”

— Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.

Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited below and in Michel Ragon’s novel are based on real historical figures, notably Paul Delesalle (1870-1948), the Left Bank bookseller. Later adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred in “The Book of the Vanquished,” eventually broke with the Bolsheviks. Rirette Maîtrejean was his actual companion. Raymond-la-Science, René Valet, and Octave Garnier were real members of the Bonnot Gang, the details of their denouement recounted by Ragon as translated below accurate. For the other personalities evoked, including leading figures in the European Anarcho-Syndicaliste milieu in its heyday, as well as certain events alluded to, I’ve included brief footnotes, as these personalities and events may not be as familiar to an Anglophone audience as to Ragon’s French readers, for whom they represent markers in the national memory, notably the infamous “Bande à Bonnot,” whose exploits still resonate in a contemporary France wracked by youthful alienation and haunted by the terrorism in which this is sometimes manifest.

Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley flanking the Saint-Eustache church. Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, flairing the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it didn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before debating over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his share. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals.  Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the aroma of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which he pictured as a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the rumbling of thunder. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, mechanically hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the Poissonnière quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.

On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the wagons sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy noticed nothing more than this white skin. He drew near. The girl, her head leaning forward, her face hidden by the tussled blonde hair which fell over her eyes, didn’t see him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump swinging gams. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He approached his hand, touching one of her calves.

“Eh, lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”

For the rest of the lengthy excerpt, subscribers e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not yet a Dance Insider / Arts Voyager subscriber? Subscriptions are $59 or Euros / year, or $36/students, teachers, artists, dancers, and the unemployed. Just designate your payment via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Exceptionally for this excerpt, even non-subscribers can can write us before May 7 and receive a free copy.

Pendant l’exil: When Victor Hugo revisited the rues & houses of the Old Blois of his youth, thanks to an artist

hugo blois by armand queyroy 5 with coverEau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy. Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. Introduction by Victor Hugo, extracted from la Gazette des Beaux Arts. Ouvrage dedicated by Queyroy to “Madame le Masson souvenir affectueux.” Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

by Victor Hugo
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Translation dedicated to Lucie and Lionel, Travailleurs intellectuelles Parisiens, maintenant exiles … pas loin de… Blois….

Just before the virus hit, I found the ideal place in Paris — an apartment-atelier on the rue Daguerre, no less, where it’s no doubt perched atop a portion of the Catacombs — from which to launch Les Editions Hèléne, a publishing house specializing in English translations  of French literature and on French art. In addition to being on the Meridian of Paris, where miracles always seem to happen to me, the rental comes with other happy accidents related to future work and translation projects. In pondering whether I should (and could) wait until there’s a vaccine to return to Paris — thus prolonging my own exile from Lutèce for at least another year — I considered the case of Victor Hugo, who did not let a little thing like 18 years of exile from Paris and France stop him from producing some of the best literature ever. Besides “Les Miserables,” there were poems, essays, political tracts, appeals (famously, for clemency for John Brown), and correspondence. Not just exchanges with peers including George Sand, but appreciations like the following 1864 letter to Armand Queyroy on the occasion of the publication of “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” a collection of eaux-fortes or etchings printed by Delâtre, in Paris. And of course, coming from the pen of Victor Hugo, these souvenirs do not just reflect one of the Great Man’s Proustien — madeleine — moments; Hugo manages to squeeze in a political discourse which reveals his sometimes nuanced disposition towards French monarchic heritage. But above all, where this discourse touches me is in its illustration of the nexus between literature and the fine arts.  Like what you’re reading? If you are not already a subscriber, advertiser, or family member, please help pay  for our hard work in increasingly expensive and risky times by making a donation today. Just designate your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at there to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I

(Extracted from “Pendant l’Exil,” 1852 – 1870, Victor Hugo. Paris, Nelson, Editeurs. Images from the Archives  of the Loire-et-Cher department of France. The letter also served as a preface to Queyroy’s publication.)

Hauteville House, [Guernsey,] April 17, 1864

Monsieur, I want to thank you. You’ve just enabled me to re-live the past. On the 17th of April, 1825 — 39 years ago to this very day (allow me to note this minor coincidence, which is interesting to me at least) — I arrived in Blois. It was early morning. I’d come from Paris. I’d passed the night in the mail-wagon, and what is there to do in the mail-wagon? I’d done “The Ballad of the two Archers”; then, the final verses finished, as the day had not yet dawned, all the while watching through the dim light of the track lights on either side of the train the troops of Orleans cows descending towards Paris, I’d dozed off. The conductor’s voice awoke me. “Voila Blois!” he’d cried.

I opened my eyes and saw a thousand windows at the same time, an irregular and pell-mell pile of houses, of steeples, a chateau, and on the hill a crown of tall trees and a row of gabled, pointed stone facades on the edge of the water, an entire city resembling an amphitheater, capriciously spread out on the ledges of an inclining plain and, except that the Ocean is wider than the Loire and doesn’t have any bridges leading to the other side, practically identical to this city of Guernsey where I live today.

The Sun was rising over Blois.

Fifteen minutes later and I was on the rue du Foix, number 73. I knocked on a small door giving onto a garden; a man who was working in the garden came to open it for me. He was my father.

That night, my father lead me to the mound which overlooked the house, and which harbored “Gaston’s tree”; I now saw again from the heights of the city what I’d seen that morning from its depths; the aspect, for that matter, was, if somewhat severe, even more charming. The city, in the morning, had seemed to me to have the gracious disorder and practically the surprise of waking up; the night had softened its angles. Even though it was still light, the Sun had only just set, there was a debut of melancholy; the blurring of twilight had taken the edge off the points of the rooftops; the rare scintillating of candles had replaced the dazzling diffusion of the aurora on the window-panes; the profiles of things were subsisting the mysterious transformation of night; the rigidness was losing the battle, the curves winning; there were more elbows, less angles. I looked on, almost mellowed by this effect. The skies had a vague breath of summer. The city appeared to me, no longer like it had that morning, gay and ravishing, haphazard, but harmonious; it had been cut into compartments of a beautiful whole amounting to an equilibrium; the planes had receded, the stories superimposed themselves with impeccable timing and tranquility. The cathedral, the bishopry, the black church of Saint-Nicolas, the chateau, as much a citadel as a palace, the ravines mixed up with the city, the slopes and descents where the houses at times climbed, at times tumbled, the bridge with its obelisk, the beautiful serpentine curves of the Loire, the rectangular bands of willows, at the extreme horizon Chambord, indistinct with its forest of turrets, the forest into which was sunk the antique route known as ‘Roman bridges’ marking the ancient bed of the Loire, all this seemed vast and gentle. And after all, my father loved this city.

Which today you have rendered back to me.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 2

“Blois, la rue Chemonton et ses escaliers.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Arrmand Queyroy, 1890. 247 X 135 mm; (object) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Thanks to you, I’m in Blois again. Your 20 etchings reveal the intimate city, not the city of palaces and churches, but the city of houses. With you, one is there in the streets; with you, one enters into the ramshackle hut; and so many of these decrepit edifices, like the dwelling in sculpted wood on the rue Saint-Lubin, like the hotel Denis-Dupont with its stairway lantern and oblique bay windows following the movement of the spiral staircase of Saint Gilles, like the house on the rue Haute, like the very low arcade of the rue Pierre-de-Blois, exposing all the Gothic fantasy or all the Renaissance graces, augmented by the poetry of dilapidation. Being a hut and being a jewel are not mutually exclusive. An elderly lady who has heart and spirit, nothing is more charming. Many of the exquisite houses drawn by you are that elderly woman. One is happy to make their acquaintance. One retrieves them again with joy when one is, like me, their old friend. What things they have to tell you, and what a delicious return to the past! For example, take a look at this fine and delicate house on the rue des Orfevres, it seems to be engaged in a tete-a-tete. One is fortunate to be amidst all this elegance. You make us recognize everything, so much are your sketches portraits. It’s photographic fidelity with the liberty of great art. Your rue Chemonton is a chef-d’oeuvre. I’ve scaled, at the same time as these good paysans of Sologne painted by you, the steep steps of the chateau. The house of statuettes on the rue Pierre de Blois is comparable to the house of Musicians in Weymouth. I’ve retrieved everything.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 6

Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Alluye.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. 188 X 267 mm; (object) 308 X 482 mm. Papier vergé.Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Here’s the tower of Argent, here’s the high somber gable at the corner of the rue des Violettes and the rue Saint-Lubin, here’s the hotel de Guise, here’s the hotel de Cheverny, here’s the hotel Sardini with its arches in three-centered curves, here’s the hotel d’Alluye with its gallant arcades from the time of Charles VIII, here are the Saint-Louis steps which lead to the cathedral, here’s the rue du Sermon, and at the end the practically Roman silhouette of Saint-Nicolas; here’s the pretty cantwise turret referred to as Queen Anne’s Oratory. The garden where Louis XII, gouty, liked to promenade his mule in a garden behind this turret.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 1

“Blois, view of the rue des Violettes and the rue St-Lubin.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Imp. Delâtre, 1864. 255 X 157 mm; (object) 299 X 423 mm . Papier vergé. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy.  From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

That Louis XII, like Henry IV, had his amiable sides. He made many blunders, but was a good-natured king. He tossed the procedures launched against the Vaudois into the Rhone. He was worthy for having the valiant Huguenot astrologist Renée de Bretagne, so intrepid before Saint-Barthélemy and so proud in Montargis, as a daughter. As a youngster, he’d spent three years in the Tower of Bourges, and he’d tasted the iron cage. This experience, which might have rendered another man mean, made him debonair. He’d entered Genoa, victorious, with a golden bee-hive on his coat of arms and this motto: Non utitor aculeo. He was good, and he was brave. In Signaled, to a courtesan who warned him, “You’re exposing yourself to danger, sire,” he responded, “Get behind me.” It’s also he who said: “A good king is an authentic king. I prefer being ridiculous with courtesans to being overbearing with the people.” He said: “The ugliest beast to see walk past you is a procurer carrying his dossiers.” He hated judges eager to condemn who tried to exaggerate the fault to envelope the accused. “They are,” he said, “like cobblers who stretch out the leather by pulling on it with their teeth.” He died from loving his wife too much, just like François II later on, gently killed the one like the other by a Marie. The honeymoon was short. On January 1, 1515, after 83 days or rather 83 nights of marriage, Louis XII expired, and as it was New Year’s Day, he told his wife: “My darling, for a New Year’s gift I give you my death.” She accepted, sharing the present with the Duke of Brandon.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 7

“Blois,  front, old houses at the foot of the St.-Louis cathedral.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 250 X 160 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

The other phantom who dominates Blois is as loathsome as Louis XII was sympathetic. It’s this Gaston, half Bourbon, half Medici, a Florentine from the 16th century, cowardly, perfidious, spiritual, who said of the arrests of Longueville, Conti, and Condé: “Lots of net! Capture at the same time a fox, an ape, and a lion!” Curious, artist, collector, fascinated with medals, filigrees, and sweetmeats, he might spend his mornings admiring the cover of an ivory box while his men lopped off the head of one of the friends he’d betrayed.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 4

“Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Amboise et d’une rouennerie en gros (marchand d’étoffes et de tissus).” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving, extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Printed by Delâtre, 1864. 202 X 157 mm; (object), 266 X 205 mm; papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

All these figures, as well as Henry III, the Duke of Guise, and others, including this Pierre de Blois whose main claim to fame was being the first person to pronounce the word ‘transubstantiation,’ I’ve found them again in leafing through your precious collection. I contemplated your fountain of Louis XII for a long time. You’ve recreated it as I saw it, so old, so young, charming. It’s one of your best plates. I’m almost certain that the ‘Rouennerie en gros,’ recorded by you vis-a-vis the hotel d’Amboise, was already there in my time. You have a real and fine talent, the coupe d’oeil which grasps the style, the sure, agile, and strong touch, plenty of spirit in the engraving and a good dose of naiveté, and that rare gift of being able to evoke light in shadows. What strikes and charms me in your etchings is the broad day, the gaiety, the prepossessing aspect, this joy in the commencement which contains all the grace of morning. The plates which seem to be bathed in an aurora. Indeed it’s there, Blois, the Blois that is precious to me, my luminous city. Because that first impression on arriving has stuck with me. Blois for me is radiant. I only see Blois in the rising Sun. These are the effects of youth and of the homeland.

I’ve let myself go on at length talking with you, monsieur, because you’ve given me great pleasure. You’ve found my weakness, you’ve touched the sacred corner of memory. I’ve sometimes felt a bitter sadness; you’ve given me a gentle sadness. To be gently sad, this is a pleasure. I’m in your debt. I’m happy that it is so well preserved, so little changed, and so parallel to what I saw 40 years ago, this city to which this invisible tangle of ties of the soul, impossible to break, still attaches me, this Blois which saw me as a teenager, this Blois whose streets know me, where a house has loved me, and where I’ve just strolled in your company, looking for the white hair of my father and finding my own.

Monsieur, I shake your hand.

Victor Hugo

hugo blois by armand queyroy 3

“Blois: the steps of the chateau and the vestiges of the ancient Jacobins gate.” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 240 X 128 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: Eau-forte. Lieu(x) :Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.