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.

But First, a Bullfight: The Eisenstein Connection–Que Viva Kirstein! (& Mekas)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 3019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on February 11, 2000, grace of my father Edward Winer, who passed away  this past December 7.

NEW YORK — One evening in 1933, a young man was thrown out of the New School auditorium in Manhattan after he rose to protest a showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Thunder Over Mexico.” The man was Lincoln Kirstein, who would later co-found the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, and he was objecting because he knew that this copy of the film, a much-truncated extract from over 200 reels Eisenstein shot in Mexico, totally went against the legendary Russian filmmaker’s plan for “Que Viva Mexico!,” his panoramic history of Mexican civilization.

Kirstein had sat in a small projection room in New York with Eisenstein and his colleagues, Alexandrov and Tisse, a year earlier and listened as the three watched and commented upon 30 of these reels. In an article in the April 1932 issue of Arts Weekly (included in “By, With, To, & From: a Lincoln Kirstein Reader,” edited by Nicholas Jenkins), Kirstein had warned, “If anything should happen to ‘Que Viva Mexico!’ between now and the time it is cut and shown to rob it of Eisenstein’s final fingering, it would be a loss of staggering dimensions. There are no catalogues of the Alexandrian Library which Caesar’s fire ignited, and we have only the Rubens copy to show us what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari may have been. For us their loss would have been less crippling than this film of the heart of a consciousness, this testimony of extreme distinction.”

By early 1932, Eisenstein’s backers had pulled out, and his stop in New York, where he would try to edit the rushes, was one last attempt — as Jenkins tells it — “to retain control of his film.” From the wreckage, some smaller films were created, pale shadows of the master’s intentions. This is what had broken Kirstein’s heart. He would have been heartened, then, to be in the audience at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, for a generous four-hour showing of raw “Que Viva Mexico!” footage, assembled 45 years ago by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jay Leyda and Manfred Kirchheimer. (The footage had been donated to the museum by Upton Sinclair, who with his wife had brought together the film’s original backers.)

I should pause here to explain what Kirstein means to folks like me — i.e., the non-dancers in the dance field. If dancers have their Nijinskys and Pavlovas, their Nureyevs and Fonteyns as role models, we in the dance auxiliary identify with people like Serge Diaghilev, producer of the Ballet Russes; Kirstein; and, today, Charles Reinhart, the co-director of the American Dance Festival. As someone who was drawn to dance, and particularly ballet, not because I’m a dancer but, in part, because I love good art, Diaghilev and Kirstein have a particular appeal because of their demonstrated interest in, and support of, not just dance but the visual arts. Diaghilev not only used the leading Cubist painters in the ballets he produced; he also started his own art magazine, “The World of Art,” just before the turn-of-the-last-century. Kirstein’s interest in visual art, and particularly sculpture, is widely known. But I had no idea until my dad gave me the reader, and I learned of Kirstein’s closeness to the promotion of the Eisenstein film, of how passionate he was about this medium as well.

Last Saturday, I stumbled into a showing at the Drawing Center in Soho of a hundred or so original DRAWINGS by Eisenstein (including one of a sinuous “Harlem snake dancer”). While there, I learned that Anthology would be showing the ‘Que Viva’ footage, which Leyda assembled to summarize Eisenstein’s intentions for the epic.

So I hied myself to Jonas Mekas’s treasure of an ongoing, public film archive in the East Village to look for Kirstein. I thought that if it was important to him, it had to be important to me. What I didn’t figure on was that this material would be so obviously a matter of movement.

Much of the first half of what I saw (I only stayed for part one — hey, I’ve been Flashing three nights straight!) was almost ALL about movement. (Confession: The film was also screened without a soundtrack, testing my ADHD-challenged concentration capability.) One section is a study of a Via Delarosa march by Indians that is subtly intertwined with indigenous tradition. Hundreds of Indian men retrace Christ’s arduous road, all but the few Christ enactors within their ranks walking on their haunches; that’s right, hunched. The road, the climb seem unending. There is definitely a rhythm here. Like “Serenade” — the first ballet Balanchine created in America — there is also a story, with rites. And canon!

“Serenade” ends with the ballerina being hoisted on the shoulders of her comrades and carried offstage. The prologue of “Que Viva Mexico!”, at least what we saw, is mostly taken up with bare-chested Indian males carrying the casket of a fallen compatriot down a mountain.

But the heart of what I saw last night –and the most dancey material — deals with bull-fighting, gruesomely real and hokily imagined.

First we are shown actual footage of a real bullfight. A picador gores a bull; a bull gores a picador’s horse. The matadors (? I get the human sadists in the bull-ring mixed up) then poke the bull with banderoles (these have flowers on one end, and hooked blades on the other), which stick out of his skin as he continues to try to fight them. Then we are treated to many takes of each of various aspects of the bullfight recreated by Eisenstein. We get a bull’s eye perspective, as we view the matador from atop an obviously phony bull’s head, seeing the matador from between his horns. Truly comic fodder, as is a surprisingly modern sequence in which a dapper and obviously older, and light-skinned, male spectator, dallies with a dark-skinned younger man.

The most purely balletic section is the lengthy footage of the paso mariposa (or butterfly pass) to which, a subtitle explains, Eisenstein “planned to give…special attention,” perhaps “for its resemblance to ballet.” One can see why: The bullfighter, facing his quarry, splays his cape behind him so that he appears to have wings on either side. He flits back and forth with lots of fancy footwork, moving backwards as the bull charges, then whips the cape over the head of the animal — who also dances. It’s total ballet. (Eisenstein’s plan was to have Dmitri Shostakovich score this film, to Indian and Latin themes. One can imagine how splendidly the Russian composer would have treated this intense section.)

Indeed, in a very human sense, the footage I saw indicates that much of this film is very balletic. Prior to seeing it, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a dance film; even such a ballet monument as Lincoln Kirstein has a right to have other interests, after all. And, as a non-dancer involved in dance, it’s Kirstein’s very catholicity of passionate pursuits that appeals to me. But I don’t think it’s too much of an extrapolation to guess that, as he sat with Eisenstein and his colleagues in that small projection room in 1932, at least one of the reasons Kirstein found “Que Viva Mexico!” “an absorbing experience” was Eisenstein’s capturing of how movement expresses culture. This same belief, I would guess, would seventeen years later help convince Kirstein of the need for a New York City Ballet — for U.S. American culture to be expressed through movement as well.