There is no very evident use in beauty; the necessity of it for cultural purposes is not apparent, and yet civilization could not do without it. The science of aesthetics investigates the conditions in which things are regarded as beautiful; it can give no explanation of the nature or origin of beauty: as usual, its lack of results is concealed under a flood of resounding and meaningless words.
Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents
Le silence des choses est celui d’une poudrière qui n’attend que sa mise à feu.
Annie Le Brun, De l’Éperdu
Seule la révolte est garante de la cohérence passionnelle que chacun est aujourd’hui sommé d’abandonner pour faire allégeance à ce monde de la servitude volontaire.
Annie Le Brun, Interview: Philosophie magazine (29/01/2009)
Annie Le Brun, poet and essayist, remains forever dissonant and dissident; an author and a person who refuses to accept and adapt to the violent reign of commodity fetishism, against which she hurls the rage and passion of gestures of poetry, dreams, desires, love and beauty.
We share below, almost as a long overdue tribute to her work, a recent text which serves as an introduction to her last essay, Ce qui n’a pas de prix. Beauté, laideur et politique.
What follows is a translation from the french language edition of Le monde diplomatique.
Beauty always on trial
(Le monde diplomatique august 2018 )
Contrary to rumor, the Trojan War, whose origin lies in an aesthetic choice, does not cease to take place. Because beauty, whose very idea would be more and more contestable, both intellectually and politically, remains at the center of all issues. But what is beauty? How is it apprehended?
Sigmund Freud admits to not being of great help when, in 1929, he states at the beginning of Civilisation and its Discontents: “Unfortunately, psycho-analysis … has less to say about beauty than about most things”, while specifying: “Its derivation from the realms of sexual sensation is all that seems certain; the love of beauty is a perfect example of a feeling with an inhibited aim.” This is something does not contradict the point of view of Salvador Dalí, four years later: “Beauty is only the sum of the consciousnesses of our perversions.”* (1) Thus, for Freud and Dalí, if beauty relates to our impulses, it is above all inseparable from the irreducible singularity of each person, by its power to reveal suddenly certain over shadowed parts of our existence.
Today, science confirms this when, questioning the “beauty in the brain”, the neuro-biologist Jean-Pierre Changeux speaks of “cerebral short circuit”, more exactly of a “kind of singular and powerful ignition”, which would refer to a ” particular global synthesis within the conscious neuronal space “. (2) Reality as well as metaphor, that is all that we knew without understanding it. Power of illumination, power of turmoil, power of burning, it is that, apart from all transcendence, that beauty would open onto the elsewhere, the other, in the heart of ourselves; it would show us what we do not know about ourselves, it would reveal the ever-changing form of the fire that inhabits us.
Henceforth, we can better understand the consistency with which the different powers have always striven to appropriate it, even to limit its effects, and even more to counterfeit it. At the same time, one wonders why almost everyone who wanted to change the world were so clearly frightened by the singularity manifest that they were not even able to see, without taking it into account, that they were losing their dream. It is equally remarkable that certain utopians or anarchists, such as Charles Fourier, William Morris, Élisée Reclus …, made the opposite wager, which allowed them to escape the pitfalls of instrumental reason. Without a doubt, for the reason put forward by Walter Benjamin: “Each epoch not only dreams the next but also, while dreaming, impels it towards the moment of its waking”. (3) Beauty, as dream, has this power of waking.
It is not that I confuse everything, utopia, beauty, dream; but I tie them together by the same force of breaking in and trespassing within the continuum of what is. And it is not by chance that Reclus finds himself thinking as early as 1866: “The question of knowing what in the work of man serves or contributes to degrading exterior nature may seem futile to so called positive spirits; it does not cease thereby to have a first order importance.” (4) And for Morris: “There is nothing in our environment that is not beautiful or ugly, that does not ennoble us or debase us.” (5) Both one and the other share the certainty that “a secret harmony establishes itself between the land and the peoples it sustains”, but that, “there where the ground has become ugly, there where all poetry has disappeared from the landscape, imaginations go out, spirits become impoverished, routine and servility take hold of souls and dispose them to torpor and death.” (6) Thus what binds ugliness, predation and servitude is established for the first time. Twenty years later, Morris will confirm it in turn. “Ugliness is not neutral; it acts upon man and deteriorates his sensitivity, to the point where he does not even feel the degradation, which prepares him to descend a step.” (7)
The problem however is that there is ugliness and ugliness, as there is beauty and beauty. And the issue is so important that there can be no question of stalling before their imbrication, something that haunts the 19th century and determines the gaze of the 20th century. Above all because, between the innumerable instances where beauty is put into question, there is Arthur Rimbaud declaring at the beginning of A Season in Hell (1873): “One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her bitter.—And I insulted her.” But also because at the end of this journey to the end of himself, he finds no less the following: “All that is over. Today, I know how to celebrate beauty.”
For a long time, I asked myself what was the meaning of this reversal, until I understood that, after having risked his equilibrium to go to the antipodes of this Beauty, Rimbaud suddenly saw that he is always another beauty, always astonishing. And this he discovered at the greatest distance away from what was established, in “idiot paintings”, “paintings of acrobats”, “popular illuminations”, “erotic books with incorrect orthography”, but also in the “felicity of animals” as in his own “follies”. And how can one not but remark that this de-centring is contemporaneous with what Rimbaud has just closely lived in the Paris Commune?
This beauty, which he now writes without a capital letter, he recognises as plural as well as singular, from the “deserts of love” to “the sky blue, that is of black”. “Je est un autre/I is another”, he then writes, opening to each the sovereignty of all of the kingdoms of singularity.
Again these horizons would have likely remained invisible to him if, at the same time, the savage accuracy of his clairvoyance had not allowed him to announce, a century and a half in advance, the “economic horrors”, the “vision of numbers” and the intolerable universe that results, exclusively occupied by itself. Never again did beauty appear so inseparable from the revolt that gave birth to it.
To such an extent that in the light of this polarity emerges a major aspect of the artistic adventure of the 20th century. It is this which strongly induces the passage from Dada to Surrealism, and it may even be the case that, in attacking the canons of beauty that domination had made its own, modernity will draw itself across a multiplicity of paths so as to reach back to the living sources of beauty, from savage peoples to the mad. Not to forget the different practices of automatism, where beauty sometimes rises up blindly, as it gives unexpected form to freedom.
It is again moreover in the light of the same polarity that the struggles of Reclus and Morris gain all of their significance, since for the latter, “the process that stripped us of all popular art, in killing the instinct of beauty, also deprived us of the only compensation possible, clearly erasing …, but by no means slowly, all beauty on the surface of the earth.” (8)
The misery is that we have arrived at a point where everything competes to eradicate even the souvenir of this “instinct of beauty”, of which there is no traditional culture that does not give striking testimony. It is for this reason, from Morris’ call of alarm, that I speak of war. Still, this war has taken a new turn. For to deny, without evidently interrupting anything, the catastrophic over-production of rubbish that characterises our societies, it was necessary to convince ourselves that there was no other possibility. Such that it is the colonisation of our sensory life that this war now targets, carried out against everything from which it is impossible to extract value, against that which has no price.
In this regard, the collusion of high finance, contemporary art and the fashion industries will have corresponded to the decisive stage of a commodification of everything, grounding itself on the supposed substitution of all sensitive life by aestheticisation. Of course, it is not an aesthetic matter, but one where we are made to participate in our own expropriation, so that we become accustomed to the present without presence, to a genetically modified reality, where nothing exists except that which has been polluted, manipulated or trafficked, and in an irreversible manner. Such is furthermore the common program that endeavours to sell to us the most obvious brands and the most tortured philosophers, by means of the concept “style of life”, recently become a value added to servitude. As an antidote, it is worth invoking, again, Morris or Reclus, with their equal reference to “free nature” and its infinite metamorphoses, to see the ugliness in what denies its very possibility, while beauty always appeared to them as a space of clearing, such as the “unrealised, but not impossible, dream”, of which the anarchist Joseph Déjacque spoke. (9)
If beauty cannot be defined, its power to suddenly broaden the horizon is recognised; proof that the end does not justify the means, but that these latter determine what follows. It is a similar change of perspective, in search of other ways of being, that for almost a decade sustain the occupation movements of the whole world. The violence of the repression that they arouse suggests the dream which they bear, reminding us that “there is assuredly another world, but it is in this one” (10), like the beauty that is and always remains.
* With the impossibility of consulting the original english language sources of Annie Le Brun’s references, we have let them unchanged from the original. We have also left out the first reference that appears in the original french text.
- Salvador Dali, “De la beauté terrifiante et comestible de l’architecture modern style”, Minotaure, nº 3-4, Paris, 1933.
- Jean-Pierre Changeux, La Beauté dans le cerveau, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2016.
- Walter Benjamin, Paris, capitale du XIX siècle, L’Herne, coll. “Carnets”, Paris, 2007 (1re éd.: 1989).
- Élisée Reclus, Du sentiment de la nature dans les sociétés modernes et autres textes, Premières Pierres, Saint-Maurice, 2002.
- William Morris, L’Art en ploutocratie, FB Éditions, 2015 (1re éd.: 1883)
- Élisée Reclus, op. cit.
- William Morris, L’Âge de l’ersatz et autres textes contre la civilisation moderne, Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des nuisances, Paris, 1996.
- William Morris, L’Art en ploutocratie, op. cit.
- Joseph Déjacque, À bas les chefs! Écrits libertaires (1847-1863), La Fabrique, Paris, 2016.
- Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler, quoted by Albert Béguin, L’Âme romantique et le Rêve, Éditions des Cahiers du Sud, Marseille, 1937.
Two video recorded interviews with Annie Le Brun (in french) …