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By Régis Debray, John Howe
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1995 Gallimard
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Until you have Laid the ghost of Venice within you — repressed every posture, leaning, pretension, temptation or daydream capable of being described as "Venetian" — you will never be on level terms with the internal enemy. For that is where Flaubert's Homais still clings on the eve of the third millennium, that is his Noah's Ark: the "city of marble and gold", the most vulgar resort frequented by people of taste (those whom works of art render blind and deaf to commonplace historical reality).
This is not a fixation of mine. Nor is it my fault — or yours — that Western history has set the family jewel at the top of the Italian boot, glittering obscenely and tenaciously in the fold of the groin. I mean to see the thing for what it is, without taking sides, without sourness, with the cold eye of a drunk: back on the bottle after five cures and ten placebos, but determined this time to get off it for good.
Let no one come and plague me later with allegations of resentment, vengeful passion, sour grapes. Of course I learned in class how and why to venerate this educational town, just as I mounted the podium to recite "Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer" and visited the Louvre to stand yawning in front of The Marriage at Canaa (so rashly appropriated from La Serenissima by Bonaparte). Like all schoolboys. But I have never identified closely with Venice, in the manner of those patriots who sometimes claim to be "sick for France". The most I can say is that I have suffered to see so many of my well-meaning contemporaries, myself included, shackled to that most essential of educational fairylands, that holy of holies of the pleasure principle. Perhaps a few rustic observations may help liberate two or three timid souls from all nostalgia for vaporetti and creaking jetties. Enable them to break with this collage, to deem the incident closed, to have done with the Obligation. I even toy with the irreverent idea of using the language of preventive medicine to influence coming generations.... Don't take Venice, a drug which is only pleasurable on the first "trip". Anyone might be led into it once, just to be like everyone else. But take a look into the nearest culture-boutique and see what the habit has done to your elders.
Ode to joy, The Marriage at Canaa, Harmonies du soir. It takes time to register the distinctive signs of facile work, time not for reflection but cross-checking. It isn't that I have any vocation to become a clinician of the glib, an acknowledged expert on paste and sham (life is too short after all). But with advancing age one sinks deeper, one starts to feel surrounded. And let's be serious; I am not talking about Millet's Angelas, Strauss waltzes or the Élégies of François Coppée, poet of the humble.
For many years my body sniffed out imitation from a distance, without daring to draw nearer. Whenever a charming dinner-companion mentioned one of these test pieces in a favourable tone, it refolded its napkin and called for the bill. The head shrank from the scene of explanation, mused over the dots on the i's, dreamed of one day being rid of the shameful confusion between true and fake. Excuses were made. Little by little, however, the road signs ("give way to traffic from right") started to establish a code. One or two measures were taken, reluctantly. Just as, at fifty, some sort of dietary self-defence becomes necessary, to unload the bad fat from a thousand superfluous dinners, to carry on jogging or riding a bike, so the organism has eventually to face the need for dietary discipline in images and sounds, to carry on feeling through its own soul rather than the souls of others. To clear out all the occupants. Perhaps Beethoven, Veronese and Baudelaire should be seen as contra-indicated, like sugars and lipids. But to leave it at that would be to leave the job unfinished.
Internal obesity calls for more draconian treatment, an operation at source. For the character who admires bright vainglorious brocades, the contrived seesawing rhymes of Les Fleurs du Mal or Ludwig's humanitarian male voice choirs is, you can be sure, a "lover of Venice" by nature, the sort of person who is sent straight to seventh heaven by a pink Tiepolo ceiling.
You are going to stop me with the classic interjection: "but it's much more complicated than that". I have already been told, thanks: there are also the Quartets, the Calvary and the Salons or Le Spleen de Paris. It goes without saying that Beethoven's work is not exclusively emphatic; that the decorator who produced The Triumph of Venice and other heavy mundanities (low-fat painting, like 45% butter) sometimes seems aware that existence is not all feasting, rich velvet and heroic poses; and that Baudelaire the art critic and portraitist of modern life becomes the "perfect chemist", achieving in prose the poetry that a laboured, over-polished satanism denied him in verse (a counterfeit Titian, at his best when content to be a real Constantin Guys). But in none of these three cases was the authentic predominant; they are listed, homologated and confirmed by their respective fan clubs as a grandiloquent musician, a mundane painter and a poetic poseur. I do not deny that in some peripheral areas of Venice, like the zone to the north of the railway station, between the fuel storage depot and the Baia del Re, or the quarter at the other end of the island, to the east of the Arsenal (not the disused one preserved for show, the real one with the small working boatyards), round the Canale di San Pietro, the aesthete at dusk may at last feel himself to be in a strange place, cast into anonymity, lost in a desolate Chiricoesque no man's land without the slightest hint of local colour. Not everything in the lagoon is nauseating, I admit, any more than in the complete works of Baudelaire.
On the spot, I have myself sometimes been seized with a sort of ambivalence, not knowing how to prise the nugget out of the surrounding matrix. I have sometimes dreamed not of death in Venice but of a thoroughly dead Venice, with all its overbearing domes, pinnacles and lantern-skylights fallen, and only the triangular pediments of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco left standing. Gesuati and Gesuiti, hump-backed bridges, tritons, lions and crocodiles: let them all slide into oblivion, provided this heart is left intact, with the ovoli on the ceilings and the canvases on the walls, from the Annunciation on the ground floor to the Crucifixion in the Sala dell' Albergo: the vital organs of Imagination Man will still be safe.
Nothing can better illustrate this perplexity than the central gallery of the Accademia, a long rectangular box that juxtaposes Dinner at the House of Levi, covering one entire wall, with, on the reverse of the opposite wall, The Arrest of St Mark. Veronese's trompe-l'oeil is so integrated into the architecture of the room, and beyond it the decorative spirit of the centre of Venice, that this great concoction, riotous colour without an atom of pain or a highlight of truth, seems not only framed but actually held up by columns and semicircular arches ... after a while the bewildered eye starts to find these difficult to identify: are they part of the museum, or of the dwelling of the said Levi? Do they belong to the rococo surroundings or to an episode in holy history? Then, at the corner, you pivot on your heel and Tintoretto's uppercut mows you down without warning. So that, under the same washed-out zenithal light, a showbiz production rubs shoulders with a consignment to the abyss, a peepshow with a chasm, without any gradation. Like the simultaneous projection on a single split screen of Cecil B. DeMille on the right, Orson Welles on the left. But we shouldn't flatter ourselves. In the Venice that people concur in holding to be real (even if Welles did go there to shoot a single sequence of Othello, in black and white) the right side of the screen crushes the left. Baroque in stereo and Technicolor is what fills shelves, mouths and aircraft. That is the superproduction being considered here: Venice orbi, not urbi. But watch out. The trail of the jet set, who no longer trust cheap makeup, is recycled by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the form of a confidential this-is-all-I'm-telling-you. "You'll see," murmurs the tourist in his trattoria, furtively lowering his voice, "on this route, you won't see a single tourist." The alternative itineraries — all different, known to absolutely nobody else, avoiding the fatal Rialto-Doge's Palace-la Salute triangle — that the old connoisseur promises you if you are very good, like a lollipop to a griping brat, are the most attaching thing of all. And they are the last to lose their appeal. So listen: you will have to wrap up warm around the neck.
Just as there are different casts of mind, so there must be different types of visual sense, of touch or scent, as it were family differences. Perhaps our aversions are programmed at birth, our personal mythologies genetic. With age and experience simply making us aware of them (if sometimes still unaware enough to come clean). If so, it is only decent, before anything happens that might arouse animosity, to lay my cards naïvely on the table.
The theatre isn't really me. Nor golden hair, nor Rubens, nor Poussin either. What I am is cinema (whose inventor is called not Lumière or Edison but Il Tintoretto); burnish and mottling, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. I am as bored by symmetry, verticals and horizontals, the beauties of balance, as I am by people who find instead of seeking. I like it when time disturbs space, destabilises it, chops it through with diagonals and bleed lines. I prefer pride to vanity, existence to essence, the Dies Irae to the Alleluia Chorus, red wine to champagne and Rimbaud to Baudelaire. In a word, Naples is my scene, Venice isn't.
People call this little oddity of mine "populism" or even demagogy. I can accept the first label but not the second. And as nice people always arouse my liveliest antipathy I do my best, whatever the cost, to rub my brethren up the wrong way at least part of the time.
The place itself, with its absence of greenery, its lack of relief, its shortage of sea views, might easily be thought suffocating. Not so: the visiting foreigner enjoys, in what many inhabitants experience as a prison (the young in particular see Mestre as the exit, a gateway to hope), a wholly new sensation of freedom. The visitor who arrives by train early in the morning and boards the No 1 vaporetto finds himself bobbing festively about in a dancing unreality. Life becomes less burdensome, there is a glorious insouciance, unexpected but quickly embraced; a euphoria that recalls something of childhood. The place has a well-known magic about it, a sorcery not explained by the grandeur of buildings that are not all that grand, or by boats put-putting picturesquely among the houses. If what you want is canoeing in the street or lakes instead of squares, you can find them in Amsterdam, Bangkok or Bruges. The secret of this wonder lies elsewhere: in the sudden joyousness of the game. Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it. Like urchins, like actors. With time for a time suspended, we abandon the seriousness of real life for the as-if of a charade of life. It's like going up in a balloon.
A straightforward museum-town would be as depressing as a holiday task. The palaces along the Grand Canal, which are not on display under glass, are not out-and-out Hollywood mockups, but neither are they real houses for living in. One might not be able to imagine living in them, but these pseudo-dwellings can be touched: they stand before us, but do not really exist. They are like solid reflections of their reflections in the water. No one peers down from the balconies; there are no signs of the domestic activity or random movement that can be seen anywhere else, the banging shutters, the concierges, the children, the housewives with shopping baskets; and at night only a loggia or two shows light, an occasional furtive shadowy movement. Just enough to make the story plausible, the décor almost believable. This city with its theatres, its opera house, its masked balls, is a theatre itself. And just as the week of Carnival is not parenthetical but allegorical in the universe of masquerades, La Fenice — a stage within a stage — is like the convex mirror in a Flemish painting, twisting and reflecting this theatre of shadow and water. Lounging on the terrace of the Al Teatro in the Gampo de la Fenice, seen and seeing, sipping a Campari, you are in the eye of the hurricane, the churning nucleus of the Venetian "action".
Venice is not so much a town as a representation of a town. In the Italian theatre the whole arrangement is pivoted not on the stage or the auditorium but on the footlights that separate them, for if they were on the same level there would be no spectacle. Similarly, what defines Venice is not Venice but the lagoon separating it from the profane, utilitarian, interested outside world, a patch of water that performs the function of a "semiotic break". Why does the Venice initiate advise postulants not to arrive by air? Because by being parachuted into the centre of the stage without first having taken the trouble to climb on to it, newcomers would be partly deprived — for luckily there is still some boat travel between Marco Polo airport and the urban heart — of the pleasure of clearing, of crossing the frontier (a moment that the more fanatical devotees transform into an act of mystical secession from the unutterable filth outside).
For centuries, arrival via Padua and embarkation at Fusina, five miles from the Piazza San Marco, for a leisurely crossing of the lagoon, symbolised (like a rite of passage) the change of physical and mental universe. Construction of the four-kilometre road and rail causeway between Mestre and the Piazzale Roma has simplified the crossing, but the fairly complicated procedure for leaving the car or bus in the parking area still maintains the intransitive essence through the trans-shipment, the change of vehicle and of tempo: a compulsory slowing down of vital rhythm has taken place; here we are, elsewhere and moving differently, on foot or like a cork on the water; no doubt about it, we have passed through from the other side of the mirror. Instead of whining about it as they would if someone used a hammer-drill during a Vivaldi concerto, devotees should rather praise the astuteness that has led to the nearest dry land being made so ugly, so vividly do the chemical plants of Marghera, the refineries, derricks and warehouses of Mestre, the tangles of petroleum and gas piping, the belching chimneys, by contrast underline the abyss that separates the fairy circle of aesthetic play, the commedia dell'arte we have just entered, from the sordid reality — so recently banished — of survival and the constraints of production: our modernity all befouled with infrastructures, barbarians and the oblivion of great art. Every acolyte's glance at the "hideous" skyline (which to me is like the view from a cell window: I stand right at the end of the Záttere and gaze at it, breathing deeply) renews the exorcism of the real world. And that, in sum, is the function socially reserved, from the outside, for the "fabulous marvel".
Excerpted from Against Venice by Régis Debray, John Howe. Copyright © 1995 Gallimard. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this a few years ago in anticipation of a trip to Italy. It is a forceful and entertaining polemic against the city, which Debray compares unfavorably to Naples. At the time, it seemed to bolster my expectation that I wouldn't much like Venice. To my surprise and delight, that expectation proved very wrong; I enjoyed Venice tremendously and was sorry not to have more time there. It may have helped that it was remarkably uncrowded, being March, and that we stayed in what still appeared to be a relatively vibrant residential quarter. I did, however, think that Debray's critique of Venice could, with minor modification, apply very aptly to Florence, a dreadful Renaissance Disneyland where I was very content to spend a day doing laundry to escape the crowds.