Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Reality! The Reality!

A young William Carlos Williams and his mother translated a surrealist novel about a stalker, a prostitute, a murderer, and a gangster who haunt the streets of Paris. Referenced in the beginning of Book 5 of Paterson, Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris is not as racy as it sounds. Perhaps it is only a surrealist who can take the source material for a typical thriller and evacuate it of all thrill, returning the action to everyday. It is cold in tone, evocative of the ennui of city wandering that denizens of the night experience. Were I argue its conceptual strengths, however, I would hide the fact that, for me, the book did not have much going for it except its connection to Paterson. The publishers even tacitly admit this exterior source of literary value by printing the pertinent section of Paterson not once, but twice—as the book’s only blurb and as its epigraph. It may have been an important inpirational source of Williams’ own exploration of intractable urban mystery (here the city is a woman, not a man as Williams would have it). Nevertheless, while there is much promise in a story that starts with a narrator, a dog, a sailor and a prostitute wandering randomly together at 3 in the morning, it was a chore to glimpse the “inviolable secret of Paris” that their journeys turned up.
Of greater interest to me is Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (at least the first two parts of it I have so far read), more cryptically referenced in this section of Paterson's Book 5. I was introduced to the book by Holly Tavel who was using it for a summer-term psychogeography course; as she described Paris Peasant, she started to flip through it a few times, a sort of perfunctory gesture of “showing me the book.” What jumped to my eye was the following section, from which Williams seems to have pulled his "la realite! la realite! la rea, la rea, la realite!"(207) Williams is much more tortured (and in the end, impressed) by “the real,” while Aragon is clearly more contemptuous (if only because Williams' “reality” is almost Lacanian in its paradoxical unknowability, whereas for Aragon it is more synonymous with custom, albeit still paradoxical):

The Realities


Once upon a time there was a reality
With her own flock of sheep in real wool
And as the king’s son came passing by
The sheep bleated Baaah! How pretty she is
The re the re the reality

Once upon a time there was a reality
Who never could get to sleep at night
And so her fairy godmother
Really took her by the hand
The re the re the reality

Once upon a time there was an old king
Who got very bored as he sat on his throne
His cloak slipped off into the evening
So then they gave him for a queen
The re the re the reality

CODA: Ity ity the rea
Ity ity the reality
The rea the rea
Ty ty The rea
Ty The reality
Once upon a time there was THE REALITY

Aragon’s book is a much more fanciful and detailed exploration of the mysteries of public life in the city than is Soupault’s, and is in more in line with Williams’ aesthetic (menus, news articles, playlets, and street signs are pasted directly into the prose). His subject is the passages—“human aquariums” cut into the shadowy corners of the streets—which threatened to disappear under the impending Haussmannization of Paris. Or rather, the passages frame his various subjects—which include reflections on “blondness,” an accordionist with P-E-S-S-I-M-I-S-M written on the folds of his bellows, bathhouses, shoeblacks, cocktails, and postage stamps.

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Blogger myshkin2 said...

Just happened onto your blog--by way of "wood s lot." I think I remember you from PA Governor's School 20 or so years ago? I fumblingly directed the fiction workshop--and vaguely remember your potential-filled story about someone named mitzi or netty or something like that and a laundromat? Pleased to see that you're tackling the ether now.


4:54 PM, August 25, 2007  
Blogger Joe Milutis said...

hi leonard. I figured another blog blogged me, because the hits inexplicably lit up the map yesterday. the blogosphere equivalent of having one's ears ring. Feel free to contact me off line and tell me what's up. I've got you aggregated now. And her name was Birchy. Nothing like years and years of unpublished fiction to make you appreciate the approach to vast unpublishable flux that is William Carlos Williams' Paterson.

5:28 PM, August 25, 2007  

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