The Left Bank
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The Left Bank
Herbert Lottman
Halo Books, San Francisco (USA), 1991 (1981)
319 pages, including index

The Parisian left bank is perhaps one of the most romanticized places in our contemporary history. We are supposed to think of it as a meeting point of the greatest intelligences of the world between the 1930s and the 1950s, and to some extent this portrait is correct, for quite a few of the most important intellectuals lived there or visited the place during those years. However, from this elemental truth, we have often built a dream world where the creative genius of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of artists and thinkers brought heaven on earth, a world where somehow reason and tolerance had the day against all the ignorance of those who could not be considered members of the intelligentsia. Yet, the real left bank was something far more complex, contradictory and dirty. As Milan Kundera pointed out recently during an interview with Philip Roth (sorry for the Spanish, but I simply do not have the time to translate it right now):

Después de la guerra, Éluard abandonó las filas del surrealismo para convertirse en el mayor exponente de lo que podríamos llamar "poesía del totalitarismo". Cantó la fraternidad, la paz, la justicia, el mañana mejor, la camaradería, en contra del aislamiento, a favor de la alegría y en contra del pesimismo, a favor de la inocencia y en contra del cinismo. Cuando, en 1950, los dirigentes del paraíso sentenciaron a un amigo suyo, el surrealista Závis Kalandra, a morir en la horca, Éluard no se permitió ningún sentimiento de amistad: se puso al servicio de los ideales suprapersonales, declarando en público su conformidad con la ejecución de su camarada. El verdugo matando, el poeta cantando. Y no sólo el poeta. Todo el período del terror estalinista fue un delirio lírico colectivo. Es algo que ya está completamente olvidado, pero resulta de crucial importancia para entender el caso. A la gente le encanta decir: qué bonita es la revolución; lo único malo de ella es el terror que engendra. Pero no es verdad. El mal está presente ya en lo hermoso, el infierno ya está contenido en el sueño del paraíso; y si queremos comprender la esencia del infierno, hemos de analizar también la esencia del paraíso en que tiene origen. Es extremadamente fácil condenar los gulags, pero rechazar la poesía totalitaria que conduce al gulag, pasando por el paraíso, sigue siendo tan difícil como siempre. Hoy, no hay en el mundo nadie que no rechace de modo inequívoco la noción del gulag, pero todavía hay mucha gente que se deja hipnotizar por la poesía totalitaria y se pone en marcha hacia nuevos gulags al son de la misma canción lírica que entonaba Éluard.

This is precisely one of several uncomfortable issues Herbert Lottman has to deal with in this book. Of the many artists and intellectuals who gathered in the left bank of the Seine during those decades, there are many who willingly cooperated with one or another form of totalitarianism, be it in the Nazi or in the Communist variation. One wonders whether perhaps intellectual or artistic brightness is not as important as it is made to be after all. Even worse, one wonders whether the artistic and philosophical genius also goes hand in hand with certain inclination to fall for overly romanticized abstractions that end up giving birth to uncontrollable monsters.

In any case, the book starts already breaking some myths during the introduction itself. Thus, Lottman clarifies that

Contrary to Left Bank mythology, there are few Americans or British on the stage. The heroic period of the Lost Generation following World War I had come to a close some time before the main events of this book.

(p. XIII)

One of the most significant disputes in that era happens to be the one that confronted Ilya Ehrenburg and André Breton. The first, Ehrenburg, was an agent of the Third International in Paris who somehow managed to survived all the Stalinist purges in spite of being at the epicenter of pretty much every single historical conflict of the 1930s. From his office in Paris, he became the brain behind the concept of the artiste engagé or politically active that would dominate the intellectual landscape in Europe at least until the late 1970s. Breton, on the other hand, led the small but artistically influential group of Surrealists, who believed not only in the political and economic revolution, but also in the revolution of everyday life. The birth of Socialist Realism as well as the increasingly apparent represive nature of the Communist regime in Russia led them apart and caused the first important schism between the orthodox line defended by the Communist Party and the positions taken by the artists and intellectuals who were politically engaged in the left.

But why France, and why the Parisian left bank? As Lottman explains,

It was generally agreed, in thos between-the-wars years, that France was the center of the literary and artistic world, and of course Paris was the center of that center. Not only had it gathered the best of the current generation from distant provinces and neighboring nations, but it was training the best of the next. (...) Perhaps the intellectual Left Bank acquired its true vocation in the nineteenth century, symbolized by, if not limited to, the promiscuous café life there. One name keeps coming up in social history of the neighborhood: Café Procope on the Rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie, frequented by the makers of the Encyclopédie, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Beaumarchais, Danton, and Marat, then in the Romantic years by Balzac, George Sand, Musset, and still later by Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Cézanne. (...) The literary magazines were on the Left Bank, particularly the avant-garde reviews, and so were their contributors and their readers. When a journal became prosperous, it deserted the bohemian districts to migrate to the Right Bank, along with its leading writers and editors.

(pp. 9-10)

As a consequence of all this, the left bank had a very unique atmosphere where writers, painters, sculptors, philosophers, journalists and editors of multiple political ideologies and disparate styles could meet, share ideas, discuss the news, drink and eat together. People like André Malraux, Raymond Aron, André Gide, André Breton, Drieu La Rochelle, Gaston Gallimard, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and many more could bounce ideas off each other in this melting pot of the minds.

All this is going on against a very dramatic backdrop, for 1930s Europe was becoming increasingly divided between left and right with both sides getting more and more extremist by the moment. Mussolini's Fascists had been ruling Italy since 1922, but it was Hitler's rise to power in 1933 that started to have real effects in Paris. Of course, there is a good chance none of this could have happened without the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918 threatening the expansion of Communism throughout Europe. As a consequence of these divisions, La République des professeurs, based on the ideas of the so called Radical Socialists (nothing to do with any form of radical Marxism at all, in spite of the name, but rather a progressive bourgeois ideology that stressed the separation of Church and State and some form of populistic democracy) was doomed from the very start of the decade. On the one hand, the left; on the other, the right.