Sunday Morning! “Constellation of Genius”

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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16 Responses

  1. Saul Degraw says:

    I read this book years ago. I think this is the same book mentioned that Proust was fond of a particular restaurants roast chicken.*

    The funny thing about your description is I know remember the stuff between Proust and Joyce but only very vaguely. I fond the book enjoyable but I think I took it out of the library and did not read it again. This is one of those periods that fascinates romantics, bohemians, middle-class kids enamoured with the demimnode, etc. There are lots of books on all the cultural and artsy goings-on during Paris in the 1920s and 30s.

    You always need to wonder though about the people on the peripherary of the scene. Was there a 1920s equivalent of a hpister that wanted to be part of these scenes but were excluded because of a lack of cash, fame, talent, connections, etc? Were there secondary scenes filled with kids who never got famous and were seen as pests by the more-famous expats and artists?Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Well, sure, but it also fascinates *writers* and lit profs! Mostly because there are so many things that come out in that time period that seem *nothing* like anything that came before and still throw you for a loop. I just watched Battleship Potemkin for the first time last night and, even though yes I’ve always heard about the montages and the Odessa steps and how great it is, yadda yadda, I was *still* blown away by how exciting it was and how it didn’t seem possible that it could have been made in 1925. I think it’s things like that that keep people coming back and make me wonder if there was just something in the water then.

      As for the hipsters, Hemingway bitched quite a lot about the aspiring “writers” who spent all their time in cafes talking about the books they’d never get around to writing. Arguably, The Sun Also Rises is about that type. I think the issue was really a lack of hard work.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Saul, you should know better. Of course, there was something like a hipster during the 1920s. There were always young people kind of trying to live the artistic and Bohemian life, different from their contemporaries, and somewhat succeeding or failing. The 1920s hipsters probably want to jazz clubs and speak easies a lot. I think Dorothy Parker of the New Yorker, during her younger years, when she covered NYC’s nightlife was a 1920s version of the hipster. Really mainly living and writing about the scene rather than creating it but enjoying it immensely.Report

  2. Pinky says:

    “The other economic factor is, of course, that it was so absurdly cheap to live in Paris in the 20s or New York in the 70s and it’s not cheap to live anywhere at this point.”

    In the past week, I’ve eaten fresh winter and summer vegetables, studied theology and Italian art, debated the political and economic issues of the day, watched Japanese science fiction, and read an essay about 1922. All while holding down a full-time job, and without risking plague or shipwreck. Where and when were you going to be able to do that cheaper?Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Pinky says:

      Well nobody in Paris in the 20s died of the plague as far as I know. And thanks to public libraries it’s been free to study those things for the last few centuries in Europe and America. Similarly, there’s always going to be people who will debate the issues of the day for free. That’s what bars are for. I guess it’s true that the Left Bank wasn’t watching Japanese sci-fi.

      But this all misses the point a bit. If you’re going to become a great writer or artist, it’s because you put in long long loooong hours perfecting your craft. I’m going to defer to Jerry Saltz on this when he says that all of the serious artists he’s known found a way to get by with a day job of no more than three days a week. By all accounts, it was very very possible to do that in New York in the 70s- hell, Kathy Acker claimed to work on Sundays and write all week! You couldn’t possibly do that in New York today, unless you had rich parents. But it’s hard to think of any midsize to large city where you could do it. Maybe Buffalo.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Rufus F. says:

        To my thinking, these kind of dynamic environments rarely happen in a vacuum, or within one particular field only. As you note, 1922 saw King Tut and Chairman Lenin. It’s hard to think about Joyce without thinking of Stravinsky or Picasso. For Paris to be the Paris of the writers, you need a lot of people in one place, and a lot of ideas in the air. Modern communication fulfills those needs – at least, I don’t see why it wouldn’t. So Buffalo, or anywhere, could be our Paris. Costs don’t mean as much.

        And there are also non-financial costs. I can look up something about Eusebius or Tintoretto in moments. Is that going to make me a great artist? No, but I wasn’t aiming for that. An artist can encounter all the training and crowdfunding he needs to stand a better chance at greatness.

        I wonder if maybe we underestimate our era because there isn’t a Paris, or a Ulysses, that we can all point to. How would we know?Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    Forgot my asterisk again.

    My view is that you can judge a chef/restaurant by their roast chicken. It is a relatively easy dish to make well. It is really hard to make it divine.Report

  4. Aaron David says:

    Considering that this was just a few years after WWI, what if it takes something that dreadful? By all accounts, that war was horrific, tearing apart so many things that had been taken for granted, maybe the clearing out of the deadwood, so to speak, was what was necessary.

    Or, with what had been happening in the very early part of the century, in places such as Vienna, a change in culture and art was finally was able to break through, along with being added by the technological progress from the war? An interesting question to be sure.

    Speaking of Proust, I picked up In Search Of Lost Time again, hoping to make some more progress with it. Also, have been watching a lot of videos of wooden boat building. That seems to have captured my interest.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Aaron David says:

      Great bursts of artistic creative might not require an overall breakdown like World War I but they do seem to require a lot of deep seated cultural and social tensions just simmering over. Turn of the century Vienna, La Belle Epoque France, and Silver Age Imperial Russia produced a lot of great art, music, literature, and theater but they were not peaceful societies. The first was dealing with the ethnic tensions of the late Habsburg monarchy. La Belle Epoque France was undergoing a massive culture war between liberal secularists and conservative Catholics. Russia had the Romanovs desperately trying to remain absolute monarchs, pogroms against Jews, and the social upheavals of mass industrialization in an illiterate peasant society.Report

  5. Saul Degraw says:

    I don’t know about the finances of 1920s Paris but 1970s was as broke as broke can be. The decade started off with massive and frequent strikes by garage workers. These strikes would leave garage piling up in the streets for weeks during the summer. NYC is hot and humid with the black tar and concrete working to absorb all the heat. The smell was probably putrid and atrocious. Crime was also skyrocketing. The population decreased by ten percent.

    The downtown art scenes were really exciting in the 1970s and 80s. I don’t deny that. But it came with real problems too.Report

  6. LeeEsq says:

    I’m not exactly sure that the 1970s and the 1920s are that comparable. I think that the cultural avant-garde of the 1920s managed to exert much more of the influence on the popular imagination and popular culture than the avant-garde of the 1970s. When most people think of the 1970s culturally, they think about the Brady Bunch, campy variety shows, weird pseudo-Hippie decorations, Star Wars, and discos. When people think about the 1920s, the cultural avant-garde like Hemingway, Joyce, and the rest is more likely to come up even if only on the periphery. I think more ordinary people in the 1920s were aware of the avant-garde, if only because of government censorship efforts, than they were of the 1970s avant-garde.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I think that is true that the 20s had a wider influence in the general consciousness. But a lot of what came out of nowhere in the 70s eventually bubbled up into the larger culture. It just took longer. I doubt that one in a million people knew about DJ Kool Herc in 1974, for instance, and the Bronx was definitely the periphery then, but arguably hip hop has had a larger influence on popular music than anything else- it just took a while.

      (On the other hand, I think Rapper’s Delight is still the highest selling 45 single of all time.)Report