This is a set of reflections loosely inspired by Carl Freedman’s interesting and thoughtful review of China Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS. I am in agreement with much of what it says, but I think I have a more positive appreciation of the book than Freedman does. This is mainly due to a difference of appreciation over the relative scope of certain themes.
STAKES: I think that Freedman is right that there is something preachy about Miéville’s book, and that it comes off more like the fictional equivalent of a manifesto than a fully worked out novel. We come away with a sense that Nazism is bad and Surrealism is good, and the allegory serves us the perhaps banal moral that the pen (or brush) is mightier than the sword, which is the original motivation for the Surrealists’ choice of the name « la Main à Plume ».
Note: this is a reference to a verse by Rimbaud (“La main à plume vaut la main à charrue”, “the writer’s hand is as important as the hand that guides the plough”).
The question of the relation between the pen and the sword (or the plough), between true life (love, freedom, creation, and discovery) and mere survival is a long-enduring one, and Miéville has given us a very un-banal dramatisation of this existential problem.
ALLEGORY: Freedman too wonders and worries over this problem. He begins his review with the question:
« WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between radical aesthetic practices and actual political radicalism? »
This is a valid question, but it is already a one-sided or one-dimensional reformulation of the question of the relation between true life and survival. « Politics » can be an allegory of life, a life that includes politics but much more besides. The surrealists had difficulty in accepting the literal-minded reduction of politics, and of art, that official communism presupposed and enforced.
So I think that Freeman’s interpretative grid is both relevant to the novel and interpreted too narrowly, in a way that the novel contests. We are after all dealing with a story that stages the insurrection of artistic beings against a Nazi regime of occupation.
ABUNDANCE: One thing I miss in Freedman’s otherwise excelent account of the book is the sheer abundance of imagery taken from, or extrapolated from, surrealist works including many by little known artists. This led Miéville to include a final chapter giving details about the works and their origins. The effect of reading these notes after finishing the narrative is not the academic effect of having to plod through boring scholarly references, but the imaginative effect of awakening our curiosity and of reliving the story in condensed form. As Freedman points out, this imaginative abundance can come into conflict with the requirements of narrative structure. Miéville’s novel KRAKEN is a good example of the negative effects of such abundance unchecked, but I do not think that this is the case with THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS. The story line has the well-controlled single-mindedness of the novella.
PASSAGES: I lived in Paris for seven years and it was often a poetic and surrealist experience, although what Deleuze and Guattari called the “micro-fascism” of everyday life was omni-present too. So I can confirm that there are in fact passages between the two worlds, of surrealism and fascism, of magic and normality, of true life and the struggle for survival. Surrealism was particularly concerned with, and awake to, these passages. China Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS itself constitutes one such passage. Dadaism and
surrealism, but also Deleuze and Guattari’s « schizoanalysis », and many works of fantasy and science fiction, provide us with other such passages.
POLITICS: the S-Blast corresponds to the notion of “irruption of the Real” that some French philosophers see taking place in radical art and in radical political action. One example that is given of such radical politics combined with radical aesthetics is the events of May 68 in France. Miéville’s novel also functions in some ways as a manifesto in favour of such irruptions, as it declares in favour of the power of the imagination to maintain our resistance against the forces of fascism. This is not to cede naively to magical thinking, the fantasy of the
omnipotence of the imagination. Miéville’s conclusion is that an “S-Blast” is a good start, but it is not enough. A creative deployment of our forces needs always to be relayed by a political and an economic redeployment to be effective. This is the basis for the role that the American magician’s apprentice, Jack Parsons, plays in the novel. He does not rest content with a purely aesthetic, ultimately ineffectual, resistance in a separate domain cut off from the real word. He seeks to “weaponise” surrealist creation and avant-garde experimentation and to undo the separation by combining them with magic in the construction of his S-device.
SURREALISM: Miéville is not alluding so much to mainstream surrealism, that has long since been assimilated, as to the minor and lesser-known surrealists: the women, the marginals, and the excommunicated. Surrealism too had its fascistic tendencies when it was organised into a School. Just as Breton’s surrealism was an appropriation and codification of the multifarious Dadaist and Surrealist experimentations that preceded and accompanied his bids for power, we see today an appropriation and codification of Weird Realism by philosophies that are neither weird nor realist, but rather conformist consensual idealisms.
REALITY: Freedman tells us that « To try to be as radical as reality itself is a good motto for anyone wishing to accomplish anything of value in art or in politics ». However, reality is not always best described by what is ordinarily thought of as realism. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s meditations on quantum physics lead him to produce a weird realism in which manifestation is as such real (and one should note that the Surrealist entities in Miéville’s novel are called “manifs” or “manifestations”).
Under the influence of Gilles Deleuze’s LOGIC OF SENSE Zizek outlines a concept of pure semblance or pure appearance, that would not be the appearing of any more fundamental reality. These appearances are to be distinguished from the simple negation of reality that is implicit in post-modern sophistry and purely aesthetic play divorced from politics. For Zizek, as for Deleuze, pure appearances, simulacra, or semblances, are real in their own right, and contain immanently the criteria for distinguishing illusion from substance.
This is the same sort of pluralist ontology that is to be found allegorically in diverse recent works of science fiction, including in Miéville’s. It merits the name of non-standard or “weird » ontology.