La Main à Plume: the surrealist resistance in Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS

“La Main à Plume” figures in China Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS as the group of surrealist resisters to which the protagonist Thibaut belongs.

Historically La Main à Plume was the name for a surrealist collective and the clandestine review they published in occupied Paris from 1941 to 1944.

An anthology of its texts and illustrations was published in 2008. Amazon link here.

Editor’s description:

“In 1941, while André Breton and many other surrealists were in exile in America, a handful of young people decided to group together in Paris in order to maintain surrealism in occupied France. In reference to the 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 group calls itself la Main à plumeand to signify its will to revolt against the powers that be. The opposition was not only intellectual and this generation of those that were “twenty years old in the year 1940″ were to pay a heavy price to the armed struggle. In its four years of existence, la Main à plume managed to publish, in semi-clandestinity, a dozen collective publications and about thirty individual pamphlets. Sixty years later, this anthology collects for the first time some of these texts, poems and illustrations. Taken from brochures that have become incredibly rare, these writings, produced in difficult circumstances, reveal that the group, far from playing the merely interim role that it is all too often assigned, also proposed new reflections in two of the most important fields of investigation in surrealism: the Image and the Object. One can see this in particular from the large choice of texts from the projected anthology on the Objet, which has remained unpublished to this day” (my translation).

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THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS: full review

Abstract: THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS by China Miéville awakens our sense of wonder with the explosion of imagery, of erudition, and of poetry that the book contains. The novella embodies what it describes: the surrealist Resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris has led to the creation of a surrealist bomb, whose explosion produces an “S-Blast” that has liberated a myriad of “manifestations”, impossible entities freed from surrealist painting and sculptures to wreak havoc on the Nazi occupying forces. The novel is at once a masterfully told story and an inspiring manifesto, an ode to the liberating power of poetic fantasy, and to the creations, and the lives, of those who are steeped in it. The poetry, the beauty, the freedom, and the adventure all recall the excitement one feels in reading Deleuze and Guattari’s works and their “schizoanalytic” liberation of the unconscious. Michel Foucault in his preface to their book ANTI-OEDIPUS declared that it could be characterised as an “introduction to the non-fascist life”. This non-fascist formula of resistance and (self-)creation comes to life again in the pages of Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS. This paper argues that Miéville’s weird fantasy can be seen as a work of noetic estrangement, altering not only our cognitive premises but also our imaginative syntheses. Its weird ontology participates in a more general movement of overturning and immanentising Platonism in favour of an ontology of pluralist abundance.

Review here or here.

THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS (3): Weird Ontology

I have argued that the term noetic estrangement, or in Deleuzian language noetic deterritorialisation, best describes the type of non-mimetic fiction or Weird realism that can be found in China Miéville’s works (amongst others). His latest novella THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS is a good example as  it describes the consequences of an “S-Blast”, the result of the explosion of a surrealist bomb, unleashing a swarm of weird creatures on a Nazi-occupied city. There is a self-referential dimension to this premise, as “S-Blast” well describes not only China Miéville’s own writings, but the whole domain of “weird” literature..

There is also a political dimension: the S-Blast corresponds to Gilles Deleuze’s notion of “irruption of the Real” that he sees taking place in the event of May 68. Thus the novel also functions in some ways as a manifesto, 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 to a magical fantasy of the omnipotence of the imagination. As with Deleuze, Miéville’s conclusion is that an “S-Blast” is a good start, but it is not enough. In Deleuze’s terms a creative subjective redeployment needs to be relayed by a political and an economic redeployment to be effective.

True to his Nietzscheanism Deleuze has commented Lovecraft in giving priority to his affirmative elements over the more standard pessimist image (something he does with Beckett and Kafka as well). I think this shows the “new” weird was already present within the old. This is in line with the vision expressed discursively in Miéville’s interview in THE AGE OF LOVECRAFT, and imagistically in the novel THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS, of the problematic synergy in Lovecraft’s works between the surrealism (affirmation of fantasy) and the fascism (elevation of a master-race). Miéville’s repeated evocation of the sublime in explicitly Lyotardian terms goes in the same direction. For Lyotard the aesthetic of the sublime was an indication that the post-modern did not come chronologically, or even logically, after the modern but accompanied it from the beginning.

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 organised itself into a School. Just as Breton’s surrealism was an appropriation and codification of the multifarious Dadaist and Surrealist experimentations, we see today an appropriation and codification of Weird Realism by philosophies that are neither weird nor realist, but rather conformist consensual idealisms.

Graham Harman’s attempted hi-jacking of the weird in his object-oriented philosophy (see his “WEIRD REALISM: Lovecraft and Philosophy”, 2012)  is properly called “weird sensualism”. Harman’s ontology is based on a radical disjunction between manifest, or “sensual”, realities and the unknown ineffable invisible Real. In terms of this version of OOO the Weird is not Real at all, but sensual.

Slavoj Zizek’s quantum meditations 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”). This is his debt to Deleuze’s concept of simulacra, which Zizek has explained in great detail in the first chapter of his book LESS THAN NOTHING (also published in 2012). In the first chapter, Zizek outlines a concept of pure semblances or pure appearances, that would not be the appearing of any more fundamental but totally unknown reality. These appearances are to be distinguished from the simple negation of reality that is implicit in post-modern sophistry and purely aesthetic play.

For Zizek, 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 non-bifurcationist pluralist ontology that is to be found in Deleuze’s and in Miéville’s works. It merits the name “weird ontology”. The little that Deleuze says about the ontology underlying Lovecraft’s weird fiction is coherent with his own ontology, whereas Harman’s meanderings on “weird realism” are in contradiction with his own bifurcationist schema.

This is the basis for the role that the American magician’s apprentice, Jack Parsons, plays in the novel. He is not 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.

Zizek’s post-Deleuzian ontology is far more consonant with Weird fiction than Harman’s OOO. Any ontologically informed list of “Weird Realists” should not include Harman at all, but only those that question the simplistic bifurcation between subject and object that is Harman’s starting point. My favorite Weird Realists are Zizek, Stiegler, Latour, Laruelle (in his “non-standard” and “philo-fiction” phase, Badiou (in his post LOGICS OF WORLDS phase), and also Lyotard, Deleuze, and Feyerabend.

Another criterion of the Weird, besides its suspension of the subject-object bifurcation, is that it typically belongs with an ontology of abundance. This second weird theme involves the suspension of the principle of identity in favour of alterity, multiplicity, difference, and becoming. Harman’s OOO is the exact opposite, it proposes an ontology of withdrawal and impoverishment (for more details, see my ONTOLOGY: Abundance vs Withdrawal).

One of the most disquieting aspects of Graham Harman’s OOO system is its annexation of movements that are diametrically opposed to its own ideas. Harman’s revisionist account and annexation of Bruno Latour’s work is a case in point: he has managed to associate his name with a philosophy totally opposed to his own. Another example is his annexation of Weird literature by means of his concept of “weird realism”. In terms of Harman’s OOO the weird is sensual, not real.

In contrast, Deleuze’s philosophy is “weird” from the very beginning, and becomes even more so in the collaboration with Guattari. Lovecraft plays a very important role in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS, but Harman makes no mention of Deleuze and Guattari in his own book on Lovecraft.

I do not care for the enshrining of a genre tag for a market niche in a substantial critical category, but if the term “New Weird” has any sense it is to be sought in the Time Image as analysed by Deleuze in his CINEMA II. Contrary to what many commentators seem to believe, the system outlined in the “cinema” books is not limited to the cinema, but is meant to provide a general classication and phenomenology of images and signs. The New Weird with its metamorphoses and impossibilities, its becomings and cosmicities, with its ontological hesitations and its undoing of the barrier between real and unreal, belongs to the regime of the time image. Harman’s OOO cannot deal with that aspect, as for him time is unreal period.

Monsters and metamorphoses, hybrids and becomings, are all sensual. His real objects are unspeakable, not in the Lovecraftian sense of an ineffable overwhelming of our most basic categories, but in the more banal sense that they are unsayable because there is nothing to say about them, they are boring empty posits, vapid non-entities.

It is clear from their positive treatment of Lovecraft in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS that for Deleuze and Guattari his works as presentations, at the level of content, of “time images”, according to Deleuze’s later terminology. The synchronic spatialised image (Chronos) of time, which is all that Harman’s OOO is capable of attaining, is suspended in favour of a mutant image (Aion) based on abundance, multiplicity and dispersion.

Notes:

1) I am grateful to a conversation with Anna Powell for helping me to clarify this last point. Her book DELEUZE AND THE HORROR FILM (Edinburgh University Press, 2005) provides a far better, and less pretentious, guide to philosophy and “horror”, and indirectly to “weird fiction” in general, than OOO’s attempted annexation of these works and themes.

2) For a long-term engagement with the Deleuze-Lovecraft connections see all of Patricia MacCormack’s work, in particular:

Lovecraft through Deleuzio-Guattarian Gates (Postmodern Culture, Volume 20, Number 2, January 2010) and

“Lovecraft’s Cosmic Ethics” (THE AGE OF LOVECRAFT, University of Minnesota, 2016).

 

THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS (2): Temporality, Modality, and Identity

My approach to science fiction starts from an adoption and generalisation of Darko Suvin’s thesis that science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement”. This definition is quite thought-provoking, but the term “cognitive” is too limiting, as if so called hard science fiction were the paradigm of the whole genre. I suggest that the term “noetic” is more suitable, comprising not just the cognitive but also the imaginative acts of the spirit, and so allowing for a unified vision of science fiction and fantasy.

“Estrangement” is more useful, as it is a much more ambiguous and polysemic notion, so I propose to consider science fiction and fantasy together as composing the “literature of noetic estrangement”. To bring out the Deleuzian resonance of Suvin’s definition and of my reformulation, we could define science fiction and fantasy as the “literature of noetic deterritorialisation”.

This reformulation (the literature of noetic estrangement) constitutes not so much a non-Suvinian definition, whatever that would be, as a form of non-standard Suvinism,, since it does away with the strong demarcation that Suvin establishes between the genres of fantasy and science fiction.

(Note: this distinction is based on a parallel with the development of contemporary French philosopher François Laruelle’s thought. The title “non-philosophy” (as in non-Euclidean geometry) belongs to the negative phase of Laruelle’s intellectual evolution, stretching over 20 years, from 1981 to 2001. Aside from its critique of standard philosophy as unable to attain the immanence it purported to aim for, it was unfortunaely characterised by subservience to the model of science as cognitive paradigm. Laruelle later came to see this scientism as maintaining his thought within the very standard presuppositions that he wished to criticise. He moved from a purely verbal repudiation of scientism contained in the later works of this period (called Philosophie III) to an incomplete and timid practical overcoming of the scientistic presupposition in his work from roughly 2002 till now).

The title THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS, while not containing a logical contradiction, indicates the sort of temporality that goes with science fiction, according to Deleuze. The autobiographical chapter after the story is enough to indicate that the events recounted in the novella were not the “last” days, as Miéville met an old man who he thinks, but he is not sure, may be Thibaut, his young protagonist, grown old. The title also occurs in the story: Thibaut meets up with a mysterious woman, Sam, perhaps journalist or perhaps secret agent, who is taking photos for a projected book with that same title.

The “last days” of the title still have not come; in that sense the book is pre-apocalyptic. In another sense it is post-apocalyptic, as the S-blast has devastated and metamorphosed Paris, and iis effects need to be contained, as they threaten to spread everywhere. Thus while being in relation with the “apocalyptic” the novel’s temporal dimension is not the future, nor even futurity as such, but rather the “untimely”, in Nietzche’s (and Deleuze’s) sense, against this time (resistance), in favour of a time to come (creation of the possible). Thus the untimely is not so much temporal, not so much a question of the future or of futurity as modal, or, following an indication of Samuel Delany, a question of subjunctivity. In any actual case temporal estrangement and modal estrangement are intertwined, and may even be on occasions indiscernable.

“Apocalypse” for Deleuze is not a temporal, nor even a modal notion, but an ontological one. It announces the unveiling of what Miéville has called “Weird ontology”, where entities that do not fully respect the principle of identity assemble and struggle. It is interesting that in the novel there is also a (Nazi) force for identity, that eliminates all antogonisms, that is itself a manifestation, and not some foundation of reality.

THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS: China Miéville’s Deleuzian Science Fiction Novella

I have just finished reading THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS by China Miéville and I am overawed by the explosion of imagery, of erudition, of poetry and wonder that the book contains. The novella embodies what it describes: the surrealist Resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris has led to the creation of a surrealist bomb, whose explosion produces an “S-Blast” that has liberated a myriad of “manifestations”, impossible entities freed from surrealist painting and sculptures to wreak havoc on the Nazi occupying forces.
Two story threads are interwoven by means of alternating chapters. The events in 1941 leading to the fabrication and detonation of the S-bomb. The Nazi plot in 1950 to gain control over Paris by means of demonology and, possibly, the fabrication of a Nazified “manifestation” capable of taking on and defeating these creatures that do not obey the laws of phyics or biology. It is at once a masterfully told story and an inspiring manifesto, an ode to the liberating power of poetry, and to the creations, and the lives, of those who are steeped in it.
The poetry, the beauty, the freedom, and the adventure all recall the excitement one feels in reading Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS, KAFKA, and A THOUSAND PLATEAUS, and their “schizoanalytic” liberation of the unconscious. Michel Foucault in his preface to that book declared that ANTI-OEDIPUS could be characterised as an “introduction to the non-fascist life”, and this epithet describes all of Deleuze’s work. This non-fascist formula of resistance and (self-)creation comes to life again in the pages of Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS.
One of the key characters is an “exquisite corpse”, an assemblage or composite collage created by André Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Jacqueline Lamba that has come to life as a surrealist Big Friendly Giant to help the protagonists in their struggle against the Nazi occupying forces:
Cadavre exquis breton-lamb-tanguy
The sheer abundance of imagery taken, or extrapolated from, surrealist works including many by little known artists has 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 one of having to plod through scholarly references, but of awakening curiosity and of reliving the story in condensed form.
Melville also gives us an autobiographical account of the genesis of the novel, instigated by a very strange interview with an enigmatic old man who Miéville suspects may be Thibaut, the protagonist of the main action. This indicates that there may be some permeability or overlap between Paris in our world and New Paris.Further, this would suggest that the title is misleading, and that the “last days” have still not come for New Paris.
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 present too. So I can confirm that there are in fact passages between the two worlds. China Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS constitutes one such passage. Dadaism and surrealism, but also schizoanalysis and science fiction, provide us with other passages.
I kept thinking of Aliette de Bodard’s THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS while reading China Miéville’s THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS. The link may seem tenuous, as the styles and stories are very different. They have in common the poetic evocation and reworking of a magic-saturated Paris after a devastating and reality-distorting event, the Magic War for THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS and the surrealist S-Blast for THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS.