“Let us have the courage to be crude: let us sweep the spirit of subtlety down the sewer along with the flags and the great warriors.” Paul Nizan
Paul Nizan’s star burned bright and brief. He was a classmate of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s at École Normale Supérieure and a member of the French Communist Party who resigned his membership when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. He died not long after at Dunkirk. But long before that, when he was 20 years old, disgusted with what he saw as bourgeois ennui and intellectual compromise and pervasive militarism, he got on a ship and went to Aden.
The fruit of that trip is a dense and beautifully crafted polemic, Aden, Arabie, which seesaws between acutely observed (and surprisingly light on orientalism) descriptions of the ports and the apparatuses of rule and commerce on the one hand and meditations on life, youth, travel and meaning which sound existentialist long before existentialism on the other hand. Speaking of which, half the edition I own, translated by Joan Pinkham and published in 1986, is taken up with a foreword by Sartre which is far too rambling and repetitive and coded to be anywhere as interesting as, for example, his foreword to The Wretched of the Earth. Sartre does have this wonderful little anecdote in the foreword about how the two of them looked so much alike that people often mistook them for one another. Sartre describes Nizan thus
I could have drawn his portrait: medium height, black hair. He had a cast in one eye, like me, but in the opposite direction, so that it was agreeable. My divergent squint gave my face the appearance of an unplowed field. His eyes converged, giving him a mischievous air of abstraction even when he was listening. He followed fashion closely, insolently. At seventeen he had his pants cut so tight around the ankles that he had trouble pulling them on. A little later they flared out into bell-bottoms that hid his shoes. Then, all of a sudden, they changed into golf knickers that came up to his knees and stood out like skirts. He carried a Malacca walking stick and wore a monocle, little round collars, and wing collars. He traded in his steel-rimmed glasses for enormous tortoise-shell spectacles which, with a touch of the English snobbery that afflicted all the young people of the time, he called his “goggles”. I tried to emulate him, but my family organized an effective resistance and even went so far as to bribe the tailors (pp. 18-19)
Sartre wrote this preface in 1960 and the text echoes the angry rhythms of Nizan’s text, his jeremiad against capitalism, empire, European bourgeoisie, and a life that has lost meaning. Nizan decided to leave École Normale -which he described as a “ridiculous and, more often, odious thing, presided over by a patriotic, hypocritical, powerful little old man who respected the military” (p. 61)- and run away to Aden. Why Aden? I imagine the romantic notion that he was following Rimbaud’s footprints may have had something to do with it (incidentally, Rimbaud worked for a coffee exporter in Aden, intermittently between the years 1880-1891).
Aden, Arabie begins, wonderfully, “I was twenty. I will let no one say it is the best time of my life” and proceeds from there with an acerbic -no, angry- attack on the establishment. So much of the world he describes, its affects, practices, and senses, feels familiar:
On awakening in the morning, each man finds himself confronted with the great disorders of the time, reduced in scale to the petty dimensions of a personal anxiety. We have within us divisions, alienations, wars, debates. We were told we were living in the age of the guilty conscience, but that did not keep us from fearing for our lives, from suffering from the mutilations that awaited us. After all, we knew how our parents lived -in awkward misery, like cats with a fever, like seasick goats. Where was our sickness? In what part of our lives? We knew one thing: men do not live as men should. But we still did not know the elements of which real life is composed; all our thoughts were negative. The celebrated philosopher Alain did indeed tell us: “To think is to say no.” But only the Spirit of Evil says no eternally. The time will come when the mind will no longer fear the things it believes in; then man will be ashamed to have remained on the defensive so long (p. 65).
And then a rejection of the great men, of “God and his priests”, of even the pleasures of Paris. And of irony:
Then there was irony. Irony was proper and respectable, like a notary. At least it was patriotic, since it conformed to the national tradition: reticence is the virtue of these little Frenchmen. Irony frightens no one. It is not so negative as it seems, it will not prevent you from making a career for yourself that will be applauded in the best society. You can climb to the top wearing the label of “skeptic” that has been so honorable since Montaigne and Huet (p. 71).
And then he has a fabulous description of orientalism:
… we had been taught to think of the East as the opposite of the West. So once it was established that the collapse and decay of Europe was a simple, inescapable fact, the renaissance and flowering of the Orient became a fact equally obvious . For Europeans, the Orient held salvation and a new life. It had medicine for our ills, and love to spare. We made free use of false analogies with antiquity and drew on the official history of religions. We endowed Asia with all the human virtues that had been gradually disappearing from the West over the last three hundred years, virtues that were no longer demanded anywhere outside the agony columns of the English dailies. The spirit of civilization hovered over India, China seemed more marvelous to us than it had to Marco Polo. Who was there to give us good, hard reasons for being interested in Asia: the strikes in Bombay, the revolutions and massacres in China, the jailings in Tonkin? Good, human reasons, instead of a reason like Buddhism.
There was also America.
Europe, with its meager portion of land, poor in men and oil, lacking in events, seemed to be an old and dying woman between two heroes: Asia, the hero of wisdom, and America the hero of power (p. 73).
So, he, seduced by the kind of love of seafarers bred in the French through “compulsory education” decides to travel by sea to Aden, because “there are roads, ports, railway stations, there are other countries besides the familiar kennel: all one has to do is not to get off at his subway stop one day” (p. 77). He recognises that such travels to the colonies are often the beginning of colonisation, with missionaries and military men and men of commerce following:
…as soon as the land has been explored, surveyed, and registered, the Europeans begin to exploit it… The paradises turn out to be commercial enterprises in cobalt, peanuts, rubber, and copra; the noble savages are clients and slaves. the priests of all the white gods have set about converting these idol-worshipers, these fetishists (p. 75).
In October 1926, his boat departs from “a dock on the Clyde, at Paisley” and goes “down the Irish sea, past Lundy Island… amid the gales and squalls of the season.” Through the Straits of Gibraltar and past Malta and Crete, through Port Said and the Suez Canal, through the Red Sea, with a night at Port Sudan. “On the morning of the thirty-fourth day, a violet pyramid lifts itself up on the back of the Indian Ocean.” The violet pyramid is the massive mountains behind Aden. In Aden, he ends up staying -predictably enough- in the European quarter which he describes in this way:
[European] Aden was a highly concentrated image of our mother Europe, it was Europe compressed. A few hundred Europeans huddled together in a space as cramped as a prison ship, five miles long by three miles wide, reproduced on a small scale, but with extraordinary precision, the designs formed by the lines of relationships of life in the western countries. The Orient reproduces the Occident and is a commentary on it (p. 110)
His descriptions of the main parts of Aden are interesting, though surprisingly (given his awareness of orientalist representations) sometimes shade into orientalism (and in a couple of shocking moments, into racism). But he has an amazing turn of phrase:
The whites and the Hindus hiding in their hygienic lairs work under the wings of fans, in offices where silent natives walk barefoot among the tables, and the typewriters endlessly inscribe a small number of black signs. The life of the Europeans consists of combining these signs, breaking them down,and recombining them. It is a game for madmen (p. 95).
And the masters of the port and of the city, of course, are the oil companies:
In the great, open port between Steamer Point and Maala, there is tremendous activity. The liners of the P. and O. and the Messageries Maritimes clear a path for themselves through a tangle of peeling freighters, tankers, motor boats, and Arab boutres. The boutres are like caravels, with beautiful blue or green forecastles whose reflections crawl on the water like serpents. When the liners are in port, the colonials go abroad – the women head for the hairdresser’s and the men for the bar.
The oil flows through big, jointed pipes that run just below the surface of the water, like sea serpents – the only authentic ones. The oil feeds the ships’ tanks.
Not so long ago, Aden was a coaling station. Oil brought with it offices, docks, the black tanks of the Anglo-Persian and Asiatic Petroleum, and intrigues that rouse the emotions of the little native potentates who have become sellers of oil and buyers of gasoline for automobiles. A little war for concessions is spreading all around. So Aden still conforms to its destiny. In Arabia, the smell of leather, and the smell of oil that grows more insolent every month, are replacing the smell of the coffee from Sana and Harar. But this change of products has not changed the human consequences. One reads in Reclus: “To extend coffee plantations, European wars have been undertaken, vast territories have been conquered in the New World, in Africa, and in the Sunda Islands; millions of slaves have been captured and transported to the new plantations; a revolution has been accomplished, entailing consequences incalculable in their complexity, in which good and evil are intermingled, in which frauds, warfare, oppression, wholesale massacres go hand in hand with commercial enterprise.”
The warehouses of Maala and Somalipura are stacked up to their roofs of corrugated iron with sacks of sugar and rice, bales of leather and goat hides, and cases of oil stamped with a bear or gazelle. The Arab laborers sing at their work in these roasting sweat-boxes; without the rhythm of work songs they would forget what to do.
The wisdom of nations approves of all this scheming and contracting and forcing, all this profitable slavery (p. 96).
He draws sketches of local groups at odds with one another, and of European “men of action” who are ridiculous in the intercourse of their commerce:
To handle rates of foreign exchange, to hover over the value of the thaler and the pound as if it were the temperature curve of a sick child, to make a ship move faster in order to secure a cargo – these empty dreams constituted his idea of action… (p. 103).
These men were replaceable parts of an invisible mechanism that slowed down on Sunday, because of religion, and was periodically jammed by the violent accidents of economic crisis. This whole mass of machinery, bolted together, without safety valves, vibrated like a structure of sheet iron. In every city in the world there are men watching and waiting for the day when the cover will blow off and the steam will explode.
Grouped under names of firms, they were perpetual victims of the warlike rituals of international trade (p. 111).
He takes trips inland to Lahej, where the Sultan, knighted by the British Queen, and secure “in the shadow of the military airplanes of the English” (p. 120), exploits the scarce water and the labour of tends of thousands of men who, Nizan thinks, look like “the laborers I once saw coming out of the bauxite mines on the road to Aix-en-Provence,their bodies covered with red earth” (p. 120). And another trip by boat to Djibouti, which he finds unbearably like Aden, except populated by southern Europeans, and with a brothel. There is no wisdom in Asia, but social classes in a war of commerce always already shading into violence, the naked violence of colonialism, exploitation and ennui.
He has already, midway through the trip, discovered that travel is not all that liberation, all that freedom he had imagine:
The so-called freedom of the seas is only absence. But oblivion is not another name for freedom. And freedom is all that counts: I must retrace my steps back. Back in Europe, on the quays of Glasgow where men did not have enough to eat every day (it was the time of the coal strike), I was looking for miracles, for events, for something that would be a break with the past and the promise of a real incarnation. I was under the impression that human life could be discovered through revelation: what mysticism. But the men of my age lived in the expectation of something -anything (p.85).
And he wonders: “Did I have to go Aden to seek out the secrets of Paris?” (p.132). “Arabia-France, Aden-Paris, Versailles-Lahej, the names of countries and cities are henceforth interchangeable” (p.147). In the end, after a very disappointing aside about Arab fatalism (that confounds so much else he was written up to then), he goes back to France, and learns to become active. He joins the French Communist Party – which he will leave a bit more than a decade later.
In the end, he sees the sea as a plaything of the masters: “For the masters of the French, the ocean is a reservoir of defenses, an excuse for guns, submariners, and cruisers… France is the victim of dreams of impenetrability. Oh to have frontiers made of diamond and corundum! But only, alas, these borders of water, granite, and shale.” (p. 145). He has a stunning section about Homo Economicus which is straight out of Michel Foucualt’s College de France lectures. And he writes this which feels very appropriate even today:
The French live out the days of their interminable lives like snails inside shells so heavy that they cannot cross the great deserts that separate them from action and thought. With all the cunning of old men who hold annuities, they see to it that nothing happens among them. Not even those encounters between automobiles bristling with machine guns that are the Americans’ last resort for social entertainment (p.148).
The book as a whole is one of the angriest and most densely polemical texts I have read and there isn’t a page I haven’t marked for a stunning phrase, an incendiary ideas, a beautiful articulation of something inarticulable. I wonder why it has taken me so long to become acquainted with Paul Nizan.