It’s from a book launch party for While We Were Sleeping: NYU and The Destruction of New York. As soon as I finished watching it I sent the link to my most scornful Bloomberg-scorning friend, who recently had me reaching for a notepad when he said that “living in a city where this little cunt is in charge of things is like living in 18th-century Paris.” Is it? It kind of is. Someone really ought to make a list about that. And why am I not trying my hand at writing libelles? Those topical, subversive, witty little pamphlets or one-sheets that flourished in France between the 16th and 18th centuries, often anonymously written because of nastiness or seditiousness or both, were quite obviously the blogs of their day. But not all blogs are libelles.
Am I qualified? I’m somewhat mordant by nature, not short on opinions, and I enjoy hitting the “publish” button but my very full-time day job gets in the way. Working in shorter, sharper forms holds considerable appeal. In my mid-twenties I was pretty thoroughly knocked out by Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the first thing of his I’d ever read, and, although a work of fiction, my first meaningful glimpse of libelles. I didn’t mind the notoriously detailed and lengthy description of printing press technology that occurs very early in the book, and the further I read the more I thought it was utterly brilliant. The main character is an aspiring poet from the provinces who later finds himself mucking about with Parisian journalists and libellistes, and Balzac’s determination to capture the pragmatic aspects of how technological progress changes things alongside the social aspects was exciting to me; it tickled the same vaguely Marxist parts of my brain that my college professors did when they talked about Dziga Vertov’s socialization of the movie camera. Prior to the libelle era, people simply could not vitiate public figures or distribute their most profane little thoughts in print affordably or with any great efficiency because printing presses hadn’t caught up with their urgent need to comment on the culture around them. I was delighted to read more Balzac and see that this was a theme with him — to see, for example, that in Cousin Bette someone seems to be setting up a trust for someone else every other page or so. My understanding — somewhat spotty, but reasonably well informed from having read about this some years ago — is that the trust was fairly new legal technology at the time, a creation of the Napoleonic code; before then, people could not arrange to distribute their money or property outside of the traditional family lines in any sort of reliable way. To provide for a lover outside of marriage or a gay lover, for example, was suddenly a possibility. (To this day the law of succession and probate in the state of Louisiana is quite different from that of other U.S. states because, being a former French territory, it is the only state whose law is based on the Napoleonic code rather than English common law). Anyhow, where was I? I think I was getting around to suggesting that someone ought to study Bloombergian culture in a Balzacian manner, with special attention to the nefarious money-grubbing Ms. Lebowitz so capably describes.
A libelliste’s mechanisms at work, scanned from The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France by Robert Darnton. Specifically, he’s “from the frontspiece to Le Gazetier cuirasse, ou anecdotes scandaleuses de la cour de France by Charles Theveneau de Morande, 1771.” I haven’t read the book yet but I’ve got the same author’s The Literary Underground of the Old Regime in my going-out-of-town bag this weekend.
That same friend I sent the video to has a recurring fantasy about running into Bloomberg someplace — our mayor does take the subway every once in a while, and gets into and out of shiny black SUVs all over town — and loudly exclaiming, as if unaware of himself “I can’t believe he’s so tiny in person!”
Did you know that in Marie Antoinette’s time women wore dioramas in their hair? The trend apparently started with the use of wire forms padded out with wool and horse hair, which gave them impressive volume, and before long they were perching entire allegories up there. Appraiser and interior architect Soodie Beasley writes that
[w]omen placed in their hair little figurines made from fabric and small objects made from papier maché. Their hairdresser arranged them as sceneries or landscapes. Sometimes, they used their hair as a stage to replicate historical scenes or sometimes to communicate an emotion — sentimental pouf — this type of do was called.
. . . . Marie Antoinette wore her pouf a’ la inoculation in support of the small pox vaccination which showed Aesculapius’s serpent wrapped around an olive tree.
She wore these hairstyles at court and in town, and this had a swift and contagious effect . . .
‘Everybody was talking of the poufs created by the firm of Bertin . . . one famous pouf was that of the Duchesse de Lauzun. She appeared at a reception wearing a most delicious pouf. It contained a stormy sea, ducks swimming near the shore, someone on the point of shooting one of them; on the top of the head there was a mill, the miller’s wife being made love to by an abbe, whilst near the ear the miller could be seen leading a donkey.’
The last paragraph there quotes Émile Langlade’s Rose Bertin, the creator of fashion at the court of Marie-Antoinette. I think the contemporary equivalent (in Manhattan, at least) is people doing unspeakably overwrought things to cocktails, which have become so burdened by displays of creativity that even bartenders are starting to wonder whether their preening is turning people off, and whether we haven’t turned some sort of corner yet. Delightful, innovative, gaudy, pompous, and inane — people have always been this way and always will be, and at any given moment the counterweights may be in need of rebalancing.
The title of my post comes from a scrap of commentary on the ancient Greek poet Hipponax I found floating around on the internet. It used to appear on his Wikipedia page but I don’t see it there now. These qualities are supposedly reasons why his “witty, abusive” verse was not more popular. (He is nonetheless sometimes credited with having invented parody, and his deft dealings with the sordid side of life in Ephesus seem to have made quite an impression on people). The first time I saw it I was struck by the idea that this particular scrap would make a very good manifesto of sorts for a blog, not unlike the mumbo-jumbo in the header on my food blog. Sometimes it’s incredibly helpful to limit and sharpen one’s focus, however perplexing the operational rules may appear to others.