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Area Sneaks: Daniel Tiffany

Daniel Tiffany

Infidel Culture

The Brands of Cupid

To those who look on poetry with suspicion – like those confronted by the jargon of a secret society – lyric obscurity is a fact, perhaps the only fact divulged by a poem. The enviably polarized condition of readers duped, baffled, or snared by a “rhyme” may help to explain the particular absence in the history of letters of anything resembling a physiognomy of nightlife. The rare student, or philosopher, of the night must address her audience, like Socrates, in a voice that is not her own, though we should not forget that one exemplary figure, Doctor Matthew Mighty-Grain-of-Salt Dante O’Connor (a character in Djuna Barnes’ novel, Nightwood) speculates, notoriously, from experience: the good doctor, surprised in a blond wig at three o’clock in the morning by a female visitor to his chambre a coucher, undertakes with some irritation his great prospectus of the night: “Take history at night, have you ever thought of that, now?” In true Socratic fashion, he supplies an answer to his own question:

Have you thought of the night, now, in other times, in foreign countries – in Paris? When the streets were gall high with things you wouldn’t have done for a dare’s sake, and the way it was then….The criers telling the price of wine to such effect that the dawn saw good clerks full of piss and vinegar, and blood-letting in side streets where some wild princess in anight-shift of velvet howled under a leach.

The night criers hawking wine (and the application of the leach) in Barnes’ text belong in the company of vendors and beggars chanting in the streets, to the poetics of the canting song. Voices, never entirely real, rise out of the historical night, scant evidence of a culture that remains beneath the threshold of verisimilitude. Yet these anonymous measures also contribute, more substantially and reliably, to a literary topos, a place made of words, a placeless place, where history and lyric poetry converge in the dark: a nightspot.

The anachronistic air of Barnes’ great experimental novel – one of the distinguishing features of the modern nocturne – draws on many of the same Elizabethan and Jacobean sources which preserve the “rhyme-booty” of the canting crew. Indeed, the specialized trades and topographies of nightlife include the itinerant habits of the canting crew, often finding common ground in the promiscuous space of the tavern. Thus the history of nightlife and the riddling speech of cant illuminate one another, blindly and reciprocally, disclosing precious details about phenomena that have nearly vanished from historical memory. In this sense, the rhymes of the canting crew (embedded in a variety of sources) function as sources of historical – and profane – illumination, fitfully and haphazardly lighting the topography of nightlife.

The Politics of Nightlife

The sociological obscurity of the nightclub provides safe haven for practices judged to be improper, indecent, or illegal by ordinary society. These forms of transgression have historically often amounted to little more than intimate transactions between disparate social classes and races––events that would be impossible in the light of day. The fact that these transgressions have political significance becomes evident only when they are identified as elements in a larger field of cultural experimentation. Under these circumstances, the nightclub becomes a social and political laboratory, a theater, but also, more surprisingly, an early site for the implementation of the new technical media––a media lab. Transmission becomes a form of transgression in the sociological half-light of the tavern.

The advent of modern nightlife, the moment of historical self-awakening, coincides with a general expansion of court records of infidel culture. The portrayals of the demimonde encrypted in the canting song begin to appear in the records of the political state, as witnessed, for example, by these dossiers from the archives of the Parisian police, 1781-1785:

GORSAS: proper for all kinds of vile jobs. Run out of Versailles and put in Bicêtre [a jail for especially disreputable criminals] by personal order of the king for having corrupted children whom he had taken in as lodgers….Gorsas produces libelles [slander sheets]. He has an arrangement with an apprentice printer who has been fired from other printing shops. He [Gorsas] is suspected of having printed obscene works there. He peddles prohibited books.

AUDOUIN: calls himself a lawyer, writes nouvelles à la main [seditious pamphlets], peddler of forbidden books; he is connected with Prudhomme, Manuel, and other disreputable authors and book peddlers. He does all kinds of work; he will be a spy when one wants.

DELACROIX: lawyer, writer, expelled from the bar. He produces [judicial] mémoires for shady cases; and when he has no mémoires to write, he writes scurrilous works.

These shadowy figures represent la basse littérature, a new kind of literary community shaped in part by radical politics, but also by a revolution in the media of the demimonde, which began to take shape in the waning years of the Old Regime in France. Though we have some evidence of the ephemera produced by this community of authors and printers (pamphlets, scandal sheets, squibs, broadside ballads), a detailed picture of this clandestine milieu––at the very bottom of the Enlightenment––depends largely on reports filed by government spies and on the archives of the Bastille. As comments in the files I’ve cited indicate, many of these individuals served the Jacobin revolutionary cause by participating in the burgeoning democratization of print media at the time. They were authors (and so-called philosophes), but also booksellers, smugglers of forbidden texts, and radical pressmen; they had no choice but to operate underground, apart from the monopolistic and government-protected guild of printers.

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