I write this short text, imagining myself in some small way, to be particularly French: Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), or Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) by name, living vicariously and imaginatively in my unconfined and constructed world. This risks sounding rather glib given the gravity of our current predicaments, and as if to excuse the conceptual shorthand, I shall endeavour to unpack the aforementioned. Unzipping the both of these in turn is both complex and, I would assert, extremely relevant. Relevant in that we currently find our collective human conditions radically altered by circumstances that highlight the divergence between our interior worlds and externalised existences – in itself a rare occurrence.
Huysman, a lifetime civil servant in the French Ministry of the Interior, achieved considerable and unlikely notoriety for his anti-naturalist passages and contorted vocabulary in works such as À rebours. But I would argue that the fantastical, near-heretical use of language and description were the product of, and a reaction to, a lifetime of clerical confinement. The extraordinary descriptive passages within À rebours transport the reader into a strange post- looking glass world of harrowing sensory overload, and almost surely gives an insight into the writer’s feeling of impotence in the face of shrunken sensory and experiential horizons. But this is not escapist, more an homage to the progressive fatalism and disillusion which advancing age can bring to the unguarded and unduly optimistic.
Anathema in lifestyle, but oddly similar in textual disposition, Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, and Locus Solus are exquisite forays into the bizarre, the latter title epitomised by odd machines, and painstaking descriptions of tableaux vivant that bear more than a passing resemblance to the prose of Huysmans and Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). Roussel benefitted, or was perhaps corrupted by, a substantial inheritance at the tender age of 16 that enabled him to indulge his musical and theatrical fantasies to the point of ruin and an eventual, self-inflicted demise.
And so, dear reader, this meander brings me full circle and back to my thinly-disguised titular wordplay on Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real (1996). Foster’s scything conjecture on the relationship between art criticality and art history, offers a number of parallels for the current existential dilemma facing society. Principally, we face an unpalatable dichotomy of sacrificial choices, on the one hand between the lives of citizens, and on the other, economic viability. The costs of binary solutions either way are scary, and our leaders understand only too well the tightrope between saving lives from the pandemic and the unsustainability of a more prolonged shutdown. The shutdown which melts financial markets and societal stability in ways that were, up until now, impossible to countenance beyond the apocalyptic and ‘think the unthinkable’ models of respective national intelligence agencies. The parallels between COVID-19 and Spanish Flu (1918-1920, 500 million victims) or the Bubonic Plague (1347-1351, 75 – 200 million victims) are neither heartening nor helpful in managing our unaccustomedness to mass pestilence – a false consciousness by any other name. I am sure to many of us, given that our experts have undone DNA, created AI and shared the Internet, the fact that our species is cowed and our cosy routines flattened by a virus, is quite unfathomable.
So finally, to get to the point of all this, Foster once said: "I've never seen critical work in opposition to historical work: like many others I try to hold the two in tandem, in tension. History without critique is inert; criticism without history is aimless"1. My argument (if it is an argument), concludes by way of a number of visual examples of how artists have cognitively dealt with isolation, social distancing, and alienation - and to remind ourselves that for many creative people these conditions are emotionally, socially and spiritually familiar. I would assert that for the individual, and for the collective, there are imaginative ways through this current tragedy, but denial and the pretence that everything will be ok probably isn’t one of them. So follow government guidelines, but perhaps reconsider the value and resilience acquired by artists as adventurers, and by definition, outsiders.
1 Foster, Hal (2004). "Polemics, postmodernism, immersion, militarized space". Journal of Visual Culture. 3 (3): 320–35. Interviewed by Marquard Smith.