flânerie, bananas, getting dead & being stoned, gay & generally self-identical: Edmund White (on), Josephine Baker & Théophile Gautier & foregoing Foucault

The rear end exists. I see no reason to be ashamed of it. It’s true there are rear ends so stupid, so pretentious, so insignificant that they’re good only for sitting on.

– Josephine Baker, quoted by Edmund White, The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, Bloomsbury, London, 2008, p. 76

Imagine dying and being grateful you’d gone to heaven, until one day (or one century) it dawned on you that your main mood was melancholy, although you were constantly convinced that happiness lay just around the corner. That’s something like living in Paris for years, even decades. It’s a mild hell so comfortable that it resembles heaven.

– Ibid., p. 50

They fell about laughing, then an unspeakable fear seized them, to be followed by a melting love of all humanity or by total immersion in a picture book. Movement became slow and sticky, the size of the rooms expanded dramatically, a sense of the epic and the magnificent distorted the feeling of the gathering, to be replaced by a repulsed gaze on the grotesque faces of the other revellers.

– Edmund White on the meeting of Le Club des Hachichins at Lauzun’s Pimodan Hotel on the Île St. Louis, Théophile Gautier (from whom more here) in attendance, ibid., p. 132

The extreme reluctance of the French to recognise the gravity of AIDS or to campaign against its spread is linked to other national ambiguities that show up in an overview of French attitudes towards gays and literature in particular, and towards identity politics in general. For example, one of the great paradoxes is that France – the country that produced some of the most renowned pioneer homosexual writers of this century (Marcel Proust, André Gide, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau and Marguerite Yourcenar, just to begin the list) – is also the country that most vigorously rejects the very idea of gay literature. As Didier Eribon, the author of a major biography of Michel Foucault, pointed out, this response is all of a piece with a more general rejection in France of everything that smacks of a politics based on minorities or the legitimization of feminism.

– Ibid., pp. 161-162

The French themselves would argue that their rejection of all ghettoization, far from being a sign of closetedness or cynicism, is in fact consistent with their ‘singularity’ as a nation. The French believe that a society is not a federation of special interest groups but rather an impartial state that treats each citizen – regardless of his or her gender, sexual orientation, religion or colour – as an abstract, universal individual. For the French any subgroup of citizens is a diminishment of human equality. [sic]

– Ibid, p. 166

Didier Lestrade, the openly gay and HIV-positive founder of Act Up in France … has admitted that he instinctively rejected Michel Foucault’s writing from the outset:

Act Up arrived at the very moment when denial of homosexuality had reached its limit. Suddenly I decided early on that in order to be the president of Act Up I would have to forego reading Foucault. Not that I felt a cultural inferiority complex, but Foucault’s thinking had so marked the first organizations in the struggle against AIDS that I had to save myself from its influence.

– Ibid., p. 169

French individualism – abstract and universal – along with a corresponding scorn of identity politics, has made France unusually vulnerable to AIDS.

– Ibid., p. 170