Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Nostalgie de la boue: Bill Brandt's bar

Nostalgie de la boue: '...a desire for degradation and depravity. The French phrase, meaning literally ‘mud nostalgia’, was coined by the French poet and dramatist Émile Augier (1820–89), in Le Mariage d'Olympe (1855). In response to the comment that a duck placed on a lake with swans will miss his pond and eventually return to it, the character Montrichard replies, ‘La nostalgie de la boue! [Longing to be back in the mud!’]

Yes, afflicted with it to a degree. A certain distaste for the utterly pristine. Dislike of clipped borders and tidy gardens (unless with fantastical topiary and toads). Shudder at acres of marble. Distrust of the cut and dried. Preference for the marred rather than the umarked. Liking for books with turned down corners and jottings in the margin. Fascination with old yellowed postcards with tea stains on them.

One scholar writes:

"Nostalgie de la boue" means ascribing higher spiritual values to people and cultures considered "lower" than oneself, the romanticization of the faraway primitive which is also the equivalent of the lower class close to home. I have been submerged in such ideas since I was born and am just getting my head out of the waters.

Do I then consider the people in the Bill Brandt photograph above to be lower than myself?

Not exactly. They are possible selves that move through some hinterland between dream and waking. In fact we know the desire for both, don't we? And in any case, let's look at the photograph again. If it isn't a set-up, some kind of tableau, then it is a scene in which the symbolic content is perfectly poised and posed in what is decidedly not one of Cartier-Bresson's decisive moments.

These are handsome artistic derelicts in a scenic bar, the scenery possibly from an early silent film, or maybe a stage set from Brecht & Weill. Might it be The Threepenny Opera? The nicely crude little drawing on the wall on the left, the military photo next to it, and the crooked picture of two figures underneath are all supporting cast to to the star of the complementary subplot: the image of the magnificent sailing boat riding in brilliant light across the waves.

So the mud (boue) from which these characters and stage properties have emerged has already been through the filter of art. The damp patch spreading like a continent across the wall has acquired a formality that longs for a suitable text to interpret it.

This nostalgie is the one I mean between dreaming and waking. It is no longer quite the primal mud: it is composition, texture, light, mise-en-scène, echo. Not so much the decisive moment as the dramatic eternity then, an existential condition to which the gut responds.

I too would be sitting in that bar. I too would feel the melancholy and the desire. It is a portrait of the soul, of the way the soul regards the body, or perhaps simply lives through the body. And it is nostalgic. And, in its own staged way, true to life, or so I think. The romanticization of the faraway primitive. Romanticization? Maybe. The primitive? Not entirely. Faraway? Not in the least. In easy reach. Within the body doing the reaching.

ps Those shoes are shined.


Billy C said...

I love the picture, and if it is posed, the director was worthy of high praise.

George S said...

I don't mind it being poised either, Billy. Gorgeous.

Were you for Uruguay or Holland?

Anonymous said...

Extraordinary. A picture of pictures. I wonder what the stories are.

George S said...

Interesting, Kathy, how quickly our minds leap from images to stories (mine do too, though I can hold it at bay for a while) in which the words that make the stories begin to crowd in on the image so the image fills up with voice.

It is certainly a photograph ithat lies at the cross-section of various stories.

Anonymous said...

Hi George
I was wondering. Please can you tell the name of this photo by Bill Brandt, if you know it. I have tried to find it on the Internet but without success. I am using it as inspiration for a poem and will need to reference it (assuming the poem turns out OK!).
Thank you.

George S said...

Not sure of the name, Kathy and i am not by my books now. I found it on Google Images, about the sixth screen in, and the site there doesn't have the name. Maybe another screen later will lead to a site that does.

Billy C said...

I was for Uruguay, George, because I'm a natural rebel at heart and the press have pissed me off big style the way they reacted to the Suarez incident.

Tonight - Germany v Spain - I was pretty neutral. But I wasn't disappointed when Germany lost. They're a super efficient machine, but that's what they've always been and that's why I wasn't disappointed when they lost. My generation has long memories of that super efficient machine, which has not always been used to build good football teams and good cars.

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know that I finally found out the title of this Bill Brandt photograph. It is 'At Charley Brown’s Pub, Limehouse, 1945'. I am still working on my poem inspired by it. kathyx