Huysmans goes with the flow. Cocteau goes to the circus
Francesca Garofoli | 25-11-2007 | ENG
(Translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano)
Acrobatic lives. Literary experiences from the edge. Two books edited by Marco Dotti that tell of existential man.

Someone undresses while someone cross-dresses.
Two authors: one born from the ashes of the other. Cocteau and Huysmans.
Two characters: the only thing they have in common is their "nakedness".
Folantin and Barbette.
The nakedness of those who live precariously close to death.
Folantin drags it behind him like a tombstone, a funereal look. Like the greyness that blends every living being with the hoary Parisian mist. Forced to go with the flow.
Barbette wears it like a feathered costume. Like the shiver of intoxication that awakens Genet's high wire performer. Like a stifling, tragic laugh. From the abyss.

Folantin and Barbette never met. And never could have. The realities they inhabit are too different. The unfortunate office clerk, unmarried, poorly paid, bored and going nowhere fast would have had nothing whatsoever to say to the tightrope-walking artist on his trapeze, the man who every evening dons his female plumage and defies ethical and moral death in the circus ring.

And yet they cross the streets of the same city. Paris, at a time that Montesquieu captured with his callous cynicism when he wrote: "Paris is perhaps the most luxurious city in the world; in it pleasure is carried to the highest pitch of refinement; yet life there is perhaps harder than in any other city. That one man may live delicately, a hundred must labour without intermission".

And so it is that for every twirling Barbette, oblivious to human hardship, one hundred Folantins shuffle along, exhausted by the constraints of their meagre existence. Folantin stomached suspicious eggs "that smelt of pooh", while Barbette was becoming immortal behind Man Ray's lens. Folantin "would try to mix the egg yolk that floated in the blotchy whites with some bread crumbs", while Barbette was carving out his little corner of fame reciting for Cocteau.

Folantin chases after existence, pitiless as it is, from one eating house to the next. It is a life of scraps: "supper was miserable and the wine tasted like ink"… "service was slow and the wine smelt of petrol"… "the mustard masked the putrid taste of the meat"… His is an existential journey marked by the colour of unappetizing sauces or stains on the tablecloth, by the indefinable grey of the rundown restaurants bachelors frequent, where eating is only a minor detail in the day. A day that repeats itself. Over and over.

Folantin, the incomplete creature found in Zola's naturalism and decadent idleness. Unaware that he won't get burnt by the "internal fire that generates radiance" (Cocteau). Folantin, the victim of "this drama of being and not being anything, against which pride rebels" (Cocteau, again). But Folantin doesn't understand the reason for rebellion. He would have given anything to have had the determination and courage to be Des Esseintes, to court danger on the edge of the abyss, whereas he only manages to pussyfoot around disgust.

Folantin, who calls to mind Deleuze's exhausted, Melville's scribe or Dostoevskij's ridiculous man, but who lacks the strength and conviction to make it all the way. And while Cocteau, with his trapeze artists, boxers, singers and toreadors "allows himself the luxury of dazzling Paris", Folantin-Huysmans is defeated by it, crushed, pushed back.
Folantin moves warily within the confines of an existence he can't, won't and shouldn't endure. Except when he pauses to consider "the futility of changing tack, the sterility of rushing and making an effort: what you have to do is just go with the flow". A vau l'eau.

(November 25, 2007)
Joris-Karl Huysmans
Alla deriva
Original title: A vau l'eau
English tr.: With the Flow
(Translation French-Italian by Marco Dotti)
:duepunti edizioni, 2007
pp. 96 - euro 9,00

Jean Cocteau
From the French, Oeuvres Complètes, vol. IX - Le numéro Barbette
(Translation French-Italian by Marco Dotti)
medusa, 2007
pp. 127 - euro 14,00

Translator's Note:
Montesquieu quotation is taken from John Davidson's translation of Montesquieu's Persian letters (1721).