cosas encontradas: un fantástico ensayo de Bruce Sterling sobre el fotógrafo Nadar

LEER: "Return to the Rue Jules Verne"

Foto: retrato de Jules Verne por Nadar

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Andrés Hax dijo...

Bruce Sterling

Literary Freeware: Not For Commercial Use

From SCIENCE FICTION EYE #12. SF Eye, P.O. Box 18539,
Asheville NC 28814. $12.50/three issues $20 outside USA

CATSCAN 12: "Return to the Rue Jules Verne"

These people are not my spiritual ancestors. I know
my real spiritual ancestors -- they were the Futurians and
the Hydra Club. But although these people are a century
and a half gone, and further distanced by language,
culture and a mighty ocean, something about them -- what
they did, what they felt, what they were -- takes me by
the throat.

It won't let go. My first Catscan column, "Midnight
on the Rue Jules Verne," made much ado of this milieu, and
of one of its members, Felix Tournachon (1820-1910).
Tournachon, when known at all today, is best-known as
"Nadar," a pseudonym he first adopted for his Parisian
newspaper work in the 1840s. Nadar was a close friend of
the young Jules Verne, and he helped inspire Verne's first
blockbuster period techno-thriller, FIVE WEEKS IN A

Nadar and Verne were contemporaries, both of them
emigres to Paris with artistic ambitions, a taste for hard
work, and a pronounced Bohemian bent. Nadar and Verne
further shared an intense interest in geography, mapping,
and aviation. Verne's influence on Nadar was slim, but
Nadar impressed Verne mightily. Nadar even featured as
the hero of one of Verne's best-known novels, FROM THE
EARTH TO THE MOON, as the thinly anagrammed "Michael

Thanks to the efforts of my good friend Richard
Dorsett (a rare book dealer by trade) I have come into
possession of a book called simply NADAR, a collection of
359 of Monsieur Tournachon's pioneering nineteenth-century
photographs, assembled in 1976 by Nigel Gosling for Alfred
A Knopf. I knew that Nadar had been a photographer,
among his other pursuits as an aeronaut, journalist,
caricaturist, author, man-about-Paris, and sometime
inspiration for a prototypical science-fiction writer.
But I never realized that Nadar was *this good!*

Nadar's photographic record of his Parisian
contemporaries is the most potent and compelling act of
social documentation that I've ever seen.

Nadar, and his studio staff, photographed nineteenth-
century Parisians by the hundreds, over many decades,
first as a hobby, and later as as a highly successful
commercial venture. But Nadar had a very special eye for
the personalities of his friends -- the notables of Paris,
the literati, musicians, poets, critics, and political

These are the people who invented "la vie de Boheme."
They invented the lifestyle of the urban middle-class
dropout art-gypsy. They invented its terminology and its
tactics. They brought us the "succes de scandale," the
now time-honored tactic of shocking one's audience all the
way to the bank. And the "succes d'estime," the edgy and
hazardous life of the critics' darling. The doctrine of
art for art's sake was theirs too (thank you, Theophile
Gautier). And the ever-helpful notion of *epater les
bourgeoisie,* an act of consummately modern rebellion
which is nevertheless impossible without a bourgeoisie to
epater, an act which the bourgeoisie itself has lavishly
financed for decades in our culture's premiere example of
Aldissian enantiodromia -- the transformation of things
into their opposites.

The Paris Bohemians were the first genuine
industrial-scale counterculture. This was the culture
that created Jules Verne. It deserves a great deal of the
credit or blame for origination of the genres of horror,
fantasy, and science fiction. It has a legitimate claim
on our attention and our loyalties.

Jules Verne enjoys a minor role in this book of
Nadar's photographs. Verne is on page 230.

One good look at Verne's perceptive portrait by Nadar
is enough to make you understand why Jules became an
Amiens city councilman, rather than drinking himself to
death or dying of syphilis in approved period Bohemian
fashion. Verne was a science fiction writer, and a great
one. Anyone reading SF EYE possesses big juicy chunks of
Verne's memetics, whether you know it or not. But unlike
many of Nadar's other friends -- people such as Proudhon
(page 171) and Bakunin ( page 175) and Journet (page 127)
-- Jules Verne was not a driven maniac. Jules Verne was
clearly quite a nice guy. He projects an air of well-nigh
Asimovian polymathic jollity. He's having a good time at
the Nadar studio; he's had to visit his barber, and he's
required to sit still quite a while in a stiff new suit,
but you can tell that Verne trusts the man behind the
camera, and that he's cherishing a sense of humor about
this experience.

This is not a tormented soul, not a man to batter
himself to death against brick walls. Jules Verne has the
look of a man who has hit four or five brick walls in his
past, and then bought a map and a compass and paid some
sustained attention to them. He looks like someone you
could trust with your car keys.

The perfect complement to Nadar's photography is
Jerrold Seigel's *BOHEMIAN PARIS: Culture, Politics, and
the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life 1830-1930* (published
in 1986). Almost every individual mentioned in Professor
Seigel's book had a portrait taken by Nadar. Seigel's is
a fine book which I have read several times; I consider
it the single most useful book I have ever seen for
denizens of a counterculture.

Professor Seigel's book has quite a bit to say about
Nadar and his circle, and about the theory and practice of
Bohemianism generally. Professor Seigel's book is
especially useful for its thumbnail summary of what might
be called the Ten Warning Signs of Bohemianism. According
to Seigel, these are:

1. Odd dress.
2. Long hair.
3. Living for the moment.
4. Sexual freedom.
5. Having no stable residence.
6. Radical political enthusiasms.
7. Drink.
8. Drugs.
9. Irregular work patterns.
10. Addiction to nightlife.

As Seigel eloquently demonstrates, these are old
qualities. They often seem to be novel and faddish, and
are often denounced as horrid, unprecedented and aberrant,
but that's because, for some bizarre and poorly explored
reason, conventional people are simply unable to pay
serious and sustained attention to this kind of behavior.
Through some unacknowledged but obviously potent
mechanism, industrial society has silently agreed that
vast demographic segments of its population will be
allowed to live in just this way, blatantly manifesting
these highly objectionable attitudes. And yet this
activity will never be officially recognized -- it simply
isn't "serious." There exists a societal denial-
mechanism here, a kind of schism or filter or screen that,
to my eye at least, is one of the most intriguing
qualities that our society possesses.

In reality, these Ten Warning Signs are every bit as
old as industrial society. Slackers, punks, hippies,
beatniks, hepcats, Dead End kids, flappers, jazz babies,
fin-de-siecle aesthetes, pre-Raphaelites, Bohemians --
this stuff is *old.* People were living a vividly
countercultural life in Bohemian Paris when the house in
which I'm writing these words was a stomping ground for
enormous herds of bison.

Two qualities about Bohemian Paris strike me very
powerfully. First, the very aggressive, expansive and
ambitious nature of this counterculture. With a few
exceptions, the denizens of Bohemian Paris, though small
in number, were not people hiding their light under a
bushel. Some of them were obscure, and deservedly so, but
there was nothing deliberately hermetic about them; much
of their lives took place in very public arenas such as
cafes, cabarets and theatres. They feuded loudly in the
newspapers and journals, and to whatever extent they
could, they deliberately manipulated critics, maitresses
de salon and other public tastemakers. They bent every
effort to make themselves public figures, and if they
achieved fame they used it, to radical ends. Many of them
declared themselves ready to take to the streets and
literally seize power from the authorities. And thanks to
the convulsive nature of 19th-century French politics,
many of them actually had the opportunity to try this.

The second remarkable quality about the vie de boheme
was its high lethality. This was an era of high death-
rates generally, but "living on the edge" before Pasteur
was a shockingly risky enterprise. Promiscuous sex was
particularly deadly. Bohemia's foremost publicity-man,
Henri Murger, died at thirty-eight, complaining weakly of
the rotting stench in his room, so far gone from
syphilitic paresis that he didn't realize that the stench
came from his own flesh. Bohemia's most gifted poet,
Charles Baudelaire, was rendered mute by paresis before
succumbing at 46. Jules de Goncourt, art critic,
journalist, novelist, and diarist succumbed to syphilitic
dementia at 40. And then there was the White Plague,
tuberculosis, reaping Rachel the great tragedienne as well
as the fictional "Mimi," the tragic soubrette of Puccini's
opera La Boheme, which was based on the Murger stories,
themselves based firmly on Murger's daily life.

If Jerrold Seigel's BOHEMIAN PARIS has a hero, it's
Henri Murger, also known as "Henry Murger," who was the
first to fictionally treat the Vie de Boheme -- in a
series of stories for a radical Paris newspaper
marvellously titled *Le Corsaire-Satan.* Nadar also
wrote for *Le Corsaire-Satan,* and Nadar photographed
Murger in 1854. Murger appears on page 53 as a balding,
pop-eyed, bearded and much put-upon chap dressed entirely
in black. Besides the syphilis that eventually killed
him, Murger also suffered from an odd disease known as
purpura which turned his skin quite purple "every week at
a regular day and hour." The impact of Nadar's
sympathetic portrait is, if anything, intensified by the
fact that the collodion surface of the photographic plate
has cracked along the bottom, trapping the doomed Murger
in a spiderweb of decay.

Murger founded a Bohemian club called the Water-
Drinkers. Jules Verne had his own circle, the Eleven
Without Women. Victor Hugo led the Cenacle group, and
Hugo's disciple Theophile Gautier, a great wellspring of
Bohemian attitude, led a successor group called the Petite
Cenacle. The Goncourt brothers founded the Magny circle
and attended the salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, the
premiere aristo bluestocking of the Second Empire.
Baudelaire, Gautier and a vicious satirist named Alphonse
Karr started the Club des Hashischiens, dabbling in opium
and hash in the 1850s.

Groups, clubs, salons and movements were the basic
infrastructure of Bohemia. The bonds of counterculture
were highly informal, highly personal, highly tribal. It
was a tightly-knit society in which personality loomed
large. It was almost possible to make an entire career
merely through prolonged and determined hanging-out.

Nadar manifested a positive genius for this sort of
activity. In his early years in the 1840s, Nadar
oscillated between the literary circles of Murger and
Baudelaire. But by 1865, Nadar boasted, probably quite
accurately, that he knew 10,000 Parisians personally.
Nadar possessed enormous personal charisma; except for his
own kin, he apparently never made an enemy, and everyone
who ever met him remembered him very well.

Nadar began his Parisian career as a newspaper
caricaturist. His caricatures, collected in a whopping
tome called NADAR DESSINS ET ECRITS (Paris 1979) show a
certain inky liveliness and keen eye for the ludicrous,
but he was no Daumier. His career in journalism was
highly unstable. Most of the magazines Nadar wrote and
cartooned for either collapsed in short order from public
disinterest or were shut down by the government for
radical sedition. This signally failed to discourage
Nadar, however. Around 1850 he hatched a grand scheme to
personally document every celebrity in Paris, in a monster
project to be called "Pantheon Nadar."

Even with help, it was far beyond his ability to
complete this "Pantheon," and the project eventually
foundered -- but not before Nadar had met and sketched
some 300 prominent literateurs, journalists, critics and
tastemakers. He left knowing every last one of them by
their first names.

While trying to upgrade the art of caricature to an
industrial scale, Nadar, in 1853, stumbled into the
dawning world of photography. He originally saw
photography as a means of swiftly documenting celebrities
for later caricature by hand, but he swiftly realized that
he could dump the tiresome ink-work entirely and go
straight for real-life portraiture in a glamorous new

Nadar wrote fifteen books, including novels and
memoirs, and was a prominent aviation pioneer, but
photography proved to be the closest thing he had to a
true metier. Though he did patent an artificial lighting
system in 1861, Nadar was not a major technical pioneer in
photography -- not a Daguerre or a Fox-Talbot. He had
contemporary commercial rivals, as well: Antony Adam-
Solomon, Pierre Petit, Etienne Cajart, and others.

Nadar's genuine pioneer status lay in his
appropriation of this new technology into unexpected
contexts. He was the first to take a picture from the
air, the first to take a picture underground, the first to
take a picture by artificial light.

And he was the first to appropriate this technical
innovation and bend it to the purposes of the Bohemian
art-world. This was an archetypal case of the Rue Jules
Verne finding its own uses for things. Nadar stated his
philosophy of photography in 1856, when he rudely sued
his own younger brother for sole ownership of the (now
thriving) Nadar photographic atelier trade-name.

"The theory of photography can be learnt in an hour
and the elements of practicing in a day.... What cannot
be learnt is the sense of light, an artistic feeling....
What can be learnt even less is the moral grasp of the
subject -- that instant understanding which puts you in
touch with the model, helps you to sum him up, guides you
to his habits, his ideas and his character and enables you
to produce, not an indifferent reproduction, a matter of
routine or accident such as any laboratory assistant could
achieve, but a really convincing and sympathetic likeness,
an intimate portrait."

It's pleasant to see how this rhetoric works. Theory
means little, practice less. Successfully shifting the
terms of debate from the technical to the artistic robs
actual photographic experts of all their cultural
authority. In an instant, the technology's originators
dwindle into the miserable nerdish status of the
"laboratory assistant."

The crux of photography now becomes a matter of
innate talent, a question of personal gifts. Inspiration
knows no baud rate. As Nadar remarked later: "In
photography as in everything else there are people who
know how to see and others who don't even know how to
look." This is a splendid kind of audacity, the sign of a
subculture which is not beleaguered and defensive but
confident, alert and aggressively omnivorous.

It's a mark of Nadar's peculiar genius that he was
able to devour photography and thrive while digesting it,
rather than recoiling in future shock like his
contemporary and close friend Baudelaire. In 1859
Baudelaire wrote a long screed against photography, in
which he decried its threat to aesthetics and the avante-

"...(I)t is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by
invading the territories of art, has become art's most
mortal enemy.... If photography is allowed to supplement
art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted
or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the
multitude that is its natural ally."

Baudelaire nevertheless posed for Nadar's camera. In
fact Baudelaire admired Nadar very much, aptly describing
Nadar as an "astounding example of vitality."
Baudelaire's photo is on page 67 and Nadar's portrait of
the author of FLOWERS OF EVIL is without any doubt the
single most remarkable image in the Nadar collection.

Despite the fact that he has stuffed one mitt into an
oversized double-breasted coat in Napoleonic fashion,
Baudelaire looks shockingly contemporary. It's a face
that you could see tomorrow in SPY or SPIN or INTERVIEW,
sharp, slightly contemptuous, utterly self-possessed.
The photograph is 1855, two years before the police
seizure and legal condemnation of FLOWERS OF EVIL.

The Goncourt Brothers said that Baudelaire had "the
face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like steel." There is
no recorded trace of his voice, but the face Nadar
preserved for us is indeed maniacal -- which is to say,
the face of someone not from the Goncourts' century, but
rather from our own. Baudelaire looked like a maniac
because he looks just like one of us.

FLOWERS OF EVIL is probably the greatest literary
monument of the Paris Bohemia, a book which after 136
years remains in many ways novel, frightening and
unsettling. Today it's not the frank eroticism and
deliberate blasphemy which disturb -- although "Les
Bijoux," a chop-licking description of Baudelaire's
mistress lolling around on a divan naked under her stage
jewelry, remains remarkably hot and bothersome.

It's not the period elements that sting, but that
vibrant underlying mania. Just test the potency of the
following lines, an invocation to Death in "Le Voyage,"
the last poem in Fleurs du Mal:

"O Death, old captain, it is time! Lift anchor!
This land wearies us, o Death, let us set sail!
Even though sky and sea are black as ink,
Our hearts you know are filled with light!

Pour out your poison to strengthen us!
Our brains are so scorched with flame that we want
To plunge to the depths of the abyss, what matter if
it be Hell or Heaven?
-- To the bottom of the Unknown to find something

For all his pop-star world-weary aesthetic posing --
Nadar describes Baudelaire as favoring excessively flared
black jackets, red scarves, pink gloves and shoulder-
length curling hair -- Baudelaire clearly *meant* this.
He'll immolate himself, run any mad risk to break through
consensus reality, to smash the ennui of civilization and
all mortal limits in the slim hope of achieving some
completely unknown form of ontological novelty. This is
a junkie's rhetoric, but in an odd and menacing way quite
timeless. It's a declaration one might take to heart
today just before eating a double-handful of untested
smart-drugs, and it could serve just as well as the
rhetoric of some 22nd-century posthuman deliberately
tweaking his own genetics. In some profound sense, it
does not bode well for humanity that we are capable of
producing a work like Fleurs du Mal.

"If rape, poison, the dagger, and arson have not yet
embroidered their pleasing designs on the banal canvas of
our wretched destinies, it's because (alas!) we lack the
courage to act otherwise." Put it this way -- this is not
the guy to trust with your car keys.

Immediately after Baudelaire's amazing portrait comes
another extremely striking Nadar image. It's a studio
nude of Christine Roux, a cafe singer and minor-league
courtesan who ran in the Murger circle and was talked out
of her clothes by Nadar in 1855. She also features as
"Musette" in Murger's *Scenes de la Vie de Boheme,* in
which she is the mistress of "Marcel," himself said to be
based partially on Nadar. Christine stands in a
conventional model's art-posture, weight on one leg, torso
slightly twisted, but her face is hidden in the crook of
her raised right elbow, rendering her effectively
anonymous, a luscious icon for the male gaze.

Murger's fictional treatment of Musette is friendly
and tolerant, but more than a little contemptuous. The
fictional Musette is the standard hooker with a heart of
gold; but Murger's indulgence doesn't hide the fact that
the Paris Bohemia was a society that specialized in
treating women as hired meat. Here's Nadar himself, a
man of wide tolerance, a man of unquestionable
psychological insight, describing Baudelaire's favorite
mistress, the small-time actress and courtesan Jeanne

"A tall, almost too tall girl. A negress, or at least
a mulatto: whole packets of ricepowder could not bleach
the copper of the face, neck and hands. A beautiful
creature in fact, of a special beauty which owed nothing
to Phidias. A special dish for the ultrarefined palate.
Beneath the impetuous luxuriance of her ink-black and
curling mane, her eyes, large as soup-plates, seemed
blacker still; her nose was small, delicate, the nostrils
chiselled with exquisite delicacy; her mouth Egyptian....
the mouth of the Isis of Pompeii, with splendid teeth
between prominent and beautifully designed lips. She
looked serious, proud, even a bit disdainful. Her figure
was long-waisted, graceful and undulating as a snake, and
especially remarkable for the exuberant, exceptional
development of the breasts. And this abundance, which was
not without grace, gave her the look of a branch
overloaded with ripe fruit."

Jeanne Duval's sexy as hell. She's a special dish,
she's a soup-plate, she's a statue, she's a snake, she's a
fruit tree; she's anything but a human being. This is the
rhetoric one has to emit in order to treat women the way
women were treated in Bohemian Paris. In FLOWERS OF EVIL,
Baudelaire gloats over Jeanne Duval with a lipsmacking
contempt that is truly painful to witness, declaring her a
beast, a tramp, trash, carrion, and then wallowing in her
at length. One can't help but conclude that Baudelaire
would like Jeanne even better if her head were severed,
although that might reduce the ugly satisfaction he takes
in blaming her for the existence of his own libido.

Musette, her photo placed rather too aptly on page 69,
is a poisoned dish. You have to buy her, and if you catch
anything from her, it's as much as your life is worth.
There's no birth control to speak of, so you may well end
up supporting bastard children or, worse yet, not
supporting them. There will be no meeting of minds here;
it's true Musette can sing a bit, but to marry her would
be an utter disaster, a mesalliance reducing you to a
social laughing-stock. This is skin for money, with a
nice brain-eating tang of Russian roulette tossed in for
spice. And by the way, it's also a mortal sin, which is
no small deal in mid-nineteenth century Catholic France.

Are you really going to do this? Are you going to
spend the money to buy Musette, and take that dire risk of
all that potential misery and hurt, to yourselves and to
her and to your parents and to the next generation, and to
God Himself and the Savior and all the saints and angels
for that matter, merely in order to emptily and
temporarily possess the anonymous female body depicted on
page 69?

Fuck yes you are. Of course you are. I mean, just
*look* at it!

In the all-too-immortal words of the Brothers
Goncourt: "Men like ourselves require a woman with
little breeding, small education, gay and natural in
spirit, to charm or please us as would an agreeable animal
to which we might become attached. But if a mistress had
a veneer of breeding, or art, or of literature, and
wanted to talk on an equal footing with us about our
thoughts and our feeling for beauty; if she were ambitious
to become the companion of our taste or of the book
gestating within us, she would become for us as unbearable
as a piano out of tune -- and very soon antipathetic."

Nadar reports his last view of Jeanne Duval in 1870,
her graceful undulating exotic tasty carcass propped on
crutches from the ravages of syphilis. Musette died in a
shipwreck in 1860, at age 25.

Here's Theophile Gautier on page 113. He was an
extremely hip and happening guy, Gautier. There's a lot
to be learned from him. He looks very much like a
bouncer in a biker bar. This beefy dude is the
ultrarefined escapist lily-clutching Romantic aesthete who
coined the dictum "only what is useless is beautiful" in
his *Mademoiselle Maupin,* one of the great indecent
books of the nineteenth century. Gautier was a major
pioneer of fantasy as a genre, an arty arch-Romantic who
wrote about Orientalism and female vampires and mystically
revived female mummies and tasty female succubi who jump
off the embroidery in ancient tapestries to fuck the
brains out of undergraduate XIXth-cent. lit-majors, and
yet Nadar's portrait makes it utterly clear that Gautier
is a guy who could swiftly kick the shit out of nine men
out of ten.

At age nineteen, Gautier led the howling Romantic
contingent at the premiere of Victor Hugo's *Hernani* in
1830, the public brawl that marked the end of
NeoClassicism as a theatrical doctrine; and you can see
from his portrait that Gautier wasn't doing anything so
mild as "marking" the end of classicism, he was publicly
breaking its back and was proud and happy to do it.

Gautier's table-talk is the best stuff in the famously
gossipy *Journals* of the Brothers Goncourt. By the 1860s
Gautier had become the most powerful critic in Paris; a
man who wrote operas and ballets and plays and short
stories and novels and travel books and poetry and about a
million crap newspaper columns, and yet he found the time
to eat hash and dominate salons and throw monster parties
at the house of his common-law wife that had, among other
attractions, actual Chinese people in them. Gautier was
writing for the government organ *Le Moniteur* as a
theatre critic and he was the lion of Mathilde Bonaparte's
circle, Mathilde being Napoleon III's cousin and the
Second Empire's officially sanctioned token bluestocking
liberal. Having reached the height of Bohemian public
acceptance Gautier ground out his copy in public and in
private he lived in open scandal and bitched about the
government every chance he got. The stuff he says is
unbelievable, it's a cynical head-trip torrent worthy of
Philip K. Dick.

Picture this: it's 1860. Civil War is just breaking
out in the USA. Meanwhile, Theophile Gautier's at a
literary dinner in the rue Taitbout in a sumptuous
drawing-room lined with padded pigeon-blood silk. He's
drinking twenty-two-year-old champagne and discussing the
immortality of the soul. Gautier addresses a right-wing
Catholic. "Listen, Claudin, " he says, "assume the Sun
was inhabited. A man five feet tall on Earth would be
seven hundred and fifty leagues high on the Sun. That is
to say, the soles of your shoes, assuming you wore heels,
would be two leagues long, a length equal to to the depth
of the ocean at its deepest. Now listen to me, Claudin:
and along with your two leagues of boot soles you would
possess seventy-five leagues of masculinity in the natural

Claudin, shocked, babbles something eminently

"You see," Gautier continues suavely, "the immortality
of the soul, free will -- it is very pleasant to be
concerned with these things before one is twenty-two years
old; but afterward such subjects are no longer seemly.
One ought then to be concerned to have a mistress who does
not get on one's nerves; to have a decent place to live;
to have a few passable pictures on the wall. And most of
all, to be writing well. That is what is important:
sentences that hang together... and a few metaphors. Yes,
a few metaphors. They embellish life."

Gautier divided his time between the literary salons
of Mathilde Bonaparte and La Paiva. La Paiva was a
courtesan, a true grande horizontale, a demimondaine who
had battled her way to the top through sheer chilly grit
and professional self-abnegation. She scared the hell out
of the Brothers Goncourt, who paint her as an aberrant
harpy, but Mathilde was jealous of her nonetheless, and
complained that the litterateurs made so much of
bluestocking demimondaines that the Imperial princess
herself felt unlucky not to have been born "a lustful

In the last years of his life -- he died in 1872 --
Gautier took a sinecure as Mathilde's official librarian,
something of an apology on her part for not being able to
wedge him into the Academy or get him a sinecure post in
the Empire's rubber-stamp Senate. Gautier was just that
one shade too Bohemian to manage the conventional slate of
honors; but he was not quite so Bohemian that he wasn't of
real use to Mathilde. Mathilde did not have the direct
social power of her cousin's wife, the Empress Eugenie, a
woman Mathilde cordially despised; but if Mathilde
couldn't have the court painters, the ladies-in-waiting,
and the full imperial etiquette, she could nevertheless
reign as Queen of Bluestockings over the literary
counterculture. Mathilde liked books, she liked
painters, she liked music; she was a moderately bright and
cultured woman who could follow an intelligent
conversation and even lead one sometimes; but she knew
how to guard the interests of her family as well. The
Goncourts recorded her tantrum as a salon favorite joined
the staff of an opposition newspaper.

"He owes everything to me," Mathilde screamed. "And
what did I ask in return? I didn't ask him to give up a
single conviction. All I asked was that he keep away from
those people on the *Temps.*"

The "opposition" established by Mathilde's
countercultural noblesse oblige was one of the guises
assumed by power itself; to pay off Theophile Gautier was
to nourish the serpent to one's bosom in the hope of
stroking it to sleep. It was a risky game, but their
lives were risky. The cultural Entente Cordiale between
the Court and Bohemia didn't have to hold together
forever; it only had to hold together long enough. The
entire structure of the Empire itself collapsed in 1870,
crushed in the Franco-Prussian War.

The street may find its own uses for things -- but
Things find their own uses for the street. The Rue Jules
Verne is a two-way avenue, a place where monde and
undermonde can embrace illicitly and swap infections.
While Nadar rose in his balloons to document the city with
his cameras, Napoleon III's Parisian prefect, Baron
Haussman, demolished and rebuilt the landscape below him.
It's thanks to Haussman that we know Paris today as a city
of wide, straight, magnificent boulevards -- the Champ
d'Elysees is one. For Nadar and his contemporaries the
Haussmanization of the city was the truest sign of its
modernization. Nadar's photographic studio was located
in one of these new streets. He dominated the entire
second floor of a new building in the latest taste.

Haussmann's streets were the Rue Jules Verne as a
killing ground. Yes they were elegant, yes they aided the
flow of traffic, but their true raison d'etre was as a
strategic military asset. In 1789, 1830, 1848 the
Parisian populace had barricaded their narrow twisting
streets and foiled the Army. After Haussmann, Paris would
be splayed-out on a lethal command grid where grapeshot
could fly on arrow-straight lines through whole city
blocks, directly through the insubordinate carcasses of
any revolutionary proletariat.

The streets didn't save the regime, though. In 1870
Bismarck's Germans smashed the French armies at Sedan.
Paris was blockaded.

In response, Nadar invented airmail.

In 1859, Napoleon III had offered Nadar 50,000 francs
to take aerial photographs of the Italian front in his
military adventure in Italy; but Nadar was a staunch
radical republican and stoutly refused any bloodmoney from
the imperial war-machine. The disaster of 1870 was a
different matter. As Nadar explained from Paris, via
balloon, to *The Times* in London, destroying the
repugnant Imperial regime was one thing, and rather
understandable; but killing the Parisian populace
wholesale was quite another.

Nadar was normally a highly mannered, rather precious
prose stylist, rarely using one word when ten elegantly
sesquipedalian ones would do; but with his own people at
bayonet-point Nadar apparently concluded that this wasn't
the time for copping aesthetic attitudes. Things had
reached such a point that Nadar's balloons, which he
himself regarded mostly as publicity stunts, were in fact
a last hope. He had invented, and owned, the last means
by which Paris could publicize herself. Under these
circumstances, Nadar addressed humanity at large with as
much directness, simplicity, and clarity as he could
manage. He lacked official backing -- in the blockade of
1870 there was essentially no government left in Paris --
but what he lacked in authority, he made up in simple
eloquence, self-starting nerve, and headline-grabbing

Nadar's balloon corps didn't make much real military
difference. Some were shot down; one was blown off to a
fjord in Norway. In any case, balloon traffic could not
hope to match the enormous military significance of German

And yet the balloons were there -- and they could fly.
After the debacle of Sedan, Paris had no government, damn
little food, no mail, no official backing, and victorious
enemy guns on all sides -- but anyone in Paris could see
Nadar's balloons. There wasn't much to them, really,
other than straw and hot air and an attitude, but they
were there, and they were flying. They were energetic,
they were optimistic, and they made a bold pretense of
practicality. People have died cheerfully for less. It
was his finest hour.

Nadar outlived everyone in the Pantheon Nadar. His
enormous vitality served him well, and he died two weeks
short of his ninetieth birthday, in 1910. This man, who
showed such preternatural insight into other people, was
not devoid of self-knowledge. As early as 1864, he
described himself well:

"A superficial intelligence which has touched on too
many subjects to have allowed time to explore any in
depth.... A dare-devil, always on the lookout for currents
to swim against, oblivious of public opinion,
irreconcileably opposed to any sign of law and order. A
jack-of-all-trades who smiles out of one corner of his
mouth and snarls with the other, coarse enough to call
things by their real names -- and people too -- never one
to miss the chance to talk of rope in the house of the
hanged man."

Nadar died eighty-three years ago. We have no real
right to claim him -- visionary, aesthete, polemicist,
Bohemian, technologist -- as a spiritual ancestor.

But it might be a damned good idea to adopt him.