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Paris is Burning III

By Georgia de Chamberet.

Where the artists and intellectuals go, the gentrifiers and developers follow. The Beats in Greenwich Village. The Bohemians of Montmartre. Bacon’s Soho of the 1950s. Once a neighbourhood is cleaned up, it is generally cleaned out of the spirit which made it vibrant in the first place. Culture emerges from human communities, not corporations.


Montmartre has long been famous for its artists, cabarets and Madames. François Jonquet has focused on some of the last of the great eccentrics of the area as the subjects of his books, with Jenny Bel’Air, une creature, (Pauvert, 2001) and now, Daniel, (Sabine Wespieser éditeur, 2008).

“At the end of the afternoon, to clamber into the Montmartre minibus at the angle of the boulevard and the rue des Martyrs, is to leave Paris. The old residents of the Butte climb upwards and home, serious and reflective, with their baskets of provisions. Specialised in uphill starts, the minibus struggles up the precipitous slope, slaloming and twisting along labyrinthine little streets. It reaches the stop for the Bateau-Lavoir. Daniel once lived there, in Max Jacob’s studio, a legitimate heir of the line of princes of this palace of Bohemia. But the studio caught fire so Daniel was rehoused in the shadow of the Sacré Coeur.”

So writes François Jonquet in the opening pages of his latest book which brilliantly captures the voice and panache of the actor, Daniel Emilfork, who died in 2006. Best known for his appearances in Federico Fellini’s Casanova (1975) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children (1995), Emilfork’s spectral features and gaunt physique became his trademark. He was a recluse living a threadbare life in sparse surroundings when he met François, who would visit bringing cheese and conversation. “You know François, I could leave tomorrow with just a suitcase…” Daniel gradually opens up. He talks about leaving Chile (his family were Jewish refugees from the Ukraine) for 1950s Paris, his first experiences in the theatre, and his first break in film thanks to Marc Allégret. Touching and funny and poignant, Daniel is an unusual homage to an extraordinary figure of a bygone age.

Montparnasse, another area famous for its creative free spirits, was the home of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris, established in 1963 and dissolved in 1980. Based in a building with studios once used by certain Surrealists, the EFP was established by Jacques Lacan after his split from Société Francaise de Psychanalyse which he had founded in 1953. The young Lacan had been a friend of André Breton and Salvador Dali, and Picasso’s personal physician. He’d frequented Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop on the Left Bank where André Gide and Paul Claudel hung out, (when he was seventeen he met James Joyce), and contributed to Surrealist publications like Minotaure in the 1930s. Lacan’s thesis Paranoid Psychosis and its Relation to the Personality influenced Paul Eluard in particular. A giant of psychoanalysis, Lacan’s complex intricate thought processes and acrobatic use of concepts and language are not for those wanting a simple, clear path down the avenues of mood and the psyche, hence his often being overlooked in favour of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Narcissism, the image, and the ideal were central to his work. He broke new ground with his exploration of the unconscious & language, speech & language, the (missing) phallus & language, ego & subject, transference & supposed knowledge, ‘mental automatism,’ ‘jouissance’, and the ‘graph of desire’. He introduced the variable session which, instead of lasting for the usual 50 minutes, stops on a key word or phrase for the patient to mull over until the next session; the tension of not knowing when the session would end generates hidden material. From 1951, Lacan held seminars which were a return to Freud, and he made the castration complex central once again in psychoanalysis. In May 1968 he respected the call to strike and signed a letter expressing solidarity with the students, devoting seminars to the events which led to his lecture room at the Ecole Normale Supérieure being withdrawn by the director, causing an outcry. A fearless radical and major theorist standing alongside Freud, Lacan’s theories continue to trigger dissension and debate.


Readable and thought-provoking, L’inconscient est-il politiquement incorrect? by Isabelle Floch and Arlette Pellé (Erès, 2008), analyses desire and society through the prism of Lacan’s school of thought. His concept that words generate meanings which are beyond the understanding of those who use them, causing a chasm between what you want to say and mean to say hence the misunderstandings and apologies of daily life, is perfect for now. The desire-based consumerism and jargon-based governments of our age are becoming ever more soul-destroying, lacking integrity and genuine human connection.

Georgia de Chamberet writes for Words Without Borders and 3:AM. She is literary executor of the Estate of Lesley Blanch and runs the agency, BookBlast.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 29th, 2008.