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Nantes – after Baudrillard and the angel of history


French sociologists keep getting it right: in France, in England too, we are still in the middle of Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’ – a kind of wall-to-wall presentation of life-as-entertainment. But more recently we’ve even gone beyond this: for example, the city of Nantes in western France appears to express Baudrillard’s concept of a western world given over to hyper-reality and the hyper-real world.

At the centre of Nantes lies an island (the ‘isle de Nantes’) that has, with the help of EU money, transformed itself from a place of factories and warehouses to a beautiful yet ghastly and horrible manifestation of an absolute artificiality – a hyper-reallty. The buildings are mainly (almost) high-rise blocks all designedly different – all clad in architectural whims – in mixes of concrete and wood and relics and super new materials – faux authenticities of the now and the then and the next.

It’s peculiarly disturbing; there’s something dreadful and inauthentic about the developments that have taken place on the isle de Nantes.

It’s as if we are invited to enter a giant amusement park devoted to distraction and the curious amalgam that is part pleasure of the senses, part disembodied moments of the mind. You aren’t supposed to think anymore. Nantes – the isle de Nantes – is a stage upon which a manifestation of who we are now is portrayed: cool, connected, different, the same, hash/tagged … (The old atavisms of humanity are kept at bay; with luck they won’t inflict their nightmares on us all).

And there’s even a special art gallery in an old banana storage depot that shows the wonderful work of hyper-modern art – along with seriously ludicrous inscriptions explaining the work on view. It’s by an artist called Ange L. He has the perfect name: ‘Ange‘.

He makes me think of the the angel of history …




Therese is a remarkable novel about love and death. Written by Francois Mauriac and first published in 1927 it gives us a literary creation – a cast of mind and mode of conduct, a person ‘Therese’ – who enthrals us with her struggle for liberation, her cleverness, her acute perception and her evil; Therese decides to poison, bit by bit, drop after drop, her husband: the strange thing is that like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov we find ourselves almost entirely on her side. We remain sympathetic to her, fascinated by her – and we wish her to escape from the grim limitations of her social circumstances.

In effect, Therese is rendered a prisoner of time and place; only far from the dead suffocating monotony of Les Landes in south western France (where she endured the first decades of her life) can the city of Paris offer her the chance of freedom. Only there – amongst the play of ideas and the chance to be different – can Therese breathe more freely.

Mauriac’s brilliant exposition can be read as a powerful proto-feminist text that surely must have influenced Simone de Beauvoir and her portrayal in 1949 of ‘The second sex’. Of Therese’s character Mauriac wrote:

She took form in my mind as an example of that power, granted to all human beings – no matter how much they may seem to be the slaves of hostile fate – of saying “No” – to the law which beats them down.

Although Mauriac suggests we might see Therese as an inspiring figure he is quick to add that ‘She belongs to that class of human beings (and it is a huge family!) for whom night can end only when life itself ends.

By way of warning his readers that writers (and social scientists) cannot capture the reality of persons he noted that compared with Therese’s ‘own terrible existence all inventions of the novelist’ would seem ‘thin and colourless.’

Nonetheless Mauriac’s portrayal of character is always riveting. Therese, for example, finds herself about to be reunited with her husband: all through a journey home ‘she had been busy, quite unconsciously, creating a Bernard who might be capable of understanding, of trying to understand’ her. But she only had to see him, even for a moment, to remember what he was really like’:

‘A man who had never once in his life put himself in another person’s shoes, to whom the effort to get outside himself, to see himself as others saw him, was inconceivable.