Reading Apollinaire’s ‘Vendémiaire’

By | 1 May 2014

The city is a rapacious gullet. It doesn’t just quaff uncountable gallons of vino (i.e the blood of the dead), it positively guzzles human labour, the blood of the living, and not just their blood, but their entire world. The sacrificial rite is out of control: capitalist production will not hesitate to rip up any part of the country (its natural resources, infrastructure, towns and people), package it and dump it at the feet of those in the metropolis. Transformed into a commodity, it effaces its own history and assumes a cool yet insistent air of autonomy and inevitability, the perfect counterpart to the similarly enfranchised citizen. To dramatise his material understanding of modern production, Apollinaire has everything that contributes to the wine (and indeed any other) industry, including its own particular mythology and place in French national culture, literally pressed in to it and barrelled and shipped off to Paris. There’s nothing Paris, and by extension the poet, will not swallow. The tribute paid by the provinces consists not only in the natural resources and commodities made from them by human labour, but also in performance. They cheerfully sing to Paris of its glory and their devotion to it.. Paris gets music with its wine.

In spite of this political geography, ‘Vendémiaire’ is not a poem ‘about place’. The nature and identity of the places mentioned are not determined by local culture, terrain, and history, but by their subordinate role in an abstract network of uneven material and symbolic exchange, which is inherently hostile to the demands of geographical idiosyncrasy. To the extent that the cities named do possess their own identity, it is a kind of symbolic prestige that they spruik only to happily throw it in to the bargain. Likewise, their regional climes and terrains only function to differentiate and valorise their products at market. Apollinaire is no regionalist: he doesn’t take up his pen in opposition to this injustice, he makes no attempt to defend or resurrect the ravaged provinces in verse. Paris is reason itself; having sapped all divinity, beauty and reason from elsewhere, it is the only place where God is or could be. It is also where Apollinaire is, watching the barges. The provincial cities each possess their own geographical particularity, but they negate it by digging it up and sending it off as a gift to an abstraction (reason, glory, God), masking the raw power that this very act of giving constitutes. The city is power, therefore we give, but it is power because we give.

Paris is the ideal paradigm of this centripetal force, whose centre is not just a single city but the first world as a whole. In 1910, Paris’s lengthy term as capital of the world is only starting to wind up. Historically, the government and economy of France were massively centralised, unlike say Germany or Italy. After a long period of absolutism during the ancien régime, the revolution, the first republic, and then the empire under Napoleon only further intensified administrative, economic and cultural concentration in the capital. The city is still a trove of loot brought in by Napoleon’s imperial conquests, such as the Luxor Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. Covered in hieroglyphs exalting Pharaoh Ramesses II, it is itself a symbol of imperial power. The Ottoman viceroy of Egypt ‘gave’ the phallic monument to France in the 1830s.

Apollinaire has at his hands the cavernous stores of the city’s mythos, yet his vision makes a mockery of the fawning francophile winos the world over who swallow it whole. Their phony idyll casts Paris as a haven (naturally reserved for them, never mind the thousands of sans-papiers) from precisely the sprawling industrial system that Apollinaire at once presents and himself becomes. That the haven Paris still draws innumerable tourists to the actual Paris is no idle matter: they return to their own miniature versions wherever they belong in the great racket of ‘entrepreneurial’ cities, having vindicated their place in it as well-mannered and refined connoisseurs of all the world’s blood vintages, which capitalism delivers to their table for them to pop the cork on and savour the bouquet. ‘Paris’ means a place where you can sip your glass of blood without having to worry who had to spill it; you can even kid yourself that it is wine. But Apollinaire won’t let you get away with it: he insists that the countless, nameless labourers are really present on the tables of wealthy metropolitans like Christ is in the Eucharist. He demonstrates this without extracting himself from it to pass judgement. His consumption is a fundamental part of the market economy; his song a part of the spectacle. He too is (in) the centre of the world; he too is such a metropolitan. But unlike the sycophants, he is sensitive to what that actually entails, for he has had a vision of the totality. That’s why things are so heady.

In drawing the blood of the past and the present into his cosmic sacrificial rite, Apollinaire both employs and disenchants the myth of the fertility god (Adonis, Attis, Tammuz, etc.). Traditionally, at the god’s death his blood flowed into the soil and fertilised it for the coming spring. But Apollinaire reveals blood as an image of labour, which stands behind it as truly the only human element capable of facilitating the fertility of the land. The fruits of that labour are immediately whisked away to the capital to feed the patricians, so the only way to maintain fertility given such a relentless drain of biomass is to pour more blood, sweat and tears into the soil. The people of the provinces are a living sacrifice; like God (cf. Romans 12), the metropolis needs them alive, for only as living beings can surplus value be pitilessly wrested from their toil, ideally in perpetuity. There is no choice: as they say, their lot is bound up with Paris’s. The only way to survive is to render ‘every last berry’, leaving them sapped of vitality, their ‘blank eyes’ blinking.

In identifying himself with the city, the poet is the recipient of the sacrificial offerings of the exploited provinces, consuming them and receiving the immense and terrifying creative powers they contain in concentration. But in the rite, as the hierarchy of direct and reported speech dissolves, the poet becomes the sacrificial body itself, Dionysus dismembered, Christ crucified. (Cf. John 6: 56: ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.’) This body is coextensive not with the community of believers (as it is in 1 Corinthians 12: 12-14) but is instead coextensive first with the provinces, then all of Europe, then with the entire world, that is, with the network of the universal market, not the network of faith.

Over the course of the poem, the ‘I’ comes to exist absolutely, as the cosmos, which is the same as knowing it absolutely. It does this by a form of consciousness presented as incorporation, i.e. consumption and digestion. The poet predicates this action of the city, he then identifies himself with it. This process is also carried out at the level of the poem’s language, its song. ‘Vendémiaire’ testifies to the realisation that in the final analysis, language is not a propositional or indicative relation, but an ontological power: as the poet thinks and writes, he literally becomes the things he names by passing them through his mind and out of his pen/mouth.

We might call this poetry’s Catholicism. This naming, the effusive poetic hymn, moves in the opposite direction to incorporation: the blood offering enters while the voice exits through the throat. The two opposing movements coincide in the cosmic rite, which is all of reality and a song of that reality as a total poetic experience – the world and the word become one. But there is still an asymmetry here, for the expectorating movement is the only means by which we hear anything of the incorporating one. This is as it should be, for the whole drama recounted in the work can be read as an attempt to articulate this ontological experience, the ‘real presence’ of world in language, the arbitrariness of the sign notwithstanding.

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