Against Venice, by Regis Debray
I mentioned in my recent post on Paul Morand’s Venices that I was reading Regis Debray’s 2002 book Against Venice (published by Pushkin Press, with an afterword by the author and translated by John Howe). In fact, I only bought Venices because I was already planning to buy the Debray and knew it referenced the Morand.
Well, I enjoyed the Morand, even though I hadn’t really expected to and was seeing it almost as homework before the Debray. Naturally then, I didn’t enjoy the Debray as much as I hoped. That’s not because it’s bad, it’s not – it’s very well written – perhaps it’s just because I agreed more with Debray than I did with Morand.
So what is it exactly? Well, it’s about 70 pages of argument against Venice, or more to the point against the idea of Venice and the way it’s held up as a cultural touchstone. It’s a mixture of insight, exaggeration, wit, sly dig, rant and cri de couer. It’s also (and this is part of its charm) exasperating, unreasonable, unfair, sometimes quite irritating, and by the end unexpectedly serious. If you can, it’s best read in one sitting, it’s just more enjoyable when Debray is given space to get up a decent head of steam. There’s a definite feeling at times that he knows he’s being absurd, but he’s not going to let that stop him.
Debray knows his territory, he knows the city but more importantly he knows its tourists, he understands the lure of the place. At times, he’s very funny and cruelly accurate. If you’ve ever been to Venice you’ll probably recognise this:
“You’ll see,” murmurs the tourist in his trattoria, furtively lowering his voice, “on this route, you won’t see a single other tourist.”
Like most people who love Venice, I want to see the city, I just don’t especially want to see other people seeing the city. There’s an allure to the idea of finding the real Venice, but of course the tourist Venice is the real Venice.
Debray contrasts Venice with Naples, one of my favourite cities on Earth. I studied Italian in Naples, staying in the Spaccanapoli, and I love the place. I love its noise, its chaos, its grandeur so differently faded to that of Venice. Debray loves it too, and he uses it as an effective counterexample, the living versus the preserved, the populist versus the elite:
THE ISLAND CITY with its little finger genteelly stuck out, used as a drawing room by the whole planet, is a place where “people of quality” display common behaviour. While in the volcano town, shrieking with vulgarity, the common people portray an air of distinction.
This does not prevent the lagoon from being ten times more frequented by tourists than Posilippo. The ones who do cross Naples scuttle through with lowered eyes, petrified of scippo, of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, heading as quickly as possible for that direst of school impositions, Pompeii. The popular town repels the populace, the snobbish one attracts it. An overwhelming majority for the adulterated and dressed-up. As usual.
Every section opens with a few words in block capitals by the way, there’s no significance to it (no obvious one, anyway).
There’s a subtlety to Debray’s argument at times, an underlying thread which only really becomes apparent as you go on. It’s the issue of whether it’s a good thing to be a monument, a cultural treasure, whether perhaps it might not be better to be less refined but more alive:
It is possible to weep hot and bitter tears in Naples, city of extravagance, for the same reasons that hearty laughter is normal there; people do not sob in Venice, city of autumn, city of evening, for the same reason that Venetian gaiety must content itself with a thin smile. It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.
Another element of Debray’s argument (there are several) is the way Venice affects artists. Debray isn’t at all hostile to Morand it turns out, he tweaks his nose a bit but of the four or so references to him most are pretty positive. What he hates is Morand-lite, people who write of the city in the most romantic terms, but who lack Morand’s sheer skill and so just become banal:
For one quicksilver Morand, for one mandolin pizzicato from Fauré, how many boating songs are there, how many serenades and other pieces of gondolier kitsch (a word, incidentally, that seems to come from the wrong country?).
Debray also mocks the heirarchies of tourism. The cultured wander about clutching their abridged copies of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, looking down on backpackers, people on cruises and those doing eight cities in eight days (or whatever):
The sight of two broke, bare chested trippers with “structuralist beards”, gulping grappa out of the bottle, was enough to send Paul Morand into a deep depression described in the closing passage of his post-1968 work Venises.
Actually, it didn’t. What Morand objected to was someone drinking his grappa and not saying thanks, it was the lack of gratitude that depressed him, not the appearance or the gulping.
For Debray, it’s almost impossible now to engage with Venice. The whole place has been so written about, there are so many novels and guidebooks and histories, so many films too and photographs and received stories, that we struggle to see it at all. We see it through a prism of others’ experiences, we know so much before we arrive we risk inhabiting what others said about it, not what we see ourselves.
We ourselves are afloat on a raft of references, every glimpse of the landscape releasing, like a conditioned reflex, this or that association with some paragraph, picture or sequence.
Still, he understands its charm, the pleasure of walking through its streets devoid of cars, its history and architecture, its theatricality. He loves the place, he despairs of convincing anyone, even himself, of his argument. After all, it’s Venice isn’t it? It’s an easy place to love.
For Debray though, ulimately, there is a tragedy to Venice and it is that it is no longer a living city. He contrasts religion in Naples, fervent, impassioned, almost pagan, with its absence in Venice where the churches are places for mass tourism and the paintings and statues objects of cultural appreciation rather than devotion. He is particularly scathing about the practice of having coin-activated lights which briefly illuminate some particularly highly regarded artwork for the paying public:
In the mini-Babylon of the cultured, a glance at the angels may no longer bring salvation, but that does not prevent it from being lucrative.
As Against Venice draws to its close, the real issue emerges. Could Venice be a mirror that shows us Europe’s future? As he says
I seem to remember that in the period of its greatness – the iron-willed “triumphant city” was not loved. When it still had military strength and rights of veto, in the Lepanto era, nobody praised its mysterious grace or its cats slumbering between embroidered cushions. Its power – nuclear, industrious, restless and confrontational – was feared, not contemplated. “Sweet and magical clarity” is a thin recompense for inventing a world.
If Venice can become a theme park, why not Paris? Why not London? Madrid? Arguably, much of Britain has already gone down that route, a service economy serving more vigorous civilisations elsewhere. Venice once ruled, it was a power, now other powers send their tourists to visit it and praise its charms and there are hardly any Venetians left.
Debray is not Morand, I felt here no racism, no resentment of other cultures rising to their own day in the sun. That said, he’s not ready for Europe’s day to be over just yet, and for him Venice is essentially a museum while Naples is anything but. Venice is beautiful, yes, but Naples is the better place to live.
Against Venice makes a perfect companion with Venices. It’s definitely enjoyable to read them in order as I did, Venices then Against Venice. Debray is serious and joking at the same time, no small trick, and there’s a brio to it all which is hard not to admire. There’s a scene in the Patrice Leconte film Ridicule, the Abbé de Vilecourt is making a speech proving the existence of God before the court of Versailles, entertaining the King with the fluency of his logic and rhetoric (before boasting that he could prove the opposite just as easily). Debray reminds me of the Abbé in that part of that scene, at the height of his powers and in full enjoyment of them.
Before I go, it’s worth noting that Nicholas Lezard at the Guardian did a combined review of Venices and Against Venice here. It was his review that partly helped put me on to these works, and it’s well worth reading.