An Interview with Jeffrey Jackson
by Rob Couteau
in abridged form in:
Jeffrey Jackson is associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at Rhodes College. After spending over a decade researching in the Paris archives, in 2007 he was named a “Top Young Historian” by the History News Network, and he received an international fellowship that enabled him to continue his archival work in Paris. His first book, Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar France, considered the best work on the subject, explores the complex reactions to jazz in France and its ultimate integration into the national tradition. This was followed by the widely acclaimed Paris Under Water, a history of the nearly forgotten deluge of 1910 that almost destroyed the City of Light.
As a child, Jackson attended an elementary school that required French lessons, beginning in the first grade. It was the combination of this early training and the influence his globe-trotting grandparents – who brought back exotic tales of Europe – that piqued his interest in French culture: “They traveled everywhere, all over the world, mostly going on package tours, and they returned with stories, photographs, and souvenirs. They went to Paris and to Europe many times. So, it was a combination of hearing them talk about Europe and studying French in school. All this came together in my background and pointed me in the direction of being interested in European history, and French history in particular.”*
Rob Couteau: You received an enthusiastic response to your new book!
Jeffrey Jackson: I was very pleased. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much play this has gotten. Unfortunately, you could say that natural disasters are always kind of exciting in a strange way. [Laughs] There’s always that drama built in. And people are always interested in Paris.
One of the things that’s been nice about this project is that it’s allowed me to tell something about the history of the city that people didn’t really know. Many have read about the history of Paris, and it is a well-know history; much has been written about it. But because this was something that hadn’t been written about very much, it opened up a new light, or a new window, to a familiar story.
RC: The same could be said of your first book, about jazz in Paris. It touched on many little-known facts regarding that history.
JJ: That’s true. It was my dissertation originally, and, of course, it was revised for the book. When I began working on it in graduate school, I started looking around to see what else existed about jazz in France. And really, very little had. I was kind of surprised. So, it was another one of those things where I was able to open up a new perspective on something. People had known a lot about Josephine Baker; or particular, specific musicians; or certain aspects of the jazz story. But there hadn’t been a lot that had pulled it all together, into one narrative. So, that’s what I was trying to do.
RC: I feel as if there are two principal heroes in your account of the flood. One is Louis Lépine, who served as the prefect of police. The other is the average citizen of Paris, with his system of débroullard or – as it’s commonly known – système d. It was wonderful to finally read an account of système d in an English-language book. I lived in Paris for twelve years, and I constantly heard references to système d. In your book, the prime example of système d would be the wooden walkways or passerelles that were constructed throughout the city to allow people to get around. I believe you said this was copied from the Venetians.
JJ: Yes, the Venetians have been doing that for quite a long time, because they always have that high water every year. It probably is a combination of people knowing that Venice had done that, but also that kind of extemporaneous reaction of: “What are we going to do? We need to get around the neighborhood, and we’ve got some planks, and let’s put them together.” That’s why I talk about it as a prime example of système d.
It’s funny you say that it’s nice to finally read a description of that in English. Because I knew what système d was, and talked to people about it, and had heard of it, but when I went looking, just to put a footnote or to cite something about système d, I couldn’t find anything in print. It’s one of those things that people know about but don’t feel the need to write about.
RC: The Larousse defines système d or débroullard as: to sort out, to disentangle, to manage. But when I lived in Paris in the 1990s, I heard it used in a sense similar to what we would call finagle. That is, to achieve by devious, crooked, or crafty means. The first time I heard of it was when one of my French English-language students showed me her method of secretly turning back the dial on her electric meter, in order to lower her utility bill!
You don’t really touch upon that in your book, but the more common usage often indicates something a little underhanded.
JJ: Yeah, I can see that. [Laughs] Obviously, I was trying to emphasize the positive spin on that. But I can certainly see how it would cut both ways, depending on the circumstances. Getting yourself out of a scrape could be turning back your electric meter, just as much as putting up a wooden walkway. It depends on what you’re trying to get out of.
But getting back to back to your initial statement, I think you’re right: I try to talk about both sides of that story. I focus on leadership and on people who are in charge. And Louis Lépine is of course the one who really pops out. Because the police oversaw so much of the city, even beyond what we think of as just crime and punishment sort of stuff: all the management of the urban space. And I talk about President Fallières, and the prefect of the Seine, Justin de Selves, as other leader figures who were important in providing that kind of top-down, official response.
But I think you’re right: at the same time, it’s something that goes hand-in-hand with the bottom up. You know, with the people in the street, working together, to save themselves and to save the city and their neighbors. You can’t really have one without the other. You could’ve had the police doing all they could do, but that still wouldn’t be enough. It never is, really. And you could have people responding locally, but without someone working to coordinate it all, you’d just have sporadic, scattered efforts. So, you see both of those groups of people working together. That’s part of what helps to make the city survive at this point.
RC: Louis Lépine served in that role from 1899 until his retirement in 1913. What special qualities did he bring to his position that helped him to become an effective leader during the flood?
JJ: He definitely saw himself as a man of law and order. He wanted to be someone who could tame the city. And that has both positive and negative connotations. For him, that meant good public health, regulated traffic in the street, public safety: all the good things. But it also meant his vision of what order was. In the book, I refer to him raiding bookshops and taking out what he thought were inappropriate books or photographs. You know, a bit of a censorship aspect. But I think in a disaster situation like the flood, that desire for orderliness was something he brought to the table that really did help in this time of need, because it was something people needed at that moment.
He called himself “the prefect of the streets”: someone who wanted to be out in the street, wanted to be visible. I’m sure part of that was a way of him saying, “I’m in charge.” But I think it also allowed him to say, “I feel some sense of connection to, or commonality with, the man on the street.” He could sympathize with that suffering in a moment like the flood.
There are numerous accounts of him leading the charge. It’s hard to tell how accurate some of these depictions are: leading the firefighters and others into the vinegar factory that had exploded. And coordinating that effort. Or coordinating the evacuation of the Boucicaut Hospital. He’s supposedly there, overseeing the whole thing. And it’s hard to know exactly, but it doesn’t seem too out of character that, at the very least, he would have been there. Whether he was really the one barking out orders, or whether he was overseeing, it’s hard to know, but he was definitely there, and bringing that sense of orderliness to the situation.
RC: People often forget that there’s a long history of book censorship in France. In our literary community, we often regard Paris as an open city. But even the Marquis de Sade was thrown into the Conciergerie. And after the Second World War, there was a conservative crackdown on books. Have you read John de St. Jorre’s The Good Ship Venus, about the Olympia Press in Paris?
JJ: No, I haven’t.
RC: It’s about Maurice Girodias, whose father published Henry Miller in Paris. And then Girodias took over and published Naked Lunch and Lolita. But the French authorities weren’t too concerned, because they were English-language books.
JJ: It was less threatening, I guess.
RC: Yes. But at the same time, they were censoring French books.
RC: What’s your estimate of the number of homeless in Paris during this crisis? About 200,000?
JJ: I think so; I don’t have it right in front me of me. I know there were at least 50,000 people who were put into hospitals. Something like 20,000 households, depending on how you count people versus households. You know, it’s always hard to come up with an exact number.
RC: Many of those were recent arrivals from outside the city, right?
JJ: Some of them would have been. Many would have been from the immediate suburban towns, just outside the city, which were very much a part of the city’s life. Of course, I focus mostly on the city itself. But I do try to talk about a few of the towns that adjoin Paris: Alfortville, Charenton, Gennevilliers, and others. Because they were very much part of the city and its life. And so, many of those who had recently arrived would have been living in these suburban villages, working in factories or in occupations that were tied to what was going on in Paris.
RC: Perhaps the unsung hero of your account is Eugène Belgrand, Baron Haussmann’s chief of water services, who originally proposed raising the height of the quay walls to prevent flooding. But the engineers refused to do so, because of aesthetic reasons. Perhaps you could speak about Haussmann, Belgrand, their role in designing modern Paris and, in particular, the creation of the Hydrometric Service.
JJ: They’re very much part of the story. Of course, they pre-date the flood. But you can’t talk about Paris at this moment without at least having them standing there, in the background.
One of the things I tried to emphasize was that, when Haussmann and Belgrand worked to renovate the city in the 1850s and 1860s, and really modernize it, part of what they do is not only do they make it beautiful, they make it modern: they widen the streets, they re-do the sewers and all these things that make Paris cleaner, newer, brighter. But what that also does is, it reinforces the idea, which was very much a nineteenth-century idea, that we can control our environment. We can shape the city to our human needs. That we really are in charge of nature and our surroundings. Because that was one of Haussmann’s operating principles. It was that belief in technology and engineering.
You see this as well in the Hydrometric Service. Because part of what Belgrand was trying to do was to study the river. To understand how it worked so that he could figure out how to engineer it better: to engineer the sewers and the water system to prevent flooding. Or to manage the water for the better use of the people living there. Haussmann and Belgrand both were part of this nineteenth-century belief in the power of technology.
On the one hand, it served them well; it served the city very well. In 1910 it didn’t quite match up to what they had hoped. That’s one of the great ironies of the story that was particularly interesting and that really fascinated me: to see this unending belief in science and technology have this moment of crisis where people were like, “Does it really work the way we’ve always been taught?” Especially when I quote the British journalist Gerald and his descriptions of Paris: Will Paris die? Is this the death of Paris? Is this the end? This whole “end of the world” scenario. It was such a shock to read those kinds of words, where somebody was actually musing openly about whether this might, in fact, be the end of civilization in this place.
RC: You write: “The growing mountains of garbage, collapsed sidewalks, clogged sewers, and dislodged paving stones transported the city backward in time to the era before Haussmann’s renovations.” It’s incredible to imagine that Paris, which we conceive of as a kind of eternal city – one that even survived quite intact after two World Wars – might be so vulnerable to a natural disaster. Especially one in which the water came largely from beneath the ground, and through the city’s infrastructure, rather than over the embankments of the Seine. The image you paint of concierge’s pulling the drain plugs in the basements of buildings, only to incur worse flooding, is quite striking.
JJ: I thought that was really interesting, when I found out about that. It’s another example of people putting their faith in the engineering of the sewer system and then it actually backfiring. Again, that irony at work.
I think you’re right. The idea that Paris could be this vulnerable is really something that drew me to the project. It’s probably another reason why a lot of people found the book to be striking and why it’s gotten a number of reviews. Because we don’t think about that. San Francisco, New Orleans, places that are in high-risk zones: we think about those kinds of cities. Or Venice, which is slowly sinking. But as you say, we have this image of Paris as an eternal city, even though, of course, it’s evolved over the years. It’s never been eternal; it’s always been changing. But we have this idea of it as somehow being eternal. And for it to be vulnerable, and to see it in this moment of vulnerability – both through the descriptions and also through the amazing photographs, where you see the streets ripped up, and you see the water everywhere – I think it is shocking, because it’s so unexpected. It certainly was that way, too, for people at the time. That was another reason why this was such a powerful moment. Especially with the city having been rebuilt, and having the sewers expanded and modernized, they really didn’t expect this to happen.
RC: You say: “the flood challenged many of the era’s most basic assumptions about the inevitable force of progress. Railroads, telegraphs, steam engines, electricity, sewers, and hundreds more inventions had promised a better life…. In one week, the flood made that promise seem false, and their faith in an ever-brighter future seem so fragile.” The French in general have long been known to resist change. I wonder if this exacerbated their fear of the new.
JJ: Well, it’s interesting; I think it cuts both ways. Because for all the French interest in the past and resisting change, there have also been moments when they have not only embraced it but have also been at the forefront of it. Some of that engineering stuff is part of that. That’s why I start with the image, in the first chapter, of the 1900 World’s Fair. Because that was one of those moments. The whole purpose of these world’s fairs or expositions was to celebrate the new; the modern; the newest, latest, coolest invention. And to think about how that might make your life better.
This could be one of those moments that’s both a forward-looking and a backward-looking moment. Some said, look at what technology has brought. It’s destroyed our city. These sewers, that were supposed to keep us safe, have in fact made things worse. The subway, all these things, this new stuff, has made our life worse. And, yes, maybe we should go back. But others said, the city’s been destroyed, but we can rebuild it. We have the power to renew and continue it even further. In the book I say that, for many people, this was not the end of Haussmann’s dream of modernizing the city. It just provided them with another opportunity to move that project forward.
And so, I guess it depends on who was looking at the scene, who was talking about their response to the event. For some, I think you’re right; it would be a kind of confirmation of how we’ve deviated too far from the old ways. But for others, it was just a blip on the radar screen of this inevitable progress.
That’s why, when they form a commission to study the flood, and they write this enormous tome, this huge book that has all this – their study of what happened and what went wrong – even with all the discussion of what went wrong, much of the book is about how we will fix it for the next time. It’s very much an engineering document about, or blueprint for, rebuilding the city and getting back to where we were: getting back on track.
RC: It’s funny you mentioned the world’s fair. I just finished reading Jill Jonnes’s Eiffel’s Tower. And the story of the Eiffel Tower is a typical example of what you’re talking about. Because in France, there’s a general collective resistance to change, yet, on the other hand, change often comes from a single individual who is resisted at the beginning but who finally must be embraced. Because there’s also in France a respect for culture. And if one respects culture, one must embrace change, because change only comes via that route.
And Eiffel was an example of this. His tower was fiercely resisted until it was a little more than halfway built, and then, suddenly, people began to appreciate the aesthetic. She says in the book that, at the beginning, when just the foundation was constructed, many regarded it as ugly. But by the time it was finished, there were postcards and souvenirs all over Paris.
JJ: I’m going to read that at some point soon; I just haven’t had a chance to. But it sounds like an interesting book.
RC: To be honest, I was shocked that she received a National Endowment for the Arts award. Because her writing is tedious; she doesn’t have an ear for the beauty of the English language. And her treatment of the characters is superficial. But the facts in the book are of interest. You have this incredible thing, Eiffel’s tower. And then, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley are there, as part of the 1889 World’s Fair. [Laughs] It’s such a bizarre, almost surrealist thing. And it dovetails with your story. The Third Republic really needed something to prop themselves up, and the world’s fair was an exhibition of progress and the belief in engineering. Thomas Edison had a display there, and there was a pavilion for industrial machines and electrical engineering. So, this is also part of your story, I think.
JJ: Yeah, that’s true. The way I’ve always thought of the Eiffel Tower is that it looks very much like – and I don’t think I’m making this up, I’ve read this somewhere else – the sort of thing that one would see on a bridge support or something. Like it itself could be a piece of engineering. It sits alone; it has its own aesthetic beauty. But the shape of it, the form of it, could be a kind of functional piece, if put into some other context. Yet, it’s sort of extracted from that and made into a monumental sculpture on its own. As a way of saying, “progress can be beautiful.”
RC: Yes, it’s a monument to modern industry, cast in a beautiful, art nouveau, turn-of-the-century style. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Eiffel was well known, before the tower, as an engineer of bridges. He would have been remembered as a significant figure for what he’d accomplished before the tower: spanning enormous distances with railway bridges, and things like that.
JJ: Yes. And you’re right of course; there’s the politics of that moment, too. That it’s also about the Republic. And the Third Republic linking itself: we are progress. We are a new, modern political regime for a new, modern era in French history, and in world history.
RC: Another interesting thing about the 1889 World’s Fair was that it was the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Many European countries refused to participate, because they regarded it as a celebration of the beheading of the king and the end of the monarchy. So, this was the subtext to the whole thing.
JJ: Yeah, the politics are interesting, that’s for sure. And I was trying to draw on the same kind of stuff when I was talking about the 1900 World’s Fair.
Of course, in 1900, you’ve got the fact that it’s the turn of the century, too. It’s that round number, you know: 1900. It’s the idea that we’re finishing the nineteenth century, moving into the twentieth century, and what does that mean? I remember, a few years ago, when it was 2000, there was that sense of the zeroes turning over, and what does that mean? It’s a moment to look forward.
RC: It’s a psychologically significant and symbolic notion, the turn of the century.
JJ: Yeah, right, exactly. Then, ten years later, you have this kind of … I tried to talk about it as a “return to the primitive” in many ways. Like that quote you were citing a minute ago; it’s almost like a reversion to a pre-Haussmann period. It’s a going backwards. That’s another thing that’s so shocking for people.
RC: One of my students in Paris was a government consultant who participated in the revolt of May 1968. When I asked what the essential difference was between pre-’68 and post-’68 France, he said that before ’68 the world “change” always had a negative connotation. “After ’68,” he said, “peut-être … peut-être … peut-être, it could be positive.”
JJ: [Laughs] That’s interesting!
RC: And the ’68 revolt is another example of this collective holding onto the past, and the strong resistance to change, but when it does come, it’s been repressed for so long that it explodes.
RC: In your book, you remarked upon the motto of Paris: “She is tossed about by the waves, but she does not sink.” This is also the visual symbol for the ancient city of Lutetia: the boat tossed on the stormy sea. You’re probably familiar with the large mosaic of this image in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Ville.
JJ: Yes, absolutely.
RC: In light of your work, I thought it might be interesting to note that the meaning of the word Lutetia isn’t known with certainty, but many historians interpret it to be a Celtic word for mud. In his book, Paris: The Secret History, Andrew Hussey writes:
The Roman name for the settlement in fact derives from its original Celtic one. The Celts had the habit of naming their settlements after their physical qualities. The islands, whose stinking and greasy banks made the site an unlikely halting-post, were for this reason originally named Louk-tier or Louk Teih – the place of the mud, marshes and swamp. Another half-accepted etymology is Loutouchezi, said to be a Gaulish Celtic term meaning ‘among the waters.’… The name Louk Teih, the most widely accepted approximation of the Celtic was simply absorbed by them into Latin as ‘Lutetia’ … Other translations of Louk Teih have it as a pre-Celtic word, meaning variously ‘the isle of crows,’ ‘the isle of rats,’ ‘shelter from the water.’*
I thought that was interesting in terms of the long history of Parisian floods, and that the original name for Paris – Lutetia – means mud.
JJ: Yes. I tried to evoke a bit of that in the first chapter. I didn’t really do extensive research into the many floods that have occurred in Paris. I did a little, of course, to build a context. But I think that could be a whole other book: writing about the history of Parisian floods.
It’s also very much about the city’s relationship to the river. Now people don’t think about that as much. You walk by the Seine, and it’s beautiful, and it’s picturesque. You may have a little picnic by the river, or spend some time walking by, but you want to see all the other things in the city. But historically, as with most cities that are built on rivers, it’s built on a river for a reason. It’s because that’s where so much of the early work, and life, is centered. You know, the water is life. So, that’s definitely the case for Paris, too. That motto and that symbol of the ship tells something of a much longer story about how the city has relied on the river for so long: for commerce, for trade, for industry. And for the life of the city itself.
Another one of those ironies is that when the river floods, it brings so much destruction and devastation. It’s that double-edged sword of the river. That’s a mixed metaphor [laughs] but, you know, the idea that the river brings life, but the river is also a threat, too, at times.
In that brief section at the beginning of the book, where I talk about some of the other floods, you can get a sense of some of the moments in the city’s history when the river did wreak havoc. Of course, the city was so different in those earlier moments. There was no electricity; there were no gas lines. All the modern infrastructure wasn’t there in 1658, when the other worst flood, the one that was higher than the 1910 flood, occurred. So, it had a very different effect. But at least you get a feel for the fact that there’s always been this kind of lurking: the river is always there, in the background, possibly creating some kind of havoc.
RC: It’s not just a pretty touristic thing. It’s a natural force that we must respect.
JJ: Right, exactly. And that’s easily forgotten because of the desire and the ability to tame it. You know: to channel it, to create a canal that goes around the city, to add locks and other kinds of devices, and to raise the walls and so forth.
RC: Do you have any idea when the quay walls were built? If you look at Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité, you see that they’re standing on top of these beautifully sculpted stone walls. When were those walls first constructed?
JJ: I mentioned in that early section that some go back to the sixteenth century. I’d have to look it up; I don’t have it right in front me. But I think some of the earliest walls were built in the time of François the First, which would have been in the early sixteenth century.
RC: That must have been quite an undertaking. Did they divert the river to accomplish that?
JJ: I don’t think so. Some of the earliest walls were built just to make it easier to cross the river. Especially when the king wanted to cross, he didn’t want to get muddy, so you build a wall to support bridges, and it just makes it easier to cross. I think that, over time, the walls just evolved; they were built bit by bit, over the centuries.
RC: At the time of the Celts and the first Roman conquest, the Seine was twice the width that it is today. This must have greatly influenced how a flood would play itself out then, as opposed to now.
JJ: Yes, I think that’s true. I talk a little about the ancient arm of the Seine that had dried up many centuries before 1910. When flooding would occur, you would see that ancient arm that dried up be reactivated. If you look at the map I have at the beginning of the book that shows the flooded zone, you see how it reaches up on the Right Bank, and part of that was because it was following the subway line, around Concorde and up to the Opera. But part of that was also because it roughly follows where this dried up arm of the Seine was. It seems to want to naturally fill in that space.
RC: Is this the same thing that you were discussing in the book: there was a passage that was reactivated, and the area around the Opéra Garnier was turned into a lake? I believe it was an underground system that was activated.
JJ: There was the Bièvre River; is that what you’re thinking of? That was a tributary that ran for many miles; it cut across the Left Bank. It’s still there; it’s just been driven underground. They’ve covered it over.
The Bièvre had been very important for industrial purposes in the nineteenth century and even before. It was another water source in the area. Many factories found their way there and used the water. But it became polluted because so many factories were using it for dyes and all kinds of chemical things. It was so polluted they drove it underground and covered it over. There’s a movement afoot now to reopen it, to uncover it.
RC: I believe you discussed this in the book.
JJ: I mention it at the very end. I don’t know much more about it, other than that. I found out about it on the Web, actually. There’s a Web site devoted to a group that wants to uncover the Bièvre. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they did that.
RC: The other notable figure in your account is the almost animate statue of Zouave, a uniformed colonial soldier, who stood with his solemn expression along with the other statues on the Pont de l’Alma.
When I lived in Paris, there were many times that I passed Zouave, often accompanied by a Parisian who might point to the high-water mark of 1910 near Zouave’s neck, but other than that I never heard anyone discuss the flood in any detail. You say: “the story of the 1910 flood is largely forgotten.” “It is oddly absent from the written history of the city. Somehow Parisians have erased much of this moment from their past.” Why did this happen? Was it because World War I occurred just a few years later, and it eclipsed this big event?
JJ: It’s a question I’ve struggled with in many ways, and thought a lot about, in working on this project. Because people often ask, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” There are probably a number of reasons. Part of it is timing. With the war that comes only four years later, when people look back to that moment at the turn of the century, 1910 becomes part of the prewar era.
When we think back, when we create a kind of historical periodization, we talk about that as the run up to the war. All the things that are happening are related to what we know now, looking backward, will be the outbreak of war. So, when people think about the big cataclysm of that moment, it’s not flood, but it’s war.
And then, if you think about the anniversary dates of the flood, the fifth anniversary would have been in the middle of the war. The tenth anniversary, of 1920, would be just after the war. People are rebuilding; they’ve got other things on their mind. In 1930, it’s the beginning of the Depression. In 1940, there’s another war. So, even if you’re thinking about commemorating the flood, there are other events that are pushing this down and out of people’s active memory.
Another reason is the fact that the city is rebuilt so thoroughly. It’s hard to know exactly how long it took, but I’d say within a year or so the city was back to normal. A few things took a while to re-do, but within several months, or up to a year, things were back to normal. So, there weren’t those visible markers that you could look at: a pile of debris, or some destroyed building. All those things were gone. Without any physical reminder, it easily passed into memory.
Also, it’s the kind of thing that people want to forget. In some ways, it’s not something that’s …
RC: It’s not a happy memory.
JJ: It’s not a happy memory, yeah. It goes back to what we were saying before, about how it challenges people’s assumptions about their ability to control their environment and control their destiny.
It’s easier to remember wars, and things like that, than it is natural disasters. I mean, obviously, there are very important natural disasters that do get remembered. Even of that same era. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and there are other disasters that, for various reasons, have been remembered. But with this one, there are many factors that helped to push it to the side.
This was something that was surprising to me when I started doing this research. Certainly, I had a few people who knew about it, and who would talk about it as a kind of memory, and would say, “Oh, my grandmother told me a story about that when she was young,” or something like that. So, it’s not totally forgotten. But when I looked in histories of the city – even in some of those large, multivolumed histories – it might show up in a paragraph maybe, or a footnote, but in many cases not at all.
RC: In the official French history, there’s often a tendency to downplay the negative things. Even the Second World War is referred to as an “Occupation”! So, that’s possibly part of it.
JJ: Yeah, it certainly could be.
RC: At least since the Enlightenment, the French have exhibited a paternalistic attitude toward nature, and you write that, although a few regarded the flood as “the natural result of environmental degradation,” such as “deforestation upstream from Paris,” most regarded it “as a freak event that people had failed to manage but could control the next time around.” You add: “In France, people talk about saving nature through technology rather than giving up on the kind of urban industrial society that harms nature in the first place.” Is this attitude likely to change at any time in the near future?
JJ: I doubt it. Actually, that’s something that’s not unique to France. It’s typical of Western society generally. That we believe we can mitigate environmental degradation through additional technological means. Rather than saying, “Well, gee, the technology that we’re using is messing things up, so maybe we should stop using that technology.”
RC: But isn’t it worse in France because there’s always been, since the Enlightenment, this attitude that nature is just another colony that we have to teach civilization to in some way?
JJ: I think that’s definitely true. And I cite that book, The Light Green Society, by Michael Bess, who was one of my mentors when I was an undergraduate.
RC: You say there’s “ambivalence toward considering environmental questions” there.
JJ: It’s sort of like: we can be green, but without giving up a modernistic kind of vision. In some ways, the best example is France’s reliance on nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is of course much greener in the sense that it doesn’t produce greenhouse gas; it doesn’t produce carbon emissions. But what do you do with the waste? [Laughs] You know, that’s very much a double-edged kind of thing.
RC: When I was living there in the ’90s, many of my English-language students said there were higher rates of leukemia and other cancers around these plants, but it’s completely suppressed in the media. The French mass media is very government controlled. So most people don’t get that information. But perhaps now they’re getting it, through the Internet.
JJ: Right. But it’s not too surprising that they wouldn’t want to talk about those kinds of things. I mean, I’m sure that would be the case in this country, too. But it might have an easier time of getting out, through media or other ways.
RC: I think there’s more awareness here that this is going on. But until the Internet came to France, for most people, there was only one source of information. In the literary community in America, there’s a kind of “positive prejudice” about France being an open society. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
JJ: Yeah, much more complicated, for sure. [Laughs]
RC: At the time of the flood, Métro tunnels were still being constructed, and this further aggravated the situation, allowing water to rise up from below and to enter parts of the city that were quite a distance away from the Seine. You conclude that “Unlimited faith in urban engineering can sometimes create a false sense of security about our ability to withstand natural disasters.” As you know, Paris as well as the rest of France is just riddled with catacombs. This must have contributed to the swelling up of water from beneath the city streets, yes?
JJ: Yes, definitely. There were natural caverns and caves as well as human-made ones, too. It’s the combination of those things. You know, Paris is like a Swiss cheese. There are caves and catacombs, then you add tunnels and sewers and all these things. You’ve got old, Roman-era wells and crypts that have been built over. You’ve got porous soil, but there had been so much water that it was saturated. So, it’s got to go somewhere. And so, it seeks out caverns and caves, and then people’s basements.
There’s no way of knowing what the volume of water in the ground would have been. But when you think about it, that’s a huge amount of water. I mean, if it could fill up all those natural caverns, and all the human-made ones, too, that’s an awful lot of water. Then for it to push up and come into the streets: the volume is overwhelming.
RC: Just to read in your book that the water in the Seine alone was about to overflow the embankment near the Louvre! It’s an incredible amount of water.
JJ: Yes. It’s even hard to visualize mentally. I’ve seen the photographs, but when I stand on the banks there, and think of how much water that would be …
RC: And it’s continually being drained, into the Atlantic, yet it still keeps coming.
JJ: Right. And moving up to twenty-five miles an hour. That’s an amazingly fast current for that, in the middle of Paris.
RC: Racial tensions in Paris, particularly between the Algerians and the French, have continued to mount, especially over the last twenty years. You suggest that, today, France’s identity “must expand to include people of color whose origins are in other parts of the world. Until it does, should the Paris region undergo a similar kind of catastrophe as in 1910, the same level of social unity might simply not exist.” In this regard, what do you think would happen if Paris were suddenly flooded tomorrow?
JJ: Of course, I can only speculate. But the thought I had as I was writing this, and as I was thinking about that issue and about the way Paris has changed so much since 1910 – and the demographics, the politics, and especially the politics of race and the suburbs – the fear would be that people in those suburban towns, who are from other parts of the world, and not as fully incorporated into many people’s understanding of the identity of France and the identify of Paris itself, that they might be left to fend for themselves.
One of the things that struck me so deeply in writing the book about why the city survived was the fact that people were able to pull together. They saw their own individual self-interests as bound up with the common survival of everyone. To me, that only makes sense if you understand yourself, and your neighbor, and everyone around you, as part of a common community that you want to save. That you identify yourself as a Parisian, and this other guy over here as a Parisian, and we’re working together to save ourselves as Parisians, and as residents of this place. That’s why I wonder whether that same sense of connection – of the social bonds – would extend to those suburban communities. Would that sense of common cause extend to those people today? I don’t know. Maybe it would. Maybe the government would step in; who knows? That’s why I say it’s only speculation.
If you think of the way the social ties were so strong in 1910 Paris, including across class lines … Because, clearly, there were many divisions in Paris; there were many ways in which Parisians were divided against one another. Class, neighborhood, religion, politics: there were many ways that people could easily have fractured and pulled apart. Instead, they pulled together. Could that happen today, in the same way? Hard to know. I hope we never find out. But in thinking of that, that’s what was in the back of my mind. Because there’s so much tension there. There are so many ways in which the people who live in those suburban, banlieue areas feel detached from Paris. And feel so excluded from much of French society, and of Parisian society, that I just wondered what might happen along those lines.
RC: You made that point very well in the book, as well as tying it to other disasters around the world. You write: “What the flood provided was a moment in which Parisians, who were normally divided by class and politics, could act out a different kind of relationship. The solidarity they created out of necessity during the flood would again prove useful during World War I.” You go on to talk about how “the flood also served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the war. It gave Red Cross administrators additional experience in coordinating relief efforts.” That was a very interesting insight. Probably, no one’s made that connection before.
JJ: Thanks. It’s something that occurred to me as I was thinking about the way people acted during the flood. As I mentioned in the book, I was looking at photographs of Paris during the war and noticed how similar they are to photos during the flood. I was thinking: what are those connections, and what are those links, and the way in which the flood experience could easily have been a moment that allowed people then to do it again, just a few years later. To do all the things they had done: to find ways to work together, communally; to find ways to save their city.
RC: I understand your wife, Ellen Daugherty, who’s an art historian, helped you to realize that the photos of the flood, which were plentiful, were in fact primary documents and should be utilized as such.
JJ: She deserves a great deal of credit. As an historian, I’ve always known that photos make great documents, and I try to teach my students about that. But for some reason, early on, when I was working on this – and initially that’s all I had, before I really got into the archival stuff – I couldn’t figure out how to use them. I knew I could use them, but I wasn’t sure how. And so, because she’s trained to look at visual sources, and to read them and think critically about them, she was the one who said, “Look at what they’re telling you. Look at what’s going on in those pictures. What’s the story that’s emerging from them?” She helped me to clarify, and pushed me along those lines, and gave me insights that helped me to think about how best to use those sources. Once I was able to have the documentation and things from the archive, they really blended well together, and just went hand in hand. Talking about the photographs, and looking at the photographs, really enriched the story I was trying to tell.
RC: Of all the images, which was the most evocative?
JJ: The image that has always stood out is the one of the old woman on the raft. I don’t know why, but, for some reason, that’s the one that’s always stood out for me. Initially, I was going to propose that as the cover photo until a friend of mine said, “You’ve got to have a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the cover, because that’s Paris. Everyone identifies that as Paris.” And I was like, “You know, you’re right!”
Anyway, it’s an older woman on a raft, sort of hunkered down. And I guess there’s another one. There’s a great one of people on the passerelles …
RC: With the little girl?
JJ: No. I love that one, too. In fact, I bought that in a flea market in Paris.
RC: It has an impressionistic quality.
JJ: It does. I think it’s because they’re in motion, so it’s a little blurry. But there’s one – I don’t think it’s in the book; it’s on the Web site – of three people crossing a walkway. One of them is looking at the camera, and they’re all dressed up. There are two women, and they’re wearing big hats, and dresses, and it’s very 1910.
RC: Yes. The contrast between the upper-class accoutrements and the mud and the water; is that it?
JJ: Right, exactly. Those two images have always stuck out for me. Because they’re very human: very much about the human experience.
It’s fascinating to see pictures of destroyed buildings or streets. It’s interesting to see destruction on the urban landscape. But for me, it was more interesting to think about this as a human story and to study pictures that show people. Usually, they’re not pictures of people suffering. Usually, they’re of people being rescued, or crossing a walkway, or sweeping. Or doing something: rebuilding.
RC: Utilizing système d.
JJ: Yes. But still, even though the old woman on the raft is being rescued, you know she’s afraid, and she’s dealing with the emotions that go along with that.
RC: It’s a serious moment.
JJ: Exactly. So, those photos have always been the ones that have jumped out.
RC: For me, the most dramatic moment in your account was certainly the near-disaster at the Louvre, when the Seine would have gone over the embankment if the workmen hadn’t been piling all those bags of cement, and sand, and so forth. You quote a British journalist who said: “‘A few hours later, and the river would have won. All the basements of the Louvre would have been flooded.’” In fact, “water had already breached the basement of the Louvre.” But fortunately, "the barricade held fast." It’s amazing that this is not more widely known in France today. It’s a really significant moment in French history: that the treasures of the Louvre could have been destroyed!
JJ: And if they had been, people would remember. [Laughs] It’s another one of those things where it’s like a “near miss,” you know? People forget those near misses. Even though these are the things you should remember, because you never know what’s going to happen the next time around. But if the Louvre had been flooded, if the Mona Lisa had been destroyed, everyone would know the flood of 1910.
RC: I recently listened to a BBC interview with the administrateur générale of the Louvre, in which he said that not only were they expecting another flood, but, when it comes, they’ll have just seventy-two hours to remove over 100,000 works of art from the basement of the museum. In a culture that doesn’t treasure spontaneity and rapid decision-making, such a quick move sounds like wishful thinking.
JJ: Again, I hope we never have to find out what happens. There is a flood plan in place. The police have a flood plan, and that plan, at least in part, is based on the experience of 1910. It’s a touchstone for thinking about what they would do today.
There’s a movie; I don’t know if you’ve seen it. There’s an English version, but I’ve only seen the French version. It’s called Paris 2011: La grande inundation. There was an English version that, for some reason, was called “Paris 2010.” I don’t know why they added a year for the French version or took off a year for the English version. It’s called a docufiction. It’s a fictional documentary about the city that has just lived through a flood. They made this mock documentary about how we just lived through the flood and what happened. They use the Paris police flood-emergency plan as the basis for the film. It’s kind of an imaginative, “what would happen if this happened again.”
And it’s interesting, because that film has all the drama; it has all the “everything floods and everything goes wrong.” But the way they depict what happens at this moment of crisis is that everything works smoothly. You know, the museums pack up their artworks. They actually show it in the film: the Musée d'Orsay, people are in there, packing away. [Laughs] And they go through this whole thing, and, of course, it’s a happy ending. Everybody survives, and everything’s fine.
I’ve always interpreted this film, which was produced by the same people who made March of the Penguins, as a kind of way to say to people: Don’t worry; everything will be OK. We have a plan; we have an administrative structure in place. You know, the French love administrative structures. We have experts. We have all these things in place, and everyone knows what to do. But I mean, that’s the film version of it. [Laughs] The actual, real-life version? That could be another story.
RC: When I taught English in Paris, many of my students would say, “You know, Robert, we really are individualistic.” But in fact, my experience was that there was a real respect for authority. Which they’re unconscious of. There’s an unconscious respect for authority, and a desire not to stick out and to blend in, and a general faith in this logical, rational, Cartesian approach, which doesn’t account for acts of God. [Laughs] But God doesn’t exist since the Enlightenment, so, that’s the problem, you know.
JJ: Yeah, I think you’re right. There is a weird paradox in French culture, very much, of this kind of individualism but, at the same time, yeah, what you said, that respect for authority. Also, that there’s a standard procedure for how things need to be done.
RC: There needs to be more questioning of authority there.
JJ: There are moments like ’68, where authority clearly was questioned. But I think that deference to experts, in particular, is very much still there.
RC: Again, système d, débroullard: it’s wonderful that it exists. But often it’s sparked by a crisis; it’s not a natural tendency there to respect spontaneity. They turn to it only when they can’t turn to anything else. This is also part of the problem.
JJ: Yeah. And of course, système d, that’s one of those myths. I don’t mean myth in the sense that it’s false. But myth in the sense that it’s a story they tell to make sense out of the world. Of course, we all have this ability; it’s our natural, French-born ability to get out of a crisis or whatever. I know it’s a bizarre comparison, but, in the American context, the only thing I can think of is that thing about “Yankee ingenuity.” Because that’s a myth we tell ourselves, too: that story about how we’re a resourceful people. There’s truth to that; there’s truth to système d, too. But at the same time, it’s a way we craft our identity. Whether it’s Yankee ingenuity or système d or whatever. Every culture has a similar sort of thing.
RC: It’s shocking that it took them until 1969 to finally do something to prevent another flood. I’m referring to the construction of the Grands Lacs de Seine. Perhaps you could briefly describe what that system is.
JJ: I haven’t read extensively about it, and I’m not an engineer, but my understanding is that, basically, it’s a series of reservoirs upstream: three or four of these lakes. The idea is that, if a large volume of water came down the Seine, they would open up the locks and allow the excess water to flow into these reservoirs, and fill them up as basins that would take the pressure off the rising Seine itself. To alleviate the rising level of water.
They’ve used it several times. It has proven to work, up to a point. The big question is: would it work if it were a 1910-level flood? It’s worked for smaller floods. But it’s impossible to know if it would work for a flood of the same magnitude. Again, I hope it’s one of those things we never have to find out. But that’s my understanding of how it’s supposed to work. It’s a pretty simple idea, and, so far, effective for what they’ve needed at this point.
RC: What are the principal differences between your book and Marc Ambroise-Rendu’s work, 1910 Paris inondé?
JJ: A couple of things. One, the narrative he tells is a much shorter version. He hits the highlights; I don’t think he goes into as much depth as I do. When I think of that book, I think of it primarily as a picture book. It’s sort of a large sized …
RC: Coffee-table book?
JJ: Not quite as big; it’s not one of those huge coffee-table books. But it’s oriented horizontally, for picture size, like eight-by-ten size or maybe slightly larger pictures. Then he’s got this text that accompanies the photos. So, I always get the feeling that, for him, he’s done a sort of picture book with an accompanying story.
Whereas I’ve tried to tell the story in greater depth. We use a lot of the same material; I think he mentions some of the same archives as I do. But I go into greater depth about the story, and I try to put it into a broader historical context. He does some of that, but I’ve tried to put it into a bigger picture about what’s happening in France at the turn of the century. And some of these issues that we’ve been discussing, about modernity and technology, and how this challenges people’s assumptions. And pointing forward, to the war. I don’t think he talks about that at all.
RC: Your account is panoramic.
JJ: I tried to use this as a window into a broader set of issues. And I hope I succeeded.
RC: In your bibliography, I noticed that Denoël published a biography by Jean-Marc Berlière, Le Préfet Lépine, and you mentioned Lépine’s memoir. Is there much else written about him? Is he a well-known figure in French history?
JJ: I don’t get the sense that he’s particularly well known. There are a couple of biographies. And then his autobiography, or his memoirs.
RC: Is the memoir an engaging read?
JJ: In some ways it is. I mean, obviously, he’s writing it toward the end of his life, and he wants to shape his own story. Of course, he emphasizes the positive things. But it’s sort of interesting on its own. That’s where he talks about himself – there, especially – as the préfet of the street, wanting to be in the street. And he wants to be known by people around town. Because, as I was saying before, that’s where his sense of authority comes from.
As I mention, there’s a “place Louis Lépine,” right across from police headquarters in Paris. And there’s this Concours Lépine. Apparently, he sponsored a show of new inventions, which still goes on in Paris today. So, I suppose if he’s remembered today for anything, it’s probably more for that. It’s a yearly competition for new inventions.
He’s a fascinating figure. Someone asked if I’d ever thought of writing a book about Louis Lépine. That’s probably not in the future: not in the works for me. But someone should write something in English, or translate these things that have been written in French. Because he’s an interesting figure, for sure. And at a particularly interesting moment in French history.
RC: You briefly mention Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, “long revered for having rallied Paris against an invasion of Attila the Hun in 451.” In 1206, when “nearly half the city flooded,” she “came to the city’s aid in spirit.” And, “following the mass chanted at Notre-Dame with her relics present, the waters miraculously began to recede.” Were any masses said for her in 1910 or did any of the devout turn to her then?
JJ: I don’t know of any masses; I didn’t see any reference to that. There were plenty of masses said, but I don’t know of any said specifically to her. But it wouldn’t surprise me if she were invoked widely, because she was thought about not only as the city’s patron saint but, specifically, as the saint one turns to during a time of flood. So I would imagine that, among the devout, she would have been evoked.
RC: I wanted to read you something from a delightful book called Paris on the Seine, by Blake Ehrlich. He offers a slightly different take on the events of 451, which I thought would be fun to share with you:
Geneviève was a nun who devoted herself to the care of the sick and poor of Paris. When she was twenty-seven, in the year 450, Attila the Hun was descending on Paris, his troops having sacked Cologne and there ravished ten thousand virgins. Geneviève halted the panic of the capital’s citizens, urged them not to desert the city, and assured them that God would turn aside the barbarian horde. It happened just so: Attila checked, changed his line of march and swung south to Orleans, from there to the battle of Châlons, whence he was driven from France. Some students have explained the Hun’s odd detour by saying he must have learned that never in its history could Paris muster ten thousand virgins and he didn’t want to spoil his record.*
JJ: [Laughs] That’s interesting. There are so many great books about Paris that it’s hard to keep up with them; it’s such a popular topic.
RC: How old were you when you first visited Paris?
JJ: It was during graduate school, so I would have been in my mid- to late twenties.
RC: You started studying French in the first grade. Was this unusual for your generation?
RC: Probably so. The school I went to was a private school, and it was just the language that they taught. They didn’t teach Spanish, which is more common, or anything else, but they taught French. So, I did that all the way through high school.
RC: Is this what first triggered your interest in French culture?
JJ: Probably a combination of that and my grandparents who, when I was a kid, started doing their world travels. They traveled everywhere, all over the world, mostly going on package tours, and they returned with stories, photographs, and souvenirs. They went to Paris and to Europe many times. So it was a combination of hearing them talk about Europe and studying French in school. All this came together in my background and pointed me in the direction of being interested in European history, and French history in particular.
JJ: What was your emotional reaction upon first walking through the streets of Paris?
JJ: It’s funny because, the first time I went to Europe, I flew to London and, after a couple of days, I took the Eurostar, which was still relatively new at that point. So, when I arrived in Paris, I arrived in the train station at Gare du Nord. And that was beautiful and amazing, but I still hadn’t seen the city at that point. Then I boarded the Métro, and I went to the place where I was going to meet the person from whom I was renting an apartment, up in the twentieth arrondissement. And so, that whole way, I traveled underground. I still hadn’t seen the city.
I didn’t really see Paris until I came out of the Metro in the twentieth arrondissement, and I looked around, and my response mentally and emotionally was: “Oh my gosh, it’s Paris!” [Laughs] It looked like the postcards; it looked like the pictures. You know, it was almost too good to be true. Like, does it really look like all the movies and all the images? And this was in the twentieth; this was not in central Paris. It wasn’t near the Eiffel Tower or anything. It was out in a residential neighborhood. But it still looked like what I thought it would look like, in some way. There was a little café there, and all these things. So, it was a surprise of strange familiarity, in many ways.
RC: When my brother, who’s not exactly prone to poetic exclamation, first visited me, he said, “It’s like a dream here.” We were standing in front of the Centre Pompidou at that moment, and he was looking at the buildings in the distance. And then it came to mind, there’s that quote from somewhere that goes: “It’s one of the few places in the world where the reality exceeds the dream.” It’s an amazingly beautiful city.
JJ: Yeah, it is. That’s a good way of putting it. It’s a funny place, for so many reasons. It’s funny because, whenever I go, there are so many beautiful things, and so many delicious things to eat, and amazing things to see. Then I have moments where it’s a big dirty city, and you walk around and get exhausted trudging through the streets – and almost get hit by a bus or something like that happens – and then I’m like: “Damn Paris!” [Laughs]
RC: There’s a lot to curse about in Paris, that’s for sure!
JJ: Yeah, I go back and forth. Then I sit in a café and have a pastry, and I’m like, “This is so wonderful; I’m so glad I’m here.” [Laughs] It’s a weird sort of back-and-forth thing.
RC: For me, the Seine is really the soul of Paris. It’s the most beautiful and powerful thing in the city. To sit along the quay near Pont de la Tournelle, near Notre-Dame – it’s such an amazing experience that goes beyond any words.
JJ: Yeah, it really is. If there’s an eternal part of Paris, that’s it. As I was saying, the city itself is always changing. It’s always being built, torn down, whatever. But the river has this kind of feel, because it’s been there for centuries and centuries. That’s where the eternal part of Paris is.
RC: I don’t want to keep you, but I thought we could touch a little on your jazz book. A large part of your first work is devoted to the efforts of Hughes Panassié, a jazz aficionado who took it upon himself to publicize “le hot jazz” and to educate his fellow Frenchmen about the intricacies of this new musical form. He even formed the Hot Club de France. I found this to be a typically French reaction: the need to bring art and artists into institutional frameworks and organizations. Artists are often part of a “collective” in France. Even members of the avant-garde feel compelled to form groups.
JJ: Yeah, that’s interesting; I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way. But I think you’re right; there’s something very French about that sort of response to form a club. Of course, there were similar kinds of jazz clubs in this country, too, and they were trying to connect up a bit. You know, I talked about the International Federation of Hot Clubs that they tried to get going. This trans-Atlantic association, which, as far as I could tell, never came to anything. They talked about it; there was some discussion in the magazine Jazz-Hot. Marshall Stearns, who’s a big jazz critic in this country, who founded the Institute for Jazz Studies, was the American connection. They were supposed to create this international network of clubs, but, so far as I can tell, they only talked about it on paper. It never really became anything.
RC: Regarding the Hot Club, I thought it was typically French that he not only tried to create an institution to preserve and promulgate hot jazz, but, in addition, there was a pedagogical aspect to his work: trying to show people how to think about this particular form, and how to assimilate it psychologically, and so on.
JJ: That’s definitely true. Some of this may have been because there were so many people who just didn’t get it: didn’t understand what this was supposed to be. I tried to talk about it in the first part of the book: the response to jazz. For some, it’s brilliant and amazing and they love it. And it’s dance music, and it’s fun. And others are like: this is the end of the world [laughs], this weird sound is just the primitive jungles of Africa, or it’s some weird thing from outer space, or we don’t know what to make of it.
To some extent, that was the case in this country, too. Jazz was very controversial in the ’20s. A lot of people were like, this is devil music; this is black music. You know, all the weird associations that people brought to it. And they said, we don’t know what this means.
But in the French context it was even more outlandish, because it was coming from another country: it was coming from outside of France. It was seen as something that was doubly foreign, because it was American; it was black; it was not from within. And so, there’s really no frame of reference to understand what it’s about. And Panassié and Delaunay and others in the Hot Club, and just in that whole scene, felt they had to do some teaching, early on, to say, “No, we can appreciate this too; we can perform this music too.”
RC: They were successful to some extent.
JJ: They were. As far as one can measure, the number of jazz fans is still relatively small until after World War II. That’s really when you see the big explosion. But you couldn’t have gotten to that point without those guys in the ’20s and ’30s, like Panassié and Delaunay, who were building the groundwork, and making it OK to listen to and to play. So, in that sense, they were successful at their teaching.
RC: As I previously mentioned, often, there’s a fear of anything spontaneous in France, and the dominant cultural consciousness is that of a logical, rational, Cartesianism. Yet this the whole notion of jazz improvisation flies directly in the face of that. As you say, for many, it must have been viewed as something satanic. You talk about how the same adjectives that were used to attack jazz by its critics were also used to extol it. For example, the “brutal force” and the sounds, and the dancers who were “elevated,” “hypnotized, driven mad.” I found this quite interesting and ironic. It suggests there are two fundamentally different temperaments at work here, each experiencing the same thing in a completely different manner.
JJ: Yes, that’s right. It really does come down to which side you are coming at it from. Some of this is generational, perhaps. But are you a traditionalist who wants everything to remain the same? Or are you open to a new, avant-garde idea?
Those who were open – and there were plenty of people in Paris in the ’20s who were open to new, avant-garde kinds of things – were looking at this and saying, Wow, this is amazing stuff. And then, those who were looking at any kind of avant-garde thing, whether it was jazz, or some new art form, or new literary, or new other kind of musical form … you know, people who were listening to Stravinsky and saying this is horrible and walking out, they were the same people who were walking out of jazz, or not going to jazz performances, because it was not traditional music. So, it depends which side of that divide you’re on.
RC: It epitomizes two diametrically opposed tendencies in France. On the one hand, “Why do something differently if we’ve always done it this way before?” And on the other, an enduring need to be at the service of culture, which necessitates an openness to innovation and change.
JJ: I think that definitely makes sense. As I said, clearly, in the 1920s especially, there were many who were interested in something new and innovative. You’re right, there’s always this tension in France, and in Paris in particular. Paris wants to be the capital of art, innovation, culture. And so much of that is about the new, right? Coming up with something that’s shocking even. Dadaism, or something that is in your face. But then, at the same time, there’s a deep-seated desire to link back with tradition and to see how this fits into a broader, deeper flow of tradition.
That may not necessarily be uniquely French. It’s probably something that’s broader. You find expressions of that in other cultures as well, including this country, too. But it’s something you see very much: the duality there, the tension between those two things comes to the fore in a place like Paris.
Because there were so many who were doing, and who were interested in doing, shocking and avant-garde things in the ’20s. And so many who, at that same moment, were pushing back against that. So, there’s a culture war happening in the ’20s in Paris. That’s why jazz becomes a touchstone. Because it’s one of the many things that shocks people. And if you want to be shocked, you’re drawn to it. And if you don’t want to be shocked, you push back against it with all your might.
Some of this is about the postwar period. You’re coming out of the trenches; you’re coming out of the experience of war. And the culture has undergone this tremendous upheaval. For many people, they want nothing more than a return to sanity. There’s this whole artistic movement, le rappel à ordre: the return to orderly things. [Laughs] And so, there are many, even in the artistic community, who say we need to get back to basics and forget all this craziness. But there are plenty of others who say, No, let’s push forward. The old culture is dead. The war proves it. Now, let’s try something new. We must reinvent ourselves in this moment.
RC: The ironic thing is: the great avant-garde artist is always working through tradition, and forging a new link to a long chain in tradition. But very few can actually see that, particularly when the new form is first manifesting.
JJ: Yes, I think that’s true. There were people who were trying to understand jazz within that tradition. There were many who said, “Well, jazz has its own tradition. That is a tradition that is linked back to Africa.” They saw it explicitly in racial terms, that this was an expression of “blackness,” in musical form.
But there were others who were trying to say, “OK, but this is also music, and we can understand it in the context of the history of musical tradition. And so, maybe there are ways we can understand it, even though it’s coming from outside. We can think about it and how it fits within the idea of musical tradition.”
Because, for instance, the notion of syncopation is not something that jazz invents. It’s an older, traditional musical technique. There were composers and others who were trying to think about that. And to connect jazz – this avant-garde form – to a deeper tradition. Just as you were saying.
RC: After jazz gained wider acceptance in France, it became “a symbol for what it meant to be French in the interwar years.” Maybe you could expand on that.
JJ: One of the things I was interested in was not so much writing about jazz per se but writing about the reception of jazz. To some extent, I was more interested in audiences than in performers. What I wanted to know was, what happened when people heard this music? What did they say; what did they do; what did they think about it?
That’s where this plugs into the question of French tradition, identity, and culture. Jazz provides a language, or an opportunity for people to debate these questions about what it means to be French. Is it French to accept an artistic musical form that comes from another part of the world? And to bring it into our tradition and to have French musicians who perform it and play it as well as the people who created it? Or is it more French to see it as an outside thing and to push it away? In the response to jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, you see this debate going on. You know, what does it mean to be French? What is the definition of Frenchness? Is it openness to new things? Or is it a kind of conservative, traditional vision? And where does that debate go, with jazz as the thing that … You know, we’re talking about jazz, but really we’re taking about all these other issues.
RC: It’s like a Rorschach test.
RC: How would you define “hot jazz”? Is it synonymous with jazz improvisation?
JJ: Hot jazz refers to that kind of ’20s-era, sometimes referred to as Dixieland, jazz. It’s the early jazz that’s very much about improvisation and spontaneity. Often, it was a collective improvisation, early on.
RC: Where they passed the instrument to each guy in the band? Or where each takes a turn on his instrument?
JJ: That’s part of it. Or just the sense that the group as a whole is improvising on the theme. It’s out of this that come the “big name” people – like Louis Armstrong – who become soloists doing this kind of improvisation. It’s all the same thing; it’s all related. The thing for Panassié, which was crucial, was the fact that you had to have that spontaneous improvisation.
RC: Otherwise, you were banned by Panassié! [Laughs]
JJ: Yeah, exactly. The way he puts it, he has this quote – I don’t know why it always sticks in my brain – he says: “Where there is no swing, there can be no authentic jazz.” And so, the music has to swing. For him, that means it must be rooted in this improvisational expression. Here, he was really talking about what he referred to as “real jazz,” the music of the New Orleans players – Armstrong and others – versus that kind of orchestral jazz: the stuff of Paul Whiteman and Jack Hylton, who orchestrated and scored it, and there was no need or room for improvisation. So for Panassié it’s not just “pretty” band music, but there’s something live and in the moment. That’s where the “hotness” comes from.
RC: What led to the creation of your book? Are you a jazz aficionado? Or was it coming out of what we were previously discussing: jazz as a sort of Rorschach test to define other aspects of French culture?
JJ: A little of both. I’m not an aficionado. I’m an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to jazz, because I’m not a musician or anything like that.
As I said, it was my dissertation originally. The way it came about was, I started with the time period. I wanted to do something on the interwar period. I’d always found that to be a fascinating era, and I wanted to do something on that. I remember saying to myself in graduate school: I know I’ve heard something about jazz and Paris, and maybe I could look into that and see what was there. It started as a seminar paper in one of my classes. I found very little had been written. And the light bulb went on over my head and I said, “Well, since I’m interested in this time period and not a lot’s been written about it …” And as someone who appreciated jazz and who was interested and listened to jazz, I was attracted to it for that reason, too.
The other reason it made sense to pursue it was that I went to graduate school at the University of Rochester, and one part of the University of Rochester is the Eastman School of Music. Eastman and Julliard are the two preeminent music schools in this country. I knew I would have access to an amazing music library, which I did, as well as the faculty at Eastman, who could give me their insights. I thought that, even though I’m not a musician, I’m surrounded by musicians, and I have access to those kinds of resources. So it just made sense to work on that. And I felt it really came together, too. I was very proud of that book
RC: I’m glad we had a chance to talk about the jazz book. Thanks so much for your time.
JJ: Thank you. It’s a great honor and pleasure to talk to you.
* Blake Ehrlich, Paris on the Seine (New York: Atheneum, 1962), p. 126.
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Couteau. Poems, Letters, Essays, Interviews
Updated: 9 September 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: Jeffrey Jackson the Paris ubder water flood of 1910 Jazz in France Making Jazz French Music and Modern Life in Interwar France interviews with literature book reviews of novels and literary by Rob Couteau expatriate writers in Paris