Nostalgia is a funny thing. Few feelings are so difficult to describe and yet so universally experienced, recognised and understood. The sheer power of this mysterious melancholy has frequently caused us to radically edit and scribble in the margins of our history books, excising uncomfortable details and highlighting the more romantic ones. In our age of rampant retromania, these trends should feel familiar, and increasingly we are becoming enamoured with memories of times of which we were not even a part (the fact that Tame Impala were one of the most lauded bands of 2012 should prove my point). Yet scarcely has an era been more mythologized and put on a pedestal than Paris at the turn of the 20th century, a world that is explored in great depth in the ‘Paris’ section of the Southbank’s The Rest Is Noise Festival.
And it’s easy to see why the era of roaring Paris remains so attractive. In a fragmented world, the notion of one area (for it is not even the city as a whole, but the district of Montparnasse) being the centre of the world is wildly implausible, so it should be no surprise that the idea of the city as a veritable Mecca for artists, writers and musicians appeals to the nostalgists amongst us. But the Southbank’s weekend of lectures, workshops and concerts made an active effort not to massage the reputation of Paris as some kind of artistic theme park, instead framing our perceptions of the period with critical insight rather than rose-tinted pontificating.
Andrew Hussey, the author of Paris: The Secret History, gave the inaugural talk of the weekend’s proceedings is testament to this refreshing attitude. Aware of the potentially clichéd notion of a ‘secret history’, he nevertheless tells us the story of Paris, not through the reprobate artists that adopted it as a home, but through the Parisians themselves. Far from being a purely fantastical, romantic tangle of picturesque paths whose sole purpose seemed to be that of inspiration, the city was ravaged by a decade of death in the 1910s, and moreover felt an economic devastation, especially compared with the affluence of the late 19th Century. And it is through Hussey’s remarkable portrait of the Parisian mentality that nostalgia is revealed as one of the most necessary tensions for the most groundbreaking musical works of the century.
Nowhere is the nostalgia problem more succinctly and beautifully presented than in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the film used to close the weekend. The feature sees Owen Wilson (who is an unexpectedly decent analogue for a young Allen) have his own obsession with the era satisfied through late night encounters with his heroes from the past, only to have his myth of modernity shattered by the realisation in film’s denouement that everyone longs for a golden age. It is this essentially backward-looking nature of the time that was (and still is) attractive to many, and it was also the desire to update, subvert and destroy the feedback of the past that led to this hotbed of creativity. Tristan Tzara wrote in his Dadaist manifesto of 1918, ‘let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean.’