Novels in Three Lines…vs. the 24 Hour News Cycle

Félix Fénéon, as portrayed by Paul Signac

In a year defined by uncertainty, which should ideally provide the media with their finest hour as they shepherd us through it all, there is nevertheless a steep decline in public goodwill towards them. For those who find that to be one of the least surprising trends of 2020, the epidemiology behind this should be fairly well-known in its own right. Firstly, for organizations that project themselves as having unique access to information and superior capabilities for its analysis, the corporate media are still laughably oblivious to the reality confronting them: namely, that the general viewing public’s preference for events to simply be shown to them, rather than explained, has accelerated the major news networks’ obsolescence. The amateur live-streamers who simply have the patience to train their cameras on an event for its meaningful duration are more useful to that public than a bevy of editors and expert commentators delivering obviously incomplete reportage, followed by speculation on those very portions of the raw footage that went to the cutting room floor. This disconnect has never been clearer than in the past five months of widespread, uncontrolled urban mayhem, which predictably followed on the heels of State-mandated bans upon less confrontational forms of human contact, and by the absorption of all forms of mindless entertainment into the permanent crisis narrative of contemporary politics.

Also, it is encouraging to consider that the decline in public goodwill comes not only from the corporate media’s declining ability to generate “scoops” relative to the average citizen, but also an increasing popular understanding that no modern media conglomerate truly acts as an impartial observer. The aforementioned editorial style is not based upon an ignorance of street-level realities that amateur newsmakers can better comprehend and capture, but a deliberate strategy based on advancing narratives that promote their paymasters’ interests and therefore acts to stifle independent thought not in tune with the agendas of this managerial elite. In the near future, it seems unlikely that any major organs of news reportage will be able to diminish the growing perception of them as the exploiters of existing socio-cultural division lines, or rather as the very creators of those dividing lines — a role that legitimizes a manufactured need for this industry’s further expert commentary on the same. While newsworthy events that unite this county’s ideological poles are not to be uncritically applauded — given that elective acts of war seem to be the events which most reliably resolve differences between the governmental representatives and professional commentariat on opposing sides — it is still worth wondering what a “unifying” form of news reportage might look like today, if it existed. In this current climate of factional reportage, are there really any avenues available to tell a “human interest” story that exists apart from the need to affect changes in policy?

Given the American corporate media’s resounding failure to convince the public of their trustworthiness, it is not surprising that some obscure literature from the early 20th century provides a more interesting case study than more recent manifestations of journalistic activity. Much like the determined individuals who now surpass the viewership of the professional divisiveness industry with only a functioning webcam and zero cash, the eccentric character of Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) emerges as a cultural outsider who, despite his spatio-temporal remoteness from current events, nevertheless provides an intriguing commentary about what our communciations media have become and how they can be upstaged with seemingly minimal effort. The avant-garde chronicler Richard Kostelanetz provides one of the best eulogistic assessments of this character, boldly identifying him as none other than “one of the greatest progressive figures of his time” as well as “an art critic, an anarchist, a pioneering minimal fictioner, and an art collector whose accumulations sold so well after his death that an art prize was established with his name.”[1] This curriculum vitae is fleshed out by a more warts-and-all assessment of his personality as provided by biographer Joan Halperin:

Fénéon often sought to be everything at once: aesthete and anarchist, raffish dandy and […] sometimes bomber, a seemingly conventional misogynist who often preferred to use women’s names as pseudonyms and occasionally expressed the desire to “become female” […] to his associates he often seemed cryptic (Toulouse-Lautrec called him “Buddha”) or cynical and sardonic (Remy de Gourmont called him “Mephistopheles,” and many of his sketched self-portraits have a demonic air.[2]

These tendencies were not exclusive to Fénéon (John Hutton notes, after all, that “in France, as elsewhere, anarchists were diverse, with no consistent program or ideology”)[3]. They are worth noting, though, to explain how his main creative legacy reflected this eclecticism of thought. It was not his documented work that this cemented this legacy, but his more ephemeral ability to be a cultural switchboard linking together other similarly inclined and creators: what Hutton calls “a sort of human void…the hollow center of an active and militant life.”[4] Being this kind of “transitional” public figure experimenting with different (even contradictory) strains of aesthetic and political thought, as well as one more apparently concerned with the holistic health of cultural experimentation than with personal accolades, is almost unthinkable in the current media environment marked by ever-intensifying, righteous fury of partisan propaganda actors and the bending of facts to satisfy pre-formed, “either/or” narratives rather than to invite further dialogue and debate. That said, it is not difficult at all to imagine a time-travelling Fénéon as being part of the present-day “marginal” media: the enforced anonymity, strategic ambiguity and trickster spirit that he embodied are now indispensable attributes for communicators who daily face “de-platforming” merely for being competitors to established media.

One of Fénéon’s most enduring and original works, which Kostelanetz rightly claims as “an early monument of literary minimalism”[5] has been his collected nouvelles en trois lignes [novels in three lines], strikingly brief news bulletins that often read something like “true crime haiku”. These tense, economical, and often mordantly funny news items were written for the faits divers [roughly “assorted facts,” though there is no reliable 1:1 translation] pages of the broadsheet Le Matin in 1906. These differed from standard news fare of the time in a couple salient respects: for one, unlike the news stories which commanded the main pages of the papers of that time, readers generally did not need to be armed with any prior knowledge pertaining to the nouvelles’ subjects in order to fully absorb and reflect upon their contents. More interestingly, readers remote from the action would not even need to be familiar with socio-cultural realities of Fénéon’s place and time in order to do the same.

Though Fénéon compiled well over a thousand of these (and in fact never took credit for their authorship), just a few favorites should suffice here to demonstrate their peculiar character:

Frachet, of Lyon, who had been bitten by a pug but apparently recovered, tried to bite his wife and died rabid.

A hanged man, there two months, has been found in the Estérel Mountains. Fierce birds had completely disfigured him with their beaks.

He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Théophile Papin, of Ivry, collapsed.

Harold Bauer and Casals will give a concert tonight in San Sebastian. Besides that, they may fight a duel.

Finding his daughter, 19, insufficiently austere, Jallat, watchmaker of Saint-étienne, killed her. It is true that he has 11 children left.

Fénéon: “At the Trianon Palace, a visitor disrobed and climbed into the imperial bed…it is disputed whether he is, as he claims, Napoleon IV [shown]”

If you should find the content of these bitter slices of life transcendentally funny, rather than outright tragic, you aren’t alone, nor would you be if you find these to be the antithesis to the majority of headline-grabbing fare these days. Kostelanetz, for his part, takes this reasoning further and sees them as the antithesis to the conventional political thought that “inspires” (read: pays for) such headlines: he claims that the “bias toward surprising possibilities” in these Fénéon morsels is proof that the “appropriate form for conservatism is tragedy, portraying what cannot or should not be done,”[6] whereas anarchic ground-breakers like Fénéon are more inclined towards the unexpected and evolutionary ruptures of comedy. It is interesting to consider this when noting that contemporary mass media, despite being essentially manufactured info-tainment (to the degree that major news events conveniently never seem to break on weekends), is so inept at the “-tainment” portion because of its near-total, monotonous focus on tragedy. Not realizing or caring that the potential for innovation comes more often through laughter than through weeping and gnashing of teeth, these organizations yet again leave it to the citizenry to complete their job for them via memetic satire and humorous, if cynical, side commentary on their inability to go off script (see e.g. the recent “fiery but mostly peaceful” phenomenon.)

Yet Fénéon’s minimalist explosions of verbiage do not shrink away from tragedy either; with their relationship to tragedy again managing to invite more meaningful reflection in three lines’ worth of text than in an entire audio-visually saturated news cycle. Luc Sante, in his introduction to the most current English translation of this material, identified as the special quality of Fénéon’s work its “demonstrat[ion] that violence, misery, chicanery and insanity exist in a continuum that spans human history; they prove that there never was a golden age.”[7] Indeed, the faits divers reader would hardly need to know much about the conditions of, say, the town of Angers to understand the absurdity and arbitrariness of a mayoral edict banning “union banners, songs not of a liturgical character, and canes.” Nor would they need to have any grounding in the history of the House of Bonaparte to understand the anomalous character of a “visitor […] at the Trianon palace” who “disrobed and climbed into the imperial bed…it is disputed whether, as he claims, he is Napoleon IV.”

For further illumination, it is interesting to consider what Dominique Jullien says of anecdotes (which Fénéon’s faits divers are certainly a sub-species of). In her reckoning, they are

… “total,” “imminent” information. Anecdotes do not formally make a point, they simply tell something: after that, nothing more needs to be said. Anecotes have a kind of “so-what?” quality about them. But at the same time, anecdotes capture an essential truth about something; they are often supposed to be in some sense exemplary.[8]

There is something about this “nothing more needs to be said” that invites further investigation into the differences between official and marginal types of journalistic media. Though the nouvelles are more often than not based upon tragic events like the bird-disfigured man in the Estérel Mountains, their poetic detachment, and perhaps their implicit understanding that not every eulogy need be a call to action or retribution, combine to deny the full exploitation of that tragedy. Such tragic events do not always merit serialization across multiple communications media, with their social relevance telegraphed by the yanking of entirely predictable reactions out of shocked bystanders and grief-stricken relatives. Nor do they always necessitate follow-up panel discussions in which experts and academics (maybe ornithologists in this case) make sure audiences understand the “correct” context of these events. By preserving his subjects in a larger continuum of human activity (even if it is one defined by “misery, chicanery, and insanity”), Fénéon accords them more respect than narrators who would make these subjects into martyrs / sacrifices emblematic of their particular moment in history. When careening through the litany of accidents, drunken encounters and private obsessions that animate the nouvelles, we somehow dignify these characters by situating them in what Jullien identifies as the “infra-ordinaire (the opposite of the extraordinary).”[9] Seeing their “infra-ordinaire” life stories as somehow accessible gives us the opportunity to make news reading an active rather than a passive act; it permits us to in essence create stories and meanings of our own with the meager materials given.

And so the nouvelles’ focus on the aforementioned “essential truth” contrasts with how present-day corporate media treats, and subsequently manufactures, tragedy. Like most of the American political establishment that they serve, these organs spend the bulk of their working time in a kind of perpetual campaign mode, reminding the public that it needs them. Thus their insistence upon the present time as being exceptional in its tragic degeneracy and cruelty. If the apocalyptic “everything cranked up to 10” tenor that accompanies their professional diagnosis succeeds in deepening social divisions and subsequently sparking further newsworthy acts of violence and mayhem, no self-reflection on complicity in this misery is necessary; the self-anointed expert class can simply pass off their deliberate inflammation of public resentments and anxieties as being a “prediction” of further tragic events related to them, and an affirmation that ours is an unprecedented, ahistorical time.

Manufactured (or at least embellished) states of emergency are almost always a cue to disable critical thinking and cede control to a higher authority. With this kind of thinking comprising so much of professional journalism, those who want a creative rather than adversarial relationship to their fellow humans really do have to look elsewhere. Paradoxically, Fénéon seemed reluctant to fully embrace a role as an ‘alternative’ voice: he himself was famous for once uttering “Je n’aspire qu’au silence”… “I aspire only to silence.” It is a statement that, despite its nihilistic flavor, becomes more of an exhortation or challenge given the intrepid poetic spirit who proclaimed it. The silence in question is just the next logical step to take after compressing the whole human experience into a space of three lines; an acknowledgement that one eventually has to convert insight into creation rather than engaging in additional discussion. This, rather than any competing platform for journalism, is the real alternative to the endless cascades of fear that we have become too accustomed to. And, as regards that, Fénéon suggests in this parting nouvelle that mortal danger will be with us even in unexceptional times:

Just as the absent-minded sculptor Bombarés, who should have gotten off at Champigny, leapt from the moving train, an express ran him over.

[1] Kostelanetz, R. (2019). A Dictionary of the Avant Gardes (3rd Edition). New York/London: Routledge.

[2] Hutton, J. (1991). “Félix Fénéon: Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, by Joan Ungersma Halperin and Germaine Bree.” The Journal of Modern History, 63(3), pp. 578–580.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kostelanetz (2019).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fénéon, F. (2007). Novels in Three Lines. Trans. Luc Sante. New York: New York Review of Books Classics.

[8] Jullien, D. (2009). “’Faits Divers and the Literary”. SubStance, 38(1), pp. 66–76.

[9] Ibid. In invoking this term, Jullien is here contrasting Fénéon’s own faits divers with the 1978 radio broadcast of Georges Perec, Tentative de description de choses vues au Carrefour Mabillon. During this program, Perec spent six hours in May of 1978 describing everything he witnessed at a single city intersection. Jullien notes that the most dramatic event recorded was a “woman slipping and falling while crossing the street.”

Sound artist, psychopathologist, author of “To Hear The World With New Eyes,” “MicroBionic, ”“Unofficial Release” and “Sonic Phantoms” (with Barbara Ellison).