Monday, October 06, 2008

Ceci n'est pas une relique

Jacques Brel's pipe and other knickknacks associated with the great man are going under the hammer at Southeby's of Paris. The main attraction is the manuscript for Amsterdam, which is expected to fetch €50,000-70,000. The Economist lists some of the other items on sale.

In a remarkably comprehensive sale of Brel's manuscripts, recordings, photographs and personal belongings, which include his pilots' licence, his wallet, and his pipe. Sotheby's refuses to identify the seller, but it is clearly an intimate of Brel's who believed that his reputation would last a lot longer than that of an ephemeral pop singer.

In the current economic climate it might be a smart investment; like wine or maybe a form of cultural gold. A few of these YouTube clips will remind those of you who need reminding why this is so, even if such a comparatively humble item as a concert poster will set you back a thousand euros or so. (Than again, the euro might well be about to collapse, so those with dollars or - better - Swiss francs to hand might pick up a bargain that way).

But it's not the economics of the thing that fascinate so much as the question of why one would want to buy up Brel's personal effects. There is a particular pleasure in imagining oneself smoking his pipe, hoping that the tobacco will transfer - by a sort of spiritual osmosis - some of his qualities to oneself. It's nonsense of course, though one might pick up a sympathetic cancer by so doing, I suppose.

It's a curious thing, if you think about it, this desire to collect souvenirs of the great men of the past. There something of the gathering of relics to it; as if, to get to the French meaning of the word, the souvenirs themselves carried memories - and maybe other qualities too.

As an example of what I mean consider the other pre-eminent French language songwriter of the last century. Here's an excellent Vanity Fair article about plans to turn Serge Gainsbourg's house into a museum – something I would most certainly want to visit. It's understandable that his daughter, Charlotte, should want to keep the house exactly as it was at the time of his death (memory again) but there is something of magical (or at least the would-be magical) about it too - especially in the fans leaving votive offerings, like bottles of pastis, or plaintive messages on the walls of the house. It is reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the cult of the saints. "We miss you Serge – life is such a bore" is a prayer of sorts, after all, a plea for intercession against the tedium of life.

Now, I like the idea of a lecherous Jewish alcoholic as a Medieval saint. In fact one could extend the analogy. Jeanne Moureau's comment: "Even if you play Serge's songs in the middle of Africa, where nobody understands the words, they'll be caught" is the same principle behind the use of Latin in the Mass. Of course, we live in a post-Reformation age and the message works in the vernacular too. Here's a rare English language performance by Serge, I strongly urge you to listen to it, it'll take you on to another plane of existence altogether; the words may lack the debauched majesty of the original ("Me surexcitent/Tes petits seins de Bakélite/Qui s'agitent"), but the spirit survives the translation.

But then, we live in a post-Enlightenment age too. And yet the desire to collect relics and mementos doesn't translate well into the modern era - as the Catholic church's thwarted attempt to turn the remains of Cardinal Newman into an object of idolatry demonstrates. David T likes to think of it as a secular miracle, I'd rather see it as reminder that there is more mystery and wonder in our modern views of science and time than there is in a Medieval form of religion that dates back to a time when the living and the dead were seen as coexisting on the same plane. (It's hard to stress strongly enough that even today's most archaic Catholics would find that era a terrifying and alien place should they be transported back there).

Now the yearning for a process that turns a souvenir into a relic is clearly something hard-wired into the human soul - it long predates Christianity and will probably outlast it too, sympathetic magic as the Golden Bough described it if I remember correctly.

For all that, the desire to buy, sell and attach a value to mementos from the lives of secular-minded, sceptical singers who specialised in that most transient of artforms, the popular song is – I think – an echo of that. Admittedly it's only a distant echo – but perhaps Matthew Arnold was on to something with his religion of art idea; or it may just be that the most important human quality of all is the imagination and the way it allows us to respond to and understand the universe.

If Jacques Brel's pipe serves as a portal to the sublime then, no matter what it fetches at auction, it is beyond price.

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