A Book against Elegance
Sens dessus dessous (The Wrong Way Up)1
Every time the the "Good fellow Jadis", in the short act that bears his name2, proclaims some axiom of sickening banality, the other characters, faithful interpreters of the author's admiration for his hero, exclaim: "What an original this M. Jadis is! Oh, M. Jadis, you are like nobody else!" We shall not be laying ourselves open to the same ridicule by addressing these flattering reproaches to the paradoxical (and anonymous) author of Sens dessus dessous, an exquisite little book that has just come out. In reality, in spite of all the intellect that it displays, despite even a certain melancholy and charming grace, this book is, in essence, so questionable, in our opinion, that we discover in it the animated outpourings of an ill humour rather than the noble efforts of a conception anxious to reconcile itself with true reality. Our nineteenth century decadence is a product, according to the author of Sens dessus dessous, of "dress, that scourge of French society... that has little by little shaken the foundations of the social edifice" and the causes of this scourge must be sought according to him "in the democratic and egalitarian tendency, in the most vulgar sense of the word". - "...When the monarchy existed in the rigid and formal figure of Louis XIV, the general perspective of public life found itself raised up and the common efforts of all artisans reached out unconsciously towards an elevated goal." As for this self-same scourge and its supposed aggregation into the nineteenth century, if the author of Sens dessus dessous opens any history of costume, any collection of sumptuary rules, if he reads Alexis3 or Theocritus4, the Fifteen joys of marriage5, the Sermons of Maillard6, or Roman ladies' dress in the time of Augustus, he will be persuaded that, if dress is a scourge, this scourge has not waited until the nineteenth century to impose itself and that our time is one of those in which it is least frightful. Aristophanes was already saying in Lysistrata through the mouth of Calonice7: "Oh! those women, how could they ever accomplish anything useful, who stay tucked away at home, dressed in flimsy yellow silks or long floating gowns, perfumed, painted, adorned with flowers with elegant laced boots on their feet?" It seems to me that the author of Sens dessus dessous is more paradoxical still when he attributes the development of this scourge to "democratic and egalitarian" influences. If under the old monarchy "all eyes were raised upwards", as he has it, does he seriously think that they were thereby gazing upon such an edifying spectacle of inelegance and simplicity? In one of his books M. de Laferrière8 enumerates upon all the particulars of the trousseau from this celebrated period of a maid of honour in the Valois court, and this trousseau leaves far behind those belonging to the most elegant Jewesses of our time, trousseaus whose descriptions provide so much interest to the readers of orthodox newspapers. And still today, since the author of Sens dessus dessous declares himself to be along with women one of those who delights in aesthetic commerce (and this word implies, I suppose, commerce with well-dressed women), he must understand that it must not be sought, without exception, among "Republican" women. No, although he says so, we cannot picture Democracy to ourselves as a person possessing the privilege, which according to him is odious, of elegance. We envisage it rather as a solemn matron, well enough dressed as she is substantially and warmly, and smashing with a senseless ardour bottles of perfume and jars of cosmetics against the altar of toil and austerity. Since we cannot however further contradict to the very end a man of such intellect and talent as the author of Sens dessus dessous, we will quote to him a point that recalls M. Théodore Reinach9. The Jewish women of Lyon lived in the thirteenth century in such excessive luxury and sacrificed so much for elegance, that one was obliged to take very strong judgements against them. We must accord to the author of Sens dessus dessous that which is enjoyed today by the women of Paris, which is very great tolerance.
1. Published in Le Banquet no 2, April 1892, signed "Marcel Proust". The book to which this article is dedicated appeared anonymously. Its author, according to R. Dreyfus, was Édouard Delessert.
2. Le Bonhomme Jadis, one act comedy by Henri Murger (1852).
3. Alexis, Greek Middle Comedy poet (3rd century BC); he was the uncle of Menander. Only fragments of his work have survived.
4. This is possibly an allusion to a passage in Two Ladies of Syracuse.
5. Anonymous satire against women (XVth century).
6. French preacher (XVth century).
7. Translated quite faithfully by Proust. In Sommerstein's English translation: "The women! - what could they ever do that was any use? Sitting at home putting flowers in their hair, putting on cosmetics and saffron gowns and Cimberian see-through shifts, with slippers on our feet?"
8. French scholar (1811 - 1896) who devoted several works to the history of society in the XVIth century.
9. French scholar (1860 - 1928), brother of Joseph and Salomon.
Return to Front Page