"Luxe, Feinte et Verite ..." Polemics, Politics and Poetics in Aragon's Henri Matisse, Roman

Article excerpt

The mentir-vrai is a concept invented by Aragon that has already been studied in Aragon's works of fiction. Our perspective will take into account the manifestation of the mentir-vrai in non-fictional essays, particularly those that Aragon devoted to Henri Matisse during the period going from the aftermath of World War II to the beginning of the nineteen-seventies. The use of the mentir-vrai in these texts shows the implications of the concept in terms of political discourse and its link with the Aragon's poetics. Discussing the particular way in which Aragon uses autobiographical anecdotes or confessions in non-fictional texts allows us to understand how aesthetic problems are intricately linked to political questions. Aragon's approach to writing forbids all simplifications of the relationship between art and politics: it is impossible to affirm that literature simply serves a political purpose, or, conversely, that Aragon's political position somehow "dissolves" or "evaporates" when incorporated into an aesthetic discourse. Both politics and poetics, relying on Aragon's rhetorical capacities, are the two faces of a single attitude towards life, an attitude that, like the term "mentir-vrai" itself, does not exclude the complexity of an internal contradiction.

I would like to consider two texts from Aragon's Henri Matisse, roman, published in 1971. Henri Matisse, roman includes all of Aragon's texts on Matisse, written from 1941 until the painter death in 1954, as well as a group of texts written, roughly, from 1968 through 1971, the period during which Aragon worked on the composition of the two volume set, choosing the iconography and extensively annotating the previously published texts. It is a very complex work, involving writing, reading, rereading and rewriting, and incorporating a subtle combination of texts and images: reproductions of paintings and drawings by Matisse, photographs, manuscripts. The two texts I would like to examine are "Apologie du luxe" written in 1946, as a preface to a book on Matisse published by Skira, and "Que l'un fut de la chapelle," written in 1969 during the second phase of the writing of Henri Matisse, roman, the phase of the arrangement of the texts into what is partly an anthology and partly a novel. These two texts are explicitly linked within Henri Matisse, roman. Each chapter refers directly to the other, the earlier text by means of a note written at the same time as the later text. These two texts can be considered as forming a pair in the economy of the book. Their confrontation brings us to a decisive point in understanding the work as a whole.

The "Alfred Barr jr. affair"

Both are polemic texts, and of all the texts of Henri Matisse, roman, the two most visibly so. The title "Apologie du luxe" clearly identifies the text as belonging to a rhetorical genre. "Que l'un fut de la chapelle" uses all of the resources and modalities of rhetorical discourse: irony, logical demonstration playing on oppositions and dialectic reversals, accounts by eyewitnesses, rhetorical questions, textual analyses. Both "chapters" establish a system of verbal defense that confirms, despite the twenty-three years separating the two texts and their different motivating factors, the deeper unity of what is at stake for Aragon in Henri Matisse, roman: the defense, from "incorrect" interpretations, of a vision of Matisse that Aragon believes to be "juste"; the self-defense of a writer who, many years later, uses the publication of an "anthology" to respond to those who criticized his texts initially. "Is Matisse a `useless' painter?," Aragon asks in the first text and "did Matisse believe in God?" in the second. However, these questions only acquire their meaning in the relationship that they establish--and that is why I paraphrase them in such a naive way--with the political context in which they are placed, that is: the Cold War opposition between communism and American capitalism. …