The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885-1918: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire

The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885-1918: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire

The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885-1918: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire

The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885-1918: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire

Excerpt

The French call it la belle époque--the good old days. The thirty years of peace, prosperity, and internal dissension which lie across 1900 wear a bright, almost blatant color. We feel a greater nostalgia looking back that short distance than we do looking back twenty centuries to antiquity. And there is reason. Those years are the lively childhood of our era; already we see their gaiety and sadness transfigured.

For Paris they were the Banquet Years. The banquet had become the supreme rite. The cultural capital of the world, which set fashions in dress, the arts, and the pleasures of life, celebrated its vitality over a long table laden with food and wine. Part of the secret of the period lies no deeper than this surface aspect. Upper-class leisure--the result not of shorter working hours but of no working hours at all for property holders--produced a life of pompous display, frivolity, hypocrisy, cultivated taste, and relaxed morals. The only barrier to rampant adultery was the whalebone corset; many an errant wife, when she returned to face her waiting coachman, had to hide under her coat the bundle of undergarments which her lover had not been dexterous enough to lace back around her torso. Bourgeois meals reached such proportions that an intermission had to be introduced in the form of a sherbet course between the two fowl dishes. The untaxed rich lived in shameless luxury and systematically brutalized le peuple with venal journalism, inspiring promises of progress and expanding empire, and cheap absinthe.

Politics in la belle époque found a surprisingly stable balance between corruption, passionate conviction, and low comedy. The handsome and popular Prince of Wales neglected the attractions of London to spend his evenings entertaining in Maxim's restaurant, and he did not entirely change his ways upon becoming Edward VII. It was the era of gaslights and horse-drawn omnibuses, of the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergère . . .

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