Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Mind Over Matter: Félix Fénéon on Trial


Among my favorite things are instances when people use their imagination to shift or transform reality in some small way, usually in their favor. One of the greatest examples of this is Robert Desnos reading palms at a concentration camp in the 1940s (previous post), an effort that surely couldn't have been any more desperate performed with the utmost naturalness.

What follows is another example of imaginative magic, also with high stakes.

* * *

The text, up until the next three asterisks, was collaged from Alastair Brotchie's Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life (2011); Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years (1955); The Anarchist Encyclopedia; Julian Barnes' review of Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines; and Wikipedia.

Félix Fénéon mugshot, trial, anarchist
Félix Fénéon's mugshot


In the summer of 1894 began the mass trial of thirty ill-assorted men accused of anarchist leanings and treasonable acts. Among them was the prominent literary figure Félix Fénéon, an early champion of the impressionists. In the end, only three common criminals were found guilty from among the thirty so-called anarchists. (One of them, a butcher's apprentice, had been accused of stealing a pork chop from his employer.) This was not a little to do with Fénéon's phlegmatic and expressionless ripostes from the dock, which reduced the proceedings to a simple farce.

"Are you an anarchist, M. Fénéon?"
"I am a Burgundian born in Turin."
"Your police file extends to one hundred and seventy pages. It is documented that you were intimate with the German terrorist Kampfmeyer."
"The intimacy cannot have been great as I do not speak German and he does not speak French." (Laughter in courtroom.)
"It has been established that you surrounded yourself with Cohen and Ortoz."
"One can hardly be surrounded by two persons; you need at least three." (More laughter.)
"You were seen conferring with them behind a lamppost!"
"Can you tell me, Monsieur le Président, which side of a lamp post is its back?" (Loud, prolonged laughter. Judge calls for order.)

Part of the evidence against him was that a police search of his office had turned up a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing 11 detonators. Fénéon added to the history of implausible excuses by claiming that his father, who had recently died and was therefore unavailable to corroborate his evidence, had found them in the street.

"You could not have found them in the street!"
"The judge asked me how it was that rather than take the detonators to the ministry, I had not thrown them out the window. This demonstrates that one could find them on public roads." (Laughter.)
"Here is a bottle of mercury which we also found in your office. Do you recognize it?"
"It's a similar bottle indeed. I do not attach the slightest importance."
"You know that mercury is used to make a dangerous explosive, mercury fulminate."
"It also serves to make thermometers, barometers and other instruments." (Laughter)

Charged with illegally carrying a firearm, the judge asked:

"You know you had on you everything you needed to commit a murder?"

Fénéon replied:

"Yes, but I also had on me everything I needed to commit a rape."

The climax of the trial came when the government attorney unwisely opened in the courtroom a package which had been sent to him containing, not explosives, but excrement. He asked for a recess to wash his hands. Fénéon's voice rose over the assembly: "not since Pontius Pilate has a judge washed his hands with such ostentation." In England, Wilde's witticisms earned him hard labor, but in Paris Fénéon's had him acquitted.


felix feneon, oscar wilde, toulouse lautrec, la goulue dancing
La Goulue dancing, by Toulouse-Lautrec (1895)
Oscar Wilde is the figure in the foreground on the left wearing the light overcoat; Fénéon is the man in the bottom right corner


* * *

Law and Order were at a loss as to how to proceed against someone who refused to acknowledge their authority. It was as if none other than Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty had been put on trial, a very dangerous proposition for any institution whose credibility rests on how seriously it's taken.

"Why do you sit out here all alone?" said Alice, not wishing to begin an argument.
"Why, because there's nobody with me!" cried Humpty Dumpty. [...] Here's a question for you. How old did you say you were?"
Alice made a short calculation, and said "Seven years and six months."
"Wrong!" Humpty Dumpy exclaimed triumphantly. "You never said a word like it!"
"I thought you meant 'How old are you?" Alice explained.
"If I'd meant that, I'd have said it," said Humpty Dumpty. [...] When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."


paul signac, felix feneon, portrait, painting
Paul Signac, Portrait of Félix Fénéon (1890)


James R. Mellow, in an article for The New York Times, pointed out the retroactive irony of Signac's portrait given Fénéon's gesture in the painting and the fact that he was later arrested for the bombing of a restaurant in which the bomb was placed in a flowerpot.

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