Paul Nizan was a French writer, writing between the wars. When I first encountered him he was someone who spoke to me directly. Son of a railwayman, he was a communist (but left the party when Stalin began his reign of terror), an existentialist and a harsh critic of capitalism. Yet he had toyed with joining the priesthood. He once wrote of oscillating between the guru and the commissar (the political activist) and that struck a chord. For as a cultural worker, that oscillation is always present.
Except now, as we prepare for performances of a new play, the release of a film and a readers and writers festival, there is the realisation that neither of the roles is relevant. Instead, it is all about promoting a commodity, using marketing tools of branding and recognition, of logo and packaging, of activating networks, generating likes, ascertaining the market demographic etc etc.
Nizan wrote of the alienation that capitalism produces, of his father who had never lived ‘a life’ because always subservient to the system. I remember myself as a young child, taken in by a new family, playing the role expected of me, in a society where people were learning to be consumers, the media beginning to seriously intrude, bringing the American way of life – and with the threat of the bomb hanging over the planet.
From that role came a spiritual need (I suspect grief and spirituality are deeply connected), but also a realisation of social injustice, seeing my adopted father peddling off to his carpenter job each morning until his back packed up. It was hard yakker in those days, there being no power tools – and the family just getting by on a single wage. Yet he was against those who questioned the system – bloody commos etc. After a lifetime they owned an ex state house and died uncelebrated deaths.
He was right to be angry but his anger took strange forms. He was a road rager hovering on the absurd, once ran a red light while searching for a traffic cop to dob someone in and instead received a ticket himself. He chopped down a perfectly good apple tree because someone stole some of the apples. His anger had no notion of cause and effect.
It was a life Nizan could’ve written with a cruel honesty. Nizan has of course, been mainly forgotten, apart from his journalist works preserved on an archival website.
On with the branding.