Jack’s Naughty Bits: Henri Barbusse, Hell

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Jack's Naughty Bits

philosophy of aesthetics teaches that art is a function of certain mindsets adopted by
both artist and audience. Photography demonstrates the principle most readily: a
photographer must gaze at reality in a particular way, see something photo-worthy, click
the shutter, capture, print and frame it. The viewer then must look at it, not as the any-old
reality that surrounds us, but as an isolated fragment put on display for a particular
purpose. If these things don’t happen, the photo remains a “mere snapshot,” and doesn’t
hold artistic interest. Not only the photographic medium, but all of art relies on being
designated as such, as Marcel Duchamp tried to indicate when he took a porcelain men’s
urinal and parodically called it a sculpture. The response he might not have anticipated was
that his “Fountain,” when placed in a museum context with soft lighting and the requisite
mulling students, would elicit an aesthetic response: in that context, the urinal looks almost
beautiful. Having been trained how to look at museum pieces, we notice its curvature and
form in a way we probably never would have if we were just looking at it in the men’s


A lot of art benefits from, or even relies upon, this “museum effect.” But what
about the artist’s eye? How do you see the art of the urinal before it’s put in a museum?
In the first decade of this century (a few years before Duchamp’s first exhibitions), Henri
Barbusse provided a kind of answer to this dilemma in one of the sexiest
philosophical novels ever, Hell. Barbusse’s contention is that to see art in reality you
need to gaze with the eye of the voyeur. Nor does his argument stop there. Reading
Hell, we ultimately realize that philosophy as well depends on the distance,
alienation, detachment and framing that define the voyeuristic gaze. Philosophy, like art, is
all about seeing from the outside the life we live from the inside.


The voyeuristic gaze becomes central in Hell when the protagonist, having
checked into a boarding house, realizes that there is a crack in the wall through which he
can see the adjoining room. Never seen, he is nonetheless able to witness a series of people
come and go. Soon he finds himself unable to return to his previous life, unable to leave
the crack at the wall. He watches a young couple fall in a love and an adulterous couple fall
out of love, he sees sex and disappointment, lies and heartbreak, and, slowly, he comes to
see himself in the steady march of all people toward isolation and death. Though
Barbusse’s worldview is morose and unrelenting, he is right in saying that one cannot
steadily watch the lives of others without eventually becoming a philosopher.

* * *

From Hell by Henri Barbusse

translated by Robert Baldick

She was standing now, half-undressed. She had become white. Was it she who was
undressing, or he who was divesting her of her things? I could see her broad thighs, her
silvery belly in the room like the moon in the night. He was holding her, clasping her as he
hung on the divan. His mouth was near the mouth of her sex, and they drew together for a
monstrously tender kiss. I saw the dark body kneeling before the pale body, and she was
gazing fervently down at him.


Then, in a radiant voice, she murmured: “Take me. Take me again after so many
other times. My body belongs to you, and I give it to you . . . “


He stretched her out on his knees. I had the impression that she was naked, though
I couldn’t make out all the shapes. Her head was thrown back from the window, and I
could see her eyes shining, her mouth shining like her eyes, her face starlit with love.


He pulled her to him, the naked man in the darkness. Even in the midst of their
mutual consent there was a sort of struggle . . . Pleasure, going beyond the law, beyond
even the lover’s sincerity, was frantically preparing its final masterpiece. It was such a
frenzied, wild, fateful movement that I realized that even God could not stop what was
happening . . .


Above the entanglement of their bodies he raised his head and threw it back. There
was just enough light left for me to see his face, the mouth open in a broken, sing-song
groan, waiting for the approaching pleasure . . . He was grimacing, smiling, dark with
blood like a divine martyr . . . He was uttering staccato cries of surprise, as if he was
dazzled by something magnificent and unexpected, as if he had not expected it to be so
beautiful, as if he were astonished by the prodigies of joy which his body contained.

© Turtle Point Press, translation modified