“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Early French Modernism, Confucius & The Sundays of Jean Dezert

Posted: July 7th, 2021 | No Comments »

The Sundays of Jean Dezert by Jean de la Ville de Mirmont is a novella written in about 1912/1913 before the author went to war and was killed. It is a quite stunning work of French early modernism and ticks just about all the modernist reference boxes – jazz, cinema, trolleybuses, electric chains, modern funerals, vending machines, vegetarian restaurants etc. The novel is a snapshot of modern Parisian life just before the First World War. In among all these saymbols of the new and the modern are, of course, for this period Chinese lanterns:

“He invited Mademoiselle Dorgeval, a striking brunette who speicalized in the chanson rosse, out to dinner. He learned to play billiards and backgammon. He joined up with a procession of students in the Latin Quarter, carrying a Chinese lantern on the end of a cane. He even went dancing at the Tabarin and inadvertently almost got embroiled in a matter of honour with an artillery sergeant.”

But Confucius also gets a mention – which is interesting as it shows both a trend at the time for references to China in European early modernist works and the transmission of ideas back and forth much more than is normally acknowledged. Jean de la Ville de Mirmont’s stories of Jean Dezert have uncanny echoes in some Chinese early modernist writing, such as that from Mu Shiying (check out his stories here)….

Jean Dezert is spending one of his precious Sundays (now a time not for church and rest but for consumerism and consumption of course) browsing the bouquiniste book stalls on the Quai Voltaire.

For 5 sous he discovers a thin volume, printed in London in the 18th century entitled: Confucian Ethics and Chinese Philosophy. If this is not a real book (and if it is then i can’t find it with that exact title) then de la Ville de Mirmont is thinking of then there were many similar ones available.

Jean Dezert reads a few maxims:

A magistrate must honour his father and mother…

There are three things wise men must revere: the laws of heaven, powerful men, and the words of the righteous…

Jean Dezert thinks those OK maxims, but a third, he believes, symbolises his life…

When one is unable to find a remedy to an illness, it is useful to keep searching for one…

Dezert buys the book and, at home, places it on the nightstand next to his bed and, we are told, consulted it everyday for the rest of his life…

Jean De La Ville De Mirmont (1886-1914)
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