Against Venice by Regis Debray
Translated by John Howe

Debray’s book is the third of the titles discussing Venice I’ve read in recent months; and honestly I’m not sure quite why I’ve been drawn to them at this particular time! I’ve never been massively attracted to the city, although it *has* featured in books I’ve read like Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight“. My views on the city may well have been a little disparaging, from reading about the mass tourism which afflicts the place and also from hearing about the smelly flooding my aforementioned boss suffered on a visit! Nevertheless, both Brodsky and Simmel laud the place; Regis Debray, however, offers a counterview which is just as interesting as the arguments in the two other books and which is one which might be expected to find favour with me. But I’m not so sure…

Debray himself is a fascinating character. A noted French intellectual born in Paris, his life includes a spell fighting with Che Guevara in Bolivia, a period as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Havana, and even working as a Government adviser back in France. “Against Venice” was originally published in French in 1995, and then issued by Pushkin Press in 2002, with an afterword by Debray written at the end of 2001. Mine is a later Pushkin edition from 2012, with lovely French flaps and gorgeous design, and I happily picked it up in a sale at the LRB Bookshop! But enough of that – what of Debray’s essay?

It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Well, it’s very clear from the start that Debray is declaring himself as emphatically not a fan of Venice. He deplores its artificiality which he equates with a lack of spontaneity; and he makes numerous comparisons with the living, changing city of Naples, the latter always coming out on top. He rails against its falsity, the vulgarity of the place and its occupants, as well as the social-climbing of the latter. This is a Venice seen in the middle of its busy season, swamped by tourism (unlike Brodsky’s off-season visits) and it’s not a pretty sight. Debray seems to feel that the city has been so commercialised that it has in effect been ruined and even if you were to allow for its various attractions, any appeal has been wiped out. Certainly, as Debray makes clear, it’s hard at times not to see the city as a cliché of gondolas, canals, masks and glitter.

Regis Debray in 1970 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The author, as befits someone with his intellectual pedigree, is an erudite commentator and the essay is littered with literary references to everyone from Proust to Paul Morand. However, he’s perhaps being a little disingenuous in his railing against Venice as he does claims in his afterword that it is only what has become of the city, what’s made of it by tourism that he has an issue with. Certainly tourism can set a place in aspic; once it ceases to evolve and change but is (as Debray calls it ) museumised, then the real appeal, the living breathing heart of the place has gone. I can’t judge if that’s the case with Venice, as I’ve never been, but I’ve certainly seen it happen with places I love and I understand what he’s saying (though I don’t know if the original essay is always clear enough about this aspect). Debray reminds us that the Italian Futurists condemned Venice for being fixed in the past, wanting it smashed up, and it’s a provocative viewpoint.

Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it. Like urchins, like actors. With time for a time suspended, we abandon the seriousness of real life for the as-if of a charade of life. It’s like going up in a balloon.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Debray’s viewpoints on art of all types; he’s pretty dismissive of much of Baudelaire, for a start! His insistence on the authentic is almost strident at times, and I found myself questioning just how subjective his (or anyone else’s) view of what is authentic might actually be. If you approach Venice expecting it to be smoke and mirrors, mask and illusion, where is the harm in that? I suppose his point, perhaps, is that Venice is too venerated when you bear in mind what it actually is, which is an artificial construct built on a piece of reclaimed land with a debatable function. Is it art? Is it a living city? Who knows? And like so many places we might dream of visiting, but never do, there is the question of whether the Venice of the mind lives up to the real city; which is doubly so in a place so rooted in illusion.

… here we are, elsewhere and moving differently, on foot or like a cork on the water; no doubt about it, we have passed through from the other side of the mirror.

So “Against Venice” ended up being a slightly ambiguous, often playful, never dull and probably never entirely serious take on “The City of Masks”. Debray is perhaps less seduced than the other two writers I’ve read on the subject, preferring the hustle, bustle and down to earth nature of Naples to the artificiality of Venice. Nevertheless, his essay took a fascinating look at this very individual city; and all of this reading about Europe is giving me very itchy feet… 😀