Predictably unpredictable

Remembering Serge Gainsbourg on the anniversary of his birth.

Elegant and tactless, charmingly "ugly", often inopportune like a bad joke coming too late, Lucien Ginsburg was born on 2 April 1928 in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents. "I was born under a lucky star ... a yellow one," he once ironically remarked referring to the star of David he had to wear on his arm as a kid when Paris opened its doors to the nightmare of Nazism.

It was a live performance by Boris Vian that allegedly inspired the singer-to-be: Vian's idiosyncratic provocations and ironic cynicism, Serge Gainsbourg later confessed, were a great influence on his decision to take to the piano in (un)popular fashion. Unapologetically improper, Gainsbourg survived his fame through constant and unpredictable innovation. From smoky jazz bars to symphonic pop, from "le yéyé" to roots dub, passing by Nazi rock and rap, the restless trajectory he drew underscores his inability to conform.

Recently commemorated with a lame and derivative biopic, Monsieur Gainsbourg himself, true to his insubordinate curiosity and obtrusive genius, traversed le septième art on his own, unique, terms. Besides sound-tracking more than 50 films, whose scores often outshined their not exactly memorable visual counterpart, Gainsbourg briefly stood behind the camera. In 1976, borrowing the title from his international hit Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, he staged an anomalous tale of uncompromising love. Reminiscent of the stiff acting and wooden mise-en-scène of Paul Morrisey's films, Je T'Aime is a bizarre sex-western of startling profundity.

A gay garbage truck driver (Joe D'Alessandro) falls in love with a boyish looking waitress (Jane Birkin) but can only love her via her posterior. While the song had desecrated the trite clichés of love songs with the steamy chorus "I love you, me neither" and scandalised with its impudent groans, the film functions almost in an inverse fashion. Through what at first sight may seem a gratuitous and idiotic narrative device, Gainsbourg composes the ultimate romance, transcending the barriers of gender to celebrate the universality of the noblest sentiment. As the fornicating couple has it: "the important is not where you put it, the important is to love."

A final episode worth considering: Forgotten until 2002, when the Parisian Radio Communauté Juive broadcasted it for the first time, "Le sable et le Soldat" was commissioned by the cultural attaché of the Israeli embassy to the French singer. Written in 1967 with the six-day war against Egypt looming on the horizon, the song is a hymn to the Tsahal, the Israeli army that would shortly after crush Nasser's forces. The lyric runs: "I will defend the sand of the Promised Land against all enemies/the Goliaths from the pyramids will back down in front of the star of David/I will defend the sand of Israel."

Serge Gainsbourg in 1984. Photo: Getty Images
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage