WHAT IS A MAN?
Felix Nadar realized in 1854 the glass-plate photos he used as throwaway references for political caricatures were in fact an amazing opportunity, and set about stealing the souls of his friends. The black-draped ghosts we inherit were the crème of Parisian Bohemia, men and women on the outer banks of proper society, scandalous, sexual, brilliant, and remembered. Baudelaire, Verne, Delacroix, Hugo, Bakunin, Bernhard, all present and looking sharp, if possibly syphilitic.
A recent exhibit of Nadar photography at the Chateau Tours provided ten rooms’ worth of sartorial splendour from 120 years back. Male pattern haberdash was, with few exceptions, honed to an edge we could slip our arms into right now and thrill at the forgotten expectation of handmade quality. Today, fatto á mano has vanished in favor of affordable prêt-a-porter (ie the Gap), but the shape and habit remains; flat, notched coat collars, cotton button-up shirts, fitted trousers brushing the saddle of polished lace-ups.
Surveying Nadar’s 50-year career like an unspooled film, one image burned: Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, ‘Explorateur’. Not even NASA uses that job title anymore, how terribly capital R bromantic. Knowing nothing of the fellow but the depth in his eyes, I thought, ‘ecce homo’ - behold a Man. Explorer, wearer of chic boho headwrap, dead ringer for George Clooney, and snappy dresser, de Brazza in his double-breasted woolen overcoat and striped trousers might be walking down the Boulevard this very afternoon. My iPhone revealed he was born an Italian count… de Brazza could have lived a life of courtesan blowjobs, peeled grapes, and slow degradation; the scandal sheets are full of such privileged Neverland boys, entitled dandies hell bent on dissipation - the only unexplored territory within the purview of their shotglass telescope.
And yet, our Man preferred to walk the dirt paths of middle Africa barefoot and nearly in rags, with two loyal friends and 22 African toutes, portaging trade goods and a made-to-order Louis Vuitton folding desk. De Brazza was the advance man for French colonialism, ‘exploring’ a continent inhabited for, uh, ever, by a highly cultured society (ref: Pyramids).
But the Man; true to that pacific visage, DeBrazza was a gentle conqueror, taking his sweet time to secure bonds with each village before moving up the path. By the end of his travels along the river, French Congo was established. The inventor of Fair Trade, he insisted all commercial interests pay a fair wage to the Africans, with decent housing and working conditions.
Across the Congo river lay the claim of King Leopold, viscous obsidian shadow of Manhood, the first modern genocidalist, and the inspiration for Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’; terror and subjugation were Leo’s tools. The contrast on opposite riverbanks proved unbearable; Leopold’s smear campaign in the press forced deBrazza back to Paris, and within the year French Congo vibrated in dark harmony with its evil mirror across the river. Shortly, our man was quite dead, likely poisoned by agents of the devil himself, a Belgian.
What the Count sought in his explorations, what we all as men seek, is an Adventure, which must of necessity involve a bit of struggle, some righteous discomfort, the piquant armpit whiff of danger, and autonomy, under the intriguing cloak of mystery. The forge of great character requires an alchemical mix of the Unknown with the discovery of the True. Which is exactly why deBrazza looks so damn good in a suit.
|De Brazza's portable chaise lounge, custom-built by Louis Vuitton, seen at an exhibit of LV history at the Carnavalet Musée in Paris.|
This article originally appeared in Men's File magazine #4. Copyright 2011 Paul d'Orléans