Notre-Dame Affair  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Notre-Dame Affair was an anti-clericalist intervention performed by members of the radical wing of the Lettrist movement (Michel Mourre, Serge Berna, Ghislain Desnoyers de Marbaix and Jean Rullier), on Easter Sunday, April 9th 1950, at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Michel Mourre, dressed in the habit of a Dominican monk and backed by his co-conspirators, chose a quiet moment in the Easter High Mass to climb to the rostrum and declaim before the whole congregation a blasphemous anti-sermon on the death of God, penned by Serge Berna.

This action, little known today, in fact produced a great scandal in its day, reaching not only the thousands of faithful present at the mass, but also the hundreds of thousands of TV viewers enjoying the novelty of an internationally televised church service. Furthermore, the event was reported on the following day in key newspapers around the world, and in Paris provoked an intense debate in the press and in the cafés. This impact was due in part to the fact that French society in those days, having barely survived the Nazi horror and its own collaborationist shame, and now facing the dim consolations of a recovery “Made in USA”, was suffering the resurgence of a conformist and reactionary religiosity.

The authors of the action, young bohemians tied to Lettrism, a juvenile avant-garde movement surrounding Isidore Isou, were all arrested by the police, and thereby saved, in effect, from the furious mob that chased them from the church. The only one held for any length of time was Michel Mourre, himself a former Dominican monk and the instigator of the whole affair. As his fate was being decided, dozens of prominent voices from culture, the church and the state joined a debate in the newspapers on the merits or (more commonly) not, of the provocation. In particular Combat, venerable organ of the Resistance and presumed one of the Revolution, which nonetheless began by condemning the action, devoted eight days of coverage and a running editorial forum amounting to a total of twenty-some articles sent in by such figures as Jean Paulhan, Louis Pauwels, André Breton, Pierre Emmanuel, Maurice Nadeau, Messieur the Police Commissioner, le curé de Saint-Pierre de Chaillot, Gabriel Marcel, Benjamin Peret and René Char. The police and the Church, for their part, unable to let the insult pass unpunished, nevertheless wanted to avoid amplifying it through a public trial. After a few days they brought in a psychiatrist of questionable integrity, who recommended locking Mourre away in an asylum. Participants in the Combat debate, attentive to the case, protested, and upon the intervention of a second psychiatrist, Michel Mourre was released on April 21st.

A provocation in the end more effective than even Mourre had ever expected, the scandal resonated even into the heart of the Lettrist movement. Consistent with practices of agitation on which Isou had founded his neo-Dadaist movement in 1945, the Notre-Dame affair nevertheless challenged put Isou’s radicality, and that of his supporters, to the test. The action thus advanced a nascent rupture in the movement, between two blocs we could call, respectively “artistic” and “actionist”, a rupture which two years later would lead to an explicit schism and to the formation of the Lettrist International. It was after 1950 that the principle agents of this schism (Gil J. Wolman, Jean-Louis Brau et Guy Ernest Debord) joined the Lettrist movement, siding rather with the actionist Ultra-Lettrist bloc still distinguished by the honor of the Notre-Dame Affair, and that along with Ivan Chtcheglov and Serge Berna they broke with the retrograde Isou and formed the LI. And it was the LI, launched in 1952 on the occasion of another scandalous intervention directed against Charlie Chaplin, that between 1952 and 1957 began experimenting with the new forms of art and behavior that would give birth to the Situationist International.

The Notre-Dame Affair, actualising the revolutionary Dadaist heritage at a critical moment of retrograde temptation, assured that the guide-wire of avant-gardism, only recently revived after the trauma of the war of the three totalitarianisms, would not languish immobile in the confines of art production, but would once again pursue the path of agitation that lays siege to daily life to at last succeed in overturning life. Even though its author would soon thereafter abandon all revolutionary leanings to repent and become a good encyclopedist of church history, the action remains exemplary, as much for the Situationist adventure that followed it, as for our era in which interventionism is attracting the interest of more and more artists and activists resisting a world whose birth the Lettrists were among the first to announce.

Scandal Two. Just as the contributors to the Combat debate sought to diminish the importance of the Notre-Dame action by pointing out that it was not entirely without precedent (on March 22 1892, young Blanquistes are said to have interrupted mass there shouting “Long live the Republic! Long live the Commune! Down with the Church!), after February 17, 2006 it must also be said that the action is no longer without its repetition. On that day, a man using the name Bruno Mourre-Berna ascended to the altar, and in front of some hundred tourists assembled for a guided tour of the cathedral, pronounced, in English, an adaptation of the famous Lettrist anti-sermon, this time targetting not “the Universal Catholic Church”, but rather “the Global Tourism Industry”: “Today…we declare the death of Culture, so the tourists may live at last!” A few days later, postcards bearing a picture of the action and the text of the sermon appeared for sale at the souvenir kiosk in the church, and in tourist stands throughout the Ile de la Cité. They bore the title: “Scadale (bis) à Notre-Dame” (Notre-Dame Scandal Two), and on the back the trademark “Retrolettrist Editions”. It goes without saying that this action had no perceptible impact either in the press or in the cafés; a fact which perhaps only confirms the retro-lettrist text’s main claim: that “Culture is dead!”


The Mourre-Berna Proclamation

   Today, Easter day of the Holy Year
   here, under the emblem of Notre-Dame of Paris
   I accuse
   the universal Catholic Church of the lethal diversion of our living strength toward an
   empty heaven
   I accuse
   the Catholic Church of swindling
   I accuse
   the Catholic Church of infecting the world with its funereal morality
   of being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.
   Verily I say unto you: God is dead
   We vomit the agonizing insipidity of your prayers
   for your prayers have been the greasy smoke over the battlefields of our Europe.
   Go forth then into the tragic and exalting desert of a world where God is dead
   and till this earth anew with your bare hands
   with your PROUD hands
   with your unpraying hands.
   Today Easter day of the Holy Year
   Here under the emblem of Notre-Dame of Paris
   we proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that Man may live at last.


The "Retrolettrist" Version of Bruno Mourre-Berna

   Today,
   Bruno Day in the Year of our Boredom,
   Here, at the flagship attraction of Notre-Dame of Paris,
   I accuse
   the global tourism industry of the lethal diversion of our living strength towards and empty heaven.
   I accuse
   the tourism industry of pimping.
   I accuse 
   the tourism industry of infecting culture with its corporate romanticism,
   of being the viral fungus on the cryogenetically frozen body of culture.
   For verily I say unto you: culture is dead!
   We vomit out the agonizing insipidity of your tours,
   for your tours have been the greasy smile hiding
   the date rape of all our resource wars.
   Step out, therefore, onto the banal and exhilirating asphalt
   of a world where culture is dead,
   and walk the world anew with your quick feet,
   with your bare feet,
   with your unguided feet.
   Today, Bruno Day in the Year of our Boredom,
   we proclaim the death of culture so the tourists may live at last!
   LA CULTURE EST MORTE!  VIVE LES TOURISTES!


Sources

Combat. April 10,11,12,13,14,17,19,20 and 21, 1950. Paris.

Greil Marcus. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century

Biene Baumeister and Zwi Negator. Situationistische Revolutionstheorie: Eine Aneignung. Vol. II Kleines Organon, 42. Stuttgart: Schmetterling Verlag, 2007.

See also




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