The Atomic Frenchman

Serge Gainsbourg, with Gitanes. (Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons - cc-by-sa-3.0)

Serge Gainsbourg, with Gitanes. (Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons – cc-by-sa-3.0)

I’m tired of my science-minded friends’ rants about “humanity’s unhindered upward progress.” Sure, most of them will concede in a late night pseudointellectual conversation that the liberal arts all strive to reach some higher truth, and a few have separate bookshelves for their Criterion Collection DVDs, but before they finish their third Marlboro Gold of the night (“I’m thinking about picking up an e-cigarette”), it’s off to the races with comments like “we are living higher-quality lives than people a hundred years ago,” “We’ll be so much happier when all manual labor is automatized,” or the notorious “the convenience of my iPhone is great—it makes things so much easier.” It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly is so irksome about this attitude; It could be its intrinsic arrogance, its brand of naïve positivism, or simply the nagging feeling that anyone advocating like this must be a sleeper agent for Apple Inc.’s marketing division, intent on cajoling you into a future of consumer ease.

There is a strange analogy for my reservations about this kind of technology rhetoric in two anniversaries this June. First, the Manhattan Project celebrated the 70th year since its development of atomic technology in the mid 40s that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Second World War on August 15, 1945, “Victory in Japan Day.” Second, June celebrates French singer Serge Gainsbourg’s 1969 Jane Birkin / Serge Gainsbourg, a collaboration album with his then-wife Jane Birkin that led to European pop becoming, well, sexier.

Perhaps comparing these two “milestones” is a bit irreverent—after all, the technology developed by the Manhattan Project ended a global conflict, killed thousands, and set the stage for the Cold War, while Jane Birkin / Serge Gainsbourg just meant that you and your German boyfriend could recreate the dance scene from Bande à part to one more song before you went back to your apartment in Paris’ 7em arrondissement above the Greek bookseller who wouldn’t stop using Nietzsche to justify his marital infidelities. But if we consider the Manhattan Project as a mix of innovation, that of newly developed technology, and transgression, in terms of the technology’s violent implementation, it bears a striking resemblance to Gainsbourg’s work.

While we could dredge up each and every socio-political issue that could be considered in relation to nuclear technology’s development from Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” to Sartre’s likening of modern intellectualism to the making of the bomb, the Manhattan Project as a historical event with so many moving parts is in itself significant. The project was naturally influenced by the state of the World War II, though Albert Einstein played a significant role as well when he wrote a letter to Roosevelt explaining Uranium’s destructive potential. During the project, there was a massive system of compartmentalization making one question the necessity of state secrecy and who exactly was responsible for its outcome. The development and use of the bomb naturally raised its own questions, from the use of nuclear weaponry to the ensuing arms race at the center of the Cold War.

Jane Birkin / Serge Gainsbourg raised a different sort of controversy. The album begins with the notorious “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” which featured the heaviest breathing of the 60s outside of a Fellini film and culminated with the sound of a climax. Its provocative nature even led it to be banned by the pope, though Gainsbourg, amused, called His Holiness “our greatest PR man.” The pope might have been even more outraged, had he discovered that Gainsbourg recorded the original version with his previous lover, Brigitte Bardot, while she was still married.

This was hardly Gainsbourg’s only radical stunt; throughout his career, he played a magnificent scoundrel, mixing salacious behavior with high culture. As a young art student, he tried and failed to woo Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter, Olga. With the model Elisabeth Levitsky, he managed to finagle his way into Salvador Dali’s empty apartment, where they made love in his living room. And then, of course, there is “Lemon Incest,” the 1984 single that he composed with his 12-year-old daughter Charlotte confessing the feelings they wish they could express for one another.

But Serge is not only made up of his sexploits. Recording countless hits from 1961’s “La Chanson de Prévert,” celebrating the poet-screenwriter Jacques Prévert, to a reggae version of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” his career was as innovative as it was prolific. While he has less of a following in the United States, in France, he is a David Bowie or a Lou Reed, with a hand in every musical act through the 60s and 70s. To this day, Gainsbourg’s decadent Parisian apartment at 5 bis Rue de Verneuil is riddled with murals and graffiti celebrating his life and work.

To understand either the Manhattan Project or Serge Gainsbourg’s work is to recognize the brilliance of discovery and innovation in science and art, but also the ethical transgression of the bomb and the distastefulness of Gainsbourg’s behavior. More than just distinguishing “achievement” from “disgrace,” it’s about perceiving a country’s wartime scientific development project or a Western European artist’s career a holistic historical event that might not require achievement culture’s awards or penalties. This is not moral relativism; it is historical pragmatism. The “advancement rhetoric” bills itself as outside of history by creating a continuum of development involving every achievement at every time, so that the Code of Hammurabi, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Geneva Conventions are all “steps forward” in democratic history. In reality, though, it is the most subjective, reductive critical lens, since it exclusively uses the sensibility of the present, and it only praises or scolds.

It is almost painfully simple to mention that history, individuals, and events are made up of good and bad and that there are few solely positive human achievements, but this is the point that the “upwards trajectory” seems to miss. The idea that we can completely remove development from context speaks to an effort to canonize human achievement into an upward trajectory of advancement. This trajectory as is does not have room for fault, so the atomic bomb cannot take a step forward with science but backwards with potential war crimes, Gainsbourg forward with instrumental arrangement but back with gender discrimination.

Whether in the political sphere of the atomic bomb or the cultural sphere of the music of Serge Gainsbourg, we are taking part in a societal process of extraction, where appealing developments occurring in unappealing circumstances are extradited into the lofty world of politically-correct ideas. The rhetoric of scientific progress is too reductive, and it is extracting things culturally into a space of human achievement that doesn’t actually exist. It’s moralistic and heavy-handed, making just as many judgments about culture and behavior as it does for science and technology.

For the record, Gainsbourg’s no absolutist either, and he’s not too sold on his own game. Between drags on his Gitanes, France’s brilliant bastard once offered, “If I were God, I might be the only one not to believe in me.”