The dandies of Congo

In honour of Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika‘s talk on ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ (29 October), we look at the unexpected reincarnations of the dandy 6,000 kilometres away from the poet’s hometown. You can find Tamara’s great guest post on Baudelaire and procrastination here

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‘My father was an elegant man… the kind of person to put a breast pocket on his pajamas.’

La SAPE is the world’s most debonair quasi-fictional organization. Featured by everyone from the New York Times to Ireland’s most famous brewery, it purportedly stands for the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes—the Society for Atmosphere-Setters and Elegant Persons.

In reality the organization is probably the invention of migrant youths in Paris and Brussels. In their besuited beings, the dandy is transported from Paris to the twin Congolese capitals, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, and back. If Baudelaire’s dandy is an anti-procrastinator, la sape is a response to externally enforced procrastination. Left in the waiting room of history—through imperial rule and dictatorship at ‘home’, unemployment and discrimination in the European metropolis—the sapeur uses flamboyant high fashion as a refuge and a demand for respect. He (and, like Baudelaire’s dandy, it is always he) embarks on ‘a sort of Baudelairian voyage‘ between continents and ‘from social dereliction to psychological redemption’.

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Digital life imitates art: inevitably the Société now has a Facebook page. La sape has a much older history, though, dating back to the first decades of the twentieth century in colonial central Africa. Young Congolese men ‘formed clubs around their interest in fashion, gathering to drink aperitifs and dance to Cuban and European music played on the phonograph’. They invested in canes, silk shirts, fob watches, monocles, gloves—even, we are told, ‘elegant helmets’.

These were not aristocratic dandies in the mode of Beau Brummell, however, but houseboys, bookkeepers, and small traders. They saved up their meagre wages to order the latest Parisian fashions from catalogues or were paid with their bemused masters’ second-hand clothing. The more enterprising even exchanged couture for exotic goods—animal hides, elephant tails.

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Sapeur and anticolonial activist Maurice Loubaki and companion in Paris, c. 1931 (from Didier Gondola, ‘La Sape Exposed!’, p. 163)

Through their debonair dress and strict emphasis on personal hygiene, the Congolese sapeurs defied notions of racial inferiority by assuming the trappings of modernity and cosmpolitanism. More than merely imitating French haute couture, they sought to master it—to become connoisseurs. Like the fashionable men of the coast, brought in to man the colonial apparatus, the dignified, dandified native could in this way earn the envious label of mundele ndombe, ‘white with black skins’.

Although borrowing the ‘fashion lexicon’ of colonialism, the sapologist Didier Gondola notes that this process is ‘nonetheless inherently subversive’. In the migrants’ hands, it was swiftly translated into an assimilationist strand of the anticolonial movement. Petitioning for recognition as French citizens, the sapeur-cum-activist demonstrated his credentials with well-chosen accessories: cologne, a close shave, and a white mistress.

The 1950s saw a flowering of night clubs, beer halls, and the Congolese rumba in the twin capitals. Musicians, often paid in boutique clothes, did much to advance the agenda. They incorporated designer labels (or griffes) into their lyrics, and danced as dapperly as they dressed. As the iconic Papa Wemba sang later: ‘Don’t give up the clothes—it’s our religion.’

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Mobutu Sese Seko (left) in abacost and demure hat. Resembling a Mao suit or Nehru jacket, the abacost gained popularity with other leaders, including Siyaad Barre.

La sape was politicized once more in the face of the social tensions of 1960s Zaire. In 1974 President Mobutu banned Western suits and ties as part of his ideological programme of Authenticité, an attempt to ‘Zairianize’ national identity and eradicate the vestiges of colonialism. The suit was replaced by the abacost, an abbreviation of à bas le costume, ‘Down with the suit!’

In this context, the designer-suited sapeurs took on a radical light, their dress and public gatherings a form of civil disobedience. Some even developed manifestos and codes—though these focused more on the Ten Best Ways of Walking to Flaunt Your Versace, rather than freedom of assembly.

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Imelda Marcos, eat your heart out. Sapeurs became known for taking man-powered rickshaws to protect their shoes, much to the irritation of the nominally Marxist-Leninist regime in Republic of Congo, which banned the practice. The J.M. Weston gold crocodile penny loafers on the left are worth $1,750. In 2013, annual per capita GDP (at purchasing power parity) in the Democratic Republic of Congo was $747.

Today’s sapeurs are at least the third generation, and proudly boast of their pedigree. With a cigar and a bottle of beer in hand, they exude a sense of relaxed opulence. Their styles have updated with the times, now including London designers, kilts and tam-o’-shanters in imitation of an unlikely style icon: Prince Charles.

But, for all their Kenzo ties and Yohji Yamamoto jackets, la sape remains the hallmark of an underclass. For the Congolese psychology professor François Ndebani, la sape is a ‘hotbed of delinquency’, fuelled by drugs. In the banlieues of Europe, too, Congolese migrants face discrimination and underemployment. In the face of this, the sapeur is a defiant figure, dodging train fares and dominating public space to claim back the ‘colonial debt’. Self-respect is the priority: as one sapeur says, ‘A Congolese sapeur is happy even if he does not eat.’

Just as the uncompromising sensibility of Baudelaire’s dandy became equated with vacuous foppism and Walter Benjamin’s arcades with the Americanized mall, the sapeurs have been coopted. Congo-Brazzaville president Denis Sasou Nguesso elevated la sape as a form of cultural heritage, sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism. He slips into designer suits for foreign trips, earning him the nickname of ‘the Pierre Cardin Marxist’.

Solange Knowles with 'sapeurs'

Solange Knowles with ‘sapeurs’

In the West, too, the picturesque sapeurs have been safely recast as the consumerist icons of a rising Africa. Solange Knowles, Beyoncé’s little sister and famed Jay-Z basher, drafted them in for a 2012 music video. In January 2014 Guinness built an advert around la sape, prompting a wave of media interest. (Both videos were actually shot in South Africa.) Quoting—what else?—the poem ‘Invictus’, the growly voiceover declares: ‘In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.’

Youth unemployment is becoming a hallmark of the twenty-first century. With little money and even fewer prospects, accused of procrastination and fecklessness, young men must pass the time. By taking up the dandy’s mantle and making themselves living works of art, are the sapeurs flamboyant rebels—or mere fodder for the fashion industry?

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Baudelaire and procrastination: the flâneur, the dandy, and the poet

The following is a guest blog by Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, one of our speakers in this autumn’s Procrastination Seminar. Come and hear Tamara discuss ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ on Wednesday 29 October at 5.30pm in the Old Library, All Souls College, Oxford.

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Baudelaire, by the famous photographer and balloonist Nadar (aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), 1855-8

Il n’y a de long ouvrage que celui qu’on n’ose pas commencer. Il devient cauchemar.

The only difficult work is that which we dare not begin. It becomes a nightmare.*

—Charles Baudelaire

These words by the accursed poet, the writer of beautiful spleen and terrifying idéal himself, are a perfect mantra for anyone experiencing the entrancing throes of procrastination.

The sentence that follows them in his Journaux Intimes (1887)—“By putting off what one has to do, one runs the danger of never being able to do it”—confirms that Baudelaire was no stranger to procrastination. Since he speaks of it as danger, risk, or haunting nightmare, it is not surprising that he also offers thoughts on how to counter its siren call.

A few lines further, in a section titled “Hygiene. Morality. Behaviour.”, Baudelaire makes this note-to-self: “An abridgement of wisdom. Grooming, prayer, work.” As editor Claude Pichois explains, the poet viewed the ritual of prayer as a process through which to gather his spirits, focus on his work, and enhance his determination.

Indeed, although Baudelaire penned the figure of the flâneur who whiles away the hours in observant but unproductive wanderings, his journals show that he actually aspired to a work ethic that defies procrastination (“Work tirelessly six days a week”)—and that there is another key figure of his oeuvre which is closely connected to this preoccupation with time and creation: the dandy.

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In his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Baudelaire depicts the dandy as a man stoically devoted to “cultivat[ing] the idea of beauty” in himself, assiduously crafting his existence into a work of art. While some are quick to discard the dandy as a superficial figure, the Journaux Intimes underline that Baudelaire’s dandy has depth: he is the “superior man”, who must “be sublime without interruption” and even “like to work”, so long as it is not for the mundane purpose of making a living—since he is by definition, as is clearly stated, wealthy and powerful enough to not be concerned with such trivialities.

The dandy’s meticulous grooming and steadfast commitment to sustaining a cold, proud façade (he has an “unshakable resolve not to be moved”) are less frivolous than popular opinion would have it: as Baudelaire’s above note-to-self indicates, they are an antidote to procrastination, a morally-driven behaviour at the service of creation. By dedicating his every minute to embodying his aesthetic ideal, unperturbed by the rest of the world, the dandy’s mere being—both in appearance and thought—is art, without having to produce anything outside of himself.

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The poet, however, does not necessarily have this luxury. In his poem “La Fin de la Journée” from the iconic Fleurs du Mal (1857), Baudelaire writes that a poet always welcomes nighttime with a relieved “At Last!”—not only because he revels, in romantic fashion, in its soothing shadows, but also because it “erases everything, even shame”. Tormented by the pressure of time and productivity (daytime is “pushy and shrill” in the poem), the poet feels at home in the moment at which rest and sleep (darkly likened to entombment) are expected.

As evident in the use of the words ‘erase’ and ‘shame’, artistic self-doubt looms behind the poet’s procrastinatory tendency and his desire for respite from, even destruction of, his work. In Baudelaire’s “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste” (from the prose poetry collection, Le Spleen de Paris, 1869), the speaker, in awe of the splendour and vastness of the world, confesses: “The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist screams out of fear before being vanquished.” The poet is paralysed by the beauty that he sees in the light of day, unsure he will be able to match its wonder.

The dandy, untroubled by ordinary considerations or feelings (deadlines, bills, or low self-confidence are foreign to him), is indefatigably focused on being his own masterpiece (he must even “sleep in front of a mirror”, according to the Journeaux Intimes). The poet, confronted with the realities of life and his own anxieties, instead finds solace at night, when the spectre of what has not been achieved during the day fades. He can then stop writing and revising—or on the contrary, stop putting it off and quietly start all over again—liberated by the sense that the late hours demand nothing from him, that darkness is a blank slate.

Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Three visions for the (anti)-procrastinator: flâneur, dandy, poet. Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Baudelaire’s work is a Pierian spring for procrastinators. The flâneur, who merely promenades through the modern city, without aiming to create anything, may be the first of Baudelaire’s key figures to come to the procrastinator’s mind: how could the freedom of idling along the streets with no obligation not be tempting when faced with a daunting task? Moreover, as is commonly accepted, a stroll may spark renewed creativity (though that is not what the true flâneur seeks).

Yet Baudelaire’s oeuvre presents an alternate figure for procrastinators to draw inspiration from: the dandy, who pledges his life so entirely to his aesthetic principles (in a manner assimilated to ‘spiritualism’ in the author’s essay) that his every move serves to realise them. Those who have creative rituals may find a new spiritual leader in Baudelaire’s dandy and challenge themselves to emulate the constancy underpinning his sartorial and behavioural choices. As we have seen, Baudelaire apparently practiced prayer—as well as perfect dress—to concentrate his creative energy.

Nevertheless, given that neither of these “ideal” figures (who, it is important to note, are not in fact procrastinators, since they are not required to produce anything to begin with) represents a tenable way of life for the average person in our society, the procrastinator may simply find it reassuring to listen to the voice of the third figure, the poet, echoing through Baudelaire’s writing—a voice which speaks of uncertainty and fear, but still decides to ring out and not remain silent.

 *All quotes in English are my translations from the French texts.