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“Crowd Impressions” by Colette (1912)

It is surely a measure to Carpentier’s arrival as a full-fledged celebrity that renowned French novelist Colette (1873-1954) not only attended the Carpentier-Willie Lewis fight in Paris in 1912 but wrote a delightfully impressionistic piece, entitled “Crowd Impressions,” about the experience for the newspaper Le Matin.[1] Though not particularly compelled by the pugilistic spectacle per se, she was quite taken with the figure she describes as a “great blond child”:

Down below, right down at the center of a pale square bounded by taut ropes, two small naked men suffer the harsh whims of the dismal lighting.  One seems yellow, darker than his fair hair.  The other is a swarthy pink from neck to ankles.

It is amusing, with my feeble eyesight, to see them there so badly, simplified, insubstantial, with their great gloves, like cats rolling a ball of wool… But then I pick out, in the round medallion of the opera glass, an athletic group so close now that I can make out the texture of the shaved cheeks, the thin streaks which part the sleek hair, and the star of fresh blood which decorates one of the contestants—the fair one, the younger—on the forehead, between the eyes, just in the place where La Belle Ferronière used to fasten a precious stone. This red jewel does not mar the boxer’s young still unblemished face, for the match has only just started; the fresh closed mouth, which regulates its breathing, is quite unbruised, as is the careful, short, rather pug-like face of the American champion. (100)

Colette is frank about her lack of interest in the fight itself and the fact that commentary on boxing is best left to the experts.  Her interest is rather the spectators-- many of whom seem to know as little about the sport as she does-- and the way they respond to the action in the ring.  She is particularly attuned to the depth of nationalist feeling for Carpentier on the part of the largely French audience:

I won’t bother to enumerate the blows they exchange.  I leave it to some areopagite to assess in points and numbers the formidable choreography which launches them from one rope to another.  My place is with this enthusiastic crowd, ill-informed enough to echo with an anguished “Oh!” each noisy harmless slap of glove against glove, sensitive enough to be moved by a patriotic protectiveness for their champion, for the small blond Frenchman, and to gasp when he is short of breath.

I’ve got a good seat […], near a silent tense young man who has just unconsciously seized my arm because the blond boxer has fallen to his knees… but he lets up, and the hand which was bruising my arm lets go and slips away without the silent young man’s having cast so much as a glance at me… (100-101)

 As if describing a painting, Colette focuses not on the action but on the anatomical and physiognomical aspects of the spectacle taking place in front of her:

At one moment the sound of the gong delivers the inert bodies of the two adversaries, in willed collapse, into the hands of their seconds; at the next it resuscitates them, soaked with water and sweat, less white, less young, than they were just a minute before… Is there not, in the widened eyes of the blond Frenchman, a tragic and perhaps despairing fixity?  No, he still spreads and arches his astonishing back, which seems to protect him completely like a muscular shield… But his impassive, powerful rival is also still on his feet.

I can hardly hear the dull thus of the formidable fists, but they make their mark on the bare flesh and some dumb blow, of which I witnessed only the rapid departure, causes a large bruised flower to blossom on a shoulder or breast, or swells a cheek the color of an overripe nectarine… (101)

Turning her attention back to the crowd’s responses, Colette perceives a distinction between the female and male spectators. She suggests that the anxiety she reads on the faces of the women in the crowd has several possible origins:

Then it is time to study the changing female faces under the great hats, the pearled turbans!  Is it the blond young champion, or money wagered, or the hope of a fatal knock-out that so excites them?  The end of the fight approaches and the anxiety of those last few minutes quivers on eyelids emphasized with blue, lips darkened with rouge… To what lover will this woman display that fixed mask, with open mouth and slack jaw, those staring eyes, that face half-dead from concentration?… Another woman is all contracted into a bitter grimace; yet another registers the blows with as many morbid twitches… A sudden ageing mortifies them, imposing on them expressions which they will not repeat until next winter finds them round the green tables at Monte Carlo. (101)

Colette says that while the men in the crowd share this mix of emotions, they also experience one that the women do not: nationalist pride.  This sentiment is at once “disinterested” and identificatory.  The difference she perceives between the sexes is the result of both “masculine” nationalism and the men’s tendency to imagine themselves, in a literal way, in Carpentier’s gloves:

True, the excitement of the game, the unconscious sadism, the sporting fever, there’s all that on the male countenances too; but another emotion turns many of the men into so many immobile contestants, riveted to their seats, anxious (for the French boxer is weakening), stern (for they glorify him as a product of their country) and affectionate (for their noblest vainglory, their most disinterested pride, rests on his victory).  He is their champion, the flower of their incarnation, their hope… Will he go down? (102)

The dénouement, in keeping with the rest of Colette’s account, is described less as a pugilistic event than a phenomenon of crowd behavior, of mass socio-psychology:

… The twentieth and last round throws the two adversaries staggering against each other.  As if unbalanced, the crowd behind me sways in broken ranks […] A strange rumbling has developed, so deep it seems to spring from the building itself—prelude to a wild clamour; using the opera glasses with great difficulty, I see, on the blanched ring, the mêlée of two stumbling bodies, the gloved fists of the blond Frenchman striking again and again, no longer with their earlier imperious certainty, but with a blind, tired, almost childish pummeling… (102)

What the entire spectacle eventually comes down to are the simple and invariable affirmations of  Carpentier’s status as hero: the image of him being carried around on his fans’ shoulders and the shouts of the crowd, repeating his name over and over:

Then nothing more—except shouting.  The sovereign triumphal shouts of deliverance, lost at times in the thunder of clapping, then resurgent, dominated by a woman’s wild and piercing voice; shouts which fuse momentarily to declaim rhythmically three syllables: Car-pen-tier…Car-pen-tier… Shouts which spread like a running flame, to which I respond in spite of myself…

The ring is invaded, the boxers are no longer there.  Where, then, the Herculean group and the laborious victor of this night?  In the ring, borne aloft and carried round on shoulders, there is a great blond child wrapped in a bath-robe; his cheeks and mouth are swollen as if he has been crying a lot; in one hand he holds a small bouquet of roses and waves it at the frenzied crowd with a vague and tremulous gesture, with the smile, so full of weakness, of a convalescent….(102)

Colette’s piece is unusual and interesting for several reasons.  The emphasis she places on the crowd itself and on their response to the ring action suggests an implicit understanding of the fact that mythic status like Carpentier’s is grounded more in perception than in acts, in an emotional response rather than a technical one.  The real story, as Colette clearly recognizes, is not in the ring but at ringside and beyond. 

It is also significant that Colette, having reported on the event with the eye of an impressionistic but perceptive outsider—part painter, part anthropologist-- ends up at least somewhat caught up in the infectious hero-worship in which the evening culminates (“Shouts which spread like a running flame, to which I respond in spite of myself…”).  In spite of the fact that she does not share the conscious emotions motivating the spectators,  and does not give any sign of having begun the evening with any sort of preconceived affection for Carpentier, she finds herself swept up in a contagion of idolatry.  This is not because Carpentier’s boxing skills won her over, because she gives little indication of having paid much attention to them; it is a response to the sheer infectiousness of the moment.

Through the lens of her opera-glasses, she sees many things, but the final and enduring image is that of a blond child lifted above the crowd in triumph, an unlikely but all the more endearing hero.  By distilling the entire experience of spectatorship into this single, striking and oddly tender image, accompanied by the simple chanting of a name, Colette captures the simplicity and power of the Carpentier phenomenon.  Intentionally or not, her piece ends up proving by example that the cult of Carpentier, while inspired by his performances in the ring, is more about charisma than boxing.  

[1] Colette, The Thousand and One Mornings trans. Margaret Crosland and David LeVay (London: Peter Owen, 1973), 99-102 (a few minor revisions have been made to this translation). The piece appears to be little known, even among Colette scholars.

Carpentier and Colette met socially, on at least one occasion, introduced by one of the celebrated Belle Epoque grandes cocottes.  Carpentier’s version of the encounter is surprisingly circumspect: “It was Liane de Lancy, the spiritual sister of Léa de Longval in Chéri, who presented me to Colette.  She did it very formally: ‘M. Georges Carpentier; Madame Colette Willy.  Madame Colette Willy; M. Georges Carpentier.’  And Colette looked at me smilingly with her eyes like a Persian cat’s.” See Carpentier by himself, 66. Return to text