Godard, Hoover, Nixon, Jean Seberg – à bout de souffle

Jean Seberg, hands to face, end of A bout de souffle, drawing by William Eaton, Dec 2019English original, then French and Spanish versions, followed by an explanatory series of footnotes, touching on the movie and Jean Seberg, in English at the very end. Please note that, as with previous poem sets, each language version is its own poem, in various ways different from its cousins.

Poem(s) and drawing (from image of Seberg at the end of À bout de souffle) by William Eaton.

English

All they needed was the girl and gun

« C’est formidable le cinéma. On voit des filles avec des robes. Le cinéma arrive et on voit leurs culs ». — The movies are wonderful. You used to see girls in dresses. Then the movies came along and we got to see their asses. — Jean-Luc Godard

The FBI’s stated goal was the “neutralization” of the actress Jean Seberg with a subsidiary objective to “cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the public”. . . . FBI records show that J. Edgar Hoover kept U.S. President Richard Nixon informed of FBI activities related to the Seberg case. — from a Wikipedia article on Seberg

Godard in Paris, and with his friends,
     played at movie-making.
All they needed, so fresh and young, was
     the girl and gun.
Pretty Jean, her head shaven, in the latest
     prison stripes.
Breathless gave them fame and money, ways to
     have more fun?

Hoover and his Nixon friend
     played at law and order,
Tapping phones, spreading libels – 
     the best defense: be vile?
With, say, this starlet Seberg, so close
     to the struggling poor.
Now imagine her unzipping, and
     womb with Panther child!

« C’est vraiment dégueulasse ».
     It’s really disgusting.
Jean, forever lost, turns toward suicide.
     The child she
Takes on home, for press and neighbors
     she all white shows – 
How in death might there be found
     something like purity?

« C’est quoi, dégueulasse ? » At the end of
     the movie Seberg asks.
That our presidents and police still play with
     law and order?
That fantasies, silly and vicious,
     can the rare few
Empower still, while diverting
     O so many others?

French

C’est quoi, dégueulasse, tu penses ?

« C’est formidable le cinéma. On voit des filles avec des robes. Le cinéma arrive et on voit leurs culs ». — Jean-Luc Godard

L’objectif déclaré du FBI était de « neutraliser » l’actrice Jean Seberg, avec l’objectif secondaire de « causer son embarras et de servir à déprécier son image auprès du public ». . . . Les dossiers du FBI montrent que J. Edgar Hoover, directeur de l’agence, a tenu le président américain Richard Nixon informé des activités du FBI liées à l’affaire Seberg. — article de Wikipedia sur Seberg

Godard et ses jeunes collègues
     au cinéma jouaient.
Ils avaient besoin juste d’un flingue
     et d’une fille aussi jolie –
     de préférence américaine,
     marginale, la tête rasée,
     en rayures belles comme une condamnée.
Du fric, du pouvoir – À bout de souffle –
     et de la renommée !

Hoover et Nixon : c’est à l’application de la loi
     qu’ils jouaient –
À traquer et à diffamer tous
     ceux qu’ils pouvaient ;
À les faire paraître pires
     qu’eux ils ne l’étaient.

Et pourquoi pas cette jeune paumée,
     cette moviestar qui aimait aimer
     des sales parias insurgés ?
Quel plaisir elle les offrait :
     d’imaginer une bite grosse nègre
     qui allait l’inséminer !

« C’est vraiment dégueulasse » –
     le jeune premier
     il a toujours son mot à dire.
Jean pour sa part
     ne comprendra jamais
     et elle ne trouvera pour abri
     que la drogue, le suicide.

Elle ramène sa fille morte
     dans son pays d’origine ;
     pour que la presse et les voisins
     puissent une fois pour toutes apprécier
     la pâleur de leurs âmes soumises
     et aussi celle des petites dépouilles.

C’est quoi, dégueulasse, tu penses ?
Que nos présidents, nos policiers,
     ils jouent encore avec la loi ?
Ou comment fantasmes, bêtes et cruels,
     donnent encore de pouvoir
     aux certain rares quelques-uns
     en divertissant maintes autres ?

Spanish

Y la estrella Seberg nunca entiende nada

“Las películas son geniales. Ves a las chicas con vestidos. Las películas vienen y se ven sus culos”. — Jean-Luc Godard

El objetivo declarado del FBI era la “neutralización” de la actriz Jean Seberg con un objetivo subsidiario de “causar su vergüenza y servir para abaratar su imagen ante el público”. . . . Los registros del FBI muestran que el director J. Edgar Hoover mantuvo informado al presidente de los Estados Unidos Richard Nixon de las actividades del FBI relacionadas con el caso Seberg. — Artículo de Wikipedia sobre Seberg

Godard joven con parisienses
     jugaban con películas baratas.
Comprar una chica, comprar un arma...
     es todo lo que necesitaban.
Muchas gracias a la inadaptada:
     rayas de cárcel y afeitada.
Al filo de la escapada:
     dinero, poder y también ¡la fama!

Edgar Hoover y Richard Nixon
     jugaban al orden, jugaban la ley –
Seguir los pasos, difundir calumnias:
     para esconder tus debilidades,
     siempre atacar.
¿Suponiendo que apuntamos a esta atracción,
     amiga de estés luchadores,
     gente de color?
¡Imaginamos la polla de la pantera que...
     del negro que la insemina!

« C’est vraiment dégueulasse ». Asqueroso.
     (Un héroe moribundo
     siempre dirá algo.)
Y la estrella Seberg nunca entiende nada
     excepto el suicidio
     y su hija muerta...
A la que se lleva a los Estados Unidos
     que la prensa y los vecinos
     miren los restos blancos.
¿Sólo en la muerte poden encontrar
     algo parecido a la pureza?

C’est quoi, ¿asqueroso?
¿Que los presidentes y los policías
     siguen jugando con la ley?
¿Qué las fantasías, crueles o tontas,
     dan poder a unos pocos
     y divierten a demasiados?

Footnotes

∩ I have an ever-growing collection of poems with footnotes, but this poem is different insofar as, much like The Waste Land, it may be incomprehensible without footnotes. Before getting into the FBI’s campaign against Seberg, some information regarding a paraphrase and the French phrases used in the poem. The paraphrase—All they needed, in their youth, was the girl and gun—comes from a witticism attributed to Godard, « Tout ce dont vous avez besoin pour faire un film, c’est d’une fille et d’un flingue ». (All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.)

The French phrases are from the closing scene of A bout de souffle (Breathless, Sin aliento, Al filo de la escapada)—Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a two-bit hoodlum, cop killer, shot in the back, dying on a Paris pavement. This in part because Patricia (Seberg), his sort of girlfriend, had ratted him out to the police. Looking up at her he says, « C’est vraiment dégueulasse ». That was really disgusting. But she, at least in part because she’s an American, does not understand (either the French phrase or why she ratted him out). The police at the scene tell her that Michel has said that she is really «  une dégueulasse! » — a disgusting person. « C’est quoi, dégueulasse? » she asks. What does it mean to be disgusting ? (Or, in the context of the film, we might ask: What does it mean to be immoral or in bad faith? To be a young woman who cannot understand why she is so desired or doing whatever she does? I am prepared to argue that these closing lines, apparently written by Daniel Boulanger, go a long ways toward redeeming what—absent them and Seberg’s disorientation and insufficient defenses—might seem too much empty talk, a half-baked film.)

For the moment, however, herewith the story of Seberg and the FBI, and of Seberg more generally, as reported in 2019 by Wikipedia (English and French versions) and the Des Moines Register (Seberg being a “famous Iowan,” having been born and raised in Marshalltown).

After achieving success as an actress, Seberg donated money to aid the Meskwaki [Native American] Settlement in Tama County, Iowa. She also bought a house for black students attending Iowa Valley Community College.

“That house was over on West Church Street, and that was not where black people went in Marshalltown back then,” Roger Maxwell, a friend of Seberg’s and a Marshalltown native, told the Register in 2011. “Black folks were down on North 11th Street. [White] Marshalltown never forgave (Jean) for that house.”

It was, however, a donation to her lover Hakim Jamal’s Montessori school in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles that put Seberg in the crosshairs of the FBI. Jamal was a cousin of Malcolm X and allied with the Black Panther Party, which the Register in 2019 was describing as “a far-left group that . . . was involved in both social outreach to the poor and under-served, and violent clashes with police.”

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, later shown to have kept illegal files on thousands of private citizens never charged with a crime, wrote at the time, “Jean Seberg . . . must be neutralized.”

In 1970, the FBI disseminated the false story that the child Seberg was carrying was fathered by Raymond Hewitt, a member of the Black Panther Party. The story was reported by gossip columnist Joyce Haber of the Los Angeles Times, and was also printed by Newsweek magazine. The child, born premature, died after two days. Seberg held a funeral in Marshalltown with an open casket, which allowed reporters to see her daughter’s all-white skin.

The investigation of Seberg went far beyond the publishing of defamatory articles. According to her friends, interviewed after her death, she experienced years of aggressive in-person surveillance (stalking), as well as break-ins and other intimidating activities. FBI files show that she was wiretapped. And all this through arrangements with foreign governments and police and telephone services—while Seberg was living in France and traveling in other parts of Europe.

FBI records show that J. Edgar Hoover kept U.S. President Richard Nixon informed of FBI activities related to Seberg. This was done through President Nixon’s domestic affairs chief John Ehrlichman, himself subsequently convicted, like others of Nixon’s staff, of crimes such as conspiracy, obstruction of justice, . . .

All this notwithstanding, one gets the impression that Seberg would not have had an easy life, even without the help of the FBI. Her life reminds me of a famous idea of Freud’s about psychotherapy, except in the case of Seberg and people like her, the process is inverted: she found ways of turning gemeines Unglück (common unhappiness) into hysterical misery.

There were, for example, lovers who beat her and used her money and celebrity status for their own purposes. She apparently threatened suicide as a way of cementing her marriage with her second husband, the esteemed French writer Romain Gary. She also overdosed on barbiturates, in an apparent attempt to kill herself along with the baby she was carrying, a few days before her daughter was born. Gary says that every year on the anniversary of her infant daughter’s death Seberg tried to commit suicide. She became addicted to alcohol and drugs, suffered from dementia, and was hospitalized on several occasions.

On August 20, 1979, she disappeared. French police found her in the backseat of her car 11 days later in Paris. Authorities ruled the cause of death an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol and a “probable suicide.”

Seberg first became a movie star and famous when she was chosen from 18,000 hopefuls by Hollywood director Otto Preminger in a nationwide talent search. It is said that it was not her but a friend who entered her in the contest. In retrospect one might say that this friend—and Preminger, Gary, Jamal, Hoover . . . : all the many men in Seberg’s life—did her no favors. Like many another movie star—Marilyn Monroe leaps to mind—Seberg was a poster child for an unsettling, often disputed fact: we human beings’ lack of agency. What makes Seberg’s story particularly poignant (and what perhaps led to her “success” as a movie actress) is how this lack of agency could show in her face. In À bout de soufflé she well evokes an experience of many a young woman (and of some young men): of being so desired, and carnally, by another person, by a man (or woman or by more than one person) and not being able to locate what there is in her to inspire such desire, such hunger. If at the time she had known what we know now about Hoover’s use of the FBI and about Nixon’s “Enemies List,” etc., it might have been equally difficult for Seberg to comprehend why the FBI Director was so driven to “neutralize” her, and why the President would have much of any interest in her case.

Such was Seberg’s tragedy, however, that her larger fear—born somewhere in her childhood, and in the culture of her times—was that men might lose interest in her, and all the more so as she aged, or if she became a mother or put on weight . . . After her death one of her doctors apparently said: “Jean desperately needed to feel desired and beautiful, . . . It was very important for her to feel, well, excuse the word, ‘fuckable.’”

Bibliographic note: Quote from doctor comes from Stephanie Dickinson’s Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg (a work of poetic fiction but with some documentary material mixed in). One might see also Romain Gary’s fictions about Seberg and Garry McGee’s and David Richards’s English-language biographies of Seberg. Jean-Lou Alexandre and Maurice Guichard published biographies in French. And Carlos Fuentes, who was briefly Seberg’s lover, apparently writes about her in his novel Diana o la cazadora solitaria (Diana, The Goddess who Hunts Alone).

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