In Karl Shapiro's excellent introduction to Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer", he makes an incisive observation: "The writer is the fly in the ointment of modern letters; Henry Miller has waged ceaseless war against writers...Miller is not a writer; Henry James is a writer. Miller is a talker, a street corner gabbler, a prophet, and a Patagonian." Of course, I have reservations with how this is phrased- Shapiro suggests that 'writing' is the province of the homme de lettres, that literature is a moribund relic of old Europe. This is a somewhat myopic conception of literature- surely the term should not be limited to the likes of Eliot, James and Meredith- but the spirit of Shapiro's statement is true. This is precisely why Henry Miller claims Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud as his spiritual forbears- Miller does not beguile his readers with elegantly wrought turns of phrase, he does not stud his prose with crystalline bon mots. Henry Miller declares his allegiance to the accursed races, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Shapiro’s essay, beyond providing an impassioned re-appraisal of Henry Miller’s significance for American letters, probes the depths of barbarian literature, a fetid gutter infested with half-breeds, heathens, pariahs and pederasts. Surveying the history of European literature, one finds a haphazard collection of anomalies, abominations that resist any attempt at classification- Rabelais, Blake, Nietzsche, Buchner, Kleist, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Celine, Artaud, Michaux, Beckett, Bowles, Burroughs.
While these writers share a number of traits, the implications of which are explored at great length in Deleuze and Guattari’s exemplary Kafka, one cannot properly say that they stem from an unbroken lineage. While writers such as Flaubert, Verlaine and Mallarme struggled with aesthetic problems inherited from their forefathers, Rimbaud and Lautreamont offered unprecedented points of departure, lines of flight from the tyranny of tradition. This is not to say that they were writing in opposition to tradition- there is nothing negative or antithetical here. Rimbaud and Lautreamont simply uprooted the familial tree, severing the moorings that bound them to their native soil. As such, it is not quite right to say that Rimbaud, at the height of his artistic maturity, was an iconoclast- he did not write poetry to resist, revolt or subvert. There was nothing to rebel against- Rimbaud simply did not concern himself with the poetic problematic of his time. Where were his peers, his interlocutors? Rimbaud inhabited a different sphere, he had no contemporaries. While the Symbolists, the Parnassians and the Naturalists were peddling their wares in the marketplace, shouting each other down with demagogic manifestoes, Rimbaud was streaking through the stratosphere, illuminating new vistas of consciousness.
This, perhaps, is what separates Rimbaud from the earthbound Verlaine, who vainly sought to enlist him in the pantheon of accursed poets. By chiseling Rimbaud’s name into the tablets of history and electing him as the figurehead of a literary fraternity, Verlaine believed that he had clipped the wings of his errant lover. Surely he could see that Rimbaud had nothing in common with his formalist compeers. Rimbaud’s blithe indifference towards aesthetic wrangles was revealing- in his eyes, poetry is nothing other than the praise of life, the intoxication of the soul. Art cannot be a cloistered Schopenhaurian sanctuary, an escapist past-time, it is coextensive with existence, enriching and expanding it. Poetry sanctifies life, to write is to bless the sanctity of being. In this way, poetry is a sort of proselytism: verse is seduction, a poem is an invitation to a rapturous bacchanal. In this regard, Patti Smith is right in suggesting that Rimbaud was the first punk rocker, if only because the punk ethos demands active participation from its devotees. Rimbaud requires this sacrifice from his initiates- he insists that poetry is a communal project, an inexhaustible dream that he shares with his readers. Along with Lautreamont, he incites a tremendous mutiny in French letters- poetry is no longer the preserve of stiff-necked mandarins, but a vital, ongoing expression of collective aspirations. A poet is never alone. His arms are outstretched, welcoming the children of tomorrow. “The rest, called literature, is a dossier of human imbecility for the guidance of future professors.” (Tristan Tzara)
Lautreamont’s “Maldoror” is not a book you read, or at least it is not a book that one reads in the traditional sense. Writing is typically a form of transmission, the bestowal of one’s thoughts to a putative audience. Reading, in this regard, is receiving- the ideal reader is he who prostrates himself before the authority of the text, humbling himself before the imperious word. There is, of course, something vaguely religious about all this- understanding entails attuning oneself to a certain wavelength of consciousness. One empties oneself of presuppositions, transforming oneself into a tabula rasa upon which meaning and significance are inscribed.
There is also something profoundly Promethean about reading- reading presupposes, at the outset, an imbalance of power. To read is to enter into a pact, but it is at the same time a contestation of this pact. The book is an authority to be overthrown, an obstacle to be surmounted, a cryptic rune to be deciphered. Bourdieu’s analyses of cultural capital are germane here- the economy of reading is profoundly anal in the Freudian sense, an extraction and accumulation of material for one’s cultural vocabulary. At any rate, reading always involves a certain dissymmetry between author and audience, one that the reader is perpetually attempting to unsettle by demystifying the text through interpretation. Barthes’ impudent parricide is an articulation of this will to power, a hubristic revolt against the authorial despot.
While this is the dominant mode of reading- a dissymmetrical relationship of power that generates antagonism, challenge and Oedipal struggle- other writers have offered welcome alternatives. I shall provide an example. Andre Breton, whose unswerving reverence of “Maldoror” is well-documented, was incensed at Albert Camus’ suggestion that it was, at best, a curiosity, a parlor trick performed by a juvenile rabble-rouser. Camus went further to state that history is the ultimate arbiter of value, and that time would prove its relative insignificance next to monuments like War & Peace. It is surprising that a writer as perceptive as Georges Bataille would consolidate Camus’ claim, when it is clear that Breton’s fury was warranted. Camus' assertion was injudicious because it had conflated “Maldoror” with the very tradition that it had broken from. Camus, classicist as he was, failed to see the startling modernity of Surrealist aesthetics, its formulation of a new critical paradigm. He failed to see that Maldoror had called his aesthetic criteria into question, that it constituted an insuperable breach from the realist novel. The two books are simply incomparable, because they operate on two wholly heterogeneous scales of value. War & Peace is an immaculate artifact; in prosaic terms, it is a ‘work of art’, an object of slavish admiration.
Maldoror is something altogether different- it is not so much a book as a hurricane, a propulsive, protoplasmic force of nature. Camus does not realise that Maldoror is primarily an instructive book, an exercise in writing that Lautreamont exhorts the reader to repeat. This is what I mean when I say that Maldoror is not a book that is read in the orthodox sense-one does not scour its depths for meaning or scrape beneath the poetic patina for encrusted symbols. Maldoror, with its excessive, infectious zeal, impels one to replicate it in some fashion, it communicates and desires a community to disseminate itself. Its literary merits do not lie in its insight, its pedagogic value or its emotional depth, but in this demonstrative quality- Maldoror is a protracted exhibition of poetic pyrotechnics, a display of reckless spontaneity. One gets the sense that the words are spectral traces of an ongoing flight, a relentless war against the frontiers of style. In Lautreamont’s hands, the page becomes a laboratory, the pen a means to engineer new modes of being. My appreciation for Tolstoy and Lautreamont are of distinctly different varieties- Tolstoy edifies, Lautreamont arouses. Unlike Tolstoy, Lautreamont has no wisdom to share, he is a fellow wayfarer clearing new paths in the wilderness. He robs art of its oracular, objective function, restoring in its place the poetic sign, the arrowhead pointing towards freedom.
We can be thankful that Andre Breton oriented an entire movement around Lautreamont’s innovations, a school that spawned his “Nadja" and Aragon’s “Paris Peasant”, the two texts that come closest to Maldoror in spirit and execution. Certainly, Surrealism has become another footnote in the history of modern art, a canonized object of academic dispute, a mainstay of Christie’s catalogues. It is a cruel irony that Surrealist paintings now adorn the homes that Breton execrated. Still, no amount of critical discourse or mercantile commodification can obscure the indelible mark it has imprinted upon the creative consciousness. Surrealism, after all, embodied the first organized revolt against the literary industry, the ossification of the poetic impulse into congealed ‘works’, the class conflicts dissimulated by literary production. The cult of the author, an unfortunate inheritance from Romanticism, had to be deposed in lieu of a democratic conception of poetry. For the (neo)Surrealist, poetry is not a noun, but a verb.