“The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness–he explores himself, he tries out all the poisons on himself and keeps only their quintessences.” So wrote a Paris-based Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny in 1871. Nearly one hundred years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the artist David Wojnarowicz followed a parallel path on the streets of New York.
Both men had itinerant fathers–Rimbaud’s was a military man and Wojnarowicz’s, a sailor–they suffered at the hands of their parents and escaped their households at a young age. In Paris, Rimbaud slept under bridges and in army barracks, and was likely sexually assaulted by soldiers. Wojnarowicz, too, lived on the streets and worked as a child prostitute. By the age of fifteen he’d suffered an unimaginable list of abuses, including being “drugged, tossed out a second story window, strangled, smacked in the head with a slab of marble, almost stabbed four times, punched in [the] face at least seventeen times, beat about [his] body too many times to recount, almost completely suffocated.”
The two men shared a romance with violence and danger. Rimbaud was shot in the wrist by his lover, Paul Verlaine, as he tried to break off their affair. Wojnarowicz was shot at by a drag queen who mistook his knock at her door for the arrival of an unfaithful lover. Rimbaud, the poète maudit, and Verlaine were detained and questioned by the police after fabricating a story at a train station–they were murderers who had just escaped from prison, and spoke loudly enough for fellow travelers to overhear.
Wojnarowicz begins his memoir, Close to the Knives, with tales of roaming hot city streets with a friend, while carrying meat cleavers stolen from Macy’s and looking for someone to mug. And in his book Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, he describes his hunger for violent men: “I’m attracted to living like that, moment to moment, with very little piling up of information, breaking windows of cause and response.” Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz were aligned as miscreants, meddlers, thieves, deranged to the point of seeing, i.e., visionary.
Je est un autre. Another phrase Rimbaud famously wrote, “I is another.”
Similarly, Wojnarowicz wrote, regarding waking up in an altered state, or site, of consciousness: “The ‘I’ of my self had crawled through the thickness of memory and consciousness to some other place in the structure of the brain and emerged within a new gray coil.”
Wojnarowicz was deeply aware of the trajectory he shared with the youthful and precocious Rimbaud, with whose debauched and dangerous life he identified, and tried to align himself. One thing Wojnarowicz couldn’t have known in his late teens and early twenties was that he, like Rimbaud, would meet an untimely death, from AIDS.
In the late ‘70s, the young Wojnarowicz photographed a series of portraits of a man–a friend, perhaps–wearing a paper cut-out mask of Rimbaud’s face. This Rimbaud skulks through the settings of Wojnarowicz’s New York, alone. He sits in a graffiti-covered subway car, loiters outside movie houses, wanders under piers and through abandoned buildings, with a needle in his arm, with a gun to his head, in a passionate embrace, pissing in a toilet. Wojnarowicz’s photo series Rimbaud in New York 1978-9 distills the rawness, pain, and deprivation of living on the street to a beauty of mythic proportions. The youthful delicacy of this body is surrounded by weary decay and distanced by the mask, in what could otherwise appear a living hell.
To quote Wojnarowicz, “ Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head.”
The mask obscuring identity–literally making this figure an “I” who is another, the savage poet who suffers to the point of seeing–recalls the lover in the Foolish Virgin/Hellish Bridegroom section of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:
I saw the whole decor he surrounded himself with in his own mind: clothes, sheets, furniture. I lent him weapons, another face. I looked at everything in relation to him, as he’d have liked to create it for himself. Whenever he’d look absent-minded, I’d follow him into weird and complicated strategies, far out, good or bad–I was sure I’d never get into his world. Next to his gorgeous sleeping body, how many hours I used to spend awake at night, wondering why he wanted to escape from reality so badly. No man ever had such a wish. I realized–without any fear for him–that he could be a threat to society.–Maybe he’s got secrets to change life?
“That he could be a threat to society,” resonates even more clearly following the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In December, the government-run Smithsonian, under pressure from the Catholic League, removed his video because it depicts ants crawling over a crucifix. Much has already been written about this. The attention drawn and cacophony of protests have obscured the work by Wojnarowicz that remains present–a series of four devastating images from the Rimbaud in New York series. Images were like words to Wojnarowicz, he placed them against and within each other, in still life or video, “to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness…. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”
Now the much-vaunted “Oprah effect” has hit Britain, where a brief mention of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea on a popular daytime show caused sales to go through the roof. Stunned by the response, the hosts claim that they will once again press their producers to allow them to start a book club. It’s amazing to me that the TV book club phenomenon did not actually originate in England, where the world of books is far more integrated into popular culture. In fact, last summer’s “Big Read,” a sort of all time greatest books countdown show on the BBC, was wildly popular and apparently bumped book sales in England noticeably. Meanwhile, Star of the Sea, a book that received decidedly mixed reviews gets a boost that points to the power of the television in the world of books. Here’s the original “Oprah effect” story.To anyone who has read Dan Brown’s mega-blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, here’s an interesting article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that tries to separate the facts from the fiction.The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced in a couple of months and I’ve been thinking about who might win. I’ve lately been favoring Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc in the General Non-Fiction category. I’ll probably muse over who I favor for the next several weeks, and stay tuned for the First Annual Millions Pulitzer Pool (complete with prizes!). Details to come.
Tam Tam Books, my friend Tosh’s labor of love, released it’s fourth book this past week: Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze. Vian is mostly unknown in the States but he is one of France’s modern masters. His novels are at once absurd and doleful. Foam of the Daze is his masterpiece.An AdmissionI’ve done something that I do every once in a while and that I feel a bit of guilt about. I’ve put a book down without finishing it. In this case, though, the book was actually very good, and what I read I enjoyed very much. Chris Hedges pulls no punches in War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. He ruthlessly whittles away the myth of war and violence until all that remains is the set of lies on which they are based. His arguments are almost too convincing, and after he lays it out, it is hard to make a case for a situation in which the use of force is warranted. I especially enjoyed the way he went about laying all of this out. Instead of proclaiming the virtues of peace, he very clearly described how war becomes a tool that those in power use, willingly or not, to maintain their power. And that’s it, that’s the whole book. And that’s pretty much why I quit about halfway through. He made is argument very convincingly and I found myself quite moved, but then he made his argument again and again. I’ve described here in the past the lingering anxiety that has accompanied opening the throttle, so to speak, when it comes to reading. And now sometimes when I feel that I have extracted the essential nugget of wisdom from a book, I am ready to cast the book aside so that I can get to that next nugget. And, sometimes, this nugget is given away freely before the end of the book. I have become a very thirsty reader.
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one “good” and one “bad.” This time he focuses on “the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul,” according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn’t want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn’t help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn’t love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.