Another attempt

[Serafini via Giornale Nuovo]

I keep coming up against the same damn ideas. I want new ones! I want new thoughts, new words through my mind. I meant to talk of authenticity and reality -- to talk of the life of action versus the life of words. I meant to talk about the stream of half-thoughts I'm beset by these days. But I can't write now. I can't write when I'm spending more time with others.

In the midst of the action, the life of action, everything else pales. Profundity seems an optical illusion. Argument seems to be rhetoric, cheap pasteboard. Reading is a distraction from observation. How much have I missed by having my eyes on a page, my head turned to the flat surface of a book? But. But every denigration can be turned on its head. I wouldn't be asking these questions without the reading, the thinking, the writing that I've done. At least I don't think I would have.

But really? When we were studying Augustine's Confessions, we would often hold Augustine's mother, Monica, as the foil to Augustine. She is the symbol of simple faith. She does not question, she does not seek out great masters of rhetoric or faith to try and pose questions to them. She does not worry about the problems that obsess Augustine. But her simplicity, however attractive it may be, is denigrated. Augustine himself says that it is the lost sheep that God most wishes to save -- the non-believer, the rebel. Simplicity is taken for granted, and then forgotten. The life of action is only remembered through the inspired biographer if there is one -- and his written product.

I was finishing Axel's Castle today (I know, close to three months since I started it) -- I came to the story of Rimbaud. I have only ever known the Illuminations and the letters they excerpt -- I've only known his writing -- I knew nothing of his life and his history. Wilson seems to think he was the ultimate -- the man of letters who turned from the old ways, who invented new ways, brilliantly, violently, and then abandoned literature -- threw it to the ground and trampled it -- the man of letters become the man of action. He left the world of intellect and imagination -- the world represented by Valery's M. Teste, Huysman's des Esseintes, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axel. No more mysticism, no more dreams, visions -- no more obfuscation. Down that path lie dragons -- the dragons of disillusionment, renunciation, resignation. No joy to be found on this cold, barren earth. No hope to be found in society.

Wilson colors Rimbaud a reluctant leader. He turns from the writing that gives rise to a generation of writers. He turns from the West and tries, again and again, with many failures (comical in his frustration), to go East. He learns languages and finally ends up in Harrar:

where he traffics in sugar, rice, silk, cotton-goods and arms, sending out his own caravans, intriguing with the local kings, entertaining European travellers with enchanting and cynical conversation and maintaining a harem of native women carefully selected as coming from different parts of the country so that they may teach him their different languages.

Rimbaud rejects -- he doesn't resign -- and through his rejection, he seeks "a life of pure action and a more primitive civilization."

And if actions can be compared with literary writings, Rimbaud's life seems to be more satisfactory than the works of his Symbolist contemporaries, than those even of most of his Symbolist successors, who stayed at home and stuck to literature. Rimbaud was far from finding in the East that ideal barbarous state he was seeking; even at Harrar during the days of his prosperity he was always steaming with anxieties and angers -- but his career, with its violence, its moral interest and its tragic completeness, leaves us feeling that we have watched the human spirit, strained to its most resolute sincerity and in possession of its highest faculties, breaking itself in the effort to escape, first from humiliating compromise, and then from chaos equally humiliating. And when we turn back to consider even the masterpieces of that literature which Rimbaud had helped to found and which he had repudiated, we are oppressed by a sullenness, a lethargy, a sense of energies ingrown and sometimes festering. Even the poetry of the noble Yeats, still repining through middle age over the emotional miscarriages of youth, is dully weighted, for all its purity and candour, by a leaden acquiescence in defeat."


I feel a vague rhetoric underlying this assessment -- the same sort as I found when studying the monographs and histories of Gauguin -- it's too facile to laud this sort of life. The life that searches for originality -- primitive and primal -- native. The search for humanity in its rawest state. Perhaps I can't help but see this incorrectly, as wrongheaded appropriation -- the worst sort of insidious colonialism. Wilson does qualify these statements and ideals for what they are, but nevertheless, they were pervasive. The 'life of action' - also a problematic phrase. Why is action and life equated with destruction and self-annihilation? Why is it equated with rejection, violence, even a masculine sort of triumph. Why not laud the lives of those who have balanced things? Those who have stood, feet planted squarely in two kingdoms? It seems there is an immediate assumption that to live in grayscale is somehow less than the life in black & white. Wilson creates an opposition throughout this -- he places the mystics -- Yeats' 'A Vision,' Valery's M. Teste, Proust's invalid, Joyce's sleeping man -- he places these mystics, these minds in opposition to action, rigor, boldness. Axel, the character in Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's story, opposed with Rimbaud -- rejection vs. renunciation.

That's the problem though, the same problem I have with the first sentence of the long passage I quoted above -- "if actions can be compared with literary writings" Can they be? To what end and with what success? With what intention? Why separate them at all? They seem to be such separations -- the sorts of separations you can only make from the outside. What does it mean to have been an author. What did Eliot think of Prufrock after he had written The Four Quartets? What did Virginia Woolf think of The Voyage Out after writing The Waves (if she thought of it at all).

That's the problem of thinking of things as static -- a problem I found with Wilson, surprising for someone so clearly enamored of Bergsonian and Whiteheadian metaphysics. He made it clear that it was important to attempt what Proust attempted -- to see one subject from very view -- to see it through its effects and influences and in observing, to understand. That was a very good section -- and a very interesting application of Whiteheadian process to literature. Examine the connections, elucidate the influences, see the process behind the snapshot. But in the end, works of literature are seen as almost-theres -- as not-quite-life. He expects literature to discover its own 'theory of everything,' wondering whether he and his readers weren't watching the beginning of a new world order in literature and the arts. He wants to distill some pure stream of simplicity from the complexity and chaos which resulted after the 'false dualisms' of classic arts had crumbled.

There are so many problems with trying to think about art, creation, writing. One doesn't just think about these things -- one writes about the problems of writing, one writes about the problems of having written. I cannot understand how to articulate the problem of the multitude in a single person: I think of an individual, an artist, more specifically, a writer. I think of her with her family -- then washing her hair -- then at the office, updating some document -- then in bed with a lover -- then sharing a glass of wine in a crowded bar -- finally, working on a story. If you were that person, which part would you say mattered most? Which part would be easiest to describe?

I can't describe my mind in repose. The thoughts flash too quick for transcription. The best ones are always lost. Sometimes I'm successful -- a string of six little fishes pulled from the roiling lake. If I write though, that remains. It persists for some time at least -- it becomes something of its own. And my writing is little writing, it's sampler writing -- meant for a small clutch of eyes. What about the big writing? What if it's read recklessly, appropriated, interpreted, translated, adored, displayed, misunderstood? We want to make things simple -- that's what analysis is about. It's why we compare, it's why we question. We want to simplify and in so doing, to understand. Sometimes we go further -- we want to understand in order to respond. That's fine, but it's a false attempt.

There is nothing simple about reading. Nothing simple about writing. Nothing simple about art. Sometimes I wonder if anything is simple -- a statistical anomaly -- I read that somewhere -- simplicity is a statistical anomaly. But see, here I'm writing about simplicity -- that makes it automatically complicated. But there are moments -- perhaps falsely constructed by a brain that craves simplicity, perhaps not -- there are moments when everything flattens out, reduces to a single point. Yesterday I fell asleep in the grass -- I fell asleep with my hand on our cat and when she miaowed I was startled awake. For a moment, lying eye-level to a clover flower, things felt simple. This doesn't happen often -- and I think it's best that way.