This drop of frozen mud





When I first read Axel's Castle by Edmund Wilson I had not yet read the book from which Wilson derived his title -- Axel by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. I finished this book today -- a welcome respite from the logic-studying and paper-writing and marking that have consumed me and will continue to consume me for another week or so.

I had forgotten how resonant some part of me is to the symbolic, mystical, self-abnegating story. Axel is a story about purification -- about renunciation and temptation -- it is about nobility, about living and studying and desiring. But it ends in the ultimate leap of faith -- the renunciation of earthly life for the Ultimate, the Infinite, that which must exist beyond.

Axel and Sara meet in the family crypt, caskets and barrels of hidden gold flowing about their feet, jewels of beauty and rarity dazzling the cold marble walls of their holy meeting place. They love, they are sublime, mystical lovers. And they renounce.

AXEL, in an undertone, thoughtful, and as if to himself. A god no doubt envies me now, for I-- I can die.

SARA. Axel, Axel, are divine thoughts already chasing me from your mind? ... Come, here is the earth! Come and live!

AXEL, cold, smiling, and clearly punctuating his words. Live? No. Our existence is full -- and its cup is running over! What hourglass could count the hours of this night! The future? ... Sara, believe what I say: we have just consumed the future. All the realities, what would they be tomorrow, compared with the mirages we have just lived? Why follow the example of cowardly mortals, our former brethren, and barter this golden drachma with its effigy of the dream -- obol of the Styx -- which sparkles in our triumphal hands?

The quality of our hope no longer allows us the earth. What can we ask of this wretched star, where our melancholy lingers on, save pale reflections of such moments? The earth you say? But what has it ever accomplished, that drop of frozen mud, whose Time is never more than a lie up in the heavens? It is the earth, don't you see, that has become the Illusion! Admit Sara, that in our strange hearts we have destroyed the love of life -- and it is indeed in REALITY that we ourselves have become our souls! To agree to live after that would be but a sacrilege against ourselves. Live? Our servants will do that for us [...] the only fever of which we must, in fact, be cured of is that of existing.


The beautiful ideal of renunciation. There are many obvious glimmers of Platonism throughout -- the world is called a dim reflection of the True, the Real; Axel is entreated by his teacher, Master Janus, to listen to the calls of the god he bears within.

Axel goes on --

AXEL. You see the external world through your soul: it dazzles you! yet it can never give us one single hour that would compare, in intensity of life, with one second of the hours we have just known. The true, absolute, perfect fulfillment is the inner moment we have lived, one with the other, in the funereal splendor of this vault. We have just experienced the ideal moment: it is now irrevocable, whatever name you give it! To try and relive it, by shaping, each day, in its image, the ever disappointing dust of outward appearances, would merely mean taking the risk of perverting it, diminishing its divine impression, annihilating it in what is purest within ourselves. Beware of not knowing how to die while there is still time.


It is obvious why this book would have been so fundamental to the Symbolists. But what lies hidden just slightly deeper is this notion of renunciation as it was taken up by artists like Rimbaud -- or perhaps that attribution is wrong. Perhaps this myth of renouncing -- renouncing after having secured the most transcendent, momentous achievement -- renouncing in order to step away from the immutable, the irrevocable -- perhaps this is a myth that is attributed to artists when no other explanation could suffice to make clear why they have stepped away.

I wrote about Rimbaud previously -- in response to Wilson's characterization --

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 doesn't see Rimbaud as a sort of Axel, renouncing the dreams of art in order to capture them forever -- like jewels of amber -- he sees Rimbaud as the anti-Axel -- as rejecting the incense-ridden dreams of disillusionment, melancholy and the ideal death -- and choosing instead the vibrant life of the non-artist -- the tradesman who lives in a full and admirable way. Wilson goes too far though -- the opposite Ideal -- the myth of the artist-turned-simple-man.

I wrote before -- writing which, upon return, is very important to me --

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 Wilson's sentence of the long passage -- "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.

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 every 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, -- 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.