Tuesday, November 20, 2007



Russian Futurist…French Surrealist…? Are you serious?

Putting the inherent ridiculousness of these two ideas on the sideboard for a second, let’s have a closer look at them. My can-opener in this discussion, as usual, is going to be the Russian serial-amorist Alexander Pushkin, who Russians worship but who nobody else pays any attention to and rightfully so: he sounds stupid in any language other than his own, really beyond shitty.

I think he'd like this – I mean, if anyone spent less mental energy on writing and being a writer it was Pushkin, who founded Russian literature in a few brilliant strokes and then walked into a Frenchman’s bullet because his wife was a flirt. Live by the sword die by the sword; so he’s become a real hero of mine, not just for what he wrote, but for the way he wrote it. Reclined, generous, with swiftness and vigor and complete immersion.

Pushkin was a “lazy man,” by which I mean the usual pose of artistic industry didn’t appeal to him. Easy for us to forget in professionalized America, but art used to be, not so much a matter of when you clocked in and out, but rather how you positioned yourself so as to let the energies of the world flow down your pen-hand most efficiently. As beard-wearer/Soviet-escapee Abram Tertz wrote:

“If Pushkin (let’s assume!) was only pretending to loaf, it means that he needed that pretense to free his tongue, that it suited him as the plot motivation for the unfolding of his destiny, and without it he couldn’t have written anything good.”

I love this quote because it gets to the heart of what is a real writing problem for me. I mean, isn’t that what a long and intense part of what we do is about: not the writing itself but the getting ready to write, the Not Writing that leads to writing: organizing oneself like a circuit, the perfect combination of tradition and re-invention?

For Pushkin this meant giving yourself up, letting Fate (Pushkin loves F-f-fate) make you the greatest writer who ever lived one minute and a ridiculous cuckold the next. Your destiny is someone else’s business, which frees you up to look around and describe everything you see so beautifully and memorably that you end up, strangely enough, outwitting fate completely: escaping it, disappearing Houdini-style through a trap door no one else can see, because they're too busy doing what they do.

Another important fact about Pushkin, who was murdered by a Frenchman: he loved France. All Russians did – most of the upper class at that point spoke French from birth and had to have Russian letters translated to them, sniff sniff. But, attracted as he was to its masterpieces, P. knew he couldn’t compete, for example, with Victor Hugo. And he didn’t have to. He was a Russian. The whole thing was hilarious to him: the wigs and powders (which he loved), the balls (adored), the pretenses and high-blown speeches (made a few in his time). High-falutin’, fascinating but, at the end of the day, kind of beside the point. Now, a Russian horse shaking snow off its back – that was life! That was a moment that deserved to make its way into literature!

So Pushkin becomes one of the first flaneurs – the first walkers, to translate the term stupidly: one of the first guys to try to put everything and especially the underbelly of life back into art. Art is great, but art is also very, very stupid, Pushkin held. We’ve got to keep slapping it, keep reminding it to pay attention and not lapse into the laziness of inherited forms. Keep looking, Pushkin shouts at us – or not shouts, since he’s not really a shouter. He throws grapes at us and threatens to not invite us to his next party.

Empires, cultural or otherwise, develop underbellies, which the provinces explore vigorously; then if they’re smart the empires themselves learn from their subjects and begin dissecting themselves. So genius France develops in the 19th century a generation’s-worth of little Pushkins, which it now officially calls flaneurs: walkers, starers, examiners of underbellies. Rimbaud, for example (sound familiar?). Baudelaire. Alfred Jarry, and all the other people who piled out of that particularly roomy clown car. As archer/vegetarian Roger Shattuck says:

“The intellectual activity that Diderot refers to as libertinage (free-thinking, debauchery) in the opening sentences of Rameau’s Nephew rests squarely on this response to the fragment as ambiguous – both isolated and implicated. Baudelaire developed Diderot’s attitude into the endemic activity of the dandy: flaner (to stroll about, to saunter). The Surrealists in their prose narratives of city promenades refined flanerie into fine art…”

[fragments here – argumentative etiquette suggests I hold my tongue, but come on: there it all is, the 7th Draft aesthetic in a nutshell! Shattuck’s prose is as clear and strained as a man asking a passerby to kindly help him remove the badger from his Balzac, but you can hear the point trembling under there, compact and dangerous as the hum of an electron cloud…]

Pushkin showed France how to strut…but how does this fit up with us, who are anyway just Americans plain and simple, putting on these masks and codpieces as they suit our moments, whims, deficiencies and advantages? Well, to their surprise, the mob of flaneury has discovered in the centuries 20th+ that when a prone position transforms the entire world into a work of art, everybody becomes an actor. As the Shatt-man explaineth, once again:

“What is no longer given – station of self – must be created. It may take a lifetime. To that end most of us own a little property, have some adventures high or low, and revert at intervals to the mutterings of our innermost feelings. It all helps. At the same time I wonder how far the histrionic sensibility, the fourth path [!!!] to a place in the world, has also made actors, and perhaps lunatics, of us all.”

With the curtain closing, then, enter poor belated blogging, this fucking ridiculous enterprise comprised, as has been noted before mon frere, MOY DROOG, of equal parts tragic and absurd, or just plain stupid, and which runs on a frottage and aspires to smitage, the wholesale eyeball-peeling of the sun settling like a grapefruit on some distant dirty rooftop. “IT ALL HELPS” – I hear the famous Be Someone On Which Nothing Is Lost dictum in this, not to mention the dream of miscellaneists/bloggers/diarists, which at the end of the day seems to be nothing more than to catch all the little fragments of life and rub them together until they spark and the world (or, more often, an immediate circle) catches fire and burns.

Pushkin…proto-blogger? Dumber things have been claimed for him, I guess. The way I see it, the dream haunting literature is anti-literature and the nightmare of the Book therefore the Anti-Book, which, solidified, gets busy throwing its own shadow. Pushkin left behind a handful of fragments, which he didn’t think was anything to take seriously.

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