[The Cunning Tower by Kim Davis: June 2, 2011]
I've written here before - at a length which surprises me - of the decadent end of bohemianism as a triangular trade between London, Paris and America. Although I was roughly aware at the time of Huysmans' influence on the whole London and New York "decadent" scene, and specifically the influence of his book À Rebours, I had not at the time read Oscar Wilde's single novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It's a literary commonplace that Wilde's 1890 work owes something to the novel by Huysmans published six years earlier, but I was hardly prepared for the full-scale, lengthy pastiches of Huysmans one finds in Wilde. To recap briefly, À Rebours is the story of a young aesthete of agonizing preciousness who retreats from his life in Paris to a luxurious home constructed as a palace to sensual enjoyment, jewel-encrusted turtles and all.
Wilde's anti-hero, Gray, wilfully abandons the ethical life for an entirely aesthetic existence lived in a rather more realistic context of West End salons and East End rough trade pubs. Pages of Wilde's book, however, are almost copied word for word from Huysmans - a quite open homage, of course.
Unexpectedly, Wilde's story turns out to be a parable of the dangers of decadence. Despite reputation, the same can be said of Huysmans' tale: his dandy Des Esseintes cannot maintain the artificial existence he has constructed for himself. Gray is consumed by self-loathing and remorse as he descends to ever deeper degradation.
The figure in Dorian Gray most representative of the author, Henry Wootton - a tissue of witticisms - plays an inadvertent Mephistophelean role in Gray's fate. His endlessly spun advice turns out to be, for the most part, as bad and wicked as it seems. The novel is a ghastly premonition of Wilde's own miserable end and remains a literary paradox.
The literary trade between Paris and New York not only didn't end with the decadence: it was hardly underway. The baton on modernity both in poetry and life was symbolically passed from Cendrars, who had known Apollinaire, to Henry Miller, and from Miller to Allen Ginsberg who discovered Miller and other banned Olympia Press writers during his times in Paris.
There was a time the so-called "New York School" poets - Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and their circle - were assumed to be somehow associated with the Beats. They were more or less contemporaries, read at the same venues, shared friends. With perspective, this impression seems quite wrong. Those particular poetic paths diverged widely. One thing Ashbery did, however, share with Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso, was a formative immersion in Parisian culture: Ashbery's immersion was deeper - he became fluent in French - and has been more lasting than his critics perhaps realized.
Ashbery lived in Paris for a number of years, publishing The Tennis Court Oath, a collection evidently influenced by surrealism and the unlabeled modernisms of Mallarmé and Apollinaire which preceded it. It has generally been regarded as an atypical work, packed with undisciplined experimentalism and apparently rambling free association.
Yet now, approaching the latter stages of a distinguished career, Ashbery returns to France. He has translated many individual French poems over the years, but now he gives us a book-length version of Rimbaud's Les Illuminations. Although Baudelaire had dabbled with the form, Rimbaud was perhaps the first modern master of the prose poem. Ashbery is the contemporary master and the truly uncanny effect of his precise, near-literal translation is to reveal to the reader how much like Rimbaud he himself often sounds.
Critics like Harold Bloom have emphasized Ashbery's place in the American poetic tradition in a direct line from Wallace Stevens (to me he's always sounded like Marianne Moore too). Here Ashbery himself reminds us of his relationship with the great French poems he imbued in Paris many years ago. The poems of Reverdy and Char. The illuminations of Rimbaud.