Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Apollinaire rebelling against society and God

`Perhaps it is harder to see in Erik Satie and Henri Rousseau who produced works that did not speak in verbally, but with Alfred Jarry and especially Guillaume Apollinaire there can be no doubt.  They have devoted themselves to criticizing established society, established political society, and taken to its extreme, established morality and God.  Consider what Shattuck has to say about Apollinaire reaching into himself for the antithesis of established morality in order to achieve "freedom":
            [from pages 304-6 of Shattuck's The Banquet Years:"His theme was always freedom -- freedom to be an individual before being a member of society.  The total visual freedom of cubism was called depravity by the world of 1910; the moral freedom signified by the under-the-counter texts over which he labored many years bore the same name. . .   Apollinaire's published opinions and his persistence in developing them finally left their mark.  The most challenging sentence of all occurs in the story, 'L'heresiarque': 'Mysticism verges very closely on eroticism.'  Total liberation, then would finally obliterate any frontier between the spiritual and the physical.  He did not shrink from the hazardous ground to which these roads lead.  Following the decadents, paralleling Gide, and anticipating the surrealists and existentialists, Apollinaire finally had to confront the gratuitous act, 'L'acte gratuit,' as the extreme instance of human freedom.   Since, in the Christian world of the West, charity has become closely associated with reward in a life hereafter, its spontaneity and selflessness have tended to become tainted.  One can maintain that the only domain of purely disinterested action that remains [is] the inversion of charity: unmotivated evil.  It satisfies nothing deeper than whim.  This view explains how Apollinaire, having undertaken them for other reasons, became absorbed in writing pornographic novels.  The best of the Onze mille verges, represents its hero as obsessed by the liberating power of wickedness, yet he remains untroubled by soul-searchings such as those that affect Dostoevski's criminal-saints. . . After describing a frightful debauch, Apollinaire begins the next paragraph: 'For a considerable time Mony led this monotonous life in Bucharest.'  A hundred pages later, at the end of the book, Mony sentenced to death by the Japanese, violently deflowers a twelve-year-old Romanian girl who was chosen to yield her virginity to a condemned man.  The true climax follows: 'Then Mony stood up and since he had nothing more to hope for from human justice, he strangled the little girl after having gouged out her eyes, while all the time she uttered hideous cries.'
            "The 'purity' of this imaginary act lies not in its utter cruelty but in the gratuitousness of its evil.  Only a man already facing death is free to act unswayed by any human motives of right and wrong, gain and loss, pleasure and pain.  The detached, scientific tone of Apollinaire's prose here . . . concentrates the horror or deliberate moral depravity; the act becomes both inhuman and superhuman. . . The casual ordering and unrestricted subject matter of his tales support the major accomplishments of Proust, Gide, and Joyce in overthrowing the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel. . . ."
            COMMENT:  One can find reasons in Shattuck's book for disapproving of the direction taken by the four figures of his "Banquet Years."   But Shattuck is not nearly as disapproving as some of us might be.  For example, I'm sure we can couch "charity" or "Christian love" in terms other than Shattuck has used, but even if he, Jarry and Apollinaire are right and many seek "reward" for their good works, is such a seeking inconsistent with human nature?  I don't think so.  We grow up seeking the approval of our family and friends.  And if we write, paint, compose music, or become a critic, do we not seek the approval of someone?  The four rebels Shattuck chose to examine anxiously sought societies approval.  So why does Apollinaire disapprove of Christians for seeking the approval of God?  We Christians are encouraged to behave in such a way that after we die and stand before God he shall say, "well done, good and faithful servant."   Surely Apollinaire knew it was wrong to rebel against his mother with whom he had a close relationship.  So why would he think it right to rebel against God?
            And what is the merit in "spontaneous selflessness"?  Doesn't that suggest acting without considering consequences?  For if we think of the consequences then we might be accused of being "selfish," e.g., if I avoid this act then my wife, family, society and God will not withhold their approval of me; so I'd better do it spontaneously and not worry about the consequences in order to become "free."   What is such "freedom" worth, I would ask Apollinaire if I could -- and why would anyone want it?
            It is characteristic of the impudence of rebels such as Apollinaire that they fancy they see society better than those who live at peace in it.  They not only see its evils but fancy they have an alternative that is superior.  Minor little figures like Jarry and Apollinaire are not remembered for their positive alternatives to society but merely for their whining complaints and insolence.  When we assess their lives and works did they seek any more than to say like the graffiti artists who paint our walls and buildings, "look I was here.  I existed, and I am different."  You weren't so very different as far as I can tell, Apollinaire.  You managed to behave like a rebellious adolescent well into adulthood.  Just why you would want to be remembered for that is a mystery to me.

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