CITIZENS of the
Lucy SANTE in conversation
with Jon AUMAN
with Jon AUMAN
For anyone in need of an introduction to Lucy SANTE, I would point to their response to my first question—“I was born in (obscure, unvisited) southeastern Belgium...”—“I am just a writer....” Beyond that—and I imagine they would agree—what matters is the work. Sante is best known for the books Low-Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, The Factory of Facts, The Other Paris, and a selection of his essays called Kill All Your Darlings.
Dig deeper and there are books of collected photographs (Evidence and Folk Photography), hundreds of prefaces and introductions, innumerable essays written for every publication imaginable, a translation of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, and a blog that deserves its own place at the top of the still-to-be-built pantheon for blogs. When I initially asked Luc for an interview, I proposed that we conduct it in person. He replied that he preferred to do interviews by email, as they allowed him to think through his answers. That seemed understandable, but I was disappointed. I imagined that we would exchange emails for a few days, maybe a week at most—only enough time to ask a few basic questions about his life, his books and not much else.
This is the first part of an interview that, as of the date of this publication, remains ongoing. True to his word, Luc has thought about my questions—which I have sent to him day-in-day-out for more than three months—and has responded to each one of them with a level of honesty and precision that is solely responsible for the fact that there are at least 5 or 6 essays in miniature embedded in the conversation below.
I thought we could begin with a quotation that I came across in your most recent book The Other Paris...
The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild.
By contrast, the present is farmed.
I feel like that could be an epigraph in every one of your books. But, the more I think about it, the more ambiguous it sounds. It could be an outright damnation of the poverty of our present times, but I suspect that you are also making a more subtle point about where the writer or the historian (do you consider yourself an historian?) or simply any human being goes to look for material to populate their work and their life. I’m curious, is the past always your starting point? And do you think that you interact with the past differently than if you had chosen any profession other than writer?
Great question. I’m just a writer, not a historian, although I do, ever more, treat of the historical past in my writing. There are many reasons why, but the deepest probably has to do with my childhood. I was born in (obscure, unvisited) southeastern Belgium and emigrated with my family to the US as a child. Actually, we emigrated, deemigrated, reemigrated—I crossed the Atlantic seven times between the ages of five and nine. That was between 1959 and 1963, when the cultural difference between the US and Europe, especially outside its urban centers, was about 30 years. I had a distinct feeling of time travel (although the shock was softened in that four of those trips were by boat), and it began my deep systemic confusion between time and space, which endures. Also I remember my father’s amusement at the American use of the word historic. We came from a place where there were fragments of Roman roads and ruins of Crusader castles all around, and the Americans were using that word to refer to places where nothing special happened and that were in some cases less than a century old. I’m not certain just when I became interested in history, but it was probably around age seven or eight. I had two major fields of interest—the Roman Empire and the American Civil War (then in its centennial), which alternated in six-month installments, which semi-corresponded to which continent I happened to be in. (That also initiated a lifelong habit of maintaining many different interests on different long orbits, a bunch of them always in occlusion at any given time.) And then I went off to high school in NYC (from the New Jersey suburbs) in 1968, and lived in the city from 1972 to 2000. I saw it go from Fun City to Drop Dead, but most important were the years I spent on the Lower East Side, 1978-1992. All the buildings and much of their contents dated from 1880-1910 and were half-ruined, and every single night for the first few years there were huge fires in the blocks to the east (landlord arson), taking out whole rows of these houses. At the same time the generation of my grandparents was dying off (my own, victims of poor people’s medicine, had perished decades before), and their belongings were set out on the sidewalks for anyone to pick through and plunder. I discovered many important things that way, but I also felt as if time were curving in on itself—not the end of the world, but the collapse of time. We were post-punks, making music and art (and ethics, or so we imagined) that hadn’t been made before, but nobody outside our bubble was much interested, and it was all taking place among the husks and leavings of a much older world. And then Reagan came in and everything changed. The past was systematically destroyed, and so was our idea of a (non-capitalist) future, replaced by a mercantile society in which everything had a value of about five minutes, which corresponded to the limits of collective memory—and that was even before the internet.
I consider myself a citizen of the twentieth century, for better or worse. It’s where I was born, and my allegiance to it is far greater than to either of the two countries whose passports I hold. The twenty-first goes on around me, and I live in it and adapt to some degree to its strictures but feel no enthusiasm about it. That condition might have befallen me at my age no matter what my profession or personal history. I’m also always interested in the origins of things, and in all the valuable stuff dropped along the road in the rush toward progress. I believe in social progress, but consider the rest of it bullshit that may as well have been cooked up by advertising agencies. I really feel that I inhabit the past and the present simultaneously. I inhabit whatever time is currently occupying my imagination. If I hear a record made in 1957 for the first time today, that record is new; if I first heard it in 1977 it might still be new provided it hasn’t been driven into the ground by overexposure. People die but their works live on as inarguably as the sky and the stars. And yeah, the present is ever more farmed—most trade is now the business of corporations, which make decisions based on demographic and economic and other research-based calculations rather than on chance and hope, and people arrange their lives accordingly, to be more like corporations. It’s hard to disappear nowadays, hard to reinvent yourself, almost impossible to live as the lilies of the field. I’d like to stop all of that, but I’m lucky enough to be able to spend at least my inner life outside those walls.
“... almost impossible to live as the lilies of the field,” makes me think of something that William Burroughs wrote:
“In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or exist in dreary boredom.
Make no mistake all intellectuals are deviants in the U.S.”
I imagine that you would agree. What it sounds like you are lamenting is the possibility to be deviant, to be disobedient; partly because deviance is where art and the idea of other kinds of politics come from, but also because there are whole classes of people—usually the poor and the working class—who are “deviant” simply by being what they are, which is: not rich. But then, deviance is a strange cause to be arguing for. Doesn’t disobedience require some form of repression to disobey? Repression instead of the 21st-Century tactic of complete erasure—“cleaning up the streets.” Your work suggests that when things are messy deviance has a chance... if nothing else it has the chance to slip through the cracks unnoticed into the hands of the next generation, which was you in 1978 on the Lower East Side. Actually, your sadness over what was systematically destroyed during and after the Reagan years reminds me of something else Burroughs wrote:
“And I felt the same deep pang of loss as I experienced when they ripped the urinals from Les Halles, and cut down the trees in the Grand Socco of Tangier and changed the spelling to Tanger. ‘Tis gone, ‘tis gone ... another corner of the 19th century ... brightness falls from the air ... the urinals, Les Halles, the trees ...”
Is that “deep pang of loss” anything other than nostalgia? Is nostalgia even a bad word to you? Is there something useful about it?
There is no historical guide or useful precedent to the times we’re living through now. Diminishing natural resources, in concert with climate-change-based peril, in concert with extreme overpopulation, in concert with vast loss of jobs due to automation and managerial cost-cutting, in concert with the passive extermination of the poor, in concert with psychopathic personalities in the top ranks of most countries... Under those circumstances your deviant portion of the population is vast, consisting of those persons who want to be left alone to just be. People who have no interest in becoming rich, who don’t want a new car or a modernized kitchen or the latest model in electronic devices, who don’t care about the hottest new restaurant and have no interest in looking like the stars of this minute, who simply want a decent roof and three squares a day and some modicum of enjoyment and enough time to think. Forget about living in the same neighborhood as your friends—you’ll live where you can afford to live, and you and your friends will be scattered across fifty square miles. Forget about having a neighborhood you can call your own—ever-increasingly so—where you know your butcher and your baker and can drop in on your local every evening and be certain of seeing people you enjoy talking with. Forget about running a small enterprise that will never make you rich but will keep you steady and surround you with a community. Forget about being spontaneous. Forget--if you have not inherited a significant sum--about being a drop-out. Under such circumstances, who exactly are the deviants?
Sadness about such a state of affairs is hardly nostalgia. Would you consider it nostalgia if, as you are being beaten with sticks, you wistfully recall a time when you weren’t being beaten? I am guilty of nostalgia fairly often—hard not to be at 63—such as when I think fondly back on dirt and crime because at least they kept the tourists and the speculators and the hot new corporate whatever away. Nostalgia is a powerful desire for the conditions of one’s youth—good, bad, or indifferent. But it isn’t nostalgia to regret the disappearance of a world not ruled exclusively by money, larger and larger sums of money, and to deplore the destructive social deviance that is produced by trying to keep afloat in that world of money.
This may be a preposterous question, but is it that the world is losing its poetry? Reading Low Life or The Factory of Facts or The Other Paris, it seems like you find poetry everywhere in that world that has disappeared. I wonder if it doesn’t also have something to do with the fact that that world was very much a world of things, of objects. Do you keep yourself surrounded with a lot of objects when you’re writing?
No, the world is not losing its poetry, and furthermore what motors poetry is not primarily the world of things, but the restlessness of language. Just read Patricia Lockwood or Michael Robbins, for example. They are on top of day-to-day language in a way that I am not, or no longer. And I don’t have a lot of objects around, although I do have an enormous number of images surrounding me at my desk.
Do you remember when you first became consciously aware of something called language—as a concept or a thing that there are multiples of, rather than just hearing people talking and seeing words written in books and on boxes in the supermarket? You were caught between or inhabited two languages from a young age so I imagine it happened early.
Learning English between the ages of seven and nine gave me my eureka. The appearance of words became mnemonically linked to their meaning, in many cases permanently, and in many cases I have at least a hazy recollection of the circumstances under which I first encountered the word. It was a deep, wide, lush landscape of words I wandered through, learning to identify all the constituents and becoming familiar with their idiosyncrasies. My most intimate linguistic relationship was with French—still is, in some ways—but I never made that kind of systematic exploration of it. French was an instinct, but English was a learned skill, and that much more consciously tended.
The way that you talk about language sounds like the way that you write about cities. Did the city—either as a specific place or as a general idea—become another “deep, wide, lush landscape” for you? I can’t imagine visiting and then moving to New York City from suburban New Jersey being anything other than another eureka.
Of course New York City was exhilarating! So much so that I cut high-school classes with increasing frequency to wander around, paw through bookstores, go to movies, visit my favorite newsstands (they had very various personalities then), sit in cafeterias, observe street life, study the different tribes of the city—so much so that I was expelled halfway through junior year. But I came back for college, and expected to live there the rest of my life. Manhattan was the only place I ever really considered home, at least from 1972 until maybe 1983, and then with steadily diminishing intensity until I moved to Brooklyn in ‘92 and then out of the city altogether in ‘00. I still keep a toe in anyway; I have a place where I stay in West Harlem now, and that’s still a vital neighborhood (and I hope it stays that way). But at its peak NYC was my library, my museum, my jungle and savannah, my endless party, my field of research, my theater, my ground.
In those days when you were cutting classes, what was “writing” to you then? In The Factory of Facts you mention the novels and other books—in French—that were on your parent’s shelves at home, and it sounds like both of your parents, particularly your father, were avid readers. But, when did you begin to think of writing as something that was yours, that you could do, and that you could do publicly? And, going back to your last answer, what were you finding in all of those bookstores and markets and newsstands? Were the two things connected?
“Writing” was a vast array of things. My interest in it started at 10 when a teacher singled out a composition of mine for praise and suggested I had a certain talent. Although all through my teenage years I still thought I might want to be a visual artist, at 13 I persuaded my parents to get me a subscription to Writers’ Digest, and soon I was submitting all kinds of stupidity—including cartoons, light verse, historical snippets, Saki-influenced short stories, crackpot inventions—to all kinds of publications, although not a single one was published. The classroom-based Scholastic Book Club (known to all American children) brought me Peanuts collections and Twilight Zone collections as well as Thomas Hardy, the Brontë Sisters, and the great medical chronicler Berton Roueché. New York City widened my purview and increased my sophistication. The geography of literature in the city then was significant. The newsstand at the Hoboken train station supplied me with science-fiction pulps. A newsstand down on Fulton Street introduced me to Rolling Stone, the East Village Other, the Chicago Seed, and the LA Free Press. A newsstand on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth—evidently run by an old Commie, since he stocked every left-wing review then available, and there were a lot—introduced me to The Paris Review. The Gotham Book Mart and the Phoenix introduced me to current poetry in its many guises, especially the mimeo rags issuing in profusion from the Lower East Side. The Eighth Street Bookshop introduced me to Surrealist classics and to film criticism, as well as to the Whole Earth Catalog. That led to many things, including an interest in the occult, which led me to the occult specialist bookstore Samuel Weiser’s. But there I soon found my attention diverted to the aisle where they shelved H. P. Lovecraft and, oddly, the avant-garde wing of British science fiction: Ballard, Aldiss, Moorcock, John Sladek, Pamela Zoline, Thomas Disch (those last three were Americans, but they were then based in London). Meanwhile my local head shop in New Jersey had brought me Crawdaddy, and a book by its editor, Paul Williams, had led me to Thomas Pynchon. And Crawdaddy soon led me to the Boston-based highbrow rock paper Fusion, in which I first encountered mention of the great crime novelists: Hammett, Chandler, and Cain. I could continue in this vein for pages. Everything led to something else, and I was reading all of it, even (since I had little money) if it meant reading while standing in the bookstore aisle. And I wanted to write all of it. Everything was an influence; everything was grist for my mill. I was reading for pleasure and enlightenment, but also for ideas to steal.
Did you have any idea then, and do you have any idea now, about your work having a particular function in the world? I think you’ve spoken elsewhere about a writer always being in some sense an entertainer. (Correct me if that’s wrong.) I ask this mostly because of a few sentences in the opening chapter of The Other Paris where you write that the book is more like a catacomb than a polemic... and I wonder what you think a catacomb does in the world. Does it do anything? Does it have to do anything?
What I said is that writing is a branch of showbiz, which means that writers have an audience of which they must be conscious, however abstractly, that they have a duty not to bore or hector or condescend or swindle. I think writers (and other artists) have a duty not to pander, either, although the greatest success is frequently achieved by doing exactly that. Some writers have a very specific remit, in that they represent some sort of “community,” but I have nothing of the sort. I write what is interesting to me, and attempt to sustain and convey that interest to others, but that’s as far as it can go. Once the work leaves your hands your intentions fly out the window. Readers will take the work and make of it what they wish. You may find yourself being read in ways that are quite at variance with what you had in mind. But creative misinterpretation is the world’s greatest creative engine. It might almost make you think of an “ecology” of literature: out of the rot of your work will come something else.
There is something that you said earlier that I wanted to go back to, and maybe it has something to do with all of this. You said that at a certain point you sensed that time was folding in on itself, that it was collapsing. Do you still feel that way, that you are watching time collapse, or has it already collapsed, and now we are staring at whatever this new thing is that we still call time?
That was a feeling specific to the late 1970s. It was as if all of time were becoming present at once. The nineteenth century and the twentieth century and whatever cloudy idea we had of a future were commingling and becoming hard to separate. The myth of progress had collapsed and the dead were coming out of their graves. It didn’t seem as if history had stopped but as if it had reached an apotheosis, a cosmic regurgitation. There was nothing dire about this sensation—it felt utopian at least in its promise, a very dirty, smoky kind of utopia.
And then Reaganism took hold of the country, and even reached into formerly independent New York City, and at that point it started feeling as if everything were regressing, as if history had started moving backward. And now, 35-odd years later, that feeling has if anything gotten stronger, although the alarming spike in regressive tendencies in the 21st century so far may represent, as people have said, an extinction burst. Maybe it all betokens a great change that will see the end of predatory capitalism and all those old forms of bigotry. Maybe. But it gives me pause to consider that the current popular-culture view of history seems to take two principal forms. There is “the future,” which signifies that the efflorescence of contemporary gadgetry has us already living in science fiction, hurtling onward at warp speed, with no need to consider anything that occurred before last year or last week since those things aren’t making anyone any money. And then there is a persistent medieval fantasy involving armor, dragons, curses, magical thinking, and feudalism. That may well be a more solid indication of where we’re headed, since despots and the very rich do seem to envision a world in which the poor are passively exterminated and anyone left will be servants to the financial elite. Memory of the actual past and its struggles are very inconvenient for those in power, as are critical thinking and precision in the use of language. Those things are among our principal weapons in the struggle against power, even if it sometimes feels as if we are fighting steel with paper.
I came across this quote last night:
“The city no longer exists except as a cultural ghost for tourists. Any highway eatery with its TV set, newspaper and magazine is as cosmopolitan as New York or Paris.”
Marshal McLuhan wrote that in 1969. From the vantage point of 48 years later it sounds quaint, like a bit of common sense. For a citizen of the twentieth-century it sounds like it could be an ideal situation: the comfort of a highway eatery and nearly complete access to home—the past. (Of course, the present is just highway eateries…) I think this is my introduction to the “internet” or the “technology” question. Does it mean anything to you? Does it mean anything to language? You do have a twitter account (as does the president)?
Well, as my grandfather (1879-1946) is reported to have said, every instance of technological progress carries with it an equivalent loss—every improvement is also a disimprovement. The internet is a perfect illustration, a vast wad of good and bad, useful and useless, attraction and repulsion. I do love many things about the internet. Email is a vast improvement over the telephone, at least for me. I could hardly have written my last book without the internet; even ten years ago I couldn’t have instantly consulted obscure texts on Gallica (the digital arm of the Bibliothèque Nationale), for example. I belong to a private chat group, membership 100 and going for ten years now, that has furnished me with a crowd of real-life friends I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I love my little corner of Instagram. Twitter I have severely mixed feelings about, but I do check it once a day. (I fled screaming from Facebook, though.) I miss a lot of flesh-and-blood happenstance, am convinced that the amount of legwork we had to do in my youth to gather information you now obtain in three seconds was character-molding—but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? Mostly what I dislike about the internet is the economy that surrounds it, molds it, and is molded by it: the consolidation of fortunes, the disappearance of small enterprises, the elimination of so much spontaneous communal neighborhood activity, the progressive virtualness of experience. You’ll probably say that many of those things would have occurred by now without an internet, that the same factors—overpopulation in particular—that make an internet necessary and inevitable are also the factors that propel its worst aspects. But the very worst thing about the internet is that we cannot live without it and we cannot make it ourselves—we are bound hand and foot to the makers of the technology, the suppliers of bandwidth, etc., constantly enriching them with no alternative except to sit incommunicado outside the currents of human interaction. Many things are gratifying about the internet, but I also find myself wishing I’d been born a decade earlier so that I could have experienced a bit more of the pre-internet world.
As far as language is concerned: it’s a mess nowadays, with even intelligent students at good schools sometimes unable to construct a clear sentence, but the blame for that lies not with the internet but with a mass failure of primary and secondary education over the past 50 years, at least in the US. IM-speech and twitterspeak are not problems but new semi-patois, and they can be eloquent. The associated problem lies, rather, in a general inability to speak in a range of voices, and a concomitant deferral to the lowest common denominator—but that too predates the internet.
Can you explain a little more about what you mean by “to speak in a range of voices”? Whenever I talk with someone about your work the topic of your voice often comes up—“voice” being, I think, short-hand for the feeling that the way that you write does not sound like anybody else. Having heard you read your own writing out loud, I imagine that what people are hearing when they read you is, at least partially, the cadence of your actual voice. Is there anything more to it than that? Do you consciously work toward a moment when you can say: this sounds like me? Or is that all bullshit?
A problem I’ve faced in teaching writing (my class, whatever its actual name, could really be called “The Sentence”) is that many students seem unable to pry themselves away from the chatty colloquial voice they employ for everything but academic papers. I was stunned, some years back, when I assigned a class a parody exercise and only one member knew what that was--even after I explained, a few of them could not understand the distinction between parody and satire. As I’ve mentioned, I studied poetry writing with Kenneth Koch, and an important aspect in both classes I took with him was imitation; we imitated Pound, Eliot, Rilke, W. C. Williams, Byron, Keats, Shelley, etc., and it was extremely useful to learn how to be exact. You have to be able to slip on another skin. Closely related is Lautréamont’s famous dictum: “Plagiarism is necessary.” Progress implies it. It holds tight an author’s phrase, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with the right one. Furthermore, I think all writers of all persuasions should have a firm handle on the languages of English: official, trade, legal, ethnic, regional, age-specific, baseball, fashion-magazine, military, hepcat, obsolete, liturgical, etc. If you’re a writer you’re a musician. Do you really only want to be able to play bluegrass or death metal for the rest of your life?
And no, I sure don’t try to make my writing sound like me. That is, if anything, a defect. I’m mostly unaware of sounding like me, but if I catch myself engaging in some tic, I take steps to root it out. That said, I guess I’m hopelessly addicted to lists, and to starting sentences with “and” and “but.”
You mentioned liturgical language, so I think this is the time to ask this... from what I’ve read it sounds like you grew up with a strictly observant (Catholic) mother in houses filled with religious objects. Was there ever a desire in your family or in yourself for you to join the priesthood?
Yes, my mother was exceedingly pious, in that peasant-Catholic way that is heavy on icons, amulets, and rituals and very light on texts and theology--in the tradition she inherited, Church authorities considered it best if their congregations absorbed the Bible in bowdlerized summaries rather than head-on. My father’s urban family were socialists and at best Easter Catholics, although my father went to church with her every Sunday and abetted her fervor for visiting miracle sites and the like, which occupied many of their vacations in later life. My mother’s dream was of course that I would become a priest. In fact I went through a period of extreme piety when I was around eleven or twelve, attending services on weekdays, for example, and feeling terribly conscious of my sins. But then at thirteen, religion just slid off me like snow off a tin roof. My mother sensed this, somehow, and sent me off for weekly talks with a German Benedictine with whom, however, I mostly discussed the more occult—not to say surrealist—aspects of Christianity. Belief simply left me and never came back. And no, I never at any point aspired to becoming a priest.
Do you find it difficult to explain to your students what you mean by plagiarism? The idea that plagiarism is a necessary and generative activity tends to infuriate people, at least certain kinds of people. Actually, what do you mean by plagiarism? There is a line in René Ricard’s famous piece on Basquiat...
“So the invention isn’t important; it’s the patent, the transition from the public sector into the private, the monopolizing personal usurpation of a public utility, of prior art; no matter who owned it before, you own it now.”
I confess I have not undertaken to cite, much less explain, that passage to my writing classes. Simply because it would take too much time away from the stated goal of the course. Plagiarism is of course a hot-button topic these days, and its wild complexities have been buried under ten tons of hysteria. Which of course is not entirely unfounded, since it’s so easy for students to just lift stuff, and because so much of what’s online is content-farm stuff that spreads like weeds: look up a reasonably obscure topic and 90% of the hits will be repackagings of the wikipedia entry. But plagiarism of a subtler kind has been central to the project of literature since the beginning. Writers have always stolen ideas, plots, characters, set-pieces, and even phrasing from one another. There are, after all, only 36 basic plots. It’s simply not possible to come up with something that hasn’t been done before, and that was true two or three centuries ago. Originality is something deeper, more organic, easier to intuit than to nail down, and completely unfakeable. Plagiarism at the phrase level, which is what Lautréamont is describing, may entirely elude people nowadays since there is very little that resembles a canon anymore. Half of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is lifted or repurposed from Hegel, Marx, Lukacs, Engels, Machiavelli, Pascal, etc., but Debord knew that his original readers would have been able to catch most of those unidentified allusions. To the informed reader, such blind quotes carry the resonance of their original context and also ring a sensually associative bell, not unlike what happens when Eric Dolphy blows two choruses of “Embraceable You” in the middle of a wild barrage of dissonance. But then how many young people can hum any given bit of the American songbook now? There is no cultural center these days—which is not necessarily a bad thing—and there has arisen the myth of the individual voice, which is terribly destructive to the very idea it allegedly promotes.1
“An original artist cannot copy. So he only has to copy in order to be original,” is the way that Cocteau put it. Do you think that the informed reader of Debord is really disappearing, or is it the other way around: that people like Debord are disappearing, or, at least, they are harder to see, and their work, whatever it is, has become harder and harder to see? I think the latter is truer than the former, if either are true at all. Don’t people like Debord and Lautréamont always exist somewhere? And, like you said earlier, their work remains, cuts through, shines.
I suppose this is what I am asking: is it the lot of the original to be largely ignored or misunderstood or both in their own time, just as it will eventually be the lot of someone else (another original) to take on the task of excavating them?
The idea of “the informed reader” as I used it above refers to something very specific in Debord’s case: people who had received a thorough grounding in philosophy, whether in academia or more likely outside of it—recall, for instance, that in the ‘30s all kinds of non-students sat in on Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel at the École des Hautes Études, and disseminated his ideas through several subsequent generations. Of course I’m sure that something on that order persists today, although more explicitly in the niche category. If someone were to write a treatise couched in citations from Marvel Comics of the ‘70s they would find an eager and knowing audience. But in a couple of generations that knowledge will be vaporized.
And people like Debord and Lautréamont have always been rare. Debord happened to flourish in tune with his time and place, but Lautréamont’s very existence was generally unknown until nearly four decades after his death, and his work took another twenty or thirty years to achieve wide circulation. No doubt there are analogues among us now, publishing their work—if they even do so—on web sites that pass unseen and unlinked-to. There are more books being published than ever before in human history, but publishing is profit-driven in a way it never was before, so originality is an impediment rather than an advantage. The Unknown Blogger of 2005 may well be unearthed to acclaim in 2057—provided there is a 2057, populated by people who can read.
Do you see any positive side to these canons being vaporized? If there is one idea that has been shared between all of the various avant-garde’s of the last century or more, surely it is the desire to somehow upend or shit on or dismantle or—pick any word that you like—whatever cannons they felt oppressed by.2 Somehow I don’t think that the current state of things is what they were dreaming of. (What do you do when there are no solid cannons to dismantle?) But I may be wrong.
Canons are products of their time, subject to continual revision, for all that ideologues would have you believe there’s something absolute and immemorial about them. Some parts are more durable than others: Homer, Shakespeare, Bible. There’s inevitably a canon even now, although I’m sufficiently distant from the core part of education that I don’t really know what’s in it. I’m guessing To Kill a Mockingbird, a well-meaning YA feel-good bromide that should really be confined to middle school. The Lord of the Rings is canonical even if it’s not actually assigned, although I wish the takeaway were its flowing luxurious cadence rather than the idiot cod-medievalism that plagues our popular culture today. Every child in America seems to have read The Great Gatsby, which is okay, although it’s so brief and smooth and lapidary and stylish that it now conjures up a glamour-nostalgia fashion spread more than anything else. James Baldwin has probably gotten there, and that’s great (although my bias is for his essays rather than his novels). And I’m sure people are still reading Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick, Emily Dickinson, Walden... all of which is terrific. Some parts of the canon will fall off within a decade, some are seemingly designed as vaccines to ensure their readers immunity from their particular kind of wind (Death of a Salesman, for instance, which despite its merits absolutely eradicated any interest I might have been nurturing in naturalistic drama), while others will stand forever in former students’ minds as totems of some extinct adult world which over the years will be subject to alternating bursts of contempt and nostalgia. Canons are weather. You can’t really be for or against them; they’re just there. I teach writing rather than literature per se, so I never assign entire books, just individual pieces, but even I have a canon, repeating over the years the things that seem to have struck home the most enduringly: Elizabeth Hardwick on Billie Holiday, James Agee on silent comedians, the young Henry James in Saratoga. Other items lasted five years and then died, some were trotted out once to blank stares, etc. That’s how it works. Of course we’re talking about the US educational system here, whereas in certain other countries canons are more likely to be centralized and enforced (take a bow, France), leading to greater conformity but also possibly greater intellectual rebellion. My wish is not for or against a canon or any of its individual components so much as for a culture in which reading is prized for its own merits—and not because it will help you get a better job—one in which reading book X will lead you to books Y and Z, in which the literary fashion du jour will prompt readers to seek out its deep sources, in which everybody at least faintly realizes that everything has happened before, in which the average educated person has at least a tentative grip on who Hegel was and what he did without necessarily having braved actually reading Hegel, and above all a culture in which people in general realize that books are not holy writ or ideological conspiracies or magic spells or megavitamins or lifestyle instructions or torture devices but objects made of words, the way paintings are made of brushstrokes and coffee is made of hot water passing through pulverized beans.
So there is no separation for you between different forms of writing? The page is the canvas and the words are paint, and any combination of those two materials is writing? (There are those basic material constraints [language], but all other constraints are constraints that you make for yourself?)
Exactly. Writing is writing. Obviously there are differences of circumstance: some things come out of memory and some out of research and some I just make up, and sometimes I’m constrained by length requirements and sometimes I’m not. I’m always addressing an audience, though, and while earlier in my career I’d tailor my writing to my idea of the readers of a specific magazine, say, I seldom do anything like that anymore. It’s all one. Obviously I do some things purely for the paycheck, but I never really know the outcome in advance—sometimes the subject will trigger something deep. I like assignments because they carry the possibility of surprise. A rare instance of purely self-directed writing was when I had my blog a decade ago. It was an unusually happy time in my life and I felt free. I was excited by the latitude of the blog format, although I was shy enough about it that I initially kept the blog anonymous. It began to decline after a year or so with the pressure of having to come up with something every day and not being paid for it. You can see it on my web site under the rubric “The Picture Press.” The entries ranged from essays to memoir to incidental observations to outright fiction, although never identified as such. (I’d advise reading backward, since the entries are in reverse chronological order, and they get more self-conscious as they go along.)
Are you someone who likes to keep journals and diaries?
Except for two or three months when I was 14, no. I keep a commonplace book for ideas, quotes, titles, stuff like that, and I fill one up about every ten years.
So when you are writing about yourself and about places where you have lived you’re writing from memory?
Yep. I mean I do research to confirm, but anything personal is from memory.
There are a few lines near the end of one of your blog posts (the post’s title is: Case Study) that read:
“He will work three jobs, if necessary, to purchase the latest model automobile, equipped with all the premium features–such a goal, in any event, will encouragingly overshadow romance or idealism. If the subject is properly steered, he actually will work three jobs to achieve his goals. The danger remains that he may choose to rob service stations instead.”
Do you have any idea why you didn’t wind up with a life dedicated to three jobs and the latest model automobile? Was there a moment of epiphany? Were you not properly steered? Is writing another form of robbing service stations?
Well, I was completely obsessed with cars around age 12 or 13. Then New York City intervened, and I wound up not getting my license until I was 30. As for the other, I was quite the petty criminal as a teenager, and had life bent another way I might have gone there.
When you said a few answers back that you are always addressing an audience, what, do you mean by that? Is it “the reader” that you have in mind? Audience has a plural feeling to it (of course, it may be an audience of one). Or, is it something like the “informed reader” you mentioned in relation to Debord?
I need to feel that somebody will read or hear it besides myself. I’m a frustrated performer, after all, so I’m compensating for the lack of immediate reaction. (For that reason I love to give readings.) It’s nebulous, but emotionally real. Also real is the fact that the larger the anticipated audience (e.g., the NY Times), the more I feel an internal pressure to encompass that audience--to make it clear, to not tax patience, to ring a bell somewhere near the top and the bottom. I’m still not used to online writing that way--are you addressing three people or 50,000? You might say the same about books, although with a book I’m conscious of possibly addressing people who may not yet have been born, so all bets are off in a different sort of way. And no, I don’t ever expect an “informed reader,” although often enough I say fuck it and throw in an allusion I know only six people will get—but it’s never something critical to an understanding of whatever I’ve written.
But, in your mind, is that “somebody” passive—a receptacle, simply what is on the other end of your transmission—or, do you imagine them as playing an active part in what you are doing? I know that you explained earlier how you let your work out into the world, after which you have very little control, exposing it to every kind of misreading... What is the difference between a writer and a reader, between yourself and your imagined somebody? I am thinking about something that Harry Mathews said:
There’s never been any authors.
There have only been readers.
The authors are first readers.
Yes, the reader will take it away and creatively misinterpret, etc., although that’s not a visible or predictable process. But I do hope to act upon some readers the way dozens if not hundreds of writers have acted upon me, especially in my youth, when they were sort of my imaginary friends, more real to me in many ways than my real friends.
What happened to those imaginary friends? Are they still with you?
Somewhere deep in my unconscious, I suppose.
I’ve been wanting to ask you about a particular image. It’s a still from the Julien Duvivier film Pépé le Moko, which is on the last page of the first chapter of The Other Paris: we see a close-up of a woman’s hand cranking an old gramophone, and the subtitle over the image reads, “When I feel down, I change eras.” From everything that you have been saying here, it seems like the perfect image to encapsulate what it is to be a citizen of a century that has ended. But, it is also an incredibly ambiguous image. From one angle it is poetic and beautiful—that no matter how luckless and down-and-out, we have access to home and, if not to happiness, then at least to memories of happier times. But, from another angle, you could look at it as a poster for delusion. A little like the life of the petty criminal: we know, they know, everyone knows that they have no future, no prospects, that there is no winning at the game they are playing. So, when reality becomes too clear they put on an old record and start to sing along.
Care to vent about that image like I have just done? That image is inextricably linked to you in my mind, and I wonder what you think about it, why you chose it, what you think it is.
The hand and the voice and the words belong to Fréhel (Marguerite Boulc’h, 1891-1951), one of the greatest of the interwar chanteuses réalistes, who had been a fledgling star in Paris before World War I but then was exiled from the city by circumstance for over a decade. She came back in 1925, transformed from a delicate young beauty to a large, tough, disabused, plainspoken woman who had been through drug addiction and much else. In the meantime her Paris had also become something else, more commercial and money-driven and superficial, less romantic and free, and a significant part of her repertoire mourns the loss.
Of course people in the ‘40s mourned the ‘20s the way she in the ‘20s mourned the ‘10s; and people in the ‘60s mourned the ‘40s, and in the ‘80s they wept for the ‘60s, and so on until the end of time and memory. The world is constantly grieving for a lost original, which only existed for a minute but then was coddled and gilded and sanctified ever after. That is part of the human condition, I think. I don’t want to call it “nostalgia,” because that word has come to have too many diverse and often conflicting and belittling meanings. It’s not just that youth has gone but that the world of youth has gone, and furthermore that increasing population—increasing competition for scraps—and the seemingly inexorable march of capitalism—reducing every pursuit to profit—perennially make life colder and harsher. Even as certain things improve in the world, the old things that were good are lost, so that there is always some giant yawning need.
What that phrase of Fréhel’s also means to me (in the original: “Quand j’ai l’cafard, je change d’époque”) is that certain aspects of time are elastic. That has been the world of my imagination since childhood. You can’t live in the past, but you can certainly enter it, through books, movies, photographs, music, and the secondary paraculture of small ads, railroad timetables, maps, trade journals, ships’ manifests, vaudeville stagebills, etc. The secondary, semi-accidental stuff is actually more effective at conveying the authentic grain and warp of a given time than the deliberate and subjective productions of art. It’s research, and it’s imaginative exercise, and it’s escapism, and it’s a kind of drug trip you don’t need drugs for.
Do you believe in the idea of “capital” cities, not capital in the sense of the officially designated seat of government, but capital as in Walter Benjamin’s “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century”—a place that is a unique center of... energy, for a certain period of time? (Like it’s often argued that New York City was the capital of the 20th-century.) If you do, do you have any idea what that energy is, where it comes from, what confluences produce that state of grace, and why does it disappear? Does it have something to do with that feeling, “as if all of time were becoming present at once”?
It was my old friend and mentor Elizabeth Hardwick who named NYC as capital of the twentieth century. And maybe London was capital of the sixteenth century and Amsterdam or Delft capital of the seventeenth (in the Western world, of course, and I’m just spitballing). Yes, I do believe in such a thing, although often that capital status isn’t visible except in retrospect. The concept is not unrelated to what Brian Eno called the “scenius”—the confluence of talents that produces something greater than the sum of its individual parts. In addition, though, capital status requires not just prosperity but an active surplus, with significant money going toward crazy, possibly unfeasible and probably unprofitable ends. (See Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share.) You obviously can’t plan such things, and under current circumstances we may not have a capital of the twenty-first century, assuming we even manage to emerge semi-intact from it. We will probably see unpredictable magnetic fields of ideas emerging from what were previously backwaters, and we may see accumulations of refugees giving energy charges to cities that accept them gracefully, the way Shanghai or Salonika or Paris itself functioned at various times in the past. Chances are, though, that those places won’t be simultaneously blessed with infusions of happy money, not unless things change rather drastically.
Does that dominant, capital status have some correlation to the dominance of a particular language? French in the 19th usurped by English, particularly American English, in the 20th?
I recently heard someone ask the poet Kenneth Goldsmith (who had been reading from his book New York: Capital of the 20th Century): if the capital of the 19th-century was Paris, and the capital of the 20th-century was New York City, then what will be the capital of the 21st-century? He unequivocally answered: the internet. At the time I remember disliking that answer but finding it hard to argue with. Later, though, I began to wonder what it would mean to believe that a single technology has supplanted cities as the central space where certain activities happen. I thought about the last page of The Other Paris: “Everything that was once directly lived has moved away into representation.”
That line you quote from The Other Paris was, appropriately enough, lifted without attribution from Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967, let us recall).
I know Kenny Goldsmith slightly, and my feelings about him veer between admiration (UbuWeb is indispensable and one of the most brilliant things online) and deep skepticism. Accordingly, my feeling-gauge about that statement of his flits back and forth between “bullshit” and “he may be right.” My immediate thought is that the internet isn’t a place but a conduit, and that there’s too much noise and deracination to allow for real creative ferment among people. But then again I’m old, and while I use the net all the time I don’t have anything like the experience of it that natives do. I mentioned that I’m in a private discussion group; no doubt there are many of these, and maybe some of them take forms and develop uses similar to what used to happen in meatspace—it’s entirely possible. I’m old-fashioned enough to imagine that nothing compensates for all the incalculables that result from physical interaction, but again, my imagination is unavoidably rooted in my own experience. I think about my son, who is about to turn 18, and how without seeming to read many books has acquired deep knowledge of his field of interest (wars, especially WWII), and how I overhear him having conversations on recondite topics related to that subject with people from all over the world while they play ‘Call of Duty.’ I admit, I’m stumped. I’m just not qualified to answer.
Can I ask you a few questions about the years that you were living on 12th Street? They are well documented in your essays, so I don’t want to make you repeat yourself. But I am curious. From the little that I know, it sounds like a strange contingent lived in that neighborhood and an even stranger group passed through it on a daily basis: Allen Ginsberg lived in your building, and in your essay on him (The Total Animal Soup of Time) you mention various people who would drop by to visit with him...including Harry Smith; I think Frederic Tuten was living in a place on 10th Street by Tompkins Square Park then; and Kathy Acker must have been close by at some point. I imagine there were many many more, all tugging at slightly different threads. How much did that neighborhood feel like a neighborhood when you were there? Were you conscious of these people, of the other writers and poets, etc. who were close by? And were they conscious of each other, did they speak? Or was it a more isolated experience? (I hope this doesn’t sound like fishing for celebrity stories. I am more curious about what “American literary culture” meant to you around the time that you arrived at 12th street. Were you already writing for magazines then?)
My building, a double tenement on 12th between First and A, was often called The Poets’ Building. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who moved in at the beginning of the 70s, made the place what it was, attracting poets from the nearby Poetry Project. I learned of a vacant apartment there in 1979 from my work colleague Will Bennett, who was a poet. My neighbor across the hall was the British expatriate poet Simon Pettet, who lived there with his wife, Rosebud Feliu, who had met Allen and Peter as a 15-year-old runaway living in the somewhat notorious Kerista Commune in the ‘60s. Other poets in the building included Rene Ricard, John Godfrey, Lorna Smedman, Greg Masters, Larry Fagin, Jim Brodey, Michael Brownstein, Michael Scholnick, Richard Hell, as well as the composer Arthur Russell (who was Ginsberg’s musical adviser) and assorted others with various relations to poetry and poets. Allen sheltered Harry Smith when the latter was evicted from his last SRO hotel, and when Allen was in town I’d regularly see Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, and Lucien Carr on the stairs. Many celebrities visited Allen; I missed Bob Dylan’s and Robert Frank’s visits, for example, but one Sunday morning I answered a knock on my door to find Félix Guattari (whom I briefly studied with; he didn’t recognize me) asking for directions to Allen’s. Simon brought in visiting British poets—I remember spending an afternoon once with Tom Raworth. A few blocks south and a few houses up from where I’d previously lived, on St. Mark’s Place, lived the Berrigan family: Ted, Alice Notley, and their sons, the future poets Edmund and Anselm—the Berrigans, too, exercised a strong magnetic pull on young poets. Ron Padgett lived a few blocks away, and so did Lewis Warsh, Peter Schjeldahl, and various other members of the second and third New York Schools.
I was in no position to appreciate any of this. I had considered myself a poet through my teenage years, but Kenneth Koch’s class on prosody, which I took in my second year at Columbia, disabused me of this notion: I didn’t understand line breaks; I thought rhythm was stronger when the beats were visually dissimulated—I didn’t comprehend the negative space of the page. I was a prose writer. I felt at once defiant, reduced, liberated, and expelled. In my remaining student years I tried to develop a prose language that was informed by poetry as well as by crime novels and newspapers and found text and Maldoror, but by the time I moved into the building I was writing pretty much nothing. I was friendly with most of the poets, but I envied their common purpose and felt secretly ashamed and excluded. I don’t know whether anyone even knew I wrote; certainly I was never asked to contribute to any of the magazines, some of which were produced within our four walls. It didn’t help that when I started writing for national magazines in the early ‘80s I was writing book and movie reviews and weak essayistic trifles--my pride in my publications was diminished by the thought that I was producing fodder, something to fill the space between ads. It didn’t help, either, that my first wife, who moved into the building with me in the mid-‘80s, was a poet (albeit from the Boston school associated with Robert Lowell; I don’t think she respected our neighbors’ efforts)—she was the poet in the family. When we split up she laid claim to my entire poetry collection (she later sent me back one book: Brecht). Late in the ‘80s, I started working on my first book, Low Life, which I conceived as a history of the slums, inspired first and foremost by our own slowly rotting pile of bricks. But I knew that similar interests were being nurtured by Simon and others, and I didn’t dare tell them about my project. I was sure they’d laugh at me.
How much of that prose language, the one that you consciously developed during the last of your school days, carried over into what eventually became Low Life? Did those initial components—Lautréamont, crime novels, newspapers, poetry—set themselves in stone in your mind?
And do you have any idea where that bias against movie and book reviews as fodder came from? Was criticism not taken seriously—especially by the poets? (Is it taken very seriously now?) Rene Ricard was in the building. He must have already been writing those pieces for Art in America and Artforum...
Yes, I did absorb that language and incorporated into the range of languages at my disposal. It shows up in my work here and there.
I did have that bias. Dumb, I know, but it had several sources. Number one is that there was still a strong uptown-vs-downtown divide in effect then. “Downtown” was outlaw, visionary, unruly, anticapitalist, antinomian, etc. “Uptown” was career-oriented, safe, servile, cog-in-the-system, and so on. I went to work at the New York Review with a large chip on my shoulder—I was taking a job (in the mailroom), as people had to do unless they were unusually clever, but I was not going to be affected let alone absorbed by that uptown world. By contrast, my close friend Darryl Pinckney was defiantly uptown—he had been writing for the NYRB almost since college. (He was responsible for introducing me to Elizabeth Hardwick, although not for the job, which came by way of another college classmate whose father was the magazine’s business manager.) Also I initially failed to distinguish between reviewing and criticism. Reviewing was a routine entry-level job carrying no particular distinction—people wrote Kirkus reviews at $25 a pop, etc.—but then you had reviewing lifers who were generally viewed as failed writers, who poured what remained of their thwarted passions into cheap judgment couched in beige magazine prose. I wasn’t properly introduced to actual literary criticism until Barbara Epstein invited me to be her assistant after I’d been at the NYRB for a year. She had me read Edmund Wilson (and within a year or two I read almost everything he wrote), among others. Around the same time, quite by chance, I discovered Manny Farber. But by then I already knew the work for Cahiers by Rivette, Godard, and Rohmer, and the art-critical writings of John Ashbery, and I had a whole history with rock criticism, so what was my excuse? (When I was 14 I sent review after review to Rolling Stone, which accepted a few things but never published any, and I greatly admired Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs in particular.) I suppose the problem is that I wanted to be Rimbaud, and at 26 I had definitively missed my window—and Rimbaud sure never wrote any quotidian magazine filler. And while I could accept the idea of critical writing by people who distinguished themselves as makers of imaginative work (Ashbery, Rivette, Godard, Rohmer, Farber, etc.), the notion of being solely a critic seemed shame-making, Edmund Wilson notwithstanding (I did develop a certain love-hate relationship with his work). Also, poetry was hard and fiction was harder, but critical writing poured out of me like a fountain—it was so natural and (relatively) easy that it had to be cheap dodge, right?
You mentioned Rivette, Godard, Rohmer, Cahiers du Cinéma, and Manny Farber—were you an obsessive moviegoer when the city was still filled with movie theaters, cinemas, 42nd Street?
Yes, I was an obsessive moviegoer. It was hard not to be when I was young. There were multiple screenings every single day on the Columbia campus alone, and they weren’t trivial. And there were repertory houses all over town—the Upper West Side had the Thalia, the New Yorker, and the nascent Film Forum; there were the twin powerhouses (run by the same people, that is) the Carnegie Hall Cinema and the Bleecker Street Cinema; there was Anthology Film Archives in what is now the Public Theater; there were the daily screenings at the Museum of Modern Art; there was what amounted to an ongoing long-running American screen classics series at Theater 80 St. Mark’s; and more ephemeral places like the D. W. Griffith on the Upper East Side. There was television, which showed all kinds of unexpected stuff, especially late at night. There was 42nd Street, where you could see louche stuff (not necessarily porn) other places hesitated to show, along with domestic and foreign horror and monster pictures and kung fu. The Paris Theater showed exclusively French movies for decades. And odd things would turn up at the little second-run houses, such as Cinema Village and the theaters along Eighth Street and Greenwich Avenue and the Elgin on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. During the ‘70s I read every issue of both Film Comment and Sight and Sound, and all the serious local critics, especially Andrew Sarris (whose class I took at Columbia) and Roger Greenspun. (Manny F’s film-crit career was over before I discovered his work, alas, because I seldom looked at Artforum, his and Patricia Patterson’s last post—it was a very expensive magazine even then.)
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By coincidence, when I went to the Met today they had just hung a new show with 11 Joe Brainard’s in it. How did you first come across Joe Brainard?
And, when you said that critical writing flows out of you like a fountain did you mean that you generally find it more amenable to write about a subject that isn’t fictitious? (I know “fictitious” is slippery.)
I don’t know when I first encountered Joe Brainard’s work—it had to have been just when I started getting interested in contemporary poetry, because his covers were all over every bookstore. If only I could have bought them all! But certainly his cover and interior illustrations for Ron Padgett and David Shapiro’s Anthology of New York Poets, my number one Xmas gift in 1970 and a permanent cornerstone, established his work as poetry visualized, the images and their deadpan rendition exactly analogous to what the poets were up to, his pictures seeming to hover over the written work as I read it. And he could do things with words, too. And on top of that he was an exceedingly sweet and generous guy.
Yes. I have complicated feelings about fiction. I don’t even read that much of it anymore, although I have occasional flings with one writer or another. And after spending an inordinate amount of time attempting to write fiction, with feeble results, I’ve come to understand that it just isn’t my street. Which isn’t to say that I’ll never do it again, but that it has to be couched in a certain way. I enjoy lying, for example, and that impulse has sometimes been fruitful. I might never write a novel, exactly (I have a few cadavers in my past), but I might write something else and call it a novel. But André Breton (Nadja, 1927):
“Someone suggested to an author I know, in connection with a work of his about to be published and whose heroine might be too readily recognized, that he change at least the color of her hair. As a blonde, apparently, she might have avoided betraying a brunette. I do not regard such a thing as childish, I regard it as monstrous. I insist on knowing the names, on being interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys.”
(Pretty ironic that he wrote this in a book that modern scholars have demonstrated is itself a monstrous evasion, but anyway.) I like the materiality of the partial knowledge which is all we can have about things. I’m drawn to following not one story but diving into a superabundance of heaped stories. I’m more at home with randomness than order, and favor the marginal over the representative, the ad hoc over the planned, etc. And specimens—pictures, documents, and so on—help anchor these tendencies in the actual. “The actual” is itself an extremely slippery category, but it has a distinctly prurient appeal.
Does that mean that you generally like to begin without a plan for what you are beginning? How do all of your specimens accumulate? And, can I ask you what you mean by “lying”?
I just opened up that collection of Burroughs essays to a random page; the first line:
Writers work with words and voices just as painters work with colors;
and where do these words and voices come from?
It very much depends on the circumstances. Something large and complex obviously demands some kind of rudimentary architecture from the start, otherwise it’s madness. But I like to minimize planning because I need to be surprised. To write from a detailed outline is basically transcription, and I find that stultifyingly dull. The best feeling is to know how something begins and have a vague notion of where it will end, without much idea of the path to get from one to the other—then you have to invent the path. Of course, any piece of writing, no matter how big or how constricted or how programmatic, begins with a sentence. And that sentence is the vary hardest thing to write—it can literally take years to come up with the first sentence. Because that sentence carries so much weight. It opens the door; establishes the tone, stance, voice; embarks the reader on the train. The best first sentence will in some way dictate everything that is to come after.
By “lying” I mean that I like to hoax the reader, in some measure. This avoids the slackness of pedestrian story form, and adds a solid dose of tension. It also brings in my counterfeiting skills—faking history in a wide variety of ways. Hoaxing can sometimes bite me in the ass, though. A few years ago I submitted a piece to a magazine and they loved it—until it came time for the fact-check. They didn’t know my story wasn’t a straight autobiographical account of discovering some anomalies in the history of photography. I had assumed they’d identify it as fiction from the git-go, and furthermore I didn’t know the magazine had an editorial policy against fiction.
When we were talking about 12th Street and the beginnings of Low Life... was Paris already a second pole in your imagination even then, or did that relationship come later? I would also like to know what France has meant to you as a Belgian. What does France typically mean to a Belgian? (What’s the typical, gross generalization?)
Paris has been hugely important to me since I first went there with my mother when I was eight. Then when I was 20 I lived there for a bit while taking some courses, and it was a major experience. When decades later my publisher and agent agreed that I should write a book about Paris, I discovered I already had dozens of pertinent books on my shelves. And my father was a Parisophile. Among his books that I kept there is an extensive series of volumes on the arcana of the French revolution. He was also a devotee of boulevard theater. Many many Belgians—Walloons, that is—treat Paris as their cultural capital. The ambitious ones relocate there (Simenon, Jacques Brel, Magritte for a while, etc.) to make their names. Oh, and one of the very few anecdotes I have about my ancestry: one of my great-grandfathers came into a modest inheritance in the 1880s, and went to Paris and blew it all. But the love affair is one-sided. The Parisians have zero respect for the Walloons. Nobody there ever even recognizes my (distinctive, old-style, working-class Walloon) accent. Every so often there’s talk of Belgium splitting into two and the Walloon half adhering to France, but that latter bit, at least, will never, ever happen.
What did you find when you went there at 20? Was that 1974? You’ve already mentioned Félix Guattari. Was that your first time living on your own outside of the U.S.?
Ignoramus that I was, on my first night I went to some joint on Boulevard Montparnasse and ordered a Coke, to which the bartender replied, “Le monsieur désire un vino americano.” That was the kind of Paris it still was. You could still detect Americans on the street by hair and clothing alone. Les Halles were down, but people were still selling fruits and vegetables in the surrounding streets, so we weren’t really aware (although I should have been, since I saw Baltard’s cast-iron pavilions in 1963). Rue de la Gaîeté, near the Columbia house where I was living, still featured café-concerts (not long after I was there, the major theater on the street was the site of Josephine Baker’s funeral), and a young busker in a restaurant sang Aristide Bruant’s “À Ménilmontant,” which I thought he’d composed himself. There were still fire-eaters and street singers. We’d stay out all night and greet the dawn in cafés otherwise populated entirely by truckdrivers. Bastille Day was anarchy. We started out at Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville and were scooped up by a long line of dancers, winding up much later on Rue de Lappe, home of the dancehalls. I saw Paris in full flux, the old still apparently holding firm while the new was just beginning to poke its head in. One time when I went to the Louvre—in those days half-empty—I found the place filled with Red Guards in uniform.
Yeah, that was in 1974, and it was my first time in Europe since our last family trip to Belgium, in 1969. I was nominally studying in a program organized by Sylvère Lotringer, of Semiotext(e) and I Love Dick fame, whom I’d studied with at Columbia—the program was composed of seminars with him, Guattari, the novelist Jean Ricardou, and the great art historian Hubert Damisch. But of course all of that seemed like an annoying interruption of my appreciation of Paris (although I was a bit envious when I met another American student who was taking Roland Barthes’s course at the Collège de France; he was going through the alphabet, free-associating from one word to the next—i.e., what became Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes). And of course we went to the movies constantly: old, new, French, American, etc. Jim Jarmusch, a friend from Columbia, arrived a week before I left, and we tried to goad one another into buying a six-pack of Guinness and knocking on Samuel Beckett’s door, but ultimately we chickened out. Oh, and I fell in love with someone (a Barnard student from New Jersey) who was to be a major part of my life for another decade and counting (and whom I’ve written about in various guises). It was all intensely romantic.
Was and is Barthes a favorite of yours? Yesterday I read a few pages at random in a biography of him that I saw in a bookshop. The first page I opened to quoted from a letter that he wrote to a friend in 1934 (making Barthes 19). It made me think you. Barthes is trying to explain his decision to abandon writing a novel to his friend Philippe: “The theoretical reason is that, personally, if I were ever to write something, that something would always strive to be in the framework, in the “tonality” of Art; but the novel is by definition an anti-artistic genre; form is basically an accessory in it, and psychology inevitably stifles the aesthetic dimension. This isn’t a criticism, by the way: everything has its own role to play. It seems to me that I have a certain conception of the work of art in literature that, so far, has not met with much confirmation.”
Yes, Barthes meant a great deal to me, although it occurs to me, looking at his books on the shelf (eleven of them), that I haven’t read him in a long time. Not entirely sure why that is, although maybe a reaction to the long siege of “theory” that borrowed the worst and most superficial aspects of the post-structuralists etc. and made academic writing even more unreadable that normal—not his fault, of course. Anyway, thanks for reminding me—he deserves to be revisited. And that quote is a beaut: totally 19, callow and jejune, but pointing to his future (and definitely something I would have co-signed when I was 19).
If you will permit me to ask a 19-year-old’s question: Do you think of a piece of writing as a piece of art? I don’t necessarily mean what value you place on a page of text as opposed to a painting or a movie or a song. I wonder what that “aesthetic dimension” that young Barthes talks about means to you.
I think what Barthes was getting at was that Mallarméan idea, the notion of using just words on a page to create something that is pure sensation, as abstract and viscerally involving as music, with no story or argument or description, just vibe. It’s a very French Symbolist idea; recently I was translating some Francis Poictevin, a nineteenth-century writer who has never been translated and is obscure even in France, but whose books are very beautiful, chasing the dragon in that way but in prose. I’d never heard of Poictevin until I was working on the Paris book, but I was trying something like that in my early 20s, a kind of prose poetry that deliberately wasn’t surrealist, was held together only by a vague sheen of pulp crime—no story, though. It eventually felt like a dead end.
Isn’t Poictevin one of the faces in Le Livre des masques? With his portrait by Vallotton?
Do you have any particular theories about translation? I know your translations of Félix Fénéon, and I think I am right in saying that most of the translations in The Other Paris are yours. When did you start translating from French into English? From what you’ve said, it sounds like for at least part of your life the two languages were compartmentalized in separate areas of your brain.
Yes, all but I think two bits in the Paris book—Sue and Brassaï, because I couldn’t get my hands on the originals in time—were my translations. A major revelation for me in the course of that book—of which the Fénéon was a spinoff—was that I could translate. When I arrived in Kenneth Koch’s class and he learned I was a native French speaker he was tremendously excited, and he immediately put me to work on one of the cantos of Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa. But I wasn’t up to the job—Roussel’s fairly commonplace but very dated allusions were beyond me; I couldn’t fall into the meter; and—the thing I didn’t or couldn’t face up to then—my French was just not good enough. Sure, I spoke French exclusively with my parents, but they weren’t educated people and they spoke a simplified, restricted, and very regional version of the language. So I decided that I was unfit to be a translator and let the matter lie. My abilities did not start to expand until the ‘90s, when I spent a great deal of time in Belgium, talking with friends and reading widely; only then did my French evolve beyond middle-school level. I love translating, I discovered; it feels like the most natural thing in the world. The only problem is that it is hugely time-consuming and (especially here in the US) abysmally remunerated. Professional translators have to turn themselves into machines to make any kind of living. I did recently translate about a third of a pretty daunting book—Georges Darien’s The Thief—only to find that someone in Scotland had already done it. Now I have a pact with Donald Nicholson-Smith to collaborate on translating Léo Malet’s Trilogie Noire, which I expect we’ll do sometime soon.
And no, I have no theories on the subject, except that I’m 100% Team Wilson, as against Team Nabokov. Producing faithful, tin-eared renditions strictly for the benefit of scholars is very much not my bag.
Is there anything—a novel or otherwise—that you think is beyond translation? In The Other Paris and The Factory of Facts there are at least two or three mentions of writers who you say are woefully but understandably neglected because some aspect of their work resists translation.
There are plenty of books that are untranslatable. Many of the classic 1950s French crime novels, for example—stuff by Albert Simonin, Auguste le Breton, San-Antonio—depend on argot for their flavor, and you just can’t translate argot. Unlike American slang, which only has terms for highly-charged words pertaining to sex, drugs, crime, and so on, argot is a complete language, with words for everything, not to mention shades and nuances of meaning Anglo slang can’t approach. You could translate the flat meaning of those crime novels, but they’d be two-dimensional at best. And then there’s the matter of puns. French is a very restricted language, sound-wise, containing a superabundance of homonyms. A lot of twentieth-century literature involves puns—the works of the Surrealists, first and foremost—and the problem is usually handled with footnotes. But then you have works that are entirely constructed around a lattice of puns, so that there is not a single sentence with a straight meaning. I’m thinking specifically of the novels and poems by André Blavier, who was a high-school classmate of my father, for many years chief librarian of our mutual home town, and a founding member of Oulipo. Many of his friends are hard to translate—Georges Perec, for example, or Raymond Queneau—but Blavier is simply impossible.
Blavier’s english wikipedia entry is exceedingly appropriate: “André Blavier (23 October 1922 – 12 June 2001) was a Belgian poet.”
If it isn’t too intrusive, can I ask about your reading habits now? You mentioned that you only read novels sporadically. I remember seeing a picture of you in what I assume is your library, which resembled a bunker filled wall-to-wall with books. Do you need to be reading to write?
I’m always reading half a dozen books at once—some of them fast and some of them slow, some of them non-sequentially, etc. Right now I’m reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Renata Adler’s Speedboat in relays, and I’m kind of reading Leonardo Sciascia’s The Moro Affair but I keep getting lost, and I’m slowly dipping in and out of W. C. Williams’s slim Spring and All and Frank Stanford’s immense The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. I’m rereading lots of John Ashbery for something and sifting the works of the mystic Alice Bailey for something else. I do a lot of reading that’s not directly connected to writing, but I have moods and phases and fads. I also need to have my books around me not only because of their individual functions but as a mass, as a graphic representation of time and connectedness, and of the foundations on which my notions stand.
Do you climb up on your books like a ladder to get a better—or, at least, a different—view of the world? Or do you go into them to get away from the world, to inhabit other worlds, other times, other places, other people? Both is also an option.
That came out more cliché’d than it was meant to.
What I meant to ask is: When you say your books function as “a graphic representation of time and connectedness,” do you mean they are an exterior representation of your interior self... or are they in some way a representation of all time, all connections?
They are both. I’ve sometimes considered my library as an external hard drive for my mind. What I referred to in that sentence to you, though, is that it’s literally a kind of diagram of those aspects of the world I’m most concerned with. For example, I shelve literature—most of it—chronologically (loosely). That always makes me think of one of those drawings by Saul Steinberg in which he represents the centuries as a set of shelves, with an end curving down to the next like in a pachinko machine. In other words it’s a mnemonic device, a memory theater, almost literally. Just as Cicero, when delivering an oration, would wander the colonnades of his imaginary structure, systematically picking up the themes interspersed between the pillars, so I can let my eye roam along my spines, whether I’m in the room with them or not, and remember chains of cause-and-effect, or exceptions to some principle I’m about to propose, or hidden themes I should have noticed all along.
Are there ever bits and pieces of that diagram that you discard (or wish you could discard)? Anything that makes you cringe?
Well, I cull my library regularly, so that takes care of that. I got rid of a good ten boxes worth just a couple of months ago. In general, though, I’m pretty consistent. I’m still interested in pretty much everything I was interested in as a teenager (a few individual authors aside), and have expanded rather than altered course.
I am slowly tip-toeing up to the question: What is a book? What are books? Is their relative longevity as a form(at) as arbitrary as the 90-minute movie? From all that you’ve said, it sounds like, for you, they have two uses: the first being whatever they contain, the text; the second being all that they point to as objects.
It’s true, I confess. I do like books-as-objects perhaps more than I should. I got rid of most of those that were only that when I moved into this house ten years ago, although I can’t seem to part with, e.g., Missing Heirs and Next of Kin (1913), which is basically a mail-order scam, consists primarily of long lists of names, and is printed on the cheapest high-acid paper. But if I got rid of it nobody else would want it, and there’s something so ineffable about it—it’s a work of conceptual art.
But I really don’t have many things of that sort. If I bought a book for the cover and only the cover is worth saving, I tear it off and toss the rest into the recycling bin. I’m vigilant about weeding out duplicates, souvenirs, most academic secondary literature, dead ends, books I once thought I should read, books that do nothing but look impressive, anything that smacks of completism, etc. Everything I have is important to me for its content in some way or other. And a very large percentage I couldn’t easily obtain from either the public library or the library at the school where I teach.
Ahem. I’m avoiding your question. I believe the codex is the best way humanity has found of transmitting written data, and I don’t think a better one will be found. (I had a kindle for six months and an Ipad for four, and wound up giving both away. I can read a magazine article on a screen, but nothing longer than that. It’s not good for the eyes, and it fucks with my memory.) Also, a book, as an object, is an act, in a way that an article or a story or a poem isn’t quite. A book imposes itself on the world. It occupies physical space. It demands to be seen and recognized. I feel for those who lack the room in their living spaces to store many books, but I don’t feel at all for those who subscribe to that decluttering garbage. I have the luxury of living in a house, which means that I can segregate my books into certain areas and not have them crawl all over the kitchen, for example. But to live in a denuded gray environment with no visual cues to the fact that the world is a babel of voices is like undergoing voluntary lobotomy. The alleged peace of empty space, no matter how artful or Zen, is the silence of the grave.
To change tack slightly, how important do you think biography is in understanding someone’s work? Your books and essays are full of biographical descriptions of the lives of every kind of writer, artist and musician—and autobiographical descriptions of yourself. What do those descriptions mean to what is inside the book or the painting or the song?
Yes and no, but mostly no. There are writers whose lives, fully engaged with the world, are inseparable from their works. This mostly seems to apply to poets: Rimbaud, Mayakovsky, Ginsberg, Breton, Cendrars, Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, Victor Hugo. There are a bunch of writers about whom it helps to know one or two facts: Nabokov’s exile, Stephen Crane’s early death, Emily Dickinson’s immuration, J. G. Ballard’s fall of Shanghai, Proust’s tuberculosis, B. Traven’s radical youth, etc. Occasionally you get a writer of such complex pathological interest that the biography fits right alongside the works: Simenon springs to mind. But most writers are just writers, and you don't really need to know anything outside of their words on the page.
When I give details of writers’ lives I’m usually placing the writer in historical context. Sometimes this context sheds light on their work, but most often their lives shed light on their world. They are often just like other citizens, but they left behind a name and some account of their relationship to their time.
Have you always felt that “most writers are just writers,” and that books are just “objects made of words?” If I had asked you these same questions when you were 20 and living in Paris do you think you would have given the same or similar answers, or would you have said something entirely different? Would you have used the word genius? Do you ever use it now?
I know that when you say “most writers are just writers” you don’t mean it as a slight against writers. My impression is that you are against the kinds of mythification that cause the image of a writer to obscure their work. But that kind of mythification is also what people seem to desire. A hero (Ginsberg, Rimbaud), a villain (Breton), a saint (O’Hara). Maybe Rimbaud can be hero and villain... Are we just taught to desire that way?
Yes, pretty much. When I was 13 I was reading Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Brontë alongside flying-saucer books and hot-rod novels and Twilight Zone compilations. They gave me different sorts of thrills, granted, but ultimately they all manifested as words on a page. When I was 20 I did idolize Ashbery (although by that time I’d met him, which made him human) as well as Pynchon, Burroughs, Ballard. I admired and envied them and was sometimes, maybe often, dumbfounded by how they did that. But I was seeking to learn, and that unavoidably involved demystification. Yes, "genius" was a word we threw around prodigally: an otherwise undistinguished acquaintance who had one unique trick was a genius; a change of key in a pop song was genius; an unutterably stupid TV commercial was genius, etc. We knew a few authentic geniuses, too; you’ve never heard of any of them. (They were unstable; they never wrote anything down; they went all the way through the room and out the back door; they flamed out; they became ordinary jobholders.)
I guess some people have a need to reduce literary figures to commedia dell’arte stock characters. I find it baffling. None of the people you cite were heroes or villains or saints. (It’s true that Breton did more than his share of bad shit, but there’s considerably more to him than that.) Rimbaud continues to trouble me because I still find his major period, from “The Drunken Boat” until he finished A Season in Hell, pretty much inexplicable. I guess I’d have to say Shakespeare, too. (Shakespeare will break people’s minds until the end of time; I have a close friend, a serious and well-educated artist of major international standing, who believes in all sincerity that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s works, as if that explained anything.) But neither Rimbaud nor Shakespeare was a hero or a villain. Writers—you can extend that to all artists in all media—come in every sort of shape and size: upstanding citizens, common bores, swindlers, certified accountants (figuratively speaking), unendurable Eagle Scouts [ditto], drunken lowlifes, nutty professors, etc. None of which has any bearing on the work they produce. The last book to completely blow my mind (this time last year) was Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte. By all accounts—and to some degree verified by that book—Malaparte was a snake, someone you wouldn’t trust with your wallet or your life. And yet he wrote this astonishing book that takes the most abysmal degradation of humanity and transforms it. Without lying about it, either: it’s horrific, sometimes horrifically funny, sometimes makes you wish for an asteroid that will put us all out of our misery forever. But ultimately it’s transcendent. It’s almost an epitaph for the human race; it’s as powerful as all the symphonies put together; and it was written by a schmuck.
So art is a place where the goodness or greatness of a work need not be reconciled with the morality or the politics of its author? For some reason I think immediately of Warhol. (Probably because I am reading A: a novel.) There are the constant internecine battles over what percentage of Warhol was Dracula and what percentage was Cinderella, and all I can ever think to say is that: it’s all there. It is in the book. It is on the canvas. It is in the movie. All of the smut, the violence, the racism, the disingenuousness, the lying, the avarice—it is all there, because, like you said with Malaparte, he did it without lying about it. But, more often than not, people interpret that kind of honesty—is honesty the right word?—as a slap in the face. Or the work is ignored (even when it becomes ubiquitous).
Is there any need to reconcile all of this? Or is art art precisely because it is not reconcilable?
Yes. “Even a corrupt judge can render a correct decision.” (Brecht) “The proof is in the pudding.” (Anon.) Honesty is the ticket. Emotional honesty, honesty of expression, honesty of self-presentation. I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips, but I’ll wager that more assholes have produced great literature than have saints. When you start trying to show people a better world you’re already in trouble, and when you’re modeling ideal behavior you’re lost. It will not correspond with anything you actually know or have experienced. You can’t do it without thumbing the scale. If people take honesty as a slap in the face they don’t need art—they need a drug.
Do you feel like you have found your method(s) for writing honestly?
There’s no method for writing honestly. You just have to address every sentence.
“It’s worth noting here that my upcoming contribution
to Hotel #4 is entirely lifted from wikipedia entries,
with some rewriting to shoehorn them into the rhetorical
...from Le Livre des masques (vol. II, 1898) by Remy de Gourmont
Lucy SANTE’s books include Low Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), The Factory of Facts (Granta, 1998), Kill All Your Darlings (Verse Chorus Press, 2007) and, most recently, The Other Paris (Faber & Faber, 2015).
Jon AUMAN, a writer renting in New York, is a contributing editor with Hotel.
Jon AUMAN, a writer renting in New York, is a contributing editor with Hotel.