The Significance of June 16th in the City of Love, City of Light or How Valentine’s Day is Overrated for Writers

June 16th. It’s a much more romantic date for a writer than Feb. 14th. Why?

It’s Bloomsday. The day James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, because it’s the day that James first went on a date with Nora Barnacle (god, did she know what she was getting herself into then?). It’s also the day Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath got married later (an even worse pairing). And it’s the day Richard Linklater decided to set his intellectual romance film: Before Sunrise. It’s also the day I fell in love in Paris by a mad feat of perseverance, kismet, and sheer writerly Jungian happenstance.

James and Nora looking like a cold war spy couple

Definitely not first date material. There is such thing as literary foreplay. An exchange between Joyce and a French critic regarding Finnegans Wake: “Monsieur Joyce, they say your new book is a mixture of music and literature. Is that true? / No. It’s purely musical. / It’s a strange book. Is there some hidden meaning to it. / No, no. The text is just meant to make you laugh. / But then, why have you written the book in such a strange way? / Well, it’s to keep the critics busy for the next three hundred years.”

An American (Ethan Hawk) on his last day in Europe meets a French woman (Julie Delpy) on a train heading from Budapest to Vienna. He asks her to get off the train with him in Vienna and spend the day and night with him wandering around the city. That day is Bloomsday.

I left for the old world on March 4th, 2015, on purpose, because hey I’m ‘marching forth’, not in any militaristic sense (it also happens to be Artaud’s deathday I found out later, and the name of a psychedelic marching band). I’d set my return date for June 17th, 2015 but had no idea my last day in Paris would be Bloomsday. I’d forgotten all about that. No, it was just a 90 day visa plus two weeks in the then non-EU Balkan countries.

The bookshop that came back from the dead. The first incarnation had been Joyce’s publisher. I almost fell in love with the owner though she’s several decades older than me.

On arriving in Paris, love wasn’t necessarily on my mind. My main task was to discover any last vestiges of the bohemian life left in Paris and see the old relics. But I did have a running fantasy that was like the plotline of Before Sunrise (with some minor adjustments): meet French woman, spend the whole day with her intellectualizing, find out she too is a novelist with a nostalgia for the bohemias of Paris’ glorious past but also willing to ‘march forth’ into new micro-bohemias hidden and tucked in countries you’d never expect—like Slovenia for example, fall in love, and pretty quickly get EU citizenship. And unlike Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, we wouldn’t just have that one day together and then meet years later at Shakespeare and Co. and rekindle our romance.

“And then I read your novel, realized it was me and came to your reading. How’s that for happenstance? / It’s a little too cinematic for me. / Really, I thought it was more literary? / Same difference when it’s a Richard Linklater art film. / I suppose you’re right.”

I was already planning on riding the train between Budapest and Vienna searching the aisles for an alluring woman reading a book and attempting to act out my fantasy. But that was months down the road (and all I did find then was the Hungarian police combing the train and pulling off and arresting all suspected immigrants attempting to get into Austria). For now, I sat in the cafes sipping those cafe cremes and settling into literary meditation as the French do so well, disregarding any tourist saturated districts, scribbling away at my novel, which a large part of takes place in Paris (1830s-May 1968, and the 2010s).

Novelists are a special breed of fantasy fanatics. For we can build any fantasy we want in fiction. When we apply this to reality, it sometimes leads to disastrous results. So it was with Paris the fist time around.

It all started when I headed up to Montparnasse to see if I could somehow check out La Ruche, the Beehive, that squalid 80 atelier packed hothouse of Eastern European painters, poets of all nations, vagrants, vagabonds, vulgarians (that appears in The Great Chaining of Being, and in my middle reader’s children’s fantasy: Free Mystics)—that is back before the start of World War I and somewhat after that for awhile, till World War II brought it into disuse. It was slated to be demolished, but bug-eyed, fly-squashing Sartre and others saved it from the chopping block, and now it serves as a working space for artists, but not open to the general public.

In 20s Montparnasee there would no longer be a handful of artists, as in Montamartre, but hundreds, thousands of them. It was an artistic flowering of a richness and quality never to be rivaled, even later in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Painters, poets, sculptors, and musicians, from all countries, all cultures, classical and modern, met and mingled. Rich patrons of the arts and art dealers of the moment, models and their painters, writers and publishers, poverty-stricken artists and millionaires lived together, side by side.  (Dan Franck, Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and the Birth of Modern Art)

“In La Ruche, Boucher rented out the studios for a modest price to poor painters (many of them Jewish painters who’d come from Eastern Europe). They had a single room, which they called ‘the coffin’: a triangle with a platform above the door where the tenants slept on a thin mattress. There was no water, no gas, no electricity. The halls were dark, with rubbish heaped up in the corners, and leaky sewers.” (Franck) La Ruche would house or accommodate at one point or another:

Guillaume Apollinaire, Alexander Archipenko, Joseph Csaky, Gustave Miklos, Alexandre Altmann, Ossip Zadkine, Moise Kisling, Marc Chagall, Max Pechstein, Nina Hamnett, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Pinchus Kremegne, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Chaim Soutine, Robert Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brâncuși, Amshey Nurenberg, Diego Rivera, Marevna, Luigi Guardigli, Michel Sima, Marek Szwarc and others. (Wikipedia)

When I arrived at the gates it was already getting dark. I looked for a buzzer but found none. Hidden back off the main street there was also no one I could speak with about how I might get inside. Might as well just sit down and wait awhile I thought. About ten minutes later I saw a young woman walking up the street. She seemed quite determined by her gait. I was thinking about asking her about how to get inside, but then feeling shy, because she was attractive, I decided against it.

She walked right up to me, looked me in the eye and asked me in French: “Are you a painter?”

“No, I’m a writer,” I said.

“So you live in there?” she asked pointing through the fence. “I didn’t think they had many writers. No matter, get me in will you? I’m a painter.” Her French was way too fast and advanced for me, though I could tell she wasn’t French, I had no idea her accent. She looked Eastern European.

“I don’t live there, but I do want to see inside.”

“So we have the same problem. There’s only one solution. We’ll climb the fence. Here hoist me up.”

“What if they call the police?”

“What are you, a writer? Or a coward? I thought you American writers were all like Hemmingway right?”

“No, I’m a poet, not a macho journalist.”

“I can see that, your fingernails are too clean, hoist me up!”

“Alright.”

“Do you really think if they even find out, that they’d object to a painter and a writer breaking in? No!”

Let’s just call her Ana (though her real name is much more eccentric than that, a name she made for herself, and any google search would locate her quite easily). I helped her over the fence and she unlocked it from the other side.

“Here grab my arm, people never question couples. And don’t say anything, your French is horrible.” I laughed. We walked down the path and through the front doors. No one stopped us. It didn’t seem like anyone was here. We let go of each others’ arms and started to explore the rooms. They’d obviously remodeled the place. Did anyone actually live here though? A few doors were open and all we saw inside were paintbrushes, film equipment, books, but no beds, no jugs of wine, no candles, no bowls of thin soup, no nudes, no cubist fruitbowls: the place wasn’t buzzing, but there was still a low hum you felt—or maybe it was my imagination.

Ana was obviously as disappointed as I was—likely more so, she’d come all the way to Paris from Bucharest to see if she could wiggle her way into one of the world’s most famous artists’ colony, and found it no longer took strays. We left and decided on a drink. Had a long talk. Didn’t really have a connection though and we could both feel it. We weren’t potential lovers, we wouldn’t even be friends. She did start talking about Bloomsday though, and then I remembered June 16th. And I thought well by the end of this trip I may find the woman for me. We hugged goodbye although it wasn’t necessary. We didn’t exchange information and I can safely say we won’t be meeting at Shakespeare and Co years later.

Thus the disaster was fantasy and its many tangents.

Did I find the woman of my dreams by June 16th?

No. I only fell in love with more ideas (many of them European), as novelists are best at doing, with a fling here and there, and a desire to go back again. As I’d said in an earlier draft of the novel: ‘Belonging is a continuous and disjunctive search for love.’

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The Sad and Long-Standing Tale of the Tortured Female Artist on Sylvia Plath’s Death Day

It was 54 years ago today that Sylvia Plath took her life. I know no poetry more haunting, visceral, raw, and surreal than the restored edition of Ariel, much of it written in the weeks before her death.

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

 

A former female fiction professor of mine once said to our class: “When I was young and wanted to be a writer, I soon realized many of the most famous female writers had killed themselves: Woolf, Plath, Sexton. I got the message.”

A male poetry professor of mine had said when he was a boy, he’d build a blanket fort with his friends and then they’d read poems like Lady Lazarus by flashlight, as if they were scary stories.

When I was first getting the idea for The Great Chaining of Being, I knew there’d be a Plath-like character. A tortured female artist who’d been held down way too long by a male-dominated avant-garde. Whose work had been withheld from being published, like Emily Dickinson’s was.

—Master of the em-dash—

Who’d had to deal with sexist, jealous, and domineering fellow male writers and artists as had the women associated with the Bouzingo, the Surrealists, and the Beats.

“Outside the avant-garde community, George Sand was one of the most notorious avant-gardists of the mid-19th Century, and within it was one of the most divisive. Her cross-dressing, her unabashed sexuality, her ambiguous relationship with nascent Feminism, and her outspoken socialist propaganda novels made her a catalyst for the exploration of gender and its malleability within the Romanticist avant-garde, analogous in many ways to that of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in the Dada community.” From: Resurrecting the Bouzingo

“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist,” British-born surrealist Leonora Carrington once wrote. Her fascination with the early 19th-century art movement started well before meeting her lover, the artist Max Ernst. Their relationship became a great source of pain for her after he fled the Nazis, leaving her behind. It sparked a mental breakdown, the experience of which she channeled into her novel, Down Below. But Carrington’s contributions to surrealism have little to do with Ernst. One of her first major surrealist works was the 1938 painting The Inn of the Dawn Horse, a dark self-portrait. —From 10 Female Surrealists You Should Know by Alison Nastasi

Women of the Beat Generation

In my novel, reincarnation is a physical phenomena of the multiverse scientifically proven by the transhumanist future. So my three main bohemian characters have lived many lives in many times. Their names change somewhat but usually follow a similar pattern. Mathilda Lund from 1950s New York is Mathilde Esmond from 1830s Paris is Maxine Lancaster from 1960s San Francisco.

The following poem was written by Mathilde Esmond in 1830s Paris. I cut it from the novel and have replaced it with a full chapter detailing her life among the Bouzingo.

Is this his? 

A man creates his art because he is small, 

we all well know the littleness of kings. 

He creates it for his meaning

which he think is his

for he thinks he owns all things. 

The hilltop in the sun is his.

The castle in the clouds is his.

The paint that paints, the ink that writes,

the woman who dances—all belong to him.

But then what is this—

this voice that rises from the dirt

at the bottom of all things, glaring

at Jacob climbing his ladder

his eyes wanton for the lord,

the image Narcissus craved

and Achilles killed.

This voice 

that has been raped

burned at the stake

taken for a cow

and sent to the slaughtering house. 


This voice from a vase

in a comfortable home

bent over the oven

wherein she cooks lost children

when suddenly she remembers 

the fate of Hypatia.


What is this voice

that owns itself?


It could not be an artist,

for only the privileged sex 

has the power by nature, and instinct

to live out an adventure in poverty.


For who really wants to be a leader:

not the bouzingo.


No, it is enough to rule half the world.

———————————————-


Though she is as bitter and enraged as Plath was in Ariel, this will not always be the case. Not to give too much of the story away, let’s just say 1960s San Francisco suits her much better than 1830s Paris.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocySBhtsfDw&t=1s

 

Infinite Dissatisfaction in a Cruel Theater Called the World

David Foster Wallace once said in an interview:

Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the time’s darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

I’ve never read Infinite Jest or any of his other work (though I bought the book for my brother for his birthday one year, the consummate, voracious reader he is: follow him on Goodreads and read his review of Infinite Jest) but I agree with Wallace’s statement. And though parts of The Great Chaining of Being may be dark or cynical, the glue that holds its historical fragments together is enthusiasm. This is never a sappy enthusiasm, nor is it always a happy one, but it’s an insatiable drive most of the characters have towards dispelling their dissatisfaction with the world as is. Seeing as most of them are poets, philosophers, playwrights, actors, activists, and bohemians, they’re just following their natural course.

Renee Winegarten in Writers and Revolution: The Fatal Lure of Action, says that among the most powerful motives Lord Byron possessed for his actions was dissatisfaction with himself and with the world—that he had not fulfilled his capabilities and potentialities, and that only some bold, grand gesture of defiant service could redeem him.

After all, Byron invented the estranged hero. He showed his readers, many of them unhappy spirits, what looked like a way out of the impasse of boredom, dissatisfaction, self-loathing, and an intractable world, a path to purification and redemption of a kind through commitment to the revolutionary cause. He died of disease during the Greek War of Independence at age 36, outlasting Keats and Shelley.

Check out more at: Hark! A Vagrant!

And now for a quote from my novel completely out of context, though the characters be the Apollonian Ambrose Gaston, and the Dionysian Dennis Baker:

Dennis laughs, and finishes the cognac. “My god, what sort of monster would we make brought together in one body. Lord Byron?”

Please, he’s far too stupid.”

“Oh-ho-ho, I’m going to tell him that at the party.”

“So now you’re going?”

“Only for the drugs, Ambie—the drugs!”

“I liked you better as a decadent.”

“And French, and writing, and licking your balls.”

As you might imagine, my novel contains certain crudities to remain historically accurate to figures such as the horny as an incubus Henry Miller, the religious criminal Jean Genet, and the duel-loving pornographer Guillaume Apollinaire. Many of them far rival “licking your balls”. Especially where the Marquis de Sade is involved.

Henry Miller: “Now we shall have a vessel in which to pour the vital fluid, a bomb which, when we throw it, will set off the world. We shall put into it enough to give the writers of tomorrow their plots, their dramas, their poems, their myths, their sciences. The world will be able to feed on it for a thousand years to come. It is colossal in its pretentiousness. The thought of it almost shatters us.” (Tropic of Cancer)

genet

Jean Genet: Check out more artwork from Edward Kinsella

Guillaume Apollinaire: “Pity us who fight always at the boundaries
Of infinity and the future”

But this isn’t the transgressive splatterpunk of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk, this takes a bit more patience and poetic inspiration, and a lot more research. Being sexually crude or shocking fits into the ethos of Courbet and Baudelaire, after all to be part of the French avant-garde from the 1830s on is to: Épater la bourgeoisie!

The Burial at Ornans, by Gustave Courbet. Can you imagine that this was one of Courbet’s most shocking and offensive paintings? Times sure have changed.

But we’re all quite unshockable nowadays are we not? Shall I test this?

No, I am not so cruel. After all, one day soon you will read my novel, and you will see the beauty in sexual explicitness, psychedelic hallucination, avant-garde arrogance, burning dissatisfaction, and global protest.

When Antonin Artaud, the madman actor, surrealist, pyschonaut, and playwright (who has a supporting role in my novel) was asked why he’d called his esoteric, experimental form of ideal form of theater: The Theater of Cruelty. He calmly replied it certainly isn’t to be cruel.

 Artaud: “Me? Cruel? No, never. Now practice your screaming exercises.”

I was once a farmer for 5 weeks. My upcoming novel The Great Chaining of Being, the sole purpose of this blog, can be sampled here. Also follow me on Facebook.

 

How It All Began (or A Season in Methaline Falls)

Once, if my memory serves me well, life was one long party where all wines flowed freely and all hearts opened wide—no, wait, that’s the beginning to Arthur Rimbaud‘s A Season in Hell, forgive me, let me try this again.

Rimbaud: “I think I’m in hell, therefore I am.”

It was summer 2011. I’d just graduated college with the very high market value and job reliability of a Creative Writing degree, 2nd only to an accounting degree. My brother, father, and I were painting two dilapidated buildings 300 feet from the Canadian border in the tippy top of Northeastern Washington State. Methaline Falls it was called, excuse me, Metaline Falls. It goes without saying that aforementioned government buildings were set to be demolished in six months time, and for the outrageous price they were paying us to paint it reflected their desire not to lose a cent of their yearly budget.

 

We were staying in an old hospital turned hotel, with an crazy ol’ cat man likely in his 90s. It was best to hold one’s nose when coming in the front door, for the cats ran the place. The halls were literally soaked in their piss. Guess that’s what happens when you give your cats Pepsi instead of water. Inside his industrial grade ammonia chamber: the cats covered the room, two on his lap, at least three on his chair, two on the kitchen counter, five on his bed, several in the bathroom chopping up catnip and drinking big gulps, not to mention the ones who’d slipped out and were on nightly spray duty. He was very hard of hearing, which I believe was due to the smell. I have to admit they were crafty, more than once they picked the lock to our room and emptied their tiny bladders on our pillows.

Cat cartoonist Louis Wain suffered from schizophrenia (or divine psychedelic revelation depending on who you’re speaking to and how often they go to Burning Man) as can be seen in these increasing cat fractals. Some theories suggest it was triggered by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which comes packaged in cat shit. However, little do they know that long exposure to cat piss can trigger extended DMT-esque hallucination as when I frightened the old cat man with our weekly check to which he exclaimed: “Why do you want my cats magical machine elf?!” I don’t.

They say a writer should suffer, to you know, then write what you know: suffering that is, because who doesn’t like to read about someone else’s suffering, the Germans even have a word for it:  schadenfreude.

But honestly it wasn’t that bad (except that hornet’s nest on a 30 foot ladder). The money was for a trip to the UK. And in the meantime I’d snagged from my university library the 784 page tome which is Revolution of the Mind: The Life of Andre Breton, almost as big as the founding dictator and pope of French Surrealism’s forehead.

Check out that dome!

I found my way to the Surrealists via the Beats. Kerouac’s Bop Spontaneous Prose was often compared to Breton and his automatic writing (direct from the unconscious of disaffected French medical students following WWI) after jazz and lots and lots of speed in your coffee. In my more juvenile idolization of Kerouac, which happens to most American bohemian leaning teenagers with writing aspirations, I was told by my poetic elders that “The Surrealists already did that!” and “As Truman Capote said of Kerouac: that’s not writing, that’s typing!” Obviously I was missing out on some much needed pretentiousness, a valuable currency in academic circles, not to mention poetry slams. So naive I was at 19! High out of my mind on LSD most weekends, drinking way too much cheap wine, pouring unrequited love poems at the feet of goddess poetesses, who all seemed to throw me by the wayside—as they should have. I was way too Neal Cassady those early years. My first novel at 19, half of it written in 2 weeks in homage to On the Road, after all was an homage to The Beats.

Left to Right: Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, No Idea, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Thus my love affair with the Beats had already waned at the much more mature age of 25 as I sought new idols, much less American, much more French. And as I read of Breton so the web of Surrealism held me in its strange hands.

Leading me back in time to Dada, Symbolism, Realism, and the Bouzingo, the latter the granddaddy of all bohemian youth movements in the age of Victor Hugo, and happily the height of my newfound personal pretentiousness. Only if I could run into that geriatric poet today and tell him what things I know! I’d snip his damn tie off and say: “Tre Dada! Tre Dada! Epater le bourgeois!” “Know much about Montparnasse you ol’ geezer? Oh you don’t?! Guess you’ve measured out your life in trips up Capote’s ass.” (Note to reader: when shocking the middle classes, one must be crass.) Then to finish him off, I’d automatically write an American haiku on his forehead in permanent ink, naturally.

But I digress. You probably wonder what the point of this entry is by now. It is the origin story of “The Great Chaining of Being”. My newest novel, which I’ve just finished.

First off the title is a pun (dare I say Joycean (actually that’d be way too Irish for me)) on The Great Chain of Being, the popular religious hierarchy of the Middle Ages, with God on top, the angels, flawed us, then the biggest beasts like lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, all the way down to the dirt. Poor dirt. Gets such a bad rap. The title was originally going to be the name for a short story collection of non-human narrator based stories, i.e. from the point of view of a tree, a cloud, the dirt, or God itself, not as an all-powerful being, but rather a life manipulated thoughtform (trapped, chained, dumb to its experience, manipulated by life’s will and imagination).

Thought-form of the Music of Gounod, according to Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater in Thought Forms (1901)

Before reading of Breton, I’d been reading a lot of books on near-death experiences and reincarnation and kept thinking how good these theories might translate to fiction. For example I said to myself sitting by the river with my rainbow kitten notebook (it’s the only one at the general store that appealed to me), what if Sylvia Plath and Charles Baudelaire were trapped in the afterlife together. I wrote that story calling it Cruel Flowers for the Colossus.  

Poor Sylvia.

It wasn’t that good of a story. However, what if an Andre Breton like character was added to the mix. What if it wasn’t exactly Plath, and it wasn’t exactly Baudelaire and they were all linked via an oversoul (your dysfunctional none-blood-related family in the afterlife). What if these three bohemians were in trouble, what if a Singularity-salivating transhumanist future was after them in a sense, swallowing up history for their technological death march of progress. As flawed and arrogant as Breton might be he wouldn’t stand for it, nor would Plath no matter how self-destructive she was, nor would Baudelaire no matter how much he drank, smoked, or mooched money from his beloved bourgeois mother. And so the first three chapters in their raw form were born there back in the summer of 2011 in Methaline Falls. 

Only 5 plus years later after many more adventures and much more research would it all come together. This is the story of the story (a meta-metaphor if you will), and The Long, Perilous, and Inevitable Publication of The Great Chaining of Being. 

Long live Montparnasse in the 20s,

Ian Drew Forsyth  

 Self-referential narcissistic photo of me and my novel’s journal in Venice a la 2015

Photo credit: Kinga Leftska