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.
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.
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