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The Radical Romantic

Illustration by Dana Collins

What the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers

—Dave Eggers,
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

 

Irony’s a dead man’s game. The bootless rage and disappointment that’s been the hollow core of serious art is proving pointless as a peach, and is being replaced by a giant red heart, shining and satin and engulfed in lace. But don’t mistake my bloated metaphors or any subsequent rhetorical fancy for coolness, distance, callow cynicism or irony double-jeu. We who are the new romantics, the radical romantics, embrace all the art in nature and the nature in art — for we believe in everything, and especially in our feelings, which loom large and grand and improbable as whole elephants.

 

Born in the middle of the parting, groping
in with two beautiful eyes on your arm

—Brenda Shaughnessy,
Middle

 

On June 1, 2001, Le Monde announced a new French fascination with the medieval, as providing a paradis perdu of chivalry and unity, of Nature, near and intact, of life unvulgarized, that bears no semblance to anyone’s present existence. Although Le Monde felt obliged to note that in the actual M.E. there were famine, epidemic and “la misère,” still, as “l’Europe au Xxe siècle le tragique champ clos des affrontements nationalistes” (20th-century Europe is a tragic field fenced off by nationalist clashes), the 21st century finds renewal through “‘le Moyen Age énorme et délicat’ cher aux romantiques.” Here, we’ve had Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale (He Will Rock You), and another wave of interest in Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century saint whose catchall appeal is to middle-aged papists what the protean William James is to middle-aged Protestants. The Romantics of the 19th century similarly are affined with the Middle Ages: There was greatness there amongst the meanness, a greatness made more magical by its measure of seeming innocence.

The contemporary American poet Carl Phillips said mystery is needed to preserve innocence. Innocence, it is presumed, is the prerequisite of poetry. (This sounds simple and thus suspicious, but art’s sleeveless job has always been the caulking of the known to the sloppy unknowable. Valéry thought the communicative purpose of prose led to its postcoital demise, where the very incomprehensibility of poetry kept it alive beyond intercourse: The unknowable persists at the expense of the known.) But to insist on poetic innocence these days is as old-time-religion as virgin birth. As the 19th-century Romantics lauded the chaste love of Dante for his Beatrice, we of the 21st would applaud the muddy-handed medieval romances of friendship, such as Amis and Amiloun, where leprosy is inflicted and children slain in their sleep, all in the name of all-knowing brotherly love. For though it’s a coin toss which is rarer — love unpredicated or love hideously aware — we live in a time of inescapable and awful consciousness. We know ourselves and our kind too well.

But:

We want art that’s not impotent.

 

The victim of an ironic situation is typically innocent.

—Anne Carson,
Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve
(second draft)

 

To wit and e.g., the forerunners of radical romanticism, the great postwar writers of Germany and its territories who still wrote in German. Ingeborg Bachmann, an Austrian teenager during the war, wrote poems under an eternal summer sun; in her country, the world was beginning to brown and there was only autumn, then winter’s deeper deaths to come. Like hell and L.A., her poems are brightly lit and writhe regularly in self-immolation. Paul Célan knew his deutsche Margareta and the ash-headed Shulamith would forever dance together, and despite himself, dared to make beauty in that dance. Later, Célan’s poetry would become increasingly incomprehensible as his language turned more and more on itself: the tongue crumbling under the weight of the “word with no meaning” (When I Don’t Know, Don’t Know). W.G. Sebald puts photos in his books of things he’d like to recall as he takes his own small retracing steps, because he knows there’s nothing like a picture of Grandpa in a black shirt to eclipse personal memory and the family scrapbook.

If modernism and postmodernism were born of the failure of war, radical romanticism is the product of sustained prosperity and the absence of befuddling conflict. We grew up dancing on home videos and currently spit Web sites like sunflower seeds; we’ve been taught our homespun genocides and tragedies and been given the gift of absolute virtual anonymity. We are the greasy assassins and the blooming corpses of quiet and unoccupied space; like God, we are everywhere always and want to be kissed. Similarly, I know I was born with blood on my hands, I accept my personal responsibility for slavery, for the plight of all aborigines, for famine and bird-headed babies, and I feel sorry and goddamned as a good German. On the other hand, I’ve suffered too, you know, life’s no bowl of Cheerios, but then again, just like a regular divinity, my sufferings are more or less deserved and my complicity largely assured. Our mystery is our guilty selves, and if we peel the faces from our skulls, what we find is feeling. Our stories lie there, just beneath the bone, bubbling between the seams, and as it turns out, they are stories that sound slick and sometimes cool but which scream what the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers.

 

 

I am still guilty. Raise me up.
I am not guilty. Raise me up.

—Ingeborg Bachmann,
Songs in Flight

 

In the movie Moulin Rouge, pop songs old and new were strung on the skeleton of a dancehall La Bohème, though there are parts of Orpheus there as well, plus Pygmalion in the union of porcelain love-goddess + scruffy art-man, but the point is, the songs were the thing, the connective tissue between tropes. And it worked like a rubber mallet on a kneecap. When Ewan McGregor’s Christian sang Elton John’s Your Song to Nicole Kidman’s Satine, your cranium was tickled with a probe: You couldn’t help but feel something. And that something resonated with all the postmodern tricks of reflecting culture back to itself, except it wasn’t played for laughs, bitter and knowing. It was supposed to make you weep. Animated by the assumed interplay between audience and text, M.R. was to be a great story of grand love. It wasn’t; the archetypes were insufficiently individual and the inevitability too inevitable, but there was one moment, when Satine is held skyward at the instant of death, her pure alabasterness exactly offset by her incarnadine gown and the rivulet of polluted blood at her mouth, when the camera holds on the dilation of her pupil. And as the pupil opens, as it would, at the approaching dark, the marriage of art and nature is complete, and all the silly love songs in the world become a marvelous means of keeping that dilation at bay.

That’s so fucking romantic.

 

 

Less the rescue.
More, always, the ache
toward it.

—Carl Phillips,
Hymn

 

The problem with an emergent aesthetic is that it’s emergent. So critics, etc., will go on seeing new stuff through old lenses. “Unexpectedly sentimental,” said The New York Times Book Review about Nick Hornsby’s How To Be Good; another NYTBR puzzled over the high “postmodern” form imposed on the genuine earnestness of Heather McGowan’s Schooling, an otherwise clichéd story of a young girl who may or may not have committed some prior violent offense and may or may not have subsequently suffered some welcome or unwelcome transgression at the hands of a beloved teacher, all told in faux-Joycean roll. The critical reaction to Moulin Rouge was a game of Pong between those who thumbed up or down the subversion of the musical and those who took the whole thing for an act of jejune high-spiritedness, like setting off sparklers in Sarajevo. But the critics, etc., are missing the point. The point is not the goddamn form. All my examples look like postmodernism because postmodernism’s become a Promethean sac into which anything may be stuffed. Moreover, the devices of postmodernity (nonlinearity, pastiche, the transgression of genre) organically render our many reflections. But the essential disbelief that has marked art since the A-bomb is not there. To the radical romantic, language does not lie. I purse my lips to say “please,” there’s a luscious lap of the tongue lying in “delicious,” and smiling ee’s stuck in teeth of “sweet.” The point is the goddamn sentiment, the belief that something essentially human counts. And the thing that is most essentially human, the poignant fact of our puny selves, is that we fashion transcendence.

To wit and e.g.: Brenda Shaughnessy’s poems, cluttered with antiquity and silicone sex toys, which really nicely finger the purple between pure passion and purer consciousness. Or Amy Gerstler’s poetry, where heartfelt feelings rise up beneath the vernacular as lovely and itchy as red rashes under wool. Or Chris Ware’s perfectly sad Jimmy Corrigan, colored muddy and matte as genuine childhood, or J.T. LeRoy’s stories about truck-stop whoreboys who hate and love the drivers that bend them over and call them Baby, and while these tales are the single-handed stuff of Daddy & Boy XXX, the feelings of wanting are jagged and beautiful. Dave Eggers struck the Zeitgeist mother lode, and I think critics figured it was because he’s unrelentingly cool and easily contempo, like a made-for-TV David Foster Wallace. But Eggers is pertinent and DFW, though a better writer, isn’t. And the reason is that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, unlike Infinite Jest, is wormed through with honest-to-God agony. The gamboling man-boy and his younger brother are merely the hours of video you have to suffer through to get to that final caterwaul of pure pain that we all know. We love that. When hardly anything is as perfectly devastating as one would hope, the thing that serves like a stake through the heart is delicious and irresistible. The bolt of real feeling slams consciousness into full-on reverse, so even though we know image is inherently multiplicate as light shattered in the eye of a fly, it’s still every bit as real and comes from a single source.

 

 

I wanted judgment conclusion I wanted morality to ariiise from my wild bestial plane.

—Heather McGowan,
Schooling

 

What do I want?

Stories that shatter themselves with self-regard. Words used like steel saws and scalpels, to slice through meat and break bone, to sliver in the light and be licked clean.

How do I want it?

Abrupt as seams in jeans, in the stutterings of workshopping writers and community writing groups and the burblings of honorable MFA students and in those who hand-stitch the spines of fine poetry journals and in coarsely grained zines and Kinko-bound novellas, in short-shorts made proud and maudlin and sweetly masturbatory, in novels pitted with bits of history like pimientos because you have to account for everything, in poetry that coddles points of view as innumerable and pesky as fleas on a pooch, in nonfiction essays that honestly reek of their manipulations, in criticism keyed to human infinity, in wheat-pasted statements of vain purpose and earnest manifestoes, in the bright beaten breaths that, as Célan said, trust the trail of tears/and learn to live. In tracts that spill over the sides of cardboard boxes and tumble from the backs of boxcars, in sentences that fill all corners and come in all sorts of forms, and it’s coming, this new art, it’s racing ahead like paper browning before it turns to flame.

When do I want it?

Now, please.

Is this a manifesto?

This is a manifesto, a call for a new infusion of language, visual, aural and, above all, temporal, for language brutishly simple and hideously complex, as mandarin as oranges sublimed in cans and clean as a paper cut, for effusive language that soaks itself in the spume of its words and its words in a wallow of history, for a state of radical besettedness in which there is a highly personal yearn for warmth and the moist parts of others, a yeasty besottedness of raw sentiment, a fascination with the past and a preoccupation with the present and the province, wherein the erotic of the particular prevails, and where there’s a perverse faith in collective salvation through one’s spread-eagled belief and heartfelt blasphemies, a call for consciousness of all varieties, aspirations of all sizes, lyricism to a fault, rebellion for its own salty ends, for indiscriminate synthesis and the scrim of the clear and obscure, for petty moments made bigger and bigger ones tattooed small and flavored with almond, for sad Baudelairean romances with wrinkled co-workers and aching odes to girls in plaid skirts. For rot and ruin and elegant compost. For life in sum and as such. Wallace Stevens wrote of the duty to give life the “supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it,” and if there is a duty today, it is this: to tell of our world’s beauty, of life layered like stacks of slides and love multiplied in the eye of a fly.

Such as:

(The biggest lives
need the littlest knives.)

All night we handed her favorites:
donuts, Starburst and cigarets.

By morning, in April, we met snow-faced
and tiny as professionals.

Killing her was simple: a stainless needle
tapped into her tree-trunk leg

poison pumped in from a 5 gallon drum
like reverse maple syrup.

She fell backward in broad daylight,
hard, the wrong way after standing

on her own all that elephant time
on her crushed leg, too-late diagnosis.

It took a necklace of iron chain
and a John Deere back hoe

to drag her head off the drinker,
get her down to the concrete floor.

The researchers and scientists moved in
like a cloudbank, with wishlists and priorities:

 

The distal 12” of trunk and her head,
for the olfactory pits,

go to the gas lab for chemical
gateway studies; Seattle wants

her reproductive tract – they’re not sure
what for. The curator set the order,

then 15 of us, like crows, with hay hooks and x-acto knives,
began cutting up Tamba

into scientific, then renderable pieces.
After 6 hours, our failure was easy to lift,

carry off in 25 lb. chunks, in 200 garbage bags
on a flatbed truck.

(Her flesh was deep purple, her fat bright and gold.
We worked fast in the blood, before she got cold.)

 

—Pam Ore,
Cutting Up Tamba


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