Patricia Highsmith and the Ghost of Rachilde

 

“When I desire you a part of me is gone.”
― Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet

Rachilde was enticing and inscrutable, passionate and angry. She was unafraid to speak openly with the sincerity of her feelings. She had no shame in marketing herself, but was also known as a tender and caring friend. Intimate in friendship and dedicated to supporting the careers of others, Rachilde was nevertheless always an outsider, forced to explain her thoughts and beliefs in terms of possession, because what was natural to her seemed to be so unnatural to everyone around her, including to herself as she tried to sort out what was her and what was in the reflection.

Unlike Rachilde, though, Highsmith was intimate erotically but not as a friend, nor did she much care about supporting other writers; in fact as her biographer puts it:

Patricia Highsmith was an improbably tough woman (and not just tough, but “Texas tough,” says her legendary American editor Larry Ashmead) with an impossibly sore center. Early and late, the hopes of many friends and lovers foundered on that adamantine shell of hers. What they saw beneath it, if they even got beneath it, was usually more than they could handle. But Pat could handle it, and she handled it with fortitude.1

Reading Highsmith’s biography by Shenkar, along with the contes cruels (cruel tales) in her Little Tales of Misogyny there is a definite family resemblance between her and Rachilde. These tales are both decadent and fascinating, exploring the perversities of humanity with a cruel joy; or, what Lacan once termed – “jouissance”: that mode of pleasure that goes beyond itself into transgressive acts of sensual perversity and cruelty.
Anne Carson in her Eros the Bittersweet would say this:

“Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive. But the boundaries of time and glance and I love you are only aftershocks of the main, inevitable boundary that creates Eros: the boundary of flesh and self between you and me. And it is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, I realize I never can.”

It’s this bittersweet knowledge that one can never shoot the gap between self and other, that one will forever be locked away within the closed circle of one’s own perverse need to escape the self – the narcissistic capsule of isolation which turns love to hate and cruelty. It’s this dark world of the erotic that both the decadent Rachilde and her inheritor, Highsmith explore in infinite variations of repetition. It’s no longer Sartre’s hell of the Other, but rather the hell of one’s own Self-Conscious nullity, unable to merge with the Other of one’s erotic inferno. So that one repeats the gestures of love in endless labyrinthine trysts, writing the life – living the death of erotic longing…


  1. Schenkarm, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith. Picador; First edition (January 4, 2011)

 

*(Need to come back to this and fill in the gaps at a future date… had an interruption this morning!)

Pierrot & the Dandy: Figures of Decadence

No one was more reproachful than he of a pose, a “cassure,” to use a vulgar word which exactly expresses our thought, whether in a dandy or in a voyour, in a great lady or in a daughter of the people. He possessed in a rare degree the sense of modern corruptions, in high as in low society, and he also culled, under the form of sketches, his flowers of evil.

-Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, His Life

Here is a description by Théophile Gautier in his biography or monogram of his young protégé, Charles Baudelaire:

His appearance was striking: he had closely shaved hair of a rich black, which fell over a forehead of extraordinary whiteness, giving his head the appearance of a Saracen helmet. His eyes, colored like tobacco of Spain, had great depth and spirituality about them, and a certain penetration which was, perhaps, a little too insistent. As to the mouth, in which the teeth were white and perfect, it was seen under a slight and silky moustache which screened its contours. The mobile curves, voluptuous and ironical as the lips in a face painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the nose, fine and delicate, somewhat curved, with quivering nostrils, seemed ever to be scenting vague perfumes. A large dimple accentuated the chin, like the finishing touch of a sculptor’s chisel on a statue; the cheeks, carefully shaved, with vermilion tints on the cheek-bones; the neck, of almost feminine elegance and whiteness, showed plainly, as the collar of his shirt was turned down with a Madras cravat.

His clothing consisted of a paletot of shining black cloth, nut-colored trousers, white stockings, and patent leather shoes; the whole fastidiously correct, with a stamp of almost English simplicity, intentionally adopted to distinguish himself from the artistic folk with the soft felt hats, the velvet waistcoats, red jackets, and strong, disheveled beards. Nothing was too new or elaborate about him. Charles Baudelaire indulged in a certain dandyism, but he would do anything to take from his things the “Sunday clothes” appearance so dear and important to the Philistine, but so disagreeable to the true gentleman.1

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Marcel Schwob: The Death of Lucretius

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The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
…….– William Blake

One of my favorite tales of Marcel Schwob takes the legend of Lucretius’s death and marries it to the decadent music of the eros and thanatos. One of the great late decadents or Symbolists he was a friend to almost all of greats of the era: Léon Daudet, Paul Claudel, Anatole France, Edmond de Goncourt, Jean Lorrain, J.-H. Rosny aîné, Alphonse Daudet, Auguste Bréal, Paul Arene, Maurice Spronck, Jules Renard, Paul Margueritte, Paul Hervieu, Charles Maurras, Rachilde, Octave Mirbeau, Catulle Mendès, Jules Renard, Guillaume Apollinaire, Henri Barbusse, Georges Courteline, Paul Valéry, Colette, Oscar Wilde, Pierre Louÿs, George Meredith, Maurice Maeterlinck, Alfred Jarry, Aristide Bruant, Marcel Proust, Robert de Montesquiou, Édouard Manet, Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel and Jehan Rictus.

To read the French Decadents and Symbolists is to enter the music of language, to know the inner contours of affect immanently, to feel the body’s motions in the senses – the haptic movement of flesh on flesh, the sensual patterns of decay and life at the edge of dissolution and corruption. Yet, in the midst of death and decay there is life, a life felt with such gusto and intensity that the subtle flavors of the mind barely grasp the intricate art of its baroque embellishments and arabesques. Painter, poet, journalist, he wrote over a hundred short stories, essays, biographies, literary reviews and analysis, translations and plays. Marcel Schwob was a monstrous being of energy and grace.

The lover is eventually united with his beloved, but in death rather than life. His Cleopatra is scornful of his apparent immersion in imaginative need; and, yet she yields to its ritual intent, considering one moment of living ecstasy infinitely more valuable than an eternity of disembodied companionship.

What we discover in this tale is the simple truth of ecstatic Dionysian life, of energic power under the sign of death and dissolution. In the moment of sex and violence the organismic self-feeling of excessive life brings with it the madness of inhuman truth even at the expense of duration. We’d rather feel the power of ecstatic life in a moment of pure rapture and excess than live out our dire existence under the burden of banality and mediocrity. Only in the moments when we move beyond the human into that mad terrain of erotic ecstasy do we begin to touch the power flowing out of chaos from within us, to ride the loa of daemonic life like annihilating sparks severing the root and tree and following the line of flight into that broken world where our inhuman becoming merges with the electric night. Like Shamans riding the Tree of Time we scurry up and down the branches into heavens and hells seeking the lost embrace of our hidden lives, momentary glimpses of an alternate bliss where corruption takes on the hue of a many splendored light beyond the gray world of our decaying and transient flesh… in that abyss where all light devolves into darkness beyond darkness, where time and space revolve into a final kernel of the void and fade into the eternity of endless death we begin to know and see the “visible darkness” of the annihilating light…

Below is one of my favorite tales from Schwob…

The Death of Lucretius

LUCRETIUS was born into a grand family that had long since withdrawn from public life. His early days were lived in the shadow of the black porch fronting a tall house built on a mountainside. The atrium was severe and the slaves silent. Since his childhood he had been nourished with a contempt for politics and men. The noble Memmius, who was the same age, suffered the games that Lucretius imposed on him when they played in the forest. The two of them marvelled at the deeply wrinkled bark of old trees, and at leaves quivering in the sun like a green veil streaked with light. They mused on the striped backs of the wild piglets which snuffled the earth. They passed through swarming streams of bees and moving columns of ants on the march. One day they broke through from a thicket into a clearing completely surrounded by cork-oaks, which were growing in a circle so densely packed together it seemed like a well sunk into the blue sky. The place was infinitely restful. As though they were on a clear, wide road that led to the rarefied air of the divine. Lucretius was touched there by the blessing of calm spaces.

Accompanied by Memmius, he left the serene temple of the forest to study eloquence at Rome. The aged gentleman who ruled over the tall house found him a tutor to teach him Greek, and enjoined him not to return until he had learned the art of despising the world and all its ways. Lucretius never saw him again. He died alone, railing against the tumult of society. When Lucretius returned, he brought with him into the tall empty house, under the severe atrium among the silent slaves, an African woman who was beautiful, barbarian, and perverse. Memmius had returned to the paternal home. Lucretius had witnessed bloody factions, feuding parties, and political corruption. He was in love.

At first his life was an enchantment. Against the wall-tapestries the African female pressed her tangled mass of hair. Her languid body married with its full length the contour of every couch. She held mixing-bowls full of foaming wine, with her arms encrusted in translucent emeralds. She had a strange way of lifting one finger and shaking her head. Her smiles had their deep source in the rivers of Africa. Instead of spinning, she would shred the wool patiently into tiny flecks that floated round about her.

Lucretius wanted nothing more ardently than to melt into that beautiful body. He squeezed her metallic hands and placed his lips against her dark, scarlet mouth. The words of love were exchanged and sighed out; they made them laugh and became worn out. The pair of them brushed against the supple and opaque veil that separates lovers. Their desire grew ever fiercer and sought to become the other. It reached an inflamed extremity that is released over the flesh rather than deep in the entrails. The African withdrew into her remote heart. Lucretius grew desperate at being unable to consummate his love. The woman grew haughty, grim and silent, like the atrium and the slaves. He wandered into the library.

It was there that he unfolded the scroll on which a scribe had copied out the treatise of Epicurus.

No sooner had he done so than he understood the huge variety of things in this world, and the futility of trying to turn them into ideas. The universe seemed to him similar to the little flecks of wool the African scattered through his halls. The bees in their clusters and the ants in their columns and the leaves in their moving tissue were like groups and sub-groups of atoms. And within his own body he felt an invisible mutinous people, eager to fly apart. The gaze seemed to him to be more subtly embodied rays, and the image of the beautiful barbarian was now a pleasant and colourful mosaic; he felt the end of this infinity of movement to be sad and vain.

He viewed the bloodied factions of Rome, with their armed and insulting partisans and claimants, as analogous to the swirling of troops of atoms dyed with the same blood, fighting for some obscure supremacy. And he understood that the dissolution that comes with death was nothing other than the releasing of this turbulent mass that rushes on to a thousand further futile movements.

So when Lucretius had received instruction from the scroll of papyrus, on which the Greek words were interwoven with each other like the atoms of the world, he went out into the forest through the black porch of the tall ancestral house. He saw the stripy backs of the piglets, with their snouts still snuffling at the ground. Next, slashing through the thicket, he was once more in the middle of the serene temple in the forest, and his eyes plunged into the blue well of the sky. And it was there that he placed his repose.

From there he contemplated the teeming immensity of the universe; all the stones, all the plants, all the trees, all the animals, and every single man, in all his colour, with all his passions and his instruments, and the history of the most diverse things, and their birth, their diseases, and their death. And as part of all-encompassing and necessary death, he perceived the individual death of his African bride. And he wept.

He knew that tears spring from a special movement of little glands underneath the eyelids, and that they are caused by a procession of atoms arriving from the heart, and that the heart in turn has been struck by a succession of coloured images emanating from the surface of the body of the beloved woman. He knew that love was caused by nothing more than the swelling of atoms which desire to join with other atoms. He knew that grief at the death of a loved one is the worst of all earthly illusions, because the dead person has ceased to be unhappy and to suffer, while he who is left to mourn does no more than afflict himself with his own miseries and dream darkly of his own death. He knew that there remained of us no simulacrum to shed tears for our own corpse laid out at our feet. And yet, for all his close knowledge of grief, and love and death— that they are but vain images when contemplated from the calm space where he would seal himself off— he continued nevertheless to weep, and to desire love and to fear death.

Which is why, on returning to the tall and gloomy ancestral house, he went up to the beautiful African, who was brewing something up in a metal pot on the fire. For she too had been thinking, and her thoughts had joined the deep source of her smile. Lucretius looked at the boiling liquid on the brazier. He lightened bit by bit and became like a green turbulent sky. And the beautiful African shook her head and lifted her finger. Then Lucretius drank off the potion. No sooner had he done so than he lost his reason, and he forgot the Greek words on the scroll of papyrus. And for the first time, because he was mad, he knew love. And in the night, having been poisoned, he knew death.

  1. French Decadent Tales (Oxford World’s Classics) (2013-05-09). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

La Sorcière: Jules Michelet and the Literature of Evil

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La Sorcièreis one of the more reputable books on magic…
………..– Georges Bataille

Evil attracted them, almost overwhelmed them: without evil, their existence would have been … vacant. They were right, those ancient philosophers who identified fire with the principle of the universe, and with desire, for desire burns, devours, annihilates. At once agent and destroyer of beings, it is somber, it is infernal by essence.
………..– Emile Cioran

Thomas Ligotti in his famed short story “Medusa” will reiterate a refrain that is surely the leitmotif of all those dark and vitalistic counter-currents of the literature of evil and the philosophical peregrinations against which we comprehend those who know the true liberty of the rebel: “We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.”1

Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière, originally published in Paris in 1862. A text that would fascinate certain of the late decadents and moderns. As he said of it: “The object of my book was purely to give, not a history of Sorcery, but a simple and impressive formula of the Sorceress’s way of life, which my learned predecessors darken by the very elaboration of their scientific methods and the excess of detail. My strong point is to start, not from the devil, from an empty conception, but from a living reality, the Sorceress, a warm, breathing reality, rich in results and possibilities.” (Michelet, p. 326)

The Japanese anime Kanashimi no Belladonna would be inspired by this work and stage the erotic and violent enactments of a dark world of rape and rapacious vitalism. It follows the narrative of Michelet’s Sorceress and her resistance against feudalism and the Catholic Church which is fudged into that of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc), whom Belladonna’s Jeanne is revealed to be, and her execution by burning.

Georges Bataille would devote one of his essays in The Literature of Evil on Michelet and his work La Sorcière. In it he would show forth the true power of art as that ability to stage manage anxiety: the “arts … incessantly evoke these derangements, these lacerations, this decline which our entire activity endeavors to avoid” (p. 68).2 One is reminded of the poet Rimbaud who practices the “long, immense and reasoned deranging of all his senses” in order to reach a transcendent state, which he calls the “unknown.”3

Bataille in his discussion of sacrifice and its dark history in the human corruption of society and its criminal bonds would see it as the supreme form of excess and immanent transgression, a fusion and a degradation so compelling that all participants were united in the evil lust of sex and violence. Bataille would disagree with Michelet’s almost beneficent view of the Black Mass, the malefice sacrificial darkness that was the rapture of an infinite defilement. One Bataille would describe as an “unrecognized greatness of ritual defilement which symbolized a nostalgia for infinite defilement” (p. 72). We must remember this was the age of decadents, but also of the world of the naturalists; a time when both religion and the religion of Reason were still working their political, social, and personal disenchantments out through the literary circles of the day.

“It is to Michelet’s credit to have accorded these nonsensical feasts the value due to them, ” says Bataille. Michelet was able to see the political anguish of the pagani, of peasants and serfs, victims of a dominant order, and a dominant religion.” (p. 72) Michelet was able to reach down into the lives of the neglected and abandoned, the dark hinterlands of the poor and outcast and pull them up into the realm of art where we could see these broken reflections as the dark face of our own beleaguered humanity. Michelet, a defender of women, of “exaltation of women and love”; a book that would at first find itself banned, and scandalized, only to finally be published by the Brussels Lacroix and Verboeckhoven – who, as Bataille reminds us published that great Book of Evil, Les Chants de Maldoror. (p. 73)

Bataille will align our need for the liberty of evil with excess and intensity, the need to go beyond the limits of social and human survival. He would provide an anecdote on Michelet who he felt never resolved the issue of evil’s intensity, and would impose limits to its excesses. Bataille relates that at times when Michelet was no longer feeling inspired and needed something to awaken his sense of evil he would walk the streets into the dark districts till he would come upon the stench of death, then he would breathe in deeply, having ‘got as close as possible to the object of disgust’, and return home to work. (p. 75) In a final note Bataille will relate: “I cannot but recall his face – noble, emaciated, with quivering nostrils.” (p. 75)

  1. Ligotti, Thomas (2012-06-25). Noctuary (Kindle Locations 388-389). Subterranean Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Georges Bataille. The Literature of Evil. (Marion Boyards, 2006)
  3. Arthur Rimbaud. A Season in Hell and The Illuminations Kindle Edition.

Richard Calder: Dead Girls – The Deco-Punk City; Kathe Koja – Voice of our Hour

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Richard Calder

I couldn’t resist quoting a passage from Richard Calder’s trilogy Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things:

“This was an art nouveau city, a deco city, its sinewy, undulating lines and geometric chic copied from the fashions of the aube du millénaire and imposed on the slums of its twentieth-century inheritance and the sublimities of the past. Again, the pall of greenness descended, a peasouper, a gangrenous membrane, a steamy decay of tropical night. Monorails, skywalks, with their hoards of winepressed humanity, passed above us; autogyros too, with their fat-cat cargoes, hovering above the city’s stagnant pools like steel-hulled dragonflies. Once more, the lightning, and the rain began, coagulating the green tint of the night so that we seemed to be moving through an ocean’s depths. Green was that year’s colour; green, the colour of perversity; a green luminous as a certain pair of eyes.”

Calder heavily influenced by the symbolists and French decadents writes biopunk, or post-cyberpunk fiction that brings back the rich detail of decadent overlays, but with that eye for the streamlined functionalism of the modern turn toward artifice and art deco’s elaborations and motifs. If you’ve not read his work it’s a definite great choice for the linguistic power alone.

Kathe Koja

Under the Poppy: a novel among her other achievements is an exploration of that sensual darkness of the body and mind few of us understand much less wish to visit. A parable set in Victorian England, her deft handling of sex and violence, the dark erotic heart of love is superb and carefully gathers the threads of the decadents motifs into a keening as clear as it is subtle. She’s one of those writers either you love or hate. For me the decadents and symbolists always held a fond place. The closure of a world upon itself in its turn toward the dark frontiers of the heart through forms of perversity will always awaken our imaginations. Most of the time we want to stand in the sunlight like gods without a body, but then it comes back: I, do, after all have a body… and, it knows things I do not know with my conscious being. I still think Camille Paglia in her Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson captured the uniqueness of this darker erotic element in literature. 

With books like the Cipher, about a black hole that transforms one into otherness… In Skin she explores the performance art scene, artistic vision evolves into dementia… Bad Brains in which an artist suffers strange and powerful hallucinations and seizures, during which he sees and tastes things of the world in new ways and relations. Koja is a niche writer, a decadent with a dark bent and delivery. Not for everyone. But for those who know she, too, is a member of the strange club of the dark erotic that blends the fantastic and the real in disturbing ways that awaken you from your death-in-Life.