Thursday, May 19, 2011

Literary celebrity

The cultural historian Daniel Boorstin remarked that “[t]he celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.” A case in point is the current darling of NYC’s bon ton crowd, Jon-Jon Goulian, who has just published a memoir entitled “The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.” According to the thumbnail sketch in the New York Times, Goulian is “a former baby sitter, law clerk, freelance personal trainer, and assistant at the New York Review of Books.” At the age of 42, he presents himself as “an androgynous man-child with hermit tendencies.”

So far, so trendy. Yet to become a literary celebrity, be it Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, or Camille Paglia, one must be something more: a real writer--which even though has perpetrated a book, Mr. Goulian clearly is not.

In fact, the intersection of celebrity and literature was the subject of a stimulating presentation I attended last night at Book Culture, a Morningside Heights establishment that ranks as one of my favorite haunts of this kind. Jonathan Goldman spoke about his new book “Modernism is the Literature of Celebrity.” In the book (which I have not read), Mr. Goldman writes about a number of figures: in the presentation he dealt mainly with Oscar Wilde, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. [See the comment he kindly posted, infra.]

While the vibes at the event were most pleasant, I could not help but think that focusing on such English and American figures revealed parameters that were too narrow, too reflective of Anglophone chauvinism.

In fact Wilde was known for his French connection. He was reputed to be carrying a copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ “A Rebours,” that bible of decadentism, under his arm when he was taken away from his last trial to be consigned to Reading Gaol. He had written Salome in French, and was to die in a hotel on the left bank in Paris.

It would seem then that the immediate antecedents of Anglo-American literary celebrity lie in France. To this model I will return presently.

However, the first literary celebrity was undoubtedly Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), an Italian poet, playwright, and satirist who, from the safety of his perch in Venice, wielded immense influence on contemporary art and politics. To him is rightly ascribed the invention of modern literary pornography.

When Hanno the elephant, pet of Pope Leo X, died in 1516, Aretino penned a satirical pamphlet entitled "The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno." The fictitious will cleverly mocked the leading political and religious figures of Rome at the time, including Pope Leo X himself. In his career as a scandal monger, Aretino took up the tradition of the Roman pasquinade, as seen in the popular rhymes placed on the famous figure of the Pasquino.

Apart from both sacred and profane texts—a satire of high-flown Renaissance neo-Platonic dialogues is set in a brothel—and comedies such as La cortigiana and La talenta, Aretino is remembered above all for his letters, full of literary flattery that could turn to blackmail. After they had circulated widely in manuscript, he collected the letters, issuing them in several successive printed volumes to burnish his image. In so doing he won notoriety and many enemies--but such is the price of fame.

Aretino was a close friend of the great painter Titian, who painted his portrait at least three times. He is said to have died of suffocation from laughing too much.

During the eighteenth century, Voltaire is the outstanding example of literary celebrity. His case is, however, bound up with the larger issue of the self-promotion of the major figures of the Enlightenment, especially Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

However, the truly important exemplar for own times, reflecting as he does modern techniques of journalism and publicity, was surely the poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). He produced his best work while in his teens, and gave up writing altogether at the age of 21. He then went to East Africa, where he became a gun runner.

The foundations of Rimbaud’s fame were laid by his connection with the eminent symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Following the advice of a friend, the provincial Rimbaud sent Verlaine two letters containing several of his poems, including the hypnotic "Le Dormeur du Val" (The Sleeper in the Valley), in which certain facets of Nature are depicted and called upon to comfort an apparently sleeping soldier. Verlaine, who was intrigued by Rimbaud, sent a reply that stated, "Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you," along with a one-way ticket to Paris. In late September 1871 Rimbaud arrived, residing briefly in the older poet’s apartment. Verlaine, who was married to the seventeen-year-old and pregnant Mathilde Mauté, had recently left his job and taken up drinking. In later published recollections of his first sight of Rimbaud, Verlaine described him at the age of seventeen as having "the real head of a child, chubby and fresh, on a big, bony rather clumsy body of a still-growing adolescent, and whose voice, with a very strong Ardennes accent, that was almost a dialect, had highs and lows as if it were breaking."

Rimbaud and Verlaine began a torrid affair. While Verlaine had probably engaged in prior homosexual experiences, it remains uncertain whether the relationship with Verlaine was Rimbaud's first. During their time together they led a wild, Bohemian life spiced by absinthe and hashish, which they seemed to believe would enhance their poetic powers. Rimbaud’s youth and outrageous behavior scandalized the Parisian literary world.

The stormy relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine eventually brought them to London in September 1872. During this time, Verlaine abandoned his wife and infant son (both of whom he had abused in his alcoholic rages). Rimbaud and Verlaine lived in appalling poverty in Bloomsbury and Camden Town, scraping a living together mostly from teaching, supplemented by an allowance from Verlaine's mother. Rimbaud spent his days in the Reading Room of the British Museum where "heating, lighting, pens and ink were free." All the while, the relationship between the two poets grew increasingly bitter.

By late June 1873, Verlaine had grown frustrated with the relationship and returned to Paris, where he quickly began to mourn Rimbaud's absence. On 8 July, he telegraphed Rimbaud, instructing him to come to the Hotel Liège in Brussels; Rimbaud complied at once. On the morning of July 10, Verlaine bought a revolver and ammunition. That afternoon, "in a drunken rage," Verlaine fired two shots at Rimbaud, one of them wounding the 18-year-old in the left wrist.

Dismissing the wound as superficial, Rimbaud did not initially seek to file charges against Verlaine, but Verlaine’s erratic behavior afterwards caused him to change his mind. This was a mistake, for after his arrest for attempted murder, Verlaine was subjected to a humiliating medico-legal examination. He was also interrogated with regard to both his intimate correspondence with Rimbaud and his wife's accusations about the nature of his relationship with Rimbaud. Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison.

After traveling about for several years, Rimbaud set up shop in East Africa as a dealer in guns. At it happened, absence only enhanced the fame of the prodigy, and a kind of cottage industry grew up in France to promote what has been termed the “myth of Rimbaud.” He still fascinates, as this writer can personally attest.

This example shows that literary celebrity can involve scandal and notoriety. Yet is must also include literary quality, and that is a feature that Rimbaud and Verlaine share in abundance.

UPDATE. It may be that there are important dimensions of celebrity that are distinctly modern, going back a little more than one hundred and twenty years. These dimensions have to do with photography. The first episode has to do with unwanted publicity, yielding a kind of involuntary celebrity.

Between 1888 and 1890, Louis Brandeis (later a Justice in the US Supreme Court) and his law partner, Samuel Warren, wrote three scholarly articles published in the Harvard Law Review. The third, "The Right to Privacy," was the most important, with legal scholar Roscoe Pound saying it accomplished "nothing less than adding a chapter to our law."

Brandeis and Warren discussed "snapshot photography," a recent innovation in journalism, that allowed newspapers to publish photographs and statements of individuals without obtaining their consent. They argued that private individuals were being continually injured and that the practice weakened the "moral standards of society as a whole." They wrote:

"That the individual shall have full protection in person and in property is a principle as old as the common law; but it has been found necessary from time to time to define anew the exact nature and extent of such protection. Political, social, and economic changes entail the recognition of new rights, and the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the demands of society.

"The press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery. To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers....The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury."

Legal historian Wayne McIntosh holds that "the privacy tort of Brandeis and Warren set the nation on a legal trajectory of such profound magnitude that it finally transcended its humble beginnings." State courts and legislatures quickly drew on Brandeis and Warren's work. In 1905 the Georgia Supreme Court recognized a right to privacy in a case involving photographs. By 1909, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Utah had passed statutes establishing the right.

But what about individuals who do not care about privacy, but instead insist on the right to celebrity? To their aid came Edward Bernays who is generally recognized as the inventor of the profession of Public Relations. Bernays pioneered in the use of the Press Release as a device for achieving publicity.

Through modern technology, it seems, prominent individuals could "sculpt" their reputations, though not always successfully. Brandeis and Warren notwithstanding, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has recently been subjected to photographic magnification of his notoriety.

Others seek such fame--as long as through PR they can assert control over the nature of the images that secure it.



Blogger Stephen said...

Dos Passos was, I know, once widely read, but a celebrity? James Frey and J. T. Leroy, perhaps...

Rimbaud's "celebrity" was after the fact (after he left France), no?

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Goldman said...

Thanks for mentioning my book in your blog. To clarify: Dos Passos and Hemingway only appear in the epilogue of the voume, and I don't claim Dos Passos as a celebrity, but rather an astute commentator about celebrity.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

As the two preceding comments suggest, my knowledge of celebrity is pretty limited. I have never sought it--a wise decision, I think. I am content to reach the "happy few."

9:33 AM  

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