In my August 11 post I talked about how I learned of the French Dadaist, gigolo, addict, and suicide, Jacques Rigaut. I discussed how this inspired building a fiction around Rigaut, and included a translation from the posthumous collected works of Rigaut titled Écrits. Today, I offer an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Housebreaking the Muse, in which Rigaut appears. It’s the first of a series of first-person interior monologues set on the night of his suicide, November 9, 1929. It represents an attempt to make concrete the essence of Rigaut in language–or at least to make concrete the essence of my Rigaut.
Having made felo-de-se a vocation I suppose, ten years into my career and at last decided, following through with the ultimate acte gratuit constitutes retirement. Certainly, my commitment has run its course. If nothing else, I am a man of commitment. What a delicious motto I erected to to buttress my will: Just try to stop a man who walks around with suicide pinned to his lapel. Top that! Well, perhaps I overstate my case. I suppose some may see things differently. But I insist: to this act I’ve remained committed. The rest has only been window dressing. Truth be told, I’ve had doubts of late. The good doctors here have done their work, interrupted my compulsions, and, as the poisons drain from my body, my lust for them seems to wane. And now the drugs, having become one more species of boredom, cease to fascinate me, fail to amuse me. Society says this is a good thing. It’s nobel to kick your habits, a liberating experience. But, rather than liberated, I feel myself more than ever a slave to my vocation. I truly seek not to die, but how get around it? The arc of my career, like a delicate artillery shell streaming to its target, traces its inexorable path to the conclusion I conceived–can it be?–ten years ago. As it nears its resolution, it achieves an irresistible velocity.
Oughtn’t I start jotting these thoughts in my cahier? Even if only to tear up the notes and flush them in the toilet? Good lord! What a thought. That sort of thing is the work of an amateur. Poets write no notes. Professionals leave no notes. Lord Patchogue disdained the very act of note making. Let my body, its disposition, my clothing, the stain, the arrangement of this room, let all of it write my note: a fascinating read devoid of all the usual clichés. This is what it is to make oneself a work of art. Executed properly and with precision, those elements, the evidence, will say everything. Besides, to think it is to write it. No need for pen and paper or, worse, typewriter. The time for writing is over. There are people who know how to tune in, who read my words without benefit of ink and paper. Of this I am convinced. Those people read me now. Everyone else can ride their unicycles off the wire–I removed the safety net a long time ago.
Had you been following my histoire-sans-manuscrit serial style, you would know much of it has to do with time. I’m certain I’ve managed to escape it on a number of occasions, always, pity, returning to the point of origin and only fleetingly meeting myself on the way home. With shame, and a woeful nod to my intellectual shortcomings, I must confess I’ve just recently hit on the idea these all-too-infrequent expeditions were a question of time. I’d long considered these expeditions–such as the one launched at Cecil Stewart’s place on Oyster Bay wherein I entered side A of the mirror Jacque Rigaut and exited side B Lord Patchogue, everything and everyone else, apparently, having remained unchanged–I’d thought these expeditions exclusively a matter of space. But then, it could very well be space and time constitute opposite sides of the same coin. Is that Herr Einstein is talking about? And I’ve always been fond of flipping coins, especially as a means for resolving the hardest choices. Heads time, tales space: either way I win. But of course, I never lose! I suspect that by cutting time’s thread, which I’ve been unraveling these thirty years, I’ll find myself occupying a point on some other line. Lord knows what that will bring me, but I doubt it could be worse. Meantime, I pay careful attention to matters of personal hygiene, keep an orderly room, make nice with the doctors and the immaculates, receive the occasional visitor, and humbly request a day pass now and then to pay a last call (always careful to keep things light and insincere so as not to betray the finality) to a friend or acquaintance, sometimes shamelessly begging a loan to get me through another couple days and other times making partial payment on a loan past due with money borrowed from yet another benefactor. Call it degenerate flimflammery if you must, but all these friends of mine long ago deduced my scheme and continue to indulge me, whether out of a quaint politesse or a cold economics by which the fee is rendered for, if nothing else, having provided them a quiver of anecdotes for their next soirée: “Have I told you about the evening Jacques ….” Had I only kept a running ledger, a bookkeeper’s journal! That would have made a proper literary legacy.
Terminus in sight, I’m overwhelmed by memory. And like the so-called convalescent home in which I find myself, the ironically named Vallée aux Loups, my memory has come back to me dusty, antic, ornate, charming, and—surprise!—sentimental. I’d almost thought memory extinct: having made a palimpsest of self, having felt no organic connection to life, I hatched my myth of origin: I was born without navel. I invented and forsook family at will. I fed my soul, whose appetite was admittedly weak and whose stomach was weaker still, on the buffet of pleasures spread out before me and the idea of the provisional family. All of this takes its toll. Well, and yes, the heroin, too: like the booze, it has a way of both stopping time and displacing memory. Born anew into so many incarnations, tabula rasa at every rebirth, I’ve so far refused to indulge in the long look back. There was, after all, nothing to look back on, my being completely focused on that which I was becoming, my dreams animated by impossibilities. Memory, it seems to me, has a tendency to pin one down, much the way Drieu tried in la Valise Vide. But I always needed a malleable self: one cannot gracefully transform the sculpture whose clay has become brittle and stiff.
Still, memories persist as if to spite me. Like forgotten splinters, they surface. I pick at them, then hold them up to the light. I’ve found they form a haphazard anthology of the numerous “mes” I’ve created. Can it be I was a law student? Half-assed one to be sure, enrolled in the Faculty of Law only to keep the parents at bay. Anathema, to them, a son who fancied himself some sort of man of letters. So, I erected the facade of law student all the while feeding my literature habit and courting various piquant extravagances and curious species of pleasure. It was a hard bargain, but my role playing kept me on the parental dole. All well and good, but where now those lost strolls with Max among the Luco’s lawns, alleys, monuments, and flowers? Dreading asphyxiation in yet another dour seminar, I often fled the law to seek out Max and prowl the Jardin. So much better to feel sun on cheek and trade stupid thoughts, useless thoughts, sacred thoughts, and a sackful of profane ones, too, as we strolled past the Luco’s statuary, gazed at our reflections in the Grand Bassin, counted the windows in the Palais du Luxembourg, and speculated about the unwholesome deeds Marie de Medicis, and now politicians, carried out behind them. As we strolled, the monuments mocked us. Baudelaire, grimacing perhaps because bisected from the waist down–a punishment exacted by the sculptor for numerous offenses committed while on safari below the equator–the mute figure of Baudelaire seemed to hold us in a disdain equal to the reverence with which we gathered his flowers. Us! Fellow alumni of Lycée Louis-le-Grand–how disappointing! No matter: we didn’t hold it against him. Our impulse to emulate the master was only tempered by our complete empathy for his youthful lament: “I don’t feel I have a vocation for anything.” Charlie sold himself short: he alone understood that society considered certain pleasures evil, but made better sense the word “evil” by couching it in quotation marks. And poems. We vowed to follow his commandments, which he sanctified by having never committed to paper much less stone: Dress well. Do “evil.” Seek pleasure. Avoid labor. Inherit money. Spend freely. Burn Bridges. Reject substitutes. Lie authentically. Read Poe. Bau claimed no convictions because bereft of ambition. He denied all charges of vocation. Yet, what to make of the monument? The one cast in his likeness? The one whose fearsome scowl menaces milquetoast and maniac alike in the Jardin du Luxembourg? Certainly it was crafted and dedicated to celebrate an ambition, an achievement, a vocation. So, in the end, Baudelaire had his vocation, in spite of himself, just as I have mine. Max had no such opportunity. Ah, Max.
One brilliant May morning, again in the Luco, we invented a game in which we tossed our hats at the spikes stabbing out of the crown on Bertholdi’s scale model of Liberty Enlightening the World. Thanks to an erratic breeze, the trick proved more difficult than we at first imagined. Flexing our knees and assuming the studied pose of an adept (or was it that of an inebriated fencer?), we held our hats in the tips of our fingers and affected an air of focused gravity. Then, with a sudden flick of the wrist, we sent our chapeaux spikeward. More often than not, the wind warped our trajectories and the hats caromed off the bronze face of Lady Liberty to tumble and roll around her pediment. Dented, felt encrusted with dust, our lids were in a terrible state after several failed attempts. Then Max hit the mark. Voilà! By that time we’d attracted the attention of a few lurkers out on a Tuesday morning lark. While I’m sure a few recoiled in disgust, most stifled a smile over our antics and shook their heads in feigned disapproval. They had to look away for fear of laughing when Max climbed up on my shoulders, then right up the back of Lady Liberty herself, to retrieve his dusty lid from her crown of stiletto blades. The black from his shoes rubbed off onto my best jacket! Such were our mornings of pleasant truancy now lost to the whims of myth and memory….