More than 200 pages into my novel Housebreaking the Muse, I’m starting to look for clues concerning the work it’s trying to accomplish. You see, I try not to force themes, but rather discover them as the work unfolds, then refine my ideas through the revision process. I know the notion is likely not much in favor in these reactionary times, but I believe the writer of fiction can charge the work with a certain depth and punch by making the writing process one of discovery as opposed to one strictly of intention. I suppose when someone asks “What are you writing about?” I shouldn’t answer “A novel haunted by the figure of Jacques Rigaut,” but rather “I’m writing to figure out why I’ve embarked on this novel haunted by Jacques Rigaut.”
Certainly, the creative act lies at the novel’s heart; the nature of the creative act. But there are other themes and aspects at play. Today, I’m thinking about the idea of suicide in Housebreaking the Muse.
Rigaut famously declaimed “Try to stop a man who walks around with suicide pinned to his lapel.” So, naturally, suicide is central to this work. But in what way? Rigaut called suicide a “vocation,” but wasn’t this vocation a kind of art? If so, what are the ethics involved? To the extent that JR is remembered more for the shape he gave his life than for the shape he gave his writing, he perhaps succeeded in creating a lasting work of art. But was his life really art? If so, what does that work of art say to us?
Action, an avant garde journal of the day that published one of JR’s early pieces, argued that the artist’s, the writer’s, the poet’s creations were little more than shavings on the workshop floor, that the artist’s true work was his or her life. This is an idea, to my mind, JR would surely have trafficked in. One can make the argument, as I seem to be doing in Housebreaking the Muse, that JR took this assertion to heart and dedicated himself to making his life a walking, talking work of art. The dandyism, the everyday decisions based on a roll of the dice, the pleasure seeking, the drugs, even the abandonment (more or less) of writing all, to my mind, seem to have been calculated by JR to shape the myth of “Jacques Rigaut” (and even of alter ego “Lord Patchogue”). His long-promised suicide simply set his work in the necessary frame.
Because I believe one is free to leave one’s life if one so chooses, I have no problem with the suicide of JR per se. However, I also believe JR’s life and death were complicated by acquaintances complicit in JR’s myth making and willfully blind to the underlying stresses (an much else) that pushed him into such and extreme and literal pursuit of the Action ethos. I believe JR came to realize his project was a grave mistake, hence his attempts near the end of his life to seek treatment for his drug abuse and depression. I think, ultimately, Jacques realized the error in “thingifying” himself, a realization I read between the lines of the anguished, lonely letters he sent from New York.
One wonders, however, whether on his return from New York to Paris his old friends still treated him as “Rigaut” (the work of art) rather than as, simply, Jacques, the man wounded by early traumas and needy for the love of friends. For my Rigaut, at least, this misguided reception on the part of his acquaintances is indeed the case, hence the kind of double bind in which he becomes trapped. And so, I think there is a kind of pathetic legitimacy to Rigaut’s claim “I am a moral person,” particularly when set against those who might have helped him repair his mind and find another way to make art (or not!).
Burke, the character in my novel attempting years later to recover Rigaut and his work, becomes infected by the suicide bug. I’ll consider what’s going on with that narrative thread in a future post. Other emerging themes from Housebreaking the Muse I’m likely to take up in future posts include mirrors/reflection, parallel lives and events, language and slang, the triumph of mediocrity, and the attraction-repulsion some artists feel for their work.
2 thoughts on “What’s Going On In Housebreaking the Muse?”
When reading your post it occurred to me that the usual way of defining the life of someone who commits suicide could be misguided. After all, it’s only the last thing that they do.
Bear with me here a moment . . .
If I happen to die while opening a can of sardines, does that act define my life? I like sardines, and I have eaten them my entire life, sometimes more and sometimes less. I’ve just written about my fondness for sardines. But I wouldn’t want to be remembered as “that guy who ate sardines”. I don’t consider it the central fact of my life, or what passes for my creative output.
I think what is happening here is a kind of cognitive bias towards people, artists mostly, who commit suicide. Some of them are defined by that act, “that guy who committed suicide”, and others are defined by their work.
It’s hard, or maybe even impossible to divide the artist’s life from their work.
My professors were adamant about divorcing biography from creative output, and some of my colleagues and acquaintances share that opinion. I’m not sure that it is possible, because we are curious monkeys at heart. I do believe a grain of salt is obligatory when making the connection between the two.
I understand (because you’ve explained it to me) that Rigaut made this a central raison d’être of both his work and life. I’m not completely convinced that it is the most interesting facet of his existence. However, you’re only 200 pages in, right?
Looking forward to the rest of the journey.
Somehow, though I seem to have approved it, I totally missed your comment! So, apologies for having inadvertently ignored it.
As always, thanks for reading. I suspect the key part of the post you’re reacting to is this:
“To the extent that JR is remembered more for the shape he gave his life than for the shape he gave his writing, he perhaps succeeded in creating a lasting work of art. But was his life really art? If so, what does that work of art say to us?”
And also, perhaps, this:
“His long-promised suicide simply set his work in the necessary frame.”
I agree with you that the most interesting aspect of JR’s life was not the suicide. (More on that in a bit.) However, the suicide is the big sloppy enchilada that can’t be removed from JR’s plate! And, good or bad, that’s what he’s remembered for. Part of this novel is, in fact, a reaction to that. Consequently, I think one way to approach his “vocation,” or his living out of the _Action_ ethos–this idea of self-as-art [artifact?]–is to use it as a foil for the “genuine” JR, the JR who (too late) realizes the mistaken path his project has put him on but who, by then, could not find a way to stop this thing he had set in motion.
So, set against the JR going around declaiming “Suicide is my vocation” etc. I see the JR unmasked in his private moments, which this novel has much more to do with. For instance, though he publicly renounced writing, and was known to have destroyed much of what he did write, he never really gave it up (as the fragmentary manuscripts discovered in his room at Vallée-aux-loups attest). Much of the JR sections of the novel have to do with uncovering the imagination behind both the lost works and the fragmentary texts that survive.
Rigaut sought to make himself a work of art, to turn himself into a living myth. His death created even more myth. His friend Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who later went from being a fellow Dada to Nazi sympathizer, used a superficial approximation of JR as grist for his highly moralistic novel Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle turned it into a film in the 60s). The “true” JR, however, remains lost. Part of the work of this novel is to recuperate the JR buried beneath the myths–both those of his own creation and those created by others (Drieu, Breton) for their own reasons.
Thanks for the stimulation and for giving me more to think about!