(The mad king comes in many forms; portrait of Max Ernst by Aeron Alfrey; detail from the slider image on the main page. Used with kind permission.)
“Elevated above all other beings, he is also degraded below all; man is sublime and abject, great and wretched, strong and powerless, all in one. His consciousness always places before him a goal he can never reach, and his existence is torn between his incessant striving beyond himself and his constant relapses beneath himself. ” — Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (with apologies for the archaic gendering)
“The course of true literature never did run smooth.” — Eric Basso, “Romantics.”
I recently came across a poem of Eric Basso’s on the internet that put a few pieces of the puzzle of his criticism together for me. The poem, “Secular Superstition,” tells of someone who, eager to adventure in the exotic world, ends up in a house full of siblings with books “in languages/we can never hope to understand/though months have been spent/attempting to decipher a single page.” The seeker forgets his quest and instead chooses “to explore/the infinite mysteries of this house.” The poem ends with “the Mad King’s laughter” rising up into the house from the cellar.
I realized after reading it that, among other things, the poem reflects the inspiration and the urge for writing the sort of essays that comprise a book such as Decompositions: Essays on Art and Literature, 1973 – 1989. The poem is not reducible to just that, but there are echoes in it of the compulsion to examine the boundless meanings that a reader can find in literature (and perhaps all art). There is also a sense of abandoning the “real world” and settling, hermit-like and amnemonic, into the contemplation of the page, of the symbolic. The combination of slippage and intensity, of eschewing the disappointments of the “real world” while diving into the infinities of the word, is a dynamic that arises in Decompositions and that is dissected and composted in the book’s essays.
The idea of reflection is important when reading this book, because while it is categorized as criticism, it is primarily a catalog of reflections, of deep engagements with Art (in the catholic sense of creating something “more than of common significance rather than the more narrow idea of painting or visual art). Decompositions collects Basso’s writings on art and literature over a sixteen year period, and to call them criticism is to misrecognize what Basso is doing and what a reader can glean from them. Some are capsule literary biographies, others are mediations, and others read like critical exegeses. The “like” there is important to note because these essays do not submit to the format or goal of the standard essay of criticism or of a philosophical exegesis. They are hermeneutic unspoolings of art aided by looking at the life of the artists as we can know them today, and those too must be unraveled and examined, rendered in words with an unflinching discernment that seeks not to “understand” them, but to situate them in relation to what they made and what those makings did, and do, in turn to the observer.
Basso writes of dream-travelers, of seekers beyond the world that encompassed and tried to smother them. They are historical personages and characters on the page: they are novelists, painters, dramatists, beggars, deviants, prophets. Some are decadent, others insane, many of them sad and battered by life. Their artistic creations make, unmake, and remake them. Their creations are messages to their fellow humans and to eternity. This sounds rather grandiose, and sometimes it was, but Basso aptly shows the reader that art is sometimes about “immortality,” but more often about dealing with mortality, with the coming of Death and the hard, wearing road we all travel to it. These artists are not just trying to come to terms with Death so much as with their lives leading up to that inevitability, with their identities and experiences as living people. And they choose weird, unsettling, and chatoyant pathways to fulfill their goals.
Basso introduces the readers to artists they may know and casts them in a new light or, rather, shows that the shadows they have left us are not so simple to apprehend. Revealing a few choice facts about Victor Hugo, for example, suddenly complicates how one looks at his most famous works. I now look at my favorite Goya painting, Isabel de Porcel, in a very different manner after reading Basso’s essay “The Shadows,” where the struggle between beauty and the monstrous fuses the two perspectives In the details as much as the more general pronouncements Basso alters the optics of looking at art by uncovering and meditating upon complications, often those that emerge from the humanity of the artists themselves. What he says about Alfred Jarry carries over in some form to the other artists he writes about: “As both a thinker and an artist, he defies characterization. The usual characterizations do him little justice” (p. 25).
In fact, Basso demonstrates that the common preconceptions about artists, forms, and movements are facile and hollow, meant to assuage rather than confront ideas about what emerges from the interplay between art, identity, and reality. Whether discussing Edgar Allen Poe or Gérard de Nerval, Basso circles around and returns to dreams, delusions, and disappointments frequently as pathways into their art. The grotesque does not figure prominently in his criticism; it saturates it, feeds it even as it threatens to consume it as it did the artists themselves, as it does life itself. Basso’s implicit point is that to purify the art, or to make it merely a fuzzy reflection of the artist’s life, to see only one sort of vitality in it, limits our understanding of art and life. Sometimes Basso himself steps over that line, but he strives, and often succeeds, in demonstrating that absence, shadow, instability, and unknowability are necessary to the production of art and that these elements are, paradoxically, present and illuminating, codifying and graspable, in the interrogation and recognition of art.
This is all because, as Basso demonstrates in the central essay of the collection entitled “Annihilation,” meanings of all sorts, from the most viscerally emotional and embodied to the most abstractly calculated, exist in the tension between these Furies. There is no such thing as nothing; “a blind man’s house had no need of mirrors” (p. 50). There must be something for nothing to be possible, and thus nothing is impossible. This is not the same as saying that Death is inevitable, that all things come to an end, because we the living move inevitably towards oblivion and are inexorably taken apart by that motion. We create meaning, create art, to try to grasp what is obvious or fleeting or incomprehensible, not what isn’t there. Parroting reality in art cannot accomplish such goals, does not accomplish them, because art is the mirror that we use to look back at ourselves and the world and the ceaseless hurling forward to the end of something.
There are too many ideas to unpack from “Annihilation” in this short essay, but one element that emerges from reading it, and from there the rest of Decompositions, is that by questioning nothing artists can expose the ambivalence that runs through human existence and creates new mirrors that reveal through their warping of our vision that certitude hides more than it exposes. A corollary of this element is that everyone is strange in Basso’s gaze; weirdness, in the literary and literal sense, is all around, and powerful art can emerge from it. The constant undermining of assumptions that run through these essays are destabilizing and edifying; in “Romantics,” Basso not only challenges the notion of who the Romantics were, but implicitly argues that the label is simultaneously foolish and absurd. A closer examination unveils a panoply of philosophical and fantastical elements in their work that exceeds the label and cracks open their work richer, darker interpretations.
Basso opens a series of textual portals to worlds most of are probably unaware of, both in terms of the artists and the works he discusses, and in the way that he analyzes (a poor word in this context) them. These writers and painters are fell beings, terribly human, damaged by the inevitable wearing-down of the world, staggered by betrayals, failures, and crises, trying to subjugate their own faults and excesses to strive for something else. Goya’s artwork becomes a mirror into his psyche, but not in terms of revealing truth; rather, in finding depths of emotion and ambivalence. Balzac’s realism is revealed as a “rumor” about halfway through the book, but you realize by that point that much of what we assume about all of the art that Basso is discussing is also rumor, aesthetic hearsay that has been overlaid upon eras and artists, theoretical gossip that simplifies and flattens and limits what can be gleaned from these works.
Delusion and truth perform an eternal dance, half-ritual, half pirouette on the edge of an ambivalent abyss. In “The Heart in Winter,” his second, more detailed discussion of Gérard de Nerval, Basso writes:
Yet to make of a woman an object of private worship, flattering though it may be, is to deny her existence in and of itself, to create a goddess, a madonna, a sacred whore, a Queen of Sheba whose face must remain forever veiled, for to reveal it would be to uncover the face of Death, the annihilation of the Worshipper.
Art is not just about creating something ineffable, enduring, or wounding; it is also an illusion that contains our obsessions and flaws, a reflection that the artist uses to lens the world around them. Like Stéphane Mallarmé gazing into the mirror to lose his own face in the background, sometimes Art breaks down the walls of what is actual and what is not. The artist can become lost in their creation and lose touch with the world. This is not a shocking revelation, but Basso, like some of the artists he observes, takes this insight to more tenebrous places along currents that can sometimes feel overdetermined: “But, living, we already know the horror, and the ugliness within ourselves is more terrible than anything the grave may bring” (p. 118).
What is wonderfully, refreshingly macabre about Decompositions is that it unflinchingly looks at madness, excess, longing, and loathing without bourgeois judgment, without assuming that common ideas of morality and art apply. The writings here try to… not strip away pretension or assumption, but demonstrate how sheer and incomplete they are. These essays are Weird in the most powerful and affecting ways; they speak to fate, to what we feel inside in the worst of times, to what we try to articulate but often cannot, what we dream in secret moments that we hope no one else can see, what bedevils and drives us at the same time. These artists try to uncover and flaunt all that: the abject, the unspoken, and the recondite, madly and obsessively trying to make something to ward off the phantom nothing that pursues us through our lives.