New Old Things
An interesting exercise, then, would be to map the network of adjacencies spun out around the nodal point Luc Sante. Just one remove would connect Epstein's protégé to the great days of Partisan Review, where Epstein worked early on; or to her companion Murray Kempton and NYRB co-editor Robert Silvers; or to co-founders Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell. Brother critic Greil Marcus, who contributes an introduction to Kill All Your Darlings, joins a line into which Sante's Bard College students in the history of photography could be said to be grandfathered; the trajectory also points back through his parents' wartime experience in Belgium to touch the peasants and smallholders who were their forebears. Through Sante, Epstein and Co. come into constellation not only with undergrads and anxious émigrés but with High Times magazine, for whom Sante wrote the essay "Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?" Add in, among others, Buell Kazee and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who grace the classic Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith in 1951, since Sante contributed liner notes to the 1997 Smithsonian Folkways reissue. This won him a Grammy Award, another unlikely connection for midcentury literati and Walloon Catholics alike. Or take the raconteurs of the old New Yorker. It's true that in "A Riot of My Own," Sante ruefully recounts his attempt to write up a melee in Tompkins Square Park for "The Talk of the Town." "The piece here is in many ways disfigured by my pathetic attempts at New Yorker style," he remarks, and like most of his criticisms, it feels apt once he's pointed it out. Nevertheless, bards of dissolute gnosis like A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell exert their influence in his background, and reading parts of Kill All Your Darlings may put you so strongly in mind of E.B. White's Here Is New York that you'll want to reread it. Sure enough, Sante blurbed the book when it was reissued in 1999. It's one of many such introductions, glosses and commentaries that draw the web taut.
This nigh-obsessive productivity threatens to turn consideration of Sante's work into mere colorful lists. It would be remiss, however, to discuss Kill All Your Darlings without acknowledging two other major projects completed in 2007. The first was an exhibition, "The Museum of Crime and the Museum of God," curated for TriBeCa's Apex Art. Presenting 100 items from his personal collection of death letters, holy pictures, dime novels and torch songs, Sante's twinned "museums" foregrounded the raw materials that feed his research, celebrating the lurid and the mad. The second accomplishment, Novels in Three Lines, translates and introduces a series of faits divers, or "sundry events," edited for Le Matin in 1906 by Félix Fénéon. An "invisibly famous" newspaperman, anarchist and impresario of the Post-Impressionists, Fénéon arranged mayhem like haiku. Sante puts the triplets into a sinewy English that still sounds like French, and it's hard to imagine another writer who could have served so well:
Finding his daughter, 19, insufficiently austere,
Jallat, watchmaker of Saint-Étienne, killed her. It is
true that he has 11 children left.
There was a gas explosion at the home of Larrieux, in
Bordeaux. He was injured. His mother-in-law's hair
caught on fire. The ceiling caved in.
It's as if James Thurber were piloting Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre," which puts another kink in the affective lineage. Unlike Thurber, however--and like the gunrunner Rimbaud, but differently--Fénéon had a politics of the deed as well as of the word. (He was, for example, a defendant in a famous show trial following the 1894 assassination, by anarchists, of French President Sadi Carnot.) Sante emphasizes the mix of compassionate regard and amused brutality in Fénéon's treatment of misfortune, and in so doing revisits persistent questions about the social efficacy of art. His bandit Modernism does not discard the idea of welding word to act. But it frames the act as bemused, left-handed. Writing, as he knows, makes nothing happen--except that it calls together the tribe of stubborn nonjoiners and reminds them of their role as vocal witnesses. This is not nothing. To describe precisely, Sante suggests, remains a subtly, inefficiently, yet persistently radical endeavor.
As a summary of sundry events, then, compare a passage--longer than three lines, but still a compressive tour de force--from "My Lost City," Sante's paean to the downtown Manhattan of his raffish years:
When the blackout happened, on the evening of July 13, 1977, it briefly seemed as though the hour of reckoning had arrived, when all those outsiders would seize control. Naturally, no such thing occurred. The outsiders seized televisions and toaster ovens and three-piece suits and standing rib roasts and quarts of Old Mr. Boston and cartons of Newports and perhaps sectional sofas, but few would have known what to do with the levers of society had they been presented to them in a velvet-lined box. But then, my friends and I wouldn't have known either. For all the obvious differences between the SRO-dwellers and ourselves, we were alike in our disconnection from any but the most parochial idea of community. In the end the mob dissolved like a fist when you open your hand, and the benches on the Broadway traffic islands were repopulated by loungers occasionally pulling down a bottle hanging by a string from a leaf-enshrouded tree branch overhead.
As in the faits divers, consumerist trance and class antagonism, telling it like it is and mourning what it is not fit together seamlessly. The description slips from a Whitmanic-Ginsbergian catalog of potent but mundane luxuries into a Surrealist vision of the gears of power smuggled like diamonds in a heist. Revolution is not false but not feasible either, and the bohemians in their willing poverty are not exempt from the failure, if it is one. It probably is. A society that installs "site-specific drunks" might not deserve defense. Still, the bottle that dangles like fruit, that drops like a deus ex machina, manifests genius if you look at it right. The artist's community is parochial only when it forgets to see this way.
Sante writes what is often called "immaculate prose." Actually his sentences are maculate in exactly the right ways, lithe and tight but stained with musk and breath. Le mot juste is his lodestar, as it must be for any verbal maker. This is what "kill all your darlings" means. Attributed to William Faulkner, the rule exhorts a ruthless stamping out of treasured turns of phrase. Sante obeys. But he also complicates the maxim by matching it to a second epigraph, from a novel by Boris Vian. Another prototypical Santean character, the French Vian was a poet, translator, jazz musician, music critic and inventor who wrote crime fiction under the American-sounding pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. His weird policier of 1948, the title of which is translated "To Hell With the Ugly," is really called Et on tuera tous les affreux--roughly, "and we will kill all the awful."
Like call and response, the two phrases frame Sante's thought. They suggest that a critic of his ilk loves the things he writes about by nailing them into language. As Benjamin would be the first to admit, the "physiognomical" collector memorializes while appropriating and mastering, so that the looked-at thing henceforth travels the world tagged by the critic's interpretation, its provenance adjusted to include a new last word. In this way, however, the awful darlings remain unkillable. Wily and ever renewing, they cannot be completely known, which is why they merit anatomization in the first place. With each new old thing his eye and phrasing fall on, Sante picks up a mystery to unfold, smooth out and trickily refold. He claims it, and hands it on.