New Old Things
"Collectors," wrote Walter Benjamin, "are physiognomists of the world of things." Luc Sante is such a collector, rescuing materials from the dustbin (or used-record bin) of history. Whether tracking the origin of words like "funk" and "dope"; eulogizing an old New York of burned-out buildings and flamboyant addicts; listening to the Mekons and the blues; reading Apollinaire, Terry Southern and Tintin; looking at Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio and Farm Security Administration photographs; extolling cigarettes; or remembering his immigrant Belgian parents and soul-killing high-school job at a seedy factory molding nameless plastic parts, Sante traces the lineaments of a world that has not vanished because he is still writing about it. As he says of downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, "I was enthralled by decay and eager for more."
Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 collects mostly portraits, plus reviews and catalog essays. First published in places like Granta and the Village Voice, the selections are short but expansive. Subjects are writers, artists, musicians and their haunts--Francesco Clemente in 1985, painting murals at the Palladium on Fourteenth Street; Buddy Bolden in 1902, improvising "Funky Butt" at the Union Sons Hall in New Orleans. Sante's deep preoccupation is an outlaw history of Modernism in which avant-gardists and roustabouts sync up. Masters of the idiom include Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, Walker Evans and the anonymous rural photographers presented in Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip (1973). Certain innovators (Rimbaud, Dylan) loom as importantly as in other histories of the Modernist recognition (ecstatic, agonized) that "I is somebody else." Sante, however, selects his heroes not through survey or snobbism but by dint of a passionate gaze into the face of their work. It functions as a mirror.
Such fervent identification with aesthetics offers a method--one of few good ones--for forging a persona, a community and an ethos. This is another argument implied in Kill All Your Darlings, and it is grounded in autobiographical detail. As readers of the memoir The Factory of Facts (1999) know, Sante was born in Belgium in 1954 and arrived in the United States in the early 1960s. He grew up bilingual, bicultural and working-class. "I thought I might someday be a cartoonist or an historian or a researcher of the paranormal," he recalls. "Then, not long before my tenth birthday, a teacher told me I had talent as a writer, and for some reason that changed everything." Or rather, it brought everything together, since an author whose interests include Hergé--creator of Tintin, the "Euclid" of the comic form--and the bluesman's fabled pact with the devil at the crossroads--allegedly sworn by Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and others--has upheld that 9-year-old's ambitions. Sante's mother drilled him in French and was reluctant to speak English. His father was a socialist whose eventual Parkinson's and dementia were related to a lifetime of toxic factory labor. Thus, in the essay "The Injection Mold," when the teenage Luc arrives on the plastic-parts shop floor, he understands that the machine in question is not only a rig he operates but a rigid shape into which society pours the ductile materials of teenagers without privilege. He reads Céline while feeding the extruder, because his books "were all spat out in brief, angry bursts." Most kids in dead-end New Jersey jobs in 1970 were probably not reading Death on the Installment Plan in French. But then, such conscious self-fashioning from inherited oddments--either towering, glowering archetypes or "folk-lyric readymades"--also seems as American as rock 'n' roll.
Often, in these essays, what molds consciousness is rock 'n' roll. Or it is dope--a thing not high, not snooty but tinctured nonetheless with mystery.
It could mean "to poison," "to lubricate," "to medicate," "to adulterate," "to predict," "to figure out," or "to dawdle".... You could say that "dope," a purely and utterly American word, stands for the familiar unknown.... It is the stuff in the cabinet, under the stairs, out in the toolshed, in an unlabeled jar, pooled at the bottom of an old tin can, stuff you use without really knowing much about it, stuff that works but that you don't care to inquire too deeply about. This describes an enormous category in American life.
Sante, of course, does care to inquire deeply. He wears his research lightly. But, as his cultural histories Evidence (1992) and Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991) have shown, his fact collection is prodigious. He likes to fold one icon into another, as in parsing Dylan through John Berryman and Hart Crane, or to focus, like a novelist, on minor characters as lead-ins to the greats. Often the humble onlooker is himself, as in his reminiscence of living downstairs from Allen Ginsberg, who once complained to him about a loud stereo. Elsewhere we are reminded of John McKendry, curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum, who gave Mapplethorpe a decent Polaroid camera. Roy Stryker and Marion Post Wolcott, respectively head of and contributor to the Farm Security Administration, get mentions, as does Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie's sideman. Victor Hugo is considered less as a poet or national treasure than as a painter--a bit part within his own career--whose technique involved eccentric use of "soot, black coffee, fingerprints, fingernails, matchsticks, inkblots, stencils, sprays of water, the impression of cloth textures, of lace, of stones." In other words, Hugo--like all of Sante's "scalawags" and "mahatmas"--used dope.
With brief exceptions, the chosen ones are male. An admiring excursus on Patti Smith comes as an aside in the Mapplethorpe discussion, and Wolcott, Berenice Abbott and Helen Levitt are named under Evans's aegis. Georgette Magritte, the painter's wife, accompanies her husband; and Sante's own wife, the writer Melissa Holbrook Pierson (with whom he collaborated on O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors, published in 1999), makes a cameo in his review of the corporatized farce that was Woodstock '99. Apropos the one-hit wonders on the CD boxed set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, he observes, "Numerous are the hapless females apostrophized as 'Girl.'" That's about it. The imbalance is surprising in one so resourceful at finding avatars who fulfill and reflect his tastes. It's also the only aspect of Sante's writing that risks being tiresome, especially since one longs to hear his thoughts on, say, Claude Cahun, or Billie Holiday, or Kathy Acker--or some soulful iconoclast we don't yet know about, whom Sante would be uniquely qualified to find.
The crucial mention of a woman appears in the volume's dedication, to New York Review of Books co-founder and longtime editor Barbara Epstein. And true to form, if this marginalia is followed up, it opens voluminously. As befits a rags-to-riches literary protagonist, Sante's professional life began in the mailroom. He started there at the NYRB, became Epstein's assistant and developed into a frequent contributor. Some of the best pieces in the present collection first appeared in its pages, and Sante acknowledges that "she formed me as a writer." So the theme of elective affinity takes on another shade. Anyone who thinks to do so, surely, can outline a private pantheon in which real-time mentors and colleagues correlate with the adopted dead. But not everyone does think to do so. Such forgetfulness allows the web of relationships that embolden free and tough creative practice to atrophy. Sante's self-appointed task is to think carefully about what it means to appreciate, to imitate, to rebel against, to inherit--and thereby to construct a cultural matrix that permits some badass elbow room. Reminding us that serious readers of text and image learn by apprenticeship, he shows how the election of forebears and compatriots builds an ad hoc, transhistorical mutual-aid society, a gene pool of style. (This is why the dearth of women artists in the essays--as opposed to the marks that have clearly been made on Sante's life by living women--is noteworthy.) For, as Benjamin argues, past and present are dialectical. The past undergirds the present. But the present deciphers and recalibrates the past: "To renew the old world--that is the collector's deepest desire." Renewing the old world changes it.