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On Shooting at Elephants | The Nation

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On Shooting at Elephants

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They laughed when I sat down with these two writers--and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! "I came to find my mind's disorder sacred," said the poet on a camel. "Good prose is like a window pane," said the novelist who shot elephants.

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell's dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: "I is somebody else.")

Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career "as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user," as well as "an emergency exit from the house of convention" for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored "to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia"--just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.

Whereas Orwell's name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been "disappeared" or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is "Myanmar." In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that "all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed." So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.

And both for a season or so professed revolutionary socialism. Even if the moment passed like measles, Rimbaud was there for the Paris Commune, and Orwell was there for the Spanish Republic, and these, of course, are two of the biggest Super Bowl games in the left's long losing streak, and it makes you want to weep.

Robb reminds us that the massacre of the Communards in 1871 "was the bloodiest week in French history: a savage humiliation of the proletariat. Thousands were shot, inexpertly tortured or shipped to the penal colonies without a proper trial. Women carrying bottles in the street were bayoneted by soldiers who had heard of the mythical, bomb-throwing 'pétroleuses.' More people died during la Semaine Sanglante than in the Reign of Terror or the Franco-Prussian War." While the Rimbaud article in my Britannica omits any mention of the Commune, the young poet yo-yo'd in and out of all of it, and Robb suggests that he may have been raped by a gang of soldiers while trying to slip through the lines a couple of weeks before the slaughter, after which he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant--announcing the poet as Romantic Lucifer and Promethean Satan, whose job it was to rescue man from God.

On the open wound of the Spanish Republic, Jeffrey Meyers quotes Albert Camus: "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy." Certainly it was personal for Orwell. On his first Barcelona stop, he found a socialist community "where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking," and dining rooms in the luxury hotels had been turned into canteens for the militia. But his second time around, he saw fat men eating quails while children begged for bread, and the commissars were hunting down his anarchist friends like deer. And then he took a bullet in the throat.

Anyway, both of them were lonely guys: vagabonds and vanishing acts. And they somehow hang together, coincidental and corresponding, in a rainbow arc from the Cult of the Artist to the Writer on the Barricades to Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee and Bob Dole for Viagra. In Democracy, Joan Didion also quotes Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."

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