New Old Things

New Old Things

A new collection of short pieces by the prodigious and wide-ranging critic Luc Sante doubles as a history of Modernism’s outlaws.


“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.

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.

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