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Aimez-Vous Apollinaire?

There is a certain kind of cultism that is encouraged by the way in which Mr. Steegmuller has chosen to write this first English biography of Guillaume Apollinaire. He begins by discussing at considerable length the question of Apollinaire’s paternity. No doubt this is a legitimate subject for a biographer, yet there has always been an unfortunate tendency, reminiscent of palm-reading and astrology, to derive Apollinaire’s entire character from his illegitimacy and his mixed Slavic and Italian temperament. This beginning is, to my mind, unfortunate, because it leads us at once to the Apollinaire of the cult—the mysterious Rabelaisian giant, the mal-aimé smiling through his tears, the hero and lover and practical joker, etc. This is the Apollinaire perpetuated by the countless books of memoirs and reminiscences that have emerged from the pre-world War I period, but one would hope that a biographer of Mr. Steegmuller’s gifts would go beyond this stereotype. Apollinaire criticism has reached the point where new avenues of exploration are possible, and Mr. Steegmuller (who sets as his goal in this book merely the establishment of “facts”) has missed an opportunity in not giving us a new Apollinaire. Such a book might have begun, for instance, with the quite new insights into the poet’s character that are to be found in Marie-Jeanne Durry’s study of Apollinaire’s religion.

Mr. Steegmuller has pursued the facts about Apollinaire with scholarly enthusiasm. He has interviewed government clerks, studied old documents, and gives in an appendix a moving account of an interview with Annie Playden, Apollinaire’s first Muse. But I find that he does not make sufficient use of a prime biographical source—the poet’s writings. There is relatively little analysis of Apollinaire’s prose writings, although Mr. Steegmuller has undertaken to challenge the notion that Apollinaire was an important critic of the arts. In fact, he holds Apollinaire partly responsible for the barbaric style of contemporary art criticism: “It (Les Peintres cubistes) is a curious volume, much of it written in the turgid, pseudo-metaphysical style that Apollinaire seems to have been the first to consider essential to a discussion of avant-garde art but which has since become all too familiar to readers of prefaces to art books and introductions to exhibitions by contemporary artists.” This is a thesis that should be backed up by textual analysis, but Mr. Steegmuller does not undertake his own investigation of this question. Instead, he quotes Braque, Jacques Villon, Picasso, and Kahnweiler, the “impresario” of the Cubists. This constitutes an impressive array of witnesses to Apollinaire’s incompetency in the arts, but it leaves the argument against Apollinaire without content. Even if Mr. Steegmuller is right, there is still much to be said about Apollinaire’s plastic and visual sensitivity, as displayed in his poetry, perhaps especially in those poems inspired by paintings, such as “Les Fenêtres” and “La Vièrge à la fleur de haricot à Cologne.”

The book’s title leads us to expect a detailed presentation of Apollinaire’s relations with the Fauve and Cubist painters, but here Mr. Steegmuller does not go far beyond the anecdotal. The great questions about this milieu go unanswered. First of all, one would like to know what esthetic principles, if any, were shared by painters and poets alike. As it is, Cubism seems to rest on joie de vivre and heroic poverty which do not help much to explain the esthetic consistency of the movement. Isn’t there, for instance, some link between the eclecticism of Apollinaire and that of Picasso? Painter and poet share a gift for using the “found” object. Both have the ability to span centuries by an adroit borrowing—Apollinaire’s medieval inspiration in “La Chanson du malaimé” is an example. These traits point to a quite new attitude toward artistic conventions, an attitude of casual and eclectic appropriations. Such an attitude toward the tradition might be examined in the perspective of Apollinaire’s essay, “L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes,” of which Mr. Steegmuller gives us a new translation. There, Apollinaire says: “…the new spirit speaks above all in the name of order and moral responsibility, which are the great classical qualities, the loftiest manifestations of the French spirit; and it complements them with freedom. This freedom and this order, which in the new spirit are inseparable, are its hallmark and its strength.” But unity and order, qualities that have been affirmed to exist in Apollinaire’s poetry, are not to be found there in any way traditionally recognizable. We must qualify any statement about unity and order in this poetry, just as we must qualify the “freedom” of this poet enslaved by an amorous fatality, this Narcissus who cannot tear his eyes away from his own sorrowing reflection: “Oh my shadow in mourning for myself.”

Despite the fact that a number of Apollinaire’s poems are based on paintings, there is no easy exchange between the two arts. The spatial structure of a Picasso painting has little in common with the essentially temporal and emotional structure of an Apollinairian lyric; and, indeed, the reflective and contemplative genius of the Cubist painters has little of the intensely personal, lacerated quality of Apollinaire’s verse. Furthermore, Apollinaire and his painter friends did not share a common political, religious, or moral doctrine; one of the characteristics of the period is its absence of intellectual content. All this makes it difficult to define Apollinaire’s relation to the painters; perhaps, indeed, the task would be more appropriate for an esthetician or an art historian than for a biographer.

In suggesting that Mr. Steegmuller might have better defined some of these issues, I do not wish to be ungrateful for the elegant book he has actually written. He has verified and brought together the rather meager information available about Apollinaire. He has done this in an eminently readable book, a book that captures some of the fluency and brio of its hero. Let I find that in perpetuating the Apollinaire of the cult, Mr. Steegmuller has chosen not to make the ultimate act of involvement and self-identification that is demanded by a major achievement in biography. He remains cool, judicious, friendly, amused.

From time to time, Mr. Steegmuller raises major issues, then fails to pursue them to ultimately illuminating conclusions. Apollinaire’s eroticism is a case in point. Apollinaire’s pornographic writings, his edition of Sade, together with the erotic elements in his letters and poems certainly offer material for a thorough-going study of this special aspect; indeed, there is perhaps no other lyric poet on whose eroticism such complete documentation exists. Some technical knowledge of psychological analysis should be part of the equipment of a biographer; especially is this true of a biographer who deals with a lyric poet, by nature a man obsessed with erotic fantasies. I think Mr. Steegmuller must have interesting opinions on this topic; I wish he had gone further in exploring it in his book.

When one considers the vast amount of scholarship and research expanded on French literature in this country, it seems strange that we will leave the writing of major works in the field of French poetry and Cubism to the French. Few Americans undertake to write the definitive critical study or the definitive biography of a French author. American critics and scholars of things French have yet to learn the daring of Apollinaire’s esprit nouveau.

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