Reading Apollinaire’s ‘Vendémiaire’

By | 1 May 2014

The rite ruptures sequential, historical time. Traditionally it has been understood as breaking time open to reveal eternity. But Apollinaire’s eternity is neither an Urzeit nor the hereafter, though it trades on associations with both. It is more akin to the nunc stans (eternal now) of the mystics. The poem strives to locate and to realise this NOW! not in some threadbare poetic or intellectual trope of tranquillity or some such, but rather in the present, in modern industry and trade, in the media, in popular culture, in everyday life, in the chaotic mire spread throughout the human and mechanical tangle of the metropolis.

At the same time, this now is the moment of poetic creation. The action of ‘Vendémiaire’ all occurs within the poet’s mind; it is a testimony of his realisation that his genetic power is boundless. It is the outcome of a profound self-revolution, alluded to when Rome steps in to curse all Apollinaire’s ‘old ideas’, and which is more fully staged in ‘Le brasier’ and ‘Les fiançailles’ (also in Alcools). The ‘I’ is still anchored to Apollinaire the individual. The result of the overcoming of his old self is not a new static state, but one of permanent revolution, of perpetual and infinite genesis that explodes mundane identity and the stability of personality. Such an expanded self doesn’t compose poems about things and doesn’t remain at the level of representation and proposition, it renders the creative experience itself as concrete and absolute, such that the work need be nothing other than the inexhaustible, overflowing élan of the perpetually self-surmounting ‘I’. Language constitutes the individual self, yet in the same movement, it supplies it with the means to surpass its own limits. In ‘Vendémiaire’ this personal experience of self-overcoming is spectacularly fused with the worldly revolutions of the machine age (the one celebrated by the Futurists, Delaunay and Picabia, but also the one later derided by Grosz).

A result of this revolutionary experience is the self’s realisation that it is invulnerable. Set free from the bounds of the empirical individual, having become the gullet of a whole metropolis, there is nothing that it cannot swallow. And a hole, if it digests all, cannot be slain. The ‘real presence’ of language holds true for all utterance, not just the beautiful or cool bits. Thus the entire potlatch of history, as well as the planetary tribute of the present can be hurled in, and no matter what they contain, the self will swallow and become them. Moreover, the ‘real presence’ extends to the first person singular pronoun itself. Speaking in the royal plural, a young Ezra Pound claimed ‘that the souls of all men great/At times pass through us’ (‘Histrion’). Unlike Pound, Apollinaire doesn’t limit this ‘molten gold’ of the ‘I’ to a select canon of ‘great men’, the legendary prophets and poets he prefers. To him everyone alive, everyone dead, whether peasant or pope, everyone flows through him as inspiration, all speech and all song and all life flows through his. His self is made out of this gargantuan tempest of other beings, of all those who say ‘I’. Apollinaire is as hubristic as modernity is in the eyes of its conservative detractors.

Apollinaire’s wor(l)d-drunk aestheticism, his inviting of all things to pass through him, is incompatible with morality, just as the Christian mystics set themselves and their teachings against moralistic Church dogma, whose ultimate aspiration was the administrative control of human bodies. His only duty is to hold his throat absolutely open, his only faith lies in his infinite ability to skol and to sing. He makes no attempt to extract himself from the filthy, murderous world. He is in it and of it, a mortal, not above or outside it like the Son of Man on his glorious throne. Without offering any apologies or rationalisations for its gratuitous, senseless cruelty and without downplaying its unbridled lunacy, he participates in it, in the strongest, ontological sense of the term. He is pervaded by its substance. But he is also cognisant of his specific location and role in the injustice: he is in the centre, the beneficiary of the rabid exploitation of the earth and its creatures; blood gathers about his lips. There is no way to justify this, it simply is so, absurdly. And, although he never asked for it to be this way, as customer and consumer it is for his sake that all of this happens, he is the reason, the ground, the motive principle: subjectivity as insane privilege.

But like all capitalist highs, the hubristic identification of the self and the universe nevertheless comes at a price: after the teeming list of the wine’s ingredients, the stanzas become short and static as Apollinaire proclaims his ‘universal intoxication’. In contradiction with his identification with the cosmos, Apollinaire’s variety of mystical euphoria is stubbornly phallic. He imbibes the whole, but having done so he wants to maintain the integrity and supremacy of his phallic trumpeting ‘I’ against the dispersed claims upon him from all over the universe, and from language itself. He still wants to contain it all rather than spread himself through it. A self must somehow remain to experience this ecstasy. An eerie silence emerges in the gaps between the last, linear and total eructations, like the void separating atoms in the deep space that his voice strains to reach. The poet having swallowed the whole, there’s nothing can respond to his songs. Or else, having declared his apotheosis, he confronts what proves him wrong, what stubbornly resists and remains beyond his reach. His hubris ends in a flickering aporia of a total voice riven by a total silence. The outbursts quickly exhaust themselves and ‘Vendémiaire’ collapses back into the finite, wretched world of barges, street lights and the indefeasible, finite self, to the past tense and linear time, to the simple scene of the rapidly passing epiphany.

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