The Infernal Visions of St. Max: On Rosanna Warren’s Biography of Max Jacob

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Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters 
Rosanna Warren
(Norton, 2020, 720 pp., $45)

Halfway through Rosanna Warren’s magisterial life of the poet Max Jacob I found myself wondering what that life might have been like if the tormented Jacob had had available to him at any point the intellectual and emotional resources represented by the Anglo-Saxon biographical tradition: this serene spaciousness of detachment and nuanced judgment freed from political, religious, and even aesthetic partisanship. What possibilities might have opened up for a man at such fierce odds with his own family, class, religion, and sexuality (and arguably, his own talent), if he could have breathed even for a brief time the tolerant, musing air of Warren’s narration? The truth is, I suspect, that it might have obviated his need to write.

Part of the experience of reading the biography is the encounter of two very different cultures: the revolutionary invention and sexual and social frenzy of early 20th-century artistic Paris and the intellectual discipline and erudite classical perspective of 21st century American poetry in its (mostly) academic habitat. You could expect the two merely to sneer at each other in passing, but in fact they are and always have been useful to one another: American poetry needs a regular infusion of wild extracurricular rebellion, and French poets need occasionally to be shaken from the intoxication of their own too-musical language and excessively theoretical minds by pragmatic U.S.—  or at least outside—criticism (which can come both in verse and prose form).

Born into a Jewish bourgeois family in Brittany, Jacob became the very embodiment of bohemian Paris in the years before World War I, a friend and collaborator to Picasso and Apollinaire, a patron and rival to Reverdy and Cocteau; yet he fled that world of frantic sociability, cosmopolitan art and promiscuity to live for many years in comparative isolation in a nearly empty monastery in Saint Benoît on the Loire, making dinner-time conversation with two aging priests and helping out in the parsonage vegetable garden. Even if he continued occasionally to enjoy sexual pleasure in fleeting encounters with young men, Jacob was of a generation that could not live its passions openly and therefore encoded them in art with striking effect but also at an enormous psychological cost. The fact that he met his end in 1944 as a Jew in the sordid misery of the French transit camp of Drancy gives his story a final shape of such bitter tragedy that one closes the book with a feeling of real bereavement and bewilderment.

Warren’s approach, evidently refined over many years of circling her subject, combines a fascination with the interplay of visual and verbal art and an acute sensitivity to the dance of tradition and innovation in poetry. She is an eminently fair arbiter of what, in the wars of Modernism, count as real turning points (usually the exhibition or publication of something genuinely new, like Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon and Le Cornet á dés) and what are mere distractions (manifestos, nasty reviews). Her account of Jacob in his role as Picasso’s intimate, periodically resentful of the painter’s latest woman but long-suffering and loyal, and as the swaggering Apollinaire’s ‘second’ (once almost literally, before the era of honor duels ended with the Great War and Apollinaire’s life soon after) gives a satisfying amount of nitty-gritty on incidents and misunderstandings, tiffs and rapprochements. Aided by the poet’s vast correspondence, she makes it clear that Jacob’s slow and difficult path to his own work was both aided by his more famous friends’ encouragement and impeded by the burden of their egos.

One is not altogether surprised to learn that Jacob felt guilty for not feeling what he thought was appropriate grief at Apollinaire’s premature death of Spanish flu in 1918. It was one of Jacob’s enduring traits that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t conceal the way his fiery love and equally burning hate continually fed off each other, confusing both himself and their objects with fits of abjection and cruelty or equally baffling generosity. This quicksilver quality makes him a rewarding subject for biographical study but also surely one of the most difficult; there are times when one puts Warren’s book aside feeling as exhausted and irritated as one imagines his friends the Ghikas or the Salacrous were after one of his long visits. Warren’s meticulous scholarship, conscious of its own limits, is in love with its subject’s contradictions without trying to resolve them. This book suggests, however, that the central events of Jacob’s life, his vision of Christ and his conversion to Catholicism, arose from a deep desire to reconcile the disparate parts of his identity—as a Jew, a Breton, a Parisian, a homosexual, an ascetic, a poet, an artist, a clown, and a mystic.

It is a tricky task for a biographer to consider the role of psychological, social, intellectual, aesthetic and other very human motives in a spiritual turn when the internal logic of conversion would diminish or erase them in an account of being overwhelmed by grace.  Because Jacob’s numerous accounts of his own road to Damascus—in verse and prose—do not agree, it makes sense that the biography treats them as successive drafts of a metamorphosis that manifests itself now as a conscious work of self-creation and now as a yielding to an irresistible force. Jacob’s La Défense de Tartufe is one of the most perplexing conversion narratives in a long tradition, and it is not a work likely to convert new readers, whether to Jesus or to Jacob, but Warren’s commentary makes it at least approachable and reveals ironic links to the classic Augustinian and Rousseauian confessions, which Jacob honors while sending up the genre outrageously.

If I would have anything different about this book it would be a shift in balance toward these lucid close readings of Jacob and away from the fine-grained but rather relentless social-sexual chronicle. After all, the milieu is familiar enough from the thousands of books devoted to it, whereas what Jacob made of it can still benefit a lot from a sympathetic critic. A recent review of Warren’s biography by Jed Perl suggested that Jacob may not be a good candidate for reintroduction now because developments in postmodern literature have made some of his inventions, obscurities, and inconsistencies look almost old-hat. What Jacob at his best offers, however, is precisely the deep vein of moral gravity that could coexist in Modernism with crazy linguistic stunts and aesthetic disruptions, a gravity which much of the writing called postmodernist erases in favor of psychoanalytic games and gimmicks.

One can sense the beginning of this turn in the acrimonious clash of Jacob & Co with André Breton at the time of his aggressive campaign for Surrealism über alles: arrogance and ambition were not alien to Jacob and his crowd, nor were pitiless mockery or insular reaction, but there is a humorless fanaticism to Breton that strikes the first chord (in this tale, anyway) of what Anna Akhmatova called ‘the real twentieth century’ and the danger of artists and intellectuals dabbling in the engineering of human souls. It is interesting to find support in this biography for Akhmatova’s own bitter reproach against Francis Carco for his shallow, mendacious account of artistic life in Montmartre, published in English as The Last Bohemia, and it invites one to speculate whether shoddy popular memoirs emerged as a kind of response to the elaborate multiplication and masking of selves in Modernism. If there’s anything to this, it is another argument in favor of the solid biographical tradition Warren’s book represents.

I have to admit to hearing a powerful echo in Max Jacob of the life of another poet on the other side of Europe who as very young man was an important moving force in Modernism, whether he is called a Futurist or a Dadaist: Aleksander Wat (1900-1967) was also a Jew who converted (with the aid of other Jewish converts) to Catholicism after experiencing a vision—in Wat’s case of Satan rather than of Christ—and whose work increasingly sounded the dark notes of pain and self-division. His poetry explores a mystical ‘lumen obscurum’ with a dreamlike Grand Guignol twist which is not far removed, to my sense, from Jacob’s ‘infernal visions’. But the big difference is that for Wat the great sin of his life was his personal involvement in Communism, something which he lived long enough to confront in writing and at least in part expiate, whereas in Warren’s account Jacob’s homosexuality remained a torment to him to the very end, and it seems that his guilt for his perceived fleshly sins became an indispensable component of the moral math that supported his late writing. Wat conceded that his conversion had been a failure, and he returned in his last years to a renewed connection to Judaism—particularly to the prophets—that in turn strongly shaped his late poetry. Jacob and Wat are alike in their struggle to hold their own against dominant colleagues, and in their desire to create in poetry and prose a justification of sorts for lives that were outwardly fractured and morally flawed.

What does one not find in this copious book? Perhaps the particular note of headlong identification and sometimes mimicry to be found in more eccentric books of biographical autobiography like Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, or Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. After her personal account of discovering Jacob as a student (and aspiring artist) in France, Warren is as soberly self-effacing as a biographer as she is as a poet, directing a reader’s attention not toward her own imagination or skill but to the object of study. This is a quality to be especially cherished at a time when—both in criticism and poetry—it is becoming increasingly rare. And Jacob should be better known outside France. I understand that there is a Dictionnaire Max Jacob forthcoming from Garnier Classiques which includes articles by Warren. As for Jacob’s existence in English, there are a number of out-of-print selections which make Jacob a strong candidate for a new ‘Selected Poems and Prose.’ Paul Auster’s bilingual Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry has some marvelous versions of prose poems by John Ashbery, Jerome Rothenberg and others. The wonderful Wakefield Press in Cambridge, MA, announces two new Jacob translations, a new version of Cornet á dés by the English poet Ian Seed and a selection from Central Laboratory by Alexander Dickow; may they reach us soon.

I feel Jacob should be prescribed as a supplement to all those tempted (commendably, understandably) by today’s poetry of social conscience and historical witness. Jacob reminds us, first, of the personal price that can be paid for social and political non-conformism, and second, that our evil demons—if we have the courage to call them ours and not an other’s—if one gives them their voice (in what he would call a ‘situated’ poem) are their own best critics and conquerors. I first encountered Jacob in Andre Gide’s Anthologie de la Poésie française, where the dazzling, witty lyrics of Laboratoire Central are followed by a handful of heartbreaking ‘Last Poems,’ including a fragment from ‘Reportage de Juin 1940,’ a poem first published in 1942 and existing in several versions. The original version ends with chilling lines quoted in the biography:

Des fontaines de sang coulaient d’un cheval blanc! Il trottait, élevant la mort entre les dents.

A white horse trotted, spilling blood in streams, His head high, holding death between his teeth. ………………………………………….(Tr. Warren)

The fragment, with its ringing alexandrines and moments of journalistic observation— ‘Here there’s no news, no mail, no money. / The stores are closed and the square is deserted. / The refugee was put up in the resident’s bed’—made a great impression on me as a schoolgirl in Holland, but I am now chastened (rightly, I’m sure) by its treatment in the biography, which explains its conventional metre and diction, and the edifying final quatrain Jacob added on second thought, as a concession to wartime patriotism. At the same time, one can imagine that the days of the Nazi invasion of France brought with them a truly apocalyptic mood, and with it perhaps a grasping for poetic forms that seemed likely to hold fast. One can imagine that if granted the time, this poet could have applied to the next great war the same freedom of complex and internalized imagination he displayed in his response to the first.

Among postwar poets, one of Jacob’s most ardent readers was Zbigniew Herbert, whose prose poems in particular owe a great deal to Jacob. One of the poems in Gide’s anthology, which begins ‘When the emperor who was about to renounce his sovereignty/ Received the message, he was having tea…’ and moves on to the emperor’s regrets at having ‘written bad laws’ reminds me strongly of two Herbert prose poems, ‘Emperor’ and ‘The Emperor’s Dream,’ both of which feature emperors haunted by their own injustices. Around the same time he wrote them, Herbert paid homage to the French poet in a moving short poem written after an attentive visit to the monastery where Jacob lived, whose basilica’s stone carvings include what Warren describes as ‘the scene of a soul torn from the grip of a demon by an angel.’ The poem participates in Jacob’s own bent for reading signs, divining fates and cheating damnation, while heroically refraining, as Warren does, from dissolving his sacred ambiguities.

Episode from Saint-Benoît

In an old abbey overlooking the Loire (sap of every tree has run in this river) in front of the entrance to the basilica (it’s not a narthex but a stone allegory) on one of the capitals a naked Max Jacob is being torn apart by Satan and a four-winged archangel

the outcome of this skirmish was never announced unless you take into account the capital next to it

Satan is clutching Jacob’s torn arm allowing the rest to bleed to death amid four invisible wings