Cumartesi, Kasım 15, 2014

Drinker of Eyes: Introduction to The First English Translations of Arthur Cravan - Anna O’Meara

 “The first thing that struck me when I read his poems was the fact that he repeatedly delves into the eyes of his lovers. He drinks his lover's eyes like absinthe; her eyes are the stream and he is the river man. The lover becomes her eyes; she becomes an abstract, murky realm of sexual subconscious.”

(Türkçe Özet aşağıda)

Drinker of Eyes: Introduction to The First English Translations of Arthur Cravan
                                                                                                          Anna O’Meara
 “I cannot understand how, for forty long years, Victor Hugo could work. All literature is ta ta ta ta ta ta. Art! What hinges me to art? Shit! In the name of God.” - Arthur Cravan, Maintenant #3

The man sometimes known as Arthur Cravan made a reputation for himself partly through violent theatrics. He shot a gun over the heads of his audience, he threw a boxing match in order to gain funds to traverse the ocean to New York City, and, finally, in an act of great negation, he got lost on a sail boat in the gulf of Mexico and never returned. A defiant proletarian, Cravan writes in such a way that spits in the face of his contemporary artists for their haughtiness and their old age, as well as for their lack of interest in danger and women. It's no wonder that the surrealists and the Situationists gravitated toward him.


It would be a great injustice to overlook the fact that Cravan's stories are often hilarious. He writes with a combination of boldness and equivocal honesty. His boldness manifests in the fact that he is unafraid to curse, exclaim, to kick even the most revered men (Oscar Wilde), and to run aimlessly into the night “like a stupid cunt.” At the same time, his humor functions through the pivoting of equivocations. Cravan might start by saying that he greatly admires a writer like Oscar Wilde. (We can imagine his audience having some form of sympathy for this generally admired figure of the time.) But shit! Wilde is old and ugly and useless! Or, similarly, Gide doesn't sleep with whores! How could anyone respect him? In other scenarios, Cravan will start his writing in despair. He is overcome with ennui and he hates all of Paris! He doesn't want fame! But wait – he wants fame. But wait – he is lazy. Or he “thinks happily to [himself], 'I will go see Gide. He is a millionaire. No, how ridiculous! I want to negate his old literature!'” And so it goes. Most likely, people in general can in some way identify with such equivocation.

It should be said that Cravan's specific hatred of Wilde and Gide the old is not explicitly because of the fact that they are bourgeois. Instead, Cravan is primarily prone to criticizing them for their old age. This may seem a strange argument in a world that privileges so-called experience and seasoning over the so-called immaturity and naïveté of youth. In society (and in most literature), reverence for historical precedent is pervasive, yet Cravan attributes virtue to youth and the present moment in history. This is perhaps one of his most pivotal arguments that contributed to modernism and later inspired the avant-garde from the 1930s through the 1970s. It is possible to interpret Cravan's distrust toward elderly literary figures as a sort of thanatos. He shows us revered contemporary literature as a literal rotting corpse. As a result, Cravan's definition of good writing cannot be considered part of the canon literature at all: good writing is instead a byproduct of an eventful life. And Cravan, through accounts of his eventful life, not only argues these points in his stories; he also achieves them.


Cravan's poems must be discussed separately from his stories, because they are a different beast. The first thing that struck me when I read his poems was the fact that he repeatedly delves into the eyes of his lovers. He drinks his lover's eyes like absinthe; her eyes are the stream and he is the river man. The lover becomes her eyes; she becomes an abstract, murky realm of sexual subconscious. Here, in her eyes, melancholy lurks—a beautiful melancholy, yet, simultaneously, a grotesque one. Cravan incorporates themes of the night and music, which seem, in a way, similar to the nocturnesque intangibility of drinkable eyes. His poems ironically convey this intangibility with bold, direct language. Who would expect exclamations in a nocturne? This unique approach defines Cravan's effect: a mood that we might call a brash ennui. The combination of bold exclamations and the intangible subconscious is one that I find resonates as simultaneously unexpected and effective. It is only fair that I provide an example. Here is his poem “The Drinker of Eyes, Bendorp Sonnet”:

Eyes black with the clarity of a diamond or agathis to have for nights with starless skies. Weary,he tilts his head toward you, lovingly and jokingly, as he would to a child. For the late love, a fire stirs the soul that inflames everything through such green eyes with strange neurosis and perversity which persecutes with uncatchable, obsessive fear. At this restless hour, he sees thenas their own entity. Brilliant, lively gems in the claws of eyelashes; eyes of coralline and opal. When night falls, muttering the halves of words by an armchair, falling on his back, he distills and absinthe and sips a Bendorp cream!!!


Born in Switzerland, Cravan is Francophone, of British descent. He tells us that he is Oscar Wilde's nephew. He moves to Paris, and then the United States. Before traversing the Atlantic, he appropriately addresses the concept of the American. “Devastatingly, today, everyone is American. It is necessary to be American, or appear to be, which is the same thing,” he tells us. A rather prophetic sentiment. However, Cravan admires certain aspects of the turn-of-the-century American, shedding light on his historical context. To Cravan, the Americans are boxers with bowler hats who ask for cigars and don't say “thank you” in return. (One of the most famous photos of Cravan shows him wearing a bowler hat.) Americans are large, tough, manly rogues who wear ill-fitting clothing and don't care about formalities. Perhaps this is why some of the poorest and most pessimistic (and best) artists of Paris at the turn-of-the-century moved to New York City, including Blaise Cendrars, Cravan's contemporary. Cendrars, like Cravan, was known by a pseudonym, and gravitated to New York for the toughness and the poverty that he believed defined it. Cendrars and Cravan were both interested in New York City as a center of the industrial proletariat, which was ideologically connected to industrial innovation. Cravan writes that New York City is “the palace of the world, sparkling in its retina, not in ultraviolet rays' the American telephone and the sweetness of the elevators.” It seems appropriate to introduce the first English translations of Cravan's writings with an acknowledgment of Cravan's English-speaking background and idealized destination.

I can only imagine that Cravan, the avid traveler who enjoyed visiting “women and dangerous places” like the United States and all along the Mediterranean coast as he recounts, perhaps fictively, in Maintenant 2, would be pleased to see his ideas and translations spread through the efforts of people who notably detached from the pomp and fame of artistic and literary circles. I wish to introduce Cravan, here, as a figure of defiance rather than of canon. His defiance is perhaps his greatest asset, as well as perhaps the reason that he hasn't been translated into English before now. Finally, I would like to say that my first reading of Cravan gave me a sense of great discovery, as though they have found the shipwreck of Cravan's mysterious memory, which was previously drifting in the abyss of the Gulf of Mexico like a bold but melancholy ghost. I hope that many of you feel a similar excitement upon reading these translations.

Türkçe Özet
(Arthur Cravan’ın biyografisi, internette de yer alan Türkçe kaynaklardan okunabilir. Arthur Cravan’ın şiirlerini çeviren yazar, yazıda, Cravan’ın şiirleri yanısıra kısa hikayeleri ve seyahatleri bağlamında, maceralı hayatından söz etmektedir. Aşağıda, yazarın Cravan şiirlerine ilişkin yazdığı pasaj özetlenmeye çalışılmıştır.)
Arthur Cravan’ın şiirlerini okuduğunda insanı çarpan, edebi bir “güzel” ile karşılaşmak değil (hatta şiirlerin çirkin olduğu da söylenebilir), şairin içine daldığı, adeta içtiği gözler, sevgilinin gözleri. O gözler bir akıntı, küçük bir dere, Cravan ise bir nehir. Evet, Cravan sevgilinin gözlerini, baş döndüren, sarhoş eden bir içki gibi yudumlar. Sevgili tamamen “gözler”den ibaret, bilinçaltının cinselliği çağrıştıran soyut ve karanlık bir alanı olur. İşte o gözlerde, aynı zamanda bir melankoli gizlidir. “İçilebilir gözler” nasıl fiziksel olarak kavranamayan, duyularla anlaşılamayan bir soyutlama ise, benzer biçimde, gece ve müzik temalarını da birbirine bağlar. Şiirleri, ironik biçimde, cesur, gür bir dille iletir bunları. Kim bir noktürnde “nida” bekler ki? Cravan’ın etkisi, bu benzersiz yaklaşımdan kaynaklanır: küstah bir huzursuzluk- can sıkıntısı denilebilecek bir ruh hali. Soyut bilinçaltı ve gür nidalar kombinasyonu, ani ve etkili biçimde eşzamanlı olarak ortaya çıkar. Buna, “The Drinker of Eyes, Bendorp Sonnet” şiiri örnek gösterilebilir.