Of Longing and Laforgue

Jenni Olson August 17, 2010

A filmmaker offers a script excerpt in appreciation of Jules Laforgue on the 150th anniversary of his birth.

[Editor's note: San Francisco filmmaker Jenni Olson is currently in development on a personal documentary about her recent pilgrimage to the birthplace of French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue (in Montevideo, Uruguay). The film is called Grandement Triste (which roughly translates to "Greatly Sad"). Olson is also founder of the Jules Laforgue Appreciation Society on Facebook. In honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth (August 16, 1860) Olson shares this prologue to her script with SF360.]

"And then, falling very low to purify my flesh and exult in the dawn by fleeing from myself in a train. O Literature, O Fine Arts, I am like some special angel completely unlike anyone else. I will have spent my life in the train station, almost setting off on deplorable adventures. All that for the love of my heart crazy for the glory of love. How picturesque the trains we miss! How "goodby for now" the boats at the end of the pier! The well-built pier protecting me from the sea, from my flesh, from love."
 —Jules Laforgue, Derniers vers *

By Way of Introduction
The French Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue was born August 16, 1860 in Montevideo, Uruguay. His French-born parents had grown up in Uruguay; a few years later, the Uruguay-born Jules would grow up in France—first in Tarbes, later in Paris where he would die of tuberculosis at the tender age of 27 (on August 20, 1887). Laforgue is recognized as one of the first practitioners of free verse, and both T.S Elliot and Ezra Pound acknowledge Laforgue’s work as a major influence. Describing “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” as the great example of a Laforguian poem in English, literary critic Malcolm Cowley specifically notes these distinguishing characteristics of his work: “the urban background, the timidly yearning hero, the self-protective irony, the bold figures of speech, the mixture of colloquial and academic language, the rhythms that might be those of popular songs, and the rhyming couplets serving as refrains.”

On my Discovery of Jules Laforgue…
In that oh-so apocalyptically literary year of 1984, I was in my early 20s, struggling through my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. My father was dying of lung cancer. I was on the verge of coming out as a lesbian and in the midst of concluding a nearly decade-long gauntlet of drug and alcohol abuse.

The Book House was my oasis at that time of transitions and painful growth—it was a used bookstore on 14th Street in Dinkytown, a funny little neighborhood next to the East Bank campus.

I spent as much time there as I possibly could—browsing the film section for books about the classic Hollywood movies I loved (as they gave me the escape from reality I craved); and scouring the poetry section for the inspiration that might motivate me to genuinely escape from the painful situation in which I lived.

Don’t ask me why, but in raiding my mother’s bookshelves as an adolescent it was always the poetry that captivated me (other than a brief phase tackling the complete works of Sinclair Lewis—again, don’t ask me why). I still have her handsome hardcover volumes of Dickinson, Baudelaire, Yeats, Auden and Dorothy Parker.

So there I was, a sophomore in college and suddenly interested in that most notorious of the French 19th-century poets, Rimbaud. I snapped up a cheap textbook at The Book House—a sale-priced, water-damaged copy of French Symbolist Poetry: An Anthology.

I was ultimately disappointed with Rimbaud, whose inflated reputation in my mind was more due to lurid biographical details than whatever his actual poetic talent might be. But it was that stained, half-warped anthology that introduced me to the amazing poetry of Jules Laforgue.

"Night is forever black; the wind is terribly sad. Everything repeats the same old story that there have to be two of you by the fireplace. Everything blurts out the same thoughtless fatalistic hymn. But you mustn’t give in to those ugly mating games! To those great waves of pity overwhelming you in November! Stay in your little room; go your way, indifferent to the heart, with your eyes irreconcilably cast down. Oh! she must be out there! How black the night is! What a deafening fair life is! How creaturely all women are and what a routine existence is! Oh, how surely we shall die! And so, that I may appreciate the complications behind the beautiful eyes of this orphan heroine, O Nature, give me strength and courage to believe myself old enough to accept them; O Nature, lift me up, since, sooner or later, we shall die."
—Jules Laforgue, Derniers vers *

Okay, so you can't miss the overstated romanticism; note also the sense of humor and irony. Reading Laforgue I remember feeling simultaneously validated in what I knew to be my own excessively melodramatic emotions and being given permission to just go ahead and have them—all the way, full-on—and in that over-the-top earnestness, I could also come into contact with a gentle self-mocking irony that was so unique.

I confess to a certain amount of embarrassment at my passion for this mode of writing, this mode of being. Laforgue's vision of constant yearning and melancholy surely impacted my intimacy skills—focused so exclusively on the idea of pursuit and never giving a pragmatic thought to what happens after. And he is so clearly resigned to this state of hopeless longing—he will perennially pine for his love object, recognizing his inability to commit to a mature relationship. Embracing and celebrating his melancholic loneliness—he then magnifies his desire even further by giving voice to his idealized, excessively chaste picture of the love that is always out of reach.

This same perspective on life and love—the literature of longing—filled my college bookshelves. Stuff like Death in Venice, The Immoralist, Ethan Frome, The End of the Affair, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Fertile creative material, all. And, having spent my youth crazy for the glory of lusting after a continual, steady stream of young women who prompted in me a pervasive state of never-ending, suppressed lesbian longing—Laforgue expressed my sentiments exactly.

And the Importance of Art
A lifelong engagement which could even be said to supersede our commitments to friends, family, and lovers. That is how I would characterize our relationships with those certain special touchstone writers and artists whose work shapes our own sense of self, connects us via eloquent craft to the truths we hold most deeply.

My verging on Talmudic analysis of Jules Laforgue has been just this kind of lifetime connection. He is always there. Anchor, compass point, North Star of my soul-searching and angst. Even if I have now outgrown some aspects of my original attachment to him, he remains a central muse and inspiration for me.

The legacy of meaningful art rests not only in its acknowledged creative accomplishment but also on its arrival and lodging in the heart of the work’s recipient. We consume what will become our most treasured pieces of art, music, literature, etc. The work resonates. And enters into our worldview—where it shapes our perspective on what is meaningful and important to us in our lives.

These days I tend to be kind of fanatical on the subject of Art. On the importance of art as an agent of change, as the thing that will save us. What better place to find inspiration than from long dead poets like Jules Laforgue? And don’t even get me started on my mania for Frank O’Hara.

*Translations by John Porter Houston and Mona Tobin Houston. French Symbolist Poetry: An Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Jenni Olson is founder of the Jules Laforgue Appreciation Society on Facebook. She is currently in development on a personal documentary about her recent pilgrimage to the birthplace of Jules Laforgue (in Montevideo, Uruguay) called, Grandement Triste. You can join the Jules Laforgue Appreciation Society on Facebook by clicking here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=17276882408

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