Saturday, June 4, 2022

Harry Crosby Day!


Today's the 124th anniversary of the birth (in 1898) of Harry Crosby and yes yes yes the day's well worth remembering and celebrating, as we look towards -- natch -- The Sun.  

This year it's especially important to celebrate Crosby, I think, because exactly a century ago -- 1922 -- he began the diary entries that would eventually become Shadows of the Sun, which almost surely is his crowning literary achievement.  It first appeared in 1928-29-30 in three gorgeous volumes, published by his and his wife Caresse's Black Sun Press in Paris, then again in 1977 in a beautiful unexpurgated version edited by Edward Germain for Black Sparrow Press.

Crosby, as Professor Edward Brunner has neatly shown, worked hard to jot down daily events in vest-pocket notebooks, then expand upon those in ruled notebooks, then transform the latter into dated diary entries "in longhand . . . written with an eye toward seeming as if [they] had been sketched at white-hot speed."  The end result is an extremely readable, sometimes irresistible account of 1920s Paris and Crosby's travels in that decade.  It includes appearances by people such as James Joyce, Hart Crane, and Kay Boyle, plus lots (lots) of alcohol, drugs, and carrying on.  Best of all, it's all animated by what editor Germain rightly calls Crosby's "active curious mind" and reflects his many enthusiasms, including reading, poetry, horse racing, woman, art, jazz, death and -- natch again -- The Sun.

There are many, many stellar entries in Shadows of the Sun.  These include a description of Lindbergh's late night landing near Paris after his trans-Atlantic solo flight (5/21/27), and Crosby's bibliophilic joy when he received and unpacked an inheritance of thousands of rare books (5/4/28).

One hundred years ago today -- June 4, 1922 -- Crosby, in his Shadows of the Sun diary entry, wrote [translation of the French provided in brackets]: 

To the Chateau de Madrid.  Changed clothes with a waiter (tenue de soirĂ©e de rigueur [evening dress required]) so that I could dance.  Dancing and then to bed in the Chateau and the plaintive music of the tango and the coolness of linen sheets---and I am twenty-four years old to-day and we bathe in the forest and at midnight gaze into the Red Sun.  C'est Kefalin qui gagne![Kefalin wins!]
This sounds like a majorly fun birthday!  The Chateau de Madrid was a grand jazz club about three miles from Paris, in the Bois de Boulogne, where you could dance and if necessary rent a room for the nightThe Chateau had magnificent gardens with "lush and tall deep-blue green trees," and was also near the Longchamp race track. Kefalin was a horse quite successful in the 1922 season, including winning the prestigious Grand Prix de Paris.

But giant exploding X-class solar flares, let's further celebrate today with a Shadows of the Sun entry that showcases an episode of Rimbaudian derangement, shall we?  Harry loved Arthur; Crosby in 1929, the last year of his life, declared "I believe that Rimbaud is the greatest poet of them all . . . ."  (Shadows of the Sun, 4/1/29.)

The following diary entry, dated 11/14/26, recounts what Crosby writes was his first real experience with kief, the substance Wikipedia describes as a "pure and clean collection of loose cannabis trichomes."  The experience described is perhaps relatively modest  compared to other mind-altering experience Crosby wrote about, involving prodigious amounts of hashish, opium, and/or ethanol.  But this one is still a, er um, high point:

Last night for the first time really experienced the kief, and saw strange but clear visions, not vague as in a dream, but chaste with colors of pure gold and sun shining through green water and a fountain under the sea spouting jets of silver fish and an autumn-gold forest with a path leading into infinity (I have never seen such a depth of perspective) and white bodies of fauns and nymphs appearing and disappearing, copulating and uncopulating.

Hell yes, pass the kief and stone me.  More than that, I dig the poetry here.  And not just the cavalcade of gold, sun, silver, autumn-gold and white, or the rhythmic rush of the prose, nice as those are.  The tippy-top poetry here, for me, is Crosby's use of the word "chaste" when describing his visions.  They were "not vague as in a dream, but chaste . . . ."   

Now, Crosby does not use "chaste" here to suggest there was a  sexual purity to his visions, which might be assumed given the primary meaning of the word.  Any chance of that being the case is obliterated by the orgiastic mythological beings at the visions' end.

Instead, Crosby uses "chaste" in its lovely figurative sense, meaning, to borrow from the Oxford English Dictionary, "undefiled," "stainless," and "pure."  This use of "chaste" is not particularly common in literature (but see Shakespeare, Othello, V.ii.2), but it's exactly perfect here, given that kief, as said above, is a "pure and clean" substance.

An unalloyed true immaculate -- a chaste -- vision looks mighty fine  to me, and it certainly was for Harry.   May you have the same, if you want it.  Regardless, here's to the literary work of Crosby, who Philip Lamantia memorably called "a true dandy of explosively Promethean desire," on the anniversary of his birth.