“man is a crocodile who does not relish his goodness or his vices unless they are half rotten”

edward dahlberg on hart crane among the american expatriates in inter-war paris:

The lives of all these exiled saints of Billingsgate will always attract me enormously, because vice is more interesting than mediocre goodness, and I do not know of any other kind. These men I knew and loved were not bad persons, they simply were not bourgeois. Baudelaire had declared: "I prefer bad people who know what they are doing to these honest folk." I salute these men; for though now dead they cure my own life; only the deceased can save us.


 

After leaving Italy I returned to Paris — to the Dome, the Select, and the Coupole. There was no place else to go. One night I sat at the Coupole until three in the morning with Hart Crane and the quondam surgeon Djuna Barnes describes in Nightwood. The doctor told tales of underground sins on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco that were as fabulous as Ophir. He spoke of tars habited as women and with such names as Hazel Dawn and Eve Fig, Eve signifying the serpent and Fig being the symbol of the womb. When I left the Coupole the surgeon held my hand closely in his and, telling me what innocent teeth I had, made a proposal which I declined with punctilio.

 

Shortly afterwards I had occasion to talk again to Hart Crane at the Cafe de Deux Magots. He had sorrows buried twenty thousand fathoms deep. At twenty-nine he had marine gray hair, a face that was as harmonious as Pythagorean numbers, and the frosty eyes he had ascribed to that other mariner of American literature in the marvelous poem, "At Melville’s Tomb." Both Melville and Crane were boreal men seeking the mild trade winds. They were water poets. Melville sought to steep all the ills of his life in the gore of a warm-blooded mammal, the whale, and Hart Crane leaped from a ship, while returning from Mexico, to give himself to the sharks.

 

Let those who flee from bitter men consider this: Melville and Crane were gentle, cold men, wrapped in seven layers of gall, but with souls that are as tender eating as young pullets.

 

One afternoon Crane asked me to go with him to the atelier of a friend. There I found myself in the midst of an altercation, and I was startled when I heard Crane say: "Eugene, dear, you ought not to talk to me in that way." He wept, pushing me aside so that he could rush out into the dusk of Paris. His friend gave me his coat saying, "Follow him, or else he will catch cold." I pursued Crane through the twining streets of Montparnasse, his coat dangling from my arm. At one of the ponts on the Seine I reached him. He stooped to arrange one of his garters, and turning his suffering face toward me, said: "I guess you think I’m immoral because I am homosexual?" I had already read White Buildings, easily his best work, as well as The Bridge in manuscript, which he had asked me to do, and I felt that such a poet could not have faults.

 

Helping him get into his jacket as though I hoped this might be a carapace in which he could hide, I left him; he would always be naked, for only those who are in perpetual want can enter the kingdom of feeling. He returned to his hotel room, and I walked alone down the Boulevard Raspail, thinking that the greater part of our morality comes from a lack of self-knowledge; does not man love his own ordure though he is disgusted at the sight of another’s?

 

What a disorderly animal man is, and how wretched pleasure makes him. Many have died coughing, but not without having derived some marvelous sensation from it. Man is a species of crocodile who does not relish his goodness or his vices unless they are half rotten.

 

This was the time when the Parisians held every American responsible for the tragic execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. One evening at the Coupole Hart Crane was drank and began roaring: "Down with France." He was standing at the bar when the waiter behind the counter douched him with seltzer water. Had the waiter known that Hart Crane was the first poet of his country, he might have been even more savage.

 

Crane threw a lump of traveler’s checks on the counter and, after looking about him, picked up a chair to hurl at the bartender. Then three gendarmes arrived; the defender of the honor of France had called the police. When Crane turned toward the door and saw them with clubs in their hands he ran toward them swinging the chair. I stepped between Crane and the three police, knowing that these warped guardian angels of the state would take him to jail and there beat and mangle him, as was

done some months later.

 

Gathering together all of his traveler’s checks, I asked him to give me  all of his money too, which he meekly did; I feared they would be lost or stolen from him. The gendarmes stood by as I got him into a cab. The following day I returned everything to him.

 

What little I had done for him had mitigated some obscure pain in me, for that part of us we do not use for others clogs our fate. I had been an inmate of an orphanage hi Cleveland when Hart Crane was a soda fountain clerk in his father’s fancy ice cream parlor in that city. Crane’s establishment was on Euclid Avenue, Plutus’s boulevard in Cleveland where John D. Rockefeller and Charles M. Schwab had their great mansions. On the rare occasions when I walked down Euclid Avenue, which smelt of Lake Erie and the windswept money of Troy, I wondered whether I would ever be rich enough to buy one of Crane’s ice cream sodas.

 

Later, when I returned to America, I saw him a few times at his apartment on Columbia Heights which overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge, that stygian iron symbol Crane thought represented the energy of Terra Incognita. There was always a gallon of whiskey and a pile of Sophie Tucker records near his bed. By then he was a fissured Doctor Faustus, burning up in his own crucible of lusts. He ran mad for sailors on the wharves of Lethe at Red Hook, and was beaten to pieces many times in lurid Greenpoint saloons. He complained to me that a street Arab he had taken to his apartment had stolen most of his clothes.

 

There was a brief and hapless sojourn in Mexico, and one feeble attempt to recover some moiety of Aztec ritual, the old Quetzalcoatl rubbish, for more poems. His whole salt grief lay in those tedious calms between books. He was certain that his powers had ebbed and he feared more than anything else, as Melville had, that he would drown in shoals. A poet is dead when he is not writing, and only a spectre of another age and clime when he is. Writing is done in a moonlit sleep; Isis, Jacob, Joseph, Melville, and Hart Crane were fed by the moon, for of such ore are dreams made.

 

His life was tragical Dadaism; it was absurd superficially. After his riotous nights in Paris he spent a summer at his father’s resort: Crane’s Canary Cottage, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He was so embarrassed when he gave this address to friends that he rented an anonymous post office box.

 

The last ironic days with his mother cannot be overlooked either. An epicene sister of science and health, she was not averse to flirtations with her son with whom she went dancing when they were together in California. With a mother who was a Christian Science Agrippina, no wonder that Hart Crane knelt before an iron leviathan, the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

The lives of all these exiled saints of Billingsgate will always attract me enormously, because vice is more interesting than mediocre goodness, and I do not know of any other kind. These men I knew and loved were not bad persons, they simply were not bourgeois. Baudelaire had declared: "I prefer bad people who know what they are doing to these honest folk." I salute these men; for though now dead they cure my own life; only the deceased can save us.

 

 

—from Edward Dahlberg, Alms for Oblivion, University of Minnesota, 1963

 

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