"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

3 Jul 2016

Guest Contributor—David MacKinnon on Blaise Cendrars

Notes on a one-armed intruder


Cendrars not a writer. More like a form of contamination. The condition triggered within upon contact with men of benign moral temperament. Anyone classifying Cendrars as a literary figure not fathoming the nature of the problem. Cendrars a disease, that paralyzes the spine, and induces an existential African lethargy. Cendrars like being bitten by an Anaconda.

Cendrars sensed modernity not as a sequential phase in the history of man, but as a cataclysmic altering of a fundamental principle of perception. His attraction to modernity intuitive and self-destructive, like that of a moth to a flame. It led directly and inevitably to the Foreign Legion, and to the killing fields of World War I. Our senses of the poet skewed by our mundane nature. Whether Bukowski or Blake, Cendrars or St-Exupéry, a willingness to sup with the devil if necessary, as long as the truth comes out at the end of the day. The poet looking for a root cause, even if that root cause be madness itself. 

Cendrars had already been contaminated himself by Rémi de Goumont and Gérard de Nerval. De Goumont who taught him to look at humans physiologically, driven only by instinctive urge. And, De Nerval his governing Muse, luring him into fatal melancholia with his own koan: I am the other.                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Cendrars paralyzed by a phrase “Je suis l’autre”. Falling onto that like Brutus onto his own sword, he killed off his past, and resolved the koan of the divided self. There is no truth, only action, he decides. Resolves the duality of his warring selves when his right arm got blown off. 

CENDRARS Mutilé de Guerre

Until he found himself on the plains of Champagne, wearing the kit of a French legionnaire. And, then suddenly, everything crashed to a halt. His arm, his navigating instrument to interpret the world around him, blown to pieces by a German machine gunner. 

What happened on that day in 1915 by Navarin Farm, caused something worse – it muted him. When Cendrars regained the power of speech, it was altered. Through this amputation, he was granted a gift – to speak in a mystical code – concrete, grounded, like Japanese woodblocks. To speak through action, movement. To trace animus, denuded of humanity. The opposite of a ghost. A soulless body. 

I imagine those final hours before his arm was blown to shreds on the undulating plain of Champagne, at Navarin Farm. Sneaking behind enemy lines and a hundred yards from les Boches, placing that innocuous looking Pathé Saphone gramophone with its sapphire stylus, in the middle of that no-mans-land, an oasis of music in the bland monotonous desert of war. Then setting up a delay mechanism Then waiting, early the next morning. Tick-tick, tick-tick. 

Punctual to the minute, two German scouts on dawn patrol, detecting the scratchy chords of a tinny voice transmitted from the turntable: 

“Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé.”

Was ist das?” asks the first.

Verrukt,” responds the second, pointing, “ein Grammophon. Strange...”

Tick-tick, tick-tick. A scratched, tinny voice.

“Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats? »

Anyone familiar with animals knows they, like humans, allow themselves to be lulled into a falso sense of security. And, like flies to honey, approaching the gramophone. Tick-tick, tick-tick. 

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Still, the Kraut moves closer. He chuckles, shakes his head, lights a cigarette. Crazy fucking war. What am I doing here, anyways? Shit everywhere, brought on by Ludendorff. Olga waiting for me back in Baden-Baden, or Heidelberg, or Mainz. Olga waiting with those firm tits and thighs and those moments alone after, recalling the last cigarette he’d shared with her, and nothing mattering. Then this. And allowing himself an early morning thought of treachery – yes, this, me here in this shit with these French brothers, thinking the same thoughts as me. These Frenchies are an odd lot, with their bloodthirsty lyrics and their blue and gold uniforms. Only a couple of hundred yards away. Men like us, caught in a senseless…then he hears it – the rhythmic percussion leitmotif under the voice singing. Tick-tick-tick-tick, Ka Boom!
Que veut cette horde d'esclaves,
De traîtres, de rois conjurés?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés? (bis)
Français, pour nous, ah! quel outrage
Quels transports il doit exciter!
C'est nous qu'on ose méditer
De rendre à l'antique esclavage!


Cendrars didn’t step into my life. He kicked the door down. When you’re fifteen, you don’t know why you have to escape. It’s all modus operandi. How do I pull it off? When you’re in that situation, an animal banging his head against the cage, you aren’t thinking why, but of how. His first illumination hit him when a teacher pronounced that life was intolerable. He didn’t leave home – he was swept out onto a window ledge by an existential mistral. When he climbed down, he found himself inside a train station. And, that led to Russia, and the 1905 revolution. And then, and then. 

My problem was different – my future was all mapped out for me in a legal family, and first chance I got I bolted (at age 17, after planning it for 2 years), and then almost immediately realized I would have to escape the country where I was born or per I also did a couple of things that were so far off the radar that I had to look to Cendrars’ life, which at least allowed me to say to myself, “…okay, he’s even worse !”

Sometimes I imagine those last minutes before he climbed out the window at age 15, going through his pa’s pockets, thinking “ you don’t need these cigarettes”, stealing his ma’s jewellery. He’s not just tossing his own life, his own clothes and belongings, he’s grabbing things that supposedly  belong to others and says to himself that they don’t really need them. 
Looking from the outside, I suppose people I know might conclude that Cendrars corrupted me. But, that’s just untrue. By the time I ran into Henry Miller (age 19) and Cendrars (age 20) I had long been corrupted, but that came from within. 

I don’t even think of Cendrars as a person – more like a big withered finger pointing as if to say “ thataway !” The trick is to follow the direction, and to pay no attention to the man. Easier said than done…

Cendrars Deceiver

There was a surrealist writer named Georges Perec, who wrote an entire book without the letter “e”: “The Disappearance”. Cendrars went him one better by leading an entire life without once telling the truth, and leaving us the job of decoding where it lay within his labyrinthine subterfuges, passes, feints, dodges, trepans, sleights-of-hand and conjurations to try and find the device used to create his multitude of illusions. Then the attempt causing those of us crazy enough to follow his path to lose sight of our own way.  

Take a look at those of us who worship Cendrars around the globe – Flotsam. Human wreckage. Parts of a ship that washed up on an island. Whether they lurk on the Isle of Skye or the Ile St-Louis, it’s the sea that attracts us. Hard bastards, crazed, but fixated to the end, unable to escape the shadow of a man who was himself a shadow. My outpost is the North Sea, but the island where I reside is Cendrars himself, and only a few ragged refugees staring fixedly at the waves crashing onto the shoreline. 

Cendars no vagabond. On the contrary. To vagabond is to wander and Cendrars courted danger. And the courting of danger is misleading, as what Cendrars did was a series of tests of mathematical theorems on the finite grid of  his life. His hymn to modernity – the “Prose of the Transsiberian” – was a test of Euclid’s postulate on the infinitude of Primes. His journey to Patagonia was build on the four squares Theorem. And the blowing off of his right arm by a German machine gunner was the result of a disagreement and failed experiment on the Law of Quadratice Reciprocity. 

To be sure, Cendrars held a pen in his hand. But, that is the sole bridge linking him with scribes. Here is the mistake of the Cendrasiens – all of them. You cannot research Cendrars. There is nothing linear aobut his thought He has taken several postulates, each of which keep him hovering on the cusp of insanity. 

Je suis l’autre
La vie est insupportable, sauf à la réinventer chaque jour
Il n’y a pas de vérité ; il n’y a que l’action

Each gesture was a testing of that theory – a lightning explosion of directed energy at a vortex. The result of this in Moscow was to first trigger the revolution of 1905, and then to catapult, boomerang effect, the Cendrars force field across the trans-Siberian steppes. Similar to the Italian human cannonballs who had worked the circuses with Cendrars, possibly deploying their techniques. Were there other humans of the calibre of Cendrars? Yes. Mayakovsky, the Russian revolutionary artist who filled Red Square with his neon newspaper. Or Manolo Secca who while manning a petrol station “in the depths of the immensities of Brazil”, carved out 308 characters from wood that he composed as the twelve stations of the Cross (see Cendrars Speaks, Ekstasis Editions 2016) And, of course, Malaparte. 

There is another postulate yet to be considered. That for a time, Cendrars didn’t notice that his arm was shot off. The mathematical problem that eluded him, the matrix that had his full attention…Actually, there are two parallel reports attributed to Malaparte, who claims he shouted Eureka in the nano-second preceding the arrival of the curtain of bullets that called an end to Act One of his blitzkrieg of a life. And second rumour goes that it wasn’t Cendrars at all on the Champagne plain, that he had long since deserted, made his way through the Pyrenees using gypsy passeurs, and then moved on to Patagonia. 

That in fact it is not Miriam Cendrars the impostor, but Cendrars himself, and that the real Frédéric Sauser died alone, happy, diseased, with a Mapuche whore he had met while diamond mining in the southern hemisphere. 

It never occurred to his admirers that his primal animus, like mine, was not ambition, but the wish to deceive on a grand scale. 

The Eel, David MacKinnon’s historical novel on the life and times of France’s great vagabond poet and adventurer, Blaise Cendrars, Guernica Editions on June 5, 2016. The Eel - by David MacKinnon

Cendrars Speaks, Ed. and Introduction Jim Christy, Translator, David McKinnon. Series of ten 1950 interviews with Blaise Cendrars broadcast by Radiodiffusion Française, is an upcoming release (Autumn 2016) of Ekstasis Editions, Victoria, Canada.  

David McKinnon on Jim Christy

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