Skin-Deep: Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa

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New Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel Hardcover, $24.95 Princeton, 2011

New Impressions of Africa
by Raymond Roussel
Hardcover, $24.95
Princeton, 2011

Let me begin with a story from my own experience, one that came to mind when I read Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa. A group of young poets, mostly students, met weekly at a Borders in downtown Boston to discuss one another’s work and offer feedback. One week, a poem up for discussion described a bucolic riverside setting and the doings of villagers who lived nearby. “Children wade, women chide,” read one line.

The all-too-familiar motif of incessantly-nagging women raised a few questions with me: Why are they chiding? Who are they chiding? Is their disapproval warranted, or are they scolding simply because they are women and it is to be expected? The poem presupposed that we would accept this image without further elaboration, dismissing the women’s actual complaints.

When I called attention to this, someone else in the group countered that to change this line would be to sacrifice the alliteration of the initial consonants and the chiasmus suggesting a contradiction or parallel between the children wading and the women chiding. As a woman poet, I felt my presence in the group somehow diminished by the intrusion of the stock figure into our midst, as if I, too, were being reduced to a cliché. What good is aesthetic beauty in a poem if it fails to tell the truth about human beings? And yet, it was undeniable that the sound play was skillful, and that the poem would lose something without it. I put the quandary out of my mind, taking comfort in the fact that in any case, the poem would never make it beyond the confines of our modest circle — in spite of one well-wrought line, it was a mediocre poem, written by an unknown poet, that in all likelihood would never see the light of day.

But upon reading New Impressions of Africa, lo and behold, the same question resurfaced, with vastly more at stake. Raymond Roussel is widely read and acclaimed, admired by the likes of Michel Leiris, Marcel Duchamp, and John Ashbery. Questions of aesthetics and ethics become more problematic when reading poets of Roussel’s fame and caliber. How do we weigh the benefits that can be reaped when reading a master of the form against the great damage that can be done through his images that fail to tell the whole truth — about human beings on the whole; about certain groups in particular?

In his book Une autre étude sur Raymond Roussel, the French writer Jean Ferry characterizes Roussel’s anti-Semitism as “épidermique,” or skin-deep. Roussel’s portrayals of the “other,” he argues, are based solely on physical appearance rather than on actions or moral character. But is there such a thing as bigotry that exists only on a poem’s surface without reaching to its very core? Following Ferry’s logic, one is led to believe that a poem has a “skin” and a “deep” level that can be readily divorced. Presumably the form of a poem — rhyme scheme, meter, structure — is its skin, while content runs deeper. But any reader of poetry knows that the relationship between form and content is symbiotic, that the two are interlinked. In the same vein, it cannot be true that Roussel expresses a skin-deep bigotry as a vehicle for carrying the poem forward while simultaneously respecting humanity on a deeper level: one inevitably leads to the other.

New Impressions of Africa is made up of four cantos, each of which begins by establishing the setting in Egypt and then interrupting itself with a parenthetical thought. This thought is in turn interrupted by another, until we are faced with layer upon layer of parentheses. Mark Ford explains in his introduction:

If, from one angle, the brackets and footnotes of Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique insistently disrupt and disjoin, frustrating, with their seemingly endless digressions and lists of examples, the reader’s urge for completion, from another they serve as forms of connection, like railway points, that enable the poem to cross over into whole new regions of proliferating analogy and illustration.

The poem, in its original French, is written in rhyming alexandrine (twelve-syllable) couplets alternating between masculine and feminine rhymes. Ford does not keep the original rhyme or the meter in his translation — to do so would probably be impossible — but the non-francophone reader must trust that these are done magnificently well. An excerpt from one of Roussel’s elaborate lists:

—Si va lui sembler fort son enfant, l’accouchée
Qui ne s’est, avec lui, pas encoure abouchée;
—Le jeune auteur,
Jusqu’à quand ses écrits paraîtront à ses frais;
—L’enfant, si, quand de l’ogre il mit les grosses bottes,
Poucet soufflé dessus pour les render nabotes;
—Le vieillard qui parcourt une letter de part,
S’il sera bientôt mûr, lui, pour le grand depart

—If her baby will seem strong, the mother who’s just given birth
But not yet been reunited with her child;
—The young author
For how long his writings will appear at his own expense;
—The child if, when he put on the ogre’s huge boots,
Tom Thumb blew over them to make them tiny;
—The old man who glances at a letter announcing a death,
If he himself will soon be ready for the great departure

The genius at work: the rhymes are inventive, the alexandrines flawless, the couplets neatly packaged. However, if “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” I fail to see the intersection here. The poem is written as if the reader were in a moving vehicle and the characters flitting in and out of view were trees and lampposts. The “people” being discussed have no orientation in time or place and no connection to the speaker, each other, or even the central simile, which compares a man who wonders whether a photograph of himself will appear blurred to other people who wonder about other things:

(((Chacun, quand de son moi, dont il est entiché
Rigide, il fait tirer un orgueilleux cliché,
—Se demandant, pour peu qu’en respirant il bouge,
Si sur la gélatine, à la lumière rouge,
Dans le révélateur il apparaîtra flou,—

(((Each person, infatuated with self-love, when he proudly has
Someone take his photograph, keeping as still as he can,
—Wondering, even if he moves only by breathing,
Whether on the gelatin photographic plate, in the red light,
In the developing fluid he will appear blurred, —

Roussel does not draw a convincing similarity between the man sitting still for his photograph and the people who follow. The wonderings of the man in the photo are quite different from the last thoughts of the old man preparing for death, which in turn are different from the child’s musings on ogres and fairy tales. A new mother wonders about her child with hope and expectation, while a struggling writer wonders about his lack of commercial success with frustration and despair. Roussel’s analogy does not hold up to scrutiny: the act of wondering is not the same from one person to the next.

The people portrayed in New Impressions of Africa do not behave like people, do not think like people. To be clear, to convey the complexities of the human spirit was never Roussel’s intent — in fact, he prided himself on his artificiality and his avoidance of sentiment. The function of the people in the poem is to be looked at, not to shed light on human experience, not to inspire emotion on the part of the reader. They are mere devices, employed for the purpose of drawing out a larger concept — in this instance, that of wondering and what is wondered about. Concepts, then, along with Roussel’s meticulous poetic process, take precedence over individual dignity.

The problems presented by shallow portrayals of human beings are compounded when we encounter such portrayals of certain types of human beings. In Canto III, a list of people and things that are easily perceived includes “By his thick-lipped mouth towards which dips a nose of the chosen race, / Flanked by red-rimmed eyes, a pure Israelite” (“A sa bouche lippue où trempe un nez d’élite / Flanqué d’yeux au bord rouge un pur israélite“). Here, then, is an example of the anti-Semitism Ferry says is only skin-deep. Roussel’s description may be narrow-minded in that not all Jews share these features, but it does not probe beyond the physical and is therefore ultimately harmless. Right?

The trouble is that such an expression can, and inevitably does, undergo a seamless transformation from a skin-deep sketch to something more problematic. Once a person has been rendered as an object on display, he no longer has a voice with which to explain himself, and the author has the space to judge him in his stead, correctly or not. A list in Canto I describes useless gifts, including “To the Jew a false nose less comic than his own” (“Un nez pastiche au juif, moins que le sien comique”). Both this and the previous statement describe physical features, but in the latter, unlike the former, the feature in question is not only described but interpreted to have a deeper meaning. When the nose is judged to be “comic,” it takes on an added and unwarranted significance. Though the latter passage actually precedes the former in the poem, the relation is clear: once we have set a group apart for their physical characteristics, it is then permissible to attribute to them moral and emotional qualities. In light of the twentieth century, this feels as if it need not be said at all — but it does, often, anywhere we see such objectification. With a familiar turn, Roussel’s anti-Semitism is no longer skin-deep but much more sinister.

Earlier this year, a similar progression played out in public when the fashion designer John Galliano, formerly creative director of Christian Dior, hurled anti-Semitic slurs at a woman in a Paris bar: “Dirty Jewish face, you should be dead… Your boots are of the lowest quality, your thighs are of the lowest quality. You are so ugly I don’t want to see you. I am John Galliano!”

As Rhonda Garelick remarks in a New York Times op-ed, “he was declaring that she did not belong to the gilded group who wear the right boots, and from this Mr. Galliano slid effortlessly to a condemnation of her very flesh, and a wish for her death.” Thus Galliano’s disparagement of the skin-deep — the woman’s boots, her face, her body — morphs into his denial of her life’s value and her worth.

Every poem, of course, need not be a call for social justice. However, I would argue that a poem does have a responsibility to do justice to its own subject matter, the people portrayed therein, and that its integrity is as important as its structure. In the case of New Impressions of Africa, the complex formal structure actually contributes to the poem’s shallowness, its textural intricacies rendering, by comparison, the simplistic and objectified subjects all the more disappointing. At the outset of Canto I, a phrase begins: “((Power of the retoucher! when, sporting her jewels,” and is then interrupted by another parenthetical thought, providing readers with ample suspense for the revelation at the end of the phrase. It resumes more than 30 pages later: “A beauty has her picture taken with her family, one who is now mature/And no longer hears murmurs when she passes,/On the photographic plate she changes from mother to sister;))”. Another literary cliché, again based on physical appearance but leaping to a more far-reaching conclusion: Roussel interprets the woman’s mature features to assume that she now spends her days dwelling on old photographs in hopes of recapturing a lost past and the male gaze of approval. The aging woman is reduced to a product of decreased value, a faded flower, a grotesque caricature — a symbol without emotion or personality. One asks oneself, resentfully, if this overused stereotype is worth the wait of 30 pages.

The trouble with all this is that when a poem limits the emotional range, scope, and abilities of its characters, it also places such limits on the readers themselves. Would-be writers — given a steady dose of literature that assumes limits on their capacity because they are members of a particular group — become the collateral damage. Those who would otherwise have had a voice remain silent. In her book Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, the acclaimed Irish poet Eavan Boland expresses feeling excluded, as a young writer, from the Irish poetic tradition. In the poems she read in school, she says:

The heroine, as such, was utterly passive. She was Ireland or Hibernia. She was stamped, as a rubbed-away mark, on silver or gold; a compromised regal figure on a throne. Or she was a nineteenth-century image of girlhood, on a frontispiece or in a book of engravings. She was invoked, addressed, remembered, loved, regretted. And, most important, died for. She was a mother or a virgin. Her hair was swept or tied back, like the prow of a ship. Her flesh was wood or ink or marble. And she had no speaking part. . . Her identity was as an image.

These poems, and the female emblems who decorate them, were widely loved and celebrated by their reading public. The images of queens and sibyls contained no trace of hatred or misogyny. And aesthetically, Boland says, “It was difficult to deny that something was gained by poems which used the imagery and emblem of the national muse.” But such poems made no mention of the lived experience of actual women, who were also part of Ireland’s struggle for independence. The mythic queens eclipsed the lives and suffering of real women, effectively denying their role in the struggle and silencing them. Boland questions:

How had the women of our past — the women of a long struggle and a terrible survival — undergone such a transformation? How had they suffered Irish history. . .only to reemerge in Irish poetry as fictive queens and national sibyls? . . . The wrath and grief of Irish history seemed to me, as it did to many, one of our true possessions. Women were part of that wrath, had endured that grief. It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth.

What was missing was the full truth of the human experience, and it was this that Boland most longed for in reading poetry: “Something was gained, certainly, but only at an aesthetic level. While what was lost occurred at the deepest, most ethical level, and what was lost was what I valued.” Furthermore, because through the mirror of these poems she saw herself as an object and not a writer of them, she was initially discouraged from writing. There was almost no precedent for poetry about Irish women’s lives. Who would be interested, she thought? “As a woman — about to set out on the life which was the passive object of many of those poems — I had no voice. It had been silenced, ironically enough, by the very powers of language I aspired to and honored.”

How many others will not write? How many potential authors begin to see themselves as objects to be observed and judged rather than subjects or creators of poetry? I am once again reminded of the women I encountered in the poem from my college workshop, whose empty chiding drowns out my thoughts, whose shadows loom over my pen and paper. Add to Roussel’s list of those who wonder: The aspiring writer, recognizing herself in the hollow non-people set forth by writers both great and mediocre, if she should put down the pen and join her cohorts at the riverside.

Is language play at the expense of truth-telling acceptable? It depends, I suppose, on what we look for when we open a book of poetry. If we are looking to take in and appreciate a great writer’s mastery of language, then New Impressions of Africa will not disappoint. But I fear that, overwhelmed by the power of Roussel’s technique, we will fail to probe for the poem’s underlying implications, preferring to accept it in all its skin-deep glory. I fear that his strengths will become an excuse to conveniently ignore his bigotry, or worse, to rationalize it as a product of his time without reflecting on the damage it continues to inflict. After all, it is by no means necessary to sacrifice the dignity of the human spirit in the name of artistic prowess. The literary canon includes countless poems that are prototypes of both.

But who am I, whose work has not passed the test of time, to find fault with the Roussels and the Gallianos of the world? Perhaps I am just another woman chiding, and my voice is, ultimately, expendable.

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About Liza Katz

Liza Katz is a poet, essayist, and teacher. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poet Lore, Omniverse, Burlesque Press, the Quarterly Conversation, and Arts Fuse.