L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, July 2, 2010

Enfant Gentil?

I spent a literary evening at the side of my wife, last night. I do enjoy being the consort whenever I can. I went with her to class - the Dangerous Writing workshop - enjoyed the wonderful writing and at the break they called it a night and had a little birthday party for Tom (Spanbauer). Then, most of us trucked over to a benefit for poet Walt Curtis. A few months back, Walt lost just about everything he owned in a fire, and this was one of several fundraisers in his honor.

The evening was long and rather...taxing, shall we say. We had all thought that Tom would be reading early in the program; one of the main reasons we went was to hear Tom and Kevin Samsell read. They eventually read, back to back, about three hours in. Before that, there was a lot of poetry slowly read - much of it unintelligible since, apparently, poets are unable to intuit the function of a microphone. The high point of this early part of the evening was Monica Drake, who read a great piece and gallantly fielded the rantings of the honoree.

Walt Curtis is known for being irascible, loudly whimsical, perverse. At least at big public functions. I hear he's quite charming in smaller, more intimate settings; I've never seen him that way. And last night, even though - or perhaps because - he was the one in whose honor the benefit was formed, he displayed behavior - loudly disruptive, antagonistic, insulting - that could only be described by employing the overworked phrase enfant terrible. A nearly elderly enfant, but still.... And I couldn't help but wonder why we laud such behavior in artists - poets - that we would condemn in a florist or a plumber.

We seem to think it's endearing that an artist might run amok that way. I think it goes along with that thing about artists being special. The role of an artist in modern art and literature. Not merely a craftsman, but special. And entitled - encouraged - to be loud and ridiculous. And it shouldn't really matter, I suppose; fools are often quite delightful. Entertaining, certainly. The problem is when we equate behavior with talent. And I think, all too often, we do. If the artist or writer acts extreme enough they're probably really good! We may not think this consciously, but the image of the brilliant, celebrated artist/author who goes about acting like a horse's ass is so deeply iconic, and is just the kind of thing that warps our expectations.

I can't really make any comment on Walt Curtis' talent or skill as a writer. I've only read Mala Noche, and I remember really enjoying it. (Though, I must admit that what I remember enjoying are the parts that related to my own life; when I read it, I'd just moved here from LA, and my experiences there had many parallels with his story.) But Walt is so loved and respected that I must assume he's a good writer. And beyond the nonsense, a good guy.

But I'd just like to make an obeisance to the artists and writers who work hard and are respectful and know how to behave in public. I'd really like to see a shift in the paradigm (I used the word paradigm, oh la!) of the artist's persona. What we think an artist looks and behaves like. I happen to know lots of artists and writers who are respectful and responsible and make amazing work. My wife is one of them. The writers she is in workshop with, who are kind and supportive - and fantastic writers. And Tom Spanbauer, a gentle, soft-spoken man of great dignity and grace, whose work is heartbreaking and fearless and...I honestly don't have the language to be able to describe the beauty and wisdom of his work.

So I'd really love to see a new image of a artist, a new icon of a writer. The sort of writer or artist I'm speaking of. A new terminology. Instead of the well-worn enfant terrible, may I suggest enfant gentil...? Or perhaps even enfant doux...?


  1. So true. I'd love to know the history of enfant terrible. When it got into our collective consciousness that this was to be celebrated, and how it got there. Maybe there's something in us that wants to be that particular enfant, and it sits nicely in our brains next to that something in us that wants to create and be seen.

    I vote for enfant doux. Lovely sound.

  2. How about "enfant amusant"?
    Though real children are not very amusing.
    Mme. H

  3. No? Well, sometimes. Hey, aren't you a mom? Kinda harsh, Huiteuse.... ;)

  4. I still remember author Robert K. Massie describing Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia as an enfant terrible.
    i would love to see that writer's beahaviour if confronted with an Ursus Horribilis...

    I love to read your posts, Stephen. They're so comforting!
    Thank you so much!