Roman Payne, an essay by author Pietros Maneos on “Payne and Modern Romanticism”

May 11th, 2012

In recent years, there has been a rejection of the dictates promulgated by the mandarins of Modernism and Post-Modernism for a kind of aesthetic Romanticism.  One sees this in the rise of the figurative work of the Classical Realists.  Though the term ‘Classical’ is in its very title, I view it as a Romantic movement.  With the New York art world, largely controlled by the devotees of Clement Greenberg – known for his rebarbative maxim, ‘Self-evidently, all kit sch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch.

Roman Payne in Paris

From the Age of Reason to the Age of the Romantics: Roman Payne poses with two friends at a masked ball he helped to organize in Paris in 2011. The theme: France's Ancien Régime.

For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed shirt “front” for kitsch. (Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture, 11)’ and Jerry Saltz, a contemporary Clem, infamous for his risible statement, ‘All great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art…Skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency… I’m interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks,’ – what is more Romantic, even radical, to look to the sensibility of 19th century French Academic painters like Tadema, Bouguereau and Gerome, so reviled by the Moderns?  What is more heterodox than to be desirous of skill – to master form, color and composition – to render the human form in all of its inherent beauty – to fall deeply and passionately in Love with nature a la Thomas Cole?  The most audacious aspect of Classical Realism is not its glorious repudiation of Modernism and Post-Modernism, but its location.  Instead of choosing one of the grand European cities like Paris, Rome or Florence as its capital, the movement is firmly embedded within the very heart of Philistia, New York City.  How utterly brazen!

Romanticism is on the rise not only in the visual arts, but in the literary arts as well.  One can look to the magisterial novels of Mark Helprin, Michael Ondaatje, and Olga Grushin, or to the critical essays of Harold Bloom and his ‘daughter,’ Camille Paglia, to see this renewed interest in Beauty, Passion, and Truth.  Most recently, a friend suggested that I read the novels of an eccentric American figure residing in Paris named Roman Payne.  After reading a few of his poems, and excerpts from his prose, he seemed to me to be a 21st century amalgamation of Wilde and Pushkin.  The other evening I finally had the opportunity to begin his novel ‘Rooftop Soliloquy,’ whereupon I came across this passage:

 

“She’d liked Greece the best, though she didn’t like the smell of the little streets and the churches.  But she liked the smells of the cafes and the songs of the musicians who played there.  She liked the bravery in the Greek tales and songs.  She’d read Homer in French and was trying to read him in Greek.  She liked the valor of Zeus, she liked his promiscuity, and she admired the craftiness of Athena.  She also like Artemis, although she was convinced her chastity wasn’t intentional.  ‘It’s like Mary,’ she told me, ‘You know in the original Greek, Mary wasn’t described as a virgin.  She was just described as ‘a young girl,’ but not ‘a virgin’ . . . somewhere, someone got it all wrong!’

Katell said she would always be catholic.  She said she believed in God and loved him (she insisted that him be spelled all in lower-case), and would always love him, though she didn’t like his books.  The characters in the Bible were sorry people, she said. ‘They’re horribly meek!’ she told me, ‘And worse, they’re proud of being meek! . . . Can you imagine?!’ Katell liked Jesus but she preferred Achilles.”                                                  (Roman Payne, Rooftop Soliloquy, 21)

 

I literally leapt to my feet with joy with the realization that Mr. Payne is without a doubt a kindred spirit, a fellow Romantic, in a decidedly anti-Romantic Age.  The longing for the Heroic is not only a Hellenic ideal, but a Romantic one as well.  Byron famously declaimed, ‘I want a hero: an uncommon want.’  Additionally, it is consonant with the Romantic spirit to long for pagan Italy and Greece as an alternative to the overly refined mores of the Europeans or to the dispassionate, pessimism of the Americans.  Greece and Italy represent a fleshy Eden where one can luxuriate in the pleasures of the body without shame or infamy, where one can delight in pure beauty.  Here, a man can dance a Zeibekiko with milky-thighed, soft-eyed Galatea under the watchful eye of Poseidon, or take several dark-skinned, raven-haired contessas as personal concubines.  It is not coincidental that Shelley died in Livorno, Italy – Byron in Missolonghi, Greece – and Keats in Rome, Italy; a premature or a heroic death in the Mediterranean is part of the archetype for the arch-Romantic.  J.P. Russo in his essay ‘Hemingway and D’Annunzio,’ terms D’Annunzio’s Romantic death-wish as ‘aestheticizing one’s death,’ essentially self-casting oneself as a warrior in Book V of The Iliad or a dashing figure in a ‘Bel Canto’ opera.   ‘One must long for death, fill it with meaning, be an example to others in dying, will one’s death, dramatize one’s death, aestheticize one’s death.   (J.P. Russo, Hemingway and D’Annunzio).’  Those who know me well, know that at nights before Morpheus cloaks my eyes in the diaphanous veil of darkness, I dream not of literary accomplishment, nor of the vulgar acquisition of shekels or harems, but instead, of a heroic death in Nicosia, Cyprus fighting alongside 299 other Hellenes and  Philhellenes against 30,000 armed Turks.  For what is more beautiful than to die for the ideals of Hellenism, except perhaps dying for Love?  Payne himself touches upon this very theme in his 20th Soliloquy after two of his characters perish from poisonous herbs immediately following the consummation of their Love, ‘and so entwined, the two lovers died.  It was the happiest death that two people could ever have?  (241)’

After reading Payne’s contrast between Hellenism (Achilles) and Galileanism (Jesus) aloud several times, I immediately thought of one of my favorite passages in far-famed Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, his dithyrambic travelogue on immortal Greece.  I furiously dashed into my study and began to read this page aloud to a lonely nightingale perched upon my windowsill:

‘There is no language that can render the flavor and the beauty of modern Greek,’ he replied.  ‘French is wooden, inflexible, logic-ridden, too precise; English is too flat, prosaic, too business-like . . . you don’t know how to make verbs in English.’  He went on like that, flourishing his cane angrily.  He began to recite one of Seferiades’ poems, in Greek.  ‘Do you hear that? The sound of it alone is wonderful, no? What can you give me in English to match that for sheer beauty of resonance?’ And suddenly he began to intone a verse from the Bible. ‘Now that’s a little more like it,’ he said.  ‘But you don’t use that language any more – that’s a dead language now.  The language hasn’t any guts to-day.  You’re all castrated, you’ve become business men, engineers, technicians.  It sounds like wooden money dropping into a sewer.  We’ve got a language . . . we’re still making it.  It’s a language for poets, not for shop-keepers.  Listen to this -’ and he began reciting another poem, in Greek.  ‘That’s from Sikelianos.  I suppose you never even heard the name, what? You never heard of Yannopoulos either, did you?  Yannopoulos was greater than your Walt Whitman and all the American poets combined.  He was a madman, yes, like all the great Greek fellows.  He fell in love with his own country – that’s a funny thing, eh?  Yes, he became so intoxicated with the Greek language, the Greek philosophy, the Greek sky, the Greek mountains, the Greek sea, the Greek islands, the Greek vegetables, even, that he killed himself.  I’ll tell you how he killed himself some other time – that’s another story.  Have you got any writers who would kill themselves because they were too full of love?  Are there any French writers or German writers or English writers who feel that way about their country, their race, their soil?  Who are they?  I’ll read you some of Yannopoulos when we get back to Athens.  I’ll read you what he says about the rocks – just the rocks, nothing more.  You can’t know what a rock is until you’ve heard what Yannopoulos has written.  He talks about rocks for pages and pages; he invents rocks, by God, when he can’t find any to rave about.  People say he was crazy, Yannopoulos.  He wasn’t crazy – he was mad.  There’s a difference.  His voice was too strong for his body : it consumed him.  He was like Icarus – the sun melted his wings.  He soared too high.  He was an eagle.  These rabbits we call critics can’t understand a man like Yannopoulos.  He was out of proportion.  He raved about the wrong things, according to them.  He didn’t have le sens de mesure, as the French say.  There you are – mesure.  What a mean little word!  They look at the Parthenon and they find proportions so harmonious.  All rot.  The human proportions which the Greek extolled were superhuman.  They weren’t French proportions.  They were divine, because the true Greek is a god, not a cautious, precise, calculating being with the soul of an engineer. . . .”       (Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, 68)’

 

After reading this powerful vignette, how could one not ache to read the enlivened verse of the orphic Yannopoulos.  Perhaps Yannopoulos is just a figment of the vivid imagination of the speaker, George Katsimbalis, as I have yet to come upon Yannopoulos’ poetry.  Katsimbalis is a recurring character in the philhellenic literature of Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and the recently deceased, Patrick Leigh Fermor, with Fermor directing a documentary film on Katsimbalis.  Incidentally, if one has a marked interest in the literary genre of modern philhellenism, I would recommend looking into the scholar Edmund Keeley’s writings, specifically his tome Inventing Paradise. Katsimbalis, the modern Odysseus, the man of many ways, also makes a brief appearance within my Satire, American Bards & The London Reviewer.

Eliot writes:

‘Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’

Maneos counters:

‘Shall I say, I have gone at dawn through the venues near the Acropolis
And watched wily Katsimbalis make a fool of the cruel British,
While dancing like a whirling dervish? . . .
Cock-a-doodle-doo!

I should have been a sashaying satyr,
Touring the wooded Peloponnese in a woven sash hunting for singing woodland nymphs.

(Pietros Maneos, American Bards & The London Reviewer, 23)

 

Katsimbalis is something of a cerebral Zorba, an impassioned satyr, a Nietzschean Overman, and is the very ‘Colossus’ of Mr. Miller’s Maroussi, a fitting antidote to the sniveling J. Alfred Prufrock so lionized by the Moderns.  The ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo’ allusion is actually culled from the appendix of ‘Colossus,’ containing a letter written from Durrell to Miller where Katsimbalis takes center stage, of course:

‘when all of a sudden K. was seized with a kind of fit.  Leaping to his feet he yelled out – ‘Do you want to hear the cocks of Attica, you damned moderns?’ His voice had a hysterical edge to it.  We didn’t answer and he wasn’t waiting for one.  He took a little run to the edge of the precipice, like a faery queen, a heavy black faery queen, in his black clothes, threw back his head, clapped the crook of his stock into his wounded arm, and sent out the most blood-curdling clarion I have ever heard.  Cock-a-doodle doo.  It echoed all over the city – a sort of dark bowl dotted with lights like cherries.  It ricocheted from hillock to hillock and wheeled up under the walls of the Parthenon. . . .We were so shocked that we were struck dumb.  And while we were still looking at each other in the darkness, lo, from the distance silvery clear in the darkness a cock drowsily answered – then another, then another.  This drove K. wild.  Squaring himself, like a bird about to fly into space, and flapping his coat-tails, he set up a terrific scream – and the echoes multiplied.  He screamed until the veins stood out all over him, looking like a battered and ravaged rooster in profile, flapping on his own dunghill.  He screamed himself hysterical and his audience in the valley increased until all over Athens like bugles they were calling and calling, answering him.  Finally between laughter and hysteria we had to ask him to stop.  The whole night was alive with cockrows – all Athens, all Attica, all Greece, it seemed, until I almost imagined you being woken at your desk late in New York to hear these terrific silver peals: Katsimbaline cockcrow in Attica.  This was epic – a great moment and purely Katsimbalis.  If you could have heard these cocks, the frantic psaltery of the Attic cocks! I dreamt about it for two nights afterwards.’  (Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, 244).

 

Modern culture needs more men possessing the frenzied elan of Katsimbalis, and the heroic longings of Mr. Payne.  Both Miller and Payne fully understand that no other culture is as desirous of ‘The Heroic’ as the Greek.  One could also add ‘The Beautiful,’ but then the Italians and the French would surely object, and perhaps rightfully so.

In Payne’s 8th Soliloquy his Hero, Aleksandre, composes an Ode To Spring, which by both its title and theme stands against 20th century verse, so often positioned in opposition to Nature; here one should immediately think of Eliot’s ‘April is the cruelest month,’ the opening lines of his seminal The Wasteland.  The ‘Ode’ would seem to be a deliberately archaic title redolent of Romanticism, and specifically beautiful-souled John Keats.  Besides the title, the presence of beautiful words and phrases found within the poem such as ‘dewy’ ‘vernal’ ‘watery’ ‘blushing dawn’ ‘braided chains of crocus stems’ is a topos of Romantic Poetry.  The language is so deliciously rich that one has an urge to sink one’s teeth into the page.  Payne’s Baroque leanings are in glaring contrast to the omnipresent minimalism so favored by Anglo-American poets and novelists.  In fact, Eliot, the desiccated Pope of High Modernism, would object to my assessment of Mr. Payne on the very grounds that he doesn’t believe in the existence of ‘beautiful words’ or ‘beautiful phrases;’ in his essay ‘The Music of Poetry,’ he states, ‘I doubt whether, from the point of view of sound alone, any word is more or less beautiful than another –.’  What can one do when coming upon such rubbish, other than to weep for the decline of τό καλόν, or to place such words and phrases as ‘rousing singing’ ‘marmara’ and ‘full beautiful’ vis a vis ‘ragged claws’ ‘schlock’ and ‘alleys of death’?

Mr. Payne has more in common with the beauteous Souls of Giacomo Puccini or Pietro Mascagni, apposite comparisons as Aleksandre is also an opera composer, than with the likes of William Carlos Williams, the minimalist, or Charles Bukowski, the anti-aesthete, two figures idolized by the glitterati and the literati alike.  Katsimbalis, the lover of all experience and sensation, would certainly approve of the denouement to Aleksandre’s Ode to Spring, which finishes with the lines, ‘I learned that time cannot be spent/It can only be squandered,’ Payne’s 21st century rendition of Horace’s renowned apothegm ‘Carpe Diem,’ and Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’  Katsimbalis lived by the above aphorisms, as one cannot imagine him squandering a single moment of his Dionysian existence.  Payne continues with the ‘Carpe Diem’ theme in the 13th Soliloquy when he critiques the common expression ‘Rest in Peace’:

“Why ‘Rest in Peace’ Why that phrase?  That’s the most ridiculous phrase I’ve ever heard!  You die, and they say ‘Rest in Peace!’ … Why would one need to ‘rest’ when they’re dead?  I spent thousands of years of world history resting.  While Agamemnon was leading his ships to Troy, I was resting.  While Ovid was seducing women at the chariot races, I was resting.  While Jeanne d’Arc was hallucinating, I was resting.  I wait until airplanes are scuttling across the sky to burst out onto the scene, and I’m only going to be here for a short while, so when I die, I certainly won’t need to rest again! Not while more adventures of the same kind are going on. . .”                                                    (Roman Payne, Rooftop Soliloquy, 141)”

 

This is the very quintessence of Romanticism – a man who is hungry for all worldly experience, a man who desires ‘a life of sensations rather than thoughts.’  How different from the modern sensibility, a sensibility so aptly personified by Eliot’s Prufrock when he says, ‘There will be time, there will be time.’

In an age where many of his literary peers look to the likes of Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy as avatars, Mr. Payne distinguishes himself, and one could even say elevates himself, by drawing his inspiration from the Immortal Glory (kleos aphthiton) of illustrious Homer.  The 9th soliloquy is Mr. Payne’s attempt to trace his artistic lineage to far-renowned, fair-worded Homer.  One can imagine Mr. Payne alternating between fervent bouts of literary composition and diligent reading of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Keats must have done the same, while composing his majestic On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.  This interplay between Payne’s Homeric readings and his own literature is obvious with his pronounced utilization of Homeric epithets, ‘strong-handed Aurelien (71)’ , Homeric similes, ‘We then clasped arms as do fond brothers when the ripening years bring them to reunite after the long and carefree seasons of youthful travels have reached their inevitable end. (75)’ and Homeric-styled dialogue, ‘Surely some god who runs across the swift sky have we angered to let this fate befall us. (73)’  Though many would classify Payne’s Homeric style as return to Classicism, I would also posit that it is a highly Romantic gesture, for to look towards Homer as one’s lodestar in a literary age of spare cynicism is nigh Revolutionary.  Mark Helprin, of the diamantine prose, lampoons this cynical trend among the cognoscenti: ‘That they know the world is horrible and purposeless proves that they are wise. (Mark Helprin, Digital Barbarism, 18)’  Payne stands diametrically opposed to Helprin’s ‘they.’

The 13th Soliloquy titled ‘The Chandellesque’ vividly details a depraved Bacchanalia where our Hero beds forty nymphs in one single evening, outperforming even Lord Byron in Venice who took an entire summer to bed 200 women.  Payne is paying homage not only to Byron and Casanova, but to the legacy of the fin-de-siecle decadents, such literary luminaries as Baudelaire, Huysmans and Gautier.  Aleksandre is the gallivanting rake, the perfumed dandy, the Don Juan of Paris, indulging in every single sensual urge passing through his soul.  He is also casting himself once again as the Nietzschean Overman, possessing the Olympic virility of a lecherous bull fed a steady diet of oysters and viagra, able to satisfy the rampant lusts of forty separate nymphs.  ‘The limbs of forty nymphs reached up and welcomed us upon their heaving bodies.  After I tasted the navel of one, pressed my mouth to the lips of another and held in my palms the mount of wetness that frothed from her groin, I felt four little hands wrap around my forehead in a playful way. (136)’  Aleksandre’s corporeal excesses are a bit of reminiscent of Odysseus’ amorous excursion with the sea-nymph Calypso, yet are in stark contrast to the impotence of Eliot’s Prufrock.

Payne’s artistic ethos is wonderfully encapsulated in a single line found within the 17th Soliloquy. ‘How can one fail to create beautifully when one looks at the rooftops of Paris? (214)’ Che romantico!  Payne’s aim is to bring forth beauty into the world, an anomaly in a culture so obsessed with novelty, so indifferent, even hostile towards beauty, a culture where the demos have been seduced by Greenberg’s sophistic maxim, ‘All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.’  I can imagine Mr. Payne coming upon Greenberg’s statement and exploding into a fit of laughter, incredulous that anyone, save a barbarian, would kowtow to such inanity.  Payne, in the hallowed tradition of Romanticism and Aestheticism, is more concerned with The Beautiful than with The Original, an exceedingly defiant stance in this century.  Both Mr. Payne and his Anglo-American contemporaries lay mired in the gutter, but while his contemporaries scrawl poesia rampant with rats scampering through decaying alleys, and gush over canvases polluted with feces, Mr. Payne sings of the pulsating Moon with her silvery lips, he sings of the constellations robed in gilded Olympian light, he sings of scalding lava that both consumes and liberates him – simply – he sings of The Beautiful; his tongue may be French and his blood American, but his soul is Greek.

The divine, Oscar Wilde, once said that ‘the new individualism is the new Hellenism,’ and I firmly believe that the impending revolution in Aesthetics will be a Renaissance of τό καλόν (The Beautiful), a resurgence of Romanticism, a rise of Aestheticism, upon the Modern stage, and sentiments such as Mr. Payne’s will triumph over the meek musings of the Prufrockians and the execrable excreta spewed by the collective gaggle of Beats, Dirty Realists, Nihilists, and Anti-Aesthetes, that has so dominated the literature of the previous century.  Artists will not simply bury the carcasses of Modernism, and Post-Modernism but instead, strap them to the back of their Homeric chariots, riding three times around the walls of Troy, while chanting ‘L’univers c’est moi!’  Perhaps I am merely a fool, a madman, a wild-eyed dreamer, and this will not come to pass, but regardless, it is a beautiful dream nonetheless, and we Greeks have always been Romantic dreamers, if nothing else.

 - Pietros Maneos, 20