Eric Basso is a poet, novelist, playwright, and critic, born in Baltimore in 1947. His output is prodigious, though I had not read him until I received these two well-made books. Decompositions: Essays on Art & Literature, 1973-1989 (Leaping Dog Press / Asylum Arts Press, 2006, ISBN 1-878580-58-2) is exactly what its subtitle says it is, a collection of critical essays. Although “critical” is perhaps not the right word, because these are more along the lines of explorations of the subjects Basso chooses to discuss, his responses to them, rather than the sort of critical writing one would find in a review, for example. His prose is clean and readable, while exceedingly erudite.
Although he does not restrict himself, his main interests clearly lie with the French – Romantics, Symbolists, and moderns. Occasionally, I feared I would find myself lost. I am of course familiar with the likes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, et al. But I must reluctantly admit that Villiers was merely a name to me, and de Nerval little more (de Nerval of the famous pet lobster). As for Jarry, I am again shamefully deficient: although I did once see a staging of an Irish-language version of Ubu Roi, I remember only a tiny bit of it. But not to worry, for Basso actually makes all this stuff accessible in the context of his essays. The pieces on de Nerval and the (English) Elizabethan playwright Cyril Tourneur I found particularly enlightening – the collection is certainly capable of broadening one’s scope. With the above, I would add that the piece on the painter Géricault (whose study of severed limbs graces Decompositions’ cover) is exceptional.
Basso occasionally verges into the philosophical, as in his discussion of Mallarmé’s courting of “Void”: “Thus we have the conscious mind, always at one remove from its core of being, able to conceive an idea of—but unable to know—itself, by such ignorance, reducing all notions of personal identity (which implies consistency) to a nebulous comedy of ever-changing masks.” But it is not always this...rarefied, and of course it was Mallarmé who became obsessed with nullity before his descendant Basso. And, while he sometimes appears to be in love with needless, antiquated diacritical marks (“rôle” for “role,” “reënter” for “reenter,” etc.) and a florid font style, he is able to convey the “abstract” concept relatively clearly and efficiently.
But for me personally, the best essays in Decompositions were the ones that took up writers I was more familiar with myself – Kafka, Céline – and I found Basso to be about as on the mark as anyone can be in his reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, certainly an arduous task for even the most knowledgeable Joycean. He makes a couple of possibly overlooked points here. One being that (referencing Harry Levin) the Wake is relatively poor in visual imagery, with the emphasis instead on its bizarre wordplay. Therefore, rather than the massive dream that some have proposed FW to be, Basso suggests something along the lines of “hypnagogic trance”: “Certainly, true dreams seem more coherent, if only to suspend our disbelief, to keep us sleeping in ignorance of a veiled chaos.” The implication is that the Wake is the “veiled chaos” revealed. Later in the essay he writes, “The elucid language of Finnegans Wake is the architectonic transmutation of culture, myth and romance on the grand scale, like the sacred books of the past...”
However, Basso is quite interested in dreams, and thus Revagations: A Book of Dreams, Volume I, 1966-1974 (Leaping Dog Press / Asylum Arts Press, 2006, 386 pp., ISBN 1-878580-57-4). It is hard to “review” a book of this nature. You are either interested in it, or you’re not. For some, the material of the subconscious will be worthy in and of itself; for others, the dreams of a stranger with whom one has no personal connection will seem boring. I myself am in the former camp, for the most part. Oddly, Basso’s dreams even reminded me of my own in places. His introduction draws heavily from the French – no surprise there, knowing his preoccupations now – with much discussion of Valéry’s, Victor Hugo’s, and de Nerval’s work, as well as that of the English Romantics like Shelley.
And here is a brief, interesting taste of Basso’s own nocturnal travels: “An old-neighborhood girl, whom I am to marry, is vacillating between me and two unknowns. She looks nothing like I remember her, much younger and far more attractive.... We walk down a cobblestone alley, near the back of St. Bernadine’s. The atmosphere gradually becomes more European. A pub, below street-level, at the end of the alley. I’m still wearing my baseball umpire’s cap and sunglasses. As we approach, Dan tells me to remove the sunglasses, that it is illegal to go incognito into a public gathering.... The pub is dark, crowded. Thick wooden tables heavily marked with graffiti, a cloud of smoke through which we see barmaids coming and going.... I hail one of the barmaids with a sweeping gesture: ‘Coke for everybody!’....”
I may have been there too one time.