Sherry and Schopenhauer
Shadows of the Sun: The Diaries of Harry Crosby Edward Germain (ed.) Black Sparrow Press, 288 pp. $5 (paperback)
"Poetry has saints. He was not of them.
His death was his best poem, and Crosby, dead
Shall live in history, like the marauders
Infatuate of new-found luxuries
Who fired the scrolls of Alexandria To warm the waters of the public baths...". John Wheelwright. "To Wise Men on the Death of a Fool."
FOOLS PROVIDE the tabloids with copy, the wise with confidence, and the timid with smug self-satisfaction; often symbolizing an era to a degree aesthetes are unwilling to admit. Harry Crosby would have made a superlative court jester. If ever an artist appropriated the spirit of his era it was Crosby. This golden-haired nephew of J.P. Morgan spent a lifetime scrambling after insight and sensations others had long since experienced; obsessed with material possessions and the construction of elaborate mythologies. Yet his diaries ruthlessly expose foibles, and paint portraits in the starkest tones of a man and an era when flight -- physical and intellectual -- was a dominant preoccupation.
The frenetic Charlestoning, the drugs, the sex and the compulsive travelling of the '20s may have been described at great length in the more reputable words of the time. Nevertheless, today, there persists a nostalgia for the glitter and naivete of the decade before the Great Crash that is soon dispelled after reading some of the entries in Crosby's diary.
June 13th, 1925:
Fed Ula the female monkey 3 gin fizzes and she ran up and down a rope ladder, and the Clever girl was christened by a Russian princess I should like to have violated and there were strawberry gin fizzes and drunken dancing and I was fortunate to get home.
Or there were the bizarre encounters with young dancing girls and camel-boys as Crosby and his wife, Caresse, journeyed to Egypt, on a pilgrimage to the Sun. There was
A last morning of basking and soul into Sun and little Zora for luncheon (all three of us in the bed) and we put the earrings upon her ears, and the bracelets upon her hands and (Caresse) gives her a pair of lace pretties and I perfume and she is wearing all her amulets and has added new tattoo marks in our honor and I wonder what the people in the hotel think.
Such naivete, mixed with the pettiness of a mind perpetually concerned with the world's opinion even as he affects to despise accepted mores, is an irritating feature of the book. Crosby's account of easily broken resolutions shows what to Bostonians would be a lamentable lack of moral fibre. However, his accompanying remorse betrays the persistence of those precise Brahmin reflexes Crosby so frequently and noisily repudiated. A man who protests as vigorously as Harry Crosby did against convention and propriety is often trying to overcome a nagging inner fear that perhaps he is just as conventional and bound by the past as the inhabitants of "The City of Dreadful Night" (his epithet for Boston). It is this kind of contradiction that gives depth to the character of someone it would otherwise be all to easy to dismiss as a facile, blotting-paper intellectual, a worthless dilettante with an inordinate passion for shop-girls, racehorses and opium (which he called his "black idol").
Crosby is not so readily dismissed. There is, for example, the question of his religiosity. Forget for the moment the outlandish trappings of his faith, forget his ambition to emulate Icarus by flying into the Sun, forget such mysticism, and one is faced with a man of passionate energy and conviction, but no recognized religion into which to channel his embarassing welter of emotions. Ezra Pound called Crosby's life a "religious manifestation" and his death "a vote of confidence in the cosmos." It may be easy to decry the self-indulgent sensualism in which Crosby ultimately gloried. Yet one cannot avoid placing some of the blame on the society into which he was born. Crosby was childish. He did not even write good poetry. But regardless of the selfdelusion he practiced, Crosby mirrored accurately a society as hypocritical as he was pretentious. Unwittingly he copies the excesses of a society he despises while convinced that he exemplifies its literary genius.
The diary entries are haphazard, sometimes only a paragraph long and are burdened with third-hand philosophy and verse that can most charitably be called forced.
Within the strange menageries of my brain
Fantastic figures fornicate and fuse
Into deciduous monsters that abuse
The girl-gold visions over whom I reign.
October 12--Sherry and Schopenhauer. I like him best of the philosophers (and sherry best of the light wines)
October 14--More Sherry and more Schopenhauer. By seeing so far he (the genius) does not see what is near; he is imprudent and 'queer and while his vision is hitched to a star he falls into a well... the genius is forced into isolation, and sometimes into madness
In his biography of Crosby, Black Sun, Geoffrey Wolff stresses Crosby's notion of madness as a short-cut to genius. And there is undoubtedly a manic quality to many of the jottings that goes beyond mere eccentricity. His entry for January 1, 1929 begins:
Oneness for Eternity red-Gold of Sun and I looked into the red-gold of the fire and drank a first toast to 1929 (let this year be the Sunfire Year) and we all kissed each other....
In this hysteria, though, Crosby is only more extreme than the times he was living in. It has become proverbial to describe the 20s in terms of a final, desperate fling before the reckoning of 1929.
As for the subjects of Crosby's records, they are exotic and often as empty as the writer himself. He describes the great literary figures of his day and the watering-holes of the very rich with minute detail but little empathy. The characters he describes live only insofar as they affect Harry's life, consequently, his perspective is slanted.
It was this egoism (as well as a lack of talent) that prevented Crosby from developing into a genuine artist. His spiritually hollow diaries show little sympathy for the people they describe and even his reverence for decadence was second-hand, gleaned from other people's books. He longed for a niche in posterity. But in the end he earned little more than the short-lived notoriety of the suicide who murders his beautiful mistress as a prelude to suicide. And that is no more than any brute with a pistol can achieve.