Le vrai homme révolté

I’ve spent the last month wading through the complete poems of François Villon, which is not a bad pace given that the 600 year old dialect, topical references, in-jokes, allusions, slang and the whole string of ballads written in lower-class jargon (not to mention the unmodernized spelling–thank you Livre de Poche editors!) makes huge swaths of the poems virtually indecipherable. Even in French the editors offer speculative translations of whole poems in the footnotes. Nevertheless, through all of that, and largely thanks to the monotonous choice of subjects and versification of medieval poetry, a pretty consistent picture arises from the poems.

Villon is an interesting case, as he is generally considered the first great modern poet in French, while also possessing one of the most notorious personal histories in all of literature. He killed a priest, robbed a college, probably joined a band of marauding vagabonds and was sentenced to death twice (both sentences were commuted to exile). Although he was certainly not the first major poet to focus on the life of the poor and outcast rather than love, religion and chivalry (the poète maudit was something of an archetype in that age as well–Rutebeuf is but one well-known example of a poet who prefigures many of the themes that Villon later addressed, although he treats them less violently and more pathetically), the depth of his immersion in these subjects is somewhat unique.

And what one finds in much of his poetry is the same pathology that people like Dalrymple (or rather Anthony Daniels) observe rampant in the underclass today. Villon, or at least his poetic persona, is for the most part totally lacking in ethical scruples. He usually takes the position that the rich (or rather anyone whom he robs or would like to rob) is, by virtue of their possessing something he does not, worthy of being divested of it. At the same time, when called to account for his actions, he adopts a pervasive fatalism, claiming that the stars, his destiny and the circumstances of his birth precluded any alternative to what he has done. It’s important to recognize that Villon was a real brigand, not one of the pseudo-rebellious modern poets who launch provocative rhetoric from cushy academic appointments or Parisian café’s. As such, Villon does not fetishize his crimes or the criminal existence, as those who have never actually committed any frequently do. He simply avers his desire to have certain things and a general indifference as to how he obtains them, leavened with a consuming paranoia about getting caught. Indeed, in the revealing ballades en jargon, which due to this fact were obviously addressed to other criminals, this fear is virtually the only subject of and emotion evident.

On a related subject, in order to understand the poems I think it is necessary to appreciate that different poems were addressed to different spheres of society. There are the public poems, intended for a patron or the general public, which are mostly colorless and indistinct poems about patriotism or love. Then there are the long poems, the Lais and the massive Testament, which as the name implies are fake testaments where the largely destitute poet satirically pretends to bequeath all kinds of gifts to various enemies. These are halfway between public and private, so the poet mocks many of the rich and powerful, but only through irony, which is to say indirectly. Then there are the private poems and those written in a slang which would be incomprehensible to anyone outside of criminal or underclass circles. This is important because many commentators write I think falsely about the purported repentence and humility of the poet in his works. It is true that Villon in his public poems makes some gestures in this direction, usually in the context of a plea for a stay of execution, but these usually only go so far as to plead for mercy, which is not the same thing as expressing regret or remorse for what he has done. By contrast, in the private poems or those addressed to his peers in the underworld, Villon demonstrates incessantly his defiance of society and his contempt for the victims, in describing whom he uses all the synonyms in the language for “idiot” and “gullible.” Sometimes he demonstrates empathy for the victims of his satire by putting mournful poems in their voices, but never any for the victims of his actions or those of his comrades.

This no doubt appears a pretty dour and humorless interpretation of a large and varied body of work, especially given the considerable verbal dexterity and intermittant humor (although I found Villon’s vaunted sardonic wit generally less impressive than it is praised to be, probably because at this distance in time only the broadest, most universal and hence generally the most leaden ironies are still comprehensible to us), which I have not even mentioned yet. But if anything justifies this attitude, it is that, to repeat, Villon, unlike the modern poets, actually did the things he talks about, and hence was genuinely, as Kierkegaard put it so perfectly, “heterogenous with the ethical.” Hence he is rather problematic for contemporary literarios: he makes the ideal of the poet defying society and its standards seem rather embarassing, given that he actually murdered someone. The fact that he remains a great and venerated poet compounds the embarassment, by exposing the amorality at the heart of literature. This is not to say that literature or writers themselves are necessarily amoral, but simply that writing is just a skill and hence can be put to almost any use, good, bad, or neutral. The fact that someone living a life like Villon’s could be a master of the art attests to this fact. In any case, I need a literary pariah who has been persecuted for more ethically defensible reasons–so, on to Salman Rushdie.

p.s. Villon ironically shows his lack of concern for the ethical by his refusal to idealize his actions. To me this indicates that he does not even feel uncomfortable enough about them to try to reconcile them with any sort of ethical norm. On the other hand, he does frequently idealize his own existence. He often implies that, although he was expelled from the clergy for his criminal activity, his way of living has actually brought him closer to God by exposing him to persecution and by cutting his ties to human societies, thus putting him solely under the protection of God. He also rather astonishingly insinuates a likeness between himself and Christ, for example by, before one of his expected executions (he was about 30 at the time), writing a stanza about how Jesus died for for humanity after 30 years on earth while writing his own name in actrostics with the first letter of each line.

p.p.s. Doubly ironic that this poet whose name is virtually synonymous with a morbid obsession with death is one of the few poets of whom the death has never been confirmed, as after his second reprieve from execution he left Paris and was never heard from again. Thus, despite his fixation on dying he remains, like Schrödinger’s cat, officially in an uncertain state, suspended in the limbo between death and life.

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