Words, words, words ...

Fierce Language

A Column
by Jason DeBoer

Jason DeBoer

Jason DeBoer currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, where he is creating a new literary and philosophical publishing house called Trembling Sun Press. He is the managing editor of Eighteenth–Century Studies, an academic journal based at Northwestern University. His fiction has recently appeared in numerous journals, including
The Barcelona Review, Libido,
The Wisconsin Review, Eclectica, Exquisite Corpse, Suspect Thoughts, CrossConnect, and Linnaean Street. At the moment he is working on Stupor, his debut novel.

E-mail: tremblingsun@yahoo.com


Previous columns:

Sublime Hatred: 

and Orgasm

The Fatal 
 of Jean Baudrillard

and Regicide

versus Theory


Fierce Language

Edgar Saltus:
Forgotten Genius of American Letters?

Literary history is strewn with authors who, for one reason or another, have failed to secure enduring fame. Some of these writers have been read but grossly under-appreciated, such as Octave Mirbeau and Nathanael West, while others, such as Petrus Borel and Göttfried Benn, have been almost completely ignored by later readers. Edgar Saltus, who was born in New York in 1855 and died there in 1921, fits this latter category. The author of numerous histories and novels, Saltus had a penchant for unrestrained pessimism, radical style, and vicious wit, which earned him the friendship of contemporary writers such as Oscar Wilde. As a writer, one can draw various comparisons to Saltus: he possessed some of the decadent florid imagery of Huysmans, the macabre sensibility of Bierce and Poe, the stylistic perfection of Flaubert, and the piercing wit of Wilde. Yet, Saltus was original enough as a talent to make any single comparison inadequate.

The beginning of the twenty-first century is an appropriate time to look back on Edgar Saltus and his work. Today, the term “creative nonfiction” is bandied about everywhere without meaning much more than simplistic confessional essays or lazy academicism. However, in his day, Saltus’s impressionistic histories of Rome, Russia, and other subjects were truly creative nonfiction par excellence. He reveled in the dark side of history: the violence and eroticism of the past stirred back to life at the touch of Saltus’s pen. He was one of the first brave scribes to write in English about important figures such as the Marquis de Sade and Gilles de Rais. In fact, Saltus began his career with two bold philosophical books, The Philosophy of Disenchantment, a treatise on pessimism in the vein of Schopenhauer, and The Anatomy of Negation, a history of skepticism and atheism. Always full of self-vilifying humor, Saltus once stated in a letter: “I wrote The Philosophy of Disenchantment, which is, I think, the gloomiest and worst book ever published. Out of sheer laziness, I then produced a history of atheism, The Anatomy of Negation, which has been honoured by international dislike. Need I state that of all my children it is the one that I prefer?”

One of Saltus’s contemporary critics said: “Style is a synonym for Saltus.” His style is unique and in many ways more daring than most of the later modernists: his prose often wavers between the lurid excess of a romantic poem and the spare, dangerous staccato of a telegram. There is also a bizarre edginess to his work: Saltus sometimes sacrifices meaning for the sake of style, leaving his writing jagged and incomprehensible at points. His histories are unusual in that they rarely seem to privilege historical fact over the use of Saltus’s own beautiful turn of phrase. At times, his work is prone to dissipate into sheer impressionistic imagery of violence or debauchery. Saltus described his own aesthetic thus: “in literature only three things count: style, style polished, style repolished. Style may be defined as the harmony of syllables, the fall of sentences, the infrequency of adjectives, the absence of metaphor, the pursuit of a repetition even unto the thirtieth and fortieth line, the use of the exact term no matter what that term may be.” But, strangely, despite having such a stringent Flaubertian aesthetic, Saltus’s work is often gloriously unpredictable and surreal.

It is perhaps this side of Saltus that intrigued Henry Miller, who was such a fan that he included Imperial Purple among the hundred books that most influenced him. In The Books in My Life, Miller mentions Saltus several times. As part of a 1950 letter to Pierre Lesdain, Miller writes: “Last night I could not fall sleep. I had just been reading another old favorite––Edgar Saltus––an American you probably never heard of. I was reading the Imperial Purple, one of those books which I thought had taught me something about ‘style.’” Along with Hamsun’s Mysteries and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, The Imperial Orgy was one of a handful of books that Miller periodically reread. But, although Saltus had the respect of contemporaries such as Wilde and Arthur Symons, Miller was one of his few notable twentieth-century admirers. Fellow pessimist and wit H. L. Mencken also appreciated the work of Saltus, but his acclaim was tempered by the fact that he saw Saltus as somewhat of a squandered talent. Saltus once said that “to do good work, work that will endure, style must be a divinity, a very jealous one too, one that permits no other worship, one that forces you to shut in every passion, inclination and desire,” but it is both ironic and tragic that, despite possessing a marvelous style, his works were destined to fall into neglect.

For his most famous book, Imperial Purple from 1892, Saltus drew heavily from the histories of Suetonius and Tacitus to create a portrait of the bloody pageantry of Rome, from the majestic Julius Caesar to the freakish Heliogabalus. Saltus wrote of the emperors: “The lives of all of them are horrible, yet analyze the horrible and you find the sublime.” Saltus was to “analyze the horrible” for the remainder of his career; his fascination for gore and torture was unflagging, especially in Imperial Purple and The Imperial Orgy, his final book. Rome provided the perfect subject matter for a writer of Saltus’s morbid tastes. There was the life of Caligula, who “became a connoisseur in death, an artist in blood, a ruler to whom cruelty was not merely an aid to government but an individual pleasure, and therewith such a perfect lover, such a charming host!” These cruel emperors became the perfect cast of characters for the literary grotesqueries of Saltus: he rivals Suetonius in his writings on Caligula, Tiberius, and, of course, Nero. One of the most vivid sections of Imperial Purple is this lengthy excerpt, which paints for the reader a stunning portrait of the spectacular horrors that Nero hosted in the amphitheater:

“[Prisoners] were tossed one after the other naked into the ring, and bound to a scaffold that surrounded a miniature hill. At a signal the scaffold fell, the hill crumbled, and from it a few hyenas issued, who indolently devoured their prey. With this for prelude, the gods avenged and justice appeased, a rhinoceros ambled that way, stimulated from behind by the point of a spear; and in a moment the hyenas were disembowelled, their legs quivering in the air. Throughout the arena other beasts, tied together with long cords, quarrelled in couples; there was the bellow of bulls, and the moan of leopards tearing at their flesh, a flight of stags, and the long, clean spring of the panther. . . . From above descended the caresses of flutes . . . and into that splendor a hundred lions, their tasselled tails sweeping the sand, entered obliquely. . . . In the middle of the arena, a band of Ethiopians, armed with arrows, knives and spears, knelt, their oiled black breasts uncovered. Leisurely the lions turned their huge, intrepid heads; to their jowls wide creases came. There was a glitter of fangs, a shiver that moved the mane, a flight of arrows, mounting murmurs; the crouch of beasts preparing to spring, a deafening roar, and, abruptly, a tumultuous mass, the suddenness of knives, the snap of bones, the cry of the agonized, the fury of beasts transfixed, the shrieks of the mangled, a combat hand to fang, from which the lions fell back, their jaws torn asunder, while others retreated, a black body swaying between their terrible teeth, and, insensibly, a descending quiet. At once there was an eruption of bellowing elephants, painted and trained for slaughter, that trampled on wounded and dead. . . . a dash of wild elephants [was] attacked on either side; a moment of sheer delight, in which the hunters were tossed up on the terraces, tossed back again by the spectators, and trampled to death. . . . By way of interlude, the ring was peopled with acrobats, who flew up in the air like birds, formed pyramids together, on the top of which little boys swung and smiled. There was a troop of trained lions, their manes gilded, that walked on tight-ropes, wrote obscenities in Greek, and danced to cymbals which one of them played. There were geese-fights, wonderful combats between dwarfs and women; a chariot race, in which bulls, painted white, held the reins, standing upright while drawn at full speed; a chase of ostriches, and feats of haute école on zebras from Madagascar.”

And, it is perhaps most amazing to note that this immense spectacle preceded the gladiator matches themselves! It is no wonder that Saltus was entranced with such decadent scenes; on his love for all things ancient, he once wrote: “. . . I may fairly lay claim to be haunted by antiquity. If I was not at the siege of Troy, no one will convince me that I did not ride in wide chariots over the white roads of Greece, that I did not eat the clitoris of tigresses with Caligula, and assist with Heliogabalus at the wedding of the Sun and Moon.”

For his last book published before his death, The Imperial Orgy, written in 1920, Saltus found another nation as steeped in murder and debauchery as Rome: Imperial Russia. Using these mad rulers as a subject, Saltus could easily display his genius for gruesome detail, and the excessiveness of the imagery surpasses even Imperial Purple. As always, however, the sensationalism is delivered with poetic style and cleverness. Beginning with Ivan the Terrible, Saltus chronicles his terrifying reign. In a typically disturbing passage, he writes on the torture of Ivan’s subjects: “From some he had the epidermis removed, after which they were flayed. Others he carved, a leg or an arm at a time, which he fed to hounds but seeing to it that the amputated were sustained with drink, that their vital organs were protected, seeing to it that they were tendered, nursed, upheld, enabled as long as possible to look on at the feast of which their limbs were the courses.” It becomes clear, as one reads Saltus, that he believed the history of politics to be little more than the history of torture and violence: “Peter was a butcher. Also he was tsar. The terms are synonymous.” Every ruler he documents, whether Roman or Russian, is a cruel despot, and they are distinguishable from each other only by the particular inventiveness of their cruelties. History is but an abattoir for Saltus.

Despite his unpopularity in the twentieth century, Saltus’s works were reissued in 1970, perhaps in the aftermath of the lone critical work to ever be written on him, Claire Sprague’s informative Edgar Saltus of 1968. He has now been relegated to the dusty rare book sections of most libraries and bookstores, where he waits to be rediscovered, but for those readers lucky enough to find the work of this bizarre genius, they will be rewarded. For Saltus still blossoms with that most valuable of literary traits, style, and it is this great style of his that should someday vault him back into a respectable place in the American canon.

©2001 Jason DeBoer

For a likely place to find the works of Edgar Saltus, the author recommends www.bibliofind.com or other book search engines.

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