When poets shout ‘Shit!’ at their contemporaries
10/12/10

‘It is here, said Verlaine, that the tiger has its lair’(1), recounts Delhaye in his Souvenirs familiers. A shabby room in Paris, a site of debauchery, and a purgatory of frustrations, where at the end of the year 1871 several French bohemian artists found themselves, and who shared – in this ‘lair’ only’ – a more or less assumed disgust for the powers in position and for the Parnassian poets.

EN Hotel etrangersIn commercial cultural production a simplistic swaying back and forth seems to be endlessly repeating itself. An aesthetic espoused by a young generation sneers at the institutional production before itself being subject to controversy from the ranks of another new generation. That was the case of the Parnassian poets who, after having criticised Romanticism and having established themselves in the Paris of the 1870s, were in their turn subject to contempt by a series of emerging currents. The Parnassians, once in place, lined up behind a political orthodoxy and thus were not the hoped for revolutionary group. The Parnassians in effect ran counter to the Communards, who at the beginning of 1871 led an insurrection against the existing powers and proposed a policy of self-rule for the city. Amongst the hostile expressions against the Parnassians was a sombre album, which emerged from the hazy fumes of a room in the Hôtel des Étrangers and clandestinely journeyed across the end of the Great century. The members of the Zutic circle (or circle of Zutism) met around this album, amongst the mess and the alcohol. It was formed by some twenty poets, musicians and artists of every genre, including Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Charles Cros (who frequented the Parnassus before the bloody Commune episode and subsequently distanced himself from it). The work, lightweight at first glance, is witness to an unequivocal aesthetic and political commitment. In addition to criticising the Parnassians the Zutists were pro-Communard, an ideology which at the time was strongly cracked down on. The contributors to the Zutic album were aware of the imperativeness of confidentiality, as writes Denis Saint-Amand, a young FNRS researcher in the sociology of literature at the University of Liège. ‘Enlisting against the Parnassus, against the political powers, and in favour of a whole series of anomic behaviour (such as homoeroticism and the promotion of drugs) was to run the risk of being placed beyond the pale in literature terms (a minor evil for certain Zutists but not for all of them), but it also meant declaring yourself an outlaw.’(2) For a start, and this was the group’s wish, the album was destined to remain in the shadows of the history of art. But the irreverent and pranksterish aspect of the album also needs to be stressed, not taking itself very seriously in the process, and which contains as much an interest in coprophilia and alcohol as in hijacking the literary codes in place all the better to mock them. An album sprinkled with criticisms and mockery, without for all that offering alternatives.

Zutic CircleThe ‘Zutic’ album was rediscovered and published half a century later. ‘The album was placed on sale after a hazardous circulation of several decades,’ explains Denis Saint-Amand. ‘And the rights holders to Rimbaud’s work, at the time, put certain pressure on publications related to Rimbaud. They wanted to reconstruct his portrait as that of a mystic in a wild state, a poet preoccupied by Catholicism. And given the nature of certain poems in the Zutic album, such as the asshole’s sonnet, written by Rimbaud and Verlaine, its publication could have damaged the myth of the lyrical poet who founded a new literary field.’ Once published the album nonetheless did not really provoke an unforgettable seismic tremor in the field of literary studies. ‘We don’t touch what is dirty’ is an adage still respected by many. The album was considered as the product of coprophilic and homoerotic childishness.

(1) DELAHAYE Ernest, "Souvenirs familiers à propos de Rimbaud (suite et fin)", Revue d'Ardenne et d'Argonne, 1908, p.121-124.
(2) SAINT-AMAND Denis, A l'Hôtel des Étrangers, repaire d'une bohème zutique, InDans BRISSETTE Pascal, GLINOER Anthony (Eds.) Bohème sans frontière. Production et internationalisation d'une posture, Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2010. 

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