Eighty years ago, a handsome spectre simply deliquesced amid the lofty snows of Tyrol. His body was never recovered; his death was never mourned; his works are scarcely read. To this day, the identity of Julien Torma remains a glyph to be unravelled.
At any rate, one pellucid certainty does attach to this Gallic gasconader, whatever or whoever he was: namely, that a number of his euphorismes are brilliantly provocative. Markedly mordant, they were meant to mince extensively held beliefs on a wide array of matters. A handful of them — among the most striking — deserve to be discussed.
Firstly, Torma declares that ‘[t]here is no sad poetry’. In so doing, one assumes not that he is denying the capacity of poetry to elicit sadness, but that he is blasting artists who kill and package emotion with their meticulous pomposity. Oscar Wilde, from his very depths, observed that ‘behind sorrow there is always sorrow. Pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask’. The poet in the course of his craft is never without one. After all, sorrow qua sorrow does not manifest itself in the act of writing verse. It does not manifest itself in daedal conceits, or mathematical anaphora, or glossy books sold at thirteen ninety-nine. There must necessarily be something else at work — a sort of ostentation bound up in the poet’s consciousness that he is fashioning Literature.
And Torma’s utterance surely extends to all emotion, to every mode of art. There might have been some gloom in Shah Jahan when he superstructed his enormous marble dome, but its sheer resplendency affirms the words of our enigma: the emperor’s grief was not the only force involved. Sanguinity engendered Schumann’s Third, but such cheer was commingled, of course, with all the rudiments of music, and organised — or sterilised — by them. And so on and so forth.
Taken to its conclusion, Torma’s thesis becomes the following:
To shut poetry up in the poem is to prevent it from penetrating into life. Let’s not write anything any more. The poet of tomorrow will be unaware of the very name of poetry.
Art ought, therefore, to be abandoned; we should be better off without the arduous and somewhat embarrassing inauthenticity it necessarily entails.
This view is exciting indeed, but do its merits withstand examination? It would seem not at first: if life could in fact resemble or imitate art, then it would be just as calculated, equally as painstaking. How could the deliberateness of life-as-art sit quietly beside the call to embrace each moment with the whole of one’s self? Moreover, how could it represent an escape from art? It would merely alter — and for the worse — the nature of art’s governance.
So we must ask again what exactly Torma meant by life. To want to live — is this to want, as Baudelaire did, to reach again those époques nues, to drink in nought but fleshly pleasures, to be spontaneous? Taut and sullen Birkin railed against these notions:
Even your animalism, you want it in your head. You don’t want to be an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them. It is all purely secondary — and more decadent than the most hide-bound intellectualism. What is it but the worst and last form of intellectualism, this love of yours for passion and the animal instincts? Passion and the instincts — you want them hard enough, but through your head, in your consciousness. It all takes place in your head, under that skull of yours. Only you won’t be conscious of what actually is: you want the lie that will match the rest of your furniture.
This is not to disparage such notions in themselves; it is merely to illustrate that Torma’s exhortation is cut from the same cerebral cloth with which the artist happens to work. It is therefore indefensible on his own terms.
At any rate, even if one were to abjure art in favour of ‘life’, he may soon come running back. For in the latter he would be thwarted time and time again, by external forces and even by himself. One old sage, in rich and limpid prose, remarked that man is
constantly lying on the revolving wheel of Ixion, is always drawing water in the sieve of the Danaids, and is the eternally thirsting Tantalus.
Of course, Schopenhauer was writing with reference to the Wille, but his affirmations can be used to execrate much besides: the law, the ruling class, our fellow man. At any rate, the point is this: Torma’s ‘life’ would not in fact be all that free or all that fun. Art, or an artistic disposition, would allow one to transcend — albeit ephemerally — its numberless frustrations. If such transcendence is to be desired, then art ought not to be — indeed cannot and must not be — rejected.
But perhaps some compromise may yet be reached. Schopenhauer’s writings on aesthetics are suffused with talk of beauty. Could it be that Torma saw the poetry of life as consisting in beauty? Did he hold, as Adonaïs did, that beauty should obliterate every other consideration? Might he, then, have been calling for the reverence of it?
The answer is unsurprising: he was doing no such thing. Far from being the progenitor of joy, perfect beauty, scoffed Torma, calls for admiration only: ‘it is deadly boring’.
Torma sneered at poetry, but language more generally is another prominent object of his scorn. For instance, he declares that ‘real intimacy (the only one) is body-to-body’. Ultimately, what else could Torma be suggesting here but the inadequacy of language as a conduit for expression? The word is the currency of platonic or emotional closeness, and yet words are often utterly incapable of capturing or conveying with any fidelity our feelings and perceptions. If, as Torma wrote, the world is a tapestry, then poetry is its reverse, ‘variegated with hanging threads and whipstitches’. And if the very apogee of language is so mediocre, then what of mere quotidian words and phrases?
In light of all this, one soon becomes able to grasp an apothegm of Hume’s, namely ‘[t]he most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation’. And one should also come to empathise with Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, for whom
everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back — whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.
Thus language, ever woolly, ensnares with its open texture; it devalues and distorts. How, then, might full and mutual understanding be attained in any relationship based almost exclusively upon it? In stark contrast, the comparatively ‘precise gestures’ of consensual sensual closeness, in and of themselves, are stripped of all nebulosity; they are always — are they not? — naked and unmistakably clear, like those blazing arrows of magma that are rhythmically thrust into Tyrrhenian nights. It must be this that moved Torma to proclaim what he did.
And yet it could well be said that he was wrong to elevate physical intimacy in this way, wrong to hold that individuals can at any time be anything other than discrete islands in the sprawling archipelago of humankind. As gentle Crevel confessed in My Body and I:
Concerning the fusion that I thought would allow me to escape the pain of solitude and believe at last in the miracle of a presence, I realise that it has not cured me, that it could not cure me.
Indeed one has only to look so far as Aldous Huxley to find conclusive opposition to this limb of Torma’s view. Huxley, of course, recognised the inadequacy of language. But he also observed, in a famous passage, that
[w]e live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. . . Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves.
So it is that solitude, for us as for Crevel, will ever be ‘the pain that no one can heal’. It is no use trying to convince ourselves that our teeth, ‘in contacting other teeth, strange teeth, [will] end up believing, [even] for a few moments, in the mutual intimacy of skeletons’ — Torma notwithstanding.
Our enigma did not stop at repeated excoriations of poetry and language. He derided thinking as well:
Thought involves a little charlatanism.
It is not natural to think: one must create a veritable stage-setting out of oneself and things, not to mention the inevitable artificial device of reasoning… Intelligence involves deception as speech does lying.
Better to admit frankly to this rule of the game and do knowingly what everyone else does unknowingly. Deliberately inject into one’s thought the element of charlatanry required for it to be thought, rather than oneself be its dupe.
At this stage, one grins sheepishly at the fact that he himself has been duped by Torma, who lambastes thought as a ‘bourgeois pastime’ but acknowledges cheerfully his indulgence in it; and who advocates us to repudiate thought while elsewhere stressing the impossibility of such a disavowal.
He wallows thus in contradiction, but does he bear any other hallmarks of the nihilist? What, for instance, are his views on morality and meaning? Predictably enough, he does not suffer either illusion:
What do you reckon? Are we still to take the world for a philanthropic enterprise? As if something were owed us? By whom? There’s still a bit of God hidden under that.
Yet it would be so very wrong to brand Torma a pessimist, as wrong as it is to call earnest Schopenhauer the same:
For the optimist everything’s fine: all those disorders, stupidities, and trivialities are part of the harmony! What a pessimist!
For the pessimist, everything should be far better: he seems to believe we could conceive of the universe otherwise than absurd, and mankind as otherwise than mediocre! What an optimist!
In reality, Torma stood as a precursor to absurdism, as an outrageous and wildly sybaritic uncle to Camus. His putative suicide at thirty years of age appears at once both perplexing and uncannily appropriate.
It was Nietzsche who enounced that ‘[h]e who climbeth on the highest mountains, laugheth at all tragic plays and tragic realities’. Together, Torma’s proclamations and his fate lead one to wonder whether the sentence was written especially for him.