transition (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: “Why Do Americans Live in Europe?” in transition, No. 14, Fall, 1928, pp. 97-119.
[In the following essay, various expatriate American artists from Gertrude Stein to Harry Crosby explain their artistic and economic reasons for relocating and working in Paris.]
transition has asked a number of Americans living in Europe to write brief stories of themselves—their autobiographies of the mind, self-examinations, confessions, conceived from the stand-point of deracination.
The following questions were asked:
1.—Why do you prefer to live outside America?
2.—How do you envisage the spiritual future of America in the face of a dying Europe and in the face of a Russia that is adopting the American economic vision?
3.—What is your feeling about the revolutionary spirit of your age, as expressed, for instance, in such movements as communism, surrealism, anarchism?
4.—What particular vision do you have of yourself in relation to twentieth century reality?
The United States is just now the oldest country in the world, there always is an oldest country and she is it, it is she who is the mother of the twentieth century civilisation. She began to feel herself as it just after the Civil War. And so it is a country the right age to have been born in and the wrong age to live in.
She is the mother of modern civilization and one wants to have been born in the country that has attained and live in the countries that are attaining or going to be attaining. This is perfectly natural if you only look at facts as they are. America is now early Victorian very early Victorian, she is a rich and well nourished home but not a place to work. Your parent's home is never a place to work it is a nice place to be brought up in. Later on there will be place enough to get away from home in the United States, it is beginning, then there will be creators who live at home. A country this the oldest and therefore the most important country in the world quite naturally produces the creators, and so naturally it is I an American who was and is thinking in writing was born in America and lives in Paris. This has been and probably will be the history of the world. That it is always going to be like that makes the monotony and variety of life that and that we are after all all of us ourselves.
When Albrecht Dürer was asked by letter why he remained so long in Venice he replied “Because here I am considered a gentleman; at home a loafer”. The accumulation of the combined thought waves of millions apathetic or hostile towards any form of creative graphic or plastic expression showing the slightest originality, naturally affects the mental life of a creative artist living in such an atmosphere.
In America there are no facilities for the enjoyment of leisure or apparatuses for reflection.
Considerable time must be wasted in self justification both verbally and introspectively and many questions settled which are otherwheres taken for granted.
The spiritual future of America appears too remote to allow of predictions of any value at the present moment.
My feeling about the revolutionary spirit of my age is pessimistic in the extreme.
I feel that a painter occupies a place of real unimportance in an age such as ours. So unimportant is the whole field of visual aesthetics that it is left as unworthy of the attention of any first rate minds as a refuge for morons, unbalanced neurotics, and dull nonentities.
In response to your questionnaire: In general you assume much to be true that is yet in the controversial stage; yet to be proved by history. We, deracinated ones, if we are deracinated, may not all have come to Europe impelled by some motive of the heart and mind. I came, intending to return, or to travel much. I felt in America that Europe was finished, decayed, war- and time-worn out. There it seemed that in Europe the sense of futility would be too enveloping. However there is the rot of ripe fruit, and there is the blight and decay of green fruit.
1. I prefer Europe, if you mean France, to America because there is less interference with private life here. There is interference, but to a foreigner, there is a fanciful freedom and grace of life not obtainable elsewhere. From various Frenchmen I gather that these statements do not apply to French citizens in a strong sense. It may be well to live in foreign countries; and to be definitely “deracinated.” In that case the deficiencies of the land which accidentally gave us birth need disturb us no more than the legal, social, and human, infringments on our ‘rights’ bother us elsewhere. If by Europe you mean England, Italy, or Germany, I think America an exciting, stimulating, imaginative, country with the fresh imagination of youth and ignorance.
2. Is Europe dying, and is Russia adopting the American economic vision? Russia is a big and raw and primitive country with a mixture of many races. Before the war was the world accepting the German state-controlled standard of life? It's a quick judgment to make on Russia. And if Europe is dying, her various countries seem obstinately to cling to their convictions and rights. There seems not to be the breath of fatalism, shattered morale, or acquiescence, that goes with approaching death. By the few hundred years time that Europe is dead what may not have happened in America?
As to America's spiritual future, that is too involved a question to discuss, as religion, sentimentality, idealism, are so generally confused with an understanding of the word spiritual. Sensually Americans appear sentimental rather than aware, and childishly incapable of facing facts that France has faced for generations. England in this aspect may be decayed, as English people are aware, but ‘decorous’ to an extent that is unhealthy, publicly, whatever they are privately. As far as America's or Europe's future then, I visualize it as for the individual who does not look to a mass movement which lets him flow in its current on to victory. Possibly writers and artists in America will stop scolding about the state of society in their own country, once enough have become deracinated so that it is realized that all countries have their defects. Then art may ensue.
3. I don't feel that my age has a revolutionary spirit, artistically, or politically. The Declaration of Independence, a real revolution, took place sometime back. Impressionism, futurism, cubism, and abstract art -isms, were all pre-war concepts, and there does not appear on the horizon any new originative forces. Beneath the coerced acceptance of the machine age I sense fear and caution, reaction, and sentimentality which is worse than decay. Communism is the natural, temporary outcome of the democratic concept, and reaction against it may at any time force an aristocrat-political theory, and that won't be new or revolutionary. Surrealism may be like Dada, nothing. At least the works of various surrealists are unlike enough to furnish no clue, and Isadore Ducasse and Rimbaud preceded surrealism, utilized metaphysics, abstractions, darkness and madness and death, with perhaps greater force intellectually and emotionally, leaving aside the hysteria and commotion. Anarchism is temperamental and our generation did not invent the temperament. On the other hand our generation seems cowed and ready to conform, to submit or to run away. What it is they are conforming none of them, that is, us, know; not even the sixty-year-old peace conference gatherers.
4. My vision of myself in relation to 20th century reality is one of remaining myself, or hoping to. If that is impossible, what bad luck. By the time Menckens, Pounds, Enemies, and Surrealists give their messages on what is wrong and what should be done, transition comes along with a questionnaire. In any case, answers are contradictory, chaotic, and ineffectual with the wail of lost souls seeking a platform or expressing personal bias and frustration. I wouldn't dare mount one of the platforms in a rocky sea. Bad as it may be I'll do my own swimming. As to cosmic relationship, is there no God and isn't war hell, and there is the peace pact. May you, however, have answers from beings with more interpretive zeal.
My principal reason for living abroad is that I prefer to live, insofar as such a thing is possible, with the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of friction. The struggle for existence in America, into which I early plunged, reached such an intensity that it finally became intolerable, hence I fled. Call it an evasion or what you will, but I, for one, can see little reason for remaining in a land where the people are dominated by a single and basic idea—that of making a living. This is the fundamental motive underlying all American life, despite the country's vaunted wealth, which, it seems at least, should make living comparatively easy there.
To me America represents an older, more neurasthenic, more dropsical, country than Europe. With no traditions or customs to overcome, America rapidly assimilated the tremendous industrial innovations of the past fifty years—the culmination of all the past centuries—while Europe today is only entering into the gradual process of adopting them. Probably a few years hence, all the combined forces that drove me out of my country will be just as prevalent here as they now are there. Already many farms surrounding Paris are being deserted by French peasants who are being lured to the city by the glamour of industrialism.
What America needs is a gospel of laziness. How can a country develop either spiritually or artistically until it has learned how to live and has evolved the art of social amenities? What can be expected of a people who know so little about the fine art of eating and drinking, who know nothing of the subtle and leisurely fashion of diverting themselves, and who have not mastered the art of relaxation and rest? Art can never flourish in such an environment. Not until America knows how to loaf, not until it has drawn that finer distinction between leisure and mere idleness, can much be expected from it. Meanwhile, until Europe has started going on that wild, hectic, jazz pace from which I fled, and has forgotten all about its once beautiful and leisurely art of existing—and such changes are now obviously manifesting themselves—I intend to make my home here. Perhaps by that time, the pendulum in my own country will have started to swing in the opposite direction. There must be some limit, surely.
Russia interests me but little. I think that in time it will become a sort of fat, complaisant, second-rate United States. It is rapidly adopting the American economic vision because the revolution cleared a way for it. When the country becomes properly Americanized, say in fifty years, it will be producing hordes and hordes of Russian Harold Bell Wrights and Edgar Guests, while the one-time Dostoievskys will have become mere classical legends, like Shakespeare in England today. I do not expect to live long enough to see anything but trash come out of the metamorphosis. The country will become industrialized, radioized, movieized, and standardized, the huge population of illiterate peasants will be taught how to read advertisements, newspapers, and bibles, the country will develop a huge belly, and the Russian populace will placidly settle down to the preoccupation of money grubbing.
I expect to see nothing more than novel experiments come out of the present age—or out of the next several generations—which above all is a time of change, transition, and experimentation. I admit my inability to find any great revolutionary spirit, except materially, being expressed today. These are the days of new values and inventions, of trials and tests. The world is undergoing many radical material changes, which are affecting its entire spiritual life, I grant, but which are throwing it more and more increasingly into chaos, bewilderment, and confusion.
Anarchism and communism are nothing more than what the tenets and theories of Christianity would have been, had the latter ever been put into practice—the fundamental teachings of Christ, if brought into actual play—but they have no more place in the world today than Christianity has, and will suffer the same fate, I fear. The little group of surrealists—fighting, groping, experimenting—are expressing the chaos of their age, which is a difficult and wholly transitory task. And their works are as temporal as the passing seasons.
As for myself, I would have much preferred to have been born before the introduction of the machine; in a slower, more leisurely, more graceful, and less cluttered age. Full, well-rounded, blossomed-out individuals are hard to find in this day of specialization, when practically everybody is preoccupied with the mere business of making a living and is directing the bulk of his energy in that direction. Somehow, it is difficult for me to adjust myself to the tempo of all this speed, noise, confusion and jazz. I am of this age but not one of it. That is why I left America.
When I received your letter addressed to exiles, I was astonished to think that I was probably an exile, but it is undoubtedly true. The time flies to advantage in Europe, whereas much of it is wasted in America explaining battles that have been won years ago. My Polish origin means that I love the ground upon which I was born, New Jersey, with a love that it is difficult to explain, or understand.
Nevertheless musically it is absolutely impossible to live in America. I am a musician, a composer, and this type of artist needs vast organizations such as opera companies and symphony orchestras to write for to produce his works. It is not as simple or as inexpensive as printing a book, for example.
A young composer has absolutely no future in America, because, even if he attains the very peak of eminence, he cannot hope to make a livelihood, whereas in Europe he stands a chance of making anywhere from a decent three livelihood (after the early years of struggle) to even the accumulation of a fortune. This is because of the hundred first class operas in Europe which give performances every night in the season, a liberal amount of them being fairly modern. But America has only two first class operas, and it is seldom indeed that they give a really modern opera.
Moreover a young man casts his lot with that which is ascending, not descending. Europe is upon the ascent. Since the war forty new operas have appeared in Germany alone, while in the United States no new first class opera companies have appeared. Moreover instead of the three symphony orchestras that New York City had seven years ago, it now only has one. Contrast this with the four symphony orchestras that Paris boasts. Consider also the lavishness with which vast sums of money are thrown to old virtuosi; the absolute refusal to spend a penny upon any composer who can be called a composer, or who is even remotely recognized in other countries.
I have every hope that this condition in America will change, but I do not see how they can build two hundred operas overnight, or train the public to hear them, and as this will take some little time, I prefer to stay in Europe in the meantime, and learn how to write operas by actually hearing my own symphonies and operas for existing organizations. I trust that this will be no spot on my so far stainless Americanism for the New-York: 1928 group, but simply a very practical economic standpoint.
I think that answers your first, second, and fourth question. As to number three … I am emphatically for what I have seen of the surrealistic painters and writers. Eternal revolution, and eternal change … some day I may even turn traitor to these … but that day has not yet come, and those who again turn to say that youthful Paris is wrong, will again live to see the day when they will rue their words. The old fools never learn.
Writing for an audience it is necessary to decide whether or not explanations are necessary. They are not necessary. Neither human, intellectual, metaphysical or scientific. Explanations murder like a knife the perception. Explanations are the lie making it possible to accept the truth. If I, let us say, am seeking to live an absolute revolt against superiorities which even the most restless abuse but do not question, a dissection of my peculiar honor is beside the point. Explanations are invented as the apology for the action; invariably a collection of words as important as a lace handkerchief in a slaughter-house.
Any froth that blew around the Winged Victory, Greek contemporaneous froth explaining, cannot put a head on the woman today. It was an act and not an explanation which removed the head, and to that the blood responds, permitting no outraging of it, while the explanation says no more than this: my own senses, experiences, appetites, my contemporaries have confused me let me explain myself.
For this I have turned Indian, in an attempt to catch the sound of my own kind. But the hoofs galloped in another direction. For this I turned American to understand, but there were no Americans speaking for themselves. As a class they speak for a situation. Beginning with the composite figure of the American intellectual expressed for the moment in Mr. Matthew Josephson, and ending with the Unknown Soldier, each citizen functions with pride in the American conspiracy against the individual.
Do you object to a white bath every morning before breakfast? No, I like a white bath every morning before breakfast. But I say that it is a white bath every morning before breakfast and it is nothing more than one way of getting clean water into a receptacle without spilling a drop. Thanks to the efficacy of plumbing. But get into it with a literature in your head and get out of it clean to write the literature. To me there is in America no conviction which questions the value of inventions that protect the flesh from everything except the importance of being cared for.
The mechanics of America have afforded its intellectuals the opportunity to find words for what somebody else did. They preach, but they do not predict, for it has already historically taken place. They invent a lyrical explanation for form, and form has none whatsoever mystic-outline following necessarily the structure of action and not of evasion.
(I do not speak here of those artists who have subjected invention and hence given it another value. Steiglitz, Antheil, Sheeler, Man Ray, would, as individuals, have brought importance to any matter.)
In France this identical leeching upon a situation exists in the Surrealistes. They, too, depend upon bewilderment and ignorance in the minds of their audience for their success. They are livelier than the American Composites and they have an honor for they leech upon a situation created by other artists—possibly the Académie Française—but at least by men who make use of the same medium. The Americans, with a bastardly recognition for a thing stronger and better-equipped for life than themselves, are explaining a situation which has forgotten them. The American artist is no product of America's zeal, but he is one of those who has chosen to get outside it. Some of them leave the background and accept simpler conditions: Ezra Pound of the first. And the question is still to be answered: to what can one return?
Americans I would permit to serve me, to conduct me rapidly and competently wherever I was going, but not for one moment to impose their achievements upon what is going on in my heart and in my soul. I am too proud and too young to need the grandeur of physical America which one accepts only at the price of one's own dignity. I am making a voyage into poverty because I am too proud to find nourishment in a situation that is more successful than myself.
Cling, gentlemen, to the skyscraper by toe-finger-eyelash, but do not come to Europe. Here nothing is done for you. You must write your own literature, you must walk up and down stairs, and you must drink like gentlemen.
A. LINCOLN GILLESPIE JR.
I. (a) because in Europe I find MeaningScurry in their Organise-Self-Divert—hours loll here all simmer-rife-Expect-lush-stat, GET is less-necessary.
(b) because of the absence of Tight-blank faces here. (European Maturity seems of the in-touch-with-YouthPulse ripe sort)
(c) Liquor-Gamme abroad somewhat breatheier.
(d) abroad, as if transplanted to an ideating DreamStanceIndef, the me-expatriate remenvisages America-the-Spectacle, initsensing its cosmintegrality, critifocaspecting its Univeering probably for a first time. (local Econs are so intrude-mussuppy.)
II. the Spiritual Future of America is not to evolve till a present diabetes is admit > removed, t'wit: America's total lack of parent-sagacity to exprimply an especially-while-correcting-them goodwill toward, and to cull an early admiration from the children.
(The EffectLoss into Personality is enormous!!—contrast the majority of French Parents' Methattitude.)
THEN—the American Spirit will commence-sing as naive-direct-elimgoalpursue-clearly as its present FolkMelod—“PopularSong”, frequently as blare-OutréFruct- freely as its dynaSaxophoneyc. Neo-Polite-ObserveRigors will scourge off-away the become-cloyuseless of our present SklafManners—survive-a tiff with Russian Defeatin-divid-become-CollectiMass output, our EconGrandees will have also residonned the surrealise raiment of skilledlaborer-integrality—the SportSense will have been furthalloted into a StreetPass-Calistheno (i. e. Fair, groove-compulsed into an inevitaBanter-Fair—we are a GoodWill-Collective—will assume social sensitude, a BodyClap-Razz-Courtly deft-joice-skew-Apply-akin (somehow) to the finesse of France's Golden Period.
The Busybody-GoodWill will have insidAmericanized Europe (thru Dawesian EcoHighPressures, “Galette”-addvice, constant-rub-away of Europeans' giving in to the squarepeg-insists of Fringlish-voice-stressing1 travellers and resiDents, spillover-manifest of America's Nth degree-PRODUCE-Molochism, etc.) Semitised Russia will certainly psychYap doubly,its individuentsremainingscorn-evadedDefeatists, speaking their present flapdoodleNonDigninholdLiable'd rush-out-heedless-O-Self!-stuff. (Russia's soon-enormous CollectiOutput will yet lag indef-behind America's shrewd-ingeniuity'd Get-Rich-Quick-Fellers!'d individ-catalysing Produce-Outvent.)
III. Communism, Surrealism, Anarchism—degrees of LyriProtestism—since Lyrism is based in Individualism the BureauLyrism of C. is an obvious paradox.—A. 's hysterLyr will always ultimately grudge-pendule-reactionate, stay the destroy-(to-begin-over)-hand (tho subjectively A. 's applicable into a Recherche for the expression of the Consciousness betwixbeyond the Abstremities of Thought. S., a French (psychanal-filtfree) Try has obviously essayed to continue “correctness”, has but barely enlarged the GamutPossible of the Hithertooze-“Inadmissible”—enlargers Braque, Ernst, Michonze, obviously their Self; the rest, GoodManner'd Dada?—S. lacked gutsweat adherents collect-able to trek the toothsome of the Psych-RunningDown (In?) DreamStateProffClimbs-into-Reality which André Breton skim-the-FreudSoup-touchly impicts. Possibly S. failed to posit a NeoAgony-ProCreate.
IV. My work veer-expresses my relation to 20thCentury Reality, a relation I feel-think to be fillfuller than any hitherto CritiCommunicLiable, i. e., mine, the necessity of lending consciousative LOGICATING to the AromeClashBuild-innerising FORMTrends of Music's Melod-SyntheBuildAlong, the gradaccrue of which (both delib and acciByProd) may-will tot-add sub-et-Supra integerCollects for furthing the Context's Imputationise; at the same time possibuilding, in English—sole language evophonically free enuf to do so,—SensationForms rhapsintrest Composenuf to aesthConcomitate these neo-gather-imputes of Thought, i. e., the MarryMomeIntentsity matings of hovexpect Indeation & Vehicle-BecomePunct. My Article (transition 12) delineates the techBuild of this.
To see the ever-living spirit of man in terms of machinery, or “God in Electric Lights,” is often revolting to the man who revolves within the mechanism. He is liable to hate or love his surroundings per se or attempt an escape by a week-end in Arcady. On this basis American “revolutionary” art generally divides into reactionaries who have no contact with their environment, and those who either love or hate it for its surface qualities. The two latter would correspond to the “skin you love (or hate) to touch” school of art.
When the method is the transcendental use of the Machine or Einstein Age, not to glorify it, but to sublimate eternal values through and above immediate environment, the American artist, and this would include possibly a dozen or two men and women, is liable not to please many of his fellow countrymen who want their civilization praised with hymns to the machines as such, and want hymns to their gods in terms of apple blossoms.
From a position that can absorb his viewpoint, the European may see objectively and with perspective the values on which the American artist builds. Sympathizing with the use of environment for a purpose other than its immediate sublimation or detestation, he sometimes gives the young American artist his first appreciation. In this case the American usually chooses from three alternatives: he can follow illustrious precedent and become a foreign citizen, or live abroad as an exile, pursuing his own ideas and leaving his brothers in America to theirs, or—no matter where he lives nor how difficult the fight compared to the struggle to develop a European audience—he can attempt to make an audience for himself in his native country.
The American artist is...
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