La gloire est un scandale.
– Arthur Cravan
If Arthur Cravan believed that “glory is a scandal,” he was equally convinced that scandal could be glorious. And it was for this that the Dadaists were so keen to co-opt the poet-boxer’s legend after his disappearance (and presumed death) in 1918: he shared their nihilistic disdain for the past, contempt for hypocrisy and above all, their lust for provocation.
Cravan was a tireless self-publicist. Born in Switzerland on this day in 1887 with the name Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, changing it to the snappier Arthur Cravan was just the beginning of his quest for attention. Although he left his family name behind, he made much of his connection to Oscar Wilde (the playwright’s wife was Cravan’s father’s sister). And while determined to make his way as a poet despite disapproval from his overbearing mother, Cravan was wily enough to realise that boxing would bring more notice than unread verse.
Chaotic “lectures”, at which Cravan would drunkenly disrobe or threaten to commit suicide, brought the roadshow to ever larger audiences but it was his decision to publish a journal that proved decisive in the development of his public persona and critical voice. Maintenant (“Now”), of basic design and printed on cheap stock, appeared in Paris in five issues between 1912 and 1915. Cravan not only wrote almost all the articles and poems himself (some of them under pseudonyms), but also sold copies from a grocer’s barrow on the streets of Paris.
It was issue number 4 that finally brought Cravan the reaction he had been seeking. Issued in 1914, it was dedicated to that year’s Salon des Indépendants art show, over whose exhibits Cravan showered hot, chunky disdain. His most notorious comment was to suggest that Marie Laurencin’s art would be improved if she got laid, an observation which prompted the challenge of a duel from poet Guillaume Apollinaire, her one-time lover. Undeterred, Cravan sold the offending issue at the exhibition’s entrance, but after a group of aggrieved artists complained to the police he was sentenced to eight days’ jail. On his release he republished the offending issue with ambiguous “corrections”.
Then as now, the art world was rife with malicious rumours and drunken criticism but even the avant-garde was self-regulated by an implicit code of conduct which ensured that outré opinion generally didn’t leave the bar. Cravan’s transgression was to wilfully ignore this code; Italian writer Giovanni Papini, who was at the same time championing Futurism in his journal Lacerba, commented that “Cravan has the courage to put into print the filthy gossip that circulates surreptitiously just about everywhere”.
Maintenant is fascinating as the blue print for the Arthur Cravan legend, which was not a cobbled-together posthumous construct but rigorously, knowingly assembled by the man himself. The poet-boxer played up to the curiosity excited by the apparent contradiction between the most abstract and cerebral of pursuits meeting the most brutal and visceral. He made constant references to Oscar Wilde; even a scathing piece on French novelist André Gide takes as its starting point imprudent remarks made by the French novelist about Wilde’s literary gifts. So persistent are the references to his famous uncle that Maintenant at times reads like an Oscar Wilde zine.
But even more than that Maintenant, with its critical autonomy and combative self-sufficiency, resembles a blog, almost a century ahead of its time. Cravan declared his reasons for writing were “to enrage my colleagues, to get talked about and to try and make a name for myself” – in short, what pretty much every blogger is trying to do. Although it’s easy to imagine that Cravan would regard the blogosphere with the same distaste as he did the Parisian avant-garde, his quest for glorious scandal makes him a true forefather of web-delivered opinion.
Cravan’s posthumous renown and Maintenant’s notoriety mean that original copies, which generally sold for 25 centimes, now attract ridiculous prices; a complete set is currently being offered at GBP 35,000 pounds. Viewing Maintenant is still possible for less than the price of a new Porsche, with issues 3 and 4 viewable online and the complete set republished in the book Oeuvres: Poèmes, Articles, Lettres, and in facsimile in Cravan: Une stratégie de Scandale.