“When I think all my senses burst into flame and I’d like to violate all beings, and when I give vein to my destructive instincts I find the triangle of a metaphysical solution.” —Blaise Cendrars, “Profound Today”
Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine assaults from the outset. Moravagine’s life begins with an assassination (his father’s), which hastens his mother’s miscarriage that ushers in both her death and Moravagine’s birth. Taken literally, his name means “death by vagina,” which refers not only to his mother’s death, but also the way that Moravagine relates to women, as he soon discovers his great pleasure in killing them.
It’s rather easy to trace a history of emotional disconnect that could explain away some of Moravagine’s madness. He’s a child of technology gone wrong. He spent his first hundred days in an incubator–a prosthetic womb of sorts–and retains no memory of human affection from his early youth. In his solitude, he began to fetishize inanimate objects, and recalls, “an egg, a stovepipe could excite me sexually.” He later kills for pleasure, and it seems that he conquers his desire for intimacy with destruction. While part of Moravagine’s madness is the violence he inflicts upon women, his range of offenses is less discriminating, and includes children as well as his beloved pet dog, and planting bombs.
Moravagine’s accomplice and acolyte, Dr. Raymond L. Science, was his psychiatrist first. Dr. Science’s obvious name befits a character in a B-movie, but suits his analytic impotence. He opposes the social control imposed by psychiatrists who “have put their science at the service of state police forces and organized the destruction of all that is most deeply idealistic (i.e. independent).” And yet, Dr. Science remains emasculated by his observational distance. For action, he’s dependent on Moravagine, his muse. In fact, his most inspired act is aiding Moravagine’s institutional escape.
The novel unfurls with Moravagine and Dr. Science on the lam, often in disguise, igniting unrest in the various cities they hit, from Berlin to Moscow to Kiev and New Orleans. Moravagine leads the doctor on a trail of “life full of direct action that is worthless to an intellectual,” and yet the doctor enjoys the vicarious pleasure of observing Moravagine’s escapades, as he says, “the spectacle of [Moravagine] was sufficient for me.” The doctor’s passive adulation makes him the more subtly sinister of the two. He is sufficiently titillated by watching this large-scale lab experiment ignite, while Moravagine derives strength, and charisma, from his violence, impulse, and action. On the eve of the first world war, Moravagine is a man of the times.
Cendrars himself was no stranger to the war, he lost his arm in battle. According to Henry Miller’s account, he would likely have lost his life if he hadn’t threatened the surgical team with a revolver to make sure he was attended to. Witnessing revolution, large-scale warfare, and mass casualties certainly colored Cendrars’ vision, and this novel is an obvious offspring of the war. There’s the requisite fetishization of mechanization, warfare, the airplane: “It’s the most beautiful possible projection of the human brain. And it’s not made to look at in a museum: you can climb in and fly!” and later, “The machines are here, with fine optimism.” Moravagine reads like a literary equivalent to George Grosz’s distorted depictions of war generals fitted with prosthetics and cavorting with prostitutes, and the general dissipation of a society still reeling in the aftermath of war.
And yet, following in the wake of Moravagine’s violence and abandon is also a vicarious thrill for the reader; the book’s prose and pacing and bravado is fearsome, irresistibly so. Sven Birkets says, “Moravagine seeks damnation and extinction with a glee unequaled in literature.” It’s this combination of damnation and glee, abetted by intensity, which makes the book so beguiling. As a reader I turned pages in awe of the awful, captivated by gruesome scenes as Moravagine litters the land with lady’s corpses, incites revolution, becomes a pilot, a deity, and evades death repeatedly.
Dr. Science’s distance makes him more palatable, if more tepid, too–but he’s rather heavy-handed in his misogyny. You need not look further than the way the doctor characterizes women: “Woman is malignant. The history of all civilizations shows us the devices put to work by men to defend themselves against flabbiness and effeminacy.” Ironically, Dr. Science’s fear of passion makes women more contemptible than the nature of Moravagine’s crimes. And even here he proves himself to be the intellectual counterpart to Moravagine’s violence. He asks, “which mother would not prefer to kill and devour her children if she could be sure in doing so of binding to her and keeping her male, of being permeated by him, absorbing him from below, digesting him, letting him be macerated within her in a state reduced to that of foetus, and carrying him thus her life long in womb?” The doctor’s ultimate fear is of being consumed. He too conquers passion, but by keeping his distance instead of killing, by maligning women, in order to remain in control and aloof.
Which leads me to wonder, yet again, what is the vile pleasure in reading Moravagine? In Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty, she reasons that violence and cruelty in art can be leveraged to break barriers, and push past preconceived notions: “Much more interesting, I think, are the capacities of particular works to expand, invent, explode, or adumbrate what we mean when we say ‘reality.’” This too is the way Moravagine afflicts the reader–words corrupt, ideas are assaulted, experimentation and observation in the name of progress is questioned. Moravagine’s answer, and perhaps Cendrars’ too, lies in destroying conventions in order to liberate and recreate. As readers, though, we’re far more like Dr. Science in our detachment, our distance, our vicarious thrill from reading. Within this novel life is futile, existence is masochistic–it’s all engines and machines, prosthetics and wings and exhilarating speed. As we hurtle into the future, sending messages around the world in an instant, Moravagine still unsettles.