Crosby's life is of interest only because of his death.
Having been blooded at Verdun, he returned to scandalise the patricians of Boston, and then fled to systematically derange his senses in the literary society of Paris; in 1929 he shot himself in New York, after ceremonially slaying a convert to his religion of suicidal excess. Geoffrey Wolff's narrative begins, appropriately, at the end, as Pierpont Morgan, Crosby's uncle and godfather, waits for Crosby to keep an appointment for tea on Madison Avenue: Crosby meanwhile is performing the rites of self-glorifying self-extinction across town at the Hotel des Artistes, in a studio borrowed from a friend for erotic assignations. Nothing in his poetasting, opiumeating life became him like his bizarre and Premeditated exit from it. Despite his efforts to render his dissipations creative, in poems which D. H. Lawrence called 'flimsies' and Archibald MacLeish 'an unmade bed,' Crosby's suicide was, as a friend said, his best poem. Black Sun, a superb biography, unravels backwards in art attempt to unriddle this choice of death.
Crosby represents the final mad deliquescence of romanticism, a riot of morbid fetishism transforming the decoration and deformation of the body into an art. He .sPent his life cosmetically preparing his body for its lying-in, painting his toe-nails red, tattooing the soles of his feet with crosses and pagan sun-symbols, anointing his hair with champagne and flourishing black blossoms in his button-hole. Suicide IS the logical result of such narcissism, since It preserves the body from the shame and dereliction of nature. Arrogating to himself the right of death, the narcissist saves himself from time and grants to his corpse the glazed fixity of art. As Mr Wolff puts it, Crosby's life was 'a prolonged suicide note.' His parties were Premature and blasphemous wakes, at which he wore necklaces of Putrefying pigeons and planted on the staircase a skeleton sporting a black-edged French letter for a tongue. To accelerate or Short-circuit the tedious processes of nature, he swallowed drugs, induced spasms of visionary mania, and promoted recklessly multiple sexual couplings. Whoring after strange gods, he developed for himself a risibly solemn heliocentric cult, worshipping the Sol niger of the alchemists, 'prime matter, the unconscious in its unworked, base state,' and writing ejaculatory verses about the sun which sound like the syphilitic babblings of Oswald in Ghosts. Yet, for all his frenetic outrages and week-long benders, why is it that Crosby seems rather a coward than an extremist, studiously literal rather than imaginatively elated, unregenerately healthy and wholesome despite his apprenticeship to violence, addiction and infection ? He is dutiful, even bookish, in his decadence. He betrays his imitativeness in plagiarism of Wilde and Huysmans, his timidity and lack of judgment in his shocked dislike of Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the provincialism of his culture in his anxious compilation of a Thesaurus of exotic and depraved epithets, for all the world like a Reader's Digest subscriber increasing his word-power. He ate • opium because Rimbaud had done so, and drank absinthe in academic tribute to Verlaine. Whereas Baudelaire was a martyr to his ailments and obsessions, Crosby was their elegant sponsor, and turned decadence into another mode of conspicuous consumption: 'Went out this morning to buy silk pyjamas but came back with a 1st edition of Les Illuminations, very rare as there were only 200 copies edited by Verlaine.'
His guzzling and swillings were offerings to a hearty and affluently pampered appetite, not destructive challenges to an overtaxed organism. His temper remained decorous and courtly, even in his most flagrant seductions. The drive towards suicide is complicated by a cautionary halfheartedness. He left elaborate prescriptions for his funeral, and finickiness in such matters always suggests that the deceased expects to be present in some ethereal state to observe and enjoy his own obsequies. Crosby indeed did not consider death final: he remaihed convinced of his right to an after-life of pastoral felicity for which suicide was, in his view, no disqualification. Nor did he ever confront the absolute solitude of dying. He always intended to die
in company, supposedly by pact with his wife Caresse—but actually, as it turned out, with the dizzy Josephine Bigelow. He also required a death watch. MacLeish, who kept the vigil at the Bellevue Hospital, detested this as 'phoney mysticism,' but it was another proviso of Crosby's pusillanimous sociability: he didn't want to be left alone, even in the morgue.
While Crosby seems from one point of view a trifler, an amateur of decadence, from another he is a dupe, a clown destroyed by his prosaically literal misunderstanding of romantic metaphors. No blood is shed, for instance, in Wagner's lovedeaths: romanticism makes death a metaphor for an alteration in consciousness, a conversion from the wilful social world to mystical self-concentration. For Isolde, death is as easy, and as infinitely repeatable, as an orgasm. Only the dullest-witted acolytes, like Crosby or D'Annunzio's lovers hurling themselves from the cliff in the Trionfo della Morte, believe in their initiatic enthusiasm that self-slaughter has been demanded of them. Longing to be dangerous,, Crosby seems only comically credulous. Aspiring to the infernal, he ends in preciosity : his luxurious Black Sun Press,
• with its hand-woven paper, rare type-faces and lavish bindings, reveals, like the activities of the. Hogarth Press, a retreat into book-making as a substitute for genuine literary creation. Hence the pitiful paradox of MacLeish's judgment : 'he was the most literary man I ever met, despite the fact that he'd not yet become what you'd call a Writer.'
Preoccupied by sybaritic preliminaries, designed to stimulate a creativity he actually did not possess, Crosby was puzzled by the business-like normality of authentic genius, which is too diligent to afford virtuoso extravagances of temperament. Crosby made his spectacular escape from the Shawmut National Bank in Boston, but Eliot patiently combined such employment with the composition of poetry. To the messy and distraught Crosby, Joyce seemed astonishingly placid and domestic. When some extra lines were needed to fill a page of the Black Sun Sheen and Shaun, Caresse forbade the printer to approach Joyce: 'the greatest literary master of his age did not add words . . . like some hack newspaper reporter.' The printer disobeyed, and Joyce unquestioningly filled the gap, less overawed by artistic integrity than the Crosbys.
The cruellest summary of Crosby's gratuitous ostentation in life and death is in letter written by Lawrence, himself dying, after the suicide. Lamenting his own confinement to bed, he protested, 'and Harry was really so well, physically. And my nerves are so healthy, but my chest lets me down. So there we are.' Lawrence, who needed and valued life, was denied it; Crosby, robust in the enjoyment of health and riches, squandered both with a prodigality which now looks not splendidly defiant but mean and stupid. Mr Wolff brilliantly explains, but cannot excuse him.