Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The 5 Most Badass Classic Authors

One of my favorite posts I've done here was my list of The 5 Most Badass Modern Writers. It was a helluva lot of fun to write and research, and I think the end result was pretty freakin' great. That said, though... look, I don't think that we're becoming emasculated by the passage of time or that we need to "reclaim our manliness" or any of that quasi-macho bullshit.

But I do think that, back when everyone knew how to use a sword, there were probably a lot more terrifyingly insane geniuses.
I mean, I'm a Douglas. Clearly, there's been some watering-down over the years.
So with that in mind, here's a companion to this piece: in no particular order, 5 men who lived before the 20th century and were able to totally tear up an age without anesthesia or basic hygiene. They may scare us, but hey, a Ford Taurus would make them puke in terror so at least we have that advantage should they declare war on our modern poets.

Spoiler alert: 4 of these men had sex with men. Ain't literary history fun!

#5: George Gordon, Lord Byron
Despite the foppish name-- and even more foppish dress sense --and being the model for the swishy, androgynous vampire --and the sex with teenage boys --and his half-sister-- and most of his friend's wives --and particularly soft pieces of furniture --Byron was a bad mother.

As I've said before, one's gayness has no effect on their badassness. Tom Cruise has sex with women. Ronnie and Reggie Kray had sex with men. The latter two are the model for every psychopathic English gangster ever. But Byron-- well, in Byron's case, having sex with a lot (seriously, a lot) of men does help him in the running here. Because he did so in a time and country when men were routinely hanged for it.

His poem Don Juan (which is pronounced Don JOO-an) is the source of the phrase, and he was once described by a female acquaintance (we mean a woman he was likely inside at the time) as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." At one point he was caught in bed with a wealthy Spanish countess and exiled from the country, not for having sex with her, which the count had given his permission to, but for stockpiling guns in order to supply the burgeoning revolution.
Breakin the Law! Breakin the Law!
So beyond risking execution for a hot piece of ass, he was also a proficient boxer (which no doubt came in handy the various times he was sleeping with noblewomen in their husband's beds), practicing his entire life as a means of working off stress. When he went to college, he went through the list of forbidden pets, noticed one glaring error, and starting bringing a bear everywhere with him (in all fairness, it had been his pet since he was a child [that's not a joke, that happened]). When he was asked why he needed a bear, he submitted an application for a scholarship. For his bear.
So... how'd you do on that exam bro?
Really, everything Byron did was kinda cool, but they alternated between "insanely cool" and "just insane." He marched with labors-rights advocates and wrote poetry for them. Then he filled his house with peacocks and rode a horse around inside during parties. He and Percy Shelley met over the fact that, in a hotel registry, Shelley had written his name as "Atheist" and his travel destination as "Hell." Then he invited Percy, his teenage wife Mary (who lost her virginity to Percy on her mother's grave) and some other writers out to the countryside to smoke opium, drink absinthe, have sex, and invent vampire stories and science fiction. One of his favorite hobbies was studying classic naval battles-- and then reenacting them in his backyard by sitting a homemade fort with his binoculars, making his butler swim around pushing toy boats in a pond.

Jesus, it's like if Bruce Wayne led a secret double life as the Joker.

Byron did, however, end his life of manly insanity with an act of nobility and courage. At the age of 36, he wrote that he felt old, and had lived an empty life (I'm sorry, what?). And so, out of his love for Greece (and yes, it was at least in part for the whole sodomy thing) he raised a battalion of 150 men, spent most of his fortune paying and equipping them, and went off to fight in the war for Greek independence from the Turkish Empire. He died of typhoid fever in the trenches, and became a Greek hero.
And I'm like 90% sure that "Greek Hero" isn't a euphamism.
#4: John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of RochesterJohn Wilmot, like Byron, was a nobleman who wrote poetry and had sex with everything. Unlike Byron, he had sex so hard that it killed him. Seriously. So much sex. And parties. And syphilis-induced political rage. He was like, fortified Byron.
And was also one of Johnny Depp's most syphilitic performances.
But Wilmot didn't have sex  just for himself-- he helped to bring it to the masses, by writing the very first English pornography ever to be published. He, of course, had numerous and constant affairs with men and women, but by all accounts his wife didn't mind. His wife, who had met a couple years before marriage when he kidnapped her.

His poetry's pretty good too. He wrote regularly in the I'm-not-making-this-up Reformation genre of "Premature Ejaculation Poetry," and is best known for some of the most vicious, angry satire of the era.

The man hung with nobility but hated almost everyone in power. For starters, he had the balls (the black, rotting balls) to accuse King Charles II of being obsessed with sex to the point that it was hurting the nation. Later, he got one of his friends impaled on a pike after starting a fight with the police.
Oh my. Something scared that monkey.
On the run from the law (of course he was), Wilmot combined his love of round-the-clock boning and his need to stay hidden by assuming a disguise: as a mild-mannered traveling gynecologist. He advertised himself as Mr. Bendo, an expert in curing infertility, and actually did a fairly good job of helping couples who were having trouble conceiving, by just going ahead and putting a baby in the missus himself. When he wanted to get in some quality gynecological-exam time, but a woman's husband wasn't too keen on the notion, he would go into the back room, put on a dress and some lipstick, and reintroduce himself as Dr. Bendo's wife, Mrs. Bendo. And it worked. I can't make this shit up people, he may have been only an Earl but he was the King of Sleazy Pickup Techniques.

You may have, by this point, noticed a key difference between Byron and Wilmot: that, while being the lord of sex, Wilmot is kind of a disgusting human being. Well, don't feel bad-- remember that syphilis I mentioned? Wilmot died as he lived: rotting from within. He eventually succumbed to multiple fatal venereal diseases and essentially fell apart. At least one eye and his nose was gone by the time he died in his mid-30's, as sex got its revenge for all the work Wilmot put it through.
Pretty sure anything he got up to by this point was legally considered necrophilia.

#3: Arthur Rimbaud
It says a lot about Rimbaud that, even though all of his work was done as a petulant French teenager, he made this list. Although the fact that his name is pronounced Rambo, well, let's be honest, that helps a lot.

For starters, Rimbaud invented punk. Well, not invented, but had a huge influence: Richard Hell started spiking his hair after the way Rimbaud wore his, and it caught on among the New York punk community to become one of the standard looks in punk rock. And The Clash name-checked him in their song "Ghetto Defendant." And Patti Smith owed a huge amount of her mystical, visionary, fuck-the-man attitude from Rimbaud's collection A Season In Hell. And Tom Verlaine, of Television, named himself after Rimbaud's middle-aged lover Paul Verlaine, and Crass's founder Penny Rimbaud... well that one's just obvious.
He certainly looks insufferable enough to be in a punk band.
Rimbaud wrote almost all of his poetry as a teenager, touring around France with his married boyfriend, getting drunk on absinthe and heckling other people's poetry readings. He also wrote some of the angriest, most disdainful works of all time: A Season in Hell, The Drunken Boat and other collections that condemned himself, society, nationalism, and every other ugly thing in the world with a fire and energy that wouldn't get picked up again until the Beat poets.

When Paul Verlaine broke up with Rimbaud-- as he should have, because I can't imagine a hell worse than dating a drunk angry teenage poet --he did so, well, drastically. By which I mean he got drunk, stormed into their hotel room, and shot the boy in the wrist. Rimbaud took it rather well, and declined to press charges. Presumably he poured some absinthe on the wound and it closed immediately afterward-- I'm still not convinced that he wasn't a Terminator fueled by superiority and wormwood.
"Don't worry Paul. It'll scab over or something."
Shortly after the... breakup, Rimbaud quit writing altogether. Instead, he decided to go into business and become a trading merchant.

By which I mean a gunrunner and smuggler. He sort of disappeared (y'know, smuggler), but most reports say that he was shipping a large amount of arms, selling a good deal of rum, and prancing around various parts of Africa no European had been to yet. There may have been slave trading involved, but that part's iffy. Basically the guy went from being a calm, sensitive poet to Marlowe in Heart of Darkness.
"Never get off the Drunken Boat. Absolutely goddamn right."
He then died of gangrene, meaning that only our next author stands a chance of preventing a Connect-4 of poets who had sex with men and died horribly.

#2: Miguel De Cervantes
Awww, dammit! if the guy in the #1 spot had been here I could have won twenty bucks.

Apparently it wasn't enough for Cervantes to invent the European novel. Apparently he had to be a giant, heroic badass about it. Although born in Spain, at a young age he fled to Rome. Details are hazy, but many suggest that he had injured another young man in a swordfight and was fleeing the Spanish authorities. At 23 he enlisted in an elite branch of infantry soldiers stationed on warships (essentially a Renaissance Spain version of the Navy Seals) and was shipped out to prevent an Ottoman invasion of Europe.
"This is gonna go great!"
Although sick with a fever and given the option to remain below deck, Cervantes said that he would rather fight than live as a coward, and boarded an enemy vessel. He was shot three times-- twice in the chest, losing the use of his left arm --but successfully captured the ship and helped repel the Ottoman's forces. With two musket balls. Lodged in his chest.

Five years and a few promotions later, he saw the other great battle of his military career... as his ship was captured by Algerian pirates who massacred nearly the entire crew and captured the handful (which of course included Miguel "One-Arm-Army" Cervantes) of survivors. Cervantes spent the next five years a slave. He almost escaped four times and was eventually ransomed back to his family, after which he stopped trying to get himself shot and got around to revolutionizing literature. And also getting briefly arrested and tortured a little by the Spanish Inquisition-- but come on, who doesn't expect that?
"Wow. That didn't go great at all."
What's really amazing about this is that so much of it appears in his works-- and he hates it. Don Quixote is a book about how heroism and adventure is stupid and pointless, written by a decorated war hero. However, Cervantes made it fairly clear what was more important to him: he once said that, while he was proud to have been part of history, the best thing to come out of his insanely badass and heroic military service was his injury, as with his left arm useless the easiest thing for him to do was simply to write with the other.

#1: Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was a secret agent. Do we need to go further? Okay, fine.

Marlowe's life is actually shrouded in mystery and there's a lot of rumor to work through, but nearly all of it points to "Kit" being essentially a gay Elizabethan James Bond who also wrote some intensely dark and brutal work.
In all fairness, he's never been played by Sean Connery.
When he was a student, he spent a huge amount of money getting drunk and throwing parties-- far more money than he was making or than his family had. When the college threatened to block him from graduating, due to rumors that he was a secret Catholic, they received a letter directly from the Queen's cabinet which cautiously avoided details or names but claimed that Marlowe had done "good service" to the Queen.

For the next several years Marlowe popped up around Europe in various places, always getting in trouble but mysteriously avoiding any consequences. He was arrested for counterfeiting money and funneling it to Flemish Catholic seditionists, only for the case to mysteriously disappear as soon as he was brought back to England. It's also around this time that his play The Jew of Malta was performed, a slice of Renaissance madness introduced by the ghost of Machiavelli.

It's also around this time that the Baines Note was produced, probably the best source for quotes about Marlowe. It was submitted by a man named Richard Baines, who had turned Marlowe in for the counterfeiting job, and, while mostly bullshit, gives some amazing quotes from Marlowe that seem to fit what we know of the man's worldview. Marlowe allegedly asserts that all religion is a lie "That Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest," that Jesus and John the Baptist were gay lovers, and that "all they that love not Tobacco & Boys were fooles." I don't know about the first two, but the last one sounds exactly like every playwright I've ever known, so we can count it.
Then he redefined the notion of sin and man's relationship with evil. Just for fun.
 In May of 1593 Marlowe was hauled in front of the Privy Council-- the same people who had vouched for him previously --under suspicion of being involved with pro-Catholic forces in England, due to evidence found in the house of Thomas Walshingham. He was told to come back in two weeks' time to stand trial, despite the fact that the evidence against him would normally demand an immediate trial.

10 days later, he was dead. He got in a fight over his bar tab with three other men-- all of whom had ties to the secret service, and one of whom worked closely with Walshingham--and, in the ensuing brawl, was stabbed in the eye and killed instantly. The man who killed him was pardoned.

Unlike the others on this list, Marlowe's badassed-ness mostly has to be inferred. But, in part, that's what puts him so high: the fact that what he got up to was so incredibly shady and suspicious, and so tied up with the bloody politics of the era. No one will ever be certain how deep Marlowe got involved. But we can be certain that he was some form of agent, that he is widely considered second only to Shakespeare as one of the era's most brilliant writers, and that he drank, smoked, and screwed his way throughout most of Europe.
It's like that, if you replace the one-liners with masterpieces and the sexy girls with anything that moved.


  1. Class. But you forgot Ben Jonson. He killed a man AND is buried in an 18-inch square upright grave in Westminster Abbey.

  2. My favorite Ben Jonson story is when he got into an insult duel with the poet Sylvester. Sylvester stepped forward and said, "I, Sylvester, have slept with your sister." Jonson's rebuttal was "I, Ben Jonson, have slept with your wife." When Sylvester pointed out that it didn't rhyme, Jonson pointed out "no, but it's true."

  3. I'm pretty sure that story was an anecdote from Byron.