In a wonderfully unexpected recent concurrence of conversations and thoughts (separated by a few weeks but coincident in memory), I was reminded to share with you a bit of writing from someone very much worth reading.
It’s from Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality by Max Blecher, published in 1936 and thankfully translated into English and published a few years ago by the University of Plymouth Press in conjunction with the “old” Romanian Cultural Institute.
If you don’t know Max Blecher, you should – especially if you’re Romanian as he’s part of your national heritage. (I can only wish I could read the original, though it appears to me that Alistair Ian Blyth has done a terrifically intelligent translation in the version I read.)
Blecher was born in Botosani in 1909 and died at 28 after suffering for a decade with tuberculosis of the spine. He is often compared with the Surrealists, and while I enjoy the visual dislocation of their art, I find their verbal dislocation to be a bit too abstract. That, I suppose, is why I find Blecher’s more-structured “surrealism” in many ways more accessible and engaging. The dislocation is there, it’s just more coherent somehow.
I was reminded of all this when in a conversation the other day I went searching in my memory, without success, for the precise words of perhaps the most beautiful early example of this creative dislocation – a quote that’s often associated with the Dadaist movement. It’s from Comte de Lautréamont in his book Le Chants de Maldoror, written in the late 1860s, when he describes a young boy as “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”
Yep, that was good. Extraordinarily good. And seems easy to imitate, too – to put the powerful and unexpected where it does not belong. Because when the powerful appears where it should not be expected, its impact and its lessons are simply there to be cherished.
And that precisely is the problem. The appeal of these powerful juxtapositions is too attractive to people who don’t know how to use them. It’s too easy to copy. Too easy to fake. Because simply combining random images or contradicting ideas is not the same as creating a new thought – not a thought worth thinking anyway.
It’s why I tire so quickly of too many current artistic attempts that conflate disgust with true impact, or shock with ideas. They seek provocation, almost comic-like in depth, through scatological manipulations, bloody swords, writhing snakes, perverted Madonnas, twisted Christ-like figures, or any assorted and sordid computer-generated metamorphosis. Provocative simply to be provocative is not difficult. In fact, it’s too easy even to be considered creative. It (as well as that current popular style of writing that I can only describe as a hectic sleaze of consciousness), seems tired and unimaginative when compared with these originators.
Now I suspect most of these current writers and artists would not regard themselves as Dadaists or Surrealists. Their mission is different. Their sensibilities are different. Their rage, such as it is, is very, very different. But in terms of combining ideas that don’t appear to belong, I see only small differences and even less ingenuity.
Indeed, I have recently seen several examples of this here in Bucharest, in writing, in photography, and in video. Yes, what I saw was mostly provocative. Some were even clever. But mostly, they appeared created to impress a circle of like-minded acquaintances, a circle that may indeed bestow some notoriety and success on the creator but will finally remain only momentary in its impact. To me, it seemed mostly sophomoric and boring. To provoke – and not only, but also to evoke – something revealing in the reader or the viewer, effectively and challengingly, by breaking apart our imagination’s expectations – that is what’s needed to bring something new.
And Blecher does that. While his writing is more structured, what happens while you read him feels much the same as when you study the paintings of de Chirico or Magritte. It’s not the dislocation of objects so much, but the dislocation of concepts, images, and emotions that he uses to describe his life and his experiences.
I finished his book some weeks ago. But then, as these coincidences occur, confronted by bad memory, I went to the internet to check the spelling of Lautréamont, and there thanks to Wikipedia (yes, I confess) I came across this quote:
“The critic Alex De Jonge writes, ‘Lautréamont forces his readers to stop taking their world for granted. He shatters the complacent acceptance of the reality proposed by their cultural traditions and makes them see that reality for what it is: an unreal nightmare all the more hair-raising because the sleeper believes he is awake.’”
And that, my friends, is the connection that led me back to Blecher (you’ll see why in the second excerpt). As for the first, it’s interesting how Sartre’s Nausea was published just two years later. (Apparently, there was no chestnut tree in the town of Roman.) I hope you enjoy:
“I picked up one object after another and their variety dizzied me. In vain did I grip a file, slowly run my fingers over it, place it to my cheek, swivel it, let if fall spinning to the floor…In vain…in vain…nothing had any meaning.
“Everywhere, hard, inert matter surrounded me – here in the form of wooden balls and carvings – in the street in the form of trees, houses, and stones; immense and futile, matter enveloped me from head to foot. In whichever direction my thoughts turned, matter surrounded me, from my clothes to the springs in the forest, passing through walls, trees, stones, glass…
“Into every cranny the lava of matter had spilled from the earth, petrifying in the empty air, in the form of houses with windows; trees with branches that ever rose to pierce the emptiness; flowers, soft and colourful, which filled the small curved volumes of space; churches whose cupolas soared ever higher, as far as the slender cross at their pinnacle, where matter halted its trickling into the heights, powerless to ascend further.
“Everywhere, matter had infested the air, irrupting into it, filling it with the encysted abscesses of stones, with the wounded hollows of trees…
“I went maddened by the things I saw, things I was destined not to be able to escape.”
“Sometimes, at night, I awake from a terrible nightmare…
“In the end, my final scream, the loudest, wakes me. All of a sudden I find myself in my real room, which is identical to the room in the dream, and in the same position in which I dreamt myself, at the same hour when I must have been floundering in the nightmare.
“What I now see around me differs very little from what I saw only a second before, but somehow it has an air of authenticity, which floats in things, in me, like a sudden cooling of the winter air, which all of a sudden magnifies all sonorities…
“In what does my sense of reality consist?
“Around me the life I will live until the next dream has returned. Memories and present pains weigh heavily in me and I want to resist them, not to fall into their sleep, whence I shall perhaps never return…
“Now I am struggling in reality, I scream, I beg to be woken, to be woken to a different life, to my real life. It is certain that it is broad daylight, that I know where I am and that I am alive, but in all these things something is missing, the same as in my terrifying nightmare.
“I struggle, scream, writhe. Who will wake me?
“Around me, a precise reality is pulling me ever lower, trying to submerge me.
“Who will wake me?
“It has always been like this, always, always.”
For those of you with some curiosity, you should also see the following two links about the role of some important Romanians in the early Dadaist movement:
First link, here
Second link, here