by Richard Collins available at Amazon.com (click
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Fante: A Literary Portrait
Abroad (A Dialogical Memoir)
can be the sign of the whole of tolerance -- and limitless
delight in the unending possibilities of form. And the absurd
is often the last gate before the most unexplored fields of the
imagination -- where any undreamed of beauty might be.
-- Eudora Welty
whatever is in store for me, I shall watch the daily modulations
with an impersonal fascination not unmixed with awe at Mother Nature's
gift for caricature, and will take the bitter with the sweet and
keep a stiff upper lip.
-- Robert Benchley
the Spring of 1997, during my last term teaching at the American
University in Bulgaria, I was invited by Professor Aba Pârlog
of the University of Timisoara to give a series of lectures at Romanian
universities in Timisoara and Oradea. No particular subject, my
choice. I had been living in Romania and Bulgaria since 1992, so
I took this as an opportunity to create a narrative strategy in
my life. I told my audiences this up front. If they expected a talk
on American or British literature, they would be disappointed. I
would be self-indulgent and use my life -- or at least my five years
in Eastern Europe -- as a text. I would be a semiotician of the
self, a self-reflexive metacritic, and read this novelistic chapter
of my life as a public performance. Or, if I may use a figure whose
significance will become clear a few pages into this essay, I would
throw off the robes of the scholar and fiddle for my supper.
Or floating of his own accord?"
the way to the first lecture in Timisoara, I was walking along the
Bega, a pleasant tree-lined canal with beer gardens on its banks,
with my friend Mihaita Horazeanu. Mihaita is a young professor of
linguistics, a punster, teller of jokes, and skilled impressionist
-- he do the voices of such dead celebrities as Nicolae Ceausescu,
complete with the little dictator's stutter and bacon-cleaving hand
gestures. When I was a Fulbright lecturer in Timisoara four years
earlier, a student had told me about the city's form of animal control,
so I asked Mihaita: "Do they still throw dogs in the Bega on
Mondays?" Mihaita replied, "I don't know about that. But
last week a man in a leather jacket was found floating face down
in the Bega. And everyone wondered. Was he pushed? Or was he floating
of his own accord?"
excellent example of contemporary Romanian humor was to become the
pretext of my talk. To Romanians the man in the leather jacket might
well have represented a "biznitzman" (i.e., a member of
the local Mafia), and the "floating of his own accord"
joke echoed the kind of explanations for mysterious deaths that
were offered by the authorities in the Communist era, and are still
offered today by obfuscating bureaucrats. For me, though, considering
the talk I was about to give, it was also a parable about language
and literature, the best possible illustration of what I was to
say about more or less spontaneously created language, and how we
find meaning in it as literature, and how we make meanings out of
it for our own lives. Perhaps I took the joke personally because
I happened to be wearing a leather jacket at the time.
Bandits and Barbarians
I arrived in Romania five years earlier, everyone asked, "Why
Romania?" I would answer: "Because Romanian seemed a lot
easier to learn than Bulgarian."
was a joke first of all on myself, but one that Romanians, who revile
Bulgarians by caricaturing them as "cement-heads," would
find ways to appreciate. The Bulgarians, on their side, consider
all Romanians "bandits." For my part, I felt comfortable
caricaturing only myself. So my little joke was self-ridicule, a
caricature of myself as a man of letters whose fate was dictated
by language. But it was, like most jokes, only partly in jest. My
chosen profession is wordsmith, I manipulate language, yet language
has dictated my life. Still, here I stood, lecturing in my own tongue
in spite of my acquaintance with Romanian, a shameless, monoglot
come by my verbal determinism honestly, if in a somewhat displaced
manner. Seamus Heaney has compared his pen to the potato-digging
spade of his Irish father and grandfather, "going down and
down / For the good turf." In my case, I follow the words the
way my parents and grandparents, who lived The Grapes of Wrath,
followed the crops from the Missouri Ozarks and Oklahoma to California.
Like them, I have lived by the seasons (or semesters), and gone
where the teaching or translating has been, harvesting the words.
(Did I say "wordsmith"? I should have said "migrant
wordpicker".) I have followed the choices given to me by language,
poetry, fiction, academe. Like the man in the leather jacket floating
in the Bega, I am immersed in language, floating to wherever it
takes me. I would like to think that I have floated face up in the
river so I could see where I was going, but I am still unable to
tell to what extent I was pushed into language, or floating of my
own accord. (1)
all of our fates dictated by language, our choices limited by the
available discourse, and aren't we all both pushed and floating
of our own accord? If we are not creating the world through language,
as the Modernists believed, we are certainly created by language,
as writers as different as George Gissing and Oscar Wilde at the
end of the last century believed, and as our own fin de siècle
postmodernists remind us. Life in the literary biz and life on the
streets has each its own power discourse, as surely as some of us
earn doctorates to learn other power discourses, to master the terminology,
the rhetoric, the jargon, the talk, the lingo, the lip. Not so much
to be able to say something intelligent (much less original), but
to avoid saying something stupid.
try to mark twain to navigate the fine line between expression
and communication, between utter originality (in which we would
not be understood) and utter plagiarism (in which we become parrots).
We must fit into the given structures snugly enough to be understood,
yet we want to retain some sense of self-identity, of individuality.
We want to create fresh metaphors, and yet these must be recognized
as metaphors. We want to be writers of our own scenarios,
poets of our own existence, and yet how often we simply allow ourselves
to be written. For five years in Eastern Europe, I had been
acutely conscious of following the words. I went to Bucharest for
a year as a Fulbright lecturer on American literature, then to Timisoara
for another year as a Fulbright, and then returned to Bucharest,
taking a year off to write and translate. Little did I know that
when I joked about Romanian being easier to learn than Bulgarian
I would have a chance to find out how true that was. For the next
two years I found myself in Blagoevgrad, teaching at the American
University. I followed the words, foreign words and English, but
I was also following the dictates of the power structure, of which
the words are a part, and which the words sustain. In my case, I
was following a specifically political power structure. Except for
my third year, in Bucharest, I was supported by grants from the
American government or by teaching at the American University in
Bulgaria, which is funded largely by USAID. In the third year --
anul meu salbatic, "my wild year," as my friend
Nicolae Prelipceanu called it, punning on "sabbatical"
-- I was supported by my wife who worked in the Press and Culture
Section of the American Embassy; we lived off her harvest of words,
in a very specific power structure. In short, I was a cultural imperialist,
an agent of propaganda for the West. As a professor of English,
I was charged with disseminating Western ideas and practices of
producing discourse. That I happened to believe in those ideas and
practices is beside the point. (2)
was changed by my contact with the "colonies," if we can
call Eastern and Central Europe in their transition from Communism
an informal economic and cultural colonial territory for the West.
Like any imperialist, I was not immune to the local diseases, nor
to the local pleasures. Cultural imperialism works both ways. Like
the tides, the influence does not go in one direction, but erodes
the borders that separate nations, peoples, and tongues. After 1989,
the world has become increasingly "dialogized." English
is the indisputable lingua franca, but instead of the world becoming
more monoglossic, the languages are speaking to one another. (3)
The more widespread English becomes, the more it changes. The mutual
contamination -- or interanimation -- of languages will continue,
but English will change more than the other languages because it
is spoken by more non-natives and is therefore more susceptible
to the explorations and transformations of caricature, which, as
Eudora Welty has said, is capable of opening up "limitless
delight in the unending possibilities of form." (4)
the interanimation of languages, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, comes
the essentially novelistic ability to ridicule the language of the
barbarians, and thus he places the origin of the novel in the comic
forms of parody and travesty. (5)
As I spoke to my audiences in Timisoara and Oradea, I knew that
they understood me in ways that I would never be able to understand
them. Therefore, too, they could ridicule me in ways that I could
never ridicule them. That was my loss and lack, the loss and lack
of the barbarian.
"Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," Elaine Showalter
locates the "wilderness" of women's writing as a place,
a topos, unknown to men. (6)
Women know the writing of both men and women, while men know only
their own discourse. In the same way, as the dominant language,
English is vulnerable to blindness, and monoglot speakers of English
can suffer from the blindness of the center. Meanwhile, speakers
of minor languages like Romanian and Bulgarian on the margins of
Europe are likely to know English in addition to their own tongues,
and the notoriously monoglot British and Americans are likely to
be excluded from the heteroglossic text of their ridicule. It is
therefore we, who fancy ourselves at the center of the creation
of discourse, who are lost on the margins of the wilderness of other
languages. Our hosts know this, and while we enjoy a certain reluctant
deference when we visit, British and American lecturers are also
the target of a secret contempt for any sign of intellectual weakness
or gap in erudition.
Game of Truth, Part One: Fiddlerism
Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica pondered whether someday Romania
might become the linguistic center of mediation and translation
because its geographical and linguistic centrality at the crossroads
of East and West has given it a well-deserved reputation for a facility
with languages. Where better than Romania to place the "pivot-axis,"
as Mircea Eliade calls it, between East and West? Where better to
establish "a simple association of five or six Orientalist
scholars" to form the core of "a great Dimitrie Cantimir
Association for Oriental Studies, to be expanded indefinitely
and to perform any work of mediation and research ... and ultimately
to prepare for the dialogue with the East, for which Europeans
are not yet prepared and which represents the great test of tomorrow's
historical possible." (7)
quotes Paul Philippi as saying: "the inherited fate of Romania
is to be Europe's translator, with its collective life experience
in a crisis zone." (8)
But, asks Noica, how can one conceive such a role for Romania, "when
we know only too well how great the Romanian's impotence, frivolity
and fiddling inclination are"? According to Noica, the Romanian's
very facility for languages has resulted in an intellectual dilettantism
that sacrifices originality for accurate mimicry. (9)
Noica calls this Romanian trait "fiddlerism,"
or lautarism, after the violinist Barbu Lautaru, who astonished
Liszt with his ability instantly to play back complicated melodies
with great accuracy, but never really amounted to much as a composer
way of putting this is that Romanians have always had a direct experience
of Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia, the interanimation of languages
that occurs at specific historical moments in which there is no
longer a monoglossic domination of one tongue over another, and
all tongues begin to contaminate others. But in that case, why has
Romania never developed a strong culture of the novel? (This is
a complicated question, too complex to answer here, but I might
briefly suggest that specific historical conditions have caused
Romania to discover and develop its own parodic-travestying genre
not in the novel, but in the essay.)
you have ever played the Game of Truth (it goes by many names),
you know that the game begins when you are sitting around late at
night with a group of people; they don't have to be friends. The
conversation lags, and someone suggests a game. It goes like this.
Everyone gets a turn to characterize everyone else in the group,
one at a time, with one word -- including oneself. It helps if you
know each other a little but not too well, and if you all have been
drinking for several hours (in vino veritas). Some will try
to make a phrase, or a sentence, but don't let them get away with
it. It's more challenging to come up with one word.
we have been speaking of Romania's role as mediator between East
and West, perhaps it would do to see this game in terms of the Chinese
aesthetic, so well expressed by Lu Chi in his Wen Fu (The
Art of Writing). In his section on "Choosing Words," Lu
Chi urges the importance of ordering thoughts and ideas: "collect
from deep thoughts the proper names for things." (10)
Making such choices in the Game of Truth, you learn something about
everyone in the group, not only from the words, but more from the
depths (or motive) from which the words come. Because we are trapped
in language, every word will be a distorted portrait of the person,
a caricature, a cartoon, an inadequate exaggeration of that person
that is nonetheless truthful, and sometimes even beautiful. More
than this, however, each word will be an even clearer portrait --
or caricature -- of the person who applies that word to the other.
Most of all, then, one learns something about oneself, again not
from the truth or referentiality of the characterization, but from
the mirror or parallel universe from which such characterizations
lesson is learned more quickly in the Advanced version of the game,
in which everyone characterizes everyone else with one word, but
it must be the opposite of the word really thought of. In
this version, in addition to learning something about everyone in
the group, you also learn about how the mind works with language
and truth, and necessarily fails to make the one fit the other.
To paraphrase Prufrock, it is impossible not to say just
what you mean.
the Game of Truth shows, then, especially in the Advanced version,
is that not only is language entirely inadequate to describe anyone
or anything, but that it is nonetheless entirely able to describe
the way our mind works, our perception, and our self-deception.
This is what makes caricature such an invaluable literary mode.
Its motives and designs are so often petty, trivial or vile, and
yet from it springs, as Eudora Welty observes, "the whole of
tolerance -- and limitless delight in the unending possibilities
of form." Its very exploration of the absurd opens up "the
most unexplored fields of the imagination -- where any undreamed
of beauty might be." (11)
of a Caricaturist Abroad: Topos and Typos
after I arrived in Bucharest in 1992, I decided I wanted to write
a book of short stories or sketches making use of my experiences
in Romania, Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere. I would call it Caricatures
Abroad, a title meant to echo Innocents Abroad, in which
Mark Twain tells of his travels in that part of the world. The meaning
of the title was, first of all, simply that Americans abroad are
easily caricatured as loud, brash, rich, well-washed, ignorant,
uncouth, etc. The title was also meant to suggest that Americans
stereotype the people whose countries they visit. This impulse toward
exaggerated portraiture, which may be simply a cultural defense
mechanism, is reflected, if not pre-conditioned, by more or less
conscious cultural stereotyping.
day in a beer garden along the Bega, Doru Branea, one of my students
in Timisoara, told me his theory of the Romanian "myth man,"
based on the cinematic caricature of Romanians. In Doru's pronunciation
it sounded like "meat man," which is appropriate, for
the stock cinematic Romanian is typically a weak, corrupt extortionist
and womanizing collaborator. The parasitic villain of Lillian Hellman's
Watch on the Rhine provides a good example. The opportunistic
Teck de Brancovis, who is posing vaguely as a "refugee from
Europe," is a spy for the Nazis, not from conviction because
he has no conviction, but only from cynical self-interest. The American
Fanny says: "Years ago, I heard somebody say that being Romanian
was not a nationality, but a profession. The years have brought
no change." Kurt, the principled anti-Nazi German, replies:
"Being a Romanian aristocrat is a profession." (12)
Germans are depicted as having national virtues as well as national
vices, while Romanians have only vices.
Goldsworthy argues that such stereotypes are ideological in their
origin and function, revealing "a racism which is born not
of colour but of nuance, the chauvinist narcissism of minute differences,
[that] frequently remains undetected." (13)
The truth is that when cultures meet everyone ends up caricaturing
everyone else (and themselves) in a game of power that does not
stop at the perimeter of a drinking circle. This is obvious in the
Game of Truth, and subtler but no less operative in the Advanced
version of the game, in which even those who are trying to be nice
by saying the exact opposite of what they mean, cannot help but
utter the truth. There is another word for the Advanced version
of the game, by the way: it is called Diplomacy.
wrote over a dozen stories and sketches for Caricatures Abroad.
Only a handful are any good. Why so few? I suspect that it is because
in Eastern Europe I knew only how to play the Beginners version
of the Game of Truth. I was writing realistic vignettes with little
chunks of the truth, with words that I thought were referential.
I had not mastered the local Advanced version, with which Romanians
had, after all, long experience. Andrei Plesu, for one, has recognized
this fact of Romanian discourse by suggesting that an honest intellectual
life was possible in Romania under dictatorship "paradoxically,
because it [was] potentially impossible." (14)
An elaborate and quite advanced Game of Truth was always already
in play, with a complex set of unwritten rules which everyone who
had anything to say had to comprehend. "The existence of censorship
led to the elaboration of ingenious subtexts, allusions, and camouflage,
techniques practiced with great virtuosity by writers and assimilated
promptly by the mass of readers." (15)
A barbarian from abroad, I had not mastered that game.
of the stories, "A Man of Letters," is about a fellow
(perhaps in a leather jacket) who wants to be a great writer but
ends up teaching English in various capitals of Eastern and Central
Europe. (16) He writes
poems he calls circular compositions, or Komboloi Poems, because
the words are strung together like Greek worry beads, worn smooth
by usage, but having no transcendent metaphysical or religious significance.
His knowledge of the languages of the countries he has lived in
is limited to restaurant vocabulary, essentially a tourist lexicon.
He jokes with the narrator about how he should have been a waiter
instead of a writer, because in that job his limited linguistic
abilities would have been of some use. This self-caricature comes
back to haunt him.
his dilettantish friend's death, the narrator of the story is shocked
to find that the printed obituary he has written for his friend
contains a typographical error, one letter in the last word of the
last sentence of the piece: "Among all the scribblers with
whom Alfonso associated, he had the most hope, and perhaps the best
chance of becoming, in the truest sense of the word, a great waiter."
So Alfonso's joke, his self-caricature, becomes his epitaph -- and
all because of a single misplaced letter -- an 'a' for an
'r'. (Perhaps, and I only just now think of this as I am
writing, the transposition of the 'a' in waiter for
the 'r' in writer may be reflected in my choice of
the name Alfonso for my own name Richard. This interpretation
occurs to me because of my preoccupation with translating the Romanian
poet Nichita Stanescu, who wrote in his journal that in Romanian
the difference between pom si om [tree and man] is the difference
between a vowel and a consonant, a concept that he illustrates in
his poem "Necuvîntele" [The Unwords], in
which a man exchanges his identity with a tree.) (17)
never got around to writing the title story, "Caricatures Abroad."
The closest I came was a plot outline, a brief sketch about a man
who sets up his easel on the Charles Bridge in Prague. He draws
caricatures of the tourists for a few dollars an image. Characters
from the other stories in the book happen by on the bridge, because
just like in Casablanca, "everybody comes to Prague."
(Let's call the expatriate painter in the story Rick.) These characters
have Rick draw their caricatures for souvenirs from their travels.
"Sketch me, Reeck, sketch me," breathes a desperate, bug-eyed
man in a tuxedo after a long night at the casino. Rick is a true
fin de siècle artist in the manner of Basil Hallward
in The Picture of Dorian Gray, so of course he sees what
isn't there. Or rather, he shadows forth a reality that isn't normally
seen. Each drawing, each distorted portrait of someone Rick has
never met before, reveals the true character of the sitter in a
way that Rick himself could not possibly articulate in words. Sometimes
the sketches are like readings of coffee grounds or palms, and they
tell of the past; sometimes they seem to predict the future. He
draws a woman with an imaginary gold coin in her hand, and she wins
the lottery. He draws a man with an odd-numbered bunch of flowers
in his hands (a bad omen in the East), and he dies. It is not certain
whether Rick is psychic and captures the future in his caricatures,
or whether he creates the future in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
time Rick begins to understand his talent, a fatal realization for
an artist, and decides to draw a caricature of himself. It is always
dangerous for a prophet to use his gift on himself. He reads his
own future, and finds -- well, I don't know what he finds. As I
said, I never finished the story. But let us suppose that Rick reveals
his own character in one of his drawings, the ultimate caricature,
which is self-caricature, in spite of having taken care to do just
the opposite of that -- to draw only others out of themselves, and
not himself out of himself -- just like in the Game of Truth, the
Advanced Version. Does he find his image pleasing, like Narcissus?
Does he find something frightening, like Dr. Jekyll or Dorian Gray?
Or does he find something more complicated still, like what William
Blake sees, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, when he looks
in the mirrored surface of his etching plates and sees "a mighty
Devil folded in black clouds," who vows to expunge "the
notion that man has a body distinct from his soul ... by printing
in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary
and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the
infinite which was hid"? (18)
a critic, I write about other writers. I tend to write from a perspective
that is somewhat passé, trying, as Walter Pater puts it in
Appreciations, "to catch the writer's spirit, to think
with him, if one can or will -- an expression no longer of fact
but of his sense of it, his peculiar intuition of a world, prospective,
or discerned below the faulty conditions of the present, in either
case changed somewhat from the actual world." (19)
This kind of writing about writers is a kind of portraiture, which
is why my book on the novelist John Fante, for instance, is subtitled
A Literary Portrait, but could just as easily have been called
"a literary caricature."
Wilde wrote: "The highest as the lowest form of criticism is
a mode of autobiography." (20)
But like Rick who is tempted to portray himself, and not a few critics
who are lured by the autobiographical muse, I am sometimes tempted
to write about myself and my own life directly, using the same talents
and critical tools I use on other writers. And why not? "When
cutting an axe handle with an axe," wrote Lu Chi in the third
century, "surely the model is at hand." (21)
In the Game of Truth, one must complete the circle by caricaturing
oneself. Or to paraphrase Wilde, the highest as the lowest form
of autobiography is a mode of caricature.
Game of Truth, Part Two: Flora and Fu
writers in our present fin de siècle either lapse
into metafictional and textual playfulness, quoting from the exhilarating
and exhausting richness of texts, or hope to regain the immediacy
of unmediated experience by immersing themselves in the body and
the cult of experience. I would like to suggest, following the Romanian
model of dealing with the interanimation of languages, that there
is a third way, the essay. (I purposely avoid the term "creative
non-fiction," which I find cumbersome without being precise
-- the exact opposite, say, of the Chinese word fu, for the
kind of rhyme-prose exemplified by Lu Chi's Wen Fu.) (22)
Because it occupies a space between intellectual games of allusion
and autobiographical games of illusion, between culture and anarchy,
between the global and the particular, the essay is able to interpret
and stylize, cutting away the dross and preserving the essential,
spanning contradictions and eliding narrative gaps through deft
movements that can best be compared to dance, fencing, or the martial
arts. But the essay is capable of these gymnastics in a particular
way. Constantin Noica tells us: "the essay is not really a
genre, but a relaxation, a concession, a weakness.... One does not
write essays from the bottom up, from ignorance to culture, but
rather from the top down, from culture to play and grace."
my premise for my talks in Romania, and for this essay, which has
cannibalized those talks, was: my life is a text. We all try to
interpret our lives, to construct our lives as some medium or genre
-- movie, novel, romance, epic, comedy, tragedy, farce. Protagonists
of a text still being written, we survive as long as it is still
being written. I write, therefore I am. It doesn't matter if it
is poetry or prose. Byron knew this in Don Juan, and Sterne
in Tristram Shandy. But every writer knows this. As long
as the text continues to be written, life goes on -- not because
life ends if we stop writing, but because as long as we live we
can never stop writing (i.e., interpreting) our lives. In the postmodern
world all we have, we say, are the interpretations, thus the need
to "interpret the interpretations," as Montaigne said.
(24) And thus the
necessity of literary theory (whether we like it or not) even more
than of fiction to help us make sense of our lives. Or to be specific:
to help me make sense of my life.
course, we might say, man does not live by interpretation alone.
Or does he? Interpretation may often seem like an interruption.
Every time I choose consciously to interpret the text of my life,
I interrupt it. I change the direction of the narrative, and its
nature. I strive for coherence or complication as my sense of narrative
or genre commands. Each interpretation informs, reforms and deforms
the text. But this is true primarily if I see myself living a narrative
text. If I see myself in a novel, as Emma Bovary and Don Quixote
saw themselves in a romance, I am bound to be disappointed by any
kind of interruption or aside that breaks the rhythm of the narrative
mode, tragic or comic, according to how I handle the changing requirements
of the interpretations of the text of my life. But what if my life
is not a narrative?
I am modern, or postmodern, I might try to see myself as an orphaned
or authorless text. Stephen Dedalus imagined the Author to be Deistically
removed; Roland Barthes told us that the Author is dead. This is
the logical outcome of the formalist and structuralist projects,
which tried to see everything either in terms of the autonomous
text or in terms of what Saussure discovered about the function
of language and the arbitrary nature of the signifying system. As
poststructuralists (in the purely chronological sense), we see ourselves
as contextual beings, selecting our identities from among the available
discourses, constructing our identities from the available resources
for collage and bricolage. Our lives are intertextual quotations,
our identities supplied by the books (and videos) on the shelves
of our minds, the ruins of literary (and popular cultural) accumulation,
a museum in which the curator has let the statues fall where they
I am both text and intertext, author and interpreter, then I must
admit that there is no transcendent meaning to my life, that my
freedom is limited by the options available, and most of all, that
I cannot interpret my text teleologically according to some projected
or imagined ending. My decision to go to Romania, for example, was
an open-ended decision, depending in part on a published list of
available Fulbright positions. My second choice was Rwanda (next
alphabetically), which would have developed into another story entirely.
I was lucky. A number of officials in Romania and America decided
to give me my first choice, and I avoided witnessing the carnage
between the Hutus and the Tutsis that occurred in 1993. Those invisible
officials, then, were the collaborative authors of my life. Deistically
removed and dead (to me), they certainly made their authorial decisions
with an end in mind, having to do with their agencies' agendas for
policy, politics and propaganda. I suited their mission. But after
one textual decision has been made for us, we must decide how to
use it in the remainder of the evolution of the text.
time I write a letter of recommendation for a student I am aware
that I am writing in a specific literary genre: the prophetic caricature.
What I predict about the student may actually come to pass, just
like the caricaturist on the Charles Bridge in Prague in the story
I never wrote. A student of mine from the American University in
Bulgaria is now attending graduate school in New Orleans. He is
now my friend and neighbor, floating down a textual river five years
long, immersed in the textual atmosphere of a specific locale that
will change him forever, just as my fate was changed by the half-decade
I spent in Romania and Bulgaria. His text is being complicated by
other events. A native of Belgrade, he must now incorporate all
sorts of extraneous events, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia, into
his interpretation of his textual life. What he makes of his experience
in America will depend on his interpretations, interruptions in
the text in which he makes sense of his transition from one state
of being to another.
all make this sort of transition at one time or another. In Eastern
Europe, the transition came in 1989 and continues. The interpretation
they put on their story will determine their future, a future that
most likely will depend on the texts they have available to them
now. My friend, the Romanian poet Ioan Flora, has a theory about
the Transition in Eastern Europe. He compares it to the story of
Moses, who led his people out of slavery and into the promised land.
It took him 44 years. Why did it take so long? After all, from Egypt
to the promised land is about the distance from Bucharest to Cîmpina,
or New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Was it that Moses didn't know the
way? Was he blind? Was he walking on his tongue? Moses was not blind,
and he did not walk on his tongue, and he knew the way very well.
Moses was waiting, says Flora, for all those born under slavery
Flora came to the American University in Bulgaria to give a reading
of his new book of poetry, Fifty Novels and Other Utopias,
(25) he outlined
his theory of the transition. His textual reconfiguration of the
transition went over well with the audience of students from Romania,
Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania, even though they were all born before
1989, and according to his interpretation, would all have to die
before reaching the promised land. They seemed to accept the possibility
that they might see no end to the transition in their lifetime.
Perhaps we are all afraid that the transitional ups and downs will
be inconclusive, senseless, absurd, endless. But Flora's appropriation
of the Biblical text in his interpretation of the present was a
critical narrative strategy to give aesthetic shape (and therefore
meaning) to the shapeless text of contemporary life in Eastern Europe.
He allowed us to see vividly one possible ending, and as pessimistic
as it may seem, his ending did provide an aesthetic satisfaction
that the flux of events themselves did not. Like my caricaturist
in Prague, Flora's interpretation may even have the effect of changing
the outcome of the story by showing the students a prophetic caricature
of themselves. What we may have witnessed that day was the texture
of the text of the transition in the midst of its composition.
time in Eastern Europe was my own personal five-year transition,
coincidental with Eastern Europe's cultural transition. My five
years of wandering, like the longer wanderings of Moses, came to
an end when I returned to New Orleans. Did I have to wait for that
part of me that was born into a different kind of slavery in America
to die off? One might ask, how I, an American born in the land of
the free, was enslaved? As Jean-Paul Sartre observed on his trip
to America, he preferred the Communist countries because at least
they knew they were not free.
I meet an American abroad -- especially in Eastern Europe -- I am
reminded of what sort of freedom it is that we have America. Free
to be ignorant of history and foreign languages, free to believe
we are the center of the universe, we Americans reject the notion
that we are authorless texts because we still believe in freedom.
Floating downstream in a river, we can imagine only that we must
have been pushed (victimized); how could we be "floating of
our own accord"? That would be suicide, wouldn't it? Unthinkable,
in spite of suicide being the ultimate act of free will and self-definition.
No, there must be a culprit out there, someone responsible and who
must pay, perhaps in a civil action.
to America, I have been impressed with how the word individual
has now virtually replaced the word person, blurring any
radical sense of individualism that the word once had. The more
individualistic we Americans think we are, the more we act, dress,
eat, think, exercise, and especially talk just like all the other
individualists. It's like the song: "I want to be different.
Just like all the other different people." Yet in the aftermath
of the Littleton, Colorado shootings, we have been quick to target
noncomformist adolescents as sociopaths, labeling them as "outsiders."
We do not question our entitlement to be an individual, nor what
that means in terms of rights, responsibilities and risks. Our mindless
assertion of individualism is enough, but it is a symptom of our
postmodern malaise. The representation has come to dominate the
actuality; the signifier is arbitrary and not necessarily significant;
the sign is all, a caricature.
theoretical trends of the 1960s and 1970s helped us to learn how
to decenter the assumption of an hierarchical center of meaning
and value. Yet the theoretical trends of the 1980s and 1990s have
all been looking for a way back to authorship and meaning and value,
even when these are seen as wholly contextualized by history, politics,
culture, gender, race. As Geoffrey Harpham has pointed out, after
the fiasco of Paul de Man, we need a way to restore the ethical
in our readings of the world. (26)
Theorists now look for relevance in multiculturalism and diversity,
regionalism and postcolonialism, gender and queer theory, race and
ethnicity, and so on. Our skin colors, our ethnic origins, our religious
affiliations, our sexual preferences all become part of the postmodern
textualization of the world, and we read them now as readily as
we once read the signs of the Zodiac, or the sonnets of Shakespeare
against the tradition of Petrarch.
world today is no less textual (or contextual) than it was for the
structuralists, post-structuralists or deconstructionists. But now
we wonder: have all the theoretical proofs and pyrotechnics convinced
us that the author does not exist, or that metaphysics is dead?
Victorian humanism is no deader than God. Both are inscribed in
our reformulations of the present in terms of the past, like Flora's
interpretation of the transition according to Moses. We can acknowledge
that everything we do is rhetorical, and yet still know that we
make ethical choices from all the available discourses. And from
our choices, rational or irrational, we construct the architecture
of our lives, the aesthetic that imprisons or improves us. (27)
I look into the mirror of my experience in Central and Eastern Europe,
what do I see? Milan Kundera has called Central Europe "a laboratory
of twilight" and "a premonitory mirror showing the possible
fate of all of Europe." (28)
Vesna Goldsworthy has suggested something similar when she wonders
whether Shelley, when he said we were all Greek, "really wanted
to say that we were all Balkan." (29)
I am tempted to give a short answer to my own question by quoting
Kierkegaard's epigraph to his Stages on Life's Way, a line
from Georg Chistoph Lichtenberg: "Such works are mirrors: when
an ape looks in, no apostle can look out." (30)
each of these ideas has gone into the long answer to the question,
which is the subject and text of this essay. Perhaps the best answer,
though, can be seen reflected in the reaction of one listener who
heard an embryonic form of this essay at the University of Oradea.
At the end of my second Romanian lecture, a professor of German
wrote on the blackboard: RIDENDO DICERE VERUM, a Latin tag that
means roughly: "Laughing he tells the truth." This spontaneous
characterization of my talk, both critique and caricature, was a
happy illustration of what I had been talking about. It was the
Game of Truth in action, and a prophetic caricature. My first reaction
was that I could not hope to receive a greater compliment. In revising
the talk for this essay, though, I have, with a recent fortune cookie's
warning always in mind, (31)
found myself trying to live up to its flattery.
years ago I returned from Eastern Europe to live in New Orleans,
after five years of being immersed in an experience that I can only
make sense of by resorting to literary theory. Having lived in a
dialogical world, where the interanimation of languages was an everyday
fact of life, I miss the experience of that essentially parodic-travestying
(novelistic) world. It is not enough to say that I learned a lot
in the five years I spent in the Balkans. My outlook on life, my
interpretative method, changed completely. It hasn't been easy adjusting
to life in America (another transition), even in New Orleans, the
least American (and in many ways the most Balkan) city in America.
The New Orleans cityscape, especially the French Quarter, provides
me with plenty of architectural reminders of Europe. The city's
respect for tradition reminds me that I am an outsider, yet the
city's ethnic diversity reminds me that I am an outsider among outsiders.
And Carnival reminds me that Bakhtin was right about laughter, ridicule
and the novelistic spirit. I don't miss Bulgaria. I do miss the
daily mix of languages, the immersion in the heteroglossia that
makes life in Eastern Europe such an essentially novelistic experience.
I miss my students at the American University from Albania, Hungary,
Poland, Romania, Serbia, Kosovo, Kazhakstan, Uzbekistan. Most of
all I miss Romania, where I began to develop as a self-consciously
textual human being.
we consider our lives as texts, we could do worse than to fashion
ourselves as a novel. Bakhtin wrote: "The novel is the only
developing genre and therefore it reflects more deeply, more essentially,
more sensitively and rapidly, reality itself in the process of its
But is what Bakhtin says still true today? Even more than the novel,
our lives, fragmentary, incomplete, continue to develop. Milan Kundera's
definition of the novel as "The great prose form in which an
author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters),
some great themes of existence," (33)
can be slightly rephrased for my purpose. Life itself is a great
prose form in which a person explores, more or less thoroughly,
by means of experimental selves (caricatures), the existence of
some great themes. Kundera has explained what he means by "themes":
"A theme is an existential inquiry. And increasingly I realize
that such an inquiry is, finally, the examination of certain words,
In my case, I happened to discover the existence of some great themes
-- and theme-words (floating, fiddlerism, barbarian, myth-man, portrait,
mirror, caricature, essay, fu) -- by means of my experimental
selves (caricatures) abroad in Romania and Bulgaria.
nowadays the novel is not enough. Even Kundera recognizes this,
the novel being his excuse for the essay. As a setting that compromises
the truth with the alloys of fiction, the novel sets off Kundera's
bejeweled "novelistic essays" that he embeds (more rather
than less) self-consciously in the narrative. (35)
Kundera's hybridization is not original with him, and indeed owes
something to the Viennese novelist Robert Musil's idea of "essayism,"
which is not only a modern condition (described in his monumental
Modernist novel A Man Without Qualities) but a contemporary
condition, and more particularly a contemporary Central European
literary condition, precisely because of linguistic, cultural, political
geography. (36) If
the interanimation of languages does not result in a vibrant explosion
of the cultural impulse to ridicule and amuse through the storytelling
that we call the novel (or the joke), then it sets off a series
of fragmented refractions of light, firecrackers, we call the essay
(or the laughing truth without -- or within -- the joke). If the
essay of today manages to accomplish, however briefly, what the
novel, as a parodic-travestying genre, has accomplished in the past,
then we will have moved beyond the sort of creative non-fiction
that today tends to take itself too seriously, monologically. The
essay is ripe for parody. (37)
existence of some great themes ultimately take their shape these
days, and for me at least (and I am not alone), not in fiction but
in essays like this one, in which I hope to move, as Constantin
Noica says, "from culture to play and grace." These experimental
selves are my caricatures abroad. They are my gray memoirs, my horde
of souvenirs, what I brought back with me to America and continue
to read and write.
In 1977, as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, I had
a terrifying dream. I was under some stress at the time, completing
my honors thesis, "Perpetuum Mobile: Time in Samuel Beckett's
Trilogy," under the direction of Mas'ud Zavarzadeh. In the
dream I was jogging along the McKenzie River when I noticed a man
-- or rather a bird with a man's head -- sitting in a tree overhead.
It was Samuel Beckett himself. Out of his beak and cloaca two streams
issued, each comprised of letters, words, phrases, sentences, like
liquid tickertape. These streams hit the ground, where they joined
in a single rivulet and flowed down to the McKenzie, becoming part
of the greater river of text, lapping languidly on the bank. I could
see the words distinctly as they wavered at the edge of the water,
but I could not make out their meaning. As I said, I was under stress;
perhaps I had simply been reading too much, but the dream continues
to haunt me.
One Fulbright lecturer told me that he had no intention of studying
Romanian: "I didn't come here to learn their culture; I came
here to enlighten them about mine" -- a view I find repulsive.
Now that some 20,000 Americans reside in Prague, and millions more
visit, spilling into the surrounding countries, Americans are only
now beginning to grasp the cultural and linguistic map of Eastern
and Central Europe. They still confuse Budapest with Bucharest,
but not as often as they did. The crisis in Kosovo has even given
them some idea of where Tirana and Pristina are.
Eudora Welty, "Jose de Creeft," Magazine of Art
See M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays,
trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P,
See Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,"
Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 179-205.
Constantin Noica, The Cantemir Model in Our Culture, or Memo
to the One-Above regarding the situation of the spirit in the three
Romanian provinces, trans. Bogdan Stefanescu (Bucharest: Editura
Athena, 1995), pp. 49-51
Ibid., p. 51.
The Romanian's linguistic facility for mimicry,
combined with lack of creativity, was noted earlier in this century
by Olivia Manning in her Balkan Trilogy, in which the cynic
Inchcape's view of Romanians is: "They're quick. But all Rumanians
are much of a muchness. They can absorb facts but can't do anything
with them. A lot of stuffed geese, I call them. An uncreative people."
Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1982), p. 40.
Lu Chi, Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, rev. ed., trans. Sam
Hamill (Minneapolis: Milkweek Editions, 1991), p. 33.
Welty, "Jose de Creeft."
Lillian Hellman, Watch on the Rhine (New York: Random House,
1941), p. 149.
Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The
Imperialism of the Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998), p.
ix. Goldsworthy does not mention Hellman's characterization of the
Balkan mentality, her study being devoted to Balkan stereotypes
in British literature. She argues that Balkan stereotyping is a
"politically correct" form of crypto-racism that provides
the foundation for more overt kinds of economic, political and cultural
Andrei Plesu, "Intellectual Life Under Dictatorship,"
Representations 49 (Winter 1995), p. 63.
Ibid., p. 62.
This story was published in Nuclear Family 2 (Bulgaria, Spring
"Asa este: pom si om. În limba noastra diferenta dintre
pom si om este diferenta dintre o consoana si o vocala."
Nichita Stanescu, Fiziologia poeziei: proza si versuri 1957-1983.
("And so it is: tree and man. In our language the difference
between tree and man is the difference between a consonant and a
vowel" [my translation].) Ed. Alexandru Condeescu (Bucharest:
Editura Eminescu, 1990), p. 400. See my essay "Translating
Sound-Sense: Two Poems and a Page from the Journal of Nichita Stanescu,"
Translation Review 51/52 (1996), pp. 23-6.
The Poems of William Blake, ed W. H. Stevenson (London: Longman;
New York: Norton, 1971), pp. 108, 114.
Walter Pater, "Style," in Selected Writings of Walter
Pater, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Columbia UP, 1974), p. 104.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed Norman Page (Peterborough,
Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 1998), p. 41.
Lu Chi, Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, rev. ed., trans. Sam
Hamill (Minneapolis: Milkweek Editions, 1991), p. 28.
The essayist Scott Russell Sanders explains his objections to the
term "creative nonfiction" in a recent interview: "I
suppose we do have to use labels, but I don't find 'creative nonfiction'
to be an especially useful one, even though I've won prizes and
taught workshops bearing that title. 'Nonfiction' itself is an exceedingly
vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden,
and it's negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which
everything else must be measured. It's as though, instead of calling
an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat. Sticking 'creative' in
front of 'nonfiction' doesn't clarify matters much, and it's pretentious
to boot, since it implies that other forms of nonfiction -- Plato's
Republic, Ellman's Joyce, Hawking's A Brief History
of Time -- are not creative works of intellect and imagination.
So I prefer to think of myself as an essayist, and to speak of what
I write as essays. It's a term with a venerable tradition, and it
preserves Montaigne's emphasis on essayer-ing -- on making
a trial, an experiment, an effort of understanding." Robert
L. Root Jr., "Interview with Scott Russell Sanders,"
Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction 1:1 (Spring
1999), p. 123.
Noica, The Cantemir Model in Our Culture, p. 27.
According to Derrida, Montaigne wrote: "We must interpret interpretations
more than to interpret things." This famous misquotation of
Montaigne prefaces Jacques Derrida's influential essay, "Structure,
Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," trans.
Alan Bass, in Hazard Adams, ed., Critical Theory Since Plato,
rev. ed. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), p. 1117.
Compare this to Montaigne's far more ironic and self-critical original:
"It is more of a business to interpret the interpretations
than to interpret the texts, and there are more books on books than
on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other." Michel
de Montaigne, "On Experience," in The Complete Essays,
trans. M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 1212. Nevertheless,
Derrida's "must" is one of the most influential misprisions
in postmodern thought.
Ioan Flora, Cincizeci de romane si alte utopii / Fifty Novels
and Other Utopias, trans. Andrei Bantas and Richard Collins
(Bucharest: Editura Eminescu, 1996).
See Geoffrey Galt Harpham, "Ethics," in Critical Terms
for Literary Study, 2nd ed., ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas
McLaughlin (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), pp. 387-405.
the idea of action as aesthetic composition in our lives, see Kundera's
discussion of Anna Karenina's suicide: "At the end of the novel,
Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetical composition --
the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end -- may seem
quite 'novelistic' to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on
condition that you refrain from reading such notions as 'fictive,'
'fabricated,' and 'untrue to life' into the word 'novelistic.' Because
human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion."
are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual
transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under
a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the
composition of the individual's life....
is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious
coincidences...but it is right to chide man for being blind to such
coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life
of a dimension of beauty." Milan Kundera, The Unbearable
Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Harper
& Row, 1984), p. 52.
Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher (New
York: Grove Press, 1998), p. 125.
Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania, p. xi.
Quoted by Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life's Way: Studies
by Various Persons, Compiled, Forwarded to the Press, and Published
by Hilarius Bookbinder, trans. Howard V Hong and Edna H. Hong
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 8.
"Keep your feet on the ground even though friends flatter you."
M. M. Bakhtin, "Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the
Study of the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination, p.
Kundera, The Art of the Novel, p. 142.
Ibid., p. 84.
On Kundera's notions of the "art of the specifically
novelistic essay," see "Dialogue on the Art of Composition"
in The Art of the Novel, pp. 77-85.
Thanks to Andrei Codrescu for pointing out the importance of Musil
in this context. Musil's influence in Central European literature
is pervasive and continuing, the discussion having been carried
on in the work of Danilo Ki- -- his notion, for example, that "the
defining factor in the literature and thought of Central Europe"
is "ironic lyricism" (Homo Poeticus: Essays and Interviews,
edited by Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995,
p. 258) -- among many others, including my multinational array of
students in Bulgaria, for whom Musil remains a resonant voice.
Such a transformation of the essay into a parodic-travestying genre
might but need not include all the elements that Bakhtin identifies
as elements of discourse in the novel: "A comic playing with
languages, a story 'not from the author' (but from a narrator, posited
author or character), character speech, character zones and lastly
various introductory or framing genres are the basic forms for incorporating
and organizing heteroglossia in the novel. All these forms permit
languages to be used in ways that are indirect, conditional, distanced.
They all signify a relativizing of linguistic consciousness in the
perception of language borders -- borders created by history and
society, and even the most fundamental borders (i.e., those between
languages as such) -- and permit expression of a feeling for the
materiality of language that defines such a relativized consciousness."
"Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination,
The current explosive popularity of the personal essay is reflected
in the success of recent anthologies like Philip Lopate's The
Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to
the Present (New York: Anchor, 1994), and journals like Creative
Nonfiction and Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction,
among others. See also, Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg,
eds., The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction
(Des Moines: Allyn & Bacon, 1998).