Nostalgia for the Present, Max Blecher

Attaching oneself to the fullness of an object in order to decipher and grasp meaning. Why not? There’s an irrefutable certainty in an object’s ripe-plum roundness. And more—it is both its integral, indisputable object self and a myriad other things, through association and memory.

For an extraordinarily gifted man who died at 29 and was bed-ridden for the last 10 years of his life, the body offered no assurance at all, and being thoughtful he would have looked to something out of which to construct and make meaning. Objects, but here serving double purpose as both trigger or stimulus, and impediment. A man in the rain carrying a chandelier on his back whose crystal prisms glistened and tinkled as he went on his way would provoke the viewer to wonder, “what constitutes the gravity of the world.” The questioning, ill young man is the unnamed protagonist in Max Blecher’s book, Adventures in the Immediate Irreality, first published in Rumania in 1936, reissued in 1970 and in its first German edition in 1990, and here translated by Michael Henry Heim and published in 2015 by New Directions Books, New York. It’s not a novel; its plot is an interior disquisition and series of notes, sensual observations and sensations— interior like Joyce’s Ulysses, but brief. Its duration is not diurnal but is the time of one summer. It’s meditative, or induces reverie. Its motion or gestures are not linear or additive, leading to a resolution. It is immersive like a warm bath, amniotic in its apprehension, the protagonist often seeming to come to himself in the street, as though waking from a dream and surprised, but only mildly, to find himself where he is. The book doesn’t declare itself an autobiography. The state of the writing isn’t that of a memoirist; there’s no reflective distance, and memories, when they present themselves, are absorbed in the stirred broth that nourishes the search for an identity.

Undeclared as such, we can’t say this is an autobiography but it’s impossible not to equate the writer and the protagonist, their search seeming the same, given the circumstances of both. The book opens: “Staring at a fixed point on the wall, I occasionally have the feeling that I no longer know who or where I am. At such times, I experience the loss of my identity from a distance: I feel for a moment that I have become a complete stranger, this abstract personage and my real self vying for authenticity with equal strength. In the following moment my identity returns. It is like a stereoscopic slide in which the two images, separated by a mistake, suddenly give the illusion of three dimensionality once the projectionist brings them back together.” His image of himself then, in fully articulated three dimensions, represents the real or the appearance of the real, which is, as he describes it, an illusion. Nothing solid there, even in the return of his identity. He writes about these persistent occurrences: “Eventually I recognize myself and find the actual room again. It gives me a slightly intoxicated feeling. The room is extraordinarily dense in terms of matter, and I have returned implacably to the surface of things….Never, under no other circumstances have I felt so clearly as in moments like these when every object must occupy the space it occupies and I must be the person I am.” A transient certainty.

Andrei Codrescu wrote the book’s preface and both bitter and wry, commends Blecher on his genius, reflected in his works, and in the timing of his death, as though he and the disease which so thoroughly determined his life and its conclusion anticipated, by exiting before the decade began, the nightmare for a Rumanian Jew and the millions of others living in Europe in the 1940s. Codrescu notes that Blecher’s personal circumstances and his profound sense of the irreality of his own and the larger world presaged one of the issues of our present time—our struggle to determine the real and the virtual. Blecher then was a seer, making himself and his language the carrier of the message. Codrescu wrote, “Blecher’s senses saw far. He grasped the incoming scrambled text of matter, tuned to the disintegration of his body.” Adventures in Immediate Irreality, he suggests, is a book for our confused, slipping time.

The chandelier being carried in the rain, the rain running down and deepening the colours of everything it touched—the gravity—the seriousness and weight of the world and the matter it contains, and downward to where the ground has received the rain, and Blecher’s desire where he wrote, “Sometimes I wished I were a dog so I could see the sodden world from an oblique animal perspective — from below, closer to the ground…” His, or rather, his protagonist’s desire too for repose and refuge led him by accident, on one of the summer’s endless wanderings, to the Municipal Music Hall, where he entered unimpeded, moving through all the spaces to find a set of stairs leading down to the prompter’s box below the stage where old props were stored, among them a deep armchair into which he sank in sustained reverie, and to which secret cool place he returned often.

I join the protagonist and the author in finding myself immersed sometimes in a state of being, not a dream but another state of consciousness. There’s a medical term for a kind of anesthetic: “waking sedation” it’s called, carrying with it a glamour and literary inventiveness not usually attributed to medicine but equally as ambivalent as most medical responses are. You are awake and asleep; you are awake and remember nothing, even immediate and acute pain; you are in the present and elsewhere. (How do they do that?) For Blecher it was both the tense in which he wrote and the condition of his being. The source or cause of his displacement was dire, of course, but even in safe circumstances and good health, consciousness is mutable and expansive, and awareness and engagement shift and alter.

Gaston Bachelard writes at length, thoroughly and with tenderness about the refuge, safety and significance of the nest. I’ve always coveted one—I’m not referring to the secure habitation of a built place, although certainly that—but from the time of being small and close to the ground, to the present where walking with my dogs leads me to the under spaces of shrubs, the slender trunks of reedy trees in an informal garden, a small copse grown up randomly and left as such, or out on a walk in the country with the dogs loose and nosing the ground. Walking with the dogs is primarily a city activity and is sidewalk-bound, but not so much as to preclude the edges and I find myself, for example, sidling up to the Christmas lightbulbs decorating a low branch of a pine tree, removing my glove to gauge the heat being generated, wondering if it would be sufficient to warm a nest under the boughs such that I and my two large dogs could create a night shelter in the brown leaves with the small rustling rodents whose dry breath and bodies also contribute to the warmth we would yield together in that leafy shallow bowl of a nest into which, in improbable harmony we all would fit, and sleep undisturbed and well.

The atmosphere of Adventures in Immediate Irreality—and I’m at a loss for how best to describe the space in which you find yourself when reading—would be breathable air for Robert Walser. I see Walser here: Blecher describes a dream in which he sees a portly man emerging from a first-class compartment of a train, carrying a white Pekinese, “its eyes like two agate marbles in oil.” He stalks up and down the station platform and finds a flower girl from whom he purchases several bouquets of red carnations. He returns to his compartment, places the Pekinese on the table near the window and feeds the dog “the red carnations one by one. The animal ingested them with obvious relish….” Blecher awakens with a start.

Light is a quality in the book, light and its absence, and the sun as one generator. Here I think of Roland Barthes in his essay from Mythologies titled “the World of Wrestling,” where he writes that even wrestling is party to the great solar spectacles of Greek drama and bullfights. “In both,” Barthes writes, “a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.” For Blecher the sun isn’t to be extinguished, either. “All at once a fine yet heavier rain began to fall, but the sun continued to illuminate the field like a gigantic lamp in the rear of the hall of gray marble. It rained by the light of the sun; it rained a rain of gold; it rained a rain of the scent of newly washed linen.”

Objects, the protagonist says, are seen as backdrops, and here he is questioning the ubiquity—not to say he didn’t find himself in a swoon-like state fingering a piece of black silk trimmed with lace and sequins, or that the Gypsy ring made of tin and festooned with brightly coloured, finely crafted little flowers was not so ravishing as to warrant being described as “a veritable scream of sex,” and he relegated them, in spite of their effect, to the status of mere embellishments. In a world where reality was elusive, or maybe absent, what was of interest was genuine artificiality—casting the issue back on itself—which he located in the cinema and in wax works. Mystification was the technique he identified. He describes the poor, shabby movie theatre where he watched enraptured, throwing himself into the drama unfolding on the screen as though he too were an actor, equally engaged in the film and in the tremulous interlude between reels when reality was suspended and immanence held sway. The wax museum housed truth or its alternate—consistency. The almost opaque surfaces, slightly greasy in the dim light but luminous, their passive but vulnerable volatility requiring a crypt-like coolness in order for them to remain as they were intended to be. The necessity that details, in order to be lifted off the pallid surfaces, be embellished in an unnatural palette, insured these bloodless, limpid characters their perfect artificiality. Blecher wrote, “Wax figures were the only authentic thing on earth: they alone flaunted the way they falsified life, and their strange, artificial immobility made them part of the true spirit of the world.”

The truth or substance of the world, its verifiability, were not the certainties to which the protagonist subscribed. The flickering screen of the cinema and the fully-fleshed two-dimensional characters flattened and living before him are real. The cool effigies in the wax museum were real. The essential world is this: “In the waxworks one can see at any fair I find the repository of all the nostalgia in the world that, brought together, constitutes its very essence.”

Andrei Codrescu was correct in identifying this book, written in 1936, as a book for the current period. The concern of the world is not the present, it is nostalgia, instantaneous nostalgia—this unassuageable longing for the present which implies its absence, a present no one inhabits in the moment because everyone is frantically, flappingly recording it. Unfelt—neither sensed nor experienced, it generates a panic of wanton gestures aimed at fixing it in a place no one can grasp or hold. Self-reflection once meant considering one’s actions, responses, accomplishments, misdeeds, with an awareness that would amplify the capacity to stand quiet in a space or look up at the sky. Now, self-reflection is visible on a small screen at the upper tip of a hand-held baton; a rigid, unfeeling antenna receiving no sensory or sensual information useful even to an insect, where the subjects locate themselves in front of anything else, any thing at all to know they are there.

The protagonist remembers, as a young boy, visiting a fair at night, a sideshow so modest as to be roofless and open to the sky and the cold wind. “Lost in the chaos of the night, we had wandered into a sideshow on this tiny point of the planet, and on this tiny point of the planet men and dogs were performing on stage, the men tossing various objects into the air and catching them, the dogs jumping through hoops and walking on two legs. And where was it all taking place? The sky above seems vaster still….” ❚

Volume 35, Number 4: Sound Film Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #140, published December 2016.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.