BooksWeekend

Surrealism in a Minor Key: Recent Translations of Ghérasim Luca

by Michael Leong on July 28, 2012

Ghérasim Luca in Victor Brauner’s studio, Paris, 1938 (image via binocheetgiquello.com)

I walk the streets of Paris broke and hairlong and bowed and bugged under the loom of gargoyles … Met one good poet who has book out, a man named Ghérasim Luca, wrote a book of verse called: Heros-Limite.”

—Gregory Corso, letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1957

“There was a very fine surrealist poet, not well known in this country, by the name of Gherasim Luca, who said some of the most beautiful things we had ever heard about some pieces — mine, La Monte’s and Maxfield’s seemed to appeal to him … we were deeply moved by the old man’s enthusiasm.”

—Dick Higgins, Jefferson’s Birthday, 1964

Considered through Deleuze and Guattari’s somewhat idiosyncratic interpretive lenses, Ghérasim Luca is a minor writer — minor in the sense that he relentlessly pushes language toward its limits, that he deterritorializes it, that he transmutes it from a mere instrument of representation into an extreme style of intensities. This is to say that Luca should not be deemed “minor” in any canonical sense — quite the opposite in fact — for within Deleuze and Guattari’s system of thought, to be called minor is an honorific of the highest order. This is also to say that Luca should be recognized, once and for all, as a figure on par with the other so-called “minor” auteurs within Deleuze and Guattari’s pantheon: Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Pasolini, and Godard (see, for example, A Thousand Plateaus and Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature). In Two Regimes of Madness, Deleuze has claimed in no uncertain terms, “[o]ur greatest poet in French is Gherasim Luca — of course, he is from Romania.  Luca knows how to stammer not just words, but language itself; he invented it.” In a U.S. context, Luca remains obscure. He was, for example, recently featured in the laconically titled blog Writers No One Reads.  And while seven impressive poems from Hero-Limit (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain) appeared in Poetry International 15/16 (2010), a journal based at San Diego State University, his name was deemed not enough of a selling point to make the issue’s front cover (which lists 29 other contributing writers from America and abroad).  Now that several of Luca’s key texts — The Passive Vampire, Inventor of Love, and Self-Shadowing Prey — are available in English, it is time that we begin to appreciate his accomplishments as one of the most brilliant and provocative poet-theorists of the European avant-garde.

Born Salman Locker in 1913 in the Jewish quarter of Bucharest, Luca inaugurated his literary career — as several commentators have noted — by assuming a phantasmal presence. Before publishing his first text, Luca followed a friend’s suggestion to use as a pseudonym a name found in an obituary: “Gherasim Luca, Archimandrite of Mount Athos and linguist emeritus.”  Writing as a linguist from beyond the grave, Luca published work at a precocious age in the dissident avant-garde journals Alge and Unu.  In 1931, the Alge group, including Luca, spent a brief period behind bars for obscenely insulting the prime minister Nicolae Iorga with a personalized copy of a newly-created magazine entitled Pula (which translates as “cock”); Iorga’s copy had the following dedication: “Do you have something like this? No, you don’t.”  In 1938, during a time of increasing anti-Semitism and repression in Romania, Luca travelled to Paris, joining countrymen Victor Brauner and Jacque Hérold, painters who were members of the Parisian surrealist group.  Compelled to return to Bucharest after the outbreak of the war, Luca founded the Romanian surrealist group (1940-1947) with Gellu Naum, Virgil Teodorescu, Paul Paun, and Dolfi Trost, and authored a flurry of poetic and theoretical texts including the group’s major manifesto (with Trost as co-author), The Dialectic of Dialectic: A Message to the International Surrealist Movement (1945), a fiery document which affirms objective chance, “the boundless eroticization of the proletariat,” the negation of negation, and “dialecticized and materialized love” as key components in keeping surrealism in a “ state of continuous revolution.”  Trost and Luca’s manifesto begins with a high rhetorical stance, reflecting both the precariousness and isolation of their geopolitical situation: “We address ourselves to our surrealist friends scattered all over the world and, as in great shipwrecks, we indicate to them our exact location, at latitude 44° 5’ North and longitude 26° East.”

Luca eventually escaped to Paris, via Israel, in 1952 and accumulated a wide audience in France for both his books and his performances.  According to the newspaper Le Monde, “To hear and to see Ghérasim Luca read is like rediscovering the primordial power of poetry, its prophetic force and subversive effect.”  Despite having a reputation as a kind of renegade outlier (Henri Chopin called him an “independent surrealist”), he productively engaged with a range of artists and writers; he collaborated on book-objects with such artists as Piotr Kowalski, Wifredo Lam, Max Ernst, and his partner Micheline Catti, and, in the early 1960s, he participated with the experimental multimedia group Domaine Poétique (which included the sound and concrete poets Emmett Williams, Brion Gysin, and Bernard Heidsieck). From 1971-2, at the invitation of composer Sten Hanson, Luca recorded a pair of electronically-treated sound works in Stockholm. Beginning in the 1980s, Éditions José Corti reissued a string of volumes making his work more widely accessible. In 1988, Andre Codrescu nominated Luca as a candidate for the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature (other candidates included René Char, Milan Kundera, and Léopold Senghor), but Luca pulled himself out of the competition when he learned that he was among the top three candidates.  His brief response to the jurors was: “I don’t accept literary prizes.”

“The Passive Vampire,” translated and introduced by Krzysztof Fijałkowski, with eighteen illustrations (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2008)

In 1994, facing eviction from his apartment along with the other building’s tenants due to “urban renewal,” Luca, following Paul Celan, jumped off the Pont Mirabeau, shipwrecking himself in the River Seine, latitude 48°9’ North, longitude 2°3’ East.  In his suicide note, Luca stated there was no place in the world for the poet anymore.  The first issue of La Révolution surréaliste (1924) asked: “Is suicide a solution?” For Luca, the answer this time was “yes.”  According to Sarane Alexandrian, “the hall of the Père Lachaise crematorium, where Luca was incinerated, was packed” and “more people attended the funeral of Gherasim Luca than that of Baudelaire,” a poet who wrote, in the “La Morte” section of Les Fleurs du Mal, “‘I shall lie down, / I shall sleep. / Shroud me in your panoply, / O replenishing darkness!’”

*   *   *

Luca wrote The Passive Vampire (Le vampire passif) in 1941 in French and published it in 1945 through the fictitious Éditions de l’Oubli (“Forgotten Editions”); it is, as Petre Rǎileanu observes, “Luca’s first properly surrealist text” and an exemplary treatise on the praxis of the surrealist object. It is an eminently entertaining mix of poetic prose, autobiography, theoretical reflection, documentary narrative, and deliciously delirious interpretation; it is also one of Luca’s most accessible books. The Passive Vampire begins with a long introductory text, “The Objectively Offered Object,” which outlines what Luca calls a “new object of knowledge.” When bestowed to another, the “O.O.O” (as Luca calls it) puts individuals into relation with an “active collective unconscious,” allowing for the revealing and unleashing of desire.  According to Luca, the O.O.O. is distinct from the objet trouvé since “[t]he object that is found but not offered is an object of knowledge, albeit through masturbation.” It is also distinct from the gift, which is, because of social convention, “stripped of its objective erotic character.” Echoing Breton’s polemic against “the mad beast of custom” (in the 1936 essay “The Crisis of the Object”), Luca argues that “[t]he gift of a flower, which might be treated as a very powerful object of aphrodisiac knowledge, becomes within the confused and banal mechanism to which present society assigns it a neutralised, commonplace object in the world of external things.” Luca’s O.O.O. offers nothing less than a new epistemology of social relations made possible by both the seizing of chance and the Dalí-like activity of paranoid analysis.

“The Objectively Offered Object” details the fabrication and subsequent psychoanalytic interpretation of nine object-assemblages.  One of the most striking and complicated of such objects is “The Letter L,” a doll which Luca found in an antique shop and partially covered with cartoon riddles he cut from almanacs.  Luca describes attaching a second head to the doll’s groin and asking his wife to sew on it a mask of steel pen nibs. After Luca’s wife tires and complains of the task, an argument ensues, leading to Luca’s moving out for a week to stay with friends. On his return, Luca affixes the second head, which he sees as a replacement for the doll’s sex, with razor blades.  Pleased that the object was approaching completion, Luca’s wife asked what they were going to call their child; annoyed by the “mediocrity of this association,” Luca replied that it couldn’t be their child since it would be called Nadja (which is, of course, the title of Breton’s iconic novel).

Once offered, the object “began to murmur a black-magical language” between Luca and Breton.  According to Luca’s analysis, the doll represented a substitute for a missed opportunity to meet Breton in Paris (despite several offers from friends to introduce him to Breton, Luca declined due to a “dreadful, intimidating inhibition.”)  Gluing the riddles to the doll’s torso and leg gave him “the satisfaction…[he] would have gained from a conversation (?) with Breton in Paris.”  Luca interprets his wife’s refusal to sew the pen nibs onto the doll head as a manifestation of her desire to keep the head/sex “free and erect” in an attempt to intercede in Luca and Breton’s relationship.  Luca’s decision to mutilate the head with razor blades was a means to satisfy his desire towards Breton and to block his wife’s supposed gesture of infidelity.  Only after re-titling the object “The Letter L” (both an allusion to a passage from Nadja and to a text that Luca authored called The Anatomy of the Letter) did Luca feel that he was no longer “a spectator between Nadja and Breton” but “a creator/exhibitionist instead.”

Luca’s interpretation notwithstanding, it is tempting to read “The Letter L” as Luca’s working through of an anxiety of influence with previous surrealists.  This ritualistic assemblage not only is linked to Breton for reasons stated above (Luca also notes that the two doll heads have what is known as a “Breton” hair style) but it also evokes Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée series, Luis Buñuel’s eye-slitting razor of Un Chien Andalou, and Georges Bataille’s erotic enucleations in L’histoire de l’oeil (Luca says he “sliced the doll’s eye” in “a supreme ejaculation.”) We can understand the second doll’s head as not a monstrous and enlarged sex but as a head emerging in the act of parturition: indeed, if we take the doll as a proxy for Luca himself, it might represent the startling image of Luca giving birth to his own surrealist imago — complete with a laurel of razor blades and a split eye capable of a transformative, spasmodic vision.  If we accept Rǎileanu’s point that The Passive Vampire is “Luca’s first properly surrealist text,” couldn’t we understand the doll as a provocative announcement for Luca’s surrealist “coming out” party? And couldn’t the “L” in “The Letter L” be nothing other than the initial of Luca’s last and borrowed name, an initial which Luca calls in the poem “Spontaneous Initiation” “primordial and triangular… / like a synthesis eruption / in the fixation of nothingness”?

Gherasim Luca, “Cubomania” (image via rhuthmos.eu)

In the second, more densely poetic section of The Passive Vampire, Luca continues his espousal of a transformed, apocalyptic vision: “in the forests where butterflies, jackals, and flaming squirrels are lovers, the eye, turned into a prism with all its faces in spasm, leads us like a horse through a universe in ashes.” This prismatic, fly-like eye would be capable of transforming conventional images into their convulsive counterparts — as in the geometric technique of collage that Luca invented called cubomania. The rational, perspectival eye, according to Luca, has become “a useless canker under the brow” and needs to be dismantled and rehabilitated.  Indeed, Luca calls for a completely reinvented sensorium in order to experience the world’s sensations anew, sensations that we all too often take for granted.  In “The Desired Desire,” a text included in The Inventor of Love & Other Writings, Luca says, “[k]issing the mouth you invent the tongue.”

*   *   *

” … you can’t fight oedipal secretions except by fighting yourself, by experimenting on yourself, by opening yourself up to love and desire … Non-oedipal love is pretty hard work.”

—Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to a Harsh Critic”

“The Inventor of Love & Other Writings,” translated by Julian & Laura Semilian, with an introduction by Andrei Codrescu and an afterword by Petre Rǎileanu (Black Widow Press, 2009)

As with The Passive Vampire, Luca published The Inventor of Love (Inventatorul iubirii) in 1945 — right after the war ended and just before the Stalinists took full control over Romania. It is one of the few books that Luca wrote in his native tongue, and it contains some of Luca’s most ferociously intense language and some of his most astounding poetic figurations. The Semilians’ translation follows the original text, presenting the pieces “The Inventor of Love,” “I Roam the Impossible,” “The Dead Death,” and the appendix in dense blocks of formidable prose unlike the later (and incomplete) French edition, which breaks up the pieces in verse lines. “The Dead Death” documents five suicide attempts (by strangulation, by revolver, by knife, by poison, and by “voluntary obstruction of breath”) complete with suicide notes and short snippets of automatic writing that Luca executed in the process — an uncanny prolepsis of Luca’s final and successful suicide attempt by drowning  in 1994.

The Inventor of Love reflects a presciently postmodern vision of love and anticipates Deleuze and Guattari’s revisionary critiques of both psychoanalysis and Marxism (a fact that is often remarked upon but seldom elaborated). It develops a central tenet of The Dialectic of Dialectic, a text in which Luca and Trost declare: “[T]o discover and invent the most turbulent sides of love, we oppose both outer limitations forced upon us by nature and inner limitations due to oedipal complexes.” Luca argues that it is crucial that psychological repression as well as social and political repression be overcome, and he suggests the Deleuzian-Guattarian thesis that the Oedipal complex acts as an insidious and colonizing force of capitalism. In “The Inventor of Love,” Luca writes that the “social revolution…is fated to failure” if the proletarian still carries “within his own plasma the anaesthetizing microbe of the family.” A “non-Oedipal position,” on the other hand, would be able to effect a “sumptuous liberation of matter from its petrified three-dimensionality.” Luca’s First Non-Oedipal Manifesto is considered lost, but a fragment of it tantalizingly serves as The Inventor of Love’s epigraph: “…and refusing indignantly any attempt of the external world to isolate him in ivory towers, Non-Oedipus objectifies each of his actions, as if millions of humans are trickling through his enforced solitude.” In place of a disciplined and repressive socialization (what Deleuze and Guattari might call “the segregation of desiring- production”), Luca posits trickling, multitudinous flows of desire (or “schizzes-flows” in Deleuze and Guattari’s specialized vocabulary). Luca is proposing here a revolutionary collective subjectivity — the possibility of radical connectivity in place of isolation.

The Black Widow edition of The Inventor of Love also contains another short Romanian book from 1945, The Praying Mantis Appraised (Un lup văzut printr-o lupă), a title which directly translates as “a wolf seen through a magnifying glass”; the Semilians’ creative rendering into English captures not only something of the wordplay of the original but also the surrealist interest in erotic violence (the surrealist fascination with the praying mantis and its notorious mating ritual is well documented in Roger Caillois’ 1934 article “La mante religieuse”). And, as with The Passive Vampire, we have yet another instance emphasizing a viciously reinvigorated vision, an optics of risk, a daring appraisal of what could potentially bite your head off…unless, that is, you get it first.  In “The Praying Mantis Appraised,” Luca’s lyric speaker says: “I ate a lamp maybe, maybe I devoured the praying mantis I appraised, maybe I ate nothing but your indelible image.”

If Luca devours images, he regurgitates them on the page with a stunningly beautiful extremity. For love to be reinvented, according to Luca, both the deleterious grip of the Oedipal complex and the separation of birth (what he calls “the natal trauma”) must be surmounted. It is because of this that some of his most breathtaking images draw on pre-Oedipal, if not non-Oedipal, and pre-natal scenarios. “The Inventor of Love,” for example, ends with a surprising conjunction of appendages and organs: “my adored lover’s head, the head of my tentacular unborn lover, whose supreme evidence is the immense umbilical cord through which I suck out her heart.”  In a similar vein, “The Foreshadowed Castle” ends: “Each time I kiss you I feel the skeleton of your lips. Each time I breathe I touch a fetus.”  As opposed to the normative sexual congress of two unified subjects, these non-genital displays of polymorphous perversity represent erotic assemblages open to what Luca calls “the incandescent reality of becoming.” We might say that in these two instances the beloved is in the process of — in Deleuzian-Guattarian terms — “becoming-animal” and “becoming-child” (as an unborn fetus with a “tentacular head”).

Luca’s conception of l’amour fou is insistently and aggressively anti-anthropocentric, and in his delirious love poems (if we can so call them), the lover and beloved frequently verge toward non-human entities — whether it be a hyena, a fetus, or a zombie-like corpse.  In “The Echo Painted Red,” Luca refigures the erotic act as the meeting between a scavenger and carrion: “The woman I adore as if I were dreaming, as if I were dying, as if I weren’t born yet, offers me her sublime cadaver in the ruins of this cemetery in which the night watchman in the distance, rifle sight against his eye, confuses me with a hyena.”  Luca — interestingly — has been confused with other animals as well: Andrei Codrescu says, in his introduction to the book, “Gherasim Luca was a bull, a toro,” and John Olson, in a back cover blurb, says, “Luca writes with the ferocity of Rilke’s panther, blood and sinew turning in a circle.”  “Only a hallucinated cup or a watermelon would be deluded enough to think that there are common traits between myself and humans,” says Luca, since “what humans call love is the encounter of two imbecile hearts.”  And so, in “The Volcanoes Inside Vegetables,” he says to his beloved, “I open you up like a horse and look inside for the bridle bit, forgetting you already hold it between your teeth…I caress your ectoplasm as I would a shark.”

Even though the post-humanism of The Inventor of Love challenges the foundations of Western thought in its rejection of the Oedipalized desire of an autonomous human subject, perhaps it still re-inscribes what intellectual historian Martin Jay calls a “phallogocularcentrism” (a Derridean portmanteau of phallocentrism, logocentrism, and ocularcentrism) in its privileging of a masculinist scopic regime.  Luca’s “Appendix,” for example, makes recourse to yet another optic mechanism: “time-space and non-Oedipus follow through the same curious and priapic spyglass the spectral constellation of exceeding the human.”  Luca’s “curious and priapic spyglass,” a kind of re-gendering of Alice’s fantastic looking glass, might be an apt figure for phallogocularcentrism itself; elsewhere Luca speaks of his “eyeballs” in phallic terms as they are “aroused to the level of clairvoyance.”  If sight can be said to be the master sense of The Inventor of Love, a book of spectacularly metamorphosing and hallucinatory imagery, then Luca’s subsequent work would shift its focus toward the “sixth sense” of language, that domain which supposedly demarcates man from animal.

*   *   *

“Self-Shadowing Prey,” translated and introduced by Mary Ann Caws (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012)

In the 1950s, Luca’s writing took a “linguistic turn” away from long, baroque sentences and elaborate rhetorical figures toward repetitive, fragmentary, and combinatorial structures.  He developed a stuttering kind of poetry — the one so admired by Deleuze — that he called “ontophonie”; according to Luca, “[i]n … language that serves to designate objects, the word has only one or two meanings and it keeps sonority imprisoned.  But let one break the form in which it has become bogged down and new relationships appear … Liberate the breath and every word becomes a signal.”  We can find evidence of such new and liberating relationships in “The End of the World: To Embody,” a poem Mary Ann Caws translated for her Yale Anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry (2004).  While still exploring the unruly flows of desire, Luca relies not so much on the orthodoxy of the disruptive surrealist image (however admirably executed), but on the permutational play of subject and object, on the possibilities of phonetic association, and on the catachretic verbalization of nouns and adjectives:

you black slip me
you red ballet slipper me
and when you don’t high heel my senses
you crocodile them
you seal you fascinate them
you cover me
I discover you I invent you
sometimes you deliver yourself

you damp lips me
I deliver you and I delirious you
you delirious me and passionate me
I shoulder you I vertebra you I ankle you
I eyelash and pupil you
and if I don’t shoulder blade before my lungs
even at a distance you armpit me
I breathe you
day and night I breathe you
I mouth you
I palate you I teeth you I fingernail you
I vulva you I eyelid you
I breathe you
I groin you

“The End of the World” is a marvelous litany of transgressive transitivities. This representational strategy offers new ways of conceiving erotic embodiment by freeing language from its designating purpose.  If his cubomanias re-energized the visual field by reshuffling its syntax, Luca’s later poetry re-invented rudimentary syntactic patterns by transforming grammatical functions.

Self-Shadowing Prey (La Proie s’ombre), just published by the new and promising Contra Mundum Press, is the first translation of Luca’s verse into English and the last book of verse Luca published in his lifetime; it is a book that is animated by—in Caws’ words—the “sought complications of language.” As such, it is a tremendously difficult volume to translate since, unlike the image, wordplay is far less understandable across languages.  To make matters worse, it can be argued that many of the poems in Self-Shadowing Prey are meant to be heard and are merely printed scores for sound performances; “Uninitialed Crimes,” the last poem in the book, was performed by Luca in the 1972 Text-Sound Festival in Stockholm and is included, in an electronically-treated version, on the record Two Poems (Alga Marghen, 2009).  Nevertheless, Self-Shadowing Prey is a crucial expression of Luca’s poetics, and while readers cannot actually hear Luca liberating his breath in performance, they can appreciate his attention to the book’s mise-en-page. In the introduction, Caws observes that “[e]very detail of the printing enters into his mind: there is page after page of linear layout: here, three lines, then four, then two…”  And if there were some unavoidable “losses” in translation, there were also some clever “recoveries.”

We can take, as an example, the remarkable poem “The Forest,” which begins with a single tercet isolated on a page:

The forest hung from a tree
hides the tree from the hanged man
and the hanged man in the tree

The parallelism of hung and hanged and the chiasmus of tree-hanged-hanged-tree give this statement the effect of an esoteric koan; it seems complete in itself.  But there is more.  On the bottom of the next page are two more stanzas, right-justified—the previous stanza accompanied by a new one:

The forest hung from a tree
hides the tree from the hanged man
and the hanged man in the tree

Hung from the highest branch
the original forest
sticks out its original tongue
of its uninitialed CRIMES

And so the wordplay begins; the initial hiding (of the hanged man in the tree) becomes, in fact, a lexical revealing.  The word “CRIMES,” so initialed, calls our attention to the rhymes (rimes) inherent within the crimes, presaging the rhymes to come.

The poem proceeds by this accretive-repetitive fashion for another nine pages until we get, at last, the following structure:

At the heart of the word TREE
the head of the word BRANCH
chopped off
Lost head
errant heart
Far from falling at the foot of the word TREE
the head of the word BRANCH rises
The head of the word BRANCH
rises to the head of the word TREE
and BLOCKS it
The block of the surface of the word EARTH
which, drunk with wood, ERRS without a T
in the tempest of the word VERSE without a head
No head of a word falls
no head, no fall
in the shadow of the tree without shadow or prey
Axe without head “or handle”
planted in the wood of the edge
the word PREY  without head or tail
kills the word KING in its body and its soul
its trap and its number
The word EDGE at the heart of the word FOREST
without beginning or end

In the original French, we can see more clearly that the “head” of the word BRANCH (BRANCHE) is indeed at the “heart” of the word TREE (ARBRE) and that the word EDGE (ORÉE) is at the heart of the word FOREST (FORÊT).  This is a revelatory poetry by way of a lexical Kabala.  And as there are unavoidable losses in translation here, Caws gives us a tremendous recovery.  In rendering Luca’s play of TERRE, ERRE and VERRE (literally EARTH, ERRS, and GLASS), Caws substitutes GLASS with VERSE.  “VERSE without a head.”  This seems a felicitous description of Luca’s anti-rational poetry, a poetry that veers, as Luca says in another poem, “towards the non-mental.”  But if Luca’s acephalic poetry is without a head, it is fueled by the furious beatings of a bloody and sinewy heart.

The Passive Vampire, translated by Krzysztof Fijałkowski (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2008), is available through twistedspoon.com.

Inventor of Love & Other Writings, translated by Julian & Laura Semilian (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2009), is available through blackwidowpress.com.

Self-Shadowing Prey, translated by Mary Ann Caws (New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012), is available through amazon.com.

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  • http://christopherhiggs.org/ Christopher Higgs

    Fantastic essay, Michael. I really enjoyed reading it. Super glad to see Luca getting this level of sophisticated attention. I taught The Passive Vampire a few years back in an undergraduate introduction to the European Avant-Garde course and students unanimously enjoyed the hell out of it.

    • Michael Leong

      Thanks, Chris!
      The Passive Vampire is such an entertaining text…those were some lucky undergrads.

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