Something happened in the early 20th century that brought about new literary texts that were weird and unappealing: lyric poems that seemed proud of their ugliness, novels that seemed to confuse our experience rather than clarify it. There is no shortage of explanations. Industrialization led to a fragmented, hastened experience in the cities, which demanded an artistic response. In his essay “Modernism and Imperialism,” Fredric Jameson says that the reality of colonization meant that the meaning of existence in the middle class spaces of the traditional novel—the townhouse, the public park, the office, the tavern—was no longer “immanent.” The foundation for this way of life had been displaced somewhere else, far away across the ocean. The best practitioners were often emigres, expats, and refugees, writing in a language that was not their first, extending a literary tradition that had lost its honor in a world of profit-seeking.
There is another explanation, not as thorough as the others, but amusing for its pragmatism. The strangeness of modern literature arose in part to confound the censors. In Salvador, the writer Salarrué’s prose was so craggy and idiomatic that the authorities failed to realize he was depicting specific and repressed atrocities committed by the government. Antonio Gramsci’s thought was set down in a cryptic form suitable for any avant-garde novel, languishing as he was in prison. Vladimir Lenin, wary of the Tsar, is being coy when he says in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism that “the old capitalism has had its day. The new capitalism represents a transition towards something.” Discontinuity, forbidding lexicon, allegorical meditations—such techniques are far from self-indulgence or academic pedantry. Sometimes the work must be arranged as a code for readers in the know, if it hopes to find readers at all. If not, the results were grim: repression, exile, or worse.
Such was the case for The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, by Matei Calinescu. “This Romanian classic, originally published under the brutally dictatorial Ceauşescu regime, whose censors initially let it pass because they couldn’t make head or tail of it,” is available in a translation by Adriana Calinescu (the author’s wife), and Breon Mitchell, recently published by NYRB Classics. The quote is from the back of the book.
The title evokes Tristram Shandy, but any reader who opens Sterne without knowing the punchline can tell soon enough that the trappings of the memoir genre will be long in coming. Lichter, on the other hand, is a lean book, a series of titled fragments, including essays, interviews, transcribed monologues, Old Testament commentary, and lines of poetry—a hagiographical scrapbook.
Who is this prophet, whose first name means “Yahweh has remembered,” and whose last name means “Light?” He has a “swollen, asymmetrical face,” and hair “like black flames of fire” (4). He is a peripatetic Jewish man, a college dropout, wandering the parks and pubs of Bucharest in the 1930s. He views his ugliness as a stigmata, a sign of divine election.
Immediately after this portrait, a mystical experience. Lichter is eating a piece of bread and a jar of yogurt in a park. “In my absent minded state I didn’t notice a crack gaping at me from the asphalt sidewalk: I stumbled, fell, and the yogurt jar smashed to smithereens, spattering my clothes,” he recounts (6). Lichter is touched by God’s flame, which only he can see and hear. It is the kind of moment in which Truth lets its guard down, and a deep wisdom shows itself to the chosen individual, an indescribable moment revealing “states of insight into the depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect,” as William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
“Suddenly,” Lichter goes on, “people began turning into strange creatures before my eyes: I was stumbling through swine-snouted figures, humans with the heads of eagles, frogs, and rats. Children emitted incredibly high-pitched tones from huge lily-like corollas that grew in lieu of their heads” (7). Correspondences between our realm and the realm of spirits fill the mystic’s vision—such blurring coincides neatly with surrealist techniques.
Of course to anyone watching, this would seem like a banal pratfall, a man tripping on the pavement and making a mess. Indeed, Lichter has the quality of the buffoon, but as a prophet he is a transcendental one. He accounts for this distinction in his analysis of the four stages of the spiritual. The circus is the lowest of these stages, and here the spiritual man is “reduced to the figure of a clown, forced to play a humiliatingly vulgar role…. His suffering and his revolt can only be expressed through irony.” His laughter implicates all humankind (8). Lichter’s absurd behavior, thrashing himself in the sand at a nude beach in another mystical ecstacy, is in this way an act of surpassing the illusions that hold our existence together.
What becomes clear is that Lichter seriously distrusts language, for someone who talks the ears off his disciples, his drinking buddies, and anyone who will listen. His distrust runs deeper than that of a postmodernist—it may even be the root of the contradiction between man and woman. When language and critical analysis is the topic, Lichter’s stance is similar to that of Walter Benjamin or Henri Bergson: “The desire to analyze someone, anyone at all, is a wish to kill that person. In the moral order, the analyst is a vampire, a genius of crime” (57). “The crime of analysis” is to tear apart knowledge in the attempt to possess it. Truth is naturally immediate and unified within pre-existing objects. It is analysis which degrades Truth into knowledge, locks into words. “Language has no living substance; it is cold and dead” (38).
The privileging of analysis leads to our world, which Lichter calls the “Realm of Stupidity.” Lichter’s dialectic of stupidity views our society as a contradiction: the “discoveries” and “manifestations” of intelligence are appropriated for a world organized by and for the mediocre. It’s a dead world of forms—and does it get any more formalist than the single-party socialist state? But a consumer capitalist society is at least as conformist, in its own way. Lichter’s realm of stupidity is the total, rationalized world of modernity. It is nearly everywhere, whatever color flag happens to wave over any given part of it.
Modernity seduces us with its promise of “comfort,” which is not only the creature comforts of commodities; it is precisely the absence of the spiritual. Lichter develops his critique of comfort with the parable of Adrian Leonescu. He’s a linguistics professor. He loves the English language, not for its content, but purely for its form, its sound patterns. To him English phonetics is “a cult of purely verbal sonority” (65). His immersion in stylistics resembles the trances of a mystic, but it’s an aristocratic mysticism, one that over-determines certain aspects of reality, style over substance. It asserts the rational world, dead and divided, where no action to realize the good is necessary; aesthetic contemplation is enough. Adrian is also a hypochondriac.
Lichter’s hatred of writing (he discards all his poetry, except for what his biographer has salvaged) is matched by Plato’s. Writing doesn’t help one remember—quite the opposite. It is an alienation of knowledge from the body, a source of shame, an accumulation of dead property. Lichter is a pre-post-structuralist. He treasures the spoken word in lieu of the written word. Speech can have the “original force of emanation, of sharing in the emanatory essence of the primordial Logos through which absolute being pronounced itself, revealed itself as the Word” (80). (It’s not clear whether the third person narrator commenting on these fragments is the same agent as the biographer who compiled them.)
Lichter carries a heavy burden as a mystic. We tend to think of prophets as tellers of the future, but they often bear the nightmare of history more than the rest of us can. “I feel infinitely responsible for the fate of every individual included—alas, here too I bear responsibility—in the old, corrupt word humanity,” Lichter says. “From the most savage crime to the fleeting smile of sadness on the lips of a child… I am contemporary with our entire history: I am guilty of all the wars that have bloodied the earth; I am the one who ordered all massacres, who carried out all injustices” (49). What is freedom in a world bogged in the contradictions of modernity? It is the freedom to choose evil, knowing there will be no punishment from an absurdist God—the God that tortured Job for no discernible reason. Hell is the absence of a punishment we know we deserve, Lichter proclaims.
And why does Lichter spend so much time with vulgar, carousing characters, often reciting pornographic doggerel when they aren’t violently drunk? This milieu is where Lichter locates pockets of the divine in the realm of the stupid. “The hyperbolic delirium of the slum, which casts its garbage in the face of the stupid, bespattering their cotton-wool souls with its slops, spreading its stench over the dainty fainting spells of well-bred prostitutes—this delirium is imbued with the essence of divine wrath” (52).
What if divine wrath is not what happened in Sodom or Gomorrah, but rather what happened in Ferguson, Baltimore, or Athens: eruptions fueled by the righteous anger of the masses against the owning class and their racist, murderous lackeys? What if we, the petty bourgeoisie, are the fallen, who cannot stand the “vulgarity” of proletarian speech, which is in fact angelic language? Lichter then shares his eschatology: a coming revolution, based on an anarchist metaphysics, to create a new social order of beggars.
Lichter is a clown-prophet, but we shouldn’t naively dismiss his dialectical idealism as idle fun. We should take the buffoonery of the mystic seriously. Don’t laugh. Laughter opens the way to the end times. Even if the reader can’t make “head or tail” of Lichter’s circumlocutions any more than the Romanian censors could in 1969, they form an earnest political intervention, hiding in plain sight, as the Jewish people of 15th century Spain had to do, encrypting their practices and symbolism in the years of the Inquisition. The book’s structure as a sheaf of fragments halts any sense of narrative direction, but calls forth the writing practices of the philosophers and theologians of the past, as well as the value of the old art of rhetoric, the direct yet elegant phrasing of the translation.
The truly modern consciousness is Janus-faced: it looks toward to the future, one of science, expanded knowledge, and liberation; but it also keeps a gaze on the past, the arcane, the space left by God, which nothing else can fill, and which could have been empty the whole time. Sterne in the 1760s anticipated postmodernism, but only by looking back to Rabelais, and by satirizing the Lockean positivism of his day, with its obvious contradictions. The pure futurists are mistaken. They undialectically call for a clean break from the past, and unbeknownst to them, in doing so they backslide into the very same metaphysics they oppose (look no further than the New Atheists).
Books and poems do not come purely from the writers that produce them; our language is never totally our own. One doesn’t go too far reading about writing before encountering characters taking on their own will, or taking dictation from the muse, or beaming one’s consciousness into outer space. Granted, such notions can be a way of deflecting responsibility. Nevertheless, there remains something irreducibly strange about the practice of writing, and raising the banner of rationality and empirical science won’t make that something de-mystify itself. I take this to be the final lesson of Zacharias Lichter, mystical Yorick, rabbi of modernity.