Cyber Corpse 2
Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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Books by Richard Collins available at (click on title for reviews and ordering info):


John Fante: A Literary Portrait

Caricatures Abroad (A Dialogical Memoir)
by Richard Collins

Caricature 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

But 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

In 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.

"Pushed? Or floating of his own accord?"

On 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?"

This 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.

Cement-Heads, Bandits and Barbarians

When I arrived in Romania five years earlier, everyone asked, "Why Romania?" I would answer: "Because Romanian seemed a lot easier to learn than Bulgarian."

It 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 barbarian.

I 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)

Aren't 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.

We 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)

I 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)

With 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.

In "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.

The Game of Truth, Part One: Fiddlerism

The 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)

Noica 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 himself.

Another 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.)

If 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.

Since 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 come.

This 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.

What 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)

Confessions of a Caricaturist Abroad: Topos and Typos

Soon 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.

One 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.

Vesna 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.

I 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.

One 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.

After 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)

I 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.

In 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)

As 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."

Oscar 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.

The Game of Truth, Part Two: Flora and Fu

Postmodern 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." (23)

So 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.

Of 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?

If 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 may.

If 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.

Every 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.

We 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 to die.

When 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.

My 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.

Whenever 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.

Returning 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.

The 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.

The 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)

Ridendo dicere verum

When 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)

But 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.

Two 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.

If 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 unfolding." (32) 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, theme-words." (34) 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.

But 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)

The 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.



1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Eudora Welty, "Jose de Creeft," Magazine of Art (February 1944).

5. See M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981).

6. See Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 179-205.

7. 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

8. Ibid., p. 51.

9. 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.

10. Lu Chi, Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, rev. ed., trans. Sam Hamill (Minneapolis: Milkweek Editions, 1991), p. 33.

11. Welty, "Jose de Creeft."

12. Lillian Hellman, Watch on the Rhine (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 149.

13. 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 imperialism.

14. Andrei Plesu, "Intellectual Life Under Dictatorship," Representations 49 (Winter 1995), p. 63.

15. Ibid., p. 62.

16. This story was published in Nuclear Family 2 (Bulgaria, Spring 1996).

17. "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.

18. The Poems of William Blake, ed W. H. Stevenson (London: Longman; New York: Norton, 1971), pp. 108, 114.

19. Walter Pater, "Style," in Selected Writings of Walter Pater, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Columbia UP, 1974), p. 104.

20. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed Norman Page (Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 1998), p. 41.

21. Lu Chi, Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, rev. ed., trans. Sam Hamill (Minneapolis: Milkweek Editions, 1991), p. 28.

22. 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.

23. Noica, The Cantemir Model in Our Culture, p. 27.

24. 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.

25. Ioan Flora, Cincizeci de romane si alte utopii / Fifty Novels and Other Utopias, trans. Andrei Bantas and Richard Collins (Bucharest: Editura Eminescu, 1996).

26. 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.

27. On 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."

"They 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....

"It 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.

28. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher (New York: Grove Press, 1998), p. 125.

29. Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania, p. xi.

30. 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.

31. "Keep your feet on the ground even though friends flatter you."

32. M. M. Bakhtin, "Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination, p. 7.

33. Kundera, The Art of the Novel, p. 142.

34. Ibid., p. 84.

35. 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.

36. 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.

37. 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, p. 323-4.

38. 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).

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