Dialogue on the Threshold

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Friday, 3 September 2010

The Immediate Unreality


Max Blecher was born on 8 September 1909 in Botoșani, a provincial town in northern Moldavia. Up until the Second World War, Botoșani was an ethnically and culturally diverse town, whose population was made up of Romanians, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Roma and Lipovians (Russian Old Believers whose ancestors had fled persecution during the time of Peter the Great). At the turn of the century, Jews made up almost half of the town’s population. Max Blecher was the son of a merchant from the town’s Jewish community. While he was still a young child, Blecher’s family moved to Roman, a Moldavian town south of Botoșani, in the county of Neamț, where his father opened a porcelain shop. The petty bourgeois Jewish milieu of provincial Moldavia is memorably evoked in his autobiographical Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată (Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality) (1936), for example in the settings of Eugene’s sewing machine shop or the house and office of Blecher’s uncle and cousins, the Webers.

After finishing lycée in Roman, Blecher travelled to Paris to study medicine. It was here, in 1928, that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine, or Pott’s disease. He subsequently underwent treatment at sanatoria in France (Berck-sur-Mer), Switzerland (Leysin) and Romania (Tekirghiol), an experience which served as the inspiration for his novel Inimi cicatrizate (Cicatrised Hearts), in some ways a miniature, more naturalist counterpart to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and which is also described in Vizuina luminată: Jurnal de sanatoriu (The Illumined Burrow: Sanatorium Diary). However, treatment was of no avail, and Max Blecher was to remain bedridden until the end of his short life. After a decade of illness and suffering, he died, aged twenty-eight, on 31 May 1938.

Blecher’s literary work dates entirely from the period of his illness. Sașa Pană describes him as having been “paralysed and wracked by pain for ten years, with a few relative intermissions, but his mind voyaged through the most deeply buried mysteries, he burrowed with the tenacity of a miner into the remotest seams of his rich mind, of a body engrafted with abscesses and gangrenes.”(i) On 29 June 1930, Blecher made his literary debut with a short prose piece entitled “Herrant”, written in Berck-sur-Mer and published in Bilete de papagal (Parrot Papers)(ii). In another short prose piece published in 1934,(iii) Blecher describes Berck, home to five thousand patients suffering from tuberculosis of the spine, as a “town of immobility and plaster-casts”. Plaster is the material specific to the place, “just as steel is to Creuzot, coal to Liverpool, or petrol to Baku”. Similarly, Blecher describes the hallucinatory spectacle of a town whose inhabitants are all paralysed in a recumbent posture and encased in plaster: “Recumbent they go to the cinema, recumbent they take carriage rides, recumbent they frequent places of entertainment, recumbent they attend lectures, recumbent they pay their social visits.”(iv) Also in 1934, a slim volume of Blecher’s poems, entitled Transparent Body, was published. In the same year, Blecher published translations from Appolinaire, in Frize (Friezes) magazine. His own poetry is lyrical and surrealistic, reminiscent perhaps of Paul Eluard, as can be seen in the following strophe, for example: “Your integument / Like a bird in the nest of the heart / In rivers of blood you bathe / And you fly through my fingertips.”(v) The following year, in 1935, his parents rented a small house for him in a suburb of his hometown of Roman. Writing on a wooden board propped against his knees, which had remained paralysed in a flexed position, it was here that he finished, during interminable nights of insomnia, the books Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality (1936), Cicatrised Hearts (1937), and The Illumined Burrow (posthumously edited and published by Sașa Pană in 1971).

Blecher’s literary prose was, to a certain extent, influenced by Surrealism. As an autobiography describing the subject’s oneiric, irrational experiences, Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality (1936) has been compared with André Breton’s Nadja (1928), although Sașa Pană was of the opinion that Blecher’s novel surpassed and would ultimately outlast that of Surrealism’s founder. Blecher himself was fascinated by the controlled, lucid pictorial descriptions of delirium to be found in the work of excommunicated Surrealist outcast Salvador Dalí. In a letter to Sașa Pană, dated 7 July 1934,(vi) for example, he speaks of Dalí’s “cold, perfectly legible and essential dementia”, whose “hyper-aesthetic extravagances of adjusted irrationality” he endeavours to imitate in his own texts: “For me, the ideal in writing would be a transposition of the heightened tension that is released by the paintings of Salvador Dalí.” Like Dalí’s “paranoiac critical method”, Blecher’s “surrealism” is therefore not an unmediated, disorganised outpouring of the unconscious, such as that found in the experiments with “automatic writing” made by the doctrinaire Surrealists, but rather a controlled channelling of the irrational life of the mind: “The power of the unconscious is very great. A well-structured unconscious (…) can bring ideas which our conscious mind would never have arrived at. I may thus cite two characteristic manifestations of this power: revelation and inspiration.”(vii)”

It is revelation and inspiration – what James Joyce in his autobiographical fictions of childhood and adolescence (Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man) refers to as (secular) “epiphanies” – that provide the material for Max Blecher’s own Bildungsroman of formative experiences, “occurrences” which take place almost entirely within the confines of the author’s own febrile, delirious consciousness. In childhood, Max Blecher suffered “crises” or “attacks” of unreality, in which he experienced rupture both from the outer world of objects, and from the inner world of the self. These crises, narrated in Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality, might also be likened to the haunting moments of Stimmung evoked by Giorgio de Chirico in his pittura metafisica, as well as in his oneiric novel Hebdomeros (1929), moments during which inward disquietude is experienced as outward atmosphere, submerging the world in ineffable strangeness and enigma. In psychopathology, this is the eerie atmosphere of heightened but empty significance also experienced by sufferers of dementia praecox during the so-called ‘aura’ that precedes complete rupture with reality. Psychiatrist and neurologist Klaus Conrad referred to such states of exalted dread as the “Trema”, employing a piece of German theatrical slang for stage fright.(viii). In this respect it is notable that many of de Chirico’s paintings depict the vertiginously tilted boards of theatre stages. Likewise, as we shall see below, Blecher’s occurrences in the immediate unreality are also pervaded by a menacing sense of theatricality.

During the state of Stimmung, external phenomena are thus imbued with a sense of intense but ineffable significance, which hovers tantalisingly beyond reach. Like de Chirico, who saw the world as a “vast museum of strangeness”, Blecher too locates his crises out there in the world; they are intrinsic to various places, “sickly spaces”, which thereby become menacing “invisible traps”. These crises, which Blecher defines as the “profound sentiment of the world’s pointlessness”, are thus precisely the anti-epiphany or empty transcendence of Modernism: an anxious, heightened sense of meaningfulness, but one devoid of cognisable content, like the “Anwandlungen eines Fast-Nichts” (fits or attacks of an Almost-Nothing) described by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Die Briefe des Zurückgekehrten (Letters of Those Who Returned) (1901). Like the cast of the inner ear whose image obsesses Blecher, people and things are nothing more than the negative image of an immanent emptiness.

Although in time Blecher’s crises as such abate, they leave behind them the same “crepuscular state” that used to presage them. As in de Chirico’s cluttered paintings of his later metaphysical period, Blecher then discovers in heteroclite, seemingly insignificant objects an “essential nostalgia for the world’s pointlessness”. Such states, which oscillate between melancholy and exaltation, are also closely intertwined with the ambiguous, confusing, even dream-like, experiences of his sexual awakening as an adolescent. He experiences occurrences as disturbingly artificial and theatrical, while other people are like automatons or mannequins, oblivious that “the certitude in which we live is separated by a very fine pellicle from the world of uncertainties”. The world itself becomes an eerie stage set, and many episodes in the novel occur in settings of inherent theatrical artificiality, such as the cinema, a waxworks exhibition, or the prop-cluttered basement beneath the stage of a theatre, where Blecher finds refuge and which thus becomes a symbol of the tiers of conscious and unconscious mind. Blecher himself dreams of being an inanimate waxwork, or else he is haunted by his own photograph, which he chances to see mysteriously displayed in the booth of a travelling fairground photographer and which then takes on a life of its own, threatening to subsume his own existence. In one of the most remarkable episodes in the book, Blecher attempts to escape from the agony of his exacerbated awareness (the “Bewußstseinswelt”, as it is called by Gottfried Benn, who similarly yearns to escape the pain of consciousness by regressing to the condition of mindless protoplasm) by descending to the ontological level of amorphous, primal mud.

As a whole, Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality teems with unsettling characters and events, refracted through the prism of the author’s unique existential “illness”. It is a work that deserves recognition as one of the most remarkable texts of European modernism.

(Introduction (c) Alistair Ian Blyth and University of Plymouth Press, 2009)

(i) Cu inimă lîngă M. Blecher, in Max Blecher, Vizuina luminată, Bucharest: Cartea românească, 1971, pp. 6-7, quoted in Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 409. Sașa Pană was the pen name of Alexander Binder (1902-1981), a close friend of Max Blecher and an important figure in the Romanian avant-garde. As well as being a writer in his own right, he financed, edited and published unu (one), an avant-garde magazine, and, after the War, wrote a number of studies and memoirs about the Romanian avant-garde.
(ii) Edited and published by Tudor Arghezi (1880-1967), a major Romanian poet and novelist.
(iii) “Berck, orașul damnaților” (“Berck, the Town of the Damned”), Vremea, VII, 358, 7 October 1934; Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, pp. 352-357.
(iv) Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 353.
(v) Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 335.
(vi) Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 396.
(vii) Note from an undated manuscript, quoted by Radu Țepoșu in the Preface to Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 12.
(viii) See the chapter ‘The Truth-Taking Stare’ in Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), pp. 43-74.


Max Blecher, Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth, University of Plymouth Press: Plymouth, 2009.

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