Max Blecher - the Poetics of Unreality

By Alina Noir


Numerous valuable Romanian writers from the beginning of the 20th century were discovered by a later readership, not by their contemporaries. Some of these writers (which belong to the Romanian pantheon nowadays) are George Bacovia, Mateiu Caragiale, Emil Cioran, Mihail Sebastian, and Max Blecher.

Max Blecher’s canonical recognition took several decades to be fulfilled, because of several historical events. Prior to, and during the Second World War, Blecher’s books were highly criticized as they had been written by a Jewish writer. After the arrival of communism to power, the purist literary education left little place for minority writers in textbooks; the exile of a large Jewish population during communism meant that parts of the Romanian-Jewish cultural heritage were forgotten for a time.

Blecher’s canonical rediscovery began in the 1970s, when more and more studies about his writings appeared, and he was translated into several European languages. The majority of the studies dedicated to Max Blecher until now have not dealt with the Jewish themes in his writing, and are reluctant to even examine his Jewish heritage beyond simple biographical details. Most rely on discussing the subjects of disease and death as “ontological revelations” in his two novels Inimi cicatrizate [Scarred Hearts] (1937) and Vizuina luminată [The Illuminated Burrough] (1938, published in 1971 by Blecher’s friend and fellow Jewish novelist Saşa Pană), and on the Surrealist themes in Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată [Adventures in the Immediate Unreality] (1936). It is my intention to examine certain Jewish elements in this last novel, relating them to the idea of the authenticity of its writing, as Blecher was a strong, self-conscious literary voice, willingly aware of its difference from the canonical establishment. The novel Adventures in the Immediate Unreality fits in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature”: a politically cognisant literature written from the cultural borders, where it is possible “to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility.”

Max Blecher was born in 1909 in Botoşani, in northern Moldavia, and he spent there the first years of his childhood in his maternal grandparents’ house. This town was, at the beginning of the 20th century, an important Hasidic settlement, as well as a vital centre of trade with Poland and Bessarabia. According to the Jewish Yearbook (London 1902-03) the Jewish population in Botoşani (25,000 in 1901/02) was of 72% - the highest percentage of any large city in the world at the beginning of the 20th century.

While still a child, Blecher’s family moved to Roman, in South Moldavia, where Max’s father opened a porcelain shop. This provincial town, which will inspire later Adventures in the Immediate Unreality, was founded at the end of the 14th century on the ruins of a Roman fort built by Claudius Caesar. The first Jews probably settled there in the middle of the 15th century. At the time when the Blecher family lived there, Roman's Jewish population was of about 6000, and the kehillah held the following institutions: 18 synagogues; 2 elementary schools – one for boys and one for girls; a kindergarten; a ritual bathhouse that was the only public bath in the town, also for the non-Jewish citizens; a hospital with an infirmary; an old people's home; a soup kitchen helping the school children; and a cemetery. All in all, the Jewish kehillah owned 37 buildings, among them several given by philanthropists and benefactors, Max Blecher’s father being one of them. The oldest educational institute in Roman was the Talmud Torah, where the young Max Blecher studied as a young pupil. At the Talmud Torah primary school and also the Yeshiva, he acquired basic knowledge of Hebrew, Rabbinic interpretation and the Kabbalah.

At the beginning of the 20th century, many Roman Jews immigrated to Palestine. Max Blecher began an intense correspondence with some friends and members of his family who had left.

Hoping to acquire the skills of French Surrealist poets (whom he admired since his secular studies in the Roman high-school), Max Blecher moved to Paris in 1928 to study medicine; however, a few months later, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine and for the following years he sought treatment in different European sanatoria, in France (Berck-sur-Mer), Switzerland (Leysin) and Romania (Tekirghiol), an experience that inspired two of his books, Scarred Hearts (published in 1937 and received with critical acclaim) and The Illuminated Burrow: Sanatorium Diary (posthumously edited and published by the writer Sasha Pană in 1971). The successive treatments were unsuccessful, and Max Blecher decided to spend what was left of his life in total seclusion in his house in Roman, where he wrote incessantly and kept an intensive correspondence with renowned artists and thinkers of his time, such as André Breton, Martin Heidegger, Eugene Ionesco, Mihail Sebastian, and Sasha Pană. Encouraged by these friends, Max Blecher wrote Adventures in the Immediate Unreality which was published in 1936. Two years later, in 1938, Max Blecher died in his house in Roman, and for the decades to come, his work was almost completely forgotten, both because of the minority status of its Jewish author, and of the purist vision on literature of the communist regime.

As already mentioned, Max Blecher received a formal religious Jewish education at the Talmud Torah and the Yeshiva of Roman. Yiddish was the language he spoke at home, and the family was proud to be of Sephardic origin on his mother’s side. Every Friday evening they would go to the synagogue, where the service was held in Hebrew, and for the Shabbat dinner they shared stories told by the elderly, as Dora Wechsler-Blecher, the writer’s sister, would remember in 1998, in an interview completed in Israel. Throughout his life, Max Blecher maintained a vivid interest in Jewish thought, reading books of mysticism and philosophy. However, he preferred to remain discreet about his Jewish identity, and he had every good reason to do so. By 1936, when the aspiring young author completed Adventures in the Immediate Unreality, Jews had a very unstable position in East-European society, in both political and cultural senses. Not only were they victims of anti-Semitism, but their own community was divided by diverging movements: religious Hasidism, political Zionism, Haskalah and cultural Secularisation. Max Blecher’s early exposure to Jewish traditional precepts as well as his contact with Roman-born Zionist Jews who later immigrated to Palestine and with Romanian-Jewish artists in Paris enabled him to recognise the full spectrum of Jewish reality in early 20th century Romania.

His biography justifies the view that in his writing he attempted to integrate Jewish aspects in order to make them available to a contemporary public educated in the tradition of modernist literature, while trying to avoid debates regarding the status of a Jewish writer in the Romanian public sphere.

Adventures in the Immediate Unreality, a novel which recycles in an original, unexpected form, ancient symbols, concepts and themes, has to be therefore regarded as a novel positioned between Hasidism and Haskalah, conceived at a time when anti-Semitism was already a strong reality in Roman. It is the intellectual freedom to articulate the unutterable that allowed Blecher to fantasise freely on his own existence, by using elements of French Surrealism (in the non sequitur erotic episode set in a room with lines of sewing machines), Kabbalistic literature (in the mystical feeling surrounding sexuality), Hasidic stories (in the description of certain archetypal characters, such as the fool or the young scholar), German Romanticism (in the chapter about the panopticon), and Austrian psychoanalysis (in the various dream sequences).

Max Blecher’s writing, and Adventures in the Immediate Unreality in particular, is not to be regarded as an expression of ambivalence towards Jewish tradition, but rather as a continuation of its innermost feeling, in the sense that it reflects a new understanding of old concepts, which sets the author in line with other Jewish writers who shared a fascination with Jewish mystical texts or Yiddish literature, such asFranz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Marc Chagall (as reflected in his autobiographical writings).

The main topic of Adventures in the Immediate Unreality is the coming of age of a young, unnamed narrator. It has a horizontal, diachronic, development: the narration moves from the child’s terror in the face of a universe populated by overwhelming objects and cursed places, to the adolescent’s sexual awakening and idiosyncratic imagination, and culminates with the sad passing towards maturity, triggered by existential despair at the death of Edda, the loved woman. All these fictional stages engender vertical shifts, as the asymmetrical narration is punctuated with hypnotic events and picturesque characters, with sophisticated recollections and nightmarish hallucinations in which death is seen as an abstraction. We know, from Blecher’s letters to his friends, that the novel grew by meticulous encrustation, like a coral reef, with the text constantly changing due to the adding of new layers of narratives, around the question “Who am I?” (Unfortunately the original manuscript of the novel is not to be found, so the researcher lacks an important tool in understanding how this novel was actually built. From letters to friends we learn about entire episodes being deleted, and these are lost.); The question “Who am I?” is also central to the Romanian-born poet Benjamin Fondane, who experienced being a Jew and a poet as double forms of alienation.:

The terrifying question “Who am I?” lives by its own in me, like a wholly new entity, a sheer outgrowth from my body, made out of mysterious skin and inexplicable bones and nameless organs. Its solution is being asked for by a profound lucidity, more essential than the brain’s. Everything capable of motion in me begins to stir, to move, to struggle, to revolt, more strongly and elementary than in my daily life.

Adventures in the Immediate Unreality represents Max Blecher’s attempt to present the universal experience of being human. At the time he was writing the novel, he was learning to adjust to the physical pain and suffering caused by his disease, by focusing his attention on his inner life and his past states of mind in constant motion, leaving aside moral dilemmas and concentrating on the major perplexities of existence: how to cope with the discovery of Eros and love, how to surmount the loss of a loved one, how to make the most of every moment left to the dying, by transforming the reality through the filters of imagination. When the word “unreality” (irealitate) enters the discourse of contemporary Romanian scholars, writers, and artists, it nearly always brings to mind Blecher’s novel. So thoroughly bound are the Romanian notion of “irealitate” and the contemporary perception of Blecher’s book as a symbol for a lost cultural splendour (that of the inter-war generation), that this interrelation is often acknowledged in tacit agreement, without having been yet elaborated on.

This is a novel whose author’s social standing (a rich young Jew who had intended to become a French author) is as ambiguous as the literary status of his work. Although some considered Adventures in the Immediate Unreality as the birth of contemporary Romanian fiction (as Matei Călinescu did), I consider this statement quite extravagant, as the novel is rather a peripheral form of writing. Adventures in the Immediate Unreality’s current status as a literary classic as well as an elite cultural phenomenon belies the fact that Jewish literature is still a sensitive subject in contemporary Romanian discourse: Jewish mysticism is a source of both fascination and unease, and the discourses it generates are usually pale. I should underline that, in depicting Max Blecher as Jewish, consequently, as minority, I do not imply that he was not inspired by Romanian literature. On the contrary, the Romanian language he employs is one of exquisite sophistication, and some of his role models were renowned 19th century Romanian poets. However, by emphasising the role of Jewish mysticism in his novel, a more comprehensive picture will emerge, one that does justice to his rich cultural background and that takes into account a considerably greater number of sources than the ones discussed to date in Romanian scholarship. My approach is phenomenological, as I am interested primarily in the mystic features of Max Blecher’s text, and only secondarily in its historical genesis.

Both Jewish and Surrealist themes have occupied marginal spaces in Romanian literature, and yet they continuously challenge and inspire responses from the centre. Through its audacious lack of narrative coherence and its spirited amorality, Adventures in the Immediate Unreality challenges the rigidity and the blind spots in literary orthodoxy, and carves out a niche for itself in Romanian literature. While this novel has been elevated to the ranks of one of the greatest Romanian fiction works, its Jewish narrator reminds us of the book’s unconscious message: it began as a Surrealist “minor discourse”, it was long forgotten because of its Jewish “minor discourse”, and finally it was rediscovered as a key moment for Romanian literature. The intimate bond between Judaic mysticism and Surrealist literature, two cultural phenomena whose interrelations are tacitly acknowledged in the study of the novel, have yet to be strongly articulated, and one of my goals is to describe and crystallize this relationship in Max Blecher’s literary identity, while strongly privileging a Jewish reading.

The scholarly neglect of the Jewish aspects is both symptomatic of and responsible for a biased understanding and acceptance of Blecher’s novel primarily as avant-garde Romanian prose. I want to remedy this imbalance by focusing on Jewish mysticism, positing that most of the characters portrayed in the novel reveal Blecher’s identity crisis as a member of the Romanian cultural sphere.

After the fall of communism, well-known writers such as Mircea Cărtărescu and the Nobel Prize winning author Herta Müller publicly declared their appreciation of Blecher’s books, thus helping their cultural ascension to the status of major works of Romanian fiction. Nowadays, a succession of editors, publishers and academics promote this book from personal, ideological, commercial and literary standpoints. After the long decades of hiatus between its publication and the end of the communist period, Adventures in the Immediate Unreality emerged from the gloom of forgetfulness, in both scholarly and popular circles. Numerous translations of Blecher’s novels in different languages followed, as well as art exhibitions and theatrical shows inspired by them.

70 years after it had been first published, in 2003, Adventures in the Immediate Unreality appeared in German translation, with an exalted preface by Herta Müller, who wrote: “I want to present you a book, an astonishing book (...) Only few books have appeared in Germany since 1990 that match the intensity of Max Blecher’s...”

The cultural discourse was instantly permeated by a fascination with this artistic rediscovery, notable literary critics such as Harald Hartung talking about a divine sense of justice done to the novel and its mysterious Romanian Jewish writer, Max Blecher: “Sometimes there is a sort of late justice in literature, and a missing or forgotten literary work is rediscovered. Of course, the missed life of the book does not return, and the late rehabilitation is not always a success. This is the case with the Romanian Jewish writer Max Blecher and his first novel from 1936, “Adventures in the Immediate Unreality”, its paradox being that the unhappiness described so suggestively becomes the reader's intellectual bliss”. German critics saw in Blecher an original author, of exquisite literary expression, and his novel was named by Lothar Müller “a small-big book about the restlessness”, “a cerebral novel of superb onirism”.

A similar response followed in Sweden in 2010, when the novel's first Swedish translation attracted unanimously high praise, a journalist of the cultural magazine Tidningen Kulturen calling Blecher “a genius who would have deserved an early Nobel Prize for literature” and deploring the fact that he had been unknown to the public for such a long time.

Contemporary literary critics seem to be interested almost exclusively in the Surrealist influence in Blecher’s novel, perhaps because this movement was one of the most innovative in the history of Romanian literature, and may have exerted a lasting influence on 20th century writers, had it not fallen into disgrace during the communist regime that followed in 1947. And of course, by his dying so young, Max Blecher denied us decades of his creative work, and, as he only wrote two novels, one mediocre in its pan-Europeanism (Scarred Hearts) and one splendid in its strange mysticism (Adventures in the Immediate Unreality), the researcher cannot know how his future work would have evolved, his or her choice belonging to the sphere of personal sensibility.

Story telling is central to Jewish tradition, most of its philosophy and set of rules having been transmitted through stories, and collections of these have been created since early Judaism. The Aggadah (a compendium of rabbinic homilies on folklore, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations and practical advice, from the Mishnah and the two Talmuds), for example, has accompanied Jewish existence throughout the centuries, and various editions were printed in Moldavia, in Iaşi and Stefăneşti. In the Aggadah we can find the two most important Jewish terms that refer to a spiritual force, which would be later incorporated to the Hasidic tradition: the tikkun (rectification, good, or the presence of divine light) and the kilkul (damage, evil; not merely the absence of goodness and divine light, but its own force that is strengthened by the absence of goodness and divine light). Max Blecher incorporates the idea of kilkul at the beginning of his novel in a rather architectural way, through the “evil places” where natural order does not exist anymore, and where the protagonist has to practice magical rituals in order to escape these places.

For Hasidic mystics, whose writings, as I will further show, inspired Max Blecher, the telling of a story is a religious, magical act, of no less importance than the observance of the commandments, the study of Torah, or prayer. Therefore, many tzadikim increased their moral authority by telling stories about themselves and their personal deeds, and they wanted their spiritual followers to continue telling these stories about themselves and their ancestors. In any Hasidic collection, it is difficult to establish a diachronic genealogy, as there are no clear temporal indications in the texts. Similarly, it is difficult to place Max Blecher's novel in a particular epoch or geographical space. The theme of magic words is closely related to Hasidism: these are mainly enchanted holy names of the divinity, and most of the supernatural deeds in the Hasidic stories were possible because the tzaddik knew the names. For example, the kefitzat ha-derekh, or the miraculous “shortening of the way” (when different rabbis managed to shorten travelling to certain destinations in order to be able to perform rituals) was possible through the invocation of a holy name. Hasidic stories are half real, half imaginary constructions with thaumaturgy intentions, in which the fabulist was being helped in his narrative construction by a superabundance of motifs, metaphors, subjects, or even entire episodes he had heard or read before. Thus, a single Hasidic story could integrate a large variety of Jewish themes and subjects, from the Torah, the Talmud, the medieval philosophy or the recent past. Max Blecher pays his respects to his moral and cultural ancestors – writers of different European literary traditions – in the same natural manner, by incorporating into his novel motifs from German Romanticism (his novel could be read as a “treaty on the panopticon”) or French Surrealism (the scene in which the puberous narrator is making love with Clara at the back of a large room with “sewing machines meticulously placed one near the other on three lines separated by two large alleys”, while her brother, the owner of the shop, is playing classical violin, strangely resembles a surrealist painting).

I will give a a definition and a diachronic presentation of the Kabbalah, which was formed by means of cultural heritage and ancestral inspiration, so that Kabbalist texts took various literary forms, arriving late to the writings of early 20th century secular Jewish writers such as Max Blecher, Franz Kafka, and Bruno Schulz, among many others.

At the turn of the 1st millennium, Jewish mysticism and philosophy underwent a process of exploration and crystallisation under the influence of many different trends of thinking, such as Platonism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, Neoaristotelianism, Muslim Sufism, Isma’iliah, Gnosticism, Christianity, magic, and astrology, in order to answer questions concerning God, the Creation, the World, and Man. The Kabbalah provided a new set of coherent answers to these questions, reflecting a strong awareness of the philosophical criteria in order to explain the religious world of man, especially that of the Jewish person. In rabbinic literature, the term Kabbalah, which means “tradition” or “reception”, a term initially attached to all Jewish Oral Law, has two meanings: the words of the prophets (as differentiated from the Pentateuch) and the tradition of the oral Torah (as distinguished from the written Torah).

The Kabbalah does not stand out as Jewish philosophy, but as wholesome mysticism, impregnated by religious values. It is this anthropomorphic manner of attaining mystical knowledge in the very core of the Jewish community regulated by strict behavioural rules that makes the Kabbalah a way of life and a culture in itself. Its symbolic thinking and ecstatic experiences facilitate its followers’ devotion, offering different degrees of illumination in the mystical world.

The Kabbalah shaped the Jewish culture and way of life, transforming prayers, liturgical procedure, and religious customs. It had such a strong impact because of its being rooted both in the Halakhah (the collective body of Jewish customs, traditions, and law, including biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinic law) and the Aggadah, while providing its own interpretations. Over the course of the centuries, and during difficult moments for Jewish identity such as the expulsion from Spain and the Enlightenment, the Kabbalah contributed to the strengthening of religious awareness in every area of Jewish existence.

The Kabbalah originated in Spain in the 12th century, with the Zohar (Sefer ha-Zohar, or The Book of Splendour), which included commentaries on the mystical aspects of the Torah and interpretations on Mysticism, cosmogony, and mystical psychology. It was published by a Jewish writer named Moses de Leon who attributed it to Tanna (Rabbi Simenon Ben Yohai). The Zohar contains a discussion of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, redemption, and the relationship between the universal energy and man. The study of the Zohar (the original Aramaic text, its Hasidic popularisation, as well as interpretations of it in the academic works by the Israeli researchers Gershom Scholem and Moshe Idel) is essential to understanding Blecher, as it allows me to promote ideas concerning the dualism in Max Blecher’s novel, especially related to cosmoerotic dualism: masculine and feminine, creator and creation, compassion and judgement. Adventures in the Immediate Unreality affirms a strong dualism in all areas of existence, as it makes clear differentiations between physical and metaphysical realms: evil places and familiar places, infinity of the imagination and limits of the body, manifestations of the sacred and silence of the divine, feminine silent mystery and masculine force.

In order to strengthen my argument regarding dualism in Max Blecher’s novel, I will also bring into discussion an early-medieval explanatory text accompanying the Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Formation or of Creation), which is built around seven pairs of contrasts in the life of man as opposed to his dark side: life and death, peace and strife, wisdom and folly, wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, fertility and sterility, lordship and servitude. From all these discussions, Sefer Yetzirah draws the logical conclusion that good and evil have no real existence, as everything in nature exists only if its contrast exists as well, and this vision can be found in Max Blecher’s novel.

Another primary source for my interpretation of Adventures in the Immediate Unreality as a Kabbalistic text are the writings of the medieval Spanish thinker Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, the founder of the school of Prophetic Kabbalah, especially his Sefer ha-Ot (The Book of Signs, 1285) and Imrei Shefer (Words of Beauty, 1291), in which Abulafia combines Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and the Sefer Yetsirah in order to create a set of new meditative techniques to bring the attentive soul into a state of awakened receptivity.

These fundamental medieval texts, the Zohar, the Sefer Yetzirah and Abraham Abulafia’s writings, as well as their Hasidic popularisations (as the wisdom of the medieval Kabbalah was available to Max Blecher, the integrated Jew, through the collections of Talmudic and Hasidic stories published in various Jewish publications in Moldavia at the beginning of the 20th century), are seen in contemporary interpretations by Gerschom Scholem and Moshe Idel, as a form of Jewish genius. Moshe Idel speaks about the “absorbing quality of the Torah”, and I claim that Max Blecher too gained the status of canonical work in the framework of contemporary Romanian literature. Harold Bloom, in his introduction to Idel’s Kabbalah and Interpretation, says that “strong authors, like sacred texts, can be defined as those with the capacity to absorb us”. Later in his book, at the beginning of the 5th chapter, Moshe Idel himself will use this metaphor in the context of the phrase: “absorbing in order to convey the expanding comprehensiveness of the concept of the text, which, moving to the centre of the Jewish society, also integrated attributes reminiscent of wider entities like the world or God. This expansion facilitated the attribution of more dynamic qualities to the text conceived of as capable of allowing various types of influences on processes taking place in the world, in God, and in the human psyche”. Max Blecher, through crossing boundaries into his unfettered imagination, is absorbing Kabbalist perfections, having conceived his novel as what was happening in his world, psyche, and spiritual realms. He belongs to this ancient cosmographic tradition in which literature is pure richness devoid of social criticism or moral constraints. In Adventures in the Immediate Unreality, this can be seen in the various theurgies or practices of magical rituals, which delimitate different episodes: making gestures in a mirror, closing his path when walking, so that he would not leave opened magic circles. These rituals are symbolic of the body’s language, and they “mediate between the unexpressed inner world of the self and gestures forth the world as meaningful and ordered”.

At the beginning of the 13th century, the word Kabbalah was used with reference to particular secrets of tradition exchanged secretively between fellow mystics or between the master and his pupil, in order to conceal them from the masses and to keep them available only for the elect. Therefore, a comprehensive definition of the Kabbalah would be “the receiving of secret mystical contents”. Knowing of this tradition of secrecy, Max Blecher “translated” his Kabbalistic text into a Surrealist one, an act which allowed him to deal directly with a Jewish content, by embracing a mystical point of view on every area of existence, while remaining close to secular Surrealist literature. This effort of cultural translation allowed Blecher to create a narrative text profound in perception and singular in its mode of presentation. Nonetheless, one must bear in mind that Adventures in the Immediate Unreality is a Surrealist text in shape and a Kabbalistic one in content.

The characters of this novel are feminised in a dark, anarchic luminosity, and the feminine’s critical and creative potentials in the novel are overwhelming, raising in the research issues of genre, canon and ideology. Max Blecher was expressing his urge to live and his sexuality through writing, and his feminine characters exist in the reality of the text as nonchalant entities provoking fear, anxiety, desire and fantasy, functioning as psychological and narrative triggers. I think that it has some of the greatest literary gallery of portraits of female characters in Romanian literature, and their images are permanently enshrined in a series of short yet elegant episodes with concise and intricate plotlines, vivid characterization, and unfettered imagination.

When involved in the sexual act, Blecher’s female characters (Clara, the young girl with the black feather, the wax girl in the panopticon) are suspended in a state of stupor resembling self-forgetfulness through prayer. Moshe Idel, in Kabbalah and Eros, speaks about the “theurgical role of the woman in sexuality”, and this theory might be applied to the mysterious role of Blecher’s female characters in the constant illuminations of the young narrator. Through a series of academic questions, Idel suggests that women have a very important part to play in the Jewish mystical world, because they engender theurgical effects:

“The main assumption in theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah is the need to perform the commandments with a kabbalistic intention, kavvanah. Generally speaking this intention consists in directing one’s thought toward the divine realm and attempting to have an impact on the processes taking place there. Though this intention is not always a sine qua non for the efficacy of religious performance, with the development of the theosophical-theurgical system the importance of kavvanah becomes more salient. In this context, the question may be asked: What is the status of the commandments performed by women? Are their performances efficient without the “rigid” intention, and thus does a certain amount of knowledge of the theosophical system become necessary also for women, or did the Kabbalists ignore this issue? It is hard to assume that even if the answer of the Kabbalists was that a woman’s performance does have a theurgical effect, such a statement may constitute a reliable testimony for the existence of women Kabbalists.”

Their sexual behaviour engenders a reception of higher understanding, translated into the novel as moments of euphoria and cosmoeroticism, when the narrator feels integrated in the universe. This combination of corporeal, sexual union with the spiritual, universal one, arguably points to a synthesis of the theurgical importance of Eros with the emphasis in ecstatic Kabbalah on the purely spiritual nature of the relationship between man and the divine. The young narrator cannot escape the corporeal way of life while remaining in ordinary society: his return to the earth, to the mud, namely an impure element, helps allow his mind to ascend to the supernatural realm. The narrator succeeds in attaining spiritual elevation both by gratifying his sexual desire (with Clara) and by a process of sublimation (with Edda), as the ascent of the mind depends on leaving the corporeal, and this can be done through sexual desire.

There are several mud-episodes in the novel, each pushing to the narrator towards spiritual development. These are particularly significant:

(1) “The walls of the high shore, on the two sides of the slope, were abrupt and fantastically irregular. The rain had sculptured long stripes of delicate fissures and intricate arabesques, but hideous like the badly scared wounds, true rags into the mud’s wet flesh, horrible and unwrapped cuts. I had to descend as well amidst these walls which impressed me tremendously, towards the river. When I was still far away, long before getting to the shore, my nostrils were filled by the smell of the rotten hulls, which was preparing me for the crisis, as a short period of incubation: this smell was unpleasant, and, at the same time, sophisticatedly suave.” (Blecher, Max: Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate, anthology and preface by Dinu Pillat, București, Minerva, 1970, p. 15, translated by Alina Noir);

(2) “In front of me, the dirty street was stretching its muddy paste. The houses were displayed like an oriental fan, some white like huge blocks of sugar, others undersized, with roofs covering their eyes, and clenching their teeth like immobile boxers” (ibid. p.73, translated by Alina Noir);

(3) “Sometime I would have liked to be a dog, to look at that wet world from the animals’ oblique perspective, from down up and slightly inclining my head, to walk closer to the earth, with my eyes fixed on its surface covered with livid mud… This odd desire hidden deep inside me slithered frenetically into the reality on an autumn day, on the waste ground… On that day I had walked purposelessly till the town’s margins, in the field of the cattle market, now soaked by the rain and transformed into an immense mud slop. The dung was exhaling an acrid smell of animal urine. The sun was setting above, in an embellishment of ragged gold and purple; in front of me the warm, tender mud was stretching to the horizons. What else could have filled my heart with such an unbearable joy, than this clean and sublime mass of filth? I hesitated for some seconds, inside me were fighting, with forces of moribund gladiator, the last traces of education, but in one second they were sunk in an opaque obscurity, and I knew nothing of myself. I entered the mud first with one leg, then with the other. My boots slithered pleasantly in the elastic, sticky leaven. Now I was grown from the mud and a part of it, as if I had spouted from it” (ibid. p. 123, translated by Alina Noir).

Edda is the female character around which is built an episode of agapic sublimation and painful ascetism. In his scintillating guide to the esoteric teachings of carnal Judaism, Kabbalah and Eros, Moshe Idel, through the filter of scientific description, speaks about the three different manifestations of love, mainly, Agape, Eros, and Sex, as means of spiritual elevation: “Agape, a term which means disinterested love, will designate a spiritual attraction to either God or human beings, an attitude which is devoid of a libidinal urge, hetero- or homoerotic. Eros will denote a complex of feelings, of ontological constructs and forms of behaviour found in a certain culture, that inform the drive to establish sexual and emotional contacts, corporeal or spiritual, between two entities, in which at least one of them attracts the other. An erotic impulse may be consumed corporeally, and this consummation may be designated as sex; or, if consumed spiritually, this may be a form of what is called Platonic love or mystic experience; or it may not b realized at all, in either way.” Thus, the unfulfilled sexual relationship with Edda forces the narrator to adopt an agapic attitude representative of a certain medieval Jewish sensibility, and to absorb universal energies found in the surrounding nature. Never in the course of the novel was the narrator as aware of nature’s healing forces as during his unaccomplished love for Edda.

It is because of Edda that the narrator begins to follow unknown women met on the street. This image strangely resembles Bruno Schulz’s paintings of young Orthodox Jews bowing in front of elegant passers-by, or Franz Kafka’s mentions of beautiful women crossing his way. As Moshe Idel points out in Kabbalah and Eros, “according to some Hasidic masters, looking at beautiful women launches the process of ascending to religious perfection”: therefore it is clear to me that the three Jewish writers, each belonging to different cultural and linguistic spheres, were inhabiting the same mental landscape of Jewish behaviour.

Contemporary theories of translation – particularly from the so-called Cultural Turn to Polysystem and from Structuralist and Deconstructionist to Postcolonial and Hermeneutical approaches – have provided alternative frameworks and strategies to deal with the peculiarities of culture-specific texts, which many scholars refer to as cross-cultural manifestos. Max Blecher’s Adventures in the Immediate Unreality is a culture-specific text with its linguistic and cultural identity, which recovered, under the influence of European Modernism, elements related to French Surrealism, Kabbalistic literature, Hasidic stories, German Romanticism, and Austrian psychoanalysis. This novel has been read, analysed and translated mainly as a Surrealist text, but its scholarly Kabbalistic erudition should be the subject of a more exhaustive investigation. Adventures in the Immediate Unreality abides a plethora of common elements with the Kabbalah, such as the same underlying conceptual-symbolic system of the narration and the same attitude towards mystical knowledge.

It is an ethical as well as artistic responsibility of the translator of this novel to be aware of its mystical aspects and textual richness. Consequently, my English translation is also grounded in literary translation studies, thus looking behind and beyond the established view of Adventures in the Immediate Unreality as an unquestionable classic of Romanian literature, suggesting that much of the work’s cultural importance and academic appeal derives from its status as “minority discourse” rooted in the tradition of East-European Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah.

As Lawrence Venuti explains in The Translator’s Invisibility, any act of translation involves a process of more or less violent rewriting, as its aim is precisely to reconstruct the original text “in accordance with values, beliefs and representations that pre-exist in the target language, always configured in hierarchies of dominance and marginality, always determining the production, circulation, and reception of texts”. In my translation I investigated the extent and impact of this violence on the original text.

According to the Hebrew Encyclopaedia, mysticism is “a term denoting a category of religious phenomena (experiences and doctrines) that does not lend itself to a precise definition and is related – despite numerous significant differences – to an array of phenomena that are found in most religions. Generally speaking, the term “mysticism” conveys an intensive inner experience of the supreme religious reality, as distinguished from strict observance of the “exteriority” of the forms of objective religion (such as the cultic system, the organisational-ecclesiastic system, the conceptual-dogmatic system). Most of the personalities in the history of religion who are designated as “mystics” sought to penetrate the core of inner spirituality in their religion”.

In his highly personal prose, Max Blecher, unable to have a fulfilled exterior existence due to his illness, penetrated, with his creative intellect, the mysteries of the universe, by “translating” the information from the physical world into sequences of mystical prose. Through writing, he tried to connect to the realms above by remembering past living experiences perceived with his senses, just as the Psalmist recommends: “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:9). The visual imagery and the overabundance of description of objects approached through the human senses have a predominant role in Blecher’s novel, emphasizing the need for the writer to experience things from within oneself. R. Menahem Mendel of Premyshlyany, one of the first teachers of Hasidism, used the same symbol of eating as the Psalmist, in order to describe a mystical experience: “Nistar is the name given to a matter which one cannot transmit to another person; just as the taste of a particular food cannot be described to a person who has never tasted this taste, so it is impossible to explain in words how it is and what it is; such a thing is called seter [hidden]. Thus is the love and the fear of God, blessed be He – it is impossible to explain to another person the love of God in one’s heart; therefore, it is called nistar.”

The following fragment from Adventures in the Immediate Unreality is representative for this state of mystical contemplation, as the young narrator experiences, in a situation of isolation and exposedness, the dilatation of time while eating cherries on the roof, a nowhere land and a border-zone by excellence:

My secret wish was to reach a state of equilibrium equal with the one I had down there on the ground. I wanted to lead my “normal” life on the roof and only there, to move in the subtle and sharp air of the heights, fearless and without any particular fear of the void. I was thinking that if I managed to do this, I would have felt inside my body weights more elastic and more vaporous, which would have finally transformed me into a sort of man-bird.

I was convinced that only the care not to fall was the heaviest thing in me, and the thought that I am at a big height was rowing over me like a pain which I would have liked to wrest from its deepest roots. In order to avoid up there the feeling of out-of-commonness, I always tried to do something precise and commonplace: to read, to eat or to sleep. I was taking the cherries and the slices of bread given by my grandfather and I was going up on the roof, I was sliding every cherry in four and I was eating them one by one, so that this “normal” occupation of mine would last as long as possible. When I was finishing one, I was striving to throw its stone down on the street, in a big bucket placed in front of a shop.

When I was going down, I would hurry there to see how many cherry stones had got into it. There were always only three or four, but what mostly disappointed me was that, around it, I could only find other three or four. That meant that I had eaten only few cherries, while I had had the impression of having spent up there on the roof hours and hours… In my grandfather’s room, on the clock’s green faience dial I could also see that only some minutes passed since I had gotten up there. The time was probably becoming more concentrated on the roof, and there was no point in my trying to prolong it by remaining there longer.

The Kabbalist R. Isaac the Blind (c. 1200) suggested that a more profound understanding of the divine entity can be achieved “through nourishment, rather than through knowledge”. The young, inexperienced narrator is isolated, caught up in a situation of exclusion between spaces familiar and unfamiliar, and the prose itself is suspended between a Surreal narrative (the naive presentation of an extraordinary fact, the dilatation of the physical time) and a mystical experience of hidden wisdom, and the translator must address both these aspects by analysing closely the text.

This intellectual bliss of translating into mystical knowledge personal experiences is also pointed out by R. Levi Isaac of Berdichev, who writes: “There are those who sense God with their human intellect and others whose gaze is fixed on Nothing. He who is granted this supreme experience loses the reality of his intellect, but when he returns from such contemplation to the intellect, he finds it full of divine and inflowing splendour.” This act of contemplation goes beyond rational knowledge, and it can influence the mystic’s integration into the surrounding world. Moments of despair and depression can punctuate those, less numerous, of illumination. At the beginning of the Clara-episode in Adventures in the Immediate Unreality, Max Blecher reveals the complexities of the intelligent self, in a sequence of psychological exile from the comforts of childhood. Therefore the translator must create a text which would be in itself “crepuscular” and “diffused”:

When I became a teenager, I had no more crises, but that crepuscular state which preceded them and the feeling of the profound uselessness of the world which followed, all these became gradually my natural condition. The uselessness filled the hollows of the world, like a liquid diffused in all directions, and the sky above me, always correct, absurd and indefinite, acquired the concrete colour of despair. In this surrounding uselessness and under this everlastingly cursed sky I am still wandering, today and forever.

The Clara-episode is central to the novel because it provides recurring themes and archetypes throughout the novel. The long erotic episode is delimited by the recollection of the mouse-like doctor, who is a Golem, an anthropoid who needs external sources of vitality in order to stay alive, and it could also be a metaphor for a single, unattractive man, who absorbs sexual energy from his young patients. Gershom Scholem describes the Golem as being “[...] a creature, particularly a human being, made in an artificial way by the virtue of a magic art, through the use of holy names. The development of the idea of the Golem in Judaism, however, is remote from astrology; it is connected, rather with the magical exegesis of the Sefer Yezirah and with the ideas of the creative power of speech and of letters”. Moshe Idel, in Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid, writes that, in the Hebrew tradition, an unmarried man was considered to be an imperfect being, and referred in the classical texts as a Golem: “it seems that in this case the term stands for a human body that did not receive its ultimate perfection.” After the preliminary introduction of the Golem-doctor, Blecher brings together, in a surrealist landscape (a room with perfectly lined sewing machines, reminiscent of Dali’s paintings, which Blecher admired deeply and commented on in various articles and letters), a superfluity of literary motifs, both Jewish (the violin-player, the silent waiting for redemption) and Romantic (the richly-ornamented bronze lamp).

In Adventures in the Immediate Unreality, mystic ethos remains indistinguishable from Eros, every episode of sexual arousal being a source of intellectual apprehension. This has to be seen in light of Jewish tradition, which symbolically relates symbolic knowledge of Eros and sex to spiritual illumination. In the Jewish prayer book, the Aramaic formula translated as “The Liturgy is performed for the sake of the union of the Holy One with His divine Presence” shows that the religious performance induces the union (that is, the sexual union) between a masculine divine attribute and a feminine divine manifestation, and therefore, the nature of the prayer itself becomes erotic, as if the universe is being systematized according to a complex of feelings very much like an erotic spirituality. This inner core of the Clara-episode presents, almost journalistically, the narrator’s first sexual encounter, and it will be followed by the sudden understanding, at an infantile level, that the doctor was a Golem: at a symbolic level, the Surrealist sexual adventure is punctuated by a fundamental Hasidic theme, the one of the animal metamorphosis. Animal narratives are central to the East-European Jewish popular literature, and the concept of metamorphosis is, according to Gershom Scholem, “an integral part of Jewish popular belief and Jewish folklore”.



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