Man Less Man
1. Euclid and Circe
What are we looking at when standing in front of the works of Stanisław Dróżdż, the greatest and most consistent Polish concretist? A relevant question – not just because it alludes to the disturbingly syncretic nature of his work which oversteps traditional genre boundaries: though defined as ‘poetry,’ concrete art is exhibited in museums, where one would not usually expect ‘poetry’ to be found. But the question becomes more intriguing still when one shifts the emphasis and, instead of inquiring ‘WHAT are we looking at?’ asks ‘What are we LOOKING AT?’ The works of Stanisław Dróżdż make us realize that the sphere of vision – which in ‘traditional’ poetry is, so to speak, unnoticeable, transparent, and absent with the absence of a flawlessly operating mechanism – is the sphere where all the most important questions concerning not just art, but also the way in which mankind exists in the world are crystallized. If Dróżdż’s works make us ask ‘What are we LOOKING AT?’ this would imply that: a) our contacts with the world are restricted to looking at its objects, which would mean that we cannot exist if we do not ‘read’ (though what we read are not always letters, sentences, and books); and b) when ‘reading’ we usually fail to realize that the act fundamentally involves complex processes of vision.
Concrete art is a meditation on what we normally overlook when treating the sight as merely a part of human biological faculties: it muses on the eye, asking whether seeing can be seen. This was partly what William Blake, one of the greatest makers of books ever, meant when he admonished us to ‘look not with, but through the eye.’ In his texts, Stanisław Dróżdż sets up a mirror for our eye to look at. The first observation this leads to is that the eye is a boon. We must therefore stop treating the organ of sight in solely instrumental terms; or, to be more precise, we must supplement that purely physiological aspect of visual cognition which allows us to grasp the outlines of reality with a meditation on seeing, which is forced to recognize the supremacy of the world’s mutable facets, and is no longer able to master or tame them. As long as it remains an instrument of vision, the eye will always strive to dominate the world through form; once it reaches the intersection of shapes and suddenly sees the continual flux the shapes of this world are in, the eye will undergo a harsh ordeal. Clarity of vision will give way to haziness; outlines will suddenly dissolve into a blurry smudge. As long as I am consigned to the instrumental eye with its hawk-like keenness, I live fast, acquire objects and dispose of them with fine precision. A hazy and blurred gaze makes me slow down, freeze in uncertainty and indecision, but, for all that, I can begin to see differently, as if ‘seeing’ meant losing your naive, youthful ‘keenness’ of vision which makes everything ‘clear.’ Our keenness of vision may be eroded by illness, but also – far more frequently – by mourning, sorrow, and despair, all of which determine my seeing more than I realize. One paradoxical feature of Dróżdż’s work is that the artist uses the methods of the exact sciences to guide us towards uncertainty; we start out under the wise and harsh eye of Euclid, yet eventually end up in the peculiar realm of Circe where forms are unsure, and people are not always, nor fully, human. Consequently we come to realize – like Odysseus with Circe – that we are far from home, far from everything familiar and well-known. On the one hand we can still see home on a white cliff, we take in its smell, and feel souvenirs swell within our memory; yet we are left facing the empty sea with its shifting outline and uncertain weather.
2. The Eye and the Tear
The gaze is a boon, provided it breaks free of the structure of the world, of language, and of our body as taken for granted. In that sense the gaze demanded by concrete art is perhaps the gaze of an eye which suddenly becomes aware of its workings, the operation of its elements: one which suddenly begins to sting, perhaps causing tears to fall. Let us go so far as to call it the gaze of a ‘sick’ eye whose infirmity suddenly disrupts the erstwhile obviousness and clarity of sight. As the outlines of hitherto familiar objects become jittery and muddled, and seemingly well- known words are confused, there transpires a restitution of the gaze: for one, be- cause the world has changed its bearing, squirmed free of the meticulous, encyclopedic memory which had allowed us unfailingly to retrieve objects and words in the same, unchanging form, and is now moving towards the oblivion of ‘I don’t recall,’ ‘I can’t remember,’ where I can regard a thing or word anew, as something unknown and never-before seen. Whereas the memory is always concerned with a specific transaction (exchanging a sign for a specific object), one can no longer be sure whether the contract is still valid, whether a term like ‘end’ really signifies ‘the end’ and whether ‘beginning’ means ‘beginning’ (just as one does not know where is ‘the end of the beginning’ and ‘the beginning of the end’), whether the figure is distinct from the ground, or merely one of its elements.
Secondly, this fluctuation of word and object caused by a ‘watering’ of the eyes dilutes and purifies the gaze in equal measure: one cannot genuinely consider the gaze without giving a thought to tears which, according to one seventeenth century poet, are a peculiarly human trait.
Open then, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practise so your noblest use;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.1
Concrete poetry is a rite wherein the eye mourns the eye (because only then is true weeping possible), a mourning preceding the rebirth of the gaze. But at the same time we cannot fail to observe that the eye weeping for the apparent clarity it once had turns its attention elsewhere: in shedding tears it does not look exclusively to the past and what it had perceived before, but recognizes the illusory nature of past vision. If we were to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul down the road to Damascus (where a drama of blinding, that most extreme form of blur- ring or watering down the gaze had occurred) we would remark that the meditation is a sign of maturity – I abandon the condition of childhood, immaturity concentrated on appearance, and attain maturity in which I see ‘face to face.’ In the famous passage from I Corinthians (13:11-12) we read: ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see as through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’
But the situation is not that simple, for the eye under consideration is a tearful one, which recreates the condition of childhood (adults ‘don’t cry,’ the educational cliché grooms us for adulthood by demanding that we refrain from crying, show perseverance, self-control, etc.), and besides what the tearful eye sees is not an absolute, complete and perfect object, but yet another version, a model, a draft, a blur- red image of the object.
The tearful eye that Stanisław Dróżdż’s concrete poetry outlines before us silently reveals a commentary, which could be verbalized as follows: ‘before, I only thought I saw clearly, while in fact I was looking through a haze, now I see ‘better,’ though I need to put that word in inverted commas, for the superiority of the new seeing is not due to its excellence but, on the contrary, to its imperfection. Looking ‘through a haze’ does not reveal objects in all their glory before me, but has me wander amidst their shimmering forms and shapes which will never converge into a single, coherent and unmoving picture. In a tearful glance I do not (as St. Paul would have it) see ‘face to face.’ Instead I am confronted by an object ‘with many faces,’ shimmering and metamorphous (a word we shall be returning to later). It is not that this object avoids plainness in order to seem ‘mysterious’ and hype its all-too-plain presence in the market-place. Nor is it a question of the mystique of an object purposely placed in the cunningly ambient light of a shop window to pique our interest and to entice us into pursuing the easy prey which coyly seems to be fleeing while wanting nothing so much as to be caught; objects on the receiving end of the tearful gaze are altogether stripped of the mystery subordinated to erotic and economic arousal.
The tearful eye has an entirely different agenda. On the one hand, it seeks to trivialize its object, pare it down to the simplest shapes possible (what can be more banal than a letter of the alphabet?), strip it of its mystery in order to expose its inexplicability and ineffability. A word cannot be ‘mysterious’ since the colloquial sense of the term implies a riddle that can and should be solved, and ultimately stripped of its mystery. The tearful eye pits the object against itself, showing that it can never settle in its form, but is always accompanied by a shadow or phantom, and thus, in keeping with Nietzsche ‘is not seduced by the allure of the enigmatic.’2
Would it not be better to remain silent and avoid implication in a mysterious which is immediately drawn into facile explication and popularization? The appeal of such a course of action seems to lie in the nature of the artist’s sparse works: a single word, a small quantity of signs undergoing strictly defined permutations. Never the- less stillness and silence are not of the essence here. The sign causes the artist to stop multiplying signs, not because he wants to exist beyond their reach, but because one sign is enough for him to immerse himself in all existing signs. He is like Kafka’s Land Surveyor who ‘does not measure imaginary and still virgin areas but the vast expanse of literature,’ and his journey ‘does not consist of travelling from place to place, but from one exegesis to another.’3 Dróżdż often narrows his texts down to a single word (‘word’) or a single repeated sign in order to draw attention to the possibility that the labyrinths of mystery erected by literature and philosophy – areas of thought that for centuries have set out to provide rational explanation of all types of puzzles and paradoxes might in fact help sustain the mystery as a veil enabling all manner of clandestine operations meant to enslave mankind. Such an insight was already gained by William Blake, who had furnished his demiurge Urizen with ‘books of iron’ and bound him with both fixed form and ‘Mystery’: ‘For Urizen fix’d in envy sat brooding & cover’d with snow / His book of iron on his knees, he trac’d the dreadful letters / While his snows fell & his storms beat to cool the flames of Orc / Age after Age, till underneath his heel a deadly root / Struck thro’ the rock, the root of Mystery accursed shooting up / Branches into the heaven of Los / branching forth / In intricate labyrinths o’erspreading many a grizly deep’ (The Four Zoas, VII, v. 28-35).
The tearful eye makes out the things that prevent the object from operating effectively in the labyrinths of a mystery in the sense of common excitement caused by the desire to have and to own (Blake an ‘envy’): it loses its right to a name (a nameless object cannot encourage us to purchase it, as its nature prevents it from being registered on a list of merchandize), or – worse still – it belies its name at every step, compromising that name and all its efforts. We ‘read’ (in the perfect tense) the instruction ‘do not read’ (as it says on the sheet of paper), and we cannot follow the instruction issued in the knowledge that we shall not be able to follow it. Getting back on the road to Damascus we will observe that, for the tearful eye, language is an inadequate form of commentary; what we see is analogous to using sounds hitherto unknown, to ‘speaking in tongues’ (in this it is consistent with St. Paul), whereas the Apostle does not see language as an equally relevant instrument of elucidation, interpretation or even translating the unknown into the known. ‘Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.’ (I Corinthians 14: 11, 13). Now that the unknown gives way to the even more unknown, the art peculiar to the tearful eye is the art of staying a barbarian. The gaze allows me to stay, for a while at least, in the presence of alienation. ‘Now if tears come to the eyes, if they well up in them, and if they can also veil sight, perhaps they reveal, in the very course of this experience, in this coursing of water, an essence of the eye, of man’s eye, in any case, the eye understood in the anthropotheological space of the sacred allegory.’4.
No wonder then that the gaze of the tearful eye is a prayer: it brings back the dark- ness, in which the gods took shelter, and diminishes us to give the gods more space in the world.
Nonetheless Stanisław Dróżdż’s texts are exercises in reading. Such a claim might seem surprising for at least two reasons; first of all because we encounter them in museums, and museum spaces in the West are not meant to enable reading but the ‘viewing’ and ‘contemplation’ of pictures, secondly because the experience of ‘reading’ has accustomed us to dealing with large quantities of words filling the printed page, while Dróżdż’s works often rely on a single word or isolated signs. When moving amidst these texts we constantly have the impression of ‘passing through,’ ‘entering’ and ‘exiting’ – activities which do not leave sufficient time and space to ‘settle down.’ I ‘enter,’ but not an ‘inside’ where my habits can ‘make themselves at home,’ somewhere that I have a ‘place’ and a ‘time’ (to ‘contemplate’ for in- stance); on the contrary – I ‘enter’ and do not know where I am: the museum is no longer a ‘museum,’ reading is not ‘reading,’ words lose their legibility and lucidity because – deprived of the company of other words which would form sentences – they strike us with their ‘pure’ legibility. The latter is striking, since it does not neutralize the sign within other signs which lead towards ever higher levels of reading (from the letter to the syllable, from syllable to word, from word to sentence, from sentence to text), but expose the whiteness of the paper, a silence and emptiness in which I can never hope to settle. ‘I enter’ to find myself immediately ‘beyond.’ ‘Ingress/egress:’ Stanisław Dróżdż’s work is situated at the elusive borderline of these two actions. It is a work whose subject is the body, the body of the sign, and the human body – in so far as human beings can be signs..
3. The Unseen
The eye which looks at itself, seeing seeing, notices what remains unseen – the object has no definite outlines but reaches out – with eyes shut, so to speak, groping – to where there is either nothing but darkness or else a blinding whiteness. Stanisław Dróżdż works never end or begin, but emerge for a while out of the black or the white only to disperse in the darkness or light, their meaning or contour never fully defined. Lasting is ‘unlashing’ and vice versa, the ‘date’ bloats and spills beyond the conventional bounds it has been allocated; who knows how many ‘ones’ or question marks are ‘being written’ in the white space surrounding the provisionally carved out plane of black, who can glimpse what happens once everything has been ‘forgotten’ and there is not a single letter left, yet there still remains the black space in which writing and a memory unknown to us continue to work. Thinking does not only concern what is granted to the sight, but also – and perhaps above all – the unseen, the imperceptible: that which possesses the special form of being that is invisibility. Like a painter, Stanisław Dróżdż makes visible things that in every- day perception remain beyond the bounds of visibility. Like a poet, he makes us realize that the mechanism also applies to language.
In concrete poetry the eye is ‘blind’ and therefore intuits the existence of what is beyond its grasp: only by being ‘blind,’ by reaching out with the cane of a sign which sees and is seen, can it see what eludes it in the daytime, when sunlight pierces the retina. To quote Merleau-Ponty: ‘The eye sees the world, and what it would need to be a painting, sees what keeps a painting from being itself, sees the colors awaited by the painting, and sees, once it is done, the painting that answers to all these inadequacies just as it sees the paintings of others as other answers to other inadequacies. (…) Painting gives visible existence to what profane vision believes to be invisible’5.
This by no means leads to the conclusion that such an art is doomed to a melancholy where loss and absence are concealed beneath the ephemeral veil of nostalgia (‘Melancholy combines a sense of loss with a sense of longing, hence the tension between the awareness of the emptiness something has left behind, and the painful and often hopeless looking out after what is gone’6). What prevents the artist’s works from lapsing into a melancholy tone is the fact that ascertaining of absence does not entail that furtive looking out after what is gone. On the contrary, the artist acquiesces to that absence, knowing it to be a form of unseen existence, for it would be presumptuous to limit existence only to the realm of objects the eye can see. To experience, and hence to cry, is not the same as being in mourning; homo patiens is not synonymous with homo lugens.
Acquiescence is a form of profound passivity an inkling of which can be felt in the presence of Dróżdż’s works which act out their fates independent of any interpretation, governed as they are by the laws of permutation and combination theory. Yet this is the first step towards the profound ethical passivity which prevents our hyperactive civilization from totally giving in to irresponsible success. Painting is a patient awaiting for traces of unseen forms to appear, a waiting which additionally casts doubt on the foundations of the self and, via such dramatic inquiry, leads down the path of passivity. According to Levinas: ‘only through the questioned-I an one understand the passivity, more passive than passivity itself, which in this world counterbalances activity by offering it some resistance’7. The profound passivity of someone holding a mirror is precisely what we feel when visiting this world of Stanisław Dróżdż’s making: a passivity having little to do with simple dolce far niente, overcoming any frenzied activity, and protecting us from melancholy.
The numbers and mathematical symbols that often appear in Stanisław Dróżdż’s work do not belong to the domain of algebra and Cartesian optics, but to the reality of the tearful eye, where accounts with the semblance of precise perception are settled, and which blurs the clear distinction between light and shadow that all cognition demands. In this gaze, as Blanchot wrote about Kafka, the object ‘does not signify in the optical sense; it remains outside the reference of shadow and light which seems to be the basic reference point for all cognition and understanding to the extent that we forget that it only has the value of a venerable, i.e. obsolete metaphor.’8. It is no longer a question of book-keeping, accounting and calculation. The dry eye takes stock of objects, toiling over their catalogue; the tearful eye takes account of objects, i.e. recognizes their right to independent existence which means that in observing them it must admit that they escape it into an independent realm to which the eye has no access. The object heads for the word, adjoins it, but the two will never share an abode – the object will no longer be a piece of furniture in the drawing room of our language (‘white’ is ‘black,’ and ‘black’ is ‘white’). One can say that the sign and its referent are in a relation of ‘understanding’ assuming a renewable difference, though not one of ‘comprehension,’ which involves the full identity of the two elements.
The object is thus more than just a certain skeleton and mode of being; around every object there extends a space which could, in deference to Nietzsche, be called a ‘horizon,’ and which makes the object or the sign representing it ‘transparent,’ ‘permeable,’ as if ‘pervoided,’ or pervaded with the void. This is how Heidegger interprets such a situation in Nietzsche: ‘The horizon is not a wall which confines man; horizon is perforated by clearing, and thus sends us to what lies outside, to what is not petrified yet, to what is becoming and what may become, to what is possible Not only is the horizon ‘leaky,’ it is always already somehow overcome and, in a bro- ad sense of the verbs ‘see’ and ‘look,’ it is already ‘seen and looked through.’’9 One particularly apposite remark deserves closer attention here: the horizon is something that imperfectly demarcates the sphere where objects overspread themselves, go beyond their outlines (as in micro/macro), our discussion of Stanisław Dróżdż’s poetry should therefore take into consideration the ‘leakiness’ of object and sign. Moreover, ‘leakiness’ associated with the realm of liquidity further focuses our attention on the tearful eye which is moist, and permeable by nature, and can thus be treated as a sluice through which I can sail out into the ‘not yet petrified and possible.’ To quote Andrew Marvell once more:
Open then, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practise so your noblest use;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.
Od utrwalonego „bycia” do nie-utrwalonego „stawania się ” – tak w wielkim i ryzykownym skrócie można by opisać dzieło konkretne Stanisława Dróżdża.
4. Less (it wanes/it waxes)
There is a secret connection between the eye and the ear: if we were to shut our eyes we would hear the silent whirr of the language machine working unbeknownst to us. Faced with Dróżdż’s works we have the impression of moving among machinery set in motion and operating according to strictly defined rules and principles we cannot control. Moreover, the workings of that machinery often demonstrate the fallibility of our principles and preconceptions (how can ‘white’ be ‘white’ since it is clearly ‘black?’ Are not all attempts at literally representing the spatial relationship defined by the preposition ‘beyond’ doomed to failure since the concept is by nature ‘beyond’ all representation?) We stand helpless before these machines of language, for they make us realize how fragile is the power we allegedly have over speech which we have grown accustomed to treat as a convenient and docile tool, and leave us wondering whether we haven’t reached the end of a world ordered according to the principles defined by language, now that these turn out to be fallible and deceptive. In 1644 Mersenne, one of the philosophers who opposed Descartes wrote: ‘Ours is an age of general upheaval. What think you of these upheavals; do they not give us a foretaste of the end of the world?’10. But having found ourselves ‘between’ the artist’s works we feel that the problem is not so much one of being positioned at the ‘end’ of a world (of which more to come), as of the sensation that we are in a rift between two worlds: the reality of the language machine, and that of someone who suddenly realizes that the two worlds are far apart though joined by a lattice of minute and meaningful threads. We no longer have the complacency Descartes did when, having discovered the laws of mechanics governing reality, he proudly transposed them onto the world of men, establishing an identity of principles and, consequently, of the two worlds themselves. ‘You may have observed in the grottoes and fountains of our kings that the force that makes the water to leap from its source is able of itself to move divers machines And truly one can well compare the nerves of the machine that I am describing [the human body] to the tubes of the mechanisms of these fountains, its muscles and tendons to divers other engines and springs which serve to move these mechanisms‘11.
Faced with Dróżdż’s language machines we notice that ‘I think, therefore I am’ has been supplanted by ‘it is said, therefore it is.’ When observing the inner workings of these text-machines (for they do indeed move continuously, with a motion at once ridiculous and ominous like that of Tinguely’s machines), I see how illusory my conviction of exercising supremacy over language really was: words and letters pursue aims and laws of their own with which I have little in common. For Descartes or Bacon the inclusion of humanity into the workings of the world’s machinery was a game meant to bestow a greater role upon mankind: having understood the laws governing the world, I become a part of it, an element of the grand machine of physical and philosophical laws enabling the engineering of being that Blake had referred to as the ‘Starry Wheels.’ Dróżdż proposes reflection of another kind: I look at the lab our of signs and know myself to be one of its elements only in part, a far-from-fully conscious participant in its actions. The motion of speech usually produces within me a sense of belittlement: set ‘between’ Stanisław Dróżdż’s texts, I become ‘less.’ The strength of these works comes from their telling me that the more I recognize the existence of ‘something’ which operates within the movement of speech and signs, the more I must recognize my own lessening. In a series of distichs written by another native of Wrocław, Johannes Scheffler, better known as Angelus Silesius, we find a similar idea expressed in terms like ‘belittling’ (Verkleinerung), ‘denial/concealment’ (Verleugnung), ‘abandonment’ (verlassen), or even ‘slaying’ (Tötung). Thus in Books V and VI of the Cherubinic Wanderer we read:
Christ, who himself belittles (verkleinere dich selbst), to him greatness is due, The lower you see yourself, the greater my awe of you. (V. 315)
Once you’ve denied yourself, once you are man no more, (Wenn du nicht Mensch mehr bist und dich verleugnet hast) A man will God become, and take your burden sore. (V. 271)
Slay but the self within (Durch Tötung deiner selbst) and be the Lamb of God, For while it lives you’re a dead dog that roams through hell’s own sod. (VI.194)
The construction of the subject around processes of belittlement and denial, and even of radical concealment (death) is something Dróżdż’s work shares with Silesius’ mystical thought and, more generally, with an ethical reflection relying on what Simone Weil called ‘divesting oneself of the illusory sense of ruling over the world,’12, a ‘detachment’ indispensable to all seekers of the truth (‘Attachment breeds delusions: those who desire the truth should know how to detach themselves13). The human within me leaves the center and voluntarily heads for the desert, that most marginal of margins. The ascetic form of Dróżdż’s works involves a migration away from the populous centers in order to leave more space for others and to find shelter in detachment and concealment. I restrain myself (from ruling, ambition, under- standing), deny myself the right to expand my sphere of ownership, and thereby op- pose a philosophy of expansion and success. My purpose is no longer to fill empty spaces but, on the contrary, to leave more of them, as it is only there that something new can emerge. Briefly, I do not think I am right, for my thinking has been liberated from ‘rightness’ or ideology meddling with thought. When I am ‘between’ Stanisław Dróżdż’s works I see that Michel Serres was right in claiming that: ‘The gentle man holds back. He reserves some strength to retain his strength, refuses in him- self and around him the brute power that is propagated. The sage thus disobeys the single law of expansion, does not always persevere in his being, and thinks that elevating his own conduct to a universal law is the definition of evil as much as mad- ness.’14.
When faced with the ebb(e)ing ‘I,’ and with a language which pays little heed to mankind’s wretched designs and flits along the bounds of the visible, man metaphorically zips his lips. Lips are after all the basic instrument of human proliferation; the vehicle of complex linguistic constructs furthering more or less unctuous plans: everything I say is about ‘me’ and the ‘mine.’ Cioran, radical as ever, put it this way: ‘Mugs. Mugs everywhere. Man proliferates. Man is a tumour on the face of the earth.’15. Dróżdż’s work is directed against the ‘mug’ and human ‘proliferation.’
The ‘I’ is defined through ‘di-my-nishing’, which means it does not have a constant unchanging nature, it ‘ish’ rather than ‘is’, changing continuously depending on random circumstances, rebuilding itself anew using less and less materials, it grows ‘less,’ is ‘diminished.’ This movement which prepares us to experience the ‘between’ of Dróżdż’s works can be coded as ‘less me’, signalling the necessity of the di- minishing of self, of the waning of self and its properties. The only point which, after the collapse of illusions of my control over reality, remains vulnerable to the logic of ‘I’ is suffering. Pain is what cannot belong to anyone else but me; the seemingly cool, mathematically precise and indifferent textual machines composed by the artist scream this terrifying truth. Having given up the role of the sovereign of reality, having imparted to speech the well-earned grace of independence, I remain in suffering which I attempt to understand and illuminate by the thought of being ‘less’, a meditation on the fact that, perhaps, I do not ‘live’ or ‘stay’ but merely ‘sojourn’ amidst forces which do not, in fact, need me, and if they do then only to a very little degree.
Dróżdż’s texts will never relish the sense of victory, or triumph even, one feels having reached that place, the ‘other world’ in which all threads weave into a single who- le that ‘redeems’ the text with a ‘fullness’ of sense and meaning. We are all familiar with texts that are as it were ‘deified’ through splendid metaphor or philosophical finesse. Texts which are so ‘glib’ and ‘refined’ that we would fain have a rift or crack to appear on their surface. It’s different with Dróżdż. The ‘texture’ of his works consists almost entirely of cracks; despite the seeming glibness of mathematical or logical formulas whose cognitive ambitions are almost boundless, crevices of uncertainty lurk at every step of the way. Just as someone serving good, or man less man cannot delude himself with hope of a heavenly reward, so Dróżdż’s works in suffering from lack of obvious, unambiguous meaning, bring the problem of suffering home to us. Levinas approvingly recalls the Kierkegaardian concept: ‘We shall not say that the man of good will one day triumph in another world or that his cause will eventually prevail on the face of the earth; no, he does not triumph in his lifetime, he triumphs when he suffers in his living life, he triumphs in the day of his misfortune.’16 This means that man less man curtails his ambitions and stops short of cognitive covetousness: he will do good, his utterances will be sparing, and his knowledge, however profound and extensive, will always have to acknowledge the primacy of uncertainty.
I thus distance myself from thought focused on technology which always subjects the world to man and constructs a ‘bespoke’ reality. Simone Weil put it this way: ‘Joy is directed towards a given object. I rejoice in the existence of the sun, the moon over the sea or some beautiful city, or an admirable human being; in the fullness of joy there is nothing of myself. On the contrary, it is I who suffer. Joy is the awareness that there is something which is not me. Suffering is awareness of the self as nothingness.’17.
These, then, are the two attitudes we find in Dróżdż’s works: joy, that there are so many things free of me, things suddenly freed from the tether of my vision of them (even though these things were nothing but signs, as ‘small’ as prepositions at that), and suffering, a sense of being alone in the suffering which is my proper place, the only one I still inhabit as ‘me.’ It is also the place from which I reach out to- wards another human being, thus satisfying the requirement of passivity (as discussed above), overcoming the urge to succeed measured by a craving for ‘more’ and the urge to rest on one’s own laurels, for ‘in the pain which torments me I am struck by the pain felt by another, which concerns me as if the other were calling unto me, shattering my repose within myself’18.
When studying the artist’s works, stepping ‘into’ and ‘between’ them, I inevitably begin asking myself what form of being I represent: I who usually think in terms of sweeping generalisations, who even in details seek general meanings among which I feel myself to be a citizen of culture, am now touched by a tremor of uncertainty. Instead of sentences, there is often just a single word, instead of nouns there is often just what we believe to be its poor relation: a preposition or a conjunction, neither of which can be inhabited by someone who believes himself a denizen of the great city of systems developed over the centuries by philosophy or poetry. This is micro – macro: two poles which should demarcate the inviolable boundaries of the world, beyond which no movement should exist. You cannot be smaller than the smallest, nor larger than the largest. But now we are in for a lesson in humility: that which marks out that allegedly uncrossable boundary and establishes the fundamental difference between the two extremes of the binary opposition is barely a single letter, a crumb, a mote.
Barely a mote separates distant suns. What’s more, that mote does not appear in the world of the visible in its entirety, which implies that we see little more than a part, a fragment of a fragment, a snippet of an aphorism, more sigh than articulated sound. A dual nullity: first of all, an immense difference is constituted through the agency of a mote, and secondly even that snippet is not fully accessible to us but barely shimmers in the horizon of our eye and understanding. Even if the extremes of the spectrum of being are marked out by fragments which do not fully reveal them- selves, and whose true shape remains unknown, whose mere outskirts make their presence felt in our conceptual world, what is there to say about beings placed between those bounds, in the center of the rainbow of existence. Each of them (my- self included) opens only its ‘liminal’ part to our understanding: that region where there is no fixed ‘settlement’ and ‘habitation’ but where only wayfarers and restless spirits venture. Cioran would aptly describe this in his typically radical fashion: ‘I never saw myself as an entity. Merely a non-citizen, someone from the sidelines, a pinch of minuteness existing only through an excess, a superfluity of its nothingness.’19 The ‘I’ which consists in being less is precisely such a ‘pinch of minuteness’ which attempts to find in the exactness of mathematical, geometric or linguistic procedures a remedy for having ‘fallen out of the bounds of the world,’ for the loss of ‘civil’ rights therein.
The most concise form of asceticism on the part of an artist who passes from the asceticism of external form to the heart of ascetic thought would assume the shape of a single word: mniej (“less“)
Let us not follow the word with any punctuation mark. On the one hand the presence of a full stop, and especially an exclamation mark would be an aggressive denial of the essence of that principle. ‘Less’ would then mean ‘more’, while for Dróżdż ‘less’ is never even ‘as much’, but always ‘less’, and in that sense if we really wanted to extend our one-word formula, we could only write ‘more [or] less’: for the point is to express the progress of belittling, to make ever more ‘less.’ Not ever less ‘less’, as then the empty space would be filled by ‘more’, but to make ‘less’ increasingly obvious, to make it – paradoxically – grow, augment, in a word, to make ‘less’ become ‘more.’ Hence the lack of full stop or exclamation mark in our formula, to create an open space in which ‘less’ can increase. ‘Less’ assumes the form of a specific pulsation in which there occurs an incredibly rapid oscillation between ‘waxing’ and ‘waning’
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
L E S S
We cannot but wonder at the ambiguity of the word mniej (‘less’) and its verbal implications. We leave the gates open to mniej (‘less’) so that, while ‘waning’ – it could, in fact, be ‘waxing.’ This brings us to the following conclusion:– ‘less’ is still not here, I still do not know what it means to experience my- self and the world as ‘less’, for the entire history of the world so far in its political, economic, and psychological dimension was and is based on the principle of ‘more’: more land, more power, more money, more of me. This last claim makes me realize that the movement of thought animating Dróżdż’s work leads from the point of ‘more of me’ to the point of ‘more less.’
When we said that Dróżdż’s objects lose their outlines and seem to escape beyond the bounds of the space allotted them, we entered, for all practical purposes into the realm of metamorphosis. I take the concept to mean not just the multiplicity of forms and their reciprocal transformation, but above all a mechanism due to which the thought that accompanies perception is always relegated towards the absent, the apparently potential, that which may emerge out of the sphere of ‘less’. Metamorphosis is the best way in which the energy of ‘less’ can manifest itself, as on the one hand it is based on the instability of forms, their ‘waning’ (when Daphne changes into a tree she becomes ‘less’ Daphne), yet on the other hand the production of forms means that the product of that belittling (Verkleinerung) and tearing away is – paradoxically – a greater amount of objects (to use the example taken from Ovid: we are dealing with Daphne and the tree at the same time). The object is deprived of its proper and exclusive place (and the same thing happens with our understanding of the text). This implies a disturbance of the order best expressed by the Renaissance idea of ‘degree’ (as found in Shakespeare) and sustained well into the Enlightenment. Having in his Essay on Man described a ‘Vast chain of being, which from God began,’ Alexander Pope went on to write: ‘And, if each system in gradation roll/ Alike essential to th’ amazing whole, / The least confusion but in one, not all/ That system only, but the whole must fall.’21.
Reading a text usually involves duration in time; the fact that it can do without a ‘place’ of its own is meant to prove its ‘spirituality.’ The old opposition of ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ perpetuates the antinomy of ‘body’ and ‘soul’: the ‘spirit’ and the ‘soul’ are meant to make the ‘letter’ and the ‘body’ as pliable and dependent as possible, turning them into willing servants. The great 14th century preacher Johannes Tauler wrote: ‘Thou must in all things subject thy body to thy spirit, that in all things thou mayest have dominion over it Thus did the holy saints: for they had dominion over their own bodies, and trained them so well, that that which the spirit desired, the body sprang forward to do’22. The art and philosophy of the Westis an exercize in making the sign (letter, flesh) transparent in order to see the meaning and sense hidden within/behind it. Just as to enter a museum is to say that ‘the world has disappeared, I am now moving among something which is art,’ so reading had said ‘I disappear as a separate element, I perish in the flame of truth, to which – having once unveiled it – I can be of no further use.’
Holiness is the calling of truth, sense and meaning at whose behest the sign appears and disappears ‘at a single bound.’ Dróżdż’s texts seem to be saying something different: the sign does not disappear because sense wills it so – it is not subject to the latter’s desire. Though it has produced splendid fruit, the semiotic asceticism of the West is not the only mode in which the word can exist; the ontology of the word is not exhausted by its subordinate and instrumental role with regard to meaning. The letter not only serves the spirit but breaks free of it; it is so to speak its own ‘spirit’ whose name is ‘the body.’ Rather than building up the antinomy of spirit and letter, it is more fitting to speak of the mutual overlapping of the spheres which do not have the status of ‘negations,’ but of ‘oppositions’ (they do not negate one another but are a tension that provokes motion, a state of heightened energy). As Blake would say, they are not Negations but Contraries; Nietzsche would see in them a clear and infallible manifestation of the ‘will to power.’
Elusive, shifting, and unstoppable, Dróżdż’s signs are not just the ‘letter of the spirit’ (a study in the physicality of writing alluding to its ‘human’ sense, the meaning of ‘spirit’ understood merely in human terms), but also, and perhaps above all, they are the ‘spirit of the letter’ – with purposes and meanings unknown to humans and their spirituality.
Metamorphism recalls the old dispute about the superiority of that which eludes ‘petrifaction’ and monumental sation into a relic of the past, over what had been captured in a net of lasting material and as such remains before our eyes. When looking at one of Dróżdż’s texts and reading ‘white,’ I perceive the message to be true and false at the same time: true because the sign does indeed refer to a white background, false because the letters themselves are crying out to me with the solemnity of their blackness. To a considerable extent, the issue of metamorphosis has to do with understanding the background not as a passive support of the sign, but as a stage on which the remarkably rich, albeit unseen, drama of multiple forms is being played out. The black inscription reading ‘white’ appearing on a white back- ground might be the manifest sign of many unseen events hidden before us in the whiteness, events whose written sign is but the current, though by no means ultimate, form. U. Carrion claims that just as the most beautiful language is one which lies outside the territory of articulated speech, so the most beautiful and perfect book is one which contains only blank sheets of paper. Thus every book looks for its white blankness like every poem searches for silence.23.
In this mechanism of searching we find an analogy with the devices of M.C. Escher. In his 1946 etching The Magic Mirror, a fabulous beast emerges out of a mirror standing on a tiled floor. Having attained its full shape, it sets off to the right while its mirror image heads left. We soon realize, however, that it is no ordinary reflection we are dealing with, as the animal takes on an entirely realistic form outside the space of the mirror. When a quadruple row of animals drawing in from the right encounters the same number coming from the left, the creatures begin to lose their dimensional nature; they pass through one another, to blend in again into the tiles of the floor. Metamorphosis must therefore relate to the background, an endless repository of potential unseen forms, out of which its elements emerge every so often, displaying themselves to our glance only to be re-immersed into the abyss of the background.
Let us recall, however, that the background is not just a support for visible events but a stage teeming with unseen action. Played out there ‘in the background’ is the drama of events for which becoming visible is barely one of many elements of existence. If what reveals itself to my eye gains the status of ‘here’ that which is in- visible and possibly even unsuspected would be allocated to the sphere of ‘there.’ Observe, though, that this ‘there’ is not in the least bit subject to the deictic logic to which that humble preposition has accustomed us; it is not exclusively a difference, a distance separating two places or two events. If that were the case, we would still be within the metaphysics of visibility; but now we know that in the presence of Stanisław Dróżdż’s oeuvre we must continuously consider the asymmetry obtaining between the visible and that which does not reveal itself before my eye. The ‘there’ surrounding the domain of the ‘background’ does not indicate direction, but marks out the sphere which envelops all the ‘here’ and which makes the ‘here’ possible in the first place. ‘Here’ is a dream of ‘there’ suddenly fulfilled, while ‘there’ is an intimation of the existence of a wide world, an intimation animating every ‘here.’ Having entered a ‘here,’ I instantly find myself within the broad horizon of the ‘there’ – so spacious and yet so invisible as to preclude any explanation of its shapes and the beings inhabiting it. It might therefore be better to call that sphere ‘therethere’ in order to stress its complex role which transcends simple deictics, and the metamorphous nature of its entities which, manifesting themselves in some shape within the sphere of ‘here,’ fade from view in order to take on forms invisible to us. Writing about the stage, Józef Bańka observes: ‘There – beyond the space marked out by the boards of the stage – exists a world which hap- pens here: that ‘here’ must be real so that through it we can see what is ‘there.’ The world ‘there’ is not the space around the stage (‘here’); it is a space one enters only as a spectator via the stage, but does not leave when one exits the theatre.’24.
It follows that the ‘background,’ the ‘stage’ are concepts defining the place where the invisible approaches visibility; that place is a gap through which there emerge individual bits of that which surrenders (though surely not entirely) to my efforts at understanding and making sense of the world. Looking closely at the artist’s works I notice such an emergence of words from the gap of condensed invisibility; the words are so weary, so tortured by this act of birth that they persist in solitude, as if they had not the strength to enter into any relationships. Perhaps florid poetical phrases and even sorely impoverished and worn-out colloquial syntagmata are only an artificial life of the language, a resuscitation of the word, a desperate celebration of life in the face of the mortal exhaustion of being which can sustain its existence as long as it stays solitary. In the disciplined order of Dróżdż’s works there rings out from an unknown place (‘there-there’) the echo of an unceasing recurring (‘there-there’) suspicion that language has said all it had to say ‘there’ (‘there-there’), in the invisible and inaudible sphere before it appeared on the ‘scene’ of events, and rang out sonorously in the ‘background,’ and is now only a monument to its own complacent pseudo-power, which is in fact a total powerlessness (if elaborated into literary utterances for instance); if the dignity of speech is to be preserved, it has to be shown at the moment of its true existence, which is lonely and helpless. It is a wail or a whisper at best, or an inarticulate cry.
Just as painting has chiaroscuro, so the art of words has a certain ‘albinigritude,’ a zone of passage between concepts which correspond to colour in painting. Outside this zone there is only unverbalized thought, thought unincarnate which interests Dróżdż in so far as it strives to give its thought the most ascetic body possible. And yet, when faced with his works, I am seized by the question: since there are so few signs before me, since their mutual relations endeavour to such strict definition, what remains outside the scope of their influence? If the artist has incarnated his thought in a frail and unassuming body because otherwise he would have to betray his mission and remain an artist without a work, a completely silent artist, an artist of silence (and the terms do contradict each other), then what has he hidden from us, what did not make it into this litteratura, what has shied away from the letter? Dróżdż uses the letter to safeguard wisdom against the temptation of (arts and) letters.
Plato writes in one of his epistles that even if thoughts embodied in the word are beautiful, there is reason to suspect that the ones which repose in silence are more beautiful still. ‘if we have somebody’s writings, a lawmaker’s comments on the law for instance or in any other field, before us, we must conclude that these were not things of the utmost importance to the writer, provided he is a serious man; for those lie somewhere in the most beautiful realm of his mind’”25. In Phaedrus Plato compares painting and writing, and concludes that the two have in common a deceptive form of being, a being endowed with only an apparent being. Preserved in material form, the sign becomes an automaton which can only repeat the lines en- trusted to it; therefore, literature is a machine: ‘for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.’26 Here is a list of serious reservations: things of beauty lie in the grave of beautiful thoughts (the fairest thing, to follow Plato’s line of thought, knows neither resurrection nor reincarnation, remaining in a permanent cataleptic slumber), living things answer questions and change their shape, what’s more they can even be said to be ‘garrulous’ after a fashion. Dróżdż’s texts respond to these doubts as follows: a thing of beauty is never definitely fixed in any shape, hence there exists a constant movement between the depth of ‘the fairest thoughts’ and the signs which emerge from it and imply its existence; signs and objects are mutable, in thrall to the forces of becoming rather than being, and in a state of metamorphosis, which is why they keep asking us new questions never really trusting any answer we might give. All this provided that – as Plato maintains – the artist is a ‘serious man,’ an assumption which should not be taken for granted. Even if the artist were ‘mirthful’ is would not impair the gravity and beauty of his thought. Zarathustra, no less, considered himself a laughing and dancing philosopher. The tearful gaze discussed above might equally well be the gaze of someone doubled over with laughter. Let us not lose sight of the possibility that concrete poetry is a form of aesthetic and philosophical joke.
Translation: Artur Zapałowski
1 A. Marvell, ‘Eyes and Tears’ in: Complete Poetry (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1984).
2 M. Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. I, trans. A. Gniazdowski, P. Graczyk, W. Rymkiewicz, M. Werner, C. Wodziński (Warszawa: PWN, 1998), p. 289 (Translator’s note – Unless otherwise indicated all references are to the Polish editions).
3 M. Blanchot, Wokół Kafki [‘De Kafka ∫ Kafka’], trans. K. Kocjan (Warszawa: Publishing House kr, 1996), pp.170, 173.
4 J. Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, (University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 45.
5 M. Merleau-Ponty, ‘Eye and Mind’ in: G. Johnson, The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Philosophy and Painting (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 127.
6 W. Bałus, Modus melancholicus, (Kraków: Universitas, 1996), p. 139.
7 E. Levinas, O Bogu, który nawiedza myśl [‘Of God who comes to mind’], trans. M. Kowalska (Kraków: Znak, 1994), p. 256.
8 M. Blanchot, op.cit.
9 M. Heidegger, op. cit.
10 in: P. Rossi, Filozofowie i maszyny, [‘Filosofi e le macchine’] trans. A. Kreisberg, Warszawa 1978, p. 85.
11 R. Descartes, Treatize of Man, trans. T. S. Hall (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972).
12 S. Weil, Świadomość nadprzyrodzona [‘Connaissance surnaturelle’], trans. A. Olędzka-Frybesowa (Warszawa, 1965), p. 183.
13 ibid., p. 185.
14 M. Serres, The Troubadour of Knowledge, trans. S. Glaser, W. Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. 119.
15 E. Cioran, On the Inconvenience of Being Born, trans. E. Kania (Kraków: Oficyna Literacka, 1996), p. 135.
16 E. Levinas, op. cit.
17 S. Weil, op. cit.
18 E. Levinas, op. cit.
19 E. Cioran, op. cit.
20 M. Merleau-Ponty, „Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence”, in: The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, p. 81.
21 A. Pope, Essay on Man (VIII: 237, 247-250).
22 J. Tauler, The Inner Way, Sermon II, trans. Arthur Wollaston Hutton (London: Methuen & Co.,1909).
23 U. Carrion, Second Thoughts (Amsterdam 1980), p. 6-17.
24 J. Bańka, Traktat o pięknie, (Katowice: Publishing House Uniwersytetu Śląskiego, 1999), p. 30.
25 Plato, Listy [‘Letters’], trans. M. Maykowska (Warszawa 1987), p. 55.
26 Platon, Phaedrus, trans. Benjamin Jowett. (University of Chicago Press, 1993).