KENNETH WARREN Reviews
Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes by Andrei Codrescu
(Antibookclub, Austin, TX, 2012)
[Previously published in House Organ, No. 82, Spring 2013, edited by Kenneth Warren]
The Conversion of Andrei Codrescu
“When in life each man pictures to himself that it will come to pass that birds and wild beasts will mangle his body in death, he pities himself; for neither does he separate himself from the corpse, nor withdraw himself enough from the outcast body, but thinks it is he, and, as he stands watching, taints it with his own feeling.”
—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Once upon a time the book was an ideal object stoking warm, fuzzy golden-glow feelings of life everlasting amidst the deciduous energies of paper. The book was a high-flying portal to idolatry, magical thinking, and touchy self-perpetuation. Like the soul, the book was a means to account for big personality, ferocious telos, and resplendent love. Externalized in the book was the lonely, silent void that the poet wrote to fill. The book was the thing. Only now with the computability of texts, the power that conditions poetic aspiration is increasingly disconnected from meat and vegetable states, which in kinder and gentler times underwrote the bookworm’s uroboric force field. Today the aura that radiated eternity from the book has faded into Conceptual Poetry, desperado Facebook love, social network capitalism, and silicon projection.
For poet Andrei Codrescu the shift from codex to Kindle supplies technological provocation for a psychologically charged account of the self-extension fantasy that had once imbued his old-school 20th Century investment in books, poetry, and reading. With Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes (2012), Codrescu enters into the book’s deepest talismanic powers and exits through the lucidity of naked 21st Century data. In a powerfully articulated conversion narrative that involves both religious experience and technology, he notices that the angel of death is at once shepherding the book to its ending and dictating the very code through which the poet’s own self-portrait must ultimately be cracked as the matter of soul. As witness to “Bibliodeath,” he reports:
The literate millions watching the guillotine are privy to the first public demonstration of the passage of the soul from one body into another, a reincarnation that is not a metaphysics. Yet for all that, the soul does (not) move to a better place, where it may be cleansed or overlinked, though it is surely lightened. The former body of the book also preserves the original content, making it still useful to the old reading habit. (i)
Obviously it’s not so much the collapse of pulpy cultural clout into digital-screened techno-power that is being mourned in Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes, but rather the depth of feeling for the slow mo living totality aroused in believers by the old-fashioned book.
From “Noah’s Arc-Hive” (49) to New Orleans, Codrescu’s intricate relationship with book and archive opens to the mythological inflection of deluge. Agog a water world of two oceans, Codrescu assumes a long view on human adventure, artifact, and consciousness:
The Archives Ocean covers some ten to fifteen thousand years of human expression, fifty-five hundred of which are written language and five hundred of which are the age of the printed book…. The Sacred Ocean covers the entirely of human consciousness. (ii)
Signaling the end of one age and the beginning of another with the flood myth, Codrescu proclaims that the book is no longer afloat on the waters of time but run aground on “the island of the bibliodeath orgy” (iv).
With regard to Codrescu’s poetic lineage, Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes offers a strikingly creative response to Arthur Rimbaud’s “Après le déluge.” As the soggy flux of decadent poetic stuff streams from Heraclitus into Codrescu’s ingenious “reaching out for godlike powers of creation through a rimbaudian ‘derangement of the senses’” (4-5), the elemental motif that connects water with death and soul is inevitably renewed by intuitive perception via the unconscious—a dynamic apprehension of psychic facts unhooked from reason and concrete reality described by C.G. Jung in Psychological Types (1921/1976). Deep down Codrescu realizes the soul is the principle of life that is leaking into his footnotes, haunting his archives, and living beyond his language as inimitable personality pressured by “the golden aura of writing as a sacramental-scriptural act” (118). So confronting the digital age wherein the book is quite possibly dying faster than its author, he plumbs the conversion code of transference for sluiceways to invisible presence:
A virtual reliquary drains belief from the believer if herm realizes that it is virtual; it is a true miracle of the Catholic Church that it has continued to exist by investing the symbolic sacraments with the power of the original. This miracle was doubtlessly accomplished by keeping the number of sacraments to two—bread and wine, body and blood—and equating the symbolic rhetoric of transference with the mystery of transubstantiation itself. (iii-iv)
The observations of Ernest Becker concerning transference in The Denial of Death (1973) are central to the meaning of Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes. “Transference is a universal passion,” writes Becker. “It represents a natural attempt to be healed and to be whole, through heroic self-expansion in the ‘Other’”(157). For Codrescu the book is supercharged by a fetishism which could arouse “a gawky Jewish boy wearing glasses in Romania” (20) to attempt “heroic self-expansion in the ‘Other’” by becoming a poet under Communist dictatorship.
In imagining the deep waters of reading, Codrescu rightly emphasizes the drainage space of transference and thereby gives credence to the unconscious contents that glue the modern poet and reader to the book’s sacramental emotional bonding material. Unfortunately, digital conversion mows down the vertical mysterium upon which “a sacramental-scriptural act” is privileged. As Codrescu points out, “The archival library (the building, the paper, the materials) ceased to matter after G-D, the Great Digitizer, came to earth and flattened everything” (119). Likewise, digital conversion drains the waters of the eternal feminine that had once drenched the emotional body of the reader.
The digital drains the body from the text, that is to say it deprives the text of gravity by stealing its dirt, sweat, tears, sperm, blood, gooey sentiment, found junk, folk carving, craving for sugar; it replaces the gravity of random traces with information reduced to (perfect) code. (117)
The book is, like the archive, a tomb from which death emerges to bestow the super-charge of authorship upon “the Human Stain” (140). Inasmuch as the book is a love object being drained of “immortality-power” (Becker, 156), Codrescu feels compelled, nevertheless, to defend it to the death with his heart and intelligence. Although no longer over-stimulated by the Eros of the book, Codrescu can still moon over the loss of gravity, libido, stability, and touch: “A paperbookish culture is sexy; one-third of it is the weight of its libidinal substance” (99). Equally so, the foundational world of the public library is, in Codrescu’s view, an indispensably embodied social site, fleshy with “erotic charge,” and worthy of the human body:
It will be interesting to see what remains of public libraries, how their spaces will be reassigned, after books and readers are gone. I hope that they preserve their erotic charge by becoming sites for live performance and will continue housing the homeless, who will be the last ungooglable humans, insofar as they stay ungooglable that they will provide continuity for the performing flesh body. (98)
The focus on the human body, inspired by Freud, flowered in the 1960s with an explicitly Dionysian accent in Norman O’ Brown’s Love’s Body (1966). Pegged to the Dionysian poetics of 1960s zeitgeist is Codrescu’s poetic deity:
Let’s call the god for whom this ritual is performed Pan, the nature-god, for the sake of simplicity. Pan is often the most poetic deity. I had been infected with this religion in my youth by poet/philosophers Eliade, Blaga and Tzara; after reading them, I took for granted the outsider status of poet/shamans who moved in a psychic wilderness where others were lost.
Quite naturally, Codrescu’s Pan-possessed genius is immersed in Romania’s feeling-steeped cultural complex of spirited belonging whose daimons often animate alcoholism, irrationality, poetry, religiosity, and shamanism. Having lived under the suffocating Titanic pressure of communist ideology, moreover, Codrescu captures in wet recollections a Dionysian bad boy life drama that reflects an archetypal conflict in the human psyche, one dangerously exaggerated by identifications with holy books, orthodox ideologies, and pure technologies. From the archetypal perspective, Codrescu’s thick reports on identifications with the book under ideological and technological pressure masterfully express an essential struggle in human nature, which Raphael Lopez-Pedraza has boldly articulated in Cultural Anxiety (1990) and Dionysus in Exile: On the Repression of the Body and Emotion (2000). Indeed, the Titanic core of abstraction, acceleration, exaggeration, repetition, scientific purity, and velocity, which in Lopez-Pedraza’s view of human consciousness erodes archetypal image and soul, is the outer aspect through which Codrescu’s Dionysian concerns over life and death are so convincingly reflected against the virtual face of the “forever virginal (99).
Having lived out a complicated life drama—one thick with cultic, moral, and tribal scores never quite settled in either Romania or America—Codrescu anxiously turns history into mystery and personality into art.
The writer’s job wasn’t just making the thing, it was also creating the context in which the thing could do its magic. You can’t make language without also making a “self” to house it in. That “self,” the poem’s context, is a mystery whose only job is to remain mysterious. (102)
At the level of self-process, Codrescu develops his heroic code from indispensable cultural traumas that mysteriously stud the poet whose historical relation to the imaginary reconstruction of sense once embodied in the book has been feverishly inspired. In facing the book, he writes in the afterglow of the primary unity of mother and child, the very nub of transference. His candid disclosure of psychosexual details about the Ice Witch—truly the fever dream and tidal flow of his heroic code—gives the interactive field of personal and archetypal levels force enough to bind the myth of the book to the Great Mother:
I did have a fever the first time my mother turned into a witch made of ice and I couldn’t open my eyes—I must have been three-or four-years-old. That fever-born image of my mother was so powerful that for the many years that she and I slept in the same bed, all the way to the unseemly age of fourteen—I often had the “witch made out of ice” image in my mind, mostly when I got older and tried to wish away the thought of her body next to mine in the dark. The ice witch guarded the cave of the Incest Taboo. So there were really three of us in bed. It seems that I had already invented a persona at a very tender age. (Miss Melanie Klein, to the courtesy phone, please!) (22).
Codrescu’s actual mother belonged to “one of the oldest printing guilds in Europe, contemporary with Gutenberg” (14). Packed into the fever dream of the Ice Witch, then, are the “mysterious” (102) contents of “a self” (102) which spins incestuous libido into the Gutenberg tradition wherein the book, like the mother’s body, can support personal cohesion through the process of object relations suggested by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. As the mother of cold Gutenberg print, the Ice Witch connects Codrescu’s soul to sacred codex values preserved by medieval superego. Emerging from the stimulus of the mother’s body is the image of chilling intellectual power and frozen psychosexual energy that Codrescu’s ego must embrace and eventually shape into The Stiffest of the Corpse: an Exquisite Corpse Reader, 1983-1990 (1990).
Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes is a story of objects lost and sometimes found. While the book is the transport vehicle for out-of-time aspirations, Codrescu’s personal tales of lost objects portend a larger historical shift from analog to digital time:
I had mostly abandoned the Renata notebook at about the same time that I lost the prized black Pobeda wristwatch my mother gave me when I was thirteen, to mark my passage to manhood.” (28)
To put it astrologically, though, Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes must be appreciated through the water sign of death, sex, shamans, and witches, which is to say, Scorpio. According to Manly Hall, who writes in The Secret of the Ages (1928/2003), the constellation of Scorpio is associated with the “season that Noah entered the ark to escape from the Deluge” (124). While Codrescu’s childhood feelings aroused by the mother’s body are artfully transferred through his love affair with the book, the Ice Witch can be associated with an astrological image of death and deluge assigned to the mother image on his natal chart—Moon in Scorpio. With a lunation pulse in Scorpio, the friction between their bodies and the cosmic environment gives rise over time to fluids of self-organization that flood into the Archives Ocean and Sacred Ocean: “Every time I moved, my waves of document, notes, manuscripts, letters, tapes, drives rolled along. I hath become Okeanos clad in a suit of nymph-algae” (79).
Codrescu understands that the digital cloud upon which the narcissism of the poet is now being uploaded lacks the watery feeling required for alchemical dissolution. As a poet writing prose from the stimulus of his own watery opus, Codrescu sometimes imagines himself a technically challenged alchemical hero who back in the day managed to fertilize the womb-tomb of the book. As a “lifelong pollinator” (vi), he feels drawn to deposit “traces in the physical archives that digitalization cannot flatten” (123-4). Traveling through the mysteries of reproduction, he believes that “material dirts, that is to say non-digital dirt, will be a secret currency, the ‘gold’ that guarantees the ongoing existence of human beings” (117). No matter that “the projections of revolutionaries, as well as the images of their revolutions, will be incorporated by the universal amnesiac flatness of the new archival technologies” (93), he must for himself remember and reveal the history he shares with a self-creating poet before he can honorably bury his seedy artifacts in the archive, let alone forget his endarkened place in “the Unarchive”:
Regionalism, marginality, subculture, orality were ejected by the centrifuge of centralizing Archives that retained only their amenable (attractive) expressions. Everything else became an Unarchive. The Unarchive that poetry pointed to was all the jagged stuff that the Archives rejected as it centralized knowledge (93).
Salted into Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes memoir are the deeply Jewish and Romanian parts of Codrescu whose contemplation of his life in relation to Transylvanian incunabula amplifies a process of conversion not strictly limited to the digital pressures that send texts flying over Amazon’s Whispernet. Instead, Codrescu’s extraordinary seven plus page footnote on the origin of his nom de plume in a Sibiu Writers’ Workshop presents a religiously charged code, one representing an older mode of conversion which demanded the negation of his Jewish surname—Perlmutter. It is not without the history of European Holocaust that the soul of Perlmutter mediates the conversion trauma of a youth “instantly suspected of being a Shrewd Jew” (10). Thus he writes of the name that super-sizes his identity by locating him otherwise in the world: “It wasn’t until I found ‘Codrescu’ that I hit the deepest chord of nationalist gore” (11).
“Freshly baptized” (11), Codrescu takes root in the shadow of the mortified self. The poet’s name is grounded in traumatic encounter with the other; it is marked by the sensational surplus of “nationalist gore.” His code is beholden to archaic and traumatic energies; it is founded on the wound between the Jew and the Gentile. To churn through gory alterity is to turn oneself into a poet whose guts can now spill into the language of the pagan soul and Talmudic footnote. In this way, he comes alive to the rubedo of Romania wherein storytelling charisma seeps through “the nationalist gore” to shape his code and ultimately evaporate into a symbolic deposit.
The deeply ingrained religious complex that possesses both conversion narratives and collective identifications with the book is transformed through Codrescu’s creative and humane syncretism:
I was a secular Jew in a Christian Orthodox world that was officially atheist. I decided that poetry was my religion. (43)
From the Romanian religio-philosophical tradition, Codrescu turns the transcendent into the subject of poetry. To speak of a religion of poetry is to claim an initiation into visionary perception. Accordingly Codrescu’s conversion to poetry revels in “intuitive force” (46).
These Romanian writers who initiated me made it impossible for the alienated and angry adolescent I was to yearn for anything but the deepest, darkest, and most instrumental poetry. This instrument was the intuitive force I needed to explore the world of the sacred; the instrument itself was writing, it looked like a line of verse. I didn’t need to own my masters’ dangerous books, not because I was afraid to own them, but because they were meant to be shared. (46)
For Codrescu historical conditions and sensate trauma are perforated by his name and inflated by the “intuitive force” of sacred poetry. In retaining the sacred impulse from Romanian genius, Codrescu circumambulates a cosmic consciousness, which is to say, a mental process of discovery from the unconscious that in Jung’s Psychology of Types (1921/1976) is termed intuition. “In intuition,” writes Jung, “a content presents itself whole and complete, without our being able to explain or discover how the content came into existence” (443). Codrescu’s subtle artistry has been made se lf-aware by the deep oceanic spin cycle that drenches intuitive consciousness in feeling. As a religion creating archetype, intuition might be described further as the immersive recoil from the continuum of trauma that rips through the physical world. From such conviction Codrescu can therefore say: “Eliade’s philosophy fit my world-view like a wet suit” (42-43).
Certainly evident in the atmosphere of Codrescu’s early reading of Romanian sources is Marshall McLuhan’s proposition in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962/1969): “The typographic logic created the outsider, the alienated man, as the type of integral, that is, intuitive and irrational man” (254). Codrescu notes:
Emil Cioran’s Manual for Rotting took Eliade’s dialectic to greater and more emphatic depths: history was not only profane, it was the process of human evil par excellence, eradicable only through the destruction of humans. We had fallen from Eden into History and death was our only (otherwise inevitable) salvation. He recommended suicide (44).
Just as the symbolic power to traumatize is tethered to the signifier, “intuitive force” is dissociated from sensible. Supported by the right brain processing, Codrescu’s “intuitive force” is the organizing desire for metaphor, escape from the rational mind, and the abolition of time. Furthering such desire, a Romanian abolition of time guy, like Eliade, helps Codrescu to flip the cognitive gate and release the right brain synchronic daimons of intuition. To the balanced purpose of honoring all life in a multicultural world, though, Codrescu displays a mode of Jewish textual exegesis in his “La Chaim” footnotes, which poignantly hold in check any suicidal impulse to abolish time that might be uncorking from those mystical Romanian ghosts. Ah, redemption!
Born in New York City in 1953, Kenneth Warren is the founder and editor of House Organ, a letter of poetry and prose, and the author of Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980 – 2012. He lives in Ransomville, New York