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Robert Zend – Part 10. International Affinities: France (Marcel Marceau)


Part 10. International Affinities:
France (Marcel Marceau)

L’Art du Silence
and the Language of Empathy

          In 1955, French mime artist Marcel Marceau made his historic North American debut, beginning his tour at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and continuing with standing-room-only performances in most major cities in the United States. The tour propelled Marceau into international fame. In 1958, he made a triumphant return to the Stratford Festival, the venue that had kicked off the series of performances that not only secured his place as the most important mime artist of his time, but also established miming as an performance genre with a high degree of artistic and intellectual merit.
          In 1970, Marceau once again returned to Canada to perform at the Stratford Festival. To commemorate his visit, Zend designed a chess set to be presented by the CBC to Marceau, an avid chess player (figs. 1 and 2).
          The warm and reciprocal friendship that developed between the two men isn’t surprising. On a personal level, they had both survived Nazi-occupied countries and experienced profound losses during that period. Zend lost both of his parents to hostilities against civilians during the Soviet siege of Nazi-occupied Budapest, and his first wife, Ibi, lost both of her parents and other family members to Nazi concentration camps. Marceau lost his father, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Subsequently, he joined the French Resistance and helped many Jewish children escape to neutral countries; in fact, Marceau began miming in order to entertain the children and keep them quiet during their treacherous escape.1 And Zend was active in the resistance to Soviet rule during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Both Marceau and Zend understood well the consequences of authoritarian regimes founded on terror and hatred.
MARCEL MARCEAU PORTRAIT          They shared a keen sense of humour and apparently also a love of the spontaneous sketch: Zend calls Marceau “a friend with whom I like doodling together.”2 And since they also shared a close personal, artistic, and spiritual bond, each refers to the other as his “chosen brother.”3
          Zend was deeply affected by Marceau’s practice of l’art du silence in his creation of a mute clown, Bip, who in brief mimed narratives played out the dilemmas of an ordinary man faced with predicaments (fig. 3). Marceau ascribes Bib’s popularity to the fact that


Bip is a funny, sad fellow, and things are always happening to him that could happen to anybody. Because he speaks with the gestures and the movement of the body, everyone knows what is happening to him, and he is popular everywhere. . . . There is no French way of laughing and no American way of crying. My subjects try to reveal the fundamental essences of humanity.4

Of his art, Marceau noted, “It’s not dance. It’s not slapstick. It is essence and restraint.5
          Zend felt an affinity for the “essences of humanity” within Marceau’s tragicomic everyman, Bip, out of his own concern with the erasure of superficial barriers between peoples to reveal their commonalities. He admired Marceau’s ability to create through Bip’s gestures alone a universal language by presenting distilled human nature in “style pantomimes.” Film and theatre critic Robert Koehler describes Marceau’s “style” pieces as “ambitious works” that might be “Bip’s fantastic dreams,” and that “often try to soar above the earthly plain.”6.
          In one such style sketch entitled “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death,” Marceau glides seamlessly through the trajectory of a human life in about three minutes, from curled fetus to shriveled old age and death. The general idea can be seen in the following montage of film stills from a 1965 performance (available on YouTube, for anyone interested) (fig. 4):
MUTAMUSMarceau’s compressed arc of human life is reminiscent of Zend’s typescape Mutamus (We Are Changing) (fig. 5), which shows five stages of human life against the backdrop of an hourglass. It also recalls Zend’s 1983 flipbook animation entitled Linelife, which I featured in Part 1. of this series, and which I repeat below for any who missed it or would like to see it again (fig. 6):

Fig. 6. Robert Zend, LineLife, ink drawing on paper, 1983, Box 10, Robert Zend fonds, Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries. Adapted for digital medium by Camille Martin. Copyright © Janine Zend, 1983, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission from Janine Zend.

          Like Marceau’s ethos of embracing all humanity by appealing to commonalities, Zend’s poetry also dissolves boundaries between self and other, as in the following aphoristic poem:


First Person

When I talk about myself,
I talk about you, too.7

In just a few words, Zend creates an empathetic bridge linking two persons and acknowledging their common humanity.
          And in “The Universalist,” dedicated to “the Style Pantomimist Who Can Tell Years in Minutes,” Zend celebrates Marceau’s ability to render the “essences of humanity.” The poem’s premise is reminiscent of Borges: a writer dreams of capturing “the history of the world in ten volumes” but is faced with the “impossib[ility] to know everything about all the peoples in all times.” He then tries writing successively less ambitious but equally detailed pieces: “a triology about three consecutive generations,” “a play about an interesting conflict,” and “one short story about one character.” But each time he begins a new project, he soon gives up in defeat because he realizes that the enormous scope of his subject exceeds his capacity to capture all of the details of world history in “a true picture.”
          Then he tries to render “one of his moods in a short lyrical poem.” This also fails because he realizes that such a poem would always remain a “fragment,” unable to do justice even to one momentary mood in one human life, “for his mood rooted back into his childhood, into his family, into the culture which bore him, into the whole history of mankind.” At last,


after decades of not writing at all — when he was very, very old — one evening — after careful consideration — he took a clean sheet of paper and immersed his pen in the ink, and — as if he had just finished the magnificent life-work he had started dreaming about when he was very young — he dropped a tiny, little dot of ink onto the paper, and was satisfied and happy, because he knew that the little dot contained hundreds of billions of universes in it, complete with galaxies, and within the galaxies solar systems, and within the solar systems swarming life on each of the infinite number of planets contained in them. He was a god after the creation. No longer afraid of death.8

Within the microcosm of a drop of ink swarm macrocosms that in turn, viewed through an imaginary microscope, contain infinite microcosms. In his fantastical tale, Zend acknowledges Marceau’s gift of distilling complex human emotions and predicaments into a series of gestures, which in turn suggest infinite possibilities in the macrocosm of “all the peoples in all times.”

“I divide myself in two” (Marceau)
“and punch myself on the nose” (Zend)

MARCEAU MASK MAKER          The flip side of that universalism is Zend’s interest in Marceau’s renditions of masking and of the divided self. In one style sketch, Bip plays a mask maker who alternately tries on his masks of tragedy and comedy, performing various antics appropriate to the masks’ moods. But at a certain point he’s unable to remove the laughing mask. As Bip grows increasingly desperate to pry it off, his frantic gestures reveal the stark incongruity between the laughing mask and the tragedy of the situation (fig. 7). Finally, Bip blinds himself and is then able to peel off the offending mask. Marceau describes the sketch of the Mask Maker as showing, “through the use of his many faces, the problem of illusion and reality,” thus creating a “Pirandellian effect,”9 referring to the Italian playwright’s exploration of the human capacity for self-delusion and the construction of masks hiding a darker, unknowable reality. (This idea of the multiple masks of the self fascinated Zend and will be explored further in the section on Italian affinities, Pirandello in particular.) Marceau describes his performance in “The Mask Maker” as one of self-division:


I must detach myself wholly from my face. At the end, when he cannot wrench the laughing mask off, the face laughs and the body cries. I divide myself in two.10

Zend had the opportunity to hear in depth Marceau’s ideas on the mask when he produced a CBC Ideas program entitled The Living Mask in 1971, featuring conversations with Marceau.
          Moreover, as an exiled immigrant, Zend himself knew intimately that “schizoid” feeling of being split by the impossibility of reconciling two different places, so his life was steeped in that feeling of dividedness. In “Spheroid Poem,” dedicated “to All Men in Marceau,” he writes of a self sometimes violently opposed to itself:


I sometimes met
myself on the street
and punched myself on the nose —
and I was mad at myself
for I wasn’t even sorry for myself —
sometimes I stayed home
and penned poems
for myself
which every hundred years or so
I will reread
and either like them
or dislike them.

I was often dissatisfied
and rebelled against myself —
I declared war
and in one bloody battle after another
I wiped myself out —
through boring years of peace,
I thought triumphantly about
my losing the war,
so I thought revengefully about
my winning the war,
so I thought triumphantly about . . .
and so on.11

The multiplicity of identities within the self are also explored in Zend’s poem “You”:



If I say “you”
it’s not you I think of
but rather the one I think of

If I say “you”
It’s not me I think of
but rather the one I am thinking of

If I say “you”
I’m thinking of one of my selves
in whom another self believes12

Zend’s repetition of the phrase “thinking of” becomes like a hall of mirrors in which not only is the “you” or other person unknowable but the self that thinks of the “you” is also unknowable, and so on, in a potentially infinite regression of unknowable selves thinking unknowable thoughts.

Portraits and Bouquets:
A Collaboration of Gifts

PORTRAIT 6A 250          Following Marceau’s visit, Zend and Marceau continued their expression of friendship and mutual esteem. Marceau expressed his admiration of Zend in both words and art. He wrote that “[o]nce Robert Zend told me that I was a poet of gestures. Once I told him he was a mime with words. Robert Zend is a poet in every moment of his life.”13 Marceau also drew a fine portrait of Zend, published in the negative on the front dust jacket of his first book of poetry, From Zero to One (fig. 8). Before he became a professional mime, Marceau had first dreamed of becoming an artist. During his tours, he would often present quick sketches of himself to autograph-seekers.14 Marceau also created more studied portraits of Bip that often feature stylized suns with exaggerated starburst lines. It’s perhaps a sign of Marceau’s esteem for Zend that he draws his portrait with Bip’s characteristic suns exhibiting various emotions from joyful (high in the sky) to mournful (setting) – Marceau’s version, perhaps, of the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy. Also, it’s possible to see in Zend’s image a hint of Bip in the almost mutton-chop effect of the facial hair, a trademark feature of Marceau’s clown. The care that Marceau took with Zend’s portrait, with its delicate strokes and the meditative, slightly melancholic countenance, is evident.
BIP 1 250          After designing the chess set, Zend again paid tribute to Marceau in a thirty-one-page piece entitled A Bouquet to Bip, published in Exile Magazine in 1973 (fig. 9). The bouquet in the title likely refers to the single red flower absurdly sprouting from Bip’s crumpled opera hat. We have already seen some text from A Bouquet to Bip above. The following are some remarkable images from that sequence.
          One of the most beautiful and poignant of these, entitled “The Family Tree of the Alphabet,” is a concrete poem consisting of letters in a connect-the-dot configuration of a butterfly (fig. 10). The image renders homage both to Marceau’s sketch “Bip Hunts Butterflies” and to George Mendoza, author of the children’s book Marcel Marceau Alphabet Book.
Zend’s butterfly shows an imaginary evolution of the modern alphabet originating from punctuation marks in the body of the butterfly and branching out into more evolved letters along its wings. The detail (fig. 11, above right) focuses on one branch of the letter “X” symbolically dead-ending in the swastika, which is topped with a cross as grave-marker.
          Below are two additional concrete poems in Zend’s Bouquet series. To the left is a “nomograph” (a word probably coined by Zend) depicting Bip using the letters of Marceau’s name and dedicated “to a Friend with Whom I Like Doodling Together” (fig. 12). And the one to the right uses the letters in “The Title” to salute Pierre Verry, the “presenter of the cards” who walked onstage prior to each of Marceau’s sketches carrying a sign indicating the title (fig. 13).
Marceau wrote a three-page response to A Bouquet to Bip, which Zend included in the Exile Magazine publication. Two pages are reproduced below. At left is Marceau’s drawing of Bip showing his silent acceptance of Zend’s “bouquet” (fig. 14). Perhaps in response to Zend’s use of The Mask Maker in his tribute, Bip’s mouth is divided into a smile and a frown, echoing the masks of comedy and tragedy like the starburst suns mentioned above. And to the right is a Zend-like poem by Marceau (fig. 15).
          Although their meeting was relatively brief, Zend’s friendship with Marceau was extraordinarily fruitful in their exchanges of poems and drawings. The ideas and feelings that raised Marceau’s miming to a subtle and ingenious artistic expression resonated with Zend’s own explorations of self and other and the tension between human universality and the divided self. Zend thrived on such creative interactions with other writers and artists, which produced within his own work sympathetic vibrations. Zend honours Marceau and, by extension, Bip by finding aspects of them within himself and creating work that is a spiritual collaboration and a testament to their friendship. A Bouquet to Bip is remarkable for being so openly and sincerely woven of their close and affectionate brotherhood.

Next Installment — Part 11.
International Affinities: Italy
(Leopardi and Pirandello)

Camille Martin


Robert Zend – Part 9. International Affinities: Argentina (Borges)


Part 9. International Affinities:
Argentina (Borges)

Belonging Nowhere but Humanity

          In the previous sections, I traced some of Robert Zend’s Hungarian literary roots as well as Canadian cross-pollinations. In this section, I’ll explore his affinities with artists, writers, and cultural traditions around the world, focusing on some of the more significant ones from Argentina, France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan.
          Zend openly expressed his admiration for writers and artists in many countries — one only has to look at the numerous dedications in his first two books of poetry. But on a deeper level, Zend’s tributes often took the form of collaborations of various types. He wrote ekphrastic poems (based on works by Norman McLaren, René Magritte, Julius Marosan, and Jerónimo, for example), absorbed lessons from the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, engaged in poetic correspondence with Marcel Marceau (for whom he also designed a chess set), and incorporated elements of Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami into his poetry and visual work. There’s a spirit of generosity in such collaborations, which are at once quintessentially Zend-ish and overtly otherly. Zend’s title of a draft for a collaboration with Czech-Canadian artist Jiri Ladocha captures something of that spirit: Zendocha-land.
          Zend wished to model his creative life after his Hungarian mentor, Frigyes Karinthy, in that


[Karinthy] wasn’t willing to accept any label, either for himself or for others. . . . He didn’t identify with any group; he belonged nowhere, but this non-belonging meant for him an extremely strong belonging to Man, to Mankind, to Humanity.1

Many factors shaped Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook: the historically international culture of Budapest and its tradition of literary translation, his early exposure to Italian culture, his admiration of Karinthy, and his opportunities as a CBC producer to travel around the world interviewing writers and other cultural figures. Zend’s cosmopolitanism is part of his legacy to Canadian culture, and thus it is also part of Canadian cultural history.
          As I mentioned in a previous installment, certain literary tropes and approaches were part of the widespread influence of international modernism and postmodernism — for example, the proliferation of forms with which to question epistemological certainty, and the avant-garde experimentation with typewriter art and concrete poetry. In Zend’s case, however, the relationships and influences are more often than not revealed through collaborations or by specific allusions and acknowledgements. Thus it’s possible to draw meaningful literary and artistic connections between Zend and some of those world-wide others.

Argentina — Jorge Luis Borges

                                        Now I know why you came here
                                        from the other end of the world.
                                        Actually, I should have written Oāb . . .
                                        — Borges to Zend2
ZEND BORGES 4 250          The reader of Zend’s short stories in Daymares is likely to notice that they are on a similar wavelength as the fantastical fiction of Borges. Using surreal, mythical, or dream-like settings, both explore philosophical and metafictive concepts, toy with notions of infinity, expand the limits of human cognition, and posit labyrinthine or paradoxical quandaries, leaving the reader with a feeling that there is a mystery at the heart of existence and the universe that will not yield to rational analysis. Zend was already writing in a fantastical vein when in the early 1970s he began reading Borges and working on a CBC Ideas program entitled “The Magic World of Borges.” Lawrence Day, a member of the chess club that Zend frequented, describes how the idea came about:


As a chess player he was about 1600 but as a thinker he was easily a Grandmaster. Borges came up in a conversation. He got interested. A month later he was in Buenos Aires interviewing him for the Ideas program. Nice job eh, fly around the world interviewing people with ideas and get paid to do it!3

ZEND BORGES 1 250          Zend indeed took full advantage of the opportunities afforded him by his role as producer at CBC by traveling around the world interviewing persons who made important contributions to culture and science. And by doing so he made a lasting contribution to Canadian intellectual life. In Hungary, his travel opportunities had been limited and closely monitored for signs of the intention to defect. After he finally escaped and immigrated to Canada in 1956, it was as though his pent-up desire to travel the world and meet other writers were suddenly given the freedom and means to be fulfilled.
          Spending two weeks with Borges in Buenos Aires in 1974 not only benefited the CBC’s Ideas program, but it also proved a tremendous encouragement to Zend as a writer. After his visit, he began to write more stories exploring the fantastical, inspired by what he had learned from Borges to translate his own experienced, dreamed, and imagined worlds into the complex, multi-layered, and sometimes self-reflexive forms congenial to their narrative content. His visit was documented with some remarkable photographs, which I’ve uploaded to this installment, including one of Zend strolling with Borges through the latter’s family mausoleum, and another sitting in a Buenos Aires café with Borges and his secretary (figs. 1, 2, 6). His conversations with Borges are also commemorated in a remarkable collaboration between the two, “The Key,” published in Exile Magazine in 1974.

The Key to the Labyrinth:
A Zend-Borges Collaboration

                                        “It should be written by the Table!” I said.
                                        “It is written by the Table,” Borges said and laughed.4
          Zend’s meetings with Borges offered him the opportunity to cultivate in the older writer an important mentor for his narrative work. In him, Zend found a master of precisely the kind of writing that appealed to him and that he had been exploring in some of the earlier stories posthumously collected in Daymares. During their conversations, Borges talked about his fascination with keys. Zend suggested writing a story combining the idea of the key with Borges’ long-standing interest in labyrinths. Borges was delighted with the idea, but offered it back to Zend, who had originally proposed it, to develop into a narrative. Zend accepted the offer and began to take notes for what he expected to be a more or less linear story about a person’s search for the key to a labyrinth in which to become lost. However, on his return to Toronto, the papers he mailed back were delayed. Moreover, the editor at Exile Magazine, interested in publishing Zend’s work arising from his visit to Borges, proposed, in place of the linear narrative, a metanarrative take on the origin and evolution of the story’s premise.
          The idea appealed to Zend, who set about writing the narrative even before his notes arrived from Argentina. “The Key” ended up being composed of five footnotes appended to the (absent) linear story originally conceived. In these footnotes, Zend recounts a labyrinth of decisions and thwarted goals, at the heart of which is the absence of the actual intended story originally discussed with Borges:


What I wanted to write is not the story entitled “The Key,” it isn’t even the story of the conception of the story entitled “The Key,” but it is the story of the conception of the story of the conception of the story, entitled “The Key.”5

In other words, to write the story of the conception of the story would be (on one metanarrative level) to relate his conversations with Borges and with the editor of Exile Magazine. The layers of the metanarrative further removed (in the footnotes) consist of Zend tracing labyrinthine mental associations with his decisions regarding “the story of the conception of the story.”
          In one such associative footnote, Zend tells of his involuntary habit since youth of distilling “abstract ideas into structures.” He illustrates some of the visual narrative patterns suggested to him by the fiction of various authors or works. The three patterns in fig. 3 below display the idiosyncratic patterns he visualizes for Dante, Shakespeare, and Borges:


STORY SHAPE TRISTRAM SHANDY 250 W          This type of visualization of a narrative line or pattern is reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s illustrations of meandering lines in Tristram Shandy to render visible the novel’s digressive texture (fig. 4). Interestingly, in both works, the visually reflexive gestures serve both as digressions within a digressive story and as further deferrals of the novel’s professed autobiographical subject. Shandy early in the novel sets his metanarrative cards on the table: “digressions are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading!”6
          Such laying bare of narrative process is echoed in Zend’s explanation of the evolution of his typewriter art in “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story”:


For the honest artist, no borderline lies between the finished product and the process. The essays of Poe, Dante, Wagner, Pirandello, and Kosinsky are “finished products” which describe the “process” . . . and vice versa: the Cantos of Ezra Pound, some short stories by Borges, the Sweetheart-book by Emmett Williams, etc., reflect a continuous “process” although they appear to be “finished products.”
          For me, the division makes no sense. How can an artist — being an unfinished, imperfect product himself — create anything finished or perfect? Or rather: how can he sincerely believe that he did so? Maybe that’s why Goethe never felt Faust was finished, or Leonardo that the Mona Lisa was finished smiling . . . For me (as my wife said, taking a Marshall McLuhan tone), “the process is the product.”7

ONE STORY SHAPEAs part of his exploration of the process of “The Key,” Zend displays his visualization of the story’s metafictive pattern as an Escher-like paradox (fig. 5). Any two angles of the triangular sculpture constitute a logically possible shape; the addition of the third angle makes the form impossible as a three-dimensional object. Although Zend does not explain the corresponding irrational concept of the meta-meta-narrative of “The Key,” he is clearly, in works such as Oāb, fascinated by other such topological conundrums as the Klein bottle and the Möbius strip, which don’t lead anywhere but their own infinitely repeating surface. Somewhat similarly, the irrational triangle creates an endlessly iterable and labyrinthine path, corresponding to the journey of the story that never reaches its supposed destination (the planned narrative about a key to a labyrinth), but instead becomes the labyrinth itself for which the reader must search for a key within her- or himself.
          In addition, the image of the labyrinth symbolizes for Zend the network of influences by which writers and their works come to be, referring to the joint authorship (triple if we include the editor of Exile Magazine), but also questioning the very notion of literary originality. In a pivotal passage (itself a footnote), Zend explains the lineage of the foregrounded footnote:


Writing footnotes as organic parts of a fiction is not my innovation, I am merely imitating Jorge Luis Borges who imitates DeQuincey who probably also . . . Borges openly imitates innumerable writers innumerable times since he doesn’t believe in originality — everything was said and done before, he thinks. This is quite an original philosophy of writing, at least nowadays: in the Middle Ages it wouldn’t have been. Thus, although writing footnotes on footnotes had been done, yet writing footnotes following a blank page had not been done, and I consider this to be my innovation in this present piece of writing: however, it is possible that I do so only due my lack of cultural awareness.8

Although Zend is the one who actually wrote the story, not Borges (or the table, for that matter), the gesture of acknowledging Borges as collaborator emphasizes Zend’s indebtedness to his mentor, which, as we have seen, is characteristic of Zend’s customary expression of gratitude to his “spiritual fathers and mothers.”9 It also recognizes the phenomenon that authorship is never original but is dependent on a myriad of influences.

Parallel Dream-Sons: “Circular Ruins” and Oāb

          Borges himself also recognized his literary kinship with Zend in their respective explorations of dream-worlds and golem-like creations:


You created your dream-son the way my magician in “Circular Ruins” created his dream-son. You consider me one of your masters, yet you were my pupil even before reading my work.10

Borges is referring to the relationship of “Circular Ruins” to Zend’s two-volume graphic poem, Oāb, most of which Zend wrote during two weeks in May 1970. Borges’ words to Zend seems to confirm that the latter created Oāb prior to being exposed to Borges’ writing. As Borges observes,


Both you and I are inspired by the same themes. Now I know why you came here from the other end of the world. Actually, I should have written Oāb . . . 11

A comparison of the works reveals that the two writers, despite stylistic differences, were indeed tapping into mysterious realms of dreams and the subconscious, ideal matter for shaping mythical tales that leave the impression of mirrored infinity.
          “Circular Ruins” is such a story with its “dream-within-a-dream” premise. Borges tells of a magician with a mission:


He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality.12

The magician travels by boat downstream to the ruins of a temple. Within a succession of dreams, little by little he creates a living being and teaches his dream-child “the arcana of the universe and of the fire cult,” in order to prepare him for his priestly role “in a temple further downstream.” The magician believes that his son would “not exist if [he] did not go to him” in his dreams. Sometimes the magician is troubled by feelings of déjà vu, as if “all this had happened before.” But he forges ahead fashioning his dream-son, who is finally ready to be born. His newly-minted priest travels to the temple downstream to practice rituals “and give glory to the god.” Only fire and the magician will know of his existence as an illusion and not flesh and bone.
          Later, the magician hears that his dreamed “magic man . . . could walk upon fire and not be burned.” He fears that his son will thus realize that he is “a mere image” and will feel the “humiliation” of being only “the projection of another man’s dream.” The aging magician prepares himself for death as fire mysteriously arrives to engulf him, but he is startled to find that like his dream-son, he too is unharmed by the flames. In an epiphany he understands that his déjà vu experience was actually a glimpse into the cycle of creation, in which he was not only creator to his dream-son, but also himself “a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”13
          In outward form, Borges’ six-page short story could not be more different from Zend’s two-volume, 237-page graphic poem with its scores of concrete poems, photographs, and drawings. Borges’ story has the quality of a myth whose rather ornate descriptive language is akin to magic realism. By contrast, Zend’s language in Oāb is plain and conversational. Oliver Botar, a Canadian art historian who has translated some of Zend’s poetry into English, observes that Zend’s poetry is “written with an almost sparse economy” and “directness of language,”14 chracteristics that lend themselves well to paradoxes and twists of logic. In Oāb, this rather porous linguistic quality is appropriate to the multi-dimensional story whose theme of creation plays out on biblical, generational, and authorial levels. The playful and childlike dialogue between the creators and their naive beings gradually transforms into language reflecting deeper levels of experience and the painful knowledge of their own diminished role in the cycle of creation — while still retaining the work’s hallmark simplicity of language.           Despite the differences between the narratives of Borges and Zend, both spring from similar concerns with illusion and reality, dreams within dreams, and beings who create other beings only to learn that they in turn are being fashioned by a being in a higher dimension.
          Similar to Borges’s magician in “The Circular Ruins, in Oāb a character named Zėnd writes a son, Oāb, into existence as a blank slate; thus his “written doll”15 is all potential, and like Borges’ magician-teacher, Zėnd tutors his written son in human knowledge and three-dimensional existence.


he lives in my verse / it’s his universe.16

But Oāb begins to take on a life of his own, first through his own dreams and later by creating a being of his own, Ïrdu.
          Zėnd plays tutor to Oāb, all the while keeping him subservient to his own wishes and dependent on him for existence, as we wields his pen-nib above the “while soil” of Oāb’s paper world and observes him with the “blue suns” of his eyes.”17 Oāb, aware of the power dynamics but determined to cultivate his own world, in turn teaches Ïrdu everything he learns from Zėnd. Zėnd believes that he is at the top of this chain of creation and that a being named Ardô is his friend on equal footing with him. But (similar to the magician’s realization of his own illusory existence) in reality Ardô is a higher-level being who created Zėnd.
          Each generation is convinced of its own god-like superiority in relation to its “written doll.” For example, Zėnd believes that he is the only “real” being and that Ardô, who thinks that Zėnd is “merely a figment / of his imagination,” is only a “braggart.”18
          Like jealous gods, each generation is in turn suspicious and of the growing independence of his created being and resentful of the time he spends on his own offspring. Zėnd inculcates in Oāb that Oāb cannot become independent like him because “you are a part of me. / I contain you.” But Oāb rebels and becomes his own god, in effect. Like the biblical God who says “I am that I am,” Oāb boasts, “I am myself . . . self-contained . . . independent.”19 And when Ïrdu, Oāb’s son, in his turn rebelliously asserts his independence, Oāb balks. And Zėnd, conceding that there are things in Ardô’s four-dimensional world that he cannot comprehend, ultimately comes to realize that, far from being his friend on an equal footing, Ardô is actually his creator.
          Each over-possessive creator in turn becomes vengeful, threatening to destroy his dream-son. However, once Oāb and later, Ïrdu, are out of the bag, they cannot be “unborn” or destroyed, for like ghosts floating in the infinite memory of the universe they would haunt their creators until reborn. And each creator is helpless to stop his creature from taking on a life and identity of his own. Agency is further denied the creators when Oāb, now a fully-fledged being in his own right, explains that it was not Zėnd who willfully created him, but the reverse: it was Oāb who had to be born:


“I had to come to life. I was an absolute must. Time was ripe for me.”20

It was Oāb who found and chose Zėnd, led him around, and in fact authored Oāb: “I led his hand, don’t ever doubt it!” he says to Ïrdu.21
          In the end, the four generations come full circle. Ardô create Zėnd who created Oāb who created Ïrdu. Finally, in a repetition of the scene of Oāb’s creation, Ïrdu hears Ardô’s “name calling from the darkness,” and thus “the middle-aged Ïrdu gave (re)birth to Ardô.”22
          Zend’s story is more overtly a metapoetic exploration of authorial creation than Borges’ story of the dreaming magician. Moreover, while Borges’ magician learns in an instant’s epiphany the truth of his own origin in dream, Zend’s characters (Zėnd, Oāb, Ïrdu, and Ardô) come to this realization gradually and communicate their discovery amongst themselves in subtle psychological detail. However, both Zend’s and Borges’ narratives share the sense that creation is an endless cycle in which one’s works, and perhaps also one’s self, are never totally knowable or controllable. In Oāb, each generation of creator experiences the humiliation of discovering that he is not in control of his creation. It is in reality the creations who tutor their creators and claim agency over their formerly god-like beings who dispense life and destiny, pen in hand. And in “Circular Ruins,” the magician’s paternal feelings of love and protectiveness for his dream-son cause him to worry that the son will discover that he is not as real as his magician father, when in fact the magician himself is a figment of another being’s dream.
          In other stories, Zend uses the Borgesian dream-world to poignantly explore pain and loss in Hungary during two brutal regimes: the Nazis and the Communists. During Nazi Germany’s two-year occupation of Hungary, more than 500,000 Jews lost their lives to the Holocaust. And Stalin’s regime exacted a high price in human life in Hungary as well: of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians sent to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union during the late 1940s, an estimated 200,000 died due to poor living conditions or were murdered outright.23
          In “The King of Rubik,” one such story exploring a Holocaust theme, the speaker is


sitting here again, in Peter’s room, talking to him just as if he hadn’t starved to death in a Nazi labour-camp, thirty-eight years ago.23

Throughout the story, a magic Rubik’s Cube creates dream-like shape-shifting identities and time-frames, and orchestrates remembrance and forgetfulness in a tale of guilt, regret, and loss.
          Borges’ “The God’s Script” contains a succinct statement of the idea of the “tireless labyrinth of dreams” epitomized in “The King of Rubik” and Oāb:


You have not awakened to wakefulness, but to a previous dream. This dream is enclosed within another, and so on to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path you must retrace is interminable and you will die before you ever really awake.24

Borges’ image of life as an infinite cycle of dreams, suggesting that humans live in a labyrinth of illusions and that unknowability is the inevitable nature of existence, is also explored in a poem by Zend entitled “The Dream-Cycle,” a dizzying zoom-in view of Creation that begins in nothingness and ends in awakening:


The Dream-Cycle

Nothing dreams Something
  but Something is mostly Void

    Void dreams Matter
      but Matter is mostly Vacuum

        Vacuum dreams a Universe
          but the Universe is mostly Ether

            Ether dreams Galaxies
              but a Galaxy is mostly Space

                Space dreams Solar Systems
                  but a Solar system is mostly Sky

                    Sky dreams Celestial Bodies
                        but a Celestial Body is mostly Hollow

                          Hollowness dreams Beings
                            but a Being is mostly Empty

                              Emptiness dreams Consciousness
                                but Consciousness is mostly Sleep

                                  Sleep dreams Wakefulness
                                    but Wakefulness is mostly Irrational

                                      Irrationality dreams Knowledge
                                        but Knowledge is mostly Chaos

                                          Chaos dreams Existence
                                            but Existence is mostly Nothing

Nothing dreams Everything
before it is ready to awake25

ZEND BORGES 2 250          Considering the literary kinship of Borges and Zend, their friendship and mutual esteem is not surprising. Zend didn’t hesitate to fly thousands of miles to meet a writer whose work resonated with his own. He realized that Borges’ fiction could serve as inspiration, and indeed, the spirit of Borges’ can be seen in Zend’s fantastical work that blossomed in the stories, poems, and artworks of Daymares, a good portion of which were written following his meeting with Borges.
          To conclude this section, Zend’s typescape Awakening seems apropos as a cul-de-lampe (fig. 7).

Next Installment — Part 10.
International Affinities: France (Marceau)

Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan


Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)

Multiculturalism before Multiculturalism

          In the last installment, “Hungarian Literary Roots,” I traced some of Zend’s foundational influences in his native Hungary. In this section, I’d like to investigate the corresponding Canadian “cross-pollination”: writers and artists who inspired in Zend new aesthetic explorations. The 1960s saw an explosion of experimentation in the arts as well as paradigm-shifting ideas (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term) in cultural theory. Many of these would likely have been banned in Communist Hungary as decadent or counter-revolutionary. In his adopted country of Canada, Zend was free to delve into these new trends, to which he responded with a spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.
          I’m describing the influence of Canadian cultural figures on Zend as cross-pollination, for although his inalienable roots were in Hungarian traditions, his poetry and art that emerged since the 1960s blended aspects of both. His penchant for humour, mythology, and the fantastical, inherited from his Hungarian lineage, merged with ground-breaking Canadian ideas such as Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media culture and bpNichol’s avant-garde mixed-genre poetics. Knowing Zend’s delight in creating hybrid words like “peapoteacock,” I like to think he might have called such a hybrid of Magyar and Canadian influences something like “Magyanadian.”
          As this essay took shape, I’ve been continually reminded of the illusory nature of unified national culture in my description of literary lineage. Zend’s Hungarian influences included traditions from populations that immigrated to Hungary (as we’ve seen from the Budapest joke, which also provided a creative wellspring for Zend’s “spiritual father,” Karinthy), as well as poetry and novels from around the world, thanks to translations of world literature into Hungarian (including Zend’s own translations of Italian poetry). Similarly, Zend’s Canadian associates were often writers and artists who, like him, immigrated to Canada from other countries, such as poet Mary Melfi (Italy) and artist Jiri Ladocha (Czechoslovakia).
          In this respect, Zend’s work in Canada embodies a multicultural spirit — not only by virtue of his country of origin. His was among the crescendo of immigrant voices that eventually led to Canada’s official embracing of multiculturalism as a defining national feature in 1988 with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
          Although lineage can be documented, in reality the entangled network of influences is much more mysterious. Impossible complexity notwithstanding, what follows is an attempt to point out some Canadian cultural figures who had a transformative effect on Zend’s development as a writer and artist.
          And the most striking transformation of his work is due to the influence of the Canadian avant-garde. Although all of Zend’s early poems written in Hungary were lost to the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution, his earlier poems written in Canada in Hungarian, some of them unpublished, are likely a continuation of poems in a humorous and fantastical vein, sometimes with logical twists. Others are impressionistic, sometimes exploring dream states, more in the vein of Miklós Radnóti’s lyricism than Frigyes Karinthy’s modernist satire and science fiction.
          It is possible that Zend was influenced in Hungary by avant-garde culture, which most likely would have come from his knowledge of 1920s Russian constructivism. Janine Zend astutely points out that some of the concrete poetry in Oāb is reminiscent of such visual art. Certainly the work to which he gravitated in Hungary was influenced by European international modernism as opposed to traditional lyricism and narrative. However, I think it’s fair to say that his exposure to the Canadian avant-garde was transformative to his work, in ways that can be traced to specific influences.
          Among Canadian writers, Zend’s work is most closely related to the formally innovative writers of the 1960s and onward, such as the TISH poets of UBC Vancouver, including Lionel Kearns; other experimental poets such as bpNichol and Steve McCaffery; his fellow poets named “Robert” in a performing and publishing group called The Three Roberts (Priest, Sward, and Zend), and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
          The following correspondences do not, of course, fully explore the breadth of Zend’s Canadian aesthetic affinities, and I’m no doubt omitting some important ones. Perhaps someone will take this topic as an opportunity to write a more developed analysis.

Marshall McLuhan, Lionel Kearns,
and Norman T. White’s Hearsay Project

          Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist who wrote about the effects of media and electronic communications on society, was a frequent guest speaker at the CBC, where Zend worked as a producer. Zend was obviously fascinated by his ideas; some of his works were written under the sign of McLuhan, such as the following short one in a series entitled “Tissues:”


The time will come
when there will be no time
only electronic circuits
and I will remember
what the dead have forgotten
what the unborn have planned1

In a futuristic world in which brains are replaced by electronic circuits, time, memory, and desire will have collapsed into a static omniscience in which every thought — past, present, and future — is always already immortalized. In such a world, total knowledge paradoxically becomes oblivion, a vacuous nothing (in human terms), since it is no longer parsed by the meaning-producing processes of remembering, forgetting, and planning. Birth, growth, change, and death would be equally meaningless. In a few linguistic strokes, Zend captures the essence of the age of electronic information, and we don’t have to exchange brain cells for circuitry to experience the effects of a culture increasingly reliant on electronic information storage.
          A closely related work is “The Message,” which Zend dedicates to McLuhan:


          The messenger arrived out of breath. The dancers stopped their pirouettes, the torches lighting the palace walls flickered for a moment, the hubbub at the banquet table died down, a roasted pig’s knuckle froze in mid-air in a nobleman’s fingers, a general behind the pillar stopped fingering the bosom of the maid of honour.
          “Well, what is it, man?” asked the King, rising regally from his chair. “Where did you come from? Who sent you? What is the news?” Then, after a moment, “Are you waiting for a reply? Speak up, man!”
          Still short of breath, the messenger pulled himself together. He looked the King in the eye and gasped: “Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.”2

“The Message” is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message,” in which the dying emperor’s words, whispered to a messenger, never reaches its intended receiver, who nonetheless daydreams about the message’s content.3
          Zend’s parable tells the reverse tale of a messenger approaching the king, whose expectations are thwarted by the runner’s denial of the role of messenger and thus the very existence of a message. The messenger-who-is-not-a-messenger is himself the message—which is simply the fact of his enjoyment of running. The king, like a good consumer of messages, has failed to comprehend the significance of the medium of that message.
          In 1985, electronic media experimenter Norman T. White honored Zend several months after his death by using “The Message” for The Hearsay Project (fig. 1), a conceptual electronic art happening that took place in a span of twenty-four hours from November 11 to 12.


The story, minus the title, dedication, and author, was sent in succession to various countries around the world, in which each translator passed their rendition on to the next translator, in the manner of the children’s game of telephone, also known as hearsay. White reports that Zend’s “widow, Janine, was on hand to hit the ‘return’ key which sent the message on its way around the world,” from Toronto to Des Moines, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, Newport, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and back to Toronto. En route, “The Message” was translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, Welsh, Hungarian, and finally back into English. Not only was the text of the story transformed by the successive translations, but also the process “preserve[d] . . . the text distortions generated by typographical errors and by telephone-line ‘noise.’”4
          The following is a comparison of the messenger’s last words in Zend’s story and the end result of The Hearsay Project:


Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.



If the media of language and electronic transmission are the message, then the vaguaries and fallibility of those media are rendered transparent in this conceptual game. And the final words, “I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING,” seem oddly apropos and fortuitous, for to rise above all is perhaps also to become less visible as a medium to consumers of messages.
          Such theoretical concerns were emerging themes among TISH poets such as Lionel Kearns, who shares Zend’s fascination with the ideas of McLuhan: Kearns’ book of poetry By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface (1969) explores the ironies and paradoxes arising from mass media fallout on society.5 A prime example of Kearns’ preoccupation with media is “A Collage Education,” which “exposes television’s ironic juxtaposition of African-American poverty and pharmaceutical painkillers. . . . Kearns’ engagement with media culture also infuses poems of postcolonial irony, as in ‘Bleeding,’ in which Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies are marred by arrogantly voyeuristic tourists and the intrusion of travelogue filmmakers.”7
          In other poems, such as “Medium,” Kearns more directly pays tribute to McLuhan:


Once I’d be filling up poems
with outrageous images
                    and impossible ideas
just to keep track of them
and let you know I’m here

Now I give you only
silence and blank paper
but this too
                    is a kind of message7

KEARNS BIRTH OF GOD  130 W          One of the most striking (and most widely anthologized) works from By the Light of the Silvery McLune is the concrete poem “The Birth of God” (fig. 2), which Kearns calls “a mathematical mandela embodying the perfect creative/destructive principle of the mutual interpenetration and balanced interdependence of opposites.” In its creation of an image of the binary from characters that denote the binary system, it might well also be an homage to McLuhan.
          An interesting counterpart to Kearns’ depiction of binaries is Zend’s Espanto (fig. 3), which creates the yin and yang symbol in Daoism using the Spanish words “no” and “si.” While I would not say that this work was directly influenced by McLuhan, it’s possible that the spirit of Kearns’ “Birth of God” was in the back of his mind when he created Espanto, which was, by the way, Zend’s first venturing into the kind of typewriter art exemplified in his collection Arbormundi.


          Kearns, White, and Zend responded creatively to McLuhan’s theories of media communications. And in this section I have confined myself to poems that effectively transpose McLuhan’s theories into descriptive, allegorical, or concrete-poetic form. But McLuhan famously upheld modernist and avant-garde poetry as an exemplary manifestation of changes in the nature of communication through their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, disruption of syntax, and disjunctive narrative, as he relates in a 1969 interview:


I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of processes of cognition and creation.7

          It’s beyond the scope of my present project even to begin to document such vast and complex territory, which is being explored by such communications scholars as Darren Wershler and Richard Cavell. So I will close by simply pointing out that in a similar way that bpNichol, Zend, and many other poets of their time were drawing attention to the medium and materiality of language through disjunctiveness and fragmentation, poets and New Media artists such as Kearns, White, and Zend were exploring ways to make visible the media and effects of mass communication, which despite (or because of) its pervasiveness tend to fade into background noise.

Next Installment: Part 7.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha

Camille Martin