Tag Archives: ekphrastic poems
Part 9. International Affinities:
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
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 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:
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
As 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:
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
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)