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

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Part 10. International Affinities:
France (Marcel Marceau)

L’Art du Silence
and the Language of Empathy

ZEND MARCEAU X 2
          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

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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):
 
MARCEAU Y TO OA STILLS MONTAGE
 
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:

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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,

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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:

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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:

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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,
however,
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”:

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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.
BUTTERFLY + SWASTIKA
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).
BIP + NUNCIO CONCRETE POEMS
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).
BIP ACCEPTING BOUQUET + POEM
          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

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Robert Zend – Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots: The Budapest Joke and Other Influences

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Part 5. Hungarian Literary Roots:
The Budapest Joke and Other Influences

MACRO MICRO 1 WHITE 400

          If we look at Zend’s oeuvre only in a Canadian context, we miss out on the rich cultural heritage in Hungary that shaped him as a writer. For although his writing came to maturity in Canada, the roots of his literary sensibility and philosophical outlook can be traced to Hungary.
          I’d like to discuss two of Zend’s literary characteristics that developed from models in Hungary. First, his themes tend to be cosmic and allegorical rather than realistic. His stories in Daymares and many of his poems and artworks draw on world mytholology and explore fantastical realms of infinity, dreams, the place of humans in the larger universe, and the cycle of creation and destruction.
          Secondly, at the heart of many of his works are humour and satire: a bio for a 1970 anthology states that

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in one of his previous lives — as he faintly recalls — he was a jester.1

          These traits of Zend’s writing and art were shaped by Hungarian forebears such as nineteenth-century poet Imre Madách and early twentieth-century writer Frigyes Karinthy.

Imre Madách (1823—1864):
Lucifer’s Time Machine

 
                                                            Our universe is a tree
                                                            on the leaf of existence
                                                            and then there is the forest . . .
                                                            ——Robert Zend, “Zoom-Out”2

MADACH COVER 180          Imre Madách is the Milton of Hungary. Just as the English-speaking literary world is well acquainted with Paradise Lost, almost every Hungarian is familiar with Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (1861), a long dramatic poem that takes as its starting point the story of creation and the Garden of Eden in Genesis (fig. 2).
          But the resemblance of The Tragedy of Man to Milton’s poem ends at the point that Lucifer, cast out from God’s realm, successfully tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Post-Fall, the narrative reads like Paradise Lost meets H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine meets the Faustian legend.
          The rest of the plot goes something like this. Lucifer brings Adam on a time-travel flight into humanity’s future. In the course of their increasingly pessimistic journey through destiny, Adam and Eve play various characters and explore the nature of free will, good and evil, and individuality versus collectivism. In ancient Egypt, Adam is a pharaoh and Eve is the wife of a slave; in ancient Greece, Adam is a tyrant and Eve his wife; during the Enlightenment Adam becomes Johannes Kepler; during the French Revolution, Adam plays Georges Danton to Lucifer’s executioner.
          Near the end of the time-travel, Lucifer transports Adam to the Phalanstery, a futuristic dystopia of soulless conformity and machines. Madách’s utilitarian nightmare anticipates such dystopias as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The inhabitants of the Phalanstery regulate life mathematically, rendering families (and familial affection) obsolete. Childhood stories have been replaced with “higher equations / and geometry.”3 Any activity or object without functional value has been banished. I’d like to give some samples from this dystopic scene in order to give a taste of this Hungarian canonical work that is too little known in the rest of the world, as well as to show its influence on Zend.
          After Lucifer’s time travel takes him and Adam to the Phalanstery founded on cold science, Lucifer changes their appearance so that they can mingle inconspicuously among the residents, who might otherwise become suspicious and “lock [them] in a test-tube.”4 He then fabricates a story to a passing scientist that he and Adam are “student-scientists / from a thousand phalansteries away,” drawn by his renown to study with him.5 In a scene that predates that of the Ancient House in Zamyatin’s We by sixty years, the scientist takes Lucifer and Adam on a tour of a museum showcasing the “extinct species of antiquity / . . . the original specimens, / well stuffed and preserved”6:

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Here you see the very last rose that bloomed
on the surface of the earth. A useless flower.
Together with its hundred thousand siblings,
it took away space from the cereals;
it was a charming toy for grown-up children.
A peculiar phenomenon, indeed,
how people, long ago, enjoyed these toys.
Even the intellect brought forth such flowers:
the fantasies of poetry and faith.
While rocking in the arms of these delusions
and squandering his finest energies,
Man neglected the purpose of his life.
We are still keeping here as rarities
two such works. The first of these is a poem
whose author, living in a selfish age
when individuals wished recognition,
called himself Homer. In it, he describes
a world of fantasy, calling it Hades.
We disproved each line of it, long ago.7

Madách implies, of course, that in the dystopia of the Phalanstery, not only Homer’s epic but his own dramatic poem about a fantastic world would be censored.
          The second work is Agricola by the Roman historian Tacitus, which the scientist dismisses as “the laughable, yet / sordid concepts of a barbarous age.”8
          Of such sterile existence, in which material goods are created by machines and human life reproduces in test tubes, Adam observes that “there is no life, / no character which will survive its maker”, for how could a test tube baby

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                    inherit human features,
detached from the environment, from pain,
raised to consciousness in this tiny flask?
. . .
So, science too has disappointed me:
where I expected to find happiness,
I found only a boring kindergarten.9

          Among the inmates of this place are Roman senator Cassius, Plato, and Michelangelo. Each, called by a number, is reprimanded for his rebelliousness against the Phalastery’s scientific and utilitarian ideals. Michelangelo, known as “Number Seventy-Two,” is scolded because he left his workplace in a mess, to which he responds:

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Yes, because I was always making chair-legs,
and even those in a most simple form.
I begged for permission to modify them,
to let me carve on them some ornaments:
it was refused. So then I asked permission
to make the chair-backs, still to no avail.
It almost drove me to insanity,
so I left my torment, I left the workshop.10

As punishment for “breaking the rules,” Michelangelo is ordered back to his room. Adam, objecting strenuously to the “sanity” of the Philanstery and embracing the “madness” of humanity, suggests that “every great / and noble thing on Earth was such a madness, / unrestrained by cool rationality.”11
          Although the Phalanstery was loosely modeled after plans for utopian communities by French socialist Charles Fourier (1772—1837), contemporary readers might sense in Madách’s dystopia an eerily prescient indictment of life under Soviet rule. Thus it is not surprising that publication and performance of this classic of Hungarian literature and theatre were banned in 1950 by official censors, despite protests from Hungarian writers and other intellectuals. Zend was fortunate to experience it as a staged performance prior to the ban, and copies of the text, like many other censored works, were in circulation.12
          Perhaps Zend had not only the Soviet dictatorship in mind but also Madách’s Phalanstery when he wrote his dystopic short story “Chapter Fifty-Six,” which I briefly discussed in the previous installment. In that story, the totalitarian Romarmian forces use a form of mind-control to brainwash the citizens of Maletria into believing that they are living in a utopia. In reality, they have become conformist automatons doing the bidding of the dictatorship while living in squalor, their children taught by bureaucrats “with no imagination whatsoever.”13
          And Zend’s “The King of Rubik,” a dream-like tale with shifting layers of time and identity, may have also been roughly patterned after the similar premise of The Tragedy of Man. In this partly autobiographical story, Robert, who lived through the “raving, cataclysmic human mass-madness” that was World War II, is overwhelmed by Holocaust survivor guilt because his close friend, Peter, “starved to death in a Nazi concentration camp thirty-eight years earlier.” Like Madách’s Adam, Robert travels between past and future, and also changes identity. Within the shape-shifting nightmare, he discovers that he is Robert, father of Natalie; then Robert, friend of Peter thirty-eight years earlier; then Robert after Peter’s death, confronted by Peter’s mother, who resents that Robert survived and not her son. He later discovers that he has become the King of Rubik, in which the puzzle-cube determines destiny, but wonders whether he is actually “Haroun al Rashid, the ancient Persian Caliph who assum[ed] a different disguise every night,” or perhaps King Solomon or Oedipus. He is uncertain whether he is fifty-one, twenty, or seventeen, or whether he is in Budapest, Toronto, Tonto, Ronto, or Rubicropolis.14
          Both narratives are suffused with a deep sense of melancholy and pessimism, and whereas in Madách’s poem it is Lucifer who directs the journey through time and identity, in Zend’s story it is the Rubik’s Cube that seems to be manipulating the lives of Robert and his friends. Like Adam, Robert feels less and less in control of his life, identity, and destiny, and is powerless to counteract the evil forces that have destroyed the lives of so many. Both Zend’s and Madách’s narratives use history and identity to grapple with the nature of good and evil forces.
          The impact of The Tragedy of Man on Zend’s literary approach and themes becomes more evident when we consider Madách’s images of deep time and space, which offer a sense of the impermanence and ultimate insignificance of life, and an understanding of the earth as a tiny microcosm within the larger macrocosmic universe.
          One such striking scene occurs when Lucifer takes Adam on a flight into outer space, offering him a bird’s-eye view of Creation. They soar high above the earth, watching as the planet dwindles to an insignificant point in the vastness of the universe. Adam, marveling at the sight, exclaims to Lucifer,

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                    Just look back at our Earth:
at first the flowers vanished from our sight,
and then the forests with their trembling leaves;
the familiar landscape with all its cozy
corners turned into a featureless plain.
Even the mountains are reduced to pebbles;
the clouds, pregnant with thunder, harbingers of
divine wrath for the frightened sons of Earth,
are thinned into a miserable mist.
The infinity of the roaring oceans—
Where has it gone? It has become a great spot
upon the globe which mingles with the swirling
cluster of stars. This was once our whole world.15

Earth tries to lure Adam back home, but he ambitiously presses on to the outer reaches of space, only to feel himself perishing as he believes he has gone beyond the point of no return. Lucifer scornfully pushes Adam away from him and sarcastically rejoices:

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This puppet-diety can now rotate
in space, as a new planet on which life
will develop, but now, perhaps, for me.16

Adam revives, only to feel keenly the insignificance of his earthly goals, battles, and struggles, in the face of the vastness of the universe.
          Such scenes of time travel and of micro- and macrocosmic worlds fed Zend’s imagination, and images recur in his writing and art that echo Madách’s fantastical vision of zooming out to reveal the larger cosmos. In “Growth,” for example, a tiny dot expands until it becomes a huge sphere, which in turn becomes a mere snack for a giant:

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at first I was a dot but I
                    walked and walked and walked

then I became a line but I
                    grew and grew and grew

then I became a curve but I
                    rose and rose and rose

then I became a spiral but I
                    circled and circled and circled

then I became a sphere but I
                    swelled and swelled and swelled

then a giant came upon me
and held me in his hand

                    what a lovely little dot he said
                    I do hope you understand17

In the zooming-out effect, a microcosm grows into a macrocosm, but is in reality just a microcosm for a larger predator.
          “Madness,” a poem that explores a relationship that has failed to develop because one partner cannot shake the past, ends with a vision reminiscent of the outer space flight of Adam:

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Rushing into the future,
time takes us with it in two tiny coffins.18

          In another scene that evokes Adam’s space travel, a runaway elevator crashes through the building’s roof and

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                                        continues all the faster —
speeding through the dark sky on toward the moon —
on toward the moon and the planets and the suns —
beyond all the galaxies like a speeding
bullet . . . 19

          And in “Before Ascending,” a poem that would have been at home in Daymares, a person at the brink of death looks back on visions of fruitless existence before everything dissolves:

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Looking back he still sees
their little offices, where they scribble with important frowns,
their workshops, where they labour mightily on tiny things,
scar-faced gangsters, industriously rattling away at their
          machine guns,
soldiers heaving hand grenades with religious fervor,
priests directing the traffic up and down with formidable faces,
heads of families slaving to get what they weren’t given,
nudists trying to take pleasure in what no longer gave pleasure,
film producers inventing things and then believing in them,
capitalists piling up their money while they live in misery,
Communists acting as midwives to the future while murdering
          the present,
statesmen embracing the people in order to pick their pockets
          the better,
. . .
and he remembers
that a second ago — it now seems a thousand years ago —
he himself was one among them —
. . .
the whole thing starts to drift apart, pull away,
the way colours on a palette run together20

Although Zend uses such images to different effect in different works, at their heart is an understanding of impermanence and relative insignificance in the larger scheme of the cosmos.
          In addition to such correspondences, Lucifer’s parable on dust in The Tragedy of Man seems to have had a lasting impact on Zend. In ancient Egypt, Adam as a pleasure-seeking Pharoh asks Lucifer,

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Let me cast a brave glance into the future,
several millennia from today,
what will become of my fame?

Lucifer responds with a time-lapse vision of the inevitable ravages of time, with echoes of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

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Do you not feel the mild breeze which caresses
your face and sails away, leaving behind
a thin layer of dust where it passed by?
In one year, this dust will be a few streaks;
in a hundred, a few feet; one or two
millenia will cloak our pyramids,
bury your name under a mound of sand;
your pleasure-gardens will become a desert
where jackals howl and tribes of beggars stray.21

Lucifer telescopes time to reveal to Adam the layers of dust and sand that accumulate across deep time and bury the fame and supposedly permanent works of even the most powerful and wealthy. In his poem “Meeting,” Zend offers a similar vision of ephemerality:

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He tried to live each day as it came
and it came and he lived
and he died and became
dust again
dust in interstellar space and in the streets
dust
dirty dust
no more than dirty dust22

          Zend’s collages and typescapes also reflect the influence of Madách’s dramatic poem based on Genesis, such as the collage entitled Eden (fig. 3), and the typescape with the punning title Sexerpentormentor (fig. 4).

GARDEN OF EDEN AND SEXERPENTORMENTOR

          In other visual works, Zend depicts iconic images of trees and snakes from world mythology, imbuing them with a broader symbolic meaning. In Vivarbor (Tree of Life), for example, the complexly overlapping shapes in the pentagonal structures create a stylized representation of the primordial and widespread symbol for the interconnectedness of life and the common source of vital force (figs. 5 and 6).

ARBORMUNDI VIVARBOR AND DETAIL B

The text below the image reads, “The god-rooted tree of life, with its lightning-shaped pointing fingers transmits spirit into the brains of human faces each of which is part of the mirror within the sphere of existence.” The overlaid shapes and spaces suggest Gestalt principles of organization. The tree of life echoes the idea of the “sphere of existence” as well as the shape of a mirror on a stand. The human faces within the petal-like spaces look toward the central starburst directing life-force outward toward humanity. The dialogue among the overlapping shapes contributes to the layered meanings of the work.
ARBORMUNDI 2 250          And the typescape Uriburus (fig. 7) intertwines three images of the ancient serpent of world mythology in various stages of a cyclical process of beginnings and endings: “The first uriburu is hungry, the second is fulfilled, the third is eating its own tail.” Zend notes that the serpents symbolize “the universe — which constantly renews itself by destroying itself.”
          The overall effect of these concrete poems drawing on world mythologies harmonizes with Zend’s recurrent themes of commonality and universality: the Other within the I, and the endless cycle of creation and destruction.
MADACH COVER 250          Such was Zend’s admiration for Madách’s The Tragedy of Man that after he immigrated to Canada and became fluent in English, he wrote a translation of it, which he later edited with Peter Singer and illustrated with works by an unidentified artist (fig. 8). He wanted to create an English version with more contemporary language, as opposed to the British translations in somewhat outdated English that were available at the time.23 Although never published, Zend’s translation of The Tragedy of Man is one of his most remarkable accomplishments; the passages quoted in this essay are from his version.
          Unfortunately, Zend did not live to see his translation put to use, but during the fall of 2000, Q Art Theatre in Montreal produced the dramatic poem featuring translations by Zend and George Szirtes (fig. 9).

TRAGEDY OF MAN MONTREAL

Frigyes Karinthy (1887—1938)
and the Budapest Joke

 
KARINTHY 250          If Madách is Hungary’s Milton, then Karinthy is its Jonathan Swift (fig. 10). His sketches, stories, and novels are known for their satirical qualities, and he was an important science fiction/fantasy writer under the sign of Swift.
          Karinthy isn’t terribly well known outside Hungary, though Journey Round My Skull, his autobiographical account of being operated on for a brain tumor (with an introduction by Oliver Sacks), has consistently received excellent reviews and sold quite well. However, within Hungary he is regarded as one of the most influential and prolific writers of the twentieth century.
NYUGAT 180          Karinthy belongs to the generation known as “Nyugat” (West), named after the Budapest literary journal in which they were frequently published. Fig. 11 shows the Karinthy memorial issue of Nyugat, published shortly after Karinthy’s death in 1938. This issue also includes poems in a series entitled Postcards by Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet and victim of the Holocaust, whose work Zend also greatly admired.24
          In the installment on Zend’s early life in Hungary, I related the story about his meeting with Karinthy. During their conversation, Karinthy encouraged him and called him his “spiritual son.” Many years later, Zend acknowledged his literary and personal indebtedness to his early mentor by naming him his “spiritual father.”25 He also paid homage to him in the title of his first book, From Zero to One, which is a phrase from one of Karinthy’s stories, which I quote here to give a flavour of Karinthy’s writing:

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Between one and two there is a series of road-signs like “Be Bright” or “Take Care” or “Look Ahead” or “Live and Learn” or “Stretch Your Legs According To Your Coverlet” or “Work as Long as Your Work Wick Burns” or “Be Prepared to Fight” . . . whoever follows them will safely reach the next station, and arrive from One to Two, from Two to Three, from Three to a Millon. . . .
          But between Zero and One, there are no such signs, and even if there were, they wouldn’t do any good. For instance, how could you stretch your legs according to your coverlet if you have no coverlet? And how could you work as long as your wick burns if you have no wick? On the road from Zero to One there aren’t even milestones, only millstones, here and there, standing here, fallen there. For between Zero and One is the “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it” and the “I’m sorry, I’m too busy now” and the “Unfortunately, the President won’t be able to see you,” for between Zero and One there lie murder and madness and impossibility.
          Between Zero and One is Horror and Desperation. Between Zero and One is Instinct and Religion, Evil and Salvation. Between Zero and One is the Discovery of the World.
          Yes, the mathematicians are wrong: the way from Zero to One is longer than from One to a hundred-thousand-million . . . it is about as long as the way from life to death.26

          Between one and two lies reason, the Apollonian principle of deliberate conscious planning and the comforting bromides that nudge us to achieve goals and give us the illusion of conscious order and control.
          Between zero and one, however, there are no yardsticks by which to measure or analyze, no logical progression of a life, for there is no progress, no goals. That infinite stretch between zero and one — which could be considered as subconsciousness, the vast chaos of unnoticed processes — can seem a nightmarish realm of “Horror,” “Desperation,” and “Evil.” On the other hand, it is also the source of creation, of “the Discovery of the World.”
          Karinthy’s passage must have appealed to Zend’s feeling for the fertility of subconscious processes, as the following excerpt from the introduction to Daymares suggests:

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There is a mysterious world stretching somewhere below the surface of the Earth (or below the upper layer of the cortex) that constantly whispers images, plots, and words to us; as many worlds as heads sitting on human shoulders — heads which during the day function according to the radiant commands of the golden god, Sun. But as soon as He sinks below the circular line of the horizon, another ruler takes over, Darkness, through whose empire the spiraling-straight lines hurled by the fiery sphere cannot penetrate. Darkness, floating and amorphous, vast and expanding. Her law is entirely different from that of the temporarily dethroned king: falling-apartness instead of coherent concentration; obscurity instead of distinctness; spaciousness instead of linearity; dispersion instead of fusion; overlapping instead of separateness; indefinity instead of explicitness; womb-like roundness instead of erect angularity.27

Karinthy’s writing, famously philosophical, fantastical, and humorous, inspired Zend to share in that legacy.
          Those who have not heard of Karinthy will more likely be familiar with the movie Six Degrees of Separation, whose premise is based on a short story by Karinthy, “Chain-Links.” In Karinthy’s story there are only five degrees of separation, perhaps owing to the smaller world population during his time. The concept behind Karinthy’s story is a kind of parlor game demonstrating the shrinking of the globe through modern transportation and the resulting interconnectedness of people around the world. The idea is to select a close acquaintance and any other

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person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth. . . . [U]sing no more than five individuals . . . [one] could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.28

The first sentence of that story opens with a philosophical question about whether the universe is progressing toward a teleological end or endlessly cycling back upon itself:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

We were arguing energetically about whether the world is actually evolving, headed in a particular direction, or whether the entire universe is just a returning rhythm’s game, a renewal of eternity.29

NEW YORK CAFE 250          The “energetic arguing” reveals something of Karinthy’s intellectual milieu in Budapest: the gathering of literati and their acolytes in cafés to debate, exchange stories, and hone their wit with verbal play. Douglas Messerli likens this café culture to that of the New York Algonquin writers, and states that Karinthy and other writers “held literary court at the famed Budapest New York Café” (fig. 12), where they “played sophisticated verbal games and satirized the leading Hungarian poets.”30 And László Cs. Szabó observes that Karinthy’s work “reflects the rich folklore of the city of Budapest, replete with puns [and] nonsense words.”31
          “Chain-Links” exemplifies the play of intellect and humour practiced by these Hungarian writers of the Nyugat generation. It also reveals another important characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that Zend inherited: the influence of the so-called “Budapest joke,” raised to an art form by Karinthy.32
          The urban joke that developed in nineteenth-century Budapest (then Pest) was a more “concise and abstract” version of the more detailed rural anecdote. This popular expression of urban humour was “born in East and Central Europe’s Jewish communities,” whose distinctive brand of entertaining wordplay was integral to their culture.33 Karinthy, a Hungarian of Jewish origin,34 gravitated to the witty verbal play of the “Pest joke” and developed its characteristics, including the essential punch line, into a sophisticated literary form.35
          The end of “Chain-Links” is a case in point. The speaker, sitting alone in a café, lost in a reverie about the “chain of connections between . . . random things,” is interrupted by a man who walks up to his table with “some trifling, insignificant problem.” The speaker then begins to develop a chain of associations with that interruption until he arrives at the fourth link, the destruction of the world:

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Well, then let a New World Order appear! Let the new Messiah of the world come! Let the God of the universe show himself once more through the burning bush! Let there be peace, let there be war, let there be revolutions, so that — and here is the fifth link — it cannot happen again that someone should dare disturb me when I am at play, when I set free the phantoms of my imagination, when I think!36

The paradox of the joke is, of course, that war, destruction, and revolutions might pose more extreme interruptions to his chain of thought than the trivial disturbance of a casual encounter in a café.
          Another characteristic of Karinthy’s writing that had a major influence on Zend is his exploration of alien, unfamiliar worlds, which blossomed into the fantastical fiction of two novels written under the sign of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: Voyage to Faremído (Utazás Feremidóba, 1916) and Capillaria (1921).37 Voyage to Faremido describes Gulliver’s voyage to an alien planet of beings who communicate using a musical language. And Capillaria recounts Gulliver’s sojourn in an undersea realm where women rule over and cannibalize the diminutive male population.
          Karinthy’s interest in science fiction and fantasy, shared by many Nyugat writers, follows Hungary’s lineage of utopian and allegorical writing since the mid-eighteenth century, including, as we have seen, Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man. Significantly, Karinthy was also a prolific translator who introduced to Hungarian readers such writers of fantasy and science fiction as H. G. Wells and Jonathan Swift.38
          For all of the above reasons, Zend found in Karinthy a kindred spirit and mentor for the philosophical, fantastical, and humorous bent of his own writing. To begin with the ludic sensibility that the two writers shared, we have seen how Karinthy, one of the foremost humorist writers of his time, drew from the Budapest joke of popular culture. Zend had been reading Karinthy’s work since childhood, and through that influence and a natural proclivity for humour, developed his writing in a humorous vein. Like Karinthy, Zend absorbed the tradition of the Budapest joke in such works as “The Legend of the Axe”:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

          Once upon a time, when Iron was formed, the Forest began to worry, and its cries finally reached the heavens.
          “Oh, Lord, how can you be so cruel and underhanded? With your right hand you give life, with your left hand you sharpen a knife!”
          God shook his head sadly and said: “Your fear is groundless, Forest. Tell me, if you can, how could Iron harm you?”
          The Forest fumed: “Me, tell you! Do you mock me while putting me in chains? As the creator of everything, you must know the reason. I’m worried because that Iron will turn into an Axe, and with it man will lop me off!”
          God answered: “Only if you supply the handle.”39

Zend’s joke-like poem also has the feel of a fable or allegory, highlighted by the capitalization of “Iron” and “Forest,” by the anthropomorphized trees, and by God’s pithy axiom, which arrives like a punch line.
          Here’s another example, this time in a lineated poem, “Monday”:

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It took me decades
to learn
the basic principles
of wisdom

This is this
Now is now
Here is here
I am I

Nothing else is true
there are no harps in heaven
there are no turtles holding up the world
the best investment is a T-bone steak.40

The rationalist world view (a trait shared by Karinthy) is carried through to the absurdly comical punch line.
          In addition to humour, Zend’s love of fantastical dream worlds and paradoxes also clearly shows the influence of Karinthy and other writers of the Nyugat generation who wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, rather than following the literary tradition of descriptive and psychological realism. It is likely that Zend was also exposed in his youth to the works of Wells, Swift, and other non-Hungarian writers of the fantastical through the translations by Karinthy and others. (It should be remembered that although Hungary’s authors wrote under the watchful eyes of censors, readers in Hungary had ready access to translations of a variety of world literature.)
          Starting with his first collection of poems, From Zero to One, Zend shows his penchant for creating fantastical worlds, as in “Variation” (which is, not incidentally, dedicated to American science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke):

QUOTATION MARKS 7

Somewhere in the empty reaches of space
there is a place where
dentists play pianos in caves
children with wrinkles on their faces
throw snowballs deep in tropical jungles
in garrets escaped convicts pen their poems in blood
mayors panhandle at streetcorners
butchers with green hair stand on their hands

At the end of this otherworldly description, we see god-the-accountant sitting at his desk:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

wearing his spectacles and well-worn corduroy jacket
god bends over his accounts
and when he balances it he sighs and mumbles:
“It could have been different,
but what difference would it make?”41

Zend’s creation of wildly absurd worlds illustrates the philosophical paradox of change versus permanence. The saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” might succinctly capture the dilemma faced by the deity, figured here as a bureaucrat “bending over his accounts” and wondering whether, if creation had been different, anything would have really changed. God seems to lean towards that resigned view of change as static: despite the bizarre worlds he might have created, a feeling of ennui envelopes him as he comprehends that change will not really change anything at all.
        “Variations” succinctly encapsulates several aspects of Zend’s indebtedness to Hungarian literature: his interest in the story of creation, inspired at least in part by Madách’s dramatic poem, the creation of fantastical worlds and the humourous tone, revealing the influence of Karinthy.
            The most developed and eloquent expression of Zend’s fantastical works is in the stories and poems collected in Daymares. These works continually involute expectations about identity, time, and the distinction between reality and illusion. Some of the stories offer twists on religious mythology, including “The End of the World,” a comical revision of the Apocalypse in which the narrator scoffs, “Mankind, shmankind!” and boffs his neighbour’s wife as the four horsemen gallop toward the annihilation of the earth into smithereens — sort of.42 Others, such as “A Dream about the Centre,” explore the vastness of human cognition in the blink of a waking dream.43 One of the most moving stories, “My Baby Brother,” confounds time and identity in exploring issues of Holocaust death, survival, and the continuity of life.44
          The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Daymares in which Zend’s mythical dream world merges ideas of creation, illusion, imagination, and the connectedness of life, reminiscent of the dream-worlds of Jorge Luis Borges as well as the fantastical fiction of Karinthy:

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Although the Sun declared it a false doctrine, we still secretly accept the creed of Darkness, which teaches us that the land of dreams is common for everybody: it is not three-billion individually enclosed lands, but one. It obeys not three-billion personal laws, but one. It is a common land where we all meet each other, and these meetings will be unremembered during the linear Sun-time, by the vertically erected individuals who intermingle on the curved, collective male-plane. We all believe — though we know it isn’t true — that the land into which we submerge (while our horizontal bodies rest, tossing and turning about) is real, as real, if not more, than that from which we sank down. Originally, we were all the sons and daughters of Darkness: that was our prenatal land, the Atlantis-womb before the ejaculating rays of the aroused Sun-lord fertilized it, generating us who grow and pop out into the light. We never lose our nostalgia for the cool, dank, soily shadow-shapes of the womb.45

Zend echoes Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of darkness and light, in which the Dionysian dream-world represents freedom from the imposition of order, and the Apollonian represents

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. . . the measured restraint, the freedom
from the wilder emotions, that calm of
the sculptor god [whose] eye must be
“sunlike” . . . 46

For Zend, the wordlessness of dreams is the ur-language, and translating dreams “with Sun-lit words gives rise to impenetrable jungles of misunderstanding in which sameness means difference; nearness, distance; flux, solidity; consecutiveness, simultaneity and repetition, comparison.” The language of dreams “informs us of the bankruptcy of words: its emotions provoke events and its abstract objects are expressions of solid symbols.” Zend acknowledges the need for “sun-lit words,” though his heart is with the “creed of Darkness,” the realm that permits creation with no constraints. However, true to the humour that informs his work as a descendent of Karinthy, Zend situates a winking laughter between the poles of this duality:

QUOTATION MARKS 7

[I]n the stripe-shaped no-man’s land between the two borderlines, another, a third god rises to existence, He who is an alien in both the land of Light and that of Darkness. His name is Humour. . . . This is the zone — His domain — in which I, pushed-around wanderer of depths and heights, decided to settle. . . . Thus, when I am approached with inquiries from either kingdom about the other, or about my true identity and idiosyncrasies, or about my loyalties and allegiances, or about my views of the universal nature of things, I can reply to all with just one, single, identifcal, common answer: laughter. I hope to be respected as a citizen of this no-man’s land . . . 47

In such writing of a philosophical, other-worldly, and humourous nature, Zend shows himself to be a true literary descendant of Karinthy.
          In some of Zend’s visual works as well, the originary influence of Karinthy is apparent, as in the collage below entitled Science Fiction.

SCIENCE FICTION 500

          In both his humorous, satirical approach and his fantastical bent, Karinthy’s influence on Zend is obvious. And although he was later influenced by many writers of science fiction and the fantastical (notably Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), the origins of this interest are in Hungarian sources such as Karinthy as well as translations of English-language and other foreign literary works available in Hungary. Moreover, Zend’s Hungarian influence is not limited to such writers, but also extends back into traditions of Jewish and Hungarian forms of popular expression such as the Budapest joke.
          Zend’s literary roots were in Hungary, but it’s also true that in Hungary he encountered the works of writers of many nationalities. Budapest, historically a sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban centre, was home to publishing houses with a strong tradition of translating world literature. As we will see in the next installment, it was a similarly diverse situation with Zend’s literary “cross-pollination” after his move to Canada. He was influenced by many Canadian writers and artists, some of whom were born elsewhere.
          Zend’s literary exploration of illusions, the unreal, and the imagination would have been antithetical to the Communist Hungary’s demands for socialist realism during the years of Zend’s early adulthood. Stalin’s violent regime saw show trials, purges, and executions in Hungary, and during Khrushchev’s tenure the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was brutally crushed. If Zend had stayed in Hungary and survived, it’s likely that such works would have been censored.

Next Installment: Part 6.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
Marshall McLuhan


Camille Martin

Robert Zend – Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries

TITLE WITH BUSINESS CARD IMAGE AND BYLINE

Part 2. Dissolving Labels and Boundaries

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Being a poet does not depend on the geographical location of the poet’s body, or on the political system under which the publisher functions, but on the linguistic and literary value of the poems.1 —Robert Zend

          Robert Zend (1929–1985) was a Hungarian-Canadian avant-garde writer and artist. As a young man of twenty-seven, he escaped his native Budapest during the 1956 failed Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule and immigrated to Canada as a political refugee. He settled in Toronto, where he lived until his death in 1985. So nationality-wise, his life was divided into two parts: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in Hungary; and the rest of his life in Canada.
          According to the convention of hyphenating nationality, Zend was indeed Hungarian-Canadian. However, considering his profound distrust of labels, the classification might have seemed an attempt to delimit him as a poet and human being. Because of his cosmopolitan outlook, I’ve come to think of him as a citizen of a realm expanded and enriched by his own generous sense of a borderless community of kindred poetic minds. And it is this generosity in his international affinities and aesthetic vision that I hope to develop in this essay.
          It could be said that Zend had a somewhat conflicted relationship with nationality. Arriving in Canada as a political refugee, he celebrated the freedoms that had not been available to him in Soviet-controlled Hungary. And as an exile, he explored themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, and nostalgia for his native country — not unusual for immigrant writers.
          On the other hand, having survived war-torn Europe, where totalitarianism and zealous nationalism had fostered a culture of xenophobia, racism, and hatred, and having seen the cruelties inflicted by the Nazi and then Soviet rule in Hungary, he understood all too well the catastrophic consequences of labeling people. He developed a distrust of boundaries, be they political, social, or aesthetic.
          During World War II, more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews died as a result of the Nazi regime.2 And the Soviet Union, for all its propaganda of unity and egalitarianism, often used xenophobic fears to control the population, and under Stalin promoted an antisemitic campaign of murder and persecution.3 As well, many thousands of Hungarians labeled as “imperialist enemies” of the state were imprisoned, deported to forced labour camps, tortured, and executed, to say nothing of the more than 2,500 Hungarians killed during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.4 Zend’s experiences of these brutal regimes provided cautionary models of zealous nationalism and racial paranoia and hatred.
          One of Zend’s most poignant statements about labelling is in a speech for a panel on exile at the 1981 International Writer’s Congress. He speaks of totalitarian governments coming to power in Europe during the 1930s, which “began simplifying and polarizing the labelling of people”:

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All labels — whether they were dignifying or humiliating — were meted out to certain groups, not because they did something good or evil, not because they deserved a reward or a punishment . . . but merely for circumstances beyond their control . . . like having been born into a rich or a poor family, into an Aryan or a Jewish family.5

From his experience of that catastrophic era in European history, Zend had developed a strong conviction of

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the complete senselessness of labelling people according to nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.6

So it’s not surprising that his life’s work dissolves boundaries, and in this essay I will explore three ways in which he did so.
          First, his outlook was international, starting with his high school and university studies of Italian literature and readings of world literature in Hungary. And after Zend’s arrival in Toronto, Zend sought not only Canadian affinities but also artistic and literary friendships and inspiration around the world, perhaps most significantly with Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges but extending to writers, artists, and traditions in other countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, and Japan. Zend, no respecter of cultural boundaries, enthusiastically sought out the literature and art of other nations.
          Indeed, Zend’s first poetry collection, From Zero to One, reveals something of his cosmopolitan openness. He shows his indebtedness to Canadian influences with poems dedicated to Raymond Souster, Marshall McLuhan, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould, John Robert Colombo, and professors of Italian studies J. A. Molinaro and Beatrice Corrigan. The dedications of other poems demonstrate Zend’s affinities with cultural figures from the United States (Saul Steinberg, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke), France (Marcel Marceau), Belgium (René Magritte), Hungary (science writer Steven Rado, actor Miklós Gábor, and artist Julius Marosán), and ancient Greece (Plato). The title of the book comes from a poetic essay by Frigyes Karinthy, who, as I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming installment, was an important Hungarian literary influence. And the dust jacket bears an exquisite portrait of Zend by French mime artist Marcel Marceau.
          His tributes to writers and artists sometimes takes the form of collaboration, strikingly in the case of Borges and Marceau, and ekphrastic poems, as in his response to the paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte, Hungarian-Canadian artist Marosán, and Spanish-Canadian artist Jerónimo.
          Secondly, his writing thematically dissolves geographical, political, and social boundaries to explore humanity’s place within the cosmos as well as fantastical realms that often involve dreams and time travel. He writes more traditionally about such subjects as romantic relationships and the dilemmas that he faced as an immigrant, but many other works develop philosophical concepts about the connectedness of all persons to one another and to the universe.
          Thirdly, Zend was a polymath, and he used whatever materials were at hand to create works that are multi-genre and multi-media. During his twenty-nine years in Canada he wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and plays; created collages and concrete poetry; used found objects such as cardboard tubes for creating three-dimensional visual poetry; and researched, wrote, directed, and produced over a hundred cultural documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). He was also a musician, filmmaker, and self-described “inveterate doodler.”7 A multi-media artist and chess player, he designed a chess set to be presented by the CBC to Marceau during his 1970 visit to Canada.8 And some of his works defy classification, such as the two-volume multi-genre Oāb (1983, 1985).
          Zend’s cosmopolitan attitude is rooted in childhood and early adulthood experiences that nurtured in him an openness to cultural influences regardless of national boundaries. For Zend, love of city, region, or homeland, or of the culture associated with those places, is accompanied not so much by feelings of pride as by the desire to seek out affinities with writers and artists without regard (as he puts it) to “nationality, place of birth, date of birth, religion, class, origin, sex, age, the colour of skin, the number of pimples, or whatever.”

Coming Up . . .

          The next two installments of my essay will highlight some major events in Zend’s life, giving biographical context to what follows, as well as offer an overview of his published works.
          The last installments will be devoted to the heart of my endeavour, in which I trace some of Zend’s literary affinities and influences, with special emphasis on his roots in Hungary, his transplanted roots in Canada, and his alliances with writers, artists, and cultural traditions worldwide, with particular emphasis on Argentina, France, Italy, Japan, and Belgium. And in some of the samples from his writing, you’ll see some of his cosmic and fantastical concerns. As well, I’ll reveal ways in which his visual work crosses boundaries of genre and discipline.

A Note about Cosmopolitanism

          My use of the term “cosmopolitanism” refers to a historically situated discussion in Canadian culture that came to the fore during the 1940s. The debate between the proponents of a national, nativist literature and the advocates for a more cosmopolitan view intensified when A. J. M. Smith threw down the gauntlet in favour of the latter in his 1943 anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry. Post-World War II, this debate defined two overarching trends in Canadian poetry criticism: the desire for a national literature rooted in autochthonous themes and imagery, versus a more cosmopolitan spirit of poetry aware of currents of thought in international modernism and embracing their influence. While it is not my purpose to enter into a detailed theoretical and historical explanation of these trends, I wish to set the stage for the strong view of nationalism that gained steam with the aftermath of the Massey Commission since the 1950s, as this is the historical period that Robert Zend entered when he immigrated to Canada in 1956. My use of the term “cosmopolitan” to describe Zend’s cultural outlook does not in any way denigrate regionalism or nativism in content or aesthetic approach (or imply that Zend did so); neither does it suggest that Zend, as a political refugee from Hungary, did not admire and absorb lessons from the literature and art produced within Canadian borders. I hope to demonstrate in my analysis quite the contrary.

Next Installment: Part 3.
Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood


Camille Martin

Robert Zend: Dreams Report the Bankruptcy of Words


Robert Zend (1929-1985)
Daymares: Selected Fictions on Dreams and Time
Vancouver: Cacanadadada Press, 1991

          About a year ago, a frend who used to live next door to Robert Zend gave me a copy of Daymares. Already having a stack of unread books at my bedside, I put it on my shelf for another day. Recently, I came across his name and retrieved the book from the tail-end of my short story collection. Now I can hardly put it down.
          Zend’s stories continually involute expectations about identity, time, and the distinction between reality and illusion. Shape-shifting characters, dreams within dreams, anachronisms, and paradoxes keep the reader adrift in a fantastical realm whose often dark irrationality explores mysteries of humanity: uncharted cognitive depths, the burdens of history, and the continuities between self and other.
          Daymares is a genre-blending work containing mostly short stories but also poetry and concrete poetry (“typescapes”). Some of the stories offer twists on religious mythology, including “The End of the World,” a comical revision of the Apocalypse in which the narrator scoffs, “Mankind, shmankind!” and boffs his neighbour’s wife as the four horsemen gallop toward the annihilation of the earth into smithereens—sort of. Others, such as “A Dream About the Centre,” explore the vastness of human cognition in the blink of a waking dream. One of the most moving stories, “My Baby Brother,” confounds time and identity in exploring issues of Holocaust death, survival, and the continuity of life.
          This Hungarian-Canadian writer will appeal to anyone with a penchant for Jorge Luis Borges’ mind-bending labyrinths, paradoxes, and dreamscapes. But Zend is an original swimming in a similar stream of fantasy and dream, navigated with keen intellect and feeling for the human condition. Borges wrote to Zend: “You consider me one of your masters, yet you were my pupil even before reading my work.”
          After relishing Daymares, I eagerly sought other works by Zend and ordered From Zero to One, a collection of his poems. Click here for Glenn Gould’s tribute to Zend on the back jacket.
          Below I’m reproducing an excerpt from Zend’s introduction to the book as well as two poems and two typescapes.

from “Introduction to an unpublished manuscript entitled
Selected Dreams”


          Although the Sun declared it a false doctrine, we still secretly accept the creed of Darkness, which teaches us that the land of dreams is common for everybody: it is not three-billion individually enclosed lands, but one. It obeys not three-billion personal laws, but one. It is a common land where we all meet each other, and these meetings will be unremembered during the linear Sun-time, by the vertically erected individuals who intermingle on the curved, collective male-plane. We all believe—though we know it isn’t true—that the land into which we submerge (while our horizontal bodies rest, tossing and turning about) is real, as real, if not more, than that from which we sank down. Originally, we were all the sons and daughters of Darkness: that was our prenatal land, the Atlantis-womb before the ejaculating rays of the aroused Sun-lord fertilized it, generating us who grow and pop out into the light. We never lose our nostalgia for the cool, dank, soily shadow-shapes of the womb.
          This is the world of dreams from which, at the very beginning of our personal lives it was so hard to be torn away. This is where we spent most of our early time, sleeping. Gradually, as the duration of our sojourns in that world decreased, our time in the clear, collective, articulate world correspondingly increased. The sword of merciful death finally liberates us forever, from the task of wasting even short hours in this male-reality, so that we can return completely to virgin mother-existence. Death allows us back to the land of time-spacelessness; to the tiny centre point of our individual self which strangely coincides with the three-billion other human centre-points, with those of the dead ones, with those of our more ancient ancestors: swimming, crawling and flying creatures, rooting-stretching plants and perhaps even with the centre-points of other alien-living-units, of agitatedly swirling atoms and majestically rotating galaxies.
          The real difficulty, for both the individual and the race, is not to learn the language of Darkness, but rather to learn the language of the Sun. Only the minuscule peak of our iceberg-soul uses Sun-speech. Its bulky expanse hidden under the surface still speaks the ancient language of Darkness: we consist mainly of dreams and only negligibly of wakefulness. By collective agreement between the Sun-ruled ego-peaks, which engage themselves in labyrinthine sociopolitical mythologies, this original language is marked with the stamp of insanity. This “insanity” lurking in all of us, even at high-noon, never stops giving whispered suggestions to our seemingly sane, wakeful structures. That is why we periodically grow sick of them and, through bloody revolutions, try to change them back to the original Utopia which had existed in the Atlantean womb-past, and not, as is erroneously hypothesized, in the Sun-like, glowing erection-future. All these attempts are, of course, futile. It is impossible to convert rocks into clouds, father into mother, iron into fantasy. We don’t have to learn to speak the language of dreams because we never forget to speak it: we practise it a third of every day; we all come from it, persons as well as species. It is our real mother tongue: translations into it are impossible. Everything else: literature, communication, institutions, law, family, society, love, cities, technology, religion, art and science, is already a translation from it—and unsuccessful translations at that: like ruins disintegrating in an alien environment.
          You can dream of a lion which is as harmless and cute as an Easter Bunny, or of a motionless pillar, which is as menacing as a rapist. You can dream of lovemaking as unpleasant as slavery, or of bland, grey flower-pots as warm and sensuous as rosy-hued flesh. Translating them with Sun-lit words gives rise to impenetrable jungles of misunderstanding in which sameness means difference; nearness, distance; flux, solidity; consecutiveness, simultaneity and repetition, comparison. This language knows no word, its events do not provoke emotions, its objects do not lend themselves to symbolization. On the contrary, it informs us of the bankruptcy of words: its emotions provoke events and its abstract objects are expressions of solid symbols.

Day and Night (1983)



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 awake

1973

Awakening from Dreams (1983)



After I Die

After I die
Time will be Space
and I will move back and forth in it
    every step a generation
    and I will watch
    the child I was
    the Man I was—
        After I die
        “I” will be “he”

After I die
Now will be Then
and I will remember all who lived
    Napoleon and Socrates
    and Columbus and Leonardo
    and Moses and Gilgamesh
    and all the nameless ones
    will be like days in a long life—
        After I die
        “I” will be “they”

After I die
Here will be There
and I will expand or shrink at will
    the soul of atoms and their particles
    of suns and their planets
    of galaxies and their solar systems
    of universes and their galaxies
    will be my soul and they will rotate in me—
        After I die
        “I” will be “it”

After I die
If will be When
and I will fill all holes with existence
    making things that were not made
    living lives that were unlived
    growing histories that could have happened
    creating worlds that had been aborted
    realizing possibilities that never were—
        After I die
        “I” will be “god”

After I die
I will be nothing
and I am just dreaming about the impossible
projecting a tunnel under the prison wall
    but tomorrow: to go
    tomorrow: to talk
    tomorrow: to work
    tomorrow: to play
    tomorrow: to cope
    tomorrow: to survive—
        After I die “yes” will be “no”
        and everything will become so easy

Wednesday, September 20, 1973

Photo credit: Aniko Zend




Camille Martin