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The Scandal of Reality: A Response to On Wing by Róbert Gál

By Jared Daniel Fagen.

On Wing by Robert Gal

Róbert Gál, On Wing, translated by Mark Kanak (Dalkey Archive, 2015)

“There’s a degree of destitution when the mind doesn’t always stay with the body. It’s too uncomfortable. What’s talking to you is practically a disembodied soul. And a soul isn’t responsible for what it says.”

How does one describe a work of art which replaces narrative arc and dramatic structure with inquisitiveness and intuition? Art that is uncontrolled, willingly wasting away before it can be contained, that has no purpose or point of departure, and evades definition? Composed in encryptions, aphorisms, recollections, philosophical auspices, and esoteric—almost Delphic—fragments, Róbert Gál’s On Wing is a book of elaborate suffering, withdrawal and extreme impoverishment—an absence of life’s deceits. Gál’s art is both hysteria and euphoria; the world serving only as an instrument of pain, decorating each wound involuntarily resurfaced. For Gál the art, and act itself, of writing is an exercise in dismantling the world about us, a world which operates as a distraction from our fundamental actuality: spiritual flux, the entropy of the soul.

Before that which is unreal unto that which is real, yet elude we must.

Not to see reality in oneself reflects the need to be real.

And when reality stops being a possibility, falling for a possibility, as if it was reality.

To begin with, On Wing requires the senseless reader. It would, therefore, be unavailing to expound similarities to Bernhard, Goethe, Michaux, or Kierkegaard or to compare On Wing to the likes of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, the ascetic qualities of Pascal’s posthumous Pensées, or even Schopenhauer’s defense of solitude in Parerga and Paralipomena (or his reflections on women, a proposition that, although interesting to survey, we will not explore for obvious intentions). What must follow, then, can only be a discussion of experiences, of aimless juxtapositions: an intrinsic study—not an excavation. While in itself full of inquiry, On Wing demands a celibate student: someone who lacks a thirst for a didactic, pedagogical knowledge but craves reassurance of his/her own torments.

Signs & Symptoms by Robert Gal

If it was of importance, there is little we know of Gál besides what could be considered superfluous in the grander context of his growing résumé of literary accomplishments: Born in 1968 in Bratislava, Slovakia; former residences in Brno, New York, Jerusalem, and Berlin; now living in Prague; etc. (Joshua Cohen’s article in The Forward, published in May 2005, is one of the best—if not one of the only—surviving profiles on Gál digitized in recent years.) However, this veil, this absence of the author, provides the perfect milieu in which to engage his work. What we are left with is only the concave of his language, both assured and at ease with its detail of despair: a language like a skeleton—the collagen, not its ivory appearance.

Deathly ill? No, vitally ill.

That which keeps me alive and that which keeps me from being (the important part is that it keeps me).

Killing the pain within out of the necessity of its—hermetically sealed—invocations from the other side.

Whereas Signs & Symptoms—published in 2003 by Twisted Spoon Press and Gál’s first book translated into English—could be considered, among other things, a manuscript of intellectual existentialism, On Wing relinquishes itself from moral responsibility and surrenders itself to the burden of sense. Here we have a book that borders reality but remains indifferent to the territory in which it resides, a book that conceals the collision of memory and meaning, the coalescence of two very extreme—yet distinct—lies Gál is wont to recreate and repeat, over and over, varying only by the degree in which they are constructed and the length for which they ultimately cease. This circumstance of reoccurrence, these vague resemblances, express Gál’s suspicion of truth and his predisposition to the impossible. People and places, strangers and cities: they serve no function but to exist, and themselves become as ephemeral as memory and as malleable as meaning. They appear, suddenly and some summoned, giving us a glimpse into pasts not intended to be interpreted but, rather, witnessed—realized only as images attached to ideas whose source is never sold, or known: never fully achieved. This is a literature that might have been, unornamented, built by parts removed, not an excessive need to justify itself, and architected with just enough strength to endure. Only a few specters and graveyards occupy Gál’s unreality of anguish: the avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn, whose improvisations are likened to the ability, or preference, “to stay in the center” of that space reserved in the mind for one’s illusions, one’s awareness of perfection, “as if there was no beginning, always starting as if there were no end;” an omniscient, ubiquitous father; the succubus Lenka K.; Pavel and his family; a bench in Jerusalem.

Corresponding to this “theme”—or, rather, fascination—of metaphysical and terrestrial conflict is the way Gál demonstrates the complexity of interiority: the compartmentalization of collected sadnesses. He writes, poignantly, about paradox and harmony, the exhausting contradiction of self-examination, and how one’s search for his/herself, in that suspension of pursuit, truth, is the incarnation of art: the precipice. As such, On Wing ponders the nature of thinking, the choice of contemplation rather than action, the absurdity of hope, and bears life only with glances.

Memory is always complete up to that point in time in which something is retrieved from it. Then, all words are in queue, shrewdly connected, in a chain of associations that we summarily designate as reality.

Appearance lies, because it is lied to.

And so that words do not function like scenery.

What we are dealing with is a documentation of persistent madness, which seems both exhilarating and eerily familiar. Like Foucault, Gál lets “madness speak for itself.” But unlike Foucault, he does not spare effort to avoid the traps of Derrida’s argument (L’écriture et la différence) against “the archaeology of silence,” the language of reason: he seeks refuge in their grasp. It is also significant that, in On Wing, Gál does not once explicitly call attention to madness—or give voice to the subject—though it, taking different shapes, is vastly populated throughout. His prose, therefore, is a mechanism: the folly of logic, order, and organization being the very essence of madness, an apparatus that gives it intensity.

Of course, in the Derridean sense, a mechanism functions to order systems and structure reason. If we are to look through this lens with an indifferent kind of scrutiny rather than a skeptical eye, we might see that Gál’s prose engenders a peculiar freedom, becoming a different sort of implement altogether—one which can be wielded to dismantle and refashion fatuity into something terrible: more real. Simultaneously, Gál—by this act of deconstruction, by bringing this question to the readers’ attention—creates a new kind of problem for us to envisage. For hysteria, frenzy, and madness are only given life, given expression, due to the very confines—the sole existence—of rationalization.

Robert Gal, 1998

But what is madness without brief moments of lucidity? Without relapse, reunion? While still challenging, certain passages startle, seemingly arriving from somewhere else entirely. Between a succession of hallucinations and long, voluminous texts of nightmarish epiphanies inhabits, at greater distances, our author at his most vulnerable, voluntarily dismantling before us the activity of remembering. Where those glances become, if only for an instant, meaningful. Madness: the erosion of life while still having to live it; an indefinite, thus limitless, death.

To survive—by default?

A glance that already knows, because it no longer seeks. An ignited glance, of withered eyes.

And getting rid of oneself, as if one could be rid of something that one’s merely borrowed.

Beneath the hard exterior of Gál’s language are infinite, almost savage depths. In the midst of this untamed delirium is what a young Cioran calls “the lyricism of last moments.” According to Gál, time experienced internally presupposes eternity. If we are to look at On Wing as a confession of sorts, we might conclude, or obsess over the idea, that an eternal state can only be accomplished by an intensification of subjective emotion. Here reemerges the spiritual aspect of Gál’s work. We should not, however, misconstrue spirituality as faith, another matter the book largely, perhaps purposefully, ignores. It is said the perpetual constancy of death heightens our sensitivity to the past (e.g., my life flashed before my eyes!), which is something we as mortals may want to altogether consider more seriously. Gál’s poetry is constructed from illness, the irrational material of the soul: hence, from madness. And madness, as previously discussed, is inherently disobedient, all the while cognizant of the order of systems and syntax which give it its rhythm and form. When time becomes stretched, when temporality is disrupted, the external world becomes drama-less. Gál’s work, therefore, is only denouement: prose that simultaneously turns against and pursues itself.

Not able to be thought through, or not able to be thought away?

Visions of the blind.

A falling as a result of depth, or a depth as a result of a falling?

It is possible that at the heart of Gál’s prose is the ache of an absent tenderness. Throughout On Wing, and almost as prevalent as his dreams, are near tragicomic episodes of intoxication that conquer, if only for a moment, our perceptions of madness; that help us to forget. Love, as Barthes claims in A Lover’s Discourse, shelters us from the world: “Love had made him into a social catastrophe, to his delight.” A love on the fine line of death, the splitting of atoms, the imbalance between thresholds, taking cues from our beloved on how to hold the mirror in front of us so that he/she may transform before our very eyes. Love like poverty. Desires unanswered. A theater of frailty. The beloved: the tomb of one’s own identity.

Gál rejects literary canon, the traditions of belles-lettres. Nor is he persuaded by power, politics, or, in a way, transcendence: the beyond. His concern is form, not communication, content, or—need it be said?—narratives driven by story or plot. Like a painter, Gál values construction, craft and invention; he revels in the ecstasy of style. On Wing is hollow, is not a servant to the engines of humanity, contains nothing and gives nothing in return. One might be reminded of “several obsolete notions.” Alain Robbe-Grillet, who is perhaps most recognized for his attack on Balzac and signification and—arguably due to the influence of Barthes’ “Littérature littérale”—his theory on the autonomy of objects, writes, in his seminal collection of essays Pour un Nouveau Roman: “the necessity a work of art acknowledges has nothing to do with utility… the work must seem necessary, but necessary for nothing.” Let us put to rest the debate of form and substance, our ideas of what constitutes “good” literature. On Wing is a book of opaque beauty. A coda of what gives us comfort. A reimagining of silence. A book that breathes, that lives and dies but never ends, meant to be read without expectation, and read over again.


Jared Daniel Fagen lives in Brooklyn, New York and is a founding editor of Black Sun Lit. His most recent work has appeared in Sleepingfish and Minor Literature[s].

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 15th, 2015.