Valery Oisteanu









Gherasim Luca: The Zen of Death and Immortality.





On Feb 9, 1994, at age 80, Gherasim Luca left the message “There is no place for poets in this world” on an answering machine for his companion Micheline Catti, in telling her that he was going to throw himself into the Seine.  It was the final statement of a remarkable man.

Luca was born into a liberal Jewish family as Salman Locke in 1913, in Bucharest, Romania. He was attracted to avant-garde poetry at a young age and became fluent in Yiddish, Romanian, German and French. By the late 1930s he was traveling frequently to Paris, where he became friends with the surrealists.

Thanks to a convoluted destiny and unimaginable accidents of fate, Luca became one of the major poets of French/Romanian literature, his contributions to French poetry and theoretical surrealism championed by the likes of poet/artist/critic Jean Lois Bedouin, philosopher Gilles Deleuze (who jumped to his death in 1995 from his apartment window) and psychiatrist Pierre-Felix Guattari. His groundbreaking Romanian avant-garde poetry influenced friends such as Gellu Naum, Dolfi Trost, Virgil Teodorescu and many others.

He early on chose the pseudonym Gherasim Luca as an “ironic-necrophilia,” a name from an obituary notice, and considered his work as conjuring the void at the heart of language and of existence itself (« The void voided of its void is fullness, » he once remarked).





As a young man he authored the essay « On Not Wanting to Live, » published by his compatriot Emil Cioran, a Romanian/French philosopher. “There are experiences which one cannot survive, after which one feels that there is no meaning left in anything, » he wrote. « Life breeds plenitude and void, exuberance and depression. I am only 22 and I am already a specialist in the question of death” (English version with Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, On the Heights of Despair, University of Chicago Press, 1984).

From 1939-1946, Luca, along with Trost, Naum, Teodorescu and Paul Paun, formed the core of the Bucharest surrealists. Luca and Trost co-authored the group’s principal text, « Dialectics of the Dialectics,” a manifesto of a radicalization of radicals: “This continually revolutionary state can only be maintained and developed by a dialectical position of permanent negation and of the negation of negation, a position which might be capable of the greatest imaginable extension towards everything and everyone.”

Luca’s book, Beloved Quantitatively (Edition de l’Obli) is illustrated with a dadaesque assemblage decorated with 944 “feathers of steel » (the quills from old writing implements) of different shapes. In the visual arts he favored three-dimensional modes of collage and assemblage, and he systematically studied the intervention of chance operation in the elaboration of images (« Cubomania, » 1945). Indeed, he created delirious collages, which he called “cubomania”; this consisted of cutting squares from illustrations and joining them up in an arbitrary pattern. The unexpected results in his album, Les Orgies des Quanta (1946) are of images cut up into squares as a chessboard, with many of the squares shuffled around. Luca also constructed assemblages from found objects, and from 1963 on exhibited them in galleries in Bucharest and Paris.

His other important book, The Passive Vampire (1945), is a mixture of theoretical treatise and breathless poetic prose, personal confession and scientific investigation, a collection he labeled OOO, “The objectively offered object. » The idea was to illustrate some of the psychology of the surrealist movement, to denote a kind of object made while thinking of the person for whom it was intended. “In his way, the object can be used as a vehicle for a qualitative description which can be interpreted like a rebus,” summarized his friend, the French art-critic Sarane Alexandrian, in L’Art Surrealiste (Fernand Hazan, 1969).

At times taking shape as assemblage, these objectively offered objects (OOO) are meant to capture chance in its dynamic and dramatic forms and illuminate the continual connection between our love-hate tendencies and the world of things — offerings of presents or mementos to others. In layman’s terms, when you are offered a present, a diabolic power is hidden in the object, and its presence becomes obsessive and damaging for the new owner.

After some adventures at the Romanian border and a stint in Israel, Luca settled in Paris in 1952. As a poet he had previously explored the sonorities of French language ad absurdum with a Duchampian flare (Heros-limite, 1945). He gave public recitals, where he rendered his texts free from mental controls, in a state of trance a la neo-dada. Philosophically he had advocated “the unlimited erotization of the proletariat” and used deliberately provocative sexual puns and wordplay that were at the same time hypnotic and blissful. His sound panoramas were experimental and paradoxical at the same time, inspired by jazz.

Along the way Luca invented a wholly new surrealist poetry, a fusion of French and melodic religious incantations, stuttering and stammering words creating puns and play on sounds, a symphony of vocals and

concrete music with low-tech sound effects.



By the late 1970s Luca had joined a collaborative performance group called “Polyfonix” with Jean Jack Lebel, Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Raymuncho Matta and others, and performed his own poetry in a manner paralleled by the dada and jazz improvisations being created in galleries and museums in Paris and New York. He appeared before television cameras as well as live-performances, and Gilles Deleuze called him the greatest French poet alive. « For those who attended the recitals he gave…his presence was a calm trance, spellbinding, unique, unforgettable. » For Andre Velter, Luca helped make it possible to « rediscover the power of poetry, its oracular power and virtue of subversion. » In Romania, Israel and France, Luca was regarded as a “saint of the avant garde” for several decades and was invited to appear at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

As he grew older and into impoverished straits, he seemed to fall off the radar. He was brutally evicted from his apartment for reasons of ”urban renewal,” the authorities decrying his and his neighbors’ unsanitary conditions. His health deteriorated, and his immigration status remained uncertain even after 40-plus years of writing and performing in France. Eventually he grew depressed and could no longer cope. “I refuse to exist…I refuse to exist,” he was often overheard to say, talking to himself. He wasn’t completely forgotten: Andrei Codrescu, a contemporary Romanian/American poet, proposed Luca’s writings for a prize, but Luca refused it as a surrealist stance against public honors. And then he drowned from a special spot at the Point Mirabeau, the same end as his compatriot Paul Celan and many other romantically scarred youth.

As Luca put it in La Mort morte (The Dead Death, 1945):

If it is true, as is claimed
that after death man continues
a phantom existence
I’ll let you know

Death had hitched a ride on the surrealist rocket early on. In 1925, André Breton asked the question, « Suicide: Is it a solution? » in the first issue of La Revolution surrealiste. And mortality was an obsession with the Romanian avant-garde, who took the lead over all of Europe in dada and surrealism; members of the reigning Parisian group included luminaries such as Tristan Tzara, Marcel Ianco, Constantin Brancusi, Claude Sernet, Victor Brauner, Jaques Herold, Benjamine Fondane, Paul Celan and Jules Perahim, along with Luca and Trost.

Some of them wrote surreal final drafts (like Urmuz, a Romanian proto-surrealist, who shot himself in the head in a restaurant), suicides that were defiant gestures in response to a disappointing, boring, vulgar and banal world whose inhabitants were less interested in the subconsciousness and dreamworks than they were in material possessions. Luca’s own ultimate statement on the subject was La Morte morte, a personal account of five suicide attempts (by self-strangulation, poison, gun, asphyxiation and knife), each delineated by a different farewell note, such as:

• “Causes of my death not to be looked for, there are no guilty, not even myself, I forsake life without any regrets. I ask for restraint at my funeral cremation if possible. Flowers for me not to be brought.”
• « Your tears your perfume, your despair, my punishment! »
• “A nervous illness never incurable never which never tortures me for many years never forces me never to end my days. I pay never my life for the sins of my parents never my heredity never was burden. If I never did no one wrong I never ask for forgiveness. »
• “If it is true, as the errors claim, that after death man continues a phantomatic existence, I will let you know. If you do not hear from me for one month, you will know that death is no different than the putrefaction of an onion, a chair, and a hat. I commit suicide out of disgust!” (all translations by Julian and Laura Semilian, Inventor of Love & Other Writings, Black Widow Press,2012).

Ultimately, Luca referred to death as « oppression, as tyranny, as limit, as universal anxiety and my real enemy, my quotidian, insupportable, inadmissible, unintelligible enemy.” And, of course, his sixth suicide attempt proved the charm.

In 1985, on a visit from Paris for a poetry reading at MoMA, Luca joined me, my late friend Ira Cohen and Timothy Baum for a day of poetry and art. We took him to a meeting of our Poets and Artists Surrealist Society (PASS) near St. Marks Church, and we spent the rest of the day perusing the galleries the briefly flourished in the East Village of the 1980s. (Later on I found out that he bought one of my art- assemblages; I wonder what happened to his collection.) We conversed in Romanian about my mentor and his best friend, the Romanian surrealist Gellu Naum, and memories of departed friends Ilarie Voronca, Paul Celan and Celine Arnauld, all of Romanian-Jewish ancestry, all with dada/surrealists interests, all suicides.

We discussed how the new democracy in Romania did not recognize the avant-garde diaspora as a source of the revolution, and the long-time communist-blacklisted artists and writers were not acknowledged as authentic cultural treasures, party because most of them also were Jewish by birth, whether or not they actually practiced the faith.

While not himself a religious man, Luca bore the brunt of societal intolerance, a “Jew-stranger” to the French and Romanian Fascists and later to the Russian/Romanian communists and finally to the post-war xenophobic French society. The last straw was the demolition of his Paris studio for « urban renewal” in February 1994, when at age 81 he officially became homeless. Every social worker in the large French hierocratic labyrinth failed the quiet Romanian genius, which after more than four decades in France did not have citizenship or the means to seek social or medical assistance. “Let the planet explode, let the planet explode, let the planet explode…” he wrote, apocalyptically, before drowning.

Even today, Luca’s legacy and influence is not fully recognized in the history of art, poetry and performance art. Some publishers, such as the Parisian Jose Corti, printed small editions in French of a dozen of his books, and in recent years some English translations have appeared from the Twisted Spoon Press of Prague, Black Widow Press and Contra Mundum Press. But such relatively scant product is inadequate for someone like Luca, a surrealist saint who made many profound erotico-existential and philosophical explorations.

Luca invented a new poetical language based on repetitions and stuttering, rhythm and stammer, chaotic puns and philosophical koans, aphrodisiacal dreams and erotic-radical choruses, musical surreal dream-theaters, described by the late poetess Adrienne Rich as « the language of rage, muttered in secret, subversively reaching around corners, crumpled into a pocket, performed to a community, read aloud to the dying, scratched or sprayed on a wall. That kind of language!”













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