As soon as I sat down, I remembered the quote by Enrique Vila-Matas which in some way had brought me there: ‘the best thing to do is to travel and to lose theories, lose them all’. I had stumbled across it while reading Dublinesque, and a week later, there I was, sitting in the aeroplane that would take me to Geneva, trying to lose theories but always looking for them. I was traveling to Switzerland convinced that a change of scenery would be providential in my quest to write an essay on the work of the Spanish writer. I was leaving London in the hope that the land of the silent Robert Walser would be able to bring to life the series of mad ideas that previously had translated into heavy, tedious, infertile digressions. More than to lose theories – I understand that now – I was making this journey in order to embody them. I’d been drawn to Lausanne for years, that city on the banks of Lake Geneva where the artist Jean Dubuffet had established his fascinating collection of outsider art, or art brut, as he’d called it. Guided by the idea that all worthy art has ‘a great deal to do with delirium’, and by his interest in the anti-cultural, marginal qualities of art, Dubuffet had started collecting, throughout the 1940s, art produced by those writing at the margins, outsiders who defied the rules of the academy. ‘Madness lightens the man, gives him wings, and promotes clairvoyance,’ he had said. Recently I’d come to think that in these scrawls drawn obsessively in asylums or prisons, by psychiatric patients or criminals, the fleeting essence of every true avant-garde could be found. Beyond the historical categories we had learned at school – beyond Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism or even Surrealism – I wanted to think of the avant-garde as an impulse, as a force that helped art reach the limit of obsession, and then take, as Maurice Blanchot had requested of it, the step where it ran the risk of madness and solitude. Or, to put it another way, closer to the phrasing of Vila-Matas: I wanted to think of the avant-garde as the impulse that led art forward in its line of flight. So I travelled to Switzerland guided by an intuition: that there, next to the snowy Alps, hid the essence of something daring and incomprehensible. After a month immersed in his work, a month immersed in a labyrinth of quotes and theories, I had discovered another impulse. Remembering the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Bierce after joining the troops of Pancho Villa, I’d come to think that the fate of the avant-garde was precisely this: disappearance. The avant-garde – that slippery category which encompasses so many movements and so many other things, but which nonetheless remains at the heart of our definition of art – had been the fundamental ‘happening’ of the art of the twentieth century, and as such, it had faded behind its legend. It became this great ghost, a great emptiness around which, as Roberto Juarroz suggested, the party of writing had its origin:
Sometimes it seems that we’re at the centre of the party
However, at the centre of the party there’s no one
At the centre of the party is the void
But at the centre of this void is another party
According to this barely sketched-out theory, the history of art and literature has been the phantasmagorical history of this disappearance and the party of its multiple reincarnations. A series of recent novels, each of which followed the ghostlike traces of avant-garde writers, led me to believe that this intuition was not entirely misguided. Reading The Savage Detectives or 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, The Witness by Juan Villoro, The Happy Death of William Carlos Williams by Marta Aponte, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, The Absent City by Ricardo Piglia or The Great Lost Novel by Carlos Cortés, I had come to the conclusion that the avant-garde, always evanescent, asked of an author to narrate it. Regardless of whether we follow in the footsteps of Cesárea Tinajero or Benno von Archimboldi, pursue the spectres of Gilberto Owen, Macedonio Fernández or Yolanda Oreamuno, or retrace the movements of William Carlos Williams or Ramón López Velarde, what matters is that in every one of these novels, it is the spectral quality of the avant-garde that is narrated. Marked by the negative impulse which Vila-Matas outlined so well in his classic Bartleby & Co., the avant-garde disappeared to give way to the story of a search for it. Wasn’t the work of Vila-Matas, from A Brief History of Portable Literature to The Illogic of Kassel, one long history of the avant-garde, which in turn served as a safety net for the conceptual acrobatics of contemporary art? Wasn’t his work a wager to tell the story of the avant-garde precisely at this moment, when its impulse seemed to be lagging behind the flood of bestsellers and the commodification of literature? Unsatisfied with these theories and wanting to lose them, I was traveling now to Dubuffet’s Lausanne, convinced that theories, like stories, are only worth something if we dare to embody them.
To my mind, as the years went by, Lausanne, home of the enigmatic collection of art brut, had come to seem the last stronghold of the avant-garde. My imagination, or perhaps my fantasy, had laid its hopes of discovering the true art of obsession. As the years went by, every time I found myself lacking in energy or inspiration, every time ideas refused to materialise, I would discover a homeopathic respite in the biographies of the artists of the art brut. Men and women one step beyond the abyss of madness. Artists who had carried out Breton’s mandate of merging art with life to its fullest extent. These artists had genuinely been able to lose all theories, even risking losing reason itself. If to travel was to lose theories, then Dubuffet’s artists proposed the most radical journey. A great march toward the limits of art, to that place where, teetering over the abyss, the artist dared to move forward once again, risking the authentic disappearance that Vila-Matas talked about in Doctor Pasavento, a copy of which was now making this journey with me: ‘If someone truly wants to go beyond his work, they must first go beyond their life and disappear. This is above all very poetic, but it is also very risky, which is at the heart of what poetry, or any authentic and total disappearance, must be: pure risk.’
In the novel, the protagonist travels to Switzerland – home to the famous Cabaret Voltaire and Joyce’s Odeon Café – in search of the final footsteps of the avant-garde. In some way, I was repeating the Swiss journey of Doctor Pasavento, which led the protagonist to the sanatorium of Herisau where Walser had spent the last decades of his life, and before which he had cried out: ‘In today’s world, the only place still authentic for a poet is the asylum.’ Walser – I thought, as the plane was taking off – could well have been another art brut artist, a true gentleman of the abyss who, out of the most serene madness, had devoted himself to writing stories in idiosyncratic small handwriting – micrograms – a microscopic calligraphy in which he sketched out a private language that no doubt would have fascinated Dubuffet. The avant-garde, I told myself, has always asked for repetition, since only by repeating it are we able to bear testament to the marvellous emptiness behind which it seems to hide.
Maybe this is why I was now travelling to Switzerland in the dead middle of the Christmas season, just as Doctor Pasavento did, convinced that perhaps by repeating the trip I would come to understand the most secret aspect of Vila-Matas’s work and the secret meaning of the avant-garde impulse. I myself had written a couple of novels that had often been labelled as avant-garde, without the meaning of the label ever becoming clear to me. I remembered Juarroz in Vila-Matas’s Explorers of the Abyss: one always arrives late, the day after the party. And so if I now repeated Doctor Pasavento’s trip I did it to understand what that meaning could be, and why it was that it seemed to fascinate me so profoundly. I remember thinking, as the air hostesses discreetly moved through the aisles, of the strange case of two writers who, upon arriving late to the party, chose to repeat it: Malcolm Lowry and Antonin Artaud. I imagined Lowry in Acapulco, stepping down from the SS Pennsylvania with his wife on the Día de muertos, 1 November 1936, the day on which he would later decide to locate the action of his mythical novel Under the Volcano, narrating the disappearance and death of an alcoholic consul who was in many ways modelled after himself. I also imagined Artaud, who had arrived that same year in Mexico and decided to head north, unsatisfied with the pro-European aesthetic of the Mexican art of the capital, until he lost himself in peyote and the rites of the Tarahumara. In both cases, I told myself, the authors had arrived late to the party, and faced with emptiness, had decided to opt for reliving and storytelling. Lowry ended up narrating the disappearance of his drunken protagonist and alter-ego in Under the Volcano, while Artaud gave a vital account of the avant-garde in his book Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras. I was just remembering all of this, the eventual alcoholic death of Lowry in Canada and the wanderings of Artaud through French asylums, when the pilot announced our imminent arrival, and I saw the illuminated silhouette of Geneva appear through the darkness on my little window. As soon as the doors opened, I was the first to leave the plane. The avant-garde, as A Brief History of Portable Literature accurately suggests, has always asked to travel light.
The next image I have of my trip to Switzerland is of being on board a train barrelling through pitch-black night, the only certainty marked out by the sparse lights occasionally flickering against the dark silhouette of Lake Geneva. In this silence, I remembered another quote from the novel I found myself opening once again: ‘I mentally wrote a poem which spoke of my great longing to carry out an excursion at the end of night, an absolute desire for a journey without return.’ For a brief moment, I feared that I was inside the poem narrating one of those journeys without return that Vila-Matas so loved. Around me, the other passengers slept as the train covered the distance separating Geneva from Lausanne. I turned on the light above my seat before going back to reading Doctor Pasavento and remembering a scene evoked by Ricardo Piglia in The Last Reader, in which Anna Karenina, aboard a night train crossing the Russian plains, takes out her little lantern and begins to read a novel. This image has always fascinated me because of its aura of solitude and silence: the history of reading, I thought then, was also a history of personal lanterns, of small obsessions that help anchor a reality which escapes from us with the same vertigo of the train that was now fleeing into darkness. The railway image of Anna Karenina reading, sheltered by her lantern, suggested that literature was always an unmoving journey: a journey around my room, just like the one imagined almost three centuries ago by the soldier Xavier de Maistre. An unmoving atlas, I whispered to myself, as if looking for a title capable of synthesising this strange coincidence of movement and immobility which traces the line of flight of the modern reader. The avant-garde was something like this too, an apparently unmoving silhouette that is secretly exercising its right to disappear.
I would have liked to arrive in a snow-covered Lausanne that night. To repeat one of those solitary walks that Walser often took over the estate surrounding the sanatorium of Herisau, those same snowy lands on which he was found dead on Christmas Day, 1956. I would have liked to arrive in this snow infused with so much literature. But the weather, the clouds or meteorology conspired against my bad taste. I arrived in a Lausanne that was frozen but devoid of snow, with steep streets through which people passed looking mercurial, light, always in transit. Unable to focus on the faces of these citizens of the cold, I remembered a scene from Dublinesque in which the protagonist believes that he has, on multiple occasions, caught a glimpse of the elusive silhouette of a young man in a blue Nehru jacket. On that frozen night in Lausanne, everyone seemed to be a reincarnation of this fleeting character. They had in them the same mixture of presence and absence, stability and flux. A coexistence of the fleeting and the enduring that linked them to the sculptures of Giacometti. I thought then of Baudelaire: that modernity is the synchrony between the ephemeral and the eternal. The eternal disappearing into the ephemeral and the ephemeral in transit towards the eternal, I repeated, while I recalled that in this novel, the figure of the jacketed young man is merely a way to reach another even more enigmatic figure: that of a strange character from Joyce’s Ulysses who appears at the burial of Paddy Dignam, and whose identity is always left shrouded in mystery. This character, recognisable only by his Mackintosh raincoat, was the secret companion of the protagonist on a journey to Dublin to celebrate the publication anniversary of the great novel by Joyce, but at the same time he was also a sort of a phantasmagorical silhouette of the avant-garde. His fleeting presence – I thought – and the strangeness of Baudelaire’s words led me to a theory that until then I had not formulated: one which said that the avant-garde was the fleeting present of art, the temporality that constituted its history. Cesárea Tinajero, Benno Von Archimboldi, Macedonio Fernández, Robert Walser, Marcel Duchamp: all these elusive figures referred to a past which at the same time remained impossibly distant, in a future toward which we were just barely advancing. Future ghosts, I told myself, as I thought that the paradox of the avant-garde has a lot of phantasmagoria to it, and that its disappearance always asks for future reincarnations: neo-avant-gardes that once again attempt this impossible utopia of portraying the fleeting present. Perhaps this is why the avant-garde ended up giving way to the history of the avant-garde, to this search through narrative: only in this way can we understand the driving force pushing forward the history of art and literature. Cesárea Tinajero, Benno Von Archimboldi, Macedonio Fernández, Robert Walser, Marcel Duchamp: behind these names can be found the paradox that art moves forward by going backwards, producing novelties that echo an inaccessible past. But to capture the young Mackintosh has always been impossible, and maybe for this reason, on that night in Lausanne, I felt the city slipping through my fingers, evasive and eternal, leaving me vaguely lost before an endless number of shuttered windows that made me think of those strange winters in towns on the Italian coast, those seaside resorts forgotten for months before summer reminded tourists that the warm beaches there existed. It wouldn’t snow in Lausanne, I told myself, precisely because this snow was something that could occur in the past or the future, but never in the present. Seeking to escape my thoughts, or maybe just trying to take shelter from the cold, I walked into a small bar, at the door of which I briefly thought I’d caught a glimpse of a young man on whose face I recognised the silhouette of a very young Enrique Vila-Matas.
Still thinking of that strange projection, I sat down at a corner table. Next to me, an older woman with red hair was reading the newspapers, and I thought how strange it was to read the news after night has already come. But the idea that maybe I was witnessing the trick of learning to read the past in an anachronistic way, of learning to stand outside of time, seduced me. Since I didn’t have much else to do, I took out the small notebook of russet-colored leather in which I often took notes, and began to sketch out theories. I reflected on the fleeting present that I imagined marked out the avant-garde, and told myself that all of this was the same: in the case of the fleeting present, there was also a past that suddenly appeared as present but evaded capture, disappearing into the future. I felt that every true avant-garde was a projection of a previous avant-garde, faded away and forgotten. Every avant-garde was trying to make the new emerge by repeating the emptiness of the initial avant-garde, I repeated, as in my notebook I copied a sentence I thought I’d read in Mac & His Problem, Vila-Matas’ most recent novel, referring to ‘the dark parasite of repetition that lies at the heart of all literary creation’. Above this quote, as a sort of title, I wrote Repetition and Difference, and felt happy when I thought that this text, written in tiny handwriting, could have been one of Walser’s micrograms. Maybe I could title my essay just like this, Repetition and Difference of the Avant-garde, I told myself, as I thought of this last novel by Vila-Matas in which, perhaps tired of the myth of originality, the writer launches himself against the idea of the unique voice and instead proposes a theory of the author as imitator. I remembered Piglia and his defense of plagiarism in Homage to Roberto Arlt, I remembered the art of the ventriloquist with which Guillermo Cabrera Infante filled the best pages of Three Trapped Tigers, I remembered the way that the literary quote transformed into a poetic mechanism for Vila-Matas, and I told myself that the avant-garde melted away into repetition. As Kierkegaard said, in a sentence attributed to him by Vila-Matas: ‘Repetition remembers advancing.’ To learn to repeat the avant-garde is another way of living it, I told myself, while in the notebook I sketched out a history of art as a great list of plagiarisms and repetitions: Cervantes plagiarised by Laurence Sterne, in his turn plagiarised by Xavier de Maistre, in his turn plagiarised by Machado de Assis, in his turn plagiarised by Macedonio Fernández, in his turn plagiarised by Marcel Duchamp, in his turn plagiarised by Walter Benjamin, in his turn plagiarised by Jorge Luis Borges, in his turn plagiarised by Italo Calvino, in his turn plagiarised by Lorenzo García Vega, in his turn plagiarised by Enrique Vila-Matas. The history of art and literature understood as an infinite chain of plagiarisms and repetitions which were going to culminate here, in this dark bar, where as afternoon darkened into night, an elderly woman sat down to read old news. As Vila-Matas seems to be saying, one always arrives a little late to the history of literature. Always after the party has ended. The question, then, turns into another one: How to write after the end? I looked around in search of an answer, but could only think of Walser, and the way that the only work of art which remains from his last years was his life. This total wager to embody literature linked him to the artists of the art brut whom I would be seeing the following morning. For him, I thought, it wasn’t enough to narrate the story of the avant-garde – everything touched upon turning a narration into literature by giving it flesh. I drank another glass of wine and began to feel that all of these were mere theories. Everything touched upon losing theories, or at least embodying them. I titled these reflections So Many Times, Lausanne, convinced that a title can give coherence to the most disparate thoughts. Then I took my coat and walked back into the cold, convinced that tomorrow all of this would be clearer, and that a strange lucidity would illuminate the darkness. Once outside, I felt that the city was multiple, and that in none of its versions was it snowing.
That night I dreamed. I dreamed that a man named Sebastián disappeared in the French Pyrenées and that it was up to me to find him. I dreamed that all of this had something to do with the old woman reading the newspapers and that she was precisely the one blaming me for Sebastián’s absence. At the end of forty days, the man reappeared. Someone had found him in a room of the British Library, bearded and hunched over, painting small Christmas trees in an old notebook. I woke up sweating and desperate from the feeling that I’d arrived too late, convinced that this man was my father. I drank some coffee and started to reread Doctor Pasavento, searching for this name that sounded so familiar to me. I found it at the end of an hour, lost in the pages that Vila-Matas had dedicated to the art of disappearance. There I read about the myth of the disappearance of Portuguese king Don Sebastian in the battle of Alcazarquivir. I took out my notebook and copied out the following sentence:
In my room, I was rereading that book about the myth of the disappearance of Don Sebastian, a myth that doesn’t work if it’s not accompanied by the idea of a reappearance, just as it seems to me that in the history of the disappearance of the modern subject, the passion for vanishing is at the same time an attempt to reaffirm the self.
I felt dizzy when I wrote this, faced with what I recognised to be a strange echo of my own actions. But the idea seduced me: the disappearance of the avant-garde did not work without its eventual reincarnation. Then I remembered how Roland Barthes himself, the author of the famous essay announcing the supposed death of the author, had admitted two decades later to having felt himself tempted by a biographical impulse: the author returned with his aura intact. Disappearance and reincarnation, I told myself, as I thought of how Sebastianism rhymed with Christianism. I remembered then that something similar was happening in the work of Vila-Matas. After the negative impulse and the art of the disappearance which had marked the books published at the end of the century – books like Bartleby & Co. and Doctor Pasavento – the figure of the author seemed to reappear in his following texts, no longer as an expressive subject, but as the man without qualities in whose emptiness the history of the avant-garde is embodied. I remembered how in Montano’s Malady, confronted with the end of literature, the protagonist decided to embody it, to transform into a sort of universal memory of literature. I looked through my backpack for the novel, and after a few minutes found an underlined sentence that worked perfectly with what I’d been thinking: ‘[I]t would be expedient and necessary, both for the increase of my honour and for the good health of the republic of letters, for me to embody literature itself in the flesh and blood, to embody this literature that lives with the threat of death at the start of the twenty-first century: to become literature incarnate and to try to save it from possible extinction by reviving it, just in case, in my own person, my own sorrowful face.’ The achievement of Vila-Matas lies in having taken this step beyond, in making his wager, no longer only by narrating the story of the disappeared avant-garde, but also by risking everything in embodying it.
Strange form of life, I told myself, remembering the superb title by the author who has known as few others how to reincarnate the spirit of the fin de siècle. A photograph came to mind, of Vila-Matas in a raincoat and dark glasses, in which he looks halfway between a private detective and a dandy. Enrique Vila-Matas is our great decadent writer, the one who has looked squarely at the end of culture, and refusing to accept it, has decided to embody it. When all is said and done, it was the dandy who one day decided to adopt art as not a mere expression but as a form of life. To embody the avant-garde, I told myself, as I recalled that scene from Never Any End to Paris in which Vila-Matas signs up for a Hemingway lookalike competition, convinced of his similarity to the famous writer. Arriving late to this Paris which was no longer the one that in the twenties had played host to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Picasso and Stein, Vila-Matas understands that the radical gesture takes place not only in the rewriting of this story, but also in the act of giving it life. Another quote from Montano’s Malady popped out at me along the way; it reads: ‘It’s a fine thing to fight and to be, for example, literature itself, to fight for it, to embody it in your own person when it is in agony and you lead the pleasant existence of a deceived man. It’s a fine thing to fight, to challenge the abyss there is in front of the void, to seek Musil.’ And I told myself that with this gesture, Vila-Matas took a step beyond the intuition that Borges sketched out in the essay Kafka and His Precursors, according to which every writer rewrites the history of literature. For the dandy Vila-Matas, always clad in Mackintosh raincoats, the gesture had to be even more radical: every writer has to relive the history of literature. To embody it in their own way, to choose their lineage, to make the avant-garde move that brings art to life. This step beyond, this step of a tightrope walker, linked him to the art brut artists: this step finally abolished the border between life and art that the avant-garde had insisted on knocking down by means of automatisms and exquisite corpses. To knock down this fragile border was perhaps another name for madness, this same madness that brought back another quote by Walser, for whom Vila-Matas, in Doctor Pasavento, had created a small microgram. An imaginary microgram that said: ‘Madness: I am not here to write, but to go mad.’ I jotted this down, finished off my coffee and croissant, and told myself that the hour had come: everything finally touched upon visiting the art collection, under whose pretext I had traveled there. An irrational idea came to me along the way: I thought that perhaps the best thing would be to stay in my hotel, as Nabokov might well have done, imagining fictions that had to do with the collection, without actually visiting it. Walser’s microgram ended up dissuading me: like him I had not traveled to Lausanne to write, but to go mad.
Half an hour later, after losing myself several times in the hills of Lausanne, I arrived at the museum: the Collection de L’Art Brut. More than a museum, it seemed to be an old mountain house gone astray. A friendly woman received me, and in her reddish curls I thought she carried a vague echo of the lady of the newspapers. I didn’t say anything, and entered the collection which now, more than ever, felt like an old house, until in the first room I recognised a painting by Adolf Wölfli, one of the artists I’d read so much about. But I didn’t stop there. I kept walking, convinced that somewhere in this strange place, lost amid marvellous scribbles, the young Sebastián was hiding. I laughed, thinking that here, after nightfall, a group of ‘shandys’ would get together as imagined by Vila-Matas in A Brief History of Portable Literature. I would have continued to imagine these strange gatherings if I hadn’t arrived at the third floor and thought I saw the young man from my dream. He was sitting down, looking at a series of artworks.
He couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, but his gaze was marked by the boundless passion of the obsessives. It was the same absent gaze that had drawn my attention in the few photographs of Walser I’d seen, and which in some way made me think of paintings by Hopper or Hammershøi. A man without qualities, I told myself, around whom a deep silence seemed to gather, while his eyes wandered from the series of pictures before him to the blue notebook in which he seemed to be drawing with a paintbrush. This scene, theatrical and strange, reminded me of the theatre of writing proposed by Vila-Matas himself in The Illogic of Kassel. Invited to take part in Documenta, the famed exhibition of contemporary art held every year in Kassel, Vila-Matas decided to stage his writing in front of an audience, writing every morning in a Chinese restaurant. There too, I thought, a man was staging writing as art. There too, a man had decided to embody art before the gaze of another. The avant-garde as performance, I thought, but the vulgarity of this theory forced me to add that it could only be considered a performance if we were to understand this as a staging that dares to bring acting to its limit. Every time someone performs, they risk dying onstage, my old teacher Peggy Phelan once said. This sentence, forgotten for so many years, came back to me then with the force of the most ominous destiny. For a brief moment I was afraid for the young Sebastián and for myself. I was afraid for all those who had ventured into this strange museum, seeking to retrace Walser’s footsteps. Perhaps to calm my nerves, perhaps to dispel the image of such a dire fate, I approached the series of pages that the young man was filling with his works. These were fascinating pictures in which, through the use of repetition, the painter had achieved a strange incantatory effect. A sort of automatic writing, with continuous duplications, was reiterated throughout the scribbling until it degenerated into a series of flexible lines which ended by turning into other drawings, reminding me in some way of the doodles that I often used to sketch at school in moments of distraction. Writing disappearing toward drawing, legibility decomposing, I thought, as I considered how these paintings refer in turn to the way that in Walser’s micrograms, the handwriting seems to grow increasingly independent, until it turns into a private language. Along with the pictures, a small plaque provided some information about the artist and a short biography. With my back still turned to the young man, I approached the plaque and read: ‘Dwight Mackintosh (Hayward, California, 1906 – Berkeley, California, 1999)’. A cold shiver ran through me as soon as I recognised this last name, which brought me back to Vila-Matas and to Joyce’s Ulysses, to that fleeting figure who moved through the pages of Dublinesque as a sort of spectre. I briefly imagined him in California, sketching out these paintings from a North American sanatorium, and I laughed when I thought that a transatlantic conspiracy was perhaps associated with that name, a secret plot behind which there was a hidden reality, that whoever pursues the avant-garde risks disappearing into madness. Better to leave while there’s still time, I thought. I turned around, expecting to meet with the image of the young man painting, but he wasn’t there. Like a good Mackintosh, he had vanished. I took my things and left the museum, and as I was walking outside, I asked myself if hours later, once night had fallen, the same lady with the red hair would be going back to the bar to read the newspaper. Two hours later, a plane brought me back to London, convinced that travel has the power to turn theories into nightmares. A light and graceful snow was falling over London, and I limited myself to thinking that to watch it snow is to watch it snow twice over. To return to a distant childhood, of which we no longer have any memory.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French.