Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter

"One way or another, all philosophical insight derives from an awareness of the mendacious nature of language. In fact, in language, truth is always relative, partial, circumscribed--a fragment of a fragment, an echo of an echo, a mere shadow." [p.126]


That's not an unrepresentative sample from Matei Calinescu's The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter. (1969, tr. Andrea Calinescu and Breon Mitchell, 2018.) It is labeled a novel, were warned.

I tend to be OK with that sort of thing. And while the talk may be philosophical, and the plot near to non-existent, it does have characters. The 'Biographer' who is telling us about Lichter, Lichter himself, and several figures in Lichter's circle: the drunk and silent philosopher Leopold Nacht,  Adrian Leonescu, a specialist in English phonetics, and Doctor S., a psychotherapist, the villain of the piece, if that's not too exalted a term. (He keeps wanting to explain Lichter, to explain Lichter to himself.) A few others. Zacharias Lichter is culturally Jewish, but not practicing.

The book is divided into short chapters, many of which are philosophical treatises in miniature. The quote above, for example, comes from a chapter 'On Lying.' Others include 'Regarding the Devil,' 'Responsibility and Freedom,' and 'On Mathematical Language.' At points it suggested Wittgenstein, if you leave out the math.

Lichter is also a poet, and we see his poems, though Lichter treats his own poetry dismissively. One poem presented in the text, the 'Biographer' tells us he had to rescue from the trash. They're typically held together with a sort of Biblical anaphora. Here's the opening to 'Mouth Full of Flowers': [p.56]

Beggars, lunatics, old friends,
It's been raining so long we have no shelter,
It rains of winter, of spring, and of other seasons,
It rains of thought and death, and without a purpose, it rains
Of fright and of cold words, of words, words.

But mostly, in addition to being a philosopher and a poet, Lichter is a sort of secular saint. He takes up an almost Buddhist begging rather than accumulate possessions. He's kind to the downtrodden and concerned with the aetherial. Lichter, himself, though denies this, saying that the silent (stille? und so heilige? 'Tis the season...) Nacht is the embodiment of love in the world. 

Norman Manea in the introduction says that 1969 was a period of relative liberalization in Romania; the book came out then. Also maybe the censors were too stupid to see. The novel takes place in a no-time, possibly the 1930s, but not very explicitly so, so how could Calinescu be complaining about Ceausescu? Nevertheless Calinescu was not allowed to publish afterwards, and got out of Romania, ultimately taking a position at Indiana University. He died in 2009. 

Life and Opinions suggests to English readers Tristram Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and apparently it does to a Romanian, too. Cioran said of the novel, it's the story of the Baal Shem Tov as told by Sterne. It's not a bad comparison. Lichter is more analytic and less purely genial than the Baal Shem Tov, at least as the latter is presented in Buber and I. B. Singer. But like the Baal Shem Tov, and Socrates for that matter, Lichter doesn't write much:

"The fiery truth can only be transmitted orally." [p.80]

When he does write, he considers it shameful. (Hence, the poem in the trashcan.) 

While it's as plotless as Tristram Shandy, it is plotless in a different way and its prose is quite different. It reminded me of George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, though I wonder if Calinescu could even have seen that work. But Gissing's short book has a biographer, G. G. as character, and a series of texts on philosophical or spiritual issues. Ryecroft is more of a nature writer than the urban Lichter. Anyway, Zacharias Lichter is its own thing, and I liked that thing. But it may have been wise on Calinescu's part to keep it short... (145 pages in translation).

"And now, may I ask what moved you to write my biography? Don't you see that my 'biography' is the last thing that could possibly be written? If I knew, at least that you meant to write a fictional life of Zacharias Lichter, so be it!...I predict that the biography you write will be serious and boring, cold, perhaps awkwardly ironic; something fitting only for yourself." [p.144]

Maybe, maybe not...

Nearing the end of the year, but one more for Gillion's European Reading Challenge!


  1. "the mendacious use of language"; yes, but, he said... i wonder what sound was like before languages were invented. and did their invention make any difference in the real world. what if humans never evolved... this seems a very interesting book, if complicated...

    1. For all its philosophizing it reads pretty well, just not much narrative to draw you along. And it does provoke thought. Was I meant to think of Wittgenstein? I don't know, but I did.

      'Mendacious' strikes me as a little strong--it implies a will to be misunderstood--when mostly there's just a muddle of misunderstandings, I figure. I think languages do make a difference, just never as much as we want.

      But see, there the book did make us think...

  2. Sounds odd but interesting. I quite like philosophy but it depends how it is delivered and too much of it can be overwhelming. Congratulations on the challenge. I did try it one year but my reading isn't that varied. At least, not yet.

    1. It is odd and interesting and it has a tolerable amount of philosophy... ;-) least for me.

      Before I signed up for the challenge the first year, I looked at how many European countries I could cover by my reading the previous year, and it was ten or something. So like most of the challenges I sign up for, it wasn't really very challenging. But still fun to think about!

  3. Wow, "the story of the Baal Shem Tov as told by Sterne." Outstanding.

    1. I know. That blurb would have gotten me to read the book all on its own. I only found it once I started the introduction, so I was already committed.

  4. Replies
    1. It showed up in a bookstore here at a moment when I could visit.

  5. Hahah: "serious and boring". Indeed! This sounds like a rewarding little read.