From Translation to Imitation (1990)

In 1835, at the age of fifty-two, the French consul in Civitavecchia decided to devote himself to the written reconstruction of his life, in order to fight, in his own words, the idleness and the boredom which overwhelmed him and to “allow myself the pleasure of looking back for a while.” This work of excavation into memory – so accurate that the three thick volumes Stendhal was able to fill barely cover the first seventeen years of his life – he obviously enjoyed very much, as any reader will acknowledge when he discovers the scribbles and scrawls which from the very first pages interrupt the narration, crammed into the manuscript as Stendhal cheerfully revisits the places and landscapes of his childhood.

The work was never finished, but its author meant it to be published. We don’t know whether the sketches would have been kept in the final text. Such a publication would not have been unprecedented, for there was a model, which Stendhal knew well and loved: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, published seventy-five years earlier. As we know, Shandy’s fictitious autobiography digs so deep into the past that we never get to witness the hero’s birth. Symbols, sketches, graphic schemes are interspersed in the written narration, bearing witness to Sterne’s audacious inventiveness, which led him to allow the intrusion of improper codes into the text, and their integration therein.

These two books could be seen as a challenge, from a painter’s point of view: how should one use the “anamnestic” procedures introduced by Stendhal and Sterne, while inverting the terms – i. e., allowing the incursion of writing into the pictorial mean (the visual presentation) so as to distort it? Thus defined, this challenge appears to be a problem of translation, if by translation one is to understand the rejection of any specialized or specialists’ approach.

Contaminating forms, setting oneself as a translator (the translator being by definition the person who moves through or “goes between”, without crossing the border which leads to originality), means to adopt the attitude of an amateur. One the one hand, this implies an opposition, a resistance not only against the supremacy of technique and mere ability, but also against a certain levelling of the individual which any specialization involves. On the other hand, this “amateurness” means that one may choose, along with the lightness, the continuous possibility of choice that such an attitude allows. Besides, one must take into account the following conclusive consideration: there is little left to say, today, in art, and even if one could go on speaking forever and endlessly representing oneself, one wouldn’t have, as Fitzgerald says, more than one or two original ideas to express, a couple of personal obsessions. There is therefore no need to pile up talk on talk, show on show. But rather to give time to expectation – to load expectation, with experience and the awareness of experience – to be able to translate them, if it so happens, into a work.

One must add, however, that such an “amateur” practise entails a risk of its own – not the kind of risk to be confronted in a totalising, promethean commitment, but the one which arises in void and expectation. Emptiness, delaying do not necessarily imply concentration or contemplation. They might be embodied, rather, in a kind of distracted attention, in a looking or staring askance.

Neither intention nor its fulfilment (the execution) is interesting. What’s interesting is the surprise. It is not the artist who surprises the work but quite the contrary: the work surprises and changes the artist, taking him in his moments of negligence, from his blind side; arriving, when it does, as a gift.
Looking askance, speaking askance. Not naming, not taking possession; calling the thing and leaving it to itself.

(I must confess, here between two chapters, a simulation: namely, that one never saw a painting of this century; that one stands with virgin eyes before books, and that, therefore, translation is a one-way process, going from the writers so to say to the paintings).

2. Aurora
The pictures must be silent. But all silences are not equal. The difficulty is to find a right quality, a good tone of silence. The tone of silence is important: it is the restitution of possibility.
The deeper silence is not that of void but of fullness; it is not to be found in absence but in presence. The past contains the deepest silence.
How to sink into time within a painting: through movement, which connects space and time: looking for movement, which is the only thing that is worth seeking. The difficulty is to find it with colours, which are the amateur’s medium in painting. Green and red for instance, that uneasily fit together: the slowness of a green and the speed of a red.
One will have to trust forgetfulness. The picture will be the sea of forgetfulness, from whose depth the “anamnestic” fragments will resurface. As the artist, the amateur, is a translator, or a grinder, or a still and a retort, or a crucible, the fragments will come back floating in an arbitrary way, at random. One can only hope that some “iron hand of necessity shakes the begging bowl of chance” (Deleuze).
The artist would be a nomad, gleaning here and there, confident that he is the tool of something. An assembler, but incomplete, for he works in silence and silence, as we are in a world of human beings, far from presenting itself, presents the unsaid. Omission is therefore unavoidable, and frustration. Certainly happiness is not that of forgetfulness but that of being able of remembering it all, of possessing, therefore, at least one’s own memories, even though memories seldom tell: “we do need you.”
One is always drawn towards some origin, in this backward walk, perhaps towards the time when “on the earth numerous grew the heads without neck, and on their own wandered the arms deprived of shoulders, and the eyes roamed just as they were, which no forehead adorned” (Hempedocles).
Among the rights that our artist claims is the right to force into coexistence the surviving remains and leftovers of different semantic fields or time periods. As if he were a poor man he takes interest in the details and the refuse of social exchange.

I want to point out a path between the sea of forgetfulness and the wall of historical time. More than the scene of memory, we said, or the dawn of the big bang, what is of interest is something that turns around the origin, from some place that is not prehistory anymore nor yet history or bureaucracy. It would be a break at some undefined point of circular time, on the circle of time. It is taken for granted that the time of the artist is anti-modern. It is taken for granted that the artist mixes past and future; he is the one who acts under this crest: Strach and touha, fear and desire-nostalgia.
Fear, i. e. the feeling that dominates the most decisive and risky moments in operating and in staying, those moments when, out of distraction and carelessness, the clear presence takes shape, and during which a suspension of being opens the way that leads to conscience and commotion.
Desire-nostalgia, the aching tension towards something that is no more or not yet, that is, in several languages, expressed by the same word, like touha in Czech; one is drawn towards to the past with the same word with which one strains towards the future. Anything does, except the present. After all, any true and irremediable feeling of something originates in its loss. And also, perhaps, in its not being yet, when its whole treasure consists in a mere image: to give birth, to change continents, thus accomplishing a gesture no different from the one “that keeps tempting us: to bring some animal home, dog, cat, bird, turtle or hamster, under the attraction of a deep impulse, which immediately distracts us” (Ramondino).

4. Bodies
The walls are to be incised, the bodies too.
With pictures one fights bodily, hand-to-hand, one gives and receives painful hits. As Nietzsche says, almost anybody can bear pain, for there is little choice; arduous is to find the strength to inflict pain. But it is a matter of restitution, because we write or paint in order to pay our own due; and as the artists are revengeful, theirs are poisoned reimbursements. They bite the work with poisoned teeth.
There is no body without soul, it can’t be helped. The soul is the sign, probably, and what at the same time carries the weight. The body is the body and in the sign it disintegrates. This is made apparent in the Etruscan torture described by Aristotle (as quoted by Cicero): “We suffer a torture similar to that of those people who, in other times, when they fell into the hands of the Etruscan pirates, were put to death with refined cruelty: each live body was bound with painstaking precision to a corpse, in such a way that every anterior part of the live body was adjusted to its dead counterpart. As those living victims were tied to corpses, so our souls are tightly tied together with our bodies.”

Little remains to be said but the supremacy of language. Signs and figures are its calls, its witnesses. They are not to be distinguished from the picture: they sink into it. To paint would just be to make up into pages.
But such writing, that of a picture – itself loaded with figures either afloat on the sea of forgetfulness or carved on the walls of its maze – should imitate that of an orchestra. An orchestra, however, that wouldn’t express anything harmonic, or if so, only at random; not going beyond the “misleadingly banal, often troubling” moment, “that precedes the concert, during which it tunes up, that is, assembles itself” (Burger).
The figures are witnesses, not symbols; they are like natural elements, sticks or stones, almost -but not yet – letters of an alphabet, because they don’t mean anything; they are therefore cocoons of language, lingering in the antechamber of grammar and syntax, without ever crossing the threshold of articulation. They court the utopia of inarticulate language, that of the wind breathing in the desert, they say: “if the world has a future, it is an ascetic future” (Chatwin). In the end remains the image of geological immobility, of identity with nature in its mineral state, the field clear from all residues of desire.