João Reis - One of the funniest novels you are likely to read,. It is a perfect example of the negative capability described by Keats that would absolutely kill the police procedural from which it spins its web: it accepts the existence of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.


João Reis, Bedraggling Grandma with Russian

SnowTrans. by João Reis. Corona Samizdat,


One of the funniest novels you are likely to read, which you will particularly appreciate if you have the perverse nature of a Beckett lover, or have come across David Vardeman’s books, Bedraggling Grandma is a book of precision taken to torturous limits of hilarity. Sure a woman has been murdered and the eye witness is a talking, thinking, reading stuffed donkey, but it is not entirely absurd, for it suggests a number of human truths like a short electric cut through Wittgenstein, who plays a role in the novel that begins with the sheer absurd and ends with a more elevated absurd, you odd and Cartesian human reader.

A book that can be read in one sitting, it is also a book that you will read at least three times if you do race through it in a sitting. Perhaps you should read it standing. Standing and leaning? Well, that would allow some leg flexing, yes. But isn’t your concentration sharper if you are sitting? And though your legs stretch less, is the trade-off between less stretching worth it for the rest they have in not supporting your body? And which is better for your head? Sitting, as you can rest your face in your hands? Or standing, which allows better back to head stretching? What if someone enters the room? Why did they? Did they intend to interrupt your reading of Bedraggling Grandma with Russian Snow? If not, why did they interrupt your reading of Bedraggling Grandma with Russian Snow? For they did, indeed, interrupt your reading of Bedraggling Grandma with Russian Snow. Would they have felt less free to do so if you were standing? Does sitting invite interruption?

These are questions you will not think to ask until after you realized that you have been slyly taught how to think by this Portuguese master of humor, philosophy, and imagination, Joao Reis.

There is a diacritical mark above the a in Joao much like the Spanish one we use for manana, which is the soonest I will add it to this description. 

Bedraggling Grandma is a book of precision taken to torturous limits of hilarity. Sure a woman has been murdered and the eye witness is a talking, thinking, reading stuffed donkey, but it is not entirely absurd, for it suggests a number of human truths like a short electric cut though Wittgenstein, who plays a role in the novel that begins with the sheer absurd and ends with a more elevated absurd, you odd and Cartesian human reader.

A book that can be read in one sitting, it is also a book that you will read at least three times if you do race through it in a sitting. Perhaps you should read it standing. Standing and leaning? Well, that would allow some leg flexing, yes. But isn’t your concentration more sharp if you are sitting? And though your legs stretch less, is the trade-off between less stretching worth it for the rest they have in not supporting your body?


The absurd must be presented matter-of-factly; that is how it is embedded in our day-to-day lives, where it predominates almost to the point of disappearing from our view, resisting detection and exposure. Bedraggling Grandma with Russian Snow is a novel that is in part about that very thing, the failure to apply rational thinking and observation to a dire situation in preference for invented observation that serves to expose an artificial “perfect plot.” Two detectives, each with his own peripheral ambitions, interrogate witnesses to and randomly selected suspects of the barely described murder of a young woman. With supposedly meticulous care, they fail utterly even to approach the truth. In hilarious scene after scene, facts elude detection because a monomaniacal interrogator works from the assumption that, according to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, anyone, just anyone sufficiently fulfills the role of perpetrator.

Reis’s flawlessly flatly wry novel uses that most popular and artificial genre, the police procedural, as a point of departure without heaping contempt on it, strangely enough, considering the degree to which his characters torture their faculties in grasping at uncertain certainties. For instance, the extended interrogation of Didier H. is a remarkable delight and alone worth the price of admission, though the whole does not fall below that level. I frankly covet this writer and his virtuosity and told a writer friend so as I was making my way through the novel. There is something remarkably gentle and gentlemanly about Reis’s use of the absurd. How he manages this, I can’t quite say. Perhaps the writer who can render a plush mechanical donkey (Bruce) of such innate charm and politeness as to put the crude and cruel human beings around him to shame can’t help but ennoble whatever he touches. As masterfully as Reis employs the absurd, he is capable of sudden but not jarring turns toward tenderness, as with the curiously heartbreaking image of an old Russian grandma, pelted by Canadian snow, being asked by her grandson, who considers this all just fun, to compare that snow beating her to the Russian snow of her former life.

This novel is a perfect example of the negative capability described by Keats that would absolutely kill the police procedural from which it spins its web: it accepts the existence of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” - David Vardeman


Robert S. Stickley - an astonishing artistic achievement. as serious as this book may initially appear, behind its heady prose lies a wicked sense of humor, an absolutely brutal satirical edge. Plus its got action in abundance! Romance! Soviet spies! Musical spittooning! Birds! Scandalous carousings of the social elite! Heartbreaking scenes of domestic despair! Rare horses that trot exclusively in reverse! Intensely competitive croquet tournaments! Elaborate floral arrangements!


Robert S. Stickley, A Bended Circuity, Corona

Samizdat, 2022

This first novel by Robert S. Stickley is prepared for reading, but not for being summarized. It is long, a maximalist satirical book about southern (US) gratitude for man's ability to delude, and particularly, a product of the cold war, a Russian madman whose delights have little to no effect on Vietnam or the arms race, but are redolent of both, utterly subversive and very, very funny.

Don't strap yourself in for this ride, for it is a bit like a carnival donkey ride spiralling slowly, unnoticeably out of the world you thought you were in. The writing is National Book Award caliber, the words are in some of your dictionaries, and you might as well look them up as this is not a book to breeze through. It is long, dense, circuitous, and in no hurry to pay off--which of course deepenss the payoffs. This is an amazing work of fiction.

Review by Christopher Robinson

No exaggeration: this is the most impressive debut novel I’ve read, apart from The Recognitions by William Gaddis. Seriously. It’s staggering to me that I’m even getting to make that statement right now, for I never could have imagined another first novel even coming close. No offense to any other first novels. I’ve read and loved many, many wonderful first novels. But… I mean, come on… Gaddis just nailed it.

And yet, a rival emerges out of nowhere one day, and now I have an unexpected tie on my hands.

Enter A Bended Circuity by Robert S. Stickley.

The quality of the writing is readily apparent from moment one. Behold this beautiful doozy of an opening paragraph:

In this place, outside elements are rendered useless. Gusts of wind eddy through a barricade of limbs and leaves and are left diminished in a subarboreal world where they harmlessly whirl, confusing lightweight materials such as finely woven garments and crocus leaves. This expansive canopy of intermingling oaks shelters a swath of land and it’s occupants from the brunt of discomposing forces pestering lime besetting sin.

It’s not just my eyes, right? Slow down and read it out loud… to my ear, this prose just sings. And that’s just the opening!

So, somewhat naturally in the wake of such a bold opening, a part of me kept waiting for it to fall off, lose some of its steam, lose itself, strive for glory but ultimately fall short, etc. But it never did, it somehow swerved every possible pitfall and beat the odds and somehow only got better and more addictive as I went along.

On a prose level, I’ll unhesitatingly describe it as being masterful. This is an intensely, boldly erudite novel, and the formidable lexicon is wielded with precision and care, utilized to gloriously poetic ends. Honestly, I can’t recall a single moment during my reading where I wasn’t in complete awe of the quality of the writing. Its style enamored me on each of its 637 type-dense pages.

And then there’s the story! I’ll keep it basic and avoid spoilers. Simply put, it depicts a neo-Confederate uprising circa the late 1960s/early 1970s. It’s a troubling scenario to consider, and unfortunately a rather timely-feeling one in 2022. But never fear, for as serious as this book may initially appear, behind its heady prose lies a wicked sense of humor, an absolutely brutal satirical edge. Plus its got action in abundance! Romance! Soviet spies! Musical spittooning! Birds! Scandalous carousings of the social elite! Heartbreaking scenes of domestic despair! Rare horses that trot exclusively in reverse! Intensely competitive croquet tournaments! Elaborate floral arrangements! Two men dueling with… never mind, some things are better discovered on one’s own.

Let’s recap: this book is hugely entertaining and conventionally compelling on a story level, and the writing itself is spectacular. And so the inevitable question: what the hell are you waiting for? Read this book as soon as you possibly can. It deserves your attention.

A Bended Circuity is an astonishing artistic achievement. It gladdens my heart to know that brilliant books like this one are still out there being written, even in secret. (Maybe even especially in secret.) I hope it finds the large audience it so richly deserves, and I’m greatly looking forward to following Robert S. Stickley’s work in the years to come.

Pierre-Albert Jourdan - paradox and its close kin aphorism are ways to approach the ineffable, the infinite, the immanent, and above all the state of unity between self and world that he devotedly, passionately sought


Pierre-Albert Jourdan, The Straw Sandals:

Selected Prose and Poetry, Trans. by John Taylor.

Chelsea Editions, 2011

Pierre-Albert Jourdan wrote down observations, notes, aphorisms and diary entries with such dedication to clarity as to remove the distinction between prose and poetry. This is a book of original reflection, marvel at the beauties of nature and keen awareness of the fleeting moments of life. "For Jourdan, writing was a tool for exploring what it means to have come into being, for determining how to live in the world every single day and thus how to die, and for intuiting possible spiritual truths in our midst. This task was always more important than seeing his work in print and establishing a name for himself. This radical genuineness now radiates from all the pages that, thankfully, are in print"—John Taylor, from his introduction.

How is it that writing so fresh, so spontaneous and with such deep friendship for the best of what mankind and world can offer writing that always strikes the right note is not harkened to more attentively? --Philippe Jaccottet

What Jourdan experiences in his morning garden, and records as an experience of the absolute, is […] the surprise of one who has returned to a beloved countryside after long months of absence, his marvel following upon the fatigue of highways and a sleepless night… --Yves Bonnefoy

For Jourdan, writing was a tool for exploring what it means to have come into being, for determining how to live in the world every single day and thus how to die, and for intuiting possible spiritual truths in our midst. This task was always more important than seeing his work in print and establishing a name for himself. This radical genuineness now radiates from all the pages that, thankfully, are in print. --John Taylor, Introduction

Very few books have the capacity to change a reader's life, but this splendidly moving anthology of writings by Pierre-Albert Jourdan is one of them. Introduced with perceptive brilliance by the well-known critic John Taylor, it includes selections from eight of the author's works, spanning the twenty years of his maturity--an arc cut short by lung cancer in 1981. Born in Provence in 1924, Jourdan was a masterly stylist in the French tradition of short prose, which can encompass aphorisms, brief meditations, prose poems, journal entries, or simply jottings--apercus of reality caught on the wing. But Jourdan's notes constitute much more than a literary oeuvre of remarkable deftness: they trace his evolution toward a state of secular grace. This is the testament of a self-effacing saint with no need of a church, who consistently keeps his foibles on display with humble, resolute honesty. Whether he is observing the behavior of animals, communing with the plants in his beloved garden, or pursuing his workaday existence in a transport company, he never fails to probe the essence of things, profoundly and unobtrusively. The Approach, composed in his last few months, as he traversed the painful wasteland of medical treatments, grants us a luminous vision of the astounding power of joy, a joy that does not shrink from the minutae of suffering, decline, and death. Despite his obvious links to Eastern doctrines of detachment, even in extremis he retains a sensuous delight in light-washed landscapes, the humming of bees, the small firework of a flower, and every "unexpected magnitude" revealed by the everyday world. It is easy to see why such celebrated poets as Yves Bonnefoy and Philippe Jaccottet have long admired Jourdan's rapt and courageous prose, which teaches us to die because it teaches us to live. We cannot thank John Taylor enough for bringing this unjustly neglected author to the attention of the English-speaking public in his sensitive translation: at every turn, he renders Jourdan's extraordinary range of tone and diction with flawless skill. --Hoyt Rogers, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2012

"For Jourdan, paradox and its close kin aphorism were ways to approach the ineffable, the immanent, and above all the state of unity between self and world that he devotedly, passionately sought. [. . .] Between moments of disgust with the human (and human-made) world, moments of rapture for the natural world, and, at the end, moments of fear at losing that very self's ability to sense, he writes in hope that the paradoxes he has provided will help to free us as well as himself: 'Writing throws out a bridge that it destroys with every page.'" - Kate Schapira, The Arts Fuse

"Each sentence sends the imagination spiraling off into a different spectrum of images and memories. Each phrase may be savored and contemplated as a separate poem:

The fragrance of cypress beneath the eyelids.

[. . .] We are deeply indebted to Chelsea Editions for making this important body of work available, and to John Taylor for supplying not just a literal translation into English sentences, but a luminous transmutation into English poetry." - Martin Abramson, Book/Mark

"Reading Jourdan's observations from Caromb is to move through the gamut of scale; to enter the flower-head with the bee and observe the rippling of the wind in the shrub or its effect on the peregrinations of the butterfly before looking up to the ever-changing cloudscapes of the mountain and the vast extent of the intervening country; to follow Jourdan as he walks, observing the fissile bank of the road or the cloud raked on a ridge. It is as if Jourdan's tiny stitches, his microcosmic observations, cumulatively sewed together a vast panorama of his native Vaucluse, in its definite-indefiniteness having few parallels outside such Shakespearian landscape music as Tippett's Triple Concerto or Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream." ~ Chris Miller, The Warwick Review, volume 5, No. 4, December 2011.

"Jourdan didn't write so much as attempt to purify the desire to write and scrub its purpose. His oeuvre is made of compressed prose texts, aphoristic notations, and pithy descriptions. Although he wrote with the disclosing regularity of a diarist, he insisted, 'One must learn to speak above oneself in the same way you can help someone climb over a wall.' [. . .] With The Straw Sandals, we finally have finely attuned English translations (with the originals en face) of Jourdan's entire first book, selections of his mid-life writings, and the whole of L'Approche or The Approach, his final work. . ." - Ron Slate, On the Seawall

". . .to our great good fortune, the publisher Chelsea Editions now offers us two beautifully designed, bilingual books editions of two major twentieth-century Francophone poets, translated magnificently by John Taylor. And, Nonetheless by Jaccottet and The Straw Sandals by Jourdan were published in 2011 and include selected prose and poetry, with introductions by the translator. [...] Both Jaccottet’s and Jourdan’s poetry is grounded in nature, yet it is far from being “nature poetry.” It is not “inspired” by nature the way some melancholy, idle observer watching a garden from behind a lace-curtained window might be. It is a poetry born out of the desire to cross the line between nature and the invisible beyond it; it is a poetry both thought and felt. For Jaccottet, as for Jourdan, looking at nature is never simply an act of letting your eye/I touch the surface of things; rather, it is an act through which your eye/I relearns how to see." ~ Daniela Hurezanu, The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 28, Summer 2012

Some poets try to make the leap through metaphor. Some, notably the Surrealists, try to make it through juxtaposition and “bad” combinations. Some, like the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, don’t appear to want to make it at all. The leap is between what is written and what is read; it is an appeal to surprise, an attempt to startle language and its participants into some other state; it is how to express in words what can’t be expressed in words. The second part of that sentence is a paradox, and it is another way that poets who want to make the leap—including Pierre-Albert Jourdan (1924–1981), whose poems and other writings are selected in The Straw Sandals and edited, translated, and introduced by John Taylor—attempt it.

Rather than provoking the mind to figure out how it could be true, the hope of paradox is that it will catapult the mind into experiencing it as true. For Jourdan, paradox and its close kin aphorism were ways to approach the ineffable, the infinite, the immanent, and above all the state of unity between self and world that he devotedly, passionately sought: another kind of leap, a leap out of the self and into unity. He craves

All contrasts erased. A shared sky.

A language in which there is no partitioning off, no emptiness.

As you stand there, aren’t you overwhelmed, reduced to nothing, jubilant?

Looking at that sky, he wants us (or himself) “to sign your name to this canvas” and “to vanish into it.” Of the grass, he writes, “I lend my voice to it; more truthfully, I give my voice over to it completely,” and later adds, “Leave me to my wandering, my face in the grass. Forget me so that I, too, may forget myself.” He wants to be entirely immersed in the natural world, its plants and weathers, the rises and falls of its ground; the three lines separated out above were provoked by, respectively, “the flight of a magpie,” “the welcoming light of fennel along the path,” and this particularly observed scene:

The bees get busy. They make the rosemary bush come alive. The meaning of all these blue flowers—their blossoming out—lies in a sort of squandering, be it studious. The soft buzzing makes all space quiver: you walk a little further, you sense this, but is it really so?

In his reverent introduction, Taylor’s notes on the leap of self (as distinct from the leap of language outlined above) refer to it in Jourdan’s work as “a quest to surpass—or efface—the self,” and add, “Yet this ‘leap’ may well be impossible, and in a certain respect undesirable . . .” Jourdan seems to feel that it is particularly impossible for a poet. If you startle yourself into some other state, who will write down what you see there? If you completely enter it, will you be able to get back? If writing is your lifeline, is it also your yoke? Again and again in his earlier collections and notebooks, Jourdan writes, sometimes with warmth and gentleness, sometimes with violence and disgust, of the impediment that words become:

What needs to be restored speaks an impoverished language.

Words persisting in their silence, having nothing to add to the errors of the day.

To give a name to this joy would be to mislay it.

I have so many things to tell you. May you stick them, one after another, back into my throat, reducing them to this plaster cast, this bandage.

It is always in you that everything is degraded,” Jourdan writes, apparently addressing himself, seeing his self and even his writing as blocks on his path to merging with the world. In his view, writing is helpful or harmful only as it gets the writer—or possibly the reader—closer to or further away from unity. He notes multiple times that he is not patient, that he’s impatient, that patience would get him where he wants to go, that he should’ve been more patient: “The landscape watchman must hand over his identity before opening his eyes.”

But does becoming part of the unified world require an effort—and if so, who makes the effort?—or does it require the abandonment of effort? “Open up the path (chemin) for it, open yourself up like a path (t’ouvrir comme chemin),” he writes. He wants to go where he cannot, “With, for a companion, the curve of a hill in the evening haze. Make yourself vanish as you face it. Make an effort to return this completely natural courtesy, without an effort.”

Pierre-Albert Jourdan -- writing should be obsessed with the search for unity. Photo: Gilles Jourdan

For Jourdan, are the two kinds of leap the same leap? The leap of the mind over paradox, the leap of the self into not a void but into the landscape, from which only humans are excluded—from which he excludes himself every time he makes an effort, through language, to reach it? It makes sense, at least, that the form of language he favored is one that seems to undo itself. Even to write of silence has a paradoxical quality, and he returns to it throughout:

We think we are present, believing we had detected silence when actually it is only a narrow margin through which the silence flees.

The pauses or blank spaces between fragments, maxims or notes whose words form, to recall French poet Yves Bonnefoy’s phrase, ‘the ridgeline of a silence’: you could say that these silent blank spaces expand your lungs (as when you breath [sic] in again) and are thus necessary. Without them, that is without the emptiness, you could not read and understand the words.

Yet this book contains over three hundred pages of purposeful writing—Taylor notes that Jourdan wrote much of The Straw Sandals/Les Sandales Pailles systematically, methodically, before going to his job at the Societé Mutual de Transports Publiques—and much of what’s here is excerpted from larger groupings, books or journals.

Clearly, words are real and necessary for him: he’ll dwell on a word as if it, just as much as a rosemary bush or cliff face, could provide a gateway out of the self and into the world: “‘frémissement’—trembling, an admirable word dressed in leaves and flesh, in wind and love,” or “The plant world has given me a new boost…I have just thought of the word ‘roulier,’ ‘cart driver.’ A cart full of grass? In order to make you sneeze as he drives it past, to shake you up a little.” Later, he addresses the paradox of words and silence more painfully:

Simplicity would mean getting along without words. They are such fragile barriers. We use them only because it seems impossible to stop speaking: we have to justify ourselves. But Good God, justify ourselves for what? Simplicity would mean enduring what we undergo in silence—a barrier-shattering silence. But such silence, which emerges from the darkest depths, cannot be assimilated without reacting, without crying out. Though it is useless to do so. Remaining speechless erects still another barrier. It is up to you to bring it down, O Impatient Death.

When Jourdan wrote the above words, he knew he was dying. Before he knew it, he had written of the sense of processes going on without him, asked questions about what endures. At the beginning of L’Approche, his last book, presented here in its entirety, he adds,

Somewhere in me indeed dwells gratitude. Like a sunlit plant wavering, the curve of a hill, a pine tree swaying.

A feeling that remains remote from vicissitudes, will always be there, and can be verified. Even without me. Especially without “me.”

A support, like a baton handed on in a relay race.

It almost seems that death is going to offer him what he wanted: a chance to abandon, relinquish, his self. But he fears, too, that dying will not unify him with the world but will separate him from it. Perhaps because of this fear, in this last book words begin to serve him differently, to be more than stumbling blocks or fetters:

From now on, I will content myself with setting down on paper a few notes, like markers staking out ground already engulfed by the sea.

Writing shaped like tiny wads of bread, so that you swallow the fish bones stuck in your throat.

Most revealing, perhaps, is “This writing is meant to carry us” when compared to his first group of poems, in which he asserted that “Light that has no arms to carry us.” And later still, it is the land that carries him: “I remain faithful.”

Jourdan strove in his poems, in spite of his poems, to surmount the separation between his human self and the beauty of the non-human world. “Producing literature is not at stake,” he wrote firmly, impatient with poetry, with the modern human-made world, with the “masturbatory speculations” of contemporary poets (although he makes loving reference to poetic contemporaries, as well as to poets of other times and places). What is at stake is his beloved landscape, the gateway to the abandonment of the self, or the healing of the “distance” between the self and the world: “…it would be possible for us to bandage certain wounds and reestablish an equilibrium. This would presuppose a fair amount of disinterestedness and a wagering on beauty that we dare not even imagine.”

There is tension throughout with regard to who Jourdan asks to make this wager: himself or us. Taylor writes about his choices in translating the nonspecific French third-person pronoun “on”, sometimes translated as “one,” instead as “‘we, a non-specific ‘you’ or a passive verbal construction.” The translator goes on to note that Jourdan “increasingly appeals to the colloquial use” of the pronoun “on”, rather than the words for “I” or “you,” speculating that this is another one of Jourdan’s attempts to take himself out of the equation.

Pronouns have a lot of power in French, and they seem particularly fraught in writing that attempts to dismantle the self or call it into question. When Jourdan writes tu (the more intimate and direct “you”), he may be addressing himself. But if his desire for unification goes beyond himself, then it may be that he’s also talking to us, insisting that we make (or abandon?) the effort, attempt to heal the wound, break down the barrier, cross the distances he refers to as “deadly (meurtrières) and relinquish the self that, after all, is neither as beautiful nor as harmonious as what we can see all around us if we look:

The almond tree this morning is a-buzz with bees. This is calmness, the deepest expression of calmness. It sinks in deep, through the walls. There are no more separations. As barriers become so marvelously fragile, it seems to us that wounds vanish. It is what we could call the honey of a gentle death. Producing literature is not at stake, but rather drawing in and on this gentleness. And it changes nothing that gentleness is not granted to us. We feel it. How cannot one dream of having such an ally?

Between moments of disgust with the human (and human-made) world, moments of rapture for the natural world, and, at the end, moments of fear at losing that very self’s ability to sense, he writes in hope that the paradoxes he has provided will help to free us as well as himself: “Writing throws out a bridge that it destroys with every page.” - Kate Schapira


We cannot imagine any kind of life without development, evolution, change, forward motion. We cannot imagine our own lives without some sense that we are moving forward in time. Our forward motion is intrinsic to our being.

And our forwardness, our continuing, is marked, continually, by our relationship to repetitions, variations, caesuras, new beginnings and the patterns that link them. From childhood, we are discovering patterns, and as adults imposing them as well. In old age, when we face our end, the end of moving and doing, when a great translucent luminous wall of uncertainty looms before us, again we look for patterns in this strange unfolding which we can call ourselves but is about not to be. As the patterns that have shaped us fall away, still we feel the intimacy of a patternless awareness continuing.

I never knew Pierre-Albert Jourdan, but he was the first person to ever publish my work. This was in 1969 when a mutual friend, Nicolas Calas, sent him some poems I had written. Pierre-Albert arranged for superb translations and a year later they appeared in his wonderful journal, Porte des Singes. I was young and callow, living in N.Y. and did not make the effort I wish I had to be in touch with Pierre-Albert who lived in Paris. Only last week, more than 50 years later, did my friend and neighbour, Suranjan Ganguly, give me a volume of Jourdan’s work. Now, it is with a kind of rueful admiration that I can return to this remarkable artist who was so long ago so very kind to me. What an extraordinary and courageous man he was.

In the following, written in the countryside during the last days of his life, as mind and body suffered in the final stages of lung cancer, Pierre-Albert’s perspective shifted in and out; he sometimes calls himself ‘you’.

Hide in a landscape, vanish behind foliage, burrow into a hill…

The eye can roam freely. It feels no pain when pausing to contemplate these faded blues. It does not experience that inner trigger mechanism that locks you up…”

Last night, the north wind cooled off the heat and cleared the horizon, At present, it is playing the game you know well: shaping clouds with the aid of Mt. Ventoux. There they are, as if caught in a trap, unable to pass over the ridge and coming apart like immense soft spinning top. I don’t wish to push the similarities any further.

I cannot truly distinguish my own suffering, at least at this bearable stage… from that of, for example, these trees assailed by the violence of a wind gone mad, from their own struggle; and from that of animals who are tortured, poisoned, stalked, and hunted down and who are yet, each of them, our sustenance. I refuse to pay the slightest attention to those, their ego bleating at the slightest warning, are surprised to discover that they have not remained at the centre of the world. Suffering extends so far beyond our understanding…

We are settling into a new life (we’ll have to find another word), one in which we are so completely uprooted…that it could make us weep. And this, moreover, happens often. Everything is perfectly regulated in all ways, nothing to say about that. But you are excluded. Those maple trees outside, that sky no longer belong to you. What is this “new life”? It is separation.

It is true that we incessantly roam just outside this spaceless space that we never enter, alive. Sometimes it even seems to constitute us. Yet we have this regrettable habit of approaching it from the wrong side: this fear it inspires is perhaps only the fear of being alive….

The gentleness of twilight has no name.

How I understand this!

Through great rifts in the landscape?

Pierre-Albert Jourdan wrote this last question on the eve of his death. - Douglas Penick


Selections from The Straw Sandals

From L'angle mort (The Dead Angle)

Chants d'oiseaux invisibles. Seules voix pures. Peut-être parce qu'ils sont flammes dans l'air. Qu'ils brûlent sans déchets. Oiseaux condamnés dans un mond encombré. Un rêve que je fais: que ce soit eux qui m'accueillent, que je m'avance dans un nuage de plumes. (Que ce soit la dernière image.)

Invisible birds chirping. The only pure voices. Perhaps because birdsongs are like flames in the air that burn up completely. As for birds themselves, they are doomed in this crowded world. One of my dreams: that birds be the ones who greet me. that I go forward through a cloud of feathers. (That this be my final sight.)


Tu as été conduit en aveugle prè de ce paysage. Alors tu l'as reconnu. Comme on se transmet une lampe allumée avec prècaution, ainsi, peut-être, seras-tu conduit prè de cet paysage—le tien depuis toujours.

You were led like a blind man near this landscape. And you recognized it. Even as a lighted lamp is handed over cautiously, perhaps you will similarly be led near that other landscape—yours from the beginning.

From L'entrée dans le jardin (The Entryway into the Garden)

Vraiment le paysage vient à toi—qui n'est plus enfermè dans ton regard. Un immense troupeau d'arbres est lâché dans l'espace. Le berger dort dans ta pointrine.

The landscape really comes to you—it is no longer locked up in your eyes. An immense herd of trees is released into space. The shepherd sleeps in your breast.

From Les sandales de paille (The Straw Sandals)

Jeudi 10 janvier.

Il faut se hisser jusqu'à la brance trop fragile pour percevoir avec nettetè ce qui se passe en dessous.

Thursday, 10 January.

You have to climb all the way up to the branch that is too fragile if you wish to perceive clearly what is happening below.

From L'approche (The Approach)

Situation somme toute banale. Mais n'interrogez pas trop la banalité. Vous risqueriez de buter sur une terrifiante énigme.

Ultimately, an ordinary situation. But don't question ordinariness too much. You risk running up against a terrifying enigma.

Pierre-Albert Jourdan (1924-1981) worked from 1947 to 1981 as the manager of an workers insurance firm, spending his non-working hours in pursuit of spiritual understanding and literary clarity. He was known as a poet only by a small group of better-known fellow poets. His focus was on nature, particularly his garden in the Vaucluse village of Caromb and the surrounding landscape, which included the snow-capped Mount Ventoux. In 1981 he received a diagnosis of lung cancer and decided to note down his thoughts as it progressed. Thus resulted L'approche /The Approach. In the first decade after his death, the prestigeous firm Mercure de France astonished the poetic world by publishing two collections of his work, each more than 500 pages. From these collections John Taylor introduces this singular and self-effacing poet to English-language readers.


Oswald Wiener - one of the most important innovations in the writing of novels since Proust and Joyce. His apparent aim is to bring language and reality into as sharp a confrontation as possible. The result is a text of chaotic richness, shot through with flashes of stringent socio-cultural criticism


Oswald Wiener, die verbesserung von

mitteleuropa, roman, Jung und Jung, 2013 [1969]


It is a novel, but one quite different from previous novels. Wiener has disregarded all laws of punctuation and syntax, any kind of chronological sequence or descriptive development of plot. (...) Although the novel is not about anything in particular, Wiener covers the wide range of human experience. Any concept, any idea or impression is potential material for the book. (...) It can be considered one of the most important innovations in the writing of novels since Proust and Joyce." - Rainer Schulte, Books Abroad

"(T)he reader's attention is retained by the tension between the scholar's style and apparatus on the one hand, and the unpredictable leaps and bounds of the 'open form' on the other" - John Neves, Times Literary Supplement

"His extraordinary novel Die Verbesserung von Mitteleuropa, not published until 1969, sums up much of the work completed before his break with the Group in 1959 and is deeply influenced by the development of Wittgenstein's thought. Its central theme is the basic discrepancy between the need to express and the inadequacy of the means at the writer's disposal. Equipped with an impressive knowledge of experimental art, information theory and linguistic philosophy, Wiener's book is really an anti-novel -- a self-ironizing treatise complete with a monstrous academic apparatus. His apparent aim is to bring language and reality into as sharp a confrontation as possible. The result is a text of chaotic richness, shot through with flashes of stringent socio-cultural criticism. In effect, a massive erudition is marshalled in a sustained attack on its own cultural foundations." - Hans Wolfschütz, in Modern Austrian Writing (London: Oswald Wolff, 1980)

I’m not sure whether I would actually recommend this book to anyone unless, perhaps, they were particularly familiar with the works of Wittgenstein. Its central theme is the need for the writer to express himself and the inherent lack of the means to do so properly. Die Grenzen meiner Sprache sind die Grenzer meiner Welt [The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world] as Wittgenstein put it so well. The book, written entirely in lower case and with pagination in Roman numerals, consist of thoughts, aphorisms, commentaries on his life, the linguistico-physical relationship between Oswald (presumably the author) and Helga, all with detailed contents and annotations. Make of it what you will. Some have described it as brilliant but, I am afraid, it left me a bit lost but it’s good to know that there are authors willing to push the boundaries even if those boundaries may be pushed too far for most of us. - The Modern Novel


The title of this work, die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman ('The Improvement of Central Europe, novel') asserts and insists that it be considered a novel, but it soon becomes clear that it is an extreme example of the form. Indeed, it is a work that clearly means, in myriad ways, to categorically challenge literary conventions. This begins with the presentation.

The title -- and practically the entire text -- are written in lower case, including the first letter of each sentence -- something that makes an even stronger impression in German, where all nouns are capitalized. (The very rare occasions when words are capitalized in the novel thus stand out all the more so, as in, for example, a section with a repeated "Ich" ('I'), beginning: "Ich bin die redensart von descartes" ('I am Descartes' turn of phrase'). Other exceptions include: "appendix A" and "appendix B"; "DNS-stränge" ('strands of DNA -- whereby 'Stränge' would normally also be capitalized in the German), and "TDYST", as in Hanscarl Leuner's transphänomenale dynamische System (which Leuner himself however abbreviates as: 'tdyst' ...).)

The novel does not begin with the text itself, but rather a (selected) people- and subject-index ('personen und sachregister (auswahl)') -- an inversion of the usual order. (German books do, oddly, often put the table of contents at the end, rather than the beginning of a book, but indexes are something rather different.) It is a thorough and useful index -- but, coming before the fact, also oddly anticipatory; while many readers might skip over it, it arguably does serve a purpose in suggesting much of the material addressed in the text proper. (The novel also does include an extensive bibliography of sources and influences; this is, however, presented more traditionally, at the conclusion of the book. (All references here are also printed in lower case, however.) There is no table of contents.)

The pagination then is in Roman rather than Arabic numerals, yet another twist on presenting a feature of the book that readers expect (numbered pages) in incongruous form -- an effective variation of sorts on Brecht's alienation effect. (Interestingly, Brecht is not among the authors referred to in the extensive bibliography.) The text goes up to page CCV -- while the Afterword in the Jung und Jung re-issue is then paginated in Roman numerals, neatly also helping to separate it from the original.

The epigraph is tersely presented simply as: "joh. 19,22" ("Pilate answered, What I have written I have written", in the King James version) -- though in his notes to his Italian translation, published also in German as Zur Theorie eines », roman«, (see more below) Nicola Cipani notes that in the manuskripte-version (in several issues of which much of the novel was previously presented) and in a typoscript of the manuscript found in Wiener's literary archive the original choice of epigraph was a passage from a Giordano Bruno dialogue -- in English translation (Dorothea Waley Singer, 1950): "Thou wouldst be more learned than Aristotle wert thou not a beast, destitute, a beggar, miserable, fed on millet bread, dead with hunger, born of a tailor and a washerwoman, nephew of Neddy the cobbler, son of Momus, postilion of whores, brother of Lazarus who shoes the asses. Remain a hundred devils, you who are not much better than he." (Cipani's notes also suggest the original book edition spelled out (part of) the reference -- ὅ γέγραφα, γέγραφα -- rather than, as the Jung and Jung edition has it, just presenting the reference ("joh. 19,22").)

The novel itself then is far from a traditional fiction-narrative. It is presented in a variety of parts, beginning with an Introduction ('vorwort') that, like much of the work, consists of short pieces of text on a wide variety of subjects. A short title, printed in italics, for each suggests what is then addressed or discussed. Like much of the novel, much here would seem to be more essayistic than 'fiction'; of particular note is how actively (and often aggressively) Wiener tries to engage with the reader.

The opening of the Introduction suggests what Wiener hopes to do in and with the text, a guiding set of principles (that also serve, in some respects, to guide the reader):

einfach einwirken auf andere, auf sich selbst einwirken, sätze einnehmen wie sonst pillen, sich wohin führen lassen, sich in einen zustand versetzen, lassen, mitteilen wollen, auch wohl sich eine hypothese zurechtlegen.

[simply have an effect on others, have an effect on yourself, take sentences the way you do pills, let yourself be guided somewhere, put yourself in a state of being, allowing, wanting to communicate, probably even putting together a hypothesis for oneself.]

Some later sections then are longer, more cohesive pieces: one section is a 'hymne an den erzengel' ('Hymn to the archangel'), another explores: 'kernstücke zu einer experimentellen vergangenheit:' ('Core pieces to an experimental past'). A piece titled 'PURIM' (a rare instance of upper case lettering) is not so much a play-script as an entire play-conception, describing also everything from the time of its performance ("zu lebzeiterm des autors, jedoch in dessen abwesenheit. am besten freitags, unbedingt 20h." ('during the author's lifetime, but in his absence. preferably fridays, without fail at 8 pm') to a description of the audience. There are 'zwei studien über das sitzen' ('Two studies on sitting') and the best-known part of the novel, Wiener's 'notizen zum konzept des bio-adapters' ("Notes on the concept of the Bio-Adapter'); there are also three appendices, the first of which also focuses on the Bio-Adapter concept and which has been translated (by Nathaniel McBride) into English.

Much of die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman deals with language and communication -- "wie spricht der astronom zum biologen ? pidginphilosophie, esperanto" ('how does the astronomer speak to the biologist ? pidgin-philosophy, esperanto') --, Wiener exploring and considering, including at a very fundamental level, what words and text can convey. (So also the titling of the introductory section as 'vorwort' (literally: 'Introduction') can also be read as "vor Wort" -- 'pre-word' --, as Wiener's reflections tend to even (and also repeatedly allude to) the Wittgensteinian.)

Pieces describe the attempt to find expression (in words): "ich suche nach worten der satz muss verändert werden man muss den eindruck wettmachen" ('i am looking for words the sentence must be altered one must make up for the impression'). He is aware -- and suspicious -- of 'the aura of words', and suggests, to counter its fetishization: "die liebe zur sprache muss man mit exzessen neutralisieren" ('one has to neutralize the love of language with excesses'). Wiener recognizes the seductiveness of the well-turned phrase -- and takes pleasure in turning no few of them himself -- but chastises the reader (or reviewer ...) for succumbing so easily; so also his call: "nieder mit den zitaten !" ('down with the quotes !') -- in a text that frequently quotes, and refers constantly to and mentions others' words and thoughts.

He playfully goads the reader -- "die unausweichbarkeit des satzes wer das liest ist blöd" ('the unavoidability of the sentence whoever reads this is stupid') -- while also being constantly self-aware and referential, and often sharply self-critical: on page fifty we find some paragraphs in summary "kritik der ersten neunundvierzig seiten" ('Critique of the first forty-nine pages'), and elsewhere he complains: "das buch ist langweilig und blöd, blöde wie kunst, wie literatur, blöde wie der glaube, der doch damit vernichtet wird" ('the book is boring and stupid, stupid like art, like literature, stupid like faith, which is destroyed by it'). Wiener argues that nothing worth reading has been published for ages; he notes and complains that: "jedes arschloch kann sich eine schreibmaschine kaufen" ('every asshole can buy themselves a typewriter') -- but: "was man mit der sprache alles anfangen kann, das lockt doch keinen köter mehr" ('all the things that can be done with language don't even attract any mutt any longer').

There's humor to his bite:

mein ideal.

ich schreibe für die kommenden klugscheisser; um das milieu dieser ära komplett zu machen.

[my ideal.

i am writing for the smartasses to come; to make the milieu of this era complete.]

Wiener sees and presents the "Notes on the concept of the Bio-Adapter' as a separate and complete-within-itself section of the novel, but also one that serves as an aid in the interpretation of the rest. Here it is most clear how Wiener's entire conception is informed by then-current thinking on cybernetics, linguistics, and artificial intelligence. If dated, many of the fundamentals are still of relevance today -- and in his singularity-like conception of the Bio-Adapter, this part of die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman, in particular, still impresses (though its significance remains curiously under-appreciated outside the German-speaking world).

The closing section of the novel is its Bibliography -- an alphabetical (by author) listing of the influences on and references in the book -- an impressive and revealing reading-list that ranges across a great deal of literature, from the technical to classical fiction to philosophy. From eight of Hugh Lofting's 'Doctor Dolittle'- novels or seven Raymond Chandler works and four by William Burroughs to Georges Simenon (simply listing his: "gesamtwerk" ('complete works')), there are may more literary influences than a first reading of the text might have suggested; this too makes Wiener's point of the difficulty of perceiving everything in what someone might be trying to express: the appearance -- the words and formulations -- might not obviously reveal everything that in fact they hold.

die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman is a challenging, even daunting text. Wiener's own uncertainty about it, in the form of textual variants or, for example, acknowledging in a footnote about one particular piece, that it is a: "misslungenes fragment. ich gebe es hier trotzdem, weil ich das gefühl habe dass es vielleicht wichtig ist" ('Misbegotten fragment. I nevertheless include it here because I have the feeling that it might be important'), are of a piece in a work that is meant, if not to entirely defy comprehension, so at least to constantly keep in the reader's mind the complexity of any sort of understanding.

In this time of the rise of Artificial Intelligence, Wiener's focus on language and communication and how he presents this material are also as timely as ever.

Special mention must also be made of the one other edition of die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman that is available, Nicola Cipani's Italian translation, Il miglioramento della mitteleuropa, romanzo, which comes in an edition from il verri that includes a lengthy essay by Cipani, and extensive annotations to the text; the essay and the annotations are now also available in German, as Zur Theorie eines », roman«, from Ergon Verlag. Given also Wiener's many then-contemporary (and often very Austria-specific) references the notes are particularly useful for foreign readers coming to the book now, more than half a century after its first publication. Cipani's introduction and notes make for an invaluable companion-piece to this text, and German- and Italian-speaking readers should certainly consider availing themselves of these if tackling Wiener's text; there is, regrettably, very little other accessible secondary literature on it available. (One hopes also that any English-language publisher that finally takes the plunge on this one take advantage of this very useful resource and include an English translation of it with the text.) - M.A.Orthofer



Interview by Hans-Christian Dany

When the Vienna Actionists urinated, masturbated, and vomited at an event titled “Art and Revolution” in Vienna University’s Lecture Hall 1 in 1968, the proceedings were accompanied by a lecture on the relationship between speech and thought by the then thirty-two-year-old Oswald Wiener. One year later his literary montage die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman (the improvement of central europe, a novel) was published. With its excurses on linguistics and cybernetics, it now reads as an astonishing foreshadowing of the Internet and virtual reality. Later, Wiener turned to the figure of the dandy, who maintains his difference from machines by cultivating a practice of self-observation. Hans-Christian Dany visited him at his home in southeast Austria to talk about the peculiar standstill of art and science in the digital age.

The moment I get into the hire car, I know they’ve given me the right vehicle for my mission. A small screen shows what I could drive into should I choose to reverse. I hesitate briefly but resist the temptation. On the way there I don’t see anything but the road. The world has disappeared into fog, but a voice is guiding me. My destination is somewhere just before the border to Slovenia and Hungary. On a mountain there lives a who professes to have been cultivating idiocy for fifty years. Where I come from, he enjoys an almost magical reputation. When I told my friends I was going to meet him, they looked at me in disbelief. “I didn’t think he really existed”. And indeed, it isn’t easy to imagine the life of a person who described, fifty years before the fact, the peculiar irreality that would come to pass through the Internet. A person who seems to rise above the current of time, one whose life story reads like a novel. A person who today hopes that our attention might again shift to the self-observation of human thought as a form of artistic research.

“You have reached your destination”. I park the Nissan in front of an inconspicuous house. The name Wiener really does appear on the door. Ingrid Wiener, easily recognisable by the melody of her speech, opens it. Further back, in the darkness of the kitchen, I make out Oswald Wiener. The seventy-nine-year-old seems real enough, and bears no resemblance to a fictional character who can travel in time inside his own head. One wonders whether it was just such an interconnection of real and linguistic existence that enabled him to write one of the most shattering novels of the twentieth century. Or whether it was this way of thinking that enabled him to use the historical figure of the dandy to cast light on the problems of the artificial intelligences of the future. For this was the kinetic logic of a writer who it was impossible to pin down, who would disappear behind pseudonyms or among gold prospectors at the furthest ends of the world, only to return with recordings of the songs of wild Canadian dogs. This was the author of a work that for a long time appeared to be hopelessly fragmented, but which today has constituted itself as a compelling intellectual achievement. A blinding sun is shining through the window. I unwrap my recording device from a white silk cloth. The man opposite me picks up exactly the same device, and sets it up next to the first one like a reflection. At one and the same time, both of us say: a good machine.

You initially wanted to be a jazz musician, but then you switched from playing the trumpet to working for Olivetti.

Jazz was implanted in me at the age of twelve. There was a radio station run by the American Occupation, the Blue Danube Network, which was a kind of request programme for the soldiers. It was on seven days a week, and once a week it played a piece of jazz. This was in 1947/48. I was living in a reform school at the time, and all the boys had a germanium diode crystal receiver with a piece of wire that you could bend and adjust until you got the right frequency. For headphones we used earpieces stolen from phone box telephones. And with them we’d listen to the radio under the covers every evening.

Then, in the 1950s, my childhood friend Konrad Bayer inducted me into the circle of artists and poets. My interest in poetry grew with my realisation that my musical talent was not going to turn me into a world-famous jazz trumpeter. I liked the poems of Gerhard Rühm or H.C. Artmann as much as I liked music. Then I got sick of all that as well, I saw that my poetry was a kind of imitation of Rühm’s – at best, an imitation with different intentions to his own. That was the end of my foray into art, and now I wanted to do the exact opposite: marry, have children, take up a bourgeois profession. I very quickly had a successful career at Olivetti; they were waiting for a guy like me. That’s where I learned the principles of programming.

Was this applied programming, or was it linked to the debate over cybernetics that was going on at the time?

The term cybernetics had only just reached Central Europe. People didn’t exactly know what it meant. In 1959 I stole the first copy of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics from the lending library of the Vienna Information Center, a propaganda institute run by the American occupation forces. At the time I didn’t entirely understand it. I still don’t know whether I entirely understand it today.

And then you began slowly working on an attempt to create the opposite of poetry, to create its destruction, which led to your book die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman (the improvement of central europe, a novel).

Naturally after a year at Olivetti I couldn’t stand it any more, I hated the whole attitude there, the obsession with money, the ever more expensive cars. I had chosen this career as a protest against my friends. Then suddenly I was inside it and it didn’t take long until I was asking myself what I was actually doing there and I started writing the book. In the beginning I had to struggle against my inhibitions, you can tell this from the way the book lashes out so much. I would compose a sentence, and if I didn’t find it hurt enough I’d look for other words until it became more and more painful. When I had the feeling that I’d got something I should under no circumstances write down, that’s what I’d write. That’s how almost the entire book was written.

You tried charging language with your own pain?

I was living under the delusion that something was making me who I was. I didn’t think I was being manipulated the way a schizophrenic does, but rather in a far profounder manner to have been pre-formed by the existing culture that I’d discovered under the name of language. Language was the cipher for everything that was out of kilter. I found fault everywhere but within myself, and even to this day I couldn’t really say what I might have found there apart from gullibility. When people used to tell me that Hegel was a giant, I believed them. While I was writing the "improvement", I leafed through Hegel and wondered what was supposed to be so great about all this bullshit. And that’s how it went on, effectively there was nothing there any more, only consciousness. A metaphysics of consciousness was the only thing that I didn’t condemn and reject.

As well as being a record of complex state of conflict, the book contains a quite astonishing passage on the “bioadaptor”, which emerged in reaction to an object by the artist Walter Pichler.

Walter Pichler saw himself as a utopian architect, he was one of the first, along with Hans Hollein, who declared everything to be architecture, as I had declared everything to be language. He built a helmet with a small television screen that shielded people off from the world around them. That was enough for me to dedicate the bioadaptor to him.

The “bioadaptor”* that you outline in the book foreshadows what would later come to be called virtual space, You very precisely predict the structures that would come into being half a century later, at an advanced stage of the Internet, through social networks or with Google Glass. You anticipate closed systems where the human gaze no longer operates in the world around it but only ever reflects its own desires, gradually forming a closed system. To what extent was this influenced by ideas like, for example, Ross Ashby’s homeostat**?

The bioadaptor came out of two strands of thought. One was the idea of society as a homeostat. I noticed that cybernetics had the particular quality of functioning as a mechanism that prevents the emergence of innovations. I drew every possible analogy, such as for example that Copernicus had had access to modern computers. If he had, the Ptolemaic worldview might have lasted indefinitely, since the main reason it was abandoned was that the epicycles kept on increasing and the calculations were becoming ever more complicated. However, an enhanced capacity to perform calculations might have prevented the emergence of the Copernican worldview. Perhaps not for ever, but for a hundred years. At a time when the contradictions are no longer manageable and the leap into a qualitatively new state, another way of conceiving the world, is imminent, the computer would function as a means of prolonging the old, existing state of affairs.

The other strand came out of certain epistemological problems. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that we only have representations of reality in our heads which we improve, worsen, adapt. We haven’t been able to get rid of the idea that the world is effectively pre-stabilised for life forms like ourselves. I’ve evolved into this physical world, I know only a tiny part of this physical world, namely the one that is crucial to my being able to continue living, the one to which my organs react, the one I can act on using my motor skills. So the pre-stabilised relation to reality, produced by evolution, is already a bioadaptor.

But is this really what cybernetics is? The homeostat that constantly seeks to maintain itself, or the feedback loops that Norbert Wiener developed – are these really simply means of preventing innovations? Wiener initially thought of the feedback loop as an object of scientific study, and then pretty soon applied technologies were being developed from it which were mostly geared towards stabilisation, security, homogenisation and normativity. Was it really cybernetics in its original form that led to this innovation-suppressing apparatus which always seeks to stabilise itself, or was it the way that cybernetics was relatively rapidly taken up and applied?

The American profit mentality is “we want new technologies”, and it bears most of the blame for the whole thing. One of its consequences is that the ideological framework reacts in turn upon the feedback loops, to balance out the effects of the loops and manipulate them to have a conserving effect. What is conserved? Values. Back then we had the McCarthy era and the debate over what was American and what was un-American. The point was to preserve the Christian heritage and the lifestyle of the white families, naturally only that of the tax-paying families. On the other hand, revenues needed to increase. Whether cybernetics inherently tends towards conservation is something I wouldn’t like to say, but in actual fact we haven’t seen anything different.

To what extent is it worth trying to separate some strands of cybernetic thinking from its application in attempts to stabilise, and again try to use it in an entirely different manner? The whole thing really was an own goal, because the gradual institutionalisation of a cybernetics that aimed at security, stability and the avoidance of the new has led to the extremely stagnant state of contemporary society. It’s a society that can barely come up with any kind of vision, which is actually afraid of thinking about the future in any shape or form, and whose innovations are, for that reason, regressive. The whole thing is slowly drifting towards a kind of heat death.

Agreed. André-Marie Ampère, who invented the term cybernetics, saw it as a form of statecraft, and introduced it as a potential policy measure. The things that should really be getting attention from any sensible person today are being initiated by individuals who have not been incorporated into the feedback loop. In the impoverished neighbourhoods of European cities there are immigrants whose lives are being wasted because of a lack of opportunities; they are disqualified solely on the basis of their accent and their appearance, and have no hope of a future. These people have not been incorporated by cybernetics. That they are now making headlines should surprise no one.

Those not incorporated into the system would also be the only forces who could produce real innovations, actual game-changing breakthroughs.

The question is whether they are capable of innovation. They are capable of destruction, but I don’t know what the Islamic State has come up with in terms of innovations that could delight us or command our respect. Because if one thing is clear, it’s that science and barbarism go very well together. The scientists needn’t necessarily be barbarians themselves, they need only shut their eyes or want to live nice lives or have a voice within the structures of power. The stagnation isn’t just in the social or aesthetic fields, but is also present in the natural sciences. In physics there has been no new idea that has really pushed things forwards for a hundred years. This is perhaps putting it very crudely, but thousands of the best researchers would cut off their own right arm to have an idea that amounted to a comparable scientific advance as quantum physics a hundred years ago. All kinds of things are going on, but, in the best cybernetic tradition, the simulation apparatuses are reconciling the contradictions between the theories of physics – it’s known as a “handshake” – and innovation is being thwarted.

Many of the simulation techniques used by physics are successful: weather forecasting, for example, has become a lot better, but they cannot explain why. The method is to calculate on different levels that are incompatible with each other. These different levels are then glued together by a form of creative accounting. The glue they use is the same cybernetic kind that I make fun of in the improvement of central europe. It’s a pure invention, a fiction, but nevertheless it works.

I feel that the text is, in part, a remarkably precise description of what has come to pass: that the world around us has been replaced by largely narcissistic self-reflection. And, at the same time, by communication systems that make it ever easier to turn us into controllable objects.

I incorporated several digressions into the text. That this machine, the bioadaptor, is itself intelligent and invents, so to speak, new needs. But that is also pure fantasy. Such devices don’t exist yet, we still don’t have intelligent machines. The machines that prevail against humans do so in a different way than humans do. Their so-called thinking is not human thinking, but something else. It makes me feel creepy just thinking about it. What has several different levels in a human takes places on a single level in a computer, the level of the sign. It is just signs that are moved around, according to certain rules. This involves the sophisticated use of statistics, with the final result that machines function faster than human beings and can perhaps even be funnier. But they aren’t really funnier, they only seem that way, because machines cannot understand. Human beings can understand, they understand the phrases that are fed into them, they understand other phrases as properly answering these phrases, but machines can’t understand any of that. Of course, we can’t predict what will happen if this surface technology continues to develop.

In reality, basic algorithms from statistics and information technology have nothing to do with intelligence. Intelligence is here replaced by the management of exceptions. Once you’ve grasped what a harmonic vibration is, you can express this understanding in a formula. You can derive anything from it because you understand what the formula describes. A computer doesn’t need this formula, it needs only speed and memory capacity, and starting from rather primitive premises it carries out a vast number of generate-and-test experiments in order to achieve the same result as you, who have spent two years finding this profound formula. This makes me a little nervous. Perhaps what we call consciousness and meaning was only necessary for a particular era in the evolution of the universe. In the time before, there was no meaning and no consciousness, and nor will there be meaning and consciousness afterwards. It is easy to imagine a time when human beings are no longer necessary. Popular philosophers like Vernor Vinge or Ray Kurzweil have already suggested that we have got to the point where machines are about to take over everything.

I have to say I have my doubts about whether things are looking quite so good for machines.

So do I, but it’s being debated.

But also in the context of a vast system of machines that supposedly functions marvellously, but which not everyone is necessarily able to perceive. This management of exceptions, as you described it, hadn’t really been developed very far in Austria in 1968 – as it hadn’t in most countries – at that time the system relied on much blunter disciplinary measures.

Yes, it was no longer possible to live here. The pressure was so great, people would tap me on the shoulder in the street, take out their ID and say, “Herr Wiener, come to the police station today at three o’clock, the commissioner would like to speak to you”. We were under surveillance here – that’s not paranoia, that really happened.

Then you had to leave the country, and you opened a café-bar in Berlin called Exil.

Exil had already been an artists’ club in Vienna, the name came from H. C. Artmann. It was the name of a kind of secession, where several of the more important younger artists took refuge from the Art Club. We took it up again in Berlin because it suited the situation so well. We were in exile.

Was there a whole group of Viennese artists who went to Berlin?

Günter Brus and his wife, Ingrid and I, Rühm and his girlfriend were already there. Three people who knew each other well and had worked with each other before – that’s all you need. Once we had our café-bar, people kept joining us. You could earn money there, and work unconventionally …

Did you really serve proper meals there?

Totally. Seven days a week. It was exhausting, but we were young and strong enough.

Was it more of a bar or a restaurant?

It was both. Even today you can’t run a café-bar unless you sell a lot of booze. You only earn money from alcohol and coffee. There’s no money in food. After eleven o’clock at night it was an art bar, and that went on till six o’clock in the morning. There was no closing time.

Starting out from the dandy’s desire for self-fashioning, it was in Berlin that you began your investigations into the observation of the self, something you continue to this day. This involves observing what happens in your head when you touch a table or imagine a certain shape. Is the point to work out where a machinelike formalism operates, and whether thinking follows a human dynamic?

The dandy actually has a great deal in common with the bioadaptor. I understand the dandy not as a sort of tailor’s mannequin but as a philosophical problem. The dandy is still a metaphysician, he suffers from the thought that that he is comprehensible and explicable, and he experiments ruthlessly upon himself in order to learn more about himself. He is under the illusion that he becomes more fluid the more he understands about himself, and that he can use this to extend his capabilities. This information must not, of course, come into the possession of other consciousnesses. He tries to control others and make them more predictable, while at the same time not letting himself become predictable to others. He “sins against the Holy Ghost” in that he denies others such fundamental attributes as being human, regarding them instead as sets of rules, as machines. He proceeds in a similar manner against himself, and this in itself makes a small but crucial difference. The bioadaptor can be seen as a kind of self-regulating narcissist, but it can also be seen as an experimental workshop. If there are billions of bioadaptors in the world, this doesn’t mean that they will bring evolution to a standstill. Though it might be possible that feedback loops could be developed which work against evolution and in favour of stabilisation. But there’s a very long way to go before we get there.

Is the dandy a figure who necessarily remains unknowable to himself?

Not necessarily, and you can also put it another way: it’s a kind of self-contempt. You are merciless towards yourself, you try to see yourself through the eyes of others – though not in order to influence them but rather to alter your own point of view. Real life teaches you after all how difficult it is to change yourself. I’m almost eighty and I’m no longer the same person who wrote the improvement of central europe, a novel. I’m no longer so egocentric, no longer so full of myself, and I don’t hate like I used to. An old man doesn’t hate with the same intensity as a young man. But in this case something else also happened, and indeed in a dandyish manner. I simply tried to see myself through the eyes of others and found a great deal that I didn’t like at all. Simply the fact of seeing something you don’t like is itself a great step forward.

I wanted to bring up the dandy and language again.

In the dandy you find the peculiar phenomenon that’s very well exemplified in Shakespeare’s Othello or, in slightly kitschified form, Jean Cocteau’s Children of the Night: the phenomenon of other people being controlled through language. There’s something magical about this ability to control others through language – the fact that an opinion can be brought into existence by vibrations in the air. When I’m on very good form, I’ll almost always succeed. Back then, it was the fact that it was effected by means of physics that really fascinated me. The fact that there’s really just this bridge of language between my idea and what I’m trying to induce in another person’s head. That’s why I equipped the bioadaptor with the ability to speak to the adaptee in the manner of a benevolent older colleague. Not acting directly on the nerves, but rather simply turning a belief on or off by means of words, depending on what the situation lends itself to. The dandy is excellent at this. Oscar Wilde at his peak could surround himself with a cluster of intelligent members of London society every evening and completely fascinate them by the manner of his speech alone. … That’s another link between the bioadaptor and the dandy.

But language is also always full of ghosts.

Perhaps not so much language itself, but what it brings about. The spoken word is a sequence of vibrations in the air. It conveys no content. The contents are produced in people’s minds by means of a very complicated operation, it is not simply transferred.

The contents are produced, but as something quite different to what arrived as a vibration. Don’t you think ghosts are involved somewhere here?

To me a ghost is rather something that leaves you at a loss when trying to explain it. Ask almost any contemporary psychologist what consciousness is and he’s at a loss to explain it. That’s what ghostly is. No one today is brave enough to say, as John B. Watson once did, that there’s no such thing as consciousness, that mental images don’t actually exist – it’s also a rather cocky thing to say, but he had no shortage of cockiness. He doesn’t actually say that there’s no such thing as consciousness – I think – he says that the study of consciousness cannot be a subject for scientific research. Why, he asked, should we concern ourselves with consciousness?

Well, there is at least still art.

Is there?

It is disappearing somewhat.

I think that art is degenerating into a business of mystification. The last remaining value of art is its ability to capture the viewer’s attention. It functions by capturing people’s attention, and the nature of that attention is irrelevant. That was already true of the Vienna Actionists. When they disgusted people, they at least captured their attention and thus legitimised their work as art. They weren’t actually being serious, they didn’t kill themselves, and even if they had it would only have been an attempt to make a particularly strong impression. There are still countless ways to make an impression, you just need to punch harder and become ever more extreme. This extremity is not about how much noise you make, but about your choice of subject matter. In Russia, Pussy Riot can still successfully capture people’s attention, at the cost of their personal freedom. Whoever comes next will have to climb a rung higher, because the effect is weakened each time. Perhaps you’d need to kill someone, or perhaps someone will come along and say that the Islamic State is a work of art.

How do we move out of this society of the spectacle that is forever turning in its own circle? I think that art still has the potential to do this, but that it has to a large extent subjected itself to a logic of this kind – including the logic of escalation that you describe, which at the end of the day is also a technological and economic logic. The question is rather, where are the ways out of it. The idiot’s act of disengaging is not enough; it’s merely a way to create other spaces.

It is no longer an expressive gesture; it’s a way of defending yourself.

But that’s not enough.

Idiocy is not just something you cultivate – the idiot actually does something. It’s just that he no longer addresses the public. It’s true that he still addresses others, but they are his equals, and to a certain extent he considers them to be capable. And that’s really how it has to be. An art that from the start isn’t after anything but money won’t get very far. It’s clear that there’s a huge amount of money in the world. And obviously the majority of artists want nothing but lots and lots of money and fame. If that’s the only thing it’s about, then I bid it farewell. And then along comes the idiot who’s heading back in the other direction and who rejects these terms. He’s happy with only a little money… you need to have bread, and maybe some butter. But it doesn’t always have to be caviar. You have to say what really matters. If there’s still something as old-fashioned as interest and curiosity for something that can perhaps be discerned but is not yet understood, then we haven’t strayed too far from the right path. And this curiosity and this possibility of knowledge seem to be categories that are as outdated as just about anything one can imagine. But I can’t help it, they’re the only values I have left.

Translated by Nathaniel McBride


Oswald Wiener's Theory of Thought: Talks on

Poetics, Formalisms, and Introspection. Ed. by

Thomas Eder, Thomas Raab and Michael

Schwarz, De Gruyter, 2023

The article introduces readers to Oswald Wiener's writings on dandyism from the late 1970s and early 1980s and relates them to Wiener's previous work with the Vienna Group and his seminal text “the bio-adapter.” At the core of Wiener's aesthetic, according to the author, is a problematization of human behavior as it was conceptualized and operationalized by behaviorism and cybernetics. Drawing on systems theory and on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari the article argues that what is at stake in Wiener's texts is not so much a hypothetical difference between human and machine as the question of how different components, such as humans and computers, are assembled into a machine through recursive communication. - Jakob Schillinger

Oswald Wiener was born in Vienna in 1935. With the poets H.C. Artmann, Friedrich Achleitner, Konrad Bayer and Gerhard Rühm he was part of the Wiener Gruppe in the 1950s. From 1959 to 1967 he worked as a data processing specialist at Olivetti. He participated in various actions of the Vienna Actionists, and his groundbreaking work die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman (the improvement of central europe, a novel) was published in 1969. In the 70s Wiener co-ran the legendary Kreuzberg café-bar Exil before settling in Canada in 1984. From 1992 to 2004 he was a professor for aesthetics at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Today he lives in Kapfenstein in Austria. In 2015, Suhrkamp will bring out a volume of Wiener’s research in the field of the psychology of thinking.