Róbert Gál - On Wing is atomized into hundreds of tiny aphorisms, dreams, anecdotes, and inquiries, while Agnomia is a long block of seemingly chaotic prose taking its structural cues from--and culminating in the description of a concert by--the renowned saxophonist and composer John Zorn

Róbert Gál, On Wing. Trans. by Mark Kanak. Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.

The volume brings together the great Slovak philosopher/poet Róbert Gál's two works of fiction, Agnomia and On Wing, though they are by no means ordinary novellas. On Wing is atomized into hundreds of tiny aphorisms, dreams, anecdotes, and inquiries, while Agnomia is a long block of seemingly chaotic prose taking its structural cues from--and culminating in the description of a concert by--the renowned saxophonist and composer John Zorn.

“The Czech Cioran …” —Andrei Codrescu

“Gál’s aphorisms combine incisive question-raising and gently troubling images involving Time, God … and existential self-awareness.” —The Antioch Review

“Gál is a phenomenon unto himself: a purveyor of neurotic philosophy encapsulated in elliptical portents and epifragmentals, the content of which is at all odds with their length.” —Joshua Cohen

“There’s a degree of destitution when the mind doesn’t always stay with the body. It’s too uncomfortable. What’s talking to you is practically a disembodied soul. And a soul isn’t responsible for what it says.” Céline
How does one describe a work of art which replaces narrative arc and dramatic structure with inquisitiveness and intuition? Art that is uncontrolled, willingly wasting away before it can be contained, that has no purpose or point of departure, and evades definition? Composed in encryptions, aphorisms, recollections, philosophical auspices, and esoteric—almost Delphic—fragments, Róbert Gál’s On Wing is a book of elaborate suffering, withdrawal and extreme impoverishment—an absence of life’s deceits. Gál’s art is both hysteria and euphoria; the world serving only as an instrument of pain, decorating each wound involuntarily resurfaced. For Gál the art, and act itself, of writing is an exercise in dismantling the world about us, a world which operates as a distraction from our fundamental actuality: spiritual flux, the entropy of the soul.
Before that which is unreal unto that which is real, yet elude we must.
Not to see reality in oneself reflects the need to be real.
And when reality stops being a possibility, falling for a possibility, as if it was reality.
To begin with, On Wing requires the senseless reader. It would, therefore, be unavailing to expound similarities to Bernhard, Goethe, Michaux, or Kierkegaard or to compare On Wing to the likes of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, the ascetic qualities of Pascal’s posthumous Pensées, or even Schopenhauer’s defense of solitude in Parerga and Paralipomena (or his reflections on women, a proposition that, although interesting to survey, we will not explore for obvious intentions). What must follow, then, can only be a discussion of experiences, of aimless juxtapositions: an intrinsic study—not an excavation. While in itself full of inquiry, On Wing demands a celibate student: someone who lacks a thirst for a didactic, pedagogical knowledge but craves reassurance of his/her own torments.

If it was of importance, there is little we know of Gál besides what could be considered superfluous in the grander context of his growing résumé of literary accomplishments: Born in 1968 in Bratislava, Slovakia; former residences in Brno, New York, Jerusalem, and Berlin; now living in Prague; etc. (Joshua Cohen’s article in The Forward, published in May 2005, is one of the best—if not one of the only—surviving profiles on Gál digitized in recent years.) However, this veil, this absence of the author, provides the perfect milieu in which to engage his work. What we are left with is only the concave of his language, both assured and at ease with its detail of despair: a language like a skeleton—the collagen, not its ivory appearance. 
Deathly ill? No, vitally ill.
That which keeps me alive and that which keeps me from being (the important part is that it keeps me).
Killing the pain within out of the necessity of its—hermetically sealed—invocations from the other side.
Whereas Signs & Symptoms—published in 2003 by Twisted Spoon Press and Gál’s first book translated into English—could be considered, among other things, a manuscript of intellectual existentialism, On Wing relinquishes itself from moral responsibility and surrenders itself to the burden of sense. Here we have a book that borders reality but remains indifferent to the territory in which it resides, a book that conceals the collision of memory and meaning, the coalescence of two very extreme—yet distinct—lies Gál is wont to recreate and repeat, over and over, varying only by the degree in which they are constructed and the length for which they ultimately cease. This circumstance of reoccurrence, these vague resemblances, express Gál’s suspicion of truth and his predisposition to the impossible. People and places, strangers and cities: they serve no function but to exist, and themselves become as ephemeral as memory and as malleable as meaning. They appear, suddenly and some summoned, giving us a glimpse into pasts not intended to be interpreted but, rather, witnessed—realized only as images attached to ideas whose source is never sold, or known: never fully achieved. This is a literature that might have been, unornamented, built by parts removed, not an excessive need to justify itself, and architected with just enough strength to endure. Only a few specters and graveyards occupy Gál’s unreality of anguish: the avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn, whose improvisations are likened to the ability, or preference, “to stay in the center” of that space reserved in the mind for one’s illusions, one’s awareness of perfection, “as if there was no beginning, always starting as if there were no end;” an omniscient, ubiquitous father; the succubus Lenka K.; Pavel and his family; a bench in Jerusalem.
Corresponding to this “theme”—or, rather, fascination—of metaphysical and terrestrial conflict is the way Gál demonstrates the complexity of interiority: the compartmentalization of collected sadnesses. He writes, poignantly, about paradox and harmony, the exhausting contradiction of self-examination, and how one’s search for his/herself, in that suspension of pursuit, truth, is the incarnation of art: the precipice. As such, On Wing ponders the nature of thinking, the choice of contemplation rather than action, the absurdity of hope, and bears life only with glances.
Memory is always complete up to that point in time in which something is retrieved from it. Then, all words are in queue, shrewdly connected, in a chain of associations that we summarily designate as reality.
Appearance lies, because it is lied to.
And so that words do not function like scenery.
What we are dealing with is a documentation of persistent madness, which seems both exhilarating and eerily familiar. Like Foucault, Gál lets “madness speak for itself.” But unlike Foucault, he does not spare effort to avoid the traps of Derrida’s argument (L’écriture et la différence) against “the archaeology of silence,” the language of reason: he seeks refuge in their grasp. It is also significant that, in On Wing, Gál does not once explicitly call attention to madness—or give voice to the subject—though it, taking different shapes, is vastly populated throughout. His prose, therefore, is a mechanism: the folly of logic, order, and organization being the very essence of madness, an apparatus that gives it intensity.
Of course, in the Derridean sense, a mechanism functions to order systems and structure reason. If we are to look through this lens with an indifferent kind of scrutiny rather than a skeptical eye, we might see that Gál’s prose engenders a peculiar freedom, becoming a different sort of implement altogether—one which can be wielded to dismantle and refashion fatuity into something terrible: more real. Simultaneously, Gál—by this act of deconstruction, by bringing this question to the readers’ attention—creates a new kind of problem for us to envisage. For hysteria, frenzy, and madness are only given life, given expression, due to the very confines—the sole existence—of rationalization. 
Robert Gal, 1998
But what is madness without brief moments of lucidity? Without relapse, reunion? While still challenging, certain passages startle, seemingly arriving from somewhere else entirely. Between a succession of hallucinations and long, voluminous texts of nightmarish epiphanies inhabits, at greater distances, our author at his most vulnerable, voluntarily dismantling before us the activity of remembering. Where those glances become, if only for an instant, meaningful. Madness: the erosion of life while still having to live it; an indefinite, thus limitless, death.
To survive—by default?
A glance that already knows, because it no longer seeks. An ignited glance, of withered eyes.
And getting rid of oneself, as if one could be rid of something that one’s merely borrowed.
Beneath the hard exterior of Gál’s language are infinite, almost savage depths. In the midst of this untamed delirium is what a young Cioran calls “the lyricism of last moments.” According to Gál, time experienced internally presupposes eternity. If we are to look at On Wing as a confession of sorts, we might conclude, or obsess over the idea, that an eternal state can only be accomplished by an intensification of subjective emotion. Here reemerges the spiritual aspect of Gál’s work. We should not, however, misconstrue spirituality as faith, another matter the book largely, perhaps purposefully, ignores. It is said the perpetual constancy of death heightens our sensitivity to the past (e.g., my life flashed before my eyes!), which is something we as mortals may want to altogether consider more seriously. Gál’s poetry is constructed from illness, the irrational material of the soul: hence, from madness. And madness, as previously discussed, is inherently disobedient, all the while cognizant of the order of systems and syntax which give it its rhythm and form. When time becomes stretched, when temporality is disrupted, the external world becomes drama-less. Gál’s work, therefore, is only denouement: prose that simultaneously turns against and pursues itself.
Not able to be thought through, or not able to be thought away?
Visions of the blind.
A falling as a result of depth, or a depth as a result of a falling?
It is possible that at the heart of Gál’s prose is the ache of an absent tenderness. Throughout On Wing, and almost as prevalent as his dreams, are near tragicomic episodes of intoxication that conquer, if only for a moment, our perceptions of madness; that help us to forget. Love, as Barthes claims in A Lover’s Discourse, shelters us from the world: “Love had made him into a social catastrophe, to his delight.” A love on the fine line of death, the splitting of atoms, the imbalance between thresholds, taking cues from our beloved on how to hold the mirror in front of us so that he/she may transform before our very eyes. Love like poverty. Desires unanswered. A theater of frailty. The beloved: the tomb of one’s own identity.
Gál rejects literary canon, the traditions of belles-lettres. Nor is he persuaded by power, politics, or, in a way, transcendence: the beyond. His concern is form, not communication, content, or—need it be said?—narratives driven by story or plot. Like a painter, Gál values construction, craft and invention; he revels in the ecstasy of style. On Wing is hollow, is not a servant to the engines of humanity, contains nothing and gives nothing in return. One might be reminded of “several obsolete notions.” Alain Robbe-Grillet, who is perhaps most recognized for his attack on Balzac and signification and—arguably due to the influence of Barthes’ “Littérature littérale”—his theory on the autonomy of objects, writes, in his seminal collection of essays Pour un Nouveau Roman: “the necessity a work of art acknowledges has nothing to do with utility… the work must seem necessary, but necessary for nothing.” Let us put to rest the debate of form and substance, our ideas of what constitutes “good” literature. On Wing is a book of opaque beauty. A coda of what gives us comfort. A reimagining of silence. A book that breathes, that lives and dies but never ends, meant to be read without expectation, and read over again. - Jared Daniel Fagen


Róbert Gál, Signs and Symproms,Trans. by Madelaine Hron.Twisted Spoon Press,  2003.

Robert Gal is one of the freshest voices to come from Prague over the past few years. His writing is a mix of philosophy and prose poetry that explores the tenuousness of one's identity and existence. Ironical in his outlook, Gal's aim with this volume is to bring the great Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran into the present in the same way that John Zorn, whose music provided the impetus for writing this book, brought Ornette Coleman into the present with Spy Vs. Spy. This volume is a composition of aphorisms, longer and shorter fragments of thought, and the photographs of Lucia Nimcova, which were taken specifically for this collection.  

Called "the Czech Cioran" by Andrei Codrescu, Róbert Gál is one of the freshest voices to come from Prague over the past few years. His writing is a mix of philosophy and prose poetry that explores the tenuousness of one's identity and existence. Ironical in his outlook, Gál's aim with this volume is to bring the great Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran into the present in the same way that John Zorn, whose music provided the impetus for writing this book, brought Ornette Coleman into the present. The volume includes aphorisms and longer and shorter "philosophical" fragments. The photographs by Lucia Nimcová were taken specifically for this collection. As aptly described by well-known psychiatrist/publisher Ales Pech, Nimcová's nude self-portraits act as a "counterpoint to the philosophical denuding that is the book's basic premise."

Signs and Symptoms is the stunning account of an intellectual coming to terms with the fact that his intellect will serve him only so much and no more. The intelligent person has "faith" in their intellect as much as the reverent person has "faith" in their God. How shattering to find that both faiths are tenuous and may collapse at the slightest breath. But what a revelation to chronicle such a collapse.— Damian Kelleher

I have to say that Gál's work seduces me in a way that poetry often does: it stands the mind up on a high wire stretched between absurdity and wholeness.— The Perpetual Bird

Rather than aphorisms, these are fragments of thought. As I was reading Gál's maxims I thought of Miguel de Unamuno, but I don't think that Gál is a Czechoslovak philosopher of Unamuno's standing. He is too young. Though in reading his fragments I asked myself anxiously: Is he really that young?— Ivan [Magor] Jirous

Gal's aphorisms combine incisive question-raising and gently troubling images involving Time, God ("Even with God's help, hell is possible"), and existential self-awareness ...— The Antioch Review

The author nevertheless makes apt and interesting use of the aphorism, occasionally lighting on that genuine nuance of meaning and language that is the ideal of the form . . . Signs and Symptoms does carry enough intellectual weight and sustaining interest to be a worthwhile read.— The Absinthe Literary Review

Róbert Gál, a persona somewhere between an uncharming Blake and a charming Lacan, presents us with his book, Signs & Symptoms, a collection of fragmented and sometimes scattered thoughts focusing mainly on deciphering death and the life that leads to it. Sometimes, the collection seems like a series of tiny twigs that a frantic Gál, tries to stick into the rolling wheels of time. Other times, they are a peaceful meditation of the journey. ... But the whole thing is a rant — fragmented, sometimes distraught, sometimes peaceful — and a rant is very charged and wired, not always concerning itself with a listener or the clear articulation that goes along with communication.
Róbert Gál, even in his earliest texts, understood that aphoristic expression stripped to the bare bones creates the semantic field, into which enters both the strong message and the quiet which anticipates and follows the field. Sometimes it is even possible to capture momentarily the silence of things, which merely watch our world.— Ladislav Sery

[I]maginative and equivocal philosophical riddles, which either skillfully paraphrase the words of the wise, curiously rephrase well-known proverbs, or present purely poetic ciphers.— Mladá fronta Dnes

Signs & Symptoms forced me to think again, to think anew, to experience knowing as "a narrow, twisting hallway, lit by a fuse."— American Book Review

The writing of Mr. Gál is very good ... Each page will have you talking to yourself and yes, you will answer. What more can you ask of a book?
the muse apprentice guild

Actually, the structure of Gál's book — or lack thereof — is reminiscent of free jazz itself, with its incessant and endless riffing on metaphysical themes such as freedom, truth, death, and the nature of language itself, while fearlessly penetrating more obscure subjects not often dealt with in the practice of philosophy as an academic discipline; like Cioran and more writerly philosophers such as Nietzsche, Gál is a poet in the true sense of the word.— Travis Jeppesen

In our millennium, a time of reduction and minimization, the aphorism has rightly returned. Its master is Róbert Gál.— The Forward

Signs and Symptoms  by Robert Galtranslated from the Slovak by Charles Sabatos
      If thinking is painful, what else is a thinker, if not a masochist?

      In the reflection of the water-mirror the surface of translucence points to its hidden elemental nature. Memory is in the trace of reflections which we conceal like one and the same jewel. Its strangeness is a boomerang.       

      Patience is a measure of argument.
     In the dialectic of action, there is no space for excessive expectation. What remains for us is the pragmatics of life rationalized by thought, elevated through prejudice to a higher principle.
     Patience has no limits. If "living means constantly creating life" (Chardin), then "time means that time is constantly being borne" (Gal).
     Time is a permanent argument, whose core is unknown. One part of its movement is drawn to confirming, the other to confuting. Its meaning remains unknown; yet, at the same time, it is gradually, seemingly overturned with the haste of expectation.
     Acknowledging the legitimacy of eternal claims of the unknown to unfulfilled revelation shows that the only measure of argument is the patience of waiting.

   The tale of F.:
     "My only possessions were intellect and feeling. The systematic development of my intellect ordered me to set out on a journey, with such strides that it meant avoiding feeling. On the contrary, with a thorough ennobling of feeling, I learned to subdue my excitement over the perfection of logical signs, and that took away my taste for further research. The oft-repeated truth held tight the lie within itself: the lie of eternity. In a passive moment of disturbance, the weight of my formulas started to tremble right between my eyes. I ended up in the hospital -- or in jail -- I don't remember anymore. In the meantime, years had gone by. Today, I live in Jerusalem, I sleep in a human-sized kennel, and I don't need to work too hard to survive. I'm corresponding by email with a German girl named Tristen. Otherwise, I'm attending the university. There's another girl there who I like, because she's 'kind of funny.' Some people might think that I'm not completely normal, but I know that I represent an alternate way of life -- and that suits me just fine. I'm going to buy a big motorcycle and I'll live in Australia. That's what I've decided."

      "Create your mask in your own image," resounds the imperative of embodiment.       

      We blush with the truths, which -- like the bitter spit of defiance -- we expel from our mouths. What relation does the truth of pain have to the truth of logical legalities? And who is the arbiter to pass judgment on our argument? (Who actually judges whom, and on what grounds? To what extent is it acceptable for us to consider an argument incomparable?)
     A sketch of an answer: the truth of pain is the truth of time. All other truths are timeless truths, thus from the standpoint of everyday life, they are insubstantial.
     We explore this first truth in pain; its measure is the measure of feeling it, while those others are mostly bounded by a system of artificial criteria, created by humankind in a state of undisturbed contemplation.
     This is, of course, a schema. Nothing is as far from contemplation as plainness is from physiological laws. Nothing is further from pain than the ignorance of various ideas about its "worth" or "value" . . .
     Actually, only a single truth goes through time untainted: the truth of which time itself has not even brushed in passing.     

      Chosen by God... for damnation?

      A spell of dizziness. When our "dizziness becomes law" (Cioran), it is already too late. We no longer harden, petrified and fascinated with light, we no longer tremble at the unnamed horrors of the darkness. At the limits, it is not the best, but it's good. What we lack is gradually more nebulous, but not more uncertain.
     The less time we have, the more space we take. It is necessary to aim precisely. Our last abyss wants to be bounded. . . by us!

      Panic is the emotional tremor of a short circuit, drawn out despondently into a permanent irritation. Not daring to say YES is symptomatic of fearing an expected NO. The moment before is firmly decided by the dare to jump beyond. Signs speak when expressed. Expression, concentrated in the brightness of eyes, directly depends on the possibility of light falling on a megalomaniac screen surface.

 The truth does not persuade.

from “Waxing”:

Always a certain reticence toward the coherence of lines. Point-like flashes.
“That’s my game,” I say. “That’s my game,” they say. And so on.
To enter the world like the penis enters the crotch.
Absorbed by one goodness that immediately assimilates all the good.
To strip the truth of its rights, to use it as an argument (which is not mine, yours, and so on).
A virgin wound.
First to ironize sorrow, and then—when we see how it works—continue by ironizing joy.
What depth does the darkness have?
When I don’t feel resistance I don’t feel anything at all.
Literature is the hardest thing I’m able to do.
To understand life always against its course.
Favoring one system of paradoxes over another.
To reduce the body to one core sense and wait for other senses to join it.
Investigative manipulation.
Intelligence as a manual of untruths.
To land on one’s own feet.
And to raise above what we generated.
The years of youth: thoughts freed of the body and politeness.
Can anxiety be the cause of life? If so, what kind?
Congealing rocks, a restrained flow of the expressed.
Pockets empty of cigarettes I no longer need. Just like everything else.
I believe in the future, for there is no other.
Death as something that must be postponed and the death we are part of and with which we learn to live ever since we’re born. 
Something as intimate as the language. And they dare to reproach your grammar
One must smile at luck.
During the day searching for a way inward and at night a way out. And vice versa.
And every thanks as an impulse to reevaluate thankworthiness.
One cannot believe concluded opinion without delusion.
To support a cripple in his handicap perhaps means to cripple him twice.
To search for exceptions, yet not confirmations of the rule, but for the possibility of their critical mass.
And people fall as enemies.
The past that repeats is proof we did not yet grow enough for what is to come. 
It is not a word game but a new way of narativeness.
A lifemotif.
I seek slowness and find only slowing. The world, despite all retouching. The art of infertility.
To know how to write or to know how to structure a sentence?
A self-propelled despair.
Who hasn’t settled yet has nothing to export. When we settle, we can also import.
Incomplete children left behind.
To what degree can others leave us even in that which is “our personal”?
Empathizing in isolation. 
A solid structure of the expressed leads to the point in which one truth can predict another.
A story re-told into the logic of tautology.
The fragility of the real, the unbreakability of an expression. The unbreakability of the real, the fragility of an expression.
An aphorism is the author’s form of training in taciturnity.
Translated from the Slovak by Michaela Freeman

Róbert Gál writes philosophy, prose, poetry and aphorisms, sometimes a bit of each in the same text.
"Is it necessary to label everything?" he asks. "Writing is either good or not good."
Gál, one of the featured guests at this year's Prague Writers' Festival, began writing seriously at the age of 25, while studying in New York City.
"I like the question of borders and the question of metamorphosis," says Gál, a Bratislava native. "This maybe has some political connotations. I started writing in the 1990s."
Just after the Velvet Revolution, he and a group of friends started a magazine in Bratislava.
"It was something like Respekt," he says of the contemporary Czech-language weekly, "but before Respekt."
Pressure from Slovakia's post-communist regime led by Vladimír Mečiar forced the magazine to "stop publishing after a few months," Gál says, sipping a coffee in Lucerna Café.
After stops in Brno, Jerusalem and Berlin, he has settled in Prague. He writes mostly in his native Slovak, but in recent years has begun experimenting with Czech.
"They have a different melody and a different soul," he says of the two languages.  
Gál says his recent work has been heavily influenced by the American avant-garde composer John Zorn and the Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard, but is quick to add, "I am not writing about reading or listening to music, but my own experience."
Gál's own experience of course includes living and working in the Czech Republic, and he is in fact a Czech citizen. If the tectonic shifts of the early 1990s helped stoke his literary passions, the fire still draws fuel from Gál's contemporary surroundings.  
"Society is still in the process of transformation," he says. "It's a never-ending source of inspiration for an artist."
Gál's latest work is a novel, Agnomia, recently published in Czech, and excerpts of which appear in English translation in the recently published The Return of Kral Majales, Prague's International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010, An Anthology.
But perhaps his most intriguing work is in the genre of aphorisms, brief but insightful statements that are written in an almost lyrical manner.
George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," is among the genre's better-known examples.
"Aphoristic expression connects philosophy and immediate inspiration," Gál says.
One such aphorism from his collection Signs and Symptoms reads: "Life advice. Though giving ourselves up to one another means devouring one another, go ahead and give yourself to others, but bearing this in mind: Your bottom is yours alone..."
The advent of English - in the past 20 years - as the singular international language has given rise to much debate within literary circles, with many asking whether it dilutes the literary output produced in other languages.  
Gál embraces English-language translations of his own work.
"It's a paradox that the most important thing in writing is the language itself, but the best possibilities are in English," he says. "Everything is translatable. Translation is a form of interpretation, and interpretation is communication."
Works originally written in Slovak can reach a wider audience, Gál says.
"My books are quite difficult," he adds.
Asked what his expectations are for the upcoming Writers' Festival, Gál pauses and then notes that three Nobel Prize winners will be in attendance. He is unsure of what to expect, he says, but is relishing the opportunity to take to the stage.
"I have a showman side. I like to perform," Gál says. "I experience the texts again at each reading."
The poet and novelist Andrei Codrescu has called Gál the "Czech Cioran," a reference to the 20th-century Romanian post-Nietzschean philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran. But that, it seems, falls under the category of labeling, for which Gál has already expressed his distaste.
"It's a great compliment, but I am not the Czech Cioran," he says. "I am Gál." - Benjamin Cunningham


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