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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Daniil Kharms' Shimmering World

by Jess Goldschmidt

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: Lucie Jansch

Now, one day, a man went to work, and on the way he met another man, who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from.

And that’s it, more or less.

That’s the story “The Meeting” by Daniil Kharms. In its entirety.

It was translated by Matevei Yankelevich in his collection of Kharms’ work, Today I Wrote Nothing, which includes the novella “The Old Woman,” a stage version of Darryl Pinckney’s adaptation, directed by Robert Wilson and featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, comes to the Howard Gilman Opera House from June 22—29. And it is by no means anomalous in the oeuvre of this Russian provocateur, a startling scion of the country’s literary avant-garde who starved to death in a Leningrad prison’s psychiatric ward in 1942 at the age of 36.

In fact the gesture of “The Meeting” is central to Kharms’ entire aesthetic: a drastic interruption, a boldfaced parody of plot, character development, and pretty much all the business-as-usual trappings of literature itself. And while many readers and critics have classified Kharms’ absurdism as a response to the Soviet era in which he lived and wrote, the truth is he was an outlier long before Stalin came to power. As writer George Saunders put it in a lovely 2007 essay on the author, “weirdness this deep seems more likely to stem from an aesthetic crisis than a political one.”

Of course, like most people living in Russia between the world wars, Kharms’ life was necessarily shaped by political developments. The avant-garde society he helped to found called OBERIU (“The Union of Real Art”) quickly found itself on the wrong side of the Soviet authorities, and Kharms was arrested twice before his final deadly imprisonment, making it nearly impossible for him to find work as a children’s author (his main source of income) in his 30s.

Yet any hard-lined interpretation of Kharms’ writing as some allegorical response to Soviet rule misses the mark entirely, as Yankelevich articulates beautifully in his book’s introduction. What is most fascinating about Kharms was not how his life shaped his art, but how his art shaped—and fundamentally was—his life.

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: Lucie Jansch

The dedicated avant-gardist practiced self-creation in every aspect of his life, down to his own last name. He invented the moniker Kharms by adapting the English words “charm” and “harm.” The name was probably also a reference to his favorite literary character, Sherlock Holmes. Kharms wore Holmesian tweed suits and hunting caps while strolling down the streets of Leningrad. He was given to lying down in the middle of the Nevsky Prospect, and frequently recited his poems from the top of a large armoire during OBERIU’s “theatricalized evenings.” He (apparently on purpose) developed a tic somewhere between a seizure and a hiccup. In his life as in his art, he sought to interrupt existence’s monotonous flow, to throw reality into relief if only for an instant.

Everything to Kharms was a performance; even (and perhaps especially) language. He conceived of his words as actions, events created to eviscerate dead connections between language and meaning, image and sense. Liberated from the tyranny of narrative’s logical progression, his work strives at the murkiness of reality; as Saunders puts it, when reading Kharms we are “reminded that narrative is not life, but a trick a writer does with language, to make beauty.”

Kharms lived as he wrote: to startle his audience into epiphany. All his glorious linguistic non-sequiturs, his stories about non-stories and characters forgotten halfway through are at their core delicate attempts towards that most ephemeral of all artistic goals: unmediated truth. Kharms leads his reader to the brink of confusion, confronts them with the liminal space between language and object—the thing and the thing’s description—in order to evoke that shimmering sensation at the brink of any miraculous instant. As in his story “The Werld,” the Kharmsian moment is one of glorious, terrifying contradiction:
And then I realized that I am the world.
But the world—is not me.

Although at the same time I am the world.

Jess Goldschmidt is a writer and theater artist living in Brooklyn. She is also a copywriter at BAM.

Reprinted from June 2014 BAMbill.

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