Nothing less than the big questions: A reflection on Signs & Symptoms by Róbert Gál

“He who seeks, shall be found out.

What is not worth speaking about, is not even worth keeping silent about.

Consciousness is a disease of the spirit.

If life were bearable, there would be no death.”

This is not a review in the formal sense, but an attempt to formulate an answer to the question: So what do you think of Signs & Symptoms?

symptomsSimple, yes? Well, yes and no. It cannot be answered in this forum without an overview of the book in question so it will look suspiciously like a review. So be it. A few weeks back I read and reviewed a book entitled On Wing by poetic Slovak philosopher Róbert Gál, a recent release from Dalkey Archive Press. Signs & Symptoms was an earlier work translated into English and published by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press in 2003. My copy and the question above, are courtesy of the author.

First of all, the book itself is beautiful to look at and to hold. Textured covers, French flaps, thick paper and an ethereal series of black and white photographs created specifically to accompany this work. But more about those later.

The text consists of three separate pieces unified by recurring themes. The first section “Epigraffiti”, is a collection of single-line aphorisms composed between 1995 and 2000. There is a distinctly pessimistic tone here in these simple observations about life, death, God, truth and the measure of possibility against faith, hope and the experience of time:

“Where possibility ends, there the past begins.

Reality is a long-forgotten possibility now being fulfilled.

The future never happened.”

A reflective neurotic, sometimes bitter, despondency prevails. Although this is the simplest section to read, I emerged feeling a slight heaviness in my chest. If this work begins, as the author’s note suggests from a “bottom”, a low place, this earliest segment sets the stage.

The centrepiece of the book is the second section, “Signs & Symptoms” which is, in turn divided into four parts or “circles”. The first circle sets off with a series of short prose pieces which open with an anecdotal feel – fragmented stories and conversations that lead into speculative statements. The philosophical observations soon take over completely.

“Panic is the emotional tremor of a short circuit, a protracted slide into permanent irritation. Not daring to say YES is symptomatic of fearing an expected NO. The moment before is firmly decided on taking a risky leap beyond. Signs speak through expression.”

The second and third circles, still maintain the short fragmented format but engage in much more intense, condensed ontological arguments, frequently requiring careful reading and re-reading. Here we are bluntly confronted with statements about the nature of being, existence as measured in hope, pain and desire. The real meaty stuff. This is where a few reviewers I found fell off the map a little. Me, I grabbed my journal, finding in these sections fuel for honing some of the ontological truths I have encountered in my particular experience of being in the world. Observations that I hope to be able to articulate in a writing project of my own.

Finally, the “fourth circle” opens up the atmosphere again, relaxing the intensity with some very striking observations about the reality of human relationships to the self and others.

The book closes with a section entitled “Postludia”, a collection of single sentence aphorisms and fragmented prose pieces. Distant echoes of themes from the earlier sections resurface here but the atmosphere is quieter, wiser, more poetic. If the author’s intent, as he indicates, is to re-imagine Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, as avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn brought the music of Ornette Coleman “into the present” on his album Spy vs Spy, then it is in this final part of Signs & Symptoms that the contemporary feels especially close at hand and the work as a single experience reaches a sense of completion.

“‘Create a mask in your own image,’ runs the imperative of assimiliation.”

or

“Sympathy means that everyone is to blame for everything. And this excuses us, mitigating our guilt.

Nonethelss, such a purification takes entire lifetimes to carry out…”

Against this philosophical text which, taken as a whole, strikes me as On Wing did, with an inherent musicality (albeit discordant and experimental at times), the illustrations – a series of nude self portraits by Slovak photographer Lucia Nimcová – play against the text like a sort of dance. As illustrations they are intentionally metaphoric, but I found that the contrast of remote or removed images, frequently showing no head or face, against tight close ups, foster a separate and unique philosophical monologue that works well to complement or contradict the text, both being valid and desirable effects.

So, if it isn’t apparent, I would have to say that I found this to be an absorbing and challenging read. It is coming to me just at the right time for a number of reasons. But there is, of course, a fundamental universality to questions about the nature of existence or man would not have been pondering them for millennia. At this moment I am not looking for answers, I am rather focused on exploring and refining a way of posing questions to others.

There was a time, almost 30 years ago I shudder to think, when I completed a degree in Philosophy. It was not my first degree and I proved adept at synthesizing the most complex ideas and re-framing and defending them. I graduated summa cum laude. But I was neither fighting with ideas nor digesting them. On one of my last days I ran into a professor who asked after my plans. I told him I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school (I didn’t go but that’s another story). He nodded and said to me, “Your work is very strong, you can write very well, but you have no questions. A philosopher needs to have questions burning inside him.”

I agreed. He was right. Well, no, I did have questions but they were buried so deep and so close to my identity that I had no words to express them at the time. I did not know you could. As the years went by and those questions finally did break through and my life took paths I had never imagined, I often thought how desperately I would love to be able to go back and do a graduate degree in Philosophy. I had questions, by God! I still do. But by then I was in no position to return to school, I was a single parent and Philosophy is not exactly a fast track to a solid career. Neither is writing, the medium to which I am turning to explore my present questions, but at least I can do it on the cheap.

Signs & Symptoms is a text I suspect I will return to again as I go forward. The translation by Madelaine Hron handles the spirit and the complexity of the material smoothly. With my reading of On Wing, I marveled at the magic maintained in that translation. Here I realized that, of course, translation has long been an intrinsic element in the spread of philosophical ideas. In literary discussions some readers reject works in translation as necessarily less than the original insisting on engagement solely with texts in languages that one can read directly. How myopic to close one’s self off to the exchange of ideas! A book like Signs & Symptoms would have precious little impact knocking around in the borders of a small country like Slovakia where it was first published. Translation into English has set it free to engage a wide and diverse range of readers. A good thing indeed.

So that, Róbert, is what I think about this book. And thank you.

4 thoughts on “Nothing less than the big questions: A reflection on Signs & Symptoms by Róbert Gál

    • It has been exciting to be exposed to this type of philosophical discourse. Through Róbert’s work I have gone back to explore Cioran who was quite the character. I wish I had been exposed to more philosophers like that during my degree (which was not at the finest of departments, at least not at that time). Seems I have discovered so much more since I finished school or, as I have always feared, education is wasted on the young, sometimes you need to be ready for the right learning. Good thing we have books!

      Liked by 1 person

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