Transparency by Marek Bieńczyk (trans. Benjamin Paloff ). Dalkey Archive Press. 256 pp., $14.95.
It could be said that Marek Bieńczyk is a writer without category. He’s best known as the author of postmodernist fictions like Terminal and Tworki, but he’s not only a novelist. He is an essayist, a translator (of Cioran and Kundera, among others) an academic literary historian, and even a noted wine critic. True to its author’s eclecticism, Transparency trespasses between genres: it’s neither a novel nor a scholarly study nor a personal reflection. Instead, it puts these forms to work on each other. Fictional passages are framed like the asides of an absentminded academic, and facts are narrated with a novelistic sensibility. Yet Transparency doesn’t make too much noise about its stylistic modulations; it never overtly announces itself as a new species of writing. Instead it stays in suspension, slipping by almost silently. This is appropriate, for, as Bieńczyk puts it, the book treats transparency “as a theme,”
as truth and illusion, as the hobby of existence, the graspable handrail against which we may lean our very being, something we might even try to pour into text.
This treatment entails a multifaceted method, partly drawn from the discipline of philology: on one level, Transparency is a history of a word, and of that word’s relation to a shifting set of concepts. Yet Bieńczyk’s is a speculative, poetic philology, a little like that of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. This isn’t objective analysis; it’s intellectual history in the key of myth. Bieńczyk’s concern is with “the connections between transparency and the expressible.” The time he covers spans from Aristotle (for whom, as he quotes, “there is only transparency,” as an underlying reality) to the present, where science has superseded such notions, yet where they’re nevertheless necessary, “since the heart of man changes more slowly than the world.” An archetypally heartfelt expression comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in whose Confessions Bieńczyk discerns a desire for transparent speech; for a clear voice which would make the soul perfectly present to itself:
Rousseau believed that the heart of man could speak . . . he saw how language could become a transparent medium for the will of speech, for everything that wishes to be expressed . . . with no secrets and no depths to be fathomed or understood.
In turn, Rousseau’s romantic ideal informed the Enlightenment—“Lumières in French,” Bieńczyk reflects, “Aufklarung in German, all of which say, ‘Now we’ll see.’” But Bieńczyk goes on to show how such modern ways of seeing have been co-opted by consumer capitalism. From advertising to state surveillance, today’s society “obliges us to have a transparent heart,” turning transparency into a tool of the status quo, a reversal of Rousseau’s soulful radicalism. Nowadays, as with shop windows, seeing through things is what stops us from seeing beyond them.
The problem of transparency’s political value plays out across Bieńczyk’s book, whose overall purpose is obscure. One section recounts the history of literary descriptions of glass, detailing “the houses, palaces, domes and arcades packed into the prose of the nineteenth century.” In giving voice to this period’s spirit of spectacle, does Bieńczyk achieve some sort of authentic articulacy, a la Rousseau, or does his writing dovetail with capitalism’s culture of “catalogization” and “museification,” uncritically aestheticizing the social system? In posing this puzzle, Transparency recalls Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a work which Theodor Adorno famously said stood “at the crossroads between positivism and magic.” What Adorno meant was that Arcades, a poetic catalogue akin to Bieńczyk’s, could on the one hand be read as banally descriptive (positivism), and on the other, as lulling its readers into blinkered enchantment (magic). Transparency, too, must steer between these two poles, to resist being read simply as trifling scholarship, or otherwise as stained glass, as snow globe, as ornament.
Yet Bieńczyk doesn’t resolve this dilemma so much as dissolve it. He makes each of its terms transparent, a lens through which we might discover the other. Like Benjamin’s, his approach is dialectical. A case in point is provided by a passage on melancholy, itself a major theme of Bieńczyk’s oeuvre, and the subject of his earlier essay collection, On Those Who Never Recover What They’ve Lost. “If glassmakers and architects hadn’t invented transparency,” Bieńczyk muses, “melancholics would have.” Yet melancholy, he goes on, is determined by “divergent ways of seeing.” The first is that of forlornly staring through a window, a familiar depressive habit, which arouses a sense of “seeing without having . . . a shimmering collision of sight and frustration.” With this we’re back in the storefront; the depressive gaze reifies real experience, “crystallizing” and “immobilizing” it, as in an advert. This species of melancholy is, in Adorno’s sense, “magical,” ornamental. However, there’s a second kind of melancholic sight, “the upward gaze,” where we cast our eyes away from what pains us, toward heaven. Crucially though, to turn our sight skywards isn’t escapism—after all, we’ll be brought back to earth once our necks start to ache. But in this “broken, aborted transcendence,” we might find a means of renewing ourselves, and of being briefly free of the world, without forgetting it.
Hence, melancholy manifests itself in both passive and active aspects—as a resigned falsification of experience, and as its regeneration. This rubric might be richly applied to a certain melancholic strain in contemporary writing, ranging from W.G. Sebald to Lars Iyer. But Bieńczyk’s literary historytouches on another tradition, which unites an assortment of writers under the sign of
the shared striving for pure light in their texts, their striving for emptiness, for silence . . . their abandoning of the real, the concrete, the perceptible, the living, in favour of the motionless, the fading, the falling silent.
Such striving can be both formal and thematic—as in Beckett, for instance (whom Bieńczyk doesn’t discuss) or Barthes or Blanchot (whom he does). As a theme, it’s best represented by the Polish novelist Andrzej Stasiuk, whose books describe “landscapes with minimal human activity.” Stasiuk focuses on a world where “life has either not gotten going, or has already been extinguished.” Here transparency is, as in Aristotle, “the idea organizing the cosmos”—it sits in the background, the field on which existence occurs. But beyond this, Bieńczyk reminds us, there are writers who treat transparency in terms of textual form. This brings to mind Beckett’s letter to Axel Kaun, which likens language to “a veil one has to tear apart in order to get to . . . the nothingness lying behind it.” Bieńczyk’s lineage links several figures whose language “flirts with silence,” from Chateaubriand to Joubert. In each, he highlights an impulse he calls “negative idealism.” Yet this phrase doesn’t denote mere nihilism. Like the melancholic upward gaze, transparency here reaches beyond a quiet acceptance of the real. After all, as Bieńczyk avers, “if life has its own utopia, perhaps nothingness does too.”
That said, Transparency’s charm is that it doesn’t try too hard to place itself in such a tradition. In the end, Bieńczyk isn’t out to construct a canon, only to follow his thoughts wherever they flow. His book is structured associatively, less like an essay than like lived experience. Its passages follow no purpose, never leading beyond what’s on Bieńczyk’s mind. Thus, the trick of Transparency is that its intellectual content—its roster of knowledge—is in the last instance not intellectual, but psychological. It is what its author happens to know, what matters to him, what he haphazardly remembers. Its narrative isn’t an act of assertion, but of introspection and recollection. Kundera described Bieńczyk’s second novel, Tworki, as “a song that lifts us up and away.” The same could be said of Transparency; indeed, unlike Kundera’s own essays, it has no rhetorical point, and hence no need to marshal the movement of its prose. So much is said in this book, so much pondered and studied, but with a lightness which leaves us unsure whether we only dreamt it. Transparency captivates, but is soon blissfully forgotten. People talk about the pleasure of being “immersed” in a book, as if they weren’t already immersed enough in everything else. But to lose oneself in reading is only to echo how one has lost oneself in life. A book should let us look up, leaving life behind for a time, but not leaving us spellbound; not stopping itself from being seen through. Unlike other books, Bieńczyk’s Transparency both seizes and beautifully frees us, allowing life and literature to become blank pages and silence.
David Winters is a literary and cultural critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, The Millions, and others. Links to his work are at Why Not Burn Books? Twitter: @DavidCWinters
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