Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hebdomeros by Giorgio de Chirico

Hebdomeros is an extended prose piece by the Surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico, a painter best known for his dark and desolate paintings of sterile town squares devoid of human beings. This novel (for want of a better word) was written in 1929, several years after the muse of painting had abandoned de Chirico.

Writing in his introduction, the poet John Ashbery compares the mysterious protagonist to Maturin’s Melmoth or Lautremont’s Maldoror, characters which evoke the sense of a solitary superman, above and beyond ordinary human morality. While this characterization is not inaccurate, it should also be noted that there is a certain absurdist - comic, even – quality to Hebdomeros that is lacking in those brooding gothic antiheroes, and might even seem to be a parody of the idealized overman. (It should be noted that de Chirico was an admirer of Nietzsche.)

The difficulty in reading Hebdomeros lies in adjusting one’s expectations as to what one might expect in the way of narrative. Simply put, there really isn’t any narrative. To fall back on a cliché, de Chirico is painting pictures – sometimes wonderfully surreal pictures – with words. But there is also a similarity with the William Gibson story of several years back, which was marketed on a CD-ROM designed to melt into oblivion soon after it had been read. Hebdomeros is like this – the episodes, despite their beauty and humor, seem to fade almost immediately. Every time I picked up this short text, I had to reread the previous page or two, so quickly did they fade from memory. In this, the lyricism and strangeness of Hebdomeros resembles a dream which fades to oblivion upon awakening.

There is a cinematic feel to the text, as is appropriate for a visual artist. It helped for me to read this text while imagining (that crucial word!) it as one of those pioneering pieces of surreal cinema, as envisioned by Dulac or Bunuel. There is an undercurrent of anti-bourgeois sentiment through this piece, a certain savaging of middle-class norms and expectations, and the descriptions of the various personages encountered or described by Hebdomeros are quite in keeping with the conventions of the silent cinema, the bowler hat, walking stick, and waxed moustache of the mid-level clerk. Even so, anachronisms abound – savage Northmen are eternally poised to flood through those vacant town squares, leaving destruction in their wake, ancient Rome with its bestial gladiatorial combats, and Mediterranean coastal towns with their boorish tourists are evoked as well. Hebdomeros seems to stride across time and space, with his companions or disciples in tow, making Zarathustran pronouncements at once lofty and absurd. One has to be willing to approach surrealism, in any of its guises, with a sense of humor, or at least a sense of the ridiculousness of the common run of humanity. Hebdomeros is a minor work in the grand scheme of things, but it is a perfect period-piece for the surrealism of the early 20th century.

(Illustration: De Chirico’s “The Great Metaphysician”.)