Review: The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape by Andrei Codrescu Print E-mail

codrescu(San Diego Union-Tribune July 27, 1990)

A Romanian in the Works

To be exiled—whether by the state or by personal choice—begins a lifelong struggle.

It is perhaps deepest when the exile's mind remains divided between memory and the New World, one mind firmly in the past and one assimilating hesitantly into the present. The mind of memory tells the exile to hold onto his loss.

He may return, if not in fact then in imagination.

The New World mind tells him that his life, which stands out in ways magical and strange from the natives around him, is hardly what he expected living to be. Hence Andrei Codrescu—Romanian exile, surrealist poet, U.S. citizen, man of two minds.

You can hear the place of exile in his name: Codrescu, the same marble-mouthed rhythm as Ceausescu, the Stalinist butcher whose censors attacked the 19-year-old Codrescu's Stalin-hating poems in 1966. Exiling himself to the United States in the '60s, Codrescu found a place where his new world sympathies could grow—New York City. The adversarial forms of expression which the beat poets practiced there influenced him greatly.

He has done well with their lessons, publishing 14 books of poetry (beside other works of fiction, essay and memoir), editing the surrealist journal Exquisite Corpse, and crafting his quirky social commentaries for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." But regardless of his literary feats here, he remains Romanian—lyrical, hyperbolic, addicted to metaphor. With this book, an ode to (and display of) intellectual freedom, Codrescu traces his being other, being Outside, back to his origins, to a destiny he ironically has always known. Romania had to be the land of his birth: It is the land of the exiled.

"The myth . . . was imbedded archetypally in our culture.

I belong to a country whose main export is geniuses."

How familiar are their names!

Ovid, Constatin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, Eugene Ionesco, Mircea Eliade and Nadia Comaneci. The great metaphor of exile, of course, is the Romanian national hero, Count Dracula.

Nosferatu is the perfect exile because he can never return to the living/dying world he abandoned.

Bram Stoker refashioned the tale to reflect the Westerner's obsession with sex and immortality.

But Codrescu says that the hell-warning implicit in the story has been turned upside down: "(he) is the chief deity, and just as Halloween is displacing Christmas (as the nation's greatest holiday), Dracula is replacing Jesus Christ." Analyzing Dracula's appeal to the West creates marvelous cacophony, a sort of crash-and-ring continually sounded by Codrescu's past and present minds. He infuses East-West divisions with insights only an exiled Easterner could have: "Until the recent revolutions in the East, the distinctions were clear: the Censor ruled that world, TV ruled ours. . . . The old Censor has dissolved into the illusionary liberty of our image-making machine.

What happens from here on out is no longer a question of ideological oppositions, but a struggle for global reality." Codrescu does not, like many immigrants, fall prostrate before the flag.

He repeatedly harangues the triviality of our politics and media, the info-mania that causes us to adore tour technology as it stifles our thought.

Here's a desultory attack on the commodification of desire: "All the things that mimic human desires (sexy guns) are in fact circuit breakers: they increase the need proportionally to the distancing of satisfaction.

You can't always get what you want because you can never get what you want because you don't know what you want when you can have everything that looks like it.

Desire itself eventually becomes false desire until its entire energy becomes the property (and fuel) of power." Of course many exiles dread being Americanized, becoming middle class and safe.

Some (such as Czeslaw Milosz, whose resistance to New World ideas Codrescu analyzes) prefer marginality, writing critically about a society which may support the worldly principle of their freedom but is deaf to the antinational message of their art. This loss-after-loss seems to be Codrescu's theme.

What is disappearing for him comprises the European traditions of dada, surrealism, modernism—those big guns poets have fired to awaken people to the emptiness of their lust for images.

The sanctuary artists inhabit outside the mainstream, where dreams, wildness, mystery, and difference reign, is being destroyed by both socialist and capitalist states. Codrescu fears, especially in the West, that the "indoctrinated younger generation" has lost its ability to see.

"The weakness of the American poet is not that he has no imagination, but that he does not love poetry enough to think on its behalf." Although Codrescu too often is consumed with explaining the ontology of exile, these essays do have immediacy, a verve and toughness that recall some of our best multicultural writers, such as Gary Soto or Michelle Cliff.

But be warned: Codrescu's soul is cut like a boxer's, and there is much of the fighter's feint that makes his love of abstraction hard to follow. Nonetheless, read with the instructive irreverence his minds-in-tandem engage, Codrescu is joyful; his writing enacts his love of freedom.

In Romania, he says, one always had to whisper, hide books under covers, be cautious with whom one joked.

Otherwise, prison.

In America Codrescu has never stopped talking, often just for the joy of hearing himself speak.