Paul Zelevansky's The Case for the Burial of Ancestors

. . . works of art become what they are by
negating their origin

Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 4

Paul Zelevansky's The Case for the Burial of Ancestors, Book Two (New York: Zartscorp, 1986) exemplifies Mallarmé's notion that everything in the world exists in order to be brought into a book. In this case (case as exemplum or burial in type, as coffin) not only are book and world symmetrically analogous but they interpenetrate and interlock in a dialectic of violence by virtue of which an originary position of either is impossible. As I will show, Case in doing this structurally acknowledges the chaos of death by installing it in an aesthetics of denial and emptiness masked as the fullness of total presence achieved through hyper-plotting, over-coding, meta-presence, and historical implosion. The work as well can be seen as engaging with the tradition of artists' books, interrogating literacy in a post-literary culture. Thus Case multiply ironizes the book tradition, the tradition. If "their [Montaine, Bacon] sense of the authority, of the layered hermeticism of the written word--from surface level to anagogical mystery--has much in common with an earlier, pictorial or 'iconic' view of meaning," [1] Case turns these concerns inside out, iconically gesturing to this view of meaning while structurally refusing the charge of meaning it seeks to convey.

And yet the book, with a wonderful sense of the comic possibilities of such a paradox, concerns itself almost obsessively with origins. As the speaker (if such an outmoded term can be provisionally employed) says repeatedly, undermining his own pompous wisdom based on received traditions, "What else is new?" Historical progression is thereby subverted by the simultaneities and correspondences created through an atemporal structure. The hypothetical reader which the text constructs is given the illusion of having achieved the all-seeing viewpoint of the divine, and yet not all is seen, as a narrator lies behind the scenes and manipulates the moves with almost a surrealist sense of the enigmatic, like the slightly unbalanced perspectival systems of a De Chirico painting. Instead of being posited as God, we are left as members of the "noisy, confused, historical herd" (p. i).

Such comparisons to the plastic arts seem especially apt given the visual dimension of this work. Each page has a different design, with visual elements being used to add further resonances to the text portions of the work. Sometimes these resonances cut against what the words seem to be building, whereas at others a simple alienation or defamiliarization is at work. A dominant feature of this imagery, regardless of function, is its genesis from or in relation to machines, so that with the exception of reproductions of several photographically produced images (circuit board, p. 11, itself rigidly geometric in design), most of the non-verbal imagery consists of geometric designs (open and filled circles, rectangles, dots, parallel lines, computer-produced lines of camels, arrows, stylized hands, letter forms). The overall effect of this imagery is one of ordering and organizing what otherwise would possibly be a too-diverse body of material. That is, a tension is set up between the visual and verbal dimensions of the work, and whereas at some points the former seems to complement and magnify the latter, usually there results a sense of unease, as if forces were being pitted against each other beneath the surface level of the "text." Reading at times like the last Kabbalistic handbook to the lettered, imaged universe, with various intermingling stories coded into different typefaces (or so we are told), Case gains an unusual sense of urgency by turning to a restricted visuality, that of a predominantly Euclidean cast.

The most significant exception to the above geometric/photographic imagery of course is the baby-feet design (pp. 53, 80, 81,87, 95, 103, 115, and 124). Here print (footprint as identifier) becomes print (graphic image as serialized version of itself) through print (book). [2] This metaphorically as well as physically unifies the different kinds of non-verbal imagery being used throughout. Also, of course, from the point of view of the tale itself, the Wicked Son is he who argues the case for the burial of ancestors, he who must and will in fact kill and bury them through the advance of history being carried forth through him. That this "argument" proceeds solely by virtue of a concealed dimension of violence is equivalent to recognizing the unknown (rather than sublimating its suppression in the enlightenment syntaxes of narrative development).

Accompanying and complementing the book is a computer disk which contains an interactive program. The fiction, then, makes use of the traditional biblical metaphor of light, in this case rendered ironic through overtones of electronic illumination emitted by the computer's screen. Physical motion (time, death) is introduced, although its subtilization in the moving visual images on the screen raises interesting epistemological issues concerning the nature of perception's relation to knowledge, especially in the unique structures that go under the rubric "art."

Zelevansky's work in verbal/visual art naturally finds expression in his fictional use of the new technology which makes animated graphics possible. If the rich color and hand-writing dimensions which he used in Book I of The Case (Zartcorp/Visual Studies Workshop, 1981) [3] are somewhat less in evidence in Book II (the former carried on through inclusion of colored stamps in a glassine envelope, which the reader is to affix in designated spots), this may have been a strategic decision based on the presence of actual moving images. That is, the simplified color scheme of Book II is compensated for by the inclusion of a dimension of light and motion. These stamps function in other ways as well, since a set had been included with Book I, so that the volumes in this series are unified not only by the inclusion of the stamps in each but by the images they bear, reproductions of rectangular (page-dimension) surrealist collage/assemblages whose formal sense of control and balance generates further mysteries. In a prefatory remark (p. xii), we are told that each stamp reproduces "one of The Forty Cards of the Puppeteer's Portable Traveling Pack, the only object found intact on the ancient site of the Tabernacle. Reduced in scale and sticky-backed, each stamp has a particular part to play in the narrative. It is left to the Reader to attach them, where indicated, in the spaces provided throughout the text." The out-of-sequence Roman letter-numbering of these stamps suggests a broken series, an incomplete tale. The genealogy will continue (Book III is yet to appear); as we are told at the beginning of this volume, "The book is a great desert and the letters, like camels, are in migration across this vast space. Each letter has its beginning and its end, its home and a multitude of possible destinations. The ongoing migration, combination and recombination of the letters forms The GENEALOGY: a noisy, confused, historical herd that aspires to betters things. What else is new?" (p. i) Inverting the kabbalistic tradition of the magic of naming, Case dissolves into pre- or non-verbal moves which undercut the Jewish oral/word tradition (yet establishing links with the figural Kabbalism of Moses Cordovero, Naftali Bacharach, and Abraham Abulafia. [4]

As with all experimental forms, what ultimately counts is how the various elements work together, since any formal inventiveness a work may exhibit has its justification at least in significant part in the gestalt of the final effects. Whereas some new categories may have to be designed for a fair and thorough assessment of projects such as Case, these will have to grow out of the work itself, and the other categories to be used for an assessment already exist within the tradition of which they are a part. It has by now been fairly generally admitted that the avant-garde denial or incineration of tradition serves among other purposes to extend it in that way. The most important of these, with respect to this series, is metaphor itself.

Throughout Case instances may be found of aesthetic elements operating in metaphorical or metaphor-like ways. Camels, maps, and grids are examples. The transfer effect of metaphor occurs through physical juxtaposition of word and image, although there is always the added temporal dimension created by the project's sequentiality (as book). The visual/aural base of metaphorical language gets directly reflected/echoed in pictures, reminding us, as had Fenollosa, of the sensory base even to alphabetic writing systems such as we have with modern English. In addition to this there is the implicit difference between the terms of the metaphor; that is, if in some sense the terms resemble each other or share a context of reference, in other senses they maintain their discrete quiddities.

Of course, the obvious biblical background to Case provides Western society's paradigmatic source of metaphorical language. From Psalms alone, God is a "tower of strength" (9:9), a "rock" (28:1), a "shield" (3:3), a "light" (27:1), a "shepherd" (23:1), and so on. [5] One might infer that Case needs its special kind of verbal/visual metaphor in order to achieve a synthesis of physical and spiritual, just as the prophets found it necessary to rely on metaphor in order to install presence in the world. It is not that metaphor permits truer truths but that it like the other tropes recognizes the opacities of experience which are categorically denied by (relatively) figure-free discourse. In "White Mythology" Derrida says, "Henceforth the entire teleology of meaning, which constructs the philosophical concept of metaphor, coordinates metaphor with the manifestation of truth, with the production of truth as presence without veil, with the reappropriation of full language without syntax, with the vocation of a pure nomination: without differential syntax, or in any case without a properly unnamable articulation that is irreducible to the semantic relève or to dialectical interiorization." [6] The historical impossibility of this telos is marked by the end of history, in short, by death, and as our philospher goes on to say, "Metaphor. . . always carries its death within itself." [7] Similarly, the ancestors are to be brought down through history's abrogation of itself through fulfilling itself through them. In another formulation of this, "literature, in our time, is essentially an impossible enterprise, a self- unravelling process. At the same time that it poses its own universality, the very words it uses to do so signal their complicity with that which makes universality unrealizable." [8]

In Zelevansky's book, the traditional figuring of metaphor is implicitly extended beyond even poetic language into visual designs both figurative and non-figurative. As U. Ernst says of the figured poem or carmen figuratum, the "visual quality is a specifically modern way of assuring the poeticity of a text which lacks conventional meter." [9] The double functions performed by the designs/words, then, comprise an articulation of meaning and a recognition of its metaphysical impossibility. [10] "Poeticity" means an interiority whose constitution by definition excludes definition. Even granted both signans and signatum is the sense that Jakobson uses these terms, [11] through reliance on a dialectical relation between verbal and non-verbal elements, Case uses historically/ visually "familiar" material in an aesthetically consistent way to undo itself, to enter into that imaged death which is at the heart of all authentic art in our day.

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1 George Steiner, "After the Book?", in On Difficulty and Other Essays, New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 1978, p. 188.

2 Extending the implicit contrast between moving and still visual images (print versus light images), note the following, especially in connection with Zelevansky's use of computer imagery: ". . . such machines [tv, computer] are indeed machines of reproduction rather than of production." Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review, 146(July-August 1984), 79.

3 See Shelley Rice's plot summary of Book I of Case in her essay "Words and Images: Artists' Books as Visual Literature," in Joan Lyons, ed., Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop, 1985, p. 80.

4 See Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz, eds., A Big Jewish Book: Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to Present, New York: Anchor Press, pp. 9, 392, 397, 400.

5 See John B. Gabel and Charles B. Wheeler, The Bible as Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 25

6 Jacques Derrida, "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy, in Margins of Philosphy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 270

7 Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972, p. 158

8 Derrida, p. 271.

9 Ulrich Ernst, "The Figured Poem: Towards a Definition of Genre," Visible Language, 20, #1(Winter 1986), 11.

10 For an alternative and naive reading, note the following: "A fully egalitarian and genuinely integrated visual-verbal book might be Zelevansky's The Case for the Burial of Ancestors, where both elements contribute and neither would be complete without the other." Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo, "The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses", in Lyons, p. 162.

11 Roman Jakobson, "Sign and System of Language," in Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. 30.

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