Although a late starter, publishing his first book no earlier than the revolutionary year, 1989 (already having reached the age of forty), with over 16 books over the next twenty years, Michal Ajvaz, novelist, poet, essayist and translator, has been one of the most prolific and influential Czech writers of the post-communist period. Although an author popular with the literary establishments and audiences abroad—his work having been translated into almost ten languages, the English translations of some of his works (especially, The Other City and The Golden Age, both with Dalkey Archive) ranking high on Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy lists—Ajvaz is to some extent a writer very much Prague-centred and oftentimes associated with the fantasy vein of Czech postmodern fiction (together with, e.g., Daniela Hodrová, Miloš Urban, or Jiří Kratochvil), particularly on the basis of the exclusively urban settings of his fiction, generating a specifically “urban poetics.” Although an outspoken heir to the poetic experiments of Franz Kafka, Raymond Roussel, Italo Calvino, and especially Jorge Luis Borges (to whom he has dedicated a book-length study, The Dreams of Grammars, the Glow of Letters: An Encounter with Jorge Luis Borges ), literary scholars in this country have so far busied themselves with including Ajvaz in the genealogies of Czech experimental poetics, particularly those leading from the 42 Group via the surrealists toward the above-mentioned “fantasy” postmodernists. Although source-hunting might seem a particularly rewarding endeavour with a writer so invested in quotation, allusion, paraphrase and parody, my main concern here is yet another “although” of Ajvaz´s literary output. Although an author of works of “wonderful fantasy – scenes that unfold like in surreal films, or Daliesque artworks“ and texts that work as “catalogues of—and meditation on—other-worldly ideas and notions as well as multi-layered work[s] of fiction[s],” Ajvaz has also contributed to the current Czech philosophical discourse by studies on both specific philosophers (Derrida in Sign, Self-Consciousness and Time) and philosophical topics/problems (the theme of perception in Jungle of Light: Meditations on Seeing). And although Ajvaz himself has insisted on keeping the two—i.e. his fictions and his treatises—separate, there is an intriguing dialogue between Ajvaz the thinker and Ajvaz the writer to be heard in both genres of his creative output.
Ajvaz’s Sign, Self-Consciousness and Time bears the subtitle, Two Studies in Derrida’s Philosophy, a subtitle that would cause little hubbub in the Western world, but sadly enough remains the only book-length study of Derrida’s philosophical critique of Western metaphysics penned by a Czech thinker to date. This befuddling fact loses some of its surprise in view of the extent to which the post-war Czech philosophical scene has been dominated by the Morava-born Husserl-founded phenomenology and Prague-Circle-bred structuralism, i.e. the two intellectual streams Derrida departs from and subjects to uncompromising critique in his “structuralism without centre.” It, therefore, comes as little surprise that Ajvaz himself bases his reading of Derrida largely on two of his works only – on Derrida’s Grammatology, his critique of Saussure’s structuralist linguistics, and Speech and Phenomena, his critique of Husserl’s phenomenology of the sign and signification. If the first, far shorter, part offers a fairly faithful follow-up to Derrida’s deconstruction of Saussure’s semiology—interspersed with alternative metaphors for the given problem or suggested solutions here and there—the gist of Ajvaz’s study surfaces in the latter, far lengthier half – a passionate defence of Husserl’s conception of the inner time-consciousness by means of a philippic against all Derrida’s objections. Quite briefly – for Derrida, Husserl’s entire system is predicated upon a présupposition métaphysique, an absolutisation of presence formed in Husserl’s views on the transcendental ego, conscious of itself without any contact with a material “outside.” What is at stake is the sheer fact of the construction of the present within the human mind, explicated by Husserl through the structure of retention, the “now” predicated on the “not-now.” Based on the presupposition of the privilege of the self-evidence of opinion without representation, Husserl’s phenomenology must by necessity ensure that consciousness should be of something at any point of its activity, i.e. both to ensure a consciousness full of consciousness in each of its moments and to conceive of a beginning of any such moment. It is in this direction that Derrida’s critique is poised, exposing the contradictions between Husserl’s pre-expressive meaning and his conception of a consciousness of something. The phase of the two moments in which consciousness views itself had to, in Derrida’s insight, be evaded by Husserl, who was aware of the impossibility of reconciling the unity of the moment of articulation, on the one hand, and the doubleness of such moments, on the other.
Ajvaz, by way of defence of Husserl’s position, points out how Derrida’s very project of déconstruction constantly features the combined notions of duality and ambivalence, the one pointing into the realm of so-called metaphysics of presence and delineating the space within whose boundaries Derrida’s thought is to move, the other pointing in the direction of semiotics, or a general theory of communication. In Derrida’s critique of Husserl as part of the logocentric tradition of European thought, Ajvaz discerns a duality, an either-or, at work: “Either we accept unity as an identical, pre-given signified indifferent toward the signifier, thereby rendering it superfluous, or we cannot but participate in a game where meaning is born as not more than a trace in the endless welter of references among signs, a game of transformations of articulation systems […] governed by […] a ‘throw of the dice.’” As long as Derrida postulates the non-existence of an identical meaning that stands before, and is thus independent from, articulation through signifiers, then Ajvaz is at one, but disagrees when Derrida claims the only possible unity of meaning to be the “rigid and indifferent self-identity independent from the signifier,” accepting “nothing outside of articulation systems” due to the dictates of “the duality that permeates his thought [and which] makes him see outside of individual articulations just the metaphysical dangers of the self-unity of a self-enclosed individual meaning.”
For Ajvaz, beyond such a duality lies, first and foremost, the experience of “a unified style of a literary work,” which is not only “unity whose moments are the organisational modes of all of the work’s layers,” but which is also “a rhythm transcending the sign system of language and acting as the mode of the gestural unity of existence and, deeper still, as the mode of being as such.” Derrida speaks of the differences among the elements of various systems of articulation, but doesn’t speak of the different degrees of articulation. And yet, “such action as the genesis of a literary text shows that the signifier gradually crystallises in the pre-marked field, that articulation and organisation, which bring forth the signifier, are preceded by less specific adumbrations, very much like the picture in a telescope gradually coming into focus.” According to Ajvaz, this “pre-articulated field,” the matrix of all individual articulations and articulation systems, precedes articulation while not independent from it, since the birth of any given articulation is the fulfilment of a pre-articulated field and a change thereof at the same time. It is this pre-articulated field that presents a “meaning unity” while not becoming what Derrida terms “a transcendental signifier” – and functions, in Ajvaz’s book, as an escape from the double-bind of Derrida’s thought. Ajvaz’s defence of Husserl is, then, conducted on similar grounds, centred as it is around Husserl’s idea of meaning as a beginning, not in the form of some deep principle at the basis of sense, but rather as a certain pre-structured space, a space given over to structuration consciousness and language.
One should note, however, that despite his disagreement over Derrida’s objections and the results of the thought-process, Ajvaz is still in keeping with the latter’s idea of a mutual communication of various meaning-systems and the differentiality of their relations. And even though the context in which the whole topic is treated might have shifted, from poststructuralist back to a phenomenological one, there are references to that which precedes and conditions articulation, language, signification, throughout Derrida’s work. For instance, the by-now notorious formulation from Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” can and should be understood not only as suggesting that the words within a text derive meaning, not from some transcendental source, but from the relationships of the words within it to each other and the text to other texts, as most popular accounts have it. It also implies that meaning comes from texts or corpora, rather than from outside of writing, that meaning, however un- or pre-articulated, is always already material, ready for (re-) articulation, i.e. endowed with qualities that Ajvaz’s critique bemoans as lacking.
Let us now trace this dispute between Husserl and Derrida through the epistemological concerns of one Ajvaz’s prose, The Other City. By way of illustrating that, in Ajvaz’s oeuvre, this argument is by far not restricted to one piece of fiction, and not even to his prose, here is an excerpt from one of his earliest poems, ‘The Theory of Knowlege’:
True knowledge arises only
once the known has been forgotten. In the twilight of oblivion,
the outer contents seep through the saps of the mysterious unity, changing
into a meaningful shape, maturing into a live word.
I’ve read The Critique of Pure Reason,
The Phenomenology of Spirit and The Crisis of European Sciences:
Once I’d forgotten the contents of these books, they’ve turned
into a vast erotic adventure novel,
taking place in Prague, Istanbul and Malajsia […]
What is at stake in The Other City is the search for the centre, the one home supposedly given over to man together with the one life. Already half-way on his quest into which he has been drawn by sundry mysterious discoveries, the narrator pauses to ask himself: “Can there really exist a world in such close proximity to our own, one that seethes with such strange life, one that was possibly here before our own city and yet we know absolutely nothing about it?” And he answers in the affirmative:
The more I pondered on it, the more I was inclined to think that it was indeed quite possible, that it corresponded to our lifestyle, to the way we lived in circumscribed spaces that we are afraid to leave. We are troubled by the dark music heard from over the border, which undermines our order. We fear what looms in the twilit corners; we don’t know whether they are broken or disintegrating shapes of our world, or the embryos of a new fauna, which will one day transform the city into its hunting ground – the vanguard of monsters slowly lurking its way through our apartments. […] And yet the world we have confined ourselves in is so narrow. Even inside the space we regard as our property there are places that lie beyond our power, lairs inhabited by creatures whose home is over the border. We are familiar with the strange queasiness we feel when we encounter the reverse side of things and their inner cavities, which refuse to take part in our game: when we shove aside a cabinet during spring-cleaning and suddenly find ourselves looking at the ironically impassive face of its reverse side, which stares into dark chambers that are mirrored on its surface, when we unscrew wires, when we crawl under the bed for a pencil that rolled away […].
In the cyclical dynamics of the narrative, it is this “reverse side of things,” this other city on the obverse of this city, that is ultimately the matrix, the pre-articulated field giving rise to the articulations which the protagonist, in turn, aims to break through in order to reach onto the other side. Where, then, does the “reverse side of things” first manifest itself, from what dark nook or cranny does the monstrous, that which is hidden and yet shown, first poke out one of its sundry heads? Indeed, from an object which is of this world, has its own materiality, objecthood, corporeality, even a certain social history and market value, while simultaneously endowed with an intangible, imaginary, signifying dimension capable of ushering in the other-wordly. From a book:
I realized that the alphabet in which the book was printed was not of this world. It was still a simple matter to ignore the crevice from which there wafted a disconcerting and alluring breath and allow it to become overgrown with a tissue of renewing circumstances. It was not the first such encounter in my life. Like everyone, I had, on many previous occasions, ignored a half-open door leading elsewhere – in the chilly passages of strange houses, in backyards, on the outskirts of towns. The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it.
The word-choice of the translation here is clever, capturing as it does the procedure of most of Ajvaz’s fiction: a “glimpse” of, an “encounter” with, a gaping “crevice” which opens up a “realisation” of the other-wordly within “our world,” within the “tissue of circumstances” that oftentimes obstruct this “realisation,” leading to “ignorance.” The issue at stake, here, is precisely this within, the entanglement of the problematic, challenging otherness with the ostensibly self-evident givenness, which is the author’s trademark, marking him off as different from so much of what passes for “magical realist” writing. Reality, at least in its phenomenological aspect, i.e. as perceived by consciousness in time and through the system/language of signs, is always mysterious and magical, in both its sublime and its dreary – the magical print is to be found either in the book, or “scratched into the wall of a urinal in a pub at Staré Město pod Landštejnem, alongside a picture of an octopus throttling a tiger with its tentacles.”
However, despite all Ajvaz’s otherworldliness, despite all the adventure-story conventions and clichés of which he avails himself with such fondness and zest as to win him the label of a “fantasy” writer in the U.S., or indeed despite his Husserlian metaphysical optimism, there is throughout his oeuvre, a strong counter-current of skepsis, along the lines of Derrida’s doubt as regards the possibility, and indeed intelligibility, of an “outside” beyond the text of the apperceived world. The pre-articulated field mentioned above is thematised in The Other City, ironically, as re-identified in that it no longer precedes articulation, but is as always already articulated beforehand. If there is one emblematic gesture, one structural device, re-enacted and re-deployed in all his works of fiction, The Other City not excepting, it is the mise-en-abîme, a particularly apt emblem in that it captures both Ajvaz’s predilection for mediaeval art of inscription and illustration as well as his involvement in postmodern concerns with language and representation.
Asks Ajvaz, if the other city is truly other, then how can it be approached and understood by the tools of this city? Here is the caveat pronounced by the library scholar, the first of his chance encounters on his quest:
Maybe the source of our world’s shapes is really hidden beyond the frontier, but we would never be able to understand it anyway; it could have no meaning for us. The only thing that is meaningful and understandable for us is what moves along the paths of our world, what follows the lines of our ornament in Knossos, wherever its origins lie, whether they are the trace of the dances of exalted gods, or the record of the capers of a drunken demon. We wouldn’t be able to talk about a primordial dance because speech is inadequate to describe what was here before the emergence of ornament. We wouldn’t even be able to see the primordial dance because vision is so embedded in the mesh of familiar sense, that whatever is not nourished by that sense would remain invisible to us.
The elaboration of this point adopts an outright Derridean vocabulary, and thematises the troubled relationship between a grammar, the notion of a frontier, and an outside:
The anxious and cunning deity of grammar holds its protective hand over us, and conceals the monsters’ faces; we say ‘that thing’s a mystery’ and ‘that incident is uncanny,’ but in doing so we discreetly wrap their dreadful presence, their sinister essence, unrelated to anything and defying our gaze, in metaphor, as if in an old threadbare suit and so assign them a place in our world. […] Don’t concern yourself with weird books that remind you of the frontiers of our world. They can’t lead you out of it, they can only eat away at its structure from within. The frontier of our world is a line with only one side. There is no path from the inside out, nor can there be.
Such, then, are the dynamics of the quest that runs the length of Ajvaz’s Other City – the optimistic prospect of catching “a glimpse of the other world,” and the sceptical caveat of the “anxious and cunning deity of grammar” circumscribing the frontiers of our world with “a line with only one side.”
A bird’s eye view of the progression of the narrative reveals these two approaches forming an intertwined double-helix out of which is the plot of the novel evolves. The chapters following the first encounters (that is, with the divined otherworldly and the provoked skepsis) are devoted to the practicalities of the journey. Chapter 11 features another discussion, this time with an old shopkeeper on the understanding of “home,” followed by another disputation on the roof of St. Vitus Cathedral which subjects the possibility of a “home” to harsh scepticism. Chapter 15 features a struggle with a helicopter, after which a tractatus is read out loud bringing home the news that every centre is merely the edge of another centre, ad infinitum. In chapter 17, the conversation recorded on a gramophone record no longer mentions centres but a path toward the goal, leading across confusing and potentially misleading places, and one is left wondering whether to mislead the narrator might also feature on the agenda of the old hermit accosted in chapter 20 who indicates where lie the outskirts of the other city. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that the concluding chapter 21 should retrospectively review all the ambivalent and conflicting reports on the ontological and epistemological status of the other city, and, in a typical Ajvazian metatextual turn toward the inside, pauses to reflect on the narrator’s own travelogue he has written on his quest – how is such a book to be written and, what is more, read and understood? Neither can one write in the language of this city in the hope of getting anywhere near the other’s essence, nor can one adopt the language of the other in the hope of communicating this otherness to this city. The carefully balanced either-or seems to have arrived in a neither-nor impasse, but only till the discovery that there is, indeed, the hyphen, the in-between of these two, a frontier as a space of possibility:
I was in no hurry; I had no idea which direction I would take at the next corner. I wondered what employment I would find in another city […] Fine, so I’ll leave here my book about meetings and the frontier. My future books will be written in the script of the other city and printed in nocturnal printing houses hidden behind coats in closets. Maybe some of my books will find their way onto the shelves of antiquarian bookstores. Maybe someone like me will take shelter from a blizzard or a rainstorm in a bookstore and gaze with wonder as a delicate female hand reaches from the other side to make a space between the volumes on the shelf and slip a book into it: the astonished customer will take out the book and stare at the pages covered in strange signs, before leaning forward and peering into the dark fissure remaining between the books on the shelf, where he will glimpse lights twinkling on a dark surface and smell the odor of stone passages.
Thus, the hope of reconciliation is left radically open to a future possibility whose only conceivable space is the frontier, where the plot of The Other City launches a mise-en-abîme and includes, at the point of its end, a possibility of a potentially endless variation and replication of its own story.
Some critics have accused Ajvaz of being a “one-book” writer, whose fiction revolves around identical concerns via identical paths along the same narrative procedures with the use of the same old shabby toolbox of a worn set of contraptions. What this wide-spread, if also reductive and simplifying, viewpoint fails to acknowledge is that Ajvaz’s fictional world leaves unresolved, and thus in perpetual motion and fruitful exchange, the dynamics of opposing principles which his thought strove to bring to a stasis of resolution. His fiction is, thus, bound to repeat itself, again and again, in all of his attempted re-writes of the impossible accounts of all the other cities, all the other intimations of pre-articulated fields, approachable in fiction only through linguistic articulation, and thus always already pre-fabricated. If this be the failure of Ajvaz’s fiction—a simple formula repeated ad nauseam without conclusive progress—then its saving grace, like that of Beckett’s, is its continuous effort to “fail better” – imaginatively, challengingly, and ultimately, enjoyably. A failure in which The Other City, and most other Ajvaz’s books, succeeds.