Spring 2013

We Shall Not All Sleep

The life-and-death relationship of Gherasim Luca and Gellu Naum

Catherine Hansen

The poet Gherasim Luca killed himself six times. He killed himself for the first time at some point before the end of World War II, and for the last time in February 1994.

The poet Gellu Naum never, in fact, died. So that others might follow in his footsteps, in September 2001 he revealed the contents of a white nubuck notebook: a set of instructions for not dying, kept secret for half a century.

• • •

Each of Luca’s suicides, except for the last, took place in four parts. First, there was the farewell letter, left on a table; then there was the act itself; there was the note scrawled with one hand during the act; and there was the debriefing, immediately afterward, a discussion of the act’s personal and theoretical significance. His fifth suicide, for example, the most equivocal, is a kind of staged confrontation between the mind’s will to die and the body’s will to live—the latter reinforced by the hand’s will to write. Luca decides, in short, to hold his breath until he is dead. It is not necessarily impossible to do so, for example if, by hyperventilating beforehand, one depletes CO2 levels in the blood, overriding the mechanism that governs the automatic urge to breathe. If Luca knew this, he didn’t attempt it; the act bears what meaning it does as an act that undermines itself. He calls it a suicide through the impossible. This is an idea so seductive that, during the debriefing period, he is acutely aroused.

As for the note produced during this fifth attempt, the greatest mystery for him is how, in the very moment of crisis, at the point of blacking out and in a state of immense agitation, he is able to compose a carefully calligraphed message, one that reads: “I am inspired by a big red bird that rips apart two big rotting birds who in their turn rip apart a big grand piano.”1 Not until the last line, “piano à queue,” does the writing begin to trail off, droop. It should also be remarked that, while the greater part of the texts accompanying these suicides are in Romanian, Luca opts for French in the notes composed during the act—notes he calls graphomanias. Luca’s choice of mania as a suffix follows artist Oscar Dominguez’s revival of the word decalcomania to describe an artistic technique he developed beginning in the 1930s called “decalcomania without preconceived object” or “decalcomania of desire.”2 It is a reworking of an older practice of decorating objects such as furniture and pottery with “decals,” lithographic designs and images cut from paper and varnished or glazed in place. It could be that Luca’s borrowing, via Dominguez, suggests that these notes are tracings or transferences of suicidal states onto the plane of writing—patterns somehow native to death, applied with a bit of varnish to the written page. It may also indicate that the writing is euphoric, grandiose, disjointed.

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