Writing the Unpaintable
By Michael Hafftka
Six Gallery Press, 184 pages, $18.
There are three distinct, echoing voices in Michael Hafftka’s newly issued book: a writer, a visual artist and a son of Holocaust survivors. Understandably, this trio makes for a complex, even conflicted, aesthetic. And indeed, “Conscious/Unconscious,” interspersing 27 of Hafftka’s drawings with 56 rambling, phantasmagoric tales — has conflict written all over it. “Narrated in the first person,” as the book cover says, and “weaving an inner life made real by paradoxes and conflicted drives,” these whimsical, sketchlike stories surge with bohemian misadventures while remaining, at bottom, immersed in the vast shadow of the Holocaust.
Conflict of this sort has been, in some sense, Hafftka’s element. During the past three decades, this Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based artist has traded in raw, disturbing images — paintings of dark, disembodied figures; of stark gestures rife with cabalistic allusions; of private and archetypal angst. Done in that brash manner derivative — or, as the modern catchphrase goes, “reminiscent” — of Francis Bacon, his works have been branded “neo-expressionist” by the critics and installed in the collections of New York’s leading museums,
from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Brooklyn Museum to the Museum of Modern Art. It is not altogether surprising, then, that in his fictional debut the artist taps anew into the same visceral reservoir (this time, in absurdist, staccato-bound prose). What is less predictable, and actually more inventive, is the volume’s introspective, even retrospective, bent. Neither a tell-all memoir nor the autobiographical, “Everything Is Illuminated”-esque quest for heritage, Hafftka’s book is thus a savvier attempt to grasp this heritage obliquely, by tracing the confusions and insecurities of a recent past.
This oblique angle works well for Hafftka. In surveying, with certain humorous detachment, the tattered cloth of his present, the protagonist of his cryptic anecdotes often manages to highlight both the patchwork workings of memory and the larger patterns of history and cultural myth. What begins, for example, as a desultory schlemiel story — “I looked for her, but she wasn’t there” — suddenly switchblades into a chilling ancestral vision: “The last car was a cattle car on the way to Auschwitz.” Sentences such as those lend substance to the author’s poetic license: Viscerally intense and dispassionately surreal, they seem capable of transfiguring the event whose inconceivable horror is matched only by its searing reality. In the end, however, the results are mixed: Hoisted by their own dissociative force, these giddy tales fail to coalesce. Frothlike, they scrape at the nerve without penetrating the wound. Still, at times they stumble into coherence by sheer force of their archetypal images.
The story quoted above, “The Land of My Ancestors,” is one of such tenuous, narrow-margin successes. Eminently Hafftkaesque (both the title and the dreamlike tone allude knowingly to Kafka), it is also the story of Orpheus by way of Buñuel and Isaac Bashevis Singer: a quest for the shadow that yields — but only to make reality more shadowy still. In his pursuit of “her,” Hafftka’s somnambulistic narrator travels through a bizarre, tunnel-like transport, a makeshift maze with sections changing as he moves through them: a first-class lounge, then a “metro liner like Amtrak,” followed by a subway. Finally, there is that Auschwitz-bound car, “crammed with people and corpses.” Beyond it, he glimpses “another century, the land of my ancestors; creatures “pale with death’s anemia, wearing unfamiliar European clothes, starched shirts and uncomfortable hats.” Immediately, he closes the door. An unknown woman, “a beautiful girl I had crashed into earlier,” asks him if he is going in. No, he replies. She asks him if he is scared. “Yes!” he admits — delivering, in its last line, the story’s only certainty.
The narrator’s ambivalence is fully justified: His self-defined quest for cultural memory is inherently self-contradictory. For in implying, inevitably, that Auschwitz be at some point confronted, this quest also demands that this confrontation be not an end-point but a “passing through,” an imaginative transcendence. But Auschwitz cannot be transcended, as we know from Theodor Adorno’s famously controversial 1949 phrase, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In seeking a vision of the past beyond the disaster, Hafftka’s narrator can only conceive of it in a style that is a nonstyle, a caricature: “starched shirts, uncomfortable hats.” His fear, at the end, is not fear of the Holocaust, or of its pain, but fear of aestheticizing this pain through art.
This fear, or squeamishness, is the closest that the story comes to succeeding. Shrinking before sentimentality, Hafftka’s pastichelike prose motions tentatively toward authenticity. But to reach it, the next step would have to be made: a reconstitution of poetics. This is precisely the step Adorno took when, by 1966, he recanted: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” So it is, after all, possible to write about the Holocaust. Even, perhaps, necessary — provided one finds adequate means of expression.
Means of expression: It is here that Hafftka’s quest falters. Unlike the piece above, with its delicate balance of “her” and “the blonde,” Memory and Eros — most of his stories rehearse extravagant, ready-made gestures of cruelty and sex. There is always someone on the make: wife, wife’s girlfriend, model, 80-year-old woman, boy. Not to mention animals: A dog is fondled, a porcupine strangled, a bull castrated and flayed (in an obligatory nod to modernity, there are also aliens and terrorists). Little of it persuades, for this esoteric catalog, though meant as a scan of our Boschian nightmares, is told in a dead-pan-naive, pseudo-hallucinatory voice (one of the titles is “Stoned”) — a would-be dybbuk that yields, at its worst, a near-sophomoric impersonation of Kafka.
This narrative problem only re-diagnoses the issue that has been nagging at Hafftka’s visual output for quite some time. For more than a decade, he has relied on the same intuitive method that has served him well at the outset: letting things take shape spontaneously, letting brushwork or graphite grope for subject. This mode, a sort of plastic equivalent of automatic writing, has its advantages: In its total submission to the unconscious, in unhinging the perception, it allows, in perhaps the most authentic way possible, for cathartic cleansing. But it also exacts its price. Over the years, Hafftka’s shorthand begins to flaunt — rather than convey — what he has called its “revelatory” message. The fluid, sinuous linearity of his early drawings turns, in this book’s 2005 series, cartoonish and suave. Colors in paintings fall flat: There is neither the chromatic nor the textural majesty of Soutine or Rouault, the expressionists who have paved the way for Hafftka. Nor is there, for that matter, the luminous spectrality of Goya. If — as Sam Hunter notes in “Michael Hafftka: Dreamworks” — “Hafftka himself admires Soutine and Goya unreservedly,” this weariness signals the gulf still separating the artist from his self-appointed mentors.
Although they frequently intersect, Hafftka’s fictional enterprise and his visual opus move along parallel tracks. They are both products of a sincere and gifted artist who is not afraid to tackle what Steve Starger calls (in his editorial blurb) “the universal pain of our species.” But because the ways in which Hafftka tackles it are for the most part imitative, this pain is rendered decorative in his art. Somehow, it does not quite reach us. And this, in the context of tragedy, is distressing. If we are to follow Hafftka on that terrible train, we had better be sure that no ornament — intentional or otherwise — would ever keep us from perceiving its horror.