Apr/May 2009

The Passive Vampire

Irene Gammel


What secret was trying to pierce through this hallucinatory and hermetic language?” asks poet Ghérasim Luca in his long-lost classic The Passive Vampire. The book, first published in French in 1945 by Les Éditions de l’Oubli in Bucharest, is chimerical and delirious yet remarkably concrete in its lewdness. Blending personal confession, prose poetry, meditation, verbal games, catalogues, and hymns to desire, this hybrid book is a Surrealist carnival that taps satanic and psychic rituals. Bawdy and bizarre, it also evokes the era’s dark history, including anti-Semitic pogroms. Writing of the earthquake that devastated Bucharest on November 10, 1940, Luca internalizes the catastrophe: “The supreme defense of one’s own being in the most terrifying moment of panic can only be followed by an erotic release in the form of auto-eroticism.”

Divided into two sections, The Passive Vampire begins with “The Objectively Offered Object,” an ironic how-to manual for creating Surrealist art objects, or OOOs. Pictured in eighteen illustrations that frustrate efforts to discern fine detail, the OOOs manifest the mystique that often surrounds Surrealist art objects. In a magic ritual intended to effect change in the artist’s relationship with others, Luca transforms found objects into vessels of erotic and psychic communication. Thus, he offers his friend Hélène Diurnal a Nocturnal Displacement, “a ball with nails hammered into it” (the ball “symbolizing testicles”), to which Hélène responds with an object of her own: a partially clenched hand grasping a lightbulb and laid on a piece of velvet (symbolizing “the castrating dish of Salomé”). The Letter L, an antique female doll Luca modified as an OOO for André Breton, is disturbingly misogynistic. Riddles are pasted onto the doll’s naked torso and leg. A second doll’s head is attached in place of her genitals, with razor blades stuck in her (sex) head and one slicing her eye (recalling Buñuel and Dalí’s 1929 cult film, Un Chien Andalou). Luca’s drive, as he explains in part 2 of the book, is “genital and pre-genital, erotic and criminal, black, ferocious, satanic.” Amid this carnality is a lyric burst of love: “Déline. I sit beside Déline, I stroke Déline, I kiss Déline, I leave with Déline, I make love to Déline.” This moment of tenderness is juxtaposed with the sudden, unexplained end of the relationship; by the concluding lines, Déline is but an “indecipherable ghost of love.”

Praised by Gilles Deleuze as “a great poet among the greatest,” Luca is well served here not only by Krzysztof Fijałkowski’s faithful translation but also by the elegant introduction, which provides fascinating biographical details and deftly situates the book “as a missing piece in the history of international surrealism.” As a member of the Romanian Surrealist Group (active 1940– 47), Luca coauthored the group’s principle text, Dialectics of the Dialectic (1945), before leaving Bucharest in 1952 for Paris, where he collaborated with Jean Arp, Max Ernst, and others. In 1994, at eighty, Luca took his own life by jumping into the Seine after being evicted from his apartment (having lived in Paris for forty-two years without papers). Curiously, this violent death was anticipated by a text he wrote in 1945, La Mort morte (Dead Death), which contains five fictional suicide accounts and notes. Luca’s death-haunted vision is disarmingly defiant (“the deepest moments of depression cannot conquer my life”), channeling the trauma of a generation into convulsions of surreal beauty that resonate with the anxieties and tragedies of our own troubled century.

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