Gellu Naum (1915-2001) was the only writer pertaining to the historical Romanian surrealist avant-garde who survived, rather untouched but also more or less unheard, the vicissitudes of a half a century of Communist rule. He started publishing during the mid-thirties, early rallying around such figures like Gherasim Luca and Paul Paun. His debut book, The Liberty of Sleeping on a Forehead appeared in 1937, just before he left for Paris, enrolling in doctoral studies in philosophy. His friendship with the surrealist Romanian painter Victor Brauner, whose creative stance and imagery is close to him, dates from the same period. Together with some of the members of the Bucharest surrealist circle he elaborated the surrealist manifesto A Critique of Misery (printed in 1945), that marked the delimitation of the surrealists from the earlier Dada-like disciples centered around the review unu. Unfortunately, after the end of the war Gellu Naum virtually remained the only representative of the avant-garde literary idiom, because almost all the other members of the group left Romania. Gellu Naum actually kept surrealism alive until the end of the century, tirelessly publishing uncompromising poetry all along five decades. His only novel, Zenobia, published late in his life, is perhaps the most powerful product of Romanian surrealism.
Until late in the years before World War II our surrealist movement was not a very conscious and structured one. It would become so only due to the group made up of Gherasim Luca, D. Trost, Paul Păun, Virgil Teodorescu, Gellu Naum. There were a few decisive factors involved in the process: a more categorical, I might say radical, separation from other tendencies of the literary and artistic avant-garde. Some of Bréton's exclusivity can be seen in this group's attitude in the form of a degree of theoretical rigour less respected before. "More consciousness!", the motto that the Father of Surrealism borrowed from Marx, is taken and adopted in a personal manner, but of course not without "intellectualist adjustments." Anyway, the general idea was to considerably enhance the radicalism. The movement would not be afraid of fractures; on the contrary, it would look for them because in their violence it would recognise the insurrectionist dialectics, the refusal to accommodate, the ruthless war against idleness and routine. It was Bréton again who had defined Surrealism as being essentially "un état de fureur." That powerful fury, a guarantee for the subversive action to which the spirit was invited, possessed Gellu Naum more than anyone else. The very title of his first volume The Firing Traveller (1936) shows the beginning of a flaming itinerary which will continue without weakening, its flames growing hotter in The Freedom to Sleep on a Forehead (1937), Vasco de Gama (1940), The Corridor of Sleep (1944), Medium (1945), The Terrible Forbidden (1945) and The Blind Men's Castle (1946).There is a "poetic mediocrity" against which Gellu Naum constantly fought, never accepting any compromise, never accepting to surrender. This kind of disgusted refusal that he always pronounced, is perfectly summarised in the form of surreal radicalism by the following paragraph, taken from Medium: "I read my poems with a low voice, extremely low, in the deepest silence, especially while a beautiful woman stood near me. This is nowadays the poetical state, and I kept on being a poet, sure that one day at the end of my speech I would burst into the most trivial laughter, into the most terrifying howls and that would be the first poetic act I would undoubtedly consider as my own."But Gellu Naum represents in our avant-garde the authentic surreal spirit capable of staying alive, of rising from its own ashes, and that is not only because he is a constant believer in the radicalism of negation. If it only were so, the poet would end up mentally sterile, tired and silent. This is why, at the same time, he never ceases to look for more, to strive for that spiritual point where – as Bréton said – "life and death, imaginary and real, future and past, communicative and ineffable, up and down cease to be perceived as opposite." Any accommodation brings in sclerosis and that is exactly the thing Gellu Naum is running away from. In order to remain what it was intended to be, Surrealism – and he understood this together with Virgil Teodorescu in a more profound way than Gherasim Luca, Paul Păun or D. Trost – must become, paradoxically, something else.[…] Under the title The Blind Mirror we can find a very tight selection from the author's previous poetic activity, as well as a few fragments from the volume Vasco de Gama. The largest part of the content is new yet, and not only chronologically but in the most specific sense that can be given to this word. The assembly proves the dialectic consistence that we are talking about. The lively poetry that he created brought Gellu Naum of necessity to his newest lines. The word "Athanor" – the title of one of his most recent volumes and of a poem it contains –, taken not as a symbol but as a magnetic presence, is capable, I believe, of helping us perceive more clearly the major ambition of these lines. We have here one of the names for an alchemist's oven. But still we should not believe that Gellu Naum wants to reiterate Rimbaud's labour on the verb. There is nothing more nude than the way he wants to communicate his experiences to us.The Athanor, which was used by alchemists for miraculously mutating the elements, is used by Gellu Naum, I think, only for suggesting a new direction of breaking the bounds of poetry. This happens, the way I understand it, by making an alliance with the most daring scientific thinking. The miraculous – that the surrealist searched in everyday life, seen in its mutilated dimension, a life of half-living, submitted to cowardliness and frustration – is suddenly enlarged by modern mathematics, biology and physics. The liberating action of poetry has nowadays the task of creating the miraculous human being, of populating it with hopes, fears and wishes, has the task of transforming it from theoretical abstraction into a superior, alive and existent reality.Alchemy instinctively acted that way and this is perhaps why Gellu Naum invokes it. Beyond its naiveté, it is about discovering a more profound stratum which poetry has to rehabilitate, by making it its own. Gaston Bachelard showed in his book La Formation de l'Esprit Scientifique what a fascinating landscape of inner projections can be seen through alchemist thinking. Everything here is filled with the mythic; it is becoming human, adding observation on fundamentals of huge sexuality. Fire, the way the alchemist saw it, is the center of this complex exciting and coherent human dream. Its ordering role – Bachelard says – is to "unite matter with spirit, vice with virtue. It idealises materialist knowledge, materialises idealist knowledge, it is the principle of an essential ambiguity." (The Psychoanalysis of Fire) Could we not recognise in this totalising function some of the supreme ambitions formulated by Breton and cited above?On another level of the spiral, the poetical thinking of Gellu Naum craves for an analogue unity between modern science and our secret hunger for the miraculous. We need to achieve human familiarity with these vast cold intellectual gaps, which this century of relativity, multivalent logic and the principle of incertitude made un-known. The miraculous universe inside which Gellu Naum introduces us somehow relates to that of Magritte's paintings. A drawing of extraordinary precision meant to make us feel the world spinning, by a little secret intervention suddenly becomes enigmatic, confusing. Very suggestive is also the delusive calm with which the poet builds this strange landscape. The fundamental surreal nonconformity of Gellu Naum's poetry makes his lines so different from many others that today proclaim the delusion of the imaginary with a discouraging zeal. One can always find spiritual acuteness in his lines, permanently awake and shining among the lines like a threatening razor blade. Someone who does not have a real vocation for black humor will easily betray him when he ventures in such dangerous areas of rebel poetical thinking. The file on which he notes down his trapeze exercises of metaphoric inventiveness turns sticky like a flypaper and punishes the trespasser to buzzing agony. In Gellu Naum's poems smiling ferocity is always present, it is a part of the very intimate substance of the poetical reflection. There is neither verbal nor associative aggression daring to certify it. The ability to outrage and to shock that the lines have lies within them and works precisely by permanently attacking the prejudices of the mind. Everything is going in a direction that is supposed to allow such freedom of poetic acts that any compromise with the low spirits is excluded. There cannot be any possibility of acceptance here, and that makes them hostile. This sort of poetry is a hidden bomb
with thousands of detonators within everything the authorsays, even in the most benign of his affirmations.
In the alchemists' dream the Athanor was essentially meant to purify matter through long and repeated burning. The target of Gellu Naum's poetry in its present state is similar. The surreal dream world can at any time turn into a deadly trap for the unprepared. They risk to sink into the ocean of unstoppable imagination, even though it also creates a poetic universe: the tides, the feathers, the long soft hair, the blood, the glittering bones, the crabs, the hallstands, the carnivorous insects, the devouring thighs have become its common places. The Athanor is about to burn them down. It only keeps a few important components of the immediate world, objects and beings reduced to their very presence, surrounded by a great void. A table, a chair, a few rocks, a boot, an egg, a hat, a door, a potato, some unidentified persons, women and men, children and old people build Gellu Naum's miraculous poetic universe. These things also reminded me of Magritte.All that Gellu Naum shows us has gained terrible volume, the facts that he indicates thus become strangely obvious, our representations of reality are forced to get used to it through successive providential shocks. What we have here is prospective poetry in the field of the unknown and the unexpected. It should become a necessary training read for those who are ready to voyage and visit other worlds.
by Ovid S. Crohmălniceanu