Thursday, December 27, 2007

Exiled Writing, Translated Knowledge: Andrei Codrescu’s Inroads

Associate Professor of American Studies, Roskilde University

Some of the best contemporary culture critics in the US, and prophets of the future, have been writers of fiction with an immigrant background. What enables these writers to make fairly accurate predictions and statements about the state and future manifestations of American culture as observed in literary and other aesthetic productions, such as painting and film, is their ability to translate knowledge from a discourse of fiction and often criticism into media representations. For many such immigrant writers, the demand to also become public figures is underlined by their complex backgrounds. In diaspora the first lesson is a visual one. In most cases, first you watch what the Romans do, and then you imitate, or refute, or subvert, or displace. While seeing clearly acquires a pragmatic value in the subsequent writing (fictional or otherwise) of these immigrant American writers, being seen also becomes part of the program. Often what these writers experience is an obligation to communicate more directly with the general public, hence they choose to appear in the most popular media forms such as the radio, TV, and the internet.

This essay addresses the way in which knowledge about a culture as expressed in fiction and poetry is translated from one discourse (literary and academic) into another (media appearances) and investigates under what conditions the demand of writing becomes the demand of explaining. My primary example will focus on a documentary by Andrei Codrescu specifically as it relates first to a thematization of places and then to a translation of these places from a geography of the imagination into cultural texts. As the immigrant at first can only imagine the topography of certain places, once visited in actuality these places acquire a significance that goes beyond mere the validation or refutation of what was once imagined. In this relation, one of the significant realizations in Codrescu’s felt obligation to translate the knowledge of what he learns about America from a literary into a visual experience is the fact that what dominates western culture is the eye. We worship the image and the prophets of the image whose messages are also based on translation. Biblical Matthew’s “whoever has ears, hear” is now rendered into “whoever has eyes, see”. Yet the implication of seeing as hearing is still there in the form of media representation. If Descartes were alive today he would probably say, ‘I think I can hear a message, as I see it coming, hence I am'.

But first, let’s go places.

Andrei Codrescu’s writing about California is a mixture of nostalgia, irony and a contextualization of place from the point of view of the born commentator. Having been involved in and now often looking back at the 60s and 70s counterculture, Codrescu uses California, and particularly San Francisco to pass judgment on the state of American culture at large. Commenting with regularity on National Public Radio’s program “All Things Considered”, Codrescu’s insights about the West Coast, often delivered in a deadpan voice, both haunt the places he describes and are themselves, in turn, haunted by these places. Here, I am interested in examining the significance of place for a writer such as Codrescu, for whom detachment and closeness work simultaneously towards identifying what constitutes the literariness of place. Unlike other writers for whom the West coast is also unmistakably identified with its beaches and the flux of waves ebbing and flowing, for Codrescu, California is a place which sets an urban tone in spite of its trade mark as a trendsetter for all things going back to nature. In California the natural is a paradoxically urban and always new phenomenon, and this makes the place embody simultaneously both the material and the spiritual.

In works such as the documentary film Road Scholar (1992) and the essay collection Hail Babylon (1998) Codrescu’s aim is two fold: first he sets out to investigate the spiritual soul of America as it is caught up in a state of timelessness, and the American city at the end of the millennium always running out of time. Second, he analyzes to what extent simple spirituality, as it springs out of a desire to be in touch with nature, has a complex haunting dimension which the cities that are known for their celebratory energies engage with. Codrescu’s mapping of California and San Francisco’s paradoxes in particular mirror his own eclectic interests which are influenced by his experiences as an immigrant who came to the US in the mid 60s while still a teenager. Having come from a Transylvanian city in Romania, Sibiu, a multicultural place and the home of diverse ethnic groups such as Germans, Hungarians, and Jews, who have been living together at least since the mediaeval times of Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), or better known as Dracula, Codrescu identifies in the American landscape a similar multiculturalism which rests on a poetics of the subversive found at the juncture between the bizarre and the banal, the ordinary and the extraordinary. The search for the subversive from the position of someone who has always been on the margin informs Codrescu’s formulation of an identity politics which rests on the notion that poets are the ones most able to register the significance of change for the process of self-determination, and they should therefore stand as united while keeping their individual voices. The call for the subversive can be seen in Codrescu’s diverse literary and otherwise publicly held positions: he is a professor of English and comparative literature at Louisiana State University, appears in the media frequently, gives lectures in likely and unlikely places, makes documentaries, and writes versatile texts – poetry, fiction, essays – and was the editor of the influential poetry and fiction collection series “Exquisite Corpse”. Codrescu’s oeuvre furthermore forms a reflection on the kind of eclecticism he sees represented even in places which experience a multicultural abandonment. I want to argue that California and San Francisco, for Codrescu, constitute the literariness of a place represented by abundance and abandonment in its intersections with what he calls the “literal and metaphorical exiles from the status quos of society” (Codrescu, 1993: 183).

Road Scholar, which is now also out as a book of essays (1993), is a documentary film which takes Codrescu across America in a red Cadillac from ’68. Until the release of the film in ‘92 Codrescu had remained thoroughly un-American at least in one way: he had never owned a car, nor had he ever taken a driver’s license. Yet at the suggestion of his producer, Roger Weisberg, who felt that Codrescu could crown his apt observations on the radio about American life if he undertook a road trip across the country in a car, Codrescu agreed to give up his pedestrian life for a while and investigate to what extent his becoming a driver would have an impact on the way in which he used to see things, namely from a pedestrian, marching, and rallying person’s point of view. The newly formed triangular relation, from the road through the car to the place, adds to the dimension of seeing things with your own eyes and becomes more complex insofar as the act of seeing is now attempted also from the point of view of a whole generation for whom being on the road means acquiring an additional set of eyes. Codrescu thus muses from the outset that he wants to look at the country through what he calls “two set of eyes: the ones looking at the New World from the vantage point of the old, and the ones looking at the old from the vantage point of the new”. Yet his trip has its point of departure in that most pedestrian of places, New York, where people have been and are still walking more than in any other place in America. We thus see Codrescu walking with Allen Ginsberg, and asking the same type of questions he asked in 66 when he first met Ginsberg as a young poet just arrived from Romania and eager to learn about the thoughts that constituted the American literary scene at the time. Wanting Ginsberg’s “blessing” for the trip into the 90s America, and through Ginsberg also Jack Kerouac’s blessing, even if given by proxies, Codrescu hopes to understand what had made a whole generation of writers follow these two poets both on and off the road. As Codrescu recounts:

Allen told me that America in the nineties is very much like Kerouac’s America in the fifties, only more so: more pollution, more waste, more holes in the atmosphere, more conformity, more despair, more ignorance.
“The Land is an Indian thing,” Kerouac said, and Allen repeated it, significantly. I knew it too, from many years ago. But is it still an Indian thing?” (Codrescu, 1993: 44-45)

Armed with what will turn out to be more than an oracular question, Codrescu’s trip is not just about searching but also about investigating just how conformist the subversive has become. Visiting everything, from utopian communes in upstate New York to old New York poets in East Village, from the haunting ruins of Detroit to the riches of Chicago, from New Age and Native American groups to the gambling groups of Las Vegas and the poets of San Francisco, Codrescu is not only on the road haunted by Jack Kerouac, but insists that what makes the road interesting is its ability to plant an idea in our heads. One of these ideas is the idea of freedom. In '92 and still appreciating the freedom of expression that he was deprived of in communist Romania Codrescu goes to visit the statue of Liberty. Back in San Francisco the documentary ends with Codrescu at the Immigration and Naturalization office where he was asked to officiate at the swearing-in ceremony for the new immigrants.

This latter situation is rendered as being both ironic and genuine insofar as it encompasses what Codrescu finds across the country. In most cases when he interviews the people he encounters he is met with genuine feelings, and most people volunteer unsolicited information even when they are asked candid questions that can easily be addressed in a shortened or more specific way. For Codrescu, the Americans’ answers, which most often than not also take surprising turns, are markers of places which combine the sacred with the profane. The more Codrescu approaches the West, the more he experiences that if people have strong beliefs about something, then they are most often linked to a particular thing. For example Codrescu is particularly fascinated by the belief that freedom in America is maintained due to guns. The materiality of guns, while marking place as that which gives off itself in abundance, also signals abandonment in the sense that in the West shooting for pleasure marks a different kind of inscription than the one the place is normally associated with. Codrescu’s divine comedy follows, not only Dante’s dictum: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, but also the transcendentalists. As Brian Dippie observes in his essay “Drawn to the West”,
Thoreau could not abide the actualities of westward expansion – ‘Going to California,’ he observed, ‘is only three thousand miles nearer to hell.’ Still, he doted on the idea of going West: ‘Westward is heaven [...] or rather heavenward is the West’ (Dippie, 2004: http).

From Codrescu’s interviews it becomes apparent what people make of their own places. For those interested in guns – and there are many – the West is still the land of hope and progress, but to get there one must undergo an initiating rite through the gates of hell. For Codrescu this sacred initiation takes the form of shooting in the desert with a topless model for whom “to be an American, in America, owning machine guns is the best thing in the world” and an instructor who experiences the land and the gun as expressions of self-sufficiency (Codrescu, 1993: 112). In the book version of the documentary Codrescu expands his comments to making the point that what links the sacred with the profane is a contradictory impulse. Going west in this sense means both to hope and to abandon hope in an act of transcending. As he puts it:
While I tore the shit out of the Nevada landscape, Chuck told me that survival was about self-sufficiency, about needing nothing but a gun and a Bo and maybe a mule. I asked him if he believed in Armageddon. I told him that I had heard that survivalists all over the West were laying in supplies for the final confrontation with liberals, Jews, blacks, feminists, homosexuals, pro-choicers, and vegetarians. Chuck dodged these questions, which he wasn’t about to answer on camera. He declared himself a simple American patriot like John Wayne. “When it comes,” he said, “we’ll be ready.” I asked him what “it” was but he gazed absentmindedly at the Nevada hill I’d been pumping full of bullets. I had the distinct feeling that I was it […]
The contradictory impulses of the American spirit flourish here in the West: shooting and transcending. We shoot our way across the land while simultaneously rising our arms to the sky and trying to be better and bigger than we are (114-115).

The paradoxical problem with self-sufficiency is that it cannot be transcended unless there is enough of it. Self-sufficiency in this sense is its own excess, its own abundance, and as Codrescu remarks in another episode involving the Romanian coach of the U.S Olympic pistol-shooting team and his “happy, well-fed, alive, enthusiastic, and … armed” daughters, “an excess of well-being always leads to fascism” (111). The road to the less belligerent San Francisco is thus paved with gunpowder. He leaves Nevada but not before expressing his preference for “the depressed, wan youth of the inner cities, dressed in black and not so sure about the greatness of America” (111).
On the road to California Codrescu anticipates that moving westwards also means that the profane materiality of the guns will transform into a gateway to a form of sacred spirituality which revolves not around ideals about self-sufficiency but around possibilities to grant the body a second chance. In other words, before entering California the body must be reborn in New Mexico. Making a stop in Santa Fe Codrescu thus visits Hippie and New Age communes, healers and psychics, and talks to abducted women who believe in aliens. It is here that his perennial sense of being outside comes to its fullest expression, and as the alien that he sees himself to be, if not exactly descending from extra-terrestrial beings then potentially a kin of blood-suckers such as Dracula against whose background Codrescu often defines himself, he is ready to take it all in. For Codrescu the sense of place anticipates the way in which counter-cultures begin, namely through a process of rebirth. Here, the psychic Foster Perry not only tries to help Codrescu getting over the trauma of smashing his father’s car into a window as a kid, but also decides that what he needs is to go back into his mother whose role of giving birth Perry is willing to perform.

It is clear that for Codrescu the rebirth experience is linked to the way in which he experiences place. A place exists not only by virtue of its being inhabited and visited but all the more so because it constitutes an opportunity for returns. His own chosen destinations for his road trip serve as an example insofar as most of them are places where he has been to before. These places are then contrasted with some of the places in his childhood Romania, and insofar as the Romanian places are also rendered as loci for imaginary traveling, they represent a cycle which not only comes full circle but also goes to the centre of existence: man is because there is space. This is also suggested in the epigraph to the chapter entitled “Westward Bound” from the poet Charles Olson: “Space is the central fact of man in North America” (102).

What Codrescu experiences on his way to the increasingly spiritual landscape of California, in contrast to the spirituality seen on the east coast, is that here the right to be is inextricably linked to the right to be reborn. The return is not to some past, whose traditions some communes seek to uphold (such as the Bruderhof community in upstate NY), but to surrogate mothers who hold the potential to reproduce better beings. What Codrescu wants to suggest is that Ginsberg’s mantra, borrowed from Kerouac, “the land is an Indian thing”, cannot be fully understood unless the land is first associated with the mother. There is an Indian saying that reads: “The Great Spirit is our Father, but the Earth is our Mother”, which emphasizes a cosmic cycle between nothingness and identity resulting in an infinite unity. Yet as Codrescu anticipates, what California has figured out is that insofar as the transcendentalist/ Romantic/ Indian poetics of infinite unity does not allow for the idea of an apocalypse, the human body needs to enter into circulation as a star of its own. In this sense there is little irony in Codrescu’s remarks, which suggest that reaching stardom is as sacredly profane and as profanely sacred an endeavor as any. As he puts it:
I had gone into my mother again, and on TV too! But strange as this particular procedure was, it was in fact the American experience par excellence: getting born again, over and over. From Romanian to American, from easterner to westerner, from radio to TV, being born again was not only my métier but the spiritual pastime of every American. I am not that man any longer, officer, reverend, darling, dear universe! It’s my American right to be reborn, hallelujah! Codrescu, 1993: 145)

Getting ready for his final destination, Codrescu realizes that only by acquiring a totally new mindset will he be able to return to the place of his youth. For Codrescu California is thus a place which puts things right by fixing the body and by demanding that one enters its space not with a sense of hope, but a sense of appropriateness.

In San Francisco, what he holds dear is the way in which the bohemians have taken the discourse on the body to a higher level, including having it on standby, awaiting the apocalypse in Golden Gate Park (Codrescu, 1998: 151). The San Franciscan apocalypse is also a dream of an independent place, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti informs Codrescu in the book version of Road Scholar. Due to geological transformations it is believed that since San Francisco is only a foot above sea level it will detach itself from the mainland at some point and become an island. In Ferlinghetti’s account this type of geological deconstruction of the American Empire will have consequences for the way in which the road westward will be perceived. It can be contended that what Ferlinghetti has in mind when deploring the spread of deconstruction from the linguistic and art departments to geological catastrophes is that San Francisco will go from being a mega to becoming a meta-city. Ferlinghetti sees this as a threat to the San Franciscan diversity which is known for contributing to things going against the grain while at the same time also creating a mainstream. For Codrescu, however, San Francisco already lives in a kind of self post-history. Consequently he welcomes the haunted/haunting dimension that the city has acquired over the ages. In response to Ferlinghetti he remarks unflinchingly:
Well, I always thought that San Francisco had detached itself from the mainland United States in the 1960s, and that the big earthquake already happened and that we are all living a post-mortem existence here in paradise. . . . [and then goes on to ask Ferlinghetti:] Is that why Kerouac came here? (184-185; author’s emphasis)

Ferlinghetti’s answer captures the anxiety about the loss of the city’s metaphorical openness to the ocean, which although indicating not just openness but also constraint in the sense that once arrived at the margins of the world there is little left to learn about either the land or the road, openness has the potential to close in on the city’s inhabitants. This means that not only for Ferlinghetti, but also for Codrescu San Francisco is particularly prone to inward reflections and nostalgic returns which must co-exist with the constant flow of energy coming both from the inland and the outland. Replies Ferlinghetti:
The road hardly exists anymore, it’s all up in the air. The youth of the country don’t see the land anymore, they just fly from place to place, and it’s part of the disappearance of the outside that you wrote about. I mean there is nothing out there anymore. All in their TV heads. I don’t know what Kerouac would have done today. (185-186; author’s emphasis)

Indeed for writers such as Ferlinghetti and Codrescu it is hard to imagine what California would look like seen from above. There are different cognitive processes at work when getting to California by car as against being dumped in by plane. Part of the problem is that the land in the air is neither Indian, nor American. But then, as Codrescu remarks, there are always ways to circumscribe California, if one takes into consideration its special light, which indeed is more of an atmospheric element than a catalyst for perceptions about the land. What Ferlinghetti intuitively knew, when he set up his influential bookstore and publishing house City Lights, and what Codrescu elaborates in Hail Babylon, is that it is not the land which makes people, but their shine. Poets’ own lights in California are sustained by the spiritual and profane lights alike in the cities of California. In Hail Babylon, upon being informed that the city of San Francisco has decided to have a street named after Ferlinghetti, who is still alive, Codrescu wittily suggests that after the city has set the trend for all things light in nutrition, it now takes the tradition of naming things postmortem rather lightly. Thus he muses on the combination of heavy-weight writers and California’s indulgence in the face of loosening itself from the rest of the country:
Any city that names streets after poets deserves to be saluted. I doffed my hat. This is a very new thing indeed and I can only hope that the rest of America follows suit. I once lived on Melville Street in Baltimore and I was always proud that the city had had the good taste of naming one of its streets after a great writer. Until I found out that the Melville in question had been an obscure state legislator. But just think: Codrescu Street in New Orleans! (Codrescu 1998: 154)

It is clear that San Francisco is a haunting place for Codrescu, but the haunting is such that it creates abundance. It is in California that Codrescu pledges and renews his allegiance with America and its new immigrants and he is grateful that California’s abundance is informed by amnesia, and an abandonment of laws issued against counter-culture poets. Codrescu is haunted by San Francisco on several levels: firstly, the place represents the beginning of his career as a poet, then there are the memories of the other poets that San Francisco has fostered, and lastly, but equally significantly, Codrescu is haunted by his younger self. An example of this is his visit to Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights, where he goes to check what he calls “the Codrescu section”. He is pleased to find one of his older books on the bookshelves and hurries to buy it to make up for all the other copies which he used to steal from Ferlinghetti with some regularity. According to his recounting of these older events, when he would have a book published he would visit the store that carried it and observe the people who would show an interest. If it was a young woman he would tell her he was the poet and offer her a ‘complimentary’ copy. This episode illustrates that while the younger Codrescu may be abandoned and forgotten in San Francisco, it also indicates that forgetfulness enables returns. At the land’s end his homecoming is celebrated by a dip into the sea which confirms once more not only the nostalgia for San Francisco anticipated on the road but also the dilemma which surrounds returns to haunted spaces: As he puts it:
San Francisco, the golden city of my youth, was the westernmost point of my generational migration. From here on out there is nothing but ocean. You can’t run any further. You must turn around to face yourself. Some people could not take what they saw. They jumped into the ocean or ran back to the landlocked certainties of the Midwest. Other stayed, and made do (Codrescu, 1993: 179).

The point here is the following: only by facing forgetfulness is one able to return to remembering, and it is the abundance of remembering that ultimately makes the abandoned land an Indian, a Romanian, and a virtual thing.

What Codrescu learns about America is mediated first in documentary and filmic form, and then in book form. The book is however not devoid of images, as photographs abound; there are both stills from the film and photographs from private collections. This suggests that Codrescu translates his knowledge about America’s spirituality from an intangible realm in which this spirituality remains invisible to the uninitiated into a visual realm. Spirituality depicted in graphic form gets to be understood not in terms of knowledge, but in terms of information. What Codrescu seems to say is that now we know things, because we see them; because they come to us in bits and pieces. Here one could say that synthesizing thought against the background of information which comes flying in fragments has the opposite effect for the exiled writer who wants to understand how the natives have their culture grounded or rooted in tradition. The writing that Codrescu produces – unlike Ginsberg’s writing, or Ferlinghetti’s writing, for whom translating America was an enterprise trying to explain how all American roads lead to Rome – has the quality of leaving Cadillac tire tracks at the edge of understanding, at the end of the road. As the documentary ends with the credits and the Cadillac hitting the rough edge of Grand Canyon, the camera shot takes us flying. Here the suggestion may be that the exiled road scholar ultimately is an air hostess. If Codrescu succeeds in getting his message across – “what keeps us together is precisely the awed awareness of our differences […] And there is something else that belongs to the land itself, a native American force that bids us seek the heavenly city […] I, for one, new American and even newer driver, am grateful to that native force. ‘The land is an Indian thing.’ I believe that. But it’s also a Romanian thing.” (193) – it is because his endeavor of translating knowledge is mediated by the condition of the exiled writer: to keep imagining place rather than making it one’s own. There is a lot of courage in the message that it is better to relinquish ownership to a place and give up claims to belonging, and thus embark on a journey of creative delimitation of imaginary borders. As Codrescu remarks:
America is an idea in our minds. Every generation of new immigrants remakes America in the shape of what they imagine it to be. It’s your turn. (193).

In Codrescu’s demand and invitation at the same time to imagine America there is a subtle suggestion to trespass cultural boundaries set up by groups and communities by making strategic inroads towards appropriating a whole nation’s sense of movement. Almost 50 years after Kerouac’s On the Road was written, Codrescu shows his viewers and readers that only by taking turns in imagining a place can one revise an image of the self. It is through this revision that Codrescu offers a critique of the tyranny, autocracy, racism, and inflexibility that characterize some of the visited utopian communities, thus stressing the point that cultural understanding must rely on the usurpation of old values in favor of instituting new ones. Codrescu’s own turn begins with a mode of observing – “I like cities that start with ‘New’: New York, New Orleans, New Rochelle, New Haven […] There are hundreds of them in the New World. Every one of them was set up to be the new Jerusalem, the place where the sins of the old were cleansed, without losing the amenities of their origins” (27) – and ends with a wish to reform: the land is not only Indian, but also Romanian. While the Romanian road scholar translates American community knowledge, he also imagines what Romania forgot about herself, namely the ability to count among her citizens also the ones in a perennial state of transit.


Codrescu, Andrei (1992) Road Scholar. Documentary Film VHS. Produced and Directed by Roger Weisberg. Alliance and the Samuel Goldwyn Company.

––. (1993) Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century. Photographs by David Graham. New York: Hyperion

––. (1998) Hail Babylon. In Search of the American City at the End of the Millenium. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Dippie, Brian W. (2004) “Drawn to the West”. The Western Historical Quarterly. Vol. 35. Nr. 1. Spring 2004.

Olson, Kirby (2005) Andrei Codrescu and the Myth of America. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers