I discovered Róbert Gál through the anthology New European Poets, edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer, and bought his Signs & Symptoms because of what I’d read there. I don’t know if Gál is, in fact, a poet; he is certainly an aphorist, but he comes at the practice, it seems to me, with a philosopher’s spirit, not a poet’s. I don’t know if I can be clear about that distinction, but let me give it a try.
Philosophers are interested in ultimate things—call them Truths—even if they approach them skeptically; poets are interested in provisional things—truths of the moment—and approach them with absolute conviction at the moment they articulate them. One can imagine a philosopher—Socrates, for example—going to the grave to defend a position. But what poet would go the grave to defend his or her poem? We may gather from the poems in Tristia that Ovid would gladly have renounced his poetry in order to be restored to favor in the court of Augustus. He is typical of the tribe to which I belong. We are not all cowards (as poets from Archilochos to René Char have proved), but none, I think, would stake his or her life on the Truth of his verses.
All that said—over and done, finished, terminado—I have to say that Gál’s work seduces me in a way that poetry often does: it stands the mind up on a high wire stretched between absurdity and wholeness. Because of that it is impossible to characterize his book by quoting discrete aphorisms, but I have no alternative. At least these will have the virtue of giving a sense of his sensibility (pace Jane Austen)….
Truth does not persuade.
Words don’t have to understand themselves.
Truth is a myth of thought.
Pondering any actual difference between a Platonic Academy … and a nuthouse.
By aestheticizing the inane we have opened up the passageway to passions that have today climaxed in horror and pornography. There is no escape from this sphere of the explicit’s influence, save perhaps by imitating the implicit, such as through poetry.*
The meaning of life is what remains when life loses its meaning.
This fragmentary selection does little justice to the experience of reading Gál’s book. It is cunningly structured: three main parts (“Epigraffiti,” consisting of three groups of 40 unnumbered aphorisms each; “Signs & Symptoms,” consisting of thirty brief sections grouped into four “circles”; and “Postludia,” which adds another 45 numbered sections to those of “Signs & Symptoms” and continues the sequence, for a total of 75 sections). I have the sense that these sections and groups and parts reflect a Platonic—or Plotinian—reverence for Number, but I don’t pretend to know what it all signifies. It deserves study by a better mind than mine.
In any case, there is no getting around the fact that Gál has a strange sensibility. All the best writers do. Someone conversant with the original (the book I read is translated “from the Czech and Slovak”) needs to engage this book in a deep way. It clearly deserves the attention, and I feel sure it would reward such close study.
* This particular aphorism occurs to me almost every day, as American media swill spills over me from TV and computer. The fact that we have an ethical cretin like Donald Trump promoting his “reality show” by running for President illustrates the truth of Gál’s statement.