Paul Van Ostaijen
The deepest, most radical, and most ecstatic language provoked by German modern dance came not from a German but from a Flemish poet, Paul Van Ostaijen (1896–1928), an intellect of great, captivating brilliance. He was an intensely cosmopolitan figure who had an almost unsurpassed knowledge of modernist movements (expressionism, futurism, surrealism) in a wide range of European arts (literature, painting, film, theatre, dance, music). In his first volume of poems, Music Hall (1916), he indicated that the rhythm of modernity achieved its ripest expression not through technology (as the futurists believed) but through a complex multiplicity of sensations that fragmented the identity of the modern body. Life was modern
to the extent that it was a collage of competing rhythms, moods, and fragments of images. In subsequent works, he accommodated the presence of machines by appropriating printing technology, the resources of typography, to "materialize the word" and construct more radical manifestations of collage. He suspended words in the white space of the page; he alternated rhythms of phrases by varying spaces between words and by making idiosyncratic use of italics and boldface. He "enlarged" words by capitalizing them and used different typefaces to create new "images" for words. Stabilizing margins disappeared; quoted language from a variety of sources (newspapers, advertisements, neon signs, popular songs, foreign languages) abounded. Words appeared on the page in "columns," "clusters," or "planes," and it is sometimes quite difficult to know the order in which to read them.
All these devices of collage construction encouraged the perception that modern identity entailed a shattering of syntactic unity and the logic associated with understanding signs. This materialization of the word, this physicalization of the signifier, gave "body" to the word and freed it from having to depend on its referent to achieve any expressive power. The collage strategy allowed the poem to signify the presence of many disparate voices within one body, that of the poet or reader. The introduction of nonlinear, simultaneous pressures on the perception of the reader developed the idea that the body contained "other" voices. Otherness was not external to the body but inside it. Modern poetic language fragmented the body of the reader by representing the fragmented body of the poet/speaker. What made a body modern was its capacity to appear as a collage of other voices within itself. But in pursuing this strategy, Van Ostaijen actually detached poetic language from the body in that these poems were unspeakable; he constructed a radical difference between the spoken and the written word. It is extremely difficult to translate accurately the complex range of visual signs defining the texts. Moreover, Van Ostaijen stressed the contradictory status of the voice of the modern body by titling a number of word-collages "songs" or "tunes." Writing remained music, projected a voice, even when nobody could speak it. Yet Van Ostaijen never drifted into the nonsense language or purely sonic poetry explored by the futurists or dadaists: he always gave primacy to words, semantically decipherable units, but expanded their meanings by portraying them as icons, dynamic forms, bodies in movement. In 1925 he gave a memorable lecture in Brussels on "operating instructions for poetry," asserting that the expression of ecstasy is the dominant aim of "lyrical emotion"; poetry achieves this aim when the "transcendent word" is no longer reducible to either its sound or sense but has become an "organism" that lives independently of both the conscious and unconscious desires that use it (Verzameld Werk II , 369–379).
Between 1919 and 1921, Van Ostaijen wrote several poems that introduced especially intriguing relations between dance and writing. During the years 1918 to 1920 he lived rather marginally in Berlin, where the revolutionary implications of modernist art became apparent to him and where he experienced his first serious encounters with modern dance. He composed "Gnome Dance" (Gnomendans) in Berlin in 1919, but the piece, which he produced in both Dutch and German versions, did not appear in print until 1934 (VW II , 157–159; 255–258). Compared with later poems it was fairly conventional, with a stable left margin and no startling typographic effects other than an absence of punctuation. Yet it is strange all the same. The poem describes the "dance" of celestial lights during the "night adagio of the erotic." Here the concept of collage operates through a tension between the complex, alliterative (though unrhymed) "gnomic" rhythms ("Kreuze kreuzen Kreisen wirbeln") connecting words and the fantastic images ("Waltz of the Earth's orbit waltz of the global spheres") evoked by the words. The poem inscribes a monumental, indeed cosmic, vision of the night sky ("lights dance in shards") moving in response to erotic impulses. Glowworms and "millions of kissing stars" create a great "cage" in which a multitude of beings of "humid" and "yellow-green lights . . . fall." The poem is three-fourths over before the reader discovers that the voice of the body that "speaks" belongs to that of "we gnomes," whose "sperm is violet." The "dance" of the gnomes consists of "always falling" bodies within an ever-expanding "cage." This falling into oblivion provokes an orgasmic exhilaration. Thus, dance becomes the ambiguous sign of both the body's freedom and its fall from the stars. Dance signifies the cosmic movement of erotic desire from celestial heights to "gnomic" depths.
In Antwerp in 1920, Van Ostaijen assembled a collection of poems under the title Feesten van pijn en angst (Feasts of Fear and Agony , 1976). This project required printing technology to reproduce his own handwriting of the poems. He wrote words in different sizes and at different angles. His handwriting changed from poem to poem, with the pressure of the pen bolder or softer, but not necessarily in relation to the mood of the poem. Furthermore, he wanted to vary the "color" of words by varying the color of ink used to print them. Word colors would change from poem to poem, but each poem would present a complex of different-colored words. Printing technology, however, was not sufficiently advanced to accommodate these demands, and Van Ostaijen was never able to produce a desired version of the text. For him it was handwriting, rather than the voice, that disclosed the most naked relation between language and the body.
Three poems in this collection contained unique perceptions of dance. The longest poem, "The March of the Hot Summer," employed a spectacular range of typographic and orthographic devices to make words "dance." The poem is stupefyingly complicated in its formal organization and
deployment of violent, even shocking, erotic imagery (menstruation, masturbation, sadomasochism, exhibitionism, mass orgasm). I merely indicate here that, for the poet, words "danced" when they appeared on the page as if they were simultaneously falling into a great space yet marching toward the reader. Written words "move" erotically like the bodies to which they refer because they look like organisms, spermatozoa, trembling in the hot white space of the page. It is in just such a spewed, fragmented fashion that language exists inside the body.
"Barbaric Dance" is equally perverse. The first part of the poem describes the reptilian dance of a woman from the perspective of "the desirous body," a male spectator or possibly partner, who exhorts her to "make your gender dance," for in dancing she dispels "dream and death," "Snakes and Doves together." In the second part, however, the voice of the poem shifts to that of the dancer herself—"me who partners him who observes"—the dancer speaks while she dances. That is, she says what her dance doesn't say: "WATCH the thinking of my feet." She speaks thoughts and feelings that no one can see in either her dance or her body, and "according to the law which is and does not speak/this is being."
Over the white shivering of my arms
For this reason—"my body is to itself a light and a darkness"—she observes:
Yet in the third part, she claims: "I am happy . . . So very solitary in my dancing I am not lonely." "Naked warm and fresh," she plunges a dagger between her breasts, and the implication is that words are like daggers in their power to penetrate the body. She dies "because my dance is dying," and dance dies when the spectatorial "partner" manages to "enter" the body of the dancer, get "inside" it, and read in it signs hidden from the other by the dance itself. The dancer obviously welcomes this penetration, but what is more significant is that the poem as a whole suggests that language is both in and other than the body. Here the idea of collage develops around a seemingly simpler strategy: poetic language constructs the subjectivities defining distinct bodies (male spectator and female dancer), which actually inhabit a single, divided body, that of the poet or the reader. Dance is the provocation for this inscribed collage of subjectivities and signifies depths of desire because of its power to provoke "barbaric," violently erotic, and obviously bisexual tensions between subjectivities that lie deep within the
body and are visible only through the inscribed, "organic" word (VW II; Feasts, 25–31).
When the word calls attention to itself—when, freed of syntactic laws, the "body" of the word becomes visible—the body of the writer or reader becomes fragmented. In the final poem of the collection, "Fear, A Dance," the poet remarks, "All becoming is being undone/in the All-Being Word." When the being of the word manifests itself, through its iconic properties, the being of the speaker becomes "undone," fragmented, shattered. For this reason the word is a source of anxiety, a great fear. Words that have life, intense physicality, "bodies," are also intimations of death. In this poem, the poet impersonates the voice of a dancer who is himself, dancing the "dance of the self." But the objective of the poem is to treat a specific emotion (fear) as a dance "performed" by words. Dance and language are "within" each other:
To dance is
to be full-bellied
of the seed
of the word
While bodies which
are dancing away
are dancing WORD-ward
are now reality of undone things.
Dance, then, emerges as an explosive sign of fear of the "Incarnate LOGOS"; "my dancing body" objectifies "my for fear of the word fearful body." More precisely, fear of the word is fear of the body, fear of erotic desires, the erotic "FLAME," which gives "life" to all objects yet makes them "fall." The freedom of the modern identity depends on a modernist freeing of the word. This freedom is ecstatic insofar as it is the modernist dancing/writing of fear that frees the modern identity from fear of the word, the body, death. Freedom from fear thus becomes the "final" sign of the modern identity (VW II; Feasts, 69–76).
In Bezette stad (Occupied City, 1921), ostensibly an image of Antwerp life during the German occupation, Van Ostaijen published other wild poems about dance written in Berlin. But his message was already clear. Most practitioners of modern dance perceived dance as a condition of freeing the body from constraints imposed upon it by language, by oppressive communication codes. Dance was movement away from language (e.g., Baxmann). Van Ostaijen, however, perceived dance as movement toward the "free" word, toward an emancipatory language that was not "other" than the body but deep inside it. No one in Germany recognized so clearly the capacity of
dance to undermine the stability of language and thus the stability of differences between dancer and spectator, male and female, word and body. And though his poems did not describe "real" dances, no one in Germany acknowledged so well what Blass had only intimated: that dance, as a manifestation of bisexuality, required a radical theoretical perspective on the meaning of the body in which critical and poetic language were embedded in each other.