August 2022

Open Secrets

Brian George


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    I thought I was seeing something long familiar again, as though something I had always known revealed a whole region of my dream world, which, by interposing a kind of censorship, one had prevented oneself from seeing and understanding.

    —Max Ernst, upon first seeing reproductions of de Chirico's work
     in the journal Valori Plastici

A Note to the Reader

In the following prose poems, I speak through the persona of Giorgio de Chirico. This may not always be immediately apparent, since I frequently have de Chirico speak in the third person. For example, when you read something in the book like, "It is almost certain that the artist who created the first god did something of importance wrong. De Chirico will soon intuit the mistake," this is supposed to be de Chirico speaking about himself. I don't think that de Chirico actually refers to himself as "de Chirico" very often in his essays or autobiography, but in Hebdomeros—his 1929 dream-novel—the protagonist is very clearly de Chirico's alter-ego, and he speaks of his activities with a great degree of bemused detachment, as though he were speaking in the third person rather than in the first. This frees him up to say some truly bizarre and other-worldly things.


By being both one with and other than his protagonist, as well as by playing the role of Other to the rest of the human race, de Chirico can move with disembodied ease between even the most contradictory of elements. At once grand and absurd, philosophical and self-deluded, ironic and sentimental, heroic and neurotic, arrogant and wide open to experience, Hebdomeros is nothing if not unpredictable. Nietzsche said, "I was surprised by Zarathustra." We may guess that de Chirico was no less surprised by Hebdomeros.


There are countless examples of the liberating effect of the third-person point of view, in which the author seems no less anxious than the reader to discover what his character will say. Unfortunately, the length of de Chirico's sentences and the complexity of the scenes described make the majority of these somewhat difficult to quote. Let me nonetheless pick a passage, almost at random, which will give a sense of the infinite recursion of Hebdomeros's mode of self-awareness and hint at the originality of the insights that result. So: on page four, after wandering through the back corridors of a building that reminds him of a German consulate in Melbourne, Hebdomeros and his two companions—who are described as "strong, athletic fellows carrying automatics with spare magazines in the pockets of their trousers"(1)—find themselves at an upper-class social event. "As though in the face of danger," the three hold hands, and imagine that they are passengers on a highly advanced submarine, through whose portholes they can observe the plant and animal life of the deep. Hebdomeros notes that,


    A strange, inexplicable silence lay over the whole scene: that pianist sitting at his instrument and playing without making a sound, that pianist you didn't really see, as there was nothing about him that deserved to be seen, and those characters out of a drama, moving around the piano with cups of coffee in their hands, making the movements and gestures of athletes jumping in slow motion films; all these people lived in a world of their own…nothing could disturb them or have any hold over them…If a rebel (let's call him that) had had a mind to light the fuse of an infernal machine, the hundred pounds of lyddite in it would have burned away slowly, hissing like damp logs. It was enough to make you despair. Hebdomeros held that it was the effect of the environment, of the atmosphere, and he knew no way of altering anything about it; the only thing to do was to live and let live. But—that was the question—were they really alive?…It would have been very difficult to give a reply, especially just like that, right away, without devoting several nights of deep meditation to the question, as Hebdomeros often did when his mind was haunted by a complicated problem.(2)


Similarly, my use of this theatrical mask allows me to explore and then to say certain things that I might say differently, or not at all, as "Brian
George." It seems clear that de Chirico recognized, and was not altogether comfortable with, the other-than-personal origins of Hebdomeros, with its labyrinthine dream-grammar; with its endlessly collapsible cities that can be unfolded, like a planar version of a cat's cradle, to reveal a different scene, in which year, cast of characters, and continent have been rearranged; and with its casual perfection of a type of hallucinatory brinksmanship. He did not attempt another work in this genre, and, for the rest of his life, he tended to speak of the book with a certain degree of belle indifference, as though he had played a supportive, rather than a primary, role in its production.


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Giorgio de Chirico, Metaphysical Self-Portrait, 1919


This sense of the artist's willful disconnection is apparent even when it comes to the publishing history of the book. After its publication in 1929, when it was feted as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, with some of the most enthusiastic cheers coming from Andre Breton and the artist's other enemies, the book remained, as John Ashbery says, "unobtainable and all but unknown until 1964,"(3) when a new edition was issued in France. On this side of the Atlantic, the story is even more peculiar. Published in an edition of 500 copies by "The Four Seasons Book Society, New York" in 1966, the book did not credit any translator, and, when researched, it was found that "no such publisher existed at the Fifth Avenue address supplied inside the 'Four Seasons' book."(4) The book also carried a printer's mark from Belgrade, which led to a dead end. "Its provenance remains," writes Damon Krukowski, "as befits Hebdomeros, an enigma."(5)


While de Chirico, the person, whether as Grand Metaphysical Superman or Combative Anti-Modernist, was quite happy to present himself to the public as an Egotist, we can also observe a process of almost infinite recession or self-removal taking place. We could interpret this, perhaps, as an unconscious version of the Vedic "not this; not that" method—i.e., that the primal self is "not this; not that"—so that the writer seems to be writing himself out of the text, just as the painter seems to be painting himself out of the picture. Like Nietzsche, de Chirico, as Hebdomeros, must dare to go too far. This would seem to be a matter of principle. Hebdomeros is impelled to speak in


    a language that on any other occasion would have brought upon his shoulders not only the sarcasm of the crowd, which is often necessary to far reaching minds, but also the sarcasm of the elite, that same elite to which he boasted, with every right, of belonging, but which, to his great regret, he was obliged to renounce, as a prophet renounces his mother.(6)

Giorgio de Chirico, The Poet and the Painter, 1975


In his painting, too, we can observe this process of self-removal to be at work. Quite often, for example, the later de Chirico would declare that a masterpiece from the classic 1911-1920 period was no more than a pathetic fake, or that a forgery, done by another artist, was real, or that one of his own imitations of an earlier work, done, let's say, in 1936, had actually been produced in 1917.(7)


As far as it goes, the above description of self-removal is quite accurate I believe, and this self-removal would normally be understood in terms of literary and/or artistic strategy: It can be useful, and quite liberating, to pretend. It makes sense to assume an identity in keeping with the particular work at hand. If one desires to immerse oneself in an alternate version of reality, one might, to preserve sanity or health, then choose to detach from the archetypal forces one has somehow set in motion. Yet there is also a stranger perspective that we might do well to consider: It is always possible that Giorgio de Chirico was himself a kind of mask, employed to great theatrical effect, by a daimon who was not born with him at Volos, on July 10th, 1888, and who did not pass away with him in Rome, on November 20th, 1978. Even now, with Maps of the Metaphysical Double: In the Footprints of de Chirico, this daimon, whose focus we might reasonably assume to be less personal than collective, may be continuing to work on a project that he had started long ago.


Open Secrets
(George de Chirico Speaking)


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Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of Arrival and Afternoon, 1912


"Should the signs be regarded as open secrets?" he thought, as he wandered through the Egyptian junkyards. As though pregnant, the Earth stretched out before him. Infinite the regression of signs. Nostalgia. There is an island where black rain falls. There is a dark speck on a turret. It looks like the seer. He waits for centuries to shoot the noon salute. That cannon is no longer there. It is time to go. The ocean, my beloved, breathes. I too must exercise. After being sick, I desire to be healthy! My breath expands, does it not, to the edge of the horizon? To what lengths must I go to resuscitate my Will?


O womb of the first elements! O alloys of the youth! Death is false, and only I see beyond the snares of Modern Art. The future world had once sent heralds to a dream beyond the sunset. Springs had promised wonders to the metal fish. "This is the scary part," said the Eight Half-Human Tutors, "crowds across many lands are to rearrange your toys." On the rocking horse Catastrophe experienced electroshock. Triumph! The records from that period are blank. The shadow of a leaf, enormous, floats. Prehistoric observatories echo under strata. Giants fossilized in pots. The trees crooked , with foreign roots. Birds that never came.


* * *



1) Giorgio de Chirico, Hebodomeros, edited by Damon Krukowski, Introduction by John Ashbery, original in French, 1929, according to
editor, translator remains unknown, Exact Change, 1992, 2

2) Giorgio de Chirico, Hebodomeros, Exact Change, 1992, 4-5

3) Giorgio de Chirico, Hebodomeros, "Introduction," John Ashbery, Exact Change, 1992, x

4) Giorgio de Chirico, Hebodomeros, "Publisher's Note," Damon Krukowski, Exact Change, 1992, vii

5) Giorgio de Chirico, Hebodomeros, "Publisher's Note," Damon Krukowski, Exact Change, 1992, viii

6) Giorgio de Chirico, Hebodomeros, Exact Change, 1992, 111

7) This is not so much a reference to a particular declaration by the artist as a summary of a general pattern of behavior that has been researched and analyzed by many critics. Here, for example, is a comment by Emily Braun from her excellent essay "A New View of de Chirico." Many other critics could be cited.

"Certainly the greatest obstacles to the authentication of de Chirico are the artist's habit of making copies of his own work, especially after 1940, and his capriciousness towards the art market. To begin with, one must distinguish between copies by his own hand and forgery by another's. Future scholarship will also need to prove, as defenders of de Chirico's integrity maintain, that de Chirico himself never forged his own work; that is, he never replicated images with the intention to pass them off as the original for financial gain. Instead, details of signature, dating, brushwork, compositional variations, and iconographic inconsistency give sufficient evidence of de Chirico's play with pastiche, parody, and the concept of the copy. The debate as to whether de Chirico was a dishonest profligate or a brilliant strategist will continue until the subject is thoroughly explored by means of an object-by-object analysis; a full accounting of the forgeries perpetrated by others; and the damage done by de Chirico himself in the haphazard and, at times, deliberately contrary authentication of his own work."


Emily Braun, "A New View of de Chirico," from De Chirico and America, Hunter College of the City of New York, Foundazione Giorgio E Isa De Chirico, Rome, Umberto Allemandi & C., Turin, 1996, 14.



Cover photo - Giorgio de Chirico, Hermetic Melancholy, 1919 


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Brian George - Scene4 Magazine

Brian George is the author of two books of essays and five books of poetry. These include Voyage to a Nonexistent Home; Maps of the Metaphysical Double: In the Footprints of de Chirico; To Akasha: An Incantation for the Crossing of an Ocean; and The Preexistent Race Descends. His book of essays Masks of Origin: Regression in the Service of Omnipotence is scheduled to be published by Untimely Books in July. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, an exhibited artist and former teacher. He often tells people first discovering his work that his goal is not so much to be read as to be reread, and then lived with. For more of his writings in Scene4, check the Archives.

©2022 Brian George
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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