Oh, the Posthumanity

Not long ago I had a very foolish dream. I was sitting alone in a house when the phone began to ring in another room, a room in which my girlfriend, in turn, was asleep. I didn’t get to it before she awoke and answered it, annoyed, and of course it was for me. The woman on the line said something about something that needed to be done right away, but I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. She seemed to know me and expected me to know her, and it all seemed quite serious, but I simply didn’t feel up to the double bother of asking her to both introduce and repeat herself. So I did an odd thing. I thought, This is a dumb dream, and I woke myself just enough to turn over the pillow and go back to sleep. What I dreamed about next was whether having been bored by the product of my own imagination meant that I had become what Andrei Codrescu has of late come to call the Posthuman—the sadly compromised inhabitant of a world overrun with insidious media.

Literature has been very, very good to Andrei Codrescu. On escaping tyranny in his native Romania, Codrescu beelined to the West, where he snuggled up to prominent poets and influential fellow expats, insinuating himself into the wider literary world by force of talent and will. His most public persona—the thick-accented, hugely versed dada poet—proved irresistible to both NPR, where he helped define the radio essay, and documentary filmmaker Roger Weisberg, whose Codrescu-starring Road Scholar won a Peabody and established the genre since commoditized by Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock. In the mid-1980s, Codrescu surrendered himself to a twenty-year academic stint in Louisiana, overseeing the publication of the Exquisite Corpse, one of the first journals to leap enthusiastically from print to digital media. From there Codrescu might have gone gently into a good night, but no one seems to have told him that it’s late afternoon, if not early evening. His postretirement prose output alone (to say nothing of poetry, also regularly appearing) amounts to a body of work many writers would happily call a career: The Posthuman Dada Guide (2009), The Poetry Lesson (2010), Whatever Gets You Through the Night (2011), and, now, Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes).

The four books form a cohesive quartet—the adjective “Posthuman” pervades, along with the proposed solution of “herm” as universal pronoun—and as a whole they call on several decades of literary wanderings to reflect on the origins, the pedagogy, and the future of literature. Bibliodeath is the culminating movement. The “utopic bildungsroman” combines a communism-stunted coming-of-literary-age tale with a chronicle of Codrescu’s transition between three kinds of writer personae, Preserver, Piler, and Carpe Diem—shifting impulses to first save tradition, then one’s paper output, and finally oneself. Despite the dangers of self-citation and self-quotation, Codrescu tells the story of his own archives, from the notebooks he kept as a boy to the boxes of accumulated materials he eventually donated to a library (the subject of a 2005 exhibition). Sometimes aphoristic (“What one feels about a copy is a copy of a feeling”), sometimes poetry with a broken return key (“. . . at closing time pour her drunk into a taxi; return to my pad; dream of her. Leaves keep falling, la vida es sueño”), Bibliodeath pleases most with William James–inspired streams of thought that begin lucidly and then slowly lose their way and their sense—or, rather, they find another way, a better sense, one that might be mistaken for nonsense if you yourself lack sense. Ditto the footnotes announced in the subtitle, cleverly laid out in wraparound text by upstart publisher Antibookclub: Codrescu tiptoes away from the kind of ordinary logic that links paragraph to paragraph, thought to thought.

As the title suggests, the book itself is the real subject of Bibliodeath. Codrescu expresses what a great many writers—those who took for granted the ongoing existence of the codex (and who secretly hoarded manuscripts and correspondence for decades)—must be wondering now in the midst of the digital revolution: Was it worth it? Bibliodeath tours the idea of archives amid ongoing apocalypse (“the festival of bibliodeath,” echoing Mann), but Codrescu never seems glum or depressed, even though he’s been sounding the alarm longer than most, at least since The Disappearance of the Outside (1989). Literature’s man in black (he once taught poetry in Folsom Prison) realizes that all art created in response to other art is already an “archival machine.” It’s not long before he goes abstract and Borgesian—“The world is the Archives of everything in it”—but for all the talk of the looming digital world and the frightening Posthumans who will inhabit it (perhaps you among them), this is still a storybook that you can hold, finely made and written by a palpable presence whose humanity is undeniable. Hope survives in Codrescu’s inability to resist the poetic reflex. Where a lesser writer might have wallowed or ranted, he can’t help but turn the idea about which he once hoped to make an argument into a metaphor that creates something beautiful instead.

Bibliodeath is neither utopia nor doomsday—much like a vision you can’t conveniently categorize as either dream or nightmare.

J. C. Hallman is the author of several books, including Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Correspondence of William and Henry James, which will appear next year.