By D.A. Dellechiaie
BU News Service
“You’re not punning, you’re raving.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov”
“The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter” by Matei Calinescu is a short, occasionally funny but very boring attempt at a parody/satire about the nonsense and unnecessary complexity of philosophy and religion. On his quest to make fun of academic pretension, Calinescu went too far and ended up creating a dense novel that adds to the already overflowing sea of overwritten, postmodern nonsense.
Zacharias Lichter is the local holy fool, who preaches about his philosophic ideas about perplexity, creative forgetting and the Realm of Stupidity, in which he thinks most people reside. He is a mix of two powerhouses from Dostoevsky: the Christlike innocence and genius of Prince Myshkin from “The Idiot” and the philosophical, blabbering, entertaining and clownish exuberance of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov.
Lichter uses his expert grasp on sophistry to convince the people in town that his paranoia, poverty and ridiculousness are all the physical manifestations of living his philosophy. After the town makes fun of him, he says “A prophet can frighten, can set off an earthquake in hearts; but he is never closer to achieving his mission than when he becomes the object of ridicule.”
Lichter uses the characters around him, a few nutty professors, an adamant psychoanalyst and a reticent and occasionally violent drunk — who Zacharias thinks is “one of the great philosophers of contemporary Europe” — as examples of his philosophy in practice. These characters help paint the picture of a society of sophistry, but they only appear for a chapter at a time and are soon forgotten as the jokes about them become repetitive, much like Lichter himself.
Lichter’s lessons are structured like a nonsense Oreo: two layers of half-funny nonsense with a creamy center of Truth in between. When people ask him why he didn’t protest a false charge that landed him in jail, he says, “It’s extremely disagreeable to be unjustly accused, but it’s much more unpleasant…to have to proclaim one’s innocence…if I’d been threatened with being burnt at the stake for an idea I did not share—an idea that seemed false, fallacious, or repellent—I would preferred to be a martyr in its name than make an effort to disavow it.”
In this case the creamy center of Truth is a satire about Soviet show trials, but you can’t just lick it off and leave the outside layers. You have to eat the whole nonsense Oreo.
While I don’t believe a book should be written simply, I do believe a book should have an idea of what it wants to be. “Zacharias Lichter” fails because it is trying to be too much at once: a mystical discourse, a philosophic novel and a parody/satire.
Because of it is trying so hard to check off so many boxes, it is a parody that isn’t particularly funny and a satire that isn’t relatable or even understandable. In this book’s case, I imagine there are some subversive attacks on the Romanian government, but since there are no explanatory footnotes, the joke is lost amongst a sea of babble.
There are countless parodies of the philosophies of Nietzsche, Plato and others delivered through the mad man contrarian bent of Lichter. While amusing if you get the joke, most of these rants will be lost on most readers. Lichter’s one on suicide is a parody of Camus and for the punchline (“After all, no one commits suicide because life is absurd, but only because, consciously or unconsciously, life does not appear absurd enough”) to be funny you need to know about “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
“The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter” is at least an interesting, didactic failure and Calinescu’s discussion of one of Lichter’s disciples reads like a realization of his own literary problems: “ At first the situation seemed comical, and you might even start to enjoy it; but soon the humor faded and the game—since you had already agreed to play it—gripped you more forcefully. Not that you actually believed what he said, but you realize with increasing clarity that adopting the normal criteria of credibility would be pointless, misguided even, since this would compromise the normal course of the game: its charm lay in the pretense itself. In the end you no longer played the game, strictly speaking, but only played at it.”
“The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter” by Matei Calinescu, translated from the Romanian by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell, is available for $14.95 at the New York Review of Books.