The Disappearance of the Outside:
a Manifesto for Escape.
216 pages. $17.95. When we think about imagination, often we think only of it in relationship to art, and not life. That is a dangerous and debilitating practice, Andrei Codrescu declares in this polemical collection of essays. The sinewy plea underlying all the essays is his advocacy of the imagination as a moral and political force.
According to Mr. Codrescu, in the East the atrophy of the imagination caused by the restrictions and repressions of the police state has led to brutality; and in the West the superficiality of consumer-oriented image-makers has led to narcolepsy. He fears, when East meets West, that brutality will be replaced by banality -- he quips that the Berlin Wall soon will be replaced by the Berlin Mall.
Mr. Codrescu was born in Romania and, after publishing several poems critical of the communist government, went into exile and settled in the United States. He is the author of 21 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and is a regular contributor to The Sun and to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" program.
In their structure, his essays are rather like the ladder illustration that adorns the cover of "The Disappearance of the Outside." Mr. Codrescu deftly climbs up and down the rungs of his essays: He begins on the rung of memoir, and uses his personal experience to lead into political, cultural and philosophical commentary.
In the first essay, "Time Before Time," he recalls how the inside of his family's home in Sibiu "was the place where everything was circumscribed, diminished, made smaller." Only outside did feel free. The worst punishment his mother could give was to force him to come back inside. As he grew up, the inside grew, too, and it became not only his home but school, society and Romania, and he began to hunger for a place that was a true outside.
The true outside turned out to be exile, as he explains in "Exile, a Place." The essay is a meditation on the experience and idea of exile. For Mr. Codrescu, "Exile was the pure Outside! We couid play there to our heart's content without ever being called back in by Mother Country and Father State." With self-deprecation, he remembers the desire to be a writer-in-exile and to join the ranks of the great writers-in-exile. Their weapons of sabotage against Mother Country and Father State were "ambiguity, humor, paradox, mystery, poetry, song and magic." His first book of poetry, published in 1970, was titled (appropriately) "Licence to Carry a Gun."
In "A New Map," he discusses how such writers as Czeslaw Milosz, I. B. Singer, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel have imagined "the unfinished destinies of their countries" with such vitality, necessity and vision that their fictional territories seem more real and distinct than the actualities of their homelands.
In the title essay and in "Living with Amnesia," he assails the failure of American artists to engage their audiences in a creative and intelligent dialogue. Attacking the idea of art for art's sake, he maintains that "the poetic must make clear the thinking that connects it to the world."
Mr. Codrescu plays with ideas, extending and expanding them, and then passes them on to readers like batons for further thought. In these essays, there is no "resolution and closure" -- to use the catch phrase from the movie "sex, lies and videotape" -- no neat and tidy package and summary of ideas. They are as vital and independent as the outside that Mr. Codrescu champions.
Ms. Posesorski is a writer living in Toronto.